The Importance of Joy

I have just spent twelve days in bed recovering from food poisoning with added complications. Twelve days. Forced downtime makes you think about things that you usually don’t examine, but I’ve had a lot of time to think.

What does it mean to feel joy, let alone share it, when every day seems to bring a new wave of terrible news? What does it mean to make things slowly when the world seems be buried under an avalanche of new, shiny things? What does it mean to sit quiet at home, connecting with other souls in remote corners of the world, when your local community is struggling?

I took up knitting again in early 2008 when I had a prolonged stay in bed. The activity gave me a sense of achievement, a sense of agency. I could not dress myself but I could make a scarf. A scarf became a hat became a sock became a cardigan (and by the time of the cardigan I could dress myself again). I made friends through knitting, I became part of a community, and before long I was working for a yarn company.

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Somewhere along the way I stumbled into designing and writing knitting patterns. I taught workshops for the yarn company. I blogged about knitting. I was on social media discussing knitting. I was part of many, many knitting groups. And then in 2014 I began doing all this as a full-time job for myself. I travelled to exciting places, met wonderful people, gave papers at academic conferences, and I even ended up writing a book.

Despite all those hours devoted to the practise of knitting, despite all the hours I’ve spent examining the act of knitting, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the importance of joy. And I don’t know why.

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Sometimes I feel emotionally unequipped to deal with making. In recent years I have used making as a way to deal with family loss, but I end up not feeling able to look at the finished pieces afterwards (an aside: not great when you make for a living - there are several pieces I will never show you, let alone publish). Things I make to keep myself occupied become things I cannot stand to look at afterwards. I’m a utilitarian maker and the thought of having made things I’ll never use pains me. Making becomes a distraction, not the central act. I am not sure I like this.

In a world where we are constantly fed pictures of perfection — yes, even on the amateur making end of things — there is something liberating about a slightly misshapen cookie, a cable that is crossed the wrong way, a painting where the nose isn’t quite right, and a quilt where the pieces are not perfectly aligned. These pieces express the joy of making in a way that carefully staged social media posts don’t. They are less about impressing the outside world, and more about being moved by what our hands are capable of doing with simple tools.

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I will freely admit that sometimes I wonder what the point of making is when the world is full of bleak news. Making a woolly hat feels frivolous when basic human rights are revoked, people are killed, and the world is experiencing one natural disaster after another. And yet making a woolly hat reminds me that I do have agency and I do have power. I cannot stop bad things from happening, but I can make good things happen through small acts of my own. I can find joy and peace when the media insist I must be scared. I can reach out to near-strangers and share kindness through making.

Joy is and must be a central part of making. Because making creates something out of nothing. Making transforms the world. Making gives us agency. Making is a radical act, a declaration that you possess the power necessary to bring about change. Making should be full of joy on the most personal level possible.

The world might not have “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace” (to quote Matthew Arnold) but as makers we need to seek the joy, the love, the light, the certitude, and the peace we create through our chosen form of making.

I think we forget about the simple joy of a well-made hat that keeps us warm when the world is cold. I know I had. Sometimes it is good to stop, take stock, and realise what is important to us.

Everything Is About Narwhals: Finding Inspiration & Working with Creativity

This is a long overdue post. I get asked a lot what I am reading, how I work and where to find inspiration. I hope this post will be a road-map for you to discover your own inspiration and finding your own creative path. First, let us travel back to my childhood in Denmark. I grew up in a small town of roughly 3,000 people and I loved our local library. My favourite section was what the local library classification system (DK5) called the "00-07 section: General Works" - a grab bag of encyclopedia, books about books, interdisciplinary books etc. As a child, I'd walk in, pull down a few books and sit in a chair reading until my mum returned from the shops. It was a scattershot approach but it led me to different sections I never would have discovered otherwise. I learned about Roman slaves, costume history, parapsychology (hey, section 14 was just the next book case along) and so forth.

I've spent some time thinking about this in the context of ebooks & digital downloads (which I adore). I love being able to walk over to my book shelves and discover a paragraph about historical knitting, domestic work, or even a technical run-down of various cast-ons. I crave context and knowledge. I relish discovering new ideas simply by picking up a random book.  I am a big fan of owning physical (knitting) books - that chance of discovery is priceless.

All if this is written from the perspective of someone who works with knitting professionally on a full-time basis. I realise I am writing this from a privileged perspective (and as someone who does not mind a cluttered home).

What do you do if this is not your reality? Let's take a look at the general principles of everything is about narwhals.

  1. Chance: Start by opening a random book,  or typing in a random word into Google Image Search, or walking down a street you don't know.
  2. Open Your Eyes, Ears & Mind: what is interesting? what captures your imagination? what is different? what is new? what is awesome?
  3. Document. Keep a commonplace book; use Evernote (making sure to tag), take photos, draw and doodle.
  4. Everything is About Narwhals. Suddenly you will notice the same thing everywhere: you'll see the same motif recurring or the same ideas propping up in all sorts of places. If you get interested in narwhals along the way, suddenly you'll realise everything is about narwhals.
  5. Begin Your Creative Project. You'll have your scattershot notes, your own sources, your own documentation and your own story. How does it all fit together?
  6. Make stuff! And hopefully share it with the world because the world needs creative people.


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Obviously not everything is about narwhals, but it is a neat way of explaining how creativity works for me. To couch in more high-brow terms, my creative work is synthetic (derived from Greek "synthesis":  'with' + 'placement' - σύνθεσις). I work my way to a coherent idea by placing many ideas together and then I find out what happens. 

So, while I can tell you what I am reading and I share photos on Instagram of amazing things I see, the really important thing is that you go out and find your narwhals.

Let's look closer at steps 5 and 6 above.

5. Begin Your Creative Project: you have your narwhal idea, you also have scraps of paper, doodles, and maybe even a Pinterest mood board (here's a random one of mine). This is the point where you sit down and try to make sense of it all.

  • Do you have a colour scheme?
  • Do you have recurrent motifs?
  • Do you have stories you want to tell?
  • How do you want to communicate your ideas?

This is when you start sketching or writing. Remember you are currently working to put things together and you are working your way towards a project. Do not be afraid of commit ideas to paper because you are not making final decisions. Just play and combine.

6. Make Stuff: you have your big idea ready to go and you know the colour/motifs/story. This is the time to create your beautiful piece.So, sit down and make it. Take ownership of it as well because it could not have come into being without you. You rock.

Addendum: I occasionally teach classes on designing, creativity and how to move from vague ideas to full-blown project. Keep an eye on my workshop schedule if you are interested.