Friday, December 03, 2010

Why Do You Do That?

Does anyone else have a set of stock answers to the perennial questions asked of a knitter and spinner working in public? I was sitting in a waiting room yesterday for several hours while my husband was having some minor surgery. As usual, I passed the hours working on a couple of projects, trading out as the whim struck or as my hands began to ache a bit.

I was working on the second foot of a pair of socks made according to Cat Bordhi’s Footprints method, and spinning on a silk cap I had dyed a few weeks back. It never fails (at least in East Tennessee) that doing needlework in this situation leads to conversations with complete strangers, and I tend to enjoy those spontaneous opportunities for proselytizing to the non-fiber folk around me.

However, I discovered yesterday that I was giving rote answers to a never-changing slate of questions. While knitting, the first question was invariably, “Are you knitting?” There’s not much scope for even a smart-alec like me in that one, so I answered, “Yes, sir” (or ma’am, as the case might be). But the next question, every single time, was “But that looks like a sock? You’re not knitting a sock, are you?” This was always in a rather hesitant tone of voice, as if leery of giving offense by not recognizing that I was actually knitting, say, a flipper cover for a seal or something equally unusual. My response, again, was almost word for word, “Yes, it’s a sock – I like knitting socks that fit me exactly and keep my feet nice and warm all fall and winter long.”

Now came the usual bit (this response is so frequent as to be annoying, actually), “But you can buy socks at Walmart for just a dollar or so a pair; why make your own? Isn’t wool yarn expensive?”

Now, let’s face it – people either get socks or they don’t. If they don’t, all you can do is feel sorry for them and hope they don’t sit there too long and give you whatever strange virus they’re carrying. If they do, you pull your foot out of your shoe or boot and let them “ooooh” and “ahhhh” over the pair you’re wearing right now. You next offer the address and phone number of your LYS, where they can learn to make their own lovely custom footwear. But I was polite, even to the ones who seemed to be carriers of that strange anti-sock virus, merely saying “I enjoy knitting things that fit me exactly and wear for years. And I don’t think $20 for a pair of wool socks that I can wear for four or five winters is all that bad a price.”

No fooling, I repeated these sentences, with no significant variation, often enough over a six-hour period that the receptionist was saying them with me!

The spinning conversation was equally repetitious. “What are you doing, making string?”

“Yes, I’m making silk string that I’ll knit with later.”

“Doesn’t that take an awfully long time?”

“It’s actually surprisingly fast. I make between five and ten yards of yarn a minute.”

“Oh. You do know that you can buy yarn already made, right?” Again in a hesitant tone of voice, as in ‘don’t upset the crazy hippie lady.’

“Yes, I do – but I enjoy doing it myself. That way I can control all the variables.”

“But isn’t it just yarn?” This time in a bewildered tone.

Again, a conversational stopper – how do you answer this? By this time, either the questioner has gotten the idea that what I’m making is quite special (hand dyed, hand spun silk caps spun to a specific grist of singles), or again they’re carrying some odd anti-fiber disease I don’t want to risk catching. So I turn the conversation to their hobbies, and try not to ask quite such asinine questions about them. And excuse myself as quickly as possible – they may be contagious!

The aforementioned receptionist was quite lovely, by the way. Not a knitter or crocheter, but her sister is a member of the club, and she herself is a grateful recipient of her sister’s handwork. Finally it was late in the afternoon, and it was just the two of us in the waiting area. Her comments were a bit more intelligent than had been the norm throughout the afternoon…and at last somewhat made up for the rote conversations in which I had participated to that point! She was the one who started me thinking, truthfully. I hadn’t realized that my KIPing and SIPing conversations were so repetitive until she mentioned it.

So now I’ll ask you folks: do the paragraphs above comprise most of your own knitting/spinning in public conversations? Or do folks in different parts of the country or world feel differently about what you do? I’m genuinely curious, by the way – surely the Southeastern US isn’t the norm?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Question for the Yarn Industry

Rant warning

I’m officially fed up. Fed up enough to swear off any yarn that’s dyed by anyone else! Which is bad news for my LYS and several on-line vendors. But (did I mention?) I’ve had it!!!

What has aroused my ire to such an extent? Yarns that bleed, and bleed, and bleed, and bleed – until the lovely colors for which you purchased them are pale. You buy a skein (or 10) of a beautiful, bright yarn, planning something scrumptious. You plan and swatch and knit. Yes, there’s a little color in the water when you wash your swatch, but not a lot…or at least you convince yourself there isn’t a lot. Then you wash the finished project. Within seconds the water is darker than the project, and a familiar sinking feeling in your stomach says, “Not again!” Heaven help you if you actually combined yarn colors within this project, by the way – especially if one of those yarns is (oh, no!!!) really light!

There doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to avoid these yarns. I’ve bought a dozen or more skeins in just the past year. Some are from small, independent dyers; some are from high-end yarn manufacturers. Some originated within the United States; other yarns originated in South America, Italy, or France. All are packaged for commercial re-sale; all come from reputable sources, whether the local yarn shops or internet shops. Some are solid colors; some are various dip-dyed or painted skeins. And all have roused my ire.

Dyeing isn’t that difficult – especially if you’re dyeing protein fibers! You measure the weight of fiber, measure an amount of dye powder (or dye-stuff if doing natural dyeing) exactly sufficient to dye that weight of fiber to your required depth of shade; mordant the yarn by soaking in an appropriate solution, and then dye. Set the dye according to the directions for the dyestuff – for protein fibers, that normally involves heat. Hold that heat at the required temperature for as long as the instructions direct. Let cool, and then rinse well. It’s simple, direct and fairly fool-proof, even if results can be surprising at times.

We did a dye-in at my LYS a couple of weeks ago; I was in charge of it. I knew how much yarn we were going to dye by weight, and that we planned to paint the yarns. So I mixed a carefully-measured 3% solution of acid dyes in various colors, soaked the yarns in a 0.05% citric acid and water solution overnight beforehand, and carefully microwaved the dyed skeins, using a digital meat thermometer to be sure the yarns stayed hot enough for long enough to set the dyes. There was a great deal of surprise on the part of the knitters/spinners involved when they could see no color in the rinse water. They shouldn’t have been surprised at all! But their knitting experience over the past couple or more years told them that the colors would bleed.

My question to the commercial and independent dyers of the industry is this: why can’t you be equally careful when dyeing your yarns? Excess dye is expensive for you, bad for the environment, and gives your yarns a bad rep among knitters. Use some basic equipment (scales and other measuring equipment) and do a proper job. It will lower your bottom line, and make your customers happier. You won’t even have to do as much rinsing, again allowing for savings to you!

Knitters want to knit. They don’t want to have to wash and rinse skeins before using them – they want to start knitting. They don’t want to have to become sophisticated about chemistry, deciding between Synthrapol and its equivalent or simple vinegar water to remove the excess dye you’ve left in your yarns – they want to start knitting. They don’t want to skein off and re-heat the skeins in an attempt to re-set the dyes – they want to start knitting. Again, knitters just want to knit! So please stop wasting your money, our money and our time, and allow us to knit with properly-dyed yarns.

Rant is now finished. You can come out of hiding.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Second Shetland Shawl for 2010! - Michael

Most of you are aware that 2010’s knitting plans were hijacked when first my daughter-in-law and then my daughter announced their pregnancies. Suddenly my self-appointed task of designing, spinning for and knitting a Shetland-type shawl for each grandchild became the total focus for ALL of my fiber time. However, I am happy to announce that both shawls are now finished!

Michael’s shawl was simpler in some ways than his cousin Mariah’s, but more complex in others. I chose to do Michael’s shawl on a stockinette ground, which simplified knitting the shawl in the round – no endless purl rows. I also chose to start this shawl from the center, so as to incorporate a star – important, since Daddy is a Texas boy! The 8-point star chosen also reflects Mommy’s family heritage; we’re all quilters of one sort or another and that knitter’s version of a star was a perfect choice.

Additional photos are available at

After that central start, however, I needed to switch over to knitting a square. And come up with a choice of what I wanted to place in the larger, central portion of the shawl. My son-in-law and daughter both come from Irish backgrounds. My daughter has always loved Celtic knots, and has requested other knitted items that incorporate this sort of design. I found this Celtic knot in the Meg Swanson book “A Gathering of Lace,” and decided that a triad of the knots was a pictorial way of showing the growth of the family. So I charted it all out in Excel and started knitting.

After the knots, I wanted to expand the lacey portion of the shawl just a bit. So far the “lacy” motifs of the shawl were quite isolated by stockinette ground, and I wanted something more ethereal as I approached the edges of the shawl. I flipped through a lot of books, and found, in both “A Gathering of Lace” and Barbara Walker’s “First Treasury of Knitting Stitches,” a lovely rose (yes, I’ve been singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” a good bit this fall) surrounded by a curving border vaguely reminiscent of a twining, Oriental design – at least to my mind. Since part of the baby’s heritage is also Filipino, this seemed appropriate, as well as quite pretty!

Now for the border: I was most of the way through the bordered rose repeat before I finally settled on something. Michael was conceived on the West Coast, but will be born on the East. Both areas have lovely mountains and shorelines, and I wanted something to reflect that. My usual choice for that sort of thing is some variation on Feather and Fan, but I didn’t like the way that looked with the bordered rose design – at least, not in Excel. Again, I started leafing through various pattern books, and again Barbara Walker came to the rescue. Razor Shell grows beautifully from the top of the rose border design, and curves in an fashion that has pronounced peaks.

The handspun for this one was from top I bought from Jameson & Smith – their superfine Shetland. It was a dream to spin, even to a gossamer weight of 35 wpi at two plies. I knitted it on size 2 US 40-inch metal circular needles from KnitPicks, magic-looping the center portion of the shawl. Total yardage for the completed shawl was approximately 1600 spread over three skeins, and total weight is about 6 ounces.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shetland Shawl Update – One Complete, One More to Go!

I have completed one of the grandchild shawls – one photo is above, others are at my Flickr account. You may recall that I blogged about this earlier this year on Shetland Shawls and Me.

As you can see, I changed the edging from the original plan – I simply decided that Feather and Fan would suit the design better. Completed on August 22; blocked August 23 with the help of my local yarn shop’s space (too many critters in my house at present); and photos taken today.

Now it's on to the second shawl for the second grandbaby - due in November! I've already decided that I can't possibly finish before Christmas...sorry, baby!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Knitting Bookshelf Must-Haves

I’m teaching another sweater design course – a summer version of the same Knitting to Fit course that I taught in the winter. It’s so much fun to see intermediate knitters ‘get it’ and take off into designing their own sweaters that incorporate exactly the details they want and fit them exactly!

One of the comments I make in the class materials is what I’d like to talk about. I take an entire box full of reference books with me to each of these class sessions. As I explain, the students wouldn’t be best served by my attempting to remember everything I’ve ever knitted, read, or seen about sweater design and construction, so I bring along my own favorite reference books. This gives them a chance to see that I’m not an expert knitter (I’m not an expert at anything except perhaps research!), and gives me a chance to recommend a few books, and bring a sizable chunk of my design bookshelf to each class so that we can investigate options together.

I sometimes think there was a golden age of knitting during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Elizabeth Zimmerman, Barbara Walker, Maggie Righetti and others were opening knitters’ eyes to a very old concept – self-reliance. Since basic knitting information never goes completely out of fashion, their ideas are still as exciting today as they were when first published. They each wrote books that I find classic resources, and to which I return frequently. I truly do think these should be part of every knitter’s bookshelf, and that the money to purchase them is some of the best-spent of a knitting lifetime.

The writing style may be a bit old-fashioned to some of the younger knitters out there, and these books don’t have lots of pretty pictures and designs. What they do have is basic knowledge, easily mastered with a bit of thought and practice and endlessly adaptable to every single knitted object you’ll ever make.

Elizabeth Zimmerman is the grand old dame of knitting. “Knitting Without Tears” and “The Opinionated Knitter” are only two of her books, but to my mind are the most indispensible. Her ability to look at topographical contours and extrapolate clever ways to make knitted fabric cover them (a lá her Baby Surprise Jacket) was extraordinary. And her common-sense attitude toward knitting is still wonderfully freeing to knitters who are afraid to tackle anything without a pattern. Her percentage system bottom-up sweater and the modifications thereto are currently turning a third generation’s eyes toward knitting independence. EZ reminds me of my grandmother – always encouraging, but more than willing to deliver a gentle kick to the relevant portion of anatomy when necessary. I adore her writing style, finding it wonderfully readable. It sounds exactly as she did on her PBS knitting show, which I vaguely remember from my childhood.

Barbara Walker’s name will be enshrined forever in the Knitter’s Hall of Fame due to her stitch dictionaries; I love my “Treasuries.” But she was a talented designer who did other books as well. She was a perfect foil to EZ, since she preferred to knit from the top to the bottom of garments. Her “Knitting from the Top” gives concise instructions for starting at the neckline and knitting down on any sweater– set-in sleeves, yoked, raglan, or any other style of neckline and sleeve. She expands this concept to other garments, too – one of these days I will make a pair of slacks and skirt by her method, because they mimic the exact construction I like to purchase! She shows that you can, indeed, knit a top-down set-in sleeve at the same time as the bodice – in a couple of practically throw-away paragraphs that you’ll miss if you aren’t careful! This is more of a textbook than a read-in-one-sitting book, perhaps a bit dated in writing style but full of sensible, completely useful information.

Maggie Righetti’s “Knitting in Plain English” has sold and sold and sold. Somehow her companion book, “Sweater Design in Plain English” isn’t quite as popular. I can’t understand why for the life of me. It answers more of the hard design questions than any other book I’ve ever seen. She tackles how to determine a basic body shape, what styles look good on what shapes, how to use color and stitch patterning to fool the eye and draw it away from areas you want to deemphasize, color palettes and more. Most importantly, she tackles how and what to measure for a perfect fit; how and when and at what point to begin short row shaping; and how to recalculate vertical or horizontal increases/decreases for a custom fit. I seldom complete a sweater, for myself or anyone else, without consulting this book at least once.

I think I know why none of these books is tremendously popular these days though. None of them take you by the hand and lead you through; they aren’t a fun read; they’re more in the nature of textbooks, to be read thoughtfully and referred to often as you progress along your knitting journey. There isn’t a single mindless knitting pattern in any of them – instead you’ll find a wealth of information to challenge a thinking knitter. And to my mind, that’s their biggest strength. They all foster knitting independence and insist on a knitter’s responsibility for his or her knitting decisions. Taking responsibility for your knitting can be a little scary at first – but then it’s wonderful!

Will these books make you independent of patterns forever? Probably not. We will always see a pattern in a book or magazine and ‘just have to’ make it. What these books WILL do, however, is give you a set of top-notch tools to use while you’re knitting that “have to make it” pattern. You’ll know how, where, and when to tweak the designer’s instructions for a custom fit – not just follow the standard patterning instructions blindly. And if you do decide to design a sweater or sweaters, you’ll be able to proceed with confidence.

If you are the type of knitter who just wants to knit, have a feeling it is probably illegal to make changes to a design, won’t pick up needles and yarn without a commercial pattern in front of you, and are lucky enough to have a completely standard-sized body, these books aren’t going to appeal to you at all. But if you have a ‘normal’ body complete with fitting challenges, or if you knit for someone like that; if you want to know why you’re doing something instead of just blindly following directions; if you don’t necessarily trust some unknown designer’s judgment entirely; if you actually do want to design your own garments – these are the books that should absolutely be on your bookshelf. You’ll come back to them again and again. Eventually you’ll regard the authors as old and dear friends, the perfect companions on your knitting design journey.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Our Fiber Toolboxes

We have many tools in our boxes as knitters and spinners – some even duplicate each other! Let’s take a look at some of those tools, and talk about the possibilities of adding to our toolboxes.

As spinners, we have many tools. Fiber itself is our weightiest (pun intended) tool, of course. Most spinners collect fibers like any other collector – gleefully and with some measure of abandon – worrying about storage later. Fibers are definitely a fun tool, but one we should collect carefully; look for the best quality fiber and best preparation you can afford or find. It will pay off when you start spinning!

Other tools include our spindles and wheels, of course. Many of us are avid spindle collectors, with those collections second only to fiber to spin on them! Spindles come in myriad shapes, sizes, weights and configurations, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. I would be the wrong person to recommend restraint in acquiring additional examples of this particular tool – but I have become choosier about the spindles I collect. I now insist on a certain level of craftsmanship in the construction of my spindles; hooks must be well-seated, wood or metal smooth and free of any roughness that might catch fine fibers. I also will spend more willingly on artistic spindles - those that display not only excellent craftsmanship but beautiful use of materials.

Wheels…most of us have financial limitations that come into play, or wheels would be as much of an obsession as spindles! I know many spinners who have only one wheel – but that wheel is generally an all-purpose machine that can spin almost anything the spinner might want. Single-purpose wheels, although they show up from time to time, are generally short-lived in the spinning market. Our fiber obsession demands a versatile wheel that is capable of ratios or speeds of anywhere between 5:1 and 20:1.

Spinners are, however, rather traditional about their wheel choices. While wheels from materials other than wood are available, and many are perfectly functional, we still gravitate toward our beautiful, warm and graceful wood. Finishes are more individual, of course. I tend to gravitate toward maple and other light wood finishes, but also own two wheels that are walnut-finished.

Other spinning tools are carders, drum carders, combs, wpi tools, dizzes, lap covers, orifice hooks, drive band material, small screwdrivers and allen wrenches, oil bottles, water holders for spinning bast fibers, high-speed, low-speed or plying flyers, bobbins, and such, extra whorls for multiple speeds…the list goes on and becomes highly individualized to a particular spinner. For example, my own carding tools are minimal; I prefer combed fibers. So I have two or three sets of combs and only one half-size set of cotton cards. I sold my drum carder years ago after it had sat unused for more than two years.

A frequent, although sometimes overlooked, set of tools for a spinner is their dyeing equipment. We tend to keep dyes, mordants, masks, brushes, plastic sheeting and various containers corralled somewhere out of reach of anyone who shares our living space in order to avoid any inadvertent use in food preparation. So we forget about them until we need them. They are nonetheless essential tools, both for spinners and for knitters who like to play with dyeing their own yarns.

A related collection for many of us is spinning containers. I love baskets, and have many, in different materials and shapes, to hold my fiber and spinning tools and spinning projects.

Knitters love to collect tools. First and foremost, of course, is our yarn. We can’t knit without it! Some of our significant others may not quite understand how we can collect pounds and pounds of yarns (or fibers) for which we have no definite purpose in mind; just remember that you chose this person for what seemed good and sufficient reason at some pre-fiber point in your life, and try to have patience with him or her. Eventually a certain numb resignation sets in and questions either cease or become quite infrequent. I haven’t yet heard of a divorce caused solely by yarn and fiber addiction. Of course, if you chose this person post-fiber addiction, you’re on your own… Personally, I’m among the luckiest of fiber addicts – my spouse is not only supportive, he’s a complete and total enabler who knew all about my original sewing and crochet addictions when we married! Everything since (weaving, lace-making, spinning, knitting, etc.) has been given his firm support and prideful announcement to everyone around him.

As an aside: I’ve actually heard non-fiber folks question a spinner’s need for commercial yarn. Their argument is usually along the lines of, “You can make your own yarn; why buy it? Especially since you already have pounds and pounds of wool and wool-blend fiber at home?” See the above statement on the advantage of patience with these individuals if they’re important to you; if they aren’t important to you, it’s none of their business, and you should simply ignore such rude behavior!

A knitter’s secondary tools are, of course, needles. A knitter can’t make fabric without both yarn and needles. Multiple needle materials are necessary in the beginning as an exploration; how do you know what you prefer until you’ve tried all of them? As you continue in your knitting career, your preferred needle materials and types change…needles you wouldn’t have used in the beginning are now your favorites. And multiple needles in the same size are just logical – how can you possibly do multiple projects without needles?

What, work on only a single project until it’s complete?!?!?! While I know a handful of knitters who do this, it’s a scant handful. I can definitely count them on a single hand’s fingers. Most of us have a couple (at least) of pairs of socks on size 1’s, a worsted wool sweater on size 8’s, a fingering sweater on size 3’s, a hat or bag to felt on size 5’s, and a ‘travel project’ for those times when you get stuck somewhere unexpectedly with no knitting project at hand. We work on them in rotation, frequently beginning another project (and sometimes finishing it!) before the others are complete. No, we aren’t all suffering from some odd sort of attention-deficit disorder; we simply prefer to have projects for various mental states. Some knitting projects require the concentration of nuclear physics reaction calculations; others are mindless and perfect for tired or distracted knitters who simply want to relax for a few minutes.

Stitch markers are necessary tools that have been raised by some to an artistic expression. There are very utilitarian stitch markers, of course; but few knitters are able to resist a bit of bling for their projects on occasion! Needle tip protectors can be made in a variety of both practical and pretty (downright adorable, in some cases) shapes. Scissors have been made in a variety of styles that include beautiful decorative elements for at least a century or two. Crochet hooks can be made from sturdy metal, or beautiful woods. Calculators come in an incredible variety of shapes and styles and colors. Even utilitarian measuring tapes can be incased in entertaining, yet practical, packaging.

Tools that are part of both knitters’ and spinners’ boxes are niddy-noddies, some sort of skein-winder, and a ball winder or nostepin. Frequently we have several of each of these, purchased either by whim or necessity. Another practical tool that all fiber artists tend to purchase is a decent scale – preferably one that will weigh in both grams and portions of an ounce, frequently digital.

The final necessary element for knitters is yet another expression of collector’s mania for many. Knitting bags and/or storage containers are a perennial search for some knitters, as they flit from one container to another in search of the perfect knitting bag or organizational container. I must confess to a weakness in this direction myself, although after many years of searching, I do seem to have finally found my perfect carry-along containers.

Other tools, less substantial but just as necessary for our fiber pursuits as any tangible, wood or steel or fluffy tools, are just as much fun to collect. These are the various techniques we use to produce our yarns and knitted masterpieces.

Techniques are fantastic things to collect! You don’t have to store them, or justify their addition to your repertoire; they reside in your head and in your fingers – and anyone can invent (or unvent) a new one or a thousand that can then be passed along to millions of other knitters! Ravelry and the other fiber-related lists are incredible compendia of accumulated knowledge, not to mention books and magazines. Now storage for books and magazines, or a computer and associated hard drive, can require storage space and resources…but the return on the investment is practically endless!

Knitters: think about the number of ways you can discover to do something as simple as make the toe on a sock. There are so many! Shaped, anatomically-correct toes from either the top or toe end; simple round toes with increases spaced in various ways to make a cup; star-shaped toes for a bit of special attention for a very special pair of socks; and the old standby, toes shaped on either side of the top and bottom in a blunted triangular shape. There are even more ways to turn a heel, knit a tube, shape increases and decreases, make darts both decorative and almost invisible…and every technique you learn increases your options and alternatives for every subsequent project you make!

Spinners: how many tricks are in your bag? You probably can’t count them…and spinners are even more prone to unvent their own methods than knitters! Spinners can create dozens of yarns from a single fiber and preparation, mixing worsted, woolen, semi-worsted, short- and long-draw techniques to form yarns for very specific projects. You can use the same roving or top to produce lace-weight singles so fine that they can barely be felt skimming over the body as a spectacular lace shawl - or a sturdy sweater of bulky-weight 4-ply yarn that can keep the wearer warm in the coldest temperatures. Or anything in between…gloves, hats, mittens, socks, scarves, coats, skirts…yarns for all of these can be created from the same fleece or fiber in a array of colors restricted only by the skill of the dyer!

As you can see, our fiber toolboxes are packed with things. Techniques and tricks are added with every project we complete, if we’re the sort of adventurous fiber people that love to try new things and stretch ourselves. Even if you’re only knitting the same scarf pattern you’ve been making for 20+ years, you learn something new every time you change yarn or needle size. Tools (and projects) are tried, added or rejected, according to our perceptions of how they work for us. Knitting, spinning and other fiber pursuits are a pursuit. Like all pursuits, they have their successes and their failures. And the only person who can determine a success or a failure of a project, a technique or a tool is the person practicing the art and craft!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Gauge Swatch

Gauge, with or without the word swatch attached, is one of ‘those’ terms. I’ve heard knitters say the words as though they were spelled with four letters, and seen them written as ‘g*&#e’ or ‘s@#$%h’ more times than one. Every single knitter has an opinion about swatching, and they’ll defend those opinions with the same fervor they bring to the questions of needle material or continental vs. English vs. combined knitting styles. I’ve called swatching a necessary evil myself in my earlier days as a knitter.

But experience is a great (if painful) teacher, and the longer I knit, the more I find that much-maligned gauge swatch an incredibly useful tool. So let’s take a look at what gauge actually is, and what purposes that swatch can serve. I may even change a mind or two along the way…

Put in the simplest terms, gauge is the number of rows and stitches in any given inch of knitted fabric. That’s perhaps too general, especially given the wide variance between the number of stitches even the same knitter will have in different stitch patterns. But that’s the definition. So what use is it? Well, you can’t knit something to a specific size if you don’t know those numbers for that yarn and needle and stitch pattern.

Now, what makes a useful gauge swatch for a given project? That’s where the definition begins to narrow and the swatch itself becomes a very useful knitting tool.

A useful gauge swatch will show the number of stitches per inch in a particular pattern stitch – the stitch you plan to use for this specific project. A useful gauge swatch will also be knitted in the same fashion as you plan to knit your project.

Huh? A knitter’s gauge over a given pattern stitch (even plain old stockinette) may vary as much as 1-3 stitches per inch, depending on whether they’re knitting flat or in the round. So if you plan to knit your project in the round, knit your swatch in the round; if you’re knitting flat, knit your swatch flat. In order to keep from having to do a 24-inch around gauge swatch on a circular needle, magic loop is a life-saver. It’s a simple technique – add it to your repertoire!

Another point to consider for a useful gauge swatch: use exactly the same needles you’ll use for the project itself. If you do your swatch on bamboo DPN needles and the project on metal circular needles, your gauge may change, even with the same yarn from the same skein.

It should go without saying that you’ll use the same yarn for your swatch that you plan to use for the project – but I’ll say it, anyway. One worsted wool yarn isn’t always identical to another; yardages per pound can vary from as little as 5 to as much as 300 or more! And differences between fibers can make for even greater variation in the numbers. 50 grams of cotton will generally have fewer yards than 50 grams of wool, even though both may be worsted weight.

One more consideration: knitted fabric changes after it’s washed and dried. This is true of any fiber or combination of fibers. Some fibers bloom, some stretch, some shrink, some remain exactly the same. But you won’t know which your particular combination of yarn and needles will do until you wash and dry the swatch!

A swatch can, again, be an extremely useful tool – if you knit it thoughtfully. Start out by casting on some multiple of the pattern stitch. Work in stockinette or garter stitch for a couple of inches – whichever your pattern is based upon. Now switch to the pattern stitch itself, and work at least 2-3 repeats. That way if there’s a problem with the patterning, you’ll find it and be able to work it out before you start into the project. You’ll also get familiar with the stitch pattern - and many knitters’ tension changes after they get used to forming a stitch, thus changing their gauge over that stitch. If your first repeat is at 6 stitches per inch in pattern, but the third repeat is at 5 stitches per inch, which number do you think you should use for figuring your project gauge?

Before you cast off, are there any other stitches or patterns used in this project? If so, work a repeat or two. If one element flows directly into another (ribbing to pattern stitch, for example), try that out on your swatch. Does it look good to you? If not, tweak it here instead of on the project. You’ll rip out a lot less.

Last but far from least, are there instructions in the project pattern that aren’t clear to you? Perhaps short-row directions are different from what you’re used to doing, or directional stitches are a different type, or bind-offs at the arms or neck seem odd. Try these techniques on the swatch. It’s much easier on both knitter and yarn to do these types of tweaking on a smaller scale. Do you know exactly how you’re going to pick up arm or neckline treatment stitches on this patterning? Try it out on the swatch!

Have you tried out everything you have any question about? All right, then do another few rows of stockinette or garter and then bind off as recommended in the pattern. This is a final place to play – if the bind off on the swatch doesn’t look good, decide now on how you’ll modify the project instructions to make it look better and try it out.

Now bind off and measure your swatch. How many rows per inch? How many stitches and rows per inch in stockinette or garter; how many in each pattern? How many in the ribbing stitch? Write these numbers down and save them!

Now wash that swatch. If the yarn ball says to machine wash and dry, do that. If you plan to hand wash and lay flat to dry, do those instead. Don’t short-cut this step – you’ll negate a great deal of the usefulness you built into your swatch if you do!

One final thing before you get out your ruler or tape measure and that sheet of paper again: if your chosen yarn is cotton, silk, alpaca, mohair, hemp, superwash wool or acrylic (or any blend thereof), hang that gauge swatch up for at least 12-24 hours before you measure. Fibers other than plain old untreated wool sometimes stretch vertically as well as horizontally – and some of them stretch quite a lot! Better to know this now instead of two or three hours into the first wearing of your crew-neck tunic, after it’s become a knee-length dress with a scooped neckline!

Now measure the rows and stitches again. Make sure you measure over the stockinette/garter sections, each different stitch pattern, and any other places your swatch appears to widen or narrow. Write these numbers down. Now divide the pre-wash numbers into the after-wash numbers to get the percentages of shrinkage or stretch.

Now this is useful information! You know before you start knitting that in order to fit your 45-inch hip measurement you’ll need to cast on 250 stitches instead of 225; there was slightly over 1% shrinkage in your washed swatch. You’ll also know that you want to do 24 rows of ribbing rather than 26, and only 36 rows instead of 42 between the underarm bindoff and shoulder shaping – your washed and hung sample grew about 1% in length.

How much time will knowing this information before you start knitting save you? Think about this. Without a gauge swatch that contains all the stitches used in the project, that was then washed, dried and hung, you might knit the entire sweater, bind off and finish everything, bury all ends, then wash, block and try on before discovering that – horrors! – you have to take it all apart and start over, or find a recipient to gift with your hard work.

How long does it take to knit a sweater? The general amount of time is measured in weeks or months of spare-time knitting, isn’t it? And if you’d only taken an hour or so at the beginning to actually explore the variables, you’d have something that fits properly now instead of an expensive (both in terms of time and materials) boondoggle.

So you decide for yourself. As far as I’m concerned, especially since I pretty much design my own sweaters and other knitwear these days, I’ll continue to swatch. It’s cheap (in terms of time and materials) insurance that my precious knitting time won’t be wasted. Of course, wasted time is in the eye of the knitter – what I consider a waste of time you may not! But just for the sake of argument, next time you start a new project, take the time to do what I’ve described above as a useful gauge swatch and see if you find it helpful. Then make your final decision!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shetland Shawls and Me

My knitting plans for this year were fairly simple. Make a summer sweater or two, socks for the winter, a sweater vest for my DH, and spin for a shawl for myself. Life, as it so frequently does, had other ideas.

Occasionally, like most knitters, I get ambitious. Six years ago when we were expecting our first grandchild, I wanted something quite special to welcome that new life into the family. Not considering all the possible repercussions, I pulled about 5 ounces of merino/clun forest fleece from the stash and spun most of it very, very fine, plying for a gossamer-weight two-ply yarn.

I then proceeded to knit a simple Shetland shawl – technically, a hap– with a garter-stitch center section and a wide border of Feather and Fan. That shawl was, to put it mildly, well-received; used for that grandson’s christening and then lovingly packed away to be used for his bride and their children.

Now fast-forward to the late winter/early spring of 2010. My Navy NCO son and daughter-in-law have announced that they are expecting their first child in October. And my darling son has made it clear that he would like for me to make another shawl for this baby. This is how traditions get started in our family…but I still think making an heirloom piece is a wonderful thing to do for a new baby, and I’m off and running.

First I put out the word for more fleece from, if possible, that same sheep. Why that particular sheep? My sons knew him! Luckily, the shepherd (a good friend) had some of the fleece, in roving form, stuck back and was willing to part with it under these circumstances. So I picked it up at a hastily-arranged luncheon in late February and took it home to start spinning.

Since I love designing things, I began designing the shawl as I spun. Again, I spun a gossamer two-ply of about 55 wpi. Definitely a bit on the fine side! But this particular fleece fluffs up beautifully, and the washed yarn is closer to 45 wpi. About 1200 yards and 4.5 ounces later, I was ready to start knitting. The plan I conceived was for a Fir Cone central square surrounded by a Tree of Life border and a Crest o’ the Wave edging.

The central square was planned as a Fir Cone pattern knit on the diagonal. I thought that pattern reflected the mountains of Western Washington and their covering of evergreens quite well, and would give a reminder of the family’s whereabouts when this child was born.

I did, however, feel the need for a large swatch, so I spun a bit extra and cast three stitches onto size 2 needles, then followed the Fir Cone pattern as shown below, increasing each row by K1, yo and inserting patterns as needed to fill the space. When I reached 8 repeats, I removed the stitches from the needle to a cotton yarn, soaked and then blocked to get some idea of the number of repeats necessary to reach the 24-inch square I wanted.

If you plan to use these charts, be advised that there’s a knit row between each pattern row. Stitch conventions are pretty standard as far as yarn-overs and single- or double-decreases are concerned.

This was something of a challenge to knit, since the stacked double-decreases at the exact top of the stacked yarn-overs makes for a popcorn-looking texture on the needles. I wasn’t at all sure that I wouldn’t end up pulling the entire thing back out if those decreases didn’t block flat – that was one of the reasons for such a large sample. The other reason, of course, was to have a ‘working copy’ on which to try out the other elements of the pattern.

Reassured by the blocked sample that the shawl would indeed block flat, I cast on again for the actual shawl and started knitting. When I reached the 17 repeats necessary for the 24-inch square, I began the decreases in a mirror fashion to the increases; K2tog, yo, k2tog at the beginning of each row, using up pattern repeats as I went.

After again reaching 3 stitches, I k3tog and bound off that stitch. Next step was to wash and block the square, since I had decided that it would make picking up all those stitches (140 each side = 560 total stitches) much easier – and it did!

I had originally thought to use a single, small 20-stitch repeat Tree of Life pattern followed by a larger version spaced between the small repeats. But I changed my mind while picking up stitches and reworked the chart to do three offset rows of trees instead. I decided that the large trees were just too large for a small person. The chart is shown below, rotated 180-degrees simply because I’m feeling too lazy to switch it around.

I’m presently at row 16 of the chart, beginning the decrease portion of the first line of trees. Other than the slow-seeming purl rounds, it’s going well – and the slowness of those rounds is strictly illusion. I clocked a pattern row and a purl row, and there’s no difference in the actual time required to knit them.

The shawl is shaping up just as I’d hoped – it appears as if the fir cones have fallen from the trees. Again, this is a reflection of the Washington coastline. On a visit a couple of years back, my husband and I drove up the peninsula, marveling at the way the evergreen-covered mountains tumble into the bay.

The final touch will be to knit on the edging. I thought Crest ‘o the Wave would be appropriate, both for the family background (my dad was also an NCO in the Navy) and the ocean surrounding the peninsula where the children live. I’m planning to use Eunny Jung’s variation from her Print o’ the Wave Stole pattern (, since I prefer it to the ‘standard’ Shetland variation. I’m debating whether to use a garter-stitch ground or the stockinette she shows in her pattern, but since I’ve chosen garter for the rest of the shawl, I’ll probably go with that.

Photos of shawls in progress are pretty bleah, but here’s one for those who can visualize the finished product from the cleaning rag it appears to be now.

Returning to the subject of family traditions, there’s a second installment to this story. Turns out I need to complete another shawl, for another grandchild, before year’s end. While another grandchild is always fantastic news, I must admit that as a knitter I’m a bit overwhelmed. A lace shawl every year or two (or six) isn’t too bad – you’ve got plenty of time to spin, design and knit, and I enjoy the challenge of doing so intermittently. But knitting two shawls in less than a single year is enough to panic even me just a bit!

I’m currently trying to decide whether to start spinning the superfine Jamison & Smith Shetland top I bought (as a possible fiber for a shawl for myself next year) or simply work on the design for the present and leave the spinning until the current shawl is complete. There’s a part of me that is leery of starting another spinning project while I’m still working with this yarn; what if 1200 yards isn’t enough to complete the shawl? I’m doing my usual ‘just in case’ on that possibility – spinning 20-30 yards of the merino/clun forest every couple of days so that I can match the yarn I’ve used to date.

But since designing can be done while knitting (even knitting a different pattern!), I do have a preliminary design in mind for this second shawl. Different parents, different personal histories, so a very different shawl. I’m considering a center star surrounded by Celtic knots flowing into a framed rose pattern for the border. Knit in the round, but with increases placed (after the star is complete) so as to form a square, or perhaps an octagon. I’ll likely continue the rose motif into the edging, unless I find a pattern I like better. Stockinette ground rather than garter. Yes, a very different shawl.

I can hear someone asking if there aren’t enough lovely patterns out there for me to find one that will suit me instead of going through the design process. The short answer is “probably.” The longer explanation is that I want these shawls/baby blankets to be absolutely unique, as is each of these children. These are to be heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Each will be accompanied by an explanation of the patterns chosen, and tell the story of how, why and by whom it was made. Luckily, my children grew up with the mindset that certain handmade things are quite special and worthy of protection from the rough and tumble of daily use. So I can count on them to keep these shawls in such a way that they will be available for future generations.

There’s also the fact that I have great difficulty following someone else’s pattern. I want my own individual stamp on anything I make. Otherwise, why spend all that time and energy?

So if you don’t hear much from me for the remainder of this year, now you know why. As happens all too frequently in life, plans for this year have changed drastically– and I’m trying to keep up!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

And The Wheel Spins ‘Round

It’s funny how our fiber journeys wind around and around. I started, 40-plus years ago, as a seamstress, quilter and crocheter. Give or take a couple of years, I added other types of sewing and pattern-making in my 20’s; tatting and four-harness weaving and needle lace in my 30’s; spinning, knitting, and multiple-harness weaving in my 40’s. Now I’m in my 50’s and teaching almost all of these things in turn to a whole new group – and not a few members of my own generation!

Teaching is something I’ve always done. As a girl, I was the oldest – so I taught my younger cousins the same things my great-grandmother and grandmother had taught me. As a teen in the 1960’s, I taught the other young people around me to crochet and sew the stuff we wanted. In my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s I taught sewing and other crafting techniques as an income supplement – and I’m still doing the same today. I’ve never really expanded my teaching focus beyond the local area, and have yet to write that book I keep thinking about. I don’t yet feel an overwhelming need to do those things; I’m happy with my local teaching gigs. They’re fun, fulfilling, and I’m always learning something new from my students.

And learning is also something I’ve always done. Most of my fiber arts techniques were learned pre-internet, largely from books and magazines and other artists. Learning intermediate weaving techniques and re-learning to knit more or less coincided with the surge in internet use, and I’ve learned a lot on-line. Ravelry and the Knitters’ Review Forums have taken on a life quite unlike the weaving bulletin boards and lists of the 1990’s! Regardless of the resources available online, however, I’m still a bibliophile – I collect books on all the arts I practice. When I die my children are going to have quite a chore just sorting through all the books in the house! Then they’ll need to decide what to do with them… Luckily I’ll no longer be around to see the long-suffering looks and hear the sighs!

You’d think that after years of practicing various fiber arts I’d have stopped purchasing new books. Nope! I have become more choosey about what I buy, though. My focus has never been on pattern books (I like to make up my own patterns!), but I’m still a sucker for design books. Take knitting, for example: I’ve got stitch dictionaries galore, all the “must-have” design books (Righetti, Zimmerman, Walker, Gibson-Roberts), including some of the newcomers like Wendy Barnard, and most of the lace design books out there. I have fewer spinning books per se (Alden Amos, Judith McKenzie McCuin, etc.), but literally decades worth of Spin-Off magazines.

I’ve always found books a wonderful repository of wisdom. They let you see what other people have done and how – and more importantly, why – and give you a starting point for your own explorations. I’d never have become much of a knitter if I hadn’t stumbled across EZ’s Knitting Without Tears in my local library. I would have drowned in knitting patterns and never gathered the knowledge and courage to strike out with my own designs! Ditto Spin-Off, which held my hand between spinning guild meetings and led me gently down the path to trusting my own instincts about fiber.

Creativity spawns more creativity. I think that’s why so many of us gather together within our chosen disciplines, and within related ones as well. Ideas come from so many sources, and one idea may generate another that bears little or no relationship to the first! Each of us brings our own experiences to bear on our art; but we borrow from the experiences of others, as well.

Fiber people are amazingly generous. They’re willing to share their knowledge, experiences, tips, tricks and failures with fellow travelers. As artists, we do learn from someone else’s failure; sometimes we try to do something similar while avoiding the things that made them fail. Many times this leads to a success; sometimes it leads to another failure – but from a different cause! And we get back together and share those stories, which leads to more experimentation, which leads to more successes or failures, which leads to more stories…you get the idea.

Books take this wealth or experience and distill it. Yes, you have only one voice in a book – but that one voice, if you’re lucky, brings decades of experience along with it, both the writer’s and that of those around her. I think the books that become classics in a given field do this particularly well. They generally have something else in common as well; they’re written in a very human fashion. We become friends with the author. Elizabeth Zimmerman is probably the quintessential example of this, but there are numerous others.

One of the things I hope I teach my students is that the knowledge they need is in many different places – not only online. Yes, the online community is a wonderful resource. But internet connections go down; computers break; cell phones are terrible web browsers. Besides, you may not have the leisure to wade through 3,000 links to find the one with the information you need. A book lives silently on a shelf until you need it, and it won’t disappear like the link you bookmarked five years ago. A fiber friend is a phone call or a short distance away. Inspiration is found in unlikely places; it works best coupled with a bit of perspiration. But it can be lost or diluted while you’re clicking on links – focus is necessary for fruition.

And the wheel turns around…From being a student, I’ve become one of the older practitioners – I’m now the “go to” person. Yet I’m still a student myself. I’ve signed up for a quilting class next month. Except for minor projects, I haven’t quilted in 20 years. But I have this idea for taking some of my wool hand-woven and hand-knit fabrics…

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Musings on My Current Class…

I’m finishing a sweater class right now at my LYS. I sweated over the class instructions for literally months, re-writing, editing, changing and re-writing yet again. Mostly because this class isn’t supposed to teach students how to make a single sweater pattern. No, this one is titled “Knitting to Fit” and is designed to show knitters how to modify a design or design a well-fitting sweater for themselves.

There are nine of us in the class, including me. We’re in all sizes; even the three or four of us who have a petite height and frame have widely-varying measurements. Including those who wear exactly the same size! Our body types are different, ranging from oval to hourglass to triangle to rectangular. And most of the class members are making different types of sweaters, ranging from set-in sleeves to raglan and yoked styles. A couple are going bottom-up, most top-down. Most are using wool or wool blends – one chose cotton. It’s definitely a challenge for the instructor!

Just to keep it interesting (I know I’m nuts), I set myself a task for the class, too. I’m using three-ply handspun Blue-faced Leicester in a fingering weight – about 2000 yards per pound – in natural gray-taupe and some white that I space-dyed at the roving stage. I’ve made several raglan or yoked sweaters from the top down for the grandkids, but not for myself, so that’s my challenge – a yoked/raglan combo sweater knitted on size 3 needles. I finished it up this weekend, and love it! It fits beautifully, and shows me as well as the class members that knitting, done properly, is indeed a beautiful thing!

Needless to say, we’ve made extensive use of reference materials in this class. I’ve been lugging a box of books by Zimmerman, Walker, Righetti, Gibson-Roberts and others to each class, and using them. Class members have purchased their favorites to use, as well. Several years back, by using bits and pieces from each of these knitting icons, I finally learned to make a sweater that fits well, not only for myself, but for anyone else I could measure. And that’s what I’ve tried to communicate to my students.

The knitting is almost incidental to this class, in a way. Learning about the different body types and what looks good on them, learning measuring and shaping techniques, discovering how to control your knitting and trust your instincts, planning your knitting and how to make a useful swatch are the most important things. Techniques for set-in sleeves that are knitted from the shoulder down, re-figuring raglan lines, learning provisional cast-ons and learning to incorporate stitch patterns into shaping options are second in importance. Doing the actual knitting is almost anticlimactic.

So why is everyone making a sweater rather than a single enormous swatch? Because nothing teaches like a successful project. Besides, swatches that go on forever are…well, boring…even if they are terribly useful! Part of making a sweater is falling in love with it - choosing the yarn and needles, choosing the fabric you want to make, transferring the measurements you have to the garment you want to make, knowing how to modify details so that you can change a shawl collar to a ribbed band without anguish. And all of that is much more fun to do in full-size rather than in miniature.

Could I have chosen a single sweater style (perhaps a set-in sleeve, fitted style with princess lines), designed the sweater and the pattern, and taught how to modify it? Yes, and I considered that. But I eventually decided against it, because my aim for this class is for everyone to make a sweater that they love. And not everyone likes to wear set-in sleeves and fitted, princess lines.

Did I perhaps bite off more than I can possibly chew? Perhaps. Although so far (seven sessions into the eight of the class), I don’t believe so. What I was hoping for is happening instead. Knitters are making different sweater styles, and are helping and learning from one another. Only one knitter chose to use a pattern – everyone else is designing their own sweater! This class is proving what I’ve always known about fiber folks – they’re unfailingly generous with their time, their expertise and their encouragement, and much, much smarter than they think they are!

This is indeed turning out to be a very successful class. As I hoped, my students now feel empowered to change whatever they like in a knitted design, with confidence that they won’t encounter any problems that can’t be solved with a bit of ingenuity, a willingness to rip as needed, and asking questions of other knitters! They have also gained the confidence to design and make their very own garments, which is a wonderful bonus. I’ve loved this class, and hope to do many more like it!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Do We Make It So Hard?

I’d like to start by saying that I know I’m not any smarter than my grandmother. Or you. My skill set is different from hers due to the time and place I live; I have no need to kill, pluck and cut apart a chicken to fix for dinner, for example, just as my grandmother had no need to learn to operate a computer.

Nonetheless, Grandma and I have some things in common. She was a gutsy lady who never gave up when she wanted to do a thing. It earned her the appellation “stubborn” from her husband and children on occasion, as it does me, my mother, my daughter and most of my female cousins. I’ve never understood why it’s ‘persistence’ when a man wants you to learn something, and ‘stubbornness’ when he finds your focus inconvenient, but that’s a rant for another time.

Grandma was also an accomplished analytical thinker, again from necessity. She had to plan sufficient garden each year to feed her family of sixteen, including an allowance for varmint depredations, weather variations, and other possible catastrophes like illness. There needed to be enough to share with those less fortunate, too. She needed to save enough seed for the next year’s planting, and devise critter-proof storage for that seed – otherwise her family would go hungry. Since canning and drying were the only preservation methods, she needed to know how many jars she needed and in what sizes, as well as how many seals and lids were required for those jars each year.

She needed to know exactly how much flour, meal, sugar and salt (not to mention other staples like baking powder and soda) she would require for 4-6 months at a time, that being the usual amount of time between visits to town. Ditto fabric requirements so that she’d have enough cloth to keep everyone covered and warm. How much yarn or fiber it would take to knit socks, mittens, scarves and hats for everyone for the winter, as well as occasional sweaters.

She needed to decide how many piglets to sell and which one(s) to keep, how many chickens to allow to sit their eggs rather than using those eggs for breakfast, and how much grain to feed the steer for proper fattening. All necessary skills, and ones she learned well enough to raise a large, healthy brood in an era when many people lost more children than they raised to adulthood. Grandma had to learn to plan ahead to manage that, so she learned.

Yes, we have it much easier day to day. Groceries come from a supermarket where we can purchase them fresh, frozen or canned in infinite variety and from all corners of the globe. Cooking can be as simple or as complicated as the cook desires. Vacuum cleaners are both faster and easier than sweeping and beating rugs. Central heating and electric or gas stoves beat a fireplace and coal- or wood-fueled stoves all hollow, even if you don’t include the mess involved in cleaning them. I’ll take indoor plumbing and hot-water heaters over an outhouse and water heated on the stovetop anytime. I prefer a daily shower to a weekly bath. If I want or need something from the next town, I can be there in 20 minutes, including putting on my good jeans and finding my car keys.

So why do we make it so tough on ourselves? We make that 20-minute drive twice a day instead of keeping a list and going once or twice a week. Our usual reason? ________ (Fill in the blank with husband, child, etc.’s name) needs it now. But why do they need it now?

I absolutely believe a sign I’ve had hanging in my office for years. It reads, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” I first saw that more years ago than I want to acknowledge, in the office of an office practices instructor at a local college. It made good sense to me – and didn’t only apply to the gentlemen (in most cases) with whom I worked.

An older lady who attended our church was horrified one afternoon to hear me tell my then seven-year-old, “I’ll take care of it as soon as I finish this.” She thought I should have dropped whatever I was doing to run and respond to a very minor request. I was astonished, and informed her that as long as the child wasn’t hurt, I considered what I was doing at least as important as his request. I’ve never seen any reason to change that attitude, and think that may be part of the reason my DH and I managed to raise three fairly considerate adults.

So I’ll reiterate: why do we make it so hard for ourselves? Rather than show and teach our children (or spouse) that they truly don’t need every single thing right now; that they can learn to plan ahead, thus saving time and resources and perhaps even fostering a bit of imaginative thinking; we jump and run. This leaves us all too often feeling exhausted, martyred, and inconsequential. Grandma may have felt the first two on occasion, but I’m fairly sure she never felt the last one! She knew quite well that her well-being mattered to the people who depended on her.
You may very well be asking what brought this on…and I can truly answer that I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with having to work these past couple of weekends and not getting any of the usual Christmas stuff done; and then discovering that my DH is perfectly happy to take care of any of that stuff that matters to him all by himself. Perhaps it has something to do with my remembering how to say “no” to some of the chores I’ve always done - due to both a lack of time and a dislike for paying the price in pain and suffering.

Maybe those things are part of the reason I actually enjoyed Christmas this year. Instead of rushing around trying to do everything to make the holiday perfect for everyone near and dear to me, I sat back and reflected on the past 25 or so Christmases and the years between them. Discovering links in strange places, and abilities I’d forgotten I had, such as planning errands to all be done in a single afternoon on the way home from work. Perhaps it has something to do with combining an unplanned evening of Christmas shopping and a lovely dinner with my DH after work last Saturday. Or enjoying time spent around my son and his girl doing nothing much.

The only thing that’s been a constant is the phrase that’s been running through my head: “Why do we make it so hard?” And I can’t think of a single reason why we should. So I’ll close by wishing you a happy 2010 with plenty of time to simply enjoy the best things around you: warmth, food you didn’t have to raise (or that you did, if that’s your thing to do), and the company of the people you choose to love.