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I Just Went to Pick Up Some Sticks . . .

June 20, 2012

How can it be that I never seem to have the right size or length?

An editorial office can feel like a microcosm where you tend to forget that anything is going on elsewhere. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We brainstorm, we concentrate (hard), we laugh, we eat great stuff people bring in to share, we create, and we more often than not end the day feeling like we’ve worked hard but that it’s been very satisfying. So, when I leave the office for a bit in the middle of the day, it’s almost a surprise that there’s so much activity out there in the rest of the world. Today’s errand was because I forgot to write myself a note to bring in some knitting needles for a photoshoot tomorrow. (Asked earlier if I had any suitable needles, I squirmed when I envisioned my “other” stash — needles.)

In a hurry to get back to work, I was dismayed when two big trucks loaded with fresh-cut hay pulled out of my neighbor’s driveway right ahead of me, and I realized my return trip was going to take a whole lot longer than expected. Following (very slowly) along behind, I started thinking about those sweet-smelling loads, and how that beautiful-June-day scent was going to linger and, on a bitter cold January day, would fill the barn where it was headed with a different, but still wonderful echo of its fresh essence. And I thought of the sheep who would push and butt their way to get to the trough where it was spread out for them and of how round and woolly they’d be. What would I do with all those needles if there were no sheep to replenish my supply? I happened to have my iPad handy, and although it probably wasn’t the safest thing I’ve ever done, I managed to get a shot of those meals on wheels.


This Knitting Fits Perfectly: Knitting as part of school curriculums

June 13, 2012

A number of years ago, I taught art to kindergartners through 4th graders in Williamstown, MA. One of my favorite, and most successful, units was fiber crafts, including weaving, stitchery, and knitting. I found that the older boys, in particular, loved the needlecrafts. In fact, they resisted moving on to other media and really did want to “stick to their knitting.” So, it was no surprise to stumble on a wonderful article in the Guardian about a trend toward teaching knitting in elementary schools in England. Those Brits have got a good thing going!

“Boys are taking up their knitting needles at Dog Kennel primary school, south London.” Photograph by Frank Baron for the Guardian ©, October 17, 2011

It’s not always easy to incorporate crafts like knitting into a crowded school day, especially when preparing for standardized tests too often squeezes out opportunities for teachers to riff on their own special interests. Knitting, weaving, and other crafts are often an integral part of the school day in Waldorf schools, but much less so in public schools. My sister-in-law, who teaches art in a large public high school in a Philadelphia suburb, offers knitting, but also recognizes the difficulty of hands-on help when class size makes it difficult to rescue everyone’s dropped stitches and unintentional stitch-count increases. It’s encouraging to see that some yarn shops have active and enthusiastic classes for kids. New York’s Knitty City is one great example, with two different weekly classes by age group: Grades 2-5 and Grade 6+.

Cat Bordhi created an entire curriculum for teaching knitting in a public school setting. As well as listing websites and books about teaching kids to knit and kids’ fiction and nonfiction books related to knitting, Cat offers her own inspiring experience teaching in Friday Harbor, Washington. This resource is no longer available on the website listed in the appendix of The Knitter’s Life List, but Cat graciously allowed me to post it here, and it’s also again available on Cat’s website. Let’s challenge those knitting British kids: could there be a Knitters’ World Cup?

Knitting in Schools

Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival 2012

June 7, 2012

I’m a very lucky person: I live within driving distance of both the New York State and the Maryland Sheep &Wool Festivals and, so, have been able to go to both for the past couple of years. This spring, Maryland was a multiple treat. First of all, I spent time with Deb Robson (who, among many other things co-authored The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook with Carol Ekarius), and I had the privilege of tagging along on Deb’s “barn tour.” Meeting the sheep and their shepherds in Deb’s company is truly special, as she shares her passion and extraordinary knowledge, especially of endangered breeds. When she describes each breed’s particular characteristics, it’s hard to detect any hint of why you wouldn’t want to take every single one home with you.

That’s Deb with the clipboard, starting the barn tour

I also had the pleasure of meeting and greeting Sue McFarland, who won the drawing for The Knitter’s Life List sweepstakes, which included a trip to the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival for herself and a friend (her lucky friend is Kathy Wroblewski). Although we had thousands of entries from all over the country, Sue is from central Massachusetts, not far from us, where she is very active in the fiber community, especially as a weaver.


Sue with her Maryland Sheep & Wool bag, and Clara Parkes signing books behind my right shoulder

Between Deb’s barn talk and signing my book in the authors’ tent, I didn’t have a lot of time to be tempted by all the delicious fibers, colorful yarns, and intriguing tools that usually make a big dent in my funds, no matter how much I resolve ahead of time to be prudent. But I spent some time chatting with Nanne Kennedy, whose Seacolors yarns draw me into her booth at every festival. The mineral dyes Nanne uses are fixed with Maine Coast seawater, and she’s been developing a solar dyeing process that makes her yarns even more environmentally friendly. The hardest thing about that part of the day was deciding which three colors to choose for the vest I wanted to make — every one of them spoke to me.


Celebrating the Finish

May 30, 2012

I love everything about making things with fiber, yarn, and fabric, but my favorite part may be what’s going on in my head before I begin. That’s when I imagine this wonderful new thing that’s going to take color and shape. But then, of course, there’s making it happen. I love choosing the colors and pattern, and even enjoy the math that gets me the quantities and measurements I need (a sort pleasant mental puzzle, more satisfying than Sudoku). Once the project is launched and seems to be going okay, I’ve been known to lose a little interest, unless the looming deadline of a birthday, wedding, or Christmas keeps the fire lit. I confess, I even like finishing: It’s satisfying to get rid of dangling ends and threads, stitch things together and block or full the piece, erasing, or at least smoothing out irregularities. But this is the moment when almost inevitably disappointment hits. It seems like there’s always something that I wished I’d done differently or a little mistake that I wished I hadn’t ignored or the colors aren’t what I had envisioned or, worst of all, it’s not the right size – and the list, I’m afraid goes on. I’ve learned one way to get over this letdown that often works: hide the item for a week or a month or a year and then look at it again. It’s amazing how much better something looks after a little rest – sort of like letting the bread dough rise, I guess.

Robin and her quilt

My friend Robin Clutz took an entirely different approach with the magnificent quilt she just finished as a gift for her high-school-graduating granddaughter: She had a party. She invited her quilt group and other fiber-loving friends to afternoon tea, with the quilt in the place of honor. Made with Kaffe Fassett fabrics, the quilt is a completely joyful garden of rosy, rich colors and beautiful piecing. It was an honor to share this joy and celebrate Robin’s creativity and skill. Some people are lucky enough to belong to a guild or group to share their triumphs, as well as their knitting and quilting puzzles while still underway, but even when there’s no group nearby, why not simply have a party, reach out to friends, and celebrate beauty and creativity? It’s yet another way of spreading the gift and the joy.

Leaps of Faith

May 18, 2012

It takes a lot of courage to start any fiber project. You’re spending hard-earned money on the yarn and needles, and you know you’re going to be spending precious time, as well. But if you’re addicted to the textures and rhythm of working with fibers and turning them into something beautiful, you’re more than happy to forge ahead, no matter how tricky that sock heel might turn out to be. Throw caution to the winds, never mind that you’ve never knitted lace, and go ahead and dive into that lace scarf! The yarn’s beautiful, the color’s luscious, and it’s perfect for your daughter/sister/mother/friend. We knitters love — in fact, we crave — challenge, but it does at times demand a leap of faith.

Take directions, for instance: haven’t you found yourself saying, “They can’t mean that!” or “What the heck is this supposed to do!”  I clearly remember the first time I ran across directions to use “waste yarn” to save a space for the thumb opening in mittens. Margaret Radcliffe explains and illustrates this classic technique beautifully in her Circular Knitting Workshop (see photo here).

Waste yarn (photo from Circular Knitting Workshop; John Polak, photographer)

Whole patterns in themselves can demand leaps of faith: Elizabeth Zimmermann’s famous Baby Surprise Jacket is a classic; Morehouse Farm’s Fishknit Scarf, with its dropped stitches, is another. Casting on to make one of Cat Bordhi’s Moebius baskets, and then, my goodness, throwing it into a washing machine to felt it when the knitting’s done takes a brave, persistent soul – but how much fun it is and how intriguing! And what stranded knitter hasn’t paled at the thought of steeking, which requires you to take scissors and cut openings in a beautiful sweater you spent hours knitting in the round.

Cat Bordhi’s design for a Moebius basket (from The Knitter’s Life List; John Polak, photographer)

Dropping stitches, cutting knitted fabric, following patterns when it’s not clear what’s the top and what’s the bottom or whether there’s any “right” side at all – each of these requires a leap of faith, but each becomes magical when you discover the logic and beauty of each new technique — and it works! The methods may seem like madness, but successfully accomplishing them allows you to add another notch in your knitting needle of accomplishment.

Crocheted steek swatch (photo from The Knitter’s Life List; John Polak photographer)

Spinning, dyeing, and knitting Jane’s Ubiquitous Shawl

April 24, 2012

The generosity of my fiber friends never ceases to amaze me. I’m often blessed with gifts of fleece or yarn as well as self-incriminating stories of knitting disasters (you know, like having to pull out yards of laceweight yarn when you discover that you should have started the shaping 5 inches back, because you failed to read ahead to that place in the instructions that says, “and at the same time, . . .”) This post is a story about both very generous gifts and my own salvaged disasters.

First, the fleece. I recently was the beneficiary of two very large, stuffed-full bags of fleece from a friend who decided she didn’t have time in her life right now for spinning. A beautiful white (mystery fiber) roving spoke to me, but even though it was a joy to spin, I got bored with the white and decided it would be even more fun if I dyed it a very pale shell pink. The dye mixture “slipped,” however, and I ended up with bubble gum-colored fleece. A lot of it!

Next, the yarn. I went ahead and spun up that bubble gum, and then my creative friend and master dyer Gail Callahan urged me to (cautiously) overdye the yarn to tame it down. This experiment went pretty well, because I tried hard to take Gail’s advice and add just a little color at a time. I wasn’t very scientific about it, but after a dash of blue and a touch of mahogany, I got a sort of coral I was quite happy with.

Finally, the design. I’m a pushover for audio books as knitting partners, and if you agree, the place to turn is Heather Ordover’s CraftLit: A Podcast for Crafters Who Love Books. Heather is also the creator of What Would Madame Defarge Have Knit?, a collection of designs from other avid reading/knitting designers,  who have imagined what “might” have been knit by or for an assortment of literary characters, from Frankenstein to Rip Van Winkle. Heather sent me the e-book as a gift , and I used my handspun coral yarn to knit Jane’s (that’s Jane Eyre’s) Ubiquitous Shawl, designed by Erica Hernandez, and shown here. Thanks, Heather, for your inspiration and Erica, for your lovely design!

Pattern for Starfish Coasters

April 19, 2012

No matter how hard I try, when I’m at the beach I can’t stop myself from picking up some stone or shell with an unusual shape or a magical color pattern. And, of course, once the first one is in my pocket, there’s no stopping myself. Last fall, I became intrigued with some very flat stones I found on Nauset Beach on Cape Cod. They had a nice weight, with consistent thickness, and were perfect, I thought, for coasters, especially if I gave them a little fiber “coat” to absorb moisture. I included a photo of some of them in my blog, and because a reader requested a pattern, I’m happy to share it here.

Because these are found objects, you’ll have to adapt the pattern somewhat to fit the shape of the stones you find. I discovered that it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be to ensure a flat surface, both top and bottom, steady enough to ensure that a hot cup of tea or a tall, cool glass of wine wouldn’t tip over. Even if the stone itself is flat, the way you connect the starfish’s “arms” on the bottom of the stone also has implications for how steady the piece is. On the other hand, the stones would be just as useful as paperweights, and then no worry about wobbling.

My stones are about 3 or 4 inches in diameter — all irregular shapes — and about ⅜ inch thick. I used 5/2 pearl cotton and a size E/4 (3.50 mm) crochet hook. The star-shaped pattern is adapted from Edie Eckman’s Motif #144 in Beyond the Square Crochet Motifs. I crochet the “starfish” first, then add chain-stitched arm extensions to each point. When the crocheting is done, I lay the piece over the stone, and gather the extensions together to join them underneath, with their arms securely wrapped around the stone. The different shapes of the stones change the way the arms organically arrange themselves, just like those of a real starfish clinging to a rock.

Crocheting the Star

Begin with a sliding loop.

Rnd 1 Ch 1, 10 sc in ring, join with slip st to first sc. (10 sc)

Rnd 2 Ch 1, 2 sc in same stitch, 2 sc in each sc around, join with slip st to first sc.

Rnd 3 * Ch 8, sc in third chain from hook, hdc in next ch, dc in next 2 ch, tr in next ch, skp 3 sc, slip st to next sc; repeat from * four more times, ending last repeat slip st to base of first chain. (5 points made) Fasten off.

Arm Extensions         

Note: You may need to crochet longer or shorter chain extensions, depending on the diameter of your stone. I like the tips of the star to disappear over the side of the stone, so that the chains that secure the starfish to the stone are hidden on the underside.

Chain 12, * slip st into tip of one starfish arm, chain 24; repeat from * three more times, slip stitching in the tip of each starfish arm in order; chain 12, end with slip st into first stitch of beginning chain. Cut the thread, leaving a tail about 10 inches long. Thread the tail in an embroidery needle.

Lay the starfish over the stone and draw the chains to the underside. Use the tail to sew through each chain at its halfway point (marked X in the illustration, below right), drawing the chain extensions together and securing the starfish around the stone.

Extensions complete, ready to be fitted to stone