personal stuff

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.

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.

Making Some Changes: Teaching

Later this week I will be updating the workshop & events page with all the details about what's ahead. It's already been announced that I'm teaching at EYF next month, but I'm also teaching at two other events this spring/summer. Dublin's Woollinn has a fantastic line-up and I cannot wait to visit Ireland for the first time. I'll also be at Yarningham for the first time alongside some of my favourite people.

I will be announcing more details (including the marvellous LYSs I'm visiting this spring),  but I want to expand a bit on some decisions we've made at Casa Bookish.

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Since 2014 I have been a full-time knitting designer and teacher - and it is a lot of work. I spend a lot of time on the road, I could do admin as a full-time job (and have now hired Penny to help out), I design, I write, I edit, I learn about spreadsheet functions and tax regulations, and occasionally I even knit.

I also have a chronic health condition.

My work is flexible enough to allow for days when my condition flares up, but I do have to factor in extra time to do some things (like photo shoots). And  when I get back to work, I have such a workload that I push myself to get through the things that have piled up. And then I have a flare up etc. 

Sitting down at the photo shoot.

Sitting down at the photo shoot.

Over the last two months, I have had some major conversations with my assistant Penny and my partner/photographer David. I have to make some changes or both my creativity and my health will suffer. We have concluded that while I love to teach, teaching takes up so much of my time and energy (prep, travel, teaching, travel, recovery) that we need to be very smart about how much I do.

Going forward, you will see me more often at festivals and doing LYS residencies than at one-off classes. I am so appreciative of all the LYS owners and organisers who have all stepped up in support. Thank you thank you thank you! Everybody has been so kind and understanding - this is why the knitting community is so special. 

(As always, if you are a festival organiser or a LYS owner, we'd love to hear from you. We have precious few slots available for the rest of the year - but do get in touch. I've also begun taking the first few bookings for 2019). 

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If you are a knitter, I hope you understand why I am not just popping by your LYS every two weeks or so. Please take advantage of when I am teaching at a nearby festival or teaching at a LYS - it will most likely be a while until I will be back. I also know it can be frustrating if everything's already booked by the time you hear about my class - but I'd still love to say hello to you (and please understand if I need to sit down while talking to you). 

Teaching is so magical: I love seeing you flourish and take on new challenges. Thank you for letting me be a tiny part of your making life. Let's make this work together.

A Return To Regular Life

2017 ended and 2018 began without me writing a single blog post. I even missed marking my great-grandmother Lilly's 102nd birthday. Lilly was the lady who taught me to knit and, although she has not been with us for many years, she is still one of my biggest influences. 

2017 ended with a book launch. I am yet to really write much about the experience of writing This Thing of Paper (now back in the shop) but I can briefly touch upon the post-book launch slump that hit me hard at the end of December 2017. So many things happened in my personal life in 2016 and 2017, but I pushed them aside for work. Once work finally calmed down, all those things (and sheer exhaustion) hit me like a brick. I spent nearly a month piecing myself together. Going forward, we are making a few changes so I can take better care of myself. I'm still not totally fine, and change is necessary. 

More on that in a future blog post. 

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We have started a super-fun This Thing of Paper KAL which runs concurrently on Instagram and in my Ravelry group. The KAL runs through to March 10, 2018 and you can knit any of the beautiful patterns from This Thing of Paper - please share photos on Rav & IG etc. We have a number of hashtags for your social media posts: #thisthingofpaper #thisthingofpaperKAL #TTOPknitalong #kariebookish - we also have some truly awesome prizes from yarnies as well as some treasures from my own vault. We hang out every two weeks in my Ravelry group = next hang out will be February 13, 2018 at 8pm UK time. We always have a blast - and if you cannot make it, make sure to post your photos of your own making time on IG.

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I am so heartened by the response to This Thing of Paper and if you have reviewed it, please let me know. I'd love to hear what you thought, what you are planning on knitting from the book, and read your responses to my essays. I will be returning to some of these themes later this year in a new project of mine, but I am such a fan of having these discussions about creativity and making. In a world that seems increasingly volatile and unkind, I look to Making Stuff as one way of navigating these murky waters - and I know that I share these sentiments with so many of you. 

Finally, I just want to say thank you to everybody who have reached out over the last few months. Reading your messages have been a source of joy and comfort. I'm very happy that you like my book. Thank you.  

 

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)

About Handknitted Scarves

June 2015 022 Just a very brief note as I catch my breath. Workshop season is in full swing and this means I am not home much. On the road I get to meet so many wonderful people and I see so many wonderful projects. This keeps me going until I am home on my sofa, snuggled up under the crochet blanket my mother once made me.

Knitting is one of the most soothing and calming activities I know. There is something so meditative about the repetitive hand actions and the small pattern repeats we keep in our heads: k2, p1, k8, p1.. As we sit there working, we ward off the troubles of life and can focus on something that makes sense. And then we put that scarf around our neck and it keeps us warm both in body and soul. We are reminded of that little meditative space as we go out to meet others and challenge a world that feels cold and fractured. And then when the world gets really cold and we face a very long winter, we know how to stay warm.

People talk a lot about symbols these days. They talk about baseball caps and safety pins. For me, a handknitted scarf is a symbol as well. It is a symbol of patience and perseverance. Tiny stitches are joined up in wonderful, joyful patterns to create a colourful scarf that keep us warm and happier. There is beauty in complexity and we should not forget that.

I don't have any answers. But I try to pass on skills that will let you knit a handknitted scarf that you will be wearing in the years ahead.

Stay warm.