befriending tension

All three swatches were knit with the same yarn (different color), same number of stitches and same number of rows. You can see the difference that tension has on the fabric. The cream swatch was knit tightly on small needles, the blue swatch was knit loosely on big needles and the amber swatch was knit on suggested needles with tension that felt 'just right.'

All three swatches were knit with the same yarn (different color), same number of stitches and same number of rows. You can see the difference that tension has on the fabric. The cream swatch was knit tightly on small needles, the blue swatch was knit loosely on big needles and the amber swatch was knit on suggested needles with tension that felt 'just right.'

The word tension may conjure up thoughts of tightness, rigidity, stress, nervousness, and restlessness. You know, the things that aren’t fun to contemplate. But tension isn’t always a negative thing. Like if you’re a maker, for instance, you could be relishing in what you regard as perfect stitch tension. Or, if you’re a mover, you can use tension as a guide to know when you’re getting a good stretch, or even use tension to help relax (say, what?!). So how about, for the sake of moving and making, we befriend tension. Radical, I know. Dare I even say that regarding tension as a kindred spirit may even bring ease, joy and relaxation? Well, yes. Yes, I do dare say. 

Knit Tension

I’m actually feeling some tension (of the stress and anxiety kind) about my tension in my current knit wip - the Wool & Honey sweater. I just ripped back almost two skeins worth of garter knitting in the round because the sweater was working up way too big. (And I already knit down a size to adjust to my preference of less positive ease). It turns out that my tension got looser, causing the knit fabric to stretch larger than intended. 

Tight Tension

These stitches were difficult to work because of the tight tension.

These stitches were difficult to work because of the tight tension.

Tight tension, a little redundant, but let’s go with it. 

When I started knitting, I considered myself to be a tight knitter. I think ‘working really hard’ to learn how to knit translated into tight stitches that were difficult to work and slide on my needles. Tight tension translates to a tightly woven fabric (no shock there), which may be useful for some things but not great for others. 

I’ll tell ya, one of the biggest challenges I had with my tight tension was the pain I’d get in my hands. They would tire quickly and need a good massage to work out the aches after knitting for some time. (Thank goodness for some great, hand-saving yoga!) It was like a catch 22 - I was tense about getting things right in my knitting, therefore I knit with tight tension, which then created tension in my hands. With practice, I’ve managed to lessen my death grip and the result is less struggle, more ease. 

How do you know if you’re a tight knitter? Well, if you’re working from your own designs or have been in the game a long time, you likely know that your tendency is on the tighter end of the spectrum. If you’re just starting out and you’re not sure if you’re a tight knitter, a good indication is whether or not you meet gauge in patterns. If you consistently have to go up a needle size (or several) to meet gauge, then you probably have tight tension. But don’t only go by how you gauge matches up with the patterns of one designer, because they could knit very differently than you! If you’re knitting patterns from several different designers, and you’re always going up a needle size or two, then chances are you lean toward tighter tension. 

Loose Tension

These stitches were slipping and sliding all over the needles, and create an airy, holey fabric.

These stitches were slipping and sliding all over the needles, and create an airy, holey fabric.

If tight tension is redundant, is loose tension an oxymoron? Hm. 

I can vividly recall one of my first garment patterns, the Poplife Cardigan, from Wool and the Gang. Knit in their recycled denim yarn, Bille Jean, on a bigger needle size than the yarn called for, the tension was intended to be loose. Way loose. Imagine going from being a tight knitter to almost losing your stitches because they were so loosely held on the needles. Now that was like an oxymoron! 

Loose tension can create a desired effect of airy fabric. It’s great for a something like a summer top or coverup where you aren’t looking for too much coverage or warmth. But loose tension on a winter sweater can be a chilly affair! My tension has definitely eased up from my tight knitting days, but I can’t say that I gravitate to the loose tension effect. I find it challenging to keep my stitches in order without them slipping and sliding off my needles! 

What’s interesting about tension is that you can have different tension with different stitches and techniques. For instance, when you’re working in the round, you should swatch in the round to be sure you’re matching your tension of stitching continuously rather than your tension of stitching back and forth. And for me, I’m discovering that (with my Wool & Honey sweater) my knit tension is different than my purl tension - which, when knitting garter in the round, I must alternate every other row. 

With certain designers, I find myself dropping a needle size to meet tension, but with others I meet gauge with the needle size required, so I don’t necessarily consider myself to be a loose knitter. Yet. 

Goldilocks Tension

Middle of the road tension. Stitches were 'just right' in terms of ease of knitting.

Middle of the road tension. Stitches were 'just right' in terms of ease of knitting.

Goldilocks tension is ‘just right.’ And just like in the case of porridge being ‘not too hot and not too cold,’ Goldilocks tension in knitting is a personal preference. For you, regardless of if it’s on the tighter or looser end of the spectrum, it feels just right and looks just right. (If you were eating it, it’d taste just right too!)

Tension is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ Rather, it’s a friendly guide to find your personal preference - the approach that is relaxing, joyful and engaging. What I’m learning is that your tension can change over time, (and even within one garment), so choosing to approach it as an ally and advisor can really help in the long run. (Even if you do have to rip out two skeins!) I know I’ll be all the happier once the garment is finished with consistent, Goldilocks tension. And that physical tension will dissipate too! 

Body Tension

I am no stranger to body tension. In fact, for several weeks this summer, I have been dealing with a great deal of tightness in my shoulders (my Achilles Heel). I fiiiiiiinally went for a massage, and have found some relief. Tension in the body can be painful - physically, mentally and emotionally. But there’s also a school of thought that tension is needed in the body, in which case we can befriend it and see what to learn from it. 

In a stretch, the amount of tension you feel in a muscle (tissue) will notify you when you are at your limit. If you’re folding forward and your hamstrings tense up, you’ll feel resistance in the stretch. While a stretch often feels good, too much tension can be painful, and serves as a cue to stop going further and avoid injury. Over time, with consistent practice, your tissues may allow further stretch with less resistance and tension, thus guiding you where it is safe to practice in your body. 

I’m going to really go out on a limb here. For my last reasoning of why we should befriend tension, I’m going to suggest you try progressive muscle relaxation. It’s a deep relaxation technique that involves cycling through tensing/tightening muscles in areas of the body and then releasing them. That’s right, I’m asking you to tense up your muscles. Even the relaxed ones. Why? 

Sometimes, we’re not even aware when our muscles are holding tension. You may discover that your jaw aches, and come to find you’ve been clenching your teeth during stressful moments. The idea behind progressive muscle relaxation is to help distinguish between what a tensed muscle and relaxed muscle feels like. Having the awareness of what it feels like when you’re consciously tensing muscles will actually assist you in recognizing when your muscles begin to subconsciously tense up in day to day life. Additionally, practicing the conscious release of tension in your muscles during progressive muscle relaxation will be a handy practice for those times in day to day life that you need to soothe tensed, achy muscles.  

There are plenty of online resources about progressive muscle relaxation. You can do a quick Google search and find some videos if you want to try it at home. Sometimes, it is offered at the end of a yoga practice (and if it isn’t you can still practice it yourself). If you live in the Asheville area, I will teach some progressive muscle relaxation in my Stitch and Stretch workshop at Echoview on August 25th, we’d love to have you join us! Needless to say, there are several ways to give progressive relaxation a try. 

While it may seem radical to befriend tension, there sure are some benefits to embracing it. Turns out tension, in the ways discussed above, is quite the ally to the mover and maker, don't you agree? How do you befriend tension?