Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Thinking about Identities

Woman, daughter, wife, worker... the ways we negotiate the complex web of identities that comes from any participation in society and the structures of the family are a perennial favourite in feature columns for women's magazines and Saturday supplements, to which I'm not all that interested in adding. What has struck me recently however is how closely our more specific and self-defined identities are related to the contexts in which we developed that personality; played that role; assumed that identity.

To some friends, I am a linguist, an academic, a reader; and they expect me to understand the finer points of eighteenth-century narrative fiction, or the progression of theatrical representation during the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. To others, I am a crafter of some experience; and I'll weigh in quite happily to discussions of tension and cable charts, swatches and steeks; dress-making cheats, hand vs. machine quilting; good sources for paper-craft supplies; recipes for tray-bakes; measuring drop for curtains. In yet another circle I am the competent administrator; fond of an excel formula, useful fact checker and proof-reader for anything to do with my current area of expertise, and the person most likely to write an email that is a tad too long and complex for the readership.

These roles are masks we don, and in general terms, we swap between them quite easily - who isn't a slightly more confident person in their friendship group to the workplace, or more likely to swear with one group of friends than with another? Accents, registers, posture, all vary based on the context for that identity, and as human chameleons, we maintain them all. Of course, there's the occasional moment of doubt; when you see people out of context, or bring different friendship groups together, but as a rule, we wear our disguises lightly.

Lightly, that is, until a something happens to make you see the difference between who you may be in one place and at one time, and who you are now... For me, the first such experience for a long time came when I was looking after my parents' house when they were away. I was home alone, and had carefully ensured that there was enough sewing (the dog being rather to participatory when it comes to knitting) to keep me occupied. In the interests of keeping myself moving, however, I had also brought along my running gear, with the intention of heading out for a jog a couple of times over the long weekend. I had not counted on the sudden doubt, discomfort and extreme self-consiousness that struck me when I came to set out.

Let me say it again - I was alone. The dog had no strong opinion on my ability to jog around the block, and my sister (who had popped in briefly), had assured me that it was quite possible. It is a rural area, and the one set of neighbours who would recognise me would not think it remarkable. Yet I had that gut-renching sense of exposure that you get when you're about to step into a studio class for the first time; or present to a new group of people. I got over it, and it was fine, but it took me some time to work out where that feeling had come from. I was wearing the wrong mask. When I lived there, I was the bookish child; the one whose school shirt on her last day had SWOT written across the back as a badge of honour; the one whose only sporting prowess was the left-handers' knack for winning half-rounders by being difficult to bowl at; I walked, and I read as I walked, but I did not do exercise. Now, four years after starting an office job and deciding that some habits needed to change, I am, in my home life, a person who has a gym membership; I go to classes two or three (or four or five) times a week, depending on work and other commitments. But that person is not the person who goes back to look after that dog. There's a shift that happens (possibly on Preston station), that ensures that once I'm there, the mask I'm wearing is the most appropriate for the context. But sometimes contexts need to change, and when what was a good habit to get into has become a part of your identity, then I think it's time to incorporate that change into the identity you're wearing.

Tied into these clashes of context and role are the ways in which our social media presence, and the algorithms behind these outlets, reinforce the single identity on each platform. I use Instagram largely to capture my crafting progress, or the natural world around me and so Instagram shows me other people who share photos of yarn, of patchwork, of makers making and the creative process; of those reflecting the beauty of nature in their work and lives. It doesn't show me (at least at the moment), those who may disagree with me politically, or whose lives are full of animals, or football, or Big Brother. Twitter is a little broader - more likely to include commentary on the worlds of arts, culture, language study, politics, geekery, writing - but still it shows me the world according to my preferences: reflecting the things I post, the world I have said I am interested in, encouraging me, if I want to fit in with the world I have asked it to show me, to present myself in those ways.

How would it respond to a post out of character, off-message? Seamlessly, no doubt, but as I've noticed some around me starting additional profiles to allow them to post certain things to some followers, and keep other elements separate, it has made me wonder why it is that in encouraging us to connect, these technologies drive us towards a more two-dimensional and pigeon-holed existence. Certainly there have been those who have questioned openly how our interactions through such media have affected responses to political debate: in both the general election last year and the EU Referendum, the reinforcement circle of seeing only the viewpoints you will agree with presented to you seems to me to explain at least in part the shock and surprise of some at the outcome. Like privilege, which ensures that those who have are sheltered from the travails of those who have not, and have to consciously seek exposure to other ways of living and of thinking, social media places us in increasingly siloed environments, while at the same time giving us the illusion of connecting more widely.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Making Lemonade; or Hay while the Sun Shines

Every once in a while I am summoned North to ensure our somewhat mad golden retriever is fed, watered and exercised while the usual inhabitants of the house are elsewhere. This tends to involve lengthy train journeys and using up some annual leave, but what I need to remember is that actually, it is also a series of days of freedom in a beautiful setting, with no other demands on my time than those of the dog's routine.
In fact, my most recent visit has been particularly revealing in terms of how a negative could be turned into a positive, and how looking on the bright side can really transform an experience.

Problem the first: the dog and knitting do not work very well together. She likes to be fussed, and in particular sees the times in which the humans are in soft chairs as times for putting her head in your lap and licking / investigating whatever you may be holding.

Solution: Pack a sewing machine. It might seem a little crazy, but actually, my sewing machine does fit in my suitcase, and I'm (thankfully) strong enough to carry heavy things.

Problem the second: the planned project I had thought I could whip through on this long weekend has a significant decision outstanding on it, and was not ready to bring.

Solution: Let's start all the things! I have a fabric and pattern stash for exactly this sort of eventuality, and in fact very rarely buy that fabric without a pattern / project in mind for it (otherwise I end up with the wrong amounts of stuff), so out came the box of fabric, and the box of patterns, and with a quick notions check - I have a zip stash too, and a collection of thread, I was all set.

Problem the third: I forgot to pack my dress-making shears.

Solution: turns out I'm in a house where I can put my hand on shears, and tape measures, without much difficulty!

Problem the fourth: I had checked that the Burda pattern 'envelopes' I pulled out included the pattern pieces, but not the precise details, and found that waistband and facings were missing when I opened them. I also had forgotten that being Burda Style magazine patterns, the traced pieces would be all that was in the packet - so no instructions.

Solution: after 15 years of sewing experience (but not considering myself particularly accomplished - I make it work, and the first 5 years were characterised by student theatre, where if it will last the week of the show, and pass muster from the auditorium, you're golden), I discovered that I can actually draft waistband pieces and neckline facings without much difficulty. I can also sew a skirt and dress without instructions. Woot!

Pins travelled surprisingly well in their pincushion, and cutting out was straightforward - barring the fact that my knees don't like the floor as much as the pins and scissors do. Sewing up was actually very enjoyable, and the dog seemed quite content to remain under the table while the work was being done above it!

So at the end of the weekend, what do I have to show for it? A new Belcarra top for work, which fits and will hopefully serve me well if summer has in fact actually arrived; the front (with pockets) and two back pieces of a skirt from Burda style, which needs the waistband interfacing and lining, an invisible zip and a hem (turns out the zip I found in the right colour and length was not an invisible one, and for this pattern, it would make a difference); and a third iteration of my trusty Burda style dress, to refresh the Kaffe Fassett model which I'm shocked to discover I made 5 years ago, and as a more colourful, breathable alternative to my black 'office' version.

Not bad, when considering it was combined with at least 3 hours of walking per day, and a tiny bit of knitting did also get done!

Now to address the question I don't yet have a definite answer to: why do I have to travel 300 miles to get any sewing done? Yes, knitting is easier to turn to in odd moments at home, but I do have occasional stretches of time, and weekends are just as prevalent in the Midlands as the North... I need to tidy. My sewing table is well set up, but it gets used to put things on, and I really need to remember that I need that space clear if I'm to get a project out, work on it, and put it away again.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Top Haps

Shortly after I knit my first Hap, I failed to manage everything I was carrying with me effectively, and dropped it en route to the railway station. It was found, and all is well, but in posting my loss on social media (in the hope someone local would spot it and know who it belonged to), I found a particular fact of note: the majority of responders thought I must have mis-typed, and had instead lost a hat. My husband is proud to state that thanks to KnitBritish, he now knows what a Hap is.
It was for Louise's wonderful Hap-Along that I knit said Hap – Brooklyn Tweed's Kelpie. This was rather a serendipitous happenstance: I had been bought an Eden Cottage Yarns yarnling sampler set for my birthday; have a signficant stash of sock-leftovers for the final stripe, which I didn't dare risk a yarnling on; and came across a sale in the Isle Yarn shop just before the cast-on date. It was a pleasing and steady project – the construction of a hap means you've plenty of simple lovely garter stitch to help you familiarise yourself with the yarn before you begin the more intricate lacy sections.

My second Hap of 2015 was in fact not finished until 2016, but it was perhaps my most impetuous project ever – I saw Karie's publication announcement* for the Mahy (rav link) on Twitter, decided it had to be made, and arranged a detour from planned events on a weekend away to ensure yarn was bought. Pattern, yarn and cast-on all came together within 2 days of publication, and progress only stalled as I hit the Christmas knitting crunch. Helpfully, the size of the Mahy is also such that it finally justified the long-delayed purchase of blocking boards: children's play pieces from John Lewis (handily delivered to our local Waitrose) which can be configured according to the shape of the garment. I was very pleased to finish this in time to meet Karie at Joeli's retreat in February!

And the latest, possibly greatest news of 2016 in terms of haps? Kate Davies has turned her attention to the hap shawl for her very-very-nearly-published book project. With essays and historical research alongside contributions from Gudrun Johnston, Lucy Hague, Martina Behm, Jen Arnall-Culliford, Veera Välimäki and other absolute stars of the knitting galaxy, this project is one which has been murmured about in hushed tones over the last year until the news of pre-orders opened, and since I placed my order, and started seeing the designs being featured on Kate's blog daily, the anticipation has only been building. Words do, at this point, fail me, and I can only direct you to read the blog, pore over the beautiful designs, and perhaps order the book.

(ETA: since I first published this post, I have also become aware of the lovely Louise Tilbrook's beautiful Hebridean Hap design, recently published and inspired by the amazing tale behind Rachel Atkinson's Daughter of a Shepherd yarn.)

The moral of my tale? Haps are amazing. They can be simple, they can be stunning, they can be striking; they speak of hard work, of comfort, and of style. And they mean you can talk about being Hap-py to your heart's content!

*if you haven't seen her more recent publication announcement - that of the Kickstarter campaign for This Thing of Paper - head over here to find out about it. (Brilliant and inspiring, in my opinion)

Saturday, 21 May 2016

A New Start - the Engines On socks

If years can be said to have a theme, then 2016 for me is turning out to be a year of new starts. Over the last few years, there have been a lot of changes of direction in my life and work, and as those have stabilised, I've begun taking stock, and looking at new goals, new plans, and what I want to be spending time with.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing where this new impetus takes me, and in the spirit of adventure have already made it to two fantastic knitting events this year - Joeli's Kitchen Retreat 2016 (back next year as Joeli Creates a Retreat), and Edinburgh Yarn Festival.

The yarn fumes were of course overwhelming, and the creativity of a group of knitters really rather infectious. Little wonder, then, that having spent some time chatting with Helen of the Wool Kitchen and Amelia of Woollenwords, I walked off clutching a skein of Ground Control, and determined to make the most of this beautiful yarn.

Anyone who knows Helen's dyeing palette will recognise her inimitable sense of colours together, and in Ground Control in particular, the flashes of bright and warm incendiary shades amongst the deep and tonal greys. The Wool Kitchen Sock yarn, composed of 80% superwash BFL and 20% bamboo, has a wonderful strength and woolliness to it, whilst the bamboo gives it just that touch of sheen and drape.

To celebrate those rocket-fuel moments, I decided I needed texture - something to break up the smoothness of stocking stitch and inject instead a pop of contrast. Paired with a slipped-stitch heel and deep ribbed cuff, the knit-purl texture is at once soft and comforting and strong and structured. The resulting sock is a simple and straightforward unisex knit, sensible and yet showcasing the yarn's rebellious streak!

The pattern is available through Ravelry by clicking on the button below.

Engines On - socks