Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On top of everything, I want to learn to knit


Winston Churchill wrote a tiny little book that I think will be my stock birthday gift from here on out until all of my friends have a copy. I had no idea I liked Winston Churchill -- though I'm partial to orators -- but when I picked up this book by chance in a bookshop in Berkeley I knew we'd be firm friends.

Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental over-strain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale. Some advise exercise, and others, repose. Some counsel travel, and others, retreat. Some praise solitude, and others, gaiety. No doubt all these may play their part according to the individual temperament. But the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change.

Change is the master key. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat. There is, however, this difference between the living cells of the brain and inanimate articles: one cannot mend the frayed elbows of a cost by rubbing the sleeves or shoulders; but the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthen, not merely by rest, but by using other parts. It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest; a new field of interest must be illuminated.

He goes on to maintain that the mind will go on working no matter how hard you try to rest it. I think anyone who has ever dreamed of work will sympathize. No, "just" resting isn't good enough for your brain. It wants activity. The thing to do, to rest the parts that are tired, is to use different parts by focusing on a completely different activity. By having hobbies.

Churchill weighs merits of common hobbies like reading, which he says is good, but:

1. Reading-as-leisure can lead to that dread of knowing you will never read ALL there is to read.

2. To truly enliven a new part of the mind one would need to learn another language, and master it enough to read in it. (He actually heartily recommends this.)

3. If it's anything similar to your real work doesn't really count.

Me? Well. One could argue I don't need another hobby. I cook and bake. I make quilts, napkins, lunchbags and other things on the sewing machine. I am an eggheady naturalist, and can identify a bewildering variety of animals and birds. And of course, above all else, I go on adventures. Maybe I'm just Greedy For Activities. That's fair. But in order for real mental repose one must do something one does not initially know how to do. And then master it as best one can.

Churchill chose painting.



As I cannot choose "British minister" or even "influential political orator", I have (without strictly meaning to) chosen knitting this time.

To explain: my usual clothing regimen is button up shirt+sweater, in most all weathers. (Luckily I live in drizzly Bridgetown, which is only summery for 3.5 months of the year.) I am frightfully picky about both items which saves me from buying too many things. But in this weird transitional period of weather where I am both hot and cold in the same day, when all the new colors peep out of the ground and my activities change from Resolutely Indoors to Let's Get Some Air Into Those Lungs, I sometimes get the dragon-sickness and desperately search around for new clothes. And this time was particularly aggravating for some reason, because I tend to look for colors or shapes independent of what is actually available. And the available options at present are, for me, not options. I layer. I am hard on clothes. I need something that will last for many years. I need something I can wear under a jacket without needing to fold up weird flappy sleeves, I need something that will actually keep me warm. Something I can mend when it starts to get shabby. Et cetera. I'm insufferable.

I had a similar problem last summer when I could not for the life of me find button up shirts with short sleeves that were long enough. (What? I know, I know. But see, most girl short sleeved button-ups have ridiculous capped sleeves, or else just end abruptly at the thickest part of the arm, and I find such sleeves grotesque.) I solved this problem by converting some of my beloved-yet-not-often-worn 3/4 length sleeved shirts (those false-roll-up type shirts). I cut off an inch or two of fabric, hemmed them, et voila! Suddenly the shirts were wearable and beloved.

The sweater problem is not a matter of conversion, it's a matter of creation. Somewhere along my feverish searching quest I found a knitting pattern that was absolutely spot on. It was like a match being struck in the dark. I went from never having the slightest inkling of putting needle to yarn to knowing that I would be making a sweater. This sweater. And that by doing that I would open the door to many, many other makable things.


The prospect of the veil of ignorance being lifted is incredibly thrilling. Think of the possibilities! Why suffer the anguish of losing a favorite garment or accessory on vacation when you can merely make another just like it? How many times have we looked at that favorite pair of pants, just before it disintegrates, and think, if only I could clone you. Then life would be perfect.

But also think of the modifications! I like that sweater but wish it came down to here, not here. I wish this color came in a v-neck instead of a crew neck. Why doesn't anyone make a decent sweater vest anymore? These are but piffley details from the knitter's privileged perspective.

Today for the first time I went into a yarn store. As with fabric and art supplies, there's something thrilling in being around raw materials, especially in this giddy mindset I am in right now. I can MAKE something with this stuff!

Add to this my big illustration project making me particularly aware of every fine detail there is ever to be seen. Add to that my scouring the internet just before, thinking a lot about yarn and what makes different textures and trying to gauge homespun consistencies through a monitor. What a joy it was to pick up a skein and feel it in my hands! I felt so fortunate to be able to reach out and TOUCH this stuff.

Of course it must be said: this kind of empowered thinking would not be possible without the volumes of knowledge available at ravelry, where hundreds of people have already made the sweater I'm about to attempt.


If anything I am feeding these starry-eyed sentiments by noticing each and every detail of the journey and taking it slow. This way, when I really do push off into the choppy seas of Really Beginning, the wonder will sufficiently carry me through the storms of disappointment. It took me many, many attempts to make the cloth lunch bag I use every single day. Retracing steps, struggling, taking it slow does not really daunt me. I may be singing a different tune a few weeks from now, but for now I am just awash with excitement.

Just LOOKING at the ball of yarn in the basket next to me makes me terribly, terribly excited.