Monday, June 30, 2014

Four-letter word, starts with Y

Yarn labyrinth

The summer solstice was last Saturday, June 21, and with it came the start of the summer challenge at my LYS...Local Yoga Studio, that is. The studio I go to does these challenges twice a year; whether or not I make the goal, I always learn something from them.

In that way, and many others, a yoga practice has so much in common with knitting. It can be loose or structured, fancy or simple, but however lengthy or involved the finished project, when you pull it all apart you can see that it's got just a single thread running through it. Breath is the yarn of yoga--there is no in without an out, no knit without a purl, and the little spaces between them are as important as the stitches and breaths themselves. They can be smooth and even, or loose and raggedy, but each stitch builds from and connects to the other as one breath follows another. The most intricate-looking contortions turn out to come easily when you perform them one step at a time--and this sometimes happens on the very same day that just lying flat and still poses the hugest challenge. In some yoga poses, or asanas, we are encouraged to look at an imaginary point somewhere far beyond our fingertips; likewise, when we cast on, we're gazing a thousand yards away to the finished project that the stitches we're creating will become. Take a look at pictures of FOs from a knitalong, and it's like seeing students in a yoga class--everyone makes their own unique expression of the pose or the pattern, with color, proportion and modifications in infinite combinations. I love the people I do these things with, too; they understand me in a way that other people never will, because we speak a common language, use the same special tools, and encourage one another to create things of beauty.

As with any practice that has a meditative element, I find the time I spend knitting or doing yoga on a daily basis actually creates space and freedom in my life. On Monday, one of my teachers shared a version of a passage from the Tao Te Ching that echoed this: "Water nourishes everything, and competes with nothing." Getting up a little early (OK, sometimes it feels VERY early) to attend a 7:00 AM community flow class means I get to work earlier than usual, and in a better mood, because I've already accomplished something by 8:00 besides rolling over and kicking the cat off the bed. Knitting lets me feel like my quiet time is productive, but it's also a way I can challenge myself mentally and take real joy in the process. It's a space where I can fail and still love myself; where I can try and try until I get it right; where I've acquired tremendous skill and fearlessness bit by bit. These minutes aren't spent, they're invested.

The goal of this summer's challenge is to attend no less than 25 yoga classes in the next 30 days...a pretty tall order, especially since I'm going to be out of town for several days during that time frame. So far so good, though: I've logged eight classes in the first five days, so I can even be lazy and skip a day. Like I said before, though, even if I don't make the goal, I know I'll get something out of this; I always have. Summer 2011, when I moved back to LA and started attending classes at this studio, was my first challenge; that was also my first year of being able to touch my toes, after 30 years of tight hamstrings. I was so excited about it, I would bend down and touch my toes for no reason--just because I finally could! Summer 2012, I added headstands in the middle of the room to my practice. That winter, though, I really struggled to make it in to the studio at all. I had a new job, and couldn't seem to get myself to classes on time, even though I WANTED to be there and make room in my life for a consistent practice. I realized I had to just do something differently, and that's when I first tried getting up early for that 7:00 AM class. This week, I've gotten up early three days in a row, and I'm going for five. Maybe even six...

But now that I'm near the end of this post, I realize I may already have gotten my Big Lesson from the challenge this time around. The last time I did a big clean-up in my office at home, the part that really stressed me out and pushed me over the edge into tears was sorting through the many half-finished and sketched-and-swatched-and-started-then-frogged projects that had accumulated here and there over the months. At the time, I could only see them as failures. I thought I should have been clever or disciplined or committed enough to realize my visions, and was disappointed at this evidence that, most of the time, I hadn't. All those false starts got jumbled together in my mind with my unfinished dissertation and all the other overdue-for-no-good-reason projects that tortured and shamed me. I went looking for that box of swatches this weekend, though, just after the start of the challenge. Now, I find I can see them as worthy efforts; variously, they were experiments, riffs, ends in themselves, twists in the labyrinth. They're where I've fallen seven times, and stood up eight. I could probably do 25 of them in 30 days, too.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Summer here

Last week was a busy one. On the 18th, Knit Picks launched a new yarn line called Lindy Chain, and along with it, a new design of mine that's just the thing for summer knitting: the Beryl sleeveless top!
Click on the image for pattern and yarn purchase info!

Lindy Chain is a fingering-weight linen and pima cotton blend, which made it a new fiber experience for me--I've never worked with linen or linen-blend yarns before, although I've had a big hank of laceweight linen in a very exciting grassy-lime green shade in my stash since a yarn swap a few years back. I've always been a little hesitant to use that hank, honestly, since I've heard linen can be really hard on your hands and wrists, and stiff and scratchy and prone to tangling and generally unpleasant to be around until after it's blocked. I have friends who swear by linen-cotton blends for things like washcloths and dishcloths, since it responds really well to hard use, getting softer and softer, but I've never actually made a dishcloth, and linen have so far failed to mix.

The thing that made me eager to try Lindy Chain, though, was that it's a chainette construction; that is, instead of having two or more finer strands twisted together (or plied, to use the technical term), the yarn consists of thread-fine strands that are knitted together, like a very, very fine i-cord. You can actually see the little V's of the chain in this close-up image of the rich golden Honey colorway:
Nifty, huh? There aren't a lot of chainette yarns out there, and most of the ones that you can get are novelty yarns (another category I've used very seldom so far in my knitting life). However, one of my all-time favorite yarns, Rowan Calmer, is a chainette, and I've always loved its special qualities--stretchy but not droopy, with great stitch definition, and really forgiving on the needles. It also made perfect sense to me that if anything could tame the linen beast, it would be a chain.

So now I've tried Lindy, and I definitely see why people LOVE linen. The finished fabric was a little rough before washing and blocking (my contact at Knit Picks used the word "rustic," which I think is perfect), but I noticed it softening even as I worked with it--the bottom of the garment already had a more hospitable hand than the top by the time I had about 7 or 8 inches worked, so just the action of moving the fabric around as I knitted was clearly limbering it up. The next time I work with it, I'll probably try bamboo needles or something with a blunter tip. Usually I'm all about laser-sharp needle points when I knit; like many knitters, though, I found the linen fibers to be a bit splitty, which a rounder needle tip will mitigate. But man, talk about cool and drapey! The finished fabric was soft enough to wear next to the skin, and I've NEVER been so comfy wearing a handknit garment in the summertime. I can easily see remaking a lot of my sock-yarn designs in Lindy Chain for spring/summer/early fall wear here in California. The Cecily Twinset, for instance, would look great in any of the 20 nature-inspired colors this yarn comes in. I'm partial to Bluebell, but Conch and Celery and Linen are all pretty, too...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Did I mention I went to Amsterdam?

Because I totally did! It was great, not least because of the fiber-craft scene there, which is small but vibrant. The impetus for this trip was the Orphan Film Symposium, which was being held overseas for the first time, at the EYE Film Institute, housed in a spectacular new building overlooking the Amsterdam waterfront. But I found plenty of ways to intertwine this trip with yarns, fabric, buttons, and knitting, of course!

More treasures from the Katten KabinetAs some of you may know, when I'm not knitting, I'm an audiovisual archivist. My specialty is the preservation of home movies and amateur film, and researching how those media have been integrated into our larger cultural heritage over the decades since their introduction. I'm a co-founder of the international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies; my Billington Bag pattern is named for the current Librarian of Congress, and proceeds from sales benefit CHM and their efforts to preserve and provide access to amateur films from all over the world.

While these two sides of my identity may seem distinct, they're quite closely related. Home movies and handknits have lots in common: First off, there's the fact that they are both made of yards and yards of long skinny stuff, and they both have lots and lots of little tiny holes in them. They are also deeply personal, and highly reflective of the time and place they were made, not to mention the people who made them. They're often far more colorful than their mass-produced counterparts, and of course they're totally unique. With careful preservation, they can last for many years in pristine condition, but even when they're worn almost to tatters, they're still special.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, to hear that I wasn't the only person in the audience knitting my way through this symposium! One of my cherished colleagues, Catherine, had a lovely beaded shawl project going, and she was clicking away softly in the dark next to me while I worked on a baby blanket for my friends' son-in-progress. There was definitely at least one sock project in the works in that auditorium, too, but I didn't get a chance to ask the knitter about it--the program was jam-packed, as always, with amazing new discoveries, preservation premieres, rarities and one-of-a-kind productions, and there was hardly time to breathe during the meal breaks, let alone wolf down a delicious plateful of Indonesian food, before heading back into the theater for more screenings and talks.

Under the circumstances, I was truly glad that I'd built a couple of extra days into the trip earlier in the week--mostly to stave off jetlag, but also to ensure that I  had time to meet with my counterparts in the Presentation and Preservation of the Moving Image master's program at the University of Amsterdam...and to go yarn shopping, of course! Catherine was kind enough to show me the highlights of her city, and through her I met some truly lovely fellow-knitters. The night I arrived, I joined her at the Thursday-evening knit night hosted by charming LYS Penelope. Everyone there was lovely, wearing lovely things they'd knitted themselves, and they were all very much knitters after my own heart. Someone even baked a rhubarb cake to share with us, which was divine. (Since coming back, I've made that recipe twice...yum!)

On the weekend, Catherine and I met up again to make the rounds of fabric, yarn, and button shops all over town via bike. The bicycle is the dominant form of life in Amsterdam, and the whole city is way more navigable on two wheels than four--a major, albeit very pleasant, change from auto-centric Los Angeles. I swear, I haven't ridden bikes with friends this much since I was ten years old! Although the cargo capacity of a rented three-speed cruiser (not to mention the ever-tighter restrictions on free checked baggage for international flights) puts a natural cap on shopping, and on the whole I was pretty restrained, I did manage to bring home a lovely haul. Behold!


One of our first stops was at A. Boeken, a stoffen and fournituren (fabric and notions) shop on Nieuwe Hoogstraat recommended by a lovely Raveler  in the Stitch 'n Bitch Amsterdam group (thanks for the tip, briocher!). Like many places in ancient, canal-crossed Amsterdam, this shop is taller than it is wide, but packed to the rafters with lovely things. I got several yards of re-embroidered lace and a dead classy three-season tweed in a color blend that's part charcoal, part coffee. Then we hit De Afstap on Oude Leliestraat, which has one of the best selections of Rowan yarns I've seen in a long time. Their prices were either really reasonable, or else I was doing the Euros-to-dollars math wrong; regardless, I scored some Rowan Fine Lace in a dusky violet and their last four balls of Regia 4-fadig in a pale silvery lavender color (which will go great with the browny tweed, whatever that becomes). We rounded out the expedition with a wander through the Albert Cuyp market, which has a handful of fabric shops, each with its own specialty: quilting cottons, decor, fashion fabrics, couture textiles, imported batiks. Finally, we browsed respectfully through the collection at the Knopenwinkel button shop, got some chocolate, and called it a day.

While I chose to leave the Anne Frank House for my next visit, I didn't neglect the great cultural treasures of the city. I made a dutiful pilgrimage to the Rijksmuseum and joined the massive crowds contemplating the equally-massive Rembrandt group portraits (but really preferred their decorative arts collection, which had some amazeballs cabinets inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, and a surprisingly touching display of woolen hats found in the graves of ancient whalers).  Thanks to my Lonely Planet pocket guide, I also found my way to the Katten Kabinet, or Cat Museum! This is a private collection housed in one of the lavish homes on the Golden Bend. It's quirky, to say the least, and as you might imagine, yarn and cats playing with yarn are frequent motifs in the works on display here!

More treasures from the Katten Kabinet

There was one 17th-century genre painting of a cat with its paw caught in a steel trap, which was awfully disturbing, but the little bronze statuette of a cat pooping ("Poepende Kat" (1989) by Monica Rotgans) may well be my favorite piece of art ever.

Every Dutch native I talked to there said the weather was unseasonably fine that week; I have no basis for comparison, this being my first trip to the country, let alone the city, but the sunshine and budding trees were indisputably pretty.


So, too, were the myriad architectural details of this old-world city: Antique tiles and delicate stonework abound there. You will miss a lot if you have to spend all your time there looking out for speeding bicycles, so be sure to take plenty of breaks for beers by the canal and people-watching if you go there yourself. And keep an eye out for me, too; I'm definitely going back at my earliest opportunity!