Sunday, January 17, 2016

January 16: Begin again (again)

It seems like everyone is talking about colouring books. They are vaunted as a way to slow down, a way to refocus, a way to be more mindful, whatever. I was never good at colouring, even as a child; I wasn't great at colouring inside the lines and I was completely unable to see the utility of the process. A book of coloured-in pictures is still just a book of pictures. Why bother colouring-in when you could read? I wanted words. I still do.

But sometimes it is good to slow down, to play with colour, to immerse yourself in another realm. Much beleaguered by a week of non-stop editing (file under: be careful what you wish for) and bitterly cold, snowy weather, I turned my thoughts to the rug-hooking project that I started last fall.

The process is basic: use a tiny hook to pull loops through gaps in the linen – heaven forbid you should call it burlap – until you've drawn the outlines, then repeat the process to fill in the spaces with blobs of colour. As you can see, I got tired of the lines. It's cold and grey outside; I needed some red. 

It's a simple process, using simple materials; one of those crafts that obviously had its origins in necessity and thrift. (I wouldn't want to explain to a local grandmother how much I spent on the class, or the materials.) These days, of course, the rugs are more likely to be made from new materials, some quite expensive; rather than workaday floor coverings, they're works of art. 

Sitting on the couch after dinner last week, tensioning the wool strips with one hand while the other hand guided the hook through the linen, trying and failing to catch the strip, trying again, and again, I thought about that cold fall day that we sat in the rug-hooking class. There was a fire in the wood stove; the trees were just past peak colour, but bright reds and oranges were still visible through windows rimmed with the first of the year's frost. We ate trail mix and drank tea in mugs with the bag still in, and we worked mostly in silence, except when the teacher regaled us with tales of her former life as a fabric buyer for fashion houses in England, and during the short pauses we took to look up, flex our fingers and stretch our necks, and trade some gentle gossip. 

It's challenging to learn something new as an adult; mentally and physically exhausting. Sitting at that table, I was so frustrated: I can knit and crochet and sew and embroider, I kept thinking, why can't I do this? I kept shaking out my hands, as though that would help get the knowledge from my brain down into my fingertips. 

Thinking back on it now, it occurs to me that the tiring part of learning something new, at least for me, might not be in the assimilation of new information, but in quieting the critical voice and replacing it with the voice that I try to use around new knitters, the one that is patient and encouraging, that says, When's the last time you learned a brand-new physical skill? Driving a car, right? Be easy on yourself. Don't give up yet. 

(That, of course, is one of the secrets of life. Find the balance between being easy on yourself and not giving up: it works for more than learning rug-hooking.)

So here we are. I've got the basics down now, and it's getting easier, but it still requires me to sit, head down, brow furrowed, in concentration for half an hour at a time. As I do, the cares of the day fall away; by the time I'm on my third or fourth strip of wool I've mostly forgotten the emails that didn't arrive; the meetings that took too long; that errant semi-colon and the perfidy of spell-check. That doesn't happen for me with knitting any more; one day it won't happen with rug-hooking, either. Maybe then I'll have to take up tatting...

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015, which disappeared

Time flies when you're having fun, I guess. I certainly had a busy year in 2015, and I'm happy to say that it was one of the most satisfyingly creative years I've ever had. It didn't always feel that way when I was *in* it, but looking back, I'm actually super satisfied with what I accomplished – I learned some new skills, further developed some old skills, and started some long-term projects with good results:
  • Tried weaving, on both a rigid heddle loom and a floor loom (liked the former more than the latter; need to order a 12-dent heddle to make my scarf dreams come true)
  • Took a rug-hooking class
  • Took part in the Block of the Month classes at Patch (thank goodness for Patch, which has become a real creative touchstone for me over the past twelve months), with the happy result that my sampler quilt is almost ready to put together
  • Thought hard about my handmade wardrobe, and started sewing clothes in earnest (three tank tops, two woven tees, three long-sleeved knit tees, two skirts; thank you, Grainline Studio!)
  • Started a long-term granny square afghan project
  • Knitted four pairs of Christmas socks for my family, six pairs of baby booties and several baby hats
  • Knitted a hap shawl, plus various other accessories for myself
  • Established a small (but lovely) knit night with some new friends from my sewing classes
There were a few things that I missed: I didn't do much travel this year, and couldn't make it to the spring session of Squam, which I was so looking forward to. Missing that took the wind out of my sails in a few ways – suddenly, I didn't feel like blogging, for one thing – but it's back on the calendar for this year, and I'll be there come hell or high water.

I also really missed having a local yarn store with a strong community, but I did get a chance to explore some of the not-so-local shops and they've got a lot to offer (and the fact that they're an hour away in four different directions means I don't do quite as much impulse shopping!).

In 2016, I'm planning to focus on making things for myself, following the William Morris philosophy that things should be beautiful or useful (ideally, both). The goal: to have at least three completely "me-made" outfits – outfits that represent the clothes I want and like to wear, from inner- to outerwear – in my closet by the end of the year.
  • Sewing-wise, I'm planning to tackle slightly more challenging projects: blue jeans, for one, and lingerie, for another. I've also got my eye on this coat.
  • I'd like to add a few sweaters to my wardrobe; I've got two in the works, and the yarn for another already set aside.  
  • Socks! I need to replenish my sock stash a little bit, as my old favourites are starting to show their age.
  • A new quilt. I still have the first quilt I ever made on my bed. I'm still proud of it, but I'm ready for something new – bigger, bolder and more modern. Maybe this one. Or this.
I've also got a few writing projects in mind – a return to blogging regularly and a silly-but-fun creative writing project that should keep me busy. I'm looking forward to seeing you here more often.

(I keep encountering the phrase "If not now, when?" and that might be my word(s) for the year. A call to action! I like it.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


In an age when people like to talk about "the end of blogging," I still read craft blogs. Nowhere near the number that I once did, but as the quantity has diminished, the quality has increased. Now, I focus my attention on the blogs of people whose work I respect and whose writing challenges me to think about what I make and why. One of these blogs is by Karie Westermann; earlier this week she wrote about the commodification of the craft revival. This is a topic that I think about often, and in this blog post I'm adding my voice that conversation.

Love what you love, make what you make, from Dropcloth Samplers
There was a time when I read dozens of posts on craft blogs every day. At that time I was working in commercial publishing (magazines). I was responsible for producing up to 24 craft articles per year, plus associated online content and blog posts – between three and five posts per week – for almost four years. Reading widely – indiscriminately – was a necessity. I had to churn through that much material just to keep the content factory running. So I read blog posts about making necklaces by covering lengths of chain from the hardware store in embroidery floss or spray paint, and I reblogged directions for projects that involved "altering" (let's be real: defacing) books, and I pretended to be interested in Shrinky-Dinks and repurposing thrift store finds. Sometimes I got to do something that actually was interesting – I taught myself basic book-making for one story; commissioned some great knitting patterns and projects by other people; sewed a thing or two I was proud of. But in private, to my friends and family, I often described what I did as "showing people how to make crap out of junk." 

At first it was fun, then it got to be a bit monotonous, and as time wore on, I came to hate the make-it-and-forget-it crafts: activities that involved minimal skill and resulted in things of minimal value, things that were destined for the garbage dump. What value there was in those crafts came from ad sales, from page views and clicks-per-million, not from carrying on time-honoured traditions, building skills, or contributing to a larger movement (no, "pinning" yet another cute way to use a Mason jar doesn't count). It all came down to satisfying someone else's bottom line and it took up almost all of my time. Crafting was my life and it was exhausting.

The more I made crap out of junk, the more I longed to create things that had both style and substance, or, to quote a famous craft revivalist, things that were both beautiful and useful. I learned to sew and knit and embroider when I was a child – I've been practising some of those crafts for almost 30 years now – and the deeper I got into the world of disposable craft, the further away actual craftsmanship seemed. Technique didn't seem to matter; specialized vocabulary seemed a thing of the past. (I'll never forget the blog post I saw that called for "a round circle of wood.") I wasn't contributing to a conversation, I was shouting into the void.

Since then, my life has taken some twists and turns. Crafting is no longer my life or my livelihood. I work for a non-profit organization now, and it's been more than two years since I read a blog post about spray-painting a trinket from a thrift shop. I gave away all my random craft supplies: goodbye, glitter, glue gun, mod-podge. I craft less, and when I do craft, it's mostly knitting. But I'm able to spend time making things that are meaningful to me; that use materials I've chosen according to my own criteria and skills I've taken the time to cultivate. The quantity has diminished, but the quality has increased.

I still think about how we create and assign value to our skills, to the products of our work, and to ourselves. I've met a lot of crafters, and their interests and abilities are as unique as they are. And while I'd like to think there is one right way (my way, obviously) of crafting and promoting craftsmanship, over time I've learned that there isn't. Crafting trends will come and go; commercial interests will exert their influence and succeed or fail. As with many things in life, I suspect it's cyclical; we surely aren't the first people to worry that it's all about to go down the tubes.

In the end, I'm with Karie: I'll practice my craft to the best of my ability. I'll choose the materials that are right for me, and work on projects that have some meaning, or at least some practical application to my life. I'll be honest about the things that work and the things that don't, and thoughtful when I try to figure out why. I'll cultivate meaningful connections in my work and I'll celebrate the contributions that others make to the craft. Maybe we're all doing something slightly different, but we're all in it together.

P.S. I don't read as many food blogs as I used to, either, but I read enough that I noticed a little dust-up happening back in March. In a way, this blog post from Lottie+Doof echoes some of Karie's messages – the threat of homogenization; the idea of food blogging as a viable "lifestyle" (read: lucrative job) when really it's a hard grind at which not everyone can be successful; the challenge to stop accepting the status quo, to push boundaries and to "do better." Interesting parallels.
P.P.S. I was lucky to work with a host of brilliantly talented, creative, kind, funny, hard-working people in my magazine days. I want to make it clear that my comments refer to my own work, not to theirs.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Toward a handmade wardrobe

One of the things I've been thinking about a lot since I've moved is the role that craft plays in my life, and how the things I make, and the work that goes into making them, have also helped me form my identity and find my community. I've been mulling it over a lot this winter – thinking seems to go hand-in-hand with being in "fibernation" – and now I'm going to start writing about it a bit to see if I can make sense of it. This is the beginning of that process.

With the arrival of spring, my mind turns to sewing, but it's been several years since I've made anything more than a zippered clutch or a tote bag. This year, though, I've got the urge to spend some serious time at my sewing machine.

I've recently read a number of blog posts about making an entire wardrobe – a challenge I've been considering for some time, but that I've never really done anything about. My blog-reading tends to be heavily skewed toward knitting rather than sewing, but there is some crossover, and it's in these posts that I've found my inspiration. Karen's recent posts about wardrobe planning and being very intentional about what she makes really got me thinking, as did Felicia's posts about simple sewing.

In short, they are both talking about taking a good look at what you really love to wear, assessing the clothes that you own, and then making more clothes like the ones that you love. It's about choosing to spend time and money on things that will provide enduring value, rather than one-offs that you're making just for novelty's sake. It seems obvious (how long does it take to knit a sweater? how much did all that yarn or fabric cost?), and in some ways it's a natural extension of the movement away from "fast fashion" toward buying ethically made clothing. It's about being deliberate about how you allocate your resources, whether those resources are money, time or effort (or, realistically, all three).

When it comes to clothes, I know what I like and I have a decent idea of what looks good on me, but I also know that I often choose to make things that fall outside of those two criteria – most of the time because I am attracted by the novelty factor. There are basic things I've made that I wear again and again, and there are elaborate things I've made that never get worn, despite how long I laboured over them or how much the materials cost.

Thing is, sometimes I want to reward myself by splurging on luxurious yarn, or I want to support a designer I know, or I want to join in on a community project – even though I know deep down that the yarn won't stand up to the wear and tear of being a wardrobe staple, or that the pattern won't really flatter me in the way I'd like it to, or that I'm joining the knitalong just for the camaraderie, rather than the end product. If I'm going to make my wardrobe, I need to think more carefully about what I make: I need to go for hard-wearing, versatile wardrobe basics, and limit the more frivolous one-offs.

So one day last week I sat down with a notebook and jotted down ideas about what I'd make if I were to make my entire wardrobe. I thought about what I've made and what I wear, and then zeroed in on where those two categories overlapped. Basic A-line skirts, simple boat-neck tops and yoked cardigans, made with natural fibres, in neutrals or jewel-tones: those are where my strengths lie. I'd like more basic bottoms – especially trousers (a challenge, but one that will be worthwhile, I think.) Complex cabled or lace sweaters in bright hand-dyed yarns are fun to knit, but they don't make it into the repeat-wear pile. I'll save the complex patterns, the hand-dyed yarns and the knitalongs for accessories – quick to knit and something I generally get a lot more wear out of.

I think the next step is to gather some patterns, and maybe try Polyvore to see if it will help me visualize how the patterns go together. Ravelry is a great resource, but what's your favourite source of sewing patterns? I'd be grateful for tips!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Crafty meanderings

April lived up to its reputation: cold, dark, rainy. Not pleasant, but the rain did the trick, and aside from a few crudbergs that remain in shady places, the only sign of the enormous snowbanks that lined the streets all winter is the gravel in the gutters and on the sidewalks – grit from days when salting wasn't enough, bits of asphalt from where the blades of the plows dug too deep into the roads. 

Now the grass is beginning to green, the lichen on the maple trees glows chartreuse in the sun, and brave crocuses and daffodils turn their faces to the light, all purple and yellow. Up the hill on Tulip Street, the boulevards are planted with hundreds of bulbs; I've changed my route to work in the hopes of seeing the first blooms someday soon. Maybe by Victoria Day.

What's to be done when it seems like the grey, rainy days will never end? Hunker down with the pinkest knitting project you can find, of course. This is a February baby sweater for a March baby. She might turn out to be a tomboy, who knows, but she's the first girl baby in my circle in a few years, and I couldn't resist the pink yarn, the lace, the mother-of-pearl buttons. 

In other news, I signed up for a weaving class. It's a step (or three) up from my little rigid heddle loom: a four-heddle floor loom, big enough to make a blanket on, if I really wanted to. Tomorrow we warp our looms, which might take the entire three-hour class; then we start our samplers. If we get far enough, there's a scarf in the offing. (The first project always seems to be a scarf. I get it, but...a lady can only make so many scarves she'll never wear. Maybe I'll magic the finished object into a pencil case or something.)

In knitting news, I did a bit of stash diving yesterday. I have enough yarn to make three weeks' worth of socks, four sweaters, one toy rabbit, a fair-size afghan and any number of shawl-type accessories, which I should probably try to remember next time I start fantasizing about spending an entire paycheque on yarn when I'm in Toronto at the end of the month. A fond hope but true.

I'm working on a hap as part of the Knit British hapalong. I love just about everything about this project – the history behind the garment, the organic construction, the endless possibilities for colour combinations, the versatility of the finished object. I've wanted to make one for myself for ages, and I know I'll get a lot of wear out of this one.

Given how long its taken spring to arrive, I'm not sure how much wear I'll get out of this dress (erm, maybe that should be, "given that it's still just yardage.."). But hope springs eternal! And so today I've got some cutting-out to do, and a bit of practising to get my French seams back up to snuff.

Hmmm, and what's this? Plans are afoot. More later this week!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

March 29 – Craft scenes

I'm still not used to having a space that's dedicated to crafting. Sitting down at my desk to sew still seems really novel; it's best in the morning, when the light streams in.

Took a class in paper-template patchwork. Very interesting; lots of potential.

I've been thinking big thoughts about levels of skill, experience and experimentation, tools and materials, how we signal that we belong in a community, how those communities form and shift and change. I've got pages of scribbled notes all over my desk, but I'm having trouble getting the thoughts to coalesce.

Meanwhile, my mind has turned to sewing, as sure a sign as any that spring is on its way. 

I pulled out some springy skeins to inspire me. They last longer and require less upkeep than tulips.

Spring cleaned my knitting notions box. Doing that always makes me think of Amélie.

Needed a bit of whimsy in my knitting, so I'm making a sheep. Didn't encourage the month to go out like a lamb, though; I woke up to another 20 cm of snow on the ground this morning.

Took my table runner off the loom. Should have ironed it pre-photography, obviously. Pleased with my progress. Next up, a Noro scarf.

Took a look at the classics on my bookshelf.

What have you been up to?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

March 19: Weaving update

So, I thought it might be interesting to show you my weaving so far. These swatches are not masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination, but there's something satisfying about the first finished objects in any craft, even if they are practically the dictionary definition of raggle-taggle. (Not that that's stopping me from using them as coasters!)

Basic info:
Yarn: Tanis Fiber Arts Yellow Label (DK weight) in Sand and Grape
Heddle: 8-dent (supplied in the Cricket kit; generally intended for use with worsted-weight yarns)
Warp ends: 4 Sand / 10 Grape / 10 Sand / 10 Grape / 4 Sand

Swatch #1:
Beating too hard after every pick meant that this was a very tight weave and didn't really show off the plaid at all. It was late when I started; I was sitting on the floor with the loom at an odd angle; I had a really intense mystery show on in the back ground. I think those things might all have contributed to this. 

If you look at the edges you can see how loopy the weft is, and how uneven the edges are. This is my widest swatch, at 4.5". I didn't leave long enough ends, so finishing with knots was a challenge. BUT: it's fabric!

Swatch #2:
This is the one that I'm most pleased with, actually. The fringe leaves a bit to be desired, but for a first time out with hemstitching, I'm pretty pleased. (I used this tutorial.) I wasn't beating so hard, so you actually get a sense of the plaid. And my edges are much more even. This measures 4.25" across.

Swatch #3:
I don't know if I'd give this full "third time's a charm" status, but I definitely felt a better sense of flow with this. Still working on tension issues, but generally more consistent across the board. Measures 4" across and about 12" long (shown folded in half). Thought about using it to sew up a little pouch...might still do that. Maybe.

Things I learned:
Unlike in knitting, where you wash your finished object in cold water, in weaving you wash in hot water with a harsher soap, because you actually want to encourage the threads to "full out" – blooming and even felting a bit. (Side note: The first time I saw "full out" in reference to weaving I thought it was a typo for "fill out." It wasn't until I made the connection to fulling – treating knitting fabric with hot water, soap and agitation – that I figured it out.) This helps fill in what can be a very open weave. This makes me think that maybe superwash wool isn't the best choice for weaving, as it's been treated so that it's less likely to full.

Also, loom waste: it's significant! People talk about weaving as a way to work through your stash quickly, and they aren't exaggerating. If you're used to eking out every last inch of yarn from your skein for just-one-more knit stitch, intentionally leaving long ends when warping feels odd – but not as odd as trimming them at the end feels. One look at those skew-whiff knots on Swatch #1 was enough to convince me that the waste is worth it. I can definitely see this as a way to work through some of my sock yarn stash and I'm already thinking about Christmas scarves for 2015.

Weaving in ends is going to take some practice. I'm finding it hard to make them look...intentional.

Finally, I need a resource book. I found a copy of Weaving for Beginners at the library, but it's focussed more toward table and floor looms; the chapter on rigid heddle looms is rather perfunctory. Any recommendations?

Things I want:
- 10- and 12-dent heddles 
- a shuttle with a bobbin
- a good rigid heddle resource book 

What's next:
Having gone quick-and-dirty for my first outing with the Cricket, I decided I was up for something a little more challenging, so on the weekend I used the yarn that came with the kit to warp up a 60" warp for a table runner. It's a very Easter-y purple and green worsted (a brand I'm not familiar with); I'm using Rowan Fine Yarn Worsted from my stash for the weft. So far so good:

I'm still trying to work on tension, especially on the sides, and on weaving in my ends neatly. I'm trying not to worry too much about colour-fastness and the fulling process – I'll cross that bridge if I come to it. I'm not sure, but I suspect this project might be the weaving equivalent of a beginner's garter-stitch scarf.

I'll let you know how it turns out. Any questions? Suggestions for resources? Tips and tricks? Let me know!