Monday, 30 July 2007

Knit it black

A while ago, I was quietly dismissive of handpainted colourways and wild self-striping effects. But today, I am feeling sympathetic towards their uses - if not for wearing, at least for blogging purposes. Because, as happy as I am about the way my black Elle Elite is working up, I can't pretend that it's the most photogenic of yarns. There's not even a great deal to tell you about the pattern, partly because there isn't a pattern. It's a top-down raglan, worked out with the assistance of Sweater Design in Plain English by my beloved Maggie Righetti: there are a couple of interesting details reserved for later on, but at the moment it's all a bit vanilla. Even where I intended to do exciting things like plan a compound raglan, I have been foiled by an aggravatingly convenient set of measurements. But I suppose if I wanted tricky, I'd be designing dressmaking details with some sort of stitch pattern - and as it's the summer holidays, any knitting has to be simple enough to be done simultaneously with mummying duties. We don't want a repeat of any wheelbarrow-related distracted parenting incidents, do we?

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Heart of darkness

Like Mog the Forgetful Cat, Knit Wrong Purl Wrong has been sitting in the dark, thinking dark thoughts lately. That is to say, I have been staying up way past my bedtime thinking things like: "What shall I do with all this black wool, and why was it so incredibly cheap on eBay?" That's 10-balls-for-less-than-nine-pounds cheap, bargain fans. It's called Elle Elite DK and is a wool-cotton blend - without the same sheen and softness as Rowan Wool Cotton, but promising nonetheless. I have plans for it involving a hood, long sleeves, and other design features appropriate to this most un-summery summer.

In other dark thoughts, I have also been thinking about The Black Apple, Etsy shop of the fabulous Emily who created these similarly fabulous pictures. For a good look, go here, but I also wanted to show off the beautiful framing work done by Cupola of Sheffield. I think the pictures would look lovely in more ornate frames too, but I wanted the four pictures to match and felt that four identical fancy mouldings might be overbearing, so the framer helped me to pick out these. I think they work very nicely.

I hung them in the order of Alice's Wonderland descent, and I am delighted with the way the sympathetic colours lead you from one picture to the next, right to the bottom of the rabbit hole. The girls have such appealingly taciturn little faces: they are excellent company in the living room. Also, the more I look at the Mad Hatter girl, the more I want to knit up a lacy neckwarmer in teal, and if that doesn't testify to the power of art, I don't know what does. (And do take a look at Emily's blog for a peep inside the artist's lovely home - it's like Hello magazine for the arts-and-crafts scene.)

Lastly, some light coloured knitting to go with some, if not dark, then certainly sad thoughts of a good friend who is currently recovering from surgery on a brain tumour. If successful, the surgery should give her one more year, along with chemotherapy. I thought she might need a hat, so I made her one.

Pattern: Lace-Edged Women's Hat by Julie Entz from Headhuggers
Materials: Rowan Wool Cotton, shade 900/Antique (1 ball), 4mm Addi Turbos
Adaptations: I worked the crown decreases with magic loop. I wish I hadn't, my tension up there is horrible. Apart from that I love this hat, and in other circumstances would keep it for myself. I hope the recipient finds it useful.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Late Blossom

It's another knitwrong from before Knit Wrong!

Pattern: Blossom by Melissa Wastney from Magknits, size 6-9 months.
Materials:
Rowan Wool Cotton, shade 903/ Misty (4 balls); DB Cotton DK, shade 34 (scraps); Addi Turbo 4mm.
Cost: £18.00
Adaptations: I made two lengths of i-cord for the tie, rather than using a ribbon, and I made a buttonhole loop to hold the tie in place. I put running stitch around the edges instead of embroidering lazy-daisy stitch. I forgot to go down a needle size for the garter stitch edging (it shows: see curling in photo). I made a mistake and performed a brilliant rescue, described below!

The Blossom pattern makes a great little dress. Whether it's the best way to get to that dress, I'm not sure, but the finished object is sweet and practical. The wrap style gives it lots and lots of growing room: Maddy can still wear this dress at 14 months, and it looks likely to be a part of her wardrobe for a little longer, perhaps as a wrap-top rather than a dress as it is now bottom-skimming rather than knee-length.

Actually, I had some trouble with the length. The dress is knit from the bottom hem of the back section, in one piece, and somehow or other I misread the pattern and made the back panel about 2" too long. I didn't check This didn't become apparent until I had completed the front panels and was ready to seam, so I was faced with the prospect of frogging back to the beginning, or taking up scissors. Armed with a circular needle and Maggie Righetti's instructions, I made the cut at the point above the back decreases where I wanted to take out the length. Incidentally, this was one of the most pleasurable moments in my knitting career: watching the secure fabric revert to little live loops, and catching them as they appeared, was a minor thrill. Then I knit back down, working increases in place of the decreases. I felt pretty pleased with myself about that.

I would love to make another; I would also love to revise the pattern, heavily, for a completely seam-free construction. It could easily be worked in one piece from the bottom edge up, and grafted together at the shoulders. I appreciate the need for fold lines to make a piece like this hang right, but seams could easily be faked by slipping the "edge" stitches every other row. (Seahorse thought the same.) Lastly, I love the yarn: it's such a perfect gymslip grey, it's soft, and it's wearing very nicely, despite the various abuses it receives through crawling, toddling and eating. It's really too much to have spent on a baby dress (and since then, I've got pretty good at stocking up on my beloved Wool Cotton from eBay), but it was worth it this time.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Knit is a feminist issue

I grew up in a political household. Not political in the sense that I belong to a political dynasty like the Benns or the Foots, but political in the sense that we listened to the Today program at breakfast and watched the Six O'Clock News after tea, read The Observer on Sundays and talked Issues betweentimes. General Elections were treated as a sort of feast day in our home, with normal bedtimes rescinded for the evening, and shopping trips involved hunting around for the right kind of apple. One of the commonplaces of our family discourse was the statement, "everything is political".

I and my sister were raised in the belief that every opinion held and action taken manifests a political statement - even if the statement is of apathy or ignorance, no-one can evade their relationship to political debate. You may object to the system, but you cannot remove yourself from it. Mamacate's latest post has set me thinking, though, and I have started to wonder whether I've allowed the doctrine of "everything is political" to stand in the place of actual politics. I still read a lot of political journalism in the form of daily papers and fortnightly reviews, but, like Mamacate, I leave the Serious Stuff alone when I blog.

For me, knitting is tinged with politics. Among my reasons for originally wanting to knit was an urge to learn more about the things I use and have more control over the production process (brilliantly, I hadn't even thought about the production of the yarn, but I'll get there eventually, especially with Caroline to lead me). However, for most people, knitting is associated not with consumer politics but with gender politics. When my grandmother was at school, the girls had compulsory knitting and sewing classes while the boys learned woodwork: her education was intended to turn out a competent, hardworking housewife (it succeeded, too) while my grandfather was trained to be a good workman, and knitting stills bears the stigma of this streaming to stereotype.

It's a more various craft than that, of course: think of the gutter girls in their beautiful ganseys memorialized by Elizabeth Lovick in the Winter '06 issue of IK, or Ysolda Teague's grandfather, who learned to knit while recovering from injuries sustained as a WWII fighter pilot. A friend of mine was in the merchant navy with an old seaman who produced extraordinary cabled jumpers. Nevertheless, as Laura Hopwood's article on "The History Knitting" in the first issue of Yarn Forward shows, the default perception of knitting is as a feminine, domestic pastime. The text of the article includes just one reference to men knitting, and that is couched in disbelief and facetiousness: "Apparently, men were the first to knit for a living - I don't know how many do so today!"

As a teenager, I resented textiles class. I had no intention of being domestic. I was interested in ideas, in debate, and I was ambitious too; competing in the girls-only arena of fibre crafts had no appeal when I could be trouncing everyone in arguments about Lord of the Flies. My avoidance of what I saw as traditional female activities was a political position informed by a form of feminism which emphasized likeness between men and women, and wanted to break with an oppressive past.

But breaking with the past means losing our understanding of the people of the past, to some extent: scorning women's endeavors skims dangerously close to scorning women. Better, I think, is the feminism practised by Barbara Walker, whose interest in knitting formed part of a wide ranging-interest in women's culture. Nevertheless, this approach runs the risk of perpetrating the exact same error committed by my grandmother's (not-at-all feminist) schooling, and tying women to a limited role in the world.

I haven't read Walker's work so I don't have an opinion as to whether that is a problem in her thinking, but it did occur to me apropos an exchange in the comments of a recent post. Lilknitter wondered if knitting in public might be similar to the "baby bump phenomenon", in the way that it seems to override the usual barriers to social interaction with strangers: it's a lovely and apposite idea, and one that is intelligently extended by Honeybee33 after her. But it's an association with troubling potential, as Gillian Beer points out (Beer is writing about feminist literary critics making use of the same imagery linking artistic production and procreation):
Childbearing distinguishes women from men but need not define woman. The metaphors of womb and milk that Kristeva and Cixous employ , though full of comfort and recognition, risk being read as biological determinism. They may function to fix the idea of woman writing [or by extension, creating anything] as essentially reproductive. So, while respecting difference, we should be wary of the imprimatur of our generative organs as a sufficient description of creativity.
Gillian Beer, George Eliot (Key Women Writers Series)
For me, Beer's comment captures exactly the balance that should be strived for: as women, we should be respectful of our physiology, but wary of allowing it supremacy.

My knitting has become, in part, a way of showing respect to the women who didn't have the same choices as I do, because their physiology was deemed supreme. Through my knitting, I have learned sympathy and admiration for the hard work my grandmother had to put into caring for her family. Knitting is a leisure activity for me, not a necessity. Choosing to spend my free time knitting is a tacit statement that I look on her life as one of worthwhile enterprise, and not as the dissipation of potential which my teenage self considered domesticity to be. And seeing knitting as a feminist activity does not, of course, make it a necessarily feminine activity: I'm teaching my son to knit, and hope that over time he will acquire some of the same understanding with it.

So in this way, I consider my knitting to be a political gesture. But it has to be admitted, it's not a gesture easily interpretable to the external observer. There are knitters who turn their craft to direct political ends, but I don't think my production of shapely cardigans makes any comparable statement. Just acting on good principles is not enough. I should be able, at least occasionally, to say what those principles are and hold them up to scrutiny.

Edit: Of Troy points out that Juno is heading out along similar lines.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Knitwrongs of the past, part Uno

Before I was a blogger, I was a reader of blogs. There were a few that I visited regularly, but most of my reading happened in a haphazard way, as I Googled the patterns I was interested in knitting, on the look-out for warnings and suggestions. Now that Ravelry has come along to offer an easy way to hunt out that info (did I mention that it's brilliant?), I'm trying to catch up with my pre-blog projects so that I can share the gleanings of my experience in turn, and I'm starting with this one since the recipient spontaneously put it on today.

Pattern: Duo from Knitty (long-sleeved version)
Materials: Bergere de France Sport (50% wool, 50% acrylic); 5mm Addi Turbo
Source and cost: The Wool Baa, and I can't remember

After the gross errors of yarn choice and taste with which I started my knitting career, I like to think of this as my first success, and on its excursion today I decided that it really is pretty cute. The short row neck shaping gave me agonies - of course I know now that there's an implied "wrap" preceding the direction "turn" , but it took me several holey attempts to work it out on this jumper.

Everything else about it was satisfyingly simple and it was fun to make, although it took me an age because I was interrupted by having a baby. Actually, I dispatched Nathan and Jay to the yarn shop from my hospital bed with instructions to ask Jill (the owner) what colour would work for the stripes, and I think they made a rather excellent choice. The yarn has worn and washed pretty well, although the recipient reports that it is "a bit tickly"; to me, it feels a bit plasticky too, and hasn't entirely convinced me that there's a good bargain to be made between appealing texture and ease of care.

It then took even longer because I developed a mortal fear of sewing (started in May; finally finished piecing it together in October). The seams are, however, passable. I think the sleeves are slightly too long for the body, but I can't pretend to be other than very pleased with myself whenever this jumper gets an outing.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Buttoned up

Like lots of knitters, I don't enjoy seams very much. Being self-taught, I've never had anyone to learn me better: I'm sure that if I were to watch a proficient finisher sewing up an item, and observe the patience and care required, I would sort out my own sloppy habits sharpish (maybe the Knitting Curmudgeon's finishing class would be a good start; ideally I need a day with my Grandma, who finishes all things to reversible perfection). But for now, the best solution is avoiding all seams as far as possible, and to that end Matilda Jane is an ideal pattern.

I've just started on the knitted-in button bands and facing. Knitting-in gave me one of those deeply satisfying "ah!" moments, much like turning a heel for the first time: my muddled imaginings of what the directions meant gave way to the happy reality of the knitting in my hands doing what it was supposed to do. (I love those moments almost as much as I dread and hate the moments of, "oh no, what heinous screw-up have I inflicted on my knitting now?")

The only part of the pattern I feel inclined to fiddle with is the buttonholes. Ysolda writes the pattern with two-row buttonholes, but for me, this results in a sloppy and unattractive finish: my two-row buttonholes are too ugly to wear open, and too loose to catch a button. So I've substituted the one-row buttonhole described by Maggie Rigghetti in Knitting in Plain English as "the neatest buttonhole". It really is a huge improvement, and not nearly as tricky an operation as Rigghetti builds it up to be. You can also find instructions for this clever little hole on Knitting Help, but I would always rather refer people to a chapter called "Buttonholes are Bastards."

And where there are buttonholes, of course there must be buttons. Lots and lots of pretty buttons scooped up in the sale at John Lewis. When I was little, being allowed to play with my Mum's button-box (an old shortcake tin printed with a tartan pattern) was among the biggest treats I could be allowed: acquiring a button-box of my own is one of the exclusive rites by which I mark my induction to adulthood. Predictably enough, it turns out that none of these buttons will do for Matilda Jane, so I now have a stash of buttons to add to the mountain of yarn - but at least, thanks to HB33's comments, the yarn mountain is feeling a bit more purposeful again.

PS I feel the need to put in a quick plug for a fellow blogger: my friend Rachael of Purly Q has just put up some pdfs from a vintage pattern book called Knitted Garments for All. The patterns are adorable, and so is her description of finding the book.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

I want does get, but only if you want what I want you to want

My sister and I often end up buying the same items of clothing by accident, so it's not a big surprise that she's asked me to make Ester for her. In fact, it's one of the nicest compliments I could hope to get for my knitting, and since I loved knitting the shrug, I was very happy to say yes. It also gives me a useful opportunity to make her something to mark the completion of her Early Years Education degree, and the beginning of her career as a teacher (well done, small Weblet: I'm immensely proud of you).

But on the other hand... I have already made it, and it wasn't on my to-do list for the immediate future. What I do have my eye on is Briar Rose, the new pattern from (yes, inevitably) Ysolda. The elegant curved fronts and the sweet puffed sleeves would win me over on their own, but as with Matilda Jane, it's the way these lovely details are created that really makes me want to knit it. The phrases "seamless construction" and "shaped with short rows" are like a siren call. Luckily the yarn I've bought for this project (Cascade 220 tweed) will do for either pattern, so all I need is for you lot to weigh in and convince Rachael that she wants to wear what I want to knit Rachael to tell me which one she prefers. Oh, and for the yarn to come. Hurry hurry hurry! (Don't pressure her too hard: she's just completed her first day in charge of her first class, so I suppose she deserves to choose the one she really likes best.)

Also in the order with the yarn is the needle I need to get on with the button bands and facings of Matilda Jane, so while my current WIP is taking an enforced break, I've decided to make Ysolda's Opera Gloves, since the suggested yarn made itself available in the sale bin at John Lewis. If there is a point at which knitting someone's patterns shades into stalking behaviour, someone will let me know, right?

Ravel ravel

Don't tell my supervisor (fingers crossed he's not an aficionado of the knitting blog scene, eh?), but an average working day for me involves a lot more messing about on Facebook and thinking about knitting than I'd like to admit to. With that in mind, I'm not sure what animus against my thesis could have led Casey and Jess to invent Ravelry, a fearsomely compelling alliance of social networking and fibre crafts; but surely if my fascination with this wonderful website gets any deeper, the evil genii behind it will be able to take the credit for saving the world from my thoughts on the nineteenth-century novel.

At the moment the website is still in its testing phase, so users are being added by invitation as the site becomes able to handle them (and although the aura of exclusivity this creates is unintentional, it's definitely contributed to the buzz around the site). With that in mind, I hesitate to tell you to sign up as I know Casey and Jess are currently having trouble keeping up with the demand for their service. But if you have the patience to handle the wait, and the strength of character to handle the addictive quality, I thoroughly recommend that you put your name down.

Being in beta, Ravelry is not yet complete, but it already has many brilliant features which make life as an internet knitter just a bit simpler. You have options to catalogue your works-in-progress, your stash, and your needles; you can also manage your "queue" (the projects and patterns you intend to work on), and Ravelry lets you add a button to your bookmarks bar which you can click everytime you find something you like to add it to your queue. Everything is interlinked - so should you have a large stash of a certain yarn hanging about, Ravelry will show you what other Ravellers have made with it. Or if you have a favorite pattern but no yarn for it, you can search by pattern to see what materials other Ravellers have used.

One of my favorite features is the "neighbours" function, which shows you other users making the same patterns as you, which means you can find people who share your taste and through them, find even more things you'd like to make. And if you want to watch what certain people are up to, you can add them to your friends; you can even chat to people if you're online at the same time (of course I'm not brave enough to chat to anyone yet, but it's nice to have the option should I work myself up to it).

The shiny new button in my sidebar (pinched from the clever and funny Half-Assed Knitblog, with thanks to Cyn) will take you to my Ravelry notebook (if you're a member already), or to the homepage, where you can sign up if you haven't already done so. I suggest that you hop to it and hopefully you'll be joining me soon in the orderly, snooperly pleasures of Ravelry.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Stealth stashing

While other people have to accept the loss of valuable possessions followed by months of homelessness, the worst I have to deal with is a fusty cellar and an untidy house. And since my house is always untidy, this is probably the best chance it's ever had of becoming presentable. Having essentially resigned my possessions to the water when I locked the door a week ago, I'm feeling sufficiently detached from my clutter to begin purging it; and that feeling, plus the Ravelry invite (one of the functions of Ravelry is the option to catalogue your yarn purchases), makes this the perfect time to evaluate my stash.

I never planned to be a stasher, and yet somehow I here I am, with a heaving full wool box. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the fact that, even though all the yarn I have has been bought with something in mind, that something tends to be vague speculation unrelated to the knitting time and talents I have at my disposal. I know that for lots of knitters, the stash is a joyous thing to be fondled and wondered at, a playground for creativity and a resource for ingenuity. My stash makes me feel a bit sad, for the most part. The expensive unused yarn makes me feel profligate, and the cheap unused yarn makes me feel shabby.

The things which cause me the most grief are the things I've had the longest (in my brief knitting career, that means "more than12 months"). How about this GGH novelty yarn? Isn't it just too much? Too many colours, too many bobbles - and then, just to permanently demolish any idea of restraint, shot through with metallic thread. Actually, I made a small tube-style handbag from it with reasonable success, but thanks to my terrific naivety about calculating yarn amounts, I ended up with about three times as much as I needed.

And then there's this Noro Aurora. All nine balls of this Noro. I've swatched this over and over, and cast on for several things, but I think the sad truth is that I don't like self striping yarn. I certainly didn't like this (see right), a tank-top for my boyfriend in Noro Blossom which ended up as a hideous, pom-pom studded, unfroggable (thanks to the aforementioned pom-poms) monstrosity. However much it appeals to me in the skein, I have to concede that me and Noro are never going to hit it off, in garment form anyway: while I appreciate that there's a certain zen in just "letting Noro be Noro" and allowing the yarn to fall into whatever pattern it chooses, in practice I find it pretty boring to have all the design choices snatched from me by a showy colourway.

I have rather a lot of Debbie Bliss Maya too. This discontinued yarn is a kettle dyed, handspun, thick-and-thin single, and I'm still very taken with the colour. Unfortunately, I bought it to make this shrug which was intended to be a breast-feeding cover-up. Now, I already knew a fair bit about babies when I started knitting, so only my ignorance about fibre can explain the fact that I thought it was a good idea to bring together a squirmy, spitty creature like a baby, and a pilly, feltable yarn like this. I thought better of it and never finished it. The ladder just visible in the centre of the picture is the last remains of a YO I made (and fixed, several rounds later) while in the midst of labour pangs, and is the reason why I will probably always keep the sleeve section. The rest of the hanks will have to wait until I get the itch for a felting project.

The truth is, my lifestyle and my taste mean that the best yarns for me are one-coloured and machine-washable, dk or 4-ply. Not the sort of yarn to elicit cries of "scrumptious!" from the world wide knitternet, but the sort of yarn that I can turn into items I will wear, and wash, and wear again. And with that in mind, my current urge to declutter hasn't stopped me from acquiring more Rowan Wool Cotton in - ooh! - ecru and dark brown. I wonder what those colours could possible become? (Clue: I just bought these shoes as a thank-you to my poor feet for carrying me through the filthy floodwater.)

If you wish to make a financial donation to those who have come off worse in the floods than I have, this page from the BBC website gives information on making donations.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Not-at-all-plain Jane

You wouldn't think that a girl would feel gorgeous wearing a circular needle and a bunch of stitch markers. The bright green waste yarn is, I think, the finishing touch that makes swanking about in front of the mirror in a half-finished cardigan such a pleasure. Oh, Matilda Jane, you are so lovely.

The designer (Ysolda) really knows her increases and decreases. Matilda Jane makes use of the lifted increase to create proud little raglan "seams", and the invisible make one to form discrete darts for the waist shaping. Decreases are fully fashioned (with the stitches leaning in the direction of the dart) where curves are to be hugged, and feathered (that is, with decreases leaning in the opposite direction to the angle of the dart) where they should be skimmed. Essentially, it is all extremely attractive, and the most attractive feature of all is the brain in the pattern. I can't wait to finish and wear this. That goes in italics because my default feeling at this stage of a project is usually more of a desperate inclination to procrastinate while I try to reconcile myself to all that's wrong with the item - positive feelings when this near to completion are worth a little typographical emphasis.

After the school run this morning, Maddy dropped off in her buggy, so Matilda Jane and me sneaked off to a coffee shop to enjoy each other's company. And while we were there, we made a new friend. One of the other school mums was sitting in the coffee shop reading a book. The other mum is Icelandic, and after a little while she looked over and said, "Did you know that people knit differently in other countries?" I asked her to show me how she knits, and was treated to a small demonstration of the continental style. "This is how you do, you know, opposite, to make it like a fence", she explained as she went through the wrangling motion of the continental purl (I think that "like a fence" means ribbing, and it's a description I like so much I plan to adopt it myself). Then she told me about how knitting is taught in Icelandic schools from age 5 to 15 (my grandma would approve), and how an older lady had accosted her in the supermarket to chat about the hand-knit jumper (made by her mum) she was wearing. "It's like knitting brings people together", she said, and then she packed up her book and left.