Glorious weekend!

Don’t get me wrong. Even though this week was busier than I like–with something to do every evening after work–I had a great week. I had interesting things to do at the office, I learned something new every day, I played a lot of music, I got together with friends, I heard some good stories, I walked in the sunshine. I am just really glad it is Saturday, and I have the whole day ahead of me to catch up some things around the house and garden that I have let go for lack of time. Since the weather is predicted to be warm and sunny today, I need to make sure I spend plenty of time outside before the temperature drops tomorrow, even though the house is a complete wreck.

For weeks it seems, we have been running into the house after work, dropping things on the nearest flat surface, and running back out. It looks like crazy people live here. (I don’t even have children to blame for the mess.) There are two keyboards, two stands, a bench, a banjo, and a large canvas bag of dance cards and dance shoes in the middle of the living room floor. What is that about? We literally have no space on the dining room table to put our plates down when it’s time to eat. And the kitchen counter? Forget about it! It looks like the bottom of a hamster cage. Now that the political ads and the brochures from the cable companies have slowed down, the Christmas catalogs have started to arrive in force.

Jim and I switch off kitchen duties week by week. Lucky for me, last week was Jim’s turn to plan the menus, make the grocery list, cook, and clean up. Starting tomorrow it’s my week. On busy weeks like we’ve had recently, whoever is in the kitchen often ends up cooking one big meal and then reheating leftovers the rest of the week. Last week Jim made a delicious squash casserole and a three-bean casserole (both from Moosewood recipes), which got us through the whole week. The week before I made a roast in the crock pot, and we ate from it all week. Sometimes we try to disguise the leftovers (e.g., shred the beef and add sauteed onions and green peppers and roll it all in a tortilla; add extra carrots and potatoes and turn the roast into a stew). But the last two weeks, we just shamelessly heated the same dishes over and over until we had finished them off.

We are both pretty happy with the way we share kitchen duties and have been doing it this way for several years. It kind of sucks the week you’re doing everything, but then you get a whole week off where you don’t have to think about what to eat or make any motions toward cooking or feel guilty about not cleaning up after a meal. We do usually try to go to the grocery together, but the person who is in charge that week pushes the cart. We also do a good job sharing laundry, although we are not as organized about who does what when. One of us will wash and dry everything, but we each fold our own clothes. But in the fourteen years we have been together we have never worked out a system for taking care of other household chores, which could explain a lot about why the house is in the shape it’s in!

I used to think I had to dust and vacuum and mop and clean the bathrooms every Saturday, but I’ve since learned that is a complete myth. Possibly I was trying to impress my children at the time or trying to live up to some idealized view of how a good wife and mother should act (never mind that I held full-time jobs the whole time I was raising children). But lately I haven’t cared about dust and dirt as much as clutter, so I have started (again) to try to get rid of stuff I don’t need. My goal at some point is to have only things that are both useful and beautiful, but I am a very long way from meeting that goal. Still, one thing I have learned is that as long as I am making steady movement toward a goal, I will eventually get there. Even if I only knit one row a day (or one row a week), that is one row closer to finishing the project. It took me a year to make the last sweater. So far I have been working for two and a half years on an afghan for my son and his wife. But I’m getting there.

So…today. What to do? How to spend my precious allotment of time? Sitting here in my favorite chair, drinking my morning tea, I can already feel myself being torn in many different directions, making mental to-do lists that would be impossible to accomplish in a week (let alone a day). Lately when I feel overwhelmed and indecisive, I set a timer for 25 or 30 minutes and just start doing whatever first catches my attention. When the timer goes off, I am always surprised at how much I can accomplish in such a short time. I am also usually re-energized, ready to set the timer again.

Sometimes I work room by room (25 minutes in the living room, then 25 minutes in the den). Sometimes I work project by project (25 minutes straightening the linen closet or organizing my sewing supplies, followed by 25 minutes of raking leaves). This strategy (based on the Pomodoro system) works well when I have a whole lot of different kinds of things I want to do, but any one of them could take all day. It also works well for reminding me to take regular breaks and to tackle projects in smaller chunks. Rather than jump in and try to declutter the entire house in one weekend (which is impossible; I know because I’ve tried!), I focus on one drawer or one shelf or one task at a time. And then I remind myself that it’s like knitting. I might not have an immaculate, clutter-free, and well-decorated house by the end of the day, but I’ll be that much closer to my goals.

Wish me luck!

Kisses and Hugs, Spiders and Bugs

Okay, so I haven’t written every day, as I had hoped, but I did finish another square for the afghan I’ve been knitting, so maybe that counts for something. This square—called Kisses and Hugs, Spiders and Bugs—was almost as much fun to work on as the tree I made last month. It was designed by a woman named Judy Sumner, who says she often gets inspiration for her patterns (or the names of them) from her twin granddaughters, whom she is also teaching to knit.

This Aran square was designed by Judy Sumner, who says she got her inspiration from a birthday card she received from her twin granddaughters. The card had little cartoon bugs and spiders, and Xs and Os.

I finished this square in the car on the way to Lawrence, Kansas, for a contra dance and then immediately began to work on another square. I’m not sure this next one is going to be quite as much fun to work on, but it should at least keep my brain active. Each of the patterns in the book The Great American Aran Afghan shows a photograph of the completed square and presents the instructions in both words and charts, along with complicated keys and descriptions of the various cable stitches. There is also a glossary at the back of the book that explains common abbreviations and a “knitter’s school” that provides steps and diagrams for the basics (cast on, knit, purl, bind off, graft). Most of the patterns have at least three or four charts, each with a different number of rows in the repeat, so the challenge is to keep track of which row you are on for each different chart.

I look at the photograph a lot as I work, but since I am basically a “linear person,” I generally find it easiest to follow the written instructions, not the visual charts. Part of the challenge with following the visual charts is to remember to read the chart from right to left for the odd-numbered rows and from left to right for the even-numbered rows. I use four different colored counters to keep track of the rows, plus markers to identify where each pattern begins and ends.

On the surface, the Tipsy Cable square that I just started seems easier to work on than some of the other squares I have done, because it has two small cables on the outside of the square and two larger cables on the inside, separated by sections of twisted knit and reverse stockinette stitch. However, the tricky bit is that the pairs of matched cables are mirror images of each other, so in essence there are four charts to keep track of, not two, as I had originally thought. For example, the outside cables are represented by Chart A, so I happily started Chart A on row 1, as expected, but when I got to the outside cable on the other side of the square, the instructions told me to start at row 21 of the same Chart A.

The larger inside cables were even more confusing. Again, it started out clearly enough, even if a little complicated, with the first of the larger cables represented by Chart B and the second by Chart C. And I could look at the photograph and the visual representations of the charts and see that they were mirror images of each other, so that made sense. However, I nearly threw the whole thing out the car window when I got to row 2 of Chart C, which told me to follow row 24 of Chart B—which told me to “Repeat row 14.” I felt like I was on some sort of insane scavenger hunt. I just keep telling myself to concentrate on one row at a time and to pay attention, and it should all work out. The curious thing is that this pattern is not considered to be one of the more difficult in the book. At least, the editors of the book don’t consider it difficult. I’m still not convinced. But they thought the square with the Spiders was difficult, and I just thought that was just plain fun.

When I’m Sitting I’m Knitting

I’ve done it again–started a major project that will take me years to finish. This time I am knitting an afghan for my son and his wife. It was originally going to be a wedding present, but they have already been married for over a year now, and the afghan is only about 25% completed. Fortunately, they are very good natured and don’t seem to care how long it takes me. With luck, they will get it long before their tenth anniversary, at least.

I always like a challenge, and I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again, so I decided to make an Aran sampler afghan. The blocks I have made so far have been everything I hoped for–interesting and challenging, but not so difficult that I get frustrated and give up. The problem with samplers, though, is that by the time you figure out exactly how the pattern goes, it is time to move on to the next one. I am knitting with100% washable wool from Peru, in a brilliant blue yarn that I got at the Yarn Barn in Lawrence, Kansas, one weekend when we were in town for a dance.

There are several knitters who attend the dances in Kansas, and we like to compare projects when we see each other. One woman is making a gorgeous lace shawl. It’s a good way to keep motivated, knowing that people will expect to see progress the next time you show up at a dance. I used to knit while watching TV, but now that I no longer watch television, I mostly knit in the car while criss-crossing the state to various contra dances and square dances.

The pattern I am knitting is from a booklet called The Great American Aran Afghan, which consists of 24 original designs by 24 knitters (20 blocks for the afghan itself and 4 more to make a couple accent pillows). I am currently working on a block by a woman named Judy Sumner, whose square (which she calls kisses and hugs; spiders and bugs) was inspired by a birthday card from her twin grandaughters. I am having a great time knitting this square, making the bobbles that form the body of the spider, and watching the leafy vine emerge along the left-hand side of the square.

Here are the squares I have made so far.

This Aran square designed by Hanna Burns combines two DNA strand-like patterns with the Trinity Sticth to represent the Holy Trinity in Christianity.

Barbara Selesnick designed this square to remind her of the treasures people carry inside lockets and the stories they inspire.

Ann Strong got her inspiration for this square from pomegranates. She used the Seed Wishbone pattern and the Double Texture Cable to illustrate the contrast between the smooth exteriors and the seedy, bumpy insides of the pomegranate.

This tree by Ada Fenick was incredibly fun to knit. It represents the Tree of Life shared by many cultures. The cables were taken from the wedding invitation of a good friend from college.

Cutting the steek

Now that the evenings are getting cooler, I am ready to get back to work on a sweater I started knitting last December. This is the most complicated pattern I have ever knit, but I am very happy with the way it is turning out so far. It is a two-color Shetland pattern; the yarn is fingering weight wool, and the colors are plumberry and ash.

Unfortunately, I am now at the point where I must cut the steek or abandon the project. My friend Amber, who has already made a sweater by this same pattern, assures me I can do it, and several helpful articles online indicate that there is little risk of unraveling a sweater with a steek cut. But the idea of cutting through a tube of knitting that took so long to make is completely counterintuitive, and so far, I have resisted taking a pair of scissors to my work. The woman at the shop where I bought the yarn was no help, either. When I told her about this pattern, she said, “On, no! That’s too scary! I would never do that.” Not much of a sales pitch, I must say.

Nevertheless, I can see the advantages of steeking, especially for Fair Isle sweaters and other complicated patterns. With the steek, you knit the sweater in the round, with the right side facing, which allows you to follow the intricate pattern more easily. Having a steek means you don’t have to knit the sweater in sections (back, front, sleeves) and then sew them together, because you knit the entire sweater in one piece. Amber says that once I’ve mastered steeking, I will never again want to sew in sleeves. The steek itself is a kind of bridge of approximately six extra stitches knit in a tweed-like pattern to reduce the chance that it might ravel after being cut.

At this point, the sweater is a tube with a steek on each side where the sleeves will go. I have already basted down the center of each steek and run a machine stitch along both sides of the basting and across the bottom and top. The time has come to cut the steeks along the basting, so I can pick up the stitches around each opening and knit the sleeves into my sweater. There is another steek along the front neck, which I don’t completely understand, but I hope its purpose will become clear eventually.

Several people have been following the progress of my sweater since last December, including my aunt Juanita, my mother-in-law Ruth, and several women from the dance group in Lawrence, Kansas, who watched me struggle when I first started work on the sweater. I spent most of the first weekend casting on the 125 stitches, knitting a few rounds, discovering that I had twisted the stitches and was unknowingly knitting a Möbius sweater, and then taking the stitches back out. After I finally got the stitches cast on and then knit enough rounds to convince myself that the stitches were not twisted again, I went through several rounds of knitting and un-knitting the border pattern. Until I was able to see the pattern emerge, I kept losing track of where I was on the chart. But eventually, I got into the rhythm of the pattern. After that, each time I returned for a visit with my aunt or my mother-in-law or attended another dance in Lawrence, people would ask to see my sweater and comment on how much progress I had made.

The last time I worked on the sweater, however, was on a long drive to visit my mother over Memorial Day weekend. At that point, I had done all I could do until I got brave enough to take my scissors to the steeks. My excuse was that it was way too hot to sit with a pile of wool in my lap and knit in the summer. And I would almost have believed that excuse myself, except for the fact that I then proceeded to knit an alpaca wool scarf in the meantime.  But now that there is a slight chill in the air some evenings, I’m reminded how much I would love to be able to slip my arms into the sleeves of this beautiful sweater come winter time. So here goes.

Cutting the steek

After the steek is cut, it's time to pick up stitches around the opening and begin knitting the sleeve.