Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Knitting on the anniversary

This is an article I wrote for a magazine some time ago.  By coincidence, I assume, they returned it last week.  I take it as a sign that I should publish it today, on the anniversary of the day that Hurricane Katrina hit my home state.  It is even more fitting (and concerning) that another one is moving over the same area today.

The Best Thing I've Ever Knit

While we drove to and from the suburbs of New Orleans to repair the damage done by Hurricane Katrina to our two small apartment buildings, I knit.  Once there, I put my needles away.  My hands were needed to carry moldy sheetrock and broken limbs, sweep away the dust and bent nails left by the demolition and begin to rebuild.

Day after day, I packed my knitting for the hour-long drive. I wasn't particularly skilled in rebuilding apartments, but there was no other choice.  We had waited weeks to be allowed into the area.  Once we got in, we found a labor shortage.  Crews of unskilled laborers who had come for that purpose had gutted the apartments, tearing out and replacing the bottom four feet of drywall that had been soaked by the flood.  They piled the debris in the front yarn on top of the piles of tree limbs and stumps, the remainders of the huge trees that had once shaded the buildings.  It was saddening to see our once lovely trees reduced to head-high piles of trash, piles that had to be moved to the curb so that they would be carried away by the sanitation trucks.
Once we had cleaned up the debris, we found that the needed painters, plumbers and electricians were in short supply.  It was frustrating to learn that our apartments were on a list of hundreds that needed repair. Without labor, our properties wouldn't be repaired for months.

We hated to see the apartments in such conditions.  It wasn't a matter of money.  We didn't need the rent--that loss was covered by our insurance.  What moved us was the situation of our tenants, who were left homeless.  With no nearby apartments available for rent, in order to get to work and send their children to school, they were forced to live with relatives and friends, several families sharing a home meant for one.

They, and we, were unwilling to wait.  We decided to begin the repairs.  That a professional carpenter or painter would have been appalled at our work methods didn't matter.  Making the apartments livable again was what mattered.

Although it wasn't how I imagined I would be spending my retirement, I became a builder. I visited home improvement stores and bought cabinets and appliances.  I bought paint and brushes at local paint stores.  I spent hours painting and caulking.  I hammered finishing nails into trim.  I helped wedge cabinets into kitchens. 

Sometimes my will faded.  I wanted to go home and work on repairing the damage the storm had done there.  I was tired.  At the end of each day, I got back in the passenger seat of the car and gratefully picked up my needles, glad to turn to my knitting.  Although I worried that the smell of the mold, the paint, and the other materials that I had touched during the day would permanently impregnate the yarn, I was relieved to concentrate on an unfamiliar lace stitch pattern, forgetting about the destruction, the hard work, and the faces of the people who had lived through it.

I had just begun knitting again after a long break.  In the yarn department of a big store, I'd found a beautiful book of knitting patterns, patterns that stretched my imagination and encouraged me to try new stitches.  Although I'd never knit a lace pattern before, I dared to attempt a lace scarf.  The pattern wasn't particularly complicated, but it was a challenge for me.  I still remember how I struggled to correct my mistakes as I rode along, the car bouncing over the joints in the 24-mile-long causeway over the lake.  For an hour each way, every day, for four months, I stared at the water and forgot about the drudgery of the rebuild as I knit.

Now my memory of the hard work has faded.  I'm glad I could help; glad the tenants are still there and happy in their homes.  Time and wear have affected both my memory and our work.  The apartments once again need more coats of paint, new cabinets and flooring.  Thank goodness there are carpenters and painters to do it.

Unlike the apartment rebuild, the scarf I knit during those months hasn't faded.  I keep it in a basket where I see it often and wear it every winter.  In the seven years since, I've knit more than a hundred other projects, improving my skills with each one.  But this scarf holds a special place of importance among them.  I can wear it and remember the satisfaction of helping in times of need.  It is warm, pretty and made of memories.  In so many ways, it is the best thing I've ever knit.

Although I hope I don't have to do it again, I am ready, with plenty to knit along the way.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Knitting Fashion

Fashion trends usually don't affect my knitting, for many reasons.  Handknit garments are expensive, both in materials and the time it takes to produce one.  A neglected project certainly faces the danger of outlasting any fashion trend.  Long after fashion trended to the next fad, the project would be sitting unfinished.  Fashion trends that look wonderful on the models frequently look odd on an ordinary person frequenting the usual places--shops, parks, cafes and small town streets.  For knitting, classic is a sure bet.  Fresh fashion trends are a risk.

All these sensible reasons ignore the facts that I love fashion and study fashion trends with passion.  Fashion magazines and fashion-based tv shows have been a staple of my entertainment since I was old enough to turn a page or tune a remote.  Now I follow fashion blogs and newsfeeds as well.  For years, this fascination with fashion has fueled my passion for creating, first in sewing, then crocheting, and now that I finally have adequate time to devote to such an intricate pastime, knitting.  Every now and then a trendy item will work its way into my knitting queue.  Most times, though, the shops where I can try on trendy items are the recipients of my fashion splurges--as long as the item couldn't be hand knit.

I do try to stop myself from buying sweaters, at least worsted-weight knit sweaters, reminding myself that I have drawers full of sweaters.  Instead, I use the lovely sweaters I see in the shops to motivate my knitting.  Really, I find motivation everywhere, not just in the sweaters in the shops, or on the streets, or in magazines.  I watch a lot of tv, even (shame) a daily soap. 

To add fuel to my motivation, the soap I've watched for the past few years now has a fashion blog devoted to locating the source of the clothes worn by the cast members.  That's where I found my latest sweater crush.  This sweater was available at Piperlime for months, but it was really more than I'd pay for something I couldn't try on first.  It gave me an idea, though, one that made me study the photos. 

I had stashed silk ribbon I'd bought to knit the Printed Silk Cardigan from Interweave Spring, 2008.  Though the yarn was easily acquired on sale, I postponed knitting the cardigan all this time because I didn't like the sleeves, or at least I didn't relish the prospect of knitting the sleeves in fine-gauge 1x1 ribbing.  At first glance, I thought this stashed silk was the right yarn for a knock-off of a "tape-yarn" pullover.  Once I studied the zoomed photos (sorry, they are no longer available and couldn't be saved), I saw that the original sweater is knit from a thick-and-thin cotton yarn.  It has dropped stitches that give it drape and transparency. Once I realized it was so different from my silk yarn, both in weight and texture, I abandoned the project.

Then came deep summer, or as deep as it gets here in Colorado, and the afternoons were hot.  Summer also brought me "Early Fall" Vogue Knitting, shocking me with a sweater that mimicked the vertical lines of the one I craved.  #08 Lace Pullover by Julie Gaddy used a sport-weight alpaca/cotton yarn.  It was just close enough in weight and drape to encourage me to try a swatch or two.

This first one was knit as plain stockinette with garter stitch rows to separate the different needle sizes, 3, 4, 5 and 6.  After washing and drying it flat, I could see that size 5 needles produced the best looking stockinette.  Then I dropped every 5th stitch to see if I liked a drop-stitch pattern.  I didn't.  In this lightweight yarn, the resulting fabric was too flimsy for a sweater.  It would be fine for a scarf, but even then the stockinette stitches would probably slide around and disrupt the stitch pattern.  I could see some distortion of the pattern in the Michael Stars pullover and expect it would be much worse in this yarn.

In this next swatch, I tried several stitch patterns, testing both gauge and appearance.  The top one is the one used in the Vogue pattern.  I found the holes really large in this yarn and kept trying to reduce them by using smaller needles.  Lastly, I tried replacing the double yarn over with a single one.  That was better, but still the holes are too big.  I searched through my stitch dictionaries and found a faggoted cable.  While I liked the appearance, I decided the fabric was too dense and the gauge too tight. It would work fine as a waistline or sleeve cuff accent, adding shaping, but it would give the simple sweater a busier look. In the end, I tried different methods of increasing into a single yarn over, coming out with a pleasing pattern with small holes and nearly the correct gauge.  At last.

As a final test, I replicated my "in the round" gauge by knitting across each row, sliding the swatch across a circular needle and attaching new lengths of yarn.  Although it still looked good, my gauge changed, predictably.  It is a lot larger, almost a worsted weight gauge.  However, on this small swatch, without the weight of the fabric to pull it in, I wasn't sure the gauge was accurate.  Since I had settled on a stitch pattern, I decided to risk it, modifying the sizing instructions of the pattern on the fly if necessary.

Once I thought I had the stitch pattern refined, I began to study the construction.  I liked it pretty well, liked the top-down construction, the wide neckline and the raglan sleeves, but the sleeves need to start a bit sooner and be a bit longer.  Obviously, it needs to have a tighter fit and more drape to even be close in look to the Michael Stars pullover.  However, the silk will add the drape, I can modify the pattern for a smaller size, and a little looseness will help disguise figure flaws.  Since I am not built like Phyllis, or er, Michelle Stafford, a little disguise would be welcomed.

Will this work?  Will I end up with a sweater I'll wear?  I've gotten past the divide for the sleeves and body, tried it on a few times, and I like it.  If you are a member of  Ravelry, you can track  my progress on my project page.

At least I haven't spent the entire summer scaling this wall of difficulties.  The baby blanket is nearly done and has sparked a little offspring of its own.  I'll be posting a dishtowel/cloth/blanket pattern soon, just to reward my loyal readers for sticking through to the end of this post! (There's a photo of the dishcloth in the blanket project.)