How did I get here? starting with scarves

When I was sorting through my previous blog to find the few posts I knew I’d made about knitting, I found one back in the very distant past: December 2004, in fact. In that post, I talked about getting back into knitting, and buying these:

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That’s close to the start of me knitting as a grown up. It was the first time I can remember that I’d been in a real yarn store, rather than a general crafts store like Michael’s or Hobby Lobby, and it was amazingly seductive: all. those. colors. and. textures. It was beautiful, and I was smitten. In particular, I was dazed by the beauty of all the colors of yarns together in one place – which is still my problem in yarn stores: the displays of all the different colors together dazzle me, but then I have to pick just one, and whichever one I take home invariably falls a little short, sitting on its own, taken from its colorful context.

Anyway, I think this must have been during that time people were lured into knitting by the glitz and glamor of novelty yarns, because they’re what I seem to have noticed most. I wrote:

All the pretty colors! Fuzzy yarns and furry yarns!  There was one that was literally furry – it was one long narrow strip of purple suede with purple fur. (Can’t even imagine how my cats would respond to that.) Sparkly yarns! Soft yarns! Velvety yarns! Yarns made up of silk ribbons!

It’s kind of funny to read that, seeing how far novelty yarns have gone out of fashion, but they suckered me in, as I’m sure they did others.

The yarn I bought that day was relatively low on the novelty-spectrum, being (I think) mostly mohair of obnoxiously vibrant colors, and bulky and fuzzy rather than of some unusual construction. The nice lady at the store helped me decide on making a scarf, which was basically casting on a bunch of stitches and knitting 2×2 ribbing until I had a length I liked, and then finishing it with a fringe. I dug it out of the laundry basket where my winter accessories currently live:

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Isn’t it sad? I tried to take a pretty picture, but it’s dark here and the lighting is bad and I couldn’t pull it off. Even putting it in a prettier setting wasn’t going to help, though. Being crumpled in a laundry basket since we moved here hasn’t done it any favors, but I don’t think I ever blocked it, the 2×2 ribbing curls inward, that fringe… and bits have rubbed and felted since I finished it. Because I wore this, and happily, with pride. (To be fair, I still love these colors.)

Doesn’t everyone start with scarves, though? They’re so unintimidating. You don’t need to worry about gauge, or making sure you have enough yarn – you just knit a rectangle for a while, until you get the length you like, or you run out of yarn. They’re practical (for most climates), and not quite instant gratification, but your progress is pretty clear (especially if, like me, you use bulky yarn on really big needles). And even a not-very-good scarf does a great job of keeping you warm, bundled up round your neck under the collar of your coat, where no one can see any mistakes anyway. Scarves are great. I’m sure many knitting careers have been built on their long, skinny foundation.

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Sand painting (or, a little knowledge about Buddhism is a dangerous thing)

Tibetan Buddhist monks have a tradition of building mandalas, beautiful geometric symbols with spiritual meaning, out of colored sand. They spend days building the pattern, carefully and ritually, and then at the end, destroy the whole, to show the impermanence of material existence.

Sometimes knitting is a little like that.

Just about a year ago I finished knitting a short-sleeved pullover in Madelinetosh DK.

As of earlier this evening, this is what it looked like:

I had been pleased with the way it turned out, in that it turned out exactly as the pattern would lead you to expect. But I only wore it once, and realized that the pattern was not the best choice for me. The round yoke and cap sleeves were extremely flattering; the wide ribs/welts and the wide neck did lovely things to my shoulders and neck. But a ribbed body with basically no ease is not the best choice for someone who carries her weight in her middle and whose waist bears a marked resemblance to a barrel. I don’t know that it looked as unflattering to others as it did to me, and I would never tell anyone else not to wear this style. But since I, personally, don’t like drawing attention to my waist, I didn’t feel comfortable wearing it.

So tonight I sat down with the sweater in my lap, picked my way around the bottom hem till I found where I’d woven in the end of the cast-off, pulled it out, and ripped the whole thing back.

Now, on the one hand, comparing the creation and destruction of my sweater with a Buddhist mandala, is pretty self-aggrandizing and inaccurate. My sweater was utilitarian rather than spiritual, and rooted much more in display and vanity than ritual purification.

But on the other hand, there is a ritualistic, meditative quality both to making and unmaking a knitted object, especially when that object turned out “right.” You begin by repeating the same stitches over and over again, carefully following the pattern before you, to match an ideal. The result is an intricate pattern where each individual stitch contributes to a greater whole. Then, when the time comes, you reverse everything you’ve done, and release the labor put into the finished object back into the universe.

I also can’t say what Buddhist monks think about this process of creating and destroying. But what I find particularly interesting, as someone who is both type-A and materialistic, is that I find having completed the sweater satisfying in itself, and don’t at all regret ripping it out. You’d think the perfectionist in me would see the creation of something flawed as a failure, that the greedy consumer in me would hesitate to rip back because then I would have one less thing in my life, and that the efficiency-addict in me would gnash her teeth at the waste of time devoted to something I didn’t end up liking.

But I don’t feel any of the above. Instead, I feel satisfied that I finished a project I started, and equally satisfied that I was able to let it go. It’s much more prosaic and mundane than a sand painting, although in the original meaning of mundane: of this world, rather than spiritual; temporal, not universal. But I come away from ripping back with maybe a similar recognition that not everything is permanent and fixed, and that unmaking what we’ve made might provide some perspective on attachment to pretty things.

4388571679_dafc696ca8_bMonks sweeping away the colored sand mandala of Shri Hevajra, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal, © Wonderlane via flickr

Stratum part 1: escaping the tyranny of choice

I feel like color knitting is a big thing right now – partly because I see it showing up frequently in new patterns and books, and partly because I find myself drawn to it for the first time, ever, and I’m not really creative or independent-minded enough to pick up this kind of interest on my own.

(A while back the husband and I had a long conversation about what we’d name our hypothetical sprog, should we ever produce any, despite not intending to do so. We both agreed that we loved the name Isobel and would definitely name a daughter that, and congratulated ourselves on our originality. We didn’t know anyone named Isobel or with kids named Isobel. Neither of us had heard the name Isobel in popular culture. We were genius baby-name-pickers. We then looked at the then-current top 10 girls’ names and Isobel was number 3. I mean, it was spelled Isabelle, but really, same name. At that point I stopped worrying about being unique and accepted that I am entirely a creature of my time and place.)

However, while I’d like to give colorwork a shot, that’s a pretty big leap from my usual practice of knitting miles of stockinette. I figured it was safer to make a few, smaller jumps, and begin by knitting stripes:

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Stratum by Karolina Eckerdal, published in Brooklyn Tweed’s Wool People 8.

Apart from the stripes, I liked the lovely wide neck and the graceful A-line skirt, and the way the sweater has ample positive ease without looking shapeless or sack-like. (Why yes, this does sound like all the other sweaters I like.)

But then I had to pick colors.

I was determined to use yarn I already owned for this (I do not need to buy more yarn; someday I’ll show you how much I have kicking around). In fact, that was one of the reasons the stripes were so attractive to me: I have a number of random skeins of fingering weight yarns, none of which are enough to complete a solid sweater on their own, but can combine to make a striped one.

Stash diving is interesting, though. On the one hand, you have that feeling, “Do these yarns really go together, or have I just decided that they go together because they’re what I have? Am I really just letting my desire not to spend money disguise the fact that I’m making an ugly sweater?”

On the other hand, if you’re like me, it can be hard to get to yarn stores in person. It’s absolutely, utterly worth it, when you can. Local yarn stores are fully of pretty things and knowledgable people and it’s important to support them. But the few lovely yarn stores around here are open almost exactly the hours that I work, and sometimes you just can’t wait till the weekend to look at yarn. It’s often easier to trawl the internet tracking down yarn online.

So if you decide, “No, I will buy new yarn! I will choose the perfect colors that go together perfectly!”, but cannot get to the yarn store, you find yourself staring at swatches from about 17 different online sources at once, trying to line them all up on your laptop monitor at the same time that you weigh their fiber content and qualities and price, and simply end up stymying yourself into immobility.

(Or that might just be me.)

(Of course, I do this in yarn stores, too. If you’d like to kill a few hours doing nothing, come to a yarn store with me when I have the intent to buy yarn and also a budget. I’ll probably pick up and put down the same 5-6 skeins of yarns at least 62 times. It will be scintillating, I promise.)

So despite the little voice whispering in my ear, “But do the colors actually work together, or are they just convenient??”, it was actually a relief to limit myself to choosing from the few things in my stash that go together closely enough to be worth a shot. It’s not really surprising that I could come up with some plausible combinations, given that my stash is full of things that I’ve chosen, and I tend to like the same kinds of things over and over. (See: purple yarn; taupe nail polish.) But this is the first time I’ve really managed to make it work.

Besides, I don’t need another handknit wool sweater in the least – so there’s no pressure on this. If it turns out hideous, I’m no worse off than when I started, and I’ll have got some entertainment out of the process at least.

So soon I’ll talk about swatching for this sweater.

incomplete [originally written November 3, 2014]

Collectively, knitters seem to believe one of the worst parts of any project is finishing it – particularly seaming something you’ve knit in pieces (people who like seaming usually confess this with some degree of embarrassment). I’ve reached the seaming stage at the first sweater I’ve knit that requires seaming, and I think there’s something else to the distaste: seaming is the point at which you finally determine once and for all whether the sweater’s going to 1) look and fit as you intended, and 2) look good on you or not. I think putting off seaming is putting off that moment of truth, when you have face whether your hunch that this sweater would look ADORABLE on you was correct.

Which is to say that my latest project is only partially seamed:

purple sweater

You can’t quite tell from this picture, but this is knit in a sort of huge cross shape, with the criss-cross open stitches in the center. Then you fold the sweater in half across the open stitches and sew up the sides – et voila, a sweater. I’ve seamed one side, then tried it on, and had two thoughts: “This looks…okay?”, and “The neck needs to be bigger.” I started picking apart the bind-off around the neck, which was going reallllly sloooooowwwly – and then stuffed it in its project bag and started something new.

I will finish it. I WANT to finish it. But maybe not right this moment.

purple sweater shoulder

(For the record, it’s the Lea pullover from the Summer 2014 Knitscene, and it’s an easy and lovely pattern [I found the drop-stitch criss-crosses tedious, but then, I find anything more complex than stockinette tedious].  And the recommended yarn, Classic Elite’s Firefly, blocks out into a lovely cool drapey fabric. The wrinkles in the picture are just from me stuffing it back in its project bag – it washes up very nicely.)

Now, if you knit a sweater in the round, you don’t generally have to seam it at all. And if you knit in-the-round from the top down, you can try it on as you go. You may not get a completely accurate assessment of how well it fits you, since most yarns are a little different after you wash them, and so if you use unwashed/blocked yarn to assess size, you’re not going to get the most accurate results. But the plus of trying on as you go is that you largely avoid that fatal moment of “so THAT’s what this looks like!”

So, for instance, there’s this:

green sweater 1

Knitting this was less of a leap of faith than knitting the sweater above. You start at the top with the shoulders, knit down through the body, then add the sleeves and the collar (can’t remember which order I did them in). You see the sweater taking shape bit by bit as you knit, rather than in one fell swoop at the end when you assemble. So there is no great reveal at the end, which is maybe why this sweater is complete, and just waiting for cooler weather (to the extent we get cool weather here).

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Knitting is my current free-time obsession. It’s an extremely zen occupation, except when it’s not, when there’s quite a lot of cursing. It’s a little bit like music, in that it’s physical without being exercies, requires pleasant concentration, and is completely different from what I do for a living. It’s pretty much how I’ve been spending my time, in the time that I haven’t been posting here.

I’ve spent most of my blogging time writing about negotiating a work identity, in part because I never had any real boundary between work and life. But now, I’m trying really hard to keep work and home separate. In my current job, I have worked at home, but not very often; I work late, and sometimes I work on the weekends. But I would rather stay late at the office or go in on the weekend than bring work home these days. And I would rather not think about or worry about or puzzle over work unless I’m at work.

So instead, today I’ve offered you observations about what happens when you manipulate pretty string with sticks.

Edit, March 1, 2015: I actually ended up frogging the purple sweater. I loved the fabric and the basic shape, but the drop stitches ended up looked messier than works for my personal style, and I didn’t like that I had to wear a tank or the like underneath it. The sweater has had its revenge, though – either the front or the back refuses to rip back like a sensible piece of knitting, and I’ve been forced to pick the stitches out almost one by one. The resulting yarn has tangled itself into an indomitable snarl, which I’ve shoved in a ziploc for some future reckoning. 

weekend update [originally written October 8, 2012, in another desert state]

I don’t buy the idea that people from the east coast are brasher, ruder, more arrogant than people from other parts of the country. (I think it’s just different communication styles/expectations.) But if it were true that east coast people are more arrogant than west coast people, I’d be tempted to blame the landscape.

Saturday I drove to the northern part of my state for a fiber festival (hey, I’m a yarn geek). Towards the end of the drive, you wind through some mountain passes, following the bends of a river, and then start climbing up and up. Then you come to the top of the peak, and a vast green plain opens up before you. It’s ringed with mountains – and I mean, mountains; there are, ostensibly, mountains where I went to college, for instance, but these look completely different. And dividing the plain is a huge crack in the earth, a jagged brown gorge ripping through the green.

I felt very, very small. Not in a bad way. But small.

The northeast is beautiful, and grand, but on a more human scale. And in the built-up cities, what towers above you is an artificial landscape made by humans.

The west just seems to put you in a completely different relation to the universe.

* * * * *

The fiber festival was fun – it’s always neat to be surrounded by beautiful yarn, and fleeces, and wool and leather products. There were alpaca, and fluffy angora bunnies who looked used to being waited on hand and foot. It’s also a highly feminized space, without being about beauty or fashion or other things relating to one’s looks. (I was going to say “or shopping,” but at least it’s shopping for the raw materials from which to make things. It’s consumerism, but consumerism that facilitates beautiful craftwork. Or even half-assed and not very attractive craftwork, but still something productive. Well, okay, most knitters I know have ridiculous stashes of yarn, but still, the potential for production is there.) Also, there are a lot of older women. Really, it’s very different from the average media portrayal of women, which is quite lovely.

* * * *

The town is beautiful – historic, artistic, physically gorgeous. But it was a little jarring to drive through some very impoverished parts of the state, including lots of Indian country, passing lots of little beat-up towns with rickety mobile homes – and then land in this middle of this highly touristic, precious little town filled with wealthy older white people. I mean, I’m white, and in the grand scheme of the world, I’m not badly off, and soon enough I will be one of these people. I’m not saying they’re bad people. Just that it was jarring.

* * * *

The trip left me a little torn, actually. One way of looking at it is: I drove 5 hours to spend 3 hours looking at things to buy, and I spent $30 on a (large) skein of yarn, when I could have driven 10 minutes to the yarn store nearby and bought the same amount of yarn for probably less money.

Of course, the other way of looking at it is: I got to see quite a bit more of this state, I did something with my weekend besides sit and stare at the TV or the computer or both, I mingled with other people who love the same hobby that I do, and I commemorated the day with lovely yarn dyed by a local/regional dyer whose products aren’t sold in your average yarn store.

(It is awfully pretty yarn – see? Though LDH was like, “Oh, it’s purple – I’m SHOCKED.” I kind of have a thing for purple yarns.)

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So, that was my adventure for the weekend. What about you? Did you do anything fun?