Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Zen of Entanglement

Last week I plunged in to a project that has scared me for months.  I had fallen in love with the Celestarium Shawl featured in Twist Collective for Winter 2012, a circular shawl that replicates a star chart, with the stars represented by yarnovers and crystalline beads.  I selected my yarn, a deep blue, I  located and collected the beads, and laid the supplies, including the needles, on my work table.  And then I got scared.

This is a lace pattern I can’t memorize because it has no repeats.  There won’t be much automatic pilot knitting here.  Instead, I will be following chart after chart and really concentrating on my work.  Lately, I have been knitting in front of my television screen, catching up on all the past seasons of Breaking Bad, and cranking out simple scarves, and I don’t know if I can reform my lazy ways any more than Walter White can turn away from cooking meth.

But last week I read a wonderful little book by Phillippa Perry, an English psychotherapist, entitled How to Stay Sane.  For a psychotherapist, she herself sounds remarkably good-natured and unflappable.   As I perused her chapter on Stress, I was surprised to see that Perry recommends a certain amount for sanity and suggests that we make a chart of things we would love to do, but remain outside our comfort zones.  After completing my chart, I could see that my star-chart shawl was sitting just a little outside the cozy solar system of my knitting comfort zone.  Clearly, it’s time to tackle Celestarium.

The first step is winding my skeins of yarn into balls.  Simple, but not this time.  The yarn I chose, as I discovered when I desperately searched the internet, (not the yarn called for in the pattern) is notorious for tangling.  I found myself with a tangle more thorny than any I had encountered in all my years of knitting, and that’s saying a lot.

When I was younger and more impatient, I might have lost my cool completely and either broken the pesky strands, cut them, or thrown the whole mess away, but now I can see that of the sources of dismay and frustration in my life, this little skein of yarn doesn’t rate at all.  Instead, I’ve been sitting on the floor, listening to classical music streaming on my i-pad, and putting in an hour or so of winding every evening.  When the hour is up, I feel strangely at peace, even though I may have straightened out only a small number of the hundreds of yarns of wool still tangled on the back of my chair, and my spine feels like someone inserted an old broomstick into my back.

It’s not true meditation, because I’m not trying to empty my mind or count my breaths, but it is very calming to focus on freeing a navy-blue thread from its crazy course over and under and around its fellow strands, reducing what looks like visual cacophony to a single theme, sweetly turning round and round a little globe:

I hope this first stage in my adventure outside my knitting comfort zone is a sign that as I go, I will continue to make discoveries.  That’s what travel, whether through the night sky or just through my little life, is all about. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Many Tiny Gestures

In the New York Times this week, the potter Edmund de Waal poses against the backdrop of his current exhibit, hundreds of small, identical, meticulously crafted ceramic vessels:

Looking at this image, I couldn’t help thinking that the wall of pots looked an awful lot like a close-up of rows of knitting:

And that connection reminded me of something I read several years ago in Shaun McNiff’s Trust the Process, a study of creativity addressed to visual artists.  In the chapter “Karma of Simple Acts,” McNiff advises artists to “experiment with making artworks that require the repetition of small gestures over extended periods of time.”  Mc Niff suggests that this technique can help overcome the fear that a large blank canvas can represent, and also observes,  “the process of building a picture from thousands of strokes also gives me the opportunity to carefully watch how a composition emerges.” 

Repeating small gestures over extended periods of time is what we knitters do. Although many creative activities require repetition of gestures, whether in playing a musical instrument, practicing a dance routine, or spelling out words, in most cases the component gestures disappear in the final product.  But in knitting, each tiny seed is visible in the finished product. While a shirt is cut out of a large piece of cloth, a sweater is created by placing one tiny loop through another tiny loop, over and over again.

Naturally, as we hook one tiny loop inside another, we watch how our “composition” emerges.  The process of creating a knitted garment is so slow and incremental that we can make the subtlest of adjustments as we go.  We can shape and re-shape, we can turn a curve into an angle or a straight line, we can meld and smooth as we go.  Drawing two stitches together makes a tiny concavity; turning an additional loop into a new stitch makes a tiny cup.   The repetition of miniscule elements means that knitting in amazingly sensitive to the maker’s will.

In the same way, I’m sure Edmund de Waal sees miniscule variations in his collection of vessels, as each one takes on its individual character, while a product of the same series of gestures.  I’m sure that he sees his own mood, his own degrees of awareness reflected in each one, just as a knitter observes tiny variations in her gauge from row to row.

There’s an immediate fascination for multiple versions of the same form, especially when the forms are handmade, and we see similarity coexisting with difference. In the same way as the display of de Waal’s vessels, a knitted scarf or shawl offers the pleasure of a field of identical, heart-shaped elements with tiny variations apparent to hand and eye.

As knitters, we have an immediate key to a creative portal, as we repeat tiny gestures, building something beautiful and useful as we go.

By the way Edmund de Waal is also a gifted writer.  His family memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, is a delightful book that has sold millions of copies through readers’ word-of-mouth endorsements.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

DIY: Old School Meets New School

Today’s do-it-yourself movement is exciting to watch.  Young people are salvaging discarded mid-century furnishings.  Empty lots become into community gardens.  Thrift store sweaters are raveled, their cashmere and wool yarns re-knit and woven into luxurious hats and scarves. 
Palais de Tokyo, Paris, March 23 2013

            But we baby-boomers had our own DIY movement back in the day.  In the seventies, we focused on creating an alternative universe as far away as possible from our hometowns.  We weren’t interested in re-fashioning our parents’ discards; instead, we went back a few more generations, to our grandparents or great-grandparents, determined to recover a more authentic relationship to the natural world, unhooked from the plastic, mass-produced consumer goods flooding store shelves during those prosperous times.
We were all about self-sufficiency, living without gas or electricity, raising our own food, making our own clothes, starting over from scratch.   Looking back on us now, I have to admit that most of us were fundamentally hedonists, not so much concerned with saving the world as with the quest for better-tasting bread, richer, more saturated colors, for the charm of hand-carved banisters, the gleam of old linen. In our quest for such pleasures, we began learning to bake, dye our own yarn, brew beer, knit socks, and weave rugs, acquiring some badly needed discipline along the way. 
            When I set out to knit my first pair of socks in 1978, no sock yarn was available in my local yarn store, and double-pointed needles came only in large sizes.  I produced my first socks from sport-weight, marled wool on size five needles.  The socks fit beautifully and lasted for years, but like our seventies pottery and loaves of bread and macramé plant-holders, they were a bit crude.
             Apprentices at first, we seventies DIYers became more proficient with practice.  Living in Denver in the late seventies, I was lucky to find a fiber renaissance going on around me.  In Boulder, the Schacht Spindle company was just starting up, in Loveland, Interweave Press had begun, and in Denver, shops like Skyloom Fibres introduced knitters and spinners to the best equipment and materials available.  I’ll never forget the weekend Sidna Farley at Skyloom invited Elizabeth Zimmermann for a two-day workshop.  In her mid-eighties then, Elizabeth rode into town on the back of her husband’s motorcycle with her wit and knitting know-how in impeccable order.
A decade later, having moved first to LaCrosse Wisconsin and then Birmingham Alabama, I could find not only a wide range of good sock yarns at my local yarn shops, but also finely crafted spindles, elegant spinning wheels, and fibers ranging from local, organic wool fleeces to exotic varieties imported from all over the world, and now, thanks to the internet, yarns and tools from all over the world are available at the click of a keypad.
Sadly, for our late-baby-boom generation that came of age in the early seventies, what had started as a humble movement based on simplicity and a rejection of consumerism evolved for some of us into a more effete kind of materialism.  We had rejected Cheese Whiz for boutique Brie on a bed of grape leaves, we traded Betty Crocker for Martha Stewart, and we spent more on artisanal yogurt than our mothers spent on Thanksgiving dinner.  At its best though, our version of DIY ushered in a new era of craft in cooking, textiles, gardening and home furnishing and design.  One of the presiding deities of the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century, William Morris, once advised, “have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  In out finest moments, we tried for that.
Today, when I look around at the young DIYers, I can see they’re different from our generation.  Instead of rebelling, they connect skillfully with their elders and each other, and use social networks to share ideas, opportunities, and skills.  Instead of running away, they work to improve their communities by starting urban recycling programs, practicing black-belt frugality, finding ways to make something beautiful out of discards, something of permanent value out of the disposable. 
They are more likely to re-knit an old sweater than buy a sheep farm, more likely to re-finish an old coffee table than build one out of old-growth pine.  I’m impressed, astonished at their ingenuity.  But sometimes, at a neighborhood yard sale, I want to turn to the young woman beside me and ask: 
Are you sure about that imitation-Pucci minidress with those black tights and combat boots and your granddad’s fleece-lined helmet? You are?  And I see you found Grandma’s black vinyl clutch bag.  You must take home this copy of The Vegetarian Epicure, in perfect condition except for a slight stain on the page with the incredibly decadent chocolate cake recipe. 
Oh, OK. You’re a locavore vegan and you don’t use ingredients grown more than twenty miles from your home.  Got it.  Look, here’s some locally grown organic cotton at the next booth.  Let me lend you a spindle!