Sunday, June 29, 2014

I have a theory . . .

. . . and not much to support it. But when I propose this theory in my classes, lots of students nod in agreement. So I think it’s valid. (Having said that, most of my students are women: I have not experienced what a man in the room might say?)

So here is my theory—gleaned from many years of studying math, of teaching Study Skills plus knitting, . . . and of just hanging around women.

When I teach a pattern drafting class, a large number of students love it. These women tend to be the doctors and engineers and nurses and math teachers—of which there are surprisingly many in our world. Knitting, for many good reasons, attracts women with these interests.

But many of my female students do not love working with numbers—even when I insist that it is arithmetic we are doing and not, strictly, math! Even so, many profess to not love numbers. I myself like numbers and so have puzzled why women would say they don’t “do” numbers. Hence the following, unsupported theory.

I believe that men are the romantics while women are more practical.

A man wants to show his affection, so he brings home flowers. The woman might prefer he take out the garbage.

The man suggests dinner out? (A truly practical man would have arranged a babysitter. But how rare is that?) The woman might love the idea of a night out with no cooking—but—truth be told—she might have already planned dinner so might prefer that he watch the children while she cooks it? Or better yet, how much would she love the man who watches the children and cooks dinner while she knits?!

So back to the math. I believe that numbers, arithmetic, and math are taught in ways that appeal to the male of the species—and in a way that leaves some (and maybe many) of the girls behind. Algebra, as I remember it, was not taught with any application: it was just lines and theories. And the boys, being the more idealistic gender, ate it up. The girls might have asked how this was going to help them figure anything out??? But when, in my teaching of the set-in-sleeve, I show how Pythagorean Theorem explains why we don’t need pins when we sew in the sleeve cap, there’s a collective sigh in the room: so that’s what that was all about!

I have not been in a public classroom for a long time, but I can only hope that things have changed since I went to school? That numbers, arithmetic, and math are taught in a way that excites the more practical members of the species?

And speaking of the classroom, please consider using this link for a Craftsy class--at a reduced price. (One of the classes offered is mine, and I would be thrilled if you would join me. I can also tell you that teaching this class was one of the most professional and pleasant experiences of my life—in case you wondered.)

Happy holidays to everyone! (July 1, Canada Day, for the Canadians. And, of course, July 4 for the Americans.)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

lessons from a movie

I saw a wonderful movie on a plane the other day--a movie that my son recommended: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This movie was beautifully done but also reminded me of two lessons I already knew while also teaching me another.

Life is good if you have a supportive parent .(This one I knew.)
Walter had a mom who had his back. This is a fabulous way to go through life. (In that exercise of dividing people into two types, I often divide life by those who have this and those who don't.) It's not essential, but it surely helps.

My parents did not "have my back." (This was not altogether unusual in the 50's, a time I think of as cruel to children. This was certainly not everyone's experience, but it was mine.)  But I have learned that if you didn't have it, you can do your best to become it. That's a lesson I am most happy to have learned. And that's pretty cool.

If you do what you love, and do it well, life is good. (This one I knew.)
Not all of us get to "do what we love" for a living. And those who do are not always able to make a good living. But as we age, I think we learn to measure success differently. And finding a way to do what we love in the best way possible makes a life we can look back on with pride.

The beauty of travel is in doing ordinary things in extraordinary places. (This one I did not know.)
I think I, like everyone, go a little nuts when I travel--trying to do extraordinary things in the extraordinary places I are lucky to visit. But watching Walter play soccer in the Himalayas made me think of travel differently. How wonderful to watch him do this simple thing in that extraordinary place!

In this vein, I am reminded that when I do knitting cruises (which I usually do once a year and which I highly recommend), I land at a port and . . . look for a yarn shop! Why have I often felt a little guilty about this??? As if there was something extraordinary I should be doing instead? What could be more special than shopping for yarn?! And what joy it brings--to me, to the shop owners, to the others on the cruise when we share our purchases . . plus ever afterwards when I remember "I bought this yarn in the Shetland Islands!"

In future, I will put less pressure on myself when I travel--less pressure to do anything else but just walk down a street, smell the trees, have a coffee in a sidewalk cafe . . and buy yarn!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My long absence

I've not appeared here for a while and for a variety of reasons.
  • I made myself crazy over the holidays.
  • My hard drive died, so I had no computer for about a month.
  • I was so busy travelling and teaching that I had no energy once home.
  • I'm not sure I had much to say anyway.
But now, here are some things I have learned from each of the above bullet points.

You can hurt yourself knitting!
Admittedly, my injury began in a fitness class, by working with a ball that was too heavy. But then I took on far too much for my Christmas knitting: sewing a 3-layered skirt in Dora fabric and knitting a matching pink pullover (for one granddaughter); sewing flannel Batman pajamas and knitting a fleece hoodie (for the second granddaughter).

Doesn't sound too terrible? I did all of this in two-and-a-half-days!!!!

What started as a small rotator cuff injury was massively aggravated by my power knitting. I could barely knit, certainly could not exercise, and could hardly wash my hair for about a month. (Did you notice my priorities in that list? from most important to least?)

ART (Active Release Techniques) chiropractory saved me, as it had done before. But this was a particularly persistent and painful injury--and I still have trouble sleeping on my left side--so please don't do this to yourself! TAKE REGULAR BREAKS when you knit, or work on a computer, or do any small repetitive movements. (I have also learned that my arms need to be supported when I knit, else my shoulders rise above my ears, and I get into further trouble.)

Be prepared for a computer to die!
Apparently, they can just do this--fall over and drop dead--without actually falling over, and without any warning. I was teaching in Phoenix when my hard drive just died! Nothing, nada, zip! And here's what I have learned.
  • Back up everything . . . always . . . every which way you can. (DUH!)
  • Have another way to access your stuff. (This one translates to Thank God I bought an ipad in December!)
  • When you close your computer, do not move it until you hear all internal noises stop. (If you have an older computer, apparently there is some disc thing that continues cycling for a few seconds. If you move your computer while this is moving, you can damage your hard drive.)
  • If your hard drive dies, do not keep trying to start your computer. This can make your data non-recoverable. (I was lucky that I left the poor dead thing alone and so got all my data back--which was a good thing because I had not backed up for some months.)
Nature wants to conserve energy
Apparently, it is the natural inclination if all living things--and maybe even non-living--to conserve energy. Hence the law of inertia. Hence my inclination to come home from trips and just sit and knit and watch TV. (There is a lot of good TV these days, but still. . . .) This was, of course, made worse by the fact that I couldn't exercise. Talk about energy conservation! It all made me very very lazy, and I am glad that all has passed. We do have to constantly fight nature's inclination towards sloth.

When one has nothing to say . . . 
. . . one should probably say nothing! I really had no new insights or revelations to impart, so I did not find the energy to write. But, I recently learned something that I'd love to share with you. (I apologize to all of you who already know this and are thinking what took HER so long?)

Knitting is thought to been been "invented" in the Middle East between the 11th and 14th centuries--an interesting offshoot of which was a wonderful 14th C fashion to paint the knitting Madonna.

Early knitting was all in-the-round--because most early knitting was stockings. There were some garments, but they were relatively rare and steeked.

(Here's the part I found fascinating!) The purl stitch was not invented until the 16th century! How amazing is that?!?! People had knit for, literally, hundreds of years before discovering how to purl!

And even so, there wasn't all that much purling going on. Most knitting was in-the-round stockings, socks, hats, mitts, and gloves. (The exception to this would be shawls, because Victorian women certainly loved their lace work.) Sweaters were not a major knitting product until relatively recently--not until the 20th century. But once they came on the scene--whether produced in factories or in the home--most of them were knit-flat-and-seamed.

So even though the purl stitch had been discovered in the 16th century, it was not widely used until the 20th--almost within our lifetimes! I found that quite fascinating, especially as someone who is hard-core set against in-the-round sweaters.

I do hope to learn stuff, discover stuff, want to share stuff . . . and not be away for so long again. But thanks to all who wrote to make sure my long absence was not the result of bad news or ill health. I appreciate your concern more than you know.

Friday, November 29, 2013

why and what we knit

I've written about all the good and healthy reasons for knitting: see In defense of knitting, parts 1-10, (written between Jan 23, 2012 to Feb 23, 2013). And whether or not we know all the science discussed in those posts, we know intuitively that knitting is a good way to engage our hands and pass our time.

But if we had asked our grandmothers why they knit, they would not have talked about health benefits. They would not have said I like the meditative state knitting induces. And they would not have talked about lessons in patience. They would have talked about knitting as product, not process.

I've talked about knitting as product before, to the extent of establishing my own personal rant: knit what you wear, wear what you knit. But I have recently discovered another entree into this subject, and I'm encouraged to share it with you.

Okay, if we think about knitting purely as product, why and what do we knit? 

1. Knitting as ART
How to define knitting as ART? We know it when we see it: a piece that hangs on a gallery wall, a piece that makes a statement! a piece from one of our renowned designers (someone who exhibits in the Royal Albert Museum).

We can replicate these pieces of famous designers, or we can create something of our own--perhaps a 72-row lace shawl in a hand-dyed. The results are wonderful and much to be admired.

But when a member of the general public (MOTGP) sees one of these pieces, she (and I use the generic she here) does not think Wow, I need to learn how to knit so I can do that! She sees an art sweater as completely beyond her abilities--and perhaps not even hand-knit. Unless she knows you well, she doesn't know that lace shawl didn't come off a machine in China!

And there's another thing to be said about knitting as ART. When we wear a piece of art, we can feel as if the piece is wearing us rather than us wearing it. (I will never forget watching a woman struggle with, and then throw down, her  Kaffe Fassett coat, saying I am tired of this piece wearing me! The coat was heavy and unshaped: it was beautiful but uncomfortable.) It goes without saying that walking around in a piece of art might not be something many of us can manage?

2. Knitting as CRAFT
And what is knitting as CRAFT? We know this when we see it too. It might be the best incarnation of our most well-known knitting techniques: fairisle (and please excuse my use of the machine knitting term), intarsia, Aran, lace, double or modular knitting. All of these are express our craft in its most recognizable and most beloved fabrics.

But when a MOTGP sees one of these pieces, she will--again--not think Wow, I need to learn to not so I can do that! These pieces are also seen as beyond her abilities. Yes, she will know it's hand knit, but she will not see it as something can ever make.

AND she might see one of these garments as something she would not easily wear. Think for a moment of these high-craft pieces with their complications of stitch and/or colour. To avoid difficulties through shaping, they are most often drafted as drop shoulders. And while I frequently find myself defending the drop shoulder in classes, students will insist that they don't like it: it doesn't fit, it's uncomfortable, it's sloppy, or it has too much fabric at the underarm.

So, when we knit for CRAFT--and hone our knitting techniques to their highest level--we can make garments that are beautiful but not necessarily flattering. (I will never forget a story told by a woman who made my set-in sleeved Gray Cardigan: the first time she wore it someone said Oh how exquisite! It looks hand knit, but then I realized it couldn't be because it fits you too well.) Wrongly or not, making ill-fitting garments seems to be our reputation: I wonder if knitting purely for craft doesn't contribute to this a bit?

3. Knitting as FASHION
I remember my friend, Lee Andersen, telling us in a workshops that we needed to know why we were knitting: which of these 3 was our highest priority, art, craft, or fashion? I knew I was knitting for FASHION. And I also knew I as in the minority.

Some students thought FASHION meant HIGH FASHION, so they didn't see that as a reason to knit. But I didn't take it that way. I took it to mean fashion something with my hands that would express my personal fashion

Another reason (I was in a minority) might be that, unlike our grandmothers, we of this generation knit for process--because we can afford to, because we can (with globalization) buy what we wear. We know that purchased garment is the right colour, the right length, the right size. None of these are guaranteed with our hand knits. So we knit for art and we knit for craft--worthy reasons to spend our money on yarn and our time on knitting.

BUT, as said earlier, we don't produce pieces that a MOTGP recognizes as attainable or wearable. So if we knit for FASHION, might this change. And what would those attainable and wearable pieces be?

Look in your closet: what do you wear most often? Simple shapes? Solid colours? Pieces that fit? Pieces with something of interest that raises them beyond the purely simple?

These are the things that express my personal fashion. And I can tell you that rarely do I wear a hand knit without a MOTGP (a sales person in a women's clothing store, a customer in a shoe store, a stranger at an airport, a member of the cleaning staff at a hotel, a waitress in a restaurant) stopping me to say  
  • I love your top / vest / sweater!
  • Where did you get it?
  • You KNIT IT? It doesn't look hand knit!!!
  • Was it difficult? 
  • Could I do it?
Or some version of the above. Every time. And I'm going to make a major assumption here by asking if this is not a reaction we'd all--at least occasionally--want?

How do we get that reaction? For every piece we knit as ART, for every piece we knit as CRAFT, we should knit one piece for FASHION! They won't be the most interesting or technique-heavy pieces we knit, but we--knitters, our community, our craft, and the MOTGP--will all be better for it!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Isn't marketing wonderful?

I wrote that title somewhat wistfully. 'Tho' I wish I understood marketing, I don't. I do admire it when I see it well done, but--sadly--my creativity does not walk that way.

Having said that, when someone points me in the right direction, I am happy to join the parade. So, in that vein, if anyone here is attending VOGUE LIVE in NYC in January, and IF you sign up for one of my classes using the following code, you will receive a free gift.


What's not to love?
Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What makes a great design?

I've been drafting my own patterns since I was 11 years old. The reason for this is that a) I was naturally a loose knitter, b) my mother did not knit, c) I had no-one to tell me how to measure gauge (other than just pushing stitches around on the needle and laying the tape measure along said needle! DUH!) So I started drafting before I had the slightest clue as to what I was doing!

Best thing that every happened to me! I wouldn't have the life I have if any of a, b, or c had not been my reality. I believe (rightly or wrongly) that I would have knit but just followed patterns as written. OMG, who would I have become?  Probably a high-school Math and English teacher (who knit) and wrote (never-published-because-they-were-very-bad) novels.

But a, b, and c were my reality! And the advantages were legion!
  • I teach, but through books or in classrooms that could be anywhere in the English-speaking world.
  • I keep my brain alive and healthy by the very-good-work of pattern drafting (which Rudolf Steiner, who began the Waldorf Schools, recognized when he called knitting the perfect human activity and made mandatory for all 6-yr olds in his system--for its hand-eye coordination, promotion of math skills, heightened ability to focus, and generation of the ability to think spatially).
(Sorry for the length of that parenthetical item. My alter-ego English teacher shudders.)

But through those many years of drafting, I've designed (the conceptual work) some really nasty stuff. And I've also done some stuff of which I am really proud. Included in the latter is my new, all-time-favourite piece: L'ENVELOPPE (of course, available on Ravelry).

How can I say that this is my ATF piece? Because never before have I made six of something within one month of its birth. And never before have I made something that is admired every time I wear it.

So I wondered, What makes a great design? After just over 50 years of this design and drafting work, here's what I have only recently discovered and decided as my own personal criteria.
The piece must have some drafting challenges
The piece I have just done was probably knit three times before I got it right. And I'm grateful for that! I want that challenge: makes me know I'm alive and working! If the process is too easy, it's unsatisfying.

The piece must be easy to knit
While I'm not averse to complex knitting, my favourite things are easy to knit. This is where I probably differ from the majority, but I love stuff that I can knit while watching a move (with closed-captioning), reading a book, having a conversation. And I suppose I'm happy when I know the piece is accessible to a majority--which easier stuff might be.

 The piece must keep me engaged through the knitting
Here's the real kicker! To get something easy-to-knit but within which something is happening that keeps us engaged (and brain cells firing) is the best of all possible worlds. I love, love, LOVE when I can accomplish this.
I must love to wear it
Well, isn't this our bottom line??? What's the advantage to satisfying all of the above--or any other criteria--if we don't love wearing it.

Every time I wear it, it is admired
Clearly, I mis-spoke. This is our bottom line! We want people to notice what we are wearing, we want them to comment upon what we are wearing, we want them to want what we are wearing.

Unfortunately, this last one can have its downside. I do have this commented upon every time I wear it--by men, by women, by knitters, by non. And it's the latter who are sometimes a problem. Because they insist that I will make them one. (I believe they believe I should be flattered to be asked?) And, just sometimes, they don't understand thanks but no thanks for an answer. So then I, very politely, launch into The cost of our knits (which I wrote about here, Nov 1, 2012).

I did give one, very persistent woman the name of her nearest yarn shop and the link for the pattern, assuming the yarn shop could a) teach her to knit or b) find someone who wouldn't mind making it for her. I will see this woman again, so that'll be an interesting follow-up.

Back to the subject at hand, I have satisfied all of the above with this most recent piece. And I think I have done so with two others in my design history: the Einstein Coat and my Summer Sweater. Is three enough for one lifetime?

Whatever the "great design" criteria is for me, I'm not sure it would be the same for you. So I'm curious: how does this work for you? And how many do you own?  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

my round rant

What's a round rant? It's my rant against a fairly recent but widespread aberration (and I do not use that term lightly) to knit garments in-the-round. How do I know how widespread it is? Because I am asked for in-the-round garment patterns, because I am asked how to convert existing garment patterns to in-the-round, because yarn shop owners tell me they are asked for in-the-round garment patterns, because they say that's the first question they're asked about a new pattern: is it in-the-round?

Why do people think they want this? Because, when making sweaters, dresses jackets, or coats, they don't like to sew side seams.

Okay, so let's look at this from every possible angle to see if there are any good reasons to support knitting-in-the-round as an effort to avoid side seams or for any other reason.

Disclosure: what follows is long, comprehensive, and forcefully opinionated!

1. What happens after we reach the armhole?
So, I say, you knit in-the-round to the armhole. Then what do you do?

One answer is Oh, well, then I start knitting back and forth. I'll ask if their knitting doesn't look different when they go back-and-forth rather than round-and-round? Well, yes, but I don't like to sew side seams.

An alternative answer is I keep knitting in the round but cut and sew for the armholes. And I, quite honestly, wonder in what universe it's easier to cut-and-sew rather than to learn to sew side seams?

2. How difficult are those side seams?
One thing that confounds me is the wish to avoid side seams when they are, in fact, the easiest seams to master and the most invisible of our seams. If executed properly (and more of that in the next section), our side seams--in stockinette and with mattress stitch--are absolutely invisible!  They aren't invisible in sewing, but they are in knitting. Aren't we lucky!!!

Our shoulder seams aren't invisible, and they are more difficult to master. The same can be said of our drop shoulder or set-in-sleeve armhole seams: not invisible, not as easily mastered. So for most of our garments, we accept that some sewing is required. And we accept that they may be neither easy nor invisible. So why on earth are we so eager to avoid the one that is both easy and invisible!?!

3. Have we put thought into our selvedge stitches?
Having seen the request for in-the-round so often, I had to ask where it came from. And here's one thought.

Perhaps this comes from newer knitters who started with hats and mitts and cowls--without seams. So, they ask, why do I need seams in a knit garment. My head is round, my body is round: what's the difference? This is a very valid question, and I'll answer it in the next section.

It could also come from new knitters who started with scarves. Scarves are usually knit in garter stitch (knit every row), and for these we employ 2 popular selvedge stitches:
  • knit the first and last stitch of every row (offering a neat edge)
  • slip the first stitch of every row (offering a pretty edge, almost decorative, edge).
So we graduate and wish to produce a garment--probably not done in garter, some version of stockinette being the norm. And we notice rather immediately that the edge stitches are butt ugly. So we carry forward a memory of those selvedge stitches and think there's our answer! We can neaten the edges by knitting them or slipping them.

And it's not just newer knitters who use these selvedge stitches. There are many more experienced knitters (who I meet in my classes) who use garter or slip for selvedges. Some of them figured it out for themselves; some were taught to do this; some are following a pattern that directs them to do this.

So all these knitters--new or old--then wonder why they don't like their seams. Why? Because these are TERRIBLE choices for the execution of side seams!!!!
  • Slip stitches are pretty, but they transfer the ugliness of the stockinette stitch to the stitch next door: so the pretty slip-stitch goes into the seam, and the ugly stockinette stitch rides along the RS of the work. 
  • Garter stitches are pretty, but they want to lie flat--rather than nicely turning the corner into the side seam. So we get bulky seams, because this stubborn, knotty little thing fights our seam.
No wonder these folks want to avoid side seams!  With these selvedges, they are difficult to execute and look awful.
  • If selvedge stitches are worked as stockinette stitches, they are not pretty, but they roll to the back and produce invisible side seams. (The seam itself falls into the trough between stitches.) It's a wondrous and beautiful thing that doesn't happen in other stitches or crafts.
Once, when explaining all this in class, a student asked So why do patterns tell us to do this? My answer was that The pattern was written for the knitter not for the sweater. The knitter can say What a good job I did on this piece. But then she tries to seam it . . . and thinks the seam is the problem when it was--quite simply--her choice of selvedge stitches.

4. Why do we need side seams?
 So maybe I have explained why people don't like sewing, maybe not. But it's a very valid question to ask why we need those seams anyway?

Why? Because side seams are the skeleton to the garment, helping it hold shape over time.

Think about this. We do not own garments without side seams. Look in your closet: not only does everything have side seams but, if the garment is long, it has a centre-back seam. We don't own skirts or dresses or jackets or coats without both side and centre-back seams. Why? Because fabric needs structure so it won't stretch over time.

The only garment we might own without a centre-back seam could be a T-shirt made from a tube of knit jersey. And what happens after we wash it? It skews! The side seams go wonky. This is what knit fabric does.

And speaking of fabric, most of what's in our closets is not knit: it's fabric, which has inherently more structure than our knits. Still, all those pieces have side seams. Why, oh why would we want to remove this structure from our more flexible knits?

5. What further reason might we have for side seams?
I also know that when we knit in-the-round what we get is what we get. When finished, we block it and see . . . hmmm . . . who will this fit?!? No matter how experienced we are, gauge can surprise us. Yes, we knit a swatch. But no, the finished gauge may not have cared to play by the same rules.

So, if we knit back-and-forth (front and back as separate pieces with seams to join them), we can knit a piece and discover Wow, that's not gonna fit! It's too big! So we call it the front and make the back in a smaller size. And if it's too small, we call it the back and make the front larger. We can do this--and make something that fits--if we did not knit-in-the-round. (I explore this in my book KNITTING PATTERN ESSENTIALS, in the chapter When things don't turn out as expected.)

6. What exceptions are there to all this?
As I said earlier, it is perfectly appropriate to knit hats, mitts, cowls, etc, in-the-round.

And we may also knit garments in-the-round to avoid purling. When's that? When working two-colour (sometimes called fairisle) pieces. For these, the tradition is to knit in the round and to steek for front, neck, and armhole openings.

But I can honestly say that since learning (and teaching) how to purl with one yarn around the neck (and another in the right or left hand or also around the neck), I've converted myself (and students who've learned these technique) to knitting two-colour pieces flat and with side seams. Seems (sorry for the pun) way less intimidating than steeking, cutting, sewing, with all the skill set that demands.

 So that's my rant. It's supported by yarn shops who say Yes, we know they shouldn't be knitting in-the-round, but it's our job to give them what they want.

I see it as my job to help knitters make pieces that fit and will be worn--pieces that do honour to our craft. And this particular rant is a huge part of this mission.