California dreaming


Last weekend, I traveled to Amy Herzog’s retreat (PDF), held at the lovely Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California. How to describe it??

This was my first knitting retreat – and, actually, my first experience of formal knitting classes ever. I took a beginner’s spinning class once (at Fancy Tiger Crafts, my favorite yarn store ever – Denver, I still miss you). But otherwise, my mom taught me the knit stitch sometime when I was a kid, and I’ve managed to teach myself everything else via the glories of the internet. It was also my first time in northern California, so between these two things, it was a bit like entering a parallel universe.

The classes were great (though I have to share that I totally embarrassed myself, chatting with Norah Gaughan at check in, when we talked about being on the same flight into Monterey, because I totally did not realize who she was at all. At the end of the conversation I introduced myself, she rEllie’s, “And I’m Norah,” I said, “Nice to meet you,” and took two steps out of the registration building and went, “OH!!! THAT NORAH!!!!” So that was why she’d looked kinda familiar in the airport. Gulp. To be fair, it was kind of interesting then to think about how some designers are instantly visible because they model all their own stuff, and how some designers are much more behind the scenes – I find those kinds of marketing choices fascinating. I still couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been completely gauche though).

But anyway, the classes: my first was Norah Gaughan’s “Creative Geometric Design,” which was an engaging glimpse into how one designer approaches her projects, and a really fun way to think about coming up with design ideas. I don’t know if I will ever actually design sweaters (I fantasize that I will, but also suspect that fantasy is better off staying a fantasy), but it was also helpful for looking at schematics and thinking about what I might want in a sweater. The amazing part was how she could take a rectangle or circle of fleece, cut armholes in it, toss it on a model, and after about 30 seconds of tweaking, transform it into the roots of a beautiful garment.

Also she had a dark green alpaca sweater that looked good on everyone in the class and was the most amazingly comfortable, snuggly thing to wear, and everyone at the retreat is waiting with bated breath for the pattern to come out.

My second class was Julie Weisenberger (aka Cocoknits)’s “European Finishing Techniques,” which was a compilation of many tips and tricks. I was familiar with some of what she showed us, but many of the techniques were great and I will definitely use them (especially her middle-of-a-row bind off and shadow short wraps). The atmosphere was at once energetic and relaxed, with a lot of answers to individual questions. I’m still not convinced that her method of picking up stitches (to pick up and knit) will work for me, but I need to get the proper tools to try it properly on one of my own projects. My only regret is that by the end of her class I was fading fast, as the day had been full of learning and interaction with strangers, and my introvert brain was exhausted.

Also her sense of style was amazing.

My third class was Clara Parkes‘ “Know What Your Yarn Wants to Be,” about how different fibers and yarn construction result in yarns that work better for some projects than others, and some of the general things to keep in mind. She was as charming in person as she has always seemed online, and the depth of her knowledge is crazy. I’ve read her The Knitter’s Book of Wool, as well as a lot of other general discussions online about yarn and how to match it to a project, and while I’d never claim to be an expert, I wondered a little bit how much of the information would be new. And the answer was: plenty! For instance, sure, I knew that alpaca was a very slippery, smooth fiber, and that therefore it tends to “grow” because the stitches don’t cohere very well in finished fabric. But that was just a useful background for her discussion – a starting point, not the sum total.

Also now I want a pair of wool sneakers.

My final class was with Amy Herzog, “Sweater Design Intensive,” looking at different shoulder constructions for sweaters (drop shoulder, raglan and modified raglan, yoke, and set-in sleeves) and how to modify the different kinds to fit your shape. There was math, and I can’t claim I absorbed it all, but it made sense at the time and Amy Herzog explained it beautifully. What was really helpful – in a way that books can’t be helpful (though I have and value her books) – was seeing the actual real sweaters, which she wore, and used to demonstrate common modifications and fit issues, and passed around so we could see the construction and fabric.

Also she has the most beautiful speaking voice.

One of the things that thrilled me most about the weekend was how, well, ecumenical all the instructors were about methods and approaches and designs. No one was dogmatic or restrictive or scolding about what knitters should or shouldn’t do, instead emphasizing that while they had strong beliefs about the best way to do things, the important thing was that as knitters, we have accurate expectations for what a given yarn/pattern/design could achieve, and achieving that in a way that made us happy.

I also appreciated that there was quite a lot of diversity in style on offer. To date, Amy Herzog has emphasized fitted, set-in sleeve sweaters with waist shaping, and honestly, I felt a bit of an imposter when I showed up, as I never knit sweaters like that (I hate fitted tops and waist shaping). But she has started to offer Custom Fit designs without waist shaping (if you’re unfamiliar with Custom Fit, go take a look at the link), and is about to introduce an A-line option (previewed at the retreat). She explained that she was moving into more variation on sweater shapes, and in her class, she showed a number of examples of these new-for-her constructions from her next forthcoming book, which all thrilled me.

Norah Gaughan’s explorations of geometric shapes were further along that spectrum, nearly as far from the traditional Herzog sweater as you can get. But while the result was garments that were loose/non-fitted, even frankly voluminous, they remained flattering and not sloppy (and much more to my taste).

Even opinions about gauge and sweater fabric were varied. Amy Herzog was pretty decided that all yarn has a gauge that is right for that yarn, and I think Clara Parkes would tend to agree. (I found particularly interesting the argument that drape shouldn’t be about knitting a yarn at a loose gauge, but about the inherent qualities of the fiber.) But in contrast, Julie Weisenberger talked about how a lot of her designs used a very open gauge.

So all in all, it was a successful weekend. It was a little daunting attending by myself, but everyone was very very nice and it was pretty easy to fall into conversation with people. I find it a bit exhausting to talk to strangers for four days, and I had tiny flashbacks to high school social anxiety at meals, as there’s a dining hall that serves you cafeteria style, and then you have to scan the room and decide which table to plop yourself down at that day (did you sit with people who know each other already? are you interrupting their chance to get together and catch up? are they amateurs like you or semi-pros? are they perhaps esteemed local designers/dyers which you don’t realize until the end of the meal? ACK).

Conversely, though, something I found incredibly welcoming was how, if you were tired out from making conversation, or didn’t see someone you had already met, you could sit by yourself (at events more than meals, I should say), and as long as you were knitting, you were part of things. The way that knitting made you a part of the social fabric, even without being sociable, was kind of amazing.

I also loved that in every class, at least half of the students were knitting away the whole time. I know people who knit at conferences or work meetings, but I’ve never been in a position to do so, and have always had a sneaking feeling that to do so was rude. But here it wasn’t! How could it be rude to knit at a retreat centered on knitting? It was just lovely – both to have more knitting time, and to see what so many others were knitting, and start up a conversation about their yarn, or pattern, or needles, or so on (this happened with all the completed handknits people were wearing, too. Sadly, I didn’t actually bring any of my handknits, because they take up a ton of room and my suitcase is small).

So. That is an incomplete (though not short) description of my weekend away. It was truly very very far away from my daily life, and a lovely immersion in Knitlandia.

IMG_3495It was gray and cloudy-to-rainy the whole weekend, except late afternoon on Saturday, when the photographers with their tripods descended on the beach like seagulls. I was surprised to realize that although I didn’t grow up on the coast itself, growing up in a northeastern coastal state was enough to instill in me the belief that the sun should rise, not set, over the ocean – and when I saw the sun sinking into the Pacific it just looked wrong!

Fancy strap for my fancy camera

I have been working on lots of different stuff lately, including a couple of finished knitting projects I need to post about, but thought I’d show you my latest sewing project:


I hated the strap that came with my camera – it had SONY SONY SONY SONY all over it, plus it was flimsy and had scratchy edges. So I decided to make one. 

It ended up being a comedy of errors: I originally intended to use cotton webbing (for durability), but once I stitched on the ribbon and tried to attach the connectors, I realized the webbing I’d bought was way too stiff to hang comfortably as a strap. So then I made a strap out of leftover black canvas and some fusible fleece. That worked much better, but I absolutely mangled the vinyl patches at the ends. I ended up gluing them for function’s sake, and they work, but are ugly.

And of course after I did this I found a much better guide for how to make a strap that would have avoided all these problems – oh well.

I don’t know whether I’ve forgotten how hard it was to learn to knit well enough to produce usable finished objects, but sewing seems to have a much steeper learning curve. In part it’s because I seem to sew in fits and starts, because the lighting in our loft, where the sewing machine lives, isn’t good enough to get much done in the evening. It’s also that depending where you are in a project, it’s harder to pick up and put down sewing in the middle of something. 

But it was fun to get back to the sewing machine, even if the project just required cutting and sewing straight lines, and swearing a bit at some vinyl. 

Sewing fail

Somehow I never got into Project Runway before now. Recently I was looking for knitting-on-the-weekends TV, and decided to rectify that deficiency. I started with the most recent season on Hulu, Season 9, and am hooked.

For one challenge, the contestants are paired with kids from the Harlem School of the Arts (?) to collaborate on a painting, which will be the inspiration for the garment the contestant makes later in the challenge. Laura Kathleen was paired with this incredibly articulate 11-year-old, Kai. Laura was telling Kai about being on the bottom the previous week, and how hard it was to get the negative feedback. Without missing a beat, Kai says, “Failure is just an opportunity to learn in disguise.”

Which is to say, I have been learning this weekend!

One of my wardrobe holes is nice short-sleeved tops I can wear under suit jackets and cardigans, so I decided to try making Fancy Tailor Crafts‘ Sailor Top, which looked like a good convergence of my clothing wants and sewing skills.

So here it is, almost entirely finished (absent only the hem, though you can’t see that in this picture).  

It actually looks pretty decent here, doesn’t it? (Barring the terrible nighttime lighting turning everything drab.) The fabric is Cotton + Steel Mochi Lawn in Speckled Navy, and I like it – it’s light, hangs nicely, and has a slight sheen. It’s not something super drapey, but it’s not quite as sturdy as quilting cotton. It was also easy to work with.

And I tried really hard to do everything properly. I even used French seams on the side seams, which worked really well with the weight of the fabric.  

The one bit that looks decidedly amateurish is the yoke facing – you sew the facing to the yoke, then you sew the yoke to the neckline, fold the facing over, press the bottom of the facing under 1/4″ and pin, then stitch in the ditch from the front. It worked pretty well, but my “press the facing under 1/4” was eyeballed and while I managed to catch the edge of the facing all the way around, the seam looks kind of drunken in the interior. But no one but me would see that, of course.

So what’s the failure, then?

It’s too small – I made the wrong size! Such a newbie mistake, right?

I can actually get it on and off (though the latter was a little dodgy), because it’s a loose-fitting shape without closures, with a lot of built-in ease. But it pulls across my back. Some of that may be because my “gather fabric evenly” around the yoke isn’t the most even – the yoke feels like it sits just a little bit skewed – but really it’s because I need the next size up.

With respect to the learning, though, this was a useful reminder of the difference between knits and wovens, and the importance of ease. I chose the size based on the measurements I use for knitting, but knits are obviously much more forgiving than wovens. Also, I tend to use a high bust measurement for knits (based on Amy Herzog‘s advice that what you really want is to have the sweater fit your shoulders), but I’m realizing that’s probably not what I should be using for wovens, especially when I compare my high bust and bra measurements.

(If I’m being brutally honest, there’s also the little matter of working off measurements that are about 5-7 pounds ago. Again, for knits this isn’t that big a deal, because stretch, and because I tend to wear slouchy knits anyway. Alas, for wovens I probably shouldn’t rely on them right now.)

So anyway. I’m disappointed that I haven’t yet finished a “wear outside the house” garment (my fantabulous pajama pants are going strong, and in fact I want to make more in flannel, but they don’t go outside the house, except maybe to the courtyard to feed the feral cats), especially because I think if this one had fit, it would have been outside-the-house-worthy. And while I got the fabric pretty cheap, I like it a lot and am disappointed that it’s been sacrificed on the altar of failure learning. (But speaking of “learning,” I just realized tonight that I had completely misread the fabric requirements and this top was supposed to take 2 1/2 yards, so I’m fairly happy I managed to cut it out of 2.)

But to look on the bright side, the pattern was great and easy to follow, and I think if I made this in the right size it would be a great top I’d wear all the time. I made sleeves for the first time (okay, they’re raglan so not that complicated, but still, sleeves), and I made a yoke facing for the first time. I got French seams to work on a garment (rather than practice scraps). And I gathered a neckline for the first time (second time ever gathering anything). So that’s all pretty positive, right?

So sometime soon I will buy some new fabric and try again. I think this would be great (for my wardrobe) in something a little flowier, like a nice rayon twill, and I’d also really like to try making this in a knit (and then I think this size might actually work well). In the meantime, maybe I will cannibalize the fabric to line a zippered pouch or project bag. Or maybe I’ll leave the top as it is, to remind me of those opportunities in disguise.

Anticipaaaaaaaation, part II

The other day I wrote about going to yarn shops in Portland. But to be honest, I think in many ways I’m more excited about going to the fabric stores there. I’m still such a newbie to sewing, I have tons to learn, particularly about fabric.

With yarn, I have a pretty decent sense now of the different weights, and the qualities of the different fibers. I know merino is soft, that cashmere is softer, that nylon is good for strength in small quantities but not pleasant in large ones. I know that plant fibers are cool but inelastic and likely to stretch, that cotton in particular can get really heavy, and that alpaca (no, not a plant fiber) has a lovely drape but can get very heavy and hot. I know that there are a wide range of other, crispier, woolier wools that can be light, crispy, bouncy, springy, tightly spun or loosely spun. I’m not going to claim I know how to pick the best yarn for the every project, or that I know how every yarn out there knits up on every needle, the way that I knit. But I know enough to pick something fairly reasonable from a website, or to know where to look in a yarn store. At the very least, I’ve used enough different yarns that I know which ones I could repurchase happily.

In fabrics, I’m way more lost. The fiber basics of cotton, wool, linen, etc. I know from knitting. But there seems to be way more variation in how different fabrics are made, and if I’m online shopping I’m terrible at figuring out what I’m going to get.

Some wovens I feel okay about. Take quilting cottons. I pretty much basically know what I’m going to get with those (even though some are nicer quality than others). And I know that they tend to be a stiffer, firmer kind of fabric, which doesn’t work very well for drapey/flowy garments. I have some kind of a clue about, say, rayon challis or twill, or things like denim or velveteen or canvas. I don’t know how best to match weight and project, but I have a slight clue of where to start.

My real confusion comes with knits – there are so. many. different. kinds and weights. Each time I’ve ordered a knit online, I’ve ended up with something completely different from what I expected (once in a happy way, once in an unhappy way). I don’t know how to read their descriptions at all.

This is particularly depressing because I really really want to sew with knits. In part this is because I’m lazy about fitting, and a big knit t-shirt is way more forgiving than, say, a structured buttoned blouse. Heck, a big knit t-shirt is just much easier to sew than a structured buttoned blouse, and could be made with just two pieces. But I also just like wearing knits – they’re comfortable and forgiving and versatile. Forgiving might not be such a big thing if I could make a structured blouse that actually fit my measurements, but I also like wearing soft drapey fabrics better than crisp ones.

Also, I have a ponte knit dress from Target which I’m wearing to death – it’s starting to pill horribly – and I really really really want to reproduce it – if I could figure out which ponte fabric would be a suitable replacement.

So, I’m really hoping that when I go to Portland, I can hit up some fabric stores as well as yarn stores – and that I can get the chance to fondle all kinds of different knits, to get to know them better.

And I might have to take some of them home with me, as well.