Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Becoming Mrs. Tiggy Winkle

Teacher, mom, knitter.  These roles certainly don’t conjure up images of physical fitness and glamour.  Rather, as the years have gone by and I’ve expanded both my girth and understanding of little bits of life, I find that I’ve all too easily transfigured from a style-obsessed thin young woman to someone who favors cozy cups of tea accompanied by the pleasures of a knitting bag and warm fire.  Especially in the cold months, I find myself slowly turning into Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, Beatrix Potter’s tidy washerwoman hedgehog whose matronly figure attests to a love of yummy cakes and cozy domesticity.

I haven’t found any pictures of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle knitting, but I’m sure that she did.  In fact, Potter based her character upon her own family’s Scottish washerwoman, Kitty MacDonald, whom author Leslie Linder describes as “very independent, proud and proper” and who spoke of "the broom of the Cowden Knowes", the sun and wind on the hills where she played, and knitted, and herded cattle and sheep. A bonny life it was. . . .”

MacDonald, in real life, and Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, in fiction, never had to struggle with living up to society’s standards of midlife style or anorexic beauty.  They didn’t watch television shows where functional, well-built homes were gutted and redone with the cookie-cutter sameness of sleek modern furniture or where women found themselves faced with family and friends and a panel of experts accused of the crime of unstylishness, of retaining hairdos and shoes reminiscent of bygone eras.  Macdonald and Tiggy Winkle didn’t have New Jersey housewives or the Kardashians as style mongers who urged them in not-so-subtle ways to stay in the game of being chic and slim.    

This holiday season, in the midst of anticipating baking holiday treats and knitting by the fire, I was faced with a style crisis—the cold shower of the social occasion of my niece’s elegant evening wedding.  As I contemplated this event that would be held in the champagne cellar of the Biltmore House, I came to the realization that, yes, I had become Mrs. Tiggy Winkle.  Two days before the wedding I tried on a dress I’d planned to wear and saw I looked like a sausage stuffed into its casing.  (I’d been so proud of this dress, too—a plain black sheath I’d bought at Goodwill for a mere four or five dollars.)  I’d been so busy knitting up Christmas gifts, enjoying running around to yarn shops, and making certain that my two boys had all the requisite neckties, socks, etc. for this event during the few days I had off from school before the wedding, that I’d neglected to try on the dress again or see about attending to my other style needs, such as hair and make-up. 

Needless to say I was in as bad a need of a makeover as was Susan Boyle in her pre-fame days, so, several hundred dollars and a tank of gas later, I had new shockingly expensive face cream, an “Assets” shaper, lace-trimmed dress, sparkly heels, and new vibrant red hair color.  The process of self-transformation was exhausting, but boosted my self-esteem for socializing at the wedding and made for photos that wouldn't be embarrassing. 

The day after the wedding, however, when I woke up in Asheville in a post-party haze, I pulled on a pair of jeans and a big sweater and left the family in the motel room.  I did not bother to put on make-up.  Driving through downtown, I eagerly anticipated my trip to “Yarn Paradise” in the Biltmore Village.  There, I purchased a booklet which was on sale from “Filatura di Crosa” because one sweater in it caught my eye.  It has a high collar, three-quarter sleeves, and a lace yoke.  It is fitted and stylish and a far cry from the squirrel decorated cardigan whose pattern and recently obtained yarn waited for me in my closet at home while I shopped in Asheville.  I’m not certain what style fairies inspired this pattern purchase, banishing the loose patterns favored by Mrs. Tiggy Winkle.  Perhaps it was these same fairies who gave me the motivation to actually go running (well, very slow jogging with longer intervals of walking) a couple of times when I returned home to the Charlotte area.  (Of course, the digital images of me looking a little too voluptuous in my new dress at the wedding might have served as inspiration for exercise as well.)    
Here's a picture of the sweater.  You can purchase this pattern
 in the "Holiday Booklet" available at Yarnmarket.com.

Along with new attempts to exercise, I am certain that whether I spend my free time during the next month or so knitting the stylish Italian sweater or my cozy squirrel cardigan, I will find pleasurable hours.  Perhaps there is room for Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and high fashion in my life, although in the course of stressful, modern, day-to-day existence, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle’s is certainly an easier, more comforting role to embrace.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Free Knitting Pattern with Pandemonium Bonus

Today I will stay home. I will watch old movies. I will knit. I have made this decision, not only because I am attempting to complete all sorts of projects to give as Christmas presents, but also because I truly believe that if run anymore holiday errands, I will succumb to an utter and complete collapse, and the rest of the family will have to take up my slack and address the long “to do list” that has run through my head every day since my first child was born, but which not, as Christmas is impending, seems to occupy all of my waking hours. 

   I went to a Christmas party Saturday night and the host and hostess kept asking why I looked “so tired.” They didn't get it. Only people who deal with young people each day can understand the kind of exhaustion that overwhelms teachers at the end of each semester. I know things are bad when I say to my high school students, “Okay, look at the assignment in front of you. Think about it. Do not ask me any questions for ten minutes,” and then attempt to retreat to my desk to sort through emails or enter grades. Of course, someone always approaches the desk and asks for some item for which I inevitably have to hunt. “Do you have a red Sharpie?” or “Are there anymore tissues?” are typical queries, as are, “Can you tell me how many absences I have?” or "Do you have a screwdriver?" (I'm not making these up.) Hope always waxes eternal in me when I issue the “no questions” directive, but I’m a sucker and, as a parent and a teacher, consistency where discipline is concerned hasn’t always been my forte. Needless to say in these moments where I feel like a wrung out dish rag, I often find myself on my hands and knees digging through a storage box for some desperately-needed item for a student or reading that first sentence that the student proudly presented to me along with the question, “Is this okay?” 

     In addition to the kind of student overload I experience this time of year, I’m always busy, not only buying food to contribute to various holiday events (such as my school’s swanky holiday-pot-luck-and-white-elephant-gift-exchange luncheon) but I’ve also been shopping, trying to get my two enormous boys equipped with clothing so that they can be ushers at my niece’s wedding on Wednesday.  For folks who don’t have to run around to dig for clothing at eerily lit cavernous discount stores and Goodwill, this task might not seem a formidable one.  But going on a quest for neckties, shoes, jackets, pants, belts, etc. after working all day almost vanquished me.  I don’t think there is a cheap pair of dress shoes available on the planet in men’s size 9 4E for my eleven-year-old (yes, eleven), so it’s black sneakers for him.  Altering his suit pants, a task that not only involved shortening them, but adding a gusset to the rear, also added to my outfitting challenge.  (Of course, I did have an opportunity to hone my gusset-making skill, an ability which will come in handy if I plan to wear pants to the rehearsal dinner.)

     Yes, a romantic Christmas wedding at the Biltmore House—four days before Christmas and, yes, I’m supposed to coordinate marching down the aisle and seating and I’ve never done this task before and I’ve yet to read about what I’m supposed to do, but I’ll be fine . . . really.  I spent three weeks in November and December sick, so I can’t entirely blame myself for this lapse, but I’ll get to work, after I knit.

     Of course, it makes perfect sense that rather than get a manicure or take walks or read Emily Post's suggestions for wedding etiquette, I’ve been filling in my spare "me time" hours by taking a stab at designing knitting patterns.  I found a great site that provides a how-to for using Excel to make knitting patterns , so after five hours creating a flower design, a design I based on a swatch of Swedish fabric and another few hours designing some boot cuffs, I’m ready to start sharing.  You can find a link to my “Double-Duty” boot cuffs here or on the “Free” page.  I just cast on my flowered pillow, so I won’t be posting that pattern yet. 

Well, it’s time to finish that scarf for my mother-in-law.  It’s supposed to be 81 inches long, and it’s lace, so maybe the tree will get some ornaments on it tomorrow, or maybe I’ll just knit some.  I can get a few done by Christmas. 

Toerage the Tube Mouse from Stich London, once a possible
 tree ornament  became Mauri the Metro Mole (he's blind, and
earless, for that matter) and, like my other tree decorations in
years past, a source of entertainment for Streaky.   

It was nearly 70 degrees when I finished this on Wednesday,but it's ready
for some lucky recipient who will be prepared if cold weather hits.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Festival of Light: Banish the Blues with Scan Design

I am not one to easily swallow the latest hyped up medical advice presented by the media as gospel truth.  The other afternoon, however, when I was home sick, I happened upon a Dr. Oz segment related to the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  I sometimes think I could be the poster child for this disorder, as every year from November to March, I am moody, lethargic, and down carbs and sugary foods like the worst foodaholic who falls off the wagon at a holiday smorgasbord.

 I listened to a practitioner of natural medicine on the show discuss some supplements such as Sami and St. John’s Wort, but also heard some other tips.  One of these bits of advice stood out to me, and I instantly connected it to my own life and my love affair with yarn and fiber.  Oz encouraged a guest on the show (who suffers from seasonal depression) to dress in bright, light colors, such as yellow, and also suggested that she wear white.  As I watched the program, I thought not only about my gray and black winter wardrobe and how my mood lifts when I spice it up with one my colorful knitted creations, but also about the bag of black and gray wool, sitting waiting for me to begin knitting a sweater decorated with squirrels using a pattern in last month’s Vogue Knitting (a project so quirky, I couldn’t resist). 

Heeding Oz’s advice, instead, I began to knit a blue-and-white snowflake hat.  As I knit this piece, I do find that the soft colors are calming and mood elevating.  This experience has me thinking about traditional Scandinavian design, especially its love affair with blue and white.  In a country such as Sweden, with dark winter nights and a lowest January temperature of -17 and a high for the same month at only 50, it seems natural that the winter blues would be fairly common, although Scandinavian tourism literature suggests that it is an unfounded stereotype that winter depression (and related alcoholism and suicide rates) is fairly common in Scandinavian countries.
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Find this free pattern for a "Snowflake Hat" at the  Patons Yarns website.
You'll have to register to access it.

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Image of felted booties (not knitted, made from sheets of felt)
from book pictured below. 
Whether the myths are true or not, there is a plethora of beautiful, light bright designs to knit, embroider, felt, etc. using traditional Scandinavian design.  As I have finally learned how to chart a knitting pattern (I've only been knitting for three years, so each day is part of a learning process) and have actually created my first pattern (see “Free” tab), I now have an idea and a rough plan for a beautiful blue-and-white pillow.  My great-grandmother came to America by herself on a ship from Sweden, when she was only thirteen, so, perhaps, I have some natural, inherited cultural synchronicity for the aesthetics of Scan design, but whether this fact is true or not, I do have a need for some brightness in the midst of winter.   
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I've been coveting this book for months. 
I need to break down and buy it.  Its
designs for a variety of fiber projects
beautiful, clean, and bright.  Find it HERE. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Knitting: Bugs and Bugaboos


1. An object of obsessive, usually exaggerated fear or anxiety:

2. A recurring or persistent problem: (source:  The Free Dictionary)

In North Carolina, at least for the last twenty years or so, public schools are closed for a two-week Christmas Break.  At my high school, students take their exams and wrap up their semester classes in what always ends up being an end-of-year frantic whirl.  Without fail, by the time break rolls around, I am exhausted, frazzled, and barely able to muster the energy to prepare for the holiday celebration.  For the last three years, I went to our local Dollar General store and bought a couple of bags of frosted pine cone ornaments to decorate our tree, because I literally lacked the energy--and the courage--to climb up into our storage space over the garage and navigate through the jumble of suitcases and cast-off toys to extract our ornaments.  (Luckily for me, I have two boys and a husband who don’t have any aesthetic or sentimental views regarding Christmas decorations.) 

No, I’m not typically weak or frail.  I’m not a Grinch, either.  I used to love decking out my house and baking for the holidays.  Rather, by the end of a semester, my tank, which has run on empty for many weeks, seems to finally consume and burn up its last drop of gas.  After completing all of my grades for each class, giving exams and grading them, shopping for Christmas presents for family and friends and purchasing and dropping off other items for my sons’ teachers and classroom parties (as well as for my own school festivities), I typically spend much of my winter break sick and in bed.  It’s as if I finally am able to take time to relax, and my body just shuts down.  My husband has brought me more plates of turkey and ham from Christmas dinners I’ve missed than I care to remember.

This year, however, the illness came early, and, after an exhausting bout with a virus three weeks ago, with a wracking cough  that still lingers, I now find myself sick again, this time with an upper respiratory infection, sinus infection, and laryngitis.  Exams start Monday at my school, but I’m in the bed, unable to talk, and generally having a difficult time focusing on much except a marathon of back-to-back episodes of America’s Messiest House (I think that’s the title—my thought processes are a little fuzzy right now).

I haven’t been able to knit a whole lot, but I have picked up a slouchy alpaca hat and worked on it.  I thought it was complete last night, but then I realized that it was so loose, there was no chance it would stay on the wearer’s head.  I still don’t get this whole gauge thing—some yarn just seems drapier (I’m not sure this term is actually a word) than others.  Whenever I work with worsted wool, something standard like Patons or Cascade, I have wonderful results, but when I deal with luxury fibers, the results are sometimes surprising.  Anyway, the hat was knit with size eight needles and is worked from the center out and finished off with ten rows of ribbing.  Last night, in a NyQuil induced haze, I tried on my giant hat which threatened to swallow my face, and then ripped out the ten rows of ribbing.  I switched to size six needles and will knit the ribbing again today, to see if the hat fits a little snugger. 

The pattern is a simple one, found in Patons Classic Wool’s booklet entitled, “Fall in Love” (number 500864), but I’m creating the beret using Cascade Yarns Eco Duo, a wonderful mixture of baby alpaca and merino wool.  The gauge of the Eco Duo is not exactly the same as that of Patons classic wool, but I thought I’d take a chance--never a good idea.
When I’d purchased the yarn last Saturday at Cottage Yarn, my wonderful local knitting shop, a couple came into the store, and the woman, standing beside her wisely docile and silent husband,  told the owner that she needed help.  She then began to extract an item out of a bag.  As I stood there, I anticipated that this woman was stuck, maybe not grasping the intricacy of an instruction or chart pattern, but, instead, she unfolded a voluminous mud brown sweater—completely finished--from her bag.  I hate to use my Hagrid analogy again (employed in a previous post to describe another over-sized hat project of mine), but this sweater would have fit him nicely.  My instinct was to crack up hysterically or exclaim something too inappropriate for a public school teacher to post in her blog, but I remained quiet and was summarily impressed by the tact of the knitting store owner and her staff who led the woman to a wicker chair in the front of the shop.      Having her sit down before telling her what could only be disheartening news was probably a good idea, as I don't see how this unfortunate project could be “helped,” other than by tearfully tearing it out and starting over.  But I was in an enormous hurry to complete a laundry list of holiday errands that day, so I didn't wait around to hear the staff's diagnosis.  I brightly said, “It would look cute over jeans,” and paid for my own ill-fated alpaca yarn and hurried off to Costco. 

I might now believe that there was something in the air that day, some dire purveyor (or at least an omen) of mischief and ill-fitting knitwear, but on that same day I finally broke down and purchased a much coveted copy of Stitch London.  Immediately, I was able to create two tiny birds—Cooey the pigeon and my own yellow version (Dewey the duckling, I suppose).  These fellows are tiny and cute—no problems with gauge here—and I plan to sew some loops on them so that they can decorate my sorry yet-to-be-put-up Christmas tree.
Cooey and Dewey, future heirlooms?

As I stay in the bed today between finishing marking papers and entering semester averages into my digital grade book, I hope to finish the re-sized alpaca hat and maybe knit another miniature bird or animal, or two.  The bugaboos of illness and oversizing will not dishearten me.  And, when I'm feeling better, I'll have a wonderful, perfectly sized alpaca hat for someone to open after we share a Christmas meal together.    

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Purls of Wisdom: A Knitter's Procrastination Checklist

Cascade's "Dolce Slouch," one of this weekend's procrastination projects

Yikes.  I have come to the realization that I am a sorry substitute for the organized women who use time-saving tricks to manage home and family obligations—leaving them with  extra hours to run marathons, get professional haircuts, and volunteer at their children’s schools.  I can’t get a grip on it all.  I wake up every morning before 6:00 a.m., not gearing up for an invigorating morning exercise session or an intense paper grading interlude.  No, each morning I eagerly rise from my bed, grab a cup of coffee and some breakfast.  This morning’s meal consisted of Trader Joe’s gingerbread men cookies, eaten while contemplating the mystery of the little chewy nuggets (I calculated that there is one per cookie) that explode with spiciness on one's tongue.  What is their source?  I mused.  Bits of candied ginger maybe?  While eating, I typically read a novel or magazine until my food is gone (it’s messy to eat and knit at the same time), and then grab one of several projects, located in their respective bags tucked into corners in my bedroom. 

My mother, who chooses to eat very healthy low-fat food with her feet firmly planted underneath a dining table (no hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup--thank you very much) with a placemat and napkin and other proper accoutrements, would probably be horrified not only by my  choice of  morning fare but also by the sorry state of my bedroom.  This blog isn’t about my much-in-need-of-an-overhaul diet and d├ęcor, per say; rather those things are items that fall under my ever-expanding procrastination list.    
Rather than enumerate the reasons why I am a procrastinator and, consequently, a  sorry excuse for an efficient homemaker, I thought it would be fun to share some guidelines I've devised for procrastinators who are also knitters.  While I’m still an embryo knitter, I am a wise old sage of a procrastinator. 

Free yourself from guilt and shame.  The the albatross of household chores such as laundry will always hang around your neck.  If you're a working mother, the weekend will never bring thoughts of rest and renewal.  No, the piles and piles of clothes and towels will always lurk like frightening ghouls.  In my case, they inhabit the garage--a place with such a freakish collection of junk that it is already as threatening as a house of horrors. And with a family, it’s too expensive to implement former single girls’ effective laundry procrastination solutions—such as buying new socks and underwear when one’s supply is depleted (delaying the inevitable nasty washing, folding, and putting away ordeal for a few more days until the stock of actual clothes people see is depleted). 

So, do as a do.  Embrace your procrastinating and fill your hours with the pleasurable tasks enumerated below.  You just might find yourself refreshed and at ease enough to tackle the necessary, mundane chores of living. 

1.       Pick up that 1920’s retro baby cardigan pattern you tossed aside after 25 torn out rows and the endless fugue that resulted from the voice in your head repeating over and over, “I-don’t-see-how –there-can-be-an-18-stitch-repeat-here- when- I-have-21-stitches-on-the-needle.”  Try to attack this enigmatic task again.  You’ll have an “aha moment.”  It just takes time.  You have plenty of that.  Take frequent breaks from the eyestrain resulting from rereading the pattern (which by now is covered with coffee stains and hieroglyphic notes) and using size two needles.

2.       Buy a yarn swift and ball winder.  On all future trips to the knitting store do not let the help wind your skeins.  When you get home with your goody bag wind each skein carefully.  If you have a cat, this process is especially rewarding.  Just watching him or her stare bewilderedly at the spinning swift—or maniacally attack it—is well worth the use of your time.

3.       Spend several hours browsing home organization stores.  The Container Store is a great choice.  When you get home, pull out your stash of yarn and needles and other stuff and go wild.  Imagine your disorganized chaos resembling a picture in Real Simple or Martha Stewart.  (Try not to be distressed by your discovery that the cost of your collected knitting purchases could finance a semester of college for your child.)

4.       Browse bookstores for inspiration for knitting ideas.  Agonize over purchases.  Do I really need another knitting magazine?  Contemplate how your expanding knitting library lacks that pattern for that cute squirrel sweater or how the clever plastic needles shrink wrapped with an expensive imported magazine make its purchase such a bargain. 

5.       Finally!   Get to work!  Cast on and knit.  You won’t know where the hours went, but unlike the laundry and other chores, your efforts will be praised and long-lasting. 
Go to "Free" tab for a link to this pattern. 

Below is a scarf I'm
making with my older son's school logo for his English teacher,
who is also his football coach.  (He's shown my son that a person
can read and also be a jock!  He deserves a gift.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanskgiving: Winding Up

I didn't use my computer this holiday weekend.  After a lazy Thanksgiving day, I was busy shopping, cleaning, and moving furniture.  My older son had been begging me for months to remove his double bed from his room and replace it with something smaller, since the antique bed took up more than half the room and didn't give him any space to move around much or relax.  After scanning piles of ads for Black Friday sales, I found two stores selling futons at bargain prices.  Luckily, the futon box fit in the back of my station wagon.  But moving furniture was the easy part of this process--cleaning my son's room, especially under his bed, was another matter.  After two days of vacuuming, tossing out food wrappers, scrubbing stains on the carpet, etc., his room now resembles a comfortable den, cozy but with room to stretch out.  My husband and I are both eyeing this space greedily, anticipating my son's departure for college three years in the future and the potential knitting/spinning/sewing room or office this area could accomodate.  We are neither eager nor ready for our son to leave home, but the challenges of four people (three quite large) living in a relatively small house can be difficult at times. 

My house is located on a street of modest houses in a pre-planned community, one that attempts to create a nineteenth century village feel.  There are Charleston-style row houses, craftsman bungalows, brick row houses, and a myriad of homes in other styles.  My town is one of the first of such mixed pre-planned, pedestrian friendly, and incorporated communities, where income levels and ages vary.  There is even an area with maintenance-free ranches for senior citizens.  In the 1990s, billboards on a major local highway used to advertise this community with the slogan, “Union County’s finest neighborhood” and people used to jokingly compare my town to the one featured in the movie The Truman Show.  Now, however, after years of rapid growth and development, my house is located on the less fashionable side of town.  A year or two before the real estate bubble burst, it seemed that everyone was moving across the highway, to an area with bigger yards, better schools, and closer upscale (or at least a step above our nearby Wal-mart) shopping.  Before the recent economic downturn, I used to feel stigmatized by the lack of status my home represented.  My blue collar neighbors were moving up and out, but my family had to stay behind in our small (by recent standards anyway) house.  We have no bonus room for a flat screen TV (we don’t have one of those yet, either), no extra bedroom, or space for an office.  Heck, we don’t even have room for the ubiquitous island in the kitchen. 

My house, though, is warm and cozy.  We have a new roof, and while it the siding is vinyl rather than brick and architectural details such as nice moldings and turned columns are absent, its plain colonial style is timeless.  What puzzles and makes me wonder, "Are we poor?" is that so many of my neighbors have recently moved in, not because they loved the neighborhood (which is very quaint and attractive overall) and wanted to purchase a modest house, but because they have experienced financial difficulty.  Our neighbors on one side lost their former 3,500 square foot house to foreclosure when the husband found himself unemployed for over a year.  Renting the house next door (which is larger than mine and impeccably maintained) was a big step down for them.  Another couple with three children has only one vehicle, a van with broken air conditioning that the family used to drive to their son’s baseball tournament near Atlanta during broiling temperatures last summer.  This family counts every penny, and brought pizza they’d purchased with coupons to Atlanta with them to eat on their one-night trip, so that they could avoid spending money at restaurants.  Other neighbors have five kids in a 1700 square foot house they rent.  I know from their landlord that this family is often late with rent payments. Sometimes I feel dejected that my home, of which I’m actually quite proud, seems to be located on a street that is associated with stepping down in the world or financial struggles. 

I must remember that people from some other countries would fail to think of my street as one where people fallen on hard times must resort to living.  I can remember when my husband and I sponsored an au pair from Lithuania.  When she saw her small bedroom and the tiny bathroom she would be sharing with my two boys (who were doubled up in another small bedroom), she began weeping—and surprisingly these were not the tears of a spoiled girl, suddenly aware that she ended up with the only au pair sponsor family without a Mcmansion, country club membership and beach house.  These were tears of joy.  She had grown up in a family of four (sometimes five when her grandmother lived with her family) in two rooms.  Our house, with its two and a half baths, dishwasher, and microwave oven seemed positively lavish to her. 

As we celebrated  Thanksgiving last week, I had to remember Beata’s (our au pair's) tears and view my life with a perspective that doesn’t concern itself with the Joneses or with what’s trendy or fashionable what’s a “good neighborhood.”  At this time, I must remember that I take myself with me wherever I go, and that the grass is not always greener on the other side.  I must count my blessings. 
What I’m Thankful For

My husband’s compassionate (sometimes saintly) nature he displays as he silently suffers and goes along with each of my latest whims, including my trip to Italy last spring and my upcoming visit to Vogue Knitting Live this coming January
My sons, ages 11 and 14, despite the fact that they rambunctious, sloppy, and determined to sometimes tease me till I cry with frustration

My treasured close friends

My cozy house

Good wine (better yet, wine with flavor that betrays its cheap cost) 

Fresh, unprocessed food and delicious recipes for preparing it 

Processed fast food--for those busy working mother evenings on the run

A lovely Thanksgiving meal, shared with family on a horse farm in the country (including four pies and one cake for nine people)

My cat and dog and the hours of entertainment they provide
My teaching job, however draining (more like life sucking) at times

My students on those days when my lesson meshes with their moods 

A job with summers off

Jane Austen novels and other good literature and the thoughts they provoke

Formulaic chic flicks and novels, for the escape they provide

Bookstores for browsing (let's hope some survive)

My favorite local knitting store and its warm atmosphere

And of course knitting and spinning with all of their psychological and aesthetic pleasures

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where's the Sheep?

As part of a project for my English IV class, my students created blogs where they reflected on their experiences learning how to knit or do other crafts.  One of my students cleverly entitled her blog Gone with the Wool, where she discussed the challenging process of making her first knitted hat.  The student used yarn that I had given her, some I had bought to create a black and orange scarf for my younger son’s former taekwondo teacher.  The scarf was going to be a Christmas present last year, but I didn’t finish it in time for the holidays, and then soon after, fencing replaced taekwondo as my son’s sport of choice.  I was left with $250 worth of sparring gear, new financial obligations (for fencing lessons and fencing shoes), and two big balls of chunky black and orange wool. 

While I had quite a few skeins of Red Heart yarn in my classroom, purchased because of its affordability, it was interesting to see how my students migrated toward the soft balls of wool I’d brought in (such as that orange stuff) that were leftovers from my personal stash.  I didn’t want to emphasize my fiber preferences to them, as I know that they don’t have money income to blow on yarn (although judging from their Smart phones and tattoos, they probably have more disposable income than I do).  I did tell them that natural fiber has more stretch, so it can be easier for a beginner to use.  I also didn’t share how I shy away from synthetic fibers and always have, even before I was a knitter.  When I was a teenager, I had a collection of 100% wool Shetland sweaters, purchased by carefully combing the aisles of discount stores and scrutinizing fiber content labels.  I couldn’t afford the expensive sweaters in the Rumson Roulette, a boutique in a neighboring town, a geographic locale that was included in Lisa Burnbach’s Preppy Handbook.  At this store, a bastion of horse-faced WASPY snobbery, one could purchase kilts, Shetland sweaters, cashmere scarves, and a variety of expensive home goods.  While I couldn’t afford to shop there, I could find comparable stuff with time and effort. 

I once shared my penchant for natural fibers with a friend and co-worker.  She was young, around 23 (close to my age at the time), and was the managing editor of a magazine where I worked.  She was a very dramatic emotional person, prone to self-destructive behavior  at times.  Her boyfriend at the time, with whom she was madly in love, dumped her in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, just before she went in to have her wisdom teeth removed.   (This really happened.)  This event occured in late August, and I’d been similarly deserted by my boyfriend around the same time.  I was a newly hired employee, and we instantly bonded over our heartache, sobbing and drowning our sorrows  together, night after night.  She had been raised by her grandmother in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and was the illegitimate child of her mother and a barroom piano player—the product of a one-night stand.  Coming from an equally dysfunctional family with an absent father, I was, like her, a bit too sensitive and naively romantic, relying too much on finding my own self-worth through my male partners.

In retrospect, I didn’t help this co-worker, but, rather, created a monster, when I discussed the inferiority and cheapness of certain materials when we were shopping together.  She apparently absorbed my comments, and, still horribly depressed because of her breakup several months earlier, sobbed hysterically on Christmas morning when she opened a package presented to her by her mother and found a polyester, rather than a silk or cotton, blouse.  Her heartache, coupled with her newfound appreciation for natural fibers, obviously put a dismal damper on her family’s holiday festivities. 

Although not sobbing, I was distressed during a recent trip to my local yarn shop, when I learned that wool yarn prices, much like the cost of food, are set to spike steeply.  I noticed, too, on an excursion to an upscale Charlotte shopping mall last weekend, that I could not find a pair of wool slacks—at least in the petite sections of two major department stores, nor were there many wool sweaters.   Of course, while saddened, I must take the positive view—I now I have a reasonable excuse for yarn and fiber hoarding.   Maybe they’ll be wool shortages?  Yarn speculation?  And I could make a fortune by selling my stash or my handmade knitted, wooly items.

Alas, even if prices go through the roof, I don’t foresee any profit in knitting and I’m not likely to part with my collection of yarn and fiber.  If bleak economic times come to pass, I can, however, find solace in lots of contented hours, crafting clothing for me and piles of handmade gifts for friends and family.  Whatever the economic woes or shortages of goods, I will cling to my yarn hobby.  Knitters such as I are industrious people (Marie Antoinette, when in captivity, apparently asked for knitting needles and yarn, and when refused these items, took apart a tapestry to use as yarn and made her own needles to use to while away the hours.) 

If shortages or steep price increases are in my future, I see myself standing amidst a paltry and declining stash, clutching a hank in my fist and raising it to the heavens, asserting, “If I have to go hungry, I will survive.”   Gone with the wool, or not. 

Recently completed mohair lace scarf.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Where Women Create

While perusing knitting magazines in the bookstore over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a
publication on the racks entitled Where Women Create, a lavish, thick magazine with pictures of whimsical spaces where women craft or sew or engage in other artistic activities.  The images of the spaces where these women work are eye candy for the reader.  Otherwise why would anyone spend $15.00 to look at rooms where women make greeting cards or knit socks?  Another magazine by the same publisher followed on the heels of Where Women Create, entitled Where Women Cook provides additional saliva inducing glimpses at  work spaces, or, rather, boutique spaces, as the craft rooms and kitchens in both these magazines are as staged and stylized as a Ralph Lauren or Anthropologie store.   

Despite my efforts to the contrary, I am always drawn to these publications and to the images of the happy, industrious women on their pages.  However, my relationship with these titles is one characterized by both love and hate.  In fact, I sometimes I try to force myself to hold back and not open these magazines, but somehow  I always find myself looking at an image of a smug woman standing in front of 500 vintage glass mason jars filled with colorful buttons, cunningly arranged along shelves on the wall of an entire room.  The afternoon sunlight spills warmly across her rustic work table, a piece that the aforesaid woman “picked up” on a trip to the south of France. 

In my world, however, there are no workspaces filled with antique vases of double-pointed needles or aesthetically pleasing wall bins with cleverly arranged colorful skeins of yarn spilling over their edges.  There are bags and bags of yarn stuffed in the back of my closet along with a plastic storage bin filled with a snakelike mess of circular needles.  There are a spinning wheel and antique yarn winder in our too-small den and a serger and two sewing machines that have to be cleared off of the dining room table before we can have a meal there (usually a once-or-twice-a-year event).  There is a nomadic dress dummy given to me by a home economics teacher.  Her hard-knock life shows in her raggedy covering and off-kilter stance (the dress dummy’s not the teacher’s, although the profession isn’t kind to the looks of its members).  The dummy takes up residence in the garage sometimes, but likes to hang out in the kitchen and dining room too.  There were a bunch of these dress forms at my old high school that, much like the many copies of thick classic novels with small print, were moldering from lack of use. 

My dining room, like the dress forms and complex novels, shares this neglect.  But I’m a traditionalist, and in a world where my children are assaulted on all sides from a culture that I often find vulgar and disjointed, the dining room, with its collection of inherited furniture and knick-knacks, is a way of reminding my boys that there are other ways to live—that our drive-through lifestyle isn’t normal—or at least isn’t ideal.  So I don’t convert my little used dining room to a permanent workspace.  And I don’t have enough bedrooms to turn one of them into a studio, or do as the mother of a friend of mine who transformed her master bedroom into a work room—she needed a large space for her quilting frame.  Her husband is, needless to say, an admirable model of for all other similarly burdened crafter/sewer/knitter spouses to follow.      

I do, however, create all over the house, as I have been doing this weekend.  I’ve been sick with a virus and have been in bed or on the couch since Thursday night.  While my illness put a damper on any plans for meals out or trips to yarn shops, I was able to make some real inroads into my holiday knitting—even if I had to leave my sickbed to spend time on my knees in my closet, digging through bins to find a cable needle. 

Fiber Trends Clogs I finished this past weekend (shown here before felting).

After Felting
Adding the felted designs is a lot of fun.
 This weekend, I’ve also had time to sit still and to think about my craft room, adding it to my to-do list.  As we move into the holiday season, this list is ever-expanding. 

1.        Finish lace scarf for my mother-in-law.  She’s allergic to wool and I purchased some acrylic for this that’s a bit rough on my hands. 

2.       Finish scarf for my son’s football coach.

3.       Finish cabled chunky vest—while trying to keep in mind that the pattern has five errors in it.

4.       Finish novelty yarn poncho and decide whether it’s tacky or artsy.

5.       Cast on shawl with lace weight yarn purchased in Italy last May. Be sure to finish this by Christmas, as it is a gift for my mother.  Hmmm, I’ve never knit with lace weight.  Those ladies in Estonia do it.  Right.  It can’t be too hard. . . .

6.       Finish pink worsted and twisty, colorful, fluffy yarn hat (another attempt at “artsy” rather than “classic” knitting).  Half of it has been on needles for six months. 

7.       Finish sewing girls’ dress and coat made using a vintage pattern (from 1957).  This project was started with an aim of selling the dress and coat (a $60.00 investment so far) on Etsy, to help pay for my knitting habit.  The dress is almost done.

8.       Learn how to professionally finish stuff—my back-stitch seams are ruining my projects and I can’t seem to teach myself any other method of seaming.  I must have some kind of special learning deficit—the instructions in my how-too books don’t translate into the movements of my hands.    

9.       Figure out the math in spinning.  I’m just turning the wheel and drafting—the books say there’s much more to this process.  Maybe I’ll have time to really study the science of spinning next year. 

10.   Figure out how to create a craft room, or at least a craft nook to store my knitting accoutrements. 

11.   STOP KNITTING, SEWING, AND SPINNING!  So that I can grade papers, prepare final exams, shop for the holidays, help my sons with their homework, sort eight million pieces of Lego, organize mountains of receipts and statements, and, in general, get on with my life. 

Of course, my local knitting  shops don’t have to worry about dips in revenue anytime soon.  And my kids aren’t going to escape having a mom who is no longer a “crazy knitting lady” in the near future.    I figure there might be a realistic chance that I’ll finish items 1-9 in a year or so, and by then I’ll have lots of other projects on the needles that will require my attention before I can ever get to number 10 on my list.  Along the way, my students’ papers will be graded and other tasks will be attended to, although not without the beckoning of knitting projects and crafting room creation in my ear.  But while I knit, the clamor of to-do lists is silent.  That fact is what, perhaps, keeps me at it, even if knitting clutters up my life and creates a conflict in my obligations.  When the rhythmic motion of the needles begins, I am lost in the process itself.  A very Zen activity, I suppose, and very necessary in my hectic life.  When I am engaged in the act of knitting, I don’t think about the need for visually stunning or practical work spaces.  Where I create becomes irrelevant.  The process itself takes hold, driving and shaping the experience.    
This is a cabled vest -- another item on my to-do list. 

The hat that became a cowl
The yarn I used, Karaoke, seems to grow as I knit.
This particular color is also no longer made, and I
ran out of it before my Hagrid-sized hat was finished.
After trying to no avail to order more, I finished this piece
off. It actually looks great on the wearer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Causal Relations: Knitting and Its Consequences

                Looking for inspiration for a new blog post, I turned to a trusty copy of The Bedford Reader.  Bedford provides a guide to different college writing modes (narrative, comparison-contrast, classification, etc.)  The class set I have of this title was purchased some years ago when I taught Advanced Placement English (when public school money hadn’t dried up and it was easier to purchase texts for advanced students).  I hoped to somehow make a leap from a list of suggested writing topics in the book, such those found on a list in the definition essay chapter that includes “sorrow,” “responsibility,” and “dieting,” to my own future blog post about knitting.  Needless to say, the topics related too closely to my own existence to pique my interest by their novelty.  And none seemed to relate to knitting.  Wait, maybe responsibility (or lack thereof).  I could use the fact that my whole October food budget was spent at the Southeast Fiber Arts Fair to support whatever thesis statement I developed.   

     Moving on through the text, I skimmed through the chapter entitled “Cause and Effect.”  Either the cause and effect essay or the definition essay prompt will appear on the state-mandated tenth-grade writing test for which I prepare my sophomores each year.  (We don't know which mode of the two forms will be required of the students until the actual day they sit down to take it.)  While the test typically presents students with a specific topic on which to write, when they write practice essays in class or for homework, I often give them some choice.  Oddly, students typically choose to define "a good friend" or “a smile” or some form of abuse (alcohol, child, etc.) or to rework those same topics into cause-and-effect essays.  Judging from their choice of topics, maybe all this testing has left them uninspired as well. 

                When I turned to the list of suggested writing prompts in the cause-and-effect chapter, which instructs the student to  explain either the causes or the effects of a particular situation or practice, I found some attention-grabbing, but irking writing prompts, including: 

Friction between two roommates, or two friends

The growing popularity of private elementary and high schools

The fact that most Americans can communicate in no language other than English

The increasing need for more than one breadwinner in a family

     I don’t care to write about those topics, as I deconstruct them every day in grumbling sessions I initiate with my husband, who is unendingly patient as I regale him with tales of the horrors my teaching day, my relationships with strong-willed female friends, and of my financial distress.  (My husband is both an Anglican priest and a public high school French teacher, so some items on the list hit home in areas of concern to him--the last suggested writing topic is particularly relevant to both of us.) 

                There is one subject listed on the page, however, that jumped out at me:  “Some quirk in your personality or a friend’s.”  Wow, I thought.  I have what others perceive as a quirk--my knitting hobby/obsession.  What are its effects?  

      ·         I have begun to purchase all of my clothes (and some of my poor, unwitting children’s) at 
               Goodwill, so I have money for yarn, fiber, and tools. 

·         My house fails to have a unified design scheme or style.  The enormous yarn swift clamped like some festive umbrella to the sideboard in the dining room and the bags of fiber by the fireplace for spinning (the cat especially likes these) foil any attempts at “shabby chic” or “faded gentility” or “oversized football-player friendly” or any other styles my house might at one time have possessed.

·         I have become a bag lady.  (It’s not that I knit at work . . . really. . . . But just having one or two of my projects with me behind my desk makes me feel prepared for any contingency.  (I’m comforted by the fact that if we have a five-hour lock down—where lights are off, doors are locked, and students and teacher crouch on the floor to avoid getting shot at by campus intruders—I’ll be ready.)

      ·         We have steak a lot less often.

·         My 11-year-old has one more reason to have a dramatic fit.  “Pleeeaaaase, don’t knit on the car line,” he wails with tears in his eyes.  “It’s embarrassing.”  He’ll probably undergo years of therapy someday because, after his pleas, I continue to knit as we wait to move up in the torturous line of mothers in mini-vans dropping off their kids at his school.  We have a VW Jetta and my son’s discomfort is compounded because his peers can look down into my car.  (The fact that there are piles of fast-food wrappers, empty cups and soda bottles, and other unsavory detritus of the life of a working mother in clear view surprisingly leaves him unfazed, though.)

·          I spend even more time in the bookstore.  Like the shoes the elves provided the shoemaker, each day there are new knitting magazines (some with nifty freebies) on the racks at my local Barnes and Noble.  Not to mention books.  I spent nearly an hour anguishing in the bookstore last night about whether I should buy Stitch London. This book has some neat patterns for cute little bobbies and the queen and her corgis in it, but I really only covet it because of the pigeon pattern and included yarn and needles cunningly tucked inside the front cover.  Not only is the pigeon absolutely adorable, there’s a Facebook page where knitters can post images of their pigeons.  I don’t even want to plumb the depths of what my desire to post a stuffed pigeon on Facebook says about the effects (or causes) of my knitting passion. . . .

·         I have begun a slow process of brainwashing my husband.  “Just think, dear.  We can open `The Good Shepherd Sheep Farm and Wedding Chapel,’ or maybe `The Pastoral Pastor Anglican Chapel,’” I told my husband a few weeks ago (after a visit to the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair where I interacted with all sorts of adorable four-legged fiber producing creatures).  My husband, who is allergic to wool (he really is; he breaks out in hives), and who grew up burdened with doing farm chores in rural North Carolina, shares none of my romantic aspirations.  The pained look that crossed his face at my words is reminiscent of the one he had when I told him, a couple of years ago that I’d registered us for a weekend alpaca workshop in Asheville, NC. 

·         I talk to strangers, of all races, ages, and nationalities.  Knitting, whatever its potentially adverse effects, draws people in.  I’ve discussed my hobby with German, Indian, Nigerian, Japanese, Greek, Chinese, South African, and Greek individuals, to name a few.  I’ve had little girls tell me about their grandmothers and great-grandmothers.  I’ve made connections in stores and in on-line communities.  I felt like a celebrity the year my son attended tutoring at a Kumon Learning Center, because, as I sat in the waiting room, I always had an international crowd asking me questions and listening to my suggestions for yarn and pattern sources.

Knitting is a well-spring, impacting  many areas of my life.  If my sophomores handed in a cause-and-effect essay with the structure of this blog post, I might take my red pen and question their structure and organization.  “Limit your topic,” I might write.  But, ultimately, I’m not certain if the results of knitting can be circumscribed in an essay or blog post adhering to the prescriptions of a writing guide.    The consequences of my humble hobby are unfixed and open-ended, much like student essay responses that are worth reading.