About: Elaine Nelson

Elaine Nelson was directionless with an English degree in the late 90s and then: GODDAMN INTERNET. In her current gig, she wrangles content and content management systems, but her last job was Webmaster, so she's dabbled in all sorts of web work. She's an editor at The Interconnected, previously published in The Pastry Box, and once had a poem published in an anthology of GenX writing, when that was the big new thing.

Posts by Elaine Nelson:

Stop and Listen

Events lately have conspired to remind me of two truths:

  • People are very bad at receiving negative feedback, especially when it comes from people they don’t know very well.
  • People are very good at giving negative feedback, especially if they don’t really know the person they’re giving it to.

Bonus: the internet makes all of that terrifyingly easy.

Without getting into any details about the situations I’m thinking about, here’s the lessons I’m taking away so far:

  • Read the room. (Huh, that’s the second time in two essays I’ve used that line.)
  • Relatedly, consider the people who are sitting on the sidelines; remember that when you talk, they are also listening. (Many thanks to a friend for articulating that idea.)
  • Finally, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Rules for Knitting in Meetings

All my life I’ve been a terrible fidget, and I’m easily distracted by visual stimuli. So in college I doodled and wrote stories in my journal instead of taking notes. As an adult, I’ve found that I tend to drift off into work if I use my laptop too much. But knitting keeps my hands busy while allowing me to listen and talk.

Over the last half-decade, I’ve worked out these rules for knitting in meetings. If you’re a knitter, or if you’ve considered learning to knit, I hope you find them helpful.

Read the Room.

Some meetings are just Not Good for knitting. Some meetings are Very Good for knitting. Best for knitting: all-hands kinds of events where you are basically an audience member. Worst for knitting: you need to be typing stuff or there are particularly high-stakes attendees.

Unfinished hat and ball of yarn
Sitting in an auditorium for an all-hands event? Time to bust out a hat!

Explain Yourself to New People.

If it’s a meeting that’s good for knitting, and you’ll be interacting with other people in the meeting, the other people should know that you aren’t being rude. When new people show up, I always say that I knit because it helps me listen better. (FWIW, knitting has quite a few health benefits!) Now that I’ve been at this job a few years, and other people have heard me talk about it, sometimes they say it for me.

Unfinished multicolored scarf
Knitting is a good hobby for other tedious activities, like flying. Plus seeking out yarn stores is a fun thing to do when traveling!

Select the Right Project.

If you have the right project, knitting in a meeting can be remarkably unobtrusive. That’s the goal: give me something to do with my hands so I’m not distracted without distracting anyone else.

Unfinished hand-knit sock about 2 inches long.
A sock in progress. This pattern features a simple four-row repeat.

Characteristics of a good project

  • Size: larger projects just take up a lot of space and call attention to the work. Go for something on the small side.
  • Complexity: if you’re constantly looking at the pattern, you’re distracted from the meeting. Same thing for lots of counting. I do sometimes work on projects that require some row counting, but a simple hashmark on a piece of paper or text document doesn’t take too much focus.
  • Apparent Complexity: some projects look harder than they are. Lots of cables; sock heels; toe grafting. (Naw, for reals: these are all remarkably easy to do!) But they look tricky to someone who doesn’t know knitting. So unless you can be totally unobtrusive, stay away from these features.
  • Frequent Stopping Points: this is a small thing, but projects with short rows or entirely in the round mean that you’re not trying to calculate time to finish a row against time to the end of the meeting!

So what sorts of projects are those? Well, here’s literally everything I’ve ever knit in a meeting. In general, scarves, cowls, beanies (or toques, depending on your Canadian-ness), socks (except for toes and heels), and mitts are all excellent choices.

Recommended patterns

These all meet the meeting project requirements, have good free patterns, and make great finished objects!

Now you’re ready to pick out some yarn, grab the correct needles, and sit down in your next meeting prepared to keep your hands busy and your mind on the work.

Finished socks shown at the beginning of the article
Knitting is just fidgeting with string, but then you also have socks or a hat or whatever.

Postscript: Learn to Knit!

If you’re thinking about learning how to knit, I got started with these resources from Lion Brand Yarn Company. I’ve also written a blog post about why knitting is cool with more resources for learning how.

I’ve also written about the overlap between knitting and coding, knitting and the Growth Mindset, and how picking a knitting pattern is a lot like picking an open source tool.

Should X do Y?

I’ve been around these parts just long enough to have seen “should designers code?” and all the variations come up about 500 times. And it always feels like people answer that question at a level of abstraction or theoretical purity.

Should a spherical cow do research?

There is no spherical cow. There is no single way that design, development, devops, writing, strategy happen. Everywhere is context.

I spent the first 2 years of my web career with the web as about a third of my job. The rest of it was administrative support, print design, IT support, and event management. (It was a weird job.)

The next decade I was a webmaster. The last five years, I’ve been on a small team. There’s no luxury of “leaving code to the coders” or “leaving design to the designers.” There’s only work that needs doing, and by god you’d better figure out how to do it.

On the other side, I know people who’ve worked in Fortune-whatever companies where they have literal researchers in actual white coats. So yeah, maybe there you don’t need to know how to do the thing, only how to incorporate it effectively.

But you do have to know how to use what’s around you. You have to know your context: both the resources at hand, and how your work fits into the whole. I worked with a couple of print designers, years ago, where one kept giving me design ideas that just weren’t possible (this is circa 2003, so, like, anything with a curve), but the other helped me get better at the design I needed to be doing.

He gave me tools to understand the concepts, so I could apply them to the raw materials available. I got better — “good enough” — at design so that I could make something that worked with the brand while being true to what the web could do then.

When I got here, as I got settled, as I figured out what it meant to be on a team with other web people, I could still see gaps in what needed to be done. I got us doing usability studies and content strategy, even as my job was developer, because those things were important and I was willing to learn.

Should X do Y?

First of all, if Y is “writing”, then the answer is always yes. Everybody should learn how to write clearly so you can express what the hell you think you’re doing and why.

Otherwise, does Y need to be done? And is there a Y-master on hand?

If not, are you kinda interested in Y? Then just do the thing. Learn as much as you can, do what you can to make your Y not suck.

If you have a Y-master: is Y adjacent to your X? Do you like being a responsible team member? Then at least know enough about Y that the Y-master doesn’t hate you.