Monthly Archives: July 2021

My Journey to Designing Knits

Standard

I learned to knit when I was around 10 or 11 years old. Both my grandmothers knew how to crochet so I was already fascinated with the idea of taking a ball of yarn and making it into something. My mother wanted to learn how to knit and of course, I went along for the ride.

I remember going to the yarn store in Deerbrook Mall. It was actually outside the mall but it was a shop filled with basic wool and acrylic yarns for knitting, crochet and needlepoint. Back then there were no indie hand-dyers or spinners. Variety only pertained to fiber, color and thickness of yarn. I remember the first sweater my mother made – a peachy, sleeveless top with a ribbed type stitch. I came across it decades later on one of my Half Price Books visits and it gave me a little smile.

My first sweater, however, was a white worsted weight acrylic top with a shawl-like collar that I used a green ombre yarn for contrast (also on the cuffs too). I’m sure it took me forever and I’m not even sure how long I had been knitting before I tackled such a huge project. I think I got the yarn from my grandmother (who mostly crocheted afghans) and it was probably from K-mart. Directions were concise in those days, they told you what to do but not how to do it. There were some basic guides but for the most part, they assumed you knew how to do it or would go to your local yarn store to learn. This was before Ravelry or Youtube. There were barely even any books on the subject, I would have bought them if there were. I’m sure my finishing skills were lacking, piecing things together based on my sewing skills.

I didn’t understand gauge at the time and that sweater was actually too small for me. I gave it to my neighbor whose kids I babysat for, thinking it would fit one of the girls.

Let me tell you something about myself before I go on. I’m a rule follower. Oh how I wish I was a rebel but that is just not me. I like order, I like rules. But, I’ve also learned that just because I like rules, doesn’t mean I can’t be the person who makes up the rules! That was a HUGE game changer for me, but I’m getting off track. That can be a story for another day.

I mention this because I saw a knitting pattern as The Rules I’m Supposed to Follow. A pattern was a mysterious thing to me and though I would have loved to design my own stuff I didn’t think I was capable of it. I collected a lot of patterns (and yarn) but my output was scarce.

I don’t remember the chronological order but there were a couple of things that started my shift away from relying on patterns to making my own designs. One defining moment was a weekend trip I took to Pennsylvania for The Knitting Guild of America’s knitting conference. I signed up for a class on making mood boards taught by Susan Lazear. It was the first time I even heard of such a thing and I was enamoured with the idea. Of course, anything related to the creative process fascinates me. But it was actually the bus ride to the airport that got me thinking. I was talking to another participant and she showed me a kit she bought. She talked about how she was drawn to the colors but the pattern wasn’t exactly to her liking and she was going to change it. In my mind that wasn’t ever a possibility until the moment she said it. So a pattern isn’t written in stone. Huh.

Knitting was becoming a bigger business and more books were being published. There was the grand-daddy (or should I say grand-mammy?) of them all – June Hemmons Hiatt’s The Principles of Knitting – which is still in print. This encyclopedic volume tells you just about everything you want to know about knitting technique. But it isn’t the book that had the most impact on me. Carmen Michelson and Mary-Ann Davis’ book The Knitter’s Guide to Sweater Design holds that spot. I still refer to it today. It breaks down the process in such easy to understand terms, basically demystifying the process. I saw how it really is just a case of basic math with some geometry thrown in (if I had known you could chart a sleeve with the pythagorean theorem, I would have been way more interested in the subject).

The best money I’ve ever spend on a knitting book.

Another milestone in my development was getting into knitting machines. At one point I owned three. A Passap, which was an older model I bought off of a widower. HIs wife took great care of it but I never really warmed up to it. I also had a Brother with a ribber and a Big Phil, which you could use hand knitting yarns on. I sold all of them a long time ago as I prefer to hand knit.

Knitting machines have their own language and since most of the patterns (at least then) came from Japan, charts were always included (even if you didn’t understand Japanese, you could always knit one of their designs by following the chart). Pictures were part of the missing link to my design education. As a visual person, schematics opened the door to design. Even though they are standard for patterns today, look at any of the older knitting magazines and there are none. Words couldn’t bring a pattern to life, but a simple line drawing leapt off the page and into my imagination. It is also from knitting machine patterns that I developed my shorthand for writing a knitting pattern.

Having knitting machines also got me a job for a machine knitting magazine. I was the technical editor in charge of articles so I worked with a lot of talent. It was an amazing education on so many levels. It helped me leaps and bounds in my own design work. And while I did have some of my designs published in the magazine, the one that I am most proud of is a handknit design I submitted to Knitting Digest (now defunct, see picture above). I did it on a whim and it ended up on the cover. I also have a design in Not Your Mama’s Knitting by Heather Dixon.

Seeing my name in print and having one of my sweaters on a cover is intoxicating but being a commercial designer is not the path for me. Coming up with my own patterns is fun, but having to grade it for different sizes, find pattern checkers, write it up, etc, isn’t. I’d rather just stick to doing it for myself and writing about it.

I believe everyone should learn how to design their own patterns because of the freedom it gives you. Most commercial patterns are written by yarn companies for their yarn. My stash, however, is full of discontinued brands that I bought years (decades!?) ago, thrifted or were given to me. Also, I like to use repurposed yarn (from unravelled thrift store sweaters). Trying to find patterns for these yarns is hard if not impossible. It’s just easier to make up my own.

Another advantage to designing your own sweaters is you will get the fit you want (as long as you got the gauge right). I still use commercial patterns as last year’s knitting can attest to, but almost every single one of them I made some sort of adjustment to achieve the fit most flattering for my body. (There are no wrong bodies, only wrong clothes).

I’ve significantly culled my collection of reference materials over the years. I’ve let go of most of my pattern books. At this point I can pretty much make any sweater I want just by looking at a picture. I’m more interesed in books that talk about technique, knitting traditions and the design process. Lately I’ve been thinking it’s time to quit buying books and write one instead. Just goes to show the journey never ends, it just evolves.

A Million Loose Ends

Standard

I spent today finishing up this sweater and weaving in the loose ends. A lot of them although a million might be a slight exaggeration.

It’s a basic top down v-neck I started to use up some odds and ends I had on hand. No particular design in mind, I didn’t spend a lot of time figuring out a color scheme, I just made a swatch and started knitting.

On the one hand, it’s a satisfying sweater in that it took very little brain power yet kept my hands busy. On the other, I can’t say it’s one of my favorites. I don’t hate it but I don’t love it either.

My creative dry spell has lasted longer than normal. Usually I need some time to recharge but this has been going on for quite awhile now. Working through my stash the past year has given me a challenge to fill my extra time but now I just feel lost, drifting along in life. Purposeless. Maybe it’s just too hot to knit. Or maybe I need to do more to reboot my creativity than sitting around waiting for inspiration.

I need to act and the first step was to journal.

I know there are “experts” that stand by a daily journaling practice but that doesn’t work for me. I see journaling as a problem-solving tool. When I’m on a roll and productive I have no need for it. But when the shit hits the fan, I find writing about it helps me move through it.

I’ve filled a lot of journals over my life but I don’t keep them. Once I’ve figured out my mood, solved the problem or untangled my emotional baggage, I’ve let it go. I don’t need to revisit it. So old journals get thrown away/recycled. Which is probably why I all of my nice blank books are still blank and I use cheap spiral notebooks instead. My preferred method now is digital since it’s cheaper and less wasteful. And I can delete it all with just a touch of a button. But I do keep a spiral notebook around for those time when I don’t have access to my laptop.

This little epiphany of why I love journals but don’t use them made me see a pattern. There are things I love the idea of but in reality just don’t work with my nature. For instance, I love the idea of a day planner but the reality is I don’t use them. I’ve taken workshops that have you block out your calendar for specific tasks. Nope, doesn’t work for me. You know what does work for me? My Google calendar. I use it mainly for appointments but I also put in reminders. What I don’t do is block out my time. Yet I still managed to maintain my weekly blog posting schedule.

This made me wonder what else am I hanging onto because I love the idea of it yet doesn’t align with my natural tendencies? Are there things in my life that are just wishful thinking? And of these wishful thinking items, are they a hindrence? I have many books but some of them I rarely ever crack the spine. Are they really inspiration or do they keep me from trusting myself, tying me to “expert” opinions instead of figuring out what comes naturally?

These questions intrigue me and I admit figuring it out has piqued my interest. I’m excited about something for the first time in a long time. My life has been moderately successful in that I’ve always had a roof over my head and have never really lacked the necessities but as far as career success goes, I’m nowhere near some of my contemporaries. Is it because I’m not aligned with “what makes me tick”, letting myself be swayed by experts and what other people do instead of trusting my gut? Is that why I feel like a train off its track? What would happen if I actually got on track?

Time to cut off those loose ends and see what I end up with.

Re-Integrating into Society is Hard, Y’all

Standard

I have a sewing project (patchwork quilt), knitting project (lace cardigan) and crochet project (filet tablecloth) and I’m not motivated to work on any of them.

These are weird times and I’m going to chalk up my lack of enthusiasm to the fact that I now have to wake up early to get my run in, drive in traffic, go into an office and interact with people in person! It’s exhausting and I only have to do it three days a week. Remember when we had to do this shit FIVE days a week? Madness.

I wish I was joking but after sheltering in place for over a year, it is tiring for this introver to get “back into the swing of things” and it’s affecting my productivity. I imagine it’s what hibernating is like, slowly lumbering out of a cave, blinking as you try to adjust to the sun.

Sometimes when I take a nap (Why are naps wasted on the young? How I live for a job that has a nap room), I wake up disoriented, not sure what time or day it was. That kind of feeling.

While none of my current projects grabbed my attention, I still wanted to do something. Otherwise I found myself thinking about going to bed at 7 pm.

I had a bag of yarn which had a bunch of leftover skeins. Same brand, different colors. I don’t do a lot of color work but figured a top down striped sweater would be the perfect way to use it up. I did a quick swatch and set to work.

I still have the sleeves to go and am pretty sure I won’t have enough to match the stripes on the body. I’m not even sure the sleeves will be identical so that’s fun. And nothing beats a top down sweater for mindless knitting, because that’s all I can handle right now.

Only a week and a half till my next vacation.

A Passion for Purple

Standard

I’ve been curating a new wardrobe for myself. Right now I am focusing on casual summer tops to wear with shorts. All I have are tank tops and a couple of $5 t-shirts I got on sale at Michael’s. Functional, yes, but not really stylish nor necessarily the coolest thing for hot Texas summers.

I went to a couple of thrift stores (I pledged to only buy my clothes secondhand. The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters and I don’t want to contribute to it anymore. There are more than enough used options around, at least if the thrift stores in my area are any indication). Since I wasn’t able to try anything on, I did get a couple I’m not totally in love with but for the most part, I found some real gems. And a pattern emerged. The majority of stuff I bought had a definite bohemian vibe – Indian-like prints and embroidery. No big surprise there. Also, there were a lot of blues and purples.

I love color. I have always been attracted to it yet haven’t had a lot of it in my wardrobe. Maybe because black and grey were just an easy option. I have another theory though. My wardrobe and it’s lack of cohesion, color or style has been an outer manifestation of an inner confict. How could I possibly develop a personal style when I was flip-flopping around, trying to be what everyone else expected me to be? If I didn’t know who I was how could I dress her? Only now that I am learning to listen to and trust my authentic self have I been able to see my true style emerge.

And purple in all of it’s glorious forms, is definitely on the menu!

What is Color?

I’m not going to pretend to understand how color works optically (apparently it has something to do with how different wavelengths of colored light combine and how cones in our eyes percieve it or something like that) but I do know from elementary art class that purple is a mixture of red and blue. Mix in more red than blue and you get purple. Mix in more blue than red and you get violet. This analogous color scheme (red, purple and blue) is my favorite so it’s no wonder that I now have quite a collection of it in my wardrobe. (I would extend that range to teal blues also. Not only do I love these jewel tones, they look good on me.)

Purple Dyes

The color purple as a dye has an interesting history. Apparently purple is rare in the nature (though it doesn’t seem like it thanks to having everything at our fingertips these days). Even if we don’t live in an area where lilacs, grapes or eggplant are indiginous, we still know what they are.

The color purple as a dye has been around since biblical times. The most important dye originally came from what is now known as Lebanon. It was extracted from a snail – mucus of a snail to be exact (the history of dying is quite fascinating and also a little gross – maybe it’s the grossness that makes it fascinating…) which had to be dried out in the sun for a particular amount of time to get the right hue. The reason purple is considered the color of royalty was because it took about 250,000 of these snails to produce one ounce of dye, making it extremely expensive but the color was deep and long lasting. If you wanted to display your wealth, wearing purple spoke volumes.

There were other natural sources for purple including purple moss, blackberries and mulberries but these created colors more on the red side and weren’t as colorfast.

Synthetic purple dye didn’t become prevalent until the mid 1800’s when William Henry Perkin, who was trying to produce synthetic quinine, created the first aniline dye instead. It was known as mauveine and shortened to mauve. He took full advantage of this discovery, set up a factory and it became readily available (i.e. affordable) to the masses.

Meaning of Purple

I’m a sucker for symbolism so naturally I’m interested in what meaning people have attached to the color purple. According to the website Color Matters :

purple symbolizes magic, mystery, spirituality, the sub-conscious, creativity, dignity, royalty – and it evokes all of these meanings more so than any other color.

I find the link to royalty rather interesting given my life archetype is The Empress. (I’m a sucker for these type of personality quizzes. And whether or not you believe any of it, I strongly identify with everything about my archetype.) While it doesn’t state a particular color, purple is definitely an empress color.

Am I drawn to purple because it is such a rare color? That it evokes “deep mystery? Because of its “royal” heritage? Or because my skin tone has a reddish undertone so the coolness of purple keeps me from looking like a beet?

I confess the idea of being mysterious and rare does sound better than being an outcast and weird, which is kind of how I felt my whole life. Being a little older and wiser, I’m no longer concerned about fitting in. Actually I’m okay with being weird. What’s the other option – normal? When I was younger I did everything I could to be like everyone else – to be accepted – but now that sounds so…boring. And life is so much easier and enjoyable embracing my weirdness instead of trying to hide or erase it, like it was something to be shameful of.

So yeah, color me purple.

Organizing my Stash…Again

Standard

My knitting has been on the back burner these days. Mainly because I started the Lace Cardigan from The Art of Seamless Knitting by Simona Merchant-Dest and Faina Goberstein. It’s a top down cardigan and a bit fiddly as it requires a lot of concentration. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be gorgeous when it’s done but I was about 45 rows into the pattern when I realized my gauge was wrong and it wasn’t going to fit (even though I had done a gauge swatch). I ripped it out and started over but it’s been slow. I still haven’t made it back up to row 45. Between having to get up early to run (to beat the heat) and going back into an office again, my brain has been kind of fried and doesn’t want to deal with all the yarn overs, SSK, etc. I mean, I’ve been under lock down for over a year and realized my social skills are a bit rusty. It’s been taxing.

I want a no-brainer knitting project. So naturally I decided to pull out all of my yarn and organize it. Totally reasonable response, right?

This is not the first time I’ve done this. However, it is the first time I decided to put it ALL down on paper (well, in a Google spreadsheet, so technically not paper…). I have managed to use up some of my stash the past year and it’s been shifted around where most of it now fits in my linen cabinet. The problem is it’s not easy to see all of it – out of sight, out of mind. Here’s where the beauty of the spreadsheet comes in.

The columns in the spreadsheet are labeled: Brand of Yarn, Color, Fiber Content, Amount (# of skeins as well as the grams or yardage of each skein), Recommended Needle Size and Project Ideas (as vague as “hat” or actual links to patterns). And the first column has an actual picture of the yarn. Not all my yarn has labels but I fill in what I can.

The spreadsheet is a good idea for several reasons:

  • I can see what I have without dragging everything out of the closet.
  • I can add in ideas for different yarns as I find them. Having brand names on hand also allows me to go into Ravelry and look for projects made with that specific yarn, even if the yarn is no longer being manufactured.
  • I can look for yarns to pair up. This is especially useful since I have so many odds and ends.
  • It got me thinking about what to do with all my odds and ends. Given that I already have 50 yarns listed and I’m not done, not everything I knit needs to be for me. I thought it would be nice to use some of my yarn for gifts and charity. I’d like to have a stock of handknits around to surprise friends and family with. I’m thinking of “one-size-fits-all” kind of projects – hats, scarves, socks, mittens – that sort of thing. These are also perfect “no-brainer” projects.
  • It’s a reminder of how blessed I am. It may sound corny but what made the last year so bearable was my knitting and sewing. And how wonderful was it that all I had to do was open a drawer or a cabinet to find a bounty of materials to pick from.
  • It gives me one place to capture all of my ideas.
  • Creativity has a stereotype of being messy and chaotic but it needs constraints. Organizing my stash into a document and being able to see everything all at once activates “what if” thinking. What if I combined different weight yarns? What if I tied all the small leftovers together to create a Frankenball? What if I combine different textures? How would that effect the stitch pattern? What if I combined knitting with crochet? Crochet with sewing? What if I worked in patchwork? What if I added leather? These questions get my juices flowing and are the basis for some really unique and interesting design.

It may not seem like I got a lot accomplished this week but I laid the foundation and set myself up for success with future projects. Whether I need to take on a more challenging project or just need something keep my hands busy, my spreadsheet will be there with all of its possibiities.