Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Art: -the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect. (Wikipedia)
-creative work or its principles; making or doing of things that display form, beauty, and unusual perception. (New World dictionary)

Craft: -a branch of a profession that requires some particular kind of skilled work (Wikipedia)
-a special skill, art, or dexterity (New World dictionary)

It was January 1979, I was finishing my PhD in Geology at West Virginia University, and at my first job interview for a teaching position at a small college in Minnesota (dressed up in my very best long plaid wool skirt and cowl neck sweater!). After a long day of tours, presentations, interviews, and trudging through deep snow, I was in the college president’s office answering the usual questions. After a thoughtful pause, Mr. President suddenly threw me a curve ball: “What do you see as the relationship between the Arts and the Sciences?” I really have no memory of what answer I managed to cobble together. I had a really good appreciation of Science at the time, but what exactly did he mean by the Arts? I should have known all this because my diploma said “School of Arts and Sciences” at the top! I do remember quite well that while I was struggling to put my thoughts together in a coherent way, Mr. President dropped suddenly to his knees, snatched his binoculars off his desk, and exclaimed excitedly about the hawk that had appeared in the sky! Luckily for me I shared his interest in bird watching and actually knew something about hawks, so I was off the hook for that one!

It came back to haunt me a few months later. A friend of mine who is a successful professional artist showed me a sculpture that she was selling for hundreds of dollars. She had picked up rusted metal and driftwood from the beach, arranged it in an artful way, and hung it from the wall. It was beautiful and interesting! When I moved to a location near the beach and had a new house to decorate, I picked up rusted metal and driftwood, arranged it in an artful way, and hung it on the wall of my house. I thought it was beautiful and interesting! Every person who came into my house, without exception, asked me "Why do you have that trash hanging on the wall?" Eventually I threw it out in despair. Clearly, I needed to work this out!

Once I happened to be in a well known craft store franchise, shopping for yarn. Directly across the street was ANOTHER very similar craft store franchise. As many others had probably done before me, I sympathized to the sales person about the unfortunate (for them) juxtaposition. Her answer was memorable: “Oh, but that store sells only CRAFT yarn”. The implication being, I suppose, that her store sold ART yarn!

It bugged me for years: Is knitting an art or a craft, or something in between? It does take special skill and dexterity for sure, and I’ve known some people to churn out many knitted items (dishcloths) like factories. Definitely craft. But for many knitters it also can be a purely creative outlet. Some knitted items have very little practical use, but are very pleasing to the senses nonetheless. Definitely art. It seems to me that art and craft can overlap a great deal (certainly more than Art and Science!). In my opinion the very best knitted designs are both beautiful and pleasing to the senses, as well as being useful and challenging to make.

The photo above is lace knitted from hand dyed crochet thread. You can purchase the hand dyed crochet thread HERE.

The image of freeform knitting at the top of this post is by Prudence Mapstone, and can be seen in its original location HERE


Monday, November 15, 2010


When I was a toddler, I dragged two things with me everywhere: "La-La", a threadbare toy kitten, and "Cover", a blanket. Cover gave me much more pleasure and comfort than La-La because Cover had a silk binding. When I was drifting asleep or needed comfort, I just rubbed that soft slippery binding between my thumb and finger, and it made me happy inside. Years after Cover fell apart I was doing the same with a lock of my own hair, or the fluffy collie dog I grew up with. Even at my (ahem) rather advanced age I STILL have been known to twiddle my hair on occasion, and I still own a fluffy dog.

I never understood just how much tactile pleasure knitting gave me until I purchased a knitting machine some years ago, a Bond Ultimate Sweater Machine. At the time it seemed like a really great thing to make a sweater or afghan in a week! Even though the machine turned out to have a disappointingly steep learning curve, I finally figured it out, and made plenty of one-week sweaters that looked great.

The funny thing was, much to my surprise, I didn't actually enjoy making them! I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of figuring out HOW to make them. I enjoyed teaching my kids how to run the machine once I set things up (they loved it!). I enjoyed the fast results, even as the successes were often countered by the just-as-fast big messes.

But I really missed the feeling of the soft yarn in my hands! I found the machine strangely unfullfilling. It was sort of like owning a big soft friendly Golden Retriever, but never being allowed to stroke it. Or having a contented warm purring cat in your lap, and only looking at it.

Alas, the knitting machine is put away, and I have gone back to the excruciatingly slow but SO comforting hand knitting. As you can probably guess, my favorite yarns are soft fibers like merino wool, angora, cashmere, alpaca, and (if only I could afford it!) quiviut, made from the soft undercoat of musk oxen. (In fact, if I thought for a single minute that a musk ox might be happy here in South Carolina, I would go up to Alaska and capture one, and bring it home for a pet. No alpaca is safe around me either, for that matter!)

The reason that I am longing for soft fibers at the moment is because I am being paid to knit something out of (choke!) ACRYLIC fiber. While I do admit that some plastic yarns are maybe sort of OK, this particular project is using one of the cheapest, stiffest, and scratchiest ones. I am not enjoying it. The only thing that makes it bearable is the thought of spending the money I am making on some really beautiful alpaca, and holding that delicious softness to my cheek while purring and drooling!


Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I'm not sure how the tradition began, but back in the 1950's (when some of us were born, but I'm not saying exactly who) there were lots of patterns and kits available to make knitted Christmas stockings. It seemed as though it was almost a birthright to have a relative make you a stocking with your name and sometimes birth date too. The patterns were not easy! The maker of the stocking had to know how to do some pretty tricky color intarsia techniques, darn in millions of yarn ends, and how to turn the heel of a sock. The directions in the old patterns were also extremely cryptic.

Fast forward about 50 years, and now these stocking-children are becoming grandparents. It seems that many of them don't know how to perform these advanced knitting techniques, but they want to have identical stockings for the newest generation. So they hire me to copy the old ones!!! It takes me about a week or ten days to make one, and I can get $100 per stocking. I do enjoy making them (for a while), but have to admit that I get awfully sick of knitting with red, white, and green by December.

The photos show a mixture of traditional and my own patterns (click to embiggen). My favorite original pattern is the Christmas argyle shown at right.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010


I love knitting lace! I love finishing a lace project, but the best part is blocking it! Blocking transforms a lumpy, crumply, uneven scarf or shawl into an object of shimmering breathtaking beauty!

I just finished the Swirl Shawl by Lijuan Jing. I used Jojoland Melody Superwash in purply-red-blues. It's pretty unblocked, but kind of lumpy looking and stiff.

Here it is pinned on the blocking board. (It didn't quite fit, so I had to do the ends separately). There are many blocking techniques, but my favorite for lace wool yarn is to dampen a large piece of light cotton fabric, cover the lace, and gently steam iron.

The results are definitely worth it!!

You don't have to buy a blocking board!! You can pin your work on a bed or clean carpet, so long as you can keep out the dogs, cats, and children. A blocking board is nice to have in a crowded house like mine because you can stand it on edge, out of harm's way, overnight. If you would like to have your own inexpensive blocking board, here is how I made mine:


4 x 8 foot sheet of one inch thick styrofoam home insulation from Home Depot (<$10)
Yardstick and marker
Sharp bread knife or small saw
Old worn out bed sheet or other fabric for padding
5 x 5’ piece of plaid flannel (fabric store)
Duct tape, glue, and/or staple gun

With the yardstick and marker, draw a line on the insulation board that divides it into two 4 x 4 foot pieces. Using a sharp bread knife or small saw, cut the home insulation board in half (you may have to do this in the parking lot of the building supply store so that it fits in your car!). Tape the two pieces together with duct tape, completely sealing the raw edges so that they don’t crumble. Cover one side of the insulation board with the bed sheet (doubled), and top with the flannel. Secure the fabric edges on the back side with glue, staples, or more duct tape. You can store this ungainly but very practical blocking board behind the headboard of a bed, under the bed, or behind a door.