Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Learning to Slow Down in the Big City

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

     One might think that my trip last weekend to Vogue Knitting Live in New York would have spurred me on to race home to dive into knitting, designing, and blogging.  And while this event did inspire my creativity and reaffirm my determination to pursue my fiber-arts related career dreams, at this event I had a jarring, but oddly comforting, aha moment, where I realized I needed to stop and rethink my previous methods of reaching my goals.  Sitting in classes led by noted knitwear designers helped me to come to the realization that I’ve been on a mad mission:  jumping into knitting and designing without first taking care and effort to ensure that I am creating appealing and technically polished products. 

     On Saturday morning I began a two-part class with Patty Lyons  entitled “Design Your Own Top-Down Sweater.”  Lyons opened the class by commenting that women will go to the store and try on 55 tops before finding one that suits them, but those same individuals will buy yarn and a pattern and jump into knitting something, not taking into account technical details that will result in a well-fitting, attractive garment—and not taking the time to test and experiment by swatching.  In my class led by Louisa Harding on Sunday morning (entitled “Designing with Self-Striping and Variegated Yarns,”) the instructor reiterated a similar idea, stating, “The most expensive part of your project is your time.  If you’re going to spend 100 hours knitting a sweater, spending two hours swatching and playing with yarn isn’t much.”

The large swatches were done using a technique that 
mimics knitting in the round.  

     While both classes reaffirmed my passion for knitting and the strength of my aspirations related to that craft (for instance, in Lyons’s class English-major me was totally engaged and loved spending six hours doing math), they also made me take pause.  So many women grab a colorful skein of yarn and jump into knitting—the yarn purchase and the project choice the result of emotional responses—or see a sweater pattern and buy a yarn other than the one recommended on the pattern.  Buying a variant yarn isn’t necessarily the problem, but failing to go through the many steps that the designers do to ensure that the resulting garment is aesthetically pleasing and figure-flattering is ill-advised.  Designers bring sophisticated technical experience to their work—knitting swatches to see how pairings of particular stitches and particular fibers will behave and bringing their personal aesthete from years of experience in fashion to their creations.  Ignoring the steps these individuals have taken to design a garment and jumping blindly in all too often results in a waste of time and money.  Knitters also sell the designers short when we ignore the fact that they are professionals who have worked very hard for us. 

I walked about six miles on Sunday.  This quiet street near NYU made  me forget about
 deadlines and works in progress and gave me time to think about lessons I'd learned in
my classes.

     Armed with this new knowledge, I returned home to the many containers of yarn that are invading my upstairs and the piles and piles of knitting books and magazines that are all too often merely quickly glanced over by me, until I pick a pattern in one of them, buy some yarn, and start knitting.  Beholding the baskets and assorted catchalls, I felt both determination and anticipation.  I need to stop and take the time to experiment with the yarn I have, I thought.  I want to design garments, but, as a knitter, I’ve been behaving like someone who has casually ridden horses over woodland trails her whole life but who wakes up one day and proclaims, “I’m going to be on the Olympic Equestrian Team next year.”  Obviously, mastering the requisite dressage, eventing, or jumping skills would be an impossible undertaking in such a short period of time.  In the same manner, I can’t expect miracles overnight.  But I don’t want to be discouraged, either.  That recreational rider, like me, could feasibly patiently polish her skills and have a shot. . . .  Maybe a few years down the road. 

     So I’m going to stop worrying about how many finished projects I have to show off on my blog, or how many new yarns I’ve purchased and focus on professionalism—both technical detail and aesthetic sense.  Of course, I couldn’t resist casting on the top-down sweater design I think I’ve calculated properly (I did do an awful lot of math).  And, of course, I'd made some swatches first. . . .

I stopped in at the Lion Brand Yarn Studio on my Sunday stroll--such
an inviting space.  

Since Sunday was my 50th birthday, I stopped in at The Magnolia Bakery (of Sex and the City fame)
and bought a cupcake to eat while viewing Downton Abbey that night.  I did get out on Friday and Saturday
 nights, but was pretty tired after three full days in the city, so staying in with Downton seemed appealing.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Red Hats, Regulations . . . and a Giveaway, Too

     At the end of last year, I had to give several North Carolina high school final exams.  Each semester, before state-mandated tests take place, teachers receive training on a variety of administrative protocols, or rules.  For instance, teachers are not allowed to engage in any type of “distracting” behavior during testing, including reading, grading papers, knitting (not mentioned in any formal handbook but I’m sure not permitted, even if an individual was able to demonstrate that she can knit with her eyes closed), or using any form of  electronic device. 

When I administered an earth science test to a group of ninth graders, I spied a pristine stack of graph paper on a table in the instructor’s classroom.  Teachers aren’t allowed to give tests dealing with the subject matter that they teach—in my case, English—so I was in another teacher’s room (more precisely, trailer) at this time.  While not a distraction to students in the class, all of whom seemed to work industriously on their exams, no matter where I walked, this paper seemed to be within my line of vision—peripheral or dead on.  To most humans, save a few incomprehensible math types, a stack of graph paper represents unpleasant memories of actual graphing experiences (something to do with angles, if I recall correctly) from high school or college, but to anyone who has dabbled in knitwear design—especially folks who enjoy Fair Isle or lace knitting—a ream of this type of paper represents alluring, yet-uncharted waters. 

Of course, I didn’t break any regulations and take pencil to paper during the exam, but my mind did roam, unfettered by bureaucratic protocol.  Dreams of romantic landscapes and potential projects flitted through my brain.  By the end of the testing session I had an idea of the type of hat I wanted to create, and, amazingly, probably because I’d thought so long and hard, I didn’t have too much difficulty charting a design.  Of course, there were some stumbling blocks.  My first pattern resulted in a miniature child-sized pancake attached to a ribbed band that would comfortably fit Hagrid.  (I really need to swatch more.)  Thankfully, hats knit up quickly.  So I took my original design and tweaked it a bit and now have a hat I’ve worn quite a bit during this infamous week of the “Polar Vortex.”

The bottom photo shows the actual color of the hat (Universal Yarn Deluxe Worsted
in Nitrox Blue). The top photo shows stitch definition better.  The hat is divided into
seven triangles of chart repeats (maybe I should have called it a good luck hat?). 

I’d like to make up one of these toppers in red for Valentine’s Day, but Vogue Knitting Live is next week, so if the weather holds I’ll be spending six hours in a class focused on how to design a top-down sweater, and another three in a class taught by Louisa Harding dealing with designing with variegated yarn.  The red hat might have to wait, therefore, as I will be spending quite some time swatching and sketching—both in preparation for and, I assume, during the actual courses. I’m not sure if I want a red hat, either, as I associate this color of headwear with the Red Hat Society, a group made up of flamboyant senior citizen women who proudly flaunt garish red and purple clothing.  I'm not critical of these spirited ladies, but I’ll be turning 50 while I’m on my trip to the Big Apple and don’t need anything right now to remind me of that fact.  

I’d love to see someone knit up this hat and post it on Ravelry, though.  Be the first person to do so, and I’ll send you a skein of Universal Deluxe Worsted to make a companion hat.  Maybe in red?

Click HERE for the hat pattern.  


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Eeeks . . . a Steek! What would Mary Poppins Do?

Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the steeking process.  

          Confidence.  Conviction.  No messing about with self-doubt, avoidance, or second-guessing—unpleasant manifestations of a wavering or apprehensive character.  This strength can be seen in Mary Poppins.  The creation of P.L. Travers, Poppins is known to all of us as the no-nonsense nanny whose common-sense, albeit magical, approach to life is armor against any muddled succumbing to a mire of self-doubt or fear. 

After viewing the recent film Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson as a Travers who is characterized by a veneer of propriety and intractability veiling a fragile and damaged psyche, I decided to purchase a biography entitled Mary Poppins, She Wrote.  As I read, I was struck by how the recent film starring Thompson, like the iconic Disney production of Mary Poppins, were both simplified  versions of complex stories—watered and stripped down forms made more palatable to main-stream audiences.  I also noted how Travers, as she appears in the biography, is a complex artistic woman, anxious and plagued by general physical and mental malaise.  She is also revealed to be a somewhat impractical individual who makes some imprudent romantic choices.  Reading the book made me aware of how Travers needed Poppins—a resolute, perky nurturer who always has the solution to the problems and pitfalls of life that, to the rest of us, present worrisome conundrums. 

I need Poppins, too.  Yesterday, as I decided to finally cut a steek in a Noro vest I’ve been working on sporadically for a year, an extended time period the result of my contemplating the neckline with dread and trepidation, Poppins came to mind, as did Julia Child.  Child was another plucky woman, one who told her audience to “Be fearless.” Like Poppins, she also understood the power of a playful side.  After advising budding chefs to be brave, she added, “. . . and above all have fun!”   Poppins, who mixed medicine with good cheer and “a spoonful of sugar” (at least in the saccharine Hollywood version) would have to subscribe to these sentiments. 

So inspired by these women and steeling myself, I cut my steek, and took pleasure in the neat separation of the center ladder dividing the two halves of the vest’s V-neck.  I had a goal in mind—to   finish this project before my winter break is over—officially on January 6.  When Poppins, in the Disney film, sees Jane and Michael’s untidy nursery, she tells them, “Our first game is called Well Begun is Half-Done,” and then magically assists the three children in cleaning up the room.  China flies onto the table and hats onto pegs, while wooden soldiers march neatly into toy boxes.  Poppins’s words apply to my vest, as it was “well begun” a year ago, but languished “half-done” for way too long.     Perhaps my completion of this garment was aided by a little magic, too.  How can one take scissors to one’s precious knitting without some magical muse to show her the way?

Now if I can only keep Poppins’s spirit alive this coming week, when I return to the classroom to teach high school English.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when I try to feed my students their medicine of grammar and literature, they respond as Michael does to Travers’s indomitable nanny in the novel?  When she tells him he has to take his medicine:  “. . . Mary Poppins’s eyes were fixed upon him, and Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her.”  One can dream. . . .

To work a steek, extra stitches are cast on in the middle, where the cutting will take place.

A sewing machine can be used to secure the sides of the steek or crochet can be used.
Here, I crocheted one edge in a contrasting color to show the line of single crochet.

The steek is ready to be cut!

I did it!

My vest is almost done.  I have to pick up stitches around the armholes and add some
ribbing there.  I have to finish by my deadline--tomorrow!