By Franklin Habit
If you're a knitter, I sure as hell don't need to introduce you to Elizabeth Zimmermann.
Hers is simply a name that people who knit recognize, much as people who love horse racing or tennis know Secretariat or Billie Jean King. Her bracing, empowering first book, Knitting Without Tears, has been continuously in print since its debut in 1971. Chances are you own it, or have at least read it. Fifteen years on from her death at age 89, Elizabeth continues to be omnipresent, her influence inescapable.
I found her, or she found me, during a moment of crisis when I had become utterly bored with knitting. I was, in fact, on the verge of giving it up.
Ten years into my knitting life, I had little to show for all the clicking aside from a modest heap of garter stitch scarves and a few pairs of what I promise you were the ugliest mittens ever seen. I don't remember who published the pattern for those mittens, but they should be ashamed of themselves. Still, it was the only pattern I owned and I followed it blindly. That was all I knew how to do–follow.
It was boring. Frustrating. I wanted to break the scarf-and-mitten-and-scarf-and-mitten loop and try a sweater; but I'm five feet, four inches tall and shaped like a fire hydrant. Off-the-rack men's sweaters do not fit me. Neither do handknit sweaters, if they're worked as written from standard patterns. So why bother?
Elizabeth gave me the answer: don't bother. Not with the patterns, anyhow. Build your technique. Think for yourself. Find your own way. Make patterns do your bidding, or make your own patterns. Be, in her emphatic phrase, "the boss of your knitting."
Her personality is powerful in print, and nothing short of mesmerizing on film. By the time she came to make her first series of video lessons—Knitting Workshop, a companion to her book of the same name—Elizabeth was already a veteran of two seasons of her own public television show, The Busy Knitter. And she was a natural.
There are a lot of knitting videos out there, but none quite like this. The production quality of Knitting Workshop is capable, but not slick. It looks homemade because it is. Literally. Filming took place in Elizabeth's home studio, with her son-in-law behind the camera (there's only one) and her daughter and successor, Meg Swansen, directing (audibly) from the sidelines.
Possibly the most remarkable thing about each half-hour episode of the series is that it was shot in one take. The theme tune (a perky synthesizer rendition of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze") fades out, Elizabeth fades in, and off she goes: knitting, talking, digressing, proclaiming—and always in a perfectly calm, unflappable tone somewhere between Mary Poppins and Queen Elizabeth II. Nothing fazes her. Stitches drop, notions hit the floor, cats stroll onto the set, and she just rolls with it. There was no script and, reportedly, no clock—she just had a strong sense of the minutes passing and the material to be gone through. She always ends each lesson neatly before telling you how to prepare for the next.
The result is a series of videos whose sense of immediacy is uncanny. I know dozens of knitters who, when feeling lonely, turn to Elizabeth for virtual companionship. I happen to be one of them. So strong is the feeling of her being a friend, knitting in the room with you, that it almost feels rude not to hand her your tape measure when hers goes missing.
All Knitting Workshop has lacked, until now, is the form of homage due any remarkable piece of television with a rabid cult following: a drinking game. Downton Abbey has one. Breaking Bad has one. Even Fraggle Rock has one.
The only thing better than being alone with Elizabeth is sharing her with others, so if you have a knit night that likes to watch movies, and you haven’t screened Knitting Workshop (or the sequel, Knitting Around) you need to do something about it. All of her videos are readily available on the Schoolhouse Press website.
And please remember that white wine goes best with light-colored wool.
The Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitting Workshop Drinking Game
- Elizabeth, with her clipped patrician accent, pronounces "hat" as "het."
- Meg speaks from off-camera.
- Elizabeth calls something (anything) "dear," "sweet," "pretty," or "lovely."
- Elizabeth does math in her head and gets it wrong.
- Something happens on the set that happens to real knitters in real life. For example: a missing tape measure, tangled yarns, a dropped needle, a dropped stitch.
- The camera swoops in for a close-up and you feel slightly dizzy.
- Elizabeth answers a viewer question from a sealed envelope.
- Elizabeth tells you not to worry about something in your knitting that you have always worried about in your knitting.
- Elizabeth wonders aloud about the amount of time left in the episode.
- Elizabeth calls a design sample "the ancient of days."
- Elizabeth champions the use of natural fibers.
- Anybody mentions the dolls perched on the back of the set.
- You lose track of what Elizabeth is saying because you start to wonder if you can still get the yarn she's knitting with.
- You stop watching so you can look up the Ravelry listing for the pattern she's talking about.
- You buy the pattern for a design shown in an episode before the episode is over.
- A cat enters the frame.