Wednesday, October 31, 2007
The collection at the museum in Smock was enough to make my visit to Pennsylvania especially memorable. But then, on my last day, my grandmother's friend Sue invited me over to see some "family things" she thought would interest me.
Sue's life had a romantic beginning. Her mother, an Englishwoman, was in the RAF. Her father, an American, was in the Army. Her mother outranked her father, but they fell in love and married before her father was shipped back to the United States.
Sue was born in England, and at six months old sailed to America with her mother on a ship chartered specially for war brides. Sue still has their orange cardboard "WAR BRIDE" identification tags. From the ship they transferred to the train that brought them to Pennsylvania and Sue's father. According to Sue's mother, she was so excited to see her husband again she nearly left her daughter on the platform.
Sue's grandfather, a native of the Cotswolds, was a stone carver and a fanatic for historical relics. He kept a museum of artisanal implements and antique farm machinery, and also acted as de facto curator of the family memorabilia. Much of it came to Sue, who shared it with me.
There is so much beautiful stuff in her collection (she has four christening gowns, the oldest of which appears to me to date from the 1840s) that I'm going to confine myself to showing you the highlights, which she kindly allowed me to photograph.
The first thing she pulled out was a black silk apron, intended to jazz up a plain dress for calls or company. The lower part is worked with a series of floral sprays worked in ribbon embroidery.
There was also a rather spectacular silk choker with an ornamental bib worked in a combination of silk and metallic threads with some bead embellishment.
On the christening gowns and many other pieces (including a petticoat and a piece of lingerie made for her grandmother's dowry) I noticed a lace pattern that appeared several times over the generations worked in different threads and at different sizes.
Sue says that her family claims descent from the first marriage of Catherine Swinford, who was the mistress and then the wife of John of Gaunt, uncle of Richard II. Her mother taught her that the Tudor Rose in the pattern is intended as a reminder of Catherine.
Out of more recent history, but no less fascinating to me, were textile souvenirs sent back to England from Sue's grandfather from France and Belgium during World War I. There are two handkerchiefs like the one at right, but what really caught my attention was an album filled with dozens of embroidered post cards.
I've seen embroidered cards before, but most of them were cheap and utterly graceless junk from China. The level of creativity in Sue's postcard album was astonishing.
The last of the pictured postcards is, Sue says, a portrait of her grandfather. The images themselves are slightly smaller than actual size.
And finally, she pulled out something that had been specially made for her during her English babyhood by her mother with help from friends. It's a simple but sweet dress with a beautifully smocked bodice. The material? Sky blue silk–from an RAF parachute.
We'd finished with the textiles, but before I left Sue showed me a set of astonishing mementos actually made by her grandfather. During the war, stuck in the trenches with restless hands, he turned shell casings into matchbox covers to send to the family.
My favorite shows, on one side, Sue's worried grandmother on the home front, thinking "I wonder how my dear boy is in France."
On the back, sitting in a trench, calmly picking lice out of his uniform, is her grandfather, with the reassuring message, "I am all right."
Sigh. Do you think they loved each other?
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Our tutor had connections of some kind there, and so the six of us were met at the door by a very tall, thin woman who introduced herself to me by saying "My name is ________.* My great-grandfather was Henry Clay Frick, and he is responsible for the works of art you see around you."
I shook her hand and said, "My name is Franklin Habit. My great-grandfather dug coal in a Frick mine for most of his life, and so is he."
I am pleased to report that the august lady's response to this piece of impudence was a hearty laugh and an arm around the shoulder. Times do change.
The Fricks have their museum, and now my great-grandfather (and great-grandmother) have theirs, though not on quite so grand a scale. A couple years ago, a group of volunteers from Smock, the coal patch where my grandmother grew up, got together and turned the company store building in the center of town into the Smock Heritage Museum, a set of rooms dedicated to the memory of patch life during the "Coal and Coke Era" of 1884-1943.
I've wanted to visit the museum ever since it opened, and on this trip I finally got the chance.
Family history has always fascinated me. Although my grandmother left school after fourth grade, she has an astonishing gift for vivid description and recollection of detail. Under other circumstances, she would no doubt have become a novelist or a journalist. For as long as I can remember, a visit to her meant perching on kitchen chair and peppering her with questions about how she lived as a child, then listening as she peeled potatoes and told stories. I still ask questions, and she still has new stories.
I was always particularly interested in the details of household life–how people in the patch cooked and slept and spent their days–and the newest features of the museum (which Grandma hadn't yet seen) are re-creations of the four things found in every company house: the back porch, the kitchen, the sitting room, and the bedroom.
That's all a miner's house had, really. A porch, a kitchen, and two small bedrooms. Whether you had no children or (as one Smock family famously did) fourteen, that's all you got. At one point, in my great-grandparents' house, there were two parents, four unmarried daughters, a couple of unmarried sons, and one married daughter and her husband, and their baby.
I asked grandma where they all slept. "Where we could," she said. Cozy.
The model patch house rooms were put together by volunteers using items donated by families who'd lived in Smock, with most of the work being done by local Boy Scouts as part of their Eagle Scout projects. How well they did is probably best gauged by my grandmother's reaction. When we walked into the kitchen, she just about burst into tears.
For my part, I was dumbstruck. It was like finally, after all these years, standing inside one of her memories.
I distinctly recall my grandmother saying that every self-respecting woman in Smock filled up her house with needlework, and evidence of that was everywhere. There was very little knitting, however. The only piece I found was this jacket (with matching crochet hat), made for a little girl named Eleanor Vandigo by her mother. The museum has it on display next to a school photo they found of her wearing it.
If the number of surviving objects is any indication, crochet was far more popular. In the patch bedroom, I found this nightcap displayed with the bed jacket (trimmed in filet crochet lace) it was made to match.
There was also a delicate pair of crochet gloves; Grandma remembers these as being reserved for extremely solemn occasions.
Embroidery was everywhere, worked from patterns either drawn by hand on the fabric or purchased from the local company store. Grandma says every house in the patch had one of these comb-and-brush holders over the kitchen sink–the only source of running water in the houses until after World War II.
Embroidery brightened up other everyday items like bedspreads....
...as well as special occasion pieces like covers for the basket of food taken to church on Easter Saturday for a blessing.
This one was hard to photograph, but just like the one Grandma has (made by her mother) the florid inscription is written in Slovak.
The museum has two sets of three-panel portières. Portières hung in every home in the doorway between the kitchen and the sitting room. They were a prominent showpiece, embroidered on both sides and embellished with crochet lace and medallions.
Most of the mining families in Smock (including ours) were some flavor of Eastern European. I was fascinated to see that a lot of the colors and designs were reminiscent of the folk art from that part of the world. I asked Grandma whether she knew if the commercial patterns were shipped from abroad or created domestically for the immigrant market, but she couldn't say. All she knew is that it all came from the company store.
Most households had several sets of these, and also several sets of window curtains. Both had to be taken down every month and washed, because the air pollution from coal dust, ash-paved roads, coal burning kitchen ranges, and the the adjacent coke ovens for the mine, soiled everything so quickly. It must have been an absolute nightmare to keep house under those conditions, especially using a hand-cranked washing machine or (if you weren't so lucky) a washboard and tub.
It was good to see a monument, however humble, to the people who lived and raised families in the patch. It was a hard life, at times desperately poor, but my grandmother remembers it as being on the whole not a bad way to grow up.
If you're interested in a visit, the museum has a Web site. If you go, see if you can spot my great-grandfather in the photograph of the band that used to perform at weddings and dances. Here's a hint: five of the six men are tall and the other one is shorter than the body of his bass fiddle.
Yeah, that one.
*No, I'm not going to tell you her three names. I'm a gentleman.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Posts-in-progress are stacked up at my end like a pile of unread Little Golden Books on the president's night table. The trip to Pennsylvania was wonderful enough to need two entries, not one. And there was a 1,000 Knitters shoot on Friday night on the South Side that was a rip-snorting good time.
Before I can finish those lengthy reports, however, I have to put up something shorter but time-sensitive.
Thanks to the kind generosity of the Camellia City Stockinettes of Sacramento, California, the first 1,000 Knitters shoot to take place outside the state of Illinois will be happening Saturday, November 3 from 10 am–4:30 pm at Synergex International Corporation, 2330 Gold Meadow Way in Gold River.
The shoot will open to the public (those who aren't members of the guild) at 2:30 pm.
The guild tells me there's ample parking. I have so little experience of such a thing, living in Chicago, that I may ask to go and visit it.
Dolores, who is still in search of a look-alike,* is planning on coming with me. I thought I was safe, since she's been hesitant to leave the house; but apparently Ann Coulter has temporarily abandoned her surveillance post to follow Elizabeth Edwards on the campaign trail.
*Nota bene: if you'd like to enter the contest, please remember that the images you submit must be yours - snagging images off the 'net that were created by other people won't cut the mustard. Dolores is very particular, in case you haven't noticed.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
No, not really. I've been visiting relatives in my hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania; but it amounts to the same thing. Sample dialogue:
Cousin Patty: Now up here on the right, this is where my mom was on the way to pick me up from kindergarten and she killed a pig.
Franklin: She what?
Cousin Patty: She killed a pig. The family that had this farm, they had a pet pig and it'd come out every day and meet their little boy off the school bus, and my mother got too close with the car and she killed the pig.
Franklin: That's terrible.
Cousin Patty: Yeah, for the rest of her life every time she come 'round that corner them people would stand on the porch and scream, 'PIG KILLER!'."
This was followed by cousin Patty's own story of running over a dog she thought was a deer, and my father pointed out a spot where he squashed a wayward chicken with his motorcycle.
The only living thing I've ever killed, aside from the occasional insect, was a potted geranium so I felt quite unable to contribute to the conversation.
On the other hand, I had a great time looking over not one, but two collections of vintage needlework. I'll post those in the next few days, once I'm home again.
In the meantime, a reminder that I'll be shooting for the 1,000 Knitters Project at My Sister's Knits this Friday, October 26 from 5-8 p.m.
I'm wondering if anybody out there might be able to offer me a lift from my place on the north side (4000 north and the lake) over to the shop? If not, I can make do, but I'd be most grateful. (You wouldn't have to drive me home - that's taken care of). If you can help out, please drop a note to franklin at franklinhabit daht cahm. Aside from gratitude, I can offer quite nice yarn.
Gotta go. It's time to skin something or shuck something or harvest something or something.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
So, how are you these days? Enjoying the nice fall weather? Crunching around the park through the fallen leaves in your Véronik Avery cardigan, maybe having a quick one behind the hedge with that special someone before running home to a rum toddy?
Bully for you. I'm not. And here's the reason.
Now as you have probably heard from both "Frontline" and People magazine, Miss Ann Coulter has been trying to get at my sweater lambs since 2001, when we met on the dance floor after dinner at the White House. I was there with Jim Lehrer, who dragged me along for moral support and then ditched me to chat about Hamptons real estate with Cokie Roberts.
It was still early, so I grabbed my handbag and figured I'd go pick up something nice from this bar I know near the Pentagon, but before I could get out the door Jenna Bush got me by one arm and Ann Coulter grabbed the other and suddenly we're doing a three-way Sapphic Mambo in the East Room while the Lennon Sisters are singing "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" in front of a full orchestra.
Kids, I've swung enough in my time to qualify as a ride at Six Flags but that does not mean there are places I won't go. Especially when the Secret Service is watching.
So I disengaged myself as graciously as possible, which was not easy considering that Ann's bony fingers already had a death grip on my Carolina Herrera underpants, and high-tailed it back to my room at the Hay-Adams.
The next afternoon I woke up to a knock at the door. It was LaShawn, my fave bellhop, with two armfuls of red roses and a note:
I am so very sorry for my behavior last night. I was a little smashed. Please meet me for tea in the lobby of the Willard at four o'clock so I can apologize and return your panties. Fondly, Ann
By the time I got to the Willard, she was already there on her fourth cup of tea (with two olives). I tried to make desultory chitchat but finally got tired of pussyfooting around and asked to have my underwear back. Whereupon she said, "Come and get 'em, you hot little bundle of fluff," and lifted her skirt up and sweet Barbara Walker, she was wearing them.
Hotel security stepped right in–apparently that wasn't the first time little Annie had made a scene amongst the potted palms–and I took off, but my troubles weren't over. I started getting phone calls, e-mails, even old-fashioned billet doux written on Ann's signature "Garfield" stationery and scented with Wind Song. My increasingly firm rebuffs did nothing to chill the girl down.
Finally, after she snuck into Twelve Willows Farm disguised as a potting shed and tried to attack me in my boudoir, I secured a restraining order. I thought that would do the trick, and for a while it did seem she was going to transfer affections from me to Elizabeth Edwards. (What? Where did you think all the hostility was coming from?)
But now she's back. I've been holed up in this freaking apartment for an entire week because she rented a room at the flophouse across the street and she's sitting in the window drinking Red Bull and Jaegermeister shots and watching our building through her binoculars. She sent over a note saying she has clippers and a pair of wool carders with my name on them, but the police say they can't do anything until she breaks the fifty foot rule.
This is where you come in, cupcakes.
See, I was just reading this biography of Empress Sisi of Austria, who suffered as I do from an excess of charisma. Apparently, Sisi used to send her out her maid, rigged up in empress gear, to act as a decoy when she needed the adoring crowds to lay the fuck off.
I thought maybe Harry could do the job, but he doesn't have the bone structure to make it work.
So I'm still in the market for a double.
From now until November 15, I'll be accepting applications for Dolores Look-Alikes.
All I need is a nice, clear photograph of you or your sponsored candidate doing your best to capture my (let's face it) indefinable allure. Send it to Franklin's e-mail address at franklin at franklinhabit daht cahm. Put "Dolores" in the subject line.
The candidate doesn't need to be you, as long as you have his/her/its permission to enter the running. Cats, dogs, goldfish, husbands, whatever. I'm desperate. (Just no sheep, please–there are union issues. Ironic, ain't it?)
I'm going to have four of my best girlfriends pick the most qualified look-alike:
- Brenda Dayne of "Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters,"
- Carol from Go Knit In Your Hat,
- Rabbitch, and
- Stitchy McYarnpants of The Museum of Kitschy Stitches.
Remember, you got until November 15. I got Christmas shopping to do, dammit, and Ann's probably got enough Red Bull and hooch over there to last until the November elections.
Over and out.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Truly, I have no idea where that nasty old stereotype of knitters as meek and helpless came from. The longer I mix with this bunch, the more convinced I am that there's not another community on the planet so eminently capable of getting things (with the possible exception of second socks) done.
For example, here we have Natalia and Sarah. They were talking about how great it would be if there were a knit-centric event akin to Chicago's DIY Trunk Show. Then they stopped talking and went ahead and built one: Yarn Con.
It was a bang-up job. Under the soaring vault of the Pulaski Park Field House auditorium, about two dozen independent purveyors of yarns, knitted goods, and knitting impedimenta set up shop for the day. Knitters came in their numbers to browse, fondle, and (abetted by the portable ATM parked just outside) buy. And buy and buy and buy.
The stage was given over to well-attended workshops, including several taught by Sharon Kelly of Arcadia Knitting.
I wish I had thought to get a shot of Sharon's afghan-sized entrelac swatch. It looked like she was knitting a Lady Eleanor Scarf for Paul Bunyan.
The 1,000 Knitters Project made splendid progress, even though I was placed between the hot chicks from Loopy Yarns and the booth occupied by Shannon Okey and Nikol Lohr, which was sort of like being a crossing guard at the intersection of Fellini and Ed Wood.
About forty hugely entertaining people sat in the chair and worked on the scarf, raising the current count to 198.* Thank you all!
I was so busy shooting I didn't have much time to shop, although I did go home with an autographed copy of that nice Susan Strawn's Knitting America. If you haven't seen it yet, take a look. Mine won't make it to the shelf for a while, because I keep toting it from bedside to table to sofa so I can gawk at the pictures. Happily, the coated stock offers some protection from drool and Cheerios.
For me, the crowning touch of the day was being asked, for the first time, to hand the needles to a very young man whose mother hopes he'll take up the craft. I felt honored to be chosen. Honestly, I got more than a little choked up. Le bowl of mush, c'est moi.
Judging by his firm grip (which the ever-helpful Tom recorded for posterity), I think Doug's mom stands a fair chance to spend her old age wrapped in handmade shawls and sweaters.
Slipping a copy of Knitting Without Tears under the kid's crib might help to clinch it. Or is that just an old knitter's tale?
*Reader Janet asked in the comments whether there will be a special "celebrity" section when the final piece is assembled. I can promise there won't be. I'm delighted (and surprised) at how many notable knitters have taken part, but in this piece no knitter is more important than any other. We are all important. Remove one person's row, and the fabric would be wrecked. That's sort of how I feel about people in general, come to think of it.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
If that's not enough to lure you, which is entirely likely, visit the Web site and ponder the lists of vendors, classes, and demonstrations going on.
Susan Strawn will be signing copies of her new book, Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art; and Dolores is particularly looking forward to a second meeting with Knitgrrl Shannon Okey.
Entry is a whopping three bucks. All the cool kids will be there. If you mother says she doesn't want you hanging around with those yarn-sniffing hooligans, tell her you're going to the library. We'll totally cover for you.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Saturday, October 06, 2007
I can't help it. I just spent eight hours with Brandon Mably and Kaffe Fassett.
Brandon was ringmaster for a full-day workshop on color knitting. I've never seen anyone at the helm of a class so kinetic. He was everywhere in the room at once–encouraging, explaining, cajoling. We undertook a simple chart, Kaffe's well-known Persian Poppies, using a method of color selection that required us to relinquish a certain amount of control over the finished product.
That idea gave me the Creeping Shivers, but one is either a man or a mouse so I decided to throw caution to the wind and play along. After all, Brandon is famous for knowing how to mix colors, whereas my idea of Mardi Gras is three shades of gray in one sock.
I had only been working on my swatch for a couple of rows when it became obvious that with this sort of selection at hand,
I nevertheless opted to wind two balls composed entirely of the same hushed, restrained, lukewarm colors I invariably pick for every project I design myself.
Well, it became obvious to Brandon, anyhow. He took away the darker of the two balls I was using and, without so much as a by-your-leave, simply ripped out the next of the three shades of respectable brown and substituted something else. If you look very closely, perhaps you can spot the place where Brandon subtly altered my palette.
Yeah. Right there.
Instead of decking him like a red-blooded American male I just kept knitting, and I'll be damned if the son of a bitch didn't turn out to be right. In context, that deep rose brought the whole section to life and spared me knitting poppies that looked like, as Brandon put it, "burnt doughnuts." (If you've had enough of knitting workshops where everybody's stuff, no matter how terrible, is showered with gooey praise...sign up for Brandon. It's refreshing.)
When we broke for lunch, all the swatches went up on the board for charette and it was dazzling to see how one pattern changed in different yarns arranged by different hands.
In the second half of the workshop I went in and made some changes to my colors, and for the first time actually enjoyed playing with colors instead of just picking one color to pair with grey and rushing out of the yarn store.
I think that in the end, the swatch showed some improvement, although as I grew more excited about the colors my chart reading went straight to hell.
In the final critique, Brandon paid me the compliment of saying if he saw my swatch worked into a scarf he'd run down the street after it for a closer look.
I considered pinning it to the seat of my pants.
Kaffe's lavishly illustrated lecture took place in the evening. I can't do it justice in a retelling. He took us through a selection of his pieces (and quite of few of Brandon's), dwelling on what inspired them and what made them tick.
I was particularly fascinated at the number of ways the guy can re-work a motif in different media. A found fabric inspires a piece of knitting, which becomes a piece of needlepoint, which turns into a tapestry, which shows up in a painted still life. Over and over. And in each case instead of the new version looking like, say, knitting pretending to be tapestry (the kind of thing I loathe), the adaptation breathes new life into the motif. Genius.
I came away with a renewed urge to create and a seismic shift in my awareness of color.
Both events were well-attended, but the day was particularly special for me. In spite of all that was happening the Star Attractions graciously sat for portraits. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Knitters 0162 and 0163 of the 1,000.
It is a comfort to know that whatever may happen with this project, whatever I may do for the rest of my life, I have already assured myself a place in the History of Knitting as the man who got Kaffe Fassett to knit with bone white Cascade 220.
I've raided my stash and come up with nineteen odd balls that I'm willing to sacrifice, which we'll call close enough. However, here's the color breakdown:
- Muted and/or heathery greens: 5
- Greys and black: 3
- Brown/beige/taupe: 3
- Earthy reds: 4
- Dark blues: 3
- Orange, burnt: 1
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Usually I can. Here, I'll demonstrate.
Three pieces of chocolate.
Three...men in ties.
Alas, my obvious facility with higher mathematics deserted me when I began the first sleeve on Abigail's Tomten Jacket. Carefully noting Elizabeth's instructions to decrease two stitches every third ridge, I sped off and before I knew it came to the cuff.
And then I realized I had in fact been decreasing every second ridge. The sleeve would have fit Abby perfectly if she had the shoulders of a parakeet and the arms of a Smurf.
On the second try, with the aid of a notebook and row counter, I got it right.
And I'm quite pleased with the pseudo-Egyptian stylized thingies I put just above the cuff. It's a lotus, maybe. Or a stalk of blooming papyrus. Or Ftatateeta beseeching Osiris to send down a bowl of ice cream. Something of that sort.
Men of Color
So listen, who else is going to the Kaffe Fassett/Brandon Mably double-header this weekend? I'll definitely be at Brandon's Saturday workshop (I can't make it on Sunday, or I'd go then, too) and I'll be at Kaffe's talk in the evening. They're both appearing on the north side courtesy of Arcadia Knitting.
I talked to Kathy and apparently there are still some seats left for both. There's more information on their Web site. Kathy says there will copies available of Kaffe's new book and he'll be doing a signing.
There truly aren't many people I'd line up for, Kaffe's one of them. An original, and an inspiration. Of course, since I consider the blue I've added to Abigail's oatmeal-colored Tomten to be a Riot of Color, you might not know it. Maybe after this weekend things will be a little different.
Monday, October 01, 2007
The first time I heard the term "yarn bra"–I think it was over at Marilyn's blog, where just about anything can happen–I blushed to the roots of my hair. Marilyn's not one to mince words, but the apparent mention of her unmentionables in a public forum still raised my eyebrows.
Now, of course, I know what a yarn bra is (peek at one here!), but I'm neither the first nor the last man to require clarification.
When I taught Willibald to knit, he found the term mightily amusing and suggested that if knitting were a male-dominated field we would instead have "yarn jock straps."
And then, when they came up in the comments about my runaway yarn on the Megabus, a non-knitting friend of mine wrote and told me he had honestly thought a "yarn bra" must be a brassière with an extra space or attachment for holding knitting yarn.
Whereupon I doodled the following in my sketchbook.
Men. We're all alike.