The Yarn Spinner

Last year, I wrote a post about how much I love A Craftsman’s Legacy.  Season 3 of the show started last week and I have loved the first two episodes.  Episode 2 of Season 3 features Maple Smith (Ravelry) of North Star Alpacas (Etsy) in Ithaca, Michigan.  Maple gave host Eric Gorges dyeing, spinning, and knitting lessons!

I very much enjoy every episode of this show but this episode is my favorite so far, not just because it features crafts I do, but also because Maple is so incredibly charming.  In addition, host Eric Gorges is always out of his element in the fibery episodes (The Weaver with Juanita Hofstrom in Episode 6 of Season 2 and The Quilter with Theadra Fleming in Episode 10 of Season 2).  In most episodes, he may not be familiar with the particular craft, but he is familiar with many of the tools.  This is not the case when he works with fiber, and we see him struggle to learn as a raw beginner.  Watching Eric learn is always one of my favorite parts of the show because it’s rare to watch someone take their first wobbling steps in a new skill.  His uncertainty, curiosity, and unwillingness to be deterred by his mistakes really make the show; it makes me feel like I might be able to do that craft too.  In this case, where I have some mastery of the skills, I was reminded of how far I’ve come in the last few years and my determination to continue learning new skills was renewed.

My only criticism of this particular episode is that it seemed like a little too much to cram into one episode.  These episodes are only about 22 minutes long.  While we see Maple instruct Eric on dyeing and spinning, the part where she instructs him on knitting was cut.  We see him for only a couple minutes at the end of the episode, on the second or third row of a swatch, looking at the stitches and not actually knitting.

The ending of the episode is part of what makes it my favorite so far.  In every episode, the featured craftsman gives Eric a gift.  Often, it’s the project that they’ve worked on in the episode.  Almost always, the gift includes the show’s logo.  However, that is not the case in this episode.  Maple knit Eric a hat.  A very particular hat, instantly recognizable by all fans of space westerns everywhere, because she heard he is a huge fan of that particular TV show.  He looks as excited as a kid on Christmas morning!

American Spun by Anna Sudo

American Spun: 20 Classic Projects Exploring Homegrown Yarn (affiliate link) was released on December 8, 2015.  I pre-ordered it, so it arrived in my mailbox a couple of days before the official release date.  This book is primarily a pattern book.  If I had understood that, I would not have ordered it, which would have been a shame because not only do the patterns seem to be well-written, the book is also much more than just a pattern book.

The projects in this book are all designed using yarns which are made in America, at some point during their production process.  Sudo highlights fifteen yarn companies ranging from shepherds who send their own wool out for processing to a mill (Harrisville) to yarn designers who source wool from the United States to indie dyers.  Some of the yarns are completely American made from sheep to yarn.  Others might be only milled or dyed in the US, from wool produced elsewhere.

American Spun is organized by yarn producer.  Each section starts with a two page spread featuring pictures of the company and short interviews with an owner of that company.  When I pre-ordered the book, I expected this type of material to make up the majority of the book.  While I definitely enjoyed these pages, I was disappointed that each section was so short.  You get only a broad overview, similar to what you might get on the “About” page of a website.  I was hoping for something more in-depth.

Following the two-page spread is at least one pattern designed by author Anna Sudo using one of the company’s yarns.  The 20 patterns offer a little something for everyone — hats, gloves, scarves, shawls, sweaters, slippers, leg warmers, jelly jar cozies, a rug, and a blanket.  None of the patterns are suitable for an absolute beginner knitter.  Every pattern uses an intermediate to advanced technique like steeking, stranded colorwork, or grafting.  A few patterns involve more basic knitting (hat, scarf, mittens), but you then embroider on top of that basic knitting.  Anyone who already possesses all the skills represented in this book would certainly be considered an advanced knitter.

I have not knit any of the patterns in this book, so I cannot vouch for their accuracy.  However, I will tell you that all the patterns include a feature that I very much like and look for in patterns: detailed information in the beginning of the pattern.  Every pattern should include finished measurements and gauge, but often patterns don’t include more than basic information in these areas.  In American Spun, the provided measurements are complex.  Fingerless mittens give you both the hand circumference and cuff to fingers measurements for all three sizes.  Hats specify the circumference at the brim, unstreched.  Sweaters give you the chest size both of the person the garment is intended to fit and the finished garment itself, so you can see how many inches of ease Sudo built into the pattern.  The leg warmers pattern provides the calf circumference, foot circumference, and length for each size and advises you to choose a size based on your foot circumference.  Every single pattern specifies the size of the sample shown in the pattern pictures.  The gauge information is also detailed.  Most patterns provide multiple gauges, for stockinette and a stitch pattern.  Every gauge listing describes the stitch pattern used and every pattern that includes something other than stockinette lists a gauge in the stitch pattern.  The pattern lists up front the notions you need for the pattern.  While I haven’t knit any of the patterns, the care taken in providing this detailed pattern information raises hope that the patterns themselves were handled with similar care and will be accurate.

Every pattern where fit is relevant gives a range of size options.  Accessories like socks, hats, and gloves include two or three sizes.  The men’s sweater includes instructions for sizes S to 5X.  The two women’s sweaters are graded for sizes XS to 5X.  The only one-size patterns in the book are the blanket, scarves, shawl, and jelly jar cozy.

Even if you aren’t going to knit any of the patterns in this book, there is one feature of the book that is worth the purchase price: the three page appendix of grafting instructions.  Several of the patterns in this book require grafting, and sometimes that grafting happens along borders that aren’t straight stockinette.  All the instructions I’ve ever seen for grafting were written as though you were grafting stockinette, so you are grafting two knit stitches together.  But what if you are grafting reverse stockinette edges?  Or garter stitch?  Or ribbing?  And what if your stitch pattern changes along your seam?  The appendix of American Spun has grafting instructions for these scenarios.  I have too long of a queue to buy and hang onto knitting pattern books, and that’s why I wouldn’t have bought this book and ordinarily wouldn’t have kept it on my shelves after I realized that it was primarily a pattern book.  But this appendix on grafting earned the book a permanent home on my crowded shelves of knitting reference books.

Whether you are looking for a coffee table book with stunning photography, an introduction to yarns produced in America, thoughtfully written intermediate to advanced patterns, or clear descriptions of knitting techniques, this is the book for you.  The fact that this single volume includes all of these features makes American Spun an outstanding book that belongs on every knitter’s shelves.

Weaving Shaker Rugs by Mary Elva Congleton Erf

Weaving Shaker Rugs: Traditional Techniques to Create Beautiful Reproduction Rugs and Tapes by Mary Elva Congleton Erf (affiliate link)

Erf is an accomplished weaver who has studied Shaker textiles for at least 30 years and has woven many reproduction rugs (and other textiles) which appear in Shaker museums.  Her introduction describes the history of Shaker textile production, provides background on the Shaker Millenial Laws which governed all aspects of Shaker life including the colors used in textiles created in the Shaker villages, and tells how she discovered a familial connection to one of the Shaker communities.

In the introduction, Erf mentions that Shakers used rugs created using a variety of techniques.  However, all the rugs in the second half of the book are “weft-plied rugs.”  This term is never explicitly defined in the book, and I was confused until I got to the end of the introductory material, where she describes the general steps of recreating the rugs.  It means that the Shakers took three (or, more rarely, four) strands of finished carpet wool yarn and plied them together on a spinning wheel, using the newly created chunky yarn as the weft in the rugs.  The three strands were each a different color, creating a barber pole look in the new yarn.  Sometimes the new yarn was plied with a Z twist (spun in a clockwise direction) and sometimes it was plied with an S twist (spun in a counterclockwise direction).  Often, one rug contains both Z twist and S twist yarns.  The Shakers placed Z and S twist yarns next to each other in the weaving, which creates chevron patterns.  Wool fabric strips were used as weft to separate patterned sections of the plied wool weft.  The book focuses on the weft-plied rugs because this style is known to be created by the Shakers themselves not commercially made, the technique is unique, and several examples of original weft-plied rugs still exist.

The second part of the book describes the process of reproducing approximately 20 specific rugs which are part of museum collections.  This section of the book is organized by Shaker community; the rugs represented in the book come from five different communities in the eastern United States.  For each rug, the author starts with a page analyzing the details of the original rug, including the dimensions of the rug, the type of yarn and fabric used for warp and weft, the twist direction of the weft yarns, and any other distinguishing characteristics.  She also includes at least one picture of the original rug.  This analysis is followed by the details of how to reproduce that rug, including which yarns and fabrics she used and which Cushing acid dyes she used to make colors that match those in the original rug.  Many of the rugs are finished with handwoven bias tape; the book also includes analysis of the tapes and instructions on weaving them.

For the most part, I enjoyed reading this book.  I loved seeing pictures of the original rugs and the many marginal boxes containing quotes from the dyeing and weaving journals kept by the Shakers.  I did find the book to be rather repetitive, but a good deal of that repetitiveness reflects an expectation that people won’t read the book all the way through.  For example, in the introduction, at the end of every description on how to create a reproduction rug, and in the Glossary, Erf explains that the finished rugs will need to be pressed with a heavy iron and that she has a dry cleaner in her town who will do this for her.  Even if you’re skipping around in the book, you aren’t going to miss this potentially important information!  Some of the repetitiveness is not so easily forgiven.  The introduction is particularly disjointed.  I think of the introduction in this type of book as one long essay.  In this book, each heading within the introduction is like its own essay, with much repetition of information under other headings, particularly of the Millenial Law quote prescribing certain color schemes, but allowing that “other kinds now in use may be worn out.”

I’m always on the hunt for fiber arts books that are more than just patterns or drafts.  I love books of essays or history and detailed techniques.  Weaving Shaker Rugs has all of this, as well as detailed instructions for making the Shaker-style rugs.  Since following the instructions requires flipping back and forth between the general instructions in the introduction, the pages for the specific rug you’re attempting to reproduce, the glossary, and cross-references in Peter Collingwood’s out-of-print book The Techniques of Rug Weaving, I expect it will be challenging for anyone, especially a new weaver like me, to actually create a Shaker rug using this book.  While the projects are more involved than I’m ready to take on as a fledgling weaver, I did learn a lot about the Shakers and rug weaving.  I enjoyed reading the book from cover to cover and will keep it on my shelf for when I’m ready to tackle a Shaker-style rug!

A Craftsman’s Legacy

I recently discovered A Craftsman’s Legacy on two of my local PBS television stations.  Show host Eric Gorges (which for many episodes, I heard as “gorgeous” and thought, “Oh yes, you are”) travels around the United States, visiting craftspeople in their studios.  He spends a couple days with them, interviewing them and learning the basics of their craft.  Gorges is a craftsman himself; he’s a master metalworker and makes custom motorcycles at his shop, Voodoo Choppers, in Detroit.  At this point, I’ve seen 12 of the 13 episodes in Season 1 and all four of the Season 2 episodes which have aired for the current Season 2.

The show’s website says, “Each episode will tell the story of an Old World Craft and its importance in the building of America.”  Towards this end, each episode starts with a short overview on the history of the craft, presented as pictures with voiceover by host Gorges.  This is the least interesting part of the show to me.  While I am interested in this background, I find the presentation a bit dry and rather tortured.  The main reason for this is that Gorges’ voiceover sounds bored.  This is not at all true during the rest of the show.  He clearly enjoys meeting and talking with the craftspeople.  He loves the tools and workshops and learning new things.  His obvious enjoyment of the process is absolutely charming and a big part of what makes the show so engaging to watch.

At some point in most episodes, Gorges asks the craftsperson, “Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman?”  Everyone has an immediate answer to this question; clearly each one has thought about the differences and similarities between the two words, and what the implications are as they pursue their work.  A few reject the dichotomy.  One or two think it depends on the task or project.  The rest are evenly split between the two categories.

Crafts highlighted on the show include glassblowing, stone carving, metalsmithing of various flavors, boat building, woodworking, and many more.  Season 1 included a Native American basketweaver; this is the closest the show has come to a fiber craft so far, but upcoming episodes in Season 2 include a weaver (Juanita Hofstrom) and a quilter.  I love the variety of crafts presented in the show.  I don’t expect to ever pursue any of these crafts, but I love to see the ways people have organized their lives so that they can make a living with their crafts.  I also love seeing the work spaces, tools, and processes used in the various crafts.  I find the show inspirational and it provokes me to think about my personal approach to the crafts that I love.

If A Craftsman’s Legacy is not available on any channels in your area, you can join the “Legacy Society” on the show’s website.  It’s free to join and this gives you access to full episodes of Season 1.  So far, they haven’t added any episodes from Season 2.  I’m not sure if they are waiting until the season ends or if they will add the season 2 episodes at some point before then.  However you access it — local TV or through the web — the show is absolutely worth a watch.

Love in Every Stitch by Lee Gant

Love in Every Stitch: Stories of Knitting and Healingarrived at my house a week before I left on the trip to India.  I brought it with me and read it while I was away.  When I preordered this book, I had never heard of the author and expected lighthearted, fun stories.  From the very beginning, it became clear that ‘lighthearted’ is not the best descriptor of this book.  These are stories of redemption and survival, and the circumstances that challenge us are never lighthearted!

Lee Gant (website, Facebook, Ravelry) is a knitwear designer and instructor.  She’s also a recovering addict.  A few chapters of the book share parts of her own story and the ways that knitting helped her as she struggled to overcome her addictions.  The remainder of the 29 chapters share the stories of other knitters whom Ms. Gant has met, mostly while working in various yarn shops.  The chapters are divided into 9 themes — changing, overcoming, grieving, mending, giving, discovering, living, sharing, and ending — with three or four stories in each category. The knitters and crocheters in this book ply their craft through addiction, abuse, death of close family members, or illness.  Each story emphasizes how knitting or crocheting helped the storyteller to survive and, eventually, thrive.  We also learn more about Ms. Gant’s story, through the dialogues in various chapters.

Once I better understood the angle of this book, I was concerned that the stories would be trite or manipulative.  I did not find that to be case.  For the most part, Ms. Gant writes beautifully and honestly.  She doesn’t try to wrap up every story with a neat bow (though there’s a couple that are) or imply that everything will be okay.  Crafting is a life raft that helps each person to continue taking the next step.  And the next.  And the next.

My biggest annoyance with the book was that Ms. Gant awkwardly inserted her reactions and parts of her own story into the middle of other stories.  The majority of the stories are written from her perspective.  The stories usually start with a brief set up of how Ms. Gant met the storyteller and at some point shift into long blocks of first-person dialogue from the perspective of the storyteller.  This worked for me as a way of getting into the story.  However, in many of the chapters, the first-person dialogue is interrupted with Ms. Gant’s own inner or outer thoughts.  At times, these transitions did not feel like a natural conversation, and pulled me out of the story of the chapter.  I was also left with a sense that the book was disjointed because we are getting Ms. Gant’s life story in bits and pieces.

Despite these problems, I loved the book.  From the first sentence (“I spent many troubled years standing in front of the mirror with my face pressed close to the glass, peering into each pull, trying to see all the way into myself.”), I was drawn into the book and did not want to put it down.  Part of the reason I was so drawn in is because I could write a story suitable for inclusion in the book — knitting kept me grounded through the deaths of 14 family members in 19 months, and the radical rearrangement of my life as a result of that time.  While I may not have faced the same challenges as the storytellers in this book, I understand how the repetitive, meditative, and social aspects of knitting can carry you through them.  I was inspired by the reminder, and by the fortitude of each storyteller.