Monday, February 02, 2015

The Exciting Adventure of the German Lace Manuscript

How long ago was I in Iceland?  Good grief, 2011.

While I was there, exciting things happened–including this. (Go take a look, please. I'll wait.)

On how many trips do you find a manuscript lace chart in a pile of old books? That's a day you never forget, unless you're me. Then you forget about it for three years.

When Kristin Omdahl sent me some of her Bamboo So Fine yarn, I remembered.

Have you had a chance to handle this stuff? It's seriously groovy. All bamboo, spun and dyed in America. Fabulous drape, soft as soft gets, and the sheen is such that people keep asking me if it's silk.

My skein is the turquoise of a shady tropical pool, and arrived gorgeously packaged in a tulle gift bag with a sample of Kristin's "Wrapture" wash for delicates included. (If you like the looks of it, Kristin is offering $2 off this or her Be So Sporty yarns for the rest of the week in her Etsy shop - use coupon code FRANKLIN. I've never been a coupon code before!)


I hadn't been this excited by a lace weight in a long time. It needed to be knit. When I went to the shelf in search of a test pattern, lookee what fell out of one of the books I bought in Reykjavik.


I took it as a sign.

Now, a few things about this chart.

First, it's tiny. The squares on the graph paper are 20 (TWENTY) to the inch. Take a moment and admire how perfectly those symbols have been drawn. Each one's about the size of a midge.

Also, it's written in German. My German is meager, to put it mildly. Most of it comes from time spent working as a drama coach for opera singers, and operatic German has a limited vocabulary. You get oaths of vengeance, declarations of love, and overheated exclamations of rapture in the face of all-consuming beauty. None of this is helpful when deciphering a lace chart.

Happily, I have a knitter friend, Karen, who speaks German and offered to translate for me. There were no big surprises, except that the lengthy chart key includes explanations for about eleven symbols that aren't in the chart.

With the translation in hand and the chart blown up to accommodate my rapidly aging eyes, it was time to try out "Laura Star" and see what I'd get. Would it work?

It worked. Even fresh off the needles and unblocked it was cute. (I know, it looks lettuce-green in this photo. It's not. The lighting conditions were weird.)





If you've never tried one of these little doilies, this is a good starter. The piece is small, the progression is logical, and if you pay a reasonable amount of attention you'll have a dandy time.


There was one more surprise, which sharp-eyed readers will already have spotted; but which I didn't notice until I sat down to write this entry.

"Laura" isn't the chart I found when I first went through the sheaf of books and loose papers from Reykjavik. It's not the one in the picture from 2011. There's another manuscript chart in there waiting to be translated and tested. Um...Karen? May I have a moment of your time?

Meanwhile, have a whack at Laura. Here's the chart, modernized for your knitting pleasure. It's big, yes–so save it to your own computer or tablet or whatever you kids are using these days. It's free for non-commerical purposes.

[EDIT TO ADD: The size of the chart is causing a bit of confusion. It's all there, but you're probably only seeing the left half on your screen right now. If you pull the chart file from the blog to your own device, you'll see the whole thing, including the chart key.]


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Me, Elsewhere: Lion Brand Blog and Knitty, Winter 2014

I don't know if I've mentioned here before that I produce a monthly illustrated essay for none other than Lion Brand Yarns. Have I mentioned that? Well, now I've mentioned that.

The December edition is newly up, and the topic is what to do when you're a knitter who doesn't feel like knitting. It's also about what to do when you're a weaver who doesn't want to weave, a crocheter who can't be bothered to pick up a hook, a tatter who is shuttle-weary, etc.

And right on schedule, it's the Winter 2014 Knitty. My "Stitches in Time" column for this edition offers for your consideration an 1880s pattern for a pair of gloves, along with thoughts on why knitting gloves is not difficult, and why you should. Also: thoughts on mid-Victorian knitted faux-ermine muffs, and why I won't.


Ethel News

Sewing on Ethel's dress continues apace. The bodice is now complete except for the high collar, the hook-and-eye closures at the back, and of course the lace trim.


I haven't settled on tatting or knitting yet for the lace. There was a comment (I believe in jest) in the comments for the last entry that I do it in crochet...unless I subscribe to the notion that crochet is inherently ignoble. 

For those of you who appear not to have caught the tone of that commenter's comment, I want to be perfectly clear that I do not hold any such ideas about crochet. In fact I am publicly on record in many places (including one of my own columns) as saying that I find the modern custom of keeping knitting and crochet in separate, armed camps is stupid. Neither do I believe one is superior to the other.

The lace won't be crocheted because at present I haven't got the chops to do it well at the required gauge. I'm learning, but I'm not up to crochet with thread just yet. The kind offers to do it for me are much appreciated; but to paraphrase Hotspur in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, she's my dolly and I'm a grown man and I have to do the work.

Travel Knitting

I'm about to go on the trip that is, remarkably, not for work. I won't have Internet access for any of it, so this is the last entry until just before Christmas. The important packing is complete, which is to say I know which needlework is coming along. I'm particularly excited about what's going to happen to this...


It's Shibui Staccato (merino and silk fingering weight) in Blueprint and I would sit here and stare at it all afternoon if Ethel were not reminding me that she expects a skirt sooner rather than later.

See you in a few weeks, kids. Be good.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Pins and Needles, Needles and Pins

Remember Ethel?


You may or may not, it's been a while since I wrote about her.

She came into my life via a tray of miscellaneous junk at a flea market, lacking everything from the waist down. But I took care of that.

So she was entire, but naked. I decided to dress her, starting with a linen-and-lace petticoat.

Then things got busy, and Ethel has been sitting around in just her underwear since then.  She hasn't complained as such, but the look on her face speaks volumes.


Happily, my friend and collaborator John Mullarkey threw me a sewing challenge. He has a long-delayed shirt that needs to be finished. I have a doll who is threatening to telephone the ASPCD and turn me in for neglect. Let's cheer each other along, he said. Fine, I said. So out came the needles and thread.

We began well.

I want to sew something reasonably appropriate–with two disclaimers.

First, I'm not producing miniature clothing (i.e. correct in all aspects, perfectly to scale). I'm making a dress for a doll, rather as Ethel's original owner might have. (Serious Doll People will recoil. With no disrespect to them, I am not a Serious Doll Person.)

Second, for this project I'm not fussing and fretting over perfect period (c. 1900) detail. Ethel probably "should" be in a shirtwaist with pin tucks and certain other details,


but I know myself well enough to understand that if I begin this project with research, I'll never cut anything out. I will bog down, debate, and prevaricate. This is supposed to be a sewing exercise, not a trip to the library.

And I don't especially feel like sewing a shirtwaist. This dress is largely an excuse to make more thread lace (probably tatted and knitted) and stick it on something.

Anyhow, I drafted the bodice and sleeves (yes, I use paper towels) and felt pretty good about the results. Flat pattern making is new ground for me.


Then, after a deep breath, sewing.

I enjoy hand sewing, but most of my training was under the stern eye of my late grandmother. She was a tailor. When I helped her I was usually working on tailored clothing, so there are certain weird gaps in my education–like gathering. Not a lot of gathers in man's suit. Ethel's full sleeve caps require gathering.

I swore a lot, but I finished the sleeve cap and it didn't look half bad. After a day off, I sat down with second sleeve. Marked, gathered, pinned. Sewed.

It was so much easier the second time! About forty minutes from start to finish, and so uneventful that I actually thought as I made the last few stitches, "Well, so much for having an amusing tale to post on the blog." Because you know, projects that go well are never funny.

I clipped the final thread, turned the piece right-side out, and realized I had sewn the second sleeve into the same armscye as the first sleeve.

I sewed two sleeves into the same armscye.

And didn't realize it until I was finished.

You really can't fudge that with ironing.

Rip, rip, rip.

We are in a better place now, but Ethel is still giving me That Look.


She sure throws a lot of attitude for somebody who was fished out of a junk tray at a flea market.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Me, Elsewhere: Twist Collective

The newest issue of Twist Collective was published yesterday. My contribution is a paean to Elizabeth Zimmermann's knitting videos, plus a drinking game.

In our time, what greater tribute can a devoted fan offer to a beloved series than a drinking game?

Slash fiction, I suppose. But I'm not going to do that so don't even ask.

(If you don't imbibe, don't worry. Neither do I. It works equally well with cocoa or tea. Or, come to that, it works with little bits of chocolate, or shortbread, or... .)

Read it here

Friday, November 21, 2014


I've been taking a multi-week course in bookbinding.

This will surprise absolutely nobody who knows me well and has therefore heard me pine wistfully for a press and a bindery to call my own.

I'm enjoying it. The teacher is excellent, the fee is reasonable, and my first efforts are imperfect but promising. Last time we did Japanese stab bindings:


The studio itself has taken getting used to.

I'm usually surrounded by fiber arts folks. Here's the thing about fiber arts folks: they're humble. Doesn't matter who they are or what they've done, you'll have to look hard to find a knitter who will throw attitude at you because she's got four decades of professional experience and has written a string of classic books.

This is probably due at least in part to the greater world's general sniffing disdain for textile arts, especially knitting and crochet. These are (so they say) unserious, unimportant, practiced by the sad and the shut-in. They're wrong and stupid about that; but on the positive side it does tend to keep us grounded.

Snobs there are, yes, and those whose folies de grandeur make for fun industry gossip. But they're a distinct minority.

So it was a bit of a cold bath to be reminded when I walked into the print studio for the first time what a room full of extreme self-importance feels like. Absolutely everyone in sight (except me) was a Serious Artist to Be Taken Seriously.

I heard more theorizing, posturing, and pronouncing in five minutes than in all the previous year. I heard an early-twentysomething who was silkscreening a cartoon owl onto a t-shirt refer un-ironically to "my earlier body of work."

I don't do very well in situations like this. I get scared and I shrink. I mumble. I took my bone folder and awl and sat in a corner and tried to disappear.

Last week I went into the room where the paper guillotine* lives, and just as I was getting ready to chop the head of my little perfect-bound book, one of the Serious Artists looked up from her bench–she was scrutinizing a very gorgeous letterpress poster–and asked me about my scarf. This scarf, which was made of leftovers from Longer on the Inside:


"I love those colors," she said. "Where did you get it?"

"I made it," I said.

She was taken aback.

"You mean you...what? You sewed it or something?"

"No, I made it. I wove it."

"You wove it? You mean you made the actual fabric?"

"Yes. On a loom."

"You made fabric?"


"Oh my god," she said. "That's incredible. You actually made fabric? From scratch? Can I touch it? Would it be okay if I touched it?"

I let her touch it.

"I just can't believe you made fabric," she said. "That's like...magic."

Good to hear. Good to be reminded that what we do can startle even Very Serious Artists.

We're magic.

*Ohhhhh, the paper guillotine. It's so beautiful. Cast iron, almost five feet high, easily a century old. Can slice tiny slivers off the edge of stack of telephone books. Enormous, graceful curving lever to lower the blade. The paper guillotine. Mmmmmmm.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

All About That Lace

I am nothing if not easily distracted. What's below is the kind of thing that creeps into my notebooks when I am supposed to be doing serious work.

If Meghan Trainor's bouncy ode to the curvaceous posterior, "All About That Bass",

can spawn a Star Wars version, a high school literacy version, and a forties jazz  version, et al., I see no reason why we knitters should not have a version of our own. 

I sing like a screech owl and haven't got the time to make a video (perhaps the Mason-Dixon ladies will oblige?), but here's my contribution to the boom boom on the dance floor.

Because you know
I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace,
'Bout that lace, lace, lace.

Yeah, it’s pretty clear
I need a size 2.
'Cause I been swatching, swatching,
Like I’m supposed to do.
'Cause I know what you need to make it all lace–
All the right holes in all the right places.

The knitting magazines down at the local shop,
You want a pretty shawl? They got a bumper crop.
Yarn over, knit together, and never stop
'Til every inch of it is perfect
From the bottom to the top.

You know my mama she told me don’t worry about the size,
She said a shawl can be tiny or cover you to the thighs.
You know I won’t knit your sweater for Christmas like Santa’s elf.
So if that’s what you want you can knit it your own damn self.

Because you know
I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.


I’m using silk and yak,
I like the way my little needles clack,
I maybe wish I hadn’t chosen black–
But I won’t give up
'Til every inch of it is perfect
From the bottom to the top.

You know my mama she told me don’t worry about the size,
She said a shawl can be tiny or cover you to the thighs.
You know I won’t knit your sweater for Christmas like Santa’s elf.
So if that’s what you want you can knit it your own damn self.

Because you know
I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace, 'bout that lace,
No cables.

I’m all about that lace,
'Bout that lace.

Hey, hey, ohh.

You know you like this lace.