Deconstructing the Shell Game

My first job out of college was a position as a library assistant in a chichi Harvard Square architecture company that was responsible for some of the ugliest buildings to blight the Middle East. This job taught me several valuable lessons, listed in ascending order of importance:

  1. I didn’t want to be an architect. Aside from the fact that I was an atheist in a subculture that worshipped architects as gods, I was never even a little bit tempted to become an architect because of my difficulties with math, numbers, and spacial visualization.
  2. I didn’t want to become a librarian. I had been tempted by that profession, since I liked books, but I discovered that library work was all about procedure and the books were incidental, and the procedures were boring and confusing.
  3. With regard to learning to follow procedures, I can’t understand anything until I understand everything.

Because of that last point, I kept forgetting what I was supposed to do, seconds after my boss had told me what she wanted. I couldn’t retain the instructions. They were just words that had nothing to do with anything that made any sense to me. That didn’t endear me to my boss, who clearly was considering firing me practically every day for months as I stumbled around making every mistake in the book… until I suddenly and finally grasped how the individual procedures all fit together to serve the organizational structure of the library, at which point I suddenly started doing everything right and anticipated what my boss wanted before she could ask for it. My boss’s thin-lipped exasperation melted into open-mouthed astonishment at my transformation and she kind of fell in love with me. And then the company laid me off.

Knitting is all about procedure. A lot of it comes instinctively to me, but there are subcategories of the art that are like the architectural library’s organizational system, requiring me to make mistake after mistake, one failure after another, before I finally crack the code. One of these subcategories is the stacked-increase patterns that have been springing up lately. These are multi-colored designs that are knitted one color at a time, with bumps and branches that resemble crochet, shaped by increases and repeatedly reknitting the new stitches with more increases, then gathering the increases into specific shapes by decreasing and again decreasing the stitches until you finally get back to the original stitch count.

Xandy Peters’ Fox Paws pattern came out on Ravelry in October 2014, and everyone in the world was blown away by its beauty. Then the project started to appear with notes expressing some variation on “oh my god I’ve never done anything so hard in my life.” This was both intriguing and intimidating, and I decided to dedicate January of this year to learning new techniques and to finally give stacked-increase patterns some time and attention. Here’s my Fox Paws swatch. I’ve never had less fun knitting in my life.


It was like the architectural library, a hundred times worse. The instructions were a morass of triple increases, slipping back the increased stitches to increase them again and again, knitting stitches together and slipping them back to re-decrease them again and again, and if I lost focus or miscounted something, I couldn’t figure out where I’d gone wrong and had to rip out everything. Over and over again. It took days to knit a single row because I had to knit blind, stitch by stitch, not knowing why I was doing what I was doing, not knowing how many stitches I was supposed to have, not understanding the structure or the signposts to check my accuracy without counting, counting, miscounting, recounting. My beloved stitch markers were confusing me rather than helping me because of the ever-changing stitch count. Finally I managed to eke out two somewhat misshapen pattern repeats and called it a day. Lest anyone think I’m criticizing Xandy’s excellent pattern-writing, I hasten to point out that there are over 800 Fox Paws projects in Ravelry, almost all of which are better than my swatch. There was an infinite world of support to Fox Paws knitters in Xandy’s knit-a-long group, and she put out a long series of pattern revisions analyzing the structure of the pattern and dissecting stitch counts at every step in the process. I just chose not to put in the effort to understand all the explanations. With 800-plus projects in existence, I wasn’t going to put in the effort for such thoroughly trodden territory.

After the Fox Paws trial-by-fire, I turned my attention to several stacked-increase patterns by Natalia Moreva of Kulabra Designs, and, while stacked-increase patterns are intrinsically not simple, the fact that I didn’t hate life while knitting them made them seem simple…ish.

Clockwise from upper left, Lothlorien, Snuflakes, Coral Reef

Coral Reef was my favorite of the three patterns, and I’m using it now to make a summer top in the colors of a Hawaiian shirt. As stacked-increase patterns go, it’s relatively simple, but it still takes some thinking to understand how it works. It is based on a 12-stitch repeat, with a trefoil branching out from three stitches centered in the design. There is one increase row and one decrease row. The increases aren’t too hard to figure out: knit into the first of the center three stitches, yarn over, knit again into the stitch, slip the last two stitches back onto the left needle and repeat the knit/yarn over/knit operation three times until there are three increase stitches on the left needle, and knit them. Repeat the process for the next two center stitches.

This isn’t a complaint about Natalia’s pattern, because a pattern writer can’t anticipate the quirks and peculiarities of every knitter’s thought process, but there wasn’t information indicating how many stitches I should have at various points in the process. (Even if the numbers had been written into the pattern, I probably would have had to go through my mistake cycle anyway in order to fully understand the structure.) It’s complicated in stacked-increase patterns because all the increasing and stitch-slipping was kind of like a shell game when I tried to nail down my numbers. But I counted and came up with 9 stitches per increase sequence. However, it was on the decrease row, which gathered the three branches into shape, when the shell game got complicated for me, because instead of the three identical increase sequences, there were four decrease operations and each of them was different from the others. It was hard for me to count how many stitches I was decreasing while carrying out each operation, because the operations went on and on.

Finally I decided to add up the decreases and double decreases, and the arithmetic told me that I was decreasing 7 stitches in the first stacked decrease, 5 in the second, 5 in the third, and 7 in the last one. That added up to 24 decreases, and I was certain I needed to decrease away 27 stitches, since I had 9 stitches in each increase sequence, and three increase sequences per trefoil. Why were there three extra stitches that I couldn’t account for? And then suddenly I realized that those 27 stitches had to come from somewhere, and it was from the original three stitches, so I was decreasing 24 stitches, not 27. Dawn breaks over Marblehead! That familiar sensation of relief at figuring out a problem simultaneous with embarrassment at my stupidity for it being a problem in the first place… You get an intractable misconception even though the reality is right there in front of you. Well, it happens. It happens a lot. And not just to me– it’s a recurrent theme in religious and folk mythology that blames, or credits, deities and supernatural beings with messing with humans’ rationality and emotions so that they make stupid mistakes. The Qureish’s bout of terror against the vastly outnumbered Muslims at the Battle of Badr. Pharaoh’s hardened heart against Moses. Eris tossing the Apple of Discord and starting the Trojan War. Malicious imps prompting people to squander their three wishes by wishing meat pies stuck onto their spouse’s nose. O Deity of Knitting, how have I offended Thee?

I think I could have gotten along all right without calculating these numbers if I had chosen to stack the pattern repeats vertically, the way I did in the swatch with the orange trefoils, because I had worked out the signposts that let me know I was on the right track:IMG_4583

Looking at the right side of the photo, there’s an orange stitch marker, and 12 stitches to the left, there’s a green marker. If I’ve done my decreases right, I have a group of three stitches, then a group of four stitches, then a group of three stitches, and then two stitches. The next-to-last one is a stacked decrease stitch and the last one is a plain, un-decreased stitch. It would have been easy to see where to position my next set of three center stitches, because it would have been right on top of the three center stitches between the markers, that is, stitches 5, 6, and 7. But instead I chose to do the offset version of the pattern, which moves the pattern over six stitches every other pattern repeat.


That 6-stitch offset was disorienting and required me to look for a new set of signposts. After misaligning the motifs because my stitch markers were in the wrong place, and finding myself with a stitch too many or too few for that first couple sets of pattern shifts, I figured out that the critical three center stitches needed to be positioned over stitches 5, 6, and 7 bridging the branches of the trefoils left and right.IMG_4584.jpg

That is to say, the plain stitch between the two decrease stitches has to align with stitch 5 of the 9 stitches between the 3-stitch base of the trefoils. In the photo above, notice that the stitch left of the orange marker is aligns with the stitch to which the green marker is attached. This alignment is essential. The shell game nature of the stacked decreases makes it possible to have 12 stitches in the 3-stitch/4-stitch/3-stitch/decrease stitch/plain stitch arrangement and still be misaligned, so double-checking the alignment of the plain stitch with the middle stitch of the bridge stitches is the final element that keeps the pattern from going awry. Three guesses how I know. Hint: it’s not because I did it right the first time.

It’s not that I love having to make mistake after mistake in order to wrap my mind around procedures and spacial and numerical concepts. Other people are able to come to a spacial and structural understanding of knitting procedures more instinctively than I can, without the trial by error and trial by fire that I go through to get there, but I do get there, and the information I get while doing mathematically messed-up things enables me to find resourceful ways to fix the inevitable errors and to find variants that serve my design ideas. I’ve even come to enjoy the process of taking a step back from my errors and analyzing them to find the place where my thinking went wrong, and finding a way to be smart after I’ve been stupid. It would be nice to think that the practice I’ve had with not being fazed by mistakes in knitting and thinking my way to a solution might have given me skills for dealing with non-knitting errors and problems that one might encounter in other aspects of life. Or maybe that notion is just a way to console myself for gifts I lack. But I do what I can with what I do have to find backdoor methods to master knitting’s architectural concepts.



3 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Shell Game

  1. I’m building my courage to try the stacked increases and decreases as soon as I am set free from my Foley Lotus shawl. I enjoy your writing and bookmarked it to refer to if needed, which I expect I will. Thank you!


    1. Thank you for the comment! Xandy Peters has been working on motifs that are beautiful and simpler than Fox Paws to teach the basic principles of stacks. Her explanations of the stitch operations are clear, and there are videos.


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