On the Nest


If you're like most people around the world, you're losing sleep wondering, "Hey, why hasn't this guy posted anything in the last two years? He has so much to say and, gosh I really miss his cheeky outlook". Contrary to what the tabloids have been asserting I have not been a 'living la vida loca in a tropical paradise'. Nor have I become a reclusive monk high atop a Tibetan mountain top (although that's a little closer to the truth).

No friends, I have been pedal to the metal working on my book. Yes, that book. The one I've been telling my classes and friends and anyone who will lend an ear about for longer than I care to admit.

Unless you've gone through this process yourself you probably wouldn't believe the learning curve and the endless number of steps and processes involved in writing and self-publishing a book. And that's a good thing because if you did, you probably wouldn't do it. While I've never given birth I would imagine it's similar in that respect. Seriously (and forgive the overused metaphor), this book has been an amazing journey. I will not bore you with the details but suffice to say I have more grey hair, and a higher BMI than I did when I started this. But I also have learned tons of stuff and made loads of new friends and relationships and for that I am truly grateful.

Perhaps best of all is that it's finally finished! Did you hear me? I said, "It's finally finished"!  The book is called Knitting Comfortably The Ergonomics of Handknitting. I'm so happy with it and I know you will be too. With the brilliant Ann Budd on your team, the amazing photographic, graphic arts talents of Zoe Lonergan (of Sandra McIver's  knit, Swirl and several of Hunter Hammersen projects), and the incredible artwork of Susan Szecsi how could a fella go wrong? Oh, and I'd like to say that I know a thing or two about the topic which I can't wait to share with you.

Book Cover


I'll share more about this journey in future posts, but for now I hope you'll pop on over to my Knitting Comfortably - The Book page and have a look. The book is hardbound with over 250 pages and as many color illustrations and photographs. It's currently being printed and will arrive around the end of March. I'm offering FREE SHIPPING in the US until March 15, 2017 to help promote the book and earn funds for printing and distribution costs. Heck, why not buy a copy now - maybe a couple for your friends.

Knitting is still our safe and happy space.  My book will help you keep it that way.



Hold Your Head Up

Don't you hate it when you get a song stuck in your head? For the last two days I've had Hold Your Head Up stuck in mine. Not the Macklemore song. No, I've got the ubiquitous 1972 Argent anthem stuck in there. I was in junior high school. This song was a staple for every cover band that ever played a high school dance through out the 70's. If you wanted to be cool you had to like this song. Whenever it started to play the cool kids instinctively bobbed their heads in rhythm with a feigned lack of self-consciousness and a false sense of bravado. Party on! I wasn't much of a rocker when this song debuted. Who am I kidding, I've never been much of a rocker. But I remember listening to the 8-track tape in the back of my cousin's RV when we were on summer vacations in upstate New York. Oh yeah, baby! Green shag carpet, contact paper that looked like wood covering the cabinets that doubled as a twin bed for three of the kids, and 8 track tape players in the front cab and  the back. When the grown ups were gone we'd listen to the rock 8 tracks, and play Pitch. Bitchin'!

I used to know someone who could plant a song in your head just by saying he was going to do it. In fact he called it "planting" and it was his super power. He had a gift for the power of suggestion. But that's now how this song got stuck in my head. I think it's there because I woke up a couple day ago with neck pain. Trust me, there's a reason we call annoying things 'pains in the neck'. Neck pain is a pain in the neck. You can tell them I said so.

"But I know I'm not alone", he said bravely as he looked out over the horizon toward the rising sun. Indeed not. Studies have shown that 5 in 1000 people over 50 have symptomatic spinal stenosis. Stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal (which houses your spinal cord) or the lateral foramen where the nerve roots exit as they begin their journey to your (in the case of cervical nerves) arms, and hands. The narrowing can be the result of a number of causes. These include thickening of ligaments within the spine, osteophytes (bone spurs) along the margins of the vertebrae, bulging spinal discs, and thickening of the cartilage that line the joints of the spine. Studies that looked at the incidence of spinal stenosis in asymptomatic individuals have shown up to a 35% occurrence in subjects under the age of 30 years. Yowzah! Keep in mind that these folks didn't have symptoms which suggests that many people are stenotic and just don't know it. Hopefully they never will. The symptoms that stenosis can create range from joint stiffness, to local pain with movement, to irritation of the nerve root and the myriad symptoms of discomfort that can cause. If you'd like to read a scientific article about spinal stenosis and access the extensive reference list that it resulted from, then please have a look at this:


Spinal stenosis may be caused by trauma or genetics but it's clearly linked to the aging process; bad news for accident prone Boomers like me whose genes swim in a murky pool. Regardless of its origins, or whether or not you're symptomatic the research would indicate that it behooves us to treat these tunnels and canals with loving kindness and respect. After all your very nerves depend on it.

I can tell you from the biomechanical point of view that movement changes the amount of space in these tunnels. Looking up, bending to the side, and rotating your head narrows the space that nerve roots exit and creates tension along certain ligaments in the spinal canal. It also compresses the spinal facet joints on one side while it gaps them on the other. These movements can be painful depending on where the stenosis is located and what is causing it. Bending your head forward (flexion) compresses the front of the spinal discs causing their inner nucleus to move backward and to the side. This can contribute to narrowing of the space where the nerve roots exit and can be painful. It can also produce pain to the disc itself in the presence of pathology.

So why do we knitters and spinners give a wooly sheep's behind about this? Because most of us spend far too much time looking downward when we knit or spin! I totally get it. We feel this reliance on our vision to make sure our hands are doing the right thing. We're terrified that we'll drop a stitch and the Rapture will commence. We are sure that if we look away from our hands while drafting the wheel will spontaneously change its brake tension and globs of precious fiber will be yanked from our hands and wound into a twisted snarl on the bobbin. All the sheep will die. There will be no more yarn. Children will starve all over Europe. It will be dreadful!

My mission this year has been to get my students to stop doing this.  And I've been pretty successful. Here's a group that attended a class earlier this year. They're not only walking while they knit (a feat I also taught them) but they're looking up as they do it. And they're in a beautiful Marin County forest.  (I have a tough job.)

The Marin Gals loving the forest as they walk and knit.

The Marin Gals loving the forest as they walk and knit.

Don't they look like they're suffering?

Lest you think that this is a skill only the women in Marin County possess, here's another group from a class I taught at Stitches West last February with students from far and wide in attendance.

Swatchbucklers at Stitches West 2014 led by my favorite gal from Georgia.

Swatchbucklers at Stitches West 2014 led by my favorite gal from Georgia.

How did these folks manage this feat of daring do? Simple, they swatched for it! And that's what I want you to do. You CAN do this. Trust me, but more importantly trust your hands. You've been training them to knit or spin for years. They know how to make stitches without you watching them all the time. Helicopter knitter!  Tiger spinner!

For knitting, start with a bit of yarn that isn't terribly dear but that is cooperative (i.e., not prone to splitting, not novelty, etc.) Get yourself a set of needles that pair well with the yarn and, while sitting, knit yourself a garter stitch swatch without looking at your hands. If this is too much and you're getting hives at just the thought of it then start smaller. Only look at every 3rd or 4th stitch. You'll soon gain confidence and comfort, I promise. Remember our knitting ancestors knit complicated garments while walking and working. You can handle garter stitch on your couch. Once you get comfy doing the knit stitch, then turn the swatch into stockinette. Use this technique when you're swatching more complex patterns that you'll use in an upcoming project so you'll be comfortable looking away once in a while.

In spinning, start with a fiber and a drafting technique you're comfortable working with. Establish your wheel settings and the diameter of singles you want to make and spin a few yards. Then look away. Keep spinning but look forward. Listen to your hands - they're pretty smart. Look down when  you need to join your fiber supply or check your bobbin, but try not to spend your whole experience in this head down posture.

Of course there are times that we need to look at our hands and work. My point is that we don't need to witness the miracle of birth of each stitch or draft we make. We look down so much these days! Tablets, smart phones, hard copy on desks and tables - why add stress where you don't need it?

There are so many benefits from looking up from our work. We can breathe more fully because we're not hunched. We can relax the strain on our necks and shoulders. We can watch the movie on TV and not just listen to it as a sound track. (Did you know there are moving pictures that go along with Harry Potter? ) You'll see if your S.O. is giving him or herself more wine than they give you. So hold your head up! And rock on.

Knitting helps me look forward. Ergo, I Knit.


The Spice of Life

Those of you who have become devout readers of both my postings will recall my confessing that I like to tell stories. You’ll also recall me say these stories almost always have a point, but that they sometimes need a little sharpening at the end. Such is the case of last week’s posting. First of all, I’m feeling much better. Thank you for your concern. Pay no attention to the lingering cough. The doctor assures me there’s no cause for worry. He has clearly never tried knitting with size 0 needles while coughing so hard you can hardly find the stitch to enter. But I digress.

Last time I talked about the benefits of having a well rounded group of projects on your needles. I even gave you a little ergonomic blessing that there is nearly scientific merit in doing so. I want to talk a bit more about why this is true.

Last week when I was sick I had this craving for chicken soup. Go figure. I ate it nearly everyday. But I’m here to tell you that after about the fifth day of it I didn’t care if another chicken ever swims in hot water again. I’m not interested. Now why is that? The quality of the soup hadn’t changed. It’s simply that I wanted, no needed, variety. Let’s continue the food analogy (because I’m eating lunch while I write this) and imagine a fantasy diet of only pizza. I know you’ve dreamed about how you could easily survive on pizza. It’s got all your favorite food groups. The crust group. The cheesy goodness group. A rogue veggie or two may find its way on top. It’s practically the perfect food.  But then there are those pesky carbs we hear so much about. And I’m told there’s a high fat content in pizza which isn’t so good for you. So armed with this knowledge most of us abandon the pizza diet after college or when we start to look like one. What’s this got to do with knitting? Here comes the part where I sharpen the point.

Like adding variety to your diet, you have the option to expose your body to a variety of knitting postures which require a certain amount of muscle energy. It can be a one-note diet, or a symphony. You only knit with size 1 needles, or you have a bunch of projects on various size needles. Please consider the position your hands and wrists in while you’re working on your knitted projects. Let’s look at some photos to help make the point.

Resting hand posture
Resting hand posture

The first picture is my hand in its neutral, resting position. Try it. Just let your hand fall to rest in front of you. You’ll notice that in a neutral posture, the fingers do not touch the thumb. Getting them to do so will require muscle energy. How much? Look at the picture of my hands working with size 1 US dpns making this lovely sock from Chrissy Gardiner’s Toe Up book. (Which is fabulous. Thanks Chrissy!)

Knitting with size 0 US needles
Knitting with size 0 US needles

The size of needle is a clue as to how much muscle activity is required to hold them. The smaller the needle, the greater the difference from resting posture and the more muscle activity required to simply grip the needle. Now look at the picture of my hands working on size 9 US circular needles.

Knitting with size 9 US needles
Knitting with size 9 US needles

(Isn’t this yarn cool? I wish you could touch it. Very soft merino and I love how the knit-one-below pattern adds vertical dimension to the color way of this yarn.) Because the needles are thicker there is less grip distance to traverse from neutral posture to grip position. This allows the muscles to work closer to what we Physical Therapy geeks call “mid-range” which is where muscles have their greatest strength and joints are under least stress. Simply put, it’s easier to grip something that is close to resting posture size that something that is smaller or larger than resting posture. It seems obvious when you’re working in the kitchen to use utensils that are easier to grip.  But you can't always do that when you're knitting.

The amount of grip strength required to grip needles with diameters smaller than our resting posture grip position may seem minimal, and admittedly, it’s not huge. But how long are you going to knit? How often do you use tools this size? And how challenging is the work for you. These three factors: frequency and duration of exposure (to a posture), and the intensity of the activity you're doing influence the amount of ergonomic risk you are exposed to.

There are certainly factors aside from needle size which affect the amount of overall work your hands are required to do while knitting. Project weight, yarn/needle pairing, fiber type, and yarn dimension are others to name a few. I’ll certainly discuss those in future postings. But for now consider the variety of grip (or lack thereof) you expose your hands to while knitting. And ask yourself if you’re knitting posture is like the pizza only diet. If it is then your muscles and joints are crying for variety! If this is your knitting diet then let’s do something about that because I want you to knit forever! No, you don’t have to stop knitting your favorite things on your favorite small needles! You just need to provide your muscles and joints with a variety of movement and position. In short, you need to stretch.

Stretching should always feel friendly. This is not a “go for the burn; no pain no gain” activity. It’s gentle, often  passive movement. Simply opening and closing your hands and fingers will do the trick. But practice this magic every 15 to 20 minutes while you're knitting. Increase the frequency if you're using small needles or if you're prone to stiff joints in the hands, fingers, and thumbs.

Variety is the spice of life. Even your joints and muscles like it. Be a spicy knitter and knit safely!

Seemingly as if by magic, a single strand can be knitted into something beautiful and unique to warm and nurture a body. Ergo, I knit.