Building Blocks of Knitting Stitches

Have you ever wondered where twisted stitches come from, why there are two common ways to decrease a stitch instead of just one, or what the heck is “combination” knitting? Do you get confused when you pick up or transfer stitches and find that they seem somehow different from what you’re used to? Has anyone ever told you that you knit “the wrong way”? If so, keep reading—but let’s get one thing straight right up front—there is no wrong way to knit! (And I am not the only one to say so.) If your way is comfortable for you and produces fabric you like, it’s a good way.

No matter what combination of stitch orientation, wrapping direction, and yarn handling you use, there are certain basic elements of how knitting stitches form that are the same. These influence how you work your stitches as you knit, and how your finished stitches look. Once you understand these basics, you can gain the confidence to handle your stitches however the situation calls for, and maybe even the freedom to try out different ways to knit! If you have your own knitting handy, please get it and follow along looking at the live stitches, I think it will make more sense that way.

Knit stitch orientation drawing

Let’s start with the shape of a stitch: when you look at a piece of finished knitting (or the part of in-progress knitting below the needles) each knit stitch looks like a mostly-flat “V” shape, and each purl stitch looks like a horizontal bar. Both stitches are actually just loops of yarn, oriented differently to the ones below. (We’ve talked about that before, and it’s worth mentioning many times—in fact I recommend that you keep thinking about it until you can see it with your eyes closed).

We have knitting needles to hold all the loops we’re still working with until the next row/round, so that they don’t come un-looped. As soon as you put two stitch loops on a needle, they have an orientation, which can be one of only two ways: with the leading side of the stitch (the side which is closest to the tip of the needle holding it) either in front of the needle (closer to you) or in back of the needle (further from you). This is sometimes called stitch “mount,” and the sides of the stitches called “legs,” as if they were riding horses—visualize that if it’s helpful to you.

Leading side in front on the left, leading side in back on the right. We’ll get to the twisted stitches in a minute …

Most American knitters I know expect that the leading side of each stitch will be in front, and most pattern instructions I read assume that it is. With the leading side in front, if you reach the working needle (the needle which is making the stitches, usually the right hand one) into the front of the stitch to knit it, you can see that the stitch is pulled open, and it will make an open, “V” shaped stitch once it is knit. If you reach into the back of the stitch, it feels tighter (this difference is helpful, and noticeable to most knitters even if they’re beginners). If you look closely you can see that the two sides of the stitch are now twisted around each other, and they will remain twisted in the knitted fabric. (Sometimes you want a twisted stitch to tighten up part of your work, but most of the time it’s not the goal.)

Reaching into the front of a stitch with the leading side in front

Reaching into the back of a stitch with the leading side in front

Now look at what happens when the leading side of the stitch is in back. If you reach into the front of the stitch, it feels tight, and the sides of the stitch twist. If you reach into the back, the stitch is open, and will form an open (not twisted) stitch in the fabric. So, it behaves in the opposite way as a stitch with the leading side in front, but the open stitches will be absolutely identical in the fabric. (Side note: twisted stitches formed from these two setups twist in opposite directions.)

Reaching into the back of a stitch with the leading side in back

Reaching into the front of a stitch with the leading side in back

Twisted stitches in the fabric below the needle

We have now discovered a deep truth of knitting: there are only two ways that a stitch can “sit” on the needle, and no matter which way it is, if you knit (or purl) through the leading side, the stitch will be open, and if you knit through the trailing side it will be twisted.

Many knitters first think about these differences when they get to decreases. To Knit Two Together (k2tog), you reach your working needle into two stitches at once, from left to right, through the front of the stitches, and assuming that those stitches have the leading side in front, both stitches will be open, the left one will be on top of the right one, and the decrease will lean to the right.

Knitting two together through the front

If you want a decrease that leans the other way (so that, for example, the shoulders of your sweater will look symmetrical), you could knit two stitches together through the back, so that the right stitch will be on top of the left one. But if your stitches have the leading side in front, that would twist them both and pull the decreasing stitch really tight. This is the reason for the Slip, Slip, Knit (ssk) decrease—if you slip the two stitches (one at a time) to the working needle by reaching into the front (“as if to knit”), it flips them around so that the leading side is in back. Then you can pass them back onto the holding needle with the needles tip to tip (“as if to purl”), and then you are ready to knit them both through the back, so that both stitches will be open, the right one will be on top of the left one, and the decrease will lean to the left. (If you have knitting in front of you right now, you can see this happen before your eyes.)

Slipping a stitch to change its orientation

Knitting two together through the back

All of this works if you are making purl stitches rather than knit, it just may look and feel a little funky if you’re not used to it. You can absolutely purl a stitch through the back side. And you can flip purl stitches around by passing them between needles. My golden rule for this is: if the needles tips are essentially (or could be) pointing them same way as you are picking up the stitch to transfer it, it will flip the stitch around. If the needle tips are pointing towards each other (tip to tip), you will transfer the stitch without changing its orientation. Note that if you reach into the trailing side of the stitch instead of the leading side to transfer it, you’ll twist it, just like when working it. Play around with it a little bit, you’ll see what I mean.

Setup to work a purl stitch through the back side

Ok, are you with me so far? To review: whether a stitch in knitted fabric is open or twisted depends on these two things: which way the stitch is oriented on the needle, and which way it is knit (through the front or the back). To get an open stitch, always knit or purl through the leading side of the stitch. It’s easy to re-orient the stitches to get the effect you want, by flipping them around with the needles.

Fair enough, you may think, but how do the stitches get to be oriented one way or another in the first place? Don’t they all just appear with the leading side in front? Excellent question. You may have noticed that there are also two (only two) directions in which you can wrap the yarn around the needle as you make a new stitch. If you’re reading this in the US, you were probably taught that the “right” way to knit is to wrap the yarn from under the needle to the front and over the top (counterclockwise if you are looking at the tip of the needle), and the right way to purl is to bring the yarn from the front up over the top of the needle and down (again counterclockwise).

The wrapping direction applies whether you knit by holding the yarn in your right hand and throwing (English style) or by holding it in your left and picking (Continental style). In the photos below, I’m holding the yarn on the left, but it works with either technique. Even in Portuguese knitting, it may look different, but there are still two ways to wrap the yarn!

Setup to knit a stitch, wrapping the yarn counterclockwise

Setup to knit a stitch, wrapping the yarn clockwise

Here is our second deep truth of knitting: if you wrap the yarn counterclockwise, your new stitches will come out with the leading side in front. If you wrap the yarn the other way (clockwise as you look at the needle tip) when knitting or purling, your stitches will come out with the leading side in back.

(If you had rows, or parts of rows, of mysterious twisted stitches as a beginner, inconsistent wrapping direction followed by not noticing that the stitches were different is probably why.)

Here is where combination knitting comes in. If you knit Continental style, by holding the yarn on the left and picking the stitches from the tensioned yarn, you may have noticed that it’s actually a lot easier to form purl stitches by bringing the working needle in front of the yarn and just pushing it away from you through the existing stitch. This wraps the yarn clockwise around the needle tip, meaning that your stitches for the next row will have the leading side in back. Which is no problem now, right? Just knit them through the back, and they will come out open just like you want them to.

Setup for Continental purl stitch, wrapping the yarn counterclockwise

Setup for Continental purl stitch, wrapping the yarn clockwise

I learned about all this not long after I started knitting, from reading the excellent book Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. There’s an explanation and handy illustration in the Knitting Methods chapter which shows “Western” style (leading side of the stitch in front), “Eastern” style (leading side in back), and a combined style. The combined style made sense to me, so I used it. Later I learned about Annie Modesitt, probably this era’s biggest champion of combination knitting—and a vocal supporter of the fact that there’s no wrong way to knit. (According to Annie’s blog, it sounds like she’s having an awful time lately. I certainly wish her a quick-as-possible recovery and all the best.)

Knitting in the Old Way also gives a fairly elastic bind-off method which I used for just about everything when I started knitting. It’s easy, and I still like it! All you do is knit two stitches together, then pass the resulting one stitch back to the holding needle, knit it together with the next stitch, and repeat. What it took me a while to realize is that I particularly like the look of this bind-off when the stitches are oriented with the leading side in back and knit through the back—that way they lean gracefully in the direction the bind-off is progressing (towards the left, like an ssk decrease) and make a nice series of open “Vs” along the bound-off edge.

Knit-two-together bind-off, worked through the back

Pop quiz: say you are knitting along with the leading side of your stitches in front, and you want to make this bind-off with the leading side in back, what should you do? As usual, there’s more than one correct answer. You could flip the stitches around one by one with the needles as you come to them. Or, you could wrap the yarn clockwise as you work the stitches of the row/round before the bind-off, so that the stitches come out with the leading side in back already!

I’m guessing that all this still seems confusing if you’re new to it, but I promise it gets much more intuitive after you knit with these ideas in mind for a little while. At this point, I can honestly say that I don’t even consciously notice which way a stitch is oriented when I come to it, my hands just put the needle through the front or the back as needed.

Considering all the variations in knitting style that folks use, before we end here I want to put a vote in for patterns to say “twist the stitch” instead of “knit through back of loop” and “work a left-leaning decrease” instead of “ssk.” Really, it would be so much clearer, and more understandable for those who knit in different ways from the American “standard” way. I will try to follow this principle in my own pattern writing.

Speaking of which, I have a knitting pattern coming out quite soon which uses the above bind-off, and was in part the inspiration for writing this post. I’ve shared my approach to these fundamentals of knitting in various classes, tried unsuccessfully to get a couple of knitting magazines which you’ve heard of to publish it (Really! Can you believe it?), and finally decided just to put it out here.

As Michel Garcia says about natural dye knowledge, are we going to build a wall around what we know and keep it jealously for ourselves, or are we going to share it freely in the belief and hope that it will grow and flourish as more people are exposed to it? Certainly I think this knowledge is incredibly useful to anyone who knits. If you find this post worthwhile, please share it! Wouldn’t it be great if it got more notice here than it would have in a magazine …

Cheers, everybody!

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Enoughness, Wardrobe, Mending

 

old silk cami after detail

 

Are you ready for a radical anti-consumerist statement? Here goes: I have enough clothes. Now, this isn’t a terribly original radical idea, even among other makers & sewists (for one, Felicia wrote eloquently about it last summer). But it’s an idea that I’ve been rolling around my head for a year or so now, mulling over where I’m going with it, and I think I’ve made some progress.

Roughly six years ago, without really telling anyone about it, I decided that I would get the clothes I needed in my wardrobe by making them instead of buying them. At the time, I needed quite a bit. For winter wear I remember having a total of two long sleeved knit shirts, both plain cotton not-great-fitting ones from the thrift store. Situations like that were part of the reason I went handmade; I was frustrated looking for ready-made clothes I liked that I could afford, and tired of feeling like most of what I wore didn’t suit my personality or my life. Me-Made-May was also essential in getting me going in this direction. Before we move on, I want to acknowledge that it is a great privilege to be able to choose warmer and better-looking clothes. While I’m not always sure what to do with that knowledge, it seems important to say it, and I do think that just acknowledging it helps me be more grateful and mindful of what I have, and encourages me to take care of things and not take them for granted.

 

old silk cami before

This was an old silk cami with a shelf bra inside, made from a thrifted top. As you can see, it had a lot of wear and had already been patched once. But there was still enough sound fabric between the body and the shelf to reconstruct a different cami (below). It’s certainly arguable that this was too much work, too much hand stitching, for a garment which realistically is made from worn fabric and has a limited life expectancy. And yet, it gave me a lot of freedom to experiment, and a functional garment …

old silk cami after

 

So back then, I just started sewing garments, beginning with what I needed most, and then moving to the next-most-needed thing. It worked—I slowly but surely built a wardrobe of clothes I love, which covers just about any situation in my life. The new things have been mostly me-made, with a few lucky thrifted/gifted pieces mixed in. It certainly helped my progress that I already knew how to to sew (and knit), that I was already thinking about how my style reflects the way I want to be seen, and that I had a fair amount of fabric stashed away (although I certainly acquired more for specific projects).

Because I came into my personal wardrobe sewing revival from a place of making what I really needed, it was unavoidably obvious when I got to the point of not needing much. It’s been a gradual but ultimately fairly profound shift for me; from having a new garment in progress most of the time, to focusing more on slower projects, mending, and keeping my wardrobe in good shape.

 

layers of sock darning

These handknit socks I got from a friend quite a while back are my longest-running mending project. I just can’t give them up. All but one pair are still going.

 

At first, I was a little conflicted about all this. I thought I might miss sewing things from fresh fabric, or maybe more truthfully that I would miss dreaming things up to sew out of fresh fabric. But, as Jess pointed out, there’s no reason not to keep dreaming. After all, just a small percentage of the garments I imagine ever get sewn, no matter how much I’m actually making. Also, it turns out that for me anyway, it’s just as satisfying to dream up ways to re-make things that have been languishing in the back of my closet or in the “try again” basket. And it’s not that I am making nothing new. Right now I am knitting socks (the world’s slowest pair since I’m only working on them when traveling, plus I keep changing my mind and ripping out the heel …), spinning yarn which will become a sweater in its own sweet time, and plotting a new shirt from my natural-dye-printed fabric. And, I’ve just realized that neither my newer purple corduroys nor my blue cotton pants are really presentable for outside wear anymore—there will always be things to make!

But for the most part, my sewing lately has been directed towards keeping my existing wardrobe going, making it better, and adding in the next level of that message I want to send when people see what I’m wearing. At some point it occurred to me that while I know I’m wearing handmade, anyone who sees my clothes (especially if they don’t sew) will just assume that I bought them somewhere, like “everyone” does. In fact, many a sewist’s goal has been to make clothes that look “just as good” as store-bought ones. Well, I’ve decided that I’d actually like people who see me on the street to think to themselves, “Hey, I wonder if she MADE that … or someone did …”—in a good way, of course! I’m interested in adding more hand stitching, more hand-dyed fabrics (and eventually handmade fabrics?!), and definitely interested in wearing visible mending proudly on the outside of my clothes.

 

black handstitched pjs 1

Rather than making a new pair of PJ pants when I needed some recently, I decided it made more sense to revamp a pair that Bryan wasn’t wearing. That meant getting rid of crumbling elastic, and adding enough hand stitching that they felt like “my new comfy beautiful PJs” rather than “this hand-me-down thing I’m stuck with.”

black handstitched pjs 2

 

This downshift in sewing fits in really well with other shifts in my life over the past couple of years. A lot of my creative energy has been and is now going into thinking about natural dyes, fibers, and fabric printing. As I’ve taught those skills more widely, I’ve been working hard to learn all I can and improve my process. (It’s the biggest, deepest, best rabbit hole of research and experiments I’ve ever been in.) I’m teaching mending more too, so it’s been perfect timing for me to take on mending my own wardrobe as more of a deliberate project, seeing how far I can push things and what I will learn by continuing to choose “fix it” over “rag bag.” As much as I am devoted to other textile arts, it pops into my head over and over again that mending is probably the most valuable, most potentially world-changing thing I could do, show, or teach. (Come join me! New classes recently added.)

I think it’s also worth noting that I’m more comfortable in this stage of my evolution as a maker because of the type of maker I am. While I certainly try to master the skills I take on, every textile technique I learn about fascinates me, and I’m always ready to expand my horizons. So spending less time sewing ultimately means I’ll have more time for dyeing, spinning, maybe some weaving, or to try something else entirely new—a bonus in my book.

This blog has evolved with me, and I want it continue to do so. I have plans to start sharing some of what I’ve learned about natural dyeing here, as well as whatever else comes up. So for now, a happy season to you, whatever yours may be. (The monsoon rains just started here, and I am so very grateful!)

 

black handstitched pjs 3

 

 

News March 2018: Teaching and Updates

 

fold dip print 3

 

Hello all!

First, I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be traveling to teach at a new venue this fall; North House Folk School, way up in northern Minnesota! I’m teaching two classes: Fold, Dip, Print: Natural Dye on Fabric and Creative Mending. It would be nearly impossible to say which of these I’m looking forward to more.

I have a new batch of fabric samples for natural dye printing just waiting to test (I’m working with tannin this time, and how it interacts with other mordants) so I should have even more to share in this next workshop. Figuring out things that I can’t just look up in a book keeps pulling me deeper and deeper into natural dye mysteries—I love it! (If you don’t know what a mordant is or why tannin might be one, maybe you would like to come to this workshop …)

I’m equally loving starting to prepare for this next mending workshop; thinking about what I know and have taught before, bringing topics together, trying new ideas, and wanting to integrate as many options from the different crafts I know as possible. We’re going to see how weaving and knitting work, what makes fabric behave how it does, and learn a whole bunch of ways to patch/darn/repair/decorate all kinds of textiles. It’s going to be great!

 

creative mending 1

 

Second, I have been doing some long-overdue website updating (it’s always overdue, right?). You may be surprised to click on one of the tutorial pages (like the mending one, speaking of) and find it reasonably complete and up to date. I am (ever so slowly) learning a little more about html, which will hopefully make it easier to keep up with this stuff as I go. Come look around the site if you haven’t in a while.

That’s all from me for now. If you want to be updated when I have new classes scheduled, the best bet is to follow this blog. No spam, and only occasional posts … you can also check in on the Classes + Workshops page.

Cheers!

 

Small Hats for 2017

 

Before it fades too far into memory, I want to share a project which belongs firmly to last year. Looking back, I still can’t quite wrap my head around 2017. How can a year in which I found the news so distressing and depressing that I more or less stopped paying attention to it be the same one in which I met several of my fiber arts heroes, learned a ton, made wonderful connections at John C Campbell Folk School, etc? Of course like so many things, it’s not either/or, it’s both, with many more things in there besides. (I started thinking about either vs. both while Bryan was working on this project, and it appeared again when I was reading The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer last summer. And again in this conversation with Brené Brown and Krista Tippett that I was just listening to. I think it may be important.)

  

pink handspun hats 2

 

A lot of the both/and of last year is in these little hats. At the beginning of the year I was both saddened by all the events that showed the need for the women’s march, and inspired by all the artists I saw “taking back” the color pink and making beautiful things. I thought a lot about two of my young nieces (then 6 and 8 years old), and what messages they were getting about the world. I wanted to make something for them that would act as some kind of balm, something that would represent what I wish for them; play and adventure and fun and the chance to express themselves as girls, to be wild and strong and free. And for myself, I wanted to make something different than I normally would, something that would be a place to put some of my feelings and transform them into something positive. I got out some pink wool, and started spinning, woolen-style.

  

pink handspun yarn

 

It felt good. And by carving out a little creative time every day and using it to spin, I made enough yarn for two small hats in short order. I decided to also incorporate some springy soft purple handspun yarn that I had traded another local fiber artist for, and cast on the first hat as I traveled to our family craft retreat in late March. The nieces in question were coming to visit us right after the retreat, and I arrived home with both hats mostly knitted, and finished up the last little bits in the evenings after the girls were in bed. Near the end of their visit, I brought out the spinning wheel, showed them how it worked and let them try it, and then gave them the hats. They, and their mama, loved them, which made me feel really good about the whole thing. It doesn’t seem like my place to post pictures which would probably embarrass them later, so you’ll just have to trust me that they looked wonderful, grinning and wearing the hats with their pajamas.

 

pink handspun hats 1

Caption-sized knitting notes: the pattern in the body of these hats is Quaker rib (the same as this shawl which I thought looked great in handspun), and the tendrils at the top are made following the directions from Cat Bordhi’s Anemone Hat pattern.

  

I hesitated a little bit about posting this, as it brings up some churn-y feelings from last spring, and I’m happy to say that I feel much more solid in general now than I did then. But after typing it out, I’m so glad I did. It gave me some good perspective, and I think I can even put more of name to last year. I’m definitely saying it was a good year, although a hard one. (If you still feel like the world is ending, may I suggest you read this article, and then go make something?)

I have quite high hopes for 2018 too, and some exciting things in the works that I’ll post more about soon. It’s early enough in the year, I’m still happy to wish you all a peaceful and fulfilling trip around the sun. May it be a good one, and with any luck not too hard!

 

A Silk Watson Bra

You may have noticed that I’m not big into bandwagons, and if I am going to jump on one, I like to wait until it’s safely parked back in the barn and everyone else has left first … I actually bought a copy of this pattern right when it came out and it seemed like everyone in my sewing-internet-world was talking about it, but then in more my typical style, I decided to think about it for quite a while before actually making it.

 

silk watson bra 1

 

What was/is really exciting to me about the Watson Bra pattern is that someone else already did all the hard work of figuring out the exact curves of each piece to make a smooth cup shape, make it fit into the band, etc. (thanks Amy!), and that it’s specifically designed to be made without underwires, which is exactly what I wanted.

What I was less excited about is the fact that it called for mainly synthetic stretchy stuff; lots of kinds of elastic and power mesh, etc. As you may also have noticed, I’m so over it with all of that, and I’m trying to use all natural materials whenever it’s even remotely feasible. And one of the things that kept popping into my head whenever I looked at all this cashmere felt I have around* was, “this would really be perfect in a bra!” Since you know, it’s substantial but flexible, and insanely soft on the skin. But could I really make a bra using all natural fabrics? Maybe without even elastic?

It turns out the answer is a resounding yes! Not only can it work, but it did work beautifully on the very first try (some luck involved). Using my measurements of approximately 31 ½” underbust and a 1” difference between full and upper bust, I decided to make a size 34A, erring on the side of a slightly smaller size since my materials weren’t super stretchy and I didn’t want it to come out too loose. I made a couple of alterations to the pattern; adding ½” to center front since I knew that would fit my frame better, and straitening out the bottom line of the band to allow for the possibility of using an existing hem when upcycling garments for fabric (although I didn’t do that this time). I also added to the seam allowance in the center of the outer cup pieces, so I could grade it with the inner seam allowance to avoid a noticeable ridge there.

 

silk watson bra 2

 

The grey fabric is from a silk knit top that had worn out around the underarms and cuffs but still had plenty of life in the body. The pink binding is leftover fabric from making these camis (very thin silk knit), cut 1 ½” wide, sewed ¼” from the edges, and turned under. And the inner cups are indeed felted cashmere scraps*—oh yeah! I sewed it all together with a simple zigzag stitch, and sewed the straps on by hand.

According to my notes I made this back in February, which means I can now safely report that it works as well in real life as I’d hoped. The only alterations I’ve made since then are to move the back attachment point of the straps closer to center back (typical for me if the straps are slipping off my shoulders at all), and to tack down the bindings at center front with some tiny hand stitches, since the edges pulled up a bit after a few wears and washings, revealing the cup layers.

 

silk watson bra 3

 

I thought this might be a wearable muslin version, but instead it came out near perfection in fit and function. It does everything a want a “real bra” to do: provide a smooth and socially acceptable silhouette under a single other layer of clothing, and add a little bit of support. It’s also so comfortable I forget I’m wearing it, which is key for me. I thought about making another one (I even have another old silk top or two with some features that might be really fun to incorporate) but the truth is I don’t need it right now. This one, plus my more bralette-type past attempts at upper-body lingerie, are covering all my wardrobe needs. So, I’m officially checking “make real bra” off of my bucket list goals, and moving on!

I’ve been thinking a whole lot about what it means to have “enough” as I get closer to actually filling the gaps in my wardrobe. This post by Felicia has only broadened my sense that this is a really important thing for us all to be thinking about. A whole post about it here is likely coming … I’d love to know your thoughts at any time.

 

Previous makes

 

*Thanks to all the Fiddleheads hats I’ve made over years now, I have an entire giant plastic bin of small bits of luscious felted cashmere knits, which I could never throw out despite the fact that there’s way more than I’ll use in one lifetime (unless maybe, a giant intricate patchwork cashmere blanket—don’t even think about that, self!). Which is why I’ve started sorting them into groups of pleasing colors and offering them to fellow makers in my Etsy shop. I’ll continue to sort and list more batches as they sell. If you’d like some and you have color requests, just give me holler, here or there!

Cheers!

 

At John C Campbell Folk School, and Thank You

 

jccfs17landscape4

 

Once I start talking about my time at John C Campbell Folk School, I usually can’t stop. So much happened in the three weeks I was there that one story just leads to another … in case that happens in writing too, I want to begin with a heart-felt thank you to all of you reading this. This blog may not have thousands of followers or get major media attention, but it stands out here on the big ol’ web as a picture of who I am, what I’m doing and sharing, and where I’d like to go. The fact that it exists has helped make several opportunities possible lately, including this one. The ties between this space and the real world are many and interwoven. So, thank you all for being part of this piece of my life, which has contributed much to the person I’m becoming.

 

jccfs17landscape1

  

A heart-felt paragraph is actually a good introduction to this story, since one of the biggest things that stands out about JCCFS is just how many people I met there who were speaking and acting from the heart. My wonderful new friend Becky (who got recruited to be my assistant in the second felting class) told me about another student who had said, “I always knew I marched to the beat of a different drummer, but at the Folk School I met the rest of the band.” I feel more than a little of that myself. Somewhere towards the end of the first week I started to realize that whoever I was standing next to while waiting to go into the dining hall, though they may look like a mild-mannered Southerner somewhere around retirement age, was in fact very likely to be a member of my own quirky maker tribe! And that if I started talking to them, it was also likely that I would learn something really interesting and/or get a new idea. It was amazing. It also made me wonder if part of the reason I’m usually shy with strangers is that I’m convinced they won’t understand me, and if I’m not giving the strangers in other places enough credit. In other places though, it is harder to start conversations with, “Oh, you’re taking blacksmithing, very cool! What are you making this week?”

 

jccfs17landscape5

Part of the view walking from my temporary home to breakfast. The garden is in the left background, hay right background.

 

The physical Folk School is a collection of a couple dozen buildings for classes, housing, and community areas. Some are new, and some are gently worn with the passing of many feet and hands. The campus is out of the way enough to feel like its own little world, surrounded by various hills (which people from lower elevations might call mountains), fields complete with picturesque rolled hay, and lots of greenery and flowers towards the end of summer. There was fog most mornings (which being from a dry place I find exotic and beautiful). The chorus of night insects and frogs stood out to me enough that I made a little recording to remember it. On a few weekend nights you can also hear the distinctly incongruous sounds of a nearby car racing track.

Each day is scheduled with class time, meals, and optional extra activities in the afternoons and evenings. Music and dance are a big part of things; there are songs before breakfast (optional of course), contra dances every Tuesday night (so much fun) and concerts on many weekends. And a dozen or more classes in different craft subjects going on all at once! It really is a lot like my family craft retreat every single week—that much energy, that much community, that much learning, that much working intensely—except that during mealtimes and free times you also see a bunch of other people who are having a similar experience in another studio nearby.

 

jccfs17landscape2

The door through the gazebo on the left goes to the Wet Room, home of felting, dyeing, and other great classes, one of my new favorite places. The door on the right goes to the cooking studio.

 

I taught three classes; two on felting (one was a week long and one was a quick weekend format), and a week on screen printing with natural dye. Anyone who has seen me in person (or even on my Instagram) in the last two years or so knows that I’ve been fairly obsessed with natural dye and printing in particular. So much prep work went into that class especially, because it’s the one that’s the newest to me, and also because of the nature of the subject. What makes working with natural dyes so compelling is the infinite possibilities, the way that every single variable seems to affect the color you get … but that also makes it nearly impossible to feel prepared for class! Nevertheless, we all learned a lot and my hope was that the students would all leave with a solid foundation for their own experimenting. I had had some really lovely students in all three classes, people who were gracious, and helpful to each other, and full of new ideas. I was really impressed with the curiosity and creativity of the students who are drawn to JCCFS. You would not believe how many unique felted objects can materialize (and how much wool can disappear) even in a weekend class. In the week-long felting class we formed such a little community that some of us (including me) cried when it was time to say goodbye.

 

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Felting in the Wet Room.

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Printing in the Quilting Studio.

 

After the classes I taught were finished, I stayed a third week as a student (one of the benefits of teaching at the Folk School is that you get instructor credits which allow you to take a class more or less for free). I’m so glad I did, it was wonderful to experience the place from a more relaxed perspective, to have a week with more time for walking, extra activities, and hanging out with Julie, one of the student hosts who took my first felting class and became a fast friend. I took a class called Sheep to Shawl with Martha Owen, who is the resident artist in charge of felting, spinning, dyeing, etc. (and the person who hired me to come teach felting). We washed and dyed fleece in some gorgeous natural colors (without felting it, which I always found intimidating before), we learned to hand card, and we practiced spinning different styles and preparations. I also got to try out a great wheel, and even spinning the fuzz right off of an angora bunny! Martha is a generous teacher who shared a lot of her life with us, taking us to visit her sheep and her home. She knows/knew many people in the fiber world who are legends to me (like Norman Kennedy and Jim Liles), and her class is full of stories. The whole school actually is full of stories, and connections being made.

 

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Photo of me at great wheel via the JCCFS Facebook page.

 

When I got home I knew I still had some internal processing to do, continuing to turn over everything from a very full three weeks until it started to make sense with the rest of my life. Still, I kept thinking that it was taking me quite a while to get back to feeling “normal” … until I realized that is what it feels like when you’ve left a part of your heart behind. I grew a lot at the Folk School. I left as a better teacher, and as a person more able to be calm and trust that things will work out. I met and bonded with so many wonderful people. I’m surrounded by little reminders of them now; handmade things people generously gave me, and other beautiful things that I bought to bring home, and lovely wool from Martha’s class which I am trying to comb a little bit of each day. At least once a week, and usually more, I get a postcard or an email from one of my new buddies. Even if I wanted to pretend to be the same person I was before I left it would be impossible. Whether or not this turns out to be a “big break” that leads to other things for me, I’m profoundly grateful to have been able to go, to have learned all that I did and made all of these connections, to have been somewhere where I felt so at home that I understand what it’s like to fall in love with a community. As my excellent assistant for the printing class, Sally, says, “The Folk School is the easiest place in the world to practice gratitude.” I will endeavor to practice at home too.

 

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A New Slow Sweater, What it Says, and the Idea of Knitting “And”

  

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You know how sometimes you see someone, a stranger, and without meaning to, you imagine that whatever they’re wearing and whatever car they drive are the things they have chosen out of all possible options, that these things say something meaningful about their personality and their life? And then you look at yourself, your car, and maybe your clothes, and realize how many other circumstances played a part? I feel like we who make our own wardrobes move slowly (slowly, please cut yourself some slack, it’s going to be a process) towards the point where at least for what we wear it’s true: our clothes say exactly what we want them too. (My car is another story, I don’t know about yours. It does say that I would rather duct tape the mirror back on and buy better food than other possible options …)

This sweater feels like a step towards what I want to say with my knitting. It’s made with Mountain Meadow Wool (they’re a woman-owned company using US wool from the West, committed to eco-friendly practices) in a sheep-grown color (“natural dark gray”) which I love. I feel like the message that real wool is beautiful and good comes through, even if you saw me and assumed I bought this sweater (although if you saw my car you’d know I couldn’t afford it). You can also see that I love texture and value detail, and hate being cold.

  

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I’m pretty sure this was supposed to be my One Year, One Outfit project for 2016. I started planning it in late 2015, started knitting as spring came around, and brought it with me on the road last summer, but it took until this spring to finish. This was a long knit for a whole lot of reasons. The textured stitch patterns just take longer; there was more stopping and checking and thinking than with plain stockinette or one pattern all over. Sweaters are big, and pretty soon I wouldn’t necessarily take this one everywhere I went. Making something only loosely “inspired by” a pattern (the Cotswold Henley by Meghan Babin) takes a lot of thinking, and measuring, and planning, and sometimes ripping out and knitting again. All totally worth it, but time consuming, and sometimes I ended up not knitting because planning the knitting was daunting and I was too tired or overwhelmed.

When we got home in the fall, I really wanted to keep making progress on it, so at first I decided I would work on the sweater before bed, instead of spinning, until the sweater was done. I love spinning before bed, and it has to be said that I did not love knitting the sweater during that time as much. Sometimes I would just skip it. After a while I realized that, although I’m not the kind who likes having a bunch of projects in progress, this was a false choice—it’s actually healthy for me to have a little knitting and a little spinning going on at the same time. I also realized something about how I like to work that I kind of already knew; knitting is an “and” activity for me. I love knitting while traveling, knitting while hanging out with friends, and knitting at meetings, but I really don’t love sitting quietly by myself and knitting. I’d rather do something else with that time. So I went the other way; I started spinning at night again, and hauling an extra tote bag full of sweater-in-progress with me to social events and anywhere else I could see that I might have some down time. That worked much better, and before long the sweater was actually done!

  

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I believe that it’s done and that I knit it, but I’m having trouble believing that I get to keep it, if that makes any sense. In other words, I got pretty much exactly what I wanted. Of course there are a few things I’ll change in the next version, but there always are. I’ve decided that just shows that I’m still on a journey.

I started wearing it as soon as the last seam was sewn, and it went on quite a few outings this May, and into June in our variable mountain weather. The yarn has pilled some, but I’m hoping that how brilliantly it held up to being ripped out and re-knit (ahem) multiple times in certain sections means that the pills will be temporary and not terminal. I drafted Bryan to take the photos of it on me on the last cool day we’re likely to have until fall, and then carefully packed it away. Getting it out when the weather turns again is going to be such a treat!

  

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There are two different stitch patterns, but they’re hard to see unless you’re really looking. I possibly should have gone with something bolder/more contrast, but then again subtle is my jam …

  

A few knitting notes: I wanted this to fit over my thickest winter shirt/sub-sweater (I hate being cold). I used Karen Templer’s idea of in-the-round “seams”. This is seriously brilliant as far as I’m concerned. Knitting seems so perfectly adapted to be made in the round, to be shaped organically, to be seamless, and I’ve never been willing to give all that up for the structure that seams can add. Now I just might get both! I made a pretty detailed/extensive chart of measurements for various sections of the sweater when I was planning where the “seams” would go and how big the whole thing should be, based on trying on an old sweater and marking it with pins. I’m really looking forward to having that chart and this sweater for planning future sweaters. I’ll be able to look at them and compare pattern measurements and know how big I want the sleeves, or how wide across the shoulders, etc.

  

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Guts: Picked up stitches around the neck/placket, and where the sleeve joins the body. “Seams” closed with mattress stitch between the two stitch patterns vertically in the body, and horizontally near the bottom of the sleeves.

  

For now, I’m enjoying knitting socks in spare moments. Compared to this sweater, they seem to appear instantaneously! I have a pair almost done already. I think the speed is mostly due to the “and” factor; socks are really suited to occupying my hands while other things are going on. They’re small enough for me to keep the whole project in the bag I usually carry, and I purposefully kept the stitch patterns simple enough that I can keep track without needing to refer to a pattern most of the time—which also means I don’t have to stop much for deep thinking. I could really use some new socks, so I may just make a few pairs before settling down to anything big and complicated again.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you want to share about big versus small projects, or crafts you like to do on your own in a quiet space versus things that are good for groups and busy times, or where you are in your journey of what you’d like your wardrobe to say …

  

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