Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mathletic Knitting

It seems most people (especially women) who don't work in math-related fields feel the need to declare things like, "I've never been any good at math," or "I just don't have a head for numbers." Is that true? Or do people just not want to be thought of as nerdy? I don't know. But I'm going to admit something straight up: I like math. I might even say I love it (except Calculus). And I'll go even farther and admit this: I'm pretty good at it (except Calculus). There, I said it. Call me a math nerd, if you wish.

Better yet, call me a "mathlete." I was on the math team in elementary, junior high, and high school, and y'all, I love me a math competition. The pressure, the camaraderie, the glory. Okay, I'm just kidding about the glory. Winning a medal or a trophy at a math tournament really does not win you any cool points with your peers, trust me.

In 6th grade, I went to Mathews Elementary, and our math teacher named our math team the "Mathews Mathletes." She got us little t-shirts in our school colors with our school mascot (a tiger) on it. He was spouting off algebraic formulas and such. Dude. We were so cool. She told us that if we won our division and went to the region tournament she would rent us a limo to go to it in, and we did. So the local news had a little spot: four little mathletes in matching little blue-and-white tees, getting out of limo at a math meet. I really did think we were cool. So cool that I wore that t-shirt throughout my first year of junior high before I realized that there were a lot of things you could say about the girl who wore swag from an elementary school math team - and "she's so cool" was not one of them.

Over the years, I learned to supress my inner mathlete. In high school, fitting in definitely trumped winning math awards. Also, Calculus kicked my butt. Twice. (once in high school and again in college). Somewhere along the way, I shut my inner mathlete away, sent her off to the same internal gulag where all my other embarrassed and embarrassing alter-egos live: the 11 year-old with the big curly red clown hair and the nicknames to go with it; the 12 year-old in the rainbow-striped legwarmers and bright blue eyeshadow; the 13 year-old who got broken up with - in a note passed through all her friends - in science class.

I wish that young girl had not felt so acutely that she was a freak. Or I wish, at least, that she had realized that most everyone else around her felt the same way. And I wish that all of them could have been able to just be who they were, claim what they loved, without such an intense fear of rejection and ridicule.

So on behalf of my 13 year-old self, I am claiming it now. I am a Mathlete. Hear me roar!

So maybe you will understand why what happened at my LYS in the fall felt something like a gauntlet being thrown down. I was happily chatting with the woman behind the counter, about Jared Flood's Cobblestone pattern. Telling her how I really wanted to make one for one of my 3 year-old sons. Going on about how I just loved the pattern and couldn't wait to get started on it for him. She looked at me like I might be a little crazy. "I know I'll have to modify the pattern for fit," I explained. She snorted. She shook her head. "I don't know if you want to do that. That's a complicated pattern - there will be a lot of calculations."


And also: oh yeah? Watch me.

pattern: Cobblestone, by Jared Flood, Interweave Knits Fall 2007
yarn: Classic Elite Skye Tweed, color 1257, purchased from Webs clearance sale last summer, 4 skeins (440 yards)
made for: Tiny Dancer
cast on: December 22 (yes, gentle reader, that was the same day I was sewing 6 Christmas stockings)
finished: January 4
notes: There is more than one way to approach modifying fit. Here's how I did it: I determined my gauge (4.25"/inch). Then I decided what size I wanted the sweater to be (24"). Then I multiplied my gauge by my desired size. 4.25 x 24 = 102. That's how many stitches I needed to cast on in order to get the fit I wanted. From there, I looked at the CO number of the smallest size listed in the original pattern. I divided my CO number by the CO number in the original pattern and got a factor of 60%. Then I multiplied all relevant pattern numbers by that factor (.6). Other than that, I reduced the size of the garter edge and cuffs (to slightly over 1") and made the yoke based on Tiny Dancer's child measurements.

verdict: I love this sweater.
The yarn? Yum. It's my first experience with Skye Tweed (now discontinued, sadly - but I did stock up at the clearance sale and got enough to make a sweater for both boys, My Old Man, and myself!). It was a bit rougher than I expected (and in general, I really love wooly yarns, so "rough" does not put me off); this was just harder to work with than most of the wooly yarns I've tried. But it softens up and blooms nicely after a wet block. I love this color, with its tweedy flecks. And I love how garter loves tweed.

Mr. Flood is a genius.
But you already knew that.

The only downside of this sweater?
I'm afraid for Tiny Dancer to wear it, because I don't want it to get messed up. (Apparently part of the job description of being a three year-old boy is to make as big a mess as possible, and on a daily basis. Extra points if the mess involves jelly.)
I want this sweater to remain perfect, pristine.
I sort of want to frame it.

I couldn't get Tiny Dancer to give me any shots straight-on (even with bribes), but Little Buddha is always happy to oblige with the poses. Since he's a bit bigger than his brother, the sleeves are too short on him. But otherwise, you get the idea.

I made it a bit big, bodywise, so it will fit for awhile. I think it should be pretty easy to add length to the arms and waist, as needed.

Of course, now I owe someone else a sweater....


Annika said...

Knitting has actually reminded me that I was once quite good at math and the skills haven't gone away (just lain dormant). I never studied very advanced math, but I can certainly adapt a pattern for my little one if I need to. And after seeing this post? I need to! I've been a Cobblestone fan since the first picture I saw, and this is my very favorite yet.

Adrienne said...


Dave said...

Well done, and also, ROAR! :-)
(Love that colour!!!)

Do I sense the imminent arrival of a family set of Cobblestones?

amy said...

I saw this on Ravelry and thought it was great. One of the things I love about knitting is that I get to problem solve. I'm right there with you--I like math. I always liked how you get an answer, and there's only one right answer. In college, I treated my math homework as a break from all the theory. Knitting allows me to be creative, but also to use those problem-solving skills. It's what I liked so much about photography, too. I got to be creative, but I also got to use my science-minded half as well.

Great job on the sweater. And I have NO idea why the LYS employee thought this couldn't be done.

AllyB said...

Wow, that's an amazing sweater! I loved it in the mag too. Good for you embracing your Mathlete self. And thank you for the inspiration.

Camping Jason said...

So adorable. Yay for your math prowess!

Allegra said...

very nice! great job!!

Kristi said...

I too was a mathlete! First all-girls time to go to state mathcounts. Woot!

Love the sweater -- looks great as a kid's sweater!

K8 said...

Yay for math :) I used to be good at math, but it's been so long that I forget all the advanced classes I had to take for engineering. Luckily they're not required for knitting....

The miniaturized Cobblestone is spectacular - great work on modifying it! It looks great :)

Julie said...

Brava! I let my inner math nerd out last fall when I became a high school math teacher. I still haven't really let her do anything with the knitting, though. Maybe we should try a sweater.

Melissa said...

That is awesome! I actually like it better as a little boy sweater. Great color too.

Mintyfresh said...

Math nerd over here! I was a physics major in college and was thisclose to double majoring in math. I love that knitting is pretty much all math, and can't stand the way a lot of knitters continue to claim they're bad at math. (Well, I guess bad knitters are bad at math . . .) EXCELLENT job sizing it for the kiddo! Looks great.

Ashley said...

ct. I actually like it even better as a kids' sweater.

I am the opposite of a mathlete--mathlexic, perhaps? But I find that knitting is forcing me to come to terms with it, which is good. (And please note that I am not disclaiming math out of a desire not to be thought nerdy. I fly my nerd flag proudly.)

Michelle said...

you go girl.
i love that pattern

zigzagstitch said...

First, thanks for saying I make your day. I hope you know, you make mine, too!

When I was making my first pair of socks for the knitting olympics, the yarn store lady told me I should start early (cheat?) and use a simpler pattern (I was Jaywalking). I was all like, "I'll show you!" And of course I did. ROAR, indeed.

And that cobblestone is the awesomest. I might try a mini, too! You've inspired me!

3goodrats said...

I was on my high school's Math Team - woo hoo! I'm good at math, but a little lazy.

Your sweater looks great! I like it better in the kid version than the grown-up version.

Rachel said...

I was on the math team for a year in high school too. I remember doing a victory lap around the gym with our right-triangle-shaped trophy -- no one else knew quite what to make of me. By the way, who was really cool was your teacher for renting you guys a limo. That is so sweet.

The sweater is adorable, and go you with your badass mathlete self (oh god, did I really just write that?) making quick work of those calculations. As for the sweater getting messed up, as long as you got a good batch of photos pre-jelly-mess, you'll always have a memento of the sweater in pristine shape. And a well loved, worn out sweater in conjunction with a photo of what it looked like new has a nice little nostalgia factor to it, in my opinion.

Donna Lee said...

Ok, English major here. I was good at math until high school and geometry. The only class I should have failed was geometry. I just don't get it. And I'm ok with that. I use the concepts that I learned from math all the time but enjoy it? No. Not. At. All. For the reasons that Amy said, "there is only one right answer". I like a good debate with many possible answers.

doulicia said...


You know, I had a similar experience at a LYS. It was my first time in there, I was a very new knitter, and I asked for help calculating how much of X yarn I'd need to make the pattern when it recommended Y yarn.

The woman said, "You realize X knits up at 6 stitches per inch and Y at 4?" I said yes. She kept looking at me. Then she said, "Well you need a yarn that's closer to the weight called for."

I said, "Can't I just figure out my gague and then recalculate the pattern based on that?" It was an honest question -- I was on, like, my second project ever.

Her reply? "Well, that is what WE do." Clearly she did not think I was up to the task. I don't know if it was because I was a new knitter or not in her "converting patterns" class or what.

I bought the yarn, made the sweater, and it fits perfectly.

Interesting that you had a similar experience.

The final product is, as always, excellent!

Christopher Chandler said...

My teaching allocation is split so that I teach statistics for most of the day on Mondays and Tuesdays. So many students get really, really scared by stats/math, even though all the concepts, even the ones with big names, are actually pretty simple. A lot of students face it, and learn it's not so bad. Some never do, and seem to actively avoid any attempt to learn it, while making a big fuss about how unfair it is. I think about half of numerical skill is innate, but half can definitely be learned (it's really not very hard once you understand it in plain language rather than jargon.) I think it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: a small math problem at the wrong time, and people give up altogether. I'm not a knitter, but I imagine most of the math used is arithmetic and/or geometric, ie conceptually easy but perhaps tedious -- I think that's really sad that an adult would be fearful of starting a good looking project because it involved some arithmetic.

But it makes me smile to hear people expressing their math pride! Clearly we have some well-educated and rightly unashamed commenters here!

Kathy said...

What a great sweater. Your little guy looks great in it-and oh my! he has wonderful hair!

What is with the negative yarn store people? Shouldn't they be cheering knitters on to bigger and greater challenges? Or at least understand that just because they wouldn't or couldn't do something doesn't mean it can't be done.

Emma said...

That's fantastic ! I love the tweedy blue.
Boys and sweaters wash clean [ish]. They can't help it. They are dirt magnets ! I wash my son's school sweater every day - close encounters with luch, you know !
The naths thing is interesting. I was o.k. at it at school, but didn't enjoy it until I started designing and altering patterns.

Felicia said...

Fabulous :)

Natalie said...

Yay for knitting math!! I'm right there with you-- not so hot at calculus, but now with my knitting patterns I get to cross-multiply and solve for x, and I always loved that. I haven't figured out yet how to involve other algebraic equations, but I really appreciate your description of how you figured out the different elements of the sweater. It looks adorable, nice work!!

Meredith said...

So cute! I love the way that sweater turned out. And as someone else said, I don't mind math but I'm always a bit too lazy to do too much with it in my knitting. I'll have to get over that at some point!

Songbird said...

I'm so impressed!

schrodinger said...

It looks fantastic on a 3 year old - dare I say even better than the adult version? Maybe it's just the 'cute factor' though.... I love that you love math(s), now I'll know where to turn when I'm in trouble ;)

semfem said...

MATH TEAM ROCKS! I am right there with you.

I wanted our Hi-Q team (academic quiz-type competition) to get a limo when we went to the finals, but no dice, sadly. Your teacher was SO COOL.

June said...

I was a high school "mathlete," too - but more of a cheerleader than a participant (damn, I went to school with some smart kids). You can see my math team souvenir ruler here: