In the course of preparing my materials for the writing class I’ll be teaching next year, I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite books, Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot. Contrary to the appearance given by the title, the book is in English (at least, mostly!). It’s an exploration of the wonders of language, inspired by Hofstadter’s attempts to translate a little French poem. If you’re the language-loving sort, I highly recommend it.

just a peek

I first pulled this book off the shelf at my then-boyfriend, now-husband’s house, and fell in love with it right from the introduction, in which Hofstadter discusses his writing process. What I loved was the way he talked about constraints. I think it’s common to think of constraints as a negative thing, something that’s holding you back from being as free as you’d like to be (I know I think this way when it comes to the physical constraints imposed on me by chronic illness). But in the context of writing (particularly poetry), or indeed, in any creative endeavor, constraints can be a wonderful thing, can be art in themselves, can force you to be even more creative than you would have been without them.

vikkel braid!

I’m getting to a knitterly point here, I promise! You see, last summer I was absolutely taken with various traditional Estonian knitting techniques, thanks to Nancy Bush and her efforts to preserve and promote the traditions. I was suddenly inspired with dozens of design ideas incorporating these traditional techniques. You’ve seen the fruits of this process in one sweater already, the one I designed and wore at Rhinebeck and for which I am currently working on the pattern. But there’s a lot more where that came from. What I’ve noticed is that I’ve begun thinking of those techniques as constraints, but in the positive, creativity-inspiring way.


Here’s what I mean: I feel like someone gave me this small handful of techniques (vikkel braids, nupps, roositud, and small-scale colorwork motifs) and told me to go to town, the way we’d sometimes be told to make useful things out of random objects during the Spontaneous competition during Odyssey of the Mind competitions, back in the day (am I dating myself, with that? Did any of you do OM?). It’s a fun challenge to see what I can create using these techniques I’ve fallen in love with. I’ve been introduced to these techniques either in the form of small accessories (like mittens or socks), or in lace shawls or stoles, and while I do have ideas for more traditional items like these, it’s especially fascinating to me to think about the many ways these techniques could be applied to my knitwear product of choice: the sweater. I feel like I’ve actually enabled myself to generate more ideas, be more creative, by constraining myself to a relatively small set of tools.

happy fall, y'all. [365x2.103]

I only wish I had the time to follow through on all of these ideas. I think it’d be wonderful to make a sort of collection, maybe an e-book of patterns that adhere to the same set of constraints, the same theme. I don’t know if I could pull such a thing off, though. I love what Ysolda (and a few others) have done, letting people prepay for a pattern book, and then releasing the patterns one at a time as they’re finished, but I don’t know that I have the following to pull that off or the ability to put out designs in a timely enough fashion. But it’s something I’m considering, anyway.

18 thoughts on “constraints”

    1. It’s a really great book! Hofstadter’s got a pretty idiosyncratic writing style, but I enjoy it, and the ideas in the book are really fun ones to think about.


    1. Thanks! Hooray for Odyssey of the Mind! I swear I remember OM dying out, and getting replaced with some other competition (Destination Imagination, or something like that?), but maybe I’m remembering wrong. I did OM from 4th grade through 10th grade.


  1. I’ve always felt that constraints were essential to the creative process. I seem to have the most ideas when I have not enough time to act on them! I think this applies to a lot of other areas as well. If only I could find the right set of constraints in my search for a career! Good luck with your designs!

    1. I think you’re right…I know I have a hard time creating stuff if I’m not working under some sort of constraints or rules. Total creative freedom, for me, is kind of crippling!

      Good luck in your job search! I feel kind of lucky to be a graduate student right now, given the current job market (or lack thereof), but I know it’s going to be scary once I finish my degree and need to find a job somewhere.


  2. Whenever I start working on a pattern or any kind of design I always determine the constraints first. It makes the whole process easier in a way and more focused.

    Good luck with the patterns and I can’t wait to see the finished pattern for the Rhinebeck sweater.

    1. Hooray for (good) constraints! I don’t know how long it will take me to finish the Rhinebeck sweater pattern (resizing it is quite a brainteaser, given how large the lace maple leaf motifs are!), but I hope to at least have it ready to publish on my blog before Autumn.


  3. Odyssey of the Mind… That was a long time ago. Although, you’re probably not dating yourself as I’m fairly young so it must still be going on in some places. Or at least just petered out in the last ten or twelve years. I’ll have to check out that book.

    1. Hooray for fellow OMers! I can’t remember exactly when OM petered out, but I’m pretty sure there’s some other “creative” competition that’s taken its place, these days.


  4. I think writing up some of your Estonian-style patterns as a collection is a fantastic idea! I’d be interested in seeing them.

    (Also, I totally, totally did OM in elementary school. I have vivid memories of a giant poster-board recreation of Monet’s Waterlilies for one of the events we did.)

  5. That sounds like a wonderful book. I remember when I first came to feel the freedom of constraints — I was learning to throw pottery, and there was something about knowing that everything needed to start off round that just freed me up; the big choice was made (the physics of centrifugal force are pretty compelling), so I could do whatever else I wanted. It’s a pretty neat feeling…

  6. What a thought inspiring post! I think writing up some of your Estonian-style patterns as a collection is a fantastic idea! I’d Love to see them.

  7. I totally hear you on constraints. (Started writing a response on how that’s sort of how I see a good marriage; decided it was ridiculously long and rambling. Short version: I agree.) I’d say that selling an e-book in advance might be a bit too much pressure, given your school/health time demands — but you could always start the series and sell patterns individually, and then combine them into an e-book later (with refunds/discounts/etc for people who’ve already purchased some of the patterns). I’d buy, certainly.

  8. I did OM! It was fun. And I think you know I love Le Ton Beau. I actually wrote some poetry based on the constraint idea in high school after reading it, and I am pretty sure my Creative Writing teacher actually used it for an assignment. I gave her a copy of the book as a gift at my graduation.

  9. That book sounds really interesting! Your theory of positive constraints sounds a lot like the technique I use for problem solving in my own life. I tend to approach it as a process of elimination or rule-making strategy to narrow down the endless possibilities that distract or overwhelm me otherwise.
    A couple years ago I made a short video about my design process for a class where I described my process which I think is quite similar to yours. If you are interested I will look around for the file and email it you.

  10. I really like your idea of incorporating techniques from smaller items into larger garments – using traditional techniques and styles as a springboard for new ideas rather than a restriction on them. Sort of in the same vein, I’m currently in love with the idea of designing a collection of clothes combining traditional Japanese sensibilities with a 40s/50s vintage aesthetic. I agree that constraints are a great way to focus and adapt creatively. Very thought-provoking post!

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