The events of the past several months, and especially those of the past two weeks, have made me requestion the relevance and usefulness of my work. This despite the fact that I believe my work to be relevant and useful, but I also believe it to be part of a long game, and when it seems that the world is quickly becoming an uncontrollable bush fire it’s hard to focus on anything but the immediate emergency facing us.
I can’t remember if I’ve told this story here before, but I have a friend who used to be a volunteer firefighter in her mountain village. She told me this and I saw photos of her in uniform, but for the first couple of years we knew each other I never witnessed her in action. Then one day I was over at her house on a sunny morning in the summer. We were talking about life and work over multiple cups of strong black tea, when I saw a fire truck driving into the village on the road up the hill from her house. “They’re coming for you,” I joked, and just then an ear-splitting siren went off. I snapped my head in the direction of the siren, and when I turned back to her a second later she had already disappeared. In no more than 20 seconds after the siren went off she had rushed upstairs, changed into her gear, run back down, put her boots on and was out the door, without a word to anyone. She was back after a few hours, panting, her face a flushed reddish purple. There had been a fire in the village dump, caused by something that had been leaking fuel which ignited in the hot temperatures. It spread to the nearby woods, burning slowly but every so often exploding into shots of flames two stories high. They got everything under control. My friend was exhausted and dizzy and even after taking a long, cold shower she felt like throwing up or passing out or both. I left to go home so she could rest.
This is what I feel things in the world are like now, except that these bush fires are happening every single day and there is no respite in sight. Not saying that the world has ever been a summertime picnic by a shady creek, but these days it feels like it’s just way, way too much. How do you go on with your life when the fire alarm never shuts off? I’ve read several essays in just the past week talking about activism fatigue, how long we can keep up the opposition, how to practice “self-care” so our lives are not completely engulfed by horror, fear, anger, and anxiety. That’s not only unsustainable, but it will surely lead to complete burn-out and, worse, desensitization to each new outrageous action taken by the new US administration. We are already talking about this and it hasn’t even been two weeks.
My mother, who has always been and will always be one of the wise ones among us, has committed herself to carrying out one act of resistance per week, but it’s been working out to be more like one a day. She’s signed petitions, written letters, made donations to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and Standing Rock among others. She’s also started knitting hats and scarves for Sylvia’s Place, an emergency shelter for LGBTQ youth in New York City. (If you’re on Ravelry, there’s some information on this center in the Charity Knitting group’s thread “2017 Currently Accepting Donations.”) She’s staying informed and doing what she can.
I’ve taken inspiration from my mother and have started doing the same. I wrote up a list of things I can practically do and am keeping a log every day of what I’ve done. It doesn’t feel like much, but it’s better than the alternative of doing nothing. It’s mostly small things, donations and letters, as well as some charity knitting which will at least help a handful of people stay warm (but to be honest it’s mostly just helping me to deal with stress). Trying to channel my outrage into useful action.
I will continue to focus on this, finding daily ways to blast my fire extinguisher instead of just watching things burn, and at the same time I will work to stay focused on my part of the long game. Because those two things together are what prompt me to get out of bed every morning instead of staying curled up in a fetal position under the covers, and those two things are second only to my family and friends in giving me a sense of purpose and confirming my belief that we are better than this.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I got a *ping*ping* on my WhatsApp from my friend’s daughter Sarah. The conversation as it transpired went like this:
Sarah: Hey Kate, it’s Sarah, I made mittens today
and I’d like to show them to you[Insert slightly blurry video of her modeling her very finely knit mittens, which caused feelings of shock and admiration and a little bit of jealously to arise within. Yes indeed, I was envious of a ten-year-old.]
Me: WOW!!! I’m so impressed! Mittens are my next project, I made some once but without fingers like those. Was it hard?
Sarah: No not at all, it took me a day to make both
Me: What? Are you joking?? You’re so fast!! [Please note that I was not dispensing patronizing encouragement to a young knitter. I really was in awe of her talents.]
Sarah: No it’s super easy
Me: Are they a kid’s size? [Note pique of interest on the part of time-crunched adult knitter.]
Sarah: No, my mom can wear them
Me: Because I’m going to make mittens for my mother in law and sister in law but I haven’t picked out the pattern yet
Do you have the instructions?
Sarah: Yes but I can teach you
Me: That would be cool! [In my head: thank god, maybe I really will get all my Christmas presents done in time this year.]
maybe next week
Me: Dunno. I’m going to be at the garden tomorrow. But you’re at school. [Damn elementary school!]
Sarah: Ah too bad. But at 4 maybe I could come if you’re still there
Me: Ok let’s do that, next week. Mas and I are there every Thursday so that would work
Sarah: Ok at 4
I’ll be there
Me: Great, I’ll stick around for you to get there. But talk to your mom to coordinate. [I’d just realized that Sarah needs to ask permission for stuff like going somewhere to hang out after school.]
So this Thursday? Or next week?
Sarah: Next week
and Mom said ok
Me: Ok cool it’s a date 🙂
Sarah: Ok see you next week