Knitting is an Engineering Exercise

There is much discussion about how we need to make sure that the Arts don’t get lost in the discussion about increased STEM emphasis. STEAM is the new term being used that realizes Arts are not separate.  My personal experience is that scientists and engineers are amazingly creative and engage in types of art that fuels this creativity: music, drawing, painting, fiber arts of all types.  And who hasn’t seen an amazing designed and crafted piece of technology and know that there was an artist inside the engineer.

Over the Christmas and New Year break, conveniently coinciding with my school break, I was able to indulge in my creative joy of knitting.  I love to knit.  Seeing the stitches turn into a pattern and then a final object is enticing.   It’s addicting and sitting still long enough to turn yarn into fabric is a meditation.

An integrated part of Engineering and Knitting is making mistakes in a safe space and learning from them.  Below are some of the lessons I’ve learned through my knitting experiments.

1) The reason why every pattern tells you to check your gauge (the combination of yarn + needle size+ knitter that equals rows and stitches per inch) is that the pieces don’t fit if you don’t.  I have many objects that were supposed to be hats but are too floppy or too small and get turned into doll purses or dress-up items.

Engineering lesson: Accurate and meaningful measurement are important.  Make a scale model to see how it all fits together.

2) Measure the person you’re making a sweater for.  My first truly ambitious knitted item was a reindeer pattern sweater for my brother.  I was 14 at the time and estimated how big I needed to make it.  It was at least 5 sizes too big.  Even after he went through his first growth spurt, it was too big.

Engineering lesson: Know who and what you are designing for.  One size does not fit all.

3) The yarn you use will make a difference in how the item drapes or doesn’t, feels soft or scratchy, is warm for winter or breathable for summer, is stretchy to fit or is sturdy for structure.  And while there are great, low cost synthetic yarns that are perfectly suited for getting beat up (i.e. kids’ hats, mittens, scarves), investing in good wool or cotton can turn an item into a wardrobe staple or the blanket on the couch that everyone fights for.

Engineering lesson: Materials matter. Understanding how different materials behave and react to shaping or stress will help your design.

4) Trying new techniques can be daunting and if the the stakes are high, downright scary.  Don’t learn  on the most expensive yarn, because you might have to tear it apart and start over.  Start with a cheaper “waste” yarn and play around until you understand the technique well enough that you can move to the better fibers without risking the whole project.

Engineering lesson: Find a proxy material that can be used to test some models before digging in to the “good stuff”.  You will understand the concepts better and may see a problem that you didn’t plan for but can fix without waste.

I am now going to follow my own advice and try out a new technique called a Moebius loop.  As a scientist, how can I not try that technique!