Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Strangers on a Train

Typing this morning from LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I'm here to speak tonight at the town's annual Knit in Public Day. As the place is just close enough to Chicago to make it practicable, I came up by train.

Barring bandits or cows on the track, the trip is about five hours. We chugged along smoothly and I got a shocking amount of work done. Of course, there's not a lot to look at on a train and so five or six passengers, in passing by, stopped to ask about my knitting.

The most interesting conversation was with a woman who looked to be in her early twenties, and who began our dialogue in the usual manner.

"I've never seen a man knitting before."

To which I gave my standard reply, which I always deliver with wide-eyed surprise.

"You haven't? How odd."

She blinked. "Well, no. I mean, it's something women do, right?"

I smiled. "Not in my house."

"Oh," she said. "Well, I was brought up old-fashioned."

"So was I."

"Well, it's just surprising that you would do it in a public place."

I opened my mouth to say that, by coincidence, I was en route to an entire assembly of public knitters, but she went on.

"Don't you think about how it might look to the kids?" She indicated a few who were seated nearby in the coach.

"I don't follow you."

"Well, it might confuse them. The boys especially. A man doing something a woman does."

"I don't follow you."

She laughed. "Forgive me," she said. "I'm in the ministry, so it's second nature to me to minister. I'm always thinking about setting a good example for the young people."

I wondered if the window next to my seat could open, and if I could throw myself out of it.

"And you know,"she continued, "I have seen for myself that young boys need grown men to be role models of strength."

We were, figuratively speaking, at a crossroads. I could a) ask her why she felt a man peacefully doing something creative was not a strong role model, or b) feign narcolepsy and hope she'd go minister to the lady across the aisle.

Before I could do either, she asked, "Do you ever stop and talk to Jesus, and ask what He would want you to do?"

"I'm a Buddhist," I said. "Jesus and I don't usually go to the same cocktail parties."

"Oh," she said, stiffening. "Well, I guess there's nothing I can say to you then, is there? Have a good trip."

And she walked away.

Now, before some of you (you know who you are) start kvetching about Christian missionaries, let me ask you (firmly) please to not do that. We don't bash anybody's religion in here.

And as it happens, I have been just as annoyed on many occasions by Buddha-pushers who feel I am insufficiently Bodhi-fied because my practice is Zen and not Tibetan or Vipassana, or because I eat meat, or because I reflexively say "God bless you," when somebody sneezes. No single theology holds the monopoly on faith-based douchebaggery.

No. I wrote this conversation down because lately I worry (as you well may) about how we're ever going to climb out of the mess the world's in if folks won't talk to each other. Or rather, if folks won't listen to each other. Here was a textbook example of this large problem, shrunk to fit two people.

Missionary Lady and I had quite a chat but in the end, she didn't want to hear from me and I didn't want to hear from her. If we had kept talking, I doubt I would have been able to keep my cool well enough to be persuasive rather than combative. The end result: stalemate. If she and I can't speak and listen, how are opposing politicians and entire countries going to reach accord?

I hope you're not expecting a tidy wrap-up to this post, kids, because the heck if I can figure it out.

On the other hand, I did finish the knitting. So that's something.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Baby Got Flack

You never think about how difficult it is to get your hands on a baby until you really need one in a hurry.

Such was my situation recently. I was photographing this thing and it was made absolutely clear to me that no substitutes for an infant head and shoulders would be acceptable. No pretty dollies, no hat stands, no Styrofoam balls or wads of crumpled tissue paper. Only the genuine article, and pronto. Knitty waits for no man.

I live in a neighborhood that, in spite of its long-standing reputation as a haven for what used to be known as Confirmed Bachelors, is now increasingly home to young families. These days, you’re as liable to trip over a nanny on Halsted Street as you are a drag queen. Soccer mommies mixing with the leather daddies. Ah, progress.

Still, having more kids in the vicinity makes them no easier to borrow. You would be amazed at how reluctant city parents are to cooperate when you rush up–camera in one hand and baby hood in the other–and ask if they would kindly bung this onto junior’s head so you can snap a couple of quick frames. I had no idea strollers could move so fast.

Not neighborly, if you ask me. Downright standoffish.

I was about to concede defeat when a friend-of-a-friend obligingly gave birth to a bouncing baby girl. Together, we collaborated on a series of images that, judging from the response they’ve generated, are either too precious for words, or evidence that I am a child-hating untalented hack who should have my camera taken away and my knitting needles broken in half.

The Reluctant Reenactor

Me, I fall somewhere in the middle. These are far from my best work, having been made in five minutes in dim light so as not to tax either the baby or her mother. I did the best I could, which is sometimes all you can do. On the other hand, I applaud the model’s artistic choices. I feel they lift the series above the banal. Smiley kids are a dime a dozen. This one, like Margo Channing in All About Eve, obviously detests cheap sentiment. I love her for that. If the aura of enfance véritée turns some knitters away–well, I suppose that is the price one pays for pushing boundaries.

Proper Compensation

In lieu of payment, the model’s parents agreed to accept a hand-knit baby hat. Not the hood, obviously–it’s a wee bit much for daily wear in 2009. But a hat of my choice, and of course I want it to be a good one.

I started to whip up a little number of my own devising from the remnants of my Exceptional Niece Abigail’s™ Tulip Jacket. Some of it had gone into the embroidery for Bird and Berry, but there was still plenty to spare.

I did some pondering and charting, and cast on. At about this point in the proceedings,

Frugal Uncle Toddler Hat

I realized I have a problem.

I love this hat. Really love it. Really really really love it. Knitting it has been like a ride on a supercharged merry-go-round and I don’t want to get off. And there’s no way it’s leaving the family. It can’t go on me, since I don’t wear pink in the winter. So it’s going to Abigail.

Which means making another hat for the Other Baby. It won’t make any difference to her, or her mother. They haven’t seen this hat. And the other hat will be just as nice, I promise.

So why do I feel guilty?

The Reluctant Reenactor

Stop staring at me. Just stop. Stop it!

Invading America's Dairyland

A reminder to those in the vicinity of La Crosse, Wisconsin that I will have the honor and pleasure of joining you for your annual Knit in Public Day at the La Crosse Public Library. The theme is "Keeping You in Stitches: Knitting and Humor." I shall do my best to be especially funny from 6:30–7:30, when it's my turn to speak. (Natives, please advise. Are cheese jokes off limits?) The rest of the time, I will pursue my more usual course of trying not to say anything too stupid.

Friday, March 13, 2009


I came home from the gym yesterday and found the entire sock yarn colony running riot in the living room. At the center of the maelstrom was Dolores, holding Harry and a baby bonnet. She was apparently attempting to shove the former into the latter.

“No!” Harry screamed. “I’m not doing it! I’m not I’m not I’m not and you can’t make me!”

“But you’re gonna look so cute,” said Dolores. “Plus, if you don’t I’ll tell Franklin you’ve been sneaking into his supply of–”


“Hi, kids,” I said.

“You’re home,” said Dolores. “Good, I need a husband. Take off your sweatpants and put on those overalls and that flannel shirt. The guy who was supposed to be in the video with me just flaked out.”

“There are so many things wrong with what you’re saying.”

“And when the producers ask, it was my demure and yielding nature that first attracted you to me.”

“The more you say,” I said. “the less I understand what the hell is going on.”

With a piercing squeak Harry wriggled free of Dolores and sped across the room, seeking refuge under the coffee table.

“She wants us to be on television,” he panted. “She wants to make a video and send it to show business and say we’re a great big family and we all have to be her kids and cameras will follow us into the bathroom! Tell her she’s not allowed!”


“And I have to pretend to be the cute baby! I don’t wanna be the baby!”

“Stop whining,” said Stan, who was twirling around the rug in a pigtailed red wig and an extremely small organza print dress. “I think it’s a neat idea.”

“You’re only saying that because you get to be the sexy eldest daughter on the verge of womanhood!”

“I can’t help it,” said Stan, “that I happen to have photogenic cheekbones and winsome charm. And that you’re chubby and lisp when you get nervous.”

“Shut up, Stan!” said Harry.

“I prefer to be called Liesl,” said Stan.

Harry grabbed for Stan’s wig, and I was forced to send them to opposite corners. Dolores, meanwhile, retreated to the bedroom and returned wearing a gingham smock and carrying a nosegay of petunias.

“Why aren’t you dressed?” she snapped. “Where's your flannel shirt? They’ll be here any minute to shoot our promotional tape. We have to look like a hard-working, all-American family. Butch it up.”

She turned to the sock yarn.

“Now, I need all our little blessings on the sofa. And remember: you’re so happy, but you’d be even happier with a new luxury SUV and a bigger house.”

Harry broke ranks and headed for the front door.

“Have fun, guys. I’m going to the movies.”

“Get back here, blessing,” cooed Dolores, “Or Mama will feed you to the fricking alley cats.”

“Hold the phone,” I said. “You promised me we were finished with this sort of thing. Remember your first day on The Bachelor? You’re lucky they agreed to just scrap the footage and settle out of court.”

“I believe my actions have proven to be justified,” she said. “That guy deserved a hoof up his tuchus.”

“You weren't even supposed to be on the set.”

"Petty details bore me."

"Forget it, Dolores."

“You’re crazy,” she said. “Don’t you ever watch television? Hyperfertility is where it’s at. This is the moment! We don’t even need to get a show deal. All we need is four minutes on The Today Show with Matt Lauer, talking about how having forty colorful children has enriched us in spite of our poverty, and we’re golden. People would be throwing free stuff at us. We could get outta this dump in a week and move into one of those Extreme Home Makeover palaces with a designer kitchen and a petting zoo.”


She sniffled into her nosegay. “Don’t do it for me, darling. Think of…our children.”

“Please, Papa,” said Stan. “Please, may I have a petting zoo?”

“Go to your room, Liesl,” I said.

“Never mind him,” said Dolores to Stan. “He has no vision. We’ll just have to do this on our own. Straighten your wig and chuck me some flannel. I heard The Amazing Race is trying to book a lesbian couple.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I don't think it would be fair to say that Chicago in winter is colorless. It's not. There is always the blue of the lake, and often the blue of the sky. But our cold-weather palette is certainly muted, and around this time of year it can start to feel like the world outside has gone all gray with buff highlights.

Maybe that's why suddenly everything on my work table is colorful. Make that multicolorful.

I finished swatching colors for my hypothetical Fair Isle vest.

Fair Isle Swatch

Not bad at all. You could make a good vest out of that. But I've decided I want some zingy tones in there, so I'm going to order up a skein of orange and one of lapis lazuli (or whatever I can get that's close to lapis lazuli). And yes, I know a bunch of you said at first glance that I ought to do something of the kind, but I had to try it for myself. I appreciate suggestions, but I almost never take anybody's word for anything. That's just one of the many, many extremely annoying things about me. (For a full and annotated list, please contact my parents.)

Then there was this lovely sock yarn I'd had sitting around, waiting for me to get to it.

The colorway is Mahogany and it's from The March Hare. Meg's stuff comes from her own flock of Border Leicesters. The yarn is lovely to look at and blessedly soft, but until now I couldn't find a pattern that would do it justice.

Mahogany Sock Yarn

First, I took a whack at Ariel Barton's Cable Net, which I've had my eye on since it was published. I worked the whole first chart before conceding that the yarn was too dark and just a little too variegated (though it's definitely a semi-solid) to show off the pattern. Rip.

Then, I thought maybe a plain sock would be best for the yarn, but quickly remembered why I don't knit plain socks. (Puzzlement: I have no trouble sitting motionless on a meditation cushion for an hour, but want to scream and throw things after six inches of unrelieved stockinette. Why?)

Then, I remembered a bright blue Shepherd's Sock from Lorna's Laces that's been vacationing in the stash cupboard for at least a year. What about a color-patterned sock?

Sock Yarns

Under the influence of two wallpapers from the first season of Upstairs, Downstairs, I spent two hours with my pad of graph paper and came up with this.

Color Sock in Progress

I feel encouraged enough to continue.

Pattern Alerts: Two Hats

Remember the Bavarian Twisted Stitch Hat I finished in January, using Meg Swansen's handout from Knitting Camp? If you don't, here it is again.

Hat, Side

A bunch of folks asked about the pattern, which at the time hadn't been published except in the handout. But, happy chance, it was already being prepped for an appearance in the newest issue (Number 80) of Wool Gathering, the venerable and delicious newsletter from Schoolhouse Press. I love the new version.

Bavarian Twisted Stitch Hat

And I would like to mention, in case you care to check it out, that there's a Victorian baby hood in the new Knitty that I worked up using an 1840s recipe. (The five-day-old model is not a member of the family. She was graciously loaned by her parents. As you can tell from the look on her face, she simply adored working with me.)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Now, Where Was I?

Listen, before you say one word about how long it’s been since the last post please rest assured that I’ve already heard it all, in the form of six e-mails asking if I’m dead, two of them from relatives.

Not dead, not yet. Just traveling. And traveling takes the mickey out of me, because I have a congenital distaste for moving faster than a brisk walk. I know that’s old-fashioned and probably un-American, but tis true. Still, at least when I get off the plane there are usually knitters at the other end.

Of course, Ravelry has exploded the cozy myth that all knitters are sweet-tempered, needle-clicking buckets of love. We have now seen it demonstrated that some knitters are quarrelsome, small-minded nimrods who ought to have their heads held under water until the bubbles stop.

But in the past two weeks I haven’t met any of those knitters.


North Carolina was a pleasure on every level–once we got there. Just for fun, Mother Nature dropped nine inches of snow on Chicago just before we were due to leave. Happily, in spite of a four-and-a-half hour delay, I made it to the shop with six minutes to spare before curtain time. I'm glad nobody expects me to be pretty when I show up.

Mary of Yarns, Etc. and Great Yarns (yes, she owns ’em both, and they’re both great shops) put together two splendid events–a talk on Saturday and a photography class on Sunday. Here’s my view from the table at the front of the room before the talk.

NC Knitters

(Click to embiggen. Wide room, narrow blog.)

Now, what Yankee wandering far from home could be uncheered by a sight like that? There were so many lovely people I thought Yarn Harlot must be in town. You can see what I looked like from their angle here.

I wish I had taken a few pictures of the photography class. I was still a bit bleary-eyed, but fortunately since it was early Sunday morning, so were many of the students. But we pressed on, foraging deep into untapped talents and untouched camera manuals. We coaxed true colors out of blue yarns under fluorescent light. We built a light box. We found interesting angles hidden in plain socks. We were knitters with Ravelry accounts, and we would not be defeated.

After class, I was a wee bit peckish. The friendly natives at Great Yarns steered us in the direction of a Chapel Hill landmark called Mama Dip’s. And can I tell you something? I have eaten some lavish meals in some fancy places, yet I have never left a table feeling more deeply grateful for my taste buds than I did that fine, fine afternoon after pork chops, fried chicken, yams, black-eyed peas, hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, corn bread and biscuits. I shouldn’t have eaten two biscuits, though. I should have left room for the blueberry cobbler. Next time.

After that I spent a few days of working vacation in North Carolina at a hotel. A really nice hotel. A foo foo hotel. I would even go so far as to describe as foo foo foo–the sort of place I’ve never been before and won’t see again until the next time somebody else’s company foots the bill.

It was a hoot. Fabulous people watching, especially at lunch when I sat in the bar and played Count the Facelifts. The staff fell over themselves to be helpful, and spoke in hushed, truckling tones. After a while it made me slightly crazy. I finally told the lady who served the morning croissants to chill out, because I wasn’t anybody important. (She gave me an extra croissant.)


I got into a nice rhythm of early rising, a workout, and then several hours of solid work before lunch at a sunlit table in the lounge. The place was still as a tomb. I was only interrupted once, when a group of ladies who must have been looking for a place to hold a social function were brought through by an event planner.

Two of them marched up to me–I was working on the finished Parterre Scarf for the lace class–bent down to see my work, then looked at each other in puzzlement. “What on Earth?” said one to the other.

I opened my mouth to say something, but they had already walked away, shaking their heads.

I think instead of a harpist for their tea party, maybe they oughta hire a guy to sit in the corner and knit scarves.


And thence almost immediately to Pittsburgh, a deeply underrated, beautiful city inhabited by people who have actually heard of the place I was born–it’s about an hour's drive south. The natives speak with the brogue that as a child I associated with my paternal relatives and the denizens of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

It was another talk-and-teach visit, talk on Saturday and teach on Sunday, both at Natural Stitches. Martha, the owner, said this was the shop’s first try at having a guest. I would never have known. She and the tip-top staff made me feel like a visiting crown prince with a predilection for Noro.

Natural Stitches Staff

When I got to the shop, this was waiting for me in the front window.

Welcome Wagon

Dolores, life-sized. I'm surprised it didn't cause traffic accidents in the parking lot.


Pittsburgh Knitters

I hadn’t been to Pittsburgh in something like ten years, and it felt like old home week. Check out this trio.

Lovely Trio

I was greeted at the airport (and presented with the best brownies I've ever eaten) by the founder of the Dolores Devotees group on Ravelry, KnitNat (on the right). I finally met face-to-face one of the first Panopticon commenters ever, btpsmom (on the left). And there in the center is Melissa, who I first met three years ago on a Chicago public bus when we were on the way to hear Yarn Harlot speak at Arcadia Knitting. And now she works at Natural Stitches.

And then, just when it couldn't get any better–family! The actual kind, with the blood ties and the shared emotional baggage! Meet my Aunt Ev, my cousin Stephanie, and my cousin Eric.

La Famiglia!

It does not get any sweeter than having your own kin show up when you’re on the road. I encouraged all three of them to take up knitting. Aunt Ev is a lapsed crocheter, so she’s already got a toe in the water.

The nice people at the shop said they had a fantastic time. You can see for yourself, it's in writing. I did, too. May I come back, please?

I had to leave Pittsburgh way too soon, but not before taking a few minutes to peruse the kick-ass Mister Rogers' Neighborhood display in Terminal C. Why did I not think to take a picture? Take my word for it, when you see her in person Lady Elaine Fairchilde is a total dyke.

Meanwhile, I’ve made progress on several knitting fronts and do wish to share them, but I see this is already long entry. As Mister Rogers' own Henrietta Marie Pussycat would say, “Miaow miaow pressing PUBLISH now miaow miaow more soon miaow.”


No, wait! One more thing! No, three more.

New additions to the calendar! I'm coming east! Philadelphia and New York City!

Here are the quick details.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Loop (1914 South Street)
Friday, March 27: Signing (5–8 pm, free)
Saturday, March 28: "Introduction to the History, Methods and Styles of Lace Knitting" (10 am–1 pm, $45)
For more information or to register, call 215-893-9939.

New York, New York

Annie & Co. Needlepoint and Knitting (1325 Madison Avenue, )
Saturday, March 28: Signing and reading (5:30-8 pm, free. Call 212-289-2944 to register.)

Knitty City (208 W. 79th between Broadway and Amsterdam)
Sunday, March 29: Signing and reading (3–5 pm, free)
For more information, call 212-PURL-TWO.

Next up: knitting!