Manifesto: Math Phobia

My first knitting era lasted for about 15 years, and then the ideas dried up in the late 90’s. My color work had started looking hectic and undisciplined to me, and the square shapes I knitted because they didn’t require calculations had come to look clumsy and dowdy. I had no more questions that could only be answered through knitting, and my hallucinatory color visions ceased. For the next 10 years, I spent my non-working time driving my daughters places, cooking and baking, and trying to keep up with the daily papers. I bought my sweaters at the mall.

I came back to knitting in 2009 when my older daughter asked me to teach her how to make a beret and a pair of socks. I went on a hat-making binge for the next couple of months, 20 hats from Anna Zilboorg’s 45 Fine and Fanciful hats for pretty much everyone I knew.

A few hats from my 2009 hat binge

I haven’t made a hat since, but I’ve made plenty of other things, having rekindled the obsession.

Soon after my first couple of hats, I joined Ravelry, the social networking website for knitters. I can’t overstate how much credit I give Ravelry for improving my knitting, because it enabled me to see and learn from the work of the best knitters in the world. Other people’s projects gave me ideas about garment shapes and techniques that interested me, and they required numerical precision and logical calculations. I finally realized that my math phobia was not some cute little quirk but an impediment that I needed to overcome. Stitch markers became my best friend: when you need to cast on precisely 32 repeats of 24 stitches, for instance, you need all the help you can get accounting for all 768 stitches. I also have a deep fondness for the calculator in my phone.

At this point I developed a deeper appreciation for the writings of Elizabeth Zimmermann, whose books I’d owned and pored over in my first knitting era, except for where she went on about her Elizabeth’s Percentage System, which logically and clearly sets out the ratios that chest, arm, and shoulder measurements generally have to each other and explains ways to make different kinds of sleeve/body/yoke attachments. But it involved some math, so I would shut my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and loudly sing “tra la la la la la la la not happening.” But when I saw what other people in the knitting world were doing, I took the fingers out of my ears, engaged my brain with Elizabeth’s ratios, and plugged my numbers into EPS. I discovered I was capable of manipulating the numbers. Alas, I didn’t have the right numbers in my first effort, since I didn’t yet know the measurements I needed for the fit I wanted, and the result was short, clingy, and claustrophobic for me. Lessons learned. It fits my shorter, petite sister the way I wanted it to fit me, so now it’s hers.

My first application of EPS

It would be misleading if I suggested that conquering my math phobia was as simple as poking some numbers into a formula that spits out a garment, without any further thought, or that I have magically turned into a math genius. I do say that each experience with the logic of knitting math gives me a better understanding of the geometry of the human body and more adeptness at formulating the equations that will get me the numbers I need. Problem-solving is one of my big thrills in knitting. When I get my numbers right, I feel as if I’ve gotten some tiny flake of insight into how the cosmos works.

I will leave this post with a picture of a project of mine that applied Elizabeth Zimmermann principles to a Teva Durham design. This solved construction problems that had flummoxed most of the knitters who had tried to knit it as it was written.

Teva Durham design after EPS makeover



8 thoughts on “Manifesto: Math Phobia

  1. Your work really is amazing and its a fascinating story of how you got there… here… well, you know. I really should get to reading more of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s book. I had the sense to recognize it as worthwhile for someone who wants to improve their knitting but did not read it through all.


    1. What I love about Elizabeth Zimmerman is how adaptable her principles are to so many different kinds of garments and aesthetic styles. I’ll never directly knit one of her designs, but there’s hardly an FO I’ve knitted that doesn’t have something from EZ in its structure.


  2. Unfortunately, mathematical education tends to bore students to death. Imagine if we had been required to diagram sentences for 12 years, and were never given anything interesting to read. I was never much interested in math until, as a college student, I enjoyed a more visual approach. I hate casting on, because it involves counting. I hate gauge calculations. Knitting geometry is pretty interesting.

    I started knitting again as an adult after learning to spin. EZ’s work allowed me to knit without having to spin a replica of commercial yarn. Her books are liberating, but knitters should read them because she is so funny.


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