Rereading a Knitting Classic: Knitting without Tears

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Many, many years ago, when I was just starting to write about knitting as part of my job, I picked up a copy of Knitting without Tears by Elizabeth Zimmermann.

I don’t even know what led me to it. Probably I read somewhere that it was a knitting classic. Maybe I felt that it would help me overcome some of my overwhelm at having to be able to write about everything having to do with knitting when I’d never even knit a sock before.

I’m glad did, for whatever reason.

Yes I have my favorite quotes marked.

As I read it that first time, and in the times I’ve read it since, Zimmermann reminds me of my grandmother (though she was Irish and Zimmermann was English). I like to think that, if we had been able to have deep conversations about knitting, she might have shared similar no-nonsense but wisdom-filled ideas as Zimmermann shared in her books.

Which I guess makes sense, because Zimmermann is considered one of the matriarchs (maybe grand-matriarchs at this point) of modern knitting.

Knitting without Limits

Here she is, knitting on the back of a motorcycle, using a knitting needle for small engine repair, sharing ingenious knitting designs that have stood the test of time.

She dispenses knitting knowledge and life advice and comes off as both grandmotherly and cool. She was friends with Barbara Walker and shares her SSK as if they chatted about it over tea (which they may well have).

Her innovations are sometimes mind-boggling and always clever.

She’s eminently quotable (“Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either,” to take one example from page 2 of this book) and you’ll find yourself wanting to knit a lot of her patterns.

Timeless Patterns

Knitting without Tears includes the classic Tomten jacket, perfect for the little elf in your life. I really want to knit an adult version like Jared Flood did many years ago, but it might require more thinking than I’m up for right now. I’d also love to do a February Lady, which thankfully has been adapted in full pattern form from a baby sweater found in Knitter’s Almanac.

Her patterns are thoughtful and clever, fun to knit and interesting to contemplate. Because to read and work her patterns is to look into her mind and wonder how she came up with this stuff.

The Baby Surprise Jacket (which isn’t in Knitting without Tears, but in the also-excellent Knitting Workshop) is a marvel that feels like it’s not going to work while you’re knitting it. But if you can trust her — and yourself — you’ll find that it does just what it’s supposed to do.

Beyond Knitting without Tears

And maybe that’s the most important thing you’ll learn from reading any of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s books: to trust yourself as a knitter.

To relax a little bit and not worry so much about exact stitch counts, needle sizes, perfect technique or running out of yarn.

“One tends to give one’s fingers too little credit for their innate good sense,” she writes. And later “really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage.”

Or later still:

Now comes what I perhaps inflatedly call my philosophy of knitting. Like many philosophies, it is hard to express in a few words. Its main tenets are enjoyment and satisfaction, accompanied by thrift, inventiveness, an appearance of industry, and, above all, resourcefulness.

There isn’t a knitting problem that can’t be solved with patience, ingenuity and confidence. Those things don’t hurt for other problems, either.

Knitting without Tears is a knitting classic I return to over and over again, as much for feeling Zimmermann’s presence and anything else. Do you have favorite “classic” knitting books? I’d love to hear about them!

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