There are few things I love as much as knitting – but, my goodness, do I love to cook and bake.
A few months ago a friend gave me a sourdough starter, and I’ve spent the whole time since then trying to master the art of a good sourdough loaf. It shouldn’t be that hard; I’ve been baking bread most of my life. You’re looking at a 4-H Blue Ribbon winner in the Yeast Breads category at the Kansas State Fair from 1986-89. But sourdough isn’t like regular yeast bread – not if you want to make it the old fashioned way. And just because I’ve been baking bread for decades, doesn’t mean I’m a natural at baking a perfect unleavened loaf. (Let’s just say, we’ve had a lot of very dense loaves that became croutons.)
To get to the perfect sourdough I had to read the recipe – closely. I had to try, try, try, try again, because even the third time wasn’t a charm. I had to read tutorials and skim cookbooks and study the King Arthur Flour website like I was studying for a test. I had to resist the urge to skip ahead or pick and choose which parts of the process seemed important. I had to experiment with different ingredients and methods until I found the ones that worked the best for the job I was asking them to do. But most importantly – I had to be a student and let the recipe be the teacher.
Which brings me to knitting.
Knitting is a lot like working from a recipe. We know (or at least I hope we know) that when we don’t follow a recipe exactly, there’s a good chance our results will vary – especially when it comes to baking. If you use a different kind of flour, make substitutions, rush the process or vary from the formula, your results might be pretty disappointing. OR they might be great. But they won’t be predictable – and that, my friend, is the problem.
It’s tempting to use recipes and patterns as a starting point, and put our own spin on things. I’m an advocate for being the boss of your knitting, and I encourage knitters in my community to take liberties. (My Knit Campers even have a badge for being a Sweater Boss.) BUT, you don’t take liberties with patterns (or recipes) until you’re already familiar with what you’re making. I’ve made a zillion loaves of regular bread, so I’m comfortable taking liberties with the process. I know that I can mess with the spices, I can brush the crust with different kinds of things, and I can even fudge with a few additions. How do I know? Experience. When you have experience with the recipe, you can put your own spin on things and anticipate the results with some measure of accuracy. I thought my yeast bread experience would qualify me to zip through the sourdough process without much extra effort. Not so.
The same is true for knitting.
I know it’s tempting to wing it; to skip the swatch, use a very different kind of fiber content or yarn weight, add length, change the cast on or bind-off, change the sleeves or neckline, add stitches somewhere or take stitches away, or call your swatch “close enough” and go ahead anyway.
The more experience you have with knitting sweaters, the easier it is to know how to make adjustments and come out winning. Experience makes winging-it look easy. And if you’re a seasoned sweater knitter, go for it.
Being the boss of your sweater (and your sourdough) means being a student first and an improviser later. It’s not as sexy as jumping into the deep end and rolling the dice, but hey – the results are worth it.