Knitting Comfortably: The Expert Shows Us How
We’re delighted to welcome Carson Demers to MDK. In his many years of teaching and through his invaluable book, Knitting Comfortably: The Ergonomics of Handknitting, Carson has devoted his skills as a physical therapist to improving the lives of knitters all over the world. And knitters love him for it!
We are honored that Carson has chosen MDK as a way to share the ways and means of more comfortable, more productive, and more enjoyable knitting. Today he begins a series of bi-monthly articles to share practical wisdom with MDK readers. We’re all ears!
—Kay and Ann
Have you ever heard a knitter wish they could knit faster, or who thinks they should abandon the style of knitting they initially learned because they’ve been told another style is more efficient? I can almost guarantee you’ve talked to a knitter who has complained of aches, pains, and even numbness throughout their upper body. Even lower back pain can plague knitters while they work with their innocent sticks and string.
If you have taken part in any of these conversations, then you’ve talked about ergonomics. And there’s never been a better time to talk about ergonomics than now in our nearly-post-Covid, digital age.
Where I’m coming from
I’ve been a physical therapist for 30 years and a knitter even longer. In my professional career I have focused on study and treatment of musculoskeletal injuries and ergonomics. About 25 years to be exact, with nearly 15 of those teaching ergonomics to knitters around the world.
I’ve been fortunate to teach thousands of knitters the importance of understanding ergonomic risk in modern knitting, ways to lower their exposure to it, and even to lower the risk itself. I educate knitters to knit more comfortably, productively, and efficiently—regardless of learned or used style. This goal is easier for a knitter to attain than they might think, and almost always more fun than they imagine.
What’s involved is an understanding of the work we do (yes, knitting is work!) and the forces that work applies to our tissue. Knowing these forces, we compare them to how much force our tissue can tolerate (that is, our personal fitness, health, and wellness) and then look for ways to reduce those forces.
That’s where I usually come in. Most knitters don’t know they’re applying force to their tissue, and (here’s the headline) they don’t know they’re doing too much work! This simple truth prompted me to write my book Knitting Comfortably: The Ergonomics of Handknitting.
A bit of knitting history
To understand why now is an important time to have a conversation about ergonomics and knitting, you have to understand how and why we used to knit.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, knitting was often done as a supplemental source of income. If you wanted to make money at it, you’d need to be efficient, productive, and work in a way that doesn’t cause discomfort. So, knitters used “traditional” techniques (regardless of style) based on simple principles of all tools.
When humans develop a tool system, it is comprised of a stable element and an active or moving element. For example, you hold the bread and move the knife through it. Work is easier to do when that which is being modified is still, so the tool can do its job. This creates both efficient and safer work. (Think about cutting the bangs of a squirming child.)
Optimally, the working yarn is in the Z position.
This is true of knitting as well. In traditional “English” style knitting (a.k.a. “throwing”), the receiving needle (usually the right) was stabilized, and the “giving” needle moved toward it, surrendering the stitch to the needle to be knit. The job of the receiving-side hand was to stay relatively still to tension the yarn and wrap it around the tip of the needle. Here, the left hand is more active than the right.
Optimal yarn/needle positions for an English knitter (“thrower”) with the x-axis (right needle) at relatively a right angle to the y-axis (left needle) and the working yarn positioned along the z-axis in the THIrd dimension (here away from the knitter for a knit stitch).
In the traditional “Continental” style of knitting (a.k.a. “picking”), the needle in the hand that is receiving new stitches (usually the right) actively moves to retrieve yarn from the stationary giving hand. The job of the left hand is to tension the yarn and remain still, so the right needle can get in and out of the stitch easily.
Optimal Continental yarn/needle hold with the x-axis (right needle) at relatively A right angle to the y-axis (left needle) and the working yarn positioned along the z-axis in the third dimension (here away from the knitter for a knit stitch).
In both styles, holding the needles optimally, they are at relatively right angles to one another. A consistent method of yarn tensioning positions it in the third dimension from the needles, making the task of stitch creation easier, faster, and with minimal force to the knitter. Because these systems utilize “landmarks” for how the needles and yarn are held relative to one another, and how the yarn is tensioned, the fabric will be consistent and even.
This is not how most people knit today.
The loss of repeatable, consistent landmarks and tensioning makes swatching crucial to modern knitters. With no consistent method of tension, including how much yarn is held under tension, the task of getting even fabric across a garment can be challenging, to say the least.
And when knitting instruction is less often done at the knee of a knitter experienced in traditional techniques, errors get passed down through the ranks. Too often a new knitter will learn to make a knit and purl stitch but never revisit technique except to learn a new stitch. Modern knitters’ hands are working too hard!
Finally, modern knitters’ hands work harder, because in the digital age we find ourselves using the same postures and muscles to operate keyboards, touchscreens, tablets, etc. that we use for knitting. This tissue is working much longer and harder than it did even a few short years ago. Just think of all the knitting classes you’ve done online in the last three years, Zoom meetings for work, and time spent on social media.
So that’s why ergonomics is important to any knitter who wants to keep going without discomfort and with increased efficiency and productivity.
A little homework
Until next time, take time to notice (not criticize!) how you work, and you’ll be better prepared to work with the observations and suggestions I will offer to help you knit more comfortably.