Uncertainty changes expectations

September 01, 2015

Earlier this year, I was on an amazing project that took me to both India and China to visit hospitals and clinics of all sizes and types.

Knowing that I had nearly 50 hours of air travel ahead of me, as well as tons of travel time in cars and vans, I decided to start a knitting project to make good use of the time. There are only so many movies one can watch or old issues of the Wall Street Journal one can read.

My colleague Vlada Belozerova, a voracious and accomplished knitter, had found a pattern by Stephen West a few months before and said it "looked like me," which I chose to interpret as colorful and one-of-a-kind rather than sloppy and inscrutable.

The pattern calls for using only scrap wool and sizing and gauge are left to the knitter's discretion. It's a sweater you start and have no idea where it is going. Unlike conventional patterns where you can hold the knitted piece up and get a general sense of what it looks like, this sweater looks like something balled up and forgotten in the washing machine. The sweater is alternately gathered to drape organically and uniquely on the wearer. No pattern is apparent because there really isn't one. The directions are not much more than suggestions. The knitter decides colors on the fly as one ball of scrap wool ends and another is required. And because it is impossible to tell the yardage of a scrap ball of wool, once one commits to adding a given color one must also commit to the uncertainty of how long it will last, what it will add to the whole or even, if it doesn't look good, whether to accept the decision or to rip those stitches out and try again with a different ball.

This sweater became known as my "uncertainty sweater."

I started it on the plane trip to Shanghai and knitted consistently from Nanjing to Chengdu and home again, finishing the cowl neck and what appeared to be a shoulder. It was awkward, to say the least, every time a flight attendant cooed at me, "Oh, you knit!" The attendent would then asked to see my project. When I would hold the sweater up, attendants would consistently recoil, their faces contorting as though I had just shown them a hideous baby.

The amazing thing about uncertainty is a lack of expectations.

I put the sweater aside until my trip to India, where I completed an arm "portal" somewhere between a rural clinic in Cochin City and Kolkata. I decided to temporarily "halt production" on the sweater in the spring after four months of work. I was in New York for Verge NYC, a conference on uncertainty, so it seemed a fitting time to tie up what I had and slip the sweater on in front of my small cohort of conference attendees.

It was a thrill to complete the final (for now) stitches during our final breakout session of the conference as we had talked about the sweater a lot in our discussions. The row of slightly metallic furry wool (a scrap from my dear mother-in-law) knit into the yoke was an epic fail when examining the piece from the elbows up. But taken as a whole, it wasn't so bad. And it taught me the lesson that a little goes a long way. We talked about the flight attendants and how uncomfortable my sweater, that didn't appear to be anything, made them. Uncertainty is uncomfortable even for bystanders.

As I slipped the sweater on for the first time, it was clear I cast off the bottom of the sweater a few inches too short. And thinking I could leave the arms as "portals" rather than sleeves (so I could wear it in the spring, of course) was perhaps a little misguided. But my cohort clapped and cheered regardless. The amazing thing about uncertainty is a lack of expectations.

Come fall, I will pick it up again and lengthen it. I will add at least one sleeve but maybe not both. This time, I am most certain it will be sloppy and inscrutable but also colorful and one-of-a-kind and it will meet my expectations exactly.