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Discovering knitters in fiction

April 10, 2012

My favorite “lists” in The Knitter’s Life List may be those about books. There are, of course, the classic knitting books, including favorites by Elizabeth Zimmermann and Mary Thomas, and the many treasures that focus on a particular technique or ethnic tradition. But it was just as much fun to put together lists of books in which knitters and knitting turn up as a surprise — in novels, short stories, and even (especially!) children’s books.

I’ve recently discovered two more to add to those lists: a novel and a picture book. The novel is Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, a haunting book set in France in the early years of World War II. I read this several months ago, but the fictional characters are so vividly portrayed that I think of them often and even find myself wondering what happened to them. The author frequently describes one or the other of them knitting; I was particularly intrigued by the spinning wheel that had been brought down out of the attic of a French farmhouse because all the women in the village were learning to spin since they couldn’t easily get wool during the war.

My new favorite children’s book is Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn, with its delightful illustrations by Jon Klassen. It made me smile! It may seem odd to pair these two books: one set during a very dark period in recent history and the other, a lighthearted children’s fantasy. But I’m struck by their common threads: both give us pictures of people in community, some folks nice and some not so nice — the generous spirits and the selfish ones. (Who could forget the aesthete in Suite Francaise, whose beautiful possessions mattered more to him than people — could the archduke in Extra Yarn be his soul brother?)
Although my book lists are already pretty long, I know they’re not comprehensive and would love to have any and all suggestions for adding those of your special reads that I missed. Consider it a treasure hunt!


Getting in Shape

April 4, 2012

No, this isn’t a reminder that now that it’s spring it’s time to get back into that jogging routine. I’m thinking quite literally outside the box: knitting geometric shapes other than squares and rectangles. After all, much of what we knit is pretty rectangular: scarves, throws, backs/fronts/sleeves of sweaters, even mittens and socks, with some shaping for style and fit. But think of all those other intriguing shapes from Geometry 101 – triangles, of course, but also hexagons, pentagons, and other multi-sided shapes. Or, what about knitting stars or hearts, or abandoning mathematical patterns altogether and learning about “jazzknitting” developed by Ilisha Helfman? (I spent a wonderful day at this year’s Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat exploring Ilisha’s creative techniques.)

Gingko leaves inspired by Ilisha Helfman

When I’m dying to get to the main event (my next sweater project, for instance), swatching can seem like a barrier that I’m tempted to skip over. But I’ve discovered that swatching for no other reason than playing with yarn and needles can be totally relaxing and absorbing fun. The swatches shown here are the result of some of these experiments. I’ve found shape-knitting a terrific way to use my stash of variegated yarns. Make a play date with your yarn and needles, and try some.

Patterns for geometric shapes by Margaret Radcliffe

If you can’t let yourself be completely process oriented and you find yourself wanting these items to be products, the possibilities are endless: ornaments, gift tags, pockets, appliqués, patches, edgings. You may want to join different shapes together for a scarf or throw, or use heavier yarn and big needles to change the scale of the item altogether.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, but here are some links that will take you to a few patterns and sources to get you started:
Triangles, circles, octagons: Margaret Radcliffe’s The Essential Guide to Color Knitting Techniques and Circular Knitting Workshop
Stars: Cecile Renaud’s Knitted Christmas Star
Ilisha Helfman’s Jazzknitting
Joining pentagons and squares: Kathy Gometz’s modular shawl pattern at Colorful Stitches (Lenox, MA)

Pattern for star by Cecile Renaud

First-time Knitters

March 28, 2012

Every knitter seems to have memories of learning to knit. My dad showed me how when I was about 10 years old. I remember the lightweight red wool and small needles he gave me, and I’ve always been curious about how he learned, because I don’t remember ever seeing him knitting at any time other than that day. But what a gift!

A lovely young mother and her 7-year-old daughter, Anna, recently won knitting lessons (from me) at a local fund-raiser. Neither of them knew how to knit but they were eager to try. The gift for me was getting to know two delightful people. There’s nothing like sitting quietly and concentrating on just yarn and needles to make interesting conversation begin to flow across three generations. I truly hope that knitting will continue to be an important part of Anna’s life – she was such an enthusiastic learner!

I learned a lot at our sessions, too. When you’ve knit for many years, you tend to knit so quickly that you no longer really appreciate the intersections and small movements that make a knit stitch happen, so it was fascinating to have my attention drawn to the structure of stitches when they’re being slowly and thoughtfully made by beginners. Anna chose variegated yarn for her project, which made the knitting fun for her as she watched the fabric grow, but which also had another important advantage: As she examined her work and worried about dropping stitches, she commented, “The variegated yarn makes it easy to see whether the stitch is right, especially when you drop one: When there are a bunch of loops and you look at the color of the ones on the needle, you’ll know which ones should go where.” I hadn’t thought of that, but she’s absolutely right!

Meet Katharine Cobey: Risk Taker

March 20, 2012

When we knitters begin planning our next project, we may not be thinking about the fact that we’re about to change one thing into something quite different, but Maine fiber artist Katharine Cobey reminds us “that art is transformation – the taking of a material and making it into another thing. Whether we use oil paints or plastic bags, marble or wool, the challenge is to make significant and expressive forms about the things we use, ourselves, and the worlds we live in.”


Katharine Cobey was a poet before she embraced knitting as her art form, but the creative spirit that inspired her poetry suffuses her fiber art as well – her work remains infinitely expressive and poetic. Although much has been written about her use of unusual materials, such as plastic and wire (Loose Ends, below, is knit of white plastic bags), in some of her designs, the form and dimension of her work, both sculpture and clothing, make the greater impact. Her large sculptural pieces, like the one at the left, move us with thoughtful statements about family, aging, war, homelessness, and grace; each piece of clothing she designs is unique, made with her own handspun silk and wool.

In her book Diagonal Knitting: A Different Slant, Ms. Cobey shares her knowledge and her approach to knitting with the goal of encouraging knitters to create their own unique designs. The diagonal structure she describes in the book results in garments and accessories with beautiful drape and flair. She is truly an inspiration on many levels, but, for me, perhaps most compelling is her belief in risk. She writes, “If I attempt what I have not done before, dialoguing with my materials and techniques I discover at least an impulse to work, and that leads to knowing what I can do and why I am doing it.”

For more photos and information about Katherine Cobey, follow this link to her website.

Loose Ends

Random Acts of Knitting

March 12, 2012

I’ve been driving around for several years with a bumper sticker that reads “Practice random acts of gardening.” I love the whole idea of creating anonymous displays for no other purpose than making people smile. That’s why I’ve been enjoying those quirky knitting projects that have been bubbling up so often around the country: yarn bombing. We’ve probably all seen photos and articles about this so-called guerilla knitting, but if you discover examples where you least expect it, they truly do make you screech to a halt and smile. Last summer I stumbled on a parade of knit-covered fence posts and road signs in the small town of Worthington in western Massachusetts. No one was around the pretty little town center late on a sunny, summer afternoon, and the colorful poles seemed to take on their own proud personalities. From the other side of the country, a friend sent me photos of this yarn-dressed MINI Cooper, which was a feature of the 2011 Utah Arts Festival in Salt Lake City last June. Organized by the Blazing Needles yarn shop and knit by a host of Salt Lake City knitters, it was just one “Random Act of Art” on display at the festival. Have you been surprised by any “random acts of knitting” lately?

A group in LA took a different, and very thoughtful approach to their yarn bombing activities:

Color your fiber world!

February 9, 2012

Okay, you have The Knitter’s Life List in your hands and have every intention of creating your personal list drawn from the book, as well as from your own experiences. I’ve been asked for advice on just how to get started, and my first thought is to begin with what you already love.

Because I’m always drawn to color and texture, color is right at the top of my ongoing life list. I love discovering unexpected, highly successful color combinations. If that’s your interest, too, the Internet has hundreds of sites that will lead you down the garden path of exploration. Warning: Many of these sites are addictive! Three recent discoveries that I especially enjoy using are,, and Each is full of inspiration, but I especially like the interactivity of the Adobe site: You can download a favorite photo, and the program pinpoints several key colors drawn right from the image. I found I could bring up yarn color cards on half my screen, and compare them to the kuler swatch palette on the other half of the screen. This is a photo of materials I’m developing for a weaving project, including a photo taken at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, the kuler swatch suggestions, and the yarns I’m considering. I didn’t follow the kuler color choices exactly, but they helped me examine my photo more thoughtfully and grasp the overall mood of it, as well as its color theme.

Color is a powerful element, present in every part of our lives. It can cheer us up, let us down, inspire or depress us.  Our color choices can make or break a design. Great color combinations sing!  Where do you find yours?

Wherever you are, that’s a good place to knit!

December 15, 2011

Writing The Knitter’s Life List was a true joy! I was constantly inspired and intrigued by what I learned as I researched and wrote, and I was moved by the generosity and support of the fiber community in response to my many questions. Now that the book is out in the world, I’m quite humbled – but also excited – by the realization that this particular list is truly never ending. The painter Degas wisely commented that “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” And that’s not just true about painting: the more you know about anything, the more you discover how much more there is to learn. Writing The Knitter’s Life List brought that home to me with a resounding thud. Not only am I constantly reminded of things I could have included in the book, yet missed, but the fiber world is forever bubbling with new creative projects, intriguing techniques, talented people, and (sometimes) whacky ideas. The life list could indeed never be considered final. That’s my motivation for creating this blog. Each week I’ll write about something else I’m adding to my list. I’m hoping readers will share their discoveries, too, so that together we can keep the life list growing.

Knitter-spotting. I’m thinking first of places where I’m likely to pull out my knitting. My book includes a list of likely and less likely places to knit, along with a pitch for knitting in public. I realized recently, however, that I forgot to include one of my own very favorite knitting hangouts: the beach! I can’t imagine anything much more soul-satisfying than sitting on the sand, listening to the ocean, and knitting on a warm, sunny beach late on a golden afternoon. Once you’re home and pull out your knitting, the little sprinkles of sand that fall out in your lap are sparkling reminders of a perfect day! What is your favorite place to knit? Where do you wish you could knit?!

Nauset Beach coasters. Flat stones from the Cape Cod National Seashore inspired me to drape little crochet starfishes over them.