No Wardrobe is an Island

Thoughts on MMM’16

I wanted to give myself a real challenge this Me-Made-May, and I succeeded! I decided to endeavour (love that British usage) to wear only clothes I’ve made for the month, with a few exceptions noted at the beginning: socks, jackets, and raincoat. Trying to follow through with this plan made for my most thought provoking MMM in several years.

At the beginning, I felt liberated. Even though I’ve pledged to wear mostly me-made the last couple of Mays, getting by on only MM stuff felt like cutting a cord (despite the deliberate exceptions). I was not just making do with scraps thrown my way, but existing on only what I had made from whole cloth.

It also occurred to me that wearing clothes I didn’t make is anonymous—it’s not satisfying, but sometimes it’s a welcome cloak of invisibility.

As May began and the weather stayed cold at home, I found I missed some fairly ridiculous parts of my non-MM wardrobe—notably the big shapeless thrifted wool sweater I’d been throwing on over my PJs for tea and yoga first thing in the morning. I guess some kind of large, warm, not at all precious, natural-fiber layer is now an essential wardrobe component for me in cool weather …

On the 5th I realized that my plan had totally failed to account for days when I really needed to just wear grubby work clothes. Although an oversight, because my life definitely does have those days, I didn’t feel bad about it. It’s conceivable that one day my clean-the-truck clothes might be all old me-mades … but that day is not here yet, and that’s fine with me.

 

05mmm16

I did make two of these items …

We hit the road for two art shows in the DC area about a week in, as we have done for the last few years. This time, it was cold (like record-setting, 25 degrees colder than normal cold) and rainy practically the whole time we were there. I had enough me-made layers, I just wore them over and over …

 

21mmm16

A typical show-day outfit. I’m wearing my favorite cashmere top, the upcycled sweater, a jacket, and a raincoat. I was going to roll up one pant leg so you could see that I’m also wearing wool leggings underneath, but I forgot.

 

Then after travel and the first show, I totally ran out of clean pants. I discovered I would rather break my pledge and wear an old pair of Bryan’s than freeze in a skirt, especially since we were going for a walk in Rock Creek Park. I also discovered that I am really used to custom fit, especially in waistbands. Any places that rub or sit wrong seem totally unacceptable. This is probably a sign that I could not go back to ready to wear—even if I wanted to.

I wore the “Me-Made-May” badge on my bag or clothing almost every day—and didn’t get asked about it once. But still I hope that some folks saw it and were curious. I also wore the “I MADE this” badge a few times (attached to something I made and was wearing). That one is more direct, and when I wore it I got comments and/or questions from friends, acquaintances, and waitresses, which was great! But I also discovered that I’m just not up for being the face of the handmade movement whenever I’m out in public. I’m naturally a shy person, and with the added stresses of travel, being in strange places, and dealing with whatever came up, a lot of days it was just not happening. While, for whatever reason, having the MMM one on felt fine.

 

19mmm16

If you made a badge and didn’t see a comment from me about it, please leave me a message here or tag me on Instagram—I’d love to see them, and I was in no way keeping up with all the hashtags last month!

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how making my own choices is wonderful, but it’s not enough. I also need to find ways to share more of those choices with larger communities. (Some things that are pushing my thoughts that way: this post from Jess on Wardrobe Ecology, and this amazing interview with Rebecca Solnit from On Being.) I’d like to continue to explore ways I can make a more public statement, without feeling like I’m “on stage” too much of the time. And I’d still like to wear the “I MADE this” badge from time to time … we’ll see what happens!

Overall, as the month went on, I realized another important thing: I don’t really want to make my whole wardrobe. Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to be capable of making whatever I need to wear. But as far as the actual content of my closet at any given time, I don’t want that to exist in a vacuum of only self-made, any more than I think any of us can really live a good life without friends and community to belong to. I know it’s vital to have friends along the way—people who give us a place to rest our heads, deep conversations and connections, and sometimes a place to dry out our tents in their back yard. I want to celebrate that as the joy and blessing it is. In sort of a similar way, I also want to celebrate the special parts of my wardrobe that I didn’t make, especially those made or given to me by folks I love.

 

31mmm16

The last day of #mmm16, with our irises having a great year.

 

So, a lot to think about! As always I’m grateful to Zoe for putting this on, and for all her encouragement! It really is a great time to pause and reexamine life through the lens of what we make and wear, and I’m glad it happens every year because I wouldn’t go to the trouble all by myself! Between now and next May, I’ll be thinking about more ways to share my love of handmade without freaking myself out, and how to celebrate my mostly-me-made wardrobe with a pledge that reflects where I’d like it to go.

How about you? Anyone who hasn’t already shared their thoughts from MMM on a myriad of other platforms is welcome to do so here … In the meantime I hope you’re all enjoying the start of summer! (It went from cold straight to hot for us, but, I’ll take it!)

 

Hand-Stitched Badges for Me-Made-May

A beginning embroidery primer, with free patterns.

 

For the last few years, May has found us around Washington DC. We usually do two art shows there, and in between stay with some dear friends and ride the Metro to visit the sites of our nation’s capitol. The whole time we’re surrounded by so many people (especially from my middle-size-town perspective). Since it’s Me-Made-May, I spend even more time thinking about what those people are wearing than I normally would. It’s easy to get a little bummed out when I look around and consider that, of the hundreds of strangers I can see at any given moment on the subway platform or at a monument, perhaps none of them are wearing anything handmade. But it also got me thinking that maybe they just haven’t considered it, that if they knew there was a whole movement going on, that folks around the country and the world were encouraging each other and posting about their handmade wardrobes at that very moment, maybe it would encourage a few of them to at least think about it.

So I wanted to bring something that said I was participating in Me-Made-May, and/or that I had made part of my outfit, off the internet and onto my physical person where all those strangers could see it. I started to talking to Zoe about it, and she liked the idea too. I owe her big thanks for her support, bouncing ideas around, and of course for putting on this challenge for us again this year! Since MMM is all about stitching, and I’ve been doing a lot of hand-sewing and embroidery lately, here’s what I ended up with:

 

embroidered mmm badge

 

You can make them too! I designed these little badges with embroidery beginners in mind, and I’ll walk you through some parts that might be confusing, so even if hand-sewing isn’t usually your thing, you can handle it. If you’re already further along in your embroidery journey, feel free to skip down and glance through the photos, then print the pattern and get started.  Click the link below to get the pattern:

MMM-badges-pattern

 

materials & tools

You’ll need some felt, and some embroidery floss, thread, or fine yarn.

Wool felt is an ideal material to start stitching on, since it’s forgiving, doesn’t ravel, is thick enough to not need backing, and you can hide ends and extra stitches in the thickness.

The Me-Made-May badge is stitched here in variagated cotton floss, and the “I MADE this!” one in wool thread.  There’s more about the specific threads I used at the end of this post.

You’ll also need a few basic sewing tools: a sharp needle with a long eye, and a small sharp scissors. I always wear a thimble like this one when I’m hand stitching.

Finally, you’ll need a scrap of tissue paper and a fine-point pen to transfer your design to the felt.

 

thread types

Let’s talk for a minute about the differences between cotton and wool, and floss and thread, for stitching. Wool threads designed for embroidery are often labeled “crewel” (a type of embroidery) and are usually made up of two single strands (called plies) twisted together. This plying is integral to the structure of the thread, and it’s not meant to be separated.

 

embroidered mmm badge 9

 

Cotton floss often comes in a loosely twisted bundle of threads, which can be separated to make various thicknesses. This is called “strandable” floss. If you look closely (maybe with a magnifier), each strand of this kind of floss actually has its own two-ply structure. Some cotton threads have a non-strandable structure as well.

 

embroidered mmm badge 8

 

Just like in sewing or knitting, the different properties of wool and cotton fibers make a difference to how they work in embroidery. Wool’s crimpy, elastic nature means that it plumps up, filling gaps and making it easier to embroider a smooth satin stitch or a plush knot. Cotton is denser, smoother, and less elastic, meaning you may need more thread to cover the same area, and the stitching will have a tighter, flatter look.

 

getting started

Put a little piece of tissue paper over the printed pattern you want to make. You can use scraps of tissue, and iron them flat if necessary. Using a fine-point pen that won’t bleed, trace the pattern carefully, including the circle around the edge. Make a single line for thinner shapes and letters, and draw around the outline of thicker shapes. Pin the tissue to your felt, with the pins outside the circle. You’ll stitch right through the tissue and the felt to make the design.

 

embroidered mmm badge 1

 

I tried several methods of transferring the patterns to my felt, and this one worked the best. An iron-on transfer pen (not a pencil) also works, but it makes thick permanent marks that are a little fiddly to apply, and must be covered with stitching.

To thread the needle, I use the techniques I shared in this Seamwork article about hand-stitching. I found that it helps to fold over the end of the wool thread, and to wet the end of the cotton floss.

To begin, take a long stitch on the back through the thickness of the felt, coming up near where you want to start. Let a little bit of thread remain on the back surface. You can trim it off later to neaten things up. If possible, take your first stitch as a backstitch to anchor the thread.

 

embroidered mmm badge 5

 

General embroidery tips:

  • Stitch in good light! It’s unbelievable what a difference this makes.
    Test out your stitches and thread on a scrap before you start, especially if you are experimenting with new stitches and/or aren’t sure what thickness of thread to use to get the look you want.
  • How even your stitches look depends mainly on how even the tension is between one stitch and the next. Start off slow and even.
  • When moving from one letter or shape to the next one, take a stitch through the thickness of the felt to keep it hidden. To keep long stitches from pulling the next part of the embroidery out of shape, push the needle straight through to the back of the work, then take a long stitch into the felt, coming out on the back near where you want to start again. Then bring the needle up to the front in your next spot.

 

the stitches

Most of the text in these patterns is made with backstitch. I explain this stitch in that Seamwork article, and in even more detail in this post.

 

embroidered mmm badge 2

 

Backstitch tips:

  • Put your needle in right at the end of the last stitch for a solid line.
  • Look ahead at the section you are stitching, and decide whether to divide it into two stitches or three, etc.
  • Think about the path of the thread when you come to corners and curves. Remember that where the needle goes in is the beginning of the current stitch, and where it comes out is the end of the next stitch.

 

embroidered mmm badge 3

 

For the scallops around the edge of the Me-Made-May badge, I used a simple straight stitch. Follow the individual lines on the pattern for a looser look that shows off the separate threads, or fill in the whole scallop shape, depending on the thread you’re using and the look you’re going for.

 

embroidered mmm badge 6

 

I filled in the thicker lines of text with satin stitch, which is basically a row of straight stitches very close together, so that they look like a solid surface. It’s easier to keep these stitches even and plush-looking if you work them over a base of another stitch. For these patterns I outlined the satin stitch sections in backstitch first.

 

Straight & satin stitch tips:

  • Backstitch around the outline of all the text, and finish all other parts of the design that use the pattern as a guide, then remove the tissue pattern before you fill in the satin stitch. You’ll be able to see exactly where the stitches are more clearly, and pulling off the tissue will be easier.
  • Cut carefully around the outer circle of the design. Leave the outside of the tissue pinned to the felt for reference and later cutting (you may actually want a few more pins at this point to hold it smoothly). Tear out the part under the badge itself. Pointed tweezers are an ideal tool for pulling out tiny/stubborn pieces of tissue.

 

embroidered mmm badge 7

 

  •  I find it easier to keep an even tension if I put the needle all the way through to the back at the end of each stitch, and bring it up again close to the stitch I just made on the same side of the shape I’m stitching. This method is slower to work than the more common technique of taking the needle under on one side of the shape and up on the other side in one stitch. But, it uses less thread and is easier to control, especially when you’re starting out.
    • Stitch as close to the foundation backstitches as possible for a full look. You can even push the foundation stitches to the side with the needle to make more space and keep the line of stitches even.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 10

     

    • If your satin stitch comes out a little lumpy, it can help to put the eye of your needle into a row of stitching and move it gently back and forth.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 11

     

    • When making satin stitch around curves (like on the D in “MADE”) it helps to make the stitches inside the curve as close together as possible, and fan them out a bit on the outside of the curve, a technique that’s illustrated in detail on Needle ‘n Thread here.

     

    The round knots around the outside of the “I MADE this!” badge are colonial knots. They’re a variation on a French knot where you loop the thread in a figure eight around the needle before pushing it back into the fabric. I like these because they hold a larger, more textural shape, and can’t come undone as you’re making them. They look especially plump in wool threads.  There are more pictures and explanation about colonial knots on Sarah’s Hand Embroidery Tutorials.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 13

     

    finishing

    When you come to the end of a section of thread, bury it through the felt for a short distance and come out on the back. You can trim the ends close, since some thread remains in the thickness to keep your stitches from pulling out.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 4

     

    Once all your stitching is complete, cut out the felt circle, once more going carefully around the shape you traced.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 12

     

    Sew a pin, a clip, or a magnet to the back, and it’s ready to go meet the world.

     

    embroidered mmm badge back

     

    supplies

    I used handmade felt, because I have lots of scraps of it laying around. Use what you can find near you, but if you possibly can, use real wool felt rather than the synthetic stuff. Wool is just so much lovelier to work with, and it will hold up to wear much better. Mine was 2-3mm, or around 1/8” thick.  Weir crafts sells a variety of felt online, including some that’s handmade and some that’s made in USA.

    I discovered two things while looking for threads for this project: there are probably as many small companies and indie dyers making embroidery threads as there are making knitting yarn, and I personally am just not interested in using floss in flat colors. My mom has been into embroidery for as long as I can remember, and a quick dig through just part of her stash resulted in many more beautiful options than I could use.

    For the Me-Made-May badge, I chose two colors of variegated cotton “painter’s threads” from Tentakulum; 121 “Cezanne” and 125 “Matisse.” They’re made in Germany, and available through embroidery suppliers in the US, including Artistic Artifacts. DMC also makes a couple of ranges of variegated floss, which are a lot more common, at least where I live.

    For the “I MADE this!” design, I used some amazing fine crewel wool thread, dyed with natural pigments by Renaissance Dyeing, out of France; color numbers 0309, 1622, 1708, and 2000. Single colors are available in the US through Hedgehog Handworks.  Photos do not do these colors justice; they are good enough to eat!  Any crewel wool or very fine yarn that you like would be a good substitute.

     

    embroidered mmm badge 14

     

    In case you’re wondering, while I had plenty of materials to choose from right in front of me, I did do a little searching to see what I could come up with for organic/traceable threads. Renaissance Dyeing looks good on the sustainability front; they use all natural dyes and local wool, it’s just that they’re far away from me. Organic Cotton Plus also sells a line of organic cotton embroidery floss which is grown & spun in Peru and dyed in the USA.

    Personally, I think I’ll be using a lot of the yarn scraps I have lying around, especially for larger designs.  And I think it would be well worth it to buy (or spin!) some natural colored thread, and drop a tiny skein into every dye pot I try.  It takes so little, why not?

     

    resources

    All you have to do is start searching on Instagram, Etsy, or wherever you get your internet eye candy to find amazing examples of beautiful modern embroidery.  I particularly like Katherine Shaughessy’s crewel work, she has two books with a fun modern aesthetic, and sells supplies and patterns (with some free ones) on her site Wool & Hoop. Yumiko Higuchi also does some of my favorite embroidery. She likes to to mix wool & cotton threads, and her book just published in English (Simply Stitched) does a great job of taking advantage of the properties of both, as well as being full of inspiring designs.

    If you make one of these, I’d absolutely love to see it!  Share it using #mmmay16, #handstitched, or email me a photo. And of course, I’m here to answer questions if I can.

    Happy stitching!

     

    News April 2016: Flag Wool and Me-Made-May

    Hi everyone!  Just a couple of quick things today.

    First off, I’m teaching at my hometown wool festival Flag Wool and Fiber again this year, and it’s coming up: June 4 & 5.  I’ll have a brand new class on modern free-form embroidery, and I’ve really been enjoying researching and brushing up my stitching skills for that. I’m also doing a “Knitter’s Toolbox” class that’s intended to take your knitting to the next level. Click through to the festival’s site to read more about both classes.

     

    knitter's toolbox

     

    Second, it’s almost Me-Made-May!  After some debate I’ve decided to pledge to wear only me-made (not just -altered or -repaired) garments this year, with a few exceptions: raincoat (not about to try making one when I have an almost-new one), socks (not enough me-knit ones yet), and then there’s a jacket which I would love to finish by May … but it might very well not happen, so I left myself a little wiggle room (if it’s cold enough for a jacket I’m wearing one, me-made or not).

    We’ll see how this goes.  I’m not sure that I’ll feel more self-sufficient wearing only things I cut from scratch rather than things I altered or fixed so I could wear them, and I’m pretty sure there are a couple of garments I’ll miss wearing.  But this pledge seemed like the next logical step in the wardrobe direction I’ve been headed, and I’m curious to see how I end up feeling about it and what I’ll discover.  I’d also like to share (most likely on Instagram) a little more of my MMM than I have in the past couple of years.  Even though that can be hard on the road, I’m going to try.

    And launching soon, a project which is actually a fusion of the two items above—I hope you’ll stay tuned!

    Solved: Leggings

     

    The best thing about making a pledge or taking a challenge may be that it pushes us to find out what’s possible if we stay within certain boundaries. For example: this winter, I found myself in need of some new warm leggings, and a couple of challenges I had in one form or another meant I needed to be creative about how I got them. The results were so good—almost certainly better than whatever I would have come up with without the challenge.

     

    upcycled leggings 1

     

    One of my wardrobe goals is to have enough of the right clothes for winter so that I’m cozy (in other words not always cold and therefore slightly grouchy). For the coldest months, it turns out that means wearing an extra warm layer under pants or a long skirt pretty much every day. I’ve already figured out that wool and silk are much warmer than cotton knits (plus I love everything else about wool). I’m still following my fabric-buying pledge from #1year1outfit (until a full year has gone by this summer), which meant I couldn’t hop online and order lovely wool fabrics from New Zealand, even if they are organic. There are a few totally beautiful made-in-USA wool knits out there, but let’s be honest, I also have a budget. I can’t afford to splurge on every project, and I don’t want to for something like this where I frankly don’t care too much what it looks like, as long as it feels good and works well.

    I was thinking about going to the thrift store for something else, and somehow I got the idea that maybe if I found a big enough fine-gauge men’s sweater, I could make leggings out of that. Such, such a good idea!

    My layout works like this: I cut off the waistband of the sweater, including a little bit above it for seam allowance, and save it for the waistband of the leggings. I flip the sweater inside out and trim off the seams as closely as I can to separate the front from the back. (After making so many hats from reclaimed cashmere, I am an expert at deconstructing sweaters.) Then I remove the sleeves, in this case leaving the sleeve seams intact as much as possible. The front and back often have fairly different shapes (and a lot of times different grainlines) so I separate them completely at the shoulders after the sleeves are off, and cut from them separately. I cut the top potion of the leggings pattern from the front and back of the sweater, however they best fit. The lower leg comes from the sleeves, utilizing the sleeve cuff as the ankle.

     

    sweater to leggings drawing

     

    I used the same Espresso Leggings pattern as my first custom fit pair—there’s no going back from custom fit! The lower arm of the sweater was actually a little smaller than the original cuff on my pattern, but it stretched to fit over my ankle just fine. I laid the folded leg pattern over the sleeve, and started to cut where the leg became smaller than the sleeve.

    For sewing, I joined the lower leg to the upper leg flat, pressed the seam open, and sewed down the seam allowances for a non-bulky join. Just don’t forget to add a seam allowance to the upper and lower leg when you’re cutting.

    As I sewed the inside leg seams, I just merged my seamline into the original seam of the sleeve when I got to that point.

     

    upcycled leggings 2

     

    Working on these, I thought a lot about stretch and recovery in knits. All the sweaters I used had about the same horizontal stretch as the fabric I bought for the very first pair; with 4” stretching to about 7”, or 1.75%, so I could use the same size pattern. The sweaters had almost no vertical stretch though, which made the first pair of sweater-cut leggings feel a bit shorter on top than I wanted, so I slashed the pattern and added ¼” vertically above and below the crotch point.

    I ended up cutting the ribbing for waistband much shorter than the top of the leggings, since it could stretch much further. The ribbing alone wasn’t quite enough to hold the leggings up, although I loved how it looked. For the charcoal pair, I added wide elastic on top (it may possibly have come off a pair of Bryan’s boxers with worn fabric). This holds up the leggings no problem. The elastic has the recovery needed, but it actually won’t stretch as far as the ribbing, so I had to cut it a little longer. This can make the waist look a little wrinkly by itself, but it all stretches out smooth on the body.

    For the second blue/periwinkle pair, I wanted to see if I could use slightly less wide/firm elastic, so I tried some of the bra-band kind from my stash, which is soft on one side, inside the ribbing. That works too, leggings stay up with no problem.

     

    upcycled leggings 3

     

    The third green sweater had a narrow hem instead of ribbing at the waist. I decided to use that as a casing for narrow elastic, cutting two sections from the waistband and catching the elastic in the seams. After wearing this pair a couple of times, the jury is still out on whether it could use slightly wider elastic/more pull inside the casing … but if so it would be easy enough to unpick the little vertical seams at the top and sew it in.

     

    upcycled leggings 4

     

    Overall, I’m super happy with how these turned out! I answered a few leftover questions from the first-ever pair; like would elastic be enough to hold them at the low-waist level I like (a resounding yes!) and would they work in 100% wool (a big yes again!). Despite the fact that the pattern recommends fabrics with Lycra or Spandex, I like the all-wool version much better (the green and grey pairs are Merino, and the periwinkle is cashmere). These float like a warm soft cloud just touching my skin. They feel amazing and don’t bind in any way. If I were dancing on stage in them, I might care that the knees look a little baggy by the end of the day, but since these are under-layers only, I don’t at all.

    So I’m officially set on leggings for a few winters at least! We’ll see how these hold up. They should be fairly easy to patch if needed, since I have the pattern and scraps. I consider the used sweaters a sustainable material source, especially since I can utilize ones that have small stains or holes in them (the little stitched leaves on the green pair are covering former holes in the original sweater). Making leggings this way keeps me within my pledge and my budget. Plus they’re awesome.

    If you want to try this, go for it! For my fairly-small-but-very-pair-shaped figure, I need to start with a men’s extra-large sweater to cut the pieces as illustrated. Of course, you can patchwork them a little more if needed. The green sweater was in really good shape (except for the holes), so I got it even though it was a little smaller. I ended up piecing in wedges at the inner thigh to make up for not having quite enough width across the sweater body. It worked fine, but it was a little mind-bending to make sure all the pieces had the right shape and seam allowance, so I don’t recommend it for your first try.

    Happy stitching!

     

    upcycled leggings 5

     

    A Failed Attempt

     

    It’s so tempting for our online lives to show only the bright side; just our beautiful finished projects (neatly ironed), our best ideas translated fluidly into tangible objects. I’ve definitely swept my share of failed makes under the rug, never to see the digital light of day. And actually I think that’s fine too—some things we learn from, and some we just don’t want to talk about. I’m going to talk a little bit about this one though, and see how it goes.

     

    failed refashioned sweater 2

     

    I had so many reasons to love this sweater and try to save it. My mom knit it for my grandma, and after my grandma passed on I took it, thinking I could turn it into something I would wear. It started out as your classic grandma Aran cardigan; white and long and covered in cables and textures, slightly too big for me, with a high neckline and little pearly buttons. Although I’m sure it could have fit right into some people’s wardrobes with minor adjustments, it made me look ridiculous. Maybe I should have stopped right there, but I have a lot of faith that things can be refashioned to work in a new wardrobe (built on a solid foundation of makes that have worked out).

    My first attempt to refashion the sweater was a few years ago, and included: shrinking/felting it slightly, dyeing it with tea, widening the neckline, and knitting new bands for the bottom and cuffs. It was a fair amount of effort, and I still didn’t wear it much. It felt strange, and the strain on the neckline proved too much, the yarn started to pop in several places. Not sure what to do next, I put it in a plastic bin in the garage, and there it sat, occasionally nagging at the back of my mind.

    I got it out again last fall at the start of Slow Fashion October. What could be a more appropriate project? And I had a plan, in several steps, thought out beforehand, which looked good in my head. I trust those plans and my ability to envision how they will come out.

    I dyed more yarn and ribbon in tea. I stitched the ribbon in to reinforce the neckline. I shorted the body and used the extra to add a collar onto the (ridiculously wide) neck. I figured out what stitch pattern I had used before, and knit another piece for the collar, and then another one because the first one didn’t work (actually I think there were three attempts at the collar). I wasn’t convinced it was great, but I also wasn’t able to take a step back from all I had invested, and I went ahead and overdyed the whole thing  with madder, hoping for some kind of warm soft brown. It came out, well, salmon, and that’s when I was forced to take a step back.

    It wasn’t just the color, it was the spottiness of the color that really got me down. I knew this could be an issue dyeing garments (even though I haven’t had many problems using tea) and I had tried to strategize against splotches, but evidently not well enough. On top of all that, it was inescapably not my style—particularly that blasted collar.

     

    failed refashioned sweater 3

     

    I put it down, knowing it was no good, but not emotionally ready to let it go. It’s been a while since I had a downright project failure, particularly of something that I put this much effort and planning into. I still have plenty of “um, well, I won’t do that again,” learning moments, but at this point in my creating life, the results are usually fixable, or cause just a minor inconvenience in the finished garment. I had kind of forgotten what it feels like to have to give up completely on something that I’d worked so hard on, and how it takes the wind out of your making sails for a while. I definitely felt a little intimidated to start another project after this one.

    The best silver lining I can come up with so far is this: that remembering this feeling is good for me as a teacher, in the same way that remembering what it’s like to be a beginner is good for me. There’s one big difference though: being a beginner is super fun if you have confidence you’ll get there in the end, but making a failed project is still no fun at all. I do know that my present confidence and skill is built on a whole bunch of projects that didn’t go very well (to one degree or another). And I’ve reminded myself that no time is ever wasted, as long as you’re making and learning, and enjoying the process. I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and one of my favorite things about that book is how much she is reassuringly down-to-earth about stuff like this: everyone fails, everyone has droughts of creativity, and crises of confidence (even highly successful authors). What makes the difference is whether we can use the good parts of a bad experience to move forward, or we get so bogged down in the bad parts that we give up on this path entirely and look for another one.

    Needless to say, one crummy sweater will not derail me from the path of any of the fiber arts I love. Thinking about this one still stings a bit, mostly because I can still see the potential in some parts of it … but I’ve accepted that I cannot make it into what I want, and I’m ready to put it in the charity pile, and let it go to meet its future, which whatever that may be, is not my responsibility any more. It took a couple months of the sweater sitting in the corner in our bedroom for me to get to this point. To tell the truth I think, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that the whole second attempt was doomed, because the neckline from the first attempt was beyond saving.

    But now, I’m ready to take what I learned, leave the sweater behind, and move on. I still trust my instincts, and my ability to plan a project in my head before I start. These skills are built on years of experience, and usually the plan works. Even when it doesn’t, it’s another step moving me forward on a path which I believe in with my whole heart.

     

    Knitting 102 Cowl – Free Pattern

     

    T with simple knit cowlWhen my cousin was about 12 years old, she knit me a scarf. I’m touched by this gesture every time I think about it. That’s a lot of time and effort to put into an object for someone else when you’re that young. The scarf (at left) is great, made from a colorful thick-and-thin yarn, but it’s kind of short. Then one day a couple of years ago I realized that if I added buttons and buttonholes to the ends, it could be a stylish cowl, and I’d probably wear it a lot more. Which I do.

    Then I realized that a cowl like this, just a knitted rectangle with buttons added, would be a perfect second or third knitting project for my students. For when you can knit and purl, but maybe you’d like to make something besides a washcloth using your current skills, before moving on to knitting in the round and all that.

    I made a sample one with some seed stitch columns added, and left it at the yarn store where I teach. One day not long ago I was over there, and the owner and one of the employees were telling me about how people ask for the pattern a lot. I was quite surprised. I agreed to write it out. Then I got to thinking, if I’m going to give this pattern to whoever comes into the shop, I’d like to give it to you guys too. So here you go:

     

    Knitting 102 Cowl Pattern

     

    102 cowl 1

     

    To make this cowl, you’ll knit a long rectangle, and then use a simple crochet stitch to make buttonholes on one end. Sew buttons on to the other end, and it’s ready to wear!

    This concept is very adaptable. It’s easy to vary the yarn, stitch choices, and size to suit your own taste and knitting level.

     

    102 cowl 4

     

    Materials

    Yarn: the sample is made in Cascade Baby Alpaca Chunky, a very soft yarn with a lot of drape and not much bounce. One skein is enough for a small cowl like this. The finished fabric hangs in liquid folds. If you’d like a cowl that will stand up more, choose a yarn with more body and spring.

    Gauge: the finished sample has 4 stitches per inch in both stockinette and seed stitch. It’s OK if your gauge comes out a little bit differently, since exact size isn’t super important for this project. It’s still a good idea to make a swatch with your yarn and see if you like how the fabric is coming out, and measure your gauge to get an idea of how big your finished cowl will be.

    Needles and Hook: try US size 8 (5mm) knitting needles, but keep in mind that you may need a larger or smaller needle to get the gauge you want (especially if you use a different yarn). You’ll also need a crochet hook in a similar size for the buttonhole loops. In my experience the hook size doesn’t need to be exactly the same for such a small section.

    Finished size: the sample cowl is 8 ½“ wide and 22 ½” long. It fits fairly close around my neck, but is big enough to get over my head without undoing the buttons. You can compare the dimensions to any cowl you like to see if this seems like a good size for you.

     

    Directions

    Cast on 35 sts (or your stitches per inch x desired size in inches).

    Other options: If you’re not quite ready for keeping track of the seed stitch columns, you can also make a perfectly good cowl using garter stitch (knit every stitch, every row) or using seed stitch across the whole piece. (A cowl made with all stockinette stitch—knit one whole row, purl one whole row—will curl up at the edges.)

    For the seed stitch pattern, you’ll need an odd number of columns of stitches. In the sample cowl, there are 7 columns of 5 stitches each. You can also vary the number of stitches in each column if that works better with your stitch count.

    First row (right side): work in seed stitch for 5 stitches (knit 1, purl 1, knit 1, purl 1, knit 1), and then knit 5 stitches. Repeat this sequence of 10 stitches (2 columns) two more times, and end with 5 stitches of seed stitch.

    Note: You may want to put a stitch marker around the needle between the sections to help remember when to switch patterns.

    Second row (wrong side): work seed stitch for 5 stitches (knit 1, purl 1, knit 1, purl 1, knit 1), and then purl 5 stitches. Repeat this sequence of 10 stitches (2 columns) two more times, and end with 5 stitches of seed stitch.

    Note: this seed stitch in this pattern alternates every stitch between knit and purl, both horizontally and vertically. After set up in the first row, work a knit stitch on top of each purl stitch you see in the seed stitch sections, and vice versa.

    Repeat these two rows until you reach your desired length for the cowl.

    Bind off—not too tightly or the edge will pucker. Leave a long tail (a couple of feet long) and you can use it to make the buttonhole edge as well.

     

    102 cowl 5

     

    Crochet buttonhole edge
    Go into the first stitch of your bind-off with a crochet hook. Pull a small loop of yarn through with the hook. Go into the next bind-off stitch the same way, pull another loop through, and then pull the second loop through the first loop so that you have only one left on the hook.

    (I drew these illustrations for my students, who would also have me standing next to them to show them how to do it.  If this whole concept of crochet edges is new to you, check out this explanation from Knitty, which covers crocheting on to a knitted edge, as  well as the difference between a crochet slip stitch and single crochet stitch.)

     

    crochet edge

     

    Continue in the same way, going into each stitch as you come to it, pulling a loop though it and then through the loop you already have on the needle. This is called a “slip stitch” in American crochet terms.

    You’re making a line of crochet stitches, which should look like another bind off row on top of the first one.

    When you get to the place where you want to make a buttonhole, chain (pull loops through your working loop one at a time, without connecting to anything else) until you have enough stitches to just fit around your button.

    You can make the buttonholes flat to the edge or more of a loop—your choice, depending on where you attach them—but either way they should be just big enough to push the buttons through, otherwise they may come loose while you wear it.

    Reattach the chain to the edge by going into the bind-off stitch you choose, and making a slip stitch as you did before.

     

    crochet buttonhole v2

     

    The sample cowl has three large buttons and buttonholes, which line up with the three stockinette stitch columns.

     

    102 cowl 2

     

    Sew on your buttons to line up with the buttonholes.  I use the same method as I do with sewing thread, except the yarn only goes once each way through the buttons since it’s so thick.

     

    102 cowl 3

     

    Enjoy!  If you make one, I’d love to see it.

     

    Reflection with Books

     

    I’ve had some kind of post like this in my head since before the holidays. I’ve been wanting to write about the next stage in my thought process around time and a slow life, as well as to highlight some of the fantastic books I read last year that helped bring me to where I am now. But to tell the truth, I’ve been struggling. My thoughts and plans don’t feel like they’re in any kind of order, and I feel a little lost, like I’m stumbling around in a trackless forest. I’m sure I’ll find my path again, but on the way there, I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, so I can revisit some of the ideas that spoke to me in 2015, and also move on to other things I have planned for this space.

     

    ABQ winter walk 2015 1

    These photos are from a walk during our trip to Albuquerque just before the new year.  I always find the light in NM beautiful, as well as the cranes and geese that come through in the winter.

     

    2015 was a good year for deep thoughts in my world, and it was also a great year for books. I can’t remember another time when a stream of reading material came to me one after another—as gifts, recommendations, and by chance—as if the universe was giving me the reading list for the next stage of my life.

    The first of the startlingly appropriate books was Women’s Work: the First 20,000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I read it as part of my research for that article on wool I wrote for Seamwork (that was the best research project ever in my personal history of research). There were some useful tidbits for the article in there, but what I liked most about this book was how it put “women’s work” throughout the millennia of human history in context, and made me feel connected to all those women who came before me.

    At the beginning of the book Barber points out that women didn’t get assigned tasks in societies because they were weaker or inferior to men. Women got tasks like spinning and weaving because those were compatible with also being the primary caretakers of small children—the role of women in every human culture to date, for obvious biological reasons. Even though I don’t have kids, and it’s kind of obvious once you think about it, this was a bit of a revelation. Women’s work isn’t “less than”, it’s part of the set of skills needed to make a society work.

    I also love how she talks about hand work and how it relates to society. Quotes like this one really spoke to how I think about my making:

    “Working within a quota system of production is not like weaving for oneself. It is no longer fun, nor does the weaver get the benefit of extra effort put in. Mass production is not at all like making single pieces at will; there isn’t time to do a careful job. This economic principle is illustrated many times in history.”

    I’ve always thought that feminism should mean we women can pursue what we want to with dignity. Choosing to knit or make jam should be just as valid a choice as welding or practicing science. Ultimately, this book let me feel more comfortable and grounded in my own skin and my own choices. When I spin or sew, I can feel proud of the connection those activities give me to all the women going back in time before me. It’s a great place to start from.

     

    ABQ winter walk 2015 4

     

    Another book that made my rethink my ideas about our society, specifically class and being connected to the land, is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. For the first half of this book I was incredibly jealous of the author, of the way he always had a place in the world and knew exactly what and where he wanted to be. The freedom we get in many modern societies is truly amazing, but does anyone else lament the amount of angst and flailing around looking for what we’re “meant to do” that comes with it? There are definitely days when I’d trade all this for a place to belong and a clear contribution to make. As his story goes on (I’ll try not to spoil anything) I realized that he too had to coexist with the realities of the modern world, but he finds a way to do so that gives me a lot of hope. The book is full of deep insights from a perspective I don’t often hear, that of someone intimately connected to both the land and the practices of the past. Its deepest impact on me was in how I think about what I really want out of life. I need to be connected and feel like I’m making a difference, and I’m not so sure I need “success” in any sort of modern sense of it. I do want a life that makes me “want for no other” as Rebanks says at the end of the book, and I should seek that kind of satisfaction.

     

    ABQ winter walk 2015 3

     

    “Slow” became a definite theme to my thoughts last year, fueled by another couple of great books. The first one was World Enough and Time: on Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen. It’s jam-packed with ideas, so much so that I had to go back and sift through the passages I bookmarked in order to figure out what I was really getting from it. It’s difficult to choose which of the many promising insights McEwen includes to share here. One of her biggest themes is that we humans need slowness, rest, and time for contemplation, in order to feel whole and happy. And that we can get those things, we just have to choose to do so.

    This is something that’s been at the core of my beliefs for as long as I can remember having some, and it’s wonderful to have it validated by someone who’s clearly done her research: that we can choose to live in the way that seems best to us, that we still have available many of the options of people in previous eras, even if our society at large is moving a different way. After all, if you take a step back, we have just as much time as anyone in the supposedly “slower” past—actually more, since our lifespan continues to increase, and we arguably have more leisure time than ever before (depending on how you define that). Just because a choice is there doesn’t mean it’s easy though, going slower and with more meaning is something we have to do consciously, and follow through on every day. I’m trying. McEwen quotes Howard Zinn:

    “To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all the bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

    The book is full of quotes, insights, and strategies for anyone who’s thinking about moving slower and more fully in life, and is especially helpful if you also have a creative practice you’d like to nurture.

     

    ABQ winter walk 2015 5

     

    Another person who’s gone to great lengths to re-imagine his relationship with time is William Powers, author of New Slow City. My dad, who worked in wildlife habitat conservation for decades, had an interesting take on this one: that Powers was ignoring the fact that a lot of the calm he seeks he can only find in nature, that maybe he is suffering more from a lack of contact with the natural world than from going too fast. I think Dad has a point, but I also think the two things are intertwined. Powers also has a lot of other good ideas about moving slower, and being less influenced by the craziness of modern life in New York. The thing I liked best about this book is that it’s a chronicle of Powers’ personal experience, so it feels approachable, even if not all of us can afford to cut back drastically on work the way he does at the beginning of the book.

     

    ABQ winter walk 2015 2

     

    One thing that comes up prominently in Powers’ book and in McEwen’s is the damaging influence of advertising. This also strikes at the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time; that the job of this entire industry is to make us feel dissatisfied—the exact opposite of what I personally want out of life. This perpetual dissatisfaction harms us, as well as the environment, by encouraging more and more purchases of disposable stuff. For me, a trip to the thrift store is sometimes enough to start a mental spiral of “I want, I want,” and even “I could make this, I could fix that,” which pushes me out of my slow making mindset and back into the same old place of wishing for more time.

    I think I’m looking at it all wrong when that happens, it’s a modern-society habit I just haven’t shaken off yet. What do I want more time for—so that I can make more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I don’t need more stuff? Haven’t I already established that I have the same amount of time as any human being that ever lived, or possibly more? And how did we all decide that keeping a score of things accomplished is the best, maybe even the only, way to judge the quality of a life?

    So, I’d like to strive not for more time, but for better time. As McEwen says:

    “What matters is not how much [time] they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”

    I know that when I can drop into “natural time” as Powers calls it, paying attention to just the moment I’m in, I find so many layers of sensory and emotional complexity to be discovered in every single minute, sometimes I’m then amazed that I spend any time at all ignoring all these textures, completely distracted by everything in my own head. The best way I can describe how I get to that slow place (although it sounds a little negative) is to say it’s by not thinking about what’s coming next, not waiting for whatever I’m doing to be over, and not planning for later. What I’m left with is what’s right in front of me.

    Which is not to say that I succeed in going slow all the time, far from it (um, especially lately). And even if I could I’m not sure it would work. After all, I need to make plans in order to accomplish things, and once I get into slow mode I have zero interest in planning. I have lots of other questions too. Is there a mode in between “experiencing the moment” and “planning for the future”? Is it possible to send a slow text, or do some activities inherently belong to one realm or the other?

     

    ABQ winter walk 2015 6

     

    There’s also a piece of all this that’s about experiencing what I’m really feeling at a given time. Powers says, “It’s what’s happening to me when I go off the drug of distraction. Sadness has the space to grow …” For me anyway, the part of myself that’s habitually distant developed as a survival mechanism while I was miserable in school as a kid. The real world is infinitely more wonderful to me now than it was then, but that doesn’t, and won’t, mean I never feel sad. And if I’m not distracting myself, then the sadness is right in front of me too. I’m trying to choose this richer experience, both when it’s light and when it’s dark.

    I am very much still figuring all of this out. Some days it definitely feels like I haven’t figured anything out at all. But I have real hope that if I keep thinking and writing and trying to move towards what I want out of life, I’ll get there eventually. I’m convinced that I’ve been thinking about time the wrong way. It’s not a thing chasing me down, or a precious commodity to be hoarded, it’s the whole of our experience, an experience we can interact with as we choose.

    I’d like to mention one more resource that ties into these thoughts, this interview with the artist Ann Hamilton from On Being. This, recommended to me by my friend Amanda, has got to be one of the five best interviews I’ve ever heard, at least in terms of relating directly to what I’m thinking about, especially time and our relationship to it. They discuss the fact that our sense of time is very malleable in the brain (which I find totally fascinating), as well as making, the creative process, knitting, and other things close to my heart.

    I’ll leave you with two more quotes I found relevant.

    Powers: “Everything out there on Fifth Avenue was dreamed up by somebody. None of it has to be … we can create something else.”
    And McEwen: “For almost all of us, happiness depends enormously on letting go, dropping our own willed insistent management, and opening into a more flexible and spacious, and above all, playful relationship with time.”