Monday, November 24, 2008

A Puny Little Swatch is No-One's Friend

The fiber festivals were awfully fun this year. I came home all in a lather to sink my hands into this luscious brushed mohair. I had bought the pattern right along with the yarn, so, for once, there was no plumbing of the archives and agonizing over what to make with it.

I couldn't wait. I just wound it up into a ball and got right to work, prattling about its fuzzy softness to anyone who would listen.

Of course I knit a little swatch and got it over with. It's the done thing, after all, isn't it? Now, granted, it was a smallish swatch. And I didn't take it terribly seriously. I spread it on my knee, but I didn't pin it out to measure. And I certainly didn't launder it. It couldn't be that critical.

I dived right in, beginning hem-upwards on the back of the sweater, knitting eagerly, watching the colors flicker as they pulled out of the ball and worked into the rows. When I had an inch or two done, I eyed it critically. It looked a little wide. Spreading it carefully over both needles, so it could extend to its full width, I measured. It was a little wide. Hmmm. Well, did I want it to be big and loose? No, I really didn't. I wanted this one to be comfortable, but neatly fitted, not over-sized. So, grumbling mildly, I ripped it out, and started again, a size smaller this time. At least I felt clever for having double-checked before losing too much time.

Then I knitted away contentedly for weeks. Miles of stockinette can be very pleasant for me sometimes. It's nice to just enjoy making the stitches, pulling them through, feeling the yarn, admiring the piece as it grows, and chatting or watching TV or just relaxing all the while.

And, really, most fancy stitchwork would be lost in the fuzz and the color changes of this yarn. It really just needs to speak for itself. The sweater pattern, a simple mock turtleneck, is one designed specifically for this yarn, and wisely follows that philosophy.

I handled the yarn delicately. It was, after all, from a baby goat and surely deserved a little extra care. So, after a while, here I was, with all the pieces done and ready to assemble. A soft, fuzzy kid mohair sweater in beautiful colors that I was looking forward to wearing. The only thing was, it looked kind of... wide.

I measured. It was kind of wide. I hadn't gotten gauge. It was probably from babying it, not wanting to pull the loops tight. But come on, I had swatched! I had measured! I had started over and adjusted the size I was knitting! Nevertheless, there it was, stretching out widely in front of me. Where's the justice in that?

It just lay there blinking at me, caring naught for all my protestations. Still, wanting my neatly fitted sweater, I decided there was nothing for it but to rip it out. The whole thing. The basically completed sweater.

Sigh. It was a test of my character, that's what it was. And in mohair, too. I think I mentioned before that ripping out mohair takes extra patience. Oh, yes, indeed it does. Ripping out knitting should be something like stripping off a Band-Aid. Painful, but over quickly, so you can put it behind you. Not with mohair. Oh, no. Not only does it have to be done slowly and gently, but it gets downright argumentative and stubborn at times.

I'm an expert at ripping out knitted mohair, now. I've had lots of practice. I don't want to think about how long it took. I did it in stages, ripping out a piece, and starting to re-knit it on smaller needles before mustering the will to rip out another piece. I mostly avoided looking at clocks while all this was going on. I did get curious, though, before it was all over, and noted the time for the last piece. It took me two full hours to unravel just the back of the sweater.

I wish I could say that I remained serene through this whole process, doing what was necessary without letting it get to me. But I can't. I have to admit that, at times, I got frustrated with teasing apart the little hairs until they would let go. Once or twice, defeated, I actually yanked hard, hoping to break the thread. But it was too strong for that, though the tangles eventually did give way and let me pass.

It made me glum for a while, and I didn't really want to talk about it. But that chapter is over. The re-knitting is well underway. Once again, I'm enjoying the simple pleasures of endless stockinette, this time, I hope, in the right needle size. It does seem better. With the smaller needles, it has some life and body that it lacked. Before, it was a little slack and sprawling. And it seems to be coming out more my size.

This time, it doesn't matter. Whatever size this sweater turns out, I'm wearing it. But I may be a little more particular next time about the size of my swatch!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seeing Double

I feel strangely disoriented. My separate worlds are beginning to touch.

In the last couple of months, I've met a few of my on-line friends in person. And a couple of my in-person friends are starting to dip their toes in the knitting community on-line.

Bess was actually the third, not the first, on-line knitting friend that I encountered in real life. So, why, the others might wonder, didn't I make just as big a commotion about meeting them? It's a couple of things, really. In both of the other cases, I sought out the meeting, knowing where I would find them and setting out on purpose to say hello. It was just as exciting, but not so unexpected. And I found myself a little bemused by the whole experience, thinking it over, getting used to the idea.

It's a strange feeling, meeting for the first time someone who I already think of as a friend. Do I know her or is she a stranger? We have some memories in common, through reading each other's stories and looking at pictures, but can I speak with the familiarity and ease of long acquaintance?

In fact, I'm struck by the sheer physicality of the impression I've gotten when I've at last met an on-line friend. Even for someone who shares pictures of herself on her blog, so that I have an idea of what she looks like, the impact of actually meeting face-to-face is striking. In person, these on-line friends seem larger than life, more vigorous, more vivid. There's always something surprising -- the height, the voice, a transforming smile, the bloom of a complexion. It's bracing. It exposes what an insubstantial wraith is the image I've concocted in my mind from these on-line conversations, compared to the whole person.

In conversation, I find myself chatting about personal events I've read about in a blog entry, asking about how this or that is going, congratulating or expressing sympathy over a triumph or a challenge. And then I stop, thinking, I don't know this person well enough to presume to talk about that.

I talk about my own motivations, how I feel about something I do or don't like, but do I know her well enough to avoid offending? If I allude disparagingly to having -- until I became entranced -- put spinning in the same category as 70s macramé, am I speaking to someone whose grandmother was for years the president of a local guild? Or whose favorite aunt showed her inexpressible love for the whole family with monumental, individually designed creations of macramé? Far-fetched, yes, unlikely, but not impossible. And how would I know?

These friendships seem somehow accelerated by the common interest and passion for our hobbies that we share on-line. But they short-circuit the long-term daily accretion of knowledge, incident, and understanding that one develops with in-person friends over time.

It must be something like the old idea of having a pen-pal. Although I have to admit, when I was a child, I'm not sure attempts to write to a pen-pal would really have taken. Kid-writings tend to be along the lines of: "Dear pen-pal, I have a dog. Do you have a dog? Last summer we went to the beach. Is it cold where you live? I found a seashell. Sincerely, your friend." But if a pen-pal friendship did catch hold and flourish, and somehow a vacation trip or other event brought the children together, would they be instant friends?

Or how about people who date someone they've met over the Internet? What must it feel like for them to meet in person for the first time? Do the feel they know the person well, or not at all? Or both?

And, to exacerbate the feelings of not quite knowing which world I am in, an in-person friend asked me one day whether I know of anyplace to get an on-line spreadsheet to keep track of the rapidly increasing piles of yarn she'd been acquiring. Did I ever! Of course I introduced her to Ravelry. But doing so confronted me for the first time with the necessity to tell a friend about my on-line identity and this very blog. Being shy about it, in real life, I had never told anyone except for family members. I had felt a little silly about the whole thing when I first started writing, not sure if I was being ridiculous. And now there wouldn't be any hiding it. If she were on Ravelry, it would be natural to wonder about my user-id, which, through my Ravelry profile, leads straight here.

So the jig was up. I gave her a guided tour of Ravelry, explained the features, and showed her my project page. I brought her here. I showed her that I'd been writing about projects she'd seen in person in my informal knitting group. It feels strange, like there's more of me on display than I bargained for.

But I get so much from these on-line interactions, so much learning and enjoyment and wonder. It's well worth the minor discomfort of adjusting.

I'm still seeing double, but things are beginning to come into focus.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Stitches to Remember

Ah, now, what will I remember about this year's Stitches?

Well, quite a few things. The first -- before we even got there, actually -- was, for the first time in quite a few years, having to do homework! Maybe this is perfectly ordinary for those of you who have often taken knitting classes. But I'm mostly a self- and book-taught knitter, and the idea of doing homework to bring to a class is like an almost-forgotten memory of school days. Apparently I hadn't forgotten the part about doing some of it at the last minute, though. I finished knitting the last of my required swatches in the car on the way to Baltimore. And, no, I wasn't the driver. :)

The next impression is of arriving with my friend at the convention center, comfortably early, to register and get situated for our first classes, and seeing the place liberally be-sprinkled with knitters. Everywhere, at tables and chairs, on couches, sitting in groups on the floor, engrossed in their projects and conversation. They knitted in the registration lines and in the Starbucks lines and some of them knitted right where they stood, at the head of the stairs or some other landmark spot, perhaps waiting to meet someone by pre-arrangement.

Luckily, we had equipped ourselves with portable projects, thinking of evening knitting time in the hotel. So once we got our coffee and pastry and got settled, we too were able to whip out some knitting and feel like we belonged.

I started work on a pair of socks in Colinette Jitterbug yarn, in the Kingfisher colorway. As you can see, I didn't get very far. I was too distracted, looking around at all the knitting on display, both in progress and on the backs of knitters. But the important thing was being a part of it all, not getting a sock done!

Checking into the hotel a little later, it seemed that even the hotel management had gotten into the act. Hanging on the soaring wall alongside an escalator was a large, dramatic piece of art. Up close, it appeared to be an array of ropes hung side by side, arranged with the direction of their twist alternating from one to the next. From a distance, it looked like nothing so much as a giant ragged-edged piece of stockinette-stitch knitting. Perfect for the occasion, as, being so close to the Convention Center, the hotel was overrun with knitters.

Soon enough, the time came to find the classroom for my first class. I found a seat near the front. Bubbling with anticipation, I looked around. Across the room was a face that seemed somehow familiar. I looked again, harder. I started thinking, gosh, maybe... could it be? The person in question probably began wondering why someone was staring at her. Not having glasses on, that I need only occasionally, I squinted to try to see the name on the nametag. I couldn't read it from where I sat, but it was a short-ish name; a promising sign. Finally, I asked from across the room, "is your name Bess?" "Yeeeesss?" she said, not knowing what to expect. I went charging across the room to introduce myself. Aaaa! Aaaa! It was Bess, one of the wonderful on-line friends I've come to know through their blogs but have never met. And she was wearing one of her projects that I'd read about, to boot. What fun it was to meet her! That was a Stitches memory I will certainly treasure.

The classes themselves were really enjoyable. I learned some great information, and it was quite an experience just being around my fellow students. Some of them were much like me; others were clearly a couple of notches further toward the "must-knit-must-knit-NOW" side of the spectrum. Some were relatively new knitters. Others were yarn-shop owners, designers, tech editors, or test knitters. Sometimes just hearing their questions and interactions with the teachers was an education in itself.

One of the classes I took was taught by designer Melissa Leapman, the author of Cables Untangled and the just-released Continuous Cables (among others). I was very entertained by her puckish sense of humor and her perfect control over the class. I'd seen her previously on TV, as the featured guest on an episode of the DIY channel's Knitty Gritty series, but that was simply not the same. It was well worth having a chance to be in her class in person. She had also brought some of the sweaters that appear in her books and used them to illustrate some of the design features she was talking about. One that I always liked, from the book Hot Knits, is a red cardigan with cables down the sides that curve in and then out again, giving an hourglass effect. She'd brought that along, and it was interesting to see it and hear her comments about it.

And of course, there will be plenty of memories of the Stitches Market. One mildly terrifying one was of finding, when I returned to the hotel room Thursday night, that some of my purchases were missing. It ended well, as I did manage to locate the truant yarn the next day. But it made for some anxious moments as I scoured the booths that I'd visited the night before until finally hitting upon the one where I'd lost it. The vendor had found the bag I'd left behind and set it aside, hoping its owner would eventually come back. I felt much better after that and bought some more items in a celebratory mood. :)

I tried not to overdo it, as my house is overstocked and groaning as it is. I don't think I did too badly; I only bought one yarn in a sweater quantity.

Here's a peek at most of what I did buy.

On the right is that sweater- to- be, a bag of Noro Silk Garden yarn. Way down in the lower right is some Jojoland Harmony lace- weight yarn, with the slowly undulating colors characteristic of the brand. Just above it is a skein of sock yarn from Miss Babs, an independent dyer based in Tennesse, in an overdyed colorway called Russet Shadows. Just to the left, two skeins leaning on the Noro Mini Knits book are semi-solid merino superwash sock yarns labeled as Happy Feet. The periwinkle-colored skein just to the left is a precious skein of bulky-weight Jade Sapphire Mongolian Cashmere, in the Hydrangea colorway. Then, although I've just loaded up on spinning fiber at the festivals, I couldn't resist one little Blue-Faced Leicester roving from Lisa Souza Dyeworks in Slate. And I found I really needed a couple of skeins of her hand-dyed "Sock!" superfine merino yarn in the Atlantic and North Sea colorways.

That's all of it. Pretty much. Well, mostly, anyway. There may be one or two things that didn't make it into the picture. A couple. Oh, what's that big pinky red thing in the center? Oh, nothing. That's just my pretty new Namaste knitting bag. I needed it.

Just a little something more to remember Stitches by. :)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Stitching Together

This weekend I headed north to Baltimore with a friend to soak up a couple of days of everything knitting-related at Stitches East.

Well... this weekend? Not exactly. We actually fudged a little and played hooky from work so we could go on Thursday and Friday. This is something we've been looking forward to since the day last year when we dipped our toes in the Stitches Market and got an idea of just what we'd been missing.

We had mild weather that seemed more like September, but the trees are in full color, so we knew it wasn't so. Baltimore is a great setting for this show, but it seems this, the third year there in a row, will be the last for a while. The hugely capacious convention center is right downtown only about two blocks from the picturesque waterfront of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. There are lots of hotels, restaurants, and other entertainment to be had within a short walk. Not that one needs any other entertainment, mind you, when Stitches is underway.

I brought along my camera, but did I remember to take any pictures of the harbor with its ships and lights and beautiful vistas? Nope. Inside the event, I understand photo-taking is not allowed, and once finally outside again, we were foot-weary and thinking of nothing but where to get dinner. So I will have to be content with a picture of the convention center itself.

As we found last year, the Stitches Market alone is reason enough to go. Imagine the equivalent of 200 or more yarn shops all offering different wares and lined up cheek by jowl for your browsing and buying pleasure. It's thrilling and, honestly, overwhelming. Selection you couldn't even dream of in one place. The commercially produced and the hand-crafted. New products making their first appearance. Samples everywhere for inspiration. Creators of many of the designs and yarns on display, there on the spot to talk them over with you. Throngs of happy, excited knitters.

But what we didn't get in on last year is what was going on upstairs. Hundreds of classes given by top-notch teachers. In-depth instruction on many specialized topics, often by someone who has written a book on the subject. I don't even know exactly what a Danish Skå-trøjer is, but Beth Brown-Reinsel, an expert on traditional knitting, is giving a 12-hour class on it. I'd take them all if I could!

So, this time, we had decided to sign up for classes and stay overnight. As registered students, we were also eligible to go to the Stitches Market during the Thursday night preview session, before it opens to the public. I could have waited and gone up Friday. I could! Definitely. But for my friend, the thought of having first pick of all those yarns and pattern books and tools and bags and kits and jewelry and everything else was just too powerful a lure. So Thursday it had to be. I was just humoring her. It was really only because of her.

We equipped ourselves with wheelie carts. It was her doing. I was just going along with it. Definitely. And did we take much advantage of the preview session? I guess you could say so.

Time to sign off for now, but there's more to tell you about. Definitely.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Just Doing My Duty, Ma'am

When the economy is down, we all have to do our bit, don't we?

While I can't buy a house or take out a loan to get funds flowing, I can help in my own little way -- a couple of skeins of yarn here and there to provide the fiber festival booths of the United States with a little economic stimulus.

Here are some of the fruits of my personal efforts in that direction. These are some of the fun things I found at the Fall Fiber Festival, a few weeks ago. The big cushy grayish greenish bundle on the left in the back is some Kid Hollow Farm brushed mohair yarn. At least it was yarn. Now it's a half-knit-up project. As you see, I couldn't even hold back long enough to take a picture before casting on and starting work on the mock turtleneck pattern they were showing as a sample sweater. In the back on the right is another batch of the same yarn in a silvery gray. Scattered around are some small spinning-related accessories. In the front are a couple of skeins of Creatively Dyed yarn.

Here, I'll give you a closer look. Is that not beautiful?

Then, only a couple of weeks later, I administered the next phase of my stimulus package at the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival. Oh dear, it's so exhausting staving off financial mayhem. Maybe I'd better fan myself and go get some lemonade.

But, as you can see, I don't shrink from a challenge. At the bottom of the picture, you see three skeins of gorgeous hand-dyed sock yarn from Beyond Basic Knits, in lovely rich colors. Then, on the left with the luscious watermelon and canteloupe colors is some roving from Serendipitous Ewe -- Wensleydale, another new breed for me to try! Peeking out in the back are some rovings from Bitsyknits intended for spinning sock yarn, one in merino, and the other in a merino-alpaca blend. Only semi-visible are a merino-cashmere roving from the Brazen Sheep, a pretty handmade basket from the Foothills Spinners and Weavers Guild, and a bright turning-maple-leaves-colored roving from Wild Hare Fiber in Coopworth and llama. Oh my, I just don't know where to turn next.

There are a few more things as well that didn't make it into the pictures but will most likely be heard from here sooner or later. All my economic stimuli are in something of a jumble. One of the auditors must have been overexcited. And, perplexingly, in among the heap is a receipt that I have no earthly idea what it was for. Clearly I bought something, as I signed the slip, plain as day, but there aren't any legible clues as to what that might be! More evidence of economic disarray.

Well, I'll just distract myself with this picture of the one that got away. This is the fabulous new Noro sock yarn, with a sample sock that shows it off to stunning advantage. This little tableau pleases me to no end. It just glows, doesn't it? I'm afraid I can't find my show catalog just now, but I think it might have been in the Fibersmyth booth. (If not, my sincere apologies to whoever it was.)

Seriously, I do worry about the fate, in an economic downturn, of all of these very small businesses who bring us so many special treats. Small businesses and retailers often seem vulnerable when the economy tightens. If poor conditions last long, luxuries are likely to suffer. These things, on the one hand, are certainly luxurious. If we shop carefully, we can get our sweaters and socks, machine-made, much more cheaply.

But these knitting and spinning supplies aren't expensive cars or fancy resort vacations, either. With the entertainment and fulfillment that they afford the hand-crafter and the beautiful and useful objects that result, their cost is modest for the value they provide. When belts tighten, perhaps we will go out less and busy ourselves more with homely and comforting things. Perhaps these are not luxuries but necessities.

Yes, I'm half-serious about wanting to help support these farms and artisans, small entrepreneurs and craftspeople, at a time when things may be slowing down a little. But it's nice when inclination and duty coincide so well.