My (finally) finished shawl

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Remember the new-old project I wrote about in January last year? My aim was to knit a pattern I found in the archives at Southampton which dated back to 1867.

Round Shetland Veil

I’ll admit it – the project did get put on hold a little. I ordered and received the yarn in January 2014, and did a couple of swatches to determine my needle size and to familiarise myself with the pattern. That didn’t go as well as I had expected – it was really easy to make mistakes with the cobweb yarn and I found I needed long stretches of time and complete silence to make progress. So when I went to Australia for my three-month Institutional Visit I accidentally-on-purpose left the poor shawl in the UK…

The guilt got a bit much so when I got back I promised I would work on it. I started with a vengeance in June 2014. I worked fairly steadily on it for about two months before getting distracted by a pretty cardigan, some sock yarn that just had to be knitted and then Christmas gifts. When January rolled around I resolved not to cast on any new projects until everything already on the needles was finished. I didn’t quite stick to that promise, but by March it was off the needles! Hurrah! Considering I worked on it on-and-off (although mostly off) for ten months it’s pretty small. It did grow when I blocked it, but it still didn’t look like much.

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Looks are deceptive. This shawl is actually a lot. It is 53 repeats of a four-row pattern. Each row started off taking 15 minutes and ended up taking 1 hour (the length of the row gradually increased). That’s 96 hours on the body of the shawl, 9 hours on the border, and 2 hours sewing it together. I spent 8 hours swatching,12 hours making a sample version in aran weight yarn, 1 hour researching and buying the yarn. That’s 128 hours embodied in one shawl before even taking into account the research I did about the shawl, its designer, and the history of knitting.

The shawl isn’t just my time, either. It represents multiple histories colliding into one another. There’s Mlle. Riego‘s time designing the shawl in 1867, and relatedly, the leisure-time of the upper-class ladies who knitted from this very pattern. Then there’s the time of the Shetland women who made lace-knitting what it is, whilst they worked the land in the 1840s and simultaneously knitted in order to make an income. It’s the time of fashions, first seen in the Victorian era but now experiencing a resurgence as knitting re-gains popularity. It’s the time of the wool – grown and sorted in Shetland, spun in Yorkshire, posted to Bristol. It’s the time taken to learn a skill and do it properly, rather than reaching for a quick fix or buying a mass-produced item.

For something that’s only 4 months old, there’s a lot of history wrapped up in this little lace shawl. The process of making it taught me not only new knitting skills, but the histories and legacies of these skills too. I’m currently writing a couple of papers about what I learnt for publication, but between now and then I’ll do some short blog posts about some of the things I learned. Some of them are very practical and came from the process of knitting the shawl (such as the difference blocking lace work makes :-O), whilst others are more theoretical (such as how making can be considered as a qualitative method for social science research). For now, here are a few more photos of my finished shawl (Ravelled here).

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My hoard of yarn

Happy 2015!

I’ve had a relatively quiet start to the year, and the days just seem to have slid by. Christmas was lovely but already seems like a distant memory, and the New Year rolled in without much fuss. I’m not really one for making resolutions (or for sticking to the ones I do make for that matter), but there is a certain little ritual I’m starting to get involved with. I expect a lot of knitters and crocheters are already familiar with the annual Ravelry ‘Flash your Stash’, but for those who are not I’ll briefly explain…

Let’s start with the basics. Knitters like yarn. A lot of knitters like to have a lot of yarn. It comes home from sales where the price is just too good to ignore, functions as a treasured souvenir from a special trip, gets given as gifts, or is the result of a day out at a fibre festival (or three). As a general rule of thumb, these stockpiles of yarn amount faster than the average knitter can knit them. Said yarn is therefore hoarded – or ‘stashed’ – until its day of reckoning arrives. So what does this have to do with rituals? Well, in the virtual world knitters gather to flash their stash on the Ravelry forums at the beginning of the year.  In this space members are invited, indeed encouraged, to photograph their stocks of yarn and fibre and show them to the rest of the group. The ‘stashes’ presented in this Ravelry thread vary in quality and quantity, but most people who take part are displaying implausibly large stockpiles, many of which are said to have grown rapidly. Whereas many forum posters admit hiding their stashes from friends and family, this thread is a place of openness, honesty, admiration, and even encouragement. People express wonder and jealousy, never judgement of people’s habits and hoards. Consequently, the thread has become a really interesting space in which hoards of materials cross the border from a private collection into a public display.

The rationale behind flash your stash is that it allows the crafter to get to grips with what they own – as usually it is stored in bags and boxes out of sight. However it is also an excuse to squish and admire the fabrics and make plans for the year ahead, even if they just turn out to be pipe dreams. I could write pages on the deliciousness of some of the stashes displayed on Ravelry, but for now I’ll leave you with an update on my own hoard.

My collection has grown in an interesting (well interesting to me) way. I started crocheting for my MSc project in 2011 when I was yarn bombing in Bristol, and at this time put out a plea for yarn donations. Amazingly, I was gifted about three huge black sacks full of yarn. I managed to get through a lot of it when yarn bombing, and after the project had finished re-gifted much of what was left. I started knitting seriously at the beginning of 2012 and haven’t stopped since. Since then I’ve received a fair bit of nice yarn in the way of gifts and acquired plenty more from various shops and yarn fairs. My early forays into the craft mainly used acrylic yarns due to the low price-point and my relative inability, but I’ve since become a little more discerning about what I use and chose to go for natural fibres – mainly wool and alpaca – where possible. This has involved a process of slowly using up and weeding out the cheaper bits to make way for nicer stuff.

 Last year was the first time I hauled all my yarn out for a good look and organise, and resulted in this:

stash 2014(Jan 2014)

 It was more than I thought, but fairly modest by the standards of many stashes I’ve seen (excuses excuses!) My vague goal for 2014 was to reduce it, although I had no specific plan by which to do so. I knew I hadn’t been particularly good at not buying yarn in 2014, so when I hauled it all out this year I was quite pleased with the result:

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(Jan 2015)

It doesn’t take a genius to see that a lot of the same yarns are still present. Those cones of cotton for instance – goodness knows what I’ll do with them. There are 8 skeins of baby yarn in my stash, but no-one has afforded me the opportunity to let me knit for them this year (it should be noted none of the baby yarns were purchased but gifted to me as ‘payment’ for something, I’m not completely crazy). They take up an annoying amount of space, but are the sort of thing that might come in handy one day for making gifts. The massive ball of aran at the top has been reduced, although it doesn’t look like it. Then there are a load of leftovers from other projects which haven’t found themselves a secondary project yet. They will, one day.

These are the yarns which are new this year:

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The purple Lopi on the right was a gift from my sister when she went to Iceland and the purple alpaca at the bottom was a birthday gift from Colin. The 2 bamboo skeins are to make Mama Mann some socks and the red balls in the middle are souvenirs from my trip to Germany in December. A couple are leftover skeins from other completed projects. I did acquire more yarn than pictured here, but that was made straight into garments without languishing in the stash box.

At the moment it all fits into one box, and my aim for the year is to try and keep it that way. The only problem is the one resolution that I have made this year – not to cast on any new projects until my current ones are off the needles! This means that before I can go stash diving I need to finish:

1 green and grey sock

1 Shetland lace shawl

1 jumper

1 hat

It’s not masses, but that shawl is taking FOREVER. Indeed, the lack of progress on said shawl is the reason for the resolution because otherwise I keep casting on other items so I don’t have to finish it. Hopefully I’ll get it done before Wonderwool in April so I can justify buying some new goodies to add to the collection. In the meantime I’ll just have to settle for drooling over other people’s stashes on Ravelry…

Have a look for yourself at some of the wonderful collections of yarn at: http://www.ravelry.com/discuss/yarn/3103696/1-25

The Great British Sewing Bee

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So last week we were treated to three episodes of the Great British Sewing Bee for Children in Need. I love the Sewing Bee. It’s informative, the people are always really nice, and that haberdashery? I just want to jump straight in! It’s different from a lot of other things on television too – no sniping competitors like ‘the apprentice’, no talk of the ‘journeys’ people have been on like the big talent shows, no special favours given to age or beauty, and no ‘life-changing’ sums of money up for grabs, just a humble token prize and some lovely new friends. Do I sound jealous? I think might be.

The reason that I say it’s different from ‘most things’ because it is quite similar to the Great British Bake Off. Let’s face it, they couldn’t even think of a unique show title! As with GBBO we’ve got a male and a female judge (with the same initials), there are three challenges, the judging is somewhat subjective, and frequent attempts are made to ‘educate’ the audience throughout both shows. One interesting difference between the two is the setting – GBBO is in a tent in the grounds of an English manor house, GBSB in a gritty old London textile factory. Whereas GBBO gets pretty bunting and meadow flowers (plus the occasional squirrel), GBSB gets bare brick work and strip lighting. I sort of get it. But I sort of don’t. I’m just not really sure why anyone would bake intricate pastries in a tent, I think that’s the problem.

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Bake off – lovely meadow and pastel kitchen stations

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Sewing Bee – Gritty urban warehouse and exposed brickwork

The thing that does bother me about both of these programmes (but particularly the sewing bee) is the issue of time. In each episode participants (I just can’t get on board with ‘contestants’) are given a very specific time slot in which to make their garment – ‘You have 2 hours to make a skirt!’, ‘1 hour to modify this shirt!’, ‘5 hours to make a coat’, ‘GO GO GO’.

Arrrrgh!

The sociologist Richard Sennett once commented that:

in contemporary capitalism, production is based on speed; fast, short-term transactions; and constantly shifting deadlines and tasks – it is world where ‘craftsmanship sits uneasily’ (2006: 105).

For me this tension really comes to the fore in the Sewing Bee. The craft of sewing is about applying skills, learning to work with a variety of fabrics, stitches, materials, and other notions. And yet, good craft – well executed skills – take time. They take time to develop, and more often than not, time to do well. Now, I supposed the assumption behind the sewing bee is that participants have already put in the time to develop a library of skills which they can in some way just extract and ‘apply’ to the task presented to them. As those of you who read our piece on skilled practice will know, I’m really not a fan of this continual reinforcement of a mind-body divide. But that’s a topic for another post. My specific gripe here is with the way Sewing Bee participants are allocated the minimal amount of time for each challenge, and thus have to work as fast as they possibly can. Each task ends with a countdown, often forcing sewists to leave raw edges on their work, or parts of the garment missing. I remember being particularly cross about this in the first series of the Sewing Bee when Tilly Walnes didn’t get enough time to finish her beautiful blouse (from a self-drafted pattern!) and was (in my opinion) unfairly ejected from the competition. It just all seems to go against what craft is about.

Craft, for me at least, is about taking the time to exercise care in the construction process. It’s not simply about an active human subject imposing her will onto a piece of wood, fabric, or metal, but instead cooperating with, co-producing if you like, a finished article. The maker needs to get to know the material, listen to what it wants. A sewer, for instance, needs to know the drape of her fabric, know what its strengths and limitations are, work with grain lines, work around (or incorporate) imperfections… Even if on paper it is ideally suited for making a specific garment, in practice it might not want to be that. Knitters often talk about waiting for their yarn to tell them what it wants to be, and I think the same is true of materials other than yarn as well. Such a process of communication takes time – just as you get to know people, you need to get to know the materials with which you work.

The fingers that craft can only go as fast as they can go. There is no switch to flick for full power, no gears for them to move through. And yet rather than feeling like they are failing at being efficient, or desperately trying to shave a few minutes off of making time, most craftspeople learn to accept and inhabit this slow space in which things grow logically and methodically – one stitch, one cut, one piece at a time. Particularly for those of us who craft for personal pleasure (rather than a for-profit business venture), craft is about finding joy in the process of making rather than a focus on reaching the finish line. It thus becomes intensely personal – finding what works and what doesn’t (whether someone does an hour here, 20 minutes there, or a huge 7 hour crafting binge, what methods are effective, what shapes and colours suit), creating something that is valued for its absolute uniqueness and being able to take the time to do it as you want.

Not for the Sewing Bee contestants though. It’s all about that finish line, trying to please other people, and direct comparisons. It has to be watchable television, yes, but it needs to have substance too. If it’s supposed to be about racing through life as quickly as possible then I guess it succeeds. But if it’s supposed to be about craft and crafting a lifestyle, well, it’s not a craft that I recognise.