Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Stole Full of Peas

If Chicago's rainy streak doesn't break soon, I'm afraid I'll break out in moss. Everyone passing the café window is bent forward, shoulders hunched under the weight of the persistently beastly weather.

This has been a dreary spring even for a city in which dreary weather is a specialty. The only thing grayer than the sky is the grass. Optimistic trees that put out buds during a freak warm spell weeks ago are now shivering with regret. We got a few daffodils and tulips, here and there. Most died quick and humiliating deaths, beheaded or stabbed in the back by the north wind.

To garden near the lake in Chicago is to be a masochist. Nature intended this land to be swamp, wind-swept and mostly populated by grass and skunk cabbage.* You are reminded of this every time you watch a perennial trumpeted as "bulletproof" pop its clogs due to the sort of bizarre weather you thought went out of fashion after they put the finishing touches on the Book of Exodus.

Mind you, the city's official motto is Urbs in horto–city in a garden. Hah. A fib in Latin is still a fib.

But this is the first place I've actually got dirt to play with, after a frustrated lifetime of poring over gardening books and poking dejectedly at window boxes. It's not my dirt, but it's dirt. Though I don't own it–it's a series of neglected beds attached to a condominium in my neighborhood–as long as I've got it, I'm going to make it bloom, dammit.

Unlike many of my strong impulses, which will not be itemized here as my mother is probably reading this, I know where this urge to garden comes from.

One of my very earliest memories, clear as a bell, is of sitting on the turf by my grandmother's vegetable garden, watching her dig and plant. I can't have been older than a year-and-a-half. I may have only just learned to sit up. But I recall the scent, and the feeling of the clammy earth, and the print of her cotton shirt and the soft sound of the spade. It was a moment of pure joy, and before I die I plan to recapture it as nearly and as often as possible.

The garden is long gone, but I know for certain that my fascination with planting and growing–which for years has been stifled–comes from that moment.

A New Pattern

When Véronik Avery asked me to do something with Boréale, the fingering weight yarn from her St-Denis Yarns line, the color and texture sparked the memory of my grandmother's garden. I'm sure it was because of the richness of the brown–deep, not dull–very much like well-worked soil.

I turned into a stole, Pauline, named after this lady, to whom I owe more than I can ever hope to repay. It's in Issue 3 of the St-Denis Magazine, now winging its way to local shops and online shops pretty much everywhere.

Pauline Stole

The pattern is designed to be extremely adaptable. Without any complicated math whatsoever you can change the width and length to suit your purposes. It'll scale down to a scarf or up to a bedspread with ease.

Pauline Stole

And the framework will accommodate your own choice of small lace motifs if you so fancy. I've put in things I remember my grandmother growing: peas-in-the-pod, strawberry blossoms, and (because even a vegetable garden should be pretty) hydrangeas.

Pauline Stole

The overall look is rustic. I wanted to see if I could make lace look pretty, but tough...just like my Grandma.

Royal Wedding Report

In case you haven't been following the unfolding events via Twitter at @yarnpoetharry and @doloresvanh, Harry made it to London. So did Dolores. She wasn't supposed to go, of course, but was (this is what I've been told) a victim of her own selflessness.

So worried was she about Harry's ability to negotiate the perils of O'Hare Airport on his own that she jumped through hoops to secure a "gate pass" from the airline and accompanied him to the aircraft. After helping him settle his snickerdoodles in the overhead compartment, she tried to exit, but tripped and got stuck under an empty seat in First Class.

Fancy that. It's a good thing she had a toothbrush, a copy of Liberated Ewe Quarterly and a week's worth of clothing with her.

I asked why the airlines didn't send her right back upon arrival at Heathrow. All I got was somewhat incoherent babble about one of the pilots busting in on her in the loo, and now having something in his private life he'd rather not have her tell the tabloids. If you want to know more, you can ask her. I'm keeping out of it.

Harry's Twitter feed suggests that he is having a marvelous time, making friends with Australian yarns who are also staying at the International Yarn Hostel in Wapping, visiting Kew Gardens, and going to see friends at I Knit London. Dolores can barely type at all, so I infer that she is also having a marvelous time in her own way.

I have been promised a full report after the solemn occasion, so look for it here this weekend or keep an eye on Harry's tweets. I hope he remembers to iron his formal morning ball band before setting off for the Abbey.

*Shikaakwa or chee-ca-gou in the tongue of the native peoples, from which comes our name.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Dream Girl

I've been sorely in need of a dress form. Not a mannequin–which is meant to display finished clothing–but a dress form, which is used to check and adjust the fit of clothing in progress. It's a design tool that's hard to do without if you're trying to create professional work. A dress form, unlike most mannequins and most models, doesn't mind if you stick pins into it.

I could have put a crowbar in my wallet and bought a new one. They're readily available, and may be had in two varieties:
  1. fairly expensive and staggeringly ugly;
  2. staggeringly expensive and fairly ugly.
Staggeringly expensive is, alas, out of the question. And since I'd spend a lot of time looking at this thing, I hesitated to dent my finances for a budget dummy that would induce aesthetic dry heaves.

I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted a vintage dress form, made with care in the pre-plastic era. I did not something that had been made indifferently in China with toxic waste and strip-mined panda carcasses. My dream girl was a statuesque, attractively worn dame made from the time-tested combination of linen over jersey over papier-maché over wire, with a brass-plated skirt frame and a rolling, cast iron base.

I have friends who work with clothes for a living, so I made inquiries. "Where does one go," I asked, "to purchase a reasonably-priced vintage dress form?"

An hour and a half later, when the laughter died down, the replies were discouraging.

All of my friends outside New York City suggested a regimen of Craigslist, eBay, patience and prayer. The most knowledgeable of the bunch told me that old forms are the first thing snapped up any time a shop or workroom goes under (which is happening all the time–see "made in China," above) and when you do find them, they cost serious gelt. This fellow should know, since he has a small stable of them in his own workroom.

I asked if I could buy one of his. I offered cash, lifelong friendship, a kidney, and high-quality free sex. More laughter.

Then there were the friends in New York City. They gave the sort of reply friends in New York City always give to this kind of question:
Yeah, I know a place. You have to go out to Queens, and they're only open on the third Tuesday of every month from 10:47 am–noon. Unless it's November, then it's the second Tuesday and the hours are shorter. They don't have a phone, a Web site or email and they don't ship. Anyway, you just go out there and it's this warehouse and there's no street number and the entrance is unmarked, so you look for the boarded-up door with the PREZ BUSH SUK MY DIK graffitti on it and knock; and when they yell at you to get lost, ask for Sol. Unless it's November, then ask for Miguel. They have ten thousand of them and they're all $1.92, but if you try to take them across state lines they spontaneously combust.
I took to half-heartedly searching for "dress form" on Craigslist now and again. This mostly turned up mannequins, which are not dress forms; and form-fitting prom dresses, which are not dress forms; and rants about forms of address, which are not dress forms.

Last week, the search yielded an estate sale ad. There, in a color photograph, was a beautiful vintage dress form. The sale–which for once was actually in Chicago, and not in a suburb seven hours away pretending to be in Chicago–was by appointment only and had ended two days earlier. I called anyway and left a message. I had as much hope of the form still being unsold as I do of the Republicans and the Democrats doing the Virginia Reel down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The lady who had placed the ad called me back the next day. "Yes," she said, "the dress form is available. Would you like to come and see it? How about this afternoon?"

I figured it was 50/50 that voice on the phone was bait in a Very Special Episode of Punk'd featuring on gay male knitters. I could live with those odds.

That evening, thanks to Tom Terrific and His Magic Volvo Station Wagon, I came home with Mildred.


She's a classic Wolf Adjustable, Model 1959, made (as far as I can tell from checking her patent numbers) some time in the 1940s.* And still being made, which tells you something about the quality.


The lady who sold her to me (for a very fair price) is an artist who just liked the look of her. She had spent the recent past as a decoration, but her little steel casters told an older story. When I bought her she was completely hobbled, and no wonder. Look at this.


Those are threads picked up over the years from the floor of a workroom–apparently a very busy workroom. This is the thread I pulled out of one side of one 1" diameter wheel.


Mildred is battle-scarred. I don't mind–it's honorable.


After a damp cloth, sandpapering to take the rust off her base and wheels, and a lick of brass polish, she has a patina you can't fabricate. For practical purposes, she's good as new.


The artist told me she'd had other several calls about the form, but something in my voice suggested I'd give her the best home–so I got her.

I'm grateful for the chance to put the old gal back to work. And it's been awfully difficult, until now, trying to do fittings on Dolores.

*Correction! Made in 1959, per her model number - a tip o' the hat to commenter Marcia in Austin!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Jug

When I was out at Madrona I saw an uncommonly large amount of jaw-dropping knitting, including a glittering heap of works by Betsy Hershberg. If perchance you haven't heard of Betsy yet, you will. She's got a book coming out from XRX, with the working title Betsy Beads: Creative Approaches for Knitters.

Betsy's thing is beading. She does things to yarn and beads that make me gasp like a codfish on a treadmill. After my talk on antique patterns, she took a shine (you should pardon the expression) to one of the sample pieces–the 1840s Pence Jug I translated for the Winter 2008 issue of Knitty. Would I mind, she asked, if she took a whack at beading it?

Would I mind? Of course I wouldn't mind. I just asked her to please drop me a line and let me know how it went.

She did, and she did. I'll let her tell you:
As a lover of all things knitted with fine yarns, very (very!) small needles AND teeny, tiny beads, I told you that creating a bead knitted version of this little ditty had instantaneously taken over my knitter's brain.

Additionally, I've recently been focused on creating three dimensional knitted components for my own work designing bead knitted jewelry. So I was off to the races.
Here's a side-by-side of the original (knit with fingering-weight yarns in the colors called for in the original pattern) with Betsy's...version? No. Adaptation? No.

With Betsy's transfiguration of the Pence Jug.

Plain and Fancy

And a solo shot, larger, so you can really see what's going on.

Betsy's Transfiguration of the Pence Jug

Betsy continues:
If you're interested in the technical aspects of this project, it is worked on 0000 double pointed needles with half strands (3 threads) of two colors of DMC metallic embroidery floss and approximately 600 Size 11º Miyuki glass Delica beads. The finished jug is all of 2" high and 1 1/2" wide. In other words, I expect the men in the white coats to come take me away at any moment.

It is important to understand that when knitting 3-D objects, using needles that would otherwise be considered too small for a given fiber is the way to go. It is the very dense gauge created with this needle/fiber combination that creates the stiffness that helps these objects hold their shape.

For the sake of full disclosure, working at this gauge and scale can be tough on the eyes and on the fingers, especially when working the K2tog's on top of a bead in the row below. It's also probably not a great a idea to use black fiber (as I did) for your first attempt at this kind of work. But it was soooo much fun! I just might have to tackle that knitted orange some day...

In other words, the second of those photos is a little more than twice as high as the actual object. Did you just break a sweat? Because I did.

How hard does a fellow have to beg to get you to do the orange, Betsy? Come on. You know you wanna.

More Summer Fun

I'm teaching at Sock Summit 2011, July 28-31 in Portland, Oregon. No, I can't quite believe it, either. I mean, I'm right there on the list of teachers, but I still can't quite believe it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

If I Were a Drag Queen I'd Want My Name to Be Carte Blanche

One of the things I very much enjoy about writing a column for Knitty is that the lady in charge over there usually lets me muck about unsupervised. I admit that I've had an issue with authority figures at least since my first report card came home with the notation, "An intelligent child, but often needs reminding that he is not the person in charge."

In my own defense, I well remember the person in charge of that kindergarten; and she needed reminding of a few things, such as the indignity of engaging in semantics with a five-year-old. We had quite the little debate about my decision to stick a black-and-white photograph of a banana on the collage of Things That Are Yellow. I maintained that bananas are yellow, even if this picture of them hadn't been printed in color. She ripped the bananas off the poster and put me in the corner.

I lost that battle, but carried the day when it came time to name the towering, green papier-mache brontosaurus we'd all built as a group art project. My suggestion, "Raquel Welch," won by a landslide in spite of her attempts to bully and intimidate the electorate. She preferred "Greenie," the (if you ask me) pedestrian and predictible brainstorm of Jennifer K., one of the four Jennifers in our class of 25. Jennifer K. was a perfect little angel who never, ever asked the tough questions like, "If you're tired, why do we have to take a nap?"

Of course, to her credit, she tallied the votes fairly. Maybe she knew if there were so much as a whisper of fraud I'd have gone to the principal and demanded a recount.

Wait. What the hell was I writing about?

Knitty. Right.

The Spring + Summer issue is up, and I'm in it. And I forgot, when the last issue hit, to publicly thank Amy Singer for not even batting an eyelash when I referred to a famous, fictitious knitter as a "stone-cold pain in the ass." There are not a whole lot of fiber arts publications that will let you call somebody a pain in the ass, even though–this is strictly between us–the world of fiber arts is replete with persons (self included) who are a pain in the ass.

This issue's pattern first appeared in 1843, but I'll be a monkey's muffatee if the thing doesn't look like it was designed last Tuesday.

Summer Neckerchief (1843)

It's a neckerchief knit on the bias (the drape is to die) that can easily–and I mean easily–be worked as a full-size shawl in whatever weight yarn you fancy. In fact, the original author's directions for a shawl variation are right there, down at the bottom, in case you just aren't a neckerchief sort of person.

Upcoming Events

I'm going to be back in Boston at the Common Cod Fiber Guild on May 13, 2011. I was the speaker at the Guild's first meeting, and take some pride in the fact that there was ever a second meeting.

Then I'm jumping over to Oklahoma for the Sealed with a Kiss Knit Out 2011, part of a merry trio that also includes Fiona Ellis and Jane Thornley.

June 24-26, I'll once again be at the Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Festival in Grayslake, Illinois. I don't know the full teaching line-up (it'll be posted soon, I hear), but I know they're bringing in some big names again this year.

And in July, I'll be over in London at Knit Nation, the schedule for which is now up. It bodes well that I've just received my Tier 5 Creative Worker Sponsorship Certificate, which makes it legal for me to teach in the UK. Her Majesty's Goverment was most obliging.

That's not the whole summer calendar, but that's what I can tell you about as of now. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Two Paths Diverged, I Chose the One with Tire Tracks

There comes a time in every man's life when he must stop and take stock.

I have done so. With regret I find that knitting just doesn't turn my crank the way it used to. Yarn is fine and dandy, don't get me wrong; but it can only take you so many places before you start to feel that you've seen all the sights and sent all the postcards.

The Panopticon will persist. However, I'll be shifting the focus from fiber arts to the new and consuming passion that rules my days: NASCAR.

Eye Candy

Screw Rhinebeck. See you at Talladega!