I’ve been doing a lot of this lately:
Knitting and watching Democracy Now! And knitting while watching Rachel Maddow, The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver, retreating into a little cocoon of worsted weight wool and lefty politics. I stayed up all night watching the election returns on November 8-9, which for me here in France meant staying awake until 9:30 a.m. on November 9 and then sleeping for most of the rest of the day while my mother-in-law, who was visiting that week, was busy cooking comfort foods in bulk. I woke up to a pot of chili and three big trays of croquetas in the fridge. Later on we were discussing the election and Alvaro started to say “Do you think that Franc–” and then stopped and we burst out laughing (the way you laugh when you’re utterly horrified) because he almost said Franco when he meant to say Trump. Brains go where they go for good reasons sometimes.
It was at 2 a.m. GMT +1 on November 9th (8 p.m. EST on November 8th) that I began knitting a hat for a friend’s November 10th birthday. Until then I’d been sitting in bed in the dark with my knees hugged to my chest watching a live stream of the election on my laptop, wearing headphones so I wouldn’t wake up Alvaro. I guess I needed something to occupy my twitching hands while I watched it all go down. I knit through the rest of the early hours of that day, through Trump’s acceptance speech, until I started making mistakes because my fingers were going numb along with the rest of me. When I woke up I started knitting again, and wound up finishing the hat in less than 24 hours. Then I immediately began working on another hat in the same pattern for another friend, and when I was done with that I knit a baby sweater — for no one in particular, but I know quite a few people who are having babies these days so I thought I’d make one in advance, since I generally have a hard time getting my act together to deliver new baby presents on time. Plus there was something comforting and hopeful about knitting something for a future human being. Welcome to the world, kiddo, sorry it’s doomed but at least you’ll be warm. Now I’m knitting a hat for Alvaro (see above photo) because I’d promised him one this winter, and it’s officially cold here now so I needed to get moving on it.
Along with all the horrifying stories told on the news and by comedians who these days make more sense than many, I’ve also been hearing things from people I know and care about. My mother’s friend went to see Wanda Sykes in Boston and watched Sykes get drowned out by audience booing when she called Trump a racist; said friend reportedly went home and straight to the liquor cabinet. A friend of mine who is a black woman told me that her cousin had recently moved to western Massachussetts, and a few days after the election people in his new town started receiving KKK recruitment flyers.
Meanwhile, I’m in France. Here we are also in the midst of election season and we are also in danger of electing a head of state in the image of Trump. Plenty of people here are saying it can’t happen in France, that France is not the U.S., but that is exactly what people in the U.S. said after Brexit. The town I live in is nestled snuggly in a right-leaning region of the country, a region that sees itself as kind of French, but mostly as an entity of its own, idealogically different from those suspicious metropoles that are home to dangerous leftists with dangerous leftist ideas. We went to our town’s Bastille Day celebration, which was held two days after a murderous nutcase plowed a truck through crowds of people at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice. Our town’s right-wing mayor gave a very long speech on the threat that the “islamistes” pose to Frenchness. It didn’t seem like most people were really paying attention, as they were too busy tucking into their plates of sausage and fries, but there was some occasional shushing of the picnic chatter from the people who were listening to what the mayor had to say. When he finished talking the band played the Marseillaise, and the party went on.
To some people, those like the mayor and Marine Le Pen are dog whistle blowers; to others they are white noise. But either way, they are producing noise and it says: raise the barricades.
Meanwhile, I’m knitting. Through the noise and through my stress. I’ve also signed up as an online volunteer in a network created by some progressive friends of a friend in New York. They quickly assembled after Trump’s win in order to mobilize volunteer support for NGOs and community organizations which, instead of working to further human rights for all US citizens and residents, are now scrambling to protect the gains they’ve already made. I wish I could do more, but not being physically present in the US makes things difficult. I’m open to suggestions if anyone reading this has any.
I started knitting my first sweater back in March, a sweater pattern whose very name indicated that it would take three hours to make, and here we are approaching mid September and it’s still not done. I can’t blame this state of affairs on the pattern’s dishonesty; I’m a pretty slow knitter to begin with, so there’s that, but more importantly I stalled on the project when it came to sewing it together. I waited until a visit to my parents in June for the blocking and stitching, but that was really just procrastination because I already know how to block things, and I could have looked up sweater sewing tutorials online, though I did prefer the idea of asking my mom to show me. On that visit I managed to get the sides sewn up, but one attempt to attach the raglan sleeves failed miserably. Good job actually that I had decided to opt for a mom tutorial rather than YouTube, because as helpful as YouTube tutorials are, they cannot actually fix your project for you when you make a massive mistake.
Mom managed to undo the wrongs I had done, and luckily because it was just about sewing on the sleeves the mistake could be removed without permanent damage to the rest of the sweater. So she did that, and then I think we watched The Daily Show, and since then (late June) I haven’t managed to summon the courage to try again.
Live blog is closed, thanks for reading! I’ll be back soon with exciting updates on my other projects.
7:56 p.m. Finished!
6:51 p.m. I am back, plate of grapes and cheese at my side, sweater in my lap, about to continue the saga of weaving in ends + Richard’s battle with Hooli over intellectual property rights.
6:04 p.m. Alvaro asked if I wanted to accompany him to the grocery store, and I’ve decided that this would be a good idea because I’ve been at this for five hours now and need a break, plus I can pick out my snacks of preference for the home stretch.
5:45 p.m. Still weaving in ends. Now watching an episode of Silicon Valley to keep me company while I weave away.
5:14 p.m. Newsflash: weaving in ends is very tedious.
4:30 p.m. Sleeve #2 done.
Commence weaving in loose ends.
3:55 p.m. Issue resolved.
3:40 p.m. Never mind about the walk. I am starting to doubt my abilities to finish this before nightfall. Just realized in pinning the front side of the second sleeve that I misaligned the pinning on the back side so now nothing’s lining up. Not sure how I managed to do that. Shall commence unpinning now and will pull out the stitching on the back side of sleeve #2.
3:29 p.m. The second sleeve is finished down to the armpit seam. Moving a little bit slowly maybe, because it’s a beautiful day outside and I have a nice view of the mountains from my desk so I keep stopping to look out the window. I’ve decided to go for a walk after I finish seaming.
2:48 p.m. Finished the first sleeve!
2:11 p.m. I have reached the first armpit with no incident of note, and the seams line up. This calls for a lunch break.
1:35 p.m. Well, I made it up to my first pin:
I think I’ll take a break now to ponder the meaning of it all.
Last Sunday I went rock climbing for the first time. It was at an indoor climbing gym, a fact which did nothing to lower the terror level in my parents when I told them about it.
I have a tendency to get a little dizzy at certain heights, but I wouldn’t say that I have a full-on fear, and I was thus completely caught off guard by the near hysteria I felt when I turned around halfway up the wall and saw how far away the ground was, how far away Alvaro was, holding the other end of the rope that was keeping me from certain death. When I would look down to check on my footing and saw that he was looking the other way for a second to relieve the strain in his neck from looking up all the time, I would bug out and yell down to him to keep his eyes on me (please!), even though I knew logically that I was not going to fall because I was roped in with a secure knot, and he could feel the tension in the cord and knew without having to look up whether he needed to pull it tighter. Plus, there were five-year-olds climbing the same wall as me. Still, I felt like I was hanging in an empty void, and had to battle with my inner voices that told me I was going to fall. It took me the entire four-hour session to even start to trust that I was not going to fall, and if I did I would be suspended by a cord, and so therefore I could reach out for a hand hold without fear. Every time I got to the top of a route I couldn’t believe it, that the voices had been wrong. The adrenaline rush for me came from this.
I’ve been going on and on about this to whoever will listen, and all listeners have nodded a bit but at some point have teased me for taking a Sunday afternoon at a rock climbing gym as such a profound personal experience. I’m telling you, though, it was. And I give you full permission to mock me for thinking that sewing up these sleeves is starting to feel like the same sort of experience.
1:17 p.m. I’m going with the following video:
I like how she’s making a sweater with the same ugly yarn that I’m using for sweater #2.
So here we go.
1:06 p.m. This video is not at all helpful. I scanned through to the end and realized that it’s just diagramming how the pieces go together, which even to me seems pretty obvious. I need stitch instruction, not diagrams lady! Also, confirmed, I should have sewed the sleeves before the sides.
1:00 p.m. I’m only 2:57 through this video and already I’m pretty sure that I went about this the wrong way from the get go (ie, sewed up the sides first). GAHHHH!
12:49 p.m. I know that I will definitely not be watching the video tutorial whose blurb reads: “So you’ve just finished your knitted sweater — now what? Now comes the fun part: You get to do the finishing!” Or maybe that’s sarcastic, in which case I like the tutorial maker’s sense of humor, so I probably will watch the video.
In late November 2013, I decided to learn how to crochet because it was cold and blustery and getting dark at 5 p.m., and I was getting bored in the evenings. One night I thought, enough is enough, and began brainstorming ways to amuse myself that wouldn’t annoy the neighbors or my living companions. You might say, well, read a damn book, but I spend most of my days reading on screen or in print, and there comes a point in the day when your eyes start to cross and your brain reaches maximum capacity, and you just need to do something with your hands. I also wanted to find an activity that I could do around other people, so as not to be anti-social, and something that entailed learning a new skill. Crochet it was.
By spring 2014 I had already switched to knitting because knitting patterns are more abundant and because knitting takes up 1/3 of the yarn that crochet does, and I do have a craft budget after all.
Now, after nearly three years of making things with yarn, mostly knitting, I’ve found myself with loads of little odds and ends from finished projects — balls of yarn too small to make much of anything, but too big to chuck into my gardening bag to use for tomato ties. I’ve been hanging on to it all with the idea of someday making a big, crazy blanket with it. Friends, that day has arrived! And I’m back to crochet for it.
My chosen pattern is the humble granny square, which is one of the few crochet patterns I like the looks of. And my grandmother made granny squares so I’m considering this an hommage to her. (I’m realizing now that I talk a lot about the grandmas on this blog. For future reference, Kay = mom’s mom, chemist and conspiracy theorist, and Roses = dad’s mom, superstar athlete and binge reader of Harlequin romances.) Grandma Kay was a granny square making machine. She made big blankets, lap blankets, baby blankets, drink coasters, and dozens of doorstops made out of bricks covered in stitched-together granny squares that are now a thing in our family, scattered throughout the homes of her children and grandchildren.
This project isn’t exactly going to be breaking new ground in design, but that’s not the point. I’m excited about it, because in addition to serving as an excuse to procrastinate on the stitching together of two nearly finished sweaters, this blanket is a refresher course for everything I forgot how to do in crochet (pretty much everything). With seven different stitches to learn/re-learn, it’s a complete package.
I picked a starburst design that looks like the one Grandma Kay always used, the tutorial for which can be found here. Warning: this video tutorial moves extremely quickly. If you’re new or just getting back to this like me, you’ll probably have to pause and go back several times while working through your first few squares. That said, it’s a great tutorial with easy-to-understand instructions and clear shots of the stitches.
Nevertheless, despite following Miss simplydaisy of YouTube’s excellent instructions, my first square turned out like this because that’s how learning works:
My fault, my stitches were messy and I was off on the counting right from the start; as a result, when I finished the circle portion and moved on to the square, nothing lined up and I wound up having to squeeze several stitches into the same loop in order for it to finish up in a square shape. In the end, wonky as it is, it’s a quadrilateral, so close enough for jazz as they say.
Square number two came out better, still has a few little mistakes, but it’s an improvement:
The blue yarn in both squares is left over from a tobacco pouch I made for my friend Lucas, and the red is from a Steve Zissou hat that I made for Alvaro last winter. I hadn’t meant for it to be a Zissou hat, that’s just how it turned out. Alvaro loved it so I pretended it was on purpose.
In addition to the crochet re-skilling and the grandma hommage, reminiscing over scraps is the third reason why I’m into this project — it’ll be a record of all the things I’ve knitted for myself and the people I love. Sort of like the college graduation quilt my mother made me, a kaleidoscope of triangles cut from my old Little League and summer job uniforms, Beatles t-shirts, high school graduation robe, the red velvet dress I wore in the role of Mrs. Claus in my first grade Christmas play Wake Up Santa!, the rainbow bed sheets I had in elementary school, the t-shirt I got at my first ever stadium concert (Diana Ross, I was ten years old, and she called me up solo to dance with her on stage, and the only dance move I knew was the Roger Rabbit so that’s what I busted out, and Ms. Ross, bless her, was just like well, okay! and started doing the Roger Rabbit right along with me)… I love this quilt because it’s a record of my childhood, and also a symbol of intense motherly love because my mother had been secretly stashing away all of the above with the idea of one day learning how to quilt so that she could make me a t-shirt quilt when I graduated from college. Pause on that for a moment, and digest it, and consider the foresight it demanded. I think Mom’s t-shirt quilt far surpasses my granny squares in nostalgic poignancy (I cried when she gave it to me), but I’m using it as a reference for this record of the hats and scarves and gloves and little bags and socks and sweaters that I’ve squinted at, sworn at, hunched over, sweated over, and finally finished and worn proudly or offered as a present to the special people in my life.
I’ve got an idea for a tree house. It’s going to take a while to complete it, but I have a while because I’ve decided to grow the tree from seed. That decision came about because I’ve built two tree houses in recent years, both of them in a bit of a deadline rush, feeling stressed to perform and produce. Therefore, I figure that if I set about to build a tree house in a tree that is at the time of this writing (August 9, 2016, early morning) only 15.4 inches high, no one for the next thirty years is going to ask me if I’m done with the tree house yet, and thus I will be free to go about the planning and building of it as leisurely as I please.
I will baptize this tree house the “Leave Me Alone Tree House.” I know already that this is not going to be a very popular name. I feel as though I should be relentlessly big on collaborating, being social, forming alliances and collectives instead of working by myself, removing my name from the authorship of a project, etc. But I do plenty of all of that already, and so in this project I am giving myself two prerogatives that I don’t generally allow in my work: I want to build this tree house all by myself, and I want you to leave me alone in it.
I have memories of needing to be left alone stretching back to the very beginning of my memories, and so we can only assume that this need accompanied me into the world the moment I was born. As a toddler I dabbled in being left alone in my everyday life – for instance, by building mini abodes of boxes and bed sheets inspired by medieval castles, like the one David Macaulay drew in his book Castle, where the outer and inner gates don’t line up and so the enemy is forced to run around inside the castle walls directly in the cross hairs of the royal archers. I always built my castles inside closets, which provided an extra layer of protection because my mother first had to guess which closet to search before getting down to the work of unearthing me from beneath my multilayered construction if she wanted to have a talk. My brother had the much simpler tactic of spontaneously falling asleep whenever he wanted to be alone, but I’ve been a fairly difficult sleeper my whole life so that never worked for me. Small-scale construction projects and hiding generally did.
Later on, in elementary school, I amused myself by drawing detailed architectural plans for my future house, and each new and progressively more outlandish plan had two common denominators with the ones that preceded it: a spiral staircase leading to a tower, and a small atelier detached from the rest of the house in which to practice my various artistic pursuits. Both of these building features say one thing: Leave me alone.
My desire to be left alone on occasion doesn’t mean I’m a misanthrope. Despite what you may be thinking right now as you read this, I am a very social person. My default attitude toward the rest of the human species is a feeling of like or love, depending on the person, with very few exceptions. I love my family and friends in particular. In fact, I might even invite you to the Leave Me Alone Tree House if you ask, although I’m wary that bending the rules this early on could lead very quickly to that private space becoming the headquarters for my friends. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, for example, ostensibly built so that he could get away from people, was actually a bit of a social hub. (As a side note, Walden was published 162 years ago today. Happy birthday Walden!) In addition to only being about two miles outside of Concord, Mass., Thoreau also had plenty of friends over on a regular basis, reportedly dozens at a time. I’ve never been able to figure that one out, because this is what the cabin (in its reconstructed version) looks like on the inside:
It seems cozy and the winters in Concord do get cold, but it seems like that would be a bit cramped for two dozen people by anyone’s definition. I may consider building a second tree house to accommodate my social circle. But then again, everyone’s probably still going to want into the LMATH because people are like cats in that respect: they always want to get into spaces that clearly say Do Not Enter, like your cat who scratches at the bathroom door while you pee.
Part of my wish to be alone sometimes is because one of my favorite pastimes is to sit or walk quietly with nothing but my thoughts as company, and this can be difficult to do when you’re with other people. It is also seemingly a pastime that is not universally appreciated: a University of Virginia study published in 2014 in the journal Science reported that many of its subjects preferred to self-administer an electric shock rather than be left alone with their thoughts. During a 15-minute period of alone time with nothing to occupy them but their minds, 12 out of 18 male subjects and 6 out of 24 female subjects opted to give themselves mild shocks with the push of a button that had been made available for that purpose. The boredom had gotten to them, and they looked for stimulation anywhere they could get it. I was surprised when I read this. Did these subjects not realize the value of boredom, the value of sitting down on a riverbank and listening for “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience” (says Walter Benjamin)?
Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out. Alas, laid on the grass, how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. … But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the myterious property of its kind — put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, sent up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.
This is how my thinking will go, alone, in my tree house.
I will of course have neighbors in my tree house, and that’s fine. I don’t believe that the peace that comes from voluntary isolation demands an isolation that is physically far-removed from others. It could just be a door with a lock, like Virginia Woolf said. Or not even that: for instance, I am at this moment alone in my apartment, closed off from the world by a door with a weak lock that could easily be picked. On the other side of our apartments’ adjoining wall there is my neighbor. He’s playing FIFA World Cup for Playstation; I can hear the announcer. And yet, I feel quite isolated. Sometimes I think and write at the dining room table while my husband is noodling around with a project or talking to his sister on the phone. Sometimes I’ll even think and write in full view of a television, and I still somehow manage to feel isolated. I’m not someone who needs to have all my ducks in a row in order to think and write, so my plans for the LMATH should not be read as a complaint that I can’t get anything done with all these people around, nor as an excuse for waiting for the perfect moment to get down to thinking and writing. I can think and write just about anywhere, zone out into my private world no matter where I am. My desire to build a tree house and be left alone in it comes from a lifetime of thinking and writing in the midst of it all and occasionally looking up to see what’s going on and being surprised that I am not in fact in my story world, but rather in my real world. I like my real world quite a lot, but passing from one to the other is jarring, and sometimes annoying. In those moments I feel like a toddler asleep in her car seat who wakes up to find that she’s suddenly at grandma’s house 300 miles away; she likes grandma’s house, but is irritated at having been moved without her consent. Since I can’t inhabit my story world, the next best thing I can do is to inhabit a tree.
One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. In it, a twelve-year-old boy named Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo bolts from the family lunch table in the garden and climbs up a tree, declaring with prepubescent anger that he would never again set foot on the ground as long as he lived. He keeps this promise, living out the rest of his days hopping like a squirrel from branch to branch, navigating from one tree to the next all throughout the forests of Italy’s Ligurian Coast. He had plenty of company despite his lifestyle choice. Throughout the book, he runs with a band of child thieves, fights pirates, has love affairs, helps his ground dwelling neighbors with their farming, pens a treatise on political theory (which he never manages to get published, but not for lack of trying), and later on gets involved in local government. Calvino calls a person like this a “solitary who does not avoid people.”
Personally, I don’t care to go to Cosimo’s extreme lengths, though I admire the stubbornness and ingenuity he shows in constructing his alternative existence. For me, though, it would be enough to just have my Leave Me Alone Tree House, secluded in a shady grove of fig trees – fig, because that’s my favorite tree – and have that be my own personal space that I could retreat to as needed.
To date, the LMATH’s blueprints are mere outlines – really more of a wish list than an actual blueprint at this point. I know with certainty, however, that it will feature a rope ladder, trap door, zip line (to where? I haven’t yet decided), a bookshelf in the Cosimo style (“sheltered as best he could from the rain and nibbling mouths”), and a solar powered hot plate so I can heat water for tea and coffee.
1. Fariss Samarrai, “Doing Something is Better Than Doing Nothing for Most People, Study Shows,” UVAToday, 3 July 2014, https://news.virginia.edu/content/doing-something-better-doing-nothing-most-people-study-shows.
2. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/frankfurt/storyteller.pdf.
3. “But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered his books as rather like birds and it saddened him to see them caged or still.” Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees.
I started a new knitting project yesterday after finishing up the last bits on a pair of gloves (photos of that and another recent project at the bottom of this post). Never mind that I still haven’t finished my retro sweater — though it is almost done. I finished knitting all the pieces and blocked them (for non-knitters, that’s when you soak and then lay out your your project to dry flat, stretched with pins so as to “iron” everything out and make it hang more nicely). I’ve sewn up the side seams. All that’s left is to sew on the sleeves, and that’s where I’m stalling because my one attempt failed miserably and I haven’t yet mustered up the courage to have another go. I will get it done before fall weather hits but for now I’m owning my procrasination by starting in on another sweater.
The yarn for it comes from my mother in law, who started knitting a sweater for my niece and got as far as completing the entire front and back but froze when she got to the sleeves. She showed it to me when we were visiting in June/July and explained that she couldn’t for the life of her remember how to do sleeves so she’d decided to abandon it. “You’re not using a pattern?” I asked. I was impressed. No, she said, just winging it. I said, you know there are loads of video tutorials on YouTube, that’s how I’ve learned most of my knitting, but she waved me off. She’s a woman who can’t be bothered with online tutorials, and I have to say that I both like that in her and am also kind of frustrated by it — because she was so close, does she realize how easy it would have been to finish her almost-finished sweater just by watching a ten minute video explanation?
Her solution to the matter was to hand off the partially finished sweater and the rest of the yarn to me. I resisted at first, both because I really wanted to try to convince her to soldier through it, and … also because I think the yarn is kind of ugly. It’s fine for a little girl, but I’m turning it into an adult-sized sweater and I already having some misgivings about that course of action. This is an overhead shot of me frogging it (non-knitters: frogging is unraveling yarn from something that’s been knit so as to reuse the yarn):
(She had also begun a gigantic scarf with it, which is what I’m undoing here.)
So what do we think about the yarn? I of course couldn’t ask her to verify my theory that the real reason she backed off from finishing anything with it was because this yarn is too ugly to live. I don’t like straight garter stitch in general, and I especially don’t like it here because I think it only increases the early 90s vibe of the yarn, and I for one am wholeheartedly against the apparent resurgence of 90s fashion that I’ve been seeing around town. My mother said the exact same thing about the 70s when I started wearing bell bottoms and polyester and platforms in the 90s, so this is perhaps just one of life’s milestone that I must tick off, hating on a younger generation’s clothing choices, but I stand by my statement.
Anyway. I’ve started knitting this sweater and I think the yarn looks slighty better in stockinette stitch, but you decide:
I also think the pattern I’m using is pretty horrendous, but honestly I don’t know what pattern could possibly make this yarn look like it was not initially destined for a five-year-old girl. I just went with a pattern that I estimated would use about the quantity of yarn I had on hand (truth be told, I have no idea what yardage I’m working with here, so it’s just a guess based on volume) and called for the appropriate needle size. We’ll see how this goes.
I’ve asked myself a couple of times why I’m using this yarn to make something for myself, rather than making a sweater for my niece like my mother in law had planned. My response is that I’m wary of arriving for our next visit at the end of the year with a completed sweater that could run the risk of making my mother in law feel like she’s being shown up. She and I have a very good relationship. I really enjoy her company and I think she enjoys mine. She’s not a particularly touchy feely person, and yet the last time she visited she gave me a spontaneous bear hug one day, and I took that to mean that she officially likes me. Still, I feel like completing the sweater that she abandoned is entering into trecherous waters and could be taken the wrong way. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.
I also briefly considered making a sweater for the other little girl in my life, but she currently lives in Alabama and therefore I doubt she would have much use for woolens.
The other reason that I’m making this sweater for myself is that I am in a sort of patch of me-centered making. I’m still fairly new to knitting, having only really gotten deep into it about two and a half years ago. It took me a full year or more to start making things for myself; prior to that I was all about random gifts of mittens and hats to my friends. It felt a little greedy to spend hours upon hours making something for myself — am I worth it? I suppose I’m over that now, especially since I’ve realized that I can make actual clothing, not just accessories, and that’s exciting, isn’t it, when you first realize that? I’m trying to keep my me-centeredness in check, though, because half the fun of knowing how to do this stuff is sharing it with other people.
* * *
Other knitting of late:
Above: The pattern is Spiralini Hat, which you can find as a free download on Ravelry.
Above: the gloves I finished yesterday. The pattern is called Cafe au Lait Mitts, also a free Ravelry download.
It seems like for every two things I make that I’m happy with, there’s a third that doesn’t go as planned. Let’s call those learning experiences rather than failures. This goes for everything: two breads that turn out nicely, and then the third doesn’t rise in the oven and is too sour or doesn’t have enough salt or comes off the pan in pieces. The first shirt I sewed is something that I wear constantly because I like it so much. The second is soon going to be cut up and used as dish rags. It’s a bright orange tunic that I wore a couple of times when I was still aglow with an infantile sense of pride (I made this!) but I started to feel a little silly wearing it because, truthfully, it looks like hell. I wear my third shirt, documented here, all the time. My fourth started out promising, and I used the same pattern as shirt #3, but because of the fabric and probably some sort of error that I didn’t pick up on, it didn’t turn out so well. It fits fine I suppose, but if I reach my arms forward to lean my elbows on a table or hug someone, the back doesn’t stretch with me and the whole thing feels stiff, like I’m wearing a straight jacket. No big deal. Maybe that means that shirts number 4 and 5 will be masterpieces.
Another issue that I’m having when it comes to sewing and knitting, specifically, is that when I make a mistake and realize that I have to go back and undo part of it or the whole thing, I sigh and put it aside for later because in that moment of frustration I can’t stomach ripping out seams. But then what often happens is said project will languish in a basket in the corner of my workspace, or on a hanger hooked to a door, and silently judge me for abandoning it.
This dress was a case of getting ahead of myself. It was at the time only the third item of clothing I’d attempted to sew (the first two being the good first shirt and the frumpy orange tunic). I was feeling bold one day and had just come home with a big bag full of thrifted fabric, which included many yards of this soft, light blue denim. I decided to hell with it, I was going to make myself a dress. With darts, sleeves, and a zipper. It seemed like a good idea at the time and it was, at first. The bodice and the skirt came together in an afternoon, technically, meaning that I had crafted something from cloth that could count as clothing. But it was too long and too big and the neckline made me look like I was about to run off and join a convent. (Fun fact, my grandmother ran off and joined a convent in her early 20s, and when she quit/was kicked out after six months she took the bus back to Seattle. She got off at her stop and ran into the man who would be my grandfather. And that is why I’m here today.)
I shortened the hemline and lowered the neckline, though not to indecent proportions, but I haven’t been able to solve the size issue so the thing still looks like I’m lost in an empty bag of animal feed. I tried some darts but that made the waist bunch up awkwardly, so I ripped those out, and then as I wanted to move ahead I decided to get going on the sleeves. As you can see from the above photo, there is only one sleeve because my idea for a sleeve did not work. It’s got this pointy bit that sticks out at the bottom, and the armhole is too big. In the end the only two things that have actually worked out with this dress are the zipper (which was my first, and I’m still pretty proud of the job I did with it) and the hemline, which miraculously came out straight and neat.
I’m not exactly at an impasse, just not sure where to turn next. I suppose the smart thing to do would be to admit defeat: take out the zipper, cut off the bodice, use what remains to make a skirt (which I can manage), and then do my first dress with an actual pattern instead of winging it. This uninformed foray into dressmaking was partly inspired by a sewing blog that one day featured a “tutorial” on making a dress with this same fabric. I put the word tutorial in quotes there because it really wasn’t much of a tutorial. It was a cute, Pin-able graphic of cartoon dress pieces with some arrows pointing in various directions, followed by a bulleted list of vague instructions. I suppose a seasoned sewist could take a look at that tutorial and think, hey, that’s nice, I’ll make that, and s/he would have no problem doing so. Someone in my shoes needs far more hand holding, or at least clarity, but I was swayed by the pretty photos of the finished product and didn’t let my caution get the best of me. And now I’m left with this, a partially finished dress that doesn’t fit, with a sleeve predicament that remains a mystery to me.
However, I’m not going to take it apart just yet, because in other situations I’ve found that my half-finished projects eventually stop judging me and instead start giving me answers. The Roses sweater was one of these. I started that sweater in late March, finishing the front and back in a few days, and then did one of the sleeves. Either from impatience or excitement, I shortcut the instructions and the sleeve ended up being shorter than I wanted. I could have gone along with it but I didn’t want my first sweater to be something I wouldn’t wear in the end because of a bad fit. I decided to start on the second sleeve and do it properly, rather than dealing with the first sleeve first, but even though I was following the exact same YouTube tutorials that had guided me through the first sleeve, I could not figure it out. So with one failed sleeve and a second sleeve that I could not get going on no matter how hard I tried, I tucked everything into my works-in-progress basket to wait patiently until I was motivated to pick it up again.
That day finally came this week, thanks in part to a friend who came over for lunch last Saturday. I showed her the sewing and knitting that I’d been up to and when I came across those sweater pieces I thought, oh… you. And I realized it had been two months since I’d touched the thing. I decided that I would give it another shot this week. This time I started with the too-short sleeve, and was happy to find that I only had to unravel the ribbing plus a couple of inches before it in order to fix the length issue. That was done pretty quickly. Then I started in on the second sleeve. I watched all the same YouTube videos again, and again had to fumble through the first ten rows several times until I realized that the problem was that I was knitting the second sleeve more loosely than the first, which is why it kept coming out so differently. I tightened up my stitches and all was well, and I am now pleased to announce that I have a front and back and two sleeves ready to be sewn together and blocked. We’re leaving this weekend to visit my family for a couple of weeks, so I’m going to do those final steps with an in-person tutorial (my mom).
The moral of this whole story is a common one: When you’re trying to make something, shit happens, and you’ve just got to accept it and make it work if you can. Sometimes making it work turns out differently than you’d planned (which will probably be the case with the blue dress) and sometimes making it work means taking a breather for a while and getting back to it later, only to discover that things are sometimes not as difficult as they seem.
For much of my adult life, I’ve avoided clothes shopping at all costs. In the past several years most of the clothing I’ve bought has been second-hand and occasionally I’ll duck into stores that I’d rather not enter because I want some basic things that you can’t normally find in thrift shops, and without things like that I would have a hard time pulling together outfits from a wardrobe that is otherwise filled with things like fire-engine red pleated skirts and 60s floral prints. And one day last winter I found that my one pair of pants was getting tight (I’m more of a skirt and dress person, that’s why I only had one pair) so rather than hook the waistband together with a rubber band I decided to go get a larger size. Thrift shops in Geneva are not great, so rather than spend the better part of an afternoon hunting through jeans that are either too big or too small or have rhinestone butterflies embroidered on the butt, I quickly went into a fast fashion shop, grabbed a stack of pants in various colors and sizes, chose the pair I liked best, paid for it and left. I was in and out in about fifteen minutes.
That’s how my relationship with clothes shopping has been for the past few years. It’s fine, I’m able to leave the house fully clothed on a regular basis, but it has kind of sucked the joy out of something that I once liked. Picking out pretty things to wear was once fun for me. With one of my best friends, Jane, I’d spend entire afternoons playing dress up as a teenager. Jane had a fantastic wardrobe that I loved going through. I have no idea where she got most of her stuff, but at fourteen years old she had things like a hot pink foam rubber dress with a tank bodice and bubble-shaped skirt that felt like a wetsuit when I tried it on. In middle school Jane began a project called Crazy Outfit Tuesday, which consisted in coming to school every Tuesday in a Crazy Outfit, such as a billowy mustard yellow pleated skirt, tights printed with a jelly bean graphic, an Air Force t-shirt of her dad’s, and a spiral telephone cord hooked around her neck like a necklace. She looked fabulous and, oddly enough for middle school, didn’t get made fun of for it (or if she did she took it in stride) because Jane’s brand of weirdness was one that was pretty much universally appreciated by her fellow students.
Jane was the person who inspired me to start thinking about how I actually wanted to dress, because in a mundane sea of Champion sweatshirted pre-adolescents, she stood out and had fun doing it. I was never as bold as she was, probably because I cared more than I liked to admit about what other people thought of me, but her example made me want to take my clothes more seriously and develop some semblance of a personal style. That’s what I tried doing for a number of years, but then when I started learning about where and how most of my clothing was produced, I became more and more uncomfortable with the process of shopping for clothes. Finally I all but stopped, and a few years ago I adopted the balance mentioned above, of scouting thrift shops and occasionally and furtively slipping into stores that shall not be named.
I also adopted a mild snootiness in thinking that shopping — and by extension, clothes — was superficial and thus I wanted little to no part of it. Daniel Miller in his book Stuff points out the issue with this. “On the surface is found the clothing which may represent us and may reveal a truth about ourselves, but it may also be a lie,” he writes. “It is as though if we peeled off the outer layers we would finally get to the real self within.” The problem with this, he argues, is that “we are then inclined to consider people who take clothes seriously as themselves superficial.” He continues:
Prior to feminism, newspaper cartoons had few qualms in showing women as superficial merely by portraying their desire to shop for shoes or dresses. Young black males were superficial because they wanted expensive trainers that they were not supposed to be able to afford. By contrast, we student academics at places such as Cambridge were deep and profound because frankly we looked like rubbish, and clearly didn’t much care that we did.
An additional problem for Miller, as an anthropologist, is that this equation of caring about clothing = superficiality is problematic when studying cultures in which clothing is important: “Dismissing them as superficial would represent a rather disastrous start to such an exercise.” He goes on to give the example of Trinidadians’ relationship to clothing as a case in point, and because I find it so interesting I’m going to go ahead and quote at length here:
I worked much of my time in Trinidad with squatters who had neither a water supply nor electricity in the house. Yet women living in these squatters’ camps might have a dozen or twenty pairs of shoes. A common leisure activity was to hold a fashion display, on a temporary catwalk, along one of the open spaces within the squatters’ encampment. They would beg, borrow, make or steal clothes. It wasn’t just the clothes, it was also the hair, the accessories and the way they strutted their stuff; knowing how to walk sexy and look glamorous or beguiling. Movements were based on an exaggerated self-confidence and a strong eroticism, with striding, bouncy, or dance-like displays. In local parlance there should be something hot about the clothing and something hot about the performance. On evenings I could spend three hours with them, waiting as they got themselves ready to go out and party, trying on and discarding outfits until they got it right.
This association is hardly new for the region. Early accounts of slave society in the Caribbean include references to the particular devotion of slaves to clothing. A.C. Carmichael stated in 1833: ‘Generally speaking, the coloured women have an insatiable passion for showy dresses and jewels… The highest class of females dress more showily and far more expensively than European ladies.’ Freilich, carrying out enthnographic research in an impoverished village in 1957-8, reports, ‘the wife of one of the peasants said “every new function needs new clothes. I would not wear the same dress to two functions in the same district.”‘ This desire was still more forcefully expressed during the 1970s oil boom in Trinidad when both seamstresses and their clients suggested that purchasing two new outfits a week was quite common for women in work. We do not necessarily condemn a population just because they show some devotion to stuff. Anthropologists celebrate, rather than demean, the devotion of Trobriand Islanders to canoe prows or of the Nuer to cattle. But curiously a devotion to clothing, as one can see from these descriptions by outsiders, was always viewed rather more harshly, especially for those without wealth.
As evident in the description of the local catwalk, what mostly concerned Trinidadians was not fashion — that is, the collective following of a trend, but style — that is, the individual construction of an aesthetic based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it. There used to be a term saga boys for men who combined sartorial originality with ways of walking and talking that never let up from conspicuous display. Another local term gallerying gets it just right. Trinidad style, in turn, has two components, individualism and transience. The individual has to re-combine elements in their own way. The source of these elements is unimportant. They may be copied from the soap operas or the fashion shows which appear on television, sent from relatives abroad or purchased while abroad. They may simply re-combine local products. But the various elements should work together, be appropriate to the person who carries them off well, for ideally just one particular occassion. It didn’t matter what the clothes cost or even whether the clothes worn on the catwalk belonged to them or were borrowed for the occasion. This wasn’t about accumulation, but about transience. The stylist may learn from fashion but only as the vanguard. Then they must move on. Trinidad’s best known cultural export, Carnival, enshrines this transience. Individuals may spend weeks, if not months, creating elaborate and time-consuming costumes. But these must be discarded and re-made annually. What is celebrated is the event, the moment.
(…) [I]nstead of trying to ask where such a relationship to style comes from, instead of seeing it as a problem that requires explanation, we can turn the lens back onto ourselves. Why do we think that a devotion to clothing is a problem anyway? Why do we see it as a sign of superficiality and what does the very term superficiality imply? The problem with (…) treating clothing as superficial is that we presume a certain relationship between the interior and the exterior. We possess what could be called a depth ontology. The assumption is that being –what we truly are — is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. A clothes shopper is shallow because a philosopher or a saint is deep. The true core to the self is relatively constant and unchanging and also unresponsive to mere circumstance. We have to look deep inside ourselves to find ourselves. But these are all metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile, not philosophical certainty. We won’t find a soul by cutting deep into someone, though I suppose we might accidentally release it. My point is that there is simply no reason on earth why another population should see things this same way. No reason at all why they should consider our real being to be deep inside and falsity on the outside. The argument here is that Trinidadians by and large don’t.
Most Trinidadians would certainly assert humour and wit as central to their self-definition and would see it as contributing to their sense of cool and style. (…) This keeping of things on the surface also means the freedom to construct oneself and not be categorized by circumstance. In London when two middle-class people meet they tend to ask each other ‘and what do you do?’ — meaning their employment. But most Trinidadians consider this highly inappropriate. One works simply because one needs to earn money, so this is entirely the wrong source of self-definition. Asking what work someone does tells you nothing significant about them. It is the things one chooses freely to do that should define you, not the things you have to do. Freedom in self-construction seems central.
It is again at Carnival that one comes to appreciate the further implications of not seeing the essential nature or truth of a person as a property located deep within. One of the main themes of Carnival is the revelation of truth. Carnival starts at night with a festival called Jouvert derived from the French jour d’ouvert or the opening of the day. People dress as creatures of the night, such as devils, or come out covered in mud. (…) Sometimes they carry placards with scandals and accusations. Gradually they move toward the centre of town where they are revealed by the dawn. In 1988, one of the most striking costumes represented a current calypso and was called Bacchanal Woman. A huge figure wore a dress festooned with eyes. Bacchanal is the disorder that follows scandalous revelation. (…) People try constantly not to reveal the truth about themselves but Carnival brings the things of the night into the light of revelation.
The point all this makes about lies is that people are constantly trying to hide them. And where is the obvious place to hide things? Well, deep inside where other people can’t see them. (…) For Trinidadians it is entirely obvious that truth resides on the surface where other people can easily see it and attest to it, while lies are to be found in the hidden recesses deep within. A person’s real being, then, is also on the surface, and evident. The deep person, who keeps things stored close to himself or herself and out of view, is viewed as just dishonest. The point, of course, is that truth is neither intrinsically deep nor on the surface. Neither set of metaphors can be judged as right or wrong. It is simply that there is no reason why any other population should have a concept of superficiality which sees the deep inside as true and significant and the surface as false and insignificant.
(…)[W]e have this very peculiar ideal about looking natural, which tends to imply that putting on make-up and clothes is false and superficial. But why should we assume this? Why should the fact that one person has freckles tell us who they are? Or that one person is born uglier than another person, and so can portray evil or a debased character on the stage? We see the natural just like the deep as being about the truth of a person. The Trinidadian conception, by contrast, is that who we are is not at all given by the happenstance of physiognomy — our face when we wake up in the morning. Why on earth should the natural look of a person be a guide to who that person is? By contrast, a person who spends time, money, taste and attention in creating a look, where the final look is the direct result of all that activity and effort, can properly be discovered in their appearance. Because now one is judging what they have done, not what they happen to look like originally. We are judging them by their labour, not their birth. One aspires to the act of self-cultivation.
When I first read this, I think what I found so interesting about it was the affront that it was to my own idea that the surface is superficial and the true self lies inside. That is something that I have absorbed over the course of my life thus far to define for me what is reality, and it’s been backed up by personal experience. I’m someone who has one of those faces that, if I’m not smiling, looks deadly serious or angry about something. Once as a teenager I was on a bus with some friends going downtown (to do what I don’t know, loitering or looking for additions to our classic rock cassette collections) and an older man sitting across from us stared at my friend Linda and me for a while before announcing to Linda that she looked “nice” whereas I looked “mean.” I still remember that twenty years later because it hurt — I’m not a mean person (maybe sometimes, but not on purpose) and here this guy was judging me from my stony-faced exterior and deciding who I was and what I was like based on that. Women get this all the time: I know I’m not the only one who has had to endure countless observations from strangers on the street that I’m not smiling, and why don’t I smile, and encouragements to “hey, smile!” In addition to wanting to scream at them that my purpose in life is not to walk around sunnily smiling at men for whatever purpose that would serve — I’ve never quite figured that one out — I’ve also always been confused because more often than not I’m not smiling because I’m lost in thought, thinking about happy things or sad things or whatever sort of thing that just happens to not show up on my face. They can’t see what’s going on in my head because the surface manifestation doesn’t match it. The real me is inside, whereas the surface me is (apparently) going around scowling at everyone.
So based on a lifetime of empirical data I eventually arrived at the conclusion that the real me was somewhere deep inside, and my physical self was just a source of transportation to get my real self around to work and school and social events and Walter Benjamin reading groups. And clothes — in addition to being produced by sweatshop labor and fossil fuels — were just a means to avoid getting arrested for public nudity during the course of those commutes.
The problem with believing this is that it ran into head-on conflict with a reality that I was trying to deny, and which I’ve only recently stopped denying: I like clothes. I love beautiful fabric and bright colors, the feel of something that drapes perfectly and moves with me, and, yes, the sense that what I wear is somehow a projection of what exists in my head, the feeling that it’s somehow a reflection of my individual self. The latter is probably part of why I love shopping in second-hand shops. It feels like I’m on a treasure hunt looking for myself, and when I find something that seems like me I’m also excited by the idea that I’m going to be the only one in the entire world wearing it. (Because all other copies of a particular dress were burned, and this is the only one remaining? That’s what it feels like anyway.)
This is, in the end, why I’ve taken up sewing this year. I recognize that I could very well go out in the world wearing the exact same thing every day. I would continue to live and breathe, no problem. A full wardrobe is not necessary to the continuation of basic biological functions. But I don’t want to go out in the world every day wearing the exact same thing. Having a full wardrobe is not a question of survival, it’s a question of desire, and of fun. Why else do so many people have more than two outfits on rotation? And why should we limit ourselves to that if we don’t want to?
This gets me back to the issue of where fast fashion comes from, what it’s made of, and who makes it. Since I still can’t stomach forking over my money to support that industry, I decided to start filling in my wardrobe with things I make myself. This of course brings up a whole load of other issues, such as the fact that fabric is still made somewhere by someone else (though you can check the tag, which will usually state the country of origin) and also the fact that it takes an immense amount of time to make something that seems so simple. I submit to you the following example, the shirt I made this weekend. It was the first time I ever sewed something using a pattern and I’m really very happy with how it turned out:
(Note: the color coordination of the shirt with the circa 1982 linoleum in our hallway was unintentional.)
Simple, right? A basic v-neck tank, no sleeves to mess with. The trickiest part about it was that it’s cut on the bias. But even so, it took me nine and a half hours to make it. (I timed the process.) The fabric was 30-something Swiss francs, and add the cost of labor to that and you can best bet that I will not be tossing this tank top into the wash with my sweaty running clothes. This is haute couture that I sweated and cursed over for a few hours Saturday afternoon and the better part of Sunday. The very fact that I had the available time to do so is privilege in itself, not to mention the privilege of spending money on a sewing machine and untold hours learning how to use it. But in the end, money-wise, this is cheap because nowhere on Earth will you find a shirt made of Italian fabric with hand-stitched interior seams for less than your monthly rent. Odd to think about how making your own clothes is both cheaper (when compared to store items of similar quality I mean) and also a thing people can do only if they’re relatively privileged (meaning they have the time to do it).
Anyway, this is how I’ve decided to reconcile my love of clothes with my hatred of shopping for them. It’s funny, because when my mom was growing up she made a lot of her own clothes because that was the only means she had to accumulate a wardrobe. Shop-bought clothes were expensive and there wasn’t the money for it, so she went to school in her handmade kilts, mortally embarassed at her homespun-ness, and vowing from a young age that she would ensure that her future children would have the privilege of buying their clothes in shops. Now in her late 60s, she’s done a complete 180 and despises the very industry that she once wanted to buy into. But she still likes pretty things, so she’s taken to making them. About once a week, Mom emails me photos of her latest masterful knitting projects, and I email her back photos of whatever I’m knitting or sewing at the moment, and we respond to each other with mutual praise of how fantastic we look.
The woman above on the right is my grandmother Rosemary, aka Roses, on her wedding day, October 12, 1929. A woman named Judy found my family tree on a genealogy website and emailed me because we’re distantly related — her grandmother was my great-grandmother’s little sister. We started corresponding last year because Judy has a large stash of family photos and is trying to identify the people in them — no small task, since many of the photos are pushing a hundred years old, and so very few of the people in them are still alive to identify themselves. So Judy and I, plus my father, are attempting to put names to faces, with little to go on. The woman on the left in the above photo, we assume, is Roses’s mother, Angie, but she could also be Roses’s mother-in-law, Katherine (that’s what my father thinks).
I have stared at this photo for untold lengths of time since Judy sent it to me this past week. There are so many things about it that hypnotize me: the smiles, for one. My father has a framed portrait of his parents on their wedding day, only in that one my grandmother is dutifully gazing into the distance, serious and unsmiling, like a silent movie star. She’s wearing the same headpiece and holding the same bouquet of lilies. I’m very familiar with that photo, and so seeing this one in which she’s grinning, her eyes crinkled, next to her mother (or mother-in-law), makes me gleefully happy because she looks like a real, 22-year-old human about to get (or just after getting) hitched.
Judy also sent me this photo:
The dapper man on the far left is Judy’s grandfather, Bart. Angie/Katherine is in the center, holding the arm of a young man whom we believe to be RJ “Boots” Ellwanger, Roses’s little brother. To Angie/Katherine’s right (your left), skipping a person, there’s a woman peeking her head out from behind the front row — that’s Judy’s grandmother, Winnie. In front of Boots is Roses’s sister and maid of honor, Flo. Just behind Roses to her right (your left) is her dearly beloved, my grandfather, Carl Stevenson. Directly behind Angie/Katherine is a gentleman who seems to be looking askance at the man who is stealing his daughter away — this is Roses’s father, my great-grandfather, RJ Number One.
I am mesmerized by this photo as well: The short hair, the pleated drop-waist skirts, the three-piece suits. The girl third from the left who’s sticking her tongue out at the photographer. The little boy on the far right in knickerbockers and argyle socks. The sleepy bulldog who decided to get in the shot and was recorded for posterity.
I’m also fascinated by this because the people in the photo did not know at the time that in twelve days the stock market would crash violently and ten years of economic depression would follow. I don’t know what happened to this family during that period. I wish I had thought to ask my grandmother before she died in 1998, but I was sixteen and didn’t really think to ask things like that at that age. Her family was middle to upper-middle class. Her grandfather John (RJ One’s father) came to the US from Prussia two years after the Revolutions of 1848 (he was born on the boat), and ended up in Iowa, where as an adult he made a killing in the liquor business. He had a huge, three-story house that’s still there in the center of Dubuque, which I know because my father and I did a drive-by once. Legend has it that John’s second wife went mad with the Panic of 1907, allegedly attacked the mailman one day, and thereafter lived in the attic while John went on to marry a third time. And yet, life went on, in good ways or bad, as it did for the people in these family photos, and as it does every time our precariously balanced house of cards tumbles yet again. People continue getting married, having babies, going to work, making do, maybe sometimes questioning why we put so much faith in an economic system that has failed us so many times.
I got into researching my paternal genealogy not so much because I’m a nostalgic person (though there is some of that, too), but because I like to ponder what life was like on the cusp of huge historical events. I’ve got about forty pages left in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, and this weekend I finished a multi-month project of binge watching Mad Men (about four years after everyone else). With both, I feel a tiny thrill (or chill, depending) every time the storyline is creeping up to an important date — 24 October 1929, 23 November 1963. How will the characters react? How would I have reacted? It will be like that when I am old and my hypothetical future grandchildren are looking at photos of me wearing a hair scrunchie and acid-wash jeans with snaps at the ankles. Where was I when the Berlin Wall fell? Where was I on September 11, 2001? (Answers, respectively: lying belly down on the living room carpet watching the evening news footage, and waiting in line to check my email at the university computer lab, not knowing at first why everyone was freaking out).
My current knitting project is a sweater pattern from a 1930s booklet. The pattern is called the “3-Hour Sweater,” because you can supposedly knit it in three hours, which I assure you is absolutely not the case. Though it’s knitting up quickly, I’d say it’s more like the 3-Day Sweater if you’re burning the midnight oil, or the 3-Week Sweater if most of your knitting is done like mine is, on the bus into town and while watching the season 7 finale of a worringly addictive period drama.
I found the pattern on Ravelry and have included it at the end of this post, which I felt at liberty to do because the copyright must be expired by now. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a vintage pattern when I found this one. I was just looking for something to knit with 615 yards of worsted-weight targhee wool in cranberry red that my mother gave me for Christmas. (It’s awesome to work with, found here if you’re interested.) When I stumbled upon this pattern, I felt like it was the obvious winner. The finished sweater will look something like this:
At the moment it looks like this:
There’s bit more work to do on the front, and after that come the two puff sleeves and stitching everything together (which I’ve never done, so that’ll be an exciting feat). Realistically it’ll be another week, but still time enough to be able to wear it plenty before it gets too warm here to wear wool.
I was knitting this when my email pinged with Judy’s latest photo finds, so I had my new-old sweater in my lap when I first saw my grandmother happily smiling at 22 years old, showing some white-stockinged leg in her trendy, asymmetrically hemmed wedding dress. I have no idea if she was a knitter, but I’d like to think so, and so I’m pretending that there’s a possibility that she once knit a sweater of this very design. There is something almost eerie about working with a vintage pattern, your hands following the same instructions as someone else’s hands did eighty years ago.
When I was at a thrift shop the other day scouting out second-hand fabrics, I also wound up buying this sewing pattern from circa 1980something:
The pattern is already cut, and I’m fine making do with that, and even happy for it because that means it was used and maybe loved. It also makes me wonder what its previous owner was doing and thinking as she was cutting the pattern and piecing together her homemade skirt. Where was she when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Pan Am 103 crashed in Lockerbie? What was she thinking when she watched the guy in the white shirt stand down the tanks in Tiananmen Square? I only have hazy memories of a few big events in the 1980s — my world at the time was the size of Sesame Street — but this skirt’s maker was, let’s assume, an adult and as such had an entirely different experience of that decade. And so when I go to start work on Burda super-easy 7226, I’ll think of what she might have been thinking when the stock market crashed in 1987, like I’m thinking about the makers of my 1930s sweaters, and about my grandmother in her wedding photos, smiling on the brink of a new and scary decade.
* * * * *
3-HOUR SWEATER (from a 1930s booklet that is in bits & pieces)
Fascinating! And most popular. Three hours of knitting and presto —you have a smart garment your friends are sure to admire. The loose stitch progresses so rapidly you’ll want to make several — two or three for your own wardrobe and others for gifts.
SIZE 16 (see note below)
Five 1-oz. balls Germantown Zephyr*
1 pair bone needles 5MM (Note from me: my needles are bamboo, and that works fine.)
1 pair wooden needles 10MM
1 crochet hook No. 3
4 sts = 1 inch
With 5MM bone needles cast on 52 sts.
K 2, p 2 for 3 inches. Change to the 10MM wooden needles. K one row, p one row for nine inches.
Bind off 2 sts at the beginning of the next 2 rows. Then decrease 1 st both ends of needle every k row until 44 sts remain. Next row start yoke.
K 2 sts, p 2 sts and continue ribbing still decreasing 1 st both ends of needle every other row until 22 sts remain. Bind off.
Cast on 56 sts with 5MM bone needles.
Follow directions for back until there are 48 sts on needle. Next row start yoke.
K 2, p 2 for 24 sts. Leave these sts on pin to be worked later for the other half of front and continue to k 2, p 2, on remaining 24 sts. Work ribbing of k 2, p 2 for rest of yoke, keeping front edge even and decreasing I st every other row on armhole edge until front edge measures 3 inches.
Bind off 6 sts at neck edge. Then decrease I st at neck edge every row, still decreasing 1 st at armhole every other row until all sts are decreased. Work other half of front to correspond.
Cast on 4 sts. K 2, p 2 increasing 1 st both ends of needle every other row. When there are 20 sts on needle change to k 1 row, p 1 row, still increasing 1 st both ends of needle until there are 36 sts.
Then cast on 4 sts at each end of work. K I row, p 1 row for 3 inches.
Next row — K first 2 sts together, * k 2 sts, k next 2 sts together. Repeat from * across row to last 2 sts. K these 2 sts together. (32 sts on needle.)
K 2, p 2 on these 32 sts for 1-1/2 inches. Bind off.
Sew underarm and sleeve seams. Sew sleeve into sweater. Finish around neck and front opening with one row of single crochet, making a loop at top of opening for button.
* Germantown Zephyr is described as:
A 4-fold yarn (4 twisted strands) of high-quality virgin wool. Approximately 80 yards to the ounce. It is available in Ombre (variegated shades) as well as solid colors.
Suitable for: Afghans, robes, and pillows. Suits and dresses for women and children. Sweaters for men, women, and children. Scarfs, mittens, berets, etc.
A note on sizing:
This is vintage sizing, so a 1930s size 16 has nothing to do with a 2016 size 16. Clothing manufacturers over the years have continuously used smaller and smaller numbers for sizing in order to appeal to women’s vanity. Sizes once presumably corresponded to something, but they now correspond to nothing at all. I have modern-size fours to tens in my closet, all of which fit, and I have a gaudy 1960s shift dress that’s marked as a European size 42 and that also fits. Since my 3-Week Sweater is still in pieces, I can’t say for sure how it fits, but it looks like it’s going to be roomy enough to be comfortable and not pull across the bust, but won’t be baggy. Your best bet is to go off your bust measurement, holding the measuring tape at the widest part of your bust — securely enough so it stays in place, but loose enough for you to be able to breathe comfortably. Mine is 36.5 inches, so I think if you’re within an inch of that either way this pattern will work for you as written. If you’re larger, you’ll need to adjust the pattern. A woman going by the name of Miss Dixie O’Dare posted in the comments section on Ravelry that she’d adapted the pattern for herself, and was nice enough to post it on her blog. She lists her adjustment as being for a 40-42 inch bust, so you can use her pattern as written if that’s your size, or use it for reference if you’re somewhere in between and brave enough to adapt the pattern for your own body. Either way, it’s a quick project so if you have to undo things a few times in order to get it right you won’t have lost much time.
Also, needle sizes here are important — from the looks of the photos on the sweater’s Ravelry page, a lot of knitters didn’t use the recommended needle size, which is totally their perogative, but if you use smaller needles you won’t have the same shape that’s shown in the drawing of the sweater above. That will of course have an effect on whether or not the sweater will fit in the end.
The other day I was working with Arlène, a friend from the garden, to start up a blog to document this year’s garden adventures, which will serve as an archive of photos and stories as we prepare for our eventual eviction and search for a new home. When Arlène and I talk, even when we’re supposed to be working, we have a tendency to go off on tangents, which I like. That’s my kind of talking, because tagents often lead to exciting discoveries.
During one of our little derives Arlène mentioned a website called Keepinuse, based in Switzerland (mostly in the French part though there is some action in the German regions), that works on the assumption that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. People put up posts for their unwanted things that they’d like to give away, while others post requests for certain items that they’d like to take off someone else’s hands, and somewhere along the line the giver meets the receiver and an unused object finds a loving home. I like these sorts of ideas so I created an account and, as luck would have it, the first give-away I found was a woman posting for her mother, who had some materials for dyeing wool that hadn’t been used in a while. I responded immediately, got a response back, and set up a date to go up to their house in the suburbs and pick up my goods.
On Friday I parked my bike downtown and took the bus out to a small village, where I met Béatrice, the mother. She drove us to her house and took me to the backyard, where I saw that the dyeing materials would very definitely not fit in my bike basket. I was picturing a pot and a few packages of tumeric. It was a lot more than that. Sheep not included, but pretty much everything else was. I’ve made an inventory:
1. Two 5 kilogram sacks of ground madder root to make a vibrant red dye. (Béatrice showed me some samples she’d done, still bright cherry red even after two decades in her basement.)
A new-to-me video, which I discovered thanks to Root Simple.
So though there is this loss of understanding the value of things, of the meaning of things, and in handwork, in transforming nature we also make something truly unique that we have made with our hands, stitch by stitch, that maybe we have chosen the yarn, we have even spun the yarn — even better, and that we have designed. And when I do that, I feel whole. I feel I am experiencing my inner core because it’s a meditative process. You have to find your way; you have to listen with your whole being. And that is the schooling that we all need today.
Nothing to add here… she says it all.
Now back to my knitting.