Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Down The Rabbit Hole

Today is Lewis Carrrol's birthday, and is officially Down The Rabbit Hole Day. On this day, bloggers are encouraged to post blogs in a different style than their usual one. So I'm using a serif font and red type - not my usual style at all!

Nor will I write much about knitting (this is a great wrench, but I do love and admire Lewis Carroll). How about primate anatomy? Which is another passion of mine, but not nearly as easy to pursue while sitting on the couch ... for me, a casual layperson, it is mostly a reading activity. The architectural history of the human skeleton is an enduring fascination to me: humans, although built to the same basic specs as most other creatures on Earth, have nonetheless developed some interesting novelty items over the course of the last few millions of years.

No one but the primates, for instance (us and our cousins, the monkeys and apes) has developed the enlongated, multi-jointed digits that let us knit or wear flip-flops or hold bananas in our feet. Our lifelong buddies dogs and cats all walk tidily about on rounded little pads: cows and goats and pigs are down to 2 toes, and horses have gone for total minimalism: one big toe per foot. See, it's not the thumbs that let us knit - it's the several jointed toes ... hmmm, can't get off the knitting, can I? Oh, well, at least I can combine it with anatomy.

Octopuses (octopi? Octopodi?) have tentacles and have recently been shown to enjoy playing with toys - but no one has tried teaching them to knit. I think they'd be good at it, myself ... a knitter with 8 arms could more easily knit both socks of a pair at once. Or every single piece of a sweater simultaneously.

Parrots could knit, too, I think. They only have two hands, but they are composed entirely of thumbs! Four per hand, in fact, and all opposed to one another. If not for parrots being agents of chaos, they could be killer knitters ... instead of knitting killers ...

My, such strange things one thinks of sitting and trying not to knit!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ju Ju

I've taken the last several days off blogging, trying to get my house tidy enough to host a house guest this weekend. My anticipated guest is a knitter, too, and isn't going to fuss if there is yarn lying about - but it would be nice if she could see the floor here and there, and maybe sit down somewhere. Obviously, something had to give, and it wasn't going to be my knitting.

Then I got caught up in the Inauguration ceremonies. Amazing, how these things get more and more interesting as one grows up - I used to be terminally bored when I had to watch current events in school, but this one ... it was magic. It was engrossing. It was captivating.

So, of course, I knit through the entire thing as I watched CNN. How other? The ceremony was made for knitting. This was change, and at the same time it was the smooth continuity of our political system. It was order out of chaos. It was bringing things together to form a new unity. I use my knitting as a personal magic spell, sometimes: I deliberately knit during special times, at special places, to catch those unique and sacred moments in my web. It ties all the days of my life together.

I think most knitters do that. When you see a knitter working away during a wedding, a christening, a funeral, a reunion - they aren't ignoring the event, they are paying the closest possible attention: they are immortalizing it. The knitting is our prayer that this event will be commemorated forever; whatever it is that has been born, may it may live forever. We knot it to the fabric of the world with our strings and sticks.

There's a prayer in every stitch, and I knit hundreds as Barack Obama took his oath as our new President. And I didn't make a single error.

Here is a needlewoman's prayer:
May this new union live, take hold and grow strong! Let our country hold together like fine fabric. Let it thrive and increase row after row. We will all hold it together.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Obsession As An Art Form

I learned to knit when I was 9; knit madly for a year, and then was badly miffed by losing an argument with a teacher on whether or not I could knit in class. So I quit. Knitting, not class; might have made a different decision later in life, but at age 10 - in Catholic school - in 1963 - there was no question.

I didn't pick up knitting needles again for 40 years. When I did I made an appalling discovery. Among the many, many ways in which knitting is nothing like riding a bicycle is its effect on memory. You do forget. But obsession was waiting for me, and now it pounced; I had to knit.

I could remember how to cast on, but not to cast off - basically I didn't know how to stop.
Also, I could knit - but if I'd ever known how to purl, I had forgotten. Kind friends showed me how to cast off again (though I must say - all I've managed so far is to stop specific projects. Nothing seems about to make me stop knitting.) I learned how to purl from the excellent illustrations in my Reader's Digest Complete Book of Needlework, which is a vital resource for me.

I had to learn how to purl because I wanted to knit cables. So I spent a weekend sitting on my bed with the bedroom door closed, and practised purling until I got blisters. Then I knit cables until my fingers bled. Getting the tension right was harder than I'd anticipated. But by the end of three days, I could both purl and cable, in any direction or angle. I promptly went nuts and made an afghan that had just enough non-cables to hold the cables together; it was ecstacy.

Maybe it was the 4 decades of abstinance. Maybe I was at a good point in my life for an obsessive behaviour to surface. Maybe I just need something passionate, and was getting a little old for casual sex or mountain climbing. But it worked, and that crazed beginning has led to an entirely new portion of my life. There really aren't all that many opportunities given to any of us for life-changing experiences, you know? I'm grateful.

Gonna hold on tightly this time. I don't have time for another 40 year lapse!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Knit What You Like, Like What You Knit

There is so much variety in knitting. There's room for everyone's creative urges, even if they are the sort who only really want to make practical things. You can do so much with knitting, that the most sensible course of socks and mittens and dishclothes still leaves one plenty of room to experiment with colours and patterns and textures. I leaf through the dozens of magazines out there these days in awe (and sometimes terror) - people come up with so many ideas!

Myself, I've got no urge to knit sushi - but someone went to a lot of time and trouble to do so, and I've got the pattern. I'll never make any, but I have to admire the dedication and determination that went into it. Even tea cozies and stuffed lambs (which are absolute classics of knitting) strike me as only a few steps above total frivolity. I mean, all that time and effort and what are they for? I'll admit the necessity of happy babies and warm tea, but there have to be easier ways to get them. If I'm going to spend days knitting something - and let's face it, I am - I think I want the end result to be wearable by a person.

But that's all right: because for everyone like me who can't see the point in a draft excluder knit to look like a giant snake (got that pattern, too), there's the happy knitter who's making them for all her friends. She probably cannot understand the glee I feel knitting cables on just about anything at all. I've got friends who are addicted to the production of socks - is it the teeny stitches? The fiendish complexity of the heel? The stripes? I don't know, but their obsession with stockings leaves more room for me to fill the cosmic lack of knitted ties. And keeps me supplied with socks, too.

You don't have to justify knitting, of course - it's an end in itself, not a means to an end. There's nothing intrinsically silly about knitting a Dalek. Or an Elder God. Or my own personal demented goal of lace cafe curtains for the living room .... really. There's not.

Not for a knitter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Making Art

A few years ago, I was attending a seminar on historical re-creation; essentially, classes, lectures and demos on how to be a recreator. Or at least how to look and act more authentic when you attended your local Renaissance Faire or Civil War event - unless you are one of those happily eccentric types who thinks any historical event is an excuse for Halloween, and like to dress up as a fairy or a Klingon ...

Naturally, there was a lively market section, with all manner of hand crafts, clothing, weapons and assorted accessories for sale. There was a needlework booth, where I naturally gravitated. Mind you, I was crocheting at this time, not knitting; but the yarns were all hand-spun and dyed and quite delicious. And there were wooden hooks, which at that time were harder to find than wooden knitting needles.

The proprietor was sitting and knitting socks. She was using 4 needles instead of a circular needle, and I was instantly captivated. The first time you see someone knitting in the round with multiple needles can take you like that - it just looks astounding! It only took a few minutes to see how the trick worked - you just divide what would be a continuous circle into several arcs - and I was enthralled. The play of the needles, as delicate as bird bones - the intricate geometry of the fabric shaped between the constantly shifting sticks - the psychotically tiny stitches!

I wanted to do that. Not necessarily to make a sock, but to make that kind of beauty. I wanted to be part of that overwhelming pattern, and let it flow through me.

I think it's one of the hallmarks of the artist or crafter, that urge. To look at something lovely and not say: That's beautiful and I want to possess it. But to say instead, That is Beauty and I want it to possess me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Not Much But I Manage

I'm not a brilliant knitter. Competent, yes - usually, anyway. I can work cables, have actually completed several projects, and can read a chart once I am sure which way is right side up.

But  I have grown resigned to needing three starts on any pattern before I get it right. My sisters and kids would testify that my colour sense should be taken away from me lest I hurt myself. I'm not fast, either. A friend gave me a wonderfully easy hat pattern over Christmas, assuring me that she usually knocked one out in about 90 minutes: it took me 4 hours. But 4 hours to complete an entire project was incredibly fast for me, and my hat was just as cute as hers always are. I managed to complete 3 of them before Christmas morning, too, and enjoyed every moment of the work.

If I have any knitting wisdom to impart, therefore (which is pretty unlikely anyway), it is from the viewpoint of the ordinary knitter. Of whom, I am sure, there are lots and lots. We're not casual knitters - our knitting matters as much to us as the award winners' does to them - but we are the ones who really do have to double-check their list of stitch definitions now and then. The ones who can take a year to finish a sweater. The ones who approach really iconic knitting - socks, or mittens, or cable work - with trepidation and hyperventilation.

None of which matters to the knitting, thank goodness. Yarn is a gracious hostess, and always seems happy with whatever we bring to it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Recreational History

Since I was 19, I have been active in historical re-creation. It barely existed back in 1972, so I got in on the ground floor. I've worked Renaissance Faires (the original Renaissance Faire in California), Old California fiestas, Gold Rush shindigs, Victorian events. I've even done Pirate Fairs lately, although that is not as much historical recreation as it is the evocation of a mass social hysteria - lots of fun, though, and the more authenticity you can bring to it (short of actual gore and mayhem), the better.

Almost 40 years of doing this has influenced all my needlework and crafting, of course. The deeper I got into it, the more historically accurate I wanted my handcrafts to be. So I've learned to card and spin and dye, (and discovered I am seriously spinning-impaired). I've learned naal-binding and Elizabethan 1-needle knitting, and found that they are basically crocheting without that handy specialized hooked needle. I've embroidered and I am very bad at it indeed. I've crocheted, I've netted, and now I knit.

Natural fibres and dyes are therefore always my first choice - except at Victorian events; they had aniline dyes, whoopee!
But my needles are all wood and bone, and my accessories are wood and metal: never plastic, because that way my kit works no matter what century I may find myself knitting in. I don't have to worry about packing and remembering to leave out the glowing fluorescent orange needles, or the stitch markers shaped like little fuzzy dice. (I really saw those, and they were quite a temptation.) I've got a cute little lambie tape measure, but I also have a 19th Century folding tailor's rod, and a plain old knotted string for older eras.

One of the things to always remember is that needlework is basically a practical art; no matter how wild our fancies are now, everything we do began in the desperate need to clothe someone. The men and women who invented knitting needed socks and gloves and caps and blankets; they learned to make their tools out of what was to hand and what could be improvised. Most modern knitters know they can use chopsticks and pencils in a pinch; imagine beginning with smoothed twigs! Believe me, they don't have to be straight to work well, although any society that has already invented the bow and arrow can turn out good knitting needles. I've used both.

Knitting is always living history. It's time travel and fables and immortality. We are literally stitching onto the fabric of human existence.

Sure can't do that with an iPod ....

Update On Day of Doom

I couldn't stand it - I went to work on the cable sweater last night. And promptly reversed myself, so I was knitting in the wrong direction in the round. Luckily, I noticed after only 23 stitches, but I took it as an omen - set everything carefully down and backed away.

Sometimes the mojo just ain't there.

Gonna spend today inventorying my stash, counting needles and otherwise tidying things.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

One of Those Days

Why do "those" days happen? Knitting is an art that makes order out of chaos (when we do it right), so are free-range agents of chaos attracted to it just to make trouble? Do my tiny efforts to make something tidy out of shapeless disorder (i.e., the interior of my knitting bag) automatically draw evil faeries of loosening and messiness to me? It sure seems like it today.

Sat down with the knitted tie project after breakfast, to do a half-hour's worth of rounds while the laundry cycled - was promptly pounced on by Harry the Evil Minion of Disaster, who grabbed my ball of yarn and ran. In a triumph of enthusiasm over common sense, he ran right off the edge of the couch with it. Yes, he's a bird and yes, he can fly - but not carrying a ball of yarn that weighs half as much as he does. (It turns out that the air speed of a laden parrot is fairly brisk, but straight down.) By the time I retrieved the two of them from under the table, he was wrapped in yarn and the yarn was full of dust bunnies, toast crumbs and tiny little feathers ... re-winding yarn is not nearly as much fun as knitting it.

I didn't enjoy the reminder that I really need to vacuum, either.

Sat down after grocery errands to do a few inches on the lace scarf. I evidently had a brain aneurysm and didn't notice, until I realized I had 1) miscounted the pattern rows and inserted the wrong lace panel and 2) had been knitting a row that was supposed to be purled. When I began to tear it out, I fumbled the piece and the slippery yarn (it's a corn yarn, very silky) literally fell off the needles (which are holly wood, also very slippery). Spent quite some time figuring out where I was, backtracking, and repairing the damage before I could even think of adding any rows at all. Oh, and fighting off Harry, who - undiscouraged - was trying to bite my beautiful sea-foam white holly wood needles!

I'm afraid to work on the cable sweater. I've been successfully reducing a complicated pattern to form the sleeve holes, but the way things are going today, God knows what I'd do to it. All that lovely bas-relief of cables, twists, moss stitch and seed stitch would probably mutate into a frieze of the little square bug-critters from Space Invaders.

The Uncertainty Principle has its beady eyes fixed on me. Chaos is lurking in the shadows. All my projects are poised on the fatal edge of entropy.

There's only one thing to do:

Start a new project right now.

Friday, January 9, 2009

That PomPom Is Squeaking

I have a parrot. His name is Harry. He's an Amazon Lilac Crown, which is a South American sort that is mostly green with coloured trim; he's generally a pretty cheerful wee guy. He's about a foot tall, with bright brass pirate eyes. He has cobalt blue and scarlet on his wings, and lovely maroon and lilac feathers on his head and neck.

Different parrots have different temperments. African Greys tend to be dignified and reserved; cockatoos are insanely affectionate and emotionally dependent. Amazons are happy little thugs; clowns and con artists.
Harry sings Rule Britannia, yells all kinds of odd things at random ("Oh no!", "I don't knooooow ..." "Popcorn?") and meows incessantly. And he loves my knitting. You may think cats are a problem with knitting, but I guarantee they're nothing on a parrot. Parrots have hands. They are very, very smart, perfectly capable of lying to get close to your work, and fiendishly determined. And all the cunning toys we use in our knitting are just irresistable!

Harry is a free bird, not caged until he goes to bed at night; when I am sitting on the couch knitting, he can wander over at will to examine my work. He likes to groom finished projects: he holds them his little 4-toed dragon foot and lovingly runs his beak and tongue through the stitches. Parrots don't slobber, but sometimes he gets carried away and tries to bite through an interesting stitch: he can unravel a scarf in no time. He likes to play with strands of yarn - he'll wind one around his foot, then carefully untangle it - over and over, which is kind of awkward if you are trying to knit with it at the time. He likes to suddenly pounce on a ball of yarn, and go rolling around in my lap, kicking and biting it like a predatory dinosaur.

It's hilarious to watch, but I am in constant danger of knitting him into something. "Um - you know that hat I promised you? Well, there's kind of a big lump in it and it's singing .... just ignore it." Yeah, right.

Harry thinks the shiny stitch markers in my knitting must be candies. I use a knitter's rosary to count rows - the cord and glass beads are a constant temptation to an interested little parrot, and he will maneuver patiently for the chance to grab it in his beak and run away with it. (Luckily, it usually trips him.) But what he really, really wants are my knitting needles. I prefer to knit with wood needles - Harry likes nothing better, personally, than to chew some nice piece of wood to bits. And I seem to have all these lovely sticks that I am clearly not chewing ... he'll saunter casually across my lap two or three times, ostentatiously ignoring my needles - and then, POW! He'll grab a needle and run with it, trying to drag it clean out of the fabric and carry it off to his lair.

Much screaming, yelling and indignant meowing results from this. (I carry on a bit, too.) Then I have to buy him off with a walnut and neck-scratching before he forgives me. But before long, I'll feel his feet on my shoulder again, and his bright-eyed little face is leaning round my cheek while he asks: "Whatchya doin'? Huh? Whatchya doin'?"

And we're off again.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Prodigal Knitter

I learned to knit when I was in the 4th grade, and loved it. Mania set in at once - that textile high of the finished piece. Just knitting back and forth wasn't enough; I had to make something. Pot holders were not only passe, they were unneeded - my grandmother made enough for an army, and they were good ones. I had no idea of gauge or weight or patterns or needle sizes; I could cast on, knit and cast off: and that was IT. I made a hilarious scarf out of scraps my grandmother gave me - it strongly presaged Tom Baker's Dr. Who scarf, except for the way it was 6 inches wide at one end and 14 at the other. I made knitted sheathes and leggings for my (one) Barbie doll and (several) stuffed animals, and even managed to cobble together a sweater for one of them by sewing several tubes together. Badly. But the feeling of accomplishment was great.

Before long, though, I came to grief over the necessity of financing my new obsession. I was making stretchy hairbands and selling them at school to my classmates. The nuns at my parochial school objected to this cottage industry - especially since I was knitting in class and on the playground whenever I had a spare moment - and ultimately put a stop to me. Sadly, the experience was so souring that after a mere year as a limited but dedicated knitter - I quit. Just put down my needles and gave up.

Over the years I experimented with embroidery, cross-stitch and crochet; I learned to sew and how to make costumes be real clothing. But nothing was ever as entertaining as that first rush of knitting had been.

About four years ago, I decided to try again. Some of my friends are truly inspired knitters, and generous with their time and advice - and in the decades between stopping and starting again, knitting had evolved amazingly ... All the new yarns! All the new textures! Entire stores dedicated to yarn - in 1963, you took your chances on whatever 4-strand Red Heart acrylic was to be found at the local Woolworth's, and that was about it. No hand spun, no hand dyed, no blends; no cotton, silk, or bamboo; no eyelash, no boucle, no chunky.

Man, it's been great! My bedroom is awash in yarn; my stash is close to achieving its own gravitational field. I've completed a sweater. I've done original scarves and hats. I've got three projects going at once, never go anywhere without my knitting, and no longer carry a purse: I carry a knitting bag, and my wallet and keys take up the smallest pocket.

I'm home!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Knitting Zone

Sometimes I think knitting is a disease - a neuromuscular disorder, maybe, some especially organized form of whole body tic. We gotta do it, it's beyond our conscious control. On the other hand, it feels so right!. And it actually accomplishes something - there are plenty of things people do to pass the time or soothe rattled nerves, and very few of them produce tangible objects. I can read or do crosswords for hours, and never so much as a single sock will result. 

Knitting is definitely one of those zones we all want to be in. The lure of producing an honest -to-gosh result is magically compelling. You start with a mass of yarn and end up with a garment. It's like watching cellular organization coalesce out of the primordial soup, or being able to see snowflakes form in the upper air. When things are going especially well, my hands  are operating on their own, and the intangible ME of the whole operation is watching from behind my eyes. And it's the most amazing show! I marvel at the way knit and purl change places and shape; how cables form like stone carving itself across the face of the fabric; the delicate pas de deux of the needles. Tonight I traded off projects a few times to rest my hands, and miraculously ended up with 3 new inches on my sweater, another 2 on the lace scarf, and enough to hit the half-way mark on the silk tie ...

Of course, then there's the other nights. Those are the  nights where you come out of the rosy trance and discover that you've spent your time in the Twilight Zone and somehow  knit yourself to the throw on the couch ... and you really have to wonder it you don't  actually have some sort of manual Tourette's after all.

Math In Real Life

Working on my cabled sweater last night, it occurred to me how easy and satisfying it has become to follow a knitting pattern. I am pretty sure I left grade school all but innumerate - mathematics was a dark and terrifying realm, and I had no idea how to make my way through it. Had I lost a digit, I'd have had to learn Base 9 counting. And I could barely manage Base 10 with my natural equipment ...

My teachers all told me I would appreciate my math skills later in life - assuming I ever attained any. I dismissed all their advice as educational cheerleading, meant to keep my energies going long enough to graduate. But they were right. I'm not sure any of the uses to which I have put these hard-earned skills were exactly what they had in mind, but they sure were right.

First was tips. I lived in Hollywood, and you had to know how to tip in that status-conscious town. With the laser glares of countless supercilious actor/waiters fixed on me, I learned to do decimal calculations.

Next came mileage. In my 20's and 30's, I lived in Los Angeles but worked historical recreation events in Marin County; I commuted 1,000 miles a weekend for most of every summer. During the long, long runs up and down I-5 through the San Joaquin valley, I learned to calculate MPG in my head. Sometimes it mattered - when you are scraping loose change out of the front seat upholstery for an extra gallon of gas, how far it will get you becomes amazingly interesting - but often it was just for something to do as the endless miles went by. That led to calculating variations dependent on weight, wind speed, and how many people were leaping around in the back of my truck and it all got very fascinating. I began to see mathematics as an art form in its own right.

I also ran a tavern at Renaissance Faires. So I learned to calculate the weight and volume of kegs of beer, how many pints you could get out of different sized kegs, how much foam was too much, how much an empty keg weighed as opposed to a full one and what that meant in numbers of tipsy men needed to transport it, how much various strangely shaped drinking vessels would hold ... no end of problems in volume calculation.

Now it's knitting. Gauge can be brute-force calculated by a tape measure, but for accuracy you really need to be able to manipulate stitch and row counts. How many yards of fingering yarn are you gonna need to complete a 56-inch tie in a colourway you'll never find again in your life so you better buy it all RIGHT NOW? What about that sweater you foolishly decided to knit out of three different weight yarns? Is that antique pattern really calculating width in inches, or some weird variant of the length of an acorn?

I'd have gone insane long ago if not for the lessons of the 4th grade. Thank you, Miss Weitzel and Mrs. Matthews. I am sure you never thought I'd ever get any of this, but I did. You were right and I was wrong. Your patience lives on in my knitting.

Can I offer you a hat?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

12th Night and First Post

Tonight is the last of the 12 days of Christmas. No, they don't come before it - the classical 12 Days start with Christmas and run for the next 12 days and nights. My family celebrates it. Tonight is the last night my Christmas lights will stay up - much to the relief of my neighbors, who don't know about the tradition and have always been too embarassed to ask me why my decorations stay up so long ...

I figure the point of winter lights is to illuminate these darkest days of the year. The Solstice has passed and we are once again falling into light, but why take chances? Light some lights to remind the sun to rise.

Knitting is serving a similar purpose for me this winter: I am trying to knot my portion of the world together, in these hard times. Things are unravelling. The world needs to be held together. My knitting is my juju, hopefully good juju, to achieve that. These will be my thoughts while I try to patch the world around me and keep my life together.

And hopefully, they'll amuse someone else along the way.