Friday, October 21, 2005

Do It Yourself

I work in a big old house, now university property, that sits on the edge of a wealthy neighborhood full of Motivated Modern Parents. You know the sort I mean. The ones who played Mozart in utero to Little Caitlyn when it was suggested that this would increase her chances of one day becoming an investment banker with a house and four waterfront acres in one of the better Hamptons.

It was in college that I first encountered this such parents, buying the kiddies coloring books with whimsical titles like Medieval Women Composers. Inside, presumably to instill a dedication to historical accuracy, were instructions like, "Color Hildegard von Bingen's wimple gunmetal."

Instructions. In a coloring book.

Of course, it's easy for me to tease because I don't have children and it seems unlikely, though not impossible, that I ever will. If the stork dropped a squalling bundle on my lap, I'd probably buy the kid a mobile that played selections from Pagliacci, and I am quite certain that by age four it would be sitting on a cushion working an alphabet sampler.

Thing is, though, you never know what's going to stick in a child's head and what isn't. You can spend thousands on tutoring and piano lessons and Baby Einstein books and still wind up with a dolt. Or, you can spend a dollar and twenty-five cents on a paperback book and rewire your son's brain.

I started mulling this over this week after digging into the "Print o' the Wave" pattern in Heirloom Knitting.

I've been working on what you might politely call a lace sampler (if you're impolite, it's a pointless and weird-looking swatch) for about the past two months. It's nothing but a ten-inch strip knitted from what was supposed to be sock yarn, but turned out after purchase to be rather too itchy for my sensitive, princess-like feet. I wanted to try out all the stitch patterns from my Stitches Midwest classes in Orenburg and Estonian lace.

It has been fun, and great practice, but it was only this week as I worked my first Shetland pattern that I got that feeling of "Wow. This is beautiful. And I made it!" If there is a better feeling in the world that you can talk about in front of your mother, I don't know it.

This spring when I was in Belgium (oh, I get around) we sailed into Antwerp and all 70 of the old ladies I was shepherding about ran berzerk in the lace shops. The Belgians are no dummies (no matter what the Dutch say) and they know what tourists want. Every other storefront in the cathedral square sells lace (and the ones in between those sell chocolate).

I looked, and it was beautiful stuff. Frightfully complicated to make, or so it seemed from watching this woman at work.

For heaven's sake, look at all those bobbins and pins. Her fingers were flying around like Horowitz's at the climax of a molto allegro movement. Yet if she ever made a mistake or even hesitated, I never saw it.

Anyhow, while the ladies on the trip were whipping out credit cards and buying enough tablecloths, placemats, tray covers, and shawls to smother the west front of the cathedral (hey reading this?) I quickly realized the only thing I could afford would be a machine-made bookmark.

I was already knitting steadily at that time, and I think it was then that I resolved to try knitting lace.

My whole life, this has been a primal impulse for me. I see somebody making something beautiful, and I feel compelled to try doing it myself. Unlike most of my primal impulses, which remain mysterious in spite of the best efforts of well-paid therapists, I know where this one comes from. In fact, I can pinpoint the moment it was born.

One year during the Christmas season, my parents picked up a book at the supermarket that was an inexpensive holiday mish-mash for tiny tots. I don't think they make this sort of thing any more, because it wasn't tied to a breakfast cereal, a Nickelodeon show, or a Disney film. It was just stories, carols, and bits of dubious history and culture with lots and lots of color illustrations.

If I read it today, I suspect the treacle-sweet fiction would make my teeth curl. But when I was five, it was hot stuff. I loved that book so much I took it to bed with me like a teddy bear. There was one story in particular that I read over and over.

In retelling, it's like a Very Special Episode of "The Waltons" with shades of "Little House on the Prairie." The setting was a small town during the Great Depression, and the protagonist was a girl from a large family who had been asked by her parents to do without Christmas presents that year because they simply had no money for them.

The heroine was terrified that this would publicly humiliate her in front of her arch-rival, a Nellie Olsen type who (I remember this so well) had a fur-trimmed coat. (Her parents must have owned the local meth lab.)

Because you see, the entire town had a Christmas assembly at which carols would be sung and speeches made and then, as the finale, presents for the children would be distributed from the big town Christmas tree. The little girl could not face sitting there, getting nothing, while Rich Girl made a big show out of her new pony or a personal bodyguard or whatever Depression-era kids would have considered the equivalent of a custom iPod.

Now, the little girl (are you all enjoying this as much as I am?) came from a poor family but had a practical mother, and had learned how to sew. So she made herself a doll out of scraps of cloth and old buttons and chicken bones and whatnot, and she planned to sneak it onto the Christmas tree with her name on it.

But on the big night (please get out your handkerchiefs) as everybody was filing into the town hall, she saw a Desperately Poor family arriving. If I remember rightly, their tiny daughter didn't even have shoes. So the heroine, at the last minute, scratched out her own name on the doll's gift-tag and wrote in Shoeless Girl's name instead.

Excuse me, please. I need to go have a moment.

Okay, I'm back.

Before the story faded out to swelling violins there was a passage that struck me so hard that it is imprinted on my brain forever, along with the theme song from "The Facts of Life" and my social security number.

The presents had all been given out and the heroine was watching everyone leave. Shoeless Girl was clutching her new doll and smiling, and Rich Girl was leaving with her new pet ocelot on a leash or whatever and pouting, and the heroine realized - let me see if I truly have this by heart...
"She realized that Lydia would only ever have presents, while she would always be able to make things more wonderful than any that came from a store."
Yeah. I know. It makes Louisa May Alcott sound like Dorothy Parker. But it made me think. And I was five.

I come from a family of do-it-yourself people. We weren't poor, but we had the usual working-class limits on our income. My parents dealt with this by being creative and resourceful.

My father could build and wire anything we needed or wanted, from furniture to an extra room. My mother could upholster furniture, and sewed us practical things, like school clothes and curtains; and less practical (but even more wonderful) things like matching Christmas pajamas for the whole family, not to mention the best damned Halloween costumes in three counties.

I'm doubt they meant to send a message by doing all of this, but they did. You want something? See if you can make it yourself. Because if you make it, you own it. If you make it, you can make sure it's good or better than what can be bought. If you make it, you are that much less reliant on others. If you make it, you can be proud of yourself for making it.

As I said, I don't know anything about parenting. But I wonder if the parents in the mansion across the street from my office–who send their four-year-old son to tennis lessons in a limousine–would be surprised at how much you can accomplish with a $1.25 book of stories and a good example.

And How's This for Timing?

Yesterday I got a call from a coworker who was very puzzled about a box that arrived on her desk. The university's mail service had mangled it on receipt and partially removed the label, so they weren't sure to whom in the building it should go. They sat on it for what must have been two weeks before calling our receptionist to see if she could identify the recipient. They opened it, examined the contents and said it was probably for "some woman" who works with her.

They brought the box over. She looked into it and immediately phoned me. "Did you order some yarn from Canada?"

Well, not exactly. Awhile back, I got a very nice letter from a blog reader who had some non-knitting-related questions. It was a pleasure to answer them, and not at all difficult, but he said he wanted to send me a little something in thanks.

And what he sent was this.

It's merino. It's hand-painted. It's lace weight. And he spun it himself.

It's completely gorgeous. I've never had anything hand-spun to work with before. This is so even and fine I almost can't believe it was done by hand. I have no idea what it's going be yet, but I can tell you it's going to be carefully thought-out and it's going to be special.

Ted, my dear fellow, there aren't words. Well, there are two: thank you.


Carol said...

How can you be a drop-dead wonderful photographer AND a drop-dead wonderful writer, both at the same time?

Anonymous said...

Not only is your account touching (I cried a little, even), it also touches on several important aspects of knitting (and handwork in general), life and the intricacies of parenting (I can't think of anybody who would make a better parent than yourself).

I think I may have read that same story when I was very young, or one much like it. Such a profound realization at an impressionable age with life-impacting results.

I am close to making a final selection on my print (it is sooo hard to decide), but I have a quick question, which I will e-mail as soon as I have a moment!

Unknown said...

I loved stories like that when I was little. Yes, the Curmudge loved fairy tales, Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and such. Still do. I wanted to be the princess who snuck out at night to dance with the prince and bring back a silver leaf.

My family was wealthy but my mother had Depression values. She encouraged me to make my own things and to give handmade gifts. And I listened to Mozart in utero not because my parents expected me to become a Wall Street heavy-hitter but because the love of music in our family outweighed everything else.

Ted is an amazing laceknitter. One of my inspirations. And that merino? Would that I could spin and dye like that.

Anonymous said...

The hit in our house was the story of Brenda Brave. Brenda Brave is a little, little Scandinavian girl, who lives with her grandmother. Grandma sells candy canes in the market. One day, Grandma hurts herself, and the Christmas is in jepardy. But, with careful direction, Brenda does everything, including selling the canes at market. Christmas is saved and Grandma blesses the day she found Brenda in a basket.

Maybe sappy, but my neice reads it compulsively. She wants the battered book, but she'll get it out of my cold, dead fingers. Amazing what sticks, eh?

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting at my desk in tears. People are looking at me. I love your story.

Anonymous said...

I just really, really like you.

Anonymous said...

power to the people, franklin. power. thanks.

Anonymous said...

You are such a lovely writer, Franklin. Of all the knitting blogs around, yours is one that I most look forward to reading, and your story today is a primary reason. And, your cartoons, of course :)

Who among us hasn't had the same thoughts as you: I can do that, and maybe even do it better.

You're speaking to me and for me, and I'm not a man, not gay, and I'm a lot taller than you. Who'd a thunk it?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Franklin for wonderful prose, delightful cartoons, and life lessons remembered. You and Marilyn..what a team! Look out world, prepare to be turned on your ear.

Anonymous said...

I remember that story, but not the chicken bones.
Does this mean that society has imprinted us with a desire to create? I would have to rebel against that, except I can't.

Anonmous said...

no fair making me all verklepmt at work!!!

Anonymous said...

What a nice story and suprise gift!

I know what you mean about those crazy wealthy parents. My hub used to work for a private k-12 school in NJ, we saw a lot of these little Caitlin types.

Anonymous said...

I wish you babysat?

Anonymous said...

I used to read that story over and over and over again, too, when I was a child. What WAS the name of that story? I want to read it to my kids this Christmas.

Thanks for another good read, dear.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who cried. Thank you for that story though, it helped me turn the corner on a day in which everything that could had turned pear-shaped. And it reminded me to say thank you again to my mother, who taught me everything I know about knitting and sewing, and can make anything out of nothing and enjoy the process.

Cheryl:) said...

If my son would turn out just like you, I'd be the proudest mother around.

Anonymous said...

Ok. Two things (no...damn, it's three.)
1. Your story is lovely.
2. You arse, now the theme from "the facts of life" is stuck in my head. (Inexplicably being sung by "Tootie". God be with me.)
3. I know Ted. He's a hell of a guy and an unbelieveable spinner. You lucky duck.

I'm going to go slam my head in a cupboard until I either get Ted's yarn or smash Tootie out of there.

Sorka said...

Wow. I know that feeling but you have so beautifully put it into words. There are several moments I remember that inspired me. And I am finally seeing that inspiration come to fruition. I finished my first pair of socks yesterday, I got my first pattern book contract in the mail today... but man.. I sure couldn't put that feeling into words like you!
You are truly a wordsmith! A Renaissance man!

Anonymous said...

Aww, Franklin, I love your blog.
Thanks for the post and it's good to know that it wasn't just me that got all goopy for a story like that as a kid (and secretly as an adult).

And thank you for finally giving me an answer for why I make my own jam. When it's 98 degrees and 95% humidity in the kitchen and I'm all scratched up from the blackberries and why couldn't I just go BUY the stuff--because I Made It. and it's DAMN GOOD JAM.

Anonymous said...

If we are talking about Ted as in 'Mary's Shawl' Ted, he's a wonderful designer as well. And if Ted is actually READING this, have you got anything else I'd love to knit? And, your story, Franklin, was lovely.

Anonymous said...

Franklin, I'm now twice blessed: firstly with the benefit of you wisdom, and now through your very kind words.

I'm glad it arrived; I was getting a bit worried -- in part because I'm currently doing battle with Canada Post and Customs over some yarn I'm importing from Your Side of the Border.

Marilyn, I'm afraid I can't take credit for the dyeing. It's from Royale Hare in California.

Selma, there's been nothing from me since Mary's Triangular Shawl (which, last night, I was mulling over republishing as a downloadable-from-somewhere PDF). There may be something this winter, though.

Returning Franklin's blog back to him.....

Anonymous said...

The idea that homemade things are better, not just coming from deprivation and necessity, is so very important. I wish more people understood it.
That woul be a present to make me cry.

Bonnita said...

Hello Franklin
I am a new knitter also, within the last 2 years. I am also stuck in a hat/scarf knitting rut. But, unlike you I haven't jumped over that rut yet. But I will.
I read through your blog entries and was immediately snare by, "My Grandmothers Hands". My Grandmother was a great chrocheter, and possibly knitter, though I never saw her knit.
Realatives always remark on my hands and say that I have my Grandmothers hands, which I am very proud to have. Even if they are chubby and doll like with dimples.
She taught me to chrochet way back in my pre teens, but never really embraced it until I was in my 20's. I never held the hook the way she did, like a pencil, and would also crab at me because it.
When she past on 16 years ago I found she left me her stash and hooks and needles. I treasure each of them items. So most of her yarn was acrylic, no biggie, it was from Gramma.
So thank you for jogging my memory of my Grandmother, I miss her very much. And I think she knitted, which I would love to talk to her about now as an adult.
I enjoy your blog Franklin and I grew up in the suburbs of the Windy City.

Anonymous said...

I knew that had to be from Ted before I even got to the last line. How many Canadian men spin laceweight?!

I guess there will be something after the sampler/swatch.

Anonymous said...

a fine story well told!!

Anonymous said...

I want to be Ted when I grow up.

Well, okay, I just want to spin like Ted...

You think it's bad having the Facts of Life song in your head (Tootie??? poor Steph)...for some inexplicable reason it's morphed in MY head to the theme from Welcome Back, Kotter.

I'm going to go spin now and see if that exorcises something or other...

Anonymous said...

drat - now the theme from 'Facts of Life' is stuck in My head too, but I think that's Stephanie's fault more than yours...

Thanks for this neat story. I'm a complete sap for things like that. Honestly. But I completely understand the wonderful feelings associated with doing things yourself. My Dad and I rebuilt my front porch steps and railings last summer, and spent a good deal of time just staring at them feeling pleased with ourselves. It's something I intend for my son to learn as well. Oh, and as for the pre-natal classical music? I didn't go that far, but did play the Baby Mozart series for my wee boy as an infant. At four, his favourite music is John Hiatt. Who knew.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed reading your blog entries for some time now. I has especially enjoyed the last few days, about your Rhinebeck trip, and todays entry about how your mother handcrafted things for you. A very good friend and colleague and I share our off-time creations; mine being woodworking and knitting (new to knitting, and now making handcrafted knitting needles), and hers being sewing and embroidery. I hear every day about her "projects" for her two small children. Her latest is handsewn and embroidered halloween bags and costumes. I shared your blog entry today with her to let her know how important and memorable her tireless efforts will be to her children. You expressed your thoughts so clearly and to the point of what is really important in life.

Christina said...

Franklin darling, must you make me misty eyed? Also, if you desire to make lace wizzingly fast like Belgians, see this link:

Cheers, and please get Ted to sell his laceweight online. I'll send chocolate.

Anonymous said...

Oh Franklin, you bring a tear to my eye! I loved all of those stories too as a child and miraculously married a man who loved them too! I know those parents of which you speak - my kids go to school with them and it drives me insane trying to counteract the "johnny gets to...jane gets to...". But that's the price we pay when the public schools aren't good enough to send your dog to and you have no choice but to pay through the nose to get them even a halfway decent education. Just wanted to let you know how much I've been enjoying reading your blog recently since discovering it. Keep knitting and keep writing. I can't wait to see what you do with the handspun.

Anonymous said...

Just when I'd finally persuaded myself that it really is okay to spend $30.00 apiece to BUY my kids' Halloween costumes instead of spending $40.00 apiece to buy fabric and trim and then two solid weekinds sewing things they'll either only wear once, or try to persuade me meets the school dress code, you have to post THIS!


Well, ya know what... I'm still gonna to to the costume store tomorrow. (with the fabric store as a back up I guess). I want to spend those two weekends knitting lace with cobweb weight cashmere.

birdfarm said...

Franklin, thank you for such a wonderful post. That yarn is the most beautiful color ever...and I loved the story. I'm pretty sure I read the same one as a kid, too.

Helen, depending on how old your kids are, they could make their own costumes. My mom was more like Marilyn's than Franklin's, but/and I made my Halloween costume every year from second grade onward... she helped in second and third grade, I think. My favorite was fourth grade when I made a Medusa head out of chicken wire & painted papier-mache. Snakes everywhere. It was glorious.

But the more I think about the different costumes, the more I remember how much time my Mom must have spent helping me, so I take it back--having your kids make their own costumes probably won't save you any time, after all. Never mind.

I remember how long it took me to make sense of the difference between my Mom's worldview and everyone else's (since we had money I went to school with all the Caitlins--in my homemade clothes. Yeesh). Ah well. Can't complain.

But thank you, Franklin, for making me feel a tiny bit less of a...(all the names kids used to call me are returning to my memory...) less of a loner outcast. Hey! Making your own stuff is a good thing! Yeah!

So, really, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Dang but you are a lucky boy--that merino is amazing just to look at, much less what it must be in person! But on a more serious note (tho that is serious merino spinning), hon, I think you have a KnitLit4 submission (or substitute pulication of your choice) here. In your inimitable way, you've captured what motivates a lot of us in our fiber arts pursuits. And I would encourage you to pursue publication here, not for ego or money, but--how to put this--more to trigger that same reflection in others, and perhaps inspire someone to create.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure I read that story in my "Childrens Anthology". Then there is my all time favourite, The Little Match Girl. She's why I learned to read, I wanted to hear the end of the story, and Ma couldn't get there for the tears.

I had a Caitlin in my class in the '50s. Music, dancing, deportment etc etc. In the late '60s I ran into her in Vancouver International, had a nice chat as she tapped her tambourine and swayed in her saffron robes. That silver paint on her shaved head kinda suited her.
I made all my kids' costumes partly because Ma made mine, and partly because I had no money. The kids are now in their 20s and every Halloween season I hear about how cool I was making Ninja's and GI Joes and Mutant Turtles out of nothing. Their favourite was "tramp" year, when I embroidered "don't eat yellow snow" on their hats. And I still tear up when I think of my gypsy year, with the coin necklace made of new pennies with holes drilled in them by Pop, and the tiered skirt with the chenille trim made my Ma.
Barb B.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Franklin. A few random thoughts:

Your storytelling reminded me of a time, long ago- when I read stories like it, totally believing every word.

I absolutely love your Kali Knitting Goddess design and will be purchasing some items for holiday gifts.

Sorry I missed meeting you at Rhinebeck. I'm looking forward to seeing your future designs and Ted's on The Knitting Vault real soon!!

goblinbox said...

Boo culture of disposability and instant gratification! Yay hand-made stuff and self-reliance and that feeling of "I made this" pride!

Your post got me all holiday-ee. It's not even Hallo'een yet!

Anonymous said...

Literate, funny, interesting; only some of the reasons I look forward to reading your blog. Great story. Your observations are right on target as well.

I am sorry I missed meeting you at Rhinebeck as I so love reading your blog. It was my first time also but I was flying blind without friends to guide me and was quite overwhelmed.

Your post reminded me of a time when I was a child and we lived in Spain. My parents dutifully took us to all the sites, including the Alhambra, about which I remembered nothing except the pattern on one floor. That I remember vividly. Strange what sticks in children's minds.


Marlene said...

I too became choked up with tears reading your blog....when I got to the part where your mom made you matching pjamas and the best halloween costumes ever.

I've done exactly those things for my kids (now 21, 24, and 27 years old) and just recently they were reminising about their pj's, halloween costumes and their amazing themed birthday parties. Their favorite being a "Princess Party" with a castle and a moat, made from shipping cartons I picked up from an appliance store.

Helen, the best Halloween costumes need not be made with a store-bought pattern, expensive materials, and loads of time. A little imagination and this and that from what you have on hand can make grand memories. Dressed all in black with only a simple black hood with eye holes cut in it and an axe made from cardboard, tin foil and a broom handle, and my brother won first prize for his executioner costume.....and had the fun and satisfaction of making it himself.

Anonymous said...

Belguim......did you have the fries? There is no other place in the world where fries are so darned delicious. I miss living there so much when I remember the fries.

Leave it to me to boil this all down to food.

Anonymous said...

I am new to your blog, referred by a friend who is also a nonblogging knitter. The story you wrote today, as Rachel (, is about one of the many intangible benefits of knitting. Thank you.

On a knitting forum, an online friend wrote "I like starting over. I get better each time, and I really learn a lot from the experience." Her words led me to respond with this: "...knitting teaches some of the most important lessons we can learn in life, these among them: how to be patient, how to develop a sense of perspective, how to be more accepting of our own mistakes, and how small things can represent a lot of love."

I now will add to my list the lesson of your story: while others may simply purchase things they desire, having the will to learn and the desire to create with our own hands produces many more rewards than just those objects.

Anonymous said...

My parents gave me a similar outlook on life, although in our house projects usually start with finding and reading a book on the subject. Excellent writing sir.

LorreS said...

Non-sequitor warning: This is a response to your description of the Stitches posts. I just made a pencilled in date with a friend to try Stitches east next fall and was wondering if we were foolish. Your descriptions helped immensely. I think we'll have a good time. Thanks for your desciptions of the classes. I can see myself trying one.

Carol said...

Oh, how I miss that Franklin when he goes so long between posts.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Laura in Georgia that the post deserves publication on paper, where maybe more but certainly different people will have to opportunity to read it.

It's hard coming to terms with the truth of trite stuff, but sometimes you have to accept it. I think C.S.Lewis has something about that in one of the Out of the Silent Planet books.

Kevin said...

My mother could upholster furniture, and sewed us practical things, like school clothes and curtains; and less practical things like matching Christmas pajamas for the whole family, not to mention the best damned Halloween costumes in three counties