Thursday, October 29, 2009

Out of the Sketchbook

Halloween Sketchbook

Over the Water

I'll be popping across the pond in just two short weeks. On November 10 at 6* in the evening, I'll be at I Knit in London for an informal but lively evening of knitting, talking and reading from works old...and new.

In the Shop

The annual knitting ornament is newly available for your Christmas tree, Festivus pole, Hanukkah bush, Kwanzaa privet hedge, Solstice rubber plant, or Secular Humanist creeping charlie.

I enjoyed making it for you. I hope you will like it.

Ornament Preview 2009

* Whoops. I mistakenly wrote 7 pm on first writing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Story of a Scarf

Transatlantic ScarfI flicked open a discussion thread on Ravelry last week wherein a group of regulars had clustered around a new knitter to perform the customary dance of welcome, which in my imagination always mixes aspects of the Highland Fling with the “One of Us, One of Us” scene from Freaks.

The new knitter–let’s call her Petronella–had posted a shy query about something fundamental, like how to count rows in garter stitch or the proper method of stealing Alice Starmore books from the public library–and ended with a sigh about How Very Bewildering It All Is and How She’d Never Get It.

The regulars explained, encouraged, cheered, cajoled.

Of course you will get it, they said. And she will, will Petronella. She will get it, and then she will get more, and more still until the yarn begins to block out the sun from the living room windows and she joins the ring of knitters chanting “One of Us, One of Us” around an unsuspecting newbie–let’s call him Wenceslas–who was only looking for something to help pass the time while “Stargate” is in reruns.

We’ve all been there, or most of us have, and I have been thinking this week about how sneaky people are when they encourage you to take up knitting. They always emphasize the empowerment, the creativity, the yarn that’s as much fun to pet as a Shar-Pei but which will never chew your slippers or wet the carpet.

They glide right past the inconvenient truth that becoming a knitter (or a crocheter, for that matter) also makes you susceptible to an entire flotilla of neuroses of which non-initiates are cheerfully unaware.

For example, I am unable to contemplate the purchase of a winter hat–however fine or functional it might be–without a corresponding wave of guilt. I am a knitter. I do not buy hats. Why would I buy hats? It would be wrong for me to buy hats. I knit hats. Same goes for scarves.

Except that I don’t like knitting scarves.

My first project, years ago, was a scarf. So was my second project. My third was a pair of mittens. After that, four more scarves.

It was a joy, back then, to make my own scarves. You couldn’t buy anything long enough in a shop–just wimpy five-foot swatches of acrylic in WASPy oatmeal-and-rust plaids or boring stripes. It was empowering to motor through seven feet of garter stitch and end up with something superabundant that I could wrap around my neck and face, with enough extra to trail fetchingly in the Atlantic wind.

But, with all due respect to St. Elizabeth of the Schoolhouse, time and repeated exposure take the zing out of garter stitch, at least in the shape of a seven-foot rectangle.

That, kids, is why you’re not going to find a lot of scarves on my to-do list. I don’t cast them on for pure pleasure, portable though they are. On the other hand, life and winter make demands that cannot be ignored. When it happens, the best thing is try to liven up necessity with a challenge or two.

I just finished what I’m calling the Transatlantic Scarf. Last year, I made the triple-thick Transatlantic Hat for Tom, which he obligingly wore as we sailed home from London (hence the name) and which withstood a nasty and prolonged Chicago winter with nary a pill.

Transatlantic Hat

However, I wearied of seeing the hat paired with a selection of store-bought partners–thin and wimpy, not a patch on the rich, deep hand-dyed blue of the hat. I needed to fashion a proper mate. And I had enough of the identical yarn stashed away to make that happen.

Of course, the finished scarf needed to be six feet long, and the yarn in question (Sheep's Gift Solid from Joslyn's Fiber Farm) is DK. Garter stitch? No.

The hat was cabled, so I could cable the scarf. Parallel ropes of three-over-three twisted every sixth round would match perfectly. Perhaps with a nice moss stitch border.

Tried it. Got about four inches finished. Had visions of self lying in a box in a funeral home, with friends standing around whispering, “They say it was boredom.” Frogged it.

I dug into my stitch dictionaries and came up with a pattern that looked simple enough to
a) memorize, and
b) work without a cable needle
and which was also
c) the same in both directions–a visual palindrome, if you will.
That third quality meant I could use it to knit a scarf in the seaman's style, but end-to-end. No fuss with provisional cast-ons, working two pieces, and grafting.

A seaman’s scarf, if you don’t already know, consists of two wide, flat ends with the narrower center bit–the part that goes across the back of the neck–worked in ribbing. A tried-and-true concept with a comfortable fit. And psychologically, it would break up the work into three acts. Good enough for Puccini, good enough for me.

My first thought was to abruptly end the cable pattern when I reached the center and start ribbing. But as the transition approached, I knew in my gut it would be more fun–and probably handsomer–to somehow flow into the ribbing and out of it while preserving the integrity of the cables. After only two false starts (a new record for me), success.

Transatlantic Scarf

And so it’s complete, and awaiting bestowal upon the intended neck. I keep looking at it and squishing it and unrolling it and rolling it up again. I’ve started writing the pattern.

Transatlantic Scarf

I also realized, looking this morning through the box of winter accessories, that I have nothing decent with which to cover my own neck.

I’m thinking "cowl."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fleece-to-Face with Janel Laidman

Harry, the ReporterHi everybody it's Harry and I am so excited.

Because you know normally when we have a Guest Star visit Dolores gets to do the interview and all I get to do is sit in the next room in case they yell for help.

Well not today. Because it turns out that Dolores is having such an enlightened time at the ashram in Oregon that she did not come back yet and Franklin is in the room with the drawing board and the sign up that says ON DEADLINE DO NOT DISTURB UNLESS STEPHEN FRY IS AT THE FRONT DOOR NAKED AND HOLDING CASHMERE and so guess what I get to do the interview!

Janel LaidmanOur guest is Janel Laidman who wrote the The Eclectic Sole last time she wrote a book, and it was about socks. And now she wrote another book about socks which is The Enchanted Sole and when we got our copy I stayed up past my bed time reading it because it is very pretty and unusual, and so I have read the whole book. And also I am qualified to talk to Janel about knitting socks because as you know I am sock yarn.

And so anyway here is our chat which I hope you will enjoy or at least look at the pictures.

Harry: Hi, Janel! I hope you don’t mind if I do the interview. Dolores usually does them but Franklin asked if I would fill in, is that okay? I haven’t done it before but usually I get to watch Dolores so I know how I’m supposed to do it.

Janel: Well, Harry, I’m actually thrilled that you’re doing the interview. I’ve always had a bit of a secret crush on you. Dolores is all well and good with her antics and shenanigans, but I’ve always had a bit of a fondness for a guy who is clearly steady, useful and down to earth. If you ever need a place to get away from it all, I have a lovely stash you could come hang out with.

Harry: Oh gosh I am blushing! You are so cool, Dolores is going to be mad she didn't come home to do this interview! Okay, before we start would you like some milk and cookies? I made snickerdoodles and chocolate chip.

Janel: Mmmm…I’ll have the snickerdoodles, please. I mean really–snicker, doodle–how can I resist?

Harry: Excellent choice, madame. Now it's the question part so let me get my notebook. When you first tried knitting a sock, what sock was it? Was it plain or fancy? Did you think right away how cool it is to make your own socks, and dream you would make up your own sock patterns some day?

Janel: I first tried knitting a sock because I saw these really cool people called Danish schoolgirls and they were knitting socks in physics class! And somehow also learning physics, in Danish! I thought that must be the trickiest thing on earth and I decided I wanted to be a Danish schoolgirl too, so I tried knitting a sock.

It was a plain ribbed sock, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know how to knit. It came out looking like an elephant might wear it if he liked mustard yellow cotton socks. I was in Denmark because I was an exchange student and I dreamed I would someday be a famous language expert and work for the United Nations. I had no idea that my special language would end up being the language of K and P.

Talking Fish SockHarry: I understand, because I really admire Danish too except when it's prune. So you have made two books now, and the new book is called The Enchanted Sole. It has a lot of patterns, and all of the patterns are based on make-believe. Like you have a Mermaid sock, and a Pixie sock, and a sock called Licorne which is unicorn when you are speaking French. So do you enjoy make-believe stories a whole lot?

Janel: Yes, especially when they end with lots of golden coins piled up in a vault with my name on it, and fairy princesses scattering flower petals and a magical fish dinner, with a goblet that sings…Where was I?

Harry: I don't know. I kind of got lost when you said magical fish.

Janel: Well, actually I just like stories a whole lot, both make-believe and stories of “true grit." I like to work with themes as an inspiration and this particular book had a make-believe story theme.

Harry: Do you have a most favorite make-believe story? Mine is the one about the shoemaker and the elves because I think it would be fun if elves did my chores, like if I made cookies they would come in after and load the dishwasher. I like to imagine that.

Janel: I always liked the one about the talking fish who grants wishes, and the stupid guy who wishes for sausages and his stupider wife who wishes they were stuck to the end of his nose. And I also like stories that are sad and a little wistful, yet the earnest and honest person gets the rewards in the end.

Tintagel SocksHarry: That's the best kind of story! When you were making your book, how did you get ideas? Did a story make you think of a new sock, or did you maybe see a good-looking ball of yarn and it made you think of a story that you read that would be an excellent sock?

Janel: Well, both actually. Sometimes it was the story, like for example with the Snow Queen sock which was inspired by Snow Queen stories, or the Tree of Life sock - that one was definitely inspired by the many stories with a tree of life in them.

Other times a handsome ball of yarn would come along and whisper what it wanted to be. The Tintagel sock was like that and so was the Atlantis sock. I knew when I saw that watery aqua color of Madeline Tosh yarn, it just had to be something about mystical water and the word Atlantis floated up into my brain. Sometimes I was inspired by the technique and then had to figure out which story it went with. Like the Traveler sock. I knew I wanted to make a sock with a secret pocket, but then I had to figure out who would be wearing that sock.

Harry: I love the one with the secret pocket! I'm going to make it for Franklin to wear when he goes to the nudist resort so he can have a place to put his room key.

Janel: I'm sorry...what?

Harry: Would you like some more cookies? I made tons and Franklin is on a diet.

Janel: Oh my, I’m on a diet too, but really it’s hard to resist. Snicker, doodle. Who named that cookie? Oh, alright, just one more.

Harry: Do you think it is a shame to make socks with pretty feet and then put them into a shoe and nobody gets to see the pretty part?

Janel: Well, I usually wear my socks with pretty feet in some kind of open shoes like Birkenstocks so I can be as much of a show-off as possible. But I think that sometimes it’s really delicious to have a secret pretty thing that only you know is there. It makes you walk around all day with a silly little Mona Lisa smile because you know that, secretly, you have princess feet.

Harry: I agree! Are there any make-believe characters that are too scary so you wouldn’t make a sock of them because while you are knitting you would get too scared and have to put all the lights on and call your best friend?

Janel: Well, usually I think the villains in the make-believe stories are more complex than they appear to be, so they don’t usually scare me too much. However, I don’t think I’d make a scary or ugly sock. I mean, there is just too much pretty out there to enjoy. I definitely wouldn’t make a sock from The Shining because that story made me put the lights on and stay up all night singing lalalalalalala.

Firebird SocksHarry: Now these socks aren’t made out of scary stories but they might be scary to make. I will explain what mean. Like this one, Firebird, has a great big picture across the whole entire leg! If somebody is nervous about making a sock like that what would you say to be helpful and encouraging?

Janel: It’s actually not scary at all. Colorwork is a lot of fun because you can’t wait to see the picture emerging. And a colorwork sock is a much smaller project than that Henry VIII pullover by Ms. Starmore.

Most people are worried about getting the tension even doing colorwork on a small project like that. If you haven’t ever done a colorwork sock, try knitting it with the sock inside out so the floats are going around the outside, that makes the tension very even and allows for a little bit more stretch.

Also, that sock, and the other colorwork socks in the book have built in leg shaping so that they will fit the curvy part of your leg much better than a straight leg sock.

Harry: Okay, I think that is very comforting. Hey, do you only knit socks or do you knit other things, too?

Janel: I love to knit other things. It’s just that socks are kind of like potato chips, once you start it’s hard to stop.

Harry: Would you like to do more books about socks right away or do you need to rest for a little while?

The Enchanted SoleJanel: My next two books will definitely not be about socks. I love socks, but I also love other items. I’m currently smitten by mittens and gloves so I think a book about those will be in order, and I’m also quite excited by lace, and textures and sweaters. I’ll come back again to socks some day, but I think my current books can keep sock knitters busy for quite a little while.

Harry: I think you're right! Janel, it sure was nice to meet you! Thank you for being interviewed. If you want you can take some cookies home as a souvenir.

Janel: Well, it was truly a treat meeting you Harry, remember what I said, if you ever need to get away for a while…

Okay everybody, that's the interview! If you want to get The Enchanted Sole you can go to Rustling Leaf Press or visit your friendly neighborhood yarn shop. And tell them Harry sent you and I said hi!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


I have an excessively negative iPod.

I was clicking around in search of Mimi's addio from La Boheme this morning and noticed for the first time how many songs I've loaded that begin with the imperative Don't.
  • "Don't Be the Bunny" (John Cullum, Urinetown Original Broadway Cast)
  • "Don't Answer Me" (The Alan Parsons Project)
  • "Don't Bring Lulu" (Gladys Mills)
  • "Don't Call Me Baby" (Madison Avenue)
  • "Don't Dream It's Over" (Crowded House)
  • "Don't Ever Leave Me" (Pearl Bailey)
  • "Don't Leave Me This Way" (Thelma Houston)
  • "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans" (Noel Coward)
  • "Don't Like Goodbyes" (Pearl Bailey, House of Flowers Original Broadway Cast)
  • "Don't Look at Me" (Barbara Cook, Follies in Concert)
  • "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington" (Noel Coward)
  • "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" (The Andrews Sisters)
  • "Don't Tell Mama" (Natasha Richardson, Cabaret Revival Cast)
  • "Don't Waste Your Heart" (The Dixie Chicks)

To balance this I can find only Bessie Smith singing "Do Your Duty," which is not so much positive as pushy.

Friday, October 02, 2009

We Now Pause for Location Identification

From where I'm sitting I can see a skyline, and the skyline includes the Sears Tower,* and I can hear the mayor's staff weeping softly,** so this must be Chicago. Which means I must have come back from somewhere and paused on the way to somewhere else. Which means I must stop dithering and write an entry before it's time to pack the suitcase again.

Travel Snapshots

Harry caught you up on the middle portion of the tour of Washington State (thanks, Harry) and here's the finale: Paradise Fibers in Spokane.

Spokane and Seattle are in the same state, but you wouldn't know it to look at them. To get from one to the other takes about four hours by car. And if you begin in Seattle, as I did, it's shocking to pass the through vibrantly green, rain-soaked mountains and find this waiting for you on the other side.

Road to Spokane

And I thought the two halves of my brain were a study in contrasts.

Paradise Fibers was ready for me.

Paradise Fibers

I, on the other hand, wasn't quite ready for Paradise Fibers. Sure, they told me it would be...different. But I did not listen. And I was shocked.

In case you haven't been, here are some distinguishing characteristics that make the place Not Quite Your Usual LYS:
  • Shares street frontage in a warehouse building with a porn shop;
  • Sort of looks from the outside like a used auto parts dealership;
  • Has one (1) female employee, the rest (including the owner) being (cute) (straight) males;
  • Has enough square footage for the spinning wheels and looms to be in separate rooms;
  • Has a sound studio and a race car garage tucked into odd corners;
  • Served chicken kebabs to the students in both of my classes;
  • Combines excellent, friendly service and an encyclopedic selection with a cool factor that is off the charts.
Travis and Sara, who run the joint, are a trip.

Paradise Fibers

After teaching two full-to-the-brim sessions of my lace class to exuberant and often far-traveled students (including one from New Mexico and a whole pack from Idaho), I was plumb tuckered out. But these two are so engaging–every bit as cool as the shop they run–that I had to sit and up and chat with them for a while before drifting off to sleep in my beautiful room at the fabulous Montvale Hotel, which I am told once functioned as a whorehouse. Kids, it don't get no better than that.

Yup. I used the words "cool" and "fabulous" to describe a trip to Spokane. If you haven't been there, go see for yourself.

And I'm just back from another trip to the Pacific Northwest–to Knit-Purl, in Portland. (Jet lag now! Ask me how!) But the write-up is giving me a headache because I've been threatened by the locals with grievous bodily harm if I tell you how every good thing you've heard about Portland is true, even the things you would swear couldn't possibly be true. So I have to find some way of telling you what I did in Portland and showing you photos, and not making you want to drop everything and hire a moving truck.

Eastward, Ho!

In the meantime, here's a heads-up on another trip coming soon: Delaware. I'm going to be doing two events on October 10 at Stitches With Style in Newark. There will be a brunch in the morning at 9 am, followed by the "Introduction to Lace" class at 11:30 am. Both require that you please sign up, which you can do by calling (302) 453-8130. So do come, won't you?

Widdle Biddy Kiddie Hat Korner

Remember when I translated the antique baby hood pattern for Knitty and used a grumpy five-day-old model for the photographs, and a contingent from the Society for Mandatory Infantile Lighthearted Expressions (SMILE) marched on Chicago and pelted my front door with Cabbage Patch Dolls and Precious Moments figurines?

Well, the baby has grown, as I am told they do. Aside from the occasional bout of melancholia, she seems admirably even-tempered and free of permanent scarring from the ordeal.

Smile Baby

I promised her parents a baby hat*** as compensation for her services. The hat is complete and awaiting delivery. Knitting it was a snap. Choosing a pattern was not. I waffled like a Belgian with a full jug of batter until I saw the Wayna Picchu Earflap Hat from bluegirl knits. And then I knew I'd found it.

Wayna Picchu

Another compulsive piece of knitting, much like the Oliver sock. I think I worked it in three hours. Had me from the get-go, it did. And there's a grown-up version that may wind up on my head this winter.

The yarn? More of that Nordique from VĂ©ronik Avery, in oatmeal and chalk blue. (Shut up. I can stop knitting with Veronik's yarn any time I want to. I just don't want to.)

Wayna Picchu

I don't know why, but I'm in love with the tone-on-tone thing lately. I keep swatching with colorways that are so subtle in their variations they're almost, but not quite, monochrome. I have no idea where I'm going with it, of course–but since when has that ever stopped me?
*Yes, they changed the name. No, I don't care.
**You just know that when he gets back from Copenhagen, the beatings will begin. Good luck, Rio.
***We in the word biz call this "irony."