Thoughtful design

In our second post from writer and knitter, Lisa Payne, she talks about a subject very close to my own heart – and about which I’m sure many of you will have thoughts to share. (Please do so in the comments). Take it away, Lisa!

well-designed hand and wrist supports

After having to give up work in 2015 following my illness and resulting disability, I did a Masters degree in Creative Writing, focusing on Narrative nonfiction. Since then, I’ve been writing a memoir about my experience. Looking back at some of my memoir drafts from January 2019, I came across this piece about a pain flare I was experiencing in my hands and forearms, and how, despite the pain, I kept on knitting:

“Recently my arthritis, or RSI (repetitive strain injury), or whatever it is, has flared in my hands, wrists, and forearms, causing me intense pain and loss of mobility. Like everything else that is happening with my health right now, I feel like I’m being taken back to 2016 when my immune system was burning out my nerves. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what was happening at the time. 

I’m not sure what triggered this flare, but even through the pain I’ve kept on knitting. Kinesiology tape, tubigrips and wrist supports cover my arms and hands. I’m icing my forearms, massaging them, and reducing the time I’m knitting each day – but only when the pain gets too bad even for my high tolerance.

knitting on . . .

But why? What is it about the act of knitting, of wrapping yarn around needles, which is so compelling I keep on doing it even though it’s causing me pain and exacerbating the inflammation? And it’s not just me. Searching for ‘RSI’ on Ravelry, a community website for knitters, crocheters and all kinds of fibre lovers, turns up lots of forum posts from people who are knitting through their RSI, even when, like me, their knitting is the likely cause, or main contributor, to it.

I picked up a couple of useful tips though. One was to do certain hand and wrist stretches – most of which I do or have done, as part of my hand therapy. The other tip was to work on projects using needles with different circumferences. I’ve found that using larger sized needles help, as the movements are less exaggerated and fewer than there are when knitting on smaller needles.”

out and about, knitting Lang Ayre

As knitters, people who like to create things with their hands, we want to keep on doing this activity which gives us pleasure, meaning and identity. But there are many conditions which can prevent us from doing so, whether it be disability, accident, or arthritis of the joints through the everyday wear and tear of living. Anything that can help keep us connected to ourselves is important. Although those who do not share the same passion for knitting may not understand why we would want to knit through the pain, finding ways to support ourselves to do so is vital.

In the first few months following my wrist drops, my hand therapist changed my wrist splints as my mobility started and faltered. The biggest changes came once I started to relearn my knitting skills and rebuild the muscle memory. To do this I had to adapt my knitting style.

In 2010, I learnt to knit using the continental style, to avoid RSI which was triggered by my computer-based office job and knitting hobby. In continental knitting there is less movement of the hands and more movement of the needle tip around the yarn. Following the nerve damage in 2016, when I started to regain my manual dexterity, I found that with the correct wrist splint and the improved movement in my right-hand, I could prop up and position my left-hand in its splint, with the yarn wrapped around the second finger and caught around my little finger. Then I could use the right-hand needle tip to pick the stitches. It was slow and laborious work, but the beauty with knitting is that every stitch, however laboriously or quickly made, is a step forward. It’s progress.

At this time, I couldn’t make the “thumbs up” or “okay” signs with my left-hand, though my right was improving. Not that I needed them in everyday life, but my hand therapist used them to monitor my progress. Picking up individual buttons between thumb and finger was another one. The okay sign and the picking up of buttons, is a measure of the ‘pinch grip’ action, and the thumbs up evaluates the thumb muscle function. I still struggle with these, especially on my left-hand. And you can forget about opening crisp packets! Even today I don’t have the strength in my hands to open these, or any slippery plastic wrapping. That’s what adapted kitchen scissors are made for. 

When my hands get tired, they cramp. This can range from a mild muscle pain to a full-on curling up of the fingers and a stabbing, immobilising pain deep in my wrists. Because of the nerve damage, there is a constant numbness and tingling in my hands, but this increases, and I lose more mobility, strength, and sensation if they are overused. It doesn’t have to be work from using my hands, if I’m tired in myself, from either physical or mental fatigue then it’s the weakest parts of me that are affected: my hands and feet. I fumble and stumble, and I need to rest. But my favourite resting activity is knitting while watching TV or listening to an audiobook or podcast. Not so relaxing for my hands.

relaxing? or not?

There are some things which can be done to mitigate hand fatigue while knitting. To my delight, earlier last year whilst knitting my Argyll :: Argyle as part of Kate’s Argyle’s Secret Coast Club, I discovered twisted stitches. I’ve always loved working cabled patterns, getting lost in the twirls and swirls, but since becoming disabled I found it difficult and cumbersome to work the cables using a cable needle. Here was another thing to get caught in the fuddle of needles, cables, and yarn strands, amongst my stumbley, slippy hands.

Argyll :: Argyle

But with twisted stitches you get all the glorious texture and patterns of cabling, without having to use an extra needle. Just two simple twisted stitches, the right twist and the left twist, and you can create all the cables you could want.

Cadadh – another of Lisa’s favourite twisted stitch designs

Kate has written several blog posts about twisted stitches, Twisted Stitch Disambiguation is a good place to start if you’re unfamiliar with this technique. There is also the wonderful Twisted Stitch Source Book by Norah Gaughan.

Lisa’s beautifully-knit Serkinet, blocking

Having just finished knitting a Serkinet cardigan, from Kate’s recent Sark collection – it’s blocking on my dining table as I’m typing this – I’m in awe of this simple yet effective technique. Looking at the range of cable patterns in this one design, created from different combinations of these two stitches is a delight. 

Serkinet texture

The simplicity of this technique has bought much joy to this disabled knitter. It makes me wonder if there are more design or movement techniques which might make knitting more accessible for those with any hand pain or manual dexterity issues. Please feel free to leave any tips you may have in the comments.

Starkin mitts

Being able to do continental knitting using my left-hand, and my more mobile right-hand for throwing the yarn has helped me with my fairisle knitting. While I’ve tried to use a knitting thimble, sometimes delightfully called a strickfingerhut, or “Norwegian” knitting thimble, my nerve damaged fingers don’t like the constriction. I’m now an ambidextrous knitter when working fairisle patterns. I hold the main colour in my left-hand continental style, while using my right-hand to throw when working the contrast colours. This was an ability that I developed while relearning to knit, and I’m not sure if I would have come up with it otherwise.

knitting Buchanan

Something else I’ve discovered is that although getting lost in the flow of knitting can be a wonderful escape, especially if you live with chronic pain or illness, the repetitive nature of the action can also be the problem. Breaking up the tasks can be helpful. Returning to the pinch grip action which I struggled with, one workaround for weaving in ends which I use, especially when knitting fair isle, is to work the ends in as I knit. When joining in a new colour, I wrap the yarn around the needle and knit as usual, then the second stitch worked in that coolr I’ll work using both the working yarn and the tail to secure it, unless I’m using a very chunky yarn which would make the stitch unworkable. Then, for a few stitches, I’ll wrap the tail around the working yarn so that it becomes woven into the back of the fabric. Any extra length can then be snipped off safe in the knowledge that the stitches are secured. For joining in new yarn of the same colour, I prefer to splice the two yarns together. This means that at the end of a project, the only ends I have to weave in are the cast-off ones.

One thing that becoming disabled in my early forties has taught me is that we are endlessly creative, but sometimes it is our so-called limitations which enable this creativity. For those of us with different abilities, whether we identify as disabled or not, living in an able-bodied designed world can limit us. But thoughtful design can reduce or even eliminate the otherness of different bodies. It would be wonderful to see more designers deliberately thinking of disabled makers, either by innovative techniques or through collections designed for the different needs of our bodies.

Hear, hear Lisa!