Not knitting, but still making things 

That is, I am still knitting, but this post is not about knitting, but about branching out.

A couple of months back, sort of on the spur of the moment, I bought a sewing machine.  IMG_0045I wasn’t absolutely sure what I would use it for or how often, but at the least I wanted to learn how to work it and be able to do basic repairs like hemming pants and shortening tops (do other people do this/want to do this? Almost every top I try on is too long to look good untucked and too short to be a tunic). And I harbored a secret hope that I could learn to make myself clothes that don’t just fit, but fit ME. The husband approved, even expressing interest in making shirts for himself. (He does tend to leap into the deep end of things.)

A couple of weeks later, I posted my first foray into machine sewing on Instagram. I figured out how to load the bobbin and thread the machine and use the various functions (it’s an amazing machine for what it cost, but it’s a pretty basic one because I’m not exactly engaged in complicated endeavors here). I doodled around a bit figuring out how to sew in reasonably straight lines and what the different stitches do.

Last weekend, I actually tried making things. And it was SO much fun!

An “intro to sewing” book I’d bought had some patterns, so I started (over ambitiously) with a toy elephant. The results weren’t pretty:

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I mean, it’s recognizably elephantine (minus ears, tail, and stuffing), but the seams are…wonky, to be kind, and my whole pinning/sewing something that three-dimensional didn’t work very well.

So then I backed up, and decided to try making one of the Purl Bee‘s Easy Drawstring Bags.

IMG_0417currently lacking drawstring

That went MUCH better – but then, everything is square or rectangular or straight lined, so much much easier for me to handle. And even then I managed to sew the corners to each other the first time I tackled creating the little gusset (practice unpicking seams!).

What amazed me was how different sewing felt from knitting. On the one hand, that’s a duh! kind of statement – of course sewing cloth and knitting yarn are absolutely different. But I hadn’t realized how much my adult ideas about crafting had been shaped by knitting – primarily that you can do it in fits and spurts, in front of the TV, or while reading a book, or wherever you find yourself (assuming you’re not in the midst of really complicated lace or trying to seam a sweater or the like).

Sewing seems much more all-encompassing – I can’t imagine how you could really do anything else at the same time besides sew. I listened to some podcasts, but that (or having music/the TV/a movie on generally as background) is as far as I can see it going. Partly, this is because of the logistics of machine sewing. My machine is incredibly light (it’s advertised as suitable for taking to sewing classes), but using it requires a table top of certain dimensions, and I’m not going to haul it all over the house (which I do with my knitting), so it lives upstairs, in our loft. I would imagine that if I were hand-sewing, some of that might be more portable and easier to have in my lap and work on in front of the TV.

But mostly sewing just seemed to engage a different part of my mental processes than knitting. When knitting is going really well for me, when the yarn is flying off the needles (in fabric, not lost stitches), it’s almost mindless. It’s automatic. There’s a reason so many patterns talk about how easy their stitch pattern is to memorize. I enjoy the knitting process, but in a zen, meditative kind of way, in which the repetitive motion of the fingers allows the mind to wander in all kinds of directions (admittedly periodically jumping back from time to time to check whether the YOs are in the right place and so on).

On the other hand, sewing took up all my concentration. It was at once both physical, and mental. There was figuring out what I was supposed to do, and measuring and marking and cutting, and manipulating the fabric to be where I wanted it to be at the machine. Time flew in a way that it doesn’t when I knit (one of the things I like about knitting, actually, is that time doesn’t quite fly – if I knit when I’m sleepy I will start to fall asleep. If I’m reading I will stay up doing the “just one more chapter” thing until the book is gone, and not really realize I’m tired until the inevitably far-too-late end. Knitting disengages my mind enough to say, “self, you’re tired, go to bed” much more easily. I don’t see this happening with sewing).

What sewing reminded me of most, in this respect, is singing – which is also at once intensely physical and mental, but mental in a very concrete, material way, and which also demands your presence and focus in a way that can’t be ignored.

And like singing, sewing was really fun. And I want to do more.

So I’ve raided the remnants bin at Joann’s (aside – the local fabric store has to be a thing, right? Like the local yarn store? I’ve only encountered one what I’d call a genuine local fabric store, which is no longer local to me, and was actually a local yarn store as well. I’m sure there have to be better resources than Joann’s, but for the moment, that’s where I know I can go, and at least they’re generous with the coupons).

At the moment, my plans are pretty modest. Make a couple more drawstring bags – bigger ones, even, as project bags for my knitting, and line them (based on various online tutorials around the web). I’d like to make a Dopp kit-shaped project bag out of the yellow canvas. It’s supposed to be 111 degrees this weekend, so I’m sure as heck not going outside, and even though the loft is the hottest part of our apartment, I look forward to holing up there and cutting and marking and pressing and sewing.

What is very familiar from when I started knitting again as an adult is that yawning gap between my aspirations and abilities – and not even abilities, but just resources. Being an absolutely newbie beginner means that every time you want to make something, not only do you probably have to learn a new skill, you also pretty much have to go out and buy stuff. I started small (after the machine), with some nice shears, thread, marking pencils, a seam unpicker, and a ruler. But now I have interfacing (for structure for project bags) as well as zippers (for Dopp kit/project bags), and a denim needle for the cotton canvas (it’s pretty heavy). And yellow thread. And ribbons for drawstrings on the way. And more fabric. And I really want a rotary cutter and mat, but am trying to be frugal (since I have been failing miserably to accomplish that with knitting).

But the skills gap is real, too. The things I want to make are the things I don’t yet have the skills to make. The same thing happened when I started knitting, too, but I’d forgotten. And there’s some uncritical part of you that thinks, I can do one craft, I should be able to do the second as well! Nope, still have to learn. It’s a good thing to be reminded of, but I still want to run before I can walk.            

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The Love Your Blog Challenge: Beginnings

A Playful Day

Here’s my second contribution to A Playful Day’s Love Your Blog Challenge, on “Beginnings.” Random philosophizing ahead.

So, this is kinda cheesy (and dates me), but I was living in the Twin Cities for grad school when Semisonic, a local band, had what I think is still its biggest hit, “Closing Time.” It begins:

Closing time
Open all the doors and let you out into the world
Closing time
Turn all of the lights on over every boy and every girl
Closing time
One last call for alcohol so finish your whiskey or beer
Closing time
You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here

For some reason I’ve always really liked how the song turns that “last call” anthem into a metaphor for moving forward – or back – or at least, for the idea that life keeps moving and we can’t stay in one place, however much we’d like to. We have to keep starting anew.

I need to hear this every so often because, honestly, beginnings can be kind of exhausting. They’re exciting, but can be fraught – full of the unknown, often presenting a steep learning curve. That doesn’t always sound very appealing, so it’s good to be reminded that the alternative to beginnings is just staying in place, treading water.

To stay in theme, I think this is all true of knitting as well. Unless you’re Penelope undoing your weaving each night to keep your suitors at bay, you can’t really stay in one place in knitting. Sure, sometimes you go in circles (cast on… rip back… cast on… rip back… we all know how that goes), and sometimes you decide where you thought you were going isn’t where you want to go after all (I have exactly as many frogged projects in my Ravelry queue as FOs and WIPs). But to stay in one place really isn’t to knit at all. Even if you like to knit the same things over and over again, with the same yarn, you keep learning and getting better, and you keep creating new things.

Me, I’m still new enough to knitting that much of the time, new projects require figuring out new techniques, getting used to how different designers writes their patterns, and learning the qualities of new yarns and/or needles. That’s not so unnerving as, say, starting a new relationship, or a new job, but it can still be pretty frustrating when you first try a new stitch pattern, or method of construction, and find yourself near midnight staring at a pattern you’re convinced is written in Greek. But if I want to move forward, I can’t stay here.

The other thing about beginnings, though, is balancing them with endings. It’s no good to be scared of beginnings, but it’s probably also no good to be enamored of them to the extent you never get to endings.

Knitters know this. Knitters are often a little embarrassed to admit how many projects they have on the needles at any one time; some put limits on how many they allow themselves to start before finishing something; and some truly disciplined souls only work on one project at a time (a lot of knitters seem to regard these folks with a little bit of awe or disbelief, though). I’m definitely not here to put a number on any of this – some people get anxious with more than one unfinished project, while others are happy to strew WIPs all over their living space, always having something different to turn to depending on their mood. There’s no right way to balance all the things you want and need to do. But I think knitters do think about start-itis, and what they can reasonably begin, in a way that’s a reasonable metaphor for the rest of life, too.

“Closing Time” also has the line,

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Wikipedia tells me that this line actually comes from Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger – and I get that it’s not exactly an original thought – but Semisonic is where I first encountered it. I like this line, too, because it helps explain why there can be some sadness in some new beginnings. Moving to a new city is exciting, but it means you’re leaving another city behind. Starting a new job is exciting, but it means you leave an old job and coworkers behind. Even if I hated the old city or former job, I do feel a little bit of sadness at the closing of a chapter, the recognition of change. But you can’t let that sadness stop you from making the new start.

(I don’t know if that’s so much the case for knitting, though. Finishing a project is usually pretty satisfying… except when it doesn’t work? Do others feel any kind of sadness at the closure of a big project?)

 My most recent knitting beginning and ending:
a quick project I worked up to play with some yarn. Longer post to come.

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The Love Your Blog Challenge: Interactions and Community

Kate at A Playful Day has proposed a Love Your Blog challenge for April 2015. Throughout April, she will post a prompt to explore every Monday, to encourage people to fall back in love with their blog and think about what inspires them and find inspiration in others. The first prompt is Interactions and Community, and my response is below.

IMG_1348This is a very new blog, but I’m not new to blogging. My first blog was born in August of 2004, when I had moved to a new city for a new job, my husband was living elsewhere for grad school, and – though I didn’t realize it right away – I was desperate for community.

While aimlessly surfing the web, I stumbled on a few other people like me: recent PhD grads starting new jobs and figuring out how to negotiate an academic identity. I created my blog only because I wanted to comment on others’, and I thought it would be rude to comment without having an online identity/blog of my own. (I was completely wrong, but it was the early days of blogging and I wasn’t sure how the etiquette worked yet.)

That blog was a godsend precisely because it allowed me to join and participate in a community that I treasure to this day. Probably close to half of my Facebook friends are people I came to know through blogging, many of whom I’ve still not met in person, but would be happy to hang out with at any time. (And those of you who followed me here: so lovely to see you!)

As as important as that community was to me for a long time, much has changed since then, both in blogging and me. The biggest change in me is that I left academia to start a new career. While not everyone in my previous blog community was (or stayed) an academic, that space was particularly focused on negotiating professional identity in a field where the personal and professional are unusually closely linked. One of the things I don’t miss at all about academia is how you were never really not at work – you could always be thinking great thoughts! you didn’t have to be in an office 9-5, which just meant you could work anytime, anywhere! – so in a way, you were never not being an academic.

This blog is part of my current goal to carve out a personal identity that has nothing to do with my employment, and to be able to leave work at work. I want to spend my non-work time on activities that I value and take seriously for their own sake, not just because they will make me better at my job or fill up the spaces in between my work days. My self-worth needs to be based in something more than what my employers think about me. And I need to exercise those parts of my brain that love color, creativity, and visual expression, which don’t get used at all in my day job. Which all led me to knitting: color! creating things! looking at color and how to create things!

I decided to blog about knitting for a couple of reasons. First, my Ravelry project pages were getting ridiculously detailed, and I realized that blogging might be a better format for that information. But second, I valued my previous blog community so highly that I hoped blogging might be a way into a knitting community as well.

needlesI haven’t had much luck finding a face-to-face knitting community. As a beginner, I was shy of getting involved in knitting groups. Now that I’m maybe less of a beginner, I’ve moved somewhere that doesn’t have a really strong history of knitting. There are great Native textiles traditions around here, which I’d love to learn more about, but as far as I know, those traditions center on weaving rather than knitting. (Though I’m by no means an expert on this, and as a gringa I’m not in a great position to talk about truly local and indigenous traditions.) So I don’t think there’s as much visible interest in or support for knitting as you might see in parts of the world like northern Europe or the Andes.

It’s also a region heavily populated by snowbirds, and my sense is that most of the local yarn stores cater to retirees who are only here part of the year, and tend to knit for their grandchildren. That is absolutely a valid and wonderful knitting tradition, but it’s not mine, and it’s not usually the kind of aesthetic that appeals to me. (I’m much more drawn to the kind of aesthetic you find here, my favorite yarn store ever.) On a purely practical level, it means that most yarn classes and groups meet, say, 2 pm on Wednesdays, which means they’re not really feasible for people who work full-time.

But I miss talking to people about what I love to do. I adore that knitting is something I can do on my own, on my own time, that doesn’t require me to go somewhere or schedule something or depend on others. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to interact with other people about it. So for community, I’ve been looking online.

The knitting communities I’ve found are amazingly vibrant, thoughtful, and accessible. Unlike when I started blogging originally, though, there’s an embarrassment of riches out there: not just blogs, but Twitter, Instagram, and especially for knitters, Ravelry forums and groups. When I blogged before, there were few enough of us that just being out there garnered you an audience. Now, the field is much more crowded, and how to find and get the attention of the people you want to talk to much more complicated. On top of that you have the commercial element of knitting communities, where designers and yarn stores have their own communities as well as mingling with hobby knitters.

It’s almost that blogging used to be like walking into a local coffee shop, the kind where people came to sit and read/work/chat for a few hours. Some coffee shops are bigger than others, but they’re still relatively small spaces, and everyone who enters has the same relationship to the space as every other, as a customer of the establishment. In such a space, it’s not hard to see what other people are doing (grading/writing/drafting a resume/playing chess/etc.), and to strike up a conversation if you feel like it. A small community can be a little stifling or homogenous sometimes – I think we’ve all walked into a small coffee shop or restaurant and immediately felt like we didn’t quite fit in with the tone or atmosphere. The plus, though, is that if you show up long enough, you become a regular without trying very hard.

Blogging now feels a little bit like walking into some kind of amazing yarn festival. It’s amazing and colorful and offers a gazillion resources, as well as access to some of the greatest knitting designers and yarn producers. It’s open to everyone, there’s something for everyone, and visited by people of all kinds of shapes, sizes, interests, tastes, and ability levels. But for the average person, it can be loud and crowded and a little overwhelming. And your position as a consumer is different from that of the people running the stalls, who are generally fascinating, kind, knowledgeable people who genuinely enjoy talking to you and want to support your knitting, but are also trying to make a living out of knitting/yarn and thus have different goals for the event than you do.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that one kind of community is better or worse; they’re just different. The nature of the community shapes the interactions that take place, but I still love how blogging makes so many different kinds of interactions possible. I feel a bit like a new kid to knitting right now, but am enjoying writing and thinking about knitting, and hope I will find others to talk to. Even if my interactions end up limited to reading others’ words, looking at others’ projects, thinking about and learning from others’ ideas, and writing here to process it all for myself, though, taking part in these communities will be worth it.

A Playful Day

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:

Yarn_1

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.