Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Yarn Harlot

Since becoming a knitter, I’ve had the vague knowledge that there was a well-known knitting personality known as the Yarn Harlot, but was unsure what this person did or was known for. I didn’t think she was a designer…I even subscribed to her blog for a little while but didn’t see anything special about it. Finally, after reading a comment online recommending her book Knitting Rules, I grabbed a copy from the library. It was time to read something by this Yarn Harlot person and figure out what her deal was.

Her deal, as it turns out, is that she is really freaking funny. I know there is an anti-Yarn Harlot camp out there, but as I am a sucker for creative self-deprecating humor, I may now be a fan. This book isn’t super dense but it does have some great knitting information including some basic instructions for a number of items, including hats, scarves, shawls, and socks. But the real value of this book is that it is so fun to read, and that she acknowledges we are all less organized than we would like to be, and don’t want to swatch (but know we should), and she knows how to be a good knitter without taking it too seriously.

She sprinkles the book with amusing anecdotes about knitting projects gone wrong. When instructing how to avoid disasters she will add, “Ask me how I know.” In her list of “10 Reasons to Knit a Sweater” she writes: “You could spend a lifetime exploring all the variations on sweaters: raglan in pieces, raglan in the round, top-down seamless…the weird thing you invented when you thought you were doing a cap sleeve but got two pages of the pattern stuck together.”

She is convincing. I have never felt inclined to knit a shawl, but in her “10 Reasons to knit shawls” one of them is “I can toss a big woolen one about myself as I head to the grocery store and get a Wuthering Heights/Cathy-on-the-moors feel going, instead of my usual “I-forgot-to-buy-cat-food feeling.””

See, this I can relate to.

It’s not a reference book or a pattern book, but filled the time nicely while I was waiting for the last Harry Potter book to come out, and was too distracted by other things to read anything serious or dense.

She is not devoid of philosophical thoughts about knitting, however. Of particular relevance to one of my current projects, Yarn Harlot speaks thus:

“The truth about socks is that they’re humble and beautiful and noble, and in their lowness they’re the highest form of art.”


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What libraries could learn from Staples

I’d like to share a great customer service experience I had recently. I was trying to do approximately 16 errands in the half hour before my class and dashed into the Staples in Harvard Square for a couple of items. Hurrying down the stairs I was approached almost immediately by an employee asking if he could help me find something. I told him I was looking for staples and clear pockets for a 3-ring binder. He led me down an aisle and pointed out the shelves of staples and staplers. Then he led me to the next aisle where all the binder accessories were displayed and pointed to a few that seemed to fit what I was looking for.

I found what I needed and started walking towards the stairs. As I passed another employee, he asked "Did you find everything you were looking for?" I said yes and asked if I should pay upstairs. "Please," he replied.

The cashier smiled (smiled!) as I approached, asked if I found everything I needed, and complimented me on my shirt/earring combination which, he said, matched perfectly. He was relaxed, friendly, and acted as though he was happy to be helping me. "Have a nice day," he said as I was leaving. I left feeling much happier than when I first went in.

The thing is, I didn't need anything special and I certainly wasn't spending a lot of money. Nothing in the transaction was unusual, nor did any of the staff do anything particularly special or noteworthy for me. But the important thing is that they acted as though they would have. Each one of them gave me his full attention and appeared to sincerely want to make my experience better. They weren’t pushy in that commission-earning way of salespeople who follow you around the store like hunting dogs either. I don't remember the last time I experienced that level of customer service, and I emailed them and told them so.

In addition to making me feel much better on a day I felt harried, this was a great reminder of the difference friendliness makes to a customer. Librarians frequently talk about “problem patrons” but I think many of them would be less of a problem if we were nice to start with. It is not difficult to be polite and pleasant and it will go far towards improving a library’s image in the community. Just because they are not giving us money when we hand them a book doesn't mean that we don't owe it to our patrons to try our hardest to help them find what they are looking for. As the more entitled of patrons enjoy reminding us, their tax dollars pay our salaries.

Recently at my library we had a staff training day, but our customer service is like a disappointing relationship. We made lots of promises at that session, only to revert to our cranky scolding ways almost immediately. Many people at my library talk about customer service training as something that "we've already done" but clearly we need reminding, and frequently. I feel very strongly about being approachable and pleasant to everyone who comes into the library, yet I have to frequently remind myself to smile, make eye contact, and remember that my job is to serve the public so I sure better not act like I'm being inconvenienced by them. Having training every few years is not enough – the importance of providing good customer service must be emphasized in everything we do, it must be the foundation on which all our other services are built, and it must be discussed frequently so we do not forget about it.

I think Staples is ahead of us on this one. It would be wise for librarians to make note of businesses that they enjoy visiting and try to emulate those experiences in their own libraries. Just as a business can’t exist without its customers, a library can’t exist without its patrons and the support of the surrounding community. A smile is a small price to pay.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Master Knitting: a setback, and new inspiration

I have returned to the Master Knitting program with gusto, only to be quickly deflated. I ordered this program about a year ago, worked on it for about a month and then lost interest before I finished anything to my satisfaction. Recently I decided to try again; I spent about a week working diligently on the first 3 swatches, learned a number of things, and am no farther along than I was when I started.

Observe exhibit A: the seed stitch swatch. Notice how lovely and even the stitches are, nary a hole between them.

I was quite pleased, until I measured it.

It is supposed to be 4 inches, not including the cast on and bind off edges.

I have - and I knew this already - a serious deficiency in the ability to accurately measure knitted items. I swear this was 4 inches just before I bound off. How could this be? I even tried stretching it a bit as it blocked to compensate for what I already knew would be an inaccurate measurement. (I apologize for the crappy photos. In addition to my problems measuring, I'm also a horrid photographer.)

As much as I have already learned from the Master Knitting program, and as much as I want to get my money's worth from the course, I just get really bored of knitting cream-colored swatches. If only I could get past these first three, I think it would get easier. It's also difficult to focus on this with so much lovely yarn sitting around for other, surely more fun, projects.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Just this week I have been reinspired after reading this post from an incredibly helpful person on knittyboard.

Her approach was to knit each swatch once and let the judges decide whether they were good enough. This was fantastic to hear after reading about so many others redoing swatches over and over trying to achieve an inhuman state of perfection. Most of her swatches were accepted the first time - she only had to re-submit 2 swatches out of a total of 16. The judges did comment on problems with her other swatches and provided suggestions for improvement, but she did not need to do them over. Such good news to share with others working on this program. Thanks, Discoknits, for your encouragement!

Now I'm going to use a similar approach and hope to finish swatches 1-3 very soon. I know now from experimentation and reading which techniques I'll be using so it is just a matter of doing it and concentrating on problematic areas (i.e. measuring correctly). I do plan to try a new cast-on for swatch 2 (single rib) so I may have to do that one more than once, but I look forward to learning something new from it.

Finally, completion seems possible!

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Giant's House

"Space is the chief problem. Books are like a bad family---there are those you love, and those you are indifferent to; idiots and mad cousins who you would banish except others enjoy their company; wrongheaded but fascinating eccentrics and dreamy geniuses; orphaned grandchildren; and endless brothers-in-law simply taking up space who you wish you could send straight to hell. Except you can't, for the most part. You must house them and make them comfortable and worry about them when they go on trips and there is never enough room."

All I will say is that Elizabeth McCracken has managed to tell a very sad story of a relationship that is at once pure, genuine, and taboo, and tell it with brilliant wit. I can't believe I hadn't read this book until now.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Jaywalkers, a tribute

The sock, handmade, is not just a sock. One long piece of yarn looped into a fabric, a pattern of v’s that warms and protects, it is the result of hours of labor with tiny knitting needles. It belongs on display, framed perhaps, to be admired for its beauty and craftsmanship.

The pattern is simple enough, the rows of v’s forming larger v shapes nested together. The center stitch of each large v stands out in relief, creating long vertical stripes the length of the sock, stopping just an inch before the toe. It is shaped as you would expect a sock to be shaped, but the toe is unusual. The sides veer in towards the middle, but stop with a blunt end about an inch across so it is like a trapezoid, and with no visible seam. The top edge is ribbed –two knit stitches, two purled, all the way around the top - to hold it snugly in place.

Blending together like a chest of jewels, the colors are luxurious: turquoise, rich purple, vibrant blue, sea green, a little bit of sand. Like the precious stones, the colors have some shine, and the hues are similar enough not to jar, but to complement, as though they were meant for each other. The colors pool in a few areas, leaving, for example, an oblong shadow of purples trailing through a sea of turquoise. A small bit of red, not even an entire stitch, is just a small mark I tried to wipe off, thinking a rogue piece of fiber was stuck in the fabric. Perhaps a manufacturing error in the yarn, it is now hidden on the bottom of my foot.

Pulling on the sock is an experience best savored slowly. The thin fabric is deceivingly warm, a surprise every time. It’s almost a shame to put shoes on. The fine merino feels silky and expensive, maybe a waste for socks, but it feels so good I want all my socks to be like this. It would take years of knitting to fill my sock drawer with these. You may ask why I would bother: socks are cheaper bought from the store, an afterthought picked up on the way to the cash register. Clearly nobody has knit you a pair by hand; if you can’t enjoy simply wearing your socks, you have missed the true experience of sock wearing. It’s like grinding fresh Colombian beans to brew your own coffee compared to mixing up some of the instant powder.

Unexpectedly, the sock smells not of sheep or even of processed wool, but of something sweet, unidentifiable in this context, and much unlike the other, lesser, socks in my drawer. I can’t imagine intentionally smelling any other sock, except its sister. (Yes, there are two perfect socks!)

More a pashmina than a utilitarian foot covering, the sock lies useless in the summer months, waiting for cold weather when it is needed. For now it is not clothing but a piece of art to be looked at not for its usefulness, but for its beauty.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Chris Bohjalian

I'm taking a writing class right now, and for our assignments we are to write 1-2 page essays. I think that to be a better writer one needs to read, and since I never read essays I thought this might be a good time to start. I found a book by Chris Bohjalian called Idyll Banter, a collection of columns he wrote for the Burlington Free Press (and a few for the Boston Globe) about life in the small town in Vermont where he lives. They are lovely little snippets, including a tribute to the public library, humorous anecdotes about not being able to find his septic tank, and a thoughtful piece about the meaning and celebration of Memorial Day. It was very relaxing reading and sort of made me want to move to a cute little town where everyone knows everyone else, until I remembered that I grew up in such a town and left for a reason.

If you haven't read Bohjalian's latest novel, The Double Bind, do so now. I read it a couple of months ago and I'm still thinking about it. Throughout the book you know something is not quite right, you get a distinct feeling there is something you should know that you don't, and I won't ruin the ending but will just tell you that it is very satisfying. Also, when I finished, I immediately wanted to turn back to the beginning and start again.

Chris Bohjalian's writing is sometimes compared to Jodi Picoult's but I'm not sure if that's fair. I've only read one of Picoult's books, but although I liked it I thought the ending was rather cheap and contrived, like she was trying to shock me which resulted in an unreal quality to the story. Chris Bohjalian would not do that to me, I think. He just tells his story as though it is something that already exists and he is just sharing it with us.

I've read most of his novels, but still haven't read Before You Know Kindness. For some mysterious reason I own a copy of the audiobook, but I've put off listening to it. The story begins with a hunter accidentally shooting a man who happens to be an animal rights activist, and the book revolves around issues of hunters and animal rights and things that tend to make me angry. But after reading an essay in Idyll Banter in which he describes himself as a "PETA-dues-paying vegetarian weenie" I think I can handle this book. Bohjalian always presents issues as the complicated multi-faceted things they are, and I knew that, but still his self-description makes me feel a bit better.

According to his website he is finishing up his next book. I can't wait!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

FO: Top-down Raglan Sweater

Yarn: Reynolds Smile (acrylic/wool blend)
Needle size: 11
Gauge: 3sts/4rows = 1in
Pattern: no pattern, used a combination of the top down method from Knitting from the Top by Barbara Walker, and the top-down raglan instructions from Glampyre

This was my first sweater made without a real pattern and despite some setbacks, it was easier than I thought it would be and I'm pleased with the result. In hindsight, I should have made it a tad longer - the body and the sleeves - but it's definitely adequate. Measuring is simply not my strong suit. I tried this sweater on at least 20 times in process, so there is no excuse for the fit not to be perfect.

The neck, in case you can't tell, is a loose turtleneck. It's hard to tell in the picture because of the angle. I like that Barbara Walker's instructions shape the neck so that the back is straight across and the front scoops down a little, so you can tell the back from the front. But I don't like the unclear neck instructions. You start with a raw neckline and I assumed that you then go back at the end and pick up stitches for the crewneck or turtleneck or whatever, but when I got to the end of the sweater instructions it listed "Variations" and gives instructions for starting the sweater with a variety of necklines. I did actually read through the instructions before starting, but somehow missed this little nugget. Anyhow, that was solved easily enough by picking up stitches and winging it.

All in all, quite successful. The sweater is now packed away with cedar blocks awaiting fall.

Edited to add: previous progress on this sweater was documented here and here.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Huck Finn

There's nothing I can say about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that hasn't already been said. But since I just finished reading it for the first time ever I thought it would be worthy of mention, since it is the Greatest American Novel Ever and all. I don't agree with Hemingway that all other American novels have originated from this one, but then again I've never written an American novel so I really can't say what inspired or influenced any of them.

It wasn't the most fun or enjoyable book to read, though it had its moments, but I'm glad I finally read it. The overarching story of a boy helping a slave escape is serious and important and uniquely American; the subplots were more humorous, even slapstick, but I didn't really like them as much as the main story. The characters are rather two-dimensional but the language, which can be hard to read at times, makes the story more genuine. I have to agree with the reviews I've read (and the introduction to this edition) that the ending is a bit...lackluster. Things were going along quite nicely, but after Tom Sawyer showed up, it all went to hell. (Just go back to your own book, Tom.)

Critics have called the book racist, but I would argue to the contrary. Sure, it takes place in the South when slavery was an accepted institution - that's the way life was in that place during that time. Huck, although he "knows" that freeing a slave is wrong, continues to help Jim because his conscience won't allow otherwise. I'm no academic, but I think this triumph of humanity over unjust social mores and oppressive institutions is much more important than how many times the N-word appeared in the text. But what do I know?

If you plan to read this book, I highly recommend the edition with the introduction by George Saunders. Hilarious!