Winter Break for Adults

Photo of a handknit cowl, in progress

You know how you have a break coming up and you get all excited because you’re going to have ALL THIS TIME?  If you’re a maker, like me, maybe you plan out a project or thirteen.  Go buy supplies.  Talk about it with friends.  Print out patterns and choose your project bags. Sharpen your pencils.

While you’re talking with your friends, you also make plans to have brunch and play a board game.  Or go see a movie.  Or go for a winter hike because it’s unseasonably warm.  And there are the day trips to see the extended family in various configurations.  And you have to clean your house before your family comes over for dinner that one night.  And then your family comes over and you drink too much and put music on the that party can with the light show and wake up sated with familial love and your house is trashed again.

Photo of handknit socks and cowl in progress

Suddenly Winter Break is almost over.  You’ve only knit four rows on one project and cast on another.  You pulled out all the scrapbooking supplies, but never got started.  You think longingly of your sewing machine and the leggings you were going to sew yourself. That plan to try crewel is going to have to wait.

You wonder if anyone else notices that you’re almost out of milk (which you don’t drink, but the other three humans do, and the dog if she can get away with it). The pile of dirty laundry is epic and suspiciously contains things you know a certain smaller person didn’t wear recently. And why are there hair ties, paper clips, candy wrappers, and pieces of the wreath on the floor, mixing with the dog hair?  Don’t the other humans know the magical vacuuming robot will DIE if it hoovers up those things?  And if it dies, then you might too? And then who will buy the milk and wash the underwear??

That’s when it happens.  You realize for the umpteenth time that “break” is not a vacation.  It is a break from routine.  And while maybe you need a day off here and there, a full two weeks of no routine is a special kind of hell for the person who works from home.

You love your children, but you can’t wait for them to go back to school.  (Not to mention your loving spouse, who is so much fun to have lunch with when it’s not leftovers in the kitchen full of things that need to be fixed and cleaned.) No one is excited about going back to the morning routine, especially in the depths of winter, but it is the gamut we work-from-home types must run to have our space to ourselves.

One day, about two weeks from now, you’ll kiss the wind-roughened cheeks of your children goodbye and watch them rustle off to school. You walk inside your home (your office, your sacred place), your mind on fire with projects.  Break is over and you have your space and your time back.  What will you make first?

Magic Blankets

Photo detail of machine quilting

Around here, magic blankets are not something you can buy in a store.  You’ve got to know the right people.

Photo detail of machine quilting

Back when our first baby was born, we took swaddling seriously (shout out to Harvey Karp, he’s spot on), but the things sold in stores as receiving blankets at that time were little better than oversized burp rags.  No exaggeration!  So off I went to the local big box craft store and bought 5 one-yard lengths of flannel in fun prints.  A couple straight hems and BAM, we had a pile of swaddling blankets.

Our first child loved swaddling and we got a lot of use out of the big blankets.  When he got to be about 2 years old, I sewed two blankets end to end, then another two end to end, then quilted those together with a made-up meandering stitch.  Without a walking foot.  That’s what we call a labor of love, friends.  I sewed the fifth blanket into a pillowcase that is still in use today (on the pillow that is propping me up while I write this, in fact!).

Photo of the pillowcase made from a flannel baby blanket

My son loved this blanket as only a child can unconditionally love the wonky things we make for them.  He declared it the magic blanket and, eight years later, it is still a cherished possession.  So much so that my younger child was eventually jealous.  I needed to make her magic blanket, and soon, lest she stage a Leverage-style attack to take permanent possession of her brother’s blankie.

Photo detail of machine quilting

Of course she also had 5 (no, 6!) one-yard lengths of flannel that she used as a baby — although she was not one who liked to be swaddled.  No, instead she wanted to be held constantly.  For three months.  Not that I am scarred or anything.

Ahem.

Photo of quilts from flannel baby blankets

For her blanket I got fancy.  I did a bunch of math (cooped up much?) and decided that 9″ squares would make the most efficient use of my fabric.  I cut the blankets up and sewed them back together in an eye-blistering pattern of colorful delight that is different on each side.  I ran out of patience at this time and quilted the whole thing together with straight lines, and machine bound it with commercial bias tape.

Thus was balance restored to our universe.

Photo of quilts from flannel baby blankets

I take deep satisfaction in upcycling, but this project took it to the next level because of how much my kids love having something I made just for them and having something that is a direct connection to their early years.

I toyed with the idea of writing this up as a sort of tutorial, but the real message is: just sew that shit together!  Your kids will love it, you will learn some things, and whatever you make will be NEW and get used, rather than gather dust in the basement or sadly slip away to a marginal existence in a thrift store.

The Shawl Collar Cowl Is a Hug Around Your Neck

A photo of Matt modeling his new Shawl Collar Cowl

Earlier this year I started a Pinterest board for my knit-worthy family members to pin things they’d like me to make them — primarily knitting, but there are no rules … and no guarantees.  I got the idea from my friend Tiffany after hearing that another friend of hers started a shared board for people to pin things to that they wanted Tiffany to make for them.  Tiffany obligingly follows through, good soul that she is.

My Make for Me board is a lot of fun for me to look through.  It’s interesting to see who is pinning to the board and what is catching each person’s eye.  If you are on Pinterest, I recommend setting up a shared board or three.  Matt and I also use a shared board for recipes and that has worked out well.

One of the items on the Make for Me board is the Purl Bee‘s Shawl Collar Cowl.  If you’ve been reading here during the past twelve months, this pattern will be familiar; I tried to make one for my brother last December and tragically ran out of yarn.

photo of an unfinished Shawl Collar Cowl

But the idea wouldn’t die.  Matt decided he really wanted one for himself.

That gave me the perfect excuse for a tiny yarn bender last month when Abbey and went to Ewe-Nique Yarns in Brighton for a little therapy shopping.  I knit this cowl out of Cascade 128  Superwash in loden green and beige (not the official color names).

A photo of my finished Shawl Collar Cowl laying on the table

Let me tell you, this this li’l fiction of garter rib and stockinette is no stroll in the park.  You might think it’s an easy-peasy pattern. Or you might think the tricky part is the cross over.  No, no, no.

A photo of Matt modeling his new Shawl Collar Cowl

You know what kicked my ass?  The increases.  I’ve been knitting ardently for twelve years and I was nearly felled by the four different M1 (make one) increases in the tightly knit stockinette liner.  I got holes, I got stitches slanting the wrong way, I missed increases entirely — it was a hot mess.  Repeatedly!  After ripping and re-knitting the first half dozen rows three times, I wrote out every row on scratch paper, along with a shorthand description of the increases, and then I was able to make progress.

A photo of Matt modeling his new Shawl Collar Cowl

During this ten day adventure, I got a message from a fellow knitter on Ravelry who found my in-progress cowl and asked me how my project was going and if I was having as much trouble as she was with the dart decreases.  First time in seven years on Ravelry I’ve had a message like that.  Oh the pathos!

A photo of Matt modeling his Shawl Collar Cowl

She found her way out of the woods, as did I, but I’m here to tell you that, while the Shawl Collar Cowl pattern looks modest and unassuming, it’s actually rather spicy and takes some attention to accomplish. Lesson learned: stick to basic socks for mindless knitting.

Dressing Up the Holidays

Close-up of Abby's stocking

My brother, Noah, was the catalyst for the other holiday gift knitting experience.

Last summer Noah asked me if I could secretly knit a pair of Christmas stockings for himself and his fiancée, Abby.  He likes the set of handknit colorwork stockings I made for my house.

My family's handknit Christmas stockings

 

These stockings are knit from Nancy Bush‘s pattern, Christmas in Tallinn, published several places, but the only souce that matters is her excellent book Knitting on the Road.  I made the first one, the red one, in 2005 for my infant son; Matt’s green stocking was made in 2006; my blue one was made in 2007; and then I had a year reprieve until our daughter came along in 2009.  She got a purple stocking.  I substituted the yarn Bush’s pattern calls for, Dalegarn Tiur, for Dalegarn Heilo simply because I liked the Heilo palette better.  (This was, by the way, the first time I was bit in the ass by yarn substitution.  Tiur is 109 yards.  Heilo is 126 yards.)

E's Christmas stocking

Noah left me in full creative control, so I of course immediate sought out ways to make this project as difficult as possible.  First, I had to design my own.  Second, if one design was fun, then two new designs were twice as fun!  (Right?!)  Third, the yarn (O!  The yarn!).

Abby's Christmas stocking, designed by me

I really enjoyed picking out colorwork patterns for these designs.  I found everything I wanted, and pretty quickly, in Sheila McGregor’s Traditional Scandinavian Knitting.  For the top of Abby’s stocking (green), I chose a boy-and-girl motif; for Noah’s stocking (orange), I chose reindeer.  The body patterns on each of their stockings come from the same 19th-century sweater: one was the pattern on the back and the other was the pattern on the front.

Noah's Christmas stocking

Can you imagine knitting that sweater?  Maybe…

There was some math to work out to make these motifs go together, resulting in Noah’s stocking being noticeably larger.  Noah has no problem with this.

As for the yarn, Cascade 220 Superwash Sport, it wasn’t my favorite.  Noah and I chose it based on wide color palette and affordable price, but it has just about put me off superwash yarn for the rest of my life.  It did not hold up well to repeated ripping and reknitting, coming un-plied and… for lack of a better descriptor, flacid.

Of course then my friend pointed out that many of the high-end end yarns, like Mashtosh and Tanis and Plucky Knitter, are superwash now so never say die.

Okay, So the Gift Knitting Wasn’t All Roses

I didn’t tell you the entire story of my holiday gift knitting in the last post.

My parents and siblings decided this year to scrap the round robin of individual gifts in favor of the secret santa system — which wasn’t even secret, not that any of us heathens cared.  So you can imagine my relief when evil-me went from trying to talk good-me into making a whole bunch of stuff — starting, oh, mid-November — to sane-me realizing I could still crank out a gift knit because I only had to make ONE.

I got my brother’s name.  Noah is awesome, fashionable, self-reflective, sensitive.  In other words: a great recipient of handknits.

Noah!

I started off making Noah Purl Soho’s Shawl Collar Cowl in Malabrigo Chunky — Lettuce on the outside, Natural (white) on the inside.  The yarn came from my stash, the project was working up quickly.  At Thanksgiving, I asked Noah’s fiancée Abby what kind of handknit he would like and she said “a cowl” and told me how he tried to buy one on Etsy and it was too long and girlish.  I felt like a champ!  The Shawl Collar Cowl is so chic and manly and I was going to solve Noah’s problem.  And he was going to look smashing in that lettuce green, if I do say so.

my beautiful failure

How does the saying go?  If it’s too good to be true… Well, perfection was far from achieved: I ran out of yarn.  Although I had researched what yarn would be a good substitute and looked up the needle size, I never checked how much yarn I needed.  Why, I cannot say.  This is not my first time at the rodeo.  (This is not the first time I have made this mistake, either, arg!)

Worse yet, this college town has gone, in five years, from having three yarn stores to having half a yarn store.  The remaining half store is downtown, where no one who doesn’t work downtown wants to go.  But go I went — and on the Saturday before Christmas no less.  I knew it was a long shot, that I might have to start over in a new color rather than just alternate between dye lots, but at least this place specializes in Malabrigo.  I still had hope that this project would be saved.

(There’s that foreshadowing of doom again, eh?)

I do believe I gasped out loud when I walked in to this very small shop.  Admittedly I had not been there in a year or more and I knew the owner had been scaling back the yarn portion of her business (she also sells clothing and jewelry). Eyes as wide as saucers, I gaped like a fish for a moment before finally choking out the question, “Where’s all the yarn?” to the owner.  The shelves and walls set aside for yarn were nearly empty — altogether there was only an armful of yarn in that shop.  The needle wall was almost empty.  My stomach sank to the floor as I realized: I have more yarn in my house than this shop now carries.

You might be tempted to conclude that there was a run on her small stock as people grabbed all the yarntastic gifts, but no.  The owner patiently explained that Malabrigo, the small cooperative, cannot keep up with the demand of her customers, so people are putting themselves on a waitlist and when it comes in, she calls.  A month later and I am still aghast at this… solution?  I am sure I don’t know all of what is going on in her store, but isn’t this the kind of thing that a dozen online businesses are doing, only faster?  And charging less?  And if you can’t keep yarn on the shelf, but still have empty shelves, why wouldn’t you carry another brand?  This used to be the place to go for Reynolds brand yarns, as well, including Lopi.  I didn’t see that at all.

At this point I could have gone to the big box store and gotten something else so I could forge ahead, but I decided to cash in my chips and cast on a pair of socks.  There was now no way I could finish in time and I used a precious skein of Trekking XXL that I had been saving for myself, but it seemed that some kind of sacrifice was demanded by nature in order to make this vicious cycle of WTF end.

socks of brotherly love

Noah was gracious about opening up part of a gift that wasn’t finish and I know he looks forward to these extra special  socks.  I’m still not done with Noah’s holiday socks because I  tried to pull off some other knitting miracle for my husband’s January birthday.  But first, I have one more gift knit to tell you about.  And this one is truly epic (the knitting, not the story).  Here’s a preview:

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