Eileen Scrivani is an excellent knitter. She’s knitted all sorts of things since she took up the craft seriously in the early 1990s: blankets, hats, shawls and socks. She enjoys cables, and like many of us, a little bit of simple lace knitting. When I asked her what sort of project she enjoys most, she said “For me, a sweater — plain or more detailed — is the epitome of knitting.
Like many knitters, Eileen prefers one-piece garments, with limited seaming. She admits to feeling less than confident in her finishing skills.
We recently chatted by email, and Eileen sent me this picture of herself, proudly modelling her Tri-Aran-Angle shawl.
The other thing you should know about Eileen: she’s visually impaired. To be more specific, she is completely blind. She was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes at the age of five, and by her high-school graduation, complications of the illness had taken her vision.
Other than that small detail, her knitting story is much like my own: although she first learned to knit when a child, she didn’t take it up in earnest until she’d finished college, and was looking for a creative outlet for her evenings after long days spent working in the technology industry. I laughed a little when I read her words in a recent email message “Being a girly-girl I always loved clothing and I had it in my head that it would be a Great thing if I could make, or more specifically, knit my own sweaters.” These could be my words!
Living in New York, Eileen had access to a terrific resource: a six-week seminar on knitting at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Before she signed up, she checked to make sure that they could welcome her and her service dog – and soon enough she was on her way to becoming a serious knitter.
Her visual impairment has presented a few challenges along the way, but she persevered. In the late 1990s, the internet allowed to her find other blind knitters, and she started an online listserv, and she credits the participants with helping her improve her knitting. “The group shared tips on what would help a knitter who is blind – things like using a pocket size abacus as a row/stitch counter, where to locate patterns that were in an accessible format, the importance of a needle gauge, where to get tactile measuring tapes, inserting a life line in a complicated knit to save dropped stitches, so on and so on. I learned that a blind knitter can do amazing knitting, using complicated stitch patterns, and using color changing too.”
The biggest challenge for any blind knitter is charts. Written instructions can be easily rendered in Braille. Charts cannot.
The Knitty team first met Eileen when we were contacted by Cathy Scott, the developer of our favourite charting software, StitchMastery. Cathy had met Eileen on Ravelry, and had been helping out by converting some charts to written instructions. Cathy contacted us to ask permission to convert the charts for Lempster to written instructions, on Eileen’s behalf. When I heard from Cathy, I must confess I was quietly astounded. I know of other knitters with limited vision, but I didn’t know any who were taking on such complex projects. I was keen to make Eileen’s acquaintance, and Cathy introduced us.
As a designer and editor, one aspect of our conversation was particularly educational for me: about charts. I’m going to quote her verbatim on this:
My standard gripe is that when it comes to accessible knitting books and patterns, we as blind knitters spend the same amount of dollars on our supplies as sighted knitters, but are not given the same consideration when it comes to accessible materials. For us, and accessible pattern is one that is written out with row-by-row directions. Our computer software (screen readers, A.K.A. JAWS OR Window Eyes) which provides us with computer access cannot translate a chart or graphic into words. In the case where a free pattern on the net or a purchased pattern in a .PDF for download contains charts and it does not give those charts in text, the pattern is instantly rendered inaccessible to a knitter with a visual impairment. Even NLS who will transcribe some knitting books into Braille or audio format will not transcribe knitting books that are heavily charted. And if a book is transcribed into Braille by NLS and it is lightly charted, chances are NLS will only transcribe the skeleton of the pattern and omit the chart! Can you imagine you get all charged up wanting to dive into a pattern and then you find out a main component, like a cable or lace stitch isn’t included! Frustrating, disappointing and it does not motivate people to continue pressing forward with their knitting skills. After all, who wants to just keep knitting the same plain stockinette stitch sweater style time and time again? People blind or sighted need some variety and challenge in their knitting choices.
But this issue aside, Eileen loves knitting, and just like the rest of us, is thrilled with the huge variety of patterns and designs available online. She’s also been learning crochet of late.
I asked Eileen if she had any words of wisdom for those with limited vision who wish to learn knitting… “For a new knitter who is blind, my suggestions would be to start with a worsted weight classic yarn and perhaps wood, or bamboo instead of metal needles (eliminate the slip and slide and tighten up effect). For a new knitter who is blind, I would suggest staying away from the tempting fuzzy stuff because the fibers that might come off from the core can, in the beginning, fool the fingers.” (This is sensible advice for all beginning knitters, in fact!)
Eileen showed me some pictures of her work – I’d be impressed with the number and variety of projects she’s completed, even if she was fully sighted. She’s my new knitting hero.