When Scientists Design

This DNA scarf, which I mentioned in an earlier post, is now in the hands (and around the neck) of my cousin Matt. Matt has always been a big fan of my knitting, so I knew he’d appreciate pretty much anything I made for him. As a post-doctoral fellow in chemistry, I figured he’d get a good laugh out of receiving a scarf with a double-helix, and from a knitting perspective, this pattern was easily the best one out there on the ‘net. Little did I know, it’s also a slam dunk from a scientific perspective.

For one thing, the DNA on this scarf twists around to the right, regardless of the direction of the scarf. As Matt explained to me, this is called the “right-handedness” of DNA; if you were to place your thumb on one of the strands, you would have to twist your hand around rightwards in order to follow the strand upwards. The second big feature of the scarf is the asymmetrical quality of the double helix. See how the pattern shifts from side to side? This is because the two strands of DNA are not evenly spaced apart. The double helix has ” . . . a major groove and a minor groove.” (Thank you again, Matt.) Lastly, the scarf pattern features the correct number of base pairs (ie. ladder rungs) between turns of the helix.

Many visual representations of DNA blow it on one or all of these counts. Like, for example, this Israeli postage stamp:

The internet is rife with these kinds of errors, but the most egregious example is in the real world, and something of which I don’t have a photograph——a paperweight from the gift shop at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Which was, until last October, run by James Watson. As in Watson and Crick, two of the three scientists behind the discovery of DNA.

Why am I boring you with all of this? It shows what happens when we place ourselves in the care of a really good knitting designer. Not only was the pattern for this scarf easy to follow and fun to knit, but June Oshiro actually tricked me into creating an accurate representation of DNA, something I most certainly could not have done on my own. I’m not a scientist, but I hope that the patterns that I’ve put out into the world result in hand-knit items with even half the elegance.

Note to scientists: Did I make any errors in this post? Don’t be shy about letting me know.


  • Noelle says:

    I’m a scientist, but not one with DNA expertise. HOWEVER, your post still made my day–I’m always happy to see science and art complimenting each other, and gratified to see this kind of care put into a scarf design. Off to put it in my Ravelry queue. 🙂 Glad you’re back (if only sporadically).

  • sakurasaku says:

    Great post! I’m a scientist, but I’m in a different discipline and know next to nothing about DNAs. Anyway, I really appreciate your graceful treatment of the relationship between art and science in this entry.

    And I’m very happy to find that you are still blogging about knitting!

  • Marsha says:

    Thanks for pointing me toward this design. It looks fun to knit!

    I can’t say anything about the accuracy of the DNA talk in your post (other than “it looks fine to me, a total nonscientist”), but there is one tiny error there: James Watson is no longer the director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He retired last October.

  • yarn boy says:

    Thanks Marsha! I’ll make the correction presently.

  • Liz says:

    I don’t care if you made any errors in your post, I’m just very glad to see you posting again! Hope you keep it up.

  • M Ward says:

    So I’ve wanted to make this for a long time, but the accuracy of it pushed me over the edge. Now I just need to decide if a scarf is appropriate for a May birthday, or if I need to wait until Christmas. *laugh*

  • stariel says:

    I am a scientist and I *do* study DNA – the scarf is pretty accurate. I seem to recall that some friends of mine measured it and decided it wasn’t to scale or the angles weren’t quite right. Not sure which, I was just happy it had both the major and minor groove. Also the base pairs are slightly asymmetrical which isn’t shown in the knitted pattern – it just shows each pair as a bar with no distinction between the two bases. That would be ridiculously hard to do in any case, so I wouldn’t expect it, although I did hear of someone trying to make a DNA scarf that encoded an actual gene by using colors for the bases…

  • Rose says:

    But seriously, that is the coolest design I have ever seen.

  • VikingWarriorPrincess says:

    as stariel said, this wonderful scarf is probably as accurate as you can get if you knit DNA. One fellow research student at my lab introduced me to this pattern, she is industriously knitting away on her DNA scarf while I still have not got around to it (currently bogged down by all the amazing lace patterns I just discovered, am trying to tech myself lace knitting) I will knit it and wear it to my graduation, very appropriate since I will get a degree in genetics…
    have a happy knitting day!

  • Patti from Ottawa says:

    I loved that you linked to Rosalind Franklin in the bit about the THREE scientists who “elucidated” – great science word – the structure of DNA. Did you know that this scarf was actually featured on the cover of Nature magazine, a great iconic scientific publication? I love that. Nice scarf!

  • Hello! I’m new to your blog. how do i get my hands on this hysterical pattern?

  • moo says:

    didn’t look at your blog for a while
    you seem sad if your bird left at least you have people who love your thoughts please ignore me if my thoughts aren’t intelligent enough PS how about croqueting? I want to make a hat, gloves, scarf and socks for my sister’s 50th birthday on March 3 2009.So I’m looking for patterns for any and all of these.I first read your blog about 3 years ago. I loved seeing photos of you and your girl. Thanks mate

  • Jenny says:

    I am almost done knitting mine. My scarf will be two metres as thats how much dna we have in eac cell if you were to unravel it

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