Sunday, September 27, 2009

Knitting Memories

As I regain my passion for knitting and other fiber goodness, I begin to recollect where that passion really started and who in my past was responsible for sowing the seeds (or should I say sheering the fiber).

It's strange that most of my earliest childhood memories are mostly transparent; almost ghost-like. Fragments come and go but are not very clear. But the most opaque and vivid, quite technocolor in fact, are those of my Great Grandma Ida. Ida Goldstein (maiden name Aaronson) immigrated from Russia to the US in 1901 at that age of 16. She did not have a easy time when she arrived, as was the case for most immigrants. But Grandma was a hard worker. If I remember correctly she worked at many different jobs: as a maid, sewing sleeves on dresses in a clothing factory (I'm assuming a sweat shop), and in a cigarette factory putting filters in cigarettes. Eventually she met and married my Great Grandfather David and together they ran a Deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Grandma was a fabulous cook and a master at making a lot of the traditional Jewish foods like chicken soup with matzoh balls, chopped liver, gefilte fish, stuffed derma, and the rendered chicken fat that she used to cook matzoh brie and other culinary treats. I'm almost drooling just writing about it. I'm pretty sure there aren't any good Jewish restaurants in the Seattle area. If the do exist PLEASE let me know!

But the most vivid memory I have of Grandma Ida is of her in Florida sitting on the couch in my Grandma Ethel's and Grandpa Charlie's apartment, knitting afghans. In front of her was a small marble-top table, a tin of blackberry hard candies (I can't remember the name), her prune juice (which in the afternoon changed to some kind of liquor), a pack of Tareytons, and an ashtray filled with spent butts. The TV was on in the background playing game shows and the soaps. I don't think she paid much attention to the TV. It was probably mostly there for company or distraction.

On our yearly Florida visits, I would sit for hours watching her knit, listening to the needles clicking and her counting just loud enough to know that she wasn't talking to herself. I watched so intently and marveled at how the yarn could be worked in such a way to create the beautiful wave afghans that everyone in our immediate family wanted. It's probably not inaccurate to state that later in her life the afghans were all she knitted. I'm not even sure if she knit anything else. The "orders" were that numerous that's all she was able to make. Figure it out though, she was a Great Grandmother with lots of Grand- and Great Grandchildren to knit blankets for.

But Grandma didn't explicitly teach me to knit. I would sit right next to her and watch closely what she was doing. And I believe that I figured out how to do the basic knit stitch on my own just from watching her technique. Now I say believe because that memory is a bit vague. Grandma may have showed me the basics but I really can't remember.

What is clear is that I would sit alone and try to knit using toothpicks and fine string. Yes, I was a closet knitter. Keep in mind that back in the 70s boys did not knit; it just wasn't acceptable. Frankly boys didn't do any "crafty" stuff. Maybe when we were in pre-school and elementary school. But the really only acceptable "craft" when I was a kid were the objects we made in wood and metal shop, with the exception of the apron we had to make on a sewing machine in Home Economics class. Those jocks really hated the fact that they HAD to take sewing and cooking classes. Of course I thought differently!! Not only did I love the classes but I embraced the projects. My smile face patterned apron had 2 pockets rather than 1 that was mandatory.

At some point I gave up trying to knit with toothpicks and string. But I never lost the yearning. It just laid dormant. Over the years I tried different crafts including needlepoint, cross-stitch, and crochet. All still done pretty much in secret. There were 3 other women from my family who also helped to inadvertently instill a passion for fiber arts: my Great Aunt Annette, my mother, and my cousin Susie. All three are decedents of Great Grandma; daughter and grand daughters respectively).

So back to the other vivid knitting and craft memories...

Mom: Sitting in the kitchen hair wrapped around her head and two large Tropicana plastic orange juice cans and under the portable hair dryer, knitting argyle socks. I truly remember the numerous bobbins hanging and her cursing under her breath. I think knitting didn't last very long for her or I don't remember much more that she knit.

Cousin Susie: House in Southern CA decorated with completed and framed crewel projects. Me wishing I could try it out. But instead I made a skateboard from scratch with my cousin and Susie's husband Ken. It was fun to make, paint and ride and at the time a lot more socially acceptable for boys to do. But I really wanted to learn and try the crewel.

Aunt Annette: I never knew that Aunt Annette knitted. But several years ago at one of her birthday celebrations I saw her knitting a beautiful sweater. I asked her if she would make me one. I secretly wished that I could make it instead.

As I wrote earlier, I tried different needle crafts when I was younger. But none really stuck. The biggest problem was that instead of trying beginner projects, I would dive right into the intermediate or advanced. For instance, with needlepoint I tried petit point and a very complex pattern. Way too challenging for a first project. The back of the canvas was a mess and after wrestling with all the different threads, I gave up.

With knitting the first real project that I tried was a sweater. What do you expect from an over achiever? That was back when I was a freshman in college. I definitely was a lot more comfortable with myself and didn't really care about what people thought. But I never wound up with a completed sweater. The sleeves were too long and I didn't know how to put it together. I didn't know a thing about gauge and construction. Discourage again, I gave up.

Fast forward to 2001. I'm not quite sure if the recent knitting craze started then or if I was just ready to become part of the movement. But one day I saw three women at work sitting in the lobby at work knitting. They were having a blast, knitting and chatting (maybe an early stitch-n-bitch since that job was pretty horrible). Well that's all she wrote. I decided that I would try knitting again. Coincidentally, it was about that time that my Mother was also getting the knitting bug.

Thankfully there were a lot of resources at my disposal which were not available back in the 70s. The internet was filled with how-to videos. And bookstores with tons of knitting books. Article Pract, in Oakland, CA, my LYS at the time, became my second home. The store was so inviting and the people there didn't care that I was a guy who wanted to learn to knit. And my partner David was a big supporter of my passion.

So here I am 9 years later and a proud man who knits (and now spins). I want to say to all boys and men out there -- straight or gay -- knitting is not a girly thing. Men have been knitting for a long time. In fact, men were knitting way before women. Don't be afraid to pick up a set of needles and some yarn and knit... and do it in public!

Thank you Grandma Ida, Susie, Mom, Christina and Tammy (aka PuNk rAwK pUrl) for being my mentors.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You spin me right, round baby right round

Last Saturday was a continuation of fiber madness. It was World Wide Spin in Public Day. I hung out with Brian, Kent, 2 of the guys I met at the Men's Fall Knitting retreat, and a bunch of other spinners down in Kent, WA (not to be confused with Kent the person). The outing was hosted by Renaissance Yarns which is located in Kent Station. Kent Station reminds me of a small downtown Walnut Creek, CA. There are several of these California-style outdoor shopping centers in the Seattle area. Admittedly I grew up in the NJ Mall Generation, spending many hours of my teenage years hanging out with friends in the store filled indoor shopping wings. I can almost smell the mix of new clothes and chain store restaurant aromas that was so common in those enclosed commerce meccas. The outdoor shopping centers are definitely a lot more appealing than their predecessors (strip or indoor).

Brian & Kay

Kent from Kent using a drop spindle

It amazed me to see so many different types of spinning wheels and drop spindles. The Turkish spindle, which caught my eye, uses a bottom whorl that enables the spinner to wind a neat ball of yarn as the yarn is produced. The finished ball slips off very easily ready for knitting or plying. As with other spindles they are sold in a variety of different beautiful woods. From what I can tell, the spindles spins what seems like forever. And because the yarn is wound neatly around the whorl it remains very balanced as more yarn is produced. Check out this great video on YouTube demonstrating how to spin on one (it doesn't hurt that the woman in the video has a very pleasant English accent).

My drop spindle spinning techniques still need some polishing. I tried using different fibers as well as another top whorl spindle graciously given to me by "wonderMike" (that's his Ravelry name). It definitely spins a bit longer than the Tilt-a-Whorl beauty I bought at the Men's Fall Knitting Retreat. But I still haven't gotten the hang of actually spinning the yarn while the spindle hangs by the yarn. The "park & draft" method is still my current spinning mode. It was fun to experiment with different fibers and colors.

My growing collection. The new one one is on the right (Schacht).

I definitely have a way to go with mastering the drop spindle. But there's fun in that challenge.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It takes some fiber, yarn, needles, spindles... and a few men

Wow, I know it's been quite some time since I've blogged. Life has just been too busy; or should I say my job consumed most of my free time. And with likes of Facebook and Twitter I found that posting shorter snippets of what's been happening a lot less time consuming. Ummm, I think I just lied. It's probably very likely that the time I spent on Facebook and Twitter added up to quite a big chunk of time.

Well anyway, what got me to finally head to Blogger and type in an entry? Knitting! Yes my somewhat dormant obsession is back and in a big way. This is not a complaint, at least from my perspective. I'm not quite sure how David feels though ;-)

I had been knitting on and off, here and there since we moved to Seattle. But the amount of projects were not coming off the needles as quickly as they had when I was in CA. So what did it take? Well Joe Hose, a very dear and old college friend sent me a link to a flyer posted on Flickr for a Men's Knitting Retreat during an IM Google chat. You read correctly; a knitting retreat for just men. And coincidentally it was going to be held a hop, skip and a jump away just south of Seattle in Federal Way, WA.

So after a little bit of should I or shouldn't I internally debating (mostly around the cost and the time away from David and Trixie), I contacted wonderMike and said sign me up.

A few months of pent up excitement paid off. The Fall Men's Knitting Retreat (MFKR - cute acronym right?) happened and EXCEEDED my expectations. Up until the retreat I would say that I was a solitary and self-taught knitter. I had never knitted with another man. In the seven-ish years that I've been knitting I think I might have met 2 or 3 male knitters but those were fleeting moments.

The retreat was held at Dumas Bay which was a former monastery. The accommodations were just fine for a dormitory. It brought back some strange college memories (don't even go there some of you). The grounds were absolutely beautiful. I can't believe that I didn't take any pictures. The meeting room had a breathtaking view of the Puget Sound.

Here are some pics of the gang (there were 28 total not including me).

Mike (aka wonderMike), organizer

Brian (co-organizer), James (all the way from New Zealand), & Kerry

Daniel, Harry & Barth

Jeff, Chuck, Brian, Joe (the guy who started the first Men's Knitting Retreat)

Ron & Franklin (Franklin recently published the very funny It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons)

Brian knitting 14... that's right 14 socks at one time on a single very long Addi Turbo Click needle

Jeff, Nigel, Michael, Andy, Brett, Paul, ? (can't tell from the back of his head), & Daniel

You all are probably wondering what the heck one does at a knitting retreat. Well the obvious is knit. But there was a lot more. wonderMike and Brian organized quite a fun-packed retreat of classes, field trips and speakers/guests.

I took a beginning class of drop spindle yarn spinning taught by the fabulous wonderMike. I bought this beautiful hand made spindle crafted by Ed Lingenfelter (Tilt-A-Whorl Spindles).

The yarn on the shaft I spun and plied

Top view

Underneath view

I also learned how to do some hip hems for him taught by the very entertaining and talented Stephen Houghton (aka hizKnits).

We went on a trip to Moonshadow Alpaca Ranch in Auburn, WA. Those animals are just too freaking cute.

Nancy, Mike & Deb (Deb & Nancy are the fabulous owners of Moonshadow Alpaca Ranch)

It won't surprise those who know me that my mind started going on overdrive. Mind, "Boy how I would love to own an Alpaca Farm." "Wouldn't it be fun to raise these cute animals, harvest their fleece, spin it up (you did just learn to spin didn't you), and knit up some warm fuzzy stuff...." I learned though that money is not made from selling the fleece. It actually is from selling the Alpaca to other farms or as pets.

So who knows?

We did a bunch of other fun stuff. The crew of us went to Skacel which is the exclusive distributor of the lovely Addi Turbo needles and scrumptious yarns from Europe. We were able to go shopping in the warehouse. It was like being let loose in a fiber candy store. I left with a several new Addi Clicks and 3 bags of yarn.

Kenny, Michael and Troy shopping in the warehouse

On the last evening we had a guest visit from Cat Bordhi, the sock Godess, who gave a very inspirational talk encouraging us to knit in public, teach other men & boys to knit, and publish books.

We did a ton of other stuff but this post is already too long.

I will NEVER forget the retreat and all the wonderful, talented and funny people I met (I wish I had pics over everyone) and new friends I made. I'm counting the days until next Fall Knitting Retreat.