“You direct the impulse of the will aright, not by telling a child once what the right thing is, but by getting him to do something today and tomorrow and again the day after.”
A friend recently reminded me of a conversation we had years ago about my daughter, Georgia. It was right before Georgia was to start first grade and I was stressing out over how to teach my daughter to knit!
Georgia was born with radial club arm and four digits on her left hand. Her left arm has only the radial bone which is crescent shaped from wrist to elbow. Therefore her arm doesn’t straighten. The four fingers on her left hand have several bony fusions leaving her left hand with minimal functionality. On the right hand all five digits were present at birth, though the thumb was hyperplastic. Which means the thumb was there but it wasn’t connected to the hand structure so, it didn’t function at all. It just stuck out and sort of wiggled on its own.
When Georgia was two-years-old she had her fist surgery on her right hand, called a pollicization. That surgery amputated the thumb she was born with and moved the entire forefinger structure to the thumb position. Literally making her a usable thumb and giving her one fully functioning hand. Consenting to this surgery was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. Plus it was her fist big scary surgery. The first of many to come.
Four years later, when she was six-years-old, her doctor decided that another surgery, called a tendinoplasty, was necessary to give her hand more functionality. Unfortunately, that surgery did not result in what everyone was hoping for and in fact she lost functionality. It was a huge blow, for sure, but we had bigger fish to fry – Georgia and her twin brother, Jackson were starting first grade. We would just have to figure out how to work with what she had.
In the Waldorf curriculum, knitting is taught in the first grade. Steiner gave indications for knitting for both boys and girls in his writings. If you Google knitting + Waldorf, you will find hundreds of articles on the benefits knitting offers children. Knitting not only stimulates children’s tactile senses, it is instrumental in intellectual development, and is considered the basis of mathematical reasoning and number sense. In addition, knitting hones fine motor skills, works developmental skills like crossing the midline, develops hand eye coordination and focus, and the list goes on and on!
“The more we take into account that intellect develops from the movement of the limbs, from dexterity and skills, the better it will be.”
All of the benefits of knitting were really important to me and given my daughter’s particular challenges, important to her too. Plus, I’m a knitter myself and I love knitting. How could I abandon this foundational activity of the Waldorf curriculum? I couldn’t. I was determined to teach Georgia to knit.
Georgia’s hands, in my opinion, are beautiful. Though as you can see, they are far from typical. So, how do I teach knitting to a child who doesn’t have two typical hands?
We started on size 7, wooden, traditional straight needles with a bulky weight yarn. Our fist discovery was that Georgia couldn’t hold onto the needles. We tried shorter needles, skinnier needles, fatter needles, circular needles – she just could not hold onto the needles. Every time she went to throw the yarn, she had to put the whole knitting down to manipulate the yarn then pick up the needles again to slip the stitch. With all the picking up and putting down, she couldn’t keep track of what she was doing. It was a mess. We even tried Lever knitting, which is a technique where you hold one needle stationary between your arm and your body, up near your armpit. It leaves your hands free to work the needle tips and the yarn. Unfortunately, that technique didn’t work either and for the same reason – she just didn’t have the strength or dexterity to hold both needles and work the yarn at the same time. Needle knitting was out. So, the question became, how do you knit without needles?
While I was researching how to knit without needles, I showed her how to finger knit. We gave it a good try. We tried every yarn weight on the market, even super, super bulky. You wouldn’t think so because it’s a craft that is taught to really young children, but it takes a lot of finger dexterity to finger knit. And unfortunately, Georgia’s fingers don’t have a lot of movement. Finger knitting was out too. Though my oldest daughter and Georgia’s twin brother both took to finger knitting like fish to water. I own miles and miles of finger knitted scarfs! But none of them are from Georgie.
By the time we worked our way through what seemed like every yarn on the market trying to be successful with finger knitting, I had discovered the Lucet. A lucet is a forked tool that is worked the same way as finger knitting but instead of wrapping the yarn around your fingers, you wrap the yarn around the forks of the tool. The result is the same long, skinny, tubed shape “scarf”. She had some success with the Lucet but it was really hard for her to keep the tool steady to wrap the yarn. Pinching and lifting the stitch was really difficult too. Another fail, but again, my other kiddos loved the Lucet and I added a few more miles of skinny knitted scarfs to my collection.
Next we tried a knitting mushroom. The mushroom was big enough that she could keep it stable between her legs while she wrapped the yarn. Though what really gave her some success was using a crochet hook to lift and work the stitches. This made a huge difference and eliminated the struggle to pinch and lift the stitch with her fingers, like with the Lucet and in finger knitting. With the crochet hook she could work the stitches fairly easily and she ended up making a healthy length of mushroom knitting. And though we were both tickled, it was still a lot of effort to get results and it just shouldn’t be that hard.
Since we had some success with the knitting mushroom I decided our next step was to try a knitting loom. My thinking was that if she was actually making something, other than a long rope, she would be more inspired to keep trying. Being the Waldorf mama I am and wanting her to have beautiful tools made from natural materials, I looked into buying a wooden knitting loom, but the $50+ price difference convinced me that the plastic loom was a good enough place to start.
Georgia decided she wanted to knit a hat. I took her our local yarn shop to pick out any wool yarn that inspired her. She picked out a really cute rainbow yarn and we raced home to wrap her new loom. Since we had already worked with the knitting mushroom she was familiar with the knitting technique on the loom, and after a few rounds together she was on her own. Finally, she was knitting! The knitting loom was the tool she needed to be able to knit. I was thrilled! And the look of success on her face was worth all my efforts.
It’s been a few years since Georgia started her rainbow hat on her knitting loom. Every once in awhile she pulls it out of the basket and works a few rounds. Anyone who knits knows that knitting doesn’t have an instant satisfaction factor. It takes time and effort, and patience. Not a big virtue for a little person! So, the rainbow hat has been shelved for awhile.
At the beginning of this year, I wanted to start with a knitting project that everyone could do. Since it’s the year of the pig in the Chinese New Year, I decided on a simple knitted, stuffed pig. Who doesn’t like little pink piggies? Everyone was excited about the project. I approached Georgia with the idea of trying again with needles. The pig pattern was worked on straight needles but she was going to use circular needles. Circular needles are like one big bendy needle and I hoped they would be easier to manipulate that two straight needles. I was right! Coupled with a few years of growing, therapy, and strengthening of her hands, she was able to work the needles and the yarn together. She even figured out how to wrap the yarn around her fingers to keep some tension. After knitting the pattern and to finish her piggie, she had to sew on eyes, sew up the body, and stuff it. It turned out awesome! Georgia’s is the one on the lower right in the picture below.
Bless my hands that knit and weave.
Bless my hands that mold and cleave.
Bless my hands that spin and sew.
Bless my hands that learn and grow.
With the success of the piggie, I decided it was time to pull the rainbow hat off the shelf and finish it. I watched her trying to work the loom but the stitches were tight and it wasn’t going as smoothly as it did before. That night I removed her knitting from the loom and onto circular needles. That was a few weeks ago and she has worked on it every day since. She is almost through her ball of rainbow yarn. I’ll give her a few more days and then we’ll just gather the top and close it off. I don’t know who is more excited to see the rainbow hat on her head – me or her. I’ll share pictures when she finishes it.
It’s hard to believe that five years ago I started this knitting journey with my daughter. With every hurdle she has faced, from washing her hair to buttoning her pants to tying her shoes, I have always stood firm in the belief that with the right modifications, she could do anything a typical kiddo could do. Though I know this to be true, Georgia sometimes wavers. But now, on those days when she is feeling dejected and down on herself, she will have her little rainbow hat to remind her of all the beautiful things she CAN do.