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.)