“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:

yoked_1_jh_medium2

© Jonna Hietala

 

Julgran by Andi Satterlund:

julgran_plain_03_s_medium2

© Andi Satterlund

 

Skógafjall by Dianna Walla:

DSCF5978e_copy_medium2

© 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:

2500

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:

“I AM A KNITTER!

I LAUGH IN THE FACE OF FAILURE!

RESILIENCE IS MY MIDDLE NAME!”

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:

RIGHT FRONT

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…..