Maybe it’s Time to Break the Rules

Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for creative people.

Welcome back! I’m your host, Marie Greene, and today I want to talk about the RULES. Who makes them. Why do they exist. And what happens if we break them?

I want to start by having you think about all the rules you’ve heard about art – specifically the rules you’ve been told about the kinds of art you love most.

In knitting, we joke about the Knitting Police. They don’t technically exist, but they show up in the form of other people who think they are the keepers – and enforcers – of the imaginary rules of knitting society. I don’t know this for a fact, but I bet there are fiction writing police and watercolor painting police, and all of the other rule makers/keepers/enforcers that don’t really exist, but … still somehow manage to show up from time to time.

I’ve met many a knitter who was discouraged and even shamed by someone who said, “you’re doing that wrong.” And I’m sorry, but aren’t we here for the joy of being a maker? Why in the world would we be scolding or shaming other people for not following the “rules” as we perceive them? And while we’re here, I’d like to challenge the word “rules” – because I think there are very few actual rules in art. The thing we’re mostly up against when it comes to creative rules aren’t rules at all; they’re traditions. Tradition may come with deeply held beliefs and reverence, but just because that’s how it’s always been done doesn’t mean that’s the right way – or the only way – to do it.

I recently met a woman who makes clay pots and paints them to sell in her adobe home on Taos Pueblo in Taos New Mexico. She told me a story about how her grandmother taught her to throw the clay, and all she could think about after that point was that she wanted to decoratively paint the pots after she made them. Her grandmother told her, well.. that’s not the tradition of our people, but if you want to paint them, you can. Other members of the family jumped in and said, “Look at what your granddaughter is doing! That’s not the tradition of our people!” and her grandmother, in her gloriously rebellious way, said “My granddaughter will begin a new tradition!” That’s the kind of rule breaking attitude I’m talking about, friends.

I think that many rules – especially when it comes to art – are really traditions. Rules – like how to mix clay or how long to fire a pot, exist because they’re simply the way things work and if you want to work in that medium, you have to know the core structure of the art form to get results. The problem is that we treat the structure of the art form AND the tradition of the art form as if they’re the same.

And the truth is, they’re not. (But I do suspect that some folks will disagree with me here, and that’s okay – but let’s keep unpacking this.)

I’m going to use knitting as my example here, because it’s my specialty and it’s what I can speak to with the most authority. I’ve designed hundreds of patterns, written five books, I lead a virtual knitting community called Knit Camp (we’re in our 5th year as I speak), and have taught knitting workshops around the world. One of the things I love to teach is about breaking the rules.

But before I teach my community how to break rules (or really traditions, but we’ll keep talking it through), I always start with a few important truths:

  1. First, you have to know enough about the art to know what the rules are.
  2. Second, you have to understand them well enough to know why they exist.
  3. And I’m going to add a third one here – and it’s knowing the difference between a rule and a tradition.

So let’s start with knowing what the rules are.

The rules are what they teach you when you’re new. They’re the basic requirements that MUST be in place in order to produce or do the thing you want to do. Rules might relate to supplies or process, but they exist because without them, the art simply can’t exist in the form you expect it to. For example, if you want to be a painter, but you refuse to use any kind of paint, and instead you creating art with fabric, it would still be art, but it wouldn’t technically be a painting. You can make a sculpture out of birthday cake, but if you put birthday cake into your kiln and try to fire it, I would imagine it would be a hot mess. It certainly wouldn’t become pottery.

In knitting, we have a rule about knitting a gauge swatch (also formerly known as a tension square.) You don’t have to be a knitter for this to make sense, so stick with me.

When you’re knitting something like a sweater, you start by making a small square of knit fabric, using a specific size needle and a specific yarn and stitch pattern. We do this to measure how many stitches we have over a given space, which is how we can determine if what we’re about to knit is going to fit the way we expect it to.

If you sew, this isn’t much different than cutting out a pattern piece – the fabric is already made for you, but it’s still a matter of measurement. A piece of fabric this size, put together in this specific way, will result in a piece of clothing that fits your body.

With knitting, there’s an extra step because you have to also make the fabric, while you’re making the shape. Starting with a gauge swatch, or a little square of fabric about 4 in or 10 cm in size – that you knit ahead of time using the same yarn and needles that you’re going to use for your sweater – will help you end up with the size you expect.

If you don’t knit a gauge swatch, it’s very likely that your sweater will not fit. Or at least it won’t fit the person you’re knitting it for.

Knitting a gauge swatch takes about 30 minutes. Knitting a sweater takes about 80-100 hours. Now wouldn’t it make sense that someone who is about to spend 80-100 hours knitting a sweater wouldn’t mind an extra 30 minutes ahead of time to make sure it’s going to fit? But you’d be surprised. Many knitters think that breaking the rules – with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge – means walking on the wild side and NOT knitting a swatch.

The reason I’m talking about gauge swatching is because it’s the perfect example of what knitters think of when I say “break the rules.” But what I’m really talking about here, is understanding why the rules exist, and identifying what’s really a rule and what’s a tradition. Traditions can be changed. In fact, that’s part of history is seeing traditions change over time. There’s a beauty in some traditions that are carried forward, but just because that’s how it’s always been done doesn’t mean that’s how it always has to be done.  

If you understand that knitting a little gauge swatch before you knit a sweater is an essential part of knitting garments that fit, then you’d realize that there’s a reason for that rule and it’s not one you want to break. Ironically, this is one rule that most knitters like to break. But when someone jokes and tells me they never knit a gauge swatch, what that says to me is that they don’t actually understand what a gauge swatch is for and why it’s important. My job as a fiber artist and educator is to help others get the very best results and part of that is shining a light on why we do silly things like knit a 4 inch swatch of fabric and measure it before we start knitting a sweater.   

A gauge swatch tells you how many stitches you have per inch, and that’s really the only way you’ll know for sure if the sweater you’re going to knit will have the correct finished measurements, because knitting is based on the number of stitches and what size they are. Not knitting one is like deciding to sew a dress but not paying attention to which lines you’re cutting on. If you’ve seen sewing patterns, the different sizes are indicated by lines – and you cut around the lines for the size you want. So not knitting a gauge swatch is like just cutting around whichever lines you want, without paying any attention to which ones they are. In the end, you have a dress or a sweater, but who knows who it will fit. It’s like going to the store and buying something off the rack with your eyes closed, and getting it home and hoping it’ll work.

Can you knit a sweater without knitting a gauge swatch? Yes, but if you understand why that rule exists, you probably wouldn’t want to.

I have only a cursory knowledge of pottery, but I assume it’s similar to knowing the right temperature for your kiln and how long pieces need to be in there in order to be properly fired. Or understanding that you do have to organize your writing into sentence structure in order for other people to read it. Some rules hold the whole thing up.

Traditions, on the other hand, are the rules we can bend and break. I’m not saying that I don’t honor the beauty of tradition – I do. I was taught to knit by my grandmother, and she was taught to knit by her aunt, and of course we value the traditions that were passed down to us. But just because we are taught one way to do something, doesn’t mean it’s a rule. If it doesn’t hold the whole thing up, then maybe it’s subject to change.

But what happens is that we so often pass down traditions to those around us but we call them rules. This is how you HAVE to do it. And if you don’t do it that way, it’s wrong.

And that’s a very long way to come around to the topic of breaking rules – or rather, traditions – when we are inspired to do so.

When you know the basics, and you start to see the difference between the rules that hold up the structure of the art vs. the traditions that people widely hold, you can start to see where there’s room for creativity.

If you’re feeling stifled in your creative practice, ask yourself, what’s holding me back? Am I living by a set of rules that someone else gave to me? And are they really rules, or are they traditions?

Do you have to go to art school to be an artist? No. That’s not a rule.  

Do you have to hold your knitting needles one specific way in order to be a proper knitter? No. That’s not a rule. There are countless different ways to hold your needles and yarn.

I have two friends – Jenn and Megan – who are potters. Megan used to be a cake decorator, and when she and Jenn started their pottery business, Megan began piping decorative elements onto the pottery using the same kind of techniques that she used in cake decorating. At the time, that’s not how traditional pottery was being done. But that’s a perfect example of breaking with tradition and coming up with something brilliant. She started doing this years ago – and now it’s not that unheard of. She broke with tradition and created a new one.

That’s the kind of rule breaking that any of us can do as creative people. Well, not anyone – I’m not a great potter, and I have zero cake decorating skills, but you know what I mean. You can challenge the traditions and make your own. Just because it’s always been done this way doesn’t mean there’s not room for something new.

So when the art police or knitting police or some other rule-enforcer tells you that you’re doing it wrong, ask yourself – is this really a rule, or is this a tradition? I don’t recommend starting a brand new hobby that you know very little about and deciding that you’re going to throw all the rules and traditions out the window and invent your own process – that might work for someone, but what works best for most is to take the time to get to know the art form. Learn the rules and the traditions so that you understand what they do and why they exist, and then – experiment. Color outside the lines. Test the traditions. Inch closer to the boundaries to see what happens. And if you want to break one of the core rules, break it – learn from it, and then you’ll know more for next time. If you break an important rule and the worst happens, then you’ll just know not to break that one in the future. As long as no one gets hurt, then consider it a lesson and keep going.

Creativity practically begs us to be rebellious. But it can be scary to go into the unknown, especially when you don’t want to fail. But creativity is all just one big experiment, and failure is just an opportunity to learn how things work. I’ve had a hundred and one failures over the years, but I learned a lot along the way. And you will, too.

When you lead with curiosity, anything can happen.

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Until next time, my friend – you’ve got this.

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