Out of the past, or never in it?

I’ve been reading Laurie Viera Rigler’s books–I finished Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and am now halfway through Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, and while I won’t say they’re the greatest books I’ve ever read, it’s still a pleasure to contemplate what life would be like for a modern woman in Jane Austen’s era, and vice versa. In a way, for any true Austen addict, it seems that going to the past would be easier. We’d have a road map; the past is already written, and we’ve had the books and the movies. We wouldn’t be shocked at the lack of indoor plumbing, what passed for medical treatment, or the existence of servants. This isn’t to say it would be easy to live with, but it wouldn’t be a complete unknown.

In Rude Awakenings, the second volume, a woman from Jane Austen’s era is somehow transported to 2009, to exist in the body of a woman from Los Angeles. The reasons for this are never made terribly clear–which is one reason I’m not that fond of the book; the internal logic is really weak–but the bottom line is that she has no idea what ninety percent of everything is, does, or is for. I can’t imagine that being anything but terribly frightening. How would we get along 200 years in the future? There have already been unimaginable developments during the span of my life. The internet alone is enormous. And it’s easy to think we’ve reached the pinnacle of development, but history assures us that neither is this the case, nor is it terribly wise to believe so.

What’s really starting to amuse me is this: though she did embroidery in her life in 1813, the stressed-out heroine of this story never seems to think of finding any kind of needlework in the present, though it’s obvious she found it at least soothing before. In the first volume, the contemporary woman is amazed at how her 1813 fingers just know what to do with needle and thread, and how much it relaxes her. And of course we know that contemporary women do embroider, knit, crochet, and make crafts for fun and profit, and we know these things have a positive impact on one’s mental and physical health. But it’s a real trope of novels of this sort that a contemporary woman would neither have the desire nor the skill to do any sort of handwork. It comes up so often that I have occasion to be annoyed whenever I notice it. Women from the past are very often portrayed as put-upon by the expectation that they will do needlework, and will abandon it at the first opportunity. For fictional women in the present, handwork is almost never even on their radar. Why we do this to the poor characters we create in any era is beyond me. Ravelry has over a million members worldwide, and I personally know of a dozen knitters or crocheters who aren’t on the site, not to mention a few dozen more men and women who do other crafts. Why do we persist in pretending that handwork is of the past, and then only because it’s supposed to be there, not that anyone actually liked to do it? It’s such a disservice to all of us.

That groundhog lied to us.

We had a promising few days of warmth, what feels like eons ago. Now it’s back to pale gray light, snow squalls, raw cold, and now with even more dirt. My hyacinths are up, poor things. Sorry, guys; we thought it would be different, too.

The good news is that it’s not too warm to keep knitting on my Maeva socks, though they certainly won’t be done to wear until it’s cold again. They’re taking longer than I expected, but I’ve had less time and energy to knit lately. The baby has decided that not only does he hate when I make him sleep, but he also hates when I sleep. The upshot is that though people have complained that the Sheldon baby blanket is death by garter stitch, I am finding it an excellent project for the level of attention I have to spare for knitting right now. At least I’m still feeling optimistic enough that I’m planning to tackle a couple of sweaters this year. I’ve become so bored of my sweater wardrobe after such a long winter, and I feel colder in the transitional seasons than I did when I was younger. Lightweight cardigans are in order.

I will say this about Maeva, though: I am loving the toe-up socks. I never got to try on my socks ahead of time before, and they are so neat-looking when I put them on that I’m extra-inspired to finish them. I really like that Judy’s Magic Cast-On is so easy to memorize, too. And there’s not having to graft the toes, bonus.

Finishing a big embroidery project is on my list of 2011 goals, but I seem to need the sense of productivity from knitting more than I need the challenge of decorative work these days. I wonder what that’s about.

On choosing handmade

Etsy featured a profile of the artist Cathy McMurray this morning, with the following teaser quote from the interview:

Choosing handmade is choosing a slower way of life, one rooted in tradition and creative expression. Handmade always involves a story that is as much about the maker as it is about the product.

It got me to click over, and her work certainly is beautiful. Really, I envy her her creativity. I don’t kid myself that I’m an artist. I’m a craftsperson at best; I don’t have artistic vision, which is what it really takes to do more than just alter this or that to make it my own. So possibly she’s talking about something different from what I think of when I hear the word “handmade.”

Emotionally, I’m very attracted to that sentiment. I’ve long been much more fond of the things I can make than the things I can buy. Where knitted and embroidered objects are concerned, I generally prefer anything I can make to anything anyone else can make, where I decide that said object is worth my investment of time and effort. And really, I hold both of those things quite cheaply. I don’t make a living knitting, so if a sweater I’ll wear every winter for the rest of my life takes me several months, or even years, to finish, that’s just fine. If I thought knitting was a waste of time, I certainly wouldn’t do it. Unless the need is incongruent with the amount of time I’ll realistically have to work on something–which is to say, I need wool socks tomorrow and know I need to do x other things besides knit between now and then–I’d always rather make what I want than buy something that almost certainly won’t be as good.

But. You knew this had to be coming. I’m too much of a historian to let a statement like that go without thinking of the luxurious life from which it springs. We may not get rich by the work of our hands, but making things out of the enjoyment of craft is much more prevalent in our world than elsewhere, and today than in the past. Her notion is romantic and compelling, but I think of women and children in tenements making lace collars, children knitting to support the family, women knitting to clothe their whole large families, the constriction of young ladies’ academies and hours of needlework whether they liked it or not, even the sheer tedium of plain sewing for a large household before home sewing machines. I know that what I do is a luxury. I can stop doing it if it stops being fun, and nobody I love will go without socks or sweaters…or food or shelter. I’m reminded that when I can choose handmade, I’m lucky.


I have to admit that the scope of some people’s resolutions just blows me away. 111 projects? In a year? Even if many are hats, as she’s showing in her picture, I still find that a freakishly enormous number. At my most productive, I finish a dozen projects, including knitting and stitching, and generously counting each Christmas ornament as one. Last year, I think I made it to six FOs across all of my hobbies. Having kids takes it out of you, though I also admit that at my most hellishly busy, I’m also at my most productive. My thesis director tells me they say, “If you want something to get done, ask a busy person.” Perhaps not this busy person, at least not for a few more months, thanks.

My goals for 2011 were so much more modest than 111 projects as to be practically nonexistent: finish the Kingdom gloves I was working on when I wrote the list, and also two pairs of socks. I did finish the gloves, and the Sheldon, and I cast on one pair of socks this week. First time with toe-up, and second attempt at two circulars; both going well. I don’t know why the project doesn’t ladder worse between the circs. It seems like it should, but it doesn’t. These are the Maeva socks from the recent Knitty, going on the theory that if I work more difficult socks, I’ll be challenged enough not to get bored by the second one. Yes, I know I could work both at once on two circs. But it’s a fine line between just challenging enough and so frustrating that I quit, and I figured, best to ramp it up slowly when doing a new technique.

I also want to finish cataloguing my yarn stash, but that requires more time than I have at the moment. Ravelry is a help. I’m about halfway there. I have more yarn than I thought I did, eep.

I wonder if I’ll feel like going back to stitching soon. I mentioned before that knitting is my “other” hobby, and that my main passion is embroidery, especially historic techniques. But I’m reading so much about that for my thesis that I can’t even look at my needlework half the time. I went on a knitting jag after a paper I wrote for school last year on politics in Tudor-era domestic embroidery, too. Right now, knitting feels right. I need and like the things I’m making. I’m finding it soothing, and embroidery can be stressful. I have a couple of long-term embroidery projects going–I’m enrolled in the Goldwork Master Class with Thistle Threads–but nothing I’m seeing in mainstream needlework excites me. So I’m willing to keep with the knitting for as long as it takes, until it isn’t fun anymore.

They should call it E-cord.

You know, I have no issue whatsoever with I-cord generally. I’ve made it before; I think it’s a smashing thing that you can knit in the round on a single needle without turning. However. This applied I-cord around the Sheldon shell–by which you connect the shell to the little Underoos that the turtle wears to don the shell–is making me wish I had about two fewer fingers on each hand. I’ve seldom had such a struggle with only four stitches at a time. They’re too tight, they’re too loose, they’re popping off the needle while I’m trying to pick up the edges. Stupid I-cord. Not “I” for “idiot,” but “e” for “effort.” This is taking much more effort than it seems like it should. I promised my older son that I’d knit him one after I finished this one for someone else, and now I’m regretting it. Maybe on the second try, it’s easier.

In other knitting news, I decided to use the second, smaller half of the ball of sock yarn to knit socks for the baby, and just start the other sock for the older kid out of the new ball and try to make them both alike. This is utterly unnecessary; it’s just a little silly game I’m playing with myself. And anyhow, it fits my mandate: use up sock yarn. Plus, the baby can’t keep socks on to save his life. I should knit some that button to his diaper. Hey! I could knit socks that button to his diaper! That would be marvelous. Who says I’m not creative.

I picked up the spring issue of Interweave Knits, and there’s a lot of talk of spring knitting. I tend to tune out when I hear those words together. I don’t generally enjoy working with cotton yarns, and the sweaters are lovely, but I’m still emotionally scarred from the eighties, when I had an enormous collection of awful cotton sweaters, long since released into the wild to ruin someone else’s wardrobe. I went to wool and have only looked back when it became apparent that I had a moth infestation at some point. Which reminds me that if you know anyone who wants some slightly holey wool sweaters to reclaim for something on Etsy, point them my way. I ask only for one of whatever it is they make with them, and they can have the lot for fun and profit.

So, cotton, that’s one problem, and the other is this: I have breasts. The models with the sweaters? Not so much. Now, I know that this is Interweave Knits and not Interweave Cheesecake, but like most women, I keep my breasts in my sweaters, and that means I need sweaters that look like they can accommodate them. Without, if I might ask the world of them while I’m at it, making me look like I’m not so much clothed as slipcovered. That was the great appeal of the Lia sweater. It has extra optional short-row shaping in the bust. Excellent work, that. Could I figure out this kind of thing for myself? Probably. Will I? Come on. If you knew how many things I’m neglecting just to write this much, you’d know that it’s not going to happen. Not before next winter, anyhow.

The issue did offer one thing I liked, though: the En Pointe Pullover. I have a suspicion that many patterns in knitting magazines are based on boxy rectangles instead of more flattering body-hugging shapes because boxy rectangles are easier to knit and therefore more accessible to beginning-to-average knitters. This pattern is a great example of a simple shape that has great drape and flow through using the right kind of yarn and innovative assembly. I’m going to try it in the new Knitpicks yarn Aloft. It looks like just the thing for when it’s too warm for sweaters indoors, but too cold to go outside without one. That’s spring knitting I can get into.