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The Tale of A Scarf: When Knitting Chooses You

 September 2014 - wearing the scarf

September 2014 - wearing the scarf

Everybody says that I chose knitting, but I think knitting chose me. Yesterday I was looking through a drawer and came across a scarf I knitted in early, early 2008. Around the neck it went and I wore it running various errands. I wore it as a secret badge of honour.

This is what I was, this is me now, and this is what knitting brought me.

I fell horribly, terribly ill shortly after I moved to the UK. I don't talk about it much because it is a really boring topic, but I was very ill for many months. The illness meant I had to stay in bed and I could only do a very limited number of activities. I read a lot of books but I needed something else to do.

After one of my hospital visits, I persuaded David to stop at a local yarn shop. I bought a crochet hook and two balls of Twilley's Freedom Spirit from a quirky girl in the shop. I liked the name of the yarn and I liked that it was green. Dave was surprised I knew how to crochet. I made a hat that evening.

I crocheted more hats and gave them to friends. I realised that yarn was expensive and that crochet used a lot of yarn. On our next visit to the yarn shop, I bought a pair of knitting needles and three balls of Noro Silk Garden. I sat in bed wondering if I could remember how to cast on. While I was trying to remember, I looked down and my fingers had done it. Muscle memory from years ago. My body which had almost given out on me was now helping me. Knit two, purl two..

 the scarf

the scarf

And this is it. A humble k2, p2 scarf in a Noro yarn. Looking at it now, my stitches are incredibly even, the edges are (mostly) slipped and the fringe is a bit awful looking. Starting this scarf was the start of many things in my life. Recovery, finding friends, building up a new life, and settling into what would become a passion and a career.

I knit a lot. I have knitted many, many things much more beautiful and much more complex than this scarf. But this is where it all began. This is when knitting chose me.

Everything is Connected

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Twenty-one years ago I set up my very first website. It was hand-coded and had an "under construction" ruler at the top. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Today you get to see my new website. It does not have an "under construction" ruler at the top, but it does have a lot of cool stuff: tutorials for you to peruse, a workshop section that's easy to navigate, and a small shop for pre-ordering my new book. Speaking of which, I have also added a section where you can see sizing and yarn requirements for the book patterns. I still think pulling a website together is the coolest thing ever. I hope you find it useful and helpful.

I've been on the road quite a bit over the last few months.

(Initially the plan was to have the book published before my busy season kicked in, but production delays meant that I have been juggling book production and website development with workshop teaching. I am very grateful to be so busy, but it has also taken a toll. We live in a world where we admire "being busy" but often forget that "being busy" is a case of too much work and inadequate planning. Hopefully now that the book is nearly here and the website is live, I can begin to breathe again. Maybe just a little bit?) 

One of my adventures took me to Faversham, a picturesque market town in Kent, England. It is home to The Yarn Dispensary, a yarn shop which has quickly become one of my favourite stops. I ran two workshops in the quirky and colourful shop, and it was such a relief to be back teaching after a summer of staring at a screen. I may be an introvert, but there is something about teaching that I just love. Maybe it is knowing that people will leave with confidence in a new skill; maybe it is that feeling you get when talented and creative people are in a space together; maybe it is that I feel good when I make other people feel good; maybe it is all of the above.

After the workshops, a friend took me to Margate to visit the sea shelter where TS Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land. I stood in the sea shelter, waved my arms around whilst kids skateboarded around me, and then we went for pizza. In a peculiar twist of fate, I have been waiting twenty-one years to make that pilgrimage. Looking out over Margate Sands and the North Sea, I kept thinking about how things can feel circular at times. Here I was in a place where Eliot wrote a key part of a poem which has defined so much of my life. Here I was looking out over the North Sea — the body of water covering Doggerland, an ancient land mass with which I feel a strange sense of belonging. It was beautiful. 

 Vesterlyng, Denmark.

Vesterlyng, Denmark.

As I am writing this, I have just returned from another journey filled with connections. I taught two classes at Knitwork, a Copenhagen knitting festival. I took the opportunity to spend a few days with my family (my mother has been fighting cancer this year — her prognosis is good, thankfully, but it has been a tense year). My family drove us out to Vesterlyng, a low-lying area that is part beach, part sea, part fen. The sunset flickered across the pools of water, while the resident cows were silhouetted against the sky. This is my childhood landscape. An odd, unsettled (and unsettling) place of utter beauty. No matter how many people visit, it feels remote.   

Copenhagen was good as well. I walked familiar streets, my feet remembering the routes rather than my head trying to map where I was going. I really enjoyed my time at the festival: the colour palette was very different to the ones I'm used to at UK shows (if you think there is no unifying colour palette because of all the different dyers & companies, there is still an underlying aesthetic consensus that is difficult to escape — we are all caught up in our particular times & places), the general skill level was exceptionally high, and I found it so interesting to see a particular Danish sense of style (I need to write more about this). I left feeling very inspired and also intrigued. It felt good to get out of my shell. 

Now I am home, but not for long. I am away to Inverness next week to teach at Loch Ness Knit Fest where I am looking forward to meeting old and new friends. Then I'm flying off to the Oslo Strikkefestival (where I shall be investigating how the Norwegian aesthetic plays out against what I saw in Copenhagen. I have some ideas already, but let's see how they fare. Denmark & Norway are connected in interesting ways.).

And then .. and then it is time to release my book. I'll be sharing details about the book launch parties soon. I cannot wait to show you all the things we've been working on for so long. 

Phew. Hello and welcome to the new site. 

Hello Europe! When Crafting & Fandom Meet. A Guest Post by Ellie Chalkley

Note from Karie: I am currently busy working on my book (the bulk of which is now with the graphic designer!), so I hope you'll enjoy this series of guest posts on creativity, making and identity penned by some very awesome people. You are in for a real treat as they explore our shared world of making. Today we are joined by Ellie Chalkley, an all-round music, media and culture enthusiast and citizen of the internet. She blogs and podcasts at listenoutside.com, a genre-agnostic stream of musical recommendations from Europe and beyond. I asked Ellie if she would write a guest post about crafting and fandom — I hope you'll enjoy!

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I can’t remember a time before I loved Eurovision. The world’s biggest song contest has somehow always been a part of the rhythm of my year, even before I have any specific memories of the event itself. It comes after Easter, but before the school holidays, and it is a night for putting on your best and shiniest party frock, eating party rings and staying up late watching a slightly incomprehensible but undeniably entertaining feast of European pop music.

As an adult Eurovision fan, I still put the shiny party frocks on and eat the party rings, but one of the ways I express my enthusiasm is through crafting.

It started out innocuously enough making flag-iced cupcakes for the party I was hosting. I also made a small amigurumi effigy of Terry Wogan, the iconic UK commentator (Karie's note: the Terry amigurumi ended up featured on BBC). I don’t really know why I was doing this - I think there was a general shortage of specific Eurovision party accoutrements, and so if I wanted to go through with my theme, I had to do it myself.

I kept the Eurocrafting to cakes for a few years. An EU flag cake made with that blue food colouring implicated in childhood hyperactivity comes to mind, as does a beautiful rainbow cake hidden under chocolate icing and sugar pearls. As the years passed and the contest travelled the length and breadth of the continent, my knitting skills improved and my love for Eurovision deepened.

Inevitably and happily, the two loves intermingled.

In the wake of Loreen’s inspiring victory in Baku in 2012 I decided to knit a small doll of our new heroine. Maybe it was not the best depiction of her in terms of a likeness, but I was proud of the miniature diaphanous performance coat that I’d knitted from Habu paper yarn and the knitted-on construction of her halter top.

In 2016, a series of improbable coincidences lead to me planning a trip to Stockholm to attend and report on the contest for specialist news and analysis website ESC Insight. The fact that I would actually be attending Eurovision for the first time definitely needed to be marked with some form of crafting, and so the little doll idea came out again. I had great fun making poseable dolls of Iceland’s Greta Salome, Spain’s Barei and Australia’s Dami Im, who were three of my pre-contest favourites. I also wanted to celebrate all the countries taking part, so I dug into my scrap yarn bag and began knitting small hearts patterned with the 42 flags of the Eurovision countries.

Naturally, I didn’t quite get to all 42. The Union Jack presented the usual design complexity issues and the stranded colourwork of the various Nordic crosses resulted in some slow and careful knits that eventually blocked out beautifully. But I knew I was onto something, as the completed knitted flag hearts drew huge curiosity in the slightly boy-heavy and technological press room. I found that people were wanting to take the little hearts away and wear them into the arena to support their favourite countries.

One gorgeous Eurovision morning in Stockholm, I bought some beautiful BC Garn in a cotton wool blend. I picked a sunny sky mid blue and a rich wheaty yellow -  the colours of the Swedish flag, and the colours of the 2016 winner, Ukraine. My summer knitting project was to design a shawl commemorating the trip to Stockholm that I could potentially wear in Kyiv the following year. I ended up doing a lot more than that.

My crafting for the 2017 Eurovision season largely took place during the National Final season running from late December to March — also known as the period when the intense and totally hardcore fans watch the hundreds of shortlisted songs around the continent being whittled down by various semi-democratic and random processes. I made tote bags and t-shirt transfers celebrating the winners of the contest; I made a sampler of my favourite Estonian song lyrics; I customised a silver jacket into an intricate homage to the excellent graphic design of the contest logo; and I sewed a full set of delicate felt lapel badges featuring the flags of 44 Eurovision (and future Eurovision) nations. I still wasn’t sure why I was doing any of this - it was all driven by enthusiasm and the desire not to let any creative idea pass me by.

The felt flag badges proved to be an incredibly popular accessory for jazzing up people’s accreditation lanyards, and a unique way of making friends and staying memorable. My flag badges found their way into the Green Room on the lanyards of the Italian delegation, including the singer Francesco Gabbani, and into the BBC radio commentary booth with legendary UK broadcaster Ken Bruce. Once I started running out of flags for popular countries I set myself up in the press room with precut pieces so I could sew them for people on request, while we talked about our favourite songs and our hopes for the Grand Final. The handmade, unofficial nature of my flag badges made them special to me and hopefully to the recipients - a memory of a special time.

And into the future? I can feel some more ambitious Eurovision projects brewing as we prepare for the 2018 contest in Portugal, including hundreds more felt flag badges. Maybe I’ll embroider a scoreboard. Maybe I’ll do a stumpwork cushion of the stage design. Maybe I’ll sew my own silk tuxedo jacket and hand-embroider it with the national flowers of all competing nations?

Now, there’s an idea.

I’d better get started.

Eurovision is coming.

Death, Dancing & Other Thieves - A Guest Post by Ben Wilson

Note from Karie: I’m currently very busy working on my forthcoming book, so over the next few weeks you will read a series of guest posts on creativity, making and identity penned by some very awesome people. You are in for a real treat as they explore our shared world of making. This week we are joined by Benjamin G. Wilson, a writer and performer living between Manchester and Cornwall.

His novel, Dispatch from the City of Orgies, is a ‘magic-realist memoir of sexual violence, drug use, and being in love’ set during the east London ‘Grindr Murders’ of 2014-15.  It is currently in development with Penguin Random House as part of their Write Now scheme. On his blog he writes and makes zines about being being queer, witchcraft, mental health and politics. 

Benjamin is one of the smartest people I have ever met and I always enjoy his writing (and his art — the woodcut is also by Benjamin). I hope you will enjoy this piece too.

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My grandmother had beautiful, clever hands. My christening gown, knitted in cheap acrylic 4-ply, has a baroque ostentation. Tiny nups on a base of lace. I think about her hands a lot. I think about how arthritis bent the fingers backwards, how her medication made the skin paper thin. She was 67 when she died. She’d been ill for a long time. Her gravestone reads ‘pain courageously borne’.

I am 30. People keep telling me this is young. And it is. But if I live as long as my grandmother, I’ve lived half my life already. My hands already hurt in the mornings. If I knit until I’m 60, I’ve done more than half of my knitting already. My grandmother could not knit at 60.

I used to dance. Not just in clubs, but in studios. Half an hour of stretches and then two hours of feeling inadequate. A tutor told me I danced like a potato, so I stopped training. My mother, who is in her early 50s, struggles to dance at all.  Her joints hurt. If I go to a club now, I feel the dance in my body three days later. Knees and neck feeling misaligned. If my joints are like my mothers, then I’ve done significantly more than half of the dancing my life will contain.

Even if I live till 90, even if this is as old as my body ever feels, I’ve done more than a third. There will come a point where there is more behind me than there is in front. It is a cliché, one that will annoy genuinely middle aged people, but I have hit 30, and now I am thinking about death. If these things bother me, if I want to do more, then why don’t I? If these things are important, why not make time?

The things for which I make time, take time. Time is limited. I’ve become picky. How can there be time to knit when I am dying? How can there be time not to?

I used to knit for money. I write now. Knitting being the only career from which a job as a writer looks the more stable option. I can write a thousand words an hour, my photocopier can replicate far more.  I can manage only 80 stitches a minute.  And when I sit down to knit, or do my stretches between stints at the desk, I feel time moving past me like a river. I feel my body, with its soft band at the middle and its unexpected grey hairs and its gentle aching at every hour. My doctor has told me ‘this is just what 30 year old bodies feel like’.

And I think ‘there isn’t much time left, enjoy it.’

And I think ‘there isn’t much time left, don’t waste it.’ And I look at my wool, and I feel the music in my body, and it’s difficult to decide what wasted time means.

Researching Knitting & Religion: A Guest Post by Anna Fisk

Note from Karie: I’m currently very busy working on my forthcoming book, so over the next few weeks you will read a series of guest posts on creativity, making and identity penned by some very awesome people. You are in for a real treat as they explore our shared world of making. We are joined this week by Anna Fisk who is an academic based at the University of Glasgow. I know Anna from my knitting circles and always enjoy talking to her about the intersection of religion and culture. Anna’s craft practice is focused on the world around her and the changing seasons, from her Dear Green Shawl design available at p/hop to the natural dyeing, spinning and felting she blogs about at Knit Wild Studio. I asked Anna if she would write about her work researching knitting and making. I hope you'll enjoy this as much as I enjoy my conversations with Anna.

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Back when I was working on my PhD thesis in feminist theology and literature, I realised that being a knitter was a much bigger part of my identity than any religious affiliation ever had been. My account of learning to knit was probably the most significant story I told about myself. The therapeutic nature of the process of knitting, and sense of achievement in the end products, enabled me to cope with depression and anxiety more than any ‘spiritual’ practices. It was making things that gave me a sense of meaning, and oriented how I approached the world.

Being part of the knitting community, I knew my experience of craft as transformative and sustaining was far from unusual. So after finishing my doctorate I wanted to engage with research with other people about the significance of knitting in their lives, and see if I was right in my hunch this was related to religion in some way.

This meant thinking about the very definition of ‘religion’. I got interested in contemporary scholarship on ‘lived’ religion, which is about everyday practices, material things, and the stories that give us meaning and help us to cope, rather than a set of beliefs about higher powers or abstract doctrines. I also read up on the secularization debates, which ask whether religion is disappearing altogether or instead morphing into new forms. These range from holistic mind-body-spirit practices to environmental activism; or the civil religion of nationalism, family values, capitalism, and human rights discourse.

I started researching other people’s knitting practice, firstly through participant observation of two knitting groups in Glasgow. I noticed the groups (as well as yarn festivals, Ravelry, podcasts…) worked in a similar way to religious institutions. People who’d just moved to the city would join a knitting group to make friends; attending regularly provided routine and support, and helped people feel less isolated. We knitters also have a shared identity and language (‘stash’, ‘squishing’ yarn, etc.). So the first theme of my research is how knitting as a subculture, providing belonging and identity, can work as an implicit religion.

The second major theme came out more in a focus group session and individual interviews with knitters across central Scotland. These were recorded on my trusty dictaphone, leaving my hands free for knitting while I talked to the participants, who were also knitting.

Through these conversations it became clearer to me that the effects of knitting on wellbeing have parallels with holistic spiritual practices such as yoga or mindfulness meditation. Many of my participants described knitting as ‘therapeutic’ and a way of getting through difficult times and situations. Some had deliberately started knitting because of these benefits.

The theme I’m most interested is what I call sacred connections. As a knitter, I mark really important life events and relationships by knitting them. As do many other knitters, from graduation shawls, booties for grandchildren, to braving that sweater curse for your significant other. This includes the craftivism of yarnbombing and pussy hats; charity knitting after major disasters (when you know that just sending money would probably be more effective, but in knitting penguin sweaters or blankets for the homeless you’re really doing something). This is one aspect of how we use knitting as way of connecting with—ritualising and materialising—the things that are most important (or ‘sacred’) to us.

The other aspect relates to this urge I have, whenever I find something that I love or am fascinated by, to render it in wool, to knit it. I see this throughout our knitting world, including in the work of designers like Karie, whose patterns are inspired by Glasgow tenement tiles and best-loved artists and novelists; who creates whole pattern collections based on her historical specialisms, not just as an intellectual exercise but also about connecting with landscape, heritage, and materiality.

Beyond what this tells us about knitters (who are interesting enough!), I also think it tells us something about the kinds of things that are most important—sacred—for people in the (post)secular, late-modern world: love and family, cultural tradition, political commitments, the natural and built environment, our bodies.

I’m interested in how conversations around knitting—and craft more generally—are part of the cultural trend (beginning with Romanticism) of attempting to reconnect with what we feel we’ve lost in modern life, from a sense of place, to taking it slow, to being truly part of the material world around us. Making things with our own hands, paying attention to the whole process, out of materials we know the provenance of, gives a profound satisfaction and sense of connection that for many of us is indeed sacred.

(I knitted the Biophilia shawl (which is about 'hypothetically innate human tendency to feel an emotional attachment to the natural world') while I was conducting the interviews.)

I have a couple of articles from this research coming out soon, but I want to write a whole book on the topic eventually. So the work is very much ongoing. If you’d like to share your stories with me, I would love to hear from potential participants, particularly on the sacred connections theme. Even if you’d just like to hear more about this research, do please get in touch!

Creating While Marginalised

Note from Karie: I’m currently very busy working on my forthcoming book, so over the next few weeks you will read a series of guest posts on creativity, making and identity penned by some very awesome people. You are in for a real treat as they explore our shared world of making. First up is yarn dyer and composer Angelina Panozzo who you might know better as GamerCrafting. This is a powerful and personal essay on what it means to lead a creative life when the world tries to get you down. I hear you, Angelina.

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In today's society of “Instagram culture,” it's easy to get swept up in the belief that everyone else is living a charmed life, full of sunny successes and perfectly arranged yarn stashes. It's perhaps too tempting to forget that there are actual people on the other side of the screen with worries, stresses, and problems, who are just as stressed out and frazzled as you are. I'm certainly guilty on both counts, feeling toxic and jealous that some people seem to be living the high life while I stress-cry into my bran flakes three times a week.

I wake up every morning as the same person I've been for five years now: a gay immigrant. Neither of those things encapsulates who I am: I'm also an indie yarn dyer, a big geek, a gamer, and a gardening novice. Sometimes I design knitting and crochet patterns, and I'm trying to get a book out this year. I like woodland walks and fancy scissors, I enjoy photography and I studied music in university. While my friends would call me “A Creative,” it seems society only sees me as those first two things: gay immigrant.

With every headline I read, I feel like the air is being pulled from my lungs. It's a specific, acute kind of panic that only comes from being part of a marginalised community. It's like drowning, except you're sitting at your desk editing a new video tutorial while you schedule content. It's like being in open space without a space suit, except no one knows that you have no oxygen and they all want to know why the book isn't done yet.

I have the privilege of being white and speaking English as a first language: I will tell you that if both those things were not true, we probably wouldn't have had success with our immigration appeal in 2014 – not without having to shell out even more money for an immigration lawyer. For over a year now, my future in this country has been uncertain. I won't bore you with the long, complicated, frustrating details, but I'm only living here thanks to an EU visa. For over a year I've had to get up, read the news, drink my coffee, swallow my panic, and sit down at my desk to create things. Content, new yarns, patterns, create, create, create. There's no paid time off when you're a freelance creative. There are no breaks, no sick days to take when you want to sit on your kitchen floor and sob into a loaf of fresh soda bread.

Don't get me wrong: I love my job. I love being a part of this vibrant, shimmering community, and I've met some truly amazing people thanks to the work I do. I love the ethos of the DIY community, and seeing fellow creative humans discover new methods and techniques is what gets me out of bed at obscenely early hours every morning (yes, even weekends). Creating new things is what sets my brain on fire with inspiration and ideas, whether I'm dyeing up new yarn shades, writing a flute choir folk tune, or lugging 50kg of photography equipment into the wilderness to get a macro shot of a spider web covered in morning dew.

Sometimes, though, the fervour of inspiration is dampened by the quiet march of panic and uncertainty. It's hard to dream up exciting new things when you don't even know where you'll be living in a year, or if all the plans you've made will be dust in the wind of change. It's hard to plan in this reality: not knowing whether to stay or go weighs heavily on the immigrant mind. It's like the song by the Clash: “Should I stay or should I go now? If I say there will be trouble, but if I go there will be double.” Stay and risk it, or try for somewhere else and risk that? These are decisions that have to be made on a knife edge of doubt, and you're never sure whether you're just panicking because you're predisposed to brain bats, or whether it's a clear and present danger.

Creativity and DIY innovation are the lights at the end of the proverbial tunnel for many of us.

Whether you're struggling with immigration, parenting, mental illness, chronic pain, or a myriad of other stresses and maladies, we're all in this big creative boat together. Step into the craft canoe, fellow maker: we have cake, yarn, and shoulders to cry on.