Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sailing to Fair Isle

The greater part of the American Midwest was stifled by a blanket of severe cold this past weekend, but I didn't feel it. I was at Threadbear Fiber Arts Studio, surrounded by knitters, wool, knitters holding wool, knitters covered in wool, and wool wrapped around knitters.

On Saturday, the Tomten Jacket class was packed once again. Such is the genius of Elizabeth Zimmermann, that a pattern she wrote in 1961 still draws a crowd. I loved watching the faces of the students as the little coat unfurled under their fingers. Knitting Elizabeth's best patterns is like reading a cleverly plotted thriller, and the Tomten is enough to make you drop your popcorn.

After our brief lunch break, I got a surprise–a giant birthday cake topped by a strikingly true likeness of Dolores.


It was delicious. Pity I had to sue them for copyright infringement.

Much better, let me tell you, to have Dolores on the cake than to have her pop out of the cake, which happened last year on Tom's birthday. Seven visits from Stanley Steemer and we are still trying to get the icing out of the carpet.

Cake at Threadbear

If you gotta get older, this is the way to do it.

On Sunday, I hung out at the shop and signed copies of the little book. It was very jolly.

Black Sheep Knitters

Knitters just kept coming and coming in nice, steady stream so I wasn't pining alone in the corner.

Signing at Threadbear

Some I had met last year at the 1,000 Knitters shoot, some I knew from Ravelry or the comments, and many had no blinking idea who I am but figured it was either me or another afternoon at home watching the "Rock of Love" marathon on VH1 and decided to give me a shot.

For the first time ever I was asked to sign a boob, which puts me into the same club, I believe, as Willie Nelson, Kaffe Fassett and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. Ma will be so proud.

Sign Here

I am indebted to Matt of Threadbear for taking and sharing these sweet souvenir photos.

Something About Alice

On Saturday night I was hanging around with the bears themselves, Matt and Rob, and our conversation about the current crop of pattern books took a detour onto books no longer available, including the bulk of those written by Alice Starmore.

Now, I've been knitting since 1992, but I spent most of those years completely out-of-touch with what was going on in the field. I didn't know any other knitters, and could barely find yarn, let alone pattern books. By the time I joined the dance, Alice had already pulled her work off the shelves.

As a result, I'd never seen any of the books myself. Not one. Everything I knew of them was secondhand. I would hear how wonderful In the Hebrides, Pacific Coast Highway, Tudor Roses and all the rest had been. I would read of exorbitant prices paid for old copies, of knitters begging local libraries to re-shelve them with the rare books so they wouldn't be stolen. I encountered a few garments knit from the patterns, though never using the original colors. They looked complex, yes. But there are lots of complex patterns out there.

So my opinion of Alice Starmore was that she was probably an excellent designer, and her books had probably been good ones, but the hysteria and the high prices were likely no more justified than the ridiculous sums that changed hands during the Great Pink Chibi Mania of 2004.

As for Fair Isle, I'd seen great heaping piles of that. Most of it either looked dowdy–the kind of ho-hum, shapeless stuff that almost killed knitting at the end of the 20th century–or was so busy it induced seizures. I remember one vest which sported such a gamut of vibrant colors between the hem and the neck shaping that it looked like an abridged version of an acid trip. "You can do anything you want," said the perpetrator, "and it's perfectly okay!"

I beg, madam, to differ.

So when Rob began to pull his copies of Alice Starmore off the shelf I was curious, but not overly excited. Then I sat down with The Art of Fair Isle Knitting and almost wet myself.

So this is what makes people gaga over Fair Isle. The tension, the incredible chill-giving tension, of vibrant colors rippling in counterpoint to vigorous patterning, the two constantly pushing and pulling like opposing voices in a Baroque orchestral suite without ever tipping the balance.

I kept on poring through the books, with their solid writing and their wildly creative variations on a theme, and I realized that for maybe the third time in my life I'd encountered an artist who was actually worthy of the hype. It's tough to design one good sweater, let alone a book full of them. It's damned near impossible to crank out a whole string of terrific books without going stale. And it's rare to find a scholar, a writer, and a designer all sharing the same body.

I hear tell that Alice may be ready to come back to the playground soon, and I certainly hope so, because if not the loss to the knitting world is immense.

And So...

Fair Isle PaletteOnce upon a time, after dreaming over lace as presented by Nancy Bush, Galina Khmeleva, and Sharon Miller, I set out to knit a shawl of my own and came up with this.

Now, having seen what Fair Isle can be when it's well done, I'm in the mood to cook up a vest for myself. In this I was aided and abetted by Matt at Threadbear, who knows from color and helped me put together the shades of Rauma Finullgarn you see at right. (By "helped me," I mean I watched in amazement as he deftly assembled the palette from a huge basket of yarn. Then, at the end, I took out the ball of cream.)

I'm swatching right now to figure out my gauge, and then it's time to chart. I haven't been this jazzed about a new project in ages, and you know I'm easily excited. Will I knit a decent vest or will I crash and burn? Time will tell.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Can I Get a Little Traveling Music, Please?

The parade of finishing continues.

These socks have been on the needles since the Pleistocene Era. Not because they're complicated, but because they're not complicated. I kept falling asleep over them.

Boring Socks

The yarn is KnitPicks Felici in Schooner (a colorway now sadly discontinued). This was my first tango with self-striping yarn, because I'm a control freak. When I'm knitting, I want to be the one making the Big Decisions. I don't want my socks to stripe themselves. To me, self-striping yarn is like an uppity little kid who insists I join him to play "Heart and Soul" on the piano when I'd rather take a nap.

Kinda makes you wonder why I knit a whole pair of socks with the stuff, doesn't it?

  1. these are colors I'd choose if I were any good at picking colors;
  2. Felici stripes are bold, strong stripes and not wimpy, indeterminate stripes;
  3. the yarn was at hand when I reached into the stash cupboard; and
  4. it was free.
To show off the striping I limited the texture to k1b, p1 rib–all the way down the leg and instep. I will never do that again. After I finished the second sock, I did a bit of hunting around and discovered that forcing prisoners of war to work k1b, p1 rib for more than 15 minutes at a time is a violation of the Geneva Convention.

On the Road Again

Departure is imminent for my trip to Threadbear Fiber Arts Studio in Lansing, Michigan. On Saturday the 24th, I'll be teaching a day-long class on Elizabeth Zimmermann's Tomten Jacket (which is sold out, they tell me). On Sunday the 25th from 1–4 pm, I'll be doing a meet-and-greet and signing copies of the little book.

In late February, I'll be going back to the land of my birth (southwestern Pennsylvania) for two events at Natural Stitches in Pittsburgh. On February 28 at 4:30 p.m., we'll have a book signing/reading. The next morning, at 11 a.m., I'll be teaching a three-hour introduction to lace knitting. (Class sign-ups open on February 2–contact the shop.) There will also be a community service project going on during my visit, so check out the shop's site for more information.

And I am still working on responding to 100+ good people who sent suggestions for venues in North Carolina. Thanks to all of you–who knew so many North Carolinians were reading this? Something is in the works, and when everything is confirmed I'll make a great big noise about it in here.

(By the way, I also appreciate the folks who leave comments saying, "Why don't you come to [name of place]?" I'd love to, darlings, but until my real parents turn up and hand me the key to the vault containing my small private fortune, I can usually only travel if a shop or guild has me out to speak or teach a class. So if you'd like to see me, just ask your shop or guild to contact me at franklin at franklinhabit daht cahm, and I'll send them my information.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Abigail and the Mittens

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that though Christmas 2008 is now but a fading memory and a stack of credit card bills, you might still like to see my Christmas knitting.

Mittens for Abigail

Child's mittens, two, of the "warm woolen" variety. Cheaper than bright copper kettles or cream-colored ponies, and easier to wrap than schnitzel with noodles. Also, you can start a pair of these on the 16th of December and not sweat the finish line. I was done by the 20th.

The free pattern they're based on is here. I found it through Ravelry's search feature in about four seconds. I decided to work them using Jo Sharp DK left over from Susan's ruana, in a simple color pattern I charted myself. The extra-long cuffs are a handsome feature–no snow is going to get past them, and it snows a great deal in northern New England.

I didn't have Abigail's hand measurements. I couldn't ask for them without spoiling the surprise. I realized I'd have to trust the pattern, and sneak in a fitting after I got to Maine.

Flash forward to a few days before Christmas. With both parents safely at work, my mother and I sat Abigail down to try on her gift. They fit. Delight all around. Abigail waved her warm, woolen hands cheerfully in the air and said a new word: mittens.

I was still working the two-color I-cord on the sly, and whenever Abigail caught me in flagrante me she'd say "Unka Fwank. Knit. Yarn. Mittens!" Or she'd walk into the upstairs bathroom, where we'd done the washing and blocking and trying-on, and say, "Mittens!" Or she'd see somebody on television wearing mittens and say, "Mittens. Knit. Unka Fwank!"

On Christmas Eve, I wrapped up the box in snowman paper. "Unka Fwank, Mittens!" said Abigail. "Present!"

"Listen, honeybunch," I whispered. "Let's try to keep that just between us for another twenty-fours, shall we?"

"Present!" screamed Abigail.

Abigail was fascinated by the presents. They were probably what she remembered most about last year, her first Christmas, when she'd just learned to get around the living room by rolling over. The first place she rolled to was the Christmas tree, and the first thing she did was grab a package and start ripping.

This year, being 19 months old and ambulatory, she had been warned sternly to keep clear of the tree. The presents underneath, furthermore, were not to be touched. She'd often wander over to them and stare longingly, but if she extended so much as a finger a voice would bark, "Abigail! Don't touch the presents under the tree!"

And she'd dutifully back away, leaving the glittering pile undisturbed.

Her mittens were the last gift I wrapped, and I was about to add them to the heap when somebody called me to help with something urgent in the kitchen. In my haste, I left the box on the table next to the sofa.

About half an hour later, arranging cookies on a platter, I heard a jubilant squeak followed by the sound of Phil asking, "Hey! Where did you get those?"

See my new mittens?

We had said over and over not to touch the presents under the tree. We had said nothing about presents sitting around on tables. Abigail (whose father, I might add, is a lawyer) must have decided she was safe on a technicality.

What the heck. It was Christmas Eve. And I got an early present myself, which was watching her parade around in them, refusing to take them off, fully engulfed in a flood of Mitten Joy.

Mitten Joy

You know what this is a picture of? This is a picture of a kid whose uncle will be happy to knit her a cream-colored pony and a stable to put it in if she wants one.

Mittens are cool.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Old Hat, New President

I can feel it in my bones, and no mistake. Usually happens to me about this time of year, when winter taps constantly at the window like a persistent but unwelcome gentleman caller. It's too early for spring cleaning by months, but I feel I must do something productive indoors or run mad. So I line up all the unfinished projects and give them marching orders. You, you, you, you and especially you–outta here!

Happily, this weekend I was entirely surrounded by knitters. A body can really get things done in such company, as at no point will it be suggested that wouldn't you like to put your needles down and sleep, or eat, or pick up the Wii controller and pretend to shoot things. (There was some fuss on Ravelry about a knitting game being created for the Wii. I find the idea ridiculous, but could see the point of a game in which you get to slap people who tell you that you knit too much.)

My house guest, as I mentioned in the last post, was Carol of Go Knit in Your Hat. Carol is one of those knitters who make you wish you had six hands so you could knit three projects at once. Ideas bubble out of her effervescently.

In spite of brutal temperatures, a good crowd turned up at Loopy Yarns to pick up Carol's book and meet the author. I got to sit at one side and watch. This is Carol, signing.

Carol Signing at Loopy

(Some of her inscriptions, I regret to say, were quite unmaidenly. My delicate tastes were affronted.)

The next day we were back at Loopy again, to rendezvous with Knitters for Obama.

Knitters for Obama

They were putting together the batch of chemo caps knit by the group for donation to University of Chicago Medical Center. There were (I think) about 200 hats to sort and label. We were awash in hats. Submerged in hats. Inundated. Very nearly immolated.

Chemo Caps

Meanwhile, I was working on a hat of my own. I'd started it in August, using a handout from Knitting Camp. I was determined to learn from it the basics of Bavarian Twisted Stitch. Unfortunately, when I hit the shaping at the top I suddenly felt quivery and unequal to moving ahead. There were no instructions, you see–only Meg's very sensible advice to proceed according to one's own taste and best judgment. Alas, I am prone to question daily whether I have any of either.

When picked up the hat again on Friday, I couldn't understand what my trouble had been. There wasn't much left to do, and all of it was straightforward. I closed up the top after about two hours' work, and shoved it onto the head of Lumpy, my phrenology bust/hat model.

Hat, Side

I'm not cuckoonuts about the way the shaping turned out. Next time, I'd arrange the decrease points differently to keep the major patterns in play longer. On the other hand, it's always interesting to see–once again–that if you plot a course of action in your knitting and you stick to it, the end result will at least have a certain orderliness to recommend it.

Hat, Top

I am, may I add, extremely taken with Bavarian Twisted Stitch and wish to waltz with it again. In spite of my Urge to Finish Everything, I can't help contemplating what new project I could work it into.

Hat, Cables

Hat "Little Window" Pattern

Probably I'll tackle another hat, in a different color. Because I put this one on and realized the yarn (Shepherd Classic Wool #1816) doesn't suit me. So Susan, if you're reading this, I sure hope you like your new hat.


I can't sign off without mentioning the Inauguration, but find better heads than mine have already written of it so eloquently that I have nothing of much merit to contribute.

I will say this. For eight years, I have watched the government–my government, the one I was always taught was of, by and for the people–do everything in its power to divide the country into us and them. I have listened, shattered, as my fellow citizens have questioned my loyalty, my liberty, and my right to exist.

Well, I'm still here and I'm still loyal. This place ain't perfect, but it's mine and I love it. In spite of eight years of misrule by as sorry a pack of weasels as ever held office, I still believe that America, at its heart, is a nation founded on noble instincts and good ideas.

As Mr. Obama takes the oath, I wish him luck. And I hope that when the history of this era is written, that January 20, 2009 will be remembered as a good day–the day we took our first, uncertain step on new and upward path.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Author Alert

Carol's Awesome BookThe house is all a-twitter at present because we're having company: my friend Carol Sulcoski, whose splendid book Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarn is presently perched at the top of the charts.

Carol's going to be at Loopy Yarns tomorrow (Friday, the 16th) from 5:30–9 p.m. signing books, and if you have handpainted yarn languishing in your stash (and who doesn't?) come over to meet her and get your hands on a copy.

It's been quite some time since we've had overnight guests and I'm afraid this little auberge was found to be sadly in need of a wash-and-brush-up. Harry, brave soul, has spent the better part of the afternoon in the freight elevator, moving Dolores's empties downstairs to the recycling bins.

Speaking of great messes, I must dash. There are still dirty dishes in the sink, and I must explain to Dolores that Carol will not be sharing her cushion tomorrow night. The money she spent on new satin sheets, rose petals and pillow mints will be for naught, but there are certain things up with which I will not put. This is a respectable establishment.

Or so I keep telling myself.

By the Way...

I've just found out I may have a chance to visit Raleigh/Durham/Cary, North Carolina late next month. If I do go, I'd love to work in a signing and/or a class. If you have a favorite shop in the area, wouldja please drop me a note at franklin at franklinhabit daht cahm? Thank you kindly.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hey, Teach

Here I am. Hello.

I know–everything built up to a shattering climax on the twelfth day of Christmas and then I fell silent.

This was not my intention. I have buckets to share with you. Buckets. Alas, every time I sat down to show you my bucket, something would happen. I would smell smoke, or ominous noises would emanate from the plumbing. Or I would realize it was time to go to Montana.

Yes, Montana. I went to Wild Purls* in Billings for two days, to sign copies of the little book and to teach a class on Elizabeth Zimmermann's Tomten Jacket. I was excited about both events, but especially excited about the teaching. I was so exceedingly excited about the teaching that every time I imagined myself in the classroom I'd get short of breath and throw up.

As some of you know, my dear sister is a teacher. At a shockingly young age, she has already racked up years of experience in the field. She is my authority in Matters Pedagogical. I asked her whether wanting to throw up in front of the class was normal. She said yes. I asked her what to do about it. She said, don't throw up.

Thus armed with sage advice, I landed in Billings and was welcomed warmly by the crew of Wild Purls, who were wearing...

Suzanne, Johanna, and Judy

Linda, Julia, and Suzanne

"Knitting Becomes a Habit" commemorative tour t-shirts. I was floored. I felt like Madonna, or Cher, or Barbra, or somebody else that people in this neighborhood dress like on Friday night. Quite a boost to my confidence.

The book signing was a hoot. I met all sorts of knitters, including one very young (hi, Chloƫ!) and an aspiring cartoonist who reminded me of myself as a child, back in the days when they had just invented lead pencils.

But I was still nervous. Seven hours is a long maiden voyage as a knitting teacher, and a quick survey at 9 o'clock revealed that among the twenty-odd students:
  • only two had previously grappled with an Elizabeth Zimmermann pattern,
  • one of those was an extremely experienced knitter who had already made the Tomten countless times and probably knew much more about it than I,
  • only four or five had ever done two-color work,
  • and two were knitters so newly-minted they were still under warranty.
But there I was, and there they were, so into the fray we plunged together. It was like "The Charge of the Light Brigade," except at the end of the day we were all still alive.

In Montana, the pioneer spirit persists. These were rugged knitters. They rose to every challenge I threw at them with good humor and determination, which gave me the confidence to keep going. I may have appeared to be leading, but I felt that a good deal of the time they carried me aloft.

Teaching at Wild Purls
"I need a little more oomph from the altos.
Let's try it from bar 18."

Nobody gave up, and at the end of the day came a crowning moment of delight: one of the new knitters, who hadn't even worked increases before that afternoon, successfully grafted the two halves of her hood together. She was beaming, and I wanted to tap dance.

Such a day. Honestly, I was sad to leave the next morning. I find that I have fallen in love with Montana. Billings is a remarkably pleasant place with incomparably down-to-earth people and a first-class yarn shop. Julia, Suzanne, Linda, Judy, Johanna, Irene and all of you who were good enough to come out for the events: a thousand thanks, and I can't wait to see you again.

Special thanks to Joseph, Suzanne's husband and a fine photographer, who took the photos and gave them to me to use. Next time, dude, we have to remember to talk about your collection of vintage cameras.

*Not to be missed when you visit is the special selection of local yarns, including Mountain Colors (of course) and splendid organics from Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company. They also have their own shop-exclusive colorway from Lorna's Laces.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Lurching Toward Epiphany: The End

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Dolores gave to me

Day Twelve

twelve months' probation,
eleven units responding,
ten words of warning,
nine neighbors ringing,
eight shameless encores,
seven kegs a-brimming,
six queens sashaying,
five Highland Flings,
four letter words,
three clenched men,
two hurtled jugs,
and a party that lasted 'til three.

(And so concludes our merry holiday chronicle–slightly late, as booking at the precinct took simply forever. Normal (?) blogging resumes tomorrow.)