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PROFILE: It Just Figures: She Unravels the Complexities of Knits

In all her years of teaching, Ruth Burbank, adjunct instructor in UC’s prestigious College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, has always concentrated on figures. In nearly 20 years of teaching high school mathematics, it was the numerical kind. Now that she’s an in-demand instructor of machine knitting, Ruth’s focus is, rather, on helping students cut the most fashionable figure.

Date: 11/22/2004 8:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover
UC ingot Ruth Burbank, 77, keeps students around the country in stitches because of her recognized expertise in machine knitting.  When she’s not teaching fashion students from UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning how to create their own knit garments, she’s likely to be off giving a seminar or private instruction somewhere across the country.

“I’m just back from California,” explains Ruth.  “A woman flew me out to provide instruction for six days.  She wanted the personal attention, one on one, using the knitting machine she uses every day.”

Even those of us who don’t knit have somewhere seen the works that many knitters generally produce using two hand-held needles and some yarn:  scarves, mittens, hats, blankets, sweaters.  Well, people who knit a lot and want to knit faster and create a variety of garments – from trousers to gowns and more – actually knit on machines. 

And it’s not only fashion students.  Apparently, more and more people are taking up hand and machine knitting.  National trends indicate that the number of young women who are knitting has doubled in the last few years.  That’s according to the Craft Yarn Council of American.  Their 2002 survey indicates that the number of women under 45 who have taken up knitting has risen from nine to 18 percent.  And when hand knitting becomes popular, so does machine knitting, according to Ruth, who travels about five times each year to provide instruction in machine knitting.  When she’s not on the road, she’s often to be found at DAAP, teaching UC students.

And though she loves seeing the designs students create in her studio courses, Ruth admits she didn’t precisely lay out a plan to become adept at machine knitting.  It all came about haphazardly but is probably rooted in her undergraduate degree and subsequent teaching career in mathematics. 

“Before I was married, I worked at General Electric, using my math degree.  Then, after the kids were a little older, I continued taking math courses at both UC and XU.  Finally, I began substitute teaching in the Greenhills/Forest Park School District, and pretty soon, I was teaching at Forest Park High School full time.  I stayed for nearly two decades.”

Ruth continues, “I started full-time teaching in 1969 and just about that time, I was shopping with a friend on Colerain Avenue.  While we were shopping, I saw a knitting machine in a yarn store.  I said, ‘I’d like that.’  So, I bought it even though I didn’t know how to machine knit.  I remember that since I was working, I felt I could just splurge like that, spending $350 without asking my husband.  No one in the store even knew how to use the machine.  At first, I had to learn via a correspondence course.”

When she wanted an attachment for that first knitting machine, Ruth became a dealer in machines (just so she could get the part she wanted at a cheaper price).  She later operated a store that sold knitting machines, continually increasing her expertise while also teaching others.  And that’s how Ruth finally made the connection to DAAP.

“Lots of fashion professors from UC came to the knitting shop, and both students and faculty came in for lessons.  Finally, one professor who was taking lessons asked that I come down and assist with classes.  Then, they asked me to teach, and that’s how I came to be here.”

Because a quarter only lasts ten weeks and the pressure is really on the students to learn machine knitting and to produce wearable garments in that time, Ruth admits that “they sweat bullets” in her studios.  She admits, “It’s always frustrating at first.  Someone is bound to say, ‘I’m quitting!  I just can get this stuff!’”

Ruth adds, “I just laugh and tell them I could be teaching them calculus, advanced analysis and advanced algebra.  I tell them that compared to teaching high school math, knitting is just plain fun… and elegance is always the result.  They are producing runway garments in eight to ten weeks.  They meet the challenge, and I’m privileged to witness that.”

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