Showing posts with label project planning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label project planning. Show all posts

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Mount Everest of Knitting Patterns

A friend of mine recently flipped me a link to a book called Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously, by Adrienne Martini, the story of Martini's year-long effort to knit the Mary Tudor design from Alice Starmore's Tudor Roses, a book of fair isle patterns published in 1998. (Tudor Roses, incidentally, is currently out of print, but I've read it's to be reprinted in the fall of 2013.) Martini calls the Mary Tudor pattern, pictured above on the front cover of Tudor Roses, a "knitter’s Mount Everest, our curse, and our compulsion". It's true that for Martini, this sweater was a personal Mount Everest because it was the most complex and largest-scale project she'd ever undertaken, but I wouldn't describe this pattern as the everyknitter's Mount Everest.

For one thing, the Mount Everest metaphor is more nuanced than Martini may realize. Let's remember that climbing Mount Everest is not considered the pinnacle of human achievement it once was. These days, with the technological advances in climbing gear, it's quite possible for any able-bodied, hardy, and reasonably fit person who has the time and the money to climb it. Mount Everest has been successfully climbed over 5000 times since Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to climb it in 1953, including climbs by one 13-year-old, one 76-year-old, and one blind climber. One person has climbed it 20 times and one couple got married on the summit. One of Sir Edmund Hillary's grandsons climbed it and called his grandfather from the top with his cell phone. Sir Hillary himself never considered climbing Mount Everest to be the most important or worthwhile thing he did in his life, and was appalled by what he saw as contemporary climbers' prioritization of reaching the top over the welfare of other climbers in distress.

When I look at the Mary Tudor design, I don't see a pattern requiring the greatest possible level of knitting skill, or the ultimate achievement in design, or a pattern that must be knitted because it exists, as a "Mount Everest of knitting patterns" designation would seem to imply. What I see is a beautiful and richly patterned design that represents a major time investment, and that I would reshape completely in order to make flattering. Oversized, shapeless sweaters have gone out of style since the nineties, and for excellent reason.

Learning about Martini's book led me to wonder if there was a world's most difficult knitting pattern, and to do a little internet research on the matter. I found discussion questions on Ravelry and some other knitting sites that asked, "What, in your opinion, is the most difficult knitting pattern?", with resulting threads full of links to patterns that were undeniably going to be time consuming, but that otherwise didn't look all that difficult or challenging to me. When I googled the phrases "most difficult knitting pattern" and "hardest knitting pattern", wherever the phrase occurred on the net it was usually followed by another phrase along the lines of "that I have ever attempted" or "that I have tackled so far". And that's very telling.

The truth is that once a knitter gets to a certain level of experience and skill, no pattern looks all that difficult, and knitting patterns simply vary widely in terms of time investment required. Once you've done more advanced knitting techniques such as stranded knitting, cables, fair isle, steeking, entrelac, double knitting, intarsia, lace work, knitting in the round, Swiss darning, knitting smocking, thrumming, etc., the prospect of doing them doesn't faze you any more. And even if you haven't tried all of those techniques (I have not), once you've successfully mastered a significant selection of them, you know you can always learn the others. Just as strangers are friends (or spouses, or employers, or hot pig sex partners, or neighbours, or tax auditors) whom you haven't yet met, knitting patterns simply represent potential uses of your time and possible future possessions/gifts. Once you lose the beginner's fear of the untried and you have enough experience to know what you're committing to, you'll wind up doing a cost and time benefit analysis and conclude, "Ugly, no way!" or "Nice, but not for or on me," or "Nice, and won't take long," or "Beautiful, and will take a lot of time but it'll be worth it," or "Fabulous but too time-intensive; maybe some day...", or "GORGEOUS AND A HUGE TIME SUCK BUT I MUST DO IT ERE I PERISH." There's no Mount Everest of knitting patterns. There are, rather, marathon knitting projects, and it's a marathon you can do at your own pace because no one's clocking you.

I hope that "difficult" knitting patterns ceased, or will cease, to intimidate you fairly early in your knitting experience, and also that you will regard knitting patterns as your servant and not your master. If you've read any of the knitting pattern reviews posts on this blog, you'll know that I suggest tweaks to almost every pattern. I hardly ever knit any pattern exactly as written. There is that rare case when I come across a pattern I consider perfect — perfect in this context meaning "perfect for me/the wearer". If a pattern you love on paper isn't going to work for your figure, colouring, personal aesthetic preferences, lifestyle, climate, or fashion era once knitted, then for heaven's sake change it. Make it bigger or smaller, change the neckline or the silhouette, use three colours instead of twenty or twenty instead of three, substitute cotton for wool or scarlet for gray, or borrow different features of several different patterns to get the look you want.

Designers aren't gods whose every direction must be reverenced and followed to the letter. They make mistakes, there can be a lot of room for improvement in their results, their work can become dated, and in any case they weren't designing especially for you. Unless you are a textile artist making a piece of installation art, you want a finished garment you can wear the hell out of, not something that will sit uselessly in a drawer after you've invested your valuable time and money in it. You can be your own designer, and if you don't feel your skill level is equal to the task of rewriting a pattern to be what you want it to be, ask more experienced knitters for advice, or shelve the project until you're ready to bring it on.

And take a lesson from Adrienne Martini's experience. She spent an entire year of her life making her Mary Tudor sweater in slavish adherence to Starmore's directions, even to the point of resorting to buying the specific yarn required for it on the "black yarn market" because it wasn't being produced any more. With the result that (as I gather from the Amazon reader reviews), when she finished the sweater she found the sleeves were too short and she admitted she would never wear it because she didn't like the way she looked in it. Don't let your compulsion to make a project and to reach the summit of completion blind you to more important considerations to this extent. In short, have a martini; don't be one.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Reviewing Reviews for Body Policing

The regular post for today, a review of knit.wear's Spring 2013 issue, led to my having a very enlightening Twitter conversation with one of this blog's readers. Her Twitter handle is Bunny Knuckles, so I'll call her that. Bunny Knuckles told me she enjoyed my blog but what she called "the CONSTANT body policing" in my pattern reviews had made her decide she needed to stop following it.

Well, I was taken aback, and I tweeted back that I was surprised that she considered me to be body policing, that I expected knitting designs to flatter the figures they go on regardless of what those figures are like. Or words to that effect that fit into the 140 character limit. (I hate Twitter. It's not only the ugliest social media venue on the net — it's like reading code — it's next to impossible to have a coherent and intelligent conversation on it.)

But then I had another look at the review, and found to my horror that Bunny Knuckles had been right. I had essentially told my readers that one particular design, a snug, short, knitted dress, was only for young, svelte women. And I found some other comments that I thought were definitely over the line. So I got back to Bunny Knuckles, saying I thought she had a point and that I had done a hasty edit of some of my comments.

Let me be clear here. When I write knitting magazine reviews, I feel it's part of my job description as a reviewer to help knitters assess whether the patterns will flatter their particular looks. I also write from the standpoint that, regardless of what your proportions are, you deserve a wardrobe that make you look your very best. And if this is true of clothes you buy at the mall with your hard-earned dollars, it's all the more true of clothes you're going to spend not only money but a considerable amount of your valuable time and effort making.

But, you see, my task is a problematic one. The fact is, no one looks good in every style, no matter what his or her figure is like. If I'm to provide honest and helpful guidance on choosing flattering styles, sometimes I do need to say categorically that style X will not suit figure Y. It can be difficult to say that without sounding like I'm shaming people for having figure Y, even though I didn't mean that at all and instead intended to suggest that figure Ys thumb their noses at the unflattering style X and go look for a good design in style Z, which will look fabulous on them.

As much as I want to give knitters useful advice about what will look good on them, to help them choose styles that work best on their figures without making them feel that their figures are the problem, it's a fine line, and it upsets me to think that despite my best efforts it's one I'm probably going to cross occasionally. In the case of that snug, short dress design, for instance, what I should have said originally, and what I have edited my comments to say, is that if the wearer-to-be won't feel comfortable in something so snug and short, to just make the dress a few inches longer and a few inches looser. There are specific styles that simply won't ever work on specific figures (don't even get me started on how an empire cut looks over my D cups), but there are also going to be many more cases in which a design only needs a little tweaking to be perfectly wearable for most people. I need to do a better job at distinguishing between the two. I need to be clearer that I'm critiquing the knitting patterns, not people's bodies. I'm also trying to use more gender inclusive language, but that's another conversation to be had on a day when I don't already have a headache.

So I propose that my contract with my readers will be this: that I will be more vigilant about not crossing the line into body policing, and you are welcome to let me know, via comments on this blog, email, messages or wall posts on The Knitting Needle and the Damage Done's Facebook page, or in a Twitter conversation, when you think I haven't succeeded. I'll do my best to respond promptly and will edit my blog posts if I think you're right.

And then we can get back to ridiculing and critiquing the knitting patterns, because, hoo boy, that's one snark flag we can let fly.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Look at the Knitting Pattern, Not the Styling

When assessing knitting patterns one has to ignore the styling. Yes, a team of professionals have made a certain pattern look appealing because the very attractive model wearing it appears to be, say, sailing down the Riviera, lounging elaborately in a deck chair, and is being fed chocolate truffles by a very handsome, adoring man, but you don't sail, you've never even been to France, chocolate gives you hives, the man in your life may adore you but he hardly ever notices what you wear, and you're not 5'10" and 115 pounds. You need to think about whether that sweater is going to fit and flatter you, whether it'll work with your existing wardrobe and be suitable for the climate where you live, and whether you can wear it to your specific workplace or out to the pub with friends. In short, you need to refuse to buy into the fantasy the stylist is trying to sell you, and to be realistic about whether the pattern will work for you.

In the cases where a photo is styled in an unattractive or dated way, you still need to look beyond the styling when you're assessing a pattern. This is actually quite a nice late sixties- or early seventies-era pattern that is perfectly wearable by today's standards, and that some knitters might dismiss without even really looking at it because the photo looks so silly and dated. I wouldn't make this top in these colours, but instead would choose a yarn and beads that were analogous (say, pale blue and lavender), and I would think about whether I have enough neck for a turtleneck. (If I were you, that is, because I know I don't have sufficient neck for this style.)

But of course before or after you've assessed this pattern, you'll want to take a minute to laugh at this cracked-out photo, because it looks like a still from some avant-garde horror movie where the character (and the audience) can't decide whether she really saw whatever it is she's looking at or whether she hallucinated it and needs to stop abusing her prescription meds. Or to declaim some sort of free-form, obscurely self-referential poem. I don't know which.

Monday, 31 December 2012

Knitting in the New Year

Have you found yourself making any knitting-related New Year's resolutions this evening? I have, of sorts. I wrote a list of the knitting projects I want to do in my snazzy new leather-covered planner. I won't share it here, but I must say it's daunting, especially when I've got a few stained glass projects, one needlepoint project, and never mind how many sewing projects also listed on the same page.

Making New Year's resolutions and planning knitting projects are two activities with certain commonalities. They're both an act of faith, of optimism, of expectations that the future will be better than today, because if you can bring them to pass, your life will be improved by some small but measurable degree: you'll have quit smoking, trained yourself to run continuously for half an hour, founded a savings account or a small business, finally begun or finally finished your university degree, begun to learn Spanish, or adopted a pet. Or you'll have a beautiful new sweater to wear. In a world where horrific things happen every day and more disasters are lurking in the shadows of next week, resolutions and knitting project plans promise us some small sense of mastery over ourselves and our own little corner of the world, that at this time next year though we're one year closer to the end of our lives, we'll have a sense of progression rather than one of stagnation or decline.

Making resolutions and plans and dreaming of the day they'll be realized is such an intoxicating feeling that one often gets carried with the easy, early stages: buying exercise machines or budgeting apps or bags of beautiful yarn or Beginner Spanish books that then... just sit there, insistent reminders of our lack of self-discipline or realism.

So while I think it's important to make resolutions and plan knitting projects that excite and inspire us, it's also important to add some ballast to them and to keep them grounded in reality. When writing out my knitting project list tonight I made myself add the two projects that are sitting in my work basket right now and that I am very tired of working on, but that must be finished before I can start anything else. I made myself leave off a couple of items that I'd love to make but just won't get to this year, as there's no point setting myself up for the frustration of a list doomed to incompletion. I let myself add just one project that will require the purchase of more yarn — all the rest of the projects will be made out of yarn I've already got on hand.

I've been finding as I get older that all my plans and to do lists are changing in similar ways, that they're being stripped of some of the frills, fancies and extravagances, and becoming leaner, more prosaic, and.... more likely to happen. And I have no real regrets about this seismic shift. Dreaming of learning a foreign language or of getting a black belt might have made for exciting daydreams, but buckling down to getting my novel done at last, getting an hour's brisk hike in every day, and working hard enough at my freelance editing business to earn the money to pay off my mortgage, get a new furnace, kitchen and rooftop deck, and maybe take a trip for the first time in five years will make for a more satisfying reality. After all, one gets more real satisfaction and wear out of a plain but well-shaped and flattering pullover in one's favourite colour than the most intricate lace shawl ever made.

Happy New Year, everyone.