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Impossible to describe with mere adjectives, Cat Bordhi has been knocking the socks off [and knitting them back on] knitters for years. She's the author of the hugely popular Socks Soar on Two Circular Needles and the Magical Knitting series, featuring her unique moebius cast on that makes impossible things possible. I recently got a chance to ask her things I've always wanted to know about her.

Q: You come up with some of the most innovative knitting techniques the world has ever seen. Are you constantly watching over your own shoulder, noticing these discoveries and making sure you capture them, like you did with the New Pathways sock concepts? What is your process for thinking about knitting in ways no one has before?
A: Basically, I love posing questions and figuring things out. Mostly I get an idea and just dive in and explore, but sometimes I’m more methodical. For instance, right now I’m working on the second book in the New Pathways series, this one a collection of sock architectures that do not start at the top or toe, but somewhere in between. To unearth worthwhile possibilities I initially used an idea-generation method inspired by Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones. For weeks I asked myself: What is the stupidest place to start a sock? The question disarms the limited logical mind and dislodges an avalanche of answers, some foolish, others fresh and promising. Those are the ones I explore. Some turn out to be dead ends, others suggest alternative avenues, and a few are gems. And the gems might not have been discovered with a linear, logical approach.

While testing ideas, I work out prototypes with heavy worsted so I can find out quickly if things work or not, and do a lot of unraveling. I am not really that good at predicting what will happen if I do such and such, so I kind of stumble forward, closing in on what works. So I am very glad that knitting unravels so well. Another book that I’ve used for decades for innovative idea generation is Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams. Basically, the trick is to circumvent the logical mind, which works almost exclusively with the familiar. And once something fresh and vital is discovered, the logical mind can return to help work with it.

Sometimes, when a design or technique finally settles into finished form, there’s a wonderful kinesthetic sensation of wholeness, and then I know I’ve followed, rather than steered, it “home.” My favorite designs feel to me as if they’ve always existed, and that I simply remained faithful to them as I sought them.

Q: Can you tell us a little about how you developed the Moebius cast on?
A.
Three influences over three decades led me to develop the Moebius cast-on and to identify the “road signs” for knitting along its one-sided pathway.

One came from my experiences as a schoolteacher. I often used paper Moebii in various configurations (for instance, giant newspaper Moebius bands corralling students, which can then be sliced lengthwise to release new and surprising spaces, allowing the kids to migrate) to engage my students, so was familiar with its magical pathways. This primed me for the second source of inspiration, an ingenious article by Rita Buchanan in the Fall 2000 issue of Spin-Off Magazine with a pattern for a seamless Moebius scarf (Elizabeth Zimmermann had introduced a seamed Moebius scarf in 1987). In Rita’s instructions, the necessary stitches were cast on and then the needle was coiled around so the underside could be picked up and knit into. Her method produced the first knitted Moebius that displayed the form’s mysterious characteristics right from the start. However, I found the picking up to be slow and painstaking, so I knit one or two and went on to other projects, storing away in the back of my mind the possibility and hope of a simpler and faster way to get set up.

The remaining influence had seeded itself in 1973, in the form of Barbara Walker’s Knitting From the Top, one of the most intelligent, practical, and empowering knitting books in print. She has been my most formative influence, imprinting on me at a young age that knitting needed no seams, was continuous, that any shape or garment was possible if you thought about how to engineer it, and that unnecessary steps, once identified, could be eliminated. I was living on a remote, off-the-grid island near Canada that winter, and had written to interlibrary loan for “knitting books.” At the time few existed and so they sent me 2 or 3, one of them Barbara Walker’s, which was newly published. (That first edition was hardcover, with a generous insert of color pages, everything modeled by familymembers. Those photos vanished once it went into soft-cover editions.) The book cleared up many knitting questions that had confounded me, and improved my results immediately. Most of the book is dedicated to intelligently mapping out strategies for seamlessly knitting everything from a bikini to a set-in-sleeve cardigan. One of the many eye-openers was the “invisible cast-on,” which Barbara did not invent but certainly described with more detail than anyone has before or since. (Today many provisional cast-ons, which can be worked in both directions, are in common usage. My favorite is Judy’s Magic Cast-On.) Barbara’s invisible cast-on used waste yarn to anchor the loops as they flipped over and under the needle. Several decades later, inspired by a new generation of circular needles with pliant cables, I noticed that the cable of an extra circular needle could replace the waste yarn. This meant the stitches would wait on an operative needle, ready to fly. My two-year obsession with Moebius knitting started a few years later when I suddenly realized the invisible cast-on could use the cable of the same long circular needle to start a Moebius. This ability to begin zooming around a Moebius so quickly made it easy for me to identify Moebius navigation signals and to experiment with the “rubber sheet” distortions of this amazing form, resulting in two collections of designs (Treasury of Magical Knitting and Second Treasury of Magical Knitting), ranging from garments to felted containers with no inside or outside, yet the grace to safely hold objects. I still have one ambitious Moebius design waiting in the wings which I may or may not ever get to.

Q: Have any of your students come up with variations on your work that surprised even you?
A.Absolutely. One of my youngest workshop students, at age 10, altered my pattern for the Lost Trail Cape (in Treasury of Magical Knitting) to widen and shape the back of the Moebius collar like a cap. Witt Pratt designed an ingenious Moebius bag by eliminating a step in my Moebius sling bag patterns (see Witt’s Newport Bag). And I love receiving emails from readers with photos showing me how they began with one of my patterns and veered off to create something quite different.

Q: Has there ever been a time that knitting wasn't enjoyable for you? Tell us about it.
A. Yes – there was a frustrating ten-year period when every time I started a knitting project, I’d knit for about half an hour and then not go back to it for a year. I kept trying smaller and smaller projects, hoping if they were small enough I might finish them and get back into knitting. 

Q: What got you back into knitting again?
A: I finally knit an Aran sweater for a young friend’s doll. By some miracle I finished it and that released me, and I was able to go on to other things at last! What a relief that was.

Q: Tell us a bit about your unique visual approach to mathematical concepts (you mention this in your bio on your website).
A: People sometimes assume I must be advanced mathematically but I am not. I flunked math until I got to geometry and then suddenly I was an A student, which really confused me, because I thought I hated math. Geometry was like candy to me – manipulating, sliding, rotating and flipping shapes, harvesting the information revealed through their relationships, and proving (arguing!) things. I was very fortunate to have a wise and caring math teacher who encouraged me. In the small high school I went to, she was the only math teacher, and in the remaining two years she more or less coaxed me into behaving as if I also loved trig and calculus. I’m very grateful to her. When I became a schoolteacher, I loved teaching the magic of math and the kids were very responsive. Fortunately, I never taught above an eighth grade level, or I would have begun to stumble.

I firmly believe that math is delicious when taught in a certain way. I like to say that numbers are simply little handles we attach to beauty so we can lift it up and say, “Look! This part is bigger than that part!” or “See how that changes when we do this?” It is when the numbers are divorced from that which they represent that they become dry and dull and intimidating. And much of math is taught in the form of divorced numbers. So I always tried to teach with happily married numbers, united with that which they represented -- lots of manipulatives, illustrations, charts, stories, and clear narrative descriptions of processes. When I began to write knitting books, I found that my background in teaching math this way gave me skills for creating clear knitting patterns, with illustrations, charts, and clear narrative descriptions that offer individual knitters several avenues for understanding.

Q: What do you do for fun/relaxation/amusement when you're not knitting?
A: Uh -- seriously, sometimes I ask myself this question and have no answer, and it worries me. I knit for work and for pleasure and for fun and for every other possible reason -- and think about knitting -- just about all the time it seems. I do also love to go for solitary walks through the woods, kayak, and play with my little grandson, Charlie. I read voraciously, and love to travel and teach. And I love to just sit quietly.

Q: You live on an island. Tell us about an average day in your life.
A: Mornings I try to start with a good walk, then work on my current book until my brain begins to fizzle. Often during this time deer (our deer have a limited gene pool and are smaller than the usual white-tailed deer – on a neighboring island the deer have evolved into some strange colors which locals call “buckaloosas”) appear outside my window. This morning a fawn was clip-clopping around on my deck inches away from the window, munching on ferns growing up through the slats, while its mother grazed a few feet away. There’s a fox who passes through my yard sometimes (our foxes are strange colors, too – no two are alike, and mine is black with some white spots and rings, while others are almost like calico cats, and occasionally, one is the classic fox color), and lots of birds, including great blue herons, eagles, and ravens. Then I have lunch and head into town to get my mail, run errands, stop and talk to friends (on a small island, friends appear everywhere), maybe stop at the library to refresh my book supply, and head home.  I often have my grandson for a few hours in the afternoon. He is my personal trainer and makes me go on vigorous stroller hikes and then do water aerobics as I keep his head above water while he wiggles around in my sink. Late afternoons and evenings are for pursuing knitting designs, revisions, refinements, and so on, recording everything as I go.

Q: What gives you the most joy in your own knitting?
A: Not knowing how something can possibly work and heading in that direction anyway -- the thrill of the chase. I also love to zone out with something simple like one of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s garter stitch designs or a Mason-Dixon log cabin blanket.

Q: What's the one thing most people don't know about you that you're willing to share with Knitty readers?
A: When I was young we lived in a huge old house that had been built just before the San Francisco earthquake by the obsessed and eccentric Sarah Winchester, who built the 160-room Winchester Mystery House, now a tourist attraction in San Jose, California. Our house was much smaller of course (Mrs. Winchester had built it as a wedding gift for her niece), but still, everyone who came to the front door asked how we found our way around. We weren’t allowed to go on the roof, so of course we did (there was a door that opened onto the roof and how were we supposed to resist that?), and I remember thinking that I really didn’t know my way around on the roof, and it was actually a bit scary. It had so many ups and downs and ins and outs that it made me feel like I was lost on Mt. Everest. We also had some of the same fireplaces and details as Mrs. Winchester’s house, but fortunately none of the most bizarre features, like staircases that ended in ceilings or windows installed in the floor. We never stopped looking for hidden passageways, but never found any.

One year my father spotted an ad in the paper offering carpeting at $39.99 per room, installation included, no matter the size. Our carpets were threadbare, so he figured he should take full advantage of such a fine opportunity. The carpet guys nearly choked when they saw our house with its enormous rooms, and this was probably when they decided to balance things out by giving my colorblind father only one choice of carpeting, which he agreed to. I don’t think he consulted my mother. The rather thin carpet had been woven out of the factory’s age-old stash of leftover yarns. It was the equivalent of knitting a blanket out of random scrap yarns. There were single-line stripes of one color after the other – no sequence, just hundreds of different colors, very bright and a little crazy. We kids (there were 6 of us) thought it was great for broad-jumping, because you could start at the door and try to land on a particular color. And it wasn’t too long before that carpet was threadbare too. But we sure had fun. Next time my father bought better carpet, in the only color he could see: red.  I still don’t know if he consulted my mother.