Sunday, February 23, 2014

Winter's Tale

     A little over a week ago the South was shut down by a snow storm.  The school where I teach was closed for three-and-a-half days, time which I spent blissfully engaged in domestic and creative endeavors.  I made homemade strawberry jam (with six pounds of berries I found because I actually had time to remember that I have a freezer in my garage), finished "Ginny's Cardigan" (shown below), worked diligently on knitting another top-down sweater, baked a variety of items that included a buttery cinnamon crumb cake and homemade biscuits (to eat with strawberry jam), cooked all sorts of other food (the best of these was perhaps some creamy risotto served with baked cod), sorted my yarn stash, and gave much of the house a thorough cleaning.  But now it’s back to the crunch.

People often suffer from the misapprehension that teachers have lots of time on our hands.  In reality, the blocks of weeks of the school year are so stuffed full of activities that there is little time to breathe.  Another reality is that there is actually too much work to complete well, so people in my profession have to make choices that border on insubordination, in order to provide the best instruction for their students and not work round the clock.  I told a friend a couple of years ago, “I am two people.  One is the harried teacher-woman and two is the summer-mom, the person who is kinder and who doesn’t view her children’s needs as annoying conflicts to be worked out on her daily planner.” My friend is a teacher, too, and is in a much more difficult situation than I am as she is also raising two children on her own.  She had to concur.  

This sweater should have a closer fit--with less ease--than the green version
 I highlighted a couple of weeks ago.  

     I know my woes are not unique to me.  Working parents have it tough.  I also am aware that it isn’t healthy to complain or to dwell on problems that are beyond my control.  I suppose that fact is why I’ve never been able to sit down and watch Mr. Holland’s Opus all the way through.  It is a movie about a high school music teacher who naively takes a high school teaching job, believing that his post will afford him time to compose music.  Obviously, his life’s great achievement does not end up being a great opus but, rather, the gifts he has given to his students.  While this movie, when viewed in its entirety, must be uplifting, it raises unsettling issues that are too close to home for me.  Maybe I’ll watch it when I retire. 

After a day spent sorting my stash, I realized that it's time for another Lenten yarn fast.  This is part of my collection of worsted-weight yarn, most of it left over from bigger projects.  

On my snow days, after cleaning the house, I moved some furniture around and 
placed this  chair in front of my bedroom window.  I though it would be a cozy
 place to sit.  Streaky seems to agree.The crocheted bowl and book with Liberty
 print cover were gifts to me made by my blogger  friend, 
 Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse.  My friend, Cindy, quilted the piece on the
 back  of the  chair.

     For now, I’ll choose to avoid this film and continue on with my work in my classroom, still holding onto my castle in the air that I can somehow find the time to simultaneously pursue a career related to knitwear design.  Of course, I am not naive enough to believe that if my hobby ever does transmute into my profession that it will be stress free.  But maybe, unlike in my current job, I won’t have to spend hours and hours documenting and proving what I do.  Nor will I have to live the overwhelming and ever-present guilt that comes with failing to live up to the expectation that every student will achieve at a high level.  I can just hold up the tangible evidence of a sweater and a knitting pattern and say, “Look what I did!”

Eight days ago the ground was covered with snow.  Today the daffodils are almost
ready to bloom. 
These vines recently reared their heads, too.  Maybe summer break isn't too far away.  

Had to include a picture of one of my jars of strawberry jam, along with some vintage knick-knacks.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Designing Daze

     It will be a while before I post a pattern for the sweater I’m sporting above.  This garment is the result of many hours—some of them passed in a class with Patty Lyons at Vogue Knitting Live and others spent at home (mostly early in the morning while the sky was still dark outside and the rest of the house slept).

     Using my measurements and gauge swatches, I calculated and knit.  In the course of creating my sweater, I learned a few things.  Be VERY, VERY meticulous about determining gauge—and maybe ask for a second opinion.  While I love this sweater with its comfy fit, I realized about halfway through that my gauge swatch probably measured 4.5 stitches per inch, rather than five I'd originally measured, so the area around the bust and waist has quite a bit of ease. My original intent was to make a shapely, form-fitting garment, and I'd even included two darts in the front and one in the back for shaping, but a one-half-of-a-stitch difference per inch made my garment a little bit looser than intended.  

My notebook is filled with page after page of sloppy scrawling.

     I learned so much making this project, though, and want to knit up another one—using a 4.5 gauge, to see what the results will be.  While I adore luxury yarns, there is something so satisfying working with a solid worsted or DK weight 100% wool yarn, and this inexpensive Universal Yarn results in a fabric with a beautiful heathery effect.  I think I used about six skeins (I did so much swatching and got lazy about keeping track and don’t want to go back now and calculate), so for roughly $42.00, I have a classic wardrobe addition.

I'd much rather work on this new design, than do the math for my previous one--but I'll get it done.  I am trying to experiment with a different fiber here, other than the wool I typically use and love.  

     I plan to do the math (ugh!) and work out the pattern for standard sizes, along with the yardage, but know that this task might not get done for some time.  My full-time job is teaching, and I have roughly 13 more weeks or so to finish a mountain of paperwork, one that includes writing a tome to renew my National Board certification!  I also have 23 Gilgamesh essays and 38 more dealing with a short story by John Cheever to grade in the next week or so, and every week there is a similar pile.  (I suppose I need to stop experiencing this sense of personal responsibility--or masochism--for developing writing skills in my students and just give multiple-choice assessments.) My knitting, though, does provide much-needed release from these other chores, but I’m feeling a crunch right now, and don’t know when I’ll find the time or the motivation to sit down for the serious math session required to write my pattern.  Thankfully, though, this design is very simple—with only stockinette and a mock-rib stitch.  I’d love to share it and see someone else knit it up.

     While I’ve been posting designs for some time, I did finally have someone knit up one of my patterns—and she is actually very pleased with the results!  Carla Gnadt of Alma, Kansas won a free skein of Universal Worsted in her choice of colorway (Beeswax) for her efforts.  She knit my Celtic Daydream hat in a beautiful bright red.  She plans to block the hat and send a different picture, but I’m impatient and have to share the quick photo she took of her work.  Thank you so much, Carla.  I’ll post your new photo, too, when I receive it.  I hope I’ll continue to see other knitters work my designs in the future.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Back to Basics

This is a peak at my sweater in progress.

     Every so often I see an exclamatory statement about knitting posted on Facebook:  "I hate ribbing!" or "I can't stand sewing/seaming my knitting!" When I see such assertions, I am always a bit taken aback, as they make me question the extent of my obsession with my hobby.  I love knitting, so much so that I view every aspect of it as a challenge over which I must be victorious.  Steeking, seaming, swatching--perhaps not exactly fun, but, when I attempt these skills, they are approached by me with discipline and determination.  Of course, the enemy that always lays in wait in the background is impatience.

     When I start a project, I want it FINISHED!  It is so tempting to cut corners--not swatch, not study ALL of the directions first, not go back right away to fix a mistake that my intuition tells me will matter very much later on in my project--so much that I end up tearing out numerous rows to right it.  But I'm learning from the past and trying to focus on details. In the area of knitting trying to up one's game in this manner means aiming for accuracy, neatness, and aesthetic appeal.  And, as I tell my students in my English classes,  a person can't be truly accomplished in any area of activity without first mastering the basics.  (But the basics aren't much fun!  I'd rather discuss novels or life with my students than drill them in grammar.)

     So I have been working doggedly for a couple of weeks now to knit up a sweater pattern I created using my measurements.  This is not a fancy sweater.  This is your basic stockinette stitch garment. But, like so many simple things, when executed properly, it is beginning to have great appeal--sort of an understated classic look--not exactly elegance, but style none-the-less.

     In the same way, sometimes great food is the result of simple attention to detail.  I recently followed a cupcake recipe from the Magnolia Bakery--in an attempt to recreate the delicious cupcake I'd purchased there for my fiftieth birthday treat.  I'd noticed something unusual when I'd eaten this item. It was wasn't as air-filled as some cupcakes and lacked the typical dome-shaped top.  It was a bit flattened, and the top had a delicious buttery, slightly dense, almost crunchy texture.

I made sure my eggs were room temperature and my butter wasn't too hard!  Patience certainly is a virtue--and, like so many other traits worthy of praise, presents a challenge to impetuous and impulsive souls like me.  

This is the top of the baked cupcake--so buttery good.  

     The recipe I used called for two types of flour--self-rising and basic. Yesterday, a week after I experimented with the recipe, I caught a few minutes of The Splendid Table on NPR and listened as the host discussed biscuits with a southern chef.  The chef discussed the importance of using southern self-rising flour in the biscuits, as this flour is the product of winter wheat and, therefore, has a lower gluten content than plain old flour, which, here in the US, is grown in the winter--typically in the Midwest and Northeast. This flour results in baked goods that are a bit denser than those made with all-purpose flour.  It is also more similar to the product early settlers here in the South found back in England and Scotland.  

My cupcake photos were overexposed--a problem I didn't notice until the cupcakes were already eaten!  Tried to play around a bit with this photo to make it presentable.

     The fact that the cupcake recipe didn't call for any additional leavening ingredients and mixed all-purpose and self-rising flours resulted in my cupcakes having a similar consistency and appearance to those at the Magnolia Bakery--as did the fact that I carefully followed other directions--making sure that my eggs were room temperature and that I mixed the ingredients in the manner suggested.  The fact that I used the entire pound (!!!)  of butter and more than seven cups (!!!) of sugar called for to make the batter and icing also contributed to a superior end product.  

This beautiful scarf is a birthday present from Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse.  Her work reveals careful attention to detail and sense of aesthetics.  She used Liberty Lawn for the lining and Jamieson's Tweed for the front of the scarf.  Check out her blog to see more of her beautiful crocheted--and culinary--creations.  

     So whether knitting or cooking, my experiments have yielded some important lessons.  Acting methodically is  well worth the effort. Although, if I'm honest, I still struggle.  And while I can't say that I "hate" any aspects of knitting, slowing down while not getting carried away in a surge to finish a project requires such painful self-control. As my students race ahead, turning in final essays, which are more like rough first drafts, typed hastily in the wee hours the night before deadline day, I have to temper my irritation and remember that it's taken me years to develop patience and discipline.  And still, sometimes in a rush of enthusiasm--or irritation with tasks I view in the manner my students view essays--I ignore my own advice and end up working twice as hard to tear out mistakes or to explain why my bread didn't rise or my cookie batter (too soft as a result of microwaving frozen butter rather than patiently waiting for it to soften) runs all over the cookies sheet while it bakes into a paper-thin contiguous mass.  

So I'll continue on--trying to focus on details.  Of course, in my pattern-writing haste, I did miscalculate my sleeve decreases, so today I'll be tearing out a bit and experimenting with using a smaller-sized needle for the ribbing. I should do a swatch first.  But it might be faster to just experiment on the sleeve itself.  I can always tear out my work again, if the gauge isn't quite right.  

Mrs. T's gift-wrapping is a work of art as well.