Archives for category: ruminations

Back in January, there was a guest post on Flintknits about fabric designer Heather Ross and race and ethnicity in her fabric designs. I’ve been following the discussion with some interest, but was too busy during January to write anything about it, and by the time my schedule freed up a bit, I felt like I had kind of missed the boat on a timely response.

Pamela Wynne just posted a followup to that earlier post and I figured I would take the opportunity to bring these posts to your attention, because I find them really interesting. Even more than the posts, the comments! Go check them out. We’ve got the crazy racists, the indignant Heather, the “me toos” and oh, also the engaged and insightful dialogue about the issue.

You know, I feel kind of bad about posting this, for a couple of reasons: first of all, I respect Pam and enjoy reading her blog, and used to enjoy reading Ashley’s blog when it was still around, and I feel like this was all done with the best of intentions but that I’m about to say some bad stuff about their actions; and secondly, as a good Berkeley-raised-and-educated liberal person of color (and, incidentally, daughter of an ethnic studies professor), it’s clear to me how I think I’m supposed to feel about the issue. But I really don’t feel that way. At the risk of being the next hapless victim of the PC crafting police, here’s my take on it.

I frankly think the first post was a shameful and shallow dogpile. Heather Ross was arbitrarily picked out as a figure to crucify in the name of racial inclusiveness. Her designs clearly weren’t created with the intention of being hateful or exclusive, and come on, it’s not like she was drawing kids doing Confederate Civil War reenactments or something, they’re just some little girls playing with horses, and they just happen to all be white and blonde. Someone essentially swooped in out of nowhere, told her she should put more non-white kids in her designs, and then, when she declined, because she doesn’t need to do every single thing that consumers ask her to do, declared her to have “fucked up, in kind of epic ways,” posted her response, and tore her a new one.

Yes, maybe she was being a little stubborn in not wanting to take the various requests for diversity to heart. However, Heather Ross has a perfect right to draw anything she wants to. There’s no rule or law that says she has to be inclusive and racially diverse in her designs. If she had responded to the emails/comments with “oh sure, that’s a great idea, maybe I’ll put some black kids in my next design, it just never occurred to me and I think it would be fun” or something, bully for her. But that’s not what she wanted to do, so if she just stuck some ethnic children in her next fabric design purely to cave in to pressure, we’d just have some whimsical and adorable tokenism going on, some diversity-as-economic-commodity. (Maybe she could use the magic of Photoshop!) That’s not right.

What’s more, I think this is a crazy tempest in a teapot. Her fabric represents just a tiny corner of the fabric world, which represents just a tiny corner of the world of commercially available representational art. I’m sure there are plenty of racially inclusive quilting fabrics out there, if not via your local Jo-Ann fabrics, then through the Magic of teh Internets, and if not, with the rise of Spoonflower and other print-on-demand fabric outfits, it’s easier than ever to make whatever fabrics you want. (No longer am I beholden to the clumsy medium of potato stamps to depict my idyllic Asian-American childhood activities: Kumon math sets, Chinese summer camp, and making won ton! Rejoice, rejoice.) Complainers, you are artsy, crafty people. I know this because you are focused on buying fabric yardage. Go make some fabrics that look like what you want and maybe make a bunch of money doing it.

Plus, there are more important venues where these efforts can be focused. I know crafting is all near and dear to the heart, but these are quilting fabrics probably intended for mentally and emotionally robust grown-ups to purchase and use; perhaps it would be more constructive to focus on the dolls and items intended directly for impressionable children. Or at least to aim all this guilty rage towards a larger corporate target with a more diffuse market rather than one independent fabric designer. This is not to say it’s not an important topic, but I just think this whole Heather Ross-specific anger is kind of misguided and misdirected.

Kristen wrote a poignant response where she discusses her children’s excitement at finding dolls that looked like them. I grew up with these same feelings of underrepresentation (probably this has changed a bit with the rise of anime and manga?) I probably never thought about quilting fabrics or even pajamas or t-shirts or whatever, but one thing I remember always feeling sad about was the Pleasant Company’s American Girl dolls. Oh man, did I ever want one of these. They are such a crazy expensive scam (at the time, back in the late 80s/early 90s, it was, I think, $80 for a vinyl doll plus one outfit?), but they construct such appealing narratives around them, and all the paraphrenalia and stories made me insane with covetousness. But they never had any dolls that looked like me, and I always wished they did. I’ve written them letters over the years asking them to include an Asian doll, always with some polite response about my request being taken into account, but being subject to long market research and development timelines.

When I was a kid, the Pleasant Company’s approach to diversity was “we have a blonde white doll, a brunette white doll, and a brunette white doll with glasses”: they slowly started expanding their repertoire with a redheaded white doll, and then, slowly slowly (and I don’t remember the order in which these came, but I know they were all before the Asian-American doll), a black doll, a Mexican-American doll, a Native American doll, along with various other white dolls. Finally, although she’s just a sidekick, they introduced Ivy (from the 70s? It’s nearly time for my childhood’s decade to become “history”–good God!). Finally. I guess my point is that toys like this might be a better place to focus your requests and petitions. Heather Ross’s products are all essentially based around the brand of her individuality and personal style. Crap like the American Girl dolls is designed by committee and based on market demand, and I think has a greater impact on children’s psyches.

Don’t think I don’t notice all-white media or consumer product representations, I live in Wisconsin, for Christ’s sake, it happens all the time. For instance, check out the selection of neighborhood regulars at the Midtown Pub in nearby Middleton! Yeah, it’s pretty important, and it enters my mind all the time, and it kind of sucks that in those “what celebrity do you look like” games there are really not a whole lot of Asian females to choose from. But it’s just not the be-all and end-all, and I am not a helpless, spineless, media-absorbing jellyfish unable to stop my mind from absorbing all non-inclusive imagery and waving my sad tentacles going “noooo, it huuuuurts.” I looked at the cover of the menu and noticed this and found it a little funny and maybe a little sad, and then I opened the menu and ordered a hamburger and a beer and did not feel bad about myself or my place in the world. I could get upset, but I think the menu probably accurately reflects the reality around them–like Heather Ross’s point that her fabric was autobiographical and an accurate representation of a few faces she saw in her childhood–and I’d rather save the lion’s share of my emotional engagement for overt racism.

And I don’t deny that DIY culture and the online crafting blogosphere slant very heavily white. This commenter does a great job of articulating many of the things I see as problems with the racial issues in this subculture, so I’ll just point you over to him. (“The Feudal White Craftopia” is such a great description.) By being out here and saying my stuff and taking pictures of little yellow old me, I guess I’m probably doing my small part in helping diversify knitting blogs, but only racially: I mean, socioeconomically, I still come from a position of computer-literate, college-educated, middle-class privilege, like, I think, most of the craft bloggers out there. There’s diversity and there’s diversity.

P.S. Fun fact, did you know I started the pinny porn discussion that eventually led to the creation of BID on Ravelry? Ha ha!

P.P.S. Jesus, it’s 3:30 AM? Spring Forward, I hate you.

Edited to add: I did a bit more research and found a couple of other response posts I’d missed earlier:



I got kind of annoyed with the Freakonomics guys when Superfreakonomics came out, but nevertheless, their New York Times blog usually makes for a pretty interesting read. Yesterday more than ever: they posted a letter from a young Ravelry user named Sarah Johnson about the difficulty ratings on Ravelry and whether there is “an elitist oligarchy in the underworld of knitters.”

Johnson took a look at some data from the site and asked the questions:

  • Why, on a site that contains 205,069 patterns, are less than 100 patterns user-rated as “difficult?”
  • Why are 90.3 percent of the patterns rated for quality on Ravelry considered by users to be very good or excellent?
  • Possible answer #1: Most patterns on Rav are, in fact, good and easy
  • Possible answer #2: Rav data is largely made up of input from “master craftsmen,” and their subjective considerations of relative ease and difficulty are artificially skewing the ratings on Ravelry to make patterns that are objectively more difficult appear much less so.

This in itself was sort of an interesting question, but to me, it’s more about flaws or inherent biases in the data based on the ratings collection system. Some good points brought up in the article’s comments, where the issue was discussed in much greater detail:

  • People who don’t make a pattern (by adding it to their notebook as a project) cannot rate it.
  • Most people won’t choose to even attempt to make a pattern they perceive to be out of their skill level. (When I first started knitting, I remember obsessively perusing the Knitty archives for anything rated “mellow” or “tangy,” as I perceived “piquant” to be something far above and beyond my abilities.) Due to this self-selection, anything with a rating has already been pre-filtered as apparently appropriate for the knitter’s skill level.
  • People usually don’t rate patterns until they’ve finished their project, so if something is too hard and gets abandoned, usually it won’t get a rating at all. If you’ve managed to finish a project, then most people would think to themselves that by definition, it couldn’t have been that hard.
  • There’s no lower limit on the number of reviewers needed for something to show up in the difficulty rankings, so the majority of projects rated “10” in difficulty have been rated that way by a single person.

If you’re really interested in finding the truly difficult patterns on Ravelry, it’s probably more productive to look at this discussion about the “brain surgery” of knitting.

I was more interested in trying to tease out what it actually means for a knitting (or crochet) pattern to be “difficult.”

As Stephanie Pearl-McPhee says in Knitting Rules, in response to those who say, “I couldn’t knit, I’m not smart enough”: “Knitting, all knitting–every single item–is made up of two stitches, knit and purl.” In the end, this is essentially a question of following directions someone has written down for you, using well-documented, physically undemanding techniques that are easily broken down to their atomic level–knits and purls. (I’m not thinking about designing and writing knitting patterns, which involve a different skillset and a different set of difficulties.)

I took a quick look on Wikipedia, and while I’m sure there’s a lot more relevant stuff out there that I just didn’t manage to find, what I did find was this breakdown of “characteristics of difficult problems,” which doesn’t seem to apply to what we call “a difficult pattern”: it applies to problems, and the solutions thereto, which is not exactly what we’re dealing with when looking at knitting patterns. Nothing really needs to be “solved,” unless a pattern is particularly poorly written, or you’re actually designing it. Patterns are essentially instructional texts: the ideal, if you’re a designer (and not Elizabeth Zimmermann), is for someone to be able to just pick up your pattern and knit it all the way through without running into any doubts or confusion, in “blind follower” mode.

So, rather than spending a lot of time researching existing literature about this topic, I thought about things–not just from the knitting realm, but throughout my life–that I’ve found difficult recently, and tried to figure out what I could take away from them that would apply:

  • I checked out a book of John Ashbery poems from the library and tried to understand it. I’m finding this pretty tough going. This might be a problem of not having the proper background or training to understand what techniques he’s using, what he’s alluding to, and what he’s trying to achieve; or maybe an issue of short attention span.
  • In rock climbing, short routes that you boulder (climb without ropes) are usually referred to “problems” and they are indeed often difficult for me to complete, but usually for purely physical reasons: the limitations of my own body–flexibility, strength, balance, fear, stamina.
  • In my non-knitting life, I’m a project manager, and certain projects I work on seem more difficult than others. The projects that seem most difficult to me involve either a great deal of complexity–many details, resources, files, and requirements that need to be managed simultaneously–or, more often, projects that involve a custom process, where I don’t have a good mental map of the road I’ll need to follow to complete the job, or the issues that are likely to come up and how to solve them.
  • I cannot, for the life of me, play the drums in Rock Band. I nearly always get booed offstage by those cruel, cruel virtual fans. This is a difficulty of physical coordination (if the damn drum pedal wasn’t involved, I’d do better, I think, but two hands and one foot is more than I can handle at once) and also mentally processing a lot of information at high speed, in a time-dependent environment.
  • I’m taking an Italian conversation class right now, and my instructor keeps telling me I need to jump in there more, interrupt people, talk over other people when I have a point to make, i.e. act more Italian (i.e., rude). Even though I’m pretty sure nobody would take this personally, I find it very difficult, from my social conditioning, to just jump in and keep talking over someone else until they shut up.
  • I make pie crust from scratch pretty often. Sometimes it comes out well, sometimes it doesn’t. I think a large part of the difficulty in making a good crust is that there are variations in the ingredients (how much the flour is packed down, the amount of water added, how cold the butter is), the measurements, the oven temperature, how much the dough is handled, how well the butter is distributed, how thin the crust is rolled out… a lot of factors and variations, many of which are impossible for me to measure accurately in the moment as I’m making the pie. And what do I do if I accidentally add too much water? I can’t really un-add it after the fact.

So, all that in mind, I played around with (which is a really fun site, by the way) to make a mind map of how I think difficulty breaks down. You’ll see a few entries that aren’t knitting-related, so I haven’t gone into them in detail, but I wanted to at least mention them since they cover some of the difficult areas I listed above. Click to enlarge to a readable size, and start at the yellow “What is DIFFICULTY?” in the middle.

Disclaimer: there’s probably going to be a fair amount of overlap in these categories, and I’ve put this all together in one big verbal diarrhea marathon session, having read the article and 2 pages of comments, but none of the discussions on Ravelry about it yet, so maybe I haven’t thought through everything super carefully, but hey, this is a hobby, not a term paper:


Knitting difficulty mind map

The high-level categories I broke this down into are:

1) Difficulty in understanding instructions–essentially, user error or designer error (or maybe not “error,” but the inherent difficulty of describing certain techniques or presenting certain types of information without taking up 20 pages). Many of the patterns rated “10” for difficulty were rated by 1 person, and this undoubtedly reflects a lack of experience, or understanding of the rating system, more than anything terribly difficult about, say, this felted purse or this cabled hat. (Maybe that’s just me being a presumptuous elitist oligarch?)

2) Difficulty in achieving desired results–Let’s put it this way. I think there’s nothing inherently difficult about knitting a top-down raglan sweater. Knit knit knit, follow directions–increase a bit, put some stitches on waste yarn, knit knit knit. Eventually, if you can follow directions, you have a sweater. However, there are plenty of difficult things about knitting a top-down raglan sweater that actually fits you, whether it’s making the sweater too loose or too tight, the sleeves too long or short or different lengths, the neck too tight or way too huge, or some unholy combination of the above. This is mostly unrelated to knitting patterns, but I do think it’s something that often leads to people saying a project was hard. I’ve broken this down into:

  • Fit–Fit and Gauge both overlap the category I’ve labeled Mental Difficulty, as the issue of “difficulty” here is that for a sweater to fit right and look flattering, you need to customize the instructions to suit your own specific requirements, which forces you to enter the realm of design–measuring yourself, measuring your work, doing a lot of math.
  • Gauge
  • Irrevocability of actions–sorry for the unwieldy title, I couldn’t think of anything better. Basically, how hard is it to go back and fix something if it’s wrong? This is the cause of a lot of difficulty in non-knitting fields (and in fact I should have broken out “time constraints” separately), but one of the things that I like about knitting is that this factor often doesn’t enter into the craft at all. In my examples above, think of playing drums in Rock Band: once I’ve hit the wrong drum, I can’t go back and fix it, and it matters a lot if I play the drums super slow when I’m not supposed to. Unlike knitting, where I can knit as fast or as slow as I want, and if I do something wrong, I can usually tink back and fix it. There are, however, a few areas where this plays a role in knitting. Steeking is the most obvious: if you take the scissors to your colorwork sweater and then find out you screwed up, there’s no going back. Felting is another one (though it usually covers a multitude of sins)–you can’t take the extra water out of your pie crust, you can’t unfelt your felted purse. And I’ve also listed “difficulty of correcting previous errors” here: if you get to the end and see that you accidentally purled where you should have knit ten rows below, in a plain stockinette sweater, you can drop that stitch and fix it with a crochet hook, but only the insane will attempt this in their Niebling lace. Even Nancy Marchant finds it hard to correct errors in brioche stitch.
  • Unsuitable materials (also listed under Physical Difficulty)–If you use sari silk, don’t be surprised if it’s nearly impossible to make, say, a ribbed hat that will stay on your head.

3) Social difficulty–while this is a cause of so, so many difficulties in life, maybe the vast majority of them, for the most part, it’s not relevant to knitting pattern difficulty (or only tangentially so, e.g., anxiety about asking for help when you don’t understand) so I haven’t gone into any kind of detail about this. Perhaps one issue to note here is the phenomenon in rock climbing of “sandbagging” when rating the difficulty of climbing routes: giving a climb an easier score than it deserves. I think of knitting as being a non-competitive activity, but at least one commenter on the article mentioned the possible shame factor of rating something “easy” as difficult for them–“nobody likes to be thought a fool”–leading to lots of patterns being rated easier than they should be.

4) Physical difficulty–again, in life in general, issues related to physical limitations are far more common than in the world of knitting (in my list above: rock climbing, playing drums, making pie crust), but this is definitely one of the important factors in determining knitting pattern difficulty.

  • Unsuitable materials, again: Typical conversation with beginning knitter: “This is so hard, this hurts my hands!” “What yarn are you using?” “Lion Brand Homespun.” Well, of course it hurts your hands. I found my You Bastard Scarf very, very difficult–not because of the scarf itself, which was mistake rib (just knits and purls) but because of the Camissimo yarn, which was basically a dressed-up version of inflexible, snaggy Homespun for yarn snobs.
  • Difficulty of execution–Some stitches are just physically harder than others to execute, no ifs, ands, or buts. Anything involving purling 5 stitches together through the back loop, or cabling 12 over 12 stitches, for instance. Seafoam stitch is one of the easiest lacy-looking stitches there is (being just fancied-up garter stitch) but I actually find it kind of hard to work for purely physical reasons, because the extra wraps always get stuck on my needles and wind up being hard to push along.
  • Being “fiddly”–I guess this overlaps a bit with “difficulty of execution” but doesn’t necessarily have to do with just the execution of the stitch pattern–the notes I made on this item were: “limited space, opposing forces (small-scale knitting in the round, picking up stitches, twined knitting constantly twisting, intarsia with a million bobbins)”

5) Mental difficulty–this one’s the biggie when it comes to this craft, and I would argue that the biggest item under “mental difficulty” is actually:

  • Novelty. Pretty much everything is hard when you’re doing it for the first time. This relates to my example about difficult, custom-process work projects above–when you lack a mental toolkit to draw from, when you haven’t practiced something and have no muscle memory, internalized background information or recognition of common patterns, every single step becomes a struggle or a source of doubt; there’s none of the mental coasting you can do when you’re doing a familiar and well-understood task.
    • When you’ve knit 10,000 plain stockinette stitches, you don’t have to think about them anymore. I’m sure the same is true of making 10,000 entrelac squares. I find entrelac a somewhat difficult technique, but not because any of its component parts are actually difficult for me. I just haven’t done it often enough to immediately understand, when I’m looking at my work, “oh, here’s where I pick up X stitches along the edge of Y rectangle”–so I need to refer back to the pattern often, or stop and think about what I’m doing, it’s not TV knitting for me. But there’s nothing hard about knitting, purling, picking up stitches, or decreasing, just about understanding what’s going on without consciously having to think about it at every stage.
    • I get emails every so often from people who have bought Prickle and are freaking out about the moebius cast-on or the sideways knit edging. These things can be very difficult the first time you do them, when you’re still trying to figure out what exactly is going on, but once you get used to them, there’s nothing especially difficult involved.
    • I read stories sometimes of people who say “I’ve been knitting for 25 years but all I can do is knit,” and they mean it–no purling, garter stitch only. This is a little blasphemous, sorry, but to quote Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” We almost all put down periods in all kinds of areas of our lives where there should be commas, including deciding that everything you’ve learned to date (knitting, purling, increasing, decreasing…) is OK, but drawing an arbitrary dividing line of difficulty when it comes to steeking Fair Isle, moebius knitting, charted lace, or two-color brioche, or what have you. I firmly believe nothing in following knitting patterns is that hard in the end, it just requires you to build up your mental toolkit to handle it without so much conscious effort.
  • Calculations/customization–again, this typically falls outside the scope of a knitting pattern itself, except for some that are built like worksheets rather than for “blind followers,” but there is certainly far more mental effort involved and far more risk of error once you stray from following a pattern and into designer territory
  • Creative leaps–see the entry above. You shouldn’t have to do this unless you’re working from a spectacularly poorly written pattern, or making a lot of modifications. I did make an arrow to “background knowledge”–as a broad base of background knowledge is often a required input for successful creative leaps or lateral thinking, and feats of recall are often what makes work in other arenas “hard”. Based purely on watching a bunch of House M.D., I imagine that this is part of what makes a doctor’s job difficult, drawing on a large amount of observation and stored background information to come up with a diagnosis and treatment plan. In a similar, if less important, vein, I spent a bit of time yesterday for work troubleshooting a corrupted file and trying to figure out how to repair it with the tools we had on hand, under certain time/budget constraints. Or see my John Ashbery problem from my examples above. A lot of “difficult problems” we need to solve in everyday life fall into this category, but not, typically, in knitting.
  • Ambiguity of next required step–Part of the mental toolkit you build up when something goes from being novel to being well-known and understood is the ability to figure out the next step. This (like many of these entries) should probably go back to poor pattern writing as well. The other thing is that, when you get into instructions like “knit into the back of the stitch 2 rows below,” it can be really hard to figure out where, exactly, that is instruction is referring to: alles klar with the stitches on the needle, but there’s a lot of confusion with terminology when it comes to the rest of the knitted fabric. Crocheters will probably disagree with me here, but one thing I find difficult about crochet as compared to knitting is that you can’t just look at the next loop queued up on your needle: you need to figure out where in the existing fabric to stick your hook and which parts of the stitch to put the hook into, and (being an inexperienced crocheter) I usually get that wrong. Commas and periods.
  • Attention required–along with novelty, this is a huge factor in difficulty ratings. Like with Physical Difficulty, there are certain patterns where you just have to pay a lot of attention, no way around it. There are different types of attention, though:
    • Difficulty in reading your knitting: (and in catching mistakes quickly, as they happen, and reassuring yourself that you’re on the right track without having to backtrack and count…) I remember remarking at TBKGE after knitting my Hemlock Ring that I was having some issues with keeping track of my work. Kalani said something to the effect of “I’ve never heard anyone call Feather and Fan ‘hard’ before” and–well, it’s an extraordinarily easy pattern to memorize and to physically execute, and it only requires thought in one out of every 4 rounds or so, but the issue I was having with it was that it was hard to read, and I was constantly paranoid that I’d let my mind wander and gotten the whole pattern shifted off kilter by a few stitches over hundreds of stitches. This is the same thing that makes people eschew colorwork worked flat: it’s hard to see what’s going on from the back of the work, and floats get in the way.
    • Complexity: Even if there are thousands of stitches on your needles, you only knit one stitch at a time: how complex can it be? The issue with complexity in knitting, I think, is when there are multiple simultaneous instructions or requirements to keep track of: the infamous “at the same time…” that has sent so many knitters into the depths of despair is one of them; how about “decrease while maintaining st pattern” (also requiring on-the-fly calculations), or Bohus knitting, requiring you to work with more than two colors and a mixture of knits and purls? Part of this is an issue of pattern writing and the constraints of space and readability in knitting patterns: you’ll often see people solving the complexity problem by rewriting or re-charting their size of a sweater to spell out all the instructions line by line, so they don’t have to remember to do something every four rows at the same time as they’re doing something else every fifteen rows. If a sweater pattern has eight sizes, it’s not feasible for the designer to write everything out line by line in this fashion for every size, but the knitter can do it as an aide-memoire for their one size to reduce complexity. There are patterns that require a lot of modular pieces to be assembled and I suppose that might fall into this category as well.
    • Size/scope: patterns for large items with thousands of stitches or patterns that may be smaller but very dense or non-repetitive both require a great deal of attention: stamina, in either a lengthy, sustained concentration, or an intensely focused concentration that does not allow for breaks in attention. For example, there’s this distinction between “lacy knitting” and “knitted lace”–the former employing plain rows every other row or round, where the work is only knitted, without any patterning stitches in play, and hence offering the knitter a chance to rest and recharge without constant concentration. I haven’t tried a Niebling yet, or pictorial lace like the Heere be Dragone shawl, but my guess is that it’s this question of scope that makes them difficult. I can read a chart, I can knit lace, but can I do it for hundreds of rows and thousands of stitches without losing my place or messing up? An analogy that came to mind for me was proofreading a language you speak, like English, versus a language you don’t, like, for me, Hindi (at work it comes up occasionally that I’ll need to verify if text has been pasted in accurately or if it’s been misplaced, characters dropped, etc.). In English or another Latin-alphabet language, my eye can scan over the page at the word level with a reasonable level of accuracy, whereas in an unfamiliar language like Hindi I have to go character-by-character, with a much greater visual focus and heightened attention.

Phew! (Speaking of sustained attention, I hope you’re still with me…) With all that in mind, let’s look at a few examples of “difficult” patterns:

  • Morrigan, by Jenna Wilson: a fine-gauge twisted stitch pullover. In theory, if you’re following the directions, there’s nothing hugely different about this than this same designer’s chemo cap Shedir (warning, PDF link): the differences are chiefly in scope and the problems of achieving proper gauge and fit in a form-fitting sweater versus a hat.
  • Katherine Howard, by Jade Starmore: scope and fit are obviously issues again here, but in addition we run into novelty and complexity. It looks like there are 3 or 4 colors used per row in some rows (can’t tell if those little bobble things are knit in or embroidered afterwards), and… I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with the colorwork and texture, but I think it’s maybe intarsia with cables and short rows? A lot of crap going on simultaneously that you don’t see every day, in any case. I don’t find the end product an especially attractive sweater, I’m sorry to say, but it is certainly extremely technically impressive.
  • Drifting Pleats, by Lynne Barr: this is just a scarf on a stockinette ribbed base [corrected 2011-03-03], so issues of gauge, fit, complexity, and scope don’t really enter into it: I think the issues here are with novelty and possibly also physical difficulty (keeping the needles holding the pleat stitches organized and out of your way). I don’t know of any other patterns that use this pleating technique, so it’s going to be a completely new experience for most people trying it, leading to missteps and confusion about what is being explained–but looking at the notes in Ravelry, most people said that it wasn’t hard after it “clicked,” and the scarf’s overall difficulty rating is not as high as you might otherwise expect.
  • Forest Path Stole, by Faina M. Letoutchaia: entrelac plus multiple different lace patterns (many with shifting stitch counts)–to me, I’d have issues with the novelty of this combination of pattern techniques and tracking my progress: until I got used to the pattern I’d be afraid of picking up the wrong stitches since this can (to me) be confusing and ambiguous in entrelac, and it would be hard to tell until the next long row if you’d screwed it up. Not to mention that lace can be confusing in and of itself, and it’s easy to accidentally drop or add stitches. You are, however, working the same little lace squares over and over again rather than one long row of repeats of the lace pattern, so I’d think it would be easier to at least check at the end of each square if you’d done it right. But if you mess up the entrelac, it’s also very hard to go back and fix problems in a pattern like this.
  • Geometric Star, by Kaffe Fassett. From Kaffe’s “Glorious Acid Freakout” collection. This is a problem of complexity all the way–I have no idea how many colors are being used per row but I’m sure it’s more than one and fairly sure it’s less than fifty. Since it’s a sweater, I’d normally say there’s a gauge/fit issue here as well, but frankly, if you’re wearing a one-size-fits-all, chunky-weight, tragic-kaleidoscope-accident colorwork sweater I don’t think you care all that much about how good it looks on you in the end.

OK. Phew. 4500 words later, I think I’m going to call it good and go 1) read what everyone else in the Ravoblogotwittersphere is saying about this topic and 2) maybe do a little bit of actual knitting instead of just blabbing about it. What are your thoughts on all this? Have I overlooked something massive, or am I ignorant of some huge body of literature already existing on this topic? What makes a pattern difficult for you?  What do you think about the NYT blog post and Ms. Johnson’s interpretations of that data?

(Oh and one last thing: I ran across this gorgeous peacock feather scarf, Fremont Street, when I was doing pattern research for this post–sadly, it seems to be rated difficult because there are a lot of errors in the pattern, so I probably won’t bother knitting it until they release corrections, but I think it is beautiful. I didn’t want to discuss it as a “difficult pattern,” but thought I’d point it out in case anyone else wants to give it a go despite the reported pattern issues.)

–corrected 2011-03-03: Lynne Barr wrote to me that Drifting Pleats is on a ribbed base, not stockinette. Oops, sorry, Lynne!

1 skein of Sundara Sock Yarn in Roasted Persimmon over Green Papaya, Seasons Sock Club, Autumn, October 2008 shipment: $25.

Average monthly per capita income in Cambodia: $24.16

Ashford Traditional single-drive, lacquered, single-treadle spinning wheel: $535

The gross national income per capita in Benin, 2006: $540

The theme of this year’s Blog Action Day is Poverty. All over the blogosphere, people are writing about poverty and how it relates to their little corner of the world.

I don’t hold a lot of illusions about people stopping their yarn stashing, eating out at restaurants, buying new clothes, going to the movies, or what have you, and donating all that money to charity instead while living a virtuous, ascetic life in the cheapest place they can afford. It’s just not the way things work in this day and age and place, for the vast majority of people. I’m certainly not saintly enough to live that simply. And despite their ideals, people have a strong tendency to want to spend their hard-earned money on fun stuff rather than donating it to someone they don’t know and will never meet.

Knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers, let me suggest 3 simple actions that will change little about the way you live your happy, well-fed, yarn-filled life from day to day, but will make a difference (be it ever so slight) in fighting global poverty–and without making you feel guilty about spending your money as you please:
1) Download the AidMaker browser plugin and shop online as usual. When you shop from online stores like the Apple Store (or Ultimate Colon Cleanse, apparently!) while using this browser plugin, receives a commission, which (aside from operating costs) they then donate to the charity of your choice, at no extra cost to you. Let’s say you go to Amazon and buy Knitted Lace of Estonia or some Cascade 220 yarn–or even an Ashford Kiwi spinning wheel–they’ll donate 3% of your purchase price to the charity of your choice, without you spending an extra dime.
2) When you feel like you need a shopping fix, or decide you could use some retail therapy, consider going to a charity site instead and spending your money on a charitable donation. If you’re a stasher, you can just pretend you bought some yarn and it went straight into the stash, hidden under the bed or in a drawer out of sight somewhere. But instead, you can spend the money on a sheep, llama, or goat from Heifer International, a camel from Mercy Corps, or a loan to a textiles entrepreneur via (at the moment, one of the open loans seeking lenders is for a group of Peruvian weavers trying to start a textiles factory)
3) Or if you feel like you need something tangible as a result of your shopping spree, consider spending money on products that help the economies of developing countries. You could buy some yarns via The Hunger Site–that angora-cotton blend looks especially tempting, doesn’t it? In your LYS, a few yarn brands you can look at include the Snow Leopard Trust, Manos del Uruguay, Malabrigo, Shokay, Lantern Moon, and Mirasol. If you’re feeling indulgent, splurge on some qiviut from the Oomingmak cooperative. If you’re feeling even more indulgent than that, how about some vicuna at $300 per 28.5 grams? According to Peace of Yarn, after maintaining state control and protection of the wild vicuna herds since 1825, the Peruvian government “handed ownership of the animals back to the common villagers of the country, creating a viable and stable source of income for struggling villagers” by sponsoring traditional shearing days called chacus in which the vicunas are trapped using traditional methods, sheared, and released.

So in honor of today, I’m going to go install that plugin, lend some money via Kiva, and ogle qiviut on Ravelry for a while.

P.S. I just bought the Ashford Traditional used on Craigslist and it was actually closer to the GNI per capita of Afghanistan. I’m pretty excited about it–I’ll have enough bobbins to actually do a two-ply without having to wind off into centerpull balls! Lots of ratios! A nice big drive wheel! I can adjust twist and pull separately using the Scotch tension!–though I’m surprisingly feeling sort of anxious and attached about selling my old wheel. It’s prettier, and easier to treadle.

My parents (Dad and stepmom) came to visit me in Madison! Now they’re in Chicago (or possibly on their way back to CA by now). I miss them! It was kind of a whirlwind, last-minute, chaotic kind of trip, but we managed to fit in a good trip to the St. Vincent de Paul Dig ‘n’ Save, where you buy clothes for $1.00 a pound and junk for 35 cents a pound. Rahul and I had a great trip there before where I came away with a ton of good stuff–among other things, a really cute boiled wool rust-and-green colorwork jacket, a Brooks Brothers seersucker skirt, an adorable Vera Bradley zippered pouch with tiny owls on it.

This time around I found a trove of cute patterns from the 70s and 80s, including this one, Simplicity 4867–how awesome is the top right view? It reminds me very much of wikstenmade’s beautiful Tova top (right down to the similarity of the model’s hairstyle to Jenny’s!) Also Butterick 4631, a collection of yoked peasant tops with pockets. This one, Simplicity 5497, is very, very dated, but the asymmetrical ruffled button front seems like it might have potential. I couldn’t find the last one online (McCall’s 4866), but it includes a very cute dress and blouse with mandarin collar and round pintucked, button-up yoke.

I also got a brown leather Fossil/Relic purse in pretty good condition, and a blouse that turned out to be a little too small. The purse + shirt + 4 patterns cost me $1.35!

Anyway, although my parents have left, I have plenty of stuff coming up this next week to distract me. Mary and I are going to teach her Hindi teacher’s kid to spin Saturday morning (she’s 8 years old and wants to learn to spin cotton on a charkha! and weave! just like Grandma!) and then Rahul and I are seeing the Magnetic Fields on Saturday night. My uncle will be in town next week, as will an old friend from Berkeley, though both are here for conferences and I don’t know how much time they’ll have to spend on social events. Monday night is also the next meeting of the Madison Knitters’ Guild and Vivian Høxbro is coming to speak; I think I might go and see her.

Other crap: I’ve finished the back and one front of Flicca. Still no pictures, though.

This fake A-Ha video made my day: Band montage!

In response to my blog post mentioning that I’d heard Jelly Yarns make good drive bands for spinning wheels, I got a free sample to try out. Isn’t that nice of them? I’m looking forward to giving it a spin.

And my parents said they kept wondering when I was going to post something about the election. Well, there are other venues that do the ranting better (how could I even scratch the surface of this whole Sarah Palin debacle?) so for the most part I leave the political talk out of here, but I did want to share this story that I saw for the first time recently: McCain calls his captors “gooks” and refuses to apologize. (On the topic of Vietnam PTSD, did you know he also addressed a crowd recently as “my fellow prisoners” rather than “my fellow citizens,” and didn’t seem to notice the slip-up?)

Guy Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, sums it up pretty well, I think: “If Sen. McCain had been captured by Nigerians, could he call those people ‘niggers’ and think he wasn’t going to offend everyone who is black?”

My next shipment of yarn from the Sundara Seasons Club (Autumn) showed up the other day. One hank of silk lace in “Mahogany over Marmalade,” 1000 yards, 100 grams, a gorgeous, shiny blend of rich copper, russet, and golden hues.

I took this picture indoors and it came out too dark.

The ones outside came out better, but a little too light.

I’ll have to keep trying.

Now, I posted before about the feeding frenzies inspired whenever Sundara’s yarns are posted for sale. I just got an email from her about how they’re going to try to remedy this: by going subscription-only, and making it impossible to buy just a single skein.

“Below you will find as much information as we currently have on the first three yarn Collections Sundara Yarn will be offering in the next few months. There are LOTS of details here, so you may want to read through this carefully.

Please note:

  • The price of these Collections reflects an increase to the cost of sock yarn, now $25/skein and aran silky merino, now $32/skein.
  • These are just the first of many new Collections. If these are not quite right for you, we suggest waiting to subscribe, as new Collections will be opened monthly.
  • All of this information, plus photos, will be on the Sundara Yarn website shortly.
  • We are doing our best to meet the demand of several thousand of you, with only a few of us. With this in mind, we are requesting that you hold off asking us questions until we post this information on the website, as we’ve got a lot to get done in the next few days.

Sundara, Avery, Carol and Mikaela

Sundara Yarn Sock Collection
This Collection is for sock yarn only and all selections will be shown on the website so subscribers know exactly what they will receive. There will be five color groupings from which to choose. Some colors are new, we will post these photos to the Sundara Yarn website before sign ups open.

Sign ups open on September 15.
12 skeins of sock yarn in 4 mailings over 12 month subscription.
$28/month, slightly more for shipping to Canada and internationally.
Mailings are in early December, early March, early June, and early September.

Color Groupings:
Mailing One: Orchid, Granite Falls, Celestial Skies
Mailing Two: Daffodil, Robin’s Egg, Candied Chrome
Mailing Three: Blossom, Sky, Lemon Chiffon
Mailing Four: Tickled Pink, Pale Sky over Sugared Violet, Crème de Menthe

Mailing One: Black over Violet, Charcoal over Blue Lagoon, Evergreen over Lime
Mailing Two: Graphite, Ivy, Caribbean
Mailing Three: Black, Ruby Port, Eggplant
Mailing Four: Arabian Nights, Midnight Meadows, Green Olive Tapenade

Mailing One: Brown Sugar over Buttermilk, Wine, Bronzed Forest
Mailing Two: Autumn Rose, Prickly Pear, Plum
Mailing Three: Bronzed Sienna, Basil over Buttercup, Ember over Flame
Mailing Four: Spiced, Mahogany over Marmalade, Green Tea

Mailing one: Winter Skies, Grape over Grey-Violet, Marina over Icicles
Mailing Two: Viola, Sour Apple, Crushed Cherries
Mailing Three: Raspberry, Blooming Fuchsia, Mint Julep
Mailing Four: Lilac, Delphiniums, Glacier

Mixed Palette
Mailing One: Pine over Gold, Cobalt over Mediterranean, Grass
Mailing Two: Thriller, Crimson, Tuscan Rose over Lemon
Mailing Three: Sunshine, Guava, Jungle Boogie
Mailing four: Honeyed Hibiscus, Blush, Toasted Orange over Pistachio

Each color grouping will be mailed at different times, so shipping cannot be combined for different color groupings, only for multiple subscriptions of the same color collection. For example, if you want to subscribe to the Warm grouping and want additional skeins, you can choose to receive 2 skeins of each Warm color for a total of 6 skeins each mailing and any other color groupings would be mailed separately. There will be an option to double or triple your subscription in any one color grouping selection but no more than 3 subscriptions will fit in one box so we are limiting subscriptions to 3 in any one color grouping.

Artist’s Choice Sock Yarn Collection
This Collection is sock yarn only and all colorways will be unplanned and done in limited runs of 10 skeins a batch. Subscribers will choose from three color groupings. Colors within those color families will be developed by Sundara and in the spirit of creativity, surprise and spontaneity, subscribers will not chose specific colors.

Sign ups open on September 15.
3 month subscription for 3 different skeins of sock yarn in 1 mailing sent out in early December.
$28/month, slightly more shipping international and to Canada.
3 color groupings: warm, cool and mixed palette.
Warm colors: red, orange, yellow, green, brown
Cool colors: green, blue, purple, blacks, pinks
Mixed palette: all colors possible

There will be an option to add 1 skein of each color to your subscription for combined shipping within each color grouping. For example, if you subscribe to the cool colors and want 2 skeins of each color, you can subscribe to receive 2 skeins of each color for a total of 6 skeins. Each color grouping will be mailed at different times, so shipping cannot be combined for different color groupings. This 2 skein limitation is due to the high variability of colors within each batch of this yarn.

Sweater Collection

Opens on October 15 for subscriptions.
9 month subscription.
Aran Silky Merino (ASM) will be mailed in January.
DK Silky Cashmere (DKSC) will be mailed in March.
Fingering Silky Merino (FSM) will be mailed in June.

$50/month for X-Small: 4 ASM, 5 DKSC, 2 FSM
$69/month for Small: 5 ASM, 7 DKSC, 3 FSM
$78/month for Medium: 6 ASM, 9 DKSC, 3 FSM
$95/month for Large: 7 ASM, 10 DKSC, 4 FSM
$103/month for X-Large: 8 ASM, 11 DKSC, 4 FSM

Prices for Canadian and International mailing will be approximately $3-7 more a month.

Color Groupings
1) Daffodil ASM, Prickly Pear DKSC, Orchid FSM.
2) Marina over Icicles ASM, Mint Julep DKSC, Viola FSM.
3) Green Tea ASM, Plum DKSC, Ember over Flame FSM.
4) Black over Violet ASM, Graphite DKSC, Wine FSM.

Our apologies, but multiple subscriptions will not be combined for reduced shipping.
DK Silky Cashmere is a new yarn base. Each skein is 160 yards and 55 grams 4-ply 55% silk and 45% Mongolian Cashmere. It knits at 4.75-6 stitches per inch on US 3-5/3.25-3.75mm needles. Hand wash, tepid water. $40/skein.”

I’m surprised by this decision, and a little dismayed. This yarn was never cheap, but it’s really quite a lot to expect anyone who wants to get their hands on some Sundara to commit to a $90 purchase at minimum. I suppose it’s better for them than trying to deal with the frustration of countless users clicking “buy” and crashing their website, then posting angry, disappointed diatribes about how they would never be able to get their hands on Sundara yarn and how unfair it was that other people owned more than one skein and hadn’t left any yarn for everyone else. But it shuts out a lot of potential buyers.

Also, I think there’s kind of an embarrassment of choice in the color groupings. I’m sure I’m not the only person whose eyes started to glaze over trying to picture the different combinations of color + base yarn in each group; and ultimately, I think the huge selection of choices may be detrimental.

I read this book recently, The Paradox of Choice, that talked about the pitfalls of providing too many choices (and Rahul blogged about the same topic here). People will just shut down if you give them too many choices. Faced with trying to maximize the value of their decision, they’ll end up agonizing over their choices for so long that they wind up completely paralyzed and buy nothing.

There have been studies done that show this. At a gourmet taste test, people given twenty-four different jams to sample were far less likely to actually buy a jar of jam than people given only six choices. This seems counterintuitive–with twenty-four to choose from, wouldn’t you be more likely to find something that suits your palate perfectly? But it’s too many. People don’t like to make those decisions.

Even one choice too many can have serious consequences. In another study, physicians were given a case study and asked if they would, in this case, prescribe a certain medication or refer the patient to a specialist. Almost 75 percent said they would prescribe the medication. When asked to make a choice between two medications and a specialist, the percentage of physicians who prescribed either medication went down to less than 50 percent. The decision got pushed off onto someone else.

The book also draws a distinction between “maximizers” and “satisficers”–people who try to extract the maximum possible value from every decision, and people who go with the first thing that meets their basic criteria and stop thinking about the decision afterwards. Guess which group winds up better off empirically? But guess which group is happier? The more choices you lay out, the more second-guessing your customers may wind up doing, and the less satisfied they’re likely to be with their choice in the end. I certainly agonized a lot about which Season to choose (though I’m very happy with my choice of Autumn so far.)

Who knows, maybe all the rules are off with hand-dyed yarns in high demand. Maybe they’re in a tulip-like bubble and nobody cares so long as they can buy them.  We’ll see how this whole subscription thing goes–I’m in a couple of Sundara groups on Ravelry and have been reading the reactions with great interest.

When I saw Macoco’s fantastic Greta Garbo sweater, I became intrigued by the book it came from–Hollywood Knits, by Bill Gibb–so I added it to my shopping cart the next time I had an Amazon purchase to make. I didn’t know anything about the book aside from seeing that sweater, so it was a leap of faith to buy it. All I knew was what she’d posted–that it was a book of sweater designs inspired by classic photos of various Hollywood stars in knitwear.

(A brief long aside: I used to do this all the time back in high school. I found out about the Magnetic Fields from a friend from an online chat room and went out to buy a copy of Holiday based on his recommendation alone, having no idea what the band would sound like. I somehow obtained a paper catalog from Firebird Records and randomly ordered British folk rock CDs based on one-paragraph written descriptions of the music.

Nowadays, we depend so much on sample-before-you-buy, no-commitment purchasing, whether it’s downloading an entire album and listening to it for weeks before deciding to buy it, scarfing free samples at Costco, or buying 20 pairs of shoes at Zappos–something we discussed at knit night tonight–with the ability to return them all if you change your mind. We’re guarded, we’re picky, we use Metacritic to sort through dozens of reviews at once and can reject an album before ever hearing a single note of it.

But back in the day, I think I used to discover a lot more cool new stuff because of that necessary leap of faith. Once I had committed to the random purchase to learn about something new, I had an investment in it, and it was in my own best interest to give it a fair chance and find things to appreciate about the item I’d already bought. Sort of like an arranged marriage, maybe; once you’re committed, even if you might not have originally made that decision if you could have made a fully informed, consenting choice, you really try to find something to love.)

So, in that same spirit, I ordered the book. Oddly enough, almost all the listings for used copies of Hollywood Knits on Amazon have it as being by “Bill Gibbs,” but it should be Gibb, as far as I can tell, like this listing and this listing have it.

I’m kind of amazed that Macoco took her own leap of faith to make the sweater in the first place. The sweaters are all illustrated in two ways: 1) the photo of the inspiration sweater, and 2) a crazy 80s “fashion” line drawing of the sweater, very stylized and inevitably with gigantic, padded trapezoid shoulders tapering to a carrot-like waist. Some of the inspiration photos are sort of hard to see, too, so I guess you just have to read through the pattern and hope for the best.

Anyway, I thought I’d pay a little debt back to the Internet, and enable all you fickle noncommittal shoppers to get a taste of what’s inside Hollywood Knits. The Bill Gibb book, not the Suss Cousins one.

In no particular order, here are the photos of the patterns found in this book. There is interesting chatter about the patterns and the movie stars in all the facing pages.

Greta Garbo, in the sweater that piqued my interest in the first place.

Jean Harlow in a polo shirt.

Lana Turner in another polo shirt. Both of these seem kind of similar to Salina, from Vintage Knits.

Adele Jergens in a fluffy monstrosity.

Loretta Young in what might be a cute, classic cardigan. Who can tell?

Claudette Colbert in a pretty puff-sleeved blouse embroidered with flowers.

Vilma Banky in a tennis vest with flags on the chest. I would make one like this with two American flags and embroider “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN” across the stomach. I think that would be very classy.

Joan Crawford in a puff-sleeved sweater that’s sort of hard to separate from her overall suspendertastic, old-man-feeding-pigeons-in-the-park look.

Peggy Cummins in a turtleneck that might be very cute but also has giant shoulder pads for the Carroty look.

Cary Grant in a basic cabled V-neck. NEEDS MORE ANGORA AND SHOULDER PADS

Jane Greer in a sweet blazer, holding a giant tie

Jennifer Jones in a big textured coat I think I might love, if I could only see what the front of it would look like.

Dorothy Lamour in a bejeweled boatneck.

Jane Wyman in a shirt emblazoned with embroidered cigarettes.

Marilyn Monroe in a turtleneck vest thing with the neck pinned down by a brooch. It looks fabulous, but I suspect it loses some of the overall fabulous effect if you do not look like Marilyn Monroe.

Virginia Mayo in a bird sweater.

Robert Taylor, in a cabled sweater as boring as his name.

Gary Cooper, in a sweater with kind of an awesome colorwork band across the chest.

Errol Flynn. Yeah, baby!

crap, counting these now, I think I’m short one pattern, but I don’t know which one it is. Anyway, that’s at least 19 out of 20. Now you’ve sampled what’s inside, and can find excuses not to buy this book.

Tonight I’m visiting a llama farm with Kalani and Elli! Hopefully, many cute llama pictures to come.

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Dear Pleasant Company,

Thank you so much for finally creating an Asian-American “American Girl” doll, even if she is one of the sidekicks rather than a main character. I have been waiting since my childhood in the 1980s for you to do this. It’s about time.

You saw fit to introduce the Native American Girl, the Latina Girl, the Black Girl, and many, many iterations of the White Girl–blonde, brunette, redheaded, bespectacled–before introducing a single Asian American doll that little Asian American girls could relate to. Yes, we’re only 3.6% of the population, but many of us are model minorities and have a lot of disposable income to spend. Don’t you want to tap into the market of rich, guilty Asian-American engineer/programmer/doctor parents? Also, American Indians only comprise 0.9% of the population and they got a doll first. I’m sure the exotic Asian-American would sell just as many dolls to non-Asians as the exotic American Indian would to non-Indians.

The Girls of Many Lands girl doesn’t count. That’s a cop-out. She may reflect Chinese heritage, but she isn’t American. The hapa doll and “Just Like You” dolls are pretty awesome, but they don’t allow Asian-American girls to feel like part of the American historical context in the same way as the core collection of historical dolls.

I understand there might have been some difficulties in finding an appropriate historical setting, what with the exclusion acts, internment camps, and all those lovely things threading through the history of Asians in America.

But Asian-American girls could really use a doll that makes them feel American. Finally, they have one. I haven’t read the stories yet, and it’s possible Ivy speaks a lot of Chinglish and is terribly submissive and docile and looks up to her pretty white friend with the long blonde hair, but at least she exists now. Thank you!

How about a South Asian doll next? You’ve still got a lot of different heritages to cover. (Or here’s an idea: how about the dolls not costing 87 freakin’ dollars apiece. How incredibly ironic are Addy, Kit, and Molly when you think about that? I especially like Kit’s Great Depression Hobo Camp Supplies. $24, currently sold out.)



</non-knitting content>

Did you know today is Blog Action Day? Today, October 15, you’re supposed to post on your blog about the environment, and donate the day’s earnings to an environmental charity. Sadly, I am not currently cashing in on my thousands hundreds tens of loyal sporadic readers, so the latter half of that doesn’t really apply–I guess I’ll just have to do the bloggy part of it.

I’ve been thinking about my ecological footprint over the past few years. I was damn good in college when I didn’t have a car and lived in a tiny apartment near school. Various life changes came and went, and I commuted more or less, carpooled sometimes, took the bus sometimes. Right now, I work from home and live within easy biking/walking distance of downtown, so my transportation footprint has been lower than it’s almost ever been, little car trips within town notwithstanding. I tend to eat at home more often, mostly vegetarian, and waste less food (though I am still not great about this; I pack up leftovers and then they sit forgotten in the fridge for weeks, alongside the bendy carrots and sprouted onions).

On the other hand, I haven’t been so good on other fronts. The city I live in doesn’t make it easy at all for apartment dwellers to recycle. We still do it, but half of our study is full of giant, unsightly plastic bins full of cans, paper, and bottles and it is a total ordeal going down to the recycling center to sort things out. There are about 20 different bins to sort things into–brown glass, clear glass, green glass, aluminum, steel, newspaper, white paper, mixed paper, magazines, plastics (but only certain ones!), plastic bags, egg cartons, etc.–and there are various other things about the recycling center that make it a real drag. In the summer, the bins are sticky and full of bees that fly out in your face, Candyman-style, and there is frequently this sort of creepy guy working there. He comes up to me and goes “Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am?” and when I say “yes, what is it?” he just keeps saying “Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am” and following me around. I think he’s developmentally disabled, autistic, or something, but for a while I was taking it personally and getting freaked out because I heard him talking to someone else completely normally. Upon further unpleasant encounters, I’m sticking with my original theory. It’s still not a fun experience, but it’s not creepy in the same way. Anyway–I digress–the point is that recycling in Bloomington sucks if you don’t get curbside pickup. Which we don’t, because for some reason the recycling guys come down our street, picking up recycling from all the houses on our street, but they refuse to pick up from our apartments and just drive on past.

I don’t have a yard anymore, so I don’t compost anymore. I miss my compost bin a lot. I still feel pangs of guilt whenever I throw away banana peels or carrot tops or moldy leftovers. I loved chucking that stuff into my big crawly compost bin and turning it over with the pitchfork to see the steam and the zillions of worms. I’ve been thinking about making a worm bin, but (whispering) it seems kind of gross. I’ve read all about how your worms can die if you don’t feed them the right stuff, or get their bedding too wet, or don’t feed them enough, and there is really nothing I want to deal with less than a big, drippy box full of dead worms. Or a kitchen floor full of dead worms who have tried to make the great escape from their home planet. I would keep it out on the balcony, but here, unlike in California, that’s not a viable option during the winter.

We don’t have energy-efficient lightbulbs, mostly because we have cathedral ceilings and no ladder, and it’s a pain in the ass to climb up there and change the bulbs. I actually don’t know what we’ll do when they burn out–call Maintenance, probably, as ridiculous as that sounds.

And here’s the relevant part. I have been pretty bad about buying stuff–specifically, knitting stuff–without much thought at all about its environmental impact. So here’s me, thinking about it. (I don’t know that I’ll change my ways anytime soon, because making a change in your habits is a lot harder than talking about it. But thinking about the issue is a good start.)

To start with, yarns can be made with varying degrees of eco-friendliness.

You’d think acrylics, “petro-yarns,” are obviously not eco-friendly. However, there is a material called ecospun that’s made from recycled plastic soda bottles. There was some ecospun roving in a sampler bag of fiber I bought at the LYS–it wasn’t bad, wasn’t great either. I did a search to see if I could figure out a way to get commercially spun ecospun yarn, and to my surprise, found that Wal-mart apparently sells it. Who’d’a thunk it? (Actually, as my MBA student boyfriend points out quite often, Wal-mart is moving fast in the right direction–towards zero waste, 100% renewable energy, and carrying sustainable products–because they’ve discovered that being eco-friendly will not only buy them good publicity but will also save them money.)

Cotton has a reputation for being incredibly bad for the environment. Look at the stats on this page–it uses 25% of the world’s insecticides, more than 10% of the world’s herbicides, and is the fourth most heavily fertilized crop–after, oddly, soybeans. I have to read up on this stuff; I thought the whole point of crop rotation with corn and soy was that soybeans were nitrogen fixers and didn’t need tons of fertilizer dumped on them. This is probably a naive, city mouse thing to think. It takes 1/3 of a pound of chemicals just to grow the cotton for one t-shirt! That’s lightweight jersey knit from thread–think of how much more went into making worsted weight yarn.

There are many organic cotton yarns out there, though, happily. I have some Foxfibre Pakucho in my stash. now carries Pakucho cotton for $2.98 a skein. This is an organic cotton–i.e. grown without pesticides and herbicides–and it’s color-grown, with the browns and greens being the natural color of the cotton rather than dye. And the colors get darker and more intense as you wash the yarn!

Sari silk yarn and 2nd Time Cotton are two yarns I know of that are made from by-products of the textile industry. Soysilk is made from industrial waste. Colourmart and Discontinued Brand Name Yarns sell mill ends that might otherwise be discarded. All these are admirable for getting fibers out of the waste stream and upcycling them into consumer goods again. I could go on, but I’d be reinventing the wheel, since there are other sites out there that have done the roundup, very thoroughly–here’s a treehugger post about eco-friendly yarns, the Worsted Witch has a treasure trove of useful information about this topic, and Interweave Knits just had an article about organic wool yarns.

The most eco-friendly choice is probably to buy old sweaters at the thrift store and recycle the yarn. It’s usually a major pain in the ass, but the only extra energy expended for your hobby is the energy you personally spend snipping up the seams, unraveling, skeining, washing, and winding the yarn. Plus, as a bonus, it’s really cheap. Or you could buy fleece right off the sheep from a local farmer and spin it yourself–also a good choice.

Anyway, on to the biggest thing I wanted to talk about. One of my biggest problems, environment-wise, is stashing. I love to buy yarn. Love it! I’ve kicked the habit of shopping for the sake of it, the “must-have” mentality, in most other areas of my life–the average age of my shoes is about 5 years and they are mostly full of holes, I’ve stopped buying books and DVDs and instead get them out from the library, I am usually able to admire pretty things and then put them back on the store shelf. (Having to try and move cross-country with or get rid of all my stuff was very helpful in curing packrat tendencies.) Unfortunately, my crafting hobbies have really messed me up in this regard, and in particular, knitting.

I don’t currently get the same thrill from sewing and spinning, so I can resist fiber and fabric sales pretty easily. However, seeing yarn I like online at a good price is sometimes unbearable–I think of the pleasure of knitting it, and the beautiful objects I could be making from it, and the money I’d be saving. Resisting Knit Picks is easy because I know the yarn will always be there at approximately that price, but when I see a limited-time sale, or clearance items, it’s like a Pavlovian trigger, and I feel like I’m about to lose out, big-time. And I end up wanting, and craving, and clicking “buy,” and then winding up with a big pile of mail-order yarn and guilty feelings–and, as a side effect, causing some measure of pollution and waste for something I might not end up using within the next few years.

All the environmental costs of manufacturing the yarn aside, one of the big issues with internet yarn shopping is the energy and pollution caused by shipping the yarn everywhere. Looking for the cheapest price frequently means buying from somewhere far away, for example, buying Rowan yarns from Jannette’s Rare Yarns or Cucumberpatch. And even within the US, my favorite mail order yarns come from a long ways away–Northampton, Seattle, Point Roberts, WA, and so on.

The trail gets smoggier as you look back along the supply chain. (I’m no expert on this, so forgive me if I get the details wrong.) The yarn moves from the distributors to these retailers. The distributors get the yarn from the mills. The mills get the material to spin from yet another source–the sheep farm, cotton farm, or whatever. All this trucking of materials back and forth uses up a lot of gas and creates a lot of pollution. This calculator estimates that an SUV emits 1.57 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile! Rahul did a case study for school about this; I’ll have to ask him about the exact numbers later, but the emissions numbers for delivery trucks were similar–in other words, very large. (Whatever happened to the Pony Express? Those were the good old days! We had horses, none of these newfangled horseless automobilators and iron flying machines. And back then, it cost a nickel to send a letter, and in those days nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. “Give me five bees for a quarter,” you’d say. Yes sir!)

International shipping costs have gone up a lot, and I suppose that’s good, from an environmental standpoint, because it brings out the costs of transportation into the open and hits people in their pocketbooks, discouraging a lot of frivolous international purchasing and shipping things around the world unnecessarily. Same with the crappy exchange rate.
When it comes down to it, that’s going to be the real thing that makes me change my ways, I think. I’m aware of all these issues and I try really hard to be good, in many ways, but sometimes my ideals seem to exist in a different world from the one I’m currently living in. I know in that big thinky brain of mine that I shouldn’t be eating those trans-fatty deep-fried morsels made from factory-farmed, debeaked, miserable chickens cut up into little pieces, but sometimes I smell the Proustian aroma of McNuggets and get lost in my personal Mcmemories and Mclongings and Mchunger and end up eating a crispy, juicy 10-pack. Same thing with that cashmere yarn made from goats’ down shipped from Mongolia (adding to desertification and environmental destruction along the way [edited to add that Marsha sent me this great link to a Colbert Report interview on this issue]) to Italy for spinning and then to New York for distribution and then to a retailer in California to ship to me. If it costs too damn much for that yarn, though, that is ultimately what is going to keep me from buying it.

Now I am going to say something really unpopular, but please keep in mind that I am the blackest of black pots here, and I’m not telling anyone to change, just trying to bring these issues into people’s minds. (Plus, I have to say something different than what all the other blogs are saying for Blog Action Day, right?) Ready? How’s this for a controversial statement: Yarn swaps are bad and so is destashing. I’m not talking about local swaps within your area, with a girl at work or a guy in your local Stitch ‘n’ Bitch. I mean Secret Pal swaps with folks across the country or across the world, or mailing the stuff you don’t want across the country to someone else who could have bought the same thing at the LYS around the corner. The same carbon footprint transportation issues come up. I bought a couple of skeins of Regia sock yarn from a woman across the country last year and never used them. They just sat there for a while, and then I destashed them to someone else across the country. That’s a lot of mailing yarn around, and I probably would have used the yarn eventually if it had sat there long enough. I should have just let it marinate in my stash. It’s really very frivolous, sort of gross, really, the idea that I am rolling in such an abundance of yarn that just because the sock yarn wasn’t a shade I really loved, I wouldn’t use it, and should instead send it across the country to someone else. And also sort of gross and frivolous is the idea that you would go out and specifically buy a metric crap-ton of yarn and stuff to pack into boxes and send to a random stranger. Not all at once, either, mind you, because that’s bad Secret Pal practice, but in carefully measured shipments designed to tease and amuse. Lots of little boxes flying back and forth all over the country in FedEx trucks and on airmail planes. It’s decadent!

Um. That said, I have participated in many swaps and destashing sales, really enjoy them, and have no particular intention of stopping. But it is kind of gross, when you think about it. I kind of feel like I should go give a bunch of money to charity right now to get that sticky feeling of uncontrolled consumerism off my skin.

During my month of eating local last year, people brought up other issues to take into consideration in this whole mess, and they may apply here, too. Some people said that mass surface transportation is more efficient and the chain of boats and trucks bringing an apple from New Zealand to San Francisco might end up creating less pollution than the farmer driving his little diesel jalopy up to SF from Fresno. The Mexican strawberries you buy might be organic while the local ones are grown with pesticides. Your dollars might support development in third world countries if you buy the Indian-grown basmati rice instead of the stuff grown in the Sacramento delta. And so on.

I think we should certainly think about that last part when weighing the problems of buying non-local yarns against their social and economic benefits in other countries: companies like Malabrigo, Manos del Uruguay, Frog Tree, Shokay, Be Sweet, and Mirasol all do good work in creating jobs and building up local economies outside the First World. Looking at that list, though, I realize I’ve never actually bought or knit with any of those yarns. So if I can’t kick the “I want” mindset, maybe the first thing to do is to stop lusting over that Karabella cashmere and start lusting over some Malabrigo instead.

Phew! That sure was self-righteous. I am going to go knit my mail-order yarn for a while now and watch my library DVDs. I’m done with my Jess jacket, by the way–I’m waiting for her to dry, and she just needs buttons after that, assuming she still fits after blocking.

Happy Blog Action Day!

It sank in on Thursday that three friends of mine were having a joint birthday party on Saturday evening and we had nothing to give them. Instead of running out and purchasing some novelty talking hamsters or somesuch, I had this bright idea that I was going to knit three presents in three days.

So without further ado, here’s how I spent my knitting time in the 72 hours from Thursday night to Saturday night:

Thursday night: Cast on for Giftblitz ’07 Gift #1: Steve’s Lopi Hat. Knit stockinette in the round all through knit night, then went home and knit for a few more hours while reading in bed. Finished around midnight and went to sleep.

Pattern: the Garter-Brim variation of Kim’s Hat from Last Minute Knitted Gifts
Size: Women’s; 3.5 sts/inch/5 rows/inch, approx 23″ around, 9.5″ deep.
Yarn used: Reynolds Lopi in Earth Red, approximately 1 skein
Needles used: Size 9 Denises, 16″
Started: 10/11/07
Finished: 10/11/07, for a total of about 5-6 hrs knitting
Mods: My gauge was off, so the women’s size made a large, roomy hat. I knit garter stitch for about 2″, then knit to about 7″ before starting crown decreases. I left out two of the plain knit rounds between decrease rounds, and k2tog’d all around the last round so I had 10 sts left when I drew the top closed.
Notes: I think the Kim’s Hat pattern as written might make an excessively deep hat for most people. If/when I make it again, I’ll be careful about how long I make it before beginning crown decreases.
Verdict: Despite Steve’s man-sized cabeza, I think the hat was still a bit too big for him, but he seemed to like it. This yarn is rather itchy, but I am very fond of the colors–the way they go from deeply saturated, almost shining deep red to a pale, almost silvery pink.

Friday: At lunchtime, I cast on for a Bainbridge Scarf for Jeanne, using the partial red Knitpicks Cotlin skein Leigh gave me to try out, and white kitchen cotton for edgings. I knit for a while, then picked it up again after work while watching seasons 2 and 3 of Firefly and finished around 10 PM Friday night–total knitting time probably 5 hours.

Pattern: Bainbridge Scarf
Size: Finished dimensions ended up being about 5″ by 26″, with 7″ ties.
Yarn used: Knitpicks Cotlin in Moroccan Red, perhaps 3/4 of a skein, Lily Sugar ‘n’ Cream in white, much less than 1 skein
Needles used: Size 6 Denises, 16″
Started: 10/12/07
Finished: 10/12/07
Mods: I cast on only 130 sts to compensate for the differing gauge with the slightly larger needles, and knit about 4-5 rows of white yarn at the beginning and end of the piece to create a contrast color edging.
Notes: This is such a cute pattern! I want to make one of these for myself, perhaps using one skein of some cuddly and expensive solid-colored yarn. I would probably make the circumference a bit smaller, though the extra folded-over length seems like it would be good for tucking into the neck of a jacket. I am kind of undecided about the Cotlin. It seemed nice to knit with at first, but all this red fuzz came off the yarn and got all over my hands and my face and made me sneeze. I thought perhaps it was cat hair on the yarn, until I rubbed my hands together and giant red lintballs stuck together with sweat came off my palms.
Verdict: It looked very cute on Jeanne! I sort of wished in retrospect I’d chosen a different contrast color. Red and white has too many other meanings attached to it. I started out thinking of Dr. Seuss, then, as I was knitting, my thoughts progressed to IU’s school colors, cream and crimson, then, when I was about 3/4 of the way through, the words “Santa Claus” slowly, horrifyingly, made their way into my mind, and it was a great effort to try and see the cute and modern color combination I had envisioned originally.

Friday night: After finishing Jeanne’s scarf, I cast on for a basketweave neckwarmer for Charlie. That was it for knitting that evening, since I headed out for some drinks after that, but it was a productive day anyway.

Saturday: I finished Charlie’s neckwarmer in the afternoon, after this cool encounter at the farmer’s market. I stopped by to fondle the handspun bulky yarn at the Schacht Fleece Farm stall, and as I was talking to the woman there she said she had read my blog! They looked up their farm name the other day and of course, since I’d blogged about the open house farm visit (as did Elliphantom and chemgrrl) my site came up.

Pattern: My own. In a fit of creativity, I’m calling it the Giftblitz Basketweave Neckwarmer (click for pattern instructions).
Size: One size fits all!
Yarn used: Knitpicks Cadena in Mist Gray, approximately 1/2 skein (~55 yards)
Needles used: Size 11 Denises
Started: 10/12/07
Finished: 10/13/07, probably about 3-4 hours of knitting
Notes: A super-quick, easy, and thrifty gift. The Cadena is squishy and nice, but I think many people would find it a bit itchy against the neck. I didn’t have time to block it; I bet some Eucalan would help tame the itchies.
Verdict: I think this was the most popular gift I gave. Rahul requested one too, once they saw that it could be pulled up around the face for biking in the cold in addition to pushed down around the neck to keep it warm, and Charlie’s girlfriend Carol immediately stole it and wore it for the rest of the evening like a headband, Calorimetry-style.

Off-topic notes on Firefly, since I was watching it while knitting. I love Buffy, and started getting into Joss Whedon’s other work only after I ran out of Buffy episodes to watch. I think Angel and Firefly are definitely inferior to Buffy, but I grew to enjoy them both–Angel came first, as a natural progression. I watched the whole series over this last summer. (The puppet episode was one of my favorite of the series. Brilliant!)

I watched Serenity at some point, probably when I found the DVD at the library, and found it disjointed and hard to follow. It seemed really obvious to me that it was a continuation of a TV series rather than a movie that could stand well on its own. I think I’d really like to go back and re-watch it, though, after finishing the rest of Firefly.

I was totally underwhelmed when I watched Disc 1 of Firefly–completely bored throughout the pilot, and thinking the whole way through of how baffling Whedon fanboys/girls were, to build up a cult following around this show. I thought grimly, though, of how terrible Buffy Season 1 was compared to, say, Season 5, and soldiered on through the rest of the disc. By Disc 2, I was finding myself really liking the characters, settings, and stories, though the forced affectation of “gorram” still makes my skin crawl.

Some of my favorite scenes so far include the “Too much hair!” sequence, Kaylee’s throwaway line, “He makes everyone cry, he’s like a monster!” and the scene between Mal and Inara at the end of “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” And by the time “Out of Gas” rolled around, it was deeply heart-warming and satisfying to see everyone’s backstories.

The Chinese is abysmal. I think the only intelligible word I’ve heard so far out of anyone’s mouth is “go-se,” which I am thinking is probably “dog shit.” I can’t figure out anything else they’re saying. It’s not just that I don’t know the words they’re using; I have no idea what syllables and tones they’re trying to produce. Just a minor complaint. I appreciate the integration of Chinese into this space western. I was going to say into a sci-fi movie in general, but then I started thinking of Blade Runner (look at that insane metal suitcase box set!) and Naboo and decided that Exotic Asian is already totally an old motif in futuristic sci-fi. Let’s see some more Exotic South American or Exotic East African or something.

I downloaded a couple of podcasts to listen to today:

The new Stash and Burn podcast (mp3 here), discussing Single Skein September. (The cabled Zara hat the ladies mention is a pattern of my own design knit with two skeins of Filatura di Crosa Zara, color 1503–sorry for not tagging my Flickr photo with this, but the details are all on my Ravelry page–I’ve had a couple of inquiries about it, so I should get around to figuring out how to represent cable crossings across pattern repeats so I can write up the pattern and put it up)

Here’s the hat. It looks screwy around the ribbing because instead of doing a gauge swatch, I knit the hat from the bottom up, then picked up stitches around the bottom and knit the ribbing downwards. If I write up the pattern, it will not use that ultra-ghetto technique.

And the new BBC Women’s Hour podcast where they interview Jane Brocket/yarnstorm about her new book. I was sitting here doing my work and half-listening, and heard Kate Saunders‘s dry, proper British voice say, at minute 2:08:

“I’m overjoyed that I don’t live in these times. I’m thrilled that I don’t have to knit and bake, because I don’t do it very well. My knitting always looks like an old scrotum, no matter how hard I try, and I don’t find it relaxing.”

It startled me like anything! I had to go back and listen again because I was sure it must have been a mondegreen.

The rest of the interview was kind of interesting, too. Basically more of the same yarntempest in a teacup I wrote a bit about earlier. I liked the phrase “pinny porn.” I love that word. Pinny! It always makes me think of The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, where I first encountered it.

Today I also found this Finnish web magazine named Ulla. Look at all those beautiful knitting patterns. (Link from Talvi) I especially like these leafy Bombadil socks and this insanely gorgeous white cabled jacket.

And in my personal knitting news, I am about 1/3 of the way done with the first sleeve on Jess. I’ve finished the fronts, back, and collar already. Nearly there! Plus, I’m proud to say that I achieved my goal and am currently the #1 Google hit for “starfish pig.”