Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Package

Around the time that Melissa Leapman's "Nautical Knitting" cruise was announced, I said that I (as Melissa's guest teacher) would use the trip as an excuse to knit up a pattern that had intrigued me for some time: a pair of men's bathing drawers from an 1880s pattern published in Weldon's Practical Knitter.

The idea of knitting bathing costumes had interested me since I first saw pictures of two made by Elizabeth Zimmermann (one for herself, one for her husband) in her lovely memoir Knitting Around. I thought it was interesting that knitted suits had been ubiquitous, and then gone. Usually outmoded styles of dress take time to fade away completely. Those who are long accustomed to a cut or style, especially those of a certain age, are often slow to give them up. But it seemed that knitted bathing suits, once other options became available, vanished virtually overnight.

Why? Could they really have been that awful?

When I announced the drawers project, several folks who had personal experience of the suits came forward to assure me that yes, they were that awful. The itched, they stretched, the stretched-out crotches filled up with sand, they smelled like wet dogs, and so forth. Nobody, not one person, remembered them with anything like fondness.

I didn't set out to make the drawers expecting them to replace my lycra suits and (spoiler alert) they sure haven't. However, I wanted to know, first-hand, what a knitted wool suit was like. This sort of curiosity about What Once Was is the reason people become historians–either the real kind, or my kind of passionate amateur.

You would not believe some of the mail I've had about this. Most bewildering were those insisting that the suit was too brief and revealing to be authentic to the 19th century. These messages persisted after I posted the photogravure from the original pattern:


They persisted after I posted this photograph of a men's bathing club in Brighton, England in the mid-19th century:


Some people will insist on re-writing the past to suit their modern ideas, even in the face of conclusive evidence. The human brain is a curious thing. I wrote about the phenomenon to a fuller extent in this post.

I promised to show myself wearing the drawers in here once they'd been revealed to the folks on the cruise. I promised it with a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach, and my worst fears were pretty much immediately confirmed.

I am not a person who is confident in his looks. I never have been. It wasn't uncommon when I was child for adults to make critical remarks about my appearance–openly and within my hearing. Sometimes directly to me. I was described at various times by teachers, strangers, and blood relations as being (these terms are verbatim) way too dark, too swarthy, green-skinned, yellow-skinned, big-nosed, scrawny, tubby, husky, dwarfish, awkward, big-assed, funny-looking, or just plain unfortunate.

Then I reached adolescence, and things got worse. I was pimply, hairy, and oily in addition to all of the above adjectives. For about twenty years I didn't look at myself in the mirror. Ever. Not once. I couldn't bear to. I avoided having my picture taken and when pictures were taken, if at all possible I destroyed the prints when I got my hands on them. I wore clothes two sizes too large to cover as much of myself up as possible.

I fell in love with the history of architecture, but felt guilty walking into beautiful buildings. On my first visit to Westminster Abbey, I stood in the nave and thought, "It's so magnificent, and you're standing in the middle of it and wrecking the view."

I had my worst fears confirmed repeatedly by my fellow gay men. This still happens all the time. I stand five feet, four inches (which is too short). My waist is about twenty-nine inches (which is too fat for my height). My eyes are brown, when they should be blue. My nose is big, when it should be aquiline. My skin is olive, when it should be white. I am hairy about the chest, when I should be shaved. I am bald, when I should have a full head of hair.

There have been a few times in the history of this blog when I've shown some part of me in a photograph. If you go back and find them, you'll notice they were always a punchline. Always. Because that is what my physiognomy is suited to, and I know it.

I know I'm not a swimsuit model. I know that.

Once somebody, entirely without my permission, lifted an image of my chest from a blog post and stuck it up in a men's group on Ravelry. I wandered into the thread–I was a member of the group–and found myself being discussed in a "hot or not?" sort of way. The overwhelming consensus was "not." That was a fun afternoon.

With all that in my past, it didn't please me to find a pack of comments in here (now deleted, and wouldn't you?) openly discussing my disgusting body. And yes, the word "disgusting" was used. So were the words "spare us." Apparently the commenters in question had seen my chest hair (disgusting) in a photograph from the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and were hoping that any and all shots of the bathing drawers were spare them more disgusting shots of disgusting me and my disgusting secondary sex characteristics. They also noted that I didn't have the body for the bathing drawers. One person helpfully suggested I hire a male model to show them.

I wonder what would happen if I commented publicly that some female knitter's waistline was too big, or that she was far too bony to show herself in that outfit, or that I found her enormous (or tiny) chest disgusting, or pointed out after she posted a sock selfie that it was high time her legs saw the business end of a Lady Schick?

I don't need to wonder what would happen. What would happen is that within ten minutes my career in knitting would be over. Women, with good reason, are beginning to object strenuously to the constant objectification of their fellow women. Unfortunately, some of them don't have any trouble doing exactly that to the male of the species.

Yes, I am a professional in the business. And yes, being a professional means putting you work on the line for critique. Your work. However, one hopes that perhaps the ad hominem insults might be kept to a minimum.

So please, if you look below, be forewarned. My horrible horrible fat fat waistline and my disgusting abominable body hair will be on full display–along with the piece of knitting that is supposed to be the point of all this.

Without Further Ado

I gotta tell you, these things surprised me. The shaping of the Weldon's pattern is simple in the extreme–basically a large diaper. You start at the waist in the front, work down to the center of the crotch, and then the directions tell you to it all over again in reverse. That's it.


I expected them to be horribly, horribly droopy and ill-fitting. There's no special pouch shaping and no accommodation in the posterior for, um, fullness. The idea is that the stretch and drape of knitted fabric will do it all. And I'll be darned if it doesn't work rather well. The crocheted edge along the leg openings was quick to work and keeps the selvedges from curling. Looks nice and neat, too.


The pure wool Quince and Company Chickadee proved to be a perfect yarn choice. The itch factor even when wet (and no, I am not going to show you photos of that–they have proved impossible to take) was negligible, and while the suit did sag it didn't fall off. I wouldn't wear these in a situation requiring perfect modesty, but as I wrote previously they weren't intended for such a situation.

Another score for Weldon and Company. Turns out they knew what they were doing after all.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

As I Was Still Saying

I was going to blog again yesterday, yeah; but I had to do stuff. Christmas-type stuff, with the ribbons and the glitter glue and the peace on Earth and the what–another party, and the hey–what did you put in that egg nog and the excuse me–where are my pants.

But I woke up eventually, and so here's something else from my stack of backlogged blog topics.

Thing Four.

Look at this. What does it look like to you? Besides an indifferent cell phone shot? Stripes, right? White and purple stripes?


But...let's look at it from a slightly different angle.


Huh. What's that? Is there something weird going on? Let's try another angle.



Calm down, please. I didn't put anything funny in the egg nog. However I did put a griffin in the stripes. He was there the whole time–you just couldn't see him at first.

His name is Merv. Merv, say hi to the people.


Merv is very street.

This technique is called either Shadow Knitting or Illusion Knitting, depending upon who is doing the calling. I started fooling around with it this year, just as a goof. Merv was one of my early experiments. Now I'm unabashedly in love with it. It's a technique lots of folks look upon as a mere parlor trick. But I believe it has potential that hasn't yet been fully explored, in spite of Vivian Høxbro's excellent book from 2004 and the further elaborations of the UK outfit Woolly Thoughts.

Also, it's the only knitting technique I have yet encountered that makes non-knitters literally gasp. They gasp!


Exactly so.

I felt so strongly about Shadow Knitting's potential that I've spent a great deal of 2013 exhuming every bit of information I can find about it; and playing around with different ways of designing it, charting it, thinking about it, and putting it to use. In 2014, it will be a new addition to my menu of classes.

The début at the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat is sold out, but I will be teaching it at the Plucky Knitter Shindig, the Squam Art Workshops, and a bunch of other gigs that'll be added to the calendar as they're confirmed in full. We'll learn the technique, of course; but we'll also learn to make new motifs, and ponder larger philosophical questions like the merits of mystery, opacity, surprise, and subterfuge in design.



That may seem dreadfully ambitious for one knitting class, but if you've taken classes with me before you know I'm not kidding.


Yes. Thank you, Merv.


Yes. That's quite enough, thank you. Goodnight, folks. More soon.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

As I Was Saying

Seventeen weeks in a row on the road, kids. Seventeen weeks.

It all went well, I am pleased to report. But I confess to being a smidge tired. 

I started in Florida (with a private engagement in Key West) and ended in Florida (sailing to Central America with Melissa Leapman and a jolly crew of knitters). There were multiple trips north, south, east, and west in between. Looking at the calendar, my longest unbroken stretch of at-home time since September was four days.

It's nice to be needed, but it's also nice to put the suitcases in the storage room and firmly shut the door.

Meanwhile, blog topics have stacked up on the worktable until they've blocked out the sun. I could dump the whole lot in the trash and pretend I never saw them, like I do with the annual I-still-love-you Christmas card from my ex; but I don't want to start 2014 feeling like I'm in arrears.

Better to see what I can do about lowering the stack over the next few days.

Mind you, it's going to be messy. I'm just going to pull items off the list at random and do a couple a day until I run out of the new year arrives, whichever comes first.

Thing One.

When you saw my Tour de Fleece 2013 challenge I had sleepily increased and increased on the intended improvised hat until I wound up with this.


That got ripped out, and re-knit into this.


The hat's not for me. It'll go to somebody, I dunno who, with a slightly larger head than mine and who looks well in these colors. (I do not.) I'm also not much of one for novelty shapes like that pixie point in my own hats. I am insufficiently whimsical to carry them off.

Looking at the finished piece, I am astounded at how easy the Smoothie Batt from Lunabudknits made it for me–who had no previous experience of this sort of thing–to make an acceptable color-change yarn. I enjoyed it so much that at the Southeastern Animal Fiber Festival, between classes, I bought another Smoothie Batt. This time around maybe I'll detail the process, since I now I know what I did. Which is not be confused with knowing what I'm doing.

The yarn itself is distressingly imperfect. Yet it turned into a hat. I suppose I need to keep that in mind. Imperfect yarn is yarn nonetheless.  If nothing else, you can tie up wrapped gifts with it.

Speaking of gifts.

Thing Two.

houseofmusic My niece is growing up and developing opinions. She will no longer always agree to wear whatever you shove her into, even if it's made by hand. I was warned this day would come.

So I was hunting around for other gifts she might enjoy, and found a hidden gem on the Schoolhouse Press Web site. Among the offerings for children is a sweet book-and-CD set called A House Filled with Music, by Margret and Rolf Rettich. It's a lighthearted introduction to the instruments of the symphony orchestra, originally published in German. The fluid English-language edition retains the lively original illustrations, and includes Meg's new narration on the companion CD.

If you're a fan of Meg Swansen's knitting videos–the ones she did with her mother, Elizabeth Zimmermann, or her solo output–you know Meg's got a notably musical speaking voice. She does such a superb job with this book that I'd enjoy hearing her do more audio books. I wouldn't mind a few for grown-ups. Are you listening, Meg? Please?

Quite aside from that, I recommend the book as being simple enough for kids to enjoy without being simple-minded, sweet without being goopy, and cute without being sticky. It'll entertain a child on her own, but adults who listen along won't be tempted to rip off their own ears. It's especially useful if you want to instill a love of good music, but know that if you have to listen to Peter and the Wolf one more time you will develop a syncopated twitch over one eye.

Thing Three.

Travel or not, I had promised to contribute new designs to a potpourri of projects and here is one of them.


Yeah. Another hat. I'm in a hat phase or something.

It's called Meliorus. It's very simple. It's also very colorful, because nothing lifts me out of gloom like vivid color and I figure you can't fight cancer if you're full of gloom. The e-book in which it appears benefits Breast Cancer Connections of Palo Alto, California. Here's a link to their Web site, in case you'd like to learn more about them.

While I'm on the subject, I'd also like to mention Calendar of Hope, a knitting and crochet calendar (available both electronically and in print) also supporting the fight against breast cancer. I didn't contributed to this one and I'm not part of the group; but I heard from the publishers last year because the 2013 edition featured designs based on antique patterns. It was too late for me to mention them then, so here they are now. This year's edition is a selection of original designs, and benefits Army of Women.

That's all for today. More things tomorrow. And yes, one of these updates is going to include the reveal of the knitted bathing drawers.

Monday, October 14, 2013

This Is Not Your Grandma's Knitting. This Is Your Great-Grandma's Knitting, and It's Utterly Fabulous.

My friend Jane is in town from London, acting (in part) as chief cheerleader for her fetching sweetheart–he being one of the 40,000 or so who ran in the Chicago Marathon on Sunday.

The sweetheart acquitted himself marvelously; and is satisfied to have broken his personal record with several minutes to spare. We went out to the sidewalk to cheer him as he dashed through our neighborhood, which made us feel connected to the marathon in a meaningful way without actually having to run. For this, we are grateful.

I'm also grateful to Jane for having arrived with gifts. Among them was a fantastic folio of fashion drawings by Erté, a man who was an idol to me growing up even though (especially because?) he was not supposed to have been. Young American males were not supposed to idolize fashion designers, we were supposed to idolize the various drug addicts, philanderers, dog fighters, and wife beaters who populate professional sports and popular music.

But I loved Erté, whose wild imagination and flowing line were so of-the-moment in the late teens and early twenties of the last century that they became emblematic of it. Erté was still actively cranking out work in the 1980s. By that time, of course, his style had become a caricature of itself; but the demand never flagged and he died (so I have read) with pen in hand, at work. I can only hope to face a similar fate.

The folio from Jane covers Erté's years as a fashion illustrator for Harper's Bazar (this was before they added the third "a" in "Bazaar"), 1918-1932. It's a book to fall into. This was the period during which the artist hit his stride for the first time, and you can sense him struggling to rein in his creativity. The sketches for Harper's were supposed to be practical–in the very broad sense that you could conceivably take one to your dressmaker and have her make a dress from the sketch–but some of them...

Well, I'll put it this way. There's one page titled, "Novel and Unusual Designs in Fur and Chiffon." Get the picture?

Here, I'll give you a picture.

This is an evening gown from December 1920.


The original caption read,

Erté wraps a long scarf of black satin about this lovely lady's shoulders and it forms the draped corsage, allowing one end to escape as a train. The skirt is of ermine.

Here's another, from March 1918.


This is described thus,

A suit of black satin that is easy of construction and very wearable is this Erté model. A cord, drawn through rings, makes a surplice closing and defines the waistline of the straight coat.

So, you know–practical. But not practical in the sense of, "What can I throw on to go down to the shops and pick up shoe polish and carrots?"

These are two of the more restrained designs.

But imagine my screaming joy–I mean it, I screamed–to find out as I pored over Jane's gift that along with "Novelties of Eastern Inspiration" and "Gowns Made to Do the Unexpected," Erté threw in designs for...

knitting bags.

Knitting bags.

And I do not mean bags that could contain knitting, I mean he intended them in no uncertain terms to carry around works in progress. They all appeared in 1918–the tail end of the first World War, when women of all stations were urged to knit their bit, so that may have had something to do with it.

Wanna see? Yeah, I bet you do. Here we go. (The captions, by the way, are the originals–verbatim.)

Design One, June 1918.


As knitting goes to every party, it is important that the bag that takes it be appropriate for the occasion. So with a summer frock, carry Erté's bag of silk tricot that is trimmed with straw.

Design Two, May 1918.


Erté was indeed inspired when he laced black and white ribbons into a knitting-bag and then pulled one black ribbon to serve as a handle.

Design Three, May 1918.


Again he gives a practical suggestion in the lantern bag, for plaited silk is caught upon rings that slip up and down on silken cords and stretches like an accordion, making it equally simple to accommodate either a bulky sweater or diminutive wristlet.

Design Four, October 1918.


A sock will begin its life in luxurious surroundings when it is kept within a suede bag effectively embroidered with black silken threads and those of dull Indian red. The frame and beads are of ebony inlaid with ivory.

I didn't begin life in luxurious surroundings–but my socks might. Can somebody please rush these into production? Thanks ever so.

Monday, October 07, 2013

You Never Can Tell

It's not enough to have finished a couple skeins of yarn during the Tour de Fleece. Now that the yarn's finished, I want to play with it.

When I say "play," I mean play. I don't mean hunt around on Ravelry for a suitable pattern and knit that pattern. I mean wind up the skein...


...and get excited all over again about the gradual color changes. Then pick needles that look like they might work well enough, cast on some stitches, and see what the hell happens.

I can hear teeth grinding out there. I understand. Setting sail without a destination isn't everybody's idea of a swell time. Some folks prefer to pick a destination, then get to it via the most direct route. That's fine. Knitting's a big tent. There's room for everybody.

Me, I like to play.

I have a vague notion for this yarn: a hat. Worked top down without much detail, since the yarn is the point. I want to watch those colors change. I want to see what my amateur's thick-thin-thinner-THICK-thin-thicker-thick-THIN-thick two-ply looks like in plain stockinette.

Judy's Magic Cast On makes top-down circular hats a treat, so that's how I began. I chose US size two needles, and produced a scrap of fabric so incredibly dense it could have run for Congress on the Tea Party ticket.

I ripped back and tried again with a pair of size four circulars. Much better fabric–firm, but supple. Since I'd begun at the crown, I knew I needed to increase a great deal and quickly to get the proper shape.  I probably ought to have sat down and reviewed the formula for these increases–how much and how often–but I didn't. I was playing.

I was also talking to people.

In a dark sports bar.

With loud music.

At night.

During a bingo game.

You sense where this is going, perhaps.

At the very beginning of a top-down crown it's good to throw in fifty-percent increases every other round. You knit a round, you double the number of stitches, you knit a round, you double the number of stitches.

Then, if you intend to do things in a sensible fashion, you tap the brake and slow down either the frequency or the rate of your increases. I know this. I have known this for years.

 But I was not feeling sensible. I was feeling annoyed, since two of my tablemates had achieved a bingo and I had not. I don't even like bingo, and there's nothing that frosts my cookies like losing at a game I didn't want to play in the first place.

I kept knitting, and increasing, and knitting, and increasing, and didn't notice until the next day that my stitch count per round had grown from


to something in the area of

three hundred.

That is rather more stitches around than you probably want in a hat for a human being.

Not to mention that the work was extremely bunchy on the needles. It looked like a bruised cauliflower.

So I slipped it off to see what I'd got. Here it is.


Not what I have in mind for this hat. Disturbingly reminiscent of the ruffled table mats my grandmother's friends used to churn out. But the color changes–those are pretty. And the ruffling–I don't want to use it now, but I'd be surprised if I won't find a reason to use it some time.

Still don't have a hat, but I'm having fun. And I learned something. Which for me is often the same thing.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Twenties Real, Twenties Fake

Like fifty billion other Americans, I first read The Great Gatsby in high school.

I went to two high schools–one horrible, one merely mediocre. During my first of two years at the former, I was force-fed the Irish Christian Brothers' approved course of literary blood and guts. In keeping with the rest of the curriculum, it was intended to mold boys into men. Nasty, brutish, woman-thumping men.

We read the Odyssey, in a ridiculous prose translation that reduced Homer's epic to something less compelling than a Hardy Boys adventure. I still remember the blurb on the back cover insisting that "...no boy who reads it can ever fail to be thrilled." (I failed.)

We read The Red Badge of Courage, which was full of battle scenes we were meant to find alluring, not revolting. (Real men, we were told, love shooting and being shot at.)

And we were allowed one "free choice" book. As this was a Christian Brothers school, "free choice" was of course relative.

I picked Emma. Choice denied. Emma, said the teacher, was written by a woman. Men didn't choose to read books written by women. What was I, a pansy? (Um.)

I picked A Passage to India. Choice denied. E.M. Forster, said the teacher, was a sick homo. What was I, a pansy? (Um.)

I picked The Great Gatsby. Choice denied. It was for the juniors, said the teacher. You're not allowed to read it yet. You'll hurt yourself.

I honestly don't remember what I picked for the class. I do remember that I bought a copy of Gatsby with my babysitting money and read it as a silent Fuck You to the teacher.

I will not lie and say the experience turned me into a Fitzgerald fan. It didn't. I admire Fitzgerald in a chilly way, but if you banished me to a desert island with limited space on the raft for books I doubt that Daisy Buchanan and pals would make the cut.

What I did (and do) love about Gatsby was the parties, the houses, and the clothes.

This summer, after swearing I wouldn't, I went to see Baz Luhrman's film. I fell asleep during the second half, but before that I was surprisingly contented to just stare at the parties, the houses, and the clothes. They reminded me of why the book had sporadically carried me away

Luhrman's sets and costumes weren't "correct," but they felt correct. They felt like Fitzgerald's descriptions of the roaring twenties, which in time became the American popular imagination's sketchy idea of the roaring twenties.

It was this sketchy idea that I recently had to evoke in doing a piece of work for Babs Ausherman–known better to knitters all over the damn place as Miss Babs.

Miss Babs is a dyer, one of the best; and she has a yarn club. Lots of dyers have yarn clubs, but Miss Babs runs the only club that sends you places. Not literally, but in the comfort of your favorite chair. Each installment guides you through a different destination. As a souvenir you're given a yarn and coordinating pattern evocative of that place.

Or, in the case of my tour, that time and place. "What I want from you," said Babs, "is time travel."

Okay, sure. Why not?

So for my leg of the tour, which embarked this month, the knitters and I went to Chicago in 1923.

The tour part was easy. I live in Chicago, so I know my way around. And I borrowed a friend's time machine.


No, it's not that blue thing from Doctor Who, but it has reclining leather seats.

Getting all those knitters back to 1923 was a piece o' cake.

The tough part was the knitting pattern.

Because here's the thing: the past doesn't always look the way you think it did. The past doesn't always look the way you want it to. Rifling through my not-insignificant collection of 1920s knitting books, I realized that an authentic pattern wasn't going to cut it.

What folks often forget is that the world didn't remake itself to look like Radio City Music Hall on January 1, 1920. Art Deco was a machine-mad movement that started in France, and gradually–very gradually–began to exert an influence on international architecture and design. Lots of iconic American Deco wasn't even around in the twenties–including Radio City Music Hall, which opened in 1932.

In most of America, the 1920s simply didn't look the way we imagine the 1920s to have looked.

Knitting looked even less so. Knitting, I'm sorry to say, was undergoing a period of relative eclipse at the time. Not that nobody was knitting; but the people who were tended to be the people who are still, now, popularly imagined to be doing most of the knitting: spinsters, matrons, grandmothers, maiden aunts, little girls.  This was not the smart set. The patterns produced for this market tended to be, at best, lukewarm. At worst, they all looked like tea cozies–even the sweaters.

You can imagine my dilemma when Babs told me she wanted a project for her subscribers that would really roar, and all I could find were hats that looked like tea cozies. I fell in love with one of those hats, by the way, and though it wasn't right for the Knitting Tour I couldn't resist re-working it in Quince and Co. Lark for the Deep Fall 2013 issue of Knitty:


For Babs, ultimately I took as my inspiration a real piece of period clothing: the very long, very thin "lavalier" scarf. But whereas a period scarf would have been woven–likely a fine silk chiffon–mine had to be knit.

I asked for colorway that would mimic jade, and boy did I get it. I mixed it with silver beads, silver and jade being a classic Deco combination. Babs knows her way around a dye pot.


Deco motifs are tough in lace–I've never seen one that satisfies me completely (including mine). But I did my level best, and worked up an arrow that shoots from one end of the scarf to the other.


The result is a contradiction. I attempted to evoke period knitting...in a manner wholly inappropriate to the the knitting of the period.



Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tender Buttons

I've been working on a project that needs buttons. I wish I could show it to you, but it's for Knitty. If you leak a pattern for Knitty before the issue is published, Amy Singer drives by your house and shoots out your kneecaps.

I may have already said too much by telling you the thing needs buttons.

Excuse me for a moment while I go pull down the shades and cover my kneecaps.

So, this thing needs buttons. Rather than buy buttons, I chose to raid my button stash. My button stash became my button stash when my grandmother died, and her button stash became my button stash.

Let me tell you a little bit about my grandmother.

She was born in 1919 to a Pennsylvania coal miner and his wife. She learned to sew as a small child. Her mother had a cast-iron treadle sewing machine; but she also had four daughters with able hands so she felt the sewing machine was best kept for special occasions. Plain sewing, everyday sewing, was done by the daughters.

Plain sewing included things like bedsheets, which required a flat-felled seam up the center. Flat felled seams require not one, but two lines of stitching. When the seam in a sheet wore out, my grandmother would un-pick her old work, fold the sides of the sheet to the middle, and sew a new seam. When the sewing was finished she was allowed to do something else really fun, like wash coal dust off the kitchen windowsills.

I think of this every time I feel resentful that bath towels don't fall out of the dryer already folded.

My grandmother told me she first got paid for sewing–a penny for a whole mess of handmade buttonholes–when she was seven years old. That marked her début as a professional seamstress. When she had the stroke that was the beginning of her end, at ninety-two, she was still taking in sewing.

She sewed for her family until she became a housemaid in Pittsburgh and sewed for her employers. Then she left domestic service and married my grandfather, and sewed for her husband and her children.

Then my grandfather–who survived the entire Second World War as a paratrooper in Germany without a scratch–came home and got killed a couple years later in an industrial accident. So my grandmother, who had three children under five and a fourth-grade education, went back to sewing for the whole world.

Sewing doesn't pay very well. It doesn't now, and sure didn't in the 1950s in a small Pennsylvania coal town.

When you are raising three kids with your a sewing machine you don't have a lot of extra cash to throw around. My grandmother's childhood coincided squarely with the Great Depression and her young adulthood with war rationing, so she already knew how to be thrifty. All through the post-War prosperity (which passed her by) and into the crazy sixties and wasteful seventies and the even more wasteful eighties and the profoundly wasteful nineties she continued to be thrifty. The arrival of a new century didn't faze her in the least.

She died with eight hundred tons of fabric in her cellar.

Some of it was new, but much of it was things like faded curtains that could, maybe, be made into something else some other time. You never know, right?

Upstairs, in a motley collection of containers in a closet in the back bedroom, were the buttons.

They sell buttons in stores, but you can get buttons free without even trying too hard. If something wears out and cannot become something else, before you get rid of it, you cut the buttons off. If a customer wants a dress or coat freshened with new buttons, you keep the old buttons. When other people stop sewing because who sews these days anymore, you take in their buttons.

Then you die, and your grandson takes possession of your buttons.

I was pawing through the biggest button tin and suddenly I got the urge to photograph some of the buttons. The tin is entirely disorganized but I pulled out these little button families to share with you.

You never know what you're going to get when you visit this blog, is what I'm saying.

Also, I miss my grandma.


These are made of tin.


Black flowers, plastic. Sunday best, circa 1977.


Tiny green porcelain bead buttons. Much smaller in real life.
I might have these made into earrings.


Are you now or have you ever been a button of the Communist party?


Buttercups. Dainty.


Built to last.




And the lone survivor of a vibrant tribe remembers the fabulous 1960s.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I Am Ply-Curious

It tells you something about the circles I run in that when I mentioned I was about to try making a three-ply yarn for the first time, somebody said, "You haven't done that yet? At your age?"

What can I tell you? I was an odd kid. While all my little cohort engaged in classic teenage behavior–watching Sixteen Candles, kissing under the bleachers, perfecting their plying technique–I was probably stuck in my locker shouting for help. Please don't even ask what it was like being the only boy in class who couldn't finish a bouclée without snarling.

Here, on the lazy kate before plying, are the three bobbins of the green merino (look! up in the sky!).


The roving was already divided into three even balls (I weighed them before spinning to be sure). Yet I wound up with two bobbins of roughly equal size and a third that's much fatter. What can we tell from this? We can tell from this that Franklin needs to focus a smidge more on consistency.

In my defense, long draw is so much fun I forget to pay attention to the fine points. As my arm swings back and the yarn flows from my fingertips, I am prone to shout "ta-daaaaaa," "wheeeeee," "cowabunga," and other ejaculations to that effect.

The plying went well, and here is the yarn on the niddy-noddy waiting to be wet-finished.


I am pleased. Giggly, even. Far from perfect, but it's my first yarn that really looks (to me) like yarn instead of "yarn."


I've been working on a collaborative project with John Mullarkey (my friend, the noted card weaver and loaner-to-me of spinning wheels) using Skacel's CoBaSi (a blend of cotton, silk, and bamboo).  It's a messenger bag. John has finished the strap, which is card-woven.


I'm working on the bag, which will be knit.

I've decided to do it in mosaic knitting, for the same reason I decide do so many things: it looks cool and I hadn't tried it yet. Here's an early swatch of what has become (with refinements) the finished pattern for the sides and flap of the bag.


Designing and working mosaic patterns is proving to be a smidge addictive. Usually when I feel this way about a new-to-me technique, I wind up teaching it in a class about a year later. Who wants to place bets?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Finish Line

I've set the timer for ten minutes. That's how long I have to write and post this entry.

I must apologize in advance for the perfectly crummy photographs in this post. I'm always telling students in "Photographing Your Fiber" that it's all about light, light, light. Today, my available light is revoltingly inappropriate and there is no time to make it better.

My equipment is also lacking. Part of my Tour de Fleece challenge this year–which I don't think I've mentioned here in the blog–is that I'd use only my phone camera to photograph anything related to the challenge. I have so many students coming into photography classes with a phone as at least one part of their kit that it behooves me to get more phone shooting experience under my belt.

It's a poor craftsman who blames his tools, but although the camera in my phone has surprised me with how much it'll do, when the chips are down it lacks the fine control that allows one to grapple with truly challenging conditions. So that's good to know.

Anyhow, what I meant to say is these photos suck and I'm sorry.

Here's a representative sample of my output on a plate shaped like a cabbage leaf, just because.


You've already seen the Corriedale from Lunabudknits, and the muddy brown mystery bobbin on the niddy-noddy.

I spent the last part of the Tour de Fleece on the road for work, and my wheel doesn't travel. But my host–my good friend John Mullarkey, who asked me to help him make final preparations for a video shoot–is a spinner. A far better spinner than I, in fact.

He surprised me with the generous loan of two spinning wheels I'd never tried before–a Schacht Sidekick (fully portable) and a Lendrum Upright (somewhat less so).

I'm not enough of an experienced spinner, honestly, to give you a worthwhile review of either. All I will say is I admired the way the Sidekick came to pieces for travel; and the way the Lendrum, though not strictly made for travel, folded for storage and was quickly set up when wanted.

Both wheels were enjoyable to spin on, easy to adjust, and allowed me to turn out pretty decent long draw singles after only a brief acquaintance.

When John and I weren't at work, I played with both wheels using his other surprise–perfectly gorgeous Polwarth roving dyed in brilliant blue by the always brilliant Briar Rose.

Before I left, he wound my output on both wheels onto a single bobbin. We wound that bobbin onto a ball, and from the two ends of that ball I used the Lendrum to make a two-ply. I'd never done that before–John threw in the lesson as lagniappe.


We discovered during plying that I'd inadavertently spun almost exactly the same amount–to within an inch–on both wheels during the weekend.

 The wet finishing of the mystery yarn was a hoot. Upon contact with the hot water it fluffed instantly into the most alarming frizz and I figured I'd lost it. But no–in the cold water it relaxed back into something like a skein. When I thwacked it–mostly because I've heard you're not supposed to thwack worsted-spun skeins, and I wanted to see what would happen–it changed very little. As it dried, it settled into a finished state that looks remarkably like dreadlocks.


So, yeah.

I have no idea what the hell I will do with it, and of course I still have no idea what the hell it is. Wool, sure–but what wool? From where? I still don't recall spinning it. Weird.

And then we have the green merino (it's a bird, it's a plane, etcetera). That's the thing on top in the first photo, with the plate shaped like cabbage.

The green merino (for truth! justice! and the American way!) is resolutely refusing to be photographed from any angle or under any light that does not make it look like first-quality shit. And yet, even if I say it myself, it's not. It looks quite presentable, thank you very much, and I have three bobbins of it.  They are marked to become my first three-ply yarn.

I'll photograph it again this week, when it's plying time. Since it won't be Tour de Fleece photography, strictly speaking, I'll aim to get some beauty shots of it with a better camera under appropriate lighting.



Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lush Life

Through no merit of my own, I've been sprawled in the lap of luxury for the past several days. This is one of those spa hotels where the spa is a real spa, not a couple of beige, palm-infested rooms containing a second-rate manicurist and a broken jacuzzi.

The service is polite, prompt, and discreet. The food is excellent. There's an art gallery, a meditation garden, and the floral arrangements are superb.


The lounge affords a table–I'm sitting at it right now–that's the perfect size and height for work, with a view of the terrace and the little lake.

It would be paradise enow if it weren't for some of the other guests.

Most days I've been surrounded at this table by Ladies Who Lunch, though to be perfectly accurate I should write Ladies Who Drink. Another vodka stinger? Oh, Mister Sondheim–truly, you have no idea. You could float the Queen Mary on the joy juice this lot runs through before noon.

Just now I was unwillingly privy to a trio who were discussing the reasons an applicant to their garden club–newly arrived from another state–would not be admitted. Her sins included wearing the wrong shoes to a party, and using the Latin names for flowers when the conversation turned to gardening.

I'm a raging capitalist, yet I keep drawing little guillotines in the margins of my notebook.

Nevertheless, work progresses. I'm not here to drink and gossip, I'm hear to do what I usually do in the workroom and the coffee shop in a room with live plants, a harpist who takes requests, and what I'm pretty sure is an actual Chihuly.

The Tour de Fleece has ended, but my wrap-up for that will have to wait for my return home since that's where all the stuff is.

But the Victorian bathing drawers are here, and I've reached the point of adding the crochet edging to the leg openings. A glimpse, below.


The crochet edge makes perfect sense. The design of this piece attempts in every way possible to combat the inevitable, horrid stretch that will occur when the drawers hit the water; and of course crochet stretches far less than knitting. This also helps to draw in the leg openings a bit and prevent the peekage I was worried about in the last post. Not to mention that it looks good.

Knitting and crochet: perfect together. When I wrote this for the Lion Brand blog I damn well meant it.

I've now been able to do a real fitting of the drawers, and I'll be  if they don't fit well and look rather cute.

No pictures of that just yet. And no pictures of me wearing them until the Nautical Knitting cruise. If you want to see them first, sign up to join Melissa Leapman and me in December...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fiber Factory of One

It's a good week when I look at current projects and there's been some progress on most of them.

The Tour de Fleece continues, and to my great surprise I've managed so far to meet the challenge of doing something spinning-related every day. After the Corriedale was finished, I dove into the two almost-forgotten tubs of unspun fiber and came up with a bag of green-and-brown roving made from what must be superwash merino, because the little slip in the bag says "100% superwash merino." I have no idea who made it or where it came from. For all I know, it was already in the tub when I bought it.

The lucky thing for me is that the roving is already divided into three equal pieces–and my next challenge is to make my first three-ply. I've been spinning long draw still–not because I think it's necessarily the best way to spin this fiber, but because I am enjoying the sheer hell out of it.

There have been no pictures, because as any Tour de Fleece rider will tell you, pictures of gradually filling bobbins are of only moderate interest to the spinner and hold no thrills for the general public. However, I probably should show you the fiber, shouldn't it?

I just realized forgot to photograph it.

Damn. Next time.

The green merino (that sounds like a niche-market superhero, doesn't it?) is on hold anyhow, because after filling two bobbins I went in search of a third only to discover it was already full of something. I don't know what. Yet there it was, filled with worsted spun...something. Either I spun a bobbin and completely forgot about it or elves have been at work. And, with apologies to my Icelandic friends, I don't believe in elves.

I needed the bobbin, so I pressed pause on the green merino (a sheep who travels around the world preventing ecological disasters?) and decided to chain ply whatever it is just to get rid of it.


I am the first to confess that this is, to put it mildly, an indifferent job of chain plying. I tried and failed to welcome an unforeseen opportunity to brush up an old skill. I rushed, with half my attention on old episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, glancing back at the remainder on the lazy kate every few minutes and thinking, "Dang it, are you still here?"

Old boyfriends reading this will be reminded of the last two hours of any given date with me.

I Swatched a Yarn and I Liked It

Lorna's Laces sent me a nice supply of one of their new yarns, Haymarket, and I'm turning it into a baby sweater pattern/sample piece in aid of my Snip 'n' Zip (Steeks and Zippers) class.


Cannot say enough things about this yarn. It's knitting up very much like Léttlopi (which I used in my Icelandic sweater), but it's extremely soft and feels sweet as it runs through your fingers. The colors, as you would expect, are luscious. It doesn't seem to pill much–what you see above has been knit and raveled six times and carried around in a bag for months. It still looks new.

I've finished the trickiest part–designing the yoke pattern–after only four tries. Put out the flags.

Crotch Shot

And the Victorian bathing drawers for the Nautical Knitting cruise proceed apace. These are gonna be the talk of Belize.


Preliminary fittings indicate that the proportions in the original pattern are spot-on. That being said, the fit is startlingly revealing. That's in keeping with period images of this sort of swimwear, but it really hits home when I've got them on. One false step and HELLO EVERYBODY!

The things I do for art.