Friday, July 17, 2009

The Knitty Gritty On Talent

I got royally screwed last Christmas. My girlfriends and I all agreed we would not, under any circumstances, give each other gifts for the holidays. And I believed these bitches too, so guess who ended up looking like a total dumb-ass when we all got together for a Christmas party and folks started handing out presents?

Yep, that's right. Me. The gal who came empty handed.

Not that I wouldn't have looked like a fool anyway. If there's one thing I suck at, it's picking out presents for people. I never have any idea what to get. My husband only gets what's on his Amazon wish list, and he's happy with that, in light of other gifts I've tried to bestow upon him. As for everyone else I know? Ugh. Aside from the one year I gave all my friends a copy of an anthology I was in, I've never known what to give. It's partly because I wait too long to shop, and partly because I suck at bargain hunting. I could buy nice gifts all right... if I had unlimited time to buy and an unlimited budget to pay for it all. Which I don't.

My mother, however, doesn't have this problem. She is a very crafty person, meaning she can knit, crochet, and sew just about anything and get it done quickly. She's a genius with a needle, be it a sewing needle, a knitting needle, or a crochet needle. And because she's always working on something, she never lacks for a gift, whether it be for a bridal shower, a baby shower, a birthday, or Christmas.

So it never fails to amaze me when I hear my mother talk about how she has absolutely no talent.

"You're kidding, right?" I always say when she complains about how bad she is at quilting. "Do you not remember the baby quilt you made for Princess?"

"Oh, I know, but I had so much help," she says. "The lady at the quilt shop told me how to do the blocking, and you picked out the fabric. Good thing too, because I'm just terrible at picking out colors."

"It was a baby blanket! And we didn't know if we were having a boy or a girl! Pink and blue, Mom! How hard was that?"

"No, no. You picked out lovely fabric. All I did was sew it together, and I really didn't do that good a job at it."

Oh vey! "Well what about all the dolls and the toys you used to crochet when I was a kid?" I remind her. "I still have those toys, and the kids love playing with them!"

"Are you joking?" Mom exclaims. "Throw those things out, Helen! They were some of the worst things I ever made!"

"No I'm not throwing them out! You're crazy! I love my old toys, and you did a great job on them!"

"No I didn't. There's mistakes all through 'em."

"Well I can't find any mistakes in them."

"Trust me, they're there."

Jeeze Louise! "All right, what about the Scandinavian sweater you made for me? Nobody I know has a sweater that nice! Everybody just raves over the polar bears you knitted into that baby!"

"Helen, I had to take a class to make that thing! I couldn't do that again if I tried. If it hadn't been for the teacher, I would have thrown the whole thing in the trash. I'm telling you, I have no talent!"

Ay caramba! "What about the girls' dress-up costumes? Princess wore her dresses all through Disney World. We had tourists from Japan asking if they could take her picture! She was so popular, I thought the park was going to hire her at one point!"

"I take no credit for how those dresses turned out. Your aunt helped me with those. She told me what fabric to get, and then she told me how to do the appliques..."

Is this woman for real? I can't believe that with all the projects my mother's done, she doesn't think she has any talent! Seriously, look at what she's made over the years!

Princess' christening gown...

Pixie's christening gown...

The colonial dress I wore in elementary school for historical dancing...

And let us not forget the beloved moo-cow potholder which has given my children endless hours of entertainment!

I don't know what to think. I can't understand why anyone who could do this kind of work, who could knit and crochet and sew for hours and produce such wonderful things, would ever say they have no talent. My mom constantly tells me I have talent.

"You write," she tells me. "You draw, you paint, you cartoon. You make these odd little movies. People pay you for your work."

"They'd pay you to, if you had an Etsy shop or you hit the craft fairs!"

"Oh, I can't do that stuff. I have no head for running a business..."

Ay yi yi! It's enough to drive a person mad. I grew up listening to Mom's non-stop inner critic. After so many years of hearing her complain that everything she did was complete crap, I promised myself that I would never say such a thing about my work. I knew I had talent, and I wouldn't let my own inner critic tell me I was lousy at anything! If I didn't know how to do something, I learned. I took classes, pestered my friends, trolled the library for how-to books. If I made mistakes, I fixed them with as little fuss as possible. Yeah, there were a few projects I had to throw out. We all have those days where something goes completely wrong and there is no salvaging it. But that never stopped me from starting over again. And it never led me to say there was something I couldn't do. The result was that after several years of practice in my fields of choice, I excelled at a lot of different things.

But there were some things I never tried my hand at. A few weeks back, I was talking to a friend of mine about a comment one of Princess' teachers made to me. Princess can be a bit flighty in the classroom, and sometimes doesn't pay attention to what she should be doing. Words like "ADHD" and "medical evaluation" were bandied about, to my dismay.

"She's just a dreamy little kid!" I told my friend. "She can focus. She just needs to remember to focus."

"Have you tried teaching Princess to knit?" my friend suggested. "I was the same way when I was a kid, so the nuns at my school taught me to knit and that helped a lot."

"Uh, I don't knit..."

And that's the sad truth. The things my mother is most gifted at are the things I never learned to do. Yeah, I learned to sew, but I had to teach myself because my mom swore she couldn't make the outlandish sci-fi costumes I wanted to wear to conventions so badly. I taught myself to do a lot of things, too - drawing, cartooning, digital art, writing. It wasn't long before I was in territory completely foreign to my mother, and every time I showed her a completed project, she'd shake her head and say, "I could never do that. I have no talent..."

"You don't knit?" my friend said. "Well, I can teach Princess the basics, but you should try learning too. It's something you could do together, and when Princess gets stuck, you can help her out."

The maelstrom of self-doubt that hit me when she said that was as overwhelming as it was unexpected. Me? Learn to knit? Yeah, I can build a website, write a story, and draw cartoons on the fly, but I'd been doing those things for years! Now suddenly here was a craft that I had never picked up. If my mother, who's a knitting goddess, thought she had no talent at it, how the hell was I going to learn?

And then I remembered my promise to myself. And I called an expert for some advice.

"Hey Mom, I've got a friend who offered to teach Princess to knit."

"Oh, that's wonderful!" my mom said. "You should learn too. You're so talented, you'd be good at it."

"Yeah, but it's not something I've ever tried..."

"Helen, it's easy! You just need to learn the basic stitch. I know where I can get a children's knitting kit. I'll order it and send it to Princess. Take a look at it. You should be able to get supplies for yourself at the craft store."

A week later, the knitting kit showed up. Princess jumped up and down, clapping her hands as I opened the box. There was one set of needles, two skeins of yarn (pink and pale green), a yarn needle, and a how-to book. I flipped through the book. The projects looked simple enough. I can do this, I thought, squashing my inner critic. This won't be hard at all.

We hit the craft store the next day and I picked up a set of needles and a skein of yarn for myself. Princess and I spent the entire evening sitting on the couch, winding our yarn into balls. The next day, we picked up our needles and tried to knit.

It was not as easy as I had hoped. My stitches were either too tight or too loose. I dropped some entirely. Pretty soon I felt like I'd gone cross-eyed from counting stitches and repeating, "Up, around, down, and off." After the first few rows, I was ready to quit. But there was this little person sitting next to me, dressed in pink from head to toe, struggling with the same task. Princess looked so adorable with her face scrunched up, tongue sticking out of one corner of her mouth. She held up her first stitches to me and asked, "How does this look?"

"That's very good, sweetheart. You've very talented at this."

"How's your knitting going, Mom?"

I held up my work. Even though I felt like I was struggling, I had the advantage here. Princess is six. I'm forty. With age comes a certain amount of hand-eye coordination.

"I'm doing okay, I guess."

"Wow! Mom, that looks awesome!"

"You think? I've dropped a couple of stitches, and this part is too tight... I'm not sure I'm going to be any good at this..."


I wonder if the look that crossed my daughter's face at that moment resembled the look that crossed mine whenever my mother complained about her work.

"I may not be good at it," I told Princess. "I like it, though. I like sitting here with you, learning how to do this. Want to do some more?"


At our weekly play date, I caught up with one of my good friends, a woman who had screwed me over on the whole "no gifts" thing last Christmas by giving me a lovely tote bag she'd sewn herself. While the kids played on the swings, I pulled out my needles and started knitting.

"Hey, what's that?" my friend asked.

"Princess and I are learning to knit. This is supposed to be a pot holder. It's a little uneven."

"Huh. I do a lot of needle crafts, but not that one. Still, it looks pretty good to me. And it'll be useful too. Personally, I never have enough potholders."

"Really?" I asked, thinking hard about the previous Christmas. I began knitting in earnest.

This year, when Christmas comes around, I will not be empty handed. Princess and I have already decided. We will be giving everybody we know a potholder. Including my mom. I know she'll be proud.

Potholders, work in progress by Helen and Princess Madden


  1. Aw, I want a potholder! Maybe you could toss one in the next contest giveaway you have. *G*

    Seriously, Helen, I think it's amazing that you continue to try new things, and teach yourself to do things, or find someone who can teach you. Very cool.

    And yeah, you do sound a little like your mom. But that's not a bad thing, she seems like a wonderful woman. Her stuff would sell for big bucks at craft shows around here, but that's not an easy business. I don't blame her for not wanting to get into it- it makes something she's done for fun into work, and sometimes that ruins it.

    Great post! Good luck with the potholders.

  2. Great post Helen.

    I always admire those clever people who can do something physically creative.

    The one thing I'm worried about is how much pot you and your friends must smoke if you all need such substantial holders for your stash :-)

    Best wishes,


  3. Hmm, Ashley's comment got me thinking. I can make pot holders. I just need someone to supply the pot. LOL

    You're amazing, Helen. And I do believe you got it from your mom. Don't tell her I said that though, K?

    Great post and nice choice of colors.


  4. I know a few wonderful knitters that are likely around the same age as your mom, they don't consider themselves talented either because when they were growing up EVERYONE knew how to knit. (She's talented, really, almost everyone has to take classes to do colorwork like that bear sweater, I'm only dabbling in it)

    Is the multi-color one yours? If so it's looking wonderful for a beginning knitter!

    Most knitters start out by strangling their yarn and pulling it much too tight, if you have to struggle to get a stitch of the needle, loosen up! (Princess on the other hand is the other way around, at least she was last I saw her)

    Does that book show you how to do purl stitch? It's pretty much a backwards knit...and at some point I'll come over and show you how to deal with those dropped stitches ^_^ Or give you patterns where you intentionally drop stitches!

  5. Jenna,

    I tell ya, everyone wants a potholder now that we've started doing them! I think it's hysterical. And yes, I'm a lot like my mom. We've often been mistaken for each other, which is a little frightening to me. She's a nurse, and I don't want someone to think I'm her whenever I walk into a hospital! I can't do the nursing thing!

    I don't ever want to stop learning new stuff. That's why I surround myself with cool people such as yourself. I learn a lot from everyone I know ;)

  6. Ashley,

    I'm growing a lot of stuff in my garden out back, but not pot. I think.

    Someone else suggested I knit sex toy cozies. I bet if I did that, I'd get a lot of requests for Christmas gifts this year! And yes, I do have a stash of toys that needs cozies ;)

    Thank you for the lovely comments!

  7. Jude,

    If I told my mom I got my talent from her, she'd plotz. She doesn't believe it, no matter how many times I tell her. Glad you think I'm amazing. Personally, I think it's Princess who's amazing. Six years old, and already knitting. What a kid!

    Thank you for the kind remarks!

  8. Mich,

    Princess wants you to come over and give her another knitting lesson. You have become one of her favorite people. I say you should come over too. We'll make pie in your honor! Mmmmm... pie...

    My mom did grow up around a lot of crafty people. One of my aunts also sews and quilts, etc., and another aunt of mine is a professional artist and craftsman. I think Mom constantly compares herself to her sisters and thinks she comes up short. I don't. One thing I know she made without any flaws is ME!

    I'm perfect, right? Right?!

    Well, I'm not a total loss, anyway ;)

    Thank you for your comments and for the knitting lessons!

  9. Hi, Helen,

    When I saw the topic you picked for this week, I thought, "Yeah, right! Helen can talk about art, design, cartooning, websites, costume making..." I didn't expect you to talk about a NEW talent!

    I used to crochet quite a lot when I was in my early twenties. I never bothered with a pattern... sort of the way I cook, without a recipe! I wish I still had the very weird-shaped mittens I made for my dad, so I could post the picture here. Figuring out how to make three-dimensional shapes out of two-dimensional knitted or crocheted surfaces is not something that comes naturally!

    Really enjoyed your post!


  10. Lisabet,

    You sound like me. I don't always bother with the cookbook, and with certain crafts, never bother with a pattern or instructions. I go by the seat of my pants, and the results are often... interesting.

    I think people have more talents than they realize, and that was one of the reasons I selected this topic for the week. I know we're a pretty talented bunch. I wanted to see if you guys knew it too!


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