Another Christmas to remember

This year Christmas is going to be strange. It will be the first time we have spent Christmas without the girls since Emma was born 27 years ago.  We will be hiding at home, isolating from a scary pandemic.  Doug and I will have Christmas dinner together, just the two of us, as we have had every dinner since March.  With any luck, we will not have run out of things to say.  The girls will be half a world away, trying to connect with us across eight time zones, to unwrap presents and play board games virtually.  Our Christmas tree is smaller this year, and many of the ornaments are still packed away, while the girls will be decorating their tree with hand-made ornaments, and perhaps starting new decorating traditions.  For a few days, it seemed likely that even that wouldn’t happen, as Emma had a Covid scare (just a cold) and the girls contemplated being entirely on their own for Christmas.

We have many traditions around Christmas.  Doug and the girls always get the tree, and the girls decorate it.  Every ornament has a history and it gets remembered and told again as the tree is festooned.  We always listen to Dylan Thomas recite his poem, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, on Christmas Eve, towards midnight.  We turn the lights off while the Christmas tree lights are sparkling, and sip a glass of lovely Christmas wine while we listen to Thomas’ hypnotic voice.  We all know the poem by heart and can’t help reciting along, especially the good parts.  “Were there Uncles like in our house? There are always Uncles at Christmas.  The same Uncles.”

This year will be different.  It feels scary, and it feels sad, and strange.  But thinking about it this morning, I have realised that we have a whole history of Christmas days that are different and strange.  The fact of Christmas is often different than our idealised one, and each one stands clear and shiny and unique.

Christmas 1993.  We were living in Australia, in Brisbane.  Emma was seven months old.  We lived in a tiny little house, a Queenslander, built up on stilts, with a hallway that ran from the front door to the back and a porch on each end.  We had a garden full of passionfruit and mangoes, a blue-tongued skink that lived under the steps and stuck his tongue out at us at all times of day, except anytime we had a camera in our hands.  It was 40 degrees out (105F) and almost unbearably hot and humid.  It was our first Christmas with our beautiful baby girl, our families were 8,000 miles away, we were roasting, and in the morning I opened the newspaper and read that a Santa Claus had passed out from heat stroke downtown and been taken to hospital. 

We had very little money.  There was no tree or ornaments.  The back porch on our house had latticework to give it a bit of privacy from the neighbours.  Doug wound ribbons and Christmas cards through the lattice in the shape of a tree, and we laughingly dubbed it a Christmas tree.  We put the presents under it, and sat in the sunshine, opening presents, laughing with Emma, singing songs, eating prawns off the barbeque, gossiping with our lovely neighbours across the backyard fences, and enjoying mango sorbet with fresh pineapple.  We sipped gorgeous, crisp Australian wine, and watched the sun go down and the stars go up. 

Christmas 1994.  Emma was a year old.  I gave birth to Leah in mid-December after a long and difficult pregnancy.  I had been bed-ridden and in and out of hospital for months while Doug looked after Emma, kept the house, did the cooking and cleaning and shopping, and held down his job.  About that time, the landlord sold our house and we had to move. There was no time to find a new place to live. Our lovely friends, Lynn and her teenage son Jeremy, invited us to live with them.  Doug moved all of our belongings into their basement and moved us into a small suite in the back of their house.  The birth was not easy, and I was kept in hospital for some weeks.  On Christmas Eve, I begged to go home.  The doctors released me and Leah for the day, and we went to Lynn’s house.  I could not walk, and I sat in the front room, surrounded by Doug and Emma, Lynn and Jeremy, and other dear friends. We opened gifts, and laughed, and I watched while they all played in the swimming pool and brought me iced lemonade. Leah and I would end up back in the hospital, but on that lovely Christmas Eve, I nursed Leah while Emma cuddled on Doug’s lap, and listened to our friends tell stories and tall tales and fell asleep on the couch.

Christmas, 1997.  We were living in Potsdam, Germany.  Potsdam was in the former East, and although the Berlin Wall had fallen some years before, Potsdam still felt very East.  We lived on the edge of the Sanssouci, a beautiful park filled with palaces, sweeping architecture and amusing follies.  The girls viewed it as their back garden and knew every inch of path and every palace structure.  On this Christmas Eve, it began to snow, and we grabbed the sleds and walked to the Sanssouci Palace and the girls went sledding down the ramps on the sides of the palace.  Although this was forbidden, all the kids in the neighborhood were there with their parents, swooping down each hill in turn. Some guards came and told us we should stop, but two of the neighbours were judges, and there ensued a long conversation of legalities and Christmases past, and nostalgia for the East and its traditions, and then the guards laughed and wished us a Merry Christmas.  Afterwards, we walked through the town to the Christmas market, which would close down later that day.  We ate sausages and mushrooms cooked in enormous flat pots, six feet across, and ice-skated on the little ice rink in the middle of the square.  The girls rode endlessly on little trains and dragons and fire trucks around and around a little track, while Doug and I drank hot mulled wine, and my toes froze.

Doug and I put out the stockings for the girls and fell into bed, only to be awakened half an hour later by the girls running in and exclaiming “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!” It was not even 11pm.  We ushered them back to bed where they whispered for a long time.  The next morning we were up early, opening stockings and presents, and then making a turkey with stuffing and gravy and all of the trimmings. After eating, we went for a walk in the park.  Everyone in Potsdam it seemed was out for a Christmas walk – whole families, with great-grandparents in wheelchairs and babies in strollers and everyone in between. We promenaded for hours, stopping and talking with all of the neighbours, admiring new scarves and hats, throwing snowballs, feeding the ducks. Everywhere we went, people stopped to talk to the girls.  We were very much a novelty, this strange American-Canadian family living in the East, with two little girls who spoke perfect Berliner German.  Those Christmas seem so far away now, strange but oddly familiar.

Christmas, 2006.  Our first Christmas in England. We were homesick for Germany.  We had just moved from a gorgeous, light-filled, 270 square metre apartment in Germany, with 4 metre high ceilings, to a tiny, 90 square metre house (which cost double the rent). Every bit of the house was filled with furniture and belongings; you couldn’t move a step without running into something.  Nonetheless, we bought a big Christmas tree, with either a great deal of naivete or a complete misunderstanding of physics.  We couldn’t fit the Christmas tree in the house, and after rearranging the furniture three times, we finally ended up moving the dining table into an unheated conservatory, and giving the tree pride of place.  We ate our Christmas dinner in the cold, with space heaters on extension cords gamely trying and failing to heat the space.  We dressed up in our best clothes, like we were attending the opera, and drank champagne, and delighted in the absurdity of it all.

Christmas, 2015.  Emma and Leah were both living in Vancouver, where they were students at UBC.  They were going to fly home for Christmas and spend two weeks at home with us in England.  Leah had an exam and couldn’t fly home until late, but Emma was free days earlier and asked to fly home early.  Doug booked tickets for the girls, and told me “I got such a great deal on Emma’s ticket!”  Emma packs up her bags, and goes to the airport, and stands in line at the ticket counter.  When she gets to the front, the air steward looks at her in astonishment, and says “Why are you flying to London through Hong Kong?”  Yes, Emma had a 14-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, an 8-hour layover in the Hong Kong airport, and then another 14-hour flight from Hong Kong to London.  She flew all the way around the world!  She sat in economy and had a middle seat on both flights.  When she got home, Leah, who had left Vancouver a day later, was already here.  Emma arrived late on Christmas Eve and promptly passed out.  We didn’t get around to opening presents until very late the next day and Emma was in a stupor for days.

Looking back, I realise I could pick many other examples.  Perhaps the Christmas that Doug and I flew to Vancouver to see the girls and he injured his knee and couldn’t walk the entire time we were there.  Or the year we decided to all stay in Leah’s tiny apartment over the holiday, there was a snowstorm Christmas Eve, and then the boiler broke down and we were without heat.  

Looking back on these very different Christmases, I realise that I love every one of them, and learned from them all.  I learned that Christmas is where you are, wherever that may be, and that good friends are worth their weight in gold.  I learned that each of them builds up into a tapestry and gives you stories to tell and cherish.  The funnier and stranger the Christmas, the greater the tales you can tell.  Emma loves nothing more than telling of her flight to London through Hong Kong, and every time she tells it, she and Doug laugh themselves silly.

I hope that wherever you are, and whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you are safe and warm this holiday season.  And I hope that in years to come, this terrible year will be woven into our tapestries, and we will tell these stories with affection as well as exasperation.

Black Lives Matter

I was sitting this afternoon, writing a post.  It went like this:

I don’t feel comfortable writing here about knitting without acknowledging that there is something hugely important going on.  The world has been shocked and appalled by the murder of George Floyd and many have been galvanised into action, even at a time when pandemic makes this protest doubly dangerous.  George’s face is now known all over the world, and his death is sparking protest and internal debate.  But George is just one of millions who have been affected by racist and violent policing, by inequalities in health and housing and education, and more generally by being black in a racist world. Systemic bias and racism affect every aspect of life.  Black lives matter.

As someone who lives outside of America, I know that these images of a highly militarised police force attacking citizens involved in mostly peaceful protest have been shocking.  In Europe, where fascism has shaped the collective memory, these images are especially chilling. These are not the images of a free and democratic country. These are images of authoritarian regimes, of fascism, and of war.

The power and determination of the protesters gives me hope that maybe this time we will get things right.  But it should not have taken people risking their lives by protesting during a global pandemic, one which unequivocally effects black and poor people worse than it does any other group, for white people to decide that things needed to change. Real radical reform needs to happen and it is overdue by more than three centuries. We created the system, we can dismantle it.

And, then, just as I had gotten that far, I heard Trump say this:

 “Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.’ This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great day for everybody. This a great, great day in terms of equality.”

My blood is boiling over, I am so mad.  Trump is so tone deaf, and so utterly venal, that I am more appalled than I thought possible. And it’s not just Trump – he speaks for a large contingency of Americans, and is supported and enabled by Republicans in the Senate and House.  When the President of the United States uses hateful rhetoric, he legitimises it.  

For all of us, we must open our eyes and really see. It isn’t that we did not know there were injustices – we just looked the other way and assumed that it would get fixed. It didn’t. It is time to move out of our comfort zones. We must listen to and amplify voices of colour and acknowledge their experiences as truth. We must educate ourselves and confront bias, including our own. And we must step up.

“If not for the 1918 flu, you’d be Australian!”: Family history and the 1918 flu pandemic

I’m not sure what I expected when I made the phone call, in 1991, to tell my mother that I was moving to Australia.  I think my family had already pegged me as a traveller, as the daughter most likely to end up in far away places.  But there is scarcely any place farther from New York than Australia. I expected, perhaps, some alarm, at least surprise. What I didn’t expect was the proclamation made by Mom: “This was meant to happen, Kelly.  You know, if not for the 1918 flu, you’d be Australian!”

Clearly there was a story here, and one that I had not heard before.  To tell the story now, let’s go back to January 20, 1904, to the wedding day of my great-grandmother, Theresa May Taylor, to my great-grandfather, Jesse Fremont Williamson, in the State of California.  Here they are on their wedding day:

Jesse and Theresa

Jesse and Theresa homesteaded a 3,000 acre piece of land in the coast range of California, about 200 miles south of San Francisco in the Coalinga Hills.  They were living in a dugout on the land and building a cabin when the 1906 earthquake struck. They were so isolated there, that they didn’t realise the extent of the earthquake until they took the horse and buggy into Coalinga for their monthly supplies! Sometime in 1907-8, for reasons I’m not sure of, they moved into Coalinga and ran a boardinghouse.  Jesse worked as a roustabout in the oil fields, which was dangerous but paid well.  By early 1918, they had four children, Ruth, Pauline, Lloyd, and Claude.  I love this photo, from 1913, of Theresa with Ruth Victoria Williamson, my grandmother.  Theresa looks so mischievous and happy in this photo, as does baby Ruth.

Theresa and baby Ruth

Around this time, Jesse learned that Australia was giving away ranch land to those who would come and settle and work the land: 10,000 acres was his for the taking, if he could move his family half-way across the world.

Jesse bought steerage on a ship, scheduled to leave from San Francisco to Australia in September of 1918.  Steerage for six was a huge amount of money for the family.  But the lure of a farm of his own in Australia (and no doubt, also, the lure of adventure) convinced him. They packed up all of their belongings and prepared to set off for San Francisco and a long, difficult sea voyage.  And that is when the flu struck.

Jesse and both boys – Lloyd and Claude – were felled with the flu.  They were sick for some time and were slowly nursed back to health by Theresa and the girls.  The boat left without them.  There was no such thing as travel insurance; their savings and their dreams of adventure were gone.

Is this a sad story? No, it isn’t.  All three regained their health.  Jesse went back to work in the oil fields.  Theresa had two more children, Dorothy and Jim.  Sometime in the early 20s, they bought a ranch of their own, in Riverdale, Kings County, California.  Jesse ran the ranch and continued to work as a roustabout until he broke his leg in an accident at an oil well; afterwards he became a full-time rancher/farmer.  The boys eventually all bought neighbouring ranches.  It was a good life.

Here is a photo of my mother, Marylou, at the ranch in 1940:

Mary Lou horse

And another of Jesse a few years later in 1943:

grandfather horse2

When I was a child, we would go to the ranch on holiday.  I remember helping Theresa in the kitchen and in the vegetable garden.  I would walk with Jesse, my great-grandfather, and he would show me the horses.  Here is a photo of Jesse on the ranch, taken around the time of my birth in 1961.  This is how I remember him.

Jesse color

Over the years I have heard many stories of Jesse and Theresa.  My mother grew up on the ranch, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles, and open spaces, and farm work.  But until I prepared to move to Australia, I had never heard the story of how, except for the flu of 1918, I might have been Australian!

Some years later, when I became an Australian citizen, I wondered what Jesse and Theresa would have made of this turn of events.  I think they would have liked that their sense of adventure was passed down to their great-granddaughter.

You can’t make this stuff up

I am in South Africa at the moment with a super busy week of teaching on my plate.  I had no plans to write a post, but noticed this little tidbit in the Guardian, and couldn’t resist.  Apparently, there is a new fad going around (by that I mean in places I don’t normally navigate like Instagram and Pinterest) which involves shelving your books with the spines facing backwards, in order to maintain a neutral colour scheme.  For your enlightenment, a photo:

book shelf back to front

Photo from The Guardian, online International version, January 16, 2018; see link

You can’t make this stuff up!

The article, with the fantastic title, “Shelf effacement: how not to organise your bookshelves”, notes:

“Back in October, design blog Apartment Therapy shared one of these backwards bookshelves on its Instagram account, with advice for emulating the look. (“Books don’t match your decor? Don’t fret … Flip them for a perfectly coordinated look.”) US morning show Today called it “a beautiful thing to try”, and, naturally, it’s all over Pinterest.”

Perhaps I am the last person on earth to have seen this trend (alas, I have failed at Trends R Us), but surely this is a scam perpetrated by a blogger on a slow news day?  This is so ridiculous I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

News alert: There is no single prettier thing to have in a room than a bookshelf filled with a riot of books. (Dare I say it? Even a bookcase full of YARN cannot match up to it.  That’s how much I believe this!)  Who needs order and bland beige-ness when one can have disorder and colour and BOOKS!

The whole joy of a bookshelf is in reading the titles (hopefully followed by reading the books).  What do they say about the owner?  How many fantastic conversations can you start by examining the shelves?  How can you make a rainy day lovely?  Will you discover a kindred spirit?  How can we make your heart go pitter-pat and your fingers start to tingle just by the proximity to the lovely written word?  And, far more importantly, what little treasures are there just waiting for you to read, or at the very least, drool over (figuratively, of course)?

And now, rant over, we return you to your regularly scheduled entertainment.  Tune in again soon for some knitting news (guaranteed to not match your colour scheme).

The sartorial equivalent of wrapping paper

A few days ago, the headline “The Christmas jumper is out!” jumped out at me (!!) from the online pages of The Guardian.  What I had expected to find when I clicked on the article was something like “The ugly Christmas jumper is out! The tasteful Christmas jumper is in!”  Sadly, this was not to be.  The article claimed that the Christmas jumper is now “out”, and the Christmas suit is “in”.  As illustration, here is the Christmas suit:

christmas suit

The Guardian December 1, 2017; Photograph: Handout

From the frying pan into the fire, dear Reader!  At least the article states clearly that the Christmas suit is “the sartorial equivalent of wrapping paper”.

I know that the novelty Christmas jumper has been very trendy (at least here in the UK) for some years now.  Instead of escalating the trend with ever more garish Christmas clothing, why don’t we adopt a more lovely Christmas jumper tradition? We hand-knitters can lead the way! Here are a few ideas.

Birkin by Caitlin Hunter:


© Jonna Hietala


Julgran by Andi Satterlund:


© Andi Satterlund


Skógafjall by Dianna Walla:


© Tolt Yarn and Wool


#05 Selburose Pullover by Lena Skvagerson:

05b_VKH17_medium2 (1)

© Lena Skvagerson


Are these not doing it for you?  Well, there is always a Christmas suit with your name on it:


The Guardian December 1, 2017; Photograph: Handout


Failure, resilience, and knitting

I have been thinking a lot this week about the nature of resiliency.  Why?  As Programme Director for a global MBA, it pops up a lot on the job.  It turns out that resilience is important:  it is a key quality of effective leaders and managers, it is vital for companies trying to survive in fast-changing business and technological environments, and it is an important factor in whether students will flourish and grow (not to mention graduate) during their MBA studies.  Given how crucial resilience is, we might think about how one develops it.  How does one learn to be resilient?  Well, it often derives from failure.

I once read an essay written by a professor at an Ivy League university who had served for decades on admission panels. He commented that these elite schools have a tendency to accept students who have never failed at anything.  These students arrive at university and suddenly find themselves in a high-stress environment filled with high achievers who have always been at the top of their class. The point of the essay was that these students often turn out to have very poor resiliency; one little setback and they crack.  A history of continual success can lead to perfectionism and unrealistic expectations.  On the other hand, exposure to failure often leads to resiliency and the development of skills which allow you to pick yourself up and flourish. This professor speculated that accepting students who had overcome barriers or difficulties would be a better barometer of success.

One of the things which I try to impart to students is that failure can be good; that success is built upon learning from mistakes.  This is true of business and true of design – a good design usually develops by prototyping, an iterative process which often consists of getting things wrong in order to get them right.  Many successful companies develop this way too, starting small and building on mistakes, a type of constructive prototyping analogous to the design process.  I try to give students skills to help them become more adaptive and more resilient; I encourage them, in the safe space of the classroom, to push past their comfort zones and embrace risk.

Why am I blabbing on about resiliency and failure in my knitting blog?  Well, we knitters can tell you people one or two things about failure! Knitters positively crow about their failures!  Ripping and frogging (that is, pulling out your work by unravelling it) is almost a badge of honour.  We learn by doing, and often that means learning by doing it wrong. It helps, of course, that knitting is so intrinsically unravel-able (I made up that word!): if you don’t mind the loss of time and effort, almost everything in knitting is fixable by ripping it out and starting again.

Not only are we knitters experts at failure as a part of the learning process, but we do it with a sense of humour! If you don’t believe me, you can look at some of my posts detailing failed efforts, like How to be stupid at knitting, How not to block a sweater, and Stupidity strikes again!

Business consultants, self-help gurus, professional coaches – even futurologists – make a fortune by teaching people to be resilient.  We knitters have no need to pay for such advice.  We learn it the natural way!

Knitters of the world, stand up straight and proud, and repeat after me:




The power of quiet

When I was a child, I was known as a day-dreamer. I spent most of my time wrapped up in a fantasy world, often with my head in a book, but just as often not. I could spend many hours happily in my own company, and rarely felt lonely. I took up handicrafts very early, in the beginning mostly embroidery, needlepoint, weaving, macrame, and ceramics, later mostly knitting.

I know that I enjoy the creative aspects of craft; it fills up a very important place in my psyche. But from a very early age I was also aware of the peaceful aspects of handicrafts, especially ones with repetitive motions, like knitting. I liked being in my head while engaging in the creative process. It is restorative, like meditation or yoga. Looking back on it now, I think that maybe there was more to it: being in your head makes people uncomfortable. The saying “idle hands make idle minds” may not be said all that often anymore but I think it invaded much of the philosophy of child-rearing when I was young. If I was caught day-dreaming, that was bad – it showed me to be a dreamer (and not in a good way). If I was caught knitting, regardless of the fact that I was just as much in my head, I was seen to be industrious and creative.

This reminds me of a story my husband tells. As a young man he worked in a paper mill in the summer. As he tells it, if you took a break to smoke a cigarette, this was acceptable.  You could stand by yourself and have ten minutes of peace. If you tried to take a ten minute break without a cigarette in your hand, you were seen as being idle and were told to get back to work. It didn’t take long, Doug says, until the whole crew took up smoking.

This “being in your head” is not idle – some of it involves elements of fantasy, while it also encompasses thinking about philosophy, history, politics, fashion, books you’ve read, problems you are trying to sort out, designs you are creating, people who you know or would like to know, paths you want to follow. I find this space both peaceful and invigorating. I also find it necessary. It rejuvenates me.

Knitting, therefore, has many different functions for me. It is a creative outlet, it produces beautiful items, it allows me to develop skills and mastery over an ancient craft, it links me to a history and fellowship of needlework, and it also allows me space and freedom to be in my head.

As my life has gotten busier, I find that I have tended to relegate my knitting time into a multi-tasking experience.  I knit, usually, while doing something else: watching TV, chatting with friends over coffee, waiting in line. A few years ago, I went through a time where I resented the fact that knitting took up reading time and vice versa, and to solve this I started buying audio books and knitting while listening.

I recently noticed that my knitting time was thus almost always accompanied by noise. If I picked up my needles, I would turn on an audio book or tune into a podcast. Sometimes, I would suddenly become aware that I had missed some of the book, and would have to re-wind and listen again, often three or four times as my mind would wander. I came to two realizations at almost the same time – I was not enjoying the knitting as much, and I was finding quiet to be lonely. I was rushing to fill up blank space.

Doug has been gone for a few weeks (day before yesterday he was climbing the Great Wall of China) and I have had a very busy teaching schedule. But, while he was gone, I set my alarm clock for very early every morning, got my cup of coffee, and settled down to knit, in absolute silence. And I came to a conclusion I already knew as a very young child: there is power in quiet.

I am knitting something new, which I am designing myself, and enjoying every stitch.  I am feeling more at peace with quiet.  I am feeling more in my head.  I don’t NEED there to be quiet to enjoy my knitting – I still knit while watching TV (currently “Miss Fisher’s Mysteries”) or listening to an audio book or podcast.  But creating a space for knitting in silence is good.   I have come to appreciate, once again, that there is a specific joy to be had in not multi-tasking, in enjoying the peace of knitting all by itself, and listening to the quiet.

Just like every other day

Yesterday was April Fools Day.  I was heading into the city on the train.  As I was leaving the train station, I noticed a hand-written sign on a large white board.  It said:

Thought for the day:

Today is April Fools Day.

Don’t believe anything you hear.

Don’t trust anyone.

Just like every other day.

I did a double take, and stopped and stared at the sign while commuters streamed around me in annoyance.  This was obviously supposed to be funny; a little bit of humour to set you on your way.  I found this sign very depressing.  I left the train station feeling very down and sad about the state of the world.

I was in the city to conduct some interviews for an ongoing research project on stakeholder engagement in the mental health care sector.   My last interview of the day was with someone who had a very sad story to tell.  A sad and harrowing story.  One that didn’t end well.  Imagine, if you will, the kinds of sad and harrowing stories that could be told when discussing mental health.  Well, this was one of those stories.

The person who told me this story was elderly.  Life had dealt him a very bad hand.  He could have been profoundly pessimistic.  His story had ended tragically, but he believed in the power of change.   He believed in the power of people to make changes.  He believed in the power of people to be good.  He believed that he could make a difference.

I walked back to the train station late in the day and the sign was still up.  But in my head, I re-wrote that sign.  In my head, it said:

Thought for the day:

Someone today is making a positive difference in the world.

Just like every other day.

The explosion in pattern length

When I started knitting, patterns were very short, and often quite obtuse.  They were sprinkled liberally with phrases like: “decrease x-number of stitches from each side every row, while keeping to established pattern”, “make raglan increases, while incorporating new stitches into lace pattern”, “decrease x-number stitches evenly across row”, and my favorite (usually in all caps) “AT THE SAME TIME”.

Every pattern had bits like this:


Work as for left front, reversing all shaping and placement of pat.

(from Vogue Knitting International, Holiday 1986, p 96)

Or, in a similar vein:

Right front shoulder

With right side facing, rejoin appropriate yarns and, keeping continuity of patt, work the 51/54/57 st of right shoulder, as for left, reversing neck shaping.

(from Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting, 1988, p, 121)

Knitters were expected to figure out how to incorporate increased stitches into a particular pattern, be it lace or mosaic or fair isle, and also how to decrease stitches in pattern.  Furthermore, they were expected to be able to naturally reverse all pattern instructions and shapings.

My early knitting projects were always accompanied by loads of hand scribbled notes.  If the pattern was complicated, I would notate each row, and specify how I incorporated increases, decreases, and other shapings.  These scribblings were filled with math – most patterns did not include all of the necessary mathematical calculations – and a competent knitter needed to know a lot of practical math in order to complete the pattern.

Patterns were sold in print medium – in magazines or books – and I imagine that they were kept short in part to save on page length.  Today, most of the patterns I use are downloaded PDF files, and one of the things that is quite obvious is that the patterns are getting longer and longer.  In fact, there is a veritable explosion in pattern length happening right now.   I used to photocopy a pattern from a knitting magazine and keep it in the project bag with my knitting; this was usually a single piece of paper, on which I would add scribbles like mad, front and back.  Now, many of the patterns I use are 8, 10, 12 pages or even longer.  Why is this?

Partly, it is because the patterns have become highly specific.   Each technique is described in detail., often with photos.  In fact, it is quite common now to have links to on-line tutorials within the pattern.  One of the things I have noticed is that it is becoming rare to have instructions like “knit as for right sleeve, reversing all shapings”; instead we now have detailed instructions for both sides.  Furthermore, instead of instructions like:

  • Keeping stitches in established pattern, bind off 3 st each end every other row 6 (8, 10, 12) times at shoulder edge; AT THE SAME TIME, decrease 1 st every row at neck edge 4 (6, 4, 6) times, then every other row 5 (7, 10, 8) times.

patterns now will often have these instructions laid out row by row, so that each row of the knitting for the entire garment (or at least the parts where any shaping takes place) is given its own set of instructions.  The thing I have found really striking lately is the tendency for designers to lay out instructions for each size separately.  Jared Flood, of Brooklyn Tweed fame, recently wrote this about his design, Rift (you can find the full discussion here):

Pattern writing and grading on this piece was definitely a hard nut to crack! Since the shoulder details would have specific idiosyncrasies based on the size of the finished garment, no specific set of rules or written instructions worked very well. So I opted for the more “bespoke” route of charting out the front and back yokes for each individual size. The end result included 6 total sizes with finished chest measurements ranging from 39.25” to 59.25” [….] The pattern is quite long as a result, but don’t be fooled—most of the pages are charts for additional sizes and you’ll only need to print the two that pertain to yours.

I love Jared’s use of the term “bespoke” route for capturing this way of writing out patterns.  While Rift is no doubt complicated and the pattern is bound to be extremely clear (Brooklyn Tweed patterns in my experience are excellent), this method – of writing detailed instructions for each size – is now being used frequently by designers, sometimes for rather straightforward designs where it is clearly unnecessary.   My project bags now have pages and pages of pattern in them – I have to flip constantly from one page to the next.  (This problem is not solved by having the pattern on an electronic device; you still have to scroll up and down through the scores of pages.)  I also have little need for a pencil these days – since all of my scribblings and calculations have now all been done for me and charted in infinite detail, there is little for me to take note of.

There are many reasons behind this explosion of pattern length.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Self-publishing.  Designers used to mostly have their patterns published in a knitting magazine;  these publications would have established formats for pattern writing which the designer would adhere to.  Once self-publishing came to the fore, designers had the opportunity to establish their own formats and layouts.  They also had to compete to stand out from all of the other designers.  One way to do this was to provide lots of content – photos, tutorials, charts, schematics, etc.  (I am a big fan of both charts and schematics.)   If you are a designer, it is in your best interests to be as clear as possible on every front.  Sometimes, this means being overly explicit about everything.
  2. Money. When you buy a single pattern download for much the same price as you can buy a knitting magazine with 30 patterns in it, you want to get your money’s worth.  It’s human nature to feel that a 10-page pattern for $7.20 is a better deal than a 3-page pattern for the same price. (At least until you’ve read them.)  Knitters want to feel as if the product justifies the price, and designers respond to that.
  3. Sizing. Another trend recently (and a very good one) is that knitting patterns now come in a much larger range of sizes.  A pattern which is written in three sizes (S, M, L) will look much neater on the page and will be infinitely shorter and easier to read than a pattern which is written in 10 sizes.  Many designers have started writing out separate instructions for different ranges of sizes for clarity’s sake and ease of reading.  This can only be a good thing.

What do I think of all of this?   I find I have rather ambiguous feelings about this trend.  On the one hand, having detailed and explicit instructions makes it easier for beginners to take up their needles and tackle interesting projects.  It saves us from hours of ripping and trial and error.  Even the most experienced knitter doesn’t alway want to think out every step in detail.  If it’s all worked out for me in advance, then I can multi-task – knitting while reading, watching TV, chatting, having a glass of wine, etc..   If I wanted to spend hours doing the math, I could just design everything myself, right?

On the other hand, I think I am a better knitter because of all of the intense thought and concentration some of those early patterns forced me into.  I think I “read” my knitting better.  I think I learned how to “fit” a garment better.  I get a kick out of the intellectual challenge.  (Don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about patterns which are full of mistakes and typos – I hate those!  I am talking about the level of explicitness entailed in the pattern.)  And although laying it all out makes it easier on many levels, flipping the pages back and forth can be annoying.  In fact sometimes the sheer length of a pattern is so daunting that I can’t get past that to see how well-structured it may be.

I think that some of the ambiguity I feel derives from the grumbly professor in me: I believe that there is value in figuring some things out for yourself.  I never want to give my students the answer; I want them to derive it for themselves.  My job is to give them the tools they need, and also to make it interesting.   Perhaps a great pattern has this in common with a great lecture – they should both inspire one to think.  On the other hand, I can’t abide obtuseness – I love a pattern which is simultaneously explicit and concise.

I think that this discussion reflects the tension between the process knitter in me and the product knitter.  As a process knitter, I enjoy “getting my hands dirty” so to speak.  I like to figure things out.  I don’t want it to be easy.  When I am in full process mode, ripping gives me a little thrill (yes, I admit it, even if it is insane).  I love the concentration, the endless calculations, the counting.  On the other hand, as a product knitter, I want to make a garment that fits, and I want to wear it now, not some time next year after I get all the kinks worked out.  When I am in full product mode, ripping is agony – it just slows me down.  In this case what I want are very explicit instructions with no margin for error.   I think most of us fit somewhere on the spectrum between process and product.  However, I think we all tend to “bounce” a bit between the two ends – and where I sit on any one day determines how much detail I want in the pattern.

What about you?  Have you noticed the explosion in pattern pages?  Do you like it?  Does it drive you crazy?  Do you think I’m crazy?  Inquiring knitters want to know…..

Pattern, recipe or inspiration?

I have been thinking lately about how we use knitting patterns; they can be used as a pattern, a recipe or an inspiration.  These terms represent points on a continuum and thus can be rather fluid.  Two questions particularly interest me:

  1. What are the boundaries or tipping points?  For example, when does a pattern become an inspiration?  How much do you have to personalize a pattern before it becomes something else?
  2. How does one appropriately attribute those projects that fall on the boundaries?

Part of the reason I am thinking about this now is because of the project I am currently working on.  I am knitting a turtleneck pullover with Madelinetosh Tosh Merino Light in Tart.  I usually start a project by picking a pattern that appeals and then finding the yarn.  In this case, I started with the yarn – 4 skeins of the Tart – and a gap in my wardrobe.  Specifically, because I’ve put on some weight, all of my pullovers are too tight and too short.  I wanted a pullover that fit properly and that could be dressed up or down.  I wanted it to look good at the office with a pencil skirt or out hiking with my jeans and boots.  I spent some time (I will admit – I spent a lot of time) pouring over patterns and finally came up with the Lightweight Pullover by Hannah Fettig.  Here is the pattern photo:

copyright Quince & Co

copyright Quince & Co

It’s hard to tell from the photo but the waistband is ribbed as are the sleeve cuffs.  I am not quite finished with mine – the body is knit but one sleeve is about half done, and the other about a third done.  If you look at the most current progress photo below, you can see that mine doesn’t really look that much like the pattern photo.


Part of this is for obvious reasons – mine has less ease, more fitted sleeves, is longer, and the waistband is in seed stitch instead of rib.  The choice of yarn also changes the look of the sweater quite a bit – the Madelinetosh Light doesn’t have the halo of the angora blend called for in the pattern.  But as it turns out, the reasons for my pondering have more to do with how I used the pattern – namely, not much at all.

Let me be specific.  I choose the pattern and then I bought the pattern.  I decided which size to knit, looked at the pattern and it said to cast on x-many stitches and knit 9 inches for the turtleneck before starting raglan increases.  I cast on the stitches and knit 9 inches and started raglan increases.  But, here is the crucial bit – since looking at the pattern initially to see how the turtleneck was made, I have not looked at it again.  The truth is that the pattern is for a very basic raglan construction, and I don’t need a pattern to make a raglan sweater.  What I do is try the thing on frequently, look at it critically in the mirror and decide what needs to be done.  Is it the right length to divide off the sleeves?  Do I need more waist decreases?  Where is my natural waist?  Does it flare enough over the hips?  It doesn’t occur to me to check the pattern because I am making it to fit ME and to please ME and I have two eyes and can see how it fits and adjust it accordingly.

I am pretty sure that my sweater is between the sizes offered by the pattern though I haven’t checked.  The seed stitch, too, is an innovation.  When I was knitting the body of the sweater I was in South Africa.  I didn’t bring the pattern with me and had limited access to the internet.  I couldn’t recall what the original pattern looked like, but decided that I would make a turned hem because I wanted a neater, more professional look for the sweater – so that it had a bit more polish, like a blouse.  After agonizing over it for a while, I decided to knit an inch or two of seed stitch as an experiment and see what I thought.  As it turns out, I liked it so it stayed.  (Now that I’ve seen the progress photos, I’m thinking of going back and adding another inch of seed stitch at the hips.)

Hannah Fettig is a very popular designer whose patterns are extremely well-written. Hannah was at the leading end of a recent trend towards finer-gauged yarns in sweaters.  She has a perfect eye and many of her designs are on my wish list.  Some of them are very unique and clever, and others are extremely well-executed classics.  This one falls into the latter category and is why I felt confident doing it my way.

Now let’s look at the question of attribution.  On Ravelry, you link to the pattern page for any pattern you use.  At some point not too long ago, Ravelry realized that many people incorporated certain parts of patterns into a finished piece, or merged two or more patterns into one.  They introduced an option: one can either link to a pattern (thus essentially saying “I knit this pattern”) or one can say that the project “incorporates” a pattern (thus saying “I used bits or pieces of this pattern within another pattern”).  When I started the project entry for my turtleneck, I linked to Hannah’s pattern.  At some point, I started to think that perhaps my project deviates from the original enough to say that it “incorporates” the Lightweight Pullover pattern.  I actually changed the Ravelry entry, changing the Name of the project to “Turtle in Tart” and acknowledging Hannah’s pattern using the “incorporates” option.  I also included notes to outline how I made it, so that someone can replicate it if they wish.   To refer back to the title of this post, I essentially moved it from pattern, to either recipe or inspiration.  I must admit to being undecided about this – I have changed it back and forth a few times in the last few days, and it is likely to end up linked as pattern.

Let’s take another example, which I think contrasts quite well with this one.  In the spring of 2013, I knit the following sweater:



The pattern I used was called Livvy, designed by Tori Gurbisz.  Here is the pattern photo for Tori’s design:


As you can see, I changed this pattern as well.  I detailed all of the changes I made on this blog.   I made it much shorter, put in hems at the hip and cuffs, and made the sweater curvier, with more negative ease built in but also more pairs of waist decreases.  I think that my Livvy looks dramatically different from the pattern – much more so than my Lightweight Pullover looks from its pattern.  In fact, the types of changes I made are very similar in both sweaters – changing the length, the ease, and the sleeve cuffs and bottom edgings.   However, it would never have occurred to me to use an “incorporates” option in Tori’s pattern.  This is partly because Livvy has some very unique features, which I have utilized, which are instantly identifiable as Livvy.   So why have I wavered about the attribution of one and not the other?

On reflection, the underlying difference between these two cases has to do with the math.  To make the Livvy sweater, I used all of Tori’s numbers as a basis for my own calculations.  In knitting the Turtle in Tart, I didn’t use Hannah’s numbers, essentially ignoring all of the math and calculating my own numbers as I knit.  Thus the former “feels” like I followed a pattern and the latter doesn’t. Looking at the photos, you can see that the end results are very similar – a project based on a lovely pattern that has been “tweaked” to fit my curvier body and my style.  The only real difference is whether I used the numbers or not.   But perhaps this distinction is odd or outmoded.  Is it math that makes the pattern?  Or is it vision?  And, if it’s math, does it still “count” the same now that most numbers are generated by software?  I don’t think there is any right answer here.  (I suspect that both math and vision count, though, depending on the sweater, and perhaps on the knitter, one may be more dominant than the other.)   Many knitters are now using Amy Herzog’s CustomFit, in which they can basically input specifics of a pattern they like and it will generate the maths specifically for their body.  The resulting project is usually attributed to both the original pattern and the CustomFit programme.  (CustomFit also generates a selection of “classic” designs to fit.)   To me the important facts for my two projects discussed here are that (1) I paid for both patterns, and (2) I acknowledged both designers.

There are many related issues I haven’t even begun to get into here, and I have been trying to keep to the issue of how patterns are used, and where one draws the line between following a pattern, using it as a recipe, or being inspired by one.  (That said, I recently came across a funny case.  Someone had seen a sweater worn by a certain celebrity baby, and reverse-engineered it.  She then “published” the pattern.  Later, she became incensed that other knitters were knitting the sweater without attributing her pattern.  Someone asked, very reasonably and politely, why she believed that no one else would be able to reverse-engineer it as well.  After all, if she had done it, thousands of other knitters could have as well.  She responded – in an increasingly snippy and clueless way – that there was no need for anyone else to reverse-engineer it because she had already done so! She was completely unable to see that someone else could have knit it without using her pattern, or that someone might not have seen or had access to her pattern.  I must admit to finding the discussion fascinating.)

What do you think?  When is a pattern not a pattern?  Does it matter?  Is anyone else fascinated by these types of questions?  Have I been adversely affected by writing a philosophy grant this week?  Can I use British spelling conventions and still say “math”?  Maybe I should get to work on those sleeves…..