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.

A Trip to Papa Westray

I'm back from a fantastic weekend on, Papa Westray, where I spent a few days knitting, spinning and learning about some of Orkney's obscure knitting traditions through a talk and series of workshops lead by Liz Lovick of Northern Lace. As an enthusiast of folklore and owner of an Orkney spinning wheel, the talk was wonderfully informative and ticked all of my boxes (especially as it included some archaeology!). It was my first trip to Papay, as it's known locally, so I took a little time out to visit the Knap of Howar, which is the oldest standing building in northern Europe.

Like a lot of archaeology in Scotland, and on the islands in particular,  much of the Knap has been lost to coastal erosion. The two structures visible today are extremely close to the recently constructed sea wall, and while the site may seem small when you're approaching it, standing within its confines certainly gives you a real sense of scale. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's not the best idea to build your house facing the sea, but the doorways have jams built within them, inferring that a door of some sort could be secured. You can see from this photo of my hand next to the upright stones that form the doorway just how skilled the builders of the Neolithic were in creating neat and beautiful structures:

The buildings that you see today are actually the remains of structures from a later stage of occupation, built on top of earlier midden material. The Neolithic houses were also built into midden, rather than standing upright on top of the land, as we are used to seeing with our own buildings.

Within the structures, a few interesting features can be found. There are two saddle querns, which are large grinding tools used to turn grain into coarse flour for making bread. There is also a square hearth in the middle of the floor in one of the buildings, which is typical for the Neolithic period, and was even present in Orcadian homes right up until the early 20th century.

The Knap of Howar is well worth a visit while on Papay. It has a small interpretation board, but even if you're not into archaeology, the scenery is gorgeous and very atmospheric.

Now onto the knitting workshop... Liz was actually running three workshops (lace, Fair Isle and gansey), but I chose to do the Fair Isle one, as it's rapidly becoming my favourite form of knitting and I wanted to learn more about it, while also taking the opportunity to see if I have been "doing it right". I say that in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, as I'm not a believer in strict "rules" when it comes to both knitting and crochet. Of course they are important when writing a pattern, but the biggest obstacle to learning either craft as a kid was the way that people trying to teach me were adamant that I had to do it their way. There are certain ways that a yarn should be held, or a direction that a hook should be moved, but it's very personal and everyone both knits and crochet's differently. When knitting Fair Isle, I knit one yarn continental and the other in English, but that's just the way I find most comfortable. The most important part of knitting Fair Isle is keeping your yarns untangled, and to do this it's best to keep one yarn on your left and the other on your right. It just so happens that a continental/English technique is comfortable for me, but I wouldn't expect all knitters to follow the same method.

This is where Liz's talk and workshop comes in. Her central thesis is that there are many traditions in Orcadian knitting that are unique to this set of islands, but may be the result of family or community traditions. You'll find certain motifs on one of the Orcadian islands that are absent on the rest. So what does this mean? Perhaps it's as simple as personal preference - I enjoy knitting certain Fair Isle motifs and take inspiration from the things I enjoy, which are probably different from the knitter sitting next to me,  who may like knitting lace and nothing else.

Anyway, I knitted up a little cuff in North Ronaldsay yarn, and then added steeks to it so I can turn it into a needle book. I have a horrible habit of losing my tapestry needles, and I'm also interested in trying nålbinding, so I need something to keep the needles safe (I'll probably make some nålbinding needles from Fimo clay, since I don't have any tools for shaping bone or wood). I'll take some photos of both the needle case and the nålbinding needles when they're finished.

I also took a trip to the local craft shop, which also doubles-up as the post office. Inside is a cave of wonders for the yarn enthusiast - I bought some Manos del Uraguay lace yarn and am crocheting it up into beautiful cowls (again, it's another thing to share when they're done). I spent much of my free time spinning, as I took my Hitchhiker wheel with me, and learned to do do Peruvian plying! It's perfect for when you have some left over singles on one bobbin that you don't want to waste, but isn't enough to mix in with something else. I can't seem to find any good videos detailing how to do it, so maybe it's something I can make in the future? Who knows - I have so many dominoes in my head at the moment and they're all chapping!

What I Want in 2016

At the start of the year, I like to sit back and (literally and figuratively) take stock of the progress, if any, I've made over the past twelve months. 2015 was a pretty productive year for me. I started off determined to pick up spinning and ended up with three wheels by the time Autumn rolled 'round and my spinning has come on leaps and bounds, going from a chunky hot mess of scrunched-up fibres to smooth and consistent cobweb-weight thread. I picked up knitting again after years of neglect and invested in a set of HiyaHiya interchangeable needles that have become my go-to, jumping into lace and colour work without the reluctance I'd felt in the past. I even had a crochet pattern published (with another one upcoming this month), which was the highlight of my creativity in 2015, so the question is now, where do I go from here? Here's some of my personal wishes for the upcoming year:


I've found myself suffering from the common affliction that can only be described as "threaditus". Spinners will know this - it's when your hand automatically drafts the fibres into a consistent, thin yarn which looks great, but is actually quite restrictive in terms of creativity. I look at some of my first spun yarns with its interesting features, and then I look at the cobweb threads I spin now, and I sort of miss being able to create something totally unique and full of random characteristics. So, one of my aims in 2016 is to sit down with the copy of The Spinners Book of Yarn Designs I was given as a gift and really try to work out some of the more difficult yarns in it. I'm totally in love with beehive yarn - it's my end goal for the year. Oh, and we recently got a microwave too, so I'll be able to dye fibres a lot easier from now on too! Trying to dye yarn on the cooker is an absolute nightmare of mess, frustration and hit-and-miss results.


Another thing I want to do more of in 2016 is paint!

These are the most recent of my paintings and they're a good year-and-a-bit old now. I found myself focusing on spinning in 2015, with my visual art being put on the back burner. I found a large blank canvas in a charity shop for a couple of quid just before Christmas, so I have no excuse to not get painting. There's a couple of interesting ideas that have been nagging at me for a few weeks, so I may blog on the process of a painting from sketching to the finished thing.

Crochet and Knitting

Finally, I want to keep pressing on with making my own crochet patterns and items. Picking up spinning and knitting last year gave me the confidence boost I needed to take the step into concrete designing. I keep sketchbooks now in a way I haven't in the few years it's been since I stopped doing so much illustration work. Like most of my sketchbooks, only around 5% of it ever makes it to a complete, realised project but they're always full of useful ideas when I look back on them.

The Cost of Crafting



One aspect of crochet and knitting design that's become more and more evident as I've moved onto professional pattern drafting is the cost of crafting. Both crochet and knitting are often seen as "cheap" hobbies - the needles and hooks themselves don't cost too much to begin with. In fact, my first set of both came from various charity shops, and even now I still buy second hand tools when I can. At 10p a pair of needles, I can't complain too much about the cost of my past times, even if I have invested in a set of interchangeable Hiya-Hiya needles and Denise crochet hooks. Two of my spinning wheels are second-hand, and I use locally sourced fleeces as much as possible. Long story short - I manage to find ways to spend as little as possible to ensure I'm never in the red when it comes to fibre crafts.

When designing a pattern, the single most important factor for me is overall cost, even if I don't need to supply the materials myself. If I have an idea for a colour palette and yarn weight, it's easier for me to go and look at what yarns would be suitable for the project, but if the ideal yarn costs £6.50 for 50g of yarn and I need at least 600g to ensure I have enough for the overall length, that's £78 to make a single item. Sure, going for the yarn at £6.50 a ball might produce a beautiful garment, but the cost to make it is high for something, that for many, is a hobby. Of course, there's nothing stopping someone from substituting the recommended yarn for something a bit more special, but when it comes to designing a pattern and working out what yarn to use, my main aim is to make patterns that are affordable for all.