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Reprinted from Connect
Vol.15 No.5, May/June, 2002
Focus on: Patterns in Our World
Grade Level: 3-5
Grade Level: 6-8

Patterns by Hand

by Heather Taylor

"Go through the back, yarn over, pull it through."
My mother is sitting with her arms around me, and a swatch of knitting is dangling off the needles in her hands in front of us. This chant is repeating in my head, even after she has stopped saying it.
"Now this time," she says, "you tell me what to do."
"Go in the back," I direct, and watch as she neatly slides the right needle into the first stitch on the left needle.
"Now what?" she asks.
"Yarn over." I see the wool yarn slip between the needles. I look and try to remember what comes next. Itís got to be getting that stitch off the left needle somehow, but I canít recall. My mom slowly starts the next move and says, "Pull . . ."
"Pull it through!" I explode.
"Thatís right. Watch one more time while telling me what to do."
After the next series of moves she puts the needles in my hands and says, "Now itís your turn."

I was six then, and what I remember of knitting from that time is that it was tricky! There was what seemed like an arbitrary set of steps that mysteriously yielded a little patch of nubbly fabric, but there was also the sometimes frustrating physical aspect of the craft: trying to make long needles, serpentine yarn, and my own chubby little fingers behave as my motherís had. She seemed to exert so little effort, resulting in an orderly, uniformly textured piece. It took a long time, lots of practice, and lots of years before I felt truly confident knitting.

At first I worked only in one stitch (the garter stitch, which is the same no matter which side you are knitting) on a square my mother had started for me. Later, I learned to "cast on" for myself and how to reverse knit, or purl. I found that an amazing variety of patterns were possible from just these two simple stitches, so that even with only one color of yarn a complicated design was possible. By the time I was in my mid-teens, my brother was becoming interested in computers and binary code. I remember making a vague mental link somewhere in my brain from the on/off or zero/one of binary code to the knit/purl or dark color/light color of knitting.

In the classroom

For the teacher of elementary-aged children, bringing a skill like knitting to her or his classroom can be rewarding yet challenging. It is difficult to find the sort of time it takes to teach one-on-one in the manner my mother taught me, particularly in a large class. But sometimes the children can teach each other, as Deb Pierotti, a teacher of third and fourth grade students in Brattleboro, Vermont, found. Deb included knitting as part of their "Schools of the Past" unit. Her article about this project was published by Community Works Press. In it she described some of the knitting work this way:

Eaddy Sutton, our intern . . . offered to teach the third grade students to knit. She began very slowly, in order to capture their initial enthusiasm and wonder. "A small little mouse, crept into the house, a cat chased him around the back, and through the middle." Wooden kabob skewers, meticulously sanded and waxed by each child, became their working tools. For some, holding needles taxed their fine motor skills, and stress signs began to erupt. Needles dropped . . .individual students noticed the frustration of their classmates and tried to offer supporting words. "You can do it." "It takes time to learn something new." . . . One student got it, taught it to another, and like dominoes, the class chimed, "I GOT IT!" Our daily routine soon included thirty-minute handwork times. The wave of excitement rose and fell; after awhile some students began to lose interest. Soon another wave of inspiration moved us forward as we began to see our work in progress. Our efforts lay on the floor, knitted squares side by side beginning to form a blanket.

"Each time I improve . . ."

In handwork, it seems there is always a connection to patterns. There are tiny sequences like the steps I said after my motheróthese can be quite clever, like the mouse chant described above, or the chant Debís class currently uses: "Under the fence, catch the sheep, back we come, and off we leap!" Then there is the broader sequence of steps from design, to collecting materials and preparing them, creating pieces and assembling them, to finishing.

In addition to the benefits of exploring patterns, often in handwork there is great development and learning with fine motor skills. One of the students in Deb Pierottiís class reads from her knitting journal:

In the beginning of learning to knit I felt very, very, very, very, very, very frustrated, because I would get one stitch, and then it would fall off. When Ms. Pierotti knitted, it looked easy but it is very hard.

But then, not long after that entry came another:

I can knit! Now that Iíve practiced I can knit. Each time I improve more and more. It used to be frustrating, and I wanted to stop. Now it is fun and I want to keep going and I have knit approximately two inches.

Mathematics of knitting

There is a long history of knitting in the classroom. In the late 18th century, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi noted the importance of practical applications of any academic skills, and the necessity of concrete experiences preceding abstract:

A child can conceive the idea of two balls, two roses, two books; but it cannot conceive the idea of "Two" in the abstract. How would you make the child understand that two and two make four, unless you show it to him first in reality? To begin by abstract notions is absurd and detrimental, instead of being educative. The result is at best that the child can do the things by rote without understanding it . . .

Pestalozzi taught students math skills (multiplication, division, adding and subtracting fractions) through hands-on skills such as knitting. Currently, Waldorf schools, based on the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, include knitting as a regular part of their curriculum.

In Pierottiís public school classroom, she noticed the mathematics of knitting arising quite naturally from the work in the childrenís hands:

Knitting wove its way into all parts of the curriculum. One student made the connection that knitting was multiplication. "Ms. Pierotti, knitting helps people do multiplication. For example if you had 3 stitches across and 2 stitches down, that would tell you 3 x 2 = 6 stitches altogether!" This moment was a turning point. Students chimed in "Whatís your array?" and soon new shapes took form: rectangles and squares of varying dimensions. I witnessed a classroom full of children making a cognitive leap forward as they built their own bridge from experience to knowing. "I have 5 across and 3 down, so my total number of stitches is 15!" Their discovery became intrinsic knowing, a connection made through their own hands-on experienceó"real-world" learning. Knitting had captured their concentration and focus, and pulled out of them a solid understanding of a mathematical concept built on their own discovery. The joy that this learning experience brought was an "aha!" moment, the kind of feeling we all have when we have finally locked into our knowing.


Meaningful opportunities for knitting projects can extend beyond the classroom. Our local newspaper sponsors a "Christmas Stocking" fund, which purchases and distributes winter outerwear for children in need. This year the paper also asked for hand-knit items such as blankets, hats, and mittens. A teaching colleague of mine described an ad she saw asking for students to knit life-saving woolen jackets for baby penguins who are unable to maintain their body temperature as a result of an oil spill! And of course, there are requests for blankets for children in countries torn by war, such as Afghanistan. Most likely there are community members, young and old, who might be inspired to assist your class.

Teaching and learning handwork of all sorts can enrich our students. It is extremely satisfying to look at the result of oneís own efforts, especially in the company of community. In the process of doing it, children learn art and craft skills, creative language and ways of cooperating and helping one another. Developmentally, small motor skills are enhanced, as are skills of following or creating complex directions. Some of the work may result in lifelong interests. All of it provides immediate, practical uses for mathematics, helping students to see math as useful and intriguing in their own lives.


The larger pattern work of fitting the pieces together.

©Synergy Learning International, Inc., 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Heather Taylor - For several years, Heather Taylor taught a multi-age group of 5-8 year olds at The Neighborhood Schoolhouse, an independent school in Brattleboro, Vermont. She is a writer, an artist and currently the Associate Editor of Connect.
List all articles by Heather Taylor


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