My Number's Up

It's been a while since I wrote on my dyscalculia and how it affects me not only when I'm knitting or crocheting, but also in my every day life with all the challenges it brings.

That feeling when a panel comic sums up your entire life experience...

From my earliest memories of school, numbers have always scared me. In Primary 3, when I was about seven years old, we were given times tables on sheets of paper that we had to cut up, put in an envelope, shake about and then remove and reassemble in the correct order. I remember struggling with the 6,7,8 and 9 times tables for the entire year to the point where I was incapable, crying in class and at home over how I couldn't do the calculations required to come up with the correct answer. I eventually managed to give the right answers, but it was based on memorising it; "4x6=24" because I remember that's the answer, not because I can work it out. For the rest of my time at Primary school, my maths work would always come back with "Show your working!" written in the margin. Concurrently, I excelled at reading and writing, so beyond me not being very good at mathematics, there was nothing to indicate I had any learning difficulties.

Fast-forward to Secondary school and my mathematics did not advance. To explain the Scottish school system at the time, there are six years of Secondary school, and during your 2nd year, you choose what subjects you want to take over the next two years, but are also assessed so you can learn the subjects at an appropriate difficulty. This also dictates what level your final exams will be - if you were in Credit, it meant you took "Level 1 or 2". General was 3/4 and Foundation was 5/6. If you were any lower than 6, you were given assistance with learning. I was taking nine subjects, eight of which were Credit with one being Foundation. What was that Foundation? Maths, of course.

As Secondary school progressed, the difficulties I have with numbers became more apparent in other classes. I had taken biology and graphic communication, which during the first couple of years of Secondary school had been general in their content - there were some numbers in there, but there was enough other content for me to guddle through the classes. However, I was firmly within Foundation maths, and the moment I could drop the subject altogether, I did (in favour of Philosophy, which went on to be my best exam result). Foundation maths was really just a repeat of the first couple of years of Secondary school, and even covered a lot of content from Primary school. There was no long division, no complex fractions and almost no algebra at all. It was so long ago that I took my exams that the past papers from that year are not available online, but I did have a look at more recent Foundation Mathematics past papers, and the level of questions are pretty much what I remember them being:

Work out the answers to the following.
(a) 6427 + 125
Eve is paid £7·50 per hour.
(a) How much is Eve paid for working 4 hours?

The next one is my favourite:

George is going to knit a sweater.
He needs to buy 10 balls of wool and 2 pairs of knitting needles.
One ball of wool costs £3.
One pair of knitting needles costs £2·50.
How much will it cost George to knit the sweater?

When I told people that a question in my exam paper was "Count the petals on this flower - are they odd or even?", no one believed that a 15 year old could struggle with such a basic concept. That I was doing so well in other classes indicated that I just wasn't trying hard enough when it came to maths, with the old trope of "If you're really good at English and bad at maths, it's because you hate maths and would rather be doing something else" cropping up again and again.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of having dyscalculia - the constant "You just need to practice" followed up with "Come on, it's not that hard" that I'm met with whenever I forgo a coping technique I've developed and try to work something out in a "legitimate" way. I struggle with reading travel time tables and calendars (which extends into understanding how much time has passed between two points on the clock), volume, depth, length, distance, sequences, and even dialing phone numbers. Often people claim that much of what they learned at school hasn't translated into their everyday life - calculating the length of something isn't needed, so it's not much of a loss to no longer be able to do it. However, there is a big difference in my experiences with numbers and someone who's a bit rusty - I couldn't do it in the first place, and no amount of practice will ever help me learn it either. Basic mathematical skills are used daily in ways that most people take for granted, whether it's filling the car up with petrol or knowing when to leave the house to make sure they get to work in time. These are things that I often mess up, and have to put my own working method in place in order to successfully carry out simple tasks.

So how does all of this relate to crochet and knitting? Well, the most obvious factor here is that both crafts involve a lot of numbers. The big difference here, though, is that unlike a problem on paper, I can hold fabric in my hand, and counting stitches is like an extension of counting my fingers (something that I still do). I wasn't able to be taught how to do either growing up because my mother would assume I was able to keep count of things as I was going, and found that any attempt to teach me focused too much on the numbers and pattern, rather than grasping the basics like how to hold the needles and yarn, how to wrap yarn or even how to centre-pull a ball of yarn so that it doesn't keep rolling away. When I took up the fiddle a few years ago, I was taught that learning how to hold a violin and bow was more important in the early stages than reading music. The same is true for knitting and crochet, and is one of the core principles of my workshops for beginners - don't worry if you can't read patterns for now, that can come later after you've gained confidence in the tools and materials.

Learning how to read patterns was a process that also took many years, and was a driving force in writing my own patterns; I would have to deconstruct many patterns and re-write them using my own terminology, then translate them again into industry standard terminology. I have to not only double-check everything I do, but triple-check, make more than one swatch and often make numerous prototypes of an item. Decoding charts was a huge leap forward too; being more visual, I find it easier to follow pictures than numbers. I try to encourage new crocheters to engage with charts as early as they feel capable, because it by-passes much of the mental arithmetic present in a written pattern. I can place my finger on a chart and trace it, then do the same with the fabric in my hand. While the numbers and totals in written patterns may appear to be self-explanatory, to me they can be daunting and misread. Part of my number blindness, that I touched on further up, is my tendency to incorrectly dial phone numbers. I can look at a printed number and instantly forget it, meaning that it's very difficult for me to retain what a total should be in my head while also counting up or down. With charts, I find it less stressful to keep count. As much as I prefer charts, I do feel a great sense of accomplishment when I write a pattern that can be followed by others. I find that if I don't knit or crochet for a couple of days, my overall ability and confidence with numbers drops significantly, and affects other areas of my life, even if it's something as simple as reading the numbers on a measuring jug.

So there you have it - a brief foray into what it's like to be a knitter and crocheter when you have trouble with numbers. I hope I've been able to share some experiences that others can relate to, and maybe even get folks talking about the less well known challenges the world of numbers has to those of us who aren't wired to deal with it.