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This Is About Lilly

(my great-grandmother with my mother)

These days I find myself thinking a lot about my great-grandmother, Lilly.

Lilly was born whilst the First World War was raging outside Danish borders. Born into a poor family, she would pick grains from fields at dusk hoping to get enough for her mother to bake bread. At fourteen she was already working as a servant girl. At twenty (or twenty-one) she married her employer – a man nearly thirty years her senior. By this time she had already acted as a mother figure to her soon-to-be husband’s seven motherless children. She would end up having eleven children of her own. Relying solely on her oldest children to help her, Lilly brought up eighteen (18) children in the 1930s and 1940s during the Great Depression and World War Two. The house had no running water and no central heating. The family lived off the land and whatever petty jobs could be had.

Lilly was in her sixties when I was born and she looked after me until I was old enough to start school. She brought me old dish rags on which I could embroider my name and I made dolls’ clothes using her hand-crank Singer sewing machine. Her button box gave me endless hours of pleasure and it was passed down to me.

And she taught me to knit next to the kerosene stove in her living room.

Family lore has it that she fell out with her mother in the early 1930s and, as revenge, Lilly changed from knitting throwing-style to knitting Continental-style. They made up, but every subsequent generation of women was taught to knit Continental-style by Lilly. She was a formidable, smart woman who played the long game. Lilly would have made an excellent army general.

These days I think a lot about Lilly and her generation. I heard her stories about World War Two (during which Denmark was occupied) and these stories run through my head when I see people talking about inspiring WW2 heroes and kicking Nazi butt.

I was brought up in a family very much altered by World War Two. Someone came home to dinner one night wearing a uniform as he had signed up to guard Allied prisoners. I never knew that family branch existed until Lilly’s funeral and his son showed up. Lilly’s oldest brother went into the Resistance and when he passed away (at age 100!), we found a medal. The files are still sealed by the government and my great-granduncle refused to utter as much as a word about the War. We have no idea what he did but his eyes spoke volumes. My grandmother recalls seeing planes flying over the fields, columns of emaciated German soldiers marching through the village and Lilly ushering everybody into the threshing barn.

My great-grandmother taught me World War Two was a time of hardship, strife, loss, bitterness, and heartbreaking despair. Resistance heroes were ordinary men and women. They weren’t “absolute legends”, nor clickbait, nor Brad Pitt with a comedic accent, nor a jingoistic poster. Their actions ranged from whatever my great-granduncle did (but which affected him for the rest of his very long life) to Lilly’s refusal to break bread with a family member. War is dirty and terrible – and I really dislike seeing people almost fetishising the idea of reliving World War Two in 2017. This is not a chance to live out your favourite films nor indulge in cosplay (link from 2010 but it still strikes me as tone-deaf). I genuinely wonder what part our collective sense of nostalgia has played in Recent Events – a sense of nostalgia that has been fed by the media we consume. How is it we react to things?

I don’t honestly know where I am going with this. I really, really do not know. These days I just find myself thinking of Lilly a lot. I think of what she taught her daughter, her grand-daughter and what she taught me. Lessons of resilience and the many complexities of life. She would have turned 101 years this year and I honestly don’t know what she would have made of this mess.

(Lilly with her parents, my great-great-grandparents)

Twenty Years & Three Days: Living an Unexpected Life

I receive a lot of lovely messages from knitters who have found the craft in a time of personal upheaval. I understand this perfectly. While I would love to enter into personal correspondence with everyone reaching out, I cannot do this for various reasons. This post is my little attempt at telling my story and how I dealt with life veering into unexpected directions. I hope this suffices.

Twenty years and three days ago – October 14, 1996 – my life changed. It was a Monday. I woke up feeling heavy-limbed and trudged to the bathroom to brush my teeth. This is when I realised something was very wrong as I could not keep water and toothpaste from dripping down my face. The mirror told me the truth: the left side of my face was paralysed. I was twenty years old.

The story is not that interesting nor long.

I had been struggling with flu-like symptoms for two months and my Monday morning was simply the culmination of what happens when you are bitten by a tick carrying Borrelia burgdorferi and you don’t seek medical attention. I was a second-year university student who was too busy enjoying student life to pay attention to fatigue, mental confusion (one time I forgot where I lived) or weird ear-aches. Even with a partially-paralysed face, I was oddly reluctant to seek medical attention. “But I cannot feel a thing It doesn’t hurt!” I told my friend. She barked at me: “There is your m-f-ing problem right there.” She’s always had a filthy mouth.

And so I was hospitalised, diagnosed, treated with heavy-duty antibiotics and got on with my life.

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I had my life mapped out at that stage and it was a good life I had planned: university degree, good full-time teaching job, two-point-one kids, a loving husband, a charming turn-of-century house in suburban Copenhagen, three dogs, and a garden. But my plans were interrupted and changed forever.

I actually had to look up the date I woke up with a paralysed face. Twenty years and three days later, it is a fuzzy memory and this is a good thing. My life has turned out very differently as I have had to accommodate things that never really left me: my stamina is rather low, I find it hard to maintain conversation in noisy places, facial recognition is not great, and I have a patchy memory (which it is why I often end up re-watching films and re-reading novels as I rarely remember plots). I am used to these things.

Though my life turned out differently than I had planned, I have a very, very good life. I want to emphasise this: it is possible to lead a full and rich life even if life is taking you on a detour.

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First of all, I let go of any idea that my life going forward would be less worthy or less interesting just because I could no longer tick certain boxes. I let go of the notion that unless things go to plan, things are not going well. I also let go of things I thought I ought to achieve because other people were achieving them (marathons, mountain-climbing, managerial posts in mega-corps). Instead I decided to be kind, open-minded, and curious about the world. I decided to let the small things in life really matter and not sweat the big stuff.

I find my joy in the everyday: my morning coffee, the crunch of a red apple, the fine turn of a couplet, a silly dog gif, and the feel of a well-made yarn running through my hands. I find joy in meeting extraordinary people whenever I teach workshops. I find joy in learning something new from a podcast or a video. I find joy in writing blog posts and articles. I find joy in sharing my passions with the world and seeing what people make. The everyday is extraordinary and I don’t know if I would have noticed this if things had turned out as planned.

When I graduated high school, we wore hats. Our hats were passed around to the entire year and when mine came back to me, someone had written: life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. Years later I learned that this was a quote from a John Lennon song. At the time I loved the quote with the fierce intensity of a teenager. These days it strikes a chord for much different reasons.

Almost Time: This Thing of Paper Wraps Up & An Everyday Make

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Behind the scenes work may already have commenced on This Thing of Paper, but the campaign still has a few hours left. If you want to pledge your support, be aware that one reward level has gone and only a few slots remain on others. People have asked me how I am feeling – it is difficult to explain but I will try once I have summed up what a most extraordinary community has achieved.

Thanks to people:

  • This Thing of Paper will go into print!
  • I will have a small, awesome team of people working on this project.
  • The overall quality of the printed book has been enhanced.
  • Sample knitters will help me cut down the production time of the book.
  • I am able to apply to be a vendor at key UK knitting shows.
  • We will have book launch parties in Central Scotland and in London, UK with periscope feeds.
  • We will have a trunk show with Q&A in Manchester.

Isn’t that incredible? When I launched the campaign, I hoped we could achieve the first two action points, but we’ve managed seven!

Answers to a few queries:

  • LYS owners will be able to preorder This Thing of Paper approximately one month before publication.
  • I already have a small army of sample knitters assembled, but thank you for thinking of me!
  • I already have a technical editor and a copy editor onboard, but (again) thank you for thinking of me!
  • You will see me less over the next six months or so, as I have a book to make! I am currently fully booked in terms of events and workshops until April 2017.
  • If you weren’t able to pledge support for This Thing of Paper, the book will be in print next year (estimated date: April 2017).
  • Unfortunately I am not able to accept pledges outside of Kickstarter.

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So, how do I feel? I keep going back to that word: overwhelming, but it fits. The whole experience has been very overwhelming. People have been so kind, so supportive, so generous, and so lovely.

The financial side of things is obviously fantastic (as you can see above!) but the emotional support has been equally amazing. And I think that’s what you get from a crowdfunding effort: you get the emotional support too. And the emotional support is equally important to creatives like me who forget sometimes that we are not working in a vacuum. We are connected to a community of extraordinary people who like what we do – and something like this campaign has really brought that home.

Thank you so, so much. It means a lot as you will be able to tell by the next section.

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One night last week I sat up late reflecting. The world has been a terribly bleak place of late, and my thoughts were swirling around the fact that my tiny, tiny corner is filled with the most extraordinary people: you are makers, knitters, writers, artists, lovers, dancers, thinkers & doers. And so I asked myself : how can we spread the goodness and kindness I experience in my everyday life? I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I believe that we need to carry on being good, kind and open-hearted people. We need to challenge hate and fear when we see it – and to do so with love and compassion.

And then I went off to make myself a dress because I needed to create a space where I could refocus and recharge. Making stuff means that to me.

dressaThe dress is New Look 6262 – pardon the awful photo! It’s a very straight-forward make, and I added pockets plus lengthened the sleeves. I used cotton lawn I had purchased from Abakhan when they had an excellent post-Christmas sale. I had three yards  but despite longer sleeves and pockets, I found I only used around 2.5 yards – with the fabric costing me around £3 per yard (I’ve seen it for sale elsewhere at triple the price!), that must be said to be quite a bargain!

Having said that, I don’t find my lifestyle lends itself particularly well to cotton lawn dresses. Scotland is probably a bit too cold for this dress to be entirely practical and I nearly had a tear in the fabric when the brooch in the photo caught the fabric. I tend to get caught on stuff, so I’ll be wanting to use slightly heavier fabric in the future.

The dress itself is fine, though I’m not crazy about gathered skirts. It was a quick make and it went together without a hitch. I opted to make fancy-pants facings, but that only took about fifteen minutes extra.

Would I make this pattern again? Probably – it is easy to wear, easy to make, and doesn’t take much fabric. It is not the most exciting project ever, but that’s okay. Sometimes you just want to make stuff and lose yourself in the process.

Cardigan is Hetty by Andi Satterlund knitted in Cascade 220. Everyday wardrobe for the win.

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This Thing of Paper: Design Considerations

I introduced This Thing of Paper last week. This week I am writing about the work that went into the design process and how I defined the design vocabulary. If you like reading about how designers’ brains work, this post will definitely give you a glimpse into my way of working!

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Work on This Thing of Paper started some time in 2012. I began talking to friends and colleagues about this mad notion I had: I wanted to make a knitting collection by hand like a medieval scribe. The practicalities made me abandon this idea: I am a semi-competent calligrapher, but making a whole book by hand* would have taken me years. Also, pattern support would have been interesting (“Let me send you a handwritten letter about row 97”) and the idea of inserting errata was daunting.

*) manuscript literally translates as something ‘written by hand’!

As it happens, though, I have a background in book history and as the idea of making a book by hand left me, I began thinking about the shift from manuscript to printed book. I knew I’d have enough material to write about but I had to find out if I had design material.

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I set up a moodboard. I browsed digitalised archives of books from the period. I visited art galleries & museums (and one of my local museums was even kind enough to have a relevant exhibition!). I sketched and examined sources from 14th century Book of Hours manuscripts to 16th century embroidery manuals.

Keywords emerged as did a distinct colour palette and design vocabulary.

The colour palette was fairly easy to conceptualise: parchment and paper with ink and decoration. Soft natural shades with rich, deep mineral-derived pigments. Below you can see some fairly typical details from 14th century illuminated manuscripts and how they translate into colour palettes. Contrary to what many people believe, though, most manuscripts were not highly decorated. As time progressed, technology allowed for woodcuts to be inserted into printed pages – some were tinted by hand afterwards.

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Related: here is an  an excellent article about why it is impossible to replicate the colours of medieval stained glass.

The design vocabulary was harder to capture. I had worked with such a sparse design vocabulary for Doggerland that I was overwhelmed by the visual possibilities in This Thing of Paper. Dragons! Devils! Stars! Acanthus leaves! Overwhelmed.

Instead I began to fall in love with the concept of negative space. Paper being much cheaper than vellum meant that you did not need to cram as much information as possible into a page; margins became wider and spaces between words appeared! I’ll be writing much more about this in the actual book – but how things relate to one another in a confined visual space definitely became a thing for me. I also fell for small geometric motifs and how things are visually repeated in different ways.

So, the design vocabulary is much more exuberant than it ever was for Doggerland, but it does not mean I have not edited it ruthlessly. I am placing the visual cues in a 21st century context with wearability at the forefront. Less rustic garterstitch and pared-down lace; more play with colour and delicate, ornamental motifs.

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Further design considerations: I wanted items that would appeal to a range of knitters. The projects are aimed at advanced beginner knitters to advanced knitters. Some projects will be achievable in a weekend or over a week; others will demand more involvement. The items cover texture, colour and lace. Needing to include such a variety of things in a relatively small collection meant editing what I needed to design.

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For structure, I divided This Thing of Paper into three sections (or three main stories, if you like) and each section includes a garment as well as accessories. Each of the three garments will be graded across seven sizes (XS to 3X) and will have notes on how to modify fit. The accessories are a mixtures of shawls, hats and gloves. I’ll be including sizing options here as well. Most patterns will be both charted and written out, because I know many people prefer to work from both (the jury’s out on one shawl pattern, but I will keep you updated on that).

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Thank you so, so much for all the enthusiasm and excitement so far. This is already a long entry but I want to tell you how much your reaction has meant to me. At the risk of sounding corny, I genuinely feel like I’m not alone on this whole This Thing of Paper journey because you are all sharing this adventure with me. I know this may sound like one of Those Inspirational Quotes I usually wince at – but I genuinely mean it. It is so nice to have you along.

Next week I will be writing about all the practical stuff (but there will still be pretty colours & images).

With Love From Edinburgh Yarn Festival 2016..

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I just waved goodbye to a good friend who had been teaching at EYF 2016 and was passing through Glasgow this morning. We never got a chance to connect during the festival itself – the weekend was hectic – so it was good to relax together for a few hours. This is what I both love and find so frustrating about fibre events: I get to see all these incredible people but I only meet them for a brief second.

Glimpses of connections. Fragments of conversations. Moments of meeting like-minded folks. I talked to Tori Seierstad on the bus about knitting local and Norwegian spinning mills. Donna Smith made a comment to me that made me think about knitting in a new light. Career advice was doled out (I both gave it and was on the receiving end – there will be a few changes going forward). I saw old friends and made new ones. And so many people I did not even know was there or that I missed seeing.

Never one for big crowds, I stayed away from the really big vendors – but the marketplace still felt really intense. So many lovely people! So much amazing knitwear! Such a buzz! It felt so exciting and so overwhelming. I was very thankful to have Mr D with me – not only does he love a good chat but he was also excellent at supplying me with coffee.

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I think it will take a few more days for me to process EYF 2016. It was more international than ever – I felt this both in the Corn Exchange itself and certainly in my classes. It also felt more colourful – if that makes sense. Knitters were more stylish than ever and I saw so much incredible colourwork and colour combinations. I saw some incredible yarns up close – from undyed single-breed yarns where the vendor could tell me the name of the sheep to the high-end luxury blends with saturated colours. Orange and yellow were everywhere, but plant-dyed yarns were also pretty hot. Shawls dominated (so many Byatts! I loved them!) and socks were definitely less of a thing than they had been in previous years.

But mostly, like all EYFs, it is all about the people. I got to spend time with some very awesome people and it made me so very happy. Thank you Jo & Mica for another terrific year!

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This is one of my favourite photos. We were very, very silly.
L-R: Larissa of Travelknitter, me high on yarn fumes, Helen of the Wool Kitchen, and Amelia of Woollen Words

Clutching My Gladioli – On Making It Work as an Indie

Currently BBC4 is showing a series about the independent music business in the UK. The series traces how record labels like Factory, Rough Trade, Mute, 4AD, and Beggars Banquet made it possible for less mainstream bands to release records. Many of the bands turned out to be hugely influential and enduring (Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Depeche ModeThe Stone Roses, Suede, Franz Ferdinand, and Arctic Monkeys to name but a few!) and today UK indie labels continue to champion new music that would never be signed by major labels.

As someone working as an independent knitting designer, I recognised a lot of what was being covered in the documentaries – from small record labels operating out of a bedsit in Sheffield via creatives forming loose partnerships to dealing with complex distribution problems/solutions and worries over intellectual properties. I love many of the bands covered by the documentaries, but it was eye-opening to see how much of the amazing music was being created in an environment that was in many, many ways similar to how the indie knitting industry works.

Everything I do is created at my kitchen table. I have a small nook with a desktop computer (which needs replacing) and some bookshelves where I keep all my designing resources. I create my own layouts, my partner does my photography & art, I model my own designs, and everything passes through my hands. I deal with emails, accounts, wholesale, distribution, workshop dates, social media, marketing (which is always my sore spot), and obviously pattern designing & writing. I hire in technical editors to work on my patterns, but what you see is what you get and you get me.

And most indie designers work like that. Some have pooled resources, others have grown to the stage where they have one or two people on staff. But we are all just very, very small independent ventures.

Why be independent? Is it that much fun to do accounts at 11am on a Friday night? I think most people understand the allure of having full creative control – and yes, being able to decide what to design in which yarn is amazing – but the allure of intellectual property is even stronger. Quite simply, indies choose to own the right to their work.

I learned a hard lesson when I first started out: I handed over the rights to a pattern for a pittance and saw somebody else make a lot of money from it when I could barely cover rent. And that got me thinking. I still work with mainstream publications on occasion (and some of them are incredibly indie-friendly and lovely!) but time & experience has taught me to be wary of Big Besuited Companies offering me deals too good to be true.

Indies pay the price by having to do all the things – including all the tough things mainstream publishing would normally have done for us – but I maintain it is worth it.

So, clutching my gladioli, I began thinking about where indie knitting businesses are heading.

The BBC4 documentaries on UK indie record labels traced the trajectory from bedsit record labels with rough DIY graphics to bands like The Smiths appearing on prime time TV and finally a world where indie labels are regularly outselling the big record companies.

Knitting is not the music business (there’s a big difference in gender make-up for one thing! It made me sad to see many female musicians simply disappear as indie music became bigger in the 1980s and 1990s) but maybe there are lessons to be learned there.

Here are some of the lessons I have gleaned from the documentaries:

  • Surround yourself with people who understand and support your ethos.
  • Don’t try to follow the crowd but embrace what sets you apart.
  • Take control of as much of your own operations as you possibly can.
  • Choose your collaborators with care and imagination.
  • “Indie”can become a very diluted term when Big Besuited Companies realise it is an untapped market – this will result in products that look, talk, and walk like indies but have big money and committees behind them.
  • Digital marketplaces mean that everybody can sell their products (music, books, knitting patterns) so quality control is difficult. Indies still need gatekeepers (or “curators” as I believe the Pinterest generation calls it!)
  • Don’t believe the hype lest you want to turn into Morrissey!!

There isn’t a right or wrong way of making it work  as a creative. Some people work best as part of a larger team with stylists, graphic artists, distribution centres, remote printing, and so forth. Then you have stubborn donkeys like me who enjoy having my fingers in every pie.

What about you as a knitter?

Some knitters love following a particular design house and yarn brand with big budgets and aspirational marketing; others find themselves more at ease at an indie show where they get to know the dyers and the designers. Some people prefer buying a magazine with glossy ads and a plethora of patterns; others like buying single patterns they have especially chosen for one particular yarn. And some prefer to just spin their own yarns and knit without a pattern.

The world is your oyster – you can to pick and choose as you like. And as an indie girl that really makes me happy.

A Bit of Tryghed – the Last of the Hygge Patterns

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The Tryghed hat was released today – the hat’s the last HYGGE pattern and it’s rather sad to say goodbye to a project that’s been really close to my heart. All good things come to an end, though, and Tryghed is a really nice way to finish. I’ll write more about the hat itself in a second, but first I want to go a bit Scandinavian on you.

Hygge is really hard to define because it encompasses so many things. We’ve talked about how it means to be warm, cosy, spending time with good friends, taking your time over coffee, and just kicking back with a good book and candlelight. The feeling of tryghed is really key to hygge, actually. Tryghed can be translated as ‘feeling safe and sound’ but it is also a really tactile thing. I feel it when I’m wrapped in my favourite quilt or when I walk hand in hand with my partner. I feel it when I’m sitting inside on a rainy night and I am warm. Without tryghed, you can have as much coffee or as warm a quilt as you like – but you won’t have hygge.

So, I wanted to translate that feeling of cosy tactile feeling of security into both a hat and the knitting experience.

Tryghed is a fully written pattern which can be knitted by most people. If you can knit in the round, knit & purl, and do basic decreases, then you can knit Tryghed. I have included some sneaky details like the crown shaping and one clever lace round, but this is a hat for most abilities. The yarn is Thick Pirkkalanka, a worsted-weight yarn from Midwinter Yarns and the hat takes just one skein. It is warm, squishy and everything I love in a yarn – again, the idea of tactile tryghed came into play! It goes without saying that I chose to knit the hat in my favourite colour in the entire world..

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I’ll spare you the photos of me eating a cinnamon bun (we shot these photos on National Cinnamon Bun Day!) but I’ll link you to a few Scandinavian recipes for you to try out!

+ Swedish Cinnamon Buns (kanelbullar)

+ Danish Dream Cake (drømmekage)

+ Elderberry cordial syrup – for more Danish flavours, leave out the cloves and substitute with some lemon peel.

+ Gløgg, obviously! I really like this white wine version too.

It’s been such a joy to see all the beautiful things you’ve made. Keep sharing those photos with me and thank you for going me on this little adventure into my traditions and homelands.

 

A Yorkshire Retreat

I don’t think many hen nights turn into a knitting retreat, but it’s the logical solution when every participant is a knitter. One of my best friends is getting married later this year and we all met up in Yorkshire for a weekend of knitting and relaxation. I had been to Yorkshire before for work, but I had never had a chance to spend time in a stunning landscape filled with textile heritage.

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We took the train from Carlisle to Settle – to our great surprise (and delight) the train journey turned out to be spectacular. It runs past the Pennines and through the Yorkshire Dales.

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Every station was a Victorian delight with ornate architecture and beautiful details. I can only recommend taking the train journey – it is absolutely stunning and I feel fortunate to have experienced it.

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May 2015 227And there are sheep everywhere. I was particularly interested in seeing the varieties of sheep in the fields we passed. The Swaledale sheep is the official ‘face’ of the Yorkshire dales and I spotted a few on my train journey. I am not Deb Robson, so I could not identify all the little dots scampering around the fells but it was still great seeing so many varieties.

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We had rented a house a few miles outside Settle. It was pretty much my dream house: Georgian proportions, a country kitchen (though I found cooking on an AGA fairly intimidating), a small conservatory with built-in book shelves and open fires in each of the living rooms. Did I mention the views?

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This was the view from my bedroom (where I sat in the window seat as I took this picture). It looked like merino sheep in the cow-parsley/buttercup field. They fled as soon as I tried getting closer for a better view. Roses in the front garden and a beautiful back garden with views across the dale.

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It was a bit too cold for me to sit outside and knit, but I was tempted! Once inside, the house offered many temptations..

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.. but I stuck to my knitting mostly. I currently have three projects on the go – one that requires a lot of maths, one that requires a lot of concentration and, er, one that’s 1 ply lace. I mainly worked on the latter as it seemed more straightforward given the high level of hilarity.

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I did not move from my comfy chair most of the weekend, though I discovered just how bad I am at playing pool. The adjacent house had a ruby spaniel that loved cuddles, so time was spent doing that too. And copious amounts of tea, tea and tea. Cake was had from the interestingly-named local pub/bakery.

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It was a lovely weekend. We took the train back to Carlisle yesterday.

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And then a rail-replacement bus back to Glasgow (when I fell asleep – all that fresh country air!). I’m having the day off today as I’m oddly exhausted after my relaxing weekend away. While it was fun waltzing around a 19th country house for a few days, it’s rather lovely to be home in my humble abode again. I’m down to London next week – when I pass Carlisle on my way down, I’ll think fondly of this trip.

How To Pitch It Perfectly – Going From Big Asks To Favours

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Sometimes I let my love of colour get the better of me. I have dug out my green coat (the one I only wear occasionally lest I wear it out) and I’m cheerfully pairing it with an orange knitting project. Colours feed my soul.

But I cannot live on colour and sunshine alone.

The First Lesson: The Difference Between Favours & Big Asks – And Why You Need To Know It

Recently I’ve received emails from very different people with an identical message: hey, I’m just going to ask you for a favour.. Favours are good and I like being able to help where I possibly can. I like introducing like-minded people to each other. I like being able to vouch for someone being fabulous. I like skimming a friend’s magazine proposal before it’s submitted. If I can help, I am happy to do so. But, do me a favour has taken a very strange turn. This past week I was asked if I could turn over the copyright of my most popular pattern to a publishing company I had to google (in return I’d  get .. a link to this blog!?). Could I share my email list of clients with someone wanting to work as a technical editor? Today I was asked to donate a substantial monetary-value amount of goods to an event to which I had not been invited (I actually queried this favour and I’ll share the astounding reply in a second). I don’t consider these requests favours – I consider these Big Asks.

Favours are reciprocal – Big Asks are not.

If you are sending an email, ask yourself if you are requesting a favour or a Big Ask. Do you have a prior relationship with the person you are contacting? Do you have mutual friends who can vouch for you? Is what you are requesting something of huge benefit to you but not to the other person?

Favours come with an expectation that at some point the asker will be in the position of helping you out with something. It is a mutual beneficiary situation: if I help a friend by proof-reading his article, he might lend me a place to sleep next time I pass through his town. If I introduce a friend to another friend – maybe one day one of them will introduce me to someone interesting. Sure I end up feeling great about helping out people, but I also know that I’ll have an IOU in future reserve if I ever need it.

Big Asks come with nothing. I don’t know the person asking. The request has come out of nowhere and typically the Big Ask would result in me handing over significant sources of income to complete strangers. In return? Frequently I am promised exposure in the vaguest terms possible – but we all know that is not a valid currency. Once I’ve helped out with the Big Ask, chances are that I’ll either never heard from the asker again or I’ll keep getting Big Asks until I have nothing left to give.

So, you have something you want to obtain – this can be anything from advice on how to pitch a submission to getting more clients or staging a successful event. How can you turn your Big Ask into a favour? The answer is surprisingly simple: ask in a way that will benefit you both. Examples:

  • I’d like all rights to your most popular pattern/photo/song!” = “Do you have a pattern/photo/song tucked away that you’d like to publish through us?”
  • I need a list of your clients/I need an introduction to XYZ” = “Hey, I am really interested in South American farming communities. Can you point me in the right direction? Awesome article on crop rotation, by the way. Do you know Crop Rotation Expert Phil? I’d love to introduce you guys”
  • I am hosting AN AWESOME EVENT OUT OF THE BLUE and I need 150 goodie bags!” = “Hi, I am currently planning an event focused on crop rotation practice. I was wondering how your schedule looks for next March and if you would be interested in hosting a panel on Peruvian popcorn plantations?”

See how rephrasing works? It’s pretty cool, no? You are still asking for something, but you are starting a conversation that might lead somewhere really good.

The Second Lesson: Don’t Sabotage Yourself and Your Project Before You Start

Remember I queried why I was being asked to donate to an event and not asked to work the event? I received this answer which floored me: Because you are too famous and therefore too expensive for us.

My pub landlord used to be in a Glasgow indie pop band – if I were arranging a local music festival, why shouldn’t I ask him if he’d like to DJ or play a couple of tracks? At worst he’d be busy or outwith my budget – but if I didn’t ask I would never know. Is he famous? I honestly hadn’t heard of his band until I moved to Glasgow, but now I realise the band meant a lot to other local bands in the late 1990s. Fame is an exceptionally relative term – someone’s famous musician is another person’s pub landlord. And he still needs to pay bills.

Do not assume that something or someone is out of reach. That is not your decision to make.

Take all your knowledge about favours and Big Asks, and make a list. Who would be awesome to have on your team? Who could help turn your kick-ass idea into a kick-ass reality? Who would be a big draw for your event? Think big and reach out in the way we talked about earlier. You may get a couple of cold shoulders (“Okay, maybe asking Taylor Swift to headline Aberdour Festival was a bit ambitious..”) but you will get responses from many awesome corners too. Remember, it is not up to you to decide if somebody wants to be on Team Awesome – but you’ll never know if you don’t approach them in a friendly way.

My Personal Lesson: It Is Not About Me. It Is About You.

It’s been a really crap week so far with a lot of soul-destroying Something For Nothing emails in my inbox. Hey, am I too approachable? I have been turning down many Big Asks this week. Hey, am I not approachable enough? For every fifteen Big Asks, I get just one favour through and those fabulous emails are usually prefaced with a “hey, I know you are busy but I thought I’d drop you a line..”

And then it dawned on me, that all this has nothing to do with me. It’s about people either not realising I exist (fame is an exceptionally relative term!), people thinking I’m too busy for them (they’ve made their decision without consulting me), or people thinking I cannot bring anything to the game (okay, okay, this one is about me and my poor knowledge of Peruvian popcorn farms). I can fret about looking unapproachable in my green coat and kitschy sunglasses – but that is who I am and my outfit has nothing to do with approachability. I have a contact form, people can get in touch on social media, and plenty of people come up to say hi when I am working at festivals or shops.

So, I’m going to continue be kick-ass at my job. I’ll keep wearing my yellow shoes & my capes. I have some fantastic things in store over the next .. gulp .. eight months. And I hope to find far fewer Big Asks in my inbox and far more favours. Deal? Deal.

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Yarn Shop Day, Knitting Retreats & Thank Yous

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I’m supposed to be enjoying a long bank holiday weekend, so this blog post will be short and sweet. All photos by Mr D. who has lately begun taking more abstract photos and I’m enjoying looking at the world through his eyes.

First, thank you to everybody who made the trek to the Fluph yarn shop in Dundee this past Saturday for Yarn Shop Day. I lost track of quite how many people dropped by but I loved saying hello to all (including the dogs that people so thoughtfully brought along). I also loved seeing all the knitwear on display – from a stunning Aidez cardigan to the most exquisite cobweb Shetland “wedding ring” shawl.

(Fluph-owner and all-round lovely person Leona also managed to squeeze an unorthodox interview out of me. It includes a question on Eurovision!)

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Later this month I am heading to Yorkshire for another knitting retreat (I’m combining it with seeing far-flung friends). However, I’ve had yet another jury citation – this is the third since November – so my retreat plans may be cut short. I love spending time in Yorkshire, I very rarely get to see these friends and the retreat location includes a short stroll to a delightful yarn shop, so fingers crossed everything works out. I know many of you wonder about knitting retreats – while you obviously have the option of arranging one for yourself, there are a few lovely ‘open’ retreats. Helen Lockhart of Ripples Crafts has been running a regular knitting retreat on Tanera Mor, an beautiful island off the Scottish North-West coast, and I know she is planning more retreats in the Scottish Highlands. You could also opt to spend time in the beautiful Welsh countryside together with Brenda Dayne (of Cast On podcast fame) and Felicity Ford at the Gwlana retreat. I am sure there are other retreats scattered around the British isles – do share your info in the comments section if you know of any!

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Finally, thank you for all your kind words about the passing of my art teacher. It was a hard post to write.