Embrace ripping

Last night I ripped out an entire hat. The fair isle on the hat was too tight, but I didn’t figure that out until I’d already knitted to right before the decreases. I tried it on and it felt like someone was squeezing my head very hard. The stitches were stretched out so far they barely made sense. Dang. So I ripped it.

One thing I remember about when I first started knitting was learning to love ripping back, once I got past the initial horror of erasing my hard work. Making the stitches cry out as they come loose is the same kind of tiny wanton destruction that makes popping bubble wrap feel so good. When you get a nice smooth ripping motion going, the popping stitches blend together into a gentle, satisfying buzz, like a tiny wool chainsaw.

I teach new knitters not to fear ripping back. Once they stop panicking (“What? I worked so hard on that!”) I tell them to look for that joy in undoing, and they always find it. There’s a reason gods of destruction and gods of creation are often the same — undoing and destroying lets you start fresh. Whether it’s for a proper fit, new stab at a color chart you flubbed the first time, or just to free yourself of the guilt of your millionth unfinished project, there’s always a good reason to tear it out.

One of my favorite knitting memories was from when I worked at a yarn store and someone brought in her first big project, a garter-stitch baby blanket that was about three-quarters done. A couple of dropped stitches had worked their way down the fabric, and I showed her how to repair them with a crochet hook and adjust the tension of neighboring stitches.

“It still doesn’t look right,” she said. “The stitches are still kind of loose. It’s just too far down, and it’ll take me forever to fix it that way.”

“Nobody else will notice,” someone else at the table said.

“I will,” she said. She gave me a brave, level look. “What can I do?”

“Well,” I said, drawing a deep breath, “Not much. You can live with it, or you can rip it out and start over.”

“That’s weeks of work,” she said. She put her hand to her mouth, and bit her fingertip.

“I know. You don’t have to do it,” I said, “but it’s the only way to make it perfect. You’re the only one who’ll know if it’s not; you really don’t have to”

“Seriously,” she said. “Weeks of work. Weeks.”

She leaned over her blanket, poked at the stitches, and looked up. “I’d never be able to look at this thing without seeing those stitches,” she said. “They would make me crazy.”

She slid the long circular needle free, leaving over a hundred live stitches stretching their legs into open air.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she said, and tucked the needle into her knitting bag. “Here goes.”

She yanked on the end of the yarn and dozens of stitches gave way with a soft purr. The other knitters at the table cringed.

She kept ripping for several minutes, watching hours of labor dissolve. She didn’t say anything for a while, until her voice finally floated over the top of a pile of kinked-up yarn, choking down a mad little giggle.

“Actually,” she said without looking up from the destruction, “this is really fun.