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.
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.
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.
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.