Sunday, April 29, 2007

Shawl Come Back Now

My sister, Susan, is due any second. I've never known nine months to flit past so quickly in all my life.

Athough she has reassured me that the baby won't be christened for quite some time, I still feel a sense of urgency about the shawl. It seldom leaves my side these days, and I am pleased to find that a few stitches here and there does, in fact, add up.

This is it as of five minutes ago, looking crumpled and forlorn as unblocked lace will insist upon doing.

Up to the Border

The center panel, which was knitted flat is complete. I've picked up stitches all around the edge and am now working the borders round and round and round and round. And round.

The first bit of border is just a simple band of stockinette with the flower motif Sharon Miller adapted (in Heirloom Knitting) from the traditional cat's paw pattern. I wanted something to buffer the transition from the center to the borders; this seems to have done the trick.

The borders proper - of which I've worked exactly one round - will be a mesh-and-diamonds motif. It should pick up the geometry of the center panel, but instead of diagonals made from decreases, it has diagonals made from yarn-overs.

Reader Richard from DC asked about picking up stitches from the center panel. I made it easy on myself, Richard. When casting on, I added an extra stitch to either side of the pattern, then slipped the first stitch of every row as I knit. Since the standard rule for making a square is to knit twice as many rows as cast-on stitches, when it was time to pick up those edges I had the perfect number of little loops on either side waiting for me. No guesswork, no fuss. Not a revolutionary idea–it's the way Mary Thomas (and many, many others) work the edges of the heel flap on a sock.

I've also eliminated a lot of fuss by restricting myself to patterns that have a plain row every other round. Now that I'm working circularly, it means every other row is just knitting, except at the corner points where I increase by 1 yarn-over on either side of a central stitch. This is the same increase method (out of Elizabeth Zimmermann) that I used in Glencora and it reasonably approximates the look of the grafting done in traditional Shetland Shawls. (By "reasonably approximates," I mean it looks sort of the same if you have no idea what you're looking at and you squint.)

So you see, it's not much of an accomplishment to work this piece on the subway. (You want to see really impressive stuff, go here and here.) The stitch patterns are small - the largest repeat being 12 stitches wide and sixteen high - and grow so logically that after four rounds I don't need the pattern for reference.

Of course, when it's finished and everyone's getting ready for the christeninig and I unfurl it and they all say "ooh" the Official Story will be that I had to sit naked in a mountain hermitage for six months and learn Tantric breathing just to work the provisional cast-on.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eleanor's Library

My dears, thank you all for the kind wishes you left while I was under the weather. I'm still somewhat cloudy, but as my father the pilot might say, visibility is improving.

No knitting today, if you don't mind. Knitting soon. Books today.

You may recall that a little while ago I wrote about buying books for a colleague's daughter, newly turned thirteen. In that post, I delineated at length my opinion of most novels being published for the not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman market. In brief, they want to make me gouge out my own eyes with a grapefruit spoon.

I don't wish to retract a word of what I wrote, although one or two commenters did make me wonder whether I ought to have been nicer about Meg Cabot. Thanks to your dizzying 194 comments, I did think deeply about the books we read when young, and how dear they can become to us.

I turned from my desk and faced the five-foot Victorian case where I keep humor and children's books, with Eleanor's Library on the topmost shelf.

To tell you about Eleanor's Library you'll have to step back with me to the early nineties, when I was a recent graduate working for starvation wages at New England Conservatory in Boston.

One good thing about starvation wages: they really teach you to focus your spending. I was quite the thrifty housekeeper in those days, making one chicken and two dollars' worth of vegetables bought from the stalls at Haymarket last for a full week. I didn't eat in restaurants, I didn't go to movies or theater, and I didn't buy clothes that weren't marked "final clearance."

Looking back, I wouldn't have minded so much, really, except for one thing: the budget left me little or no money for books.

When I really couldn't stand it any more, I'd let myself shop a little at the Brattle Bookshop near Downtown Crossing. In the vacant lot next to its tall, old building, the shop would wheel out a fleet of library carts piled with hundreds of books in absolutely no order whatever. They were unguarded and totally unprotected from the elements. These were the rejects, acquired en masse in estate sales and deemed unsellable at retail prices.

And every book cost a dollar.

However, on the money I was making even that was too pricey for more than carefully planned visits. I was pretty careful to stay off Winter Street if I hadn't made sure of my finances in advance.

One day, however, I slipped. I was in the neighborhood to buy dress shoes. My only pair had crumbled to dust. I had to either replace them or go to the office barefoot in February. I got the shoes, but was left with eight dollars: enough to just pay for food until my next check arrived three days later.

It was an awful feeling, and I walked toward the subway in a gray stupor, head down. Passing Winter Street, something in me snapped. I felt sick, and I needed a book to make me feel better. One book. One damned book, or I might well go insane. Surely, I could spare the dollar. Far cheaper than a month in a mental hospital.

I'd been among the carts for about ten minutes when I spotted a decorated spine with the title Hester Stanley's Friends. I picked it up; the cover design was classic Edwardian:


I was surprised to see it outside; normally the Brattle (and most shops) charge a premium for this sort of artwork. Looking inside, I found this inscription on the flyleaf:


I was torn. On the one hand, this was a splendid binding. On the other, it wasn't something I was likely to read. An interesting curiosity, yes. But my circumstances did not permit spending on interesting curiosities. I decided to put it back.

Then I noticed the book next to it. Another decorated spine: Kitty Landon's Girlhood.

Inside, an inscription:

Second Inscription

I looked at the shelf again. More decorated spines. Inside each, the same name the same bold script. Somehow, in the midst of all this chaos, these six of Eleanor's books had landed together in a neat row.

My heart started beating. For a bibliophile, this was a moral quandary. I felt like I'd stumbled over a basket of abandoned, infant sextuplets and been asked, "Which one do you want to save from certain death?"

I pulled them all off the cart and held them, debating. I wondered who Eleanor was. I imagined what these books might have meant to her, since they'd been kept together all this time. I wondered if she'd sold them herself, or whether they simply arrived in a mass shipment after her estate had been broken apart.

I looked at the inscriptions again. Eleanor. Eleanor. Eleanor. From Mother. From Uncle Bill. A Happy Birthday. A Very Merry Christmas 1911.

And then it started to rain.

I was hungry for a couple of days, but a sense of Having Done the Right Thing can be very sustaining.

This has been a long post, longer than I intended. More about the books themselves will follow, if you're interested. Plus knitting, I promise. Believe it or not, the christening shawl has grown.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Am (and have been) sick as a dog, and an overly-full work schedule is not helping. Posting will resume as soon as possible.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lacy Nothings

Today for a change we shall have no squiggly drawings about knitting, no parables about knitting, and no explanations of why this, my knitting blog, contains no knitting.

No, today we shall have knitting.

This, friends, is a close-up of the near-complete center square of the christening shawl, at present my sole project and constant companion.


The icky pink acrylic at the bottom is a provisional crochet cast-on, and it will not be part of the finished piece.

For those of you who don't get into the whole shawl thing, here's a brief overview of how this one will be constructed.


Beginning at the bottom of the square (A) I cast on the full number of stitches needed for the central panel. The panel is knit upwards to completion.

Next, the live stitches at the top of the square, the stitches on both sides of the square, and the stitches at the bottom (freed from their crochet bondage) are all picked up on one circular needle.

The borders (C) are then knit round and round and round, with double increases at each corner point every other row.

When the borders are complete, the edging (D) is begun near one corner and knit back and forth widthwise, with a k2tog joining the edging to the border at the end of each inward row.

When the edging has made a full circumnavigation, the begining and ending are grafted together (E) and you drink an entire bottle of Veuve Cliquot and lie down.

Then, to stretch the piece to its full dimensions and open up the lacework, the whole is blocked severely. I know that "severe" blocking sounds harsh, but il faut souffrir pour la beauté. It also appeals to one's sadistic proclivities, which one seldom mentions in one's blog because one's mother is a regular reader.

I invented none of the above method. It's a perfectly standard, modern way of working a shawl in the Shetland manner, as described by that lovely Sharon Miller in Heirloom Knitting. You'll notice there's no real cast-on or cast-off edge in the entire piece, which I'm thinking must make for an incredible amount of elasticity in the finished object.

We will now take a moment to bless the memory of those many, and mostly anonymous, Shetland knitters who figured all this out so we don't have to.

Two notes on some of the stitch patterns I'm using.

The alphabet, which you can see in the swatch I posted here, was designed by Bridget Rorem and can be found in Piecework, the May/June 1998 issue, which you can still buy here. I'm indebted to Jean's commenter Susoolu for finding that out so I didn't have to.

The pattern for the center panel


can be found in the first volume of Barbara Walker and she calls it (with an uncharacteristic lack of specificity) Leaf Lace/Fern Lace. Well and good. But this baby is going to be born in Maine, and Maine's state flower is (I kid you not) the fir cone. And to me, this looks like a fir cone, and it's my shawl, so as far as I'm concerned it is a fir cone. Hell, if even Barbara can't decide whether it's a fern or a leaf, I figure it's an open question. If you wanna fight about it, let's step outside.

There is, of course, a Shetland lace pattern actually called "fir cone," but I found knitting it to be supremely annoying (it puckers), the motif doesn't look much different from Leaf/Fern, and it lacks the lovely diamond grid created by the decreases in this pattern.

At least my sister isn't giving birth in West Virginia. West Virginia is a beautiful place, but I'd have to come up with my own pattern for the rhododendron and right now I don't even have time to walk to the dry cleaners. I tell you, sometimes I wonder how poor Margaret Stove doesn't run mad in the streets.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Zen Interlude: Spring Awakening

It's terribly unfair.

Chicago, like most of the United States, is experiencing wintry weather that has no business showing up in mid-April. Mind you, I know better than to expect a balmy, shirtsleeves spring beside the Lake. But I do look forward with desperate longing to the arrival of the daffodils every year. Once they bloom, I feel a certain sense of accomplishment in having survived yet another nasty go-around on the Hivernal Carousel.

This year, they bloomed, and then got sucker-punched by snow squalls and freezing temperatures. The bed of daffodils I pass every morning on the way to the office is blackened and shriveled, and I don't feel so well myself.

On the other hand, the other spring arrival–baseball fans–is right on time.

I've nothing against professional baseball. Truly. In general I regard it as most Americans do the opera season, which is to say not at all. Because the transit line I ride services both ballparks in Chicago, however, I do have to deal with baseball fans. Especially Cubs fans.

And yesterday was the home opener.

Illinois is supposedly a blue state, but I've noticed that North Shore (i.e, white and affluent) parents who bring their offspring into the city for Cubs games turn a violent shade of tomato red.

I've tried to understand why this is so. I've concluded that it's because they see a trip to Wrigley Field as a to connect their children with their own past, in those halcyon days when America led the free world, gasoline was cheaper than milk, and Certain People had to sit in the back of the bus.

As the train heads south and Addison Station looms, the parents become so emotional that some actually produce handkerchiefs to deal with the tears. "We're almost there," they gasp, choking on rising nostalgia. "Can you watch for the stadium, Caitlyn? Do you see it coming up?"

I'd be the last person to have a problem with this except that in the midst of a crowded commute, the parents get pushy about art directing the experience and become visibly (and sometimes audibly) annoyed at any extras (that would be the rest of us) who don't fit the motherhood-flag-apple pie aesthetic they're after. For example:
  • Passengers occupying window seats, including the elderly. (I once saw an able-bodied man unblushingly ask an old woman if she could give her seat to his five-year-old daughter so she would have an unobstructed view of the Wrigley Field sign.)

  • Persons of African, Latin or Middle Eastern descent.

  • Persons speaking languages other than English.

  • Persons whose appearance deviates in any way from the white, suburban, middle class idea of "normal," i.e. goths, punks, transvestites, homeless people.

  • Males of any stripe who are knitting lace.
During yesterday's commute, I of course fell into at least two of these categories. Possibly three, depending upon how you feel about earrings on men.

This was a source of enormous consternation to a father whose daughter–she was perhaps six–was interested in the progress of the christening shawl.

I didn't notice the family of three–Dad, daughter, son–at first because I was, well, knitting lace. But the daughter kept getting up from her seat and leaning toward my needles. After she'd done this three times I glanced up and gave her a smile.

She smiled back. And then her father yanked her away and pushed her firmly into her seat.

But she got up again, and came over, and this time asked if the design had flowers in it. I was about to explain that the shapes were fir cones when her father yelled, "Halley! Get back here now."

I honestly thought he was concerned that she might be bothering me, so I smiled and said, "It's okay, I don't mind questions."

To which he replied, "You leave my kid alone!"

And then, not directly to me, but just as audibly, "Goddamned freaks."

Rude? Oh yes. But this is not supposed to be another man-knits-in-public-and-attracts-idiocy story. Those are too common to be interesting in and of themselves.

This is a reminder to myself that my own brain's not so different from his.

I may not be inclined to tell a stranger on the subway she's a freak, but it doesn't mean I don't think it. I do it all the time. In fact, I did it at the beginning of this entry, no?

I look, I categorize, I judge. And just as I believe that man got me wrong in believing me to be a threat to his child, I'm certain I often misjudge others.

One of the aspects of elusive Enlightenment I'm pursuing through Zen Buddhism is (I hear) a genuine understanding that between yourself and myself, there is no difference. If I didn't believe that to be so, I'd probably give up sitting zazen. But even though I believe it, I haven't grasped it sufficiently to act upon it.

Hmph. Back to the damn cushion.

Tomorrow: actual knitting. (I know! I can hardly believe it, either!)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Dolores Announces

Hi, it's Dolores.

What a freakin' week, cupcakes. Not only have rehearsals for my upcoming revue at the Lucky Horseshoe kicked into high gear, but I have big news about some other new projects.

First: the Boss has finally agreed to launch Dolores Bébés, my new line of clothing for the Very Young and Impressionable. Check out the shop for designs and details. It's never too early to expose your children to a positive role model, so spend lavishly. Furthermore, I get a cut of the profits and I need not remind you that Virginia Slims don't come free.


Second: response to my call for questions has been, in a word, tremendous.

I knew the world was full of troubled souls, I just didn't know so many of them read this blog. Harry got emotionally overwhelmed trying to screen the letters and so I'm sending him to Branson, Missouri for a couple of days to chill out and maybe catch a few shows. (Ever since he discovered Franklin's hidden stash of Donny and Marie bootlegs, he's been a big fan of the Osmonds.)

Now I've read your cries for help, and I've decided there's too much good stuff for just a blog entry. Would Oprah settle for a blog entry? Would Dr. Phil be content with 200 measly words? Would those smug bitches on "The View" consider the humble written word a suitable outlet for their messages of hope and goodwill?

Me neither.

The networks don't seem to be returning calls this week, so I've decided to sidestep them and pour forth my wisdom via a Podcast to be produced by the newly-formed Dolores Van Hoofen Omnimedia. I've taken a leaf out of Barbra's book and designated myself producer, director, and star. I'm trying to get Sondheim to write me a love theme, but he doesn't seem to be returning calls either. What's the matter, Stephen? You still sulking in your tent over Bounce?

I guess maybe I would be, too.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Whole Lotta Harlot

I was having a typical, ulcer-inducing Tuesday morning at the office when I got a message from Stephanie "Yarn Harlot" Pearl-McPhee.

She was in Chicago for a book signing. She had just been awoken from a nap by all the civil defense sirens going off. She had been reassured by the reception desk that we were not, in fact, being invaded. But she was not going back to sleep, and wanted to know if I felt like bumming around the neighborhood a bit.

I did. We did.

I'd met Stephanie twice before, but only in the frenetic atmosphere surrounding her personal appearances. This was the first time I could look forward to seeing her off-duty, as it were. To glimpse the Knitter Behind the Mask.

Well, I can tell you without doubt that the rumors you've been hearing are untrue. At no point in the afternoon did she kick little children into the street, throw her cell phone at the paparazzi, or press me to procure illicit hallucinogens so that we could trip while picking the angora fluff off her Bohus. She's quite normal, on the whole, although she does tend to say a lot of things twice–first in English and then in French. But I understand this is not so much demented as merely Canadian.

The three of us–Stephanie, her Traveling Sock, and I–strolled up Michigan Avenue in blessedly temperate weather for a visit to Millenium Park. The park is home to one of Chicago's newest but most popular attractions: Anish Kapoor's gigantic, reflective metal sculpture Cloud Gate. Only nobody (except perhaps the Anish Kapoor) calls it Cloud Gate. It looks exactly like a colossal, alien kidney bean and so we all call it The Bean. (Sorry, Anish.)

Stephanie loves the Bean. The sock loves the Bean. The sock was, of course, photographed in front of the Bean. Here, I offer you a glimpse behind the scenes:

Sock Shot

I also took this very meta shot of me photographing Stephanie photographing Stephanie photographing the Sock.

Sock Shot Version Deux

Maybe we were tripping a little.

That might explain why, for example, we not only took a spin through American Girl Place, but actually considered–for one chilling moment–eating lunch at the American Girl Café.

However, the sight of overprivileged children, many of whom were dressed as princesses, waiting in line to have their expensive poupées professionally coiffed at the doll hair salon snapped us out of it and we fled back to the street, swearing never to speak of this to anyone.

Sorry, Steph.

The hours simply flew past and suddenly it was time to head out to Oak Brook for the signing.

It was what many of you will recognize as a typical Yarn Harlot event.

There were boatloads of enthusiastic people:

The Masses

Stephanie's presentation was top-notch:

In Action

I was delighted to encounter adorable friends:

Merrye Companye

(Clockwise from back left: Knitting Camp buddy who prefers to remain nameless, Jonathan and Meg aka the Two Sock Knitters, and the Sock Knitters' very delightful friend Thorny.)

And quite a few nice readers–many of whom I'd never met–came over and said hello to me. I love that. That does not get old.

Meanwhile, Stephanie signed 25,683 books, posed for pictures, blessed babies, petted the socks of strangers, and generally handled the situation with unflappable élan. Except when the nice woman from the bookstore brought her Perrier instead of Evian and it was chilled to 67 degrees intead of 64. She'll never do that again, let me tell you, even if it turns out there won't be a scar where the podium hit her in the head.

And then, high on the energy of all those knitters rallying together, we rode back to the city. I wished her good-night at her hotel, then headed north to my place. And realized, sitting in the taxi, that I'd forgotten to have her sign my copies of the book.

It figures.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Notes on Shawl Design

Now, as Miss Cleo was wont to say in her heyday, I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking,
"Cut the crap, child. We know perfectly well that the extended ruminations on literature and the squiggly cartoons and the guest appearances by your fictitious slutty sheep houseguest are mere smoke and mirrors intended to distract us from sad reality. You haven't been knitting anything interesting, have you? Have you?
To which I can only respond, in the words of (I believe) Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Neener neener neener."

Because I have been knitting my furry little fingers to bits. But since you had to get huffy, all you get to see for now is the swatch.


This is the "final" swatch, in which the yarn, the needles, and the stitch patterns at last got together and danced in perfect lockstep around the living room while the orchestra played a spirited rendition of "You Got to See Your Mama Every Night (Or You Can't See Mama at All)."

We have here a laceweight cashmere/silk laceweight procured my homie in Boston, manipulated with size 1 Addi Turbos using stitch patterns collected by that nice Miss Walker, plus a lace alphabet to which I was introduced by one of the goddesses in my household pantheon.

As I will never have the pleasure of regaling a child of my own with stories of the labor pains he caused me, I instead look forward to forcing my niecephew to listen as I tell of how Uncle Franklin turned the world upside down and shook it so as to discover novel, seldom-seen lace patterns to put into this christening shawl.

As evidence I shall present a series of swatches which, laid end to end, would stretch all the way from Rhinebeck to Toronto and back again, except these days good luck getting customs officials at the border to cooperate. These swatches include motifs from the Estonian, Shetland, Orenberg, Asian, and Eastern European camps. They were begged from august lace knitting authorities, painstakingly recreated from fuzzy magazine illustrations, puzzled out of antique books and magazines.

And, ultimately, the winning patterns were taken from Barbara Walker, volume one, where they are located on facing pages directly opposite one another.

(But don't let that make you feel guilty. I did it out of love.)

And, as you will have guessed from the A-B-C, there will be a special message for the little kid worked into the finished piece. I'd like it to be a surprise for the parents on the Big Day, so I'll just share some of the options that were considered, then rejected:
That's my problem, you see. I just have so many good ideas, there could never be enough time to knit all of them.