Archive for August 2008

High hopes we have for the future

August 31, 2008

It’s taken me a week to decompress from the Ravelympics madness.  There were medals to hand out every night of the Games — hundreds as the closing ceremonies approached.  The pressure of the mitts and the medals overwhelmed every thought.  Once the final winners stepped off the podium clutching their Bobicus ravatar and their precious badges, I turned my attention to some easier knitting and some neglected relaxation.

Another ballband dishcloth in reverse colors from the Ravelympic competitor (dubbed “Code of the Amateur” in homage to John Gielgud’s patrician gentleman in Chariots of Fire) is nearing completion, and I’ve hit the second to the last stripe on the final pocket hat of my planned trio (Rav link), which was only a headband a week ago.  Time to knit for somebody other than myself.

Last year I donated my Moguls scarf to the Red Scarf Project, a popular program run by the Orphan Foundation of America on behalf of college-age foster children.  These kids don’t have parents to send them care packages and all the handmade love that goes with them.  So knitters and crocheters around the country send in scarves along with collegiate-type goodies as fall approaches, and the packages are distributed as Valentine’s Day treats.

There are always more fantastic, irresistible scarves to knit than there are people in one’s life who need scarves.  So it’s a gift to the knitter, really — an excuse to create a scarf or two a year that go to worthy recipients we don’t have to scrounge up out of our own friends and acquaintances.

Now it’s the Red Scarf Project for Valentine’s Day, of course, but also to signify that the scarves are meant to be appropriate for men or women — red being a unisex color.  The scarves don’t have to be red, but they shouldn’t be delicate wisps of pastel lace suitable only for draping around the neck of Clara Bow.  Red just happens to be my favorite color, though, and as I browse yarn sales and chain store bins and online inventories, it’s very difficult not to tip a few skeins of red worsted into my shopping basket with the offhand thought that I could make a Red Scarf out of them.

I had a yarn or two in mind as I browsed scarf patterns this afternoon, but when I went back to the stash nook and actually pulled out the drawers, I saw one of those impulse purchases — a bamboo yarn I bought at Hobby Lobby this summer.  I don’t have too much Yarn Bee (Hobby Lobby’s store brand) in my collection — it’s mostly acrylic, and there’s not that much call for acrylic in my knitting these days — but I did enjoy making Cady Gray’s rainbow scarf out of their chenille, and when I see something different like this bamboo, it’s hard to resist sampling.  Especially when it’s red, and that perennial shopping excuse pops unbidden to mind: “I could make a Red Scarf with it.”

The yarn is called Bamboo Spun, and I haven’t noticed it on the shelves since the visit when I bought it.  It’s not in the Ravelry database, either; I need to visit the Hobby Lobby group and see if anybody else managed to snag one, or if it was some experimental release that I just happened upon.  It’s worsted weight as far as I can tell; a fuzzy, slubby single-ply made of 77% bamboo and 23% polyamide.  The label lists the suggested needle size as “5mm (US 5, UK 5),” which of course is ridiculous; 5 mm is a #8 needle in the U.S. system.  I started with a #9 wooden needle (metal would probably be better, but I have a habit of working gift scarves on handmade wooden needles — it’s a love thing), and the fabric is quite drapey but not excessively loose.  Having never worked with bamboo before, I don’t know whether its hand is unusual or typical; it’s very unelastic, but not squeaky or abrasive.

The pattern is the Scrunchable Scarf, an extremely simple stitch pattern that produces a reversible faux-rib effect.  Its ease of memorization (k2 p1 on both sides, with a selvedge stitch that’s slipped wyif at the beginning and knit at the end) means that it will make perfect movie and class knitting.  I’ve seen plenty of beautiful examples with tight-twist, high-sheen yarns that create sharp, distinct stitches; mine will not be one of them.  But I think this pattern in this fuzzy, sloppy yarn has its own charms — a chunky, homemade feel that’s cozy rather than high fashion.

I cranked out about 8.5 inches this afternoon.  Can’t wait to have a soft, swaying bamboo Red Scarf to package up and send away to its unknown recipient with all my love.

This is your night tonight

August 24, 2008

Pattern: Endpaper Mitts by Eunny Jang
Yarn: Knit Picks Palette (100% wool, fingering weight), colorways Purple and Ash
Needles: U.S. 0 (ribbing and thumb) and 3 (colorwork) circular needles (Magic Loop)

I gratefully accept this medal on behalf of my nation.

It’s been a long, hard road to the gold. I had never done any stranded multi-color knitting before casting on for this project. But I wanted to learn. And the Ravelympics gave me the perfect excuse to challenge myself.

I knit the first mitt’s bottom ribbing on the wrong size needle. I was nervous about tension with the colorwork until a kindly commenter gave me the tip to turn the work inside out and work on the far needle, so that the float go around the outside of the work rather than cutting corners on the inside. I learned the Italian tubular cast-on (via this no-waste-yarn method) and the kitchener rib bindoff (via this tutorial). I jumped prematurely into the thumb gusset on mitt #2 after only two pattern repeats, knit all the way back to Chart A, then had to rip it all back to get that third repeat in. And the last goof was only two days ago. I was sure that my Ravelympics was over.

But good coaching, the support of my teammates, and old-fashioned American foisting-off-your-children-on-your-spouse got me all the way to the finish line this afternoon. And now I know: I love two-color Fair Isle. Love.

I’m pretty sure that’s the second mitt I knit on top in the photo above. It’s much better than my first effort; the tension is more even, the pattern is more regular and pops out better. I can’t wait to do another stranded knit. This was the perfect introduction. I’m hooked.

I’ll be back in 2010, you bet your beach volleyball bikinis. And I’ll be looking to show some young whippersnappers how we did it in Beijing. 2008, son. Old school. 24 karat.

We’ve got the dreamer’s disease

August 19, 2008

Pattern: Ballband Dishcloth from Mason-Dixon Knitting
Yarn: Lily Sugar ‘n Cream (100% cotton), colorways Twilight and Grape
Needles: U.S. 8 aluminum straights

And so my first Ravelympic project crosses the finish line. It’s just one dishcloth. But as I continue to slowly work my way through my second stranded colorwork mitt, stitch by fingering-weight stitch, it’s good to have something that’s a bit more of a sprint.

The Ballband is the workhorse of dishcloths. The pattern’s been around since before anyone can
remember. Peaches ‘n’ Creme cotton comes with it on the label (hence the name).

So in a way it’s nothing special. But c’mon. If you can’t see the beauty in the quotidian, then you have no business knitting at all — isn’t that what it’s all about? Here observe the way the slipped stitches work with the slight rolling tendency of the reverse stockingette stripes, corralling them into textured, three-dimensional “bricks.” A pattern like this could go on forever, all color and changes and stitches receding and stitches pushing forward.

Best of all, it feels like something anyone can do, any day. It’s an accomplishment so ordinary that it’s within everyone’s reach. The materials are dirt cheap. The pleasure of the metal needles clicking, the pattern emerging, is a quiet, everyday, secret sort of joy. And once one is done, the next one can follow right on its heels.

So even though this doesn’t represent a challenge, the way the Endpaper Mitts do, this Ravelympic project is still hugely satisfying. I had wanted to knit this dishcloth, but my works-in-progress — the socks and gloves and hats — were getting in the way. It’s thanks to Ravelympics that I cleared my plate and made room for the things I was itching to try.

The hard ones, and the easy ones. The ones that are on top of the mountain, and the ones that are right in front of you.

I hear you singing in the wires

August 14, 2008

The Ravelympic Endpaper Mitts have been steadily growing, thanks to late nights watching the swimmers and gymnasts.

I’ve gotten even more comfortable with Fair Isle thanks to a tip from Janice. She commented in my last post that by knitting the tube inside out — working on the needles farthest away from you, rather than the ones near you — the problem of the floats pulling too tight around the “corners” of a change of needles is alleviated. I couldn’t necessarily picture it, but I tried it. Sure enough — the floats have to go around the outside of the work to the other side, leaving built-in give around the bend. I started knitting that way a few rounds into the thumb gusset, and quickly lost my anxiety about tension pretty much for good.

(Above: the inside-out view.)  I still haven’t entirely solved my Fair Isle issues — the purple main color here tends to vary in tension more than the gray contrasting color — but these are going to be respectable mitts. A little less than halfway through the 17 days of the Games, and I’m one good time trial away from finishing number one, which puts me on schedule for finishing the pair within the Ravelympic time frame with a couple of days left over for my ballband dishcloths.

I’ve got it all down to a T

August 11, 2008

Phoenix asked us Ravelympics mods for some fodder for a This Week in Ravelry article on the Ravelympics. I went a little overboard, and thought I might as well reprint it here since no editor in their right mind would excerpt more than a sentence or two.

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More than 16,000 projects have been registered for the Ravelympics. Now let’s conservatively estimate that 2/3 of those will be completed. (Given the rate at which FOs have already started arriving, I think that’s very conservative, but I’m sure some of those sweaters will fall by the wayside eventually.) Let’s further conservatively estimate that of the FOs, 2/3 would have been finished, now or eventually, with or without the Ravelympics.

What’s left is still 3500 knitted and crocheted objects that enter the world because of the Ravelympics. Because Kimberli and others gathered, cheered, organized, structured, fretted, and mostly stood back in amazement and watched as Ravelry responded to the challenge.

You know what? 3500 handmade objects is enough to change the world. Actually, one handmade object is enough to change the world. But we’re going to multiply that by (now I’m guessing realistically and not conservatively) 5000 or 10,000.

To me it’s all about pushing yourself personally, and I can see that the vast majority of Ravthletes completely understand that. That’s what they’re responding to. They are taking on something that they didn’t know if they could do — make 20 hats for charity, knit lace, throw away their plastic bags or paper towels for something reusable, make their first sock or their first sweater, finish that pile of projects that have been patiently waiting in the basket for so long they were beginning feel haunted or cursed, or (like me) take up two colors for some stranded colorwork for the very first time. The Ravelympics is the excuse for doing it — and it’s the community where we’re all doing it together. Team spirit, the peripheral vision of one’s fellow competitors, the cheerleaders and friends in the stands — all of it spurs us on to do what we could not muster up the energy or courage to do alone.

I firmly believe — I tell my students every day — that we can do things together that we have no hope of doing individually. We’re smarter, stronger, and more capable in groups. And the Ravelympics is proving me right. What we’re generating together is not only thousands of knitted and crocheted items that each represent a repudiation of consumerist, disposable, mass-marketed culture. It’s the wave of energy that is pushing all of us to our particular next steps — past whatever’s been blocking us.

I know that after only two years since I took up the needles, I’d never be 1/10th of the knitter I am without Ravelry. A sweater? Two-at-a-time socks? Fair Isle, for heaven’s sake? No freakin’ way. It’s because of these people that I’m moving ever forward, conquering unknown territory, gaining confidence. Ravelympics is just like a gigantic version of that, concentrated into 17 days.

I’m a sucker for the Olympic spirit. I’ve been lucky enough to attend two Olympic Games (in LA in ’84 and Atlanta in ’96), and I’ve been collecting Olympic memorabilia for years. (Cobi, the Barcelona mascot, is a personal obsession.) And God help me, I believe in all that inspirational stuff about amateurism and peace and striving for glory and citius, altius, fortius. If it weren’t for events that distilled that great human drive to become more, more than what we are today, into tangible events where people collect that energy and release it at one place and one time, I’m not sure any of us could believe in it for long. Ravelympics does that for me as a knitter — and therefore for the person I wouldn’t have the courage or drive to be if I weren’t now a knitter. It makes me better and braver for 17 days, and therefore it makes me better and braver, full stop.

And that’s all just from the participant’s side, or maybe from the person who can’t help lurking in all the event and team threads. As a person who was lucky enough to offer help in organizing the event when help was needed, I can say that no group of 6000 people was ever more grateful or more loving. And I’m just feeding off of that love and gratitude like a remora.

One of the great joys is presenting the medals. We have several people who put on the mask of BobicusMaximus and officially recognize all finishers at the podium. What a joy to give everyone their moment in the sun! I feel like a kid playing dress-up, pretending to be a king bestowing honor on his subjects. And the graphics designed by octagonfudge, which we’re using on our “bouquets” (the coveted Ravthlete ravatar) and “medals” (the prized event blog badges) just were beyond our wildest dreams. When Kimberli and I saw them, I think we knew then — oh my God, people are going to want these so badly. I love the sort of Socialist Realism look of the illustration of Bobicus — it reminds me of the Olympic logos of the mid twentieth century. I want one for myself so badly, but I have to remind myself — no cheating, no doping — I must finish my event!

Only darkness everyday

August 10, 2008

I missed my husband and children fiercely during the four-day trip they took to Nashville without me this week. But in the make-lemonade category, I probably would have had a much harder time learning how to do two-color stranded knitting if they’d been here.

For my Ravelympics 2008 challenge, I decided to dive into colorwork, something I’ve been meaning to try for months. I selected my pattern (Endpaper Mitts by the great Eunny Jang), dug out the yarn I’d bought on sale last year, snagged a tool called a strickfingerhut from the Herrschner’s yarn sale on the off chance it would help, watched videos and read up on the Italian tubular cast-on, and waited for the torch to be lit.

I woke up on 8/8/08 eager to get started. And it’s a good thing I had an hour of extra time before I needed to be at work, because it took me 45 minutes to master the cast-on, with a long U.S. 3 aluminum straight needle tucked under my arm. I knit the cast-on onto my U.S. 3 circ and got two rows of ribbing done before heading off to work, and then at lunchtime — because I’d had a big biscuit sandwich for breakfast and wasn’t hungry — I went home to see if I could finish the ribbing and get to the colorwork section.

That’s when my longstanding penchant for not reading directions carefully caught up with me. The colorwork section mentioned changing to larger needles. What larger needles? I went back and looked. The cast-on and ribbing were supposed to be done with U.S. 0. And the U.S. 3’s I’d been using for the ribbing weren’t even the right size for the colorwork — the medium size was supposed to be 3.0mm needles, or U.S. 2 1/2.

Consider it more practice for the cast-on — after all, I’ll have to do it again for the second mitt. I found a U.S. 1 straight needle in big roll of miscellaneous needles my mother-in-law gave me last year, and that was close enough to be knit off onto the U.S. 0 circ. Luckily I had a U.S. 2 1/2 circ too. By the time I got home from commencement and turned on the magnificent opening ceremonies on the TiVo HD, I was ready to start the colorwork — finally.

It took almost one whole repeat to get the hang of the knitting thimble. I kept repositioning it, turning it around, experimenting with different ways to tension the yarn around my fingers. (Notice how in the picture above the yarn goes through the eyelets and then on over my finger? That’s not exactly right — a little while after taking this picture, I figured out that the yarn should go through the eyelet and then immediately down to where it wraps around the finger.) I was highly concerned about tension and floats (the strand of yarn on the wrong side of the work), because after all, it’s what all the instructions about stranded knitting tell you to be concerned about. It turns out that when you’re not dropping the contrast color in your right hand after every stitch, your tension pretty much take care of itself if you knit normally. I actually had to loosen up somewhat on the second pattern repeat after noticing that my CC stitches were disappearing a bit into the fabric because I’d made them too small, worrying too much about not having looseness in my floats.

I’m flying around the pattern now (relatively speaking — I’m a slow knitter in the best of circumstances). I can get the mitt over my hand with no problem, so the size is right and the stranded knitting isn’t too tight.

And just as I’d hoped, the effect is magical. I’m sure an experienced observer would see all kinds of deficiencies in my fabric. But like with my first sock, it’s just so unexpected that my manipulations with yarn and needles can produce something that looks like it’s supposed to look — a pattern of light on a dark background. I’m completely entranced. And although I needed time away from the kids to trial-and-error my way into it — and probably won’t be able to do it much now that the kids are back — I want to watch it grow in every spare second I have for knitting.

Catch the spirit

August 7, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I offered to help the ebullient but obviously overworked Kimberli, organizer of the Ravelympics (Ravelry link — members only, and if you’re not one, I’ve got four precious invitations to give out …). Knitters will seize upon any excuse to knit in groups — competitions, knitalongs, assassination games, phases of the moon, whatever somebody can think up and publicize. So when a couple of visionary leaders put the idea out there to challenge knitters to start and finish a project within the 17 days of the Summer Olympics, from torch lighting to torch extinguishing, it didn’t take long for it to catch on.

Actually, catching on is one thing — but this is ridiculous. As I type, about 7 hours until the end of signups, there are 5382 people registered — planning to finish 14,926 projects. I find myself the co-leader of the largest group of people by far that I’ve ever been responsible for.

How hard could it be, you ask? Incredibly easy in terms of the group’s enthusiasm and cooperation. It’s difficult to believe the tiny ratio of troublemakers to supportive, helpful, grateful members.

But to have so many people depending on you to keep your promises and build the structure that will make this a satisfying experience — that’s tough. It’s a full-time job. Like building a course, like building an educational program, like building an assignment — success is dependent on visibility, clarity, confidence, and availability.

I’m inspired by how quickly and warmly those 5K Ravelers respond whenever I show up to answer a question or solve a problem. Their thanks keeps me going. Let the games begin!