Wednesday, 30 July 2014

I Lost My Wife at the Spinrite Factory Outlet Store

In a little town called Listowel, Ontario (population 5,000 and located about a 45-minute drive north of Kitchener), there is a factory that manufactures much of the yarn that is sold in Ontario and an accompanying factory outlet store that draws many yarn shoppers from many miles around. The selection of yarn and other crafting materials is quite good, the prices are very reasonable, and the store also has a lot of seconds and clearance yarn available for very little.

As a teenager I lived in Listowel for three years. My parents still live there, and I visit the store a few times a year when I'm back visiting family. As you might expect, I've invested much money and time in the Spinrite store over the years. I think fondly of the time that, for $14, I purchased enough rose-coloured mohair to make a skirt, a sweater and an afghan, and of the time I single-handedly kept three sales associates busy waiting on me for my entire visit (it was Christmas Eve day and I was the only customer there at the time). The yarn store employees know me by sight and tease me about how I should move back from Toronto to work there. I tell them, "Stock options, and then we'll talk," and they say, "Oh honey, we all want stock options!"

The Spinrite Factory Outlet has several big sales a year, and they have big tent sales which are crazily well-attended. Countless minivans pull into the parking lot with full loads of purposeful-looking crafters, and it's not uncommon to see buses arriving with a full load of avid day-trippers. At the entrance to the tent, Spinrite staff hand out enormous plastic bags (think larger than the standard black plastic garbage bag), and many shoppers do actually fill them. I've always enjoyed watching other Spinrite shoppers shop, because they do so with such an intense focus, and one sees many funny little vignettes.

Most of Spinrite's clientele is female. My oldest brother once visited the store on his own, armed with a Christmas shopping list written out for him by his wife, to get a gift certificate for me. He's a farmer and like most farmers he is very skilled at working with his hands, but he doesn't do any sort of needlework. Arriving Spinrite customers are usually greeted in passing and left to browse about by themselves, but when he walked in the front door, he was instantly approached by a store employee who asked if she could help him. My brother said, "This isn't really my kind of place," and the salesperson said, "That's all right sir, we get your kind in here sometimes and we can help you." I so wish my Christmas present had included video of this incident.

Such stray non-knitting men are a less common sight in the store than the husbands or boyfriends in the tow of female customers. Some of these male companions do enter into the shopping with an affectionate indulgence and spirit of fun that's adorable to see, but most look very bored, in either an impatient or a grimly resigned way. One time I saw a woman trawling the store accompanied by a husband who was lugging two enormous upholstery cushions in her wake. She'd pick up a skein of yarn, hold it up to one of the cushions, purse her lips, shake her head decidedly, put the skein back, and then move briskly on to the next set of shelves with her husband trailing along behind, physically compliant but with the most palpable look of frustrated resentment on his face that I ever saw. I hope he at least ended up liking the resulting afghan or throw pillows.

The video above shows how busy the Spinrite tent sales can be and how one such male hanger-on occupied his time while his crafty wife was shopping. A possible veteran of previous such sales, he had come equipped with a folding chair, a guitar, his sense of humour, and a song entitled "I Lost My Wife at the Spinrite Factory Outlet Store". I note that his wife has already purchased a big bag of yarn (visible in the vehicle behind her husband), so it's a safe bet she'll be returning eventually. She won't want to leave her yarn.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Sock, the First World War, and How They Changed One Another

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and Love Knitting has marked the occasion by posting an article I wrote on the origin of the Kitchener stitch.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Knitwear Design's Power Couple and Other Knitting Fables

After the special secret exercise she'd read about in Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret failed to work, Philippa decided custom design knitwear was the answer.

Arden wanted to show her boyfriend Kent, a master ping pong player, that she was his biggest fan even if she couldn't ever remember the rules of the game or find her way to his matches on time.

Vangie's earliest role had been playing a tomato in her kindergarten class, and every once in a while when the stress of drama school got to her, she'd put on the adult-sized tomato costume she'd created in order to recapture the moment when her passion for theatre had been born.

Petra and Erskine liked to think of themselves as the knitwear design scene's most preeminent power couple.

Giles thought the equipment worn by those who frequented the boxing gym where he was taking beginner lessons was lacking in style, so he'd designed a new look. He hoped his gift presentation of a rad new boxing look would keep him from getting beaten up so often by the regulars at the gym.

Jewel's chiropractor kept telling her that her knitwear shouldn't be of such scale and heft that it was making her bend double, but she felt that he didn't understand how much style really mattered.

Petra's new autumn line had been inspired by her breakthrough realization that knitwear would be so much more useful if it could be designed with several functions in mind. This tam, for instance, could also be used as a bath scrubby and as a pouf for the living room.

When Mira's knitwear design instructor pointed out that her design was going to be rather shapeless and unflattering on most women, Mira decided that he had a point, but that leaving the leg seams unstitched would more than solve that problem. There was nothing like showing a little leg to sex up an outfit.

Mira's design school classmate and best friend Inez agreed with Mira that showcasing the leg was a can't lose design direction.

Joby's newest creation was a scathing political statement about people who spit their bubblegum out on the sidewalk. She hoped that everyone got the message, and also that they noticed that she'd matched the model's shoes to the lining of the bubblegum poncho. It wasn't every designer who showed such political acumen and attention to detail.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Macramé: Why Knot Indeed

Circa 2006, when I was planning on redoing a couple of old lawn chairs, a Google search for instructions on how to work macramé lawn chairs led me into exploring the craft of macramé itself, which in turn left me shaken and scarred. Every click seemed to reveal some fresh new horror. I couldn't seem to find a single attractive use of this craft. There was nothing but bad jewelry, terrible home décor items, tacky lawn chairs, Elvis-style belts, wretched Christmas decorations, and really bloody awful owls.

Remember these plant hangers? They were ubiquitous in the seventies. Although fortunately back then it didn't generally occur to people to make their plant hangers do double duty as a wine rack.

And then there were the macramé owls. So many owls. For some reason people who did macramé had a real fetish for owls. There were macramé owl earrings, macramé owl key chains, and especially macramé wall hangings. If you have the fortitude you can peruse seven freaking pages of macramé owls here.

Eventually, defeated and demoralized, I just printed off some instructions and did my chairs in the "I heart Bingo" pattern above.

I kid. I actually worked them in a plain pattern using cream-coloured cord. And they turned out fine, but to this day that's my only foray into macramé.

Then a little while ago it occurred to me that I ought to write a post on macramé for this site as I've done for a number of other crafts that are akin to knitting. This time my image googling results were more mixed. Some of the same traumatizing crafts were still popping up (go ahead and google "macramé lingerie" if you dare), but there were also a number of very attractive items. I've since learned that macramé is also known as Canvandoli and knotted fiber art, which helped me uncover some of the better examples of macramé. As of course exist. There are bad crafts out there, but there's really no such thing as a bad crafting technique. When crafting goes wrong as it often does, the fault lies in the design and/or the execution, not in the medium itself. Every tree produces some bad apples.

So yes, macramé has loads of potential as a craft. If anything, it's underexplored as a medium. I do think it's fair to say that macramé is more limited than knitting. It isn't well suited to making clothing. Loosely knotted macramé will be too open weave to be wearable (unless one is, say, J.Lo), and knotting it more closely will make it too stiff and heavy for clothing.

Macramé does have some limited use as overlays and embellishments for clothing, as is the case with this hammered silk crepe and jersey macramé dress from the Spring/Summer 2010 Ready-to-Wear Collection by Tadashi Shoji.

Macramé can also be used to make straps or halter back detail for a garment. It could also be used to make a shawl.

The stiffness and sturdiness of closely knotted macramé makes it a good technique for purses and handbags, as in the case of this clutch and shoulder bag from Banana Republic.

Macramé can make some quite striking jewelry, in which the crafter can incorporate beads and stones and other findings.

If you've got a simple wooden or metal chair frame about, you can make a quite comfortable and attractive macramé chair that will be suitable for indoor or outdoor use.

Macrame can also be used to make pillows, as in the case of these from Amenity, though you will want to line them.

And I don't see anything objectionable in a simple macramé plant hanger, like these ones, the pattern for which is available for free on the Lion Brand site (I can't link directly to the pattern as anyone who wants to access it must register first). But please, no plant hangers with tassels hanging nearly to the floor, and no sticking wine bottles into your plant hanger, because that's just wrong.

If you wish to give macramé a go, there is, which offers some patterns (of varying quality, but that's to be expected given the price) and, more importantly, instructions on the basics and more advanced techniques of the craft. There's also Macrame School on Youtube, which offers a number of instructional videos, and for inspiration, there are quite a few macramé boards on Pinterest.

But it doesn't seem that macramé will ever distance itself from the owl. If anything, macramists seem determined to embrace the owl, as artist Andy Harman has done with this owl installation. There is, in fact, Macramé Owl, an "organisation [that] is dedicated to saving, rehabilitating and reviving the Macramé Owl".

I couldn't make this stuff up.


Monday, 21 July 2014

Film Muffler

The knitted stop motion short Film Muffler, created by Miho Yata (YouTube user Yatamimation), combines knitted scarves, crocheted roses, and a simple piano accompaniment by Mie Yanashita in a nod to the silent movie era that is the most charming thing you'll see all day.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Midwifery and Needlecraft

A few months ago I zipped through the first three seasons of the BBC-produced show Call the Midwife. I'd put off watching it for awhile even though I heard many good things about it because I didn't think I'd like it, but then I gave it a chance and was hooked from the first episode. Those involving storylines! The sociopolitical depth of the issues involved! The frequent hilarity! The period detail! And, not least among the many rewards of watching Call the Midwife, is that it features a lot of needlework and knitwear. Midwife Chummy is a highly skilled seamstress (out of self-defense, I am sure, because as a 6'1" woman in the 1950s, almost none of the readymade garments then available would have fit her), the nuns of Nonatus House have a daily needlecraft hour during which they make items for charity, the mothers of Poplar are frequently seen knitting, and the entire cast, from the midwives to the mothers to the random extras to the babies, regularly sport delightful vintage style knitwear.

However, for a show that does usually nail all its period details, Call the Midwife did demonstrate an absurd disregard for accuracy in episode eight of season two. In the screencap above, Midwives Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) and Trixie Franklin (Helen George) are shown knitting. And they really are knitting, not just pretending to, which is great. But what's Trixie holding in her lap? Granny squares. Crocheted granny squares, against which she measures the size of her knitting to be sure they match. Is the blanket they are working on to be composed of knitted and crocheted squares?

No, it isn't. Here, Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), is shown "knitting" a granny square. No wonder she looks confused. Also, Sister Monica Joan is supposed to be a good knitter who can "knit in her sleep", as Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) comments, but it's all too clear that Judy Parfitt cannot knit at all.

And here we see the women of Nonatus House working together to assemble their "knitted" blanket while they anxiously await the news regarding the fate of their friend and comrade in midwifery Chummy, who suffered a hemorrhage when giving birth to her son and is undergoing surgery. This is something the show got right, as such work would be calming and very much in character with what these sensible, energetic, practical women would do, and this is a beautiful scene.

The finished afghan is lovingly laid over Chummy as she lies unconscious in her hospital bed after surgery. Happily, she rouses when her son is placed beside her, and all is well.

But I can't help being exasperated by the whole knitting/crocheting mix-up. For one thing, there is just no way those who worked on this episode didn't know they were making a mistake. Some members of the case are knitters in real life; Jessica Raine has said that they knit in the break room on set. Whomever made the decision to stage this plot point this way plainly didn't think it mattered. But it does matter, just as it would matter if a show were to confuse rugby with soccer. Conflating knitting with crocheting isn't some esoteric detail that only an initiated few will catch, but a silly mistake that will irritate every crafter in the audience as well as those who may not knit or crochet themselves but who recognize the difference, and there are not some insignificant number of us. More movie and TV directors need to understand this, and they also need to be careful about representing a character as an excellent knitter when the actor playing the character can't knit, or is only a beginning knitter. There are workarounds, such as showing an actor working on finishing details rather than the actual knitting (it is much, much easier to learn finishing skills), or showing the character merely sitting with the knitting in his or her lap rather than actually working on it.

That said, let's move on from the whole knitting/crochet kerfuffle in media topic and get to an aspect of Call the Midwife-related knitting that I'm sure we'd all much rather focus on: Call the Midwife-inspired knitting projects!

This pattern is for the real Call the Midwife fetishist, and it's an excellent rendition of the pillbox hats Jenny and the other midwives sport while cycling off to bring another new life into the world. This is the Midwife Calling Felted Pillbox Hat, designed by Kylene Moss Grell. It's available for $1.99(USD), and as a bonus it includes a pattern sized for an 18" American Girl Doll.

If you'd like a midwife-style burgundy cardigan, that should be easy to replicate, as it's a basic v-necked cardigan with five buttons. Your best bet is to use a vintage pattern from the 50s. The Yangtze Cardigan, designed by Courtney Kelley and published in Vintage Modern Knits: Contemporary Designs Using Classic Techniques might be a good choice if you nix the texture and pockets and scale the number of buttons back to five.

This Chummy doll, from the blog Amy's Gurumis, is crocheted, but is just too adorable not to include, and it's a free pattern. I did find a knitted Chummy doll, but it didn't look nearly as good as this one. Crocheting is the better option for amigurumi. I think if I were making this, I'd knit Chummy's sweater, though.

There's no pattern yet available for this Sister Bernadette/Shelagh Turner doll, which is again from the gifted Amy of the blog Amy's Gurumis, but I just had to show it to you anyway. This doll can be transformed from nun to civilian/doctor's wife because her hair's removable.

Perhaps, though, you don't care to make either a replica midwife uniform or a doll and instead want a Call the Midwife-inspired piece that you can actually wear. This would be my approach too — I've never been able to get into costume making because one can only wear the costume a few times, and I'm certainly well past my doll play years, so let's look at some Call the Midwife knitwear.

Of all the characters' wardrobes on Call the Midwife, Trixie Franklin's is your best bet for cute knits to replicate. The flirtatious, outgoing, fashion-forward Trixie wears detailed, eye-catching, tricksy little numbers (was ever a character better suited to her name?). We see her in this short-sleeved top several times, and the 1950s twinset pattern displayed above (which is available for free) could be made to be nearly identical with some changes to the stripe pattern in the yoke.

I don't have pattern suggestions for these three sweaters but include them for your possible inspiration. If any of you do track down a readily available similar pattern and care to share it with the rest of us, please email me the link and I'll add it to the post. Some of you will have the skills to write your own patterns using a picture as your guide (and if you don't now, you may someday!). I love the checked sweater at the bottom especially and am mentally playing with it to see how I could make it work for me.

Prim and reserved Jenny Lee wears simple, classic clothes (and a lot of yellow), but although she also looks lovely her clothes seems less worthwhile to copy than Trixie's, because they are so very plain, and there's not much point in putting all that work into such a plain item. (There are loads of articles on the net telling people how to get the Call the Midwife look by matching the characters' outfits up with similar and readily available current clothes.) Moreover I suspect a large part of the reason Jenny Lee's clothes look so appealing is because Jessica Raine is in them, which is an advantage the rest of us won't have. Raine seems born to wear 1950s fashions and hairstyles, which suit her so perfectly that she tends to look better in them than she does in contemporary styles. She even manages to look good in the hilarious hospital nursing uniforms, which the head nurse assures her are "practically couture" but which feature enormous puffed sleeves which look like they pose a possible hazard to the patients. I for one wouldn't want to get whacked in the nose by one of those starched sleeves.

I do have this one pattern to offer. The bottom picture is the Lady's Evening Jumper, designed by Susan Crawford. It appeared in A Stitch in Time: Vintage Knitting Patterns, 1930-1959, Volume 2, and it seems to have been the very same pattern used to make Jenny Lee's short-sleeved version. Which is yellow, of course.

Nothing else is popping up on my image Google searches that really seems worthy of mention. The other regular characters tend to wear frumpier looking knitwear, as Cynthia Miller does, or little knitwear, as in the case of Shelagh Turner, who usually sticks to beautifully tailored classic wool suits. One-episode characters and extras do tend to wear some nice knitwear, but we don't often get a good look at the designs.

But let's not forget the little guest stars of Call the Midwife, who regularly sport lovingly handknitted items. Styles such as these babies wear are readily found in vintage baby clothing knitting booklets and will look as cute as these when put on a baby. Babies are even better at looking cute than Jessica Raine.

We do have a Christmas 2014 special and a 2015 season to look forward to, so I may do a follow-up post on more possible Call the Midwife projects.