Knits in Odd Places

Typing is hard this week, which is just great, because I type for a living. I can’t whine too much, of course, because the reason for the difficulty is my own stupidity. On Monday, I acquired a finger avulsion, which is a fancy-schmancy way of saying that in my dumbassery, I lopped off the tip of my finger by not using the safety guard for my mandoline slicer that was LITERALLY on top of the damn thing when I took it out of the box.

Don’t cook distracted, people. Extremities may be lost.

Being the daughter of a man who has avulsed (avulated? avulted? avunculared?) most of his fingertips multiple times, my initial response was, “Eh, it’s fine. Just give me some paper towels and some duct tape.”

Note 1: That may have come a minute or two after the excessive hopping and “Ow, ow, ow, ow”-ing around  the kitchen.

Note 2: The duct tape may have been covered in Hello Kitty faces.

I did have to do some contortionist lying down with my feet up and my hand above my head, but it wasn’t because I was losing tons of blood. I just don’t bleed well. Seriously I’m on the Red Cross “Don’t let this gal donate because she’ll crumple at the snack table EVERY TIME” list. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I recognize the “on my way to blacking out” feeling well enough in advance of blacking out that I can do what I need to do.

John’s poor dad was here helping John take out a stump, though, and he’s a much nicer person than his son. John knows me, so his reaction to my laying down dramatically in the living room while bleeding is to wait and see if I tell him I need anything. John’s dad, on the other hand, was sweetness itself, though I felt bad at just how alarmed for me he was.

As it turns out, his suggestions that we go to the doctor was the correct one. Even though I had iced the finger, applied pressure for several hours, and swapped the paper towels for gauze from our spiffy first aid kit (given to us by John’s sister, incidentally, in what I would call prophetic if I didn’t have a propensity for self-injury on a stupid scale), the bleeding wouldn’t quite let up. When I woke up in the morning, the gauze was soaked through.

The best first aid instructor I ever had told the class that even bleeding a little will kill you if it goes on long enough, so I decided that 18 hours of minor bleeding was cause to let a pro take a stab (ow, bad metaphor) at bandaging me up. It hurt and they made me update my Tdap, but it was totally worth it, bot only because they used their sci-fi-like “gel-impregnated foam” (doctor’s exact words, I kid you not) to stop the bleeding, but because of this:

IMG_0991

Do you see that, knitters? That happy little gauze bandage marching up and down my finger is knit. Proof positive that knitting save lives. Or fingers. Or at least dry cleaning bills…

 

On Why

I’ve been struggling lately with where to put my creative focus. It’s not a problem I should be complaining about, really–an overabundance of ideas is a good thing, not a bad thing. The trouble is that when you have too many things you’re excited about, it feels like gross neglect of all of your other projects when you sit down and focus on one.

For me, this leads to a lot of fairly paralyzed couch time where I stare at my knitting basket and my computer and ponder my options, which is in itself a problem because pondering what to do inevitably leads to “Why do it?” and that question is perhaps the most sadistic bastard occupying any artist’s subconscious.

John and I were discussing this last night–he also has a tendency to get hung up on the why. We agree that there’s a certain social pressure on art to be meaningful in a very specific way. That is, art isn’t art unless it comes from a really dark place. That doesn’t really work for me though, because my dark places aren’t all that dark. They’re more angry and commonplace, and dwelling on them to create doesn’t give me a lot of joy or peace of mind.

Whatever I may be as a writer, a Sylvia Plath I am not. Nor, let’s be brutally honest, would I want to be. I’d rather be content than have that experiential edge that would enable me to create the painful work that hold the high place of honor in our art. I see no reason for a bit of fluff and nonsense to not be capable of achieving that high art status, but not knowing how to bridge the gap between a feel-good YA fantasy and literature that will outlive me, I spend a lot of time in paralyzed thought.

Which pushes me into knitting…because there, at least, I suspect that a book on how to create your own style of seamless dragon will be met with the delight it’s meant to engender.

 

A Writer’s Winter

I haven’t posted a word in over a month, not here anyway. What little extra energy I’ve had has gone into my fibers and writing about them. There are new posts over at Variations on a String if you care to read them, but you may not. That’s okay.  Aside from the uninspired prose describing my adventures with fiber, I haven’t written much since the beginning of December. Not here, not on the book I’m supposed to be finishing, and definitely not on the book I need to finish revising so I can send it out to potential agents.

Sometimes I feel like I spend a vast amount of time apologizing for not writing more regularly. I apologize on here, as if saying “I’m sorry for not being more consistent” is going to improve my SEO, or as if it’s going to make a difference to the very few people who actually visit this blog for my little essays on life. I apologize to myself for not working on my book. “Tomorrow,” I promise. “Tomorrow I’ll write an extra thousand words, honestly.” Sometimes I keep my promises, but not all that often.

I’ve always had a romanticized idea of the life of a writer involving waking up early and padding barefoot to the computer to write an inspired several thousand words before breakfast. I have this idea, because that has more or less been my process.  What I am discovering, however, is that the several thousand words that come so easily you can churn them out before your stomach insists on “At least a piece of toast, come on woman, feed me!” are not the words you want anyone else to read. They require intense editing, at best, and more realistically, complete restructuring.

Writers are architects and demolitionists. We’re like two-year-olds, endlessly setting up a block tower only to knock it down. We’re masochistic two-year-olds, though, because the knocking down doesn’t bring a whole lot of glee. I find it to be difficult mental work and taxing on my confidence in my ability to succeed.

Knitting and spinning and carding and sewing are the winter of my brain’s garden. While my hands work, my mind can lay fallow for a while, giving the soil a chance to rest and the bulbs of my creativity a chance to prepare to spring and bloom. I do not believe in the ever-dreaded writer’s block: only winter. Winter can last too long and kill the crop with cold, I’ll grant you, but that doesn’t mean it has no function. If I don’t write, it’s not laziness, really. It’s winter.

And if you’re just not buying that, well, be merciful because life is life. Between the holidays, the relentless colds associated with childcare, and planning for a major life change in the nearer-than-expected future, I don’t know when I’ll have the energy and focus to spend on blogging regularly again. In the meantime, please accept this humble offering of proof that I have not only been sitting on my rump eating chocolate and watching Deep Space Nine.

 

The fleece I washed on the hammock John helped me make.
A case I made for my interchangeable knitting needles.
A necklace tree I made so I could toss all the little boxes.
Yarn I spun and plied on a spindle, on a niddy-noddy John helped me make.

TNQDE: Knot One

While I was working on my master’s, part of my coursework was to teach something to a classmate using the particular philosophy and methodology the class was discussing. I chose to teach knitting, mostly because it was the only unique skill I could actually get away with claiming mastery in for three lessons in a row without getting food involved (which would have demanded kitchen space no one in the class really had). I love the way the results of the first lesson connect to today’s word.

“knit”

The idea of critical exploration is to help a student find a way to discover a piece of information for themselves. In knitting, you begin by getting loops onto the needle, which is called “casting on.” There are many ways of doing this so that the loops will stay and many, many more ways of doing it that the loops will fall right off. When I presented this challenge to my student, she landed upon hand-tying individual knots that were unevenly spaced and completely rigid, but definitely and edge you could start from. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional.

“Knit” comes from Middle English knitten, which means “to tie in a knot,” according to the AHCD.  This form stems from the Old English cnyttan, presumably meaning the same thing. How long the term and concept has applied to the idea of the yarn craft, I can only guess. (Well, someone might know, but that someone doesn’t edit the AHCD. : ) If I had to guess, I’d imagine that the term came through English’s Germanic origins, possibly borrowing from Scandinavian neighbors.

Wherever it came from originally, the person who named it in English had it right. Knitting is still, essentially, just a fancy way of tying knots.

 

 

Stash Monster

Quite frankly, I’m starting to worry. I’ve read of other knitters who have issues with stash management and I’ve laughed politely at their woes. They lose track of their needles? Of how many they have? They have unfinished projects hogging perfectly good needles and sending them out to buy more? How cute. I have shaken my head and chuckled at the trials of disorganized people who can’t stick to one project at a time.

Christmas is coming. Did I mention that? It came to my house last weekend in the form of a very expensive care package from my mother, containing a boatload of yarn. I will never say no to a gift of yarn…no, that’s not true. I have met yarns that I would not let within a ten-foot radius of my stash, but given that ninety-five percent of my projects to date have been made with acrylics (not always the nicer ones either), I can honestly say that the pool of yarns I will reject utterly is quite small. That being said, of the said boatload lovingly sent and adoringly received, only two small skeins actually relate to projects I had planned on doing. My mother, you see, has a habit of introducing me to Things I Had No Idea I Needed In My Life.

Like toys. Last year, I went to visit my parents during one of my school breaks. On the way to drop me at the bus station to head home, Mom and I stopped in at A.C. Moore and she filled my suitcase with supplies (yarns, needles, and a book) pertaining to the creation of knitted bears. I had been accustomed to being the sort of person who was torn between laughing at people who knit toys and secretly admiring the prowess in whipping up cuteness out of thin air and string. Now I am officially in the camp of people who can whip up cuteness out of thin air and string and like it.

The most recent surprise attack of inspiration for creative genius was earrings. Mom was inspired to buy me more than 400 yards of sock yarn for a project that requires approximately 6, which means that I now need to make approximately 66.6 pairs of sock earrings before Christmas. A numerical coincidence? I think not.

Still, the project is so small and tempting that I had a hard time restraining myself from casting on the moment I managed to wind the yarn. (Not a small time requirement–I have only recently graduated from working mostly in worsted, and it was only in winding this massive hank of superfine yarn that I suddenly understood why people invest money and craft space in ball winders.) I had to finish the ears and eyes of a stuffed toy, and being an “organized knitter,” I didn’t want to start another project before I finished those ears. I therefore decided to stay up long past midnight working short rows in an almost flat round to finish the ears. Because keeping careful stitch count when you can barely keep your eyes open is a smart way to knit.

Who’s laughing now?

I am, actually, because my natural airheadedness has led me to develop a great capacity for laughing at myself. The ear of this particular toy is worked over 32 rounds. How many rounds did I knit before I realize I was following the instructions for the arm? Fourteen. I don’t care how tired you are–nearly fifty percent of an ear finished is far too much to knit without noticing that you’ve got an arm protruding from the side of a stuffed toy’s head where an ear ought to be.

After a few, brief hours of slumber, I did manage to rip out the arm and replace it with an ear. We won’t discuss the state of the grafting at the top of that ear…I’m just going to hope that the young recipient is not a skilled knitter. After my epic struggle with what was meant to be a simple Kitchener stitch, I was hesitant to move on to something new, but I attempted the earrings. Given the results, I may stick to earrings. I have more of a knack for them, it would seem, because I managed to turn out two pairs in one day with no particular catastrophes.

So here’s my new plan: everyone is getting earrings for Christmas. Even Dad. Now the only question is of what to do with the yarn monster in my living room that threatens to obtain sentience if I don’t turn it into a pile of presents before Christmas.

That, of course, is why I have cats.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s Christmastime again. No? Christmas isn’t until December? Clearly, you are not a crafter. If I let myself believe that Christmas is not until December, no one would get anything but gift cards from me. This weekend I went out and bought my first round of project-specific gift yarn. Already, I have a growing stack of quick little projects knit from my stash.

I always feel a little guilty giving people projects knit from my stash, actually. Almost half of the yarn that’s in there has either been bought on super deep clearance of given to me by other crafters who no longer wanted it. Last year, for example, my mother gave me a huge pile of red and gold Lion Brand Homespun that was meant to be turned into a Gryffindor scarf for my sister Cho. Mom hated working with the stuff and couldn’t bring herself to make a full scarf out of it. I took the yarn and with it the task. In my arrogance, I thought my medium of knitting would be better suited to the task.

Did you just hear that boom? That wasn’t thunder. It was the gods of knitting shaking with laughter.

I didn’t really need to use a pattern for the scarf, but I looked around for ideas to keep the edge from curling. I decided that the best advice was to knit the scarf in a tube, which means casting on twice as many stitches as you normally would in order to get a fabric that is twice as thick. It also meant knitting in the round, which is fine, but I’m a bit cheap when it comes to acquiring new tools. The most suitable needle in my case was a circular two sizes smaller than the recommended gauge for the yarn. “No problem,” I thought. I often knit with smaller-than-recommended needles because I like to make toys and the tight fabric is good for keeping the stuffing in.

In my mind, as I cast on, this scarf was going to be the easiest project I was doing that year. I mentally started planning ahead for more difficult projects because this one just wasn’t going to fill up enough time. I also started thinking about what else I should give Cho. After all, I had gotten the yarn for free, and this scarf was going to be so simple that it hardly seemed like a gift fit for a beloved sister.

The knitting gods are laughing again.

First of all, let me tell you something: eighty stitches for a bulky-yarn scarf is just too darn many. Forty stitches is too many, but I didn’t want to skimp on the width. This scarf was for my sister, after all. Let me tell you something else: two sizes too small is a bad idea with LB Homespun, especially if you normally need a size up to meet gauge because you knit with high tension like me. And one more thing: remember that the wider you make a scarf, the longer you’ll want to make it to give it proper scarfly proportions.

Three rows measured about half an inch and it took me 45 minutes to knit that far. (I measure my progress by how much  I get done during a typical t.v. show). I was working stockinette stitch, which means that my slowness was not a matter of getting used to the stitch. There was no getting used to that darn yarn. It split at every opportunity. It clung to other stitches. Stitches slipped off the needles every time I turned my back and hid stealthily amidst the curly refuge of the fabric. I am not a swearing person most of the time, but I believe a sailor could learn a lesson or two from what I had to say to that scarf. And did I mention I was working in stockinette stitch? In the round? Stitches, stitches everywhere, and not a single purl. Or increase. Or decrease. Or yarn over. Not only was it difficult…it was BORING.

John and I took to calling it the “Hateful Scarf.” I pulled out my ruler every few rows and wanted to cry every time I had to keep working in the same color. I began to worry about giving the scarf to my sister. How could something knit with so much venom towards the yarn ever be trusted to lie docile around my dear sister’s neck? Would the ill-will I bore Lion Brand at that moment rise up to strangle my sister on some evil skating trip? I tried saying nice things to the scarf as I knit, bottling up the vengeful wrath to be released out-of-range of the scarf’s hearing.

The only thing that kept me from frogging the project was thinking of the person I was making it for. This row is for the time we performed the execution scene from A Tale of Two Cities on the landing at school when we thought no one was around and earned ourselves a funny look from a history teacher. This row is for the time we sang “The Boxer” at the top of our lungs in the hall behind the P.A.C. This row is for being the first person to bring a Harry Potter book into our home. This is for the scratch we put in the basement ceiling while fencing with and umbrella and a music stand. This is for the story she wrote about alien banana invaders. This row is for the light bulb she gave me for graduating high school. And finally…these tassels are for the spiders I woke her up in the middle of the night to kill and the hundred times I went into her room to borrow the dictionary and stayed three hours, distracting her from your schoolwork.

When I tied off the last tassel and lifted the scarf from my blocking mat, all I could think was, “It’s huge.” I didn’t make a scarf to fit Harry Potter. I made a scarf to fit Hagrid…or possibly his giantess mother. This soft monster could bring mere mortals to their knees with nothing but it’s cozy hug. My sister is no fainting flower, but she wouldn’t exactly meet the height standards of the NBA either. At that point, as close to Christmas as we were, I just shook my head and sighed. It might strangle her or break her back, but I knit the serpentine beast and darn it, she was going to wear it and like it. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out it was teaching her Parseltongue.)

Thankfully, Cho is either a really good actor (um, yeah, no) or she loved the scarf in spite of its enormity. Possibly because of it. Possibly because she has an instinctive understanding of what went into the blasted thing.

Creating such monuments to my familial devotion, you now see, would be entirely impossible if Christmastime started after Thanksgiving. If I give you nothing but socks for Christmas, know that each sock represents 6-8 hours of contemplating everything I love about you, all of which compelled me to turn a heel and graft a toe. Twice. (If you only get one sock, of course, you might want to sit and think about what you’ve done.) In a way, I think homemade presents are a blessing to the maker as well, because they put us in the holiday spirit of love and kindness several months earlier. There’s a New Year’s resolution for you–want to keep Christmas all the year? Pick up knitting.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to see some yarn about an elephant.

 

Did You Miss Me?

So, didya? I’m sorry I’ve been so neglectful of my beloved readers this past week, but life and blogging consistently don’t always go hand in hand. By way of apology, please accept this post that has photos AND a bonus etymology at the end.

Last week, instead of writing, I traveled to Maine to help out with the annual TechMaine gala. My primary reason for driving up there was to deliver a piece of art that the board had commissioned from me. Their theme this year was “A Spectacular Spectacle.” Do you think the table art lived up to its name?

John helped me design and create these foamcore beauties so they were modular. They could be set up with the earpieces, as shown here, or mounted onto the white and blue board underneath them, like this:

Tres bien, n’est-ce pas? The TechMaine folks appreciated them anyway…

I had a few other work-related things to do in Portland, but I could easily be persuaded to drive to Portland for less. I got a chance to catch up in person with several of the loveliest human beings I know and meander aimlessly around my old college stomping grounds. I didn’t realize this until I was wandering around the farmers’ market waiting for a text from a friend, but I had barely set foot in Portland since John and I got married, almost three years ago. That is not an acceptable state of affairs. Portland is too close to my heart and too full of people I adore for me to stay away that long again.

Case in point: I stayed with one of my closest friends, who unintentionally reminded me of something about friendship. She’s been traveling around since last we kept company and has been picking up little elephant tchotchkes for me here and there.

Cute, right? I was a little baffled by the elephants when she first mentioned she had them for me until she reminded me of a conversation we had a while back. Sometime in college, I had a little epiphany about why elephants strike a resonant chord with me. Elephants are, in a way, my personal totem, but that’s not a fact I’ve made a habit of trumpeting to the world. It’s just a little piece of me that sits in the back of my brain in a place as dusty as the shelf I ended up putting this little guy on. (It’s not dusty from lack of use. Dusting just isn’t usually a priority for me.) The gift of the little elephants was a lovely reminder of how friends keep important bits of us alive in their memories and help us remember who we are.

In amidst catching up with friends and family, getting a pedicure, working, eating out (another reason to love Portland), and shopping (I would put up a picture of the dress my mom found for me, but that might make this post NSFW ; ), I also did a fair amount of driving. When I got back Friday night, I crashed hard and then had to get up in the morning to drive to a four-hour training in Boston. When I finally got home to stay Saturday afternoon, I didn’t really feel like doing much. My Sunday and Monday were dedicated to cooking some duck (with sweet potatoes, swiss chard and strawberry empanadas, yum) and sitting on the couch like a lump working on my new knitting project bag (that is, my new bag for holding knitting projects):

The sewing machine I have barely works, so you are looking at bag and a lining that were pieced together entirely by hand. Oh yes, my friends, home-ec has its usefulness. And that is what I have been doing instead of writing. In case that’s not enough, here’s the long-awaited conclusion to my two-part etymology series on 19th-century fashion…

“corset”

“Corset” is one of those fun words that came from Old French even though it had a counterpart in Middle English: “Bodice.” As with the difference between “beef” and “cow,” the French word quickly came to have a more specialized meaning, but the roots of the words are almost identical. “Bodice” is simply an alteration of the plural of “body.” “Corset” is a diminutive form of the Old French cors, which means body and comes from the Latin corpus, which means, you guessed it, “body.”

Would it surprise you to learn that corpus is also the root word for “corpse”? No, I didn’t think so. I’ll leave you to fill in your own snarky commentary about the fashion industry, as long as you promise to twist the connotative history without mercy.

 

Roses from a Quagmire

I’m in a quagmire. Isn’t that a great word? Maybe I’ll use it for TNQDE tomorrow. Great as the word is, however, the state of mind is not. Great, that is. Not great at all. John’s in a similar state of mind and between the two of us, we’re just getting loads done.

Actually, I am getting a lot done. Saturday I did laundry, went grocery shopping, cooked a turkey dinner, did a little freelance project for a friend, and finished reading a book. Sunday I made coleslaw and beans, did a little more freelance work, applied for a summer job, and finished my lesson planning for the week. The weekend was extremely productive. The problem is…that’s not what I wanted to accomplish this weekend.

One of my sister’s had a birthday a couple weeks ago. Believe it or not, I bought the yarn for her gift and started planning the project before her actual birthday. As of yet, her present is uncompleted. Why? Because I’m in a quagmire. I started off the project by taking out books from the library, making a gauge swatch, test knitting the tricky bits of the pattern I’m writing, but… the first try still came out all wrong in every way. The second try came out wrong in exactly the opposite ways. The good thing is that I have worked out the kinks and now have a working pattern. I just can’t find the enthusiasm for taking apart and remaking the project yet again, so I have very productively avoided thinking about it for the past two weeks.

(Joy, when you finally get your present, it will be a work of skill and art, I promise. No shortcuts on this gift. Also, did I mention how proud of you I am for getting into grad school? Raise the roof!)

John is in a similar place with his website, which he decided to make more or less from scratch himself. He’s got all the design skills, but only the beginnings of the coding skills, so he’s been fighting the same battle. Just when he thinks he’s got something that works, he discovers a reason that it won’t work and that will, in fact, require him to start over completely. Two weeks ago, he spent the entire weekend at his computer, hacking (I say in the most geek-complimentary sense possible) away at the code. Today he’s been playing computer games (except for a break to help me in the kitchen) and why? Because he’s in a quagmire.

Neither of us wasted time or effort on our preliminary attempts. I am a firm believe in the power of failure to teach and inform later attempts. What we have learned will stick with us and make our future projects that much easier and more likely to succeed on the first try. I’m just currently stuck in the mud of mental exhaustion. Every time I look at my project bag, my brain screams, “But I already did that. Twice!” Failure may generate the steam for two more tries, but it certainly doesn’t generate the enthusiasm.

No sir, it doesn’t. Fortunately, when I need a pep talk to find the magic in the wake of a fiasco, I can always count on Lionel Jeffries to perk me up…

The Roses of Success

On Scribd: Apnea Oliphant

My mother recently started wearing a mask at night for sleep apnea, which my parents jokingly refer to as her “elephant nose.” I thought it wasn’t quite fair that she should have to endure the embarrassment all on her own, so I threw together an elephantine nose warmer to help my dad empathize with her. Here’s the pattern, for anyone who could use a little chuckle.

Apnea Oliphant (Click to download or print.)

 

On Scribd: Butterflies on the Lattice

I was going to write you a nice long story about the epic journey I’ve been enmeshed in over the past four days as I designed my first real knitting pattern, but the thing about epic journeys is that they don’t leave you a lot of energy to work with when you get home. My brain feels like it’s been in labor for something like 96 hours…which actually fits rather well with the conversation John and I were having earlier about being a “co-creative” couple instead a “procreative” couple. We’ve decided that we’re better suited for contributing to the memetic pool than the genetic pool, which I may blog more about later.

For the moment, I have only these announcements:

1. I’m on Ravelry now, so look me up if you’re there too.

2. I’m thinking about starting an etymology-of-the-days-I-don’t-otherwise-blog section, so keep an eye out for that and send me words you would like to know the history of.

3. Here’s the pattern I’ve been slaving away at designing and testing this weekend. Leave a comment if you have a question or correction!

Snazzy photo credits go to John, as usual.

Butterflies on the Lattice (Click to download or print.)