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Crafts and our mental health – Guild president’s letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, September-October 2018 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – present.  I plan to write an article for you soon about “why you should join a local knitting guild”.  If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

I was planning to write a charming, light essay about fall things – but sometimes longer, darker days bring darker sentiments.  So let’s talk about the importance of comfort knitting in mental health. To me, comfort knitting is knitting for relief of anxiety and knitting for calming jangled emotions, or knitting a little gift for someone when I know I can’t do anything else to help them through.  Sometimes it’s just comforting to keep my hands busy, because even when I feel helpless, at least I can make pretty stitches.

There have been a variety of studies lately (sources: 1) that are showing that any art or craft that has a repetitive action can produce a contemplative “repair state” or a state of mind that allows thoughts to come up gently and be worked through and set aside.  On t-shirts and mugs, knitters and other craft enthusiasts quip that their chosen craft is cheaper than therapy. The joke has been around for years, and now the science is uncovering what we already knew – our craft is incredibly therapeutic. Of course, when additional help is needed, therapy under the trained guidance of a professional is also an important tool.

The joy of making things gives us confidence.  The connection of brain and hands grounds us in the real world.  When knitting, we can savor a moment of “me” time. My university colleagues that study mental health tell me that “savoring” is an important aspect of positive mental health (sources: 2).  We can savor in anticipation, we can savor an experience in the moment, and we can savor the memory of what we enjoyed. The act of savoring pushes back some of the dark cobwebs of negative thinking.

We can also bring together heart and hands and produce something for someone we care about, or for a charity project for someone we don’t even know.  Performing acts of kindness is another way in which we can focus on a positive emotion, and give that positive feeling strength over our more negative thoughts.  We can create goodness in the world when we create something to give.

While scientists are still mulling over the exact causes, social isolation and loneliness are being considered a public health crisis in our modern age of too much work and screen-time (sources: 3).  The solution is likely having more connection in our social networks. For that, we may find that we need craft groups more than ever. Craft groups bring us together in real space and remind us that we are among people who “get” us, people who understand our very specific passion.  I don’t know about you, but there is something so comforting about a room full of fuzzy clicking sounds.

These are all tools that we knitters have ready at our fingertips.  Aren’t we lucky? If you have someone in your life who could use more tools for their positive mental health, take some time to find out if there are creative hobbies they are drawn towards but haven’t felt empowered to really try.  Are there ways you can support their activities? Can you have “craft night” with them? Can you go take a class with them to show that you can go out on a limb with them and try something new? Not that this would replace therapy for someone who really needed help, but you might just be able to foster a passion that also gives a friend some additional tools for better mental health. (sources: 4)

Sources:

1)  http://theconversation.com/how-craft-is-good-for-our-health-98755

2)  https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/10_steps_to_savoring_the_good_things_in_life and also some conversations with various faculty I have worked with in the areas of Clinical Psychology and Occupational Therapy.

3)  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/10/04/this-former-surgeon-general-says-theres-a-loneliness-epidemic-and-work-is-partly-to-blame/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.570fcf86b1c4

4) https://www.healthline.com/health/diy-depression-therapy-how-the-arts-can-heal#2

 

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Ready to Learn – Guild president’s letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, July-August 2018 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – present.  I plan to write an article for you soon about “why you should join a local knitting guild”.  If you are in the Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

Ready to learn.

In this age of the internet (which is nearly magical for the world of informal learning opportunities), if we want to learn about any craft, we need only get online to receive at least some basic demonstration.  So much has changed in the last couple of decades! There seems to be no technique so obscure that there aren’t a handful of beautifully videographed demonstrations. Tips, stitch guides, forums with pattern helpers, and textile history are among the learning opportunities that are just a click away.

But by being part of a guild, we are choosing to spend some of our hard-won time to come together in-person, to spend our time in knitting fellowship and learning.  While the history of crafting guilds is long and interesting, at their heart, most guilds promoted the sharing of craft information and skills, as well as the promotion of the value of the craft.  When we share a skill, a tip, a stitch, a monthly meeting program, or just the encouragement to try something new, we are echoing the craft guilds of old, as well as the centrality of education in our bylaws.  

Unlike ye olden days, ours is not a strict system of master and apprentice.  We all take a turn at being the learner and being the teacher, even if it’s just a simple suggestion to another knitter at our table.  We all bring valuable experiences into the room. As modern life-long-learners in this guild, we are all contributing to the learning environment, our internal motivation is high, because we want to be here and nothing is compelling us but our own desire to learn and do our chosen crafts.  And we are also active participants in the collaborative process of selecting and supporting the activities we most want to do.

So if education is a central tenet of our guild, I challenge each of you to contemplate your role in the learning process in our guild activities.  When are you the learner? When are you sharing your knowledge about what you love to do? You don’t have to be teaching at the front of the room to to be in the teaching role.  You could share your own special insights and experiences at your table at a meeting, at a knit-in, at a SIG. Your experiences and insights can create something valuable in our guild’s collective learning.  I look forward to getting to know the teacher, and learner in each of you, as well as exploring the meaning of our educational mission as in the coming months.

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An “art” a day

Just about a month ago, I mentioned that I wanted to do ten minutes of art a day.  I wanted to report back that I have been surprisingly successful.  Oh, not that I actually manage a conscious ten minutes of set aside art time every. single. day.  But that I’m doing it often enough that I feel like the mental muscle of just “doing art” is returning.

I’ve been reading a variety of “creative’s self-help” style books lately, and many revolve around this idea of doing a short art exercise every day.  Maybe at some point I’ll do a comparison or review of some of these books.  Anyway, regardless of format, each of these books comes back to the same point.  Do something creative every day.  Make it a habit.

So I have two little checklists in my planner:  Yoga and Art. I’m trying to notch each one for five of seven days a week.  When I can make time, I even do them during the work day.  After all, two ten minute breaks is not unreasonable, it takes less time than hunting down a latte, and I come out on the other end just as refreshed as if I had the espresso alternative.  I’m not trying to downplay my appreciation for a caffeine boost, but I might argue that art exercise also keeps my head clearer for longer as well.  Even if most days there isn’t time for either while I’m at the office, at least then I know I “owe” myself those activities after work.  My little 4 year old is quite happy to do the yoga or art along with me, if I can squeeze either of those in between work, dinner, and his bedtime.

So far, I haven’t felt the need to work through the exercises suggested by many of the “_____ a day” types of art books.  Though I’m glad they’re out there because if this becomes a life-long habit (I hope!), I might eventually want some suggestions.

So far, I’ve sat down and sketched images from my phone.  Or I’ve used a travel watercolor kit to play with color.  Or I’ve even put in effort on some larger art journal projects.  I just pull out the journal and spend ten minutes adding color or lines or shading.  Or I’ve done some very preliminary composition thumbnails for a larger project.  I’ve been so surprised at how much I can accomplish in ten minutes or less.  Some sessions, I even find myself finishing a planned activity quickly, checking the clock, and then pushing myself to spend the other 3 minutes refining the idea or moving onto another, quicker sketch.  It’s nothing brilliant, nothing worth showing off, but it feels good and any of it or none of it might be prep work for something more elaborate down the road.

And this effort pays off when I find myself with a little time between other activities at home too.  Instead of reading on my phone for a few minutes, I pop up into the craft room and put a little more effort into whatever is on the table.  I feel more mentally prepared for longer spans of creative time, more ready to find creative solutions to visual problems because I’ve been “thinking visual” all week.  And in some cases, I’ve been able to do the prep work of sketches or background color ahead of the larger block of creative time when I can break out the messier acrylics, inks, gesso, or gel medium.

It feels like the start of a great new journey.

What art or craft activities do you make time for each day?

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Egg dyed yarn

I was texting with Mom about Easter plans and about dyeing eggs with my kiddo and she said “With the left over dye you could dye a yarn blank.” Well that makes sense, I thought. I have dyed yarn with cake icing color and Kool aid, why not try egg dye?

Inspired by this video by ChemKnits, I felt like a cake dye would be most fun.

The yarn:

KnitPicks Bare – Sport Weight – 75% superwash Merino wool, 25% Nylon

274 yards/100 grams each

The dyes: PAAS egg dye tablets

The process:

First, egg dyeing. Can’t steal focus from kiddo’s fun.

Then, Presoak 30 minutes: 1.25 gallons water, 1.4 cups white vinegar, two 100 gram skeins

I had bought two egg kits at the store for different techniques and accessories. But we didn’t need the duplicate tablets.

I also saved some of the leftover egg dye. I figure, it’s pre-dissolved, but it’s just vinegar, water and dye.

Following ChemKnits’ idea, I jammed one and a half tablets into each cake of yarn. For the record, I think it’s 1 pellet of strawberry red plus half a pellet of pink in one, and 1 purple and half a pink in the other.

I jammed them in the middle, covering the gap with yarn. There’s a reason I picked reddish hues for the middle. I read somewhere that red dye would pick up faster into the yarn than blue. This might be crucial, because in the middle they will get less exposure to the bath and may dissolve slower. At least, that’s my thinking.

I poured some leftover, pre-dissolved stuff around the middle region of each ball and squeezed to move the dye through. (Purple on the one with the red center, blue on the one with a purple center).

Then I put them in the dye bath, and poured a blue-green leftover around the outside. Then dissolved another blue tablet and another green tablet in about a tablespoon of vinegar each (for the record, I tried just dumping them straight in the vinegar-water bath and they just weren’t dissolving, so I pulled them out and went the pure vinegar route to dissolve the tablets first).

It took forever for the dye bath to look exhausted. After about 30 minutes, I remembered from a previous food color dyeing adventure, that red colors seem to sink, and blue colors rise. The bottom of my cakes were looking pretty bare at that point. So I started flipping them over in the water every ten minutes. That helped even out the blue. But the bottom centers still looked pretty red.

After about 2.5 hours of simmering, it was nearly time for bed, so I drained them. The water in the pot was still looking bluish, but it looked pretty clear when I squeezed the cakes of yarn.

I could tell at this point that there will be bare yarn in parts of it. I suspected that there may only be thin bands of color and everything else will be blank.

Wet yarn cakes

Next I was faced with two soaking wet vinegary yarn-cakes that needed to be rinsed.  So I reskeined them with a niddy-noddy… while wet.  Kind of yucky.  But eventually that unpleasantness was over, I tied off the skeins at intervals and rinsed them carefully but thoroughly with cool water.

Once dried, this was the result.

Yarn speckled blue and purple

Finished egg-dye-tablet-dyed yarn

I don’t think there are any completely bare sections, everything has at least a tad of dye on it, and it has a somewhat speckled effect which is popular at the moment.  I’m pleased with the saturation of the colors in the sections that did dye, but a bit disappointed that less area was hit by dye than I’d hoped.  Like a long-change or gradient dye technique, there are definite zones to this yarn where the outer edge is one color and then inner edge looks different.  I gifted one skein and I’ll probably use the other one for a shawlette or a cowl.

I guess I’ll put these techniques in the back of my mind.  This would be really cool for an overdye on yarn that already had some color to it.  It was nice to prove to myself that even with my busy life I can squeeze in enough time for a quick and easy dye project now.  Kiddo is getting older and needs less constant attention which is allowing me to get more crafting done.

For my next dyeing adventure, I’m going to a real-live in-person dye class with my Mom in about a month that is specifically about long-change gradient dyeing.

Until next time, keep those dye-pots bubbling!

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Definition of artist

I was talking about card-making recently and someone asked me if I was an artist because they knew someone who made beautiful watercolor cards.  I quickly said “no, I’m not an artist” and then paused, and said “well, maybe”, and then finished lamely, just to explain the cards, “I make cute cards with paper cutouts and stamps from kits and such”.

When did I stop thinking of myself as an artist?

My best definition of artist is “a person who makes art”.  So maybe I stopped being an artist when I stopped making art.  I make time for crafts, and sometimes artistic crafts.  I am creative, I create things.  I don’t make most things from a kit, though I do like kits for notching quick handmade projects.  Do I make time for “art”?  I really don’t.  I still have ideas, but I don’t take the time to practice creating.

Art is that it’s a skill that gets rusty.  Not just the fine motor control, but the mental muscle that allows you to feel natural playing with your chosen media to get visual ideas out there.  Just knowing what makes good composition isn’t enough, practicing creating compositions is necessary to create good compositions.  Getting your hand to do what your mind’s eye envisions takes practice, practice, practice.

I’ve had lots of big ideas in the past few years, but I can’t execute because I’ve let the skills grow rusty.  My kiddo is big enough now that I can squeeze in 10 or 15 min of practice in a day while he plays, after work, before I’m completely wiped out and just want to sit on the couch.

I hereby challenge myself to an any-art-a-day.  I’m a mixed media person, so anything can count as practice, as long as I’m creating/sketching/doodling/photographing something that does not lead to a gift, memory-keeping, or other practical “craft” item.  We’ll see how this goes!  I’ve also challenged myself to a 10 min yoga per day routine.  Time to get that back on track too.

What is your definition of art?  What is your definition of craft?  Have you tried both?  Has life or an internal pendulum swung you one way or another?

To check out some of my related unravellings on the definition of art, I posted some thoughts in March of 2014.

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Is this thing still on? And updated thoughts on double pointed needles

When I started this blog I promised myself I wouldn’t make posts that made excuses for being back from a long hiatus. So I won’t. It has been about two years since my last post though, so it seems silly not to acknowledge that.

Here are some random things I have finished in that absence:

Border Socks pattern by Mary Jane Mucklestone, finished 2/18/18

My first “spinner” card

Some Stampin’ Up dies and my quirky sense of humor

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My first attempt in a really long time to do fancy decorations on a cake, February 2018

Liege Waffles from Smitten Kitchen recipe… I’m drooling just looking at the photo

Star bread from King Arthur Flour recipe… no more difficult than regular cinnamon bread, but so fancy-looking!

Holiday decorations

An experiment with my kiddo comparing leavening in pancakes:  baking soda vs yeast

Edith’s Secret, pattern by Kristen Ashbaugh-Helmreich, I added beads, finished 7/10/17

Black raspberry pie, made from black raspberries that we picked

I might even make time to talk about some of these projects along the way.  If you’re on Ravelry, you can at least see details about the knitting projects by visiting my Projects page.

Double Pointed Needles – Unravellings updated:

Waaaaaay back in May of 2009, I wrote a love note to DPNs for socks.  I lambasted the endless scooching of 2-at-a-time-magic-loop methods…  See the photo at the top of this post?  The lovely grey socks with the fair isle details?  The final iteration took over 4 years to complete – in part because of 1-at-a-time sock methods… So maybe I was wrong.  Maybe there is a place for 2-at-a-time-magic-loop methods for people like me who have too much going on in life to dedicate real time to one knitting project.

Why am I condemning the method and not just my questionable crafting-time-management?  Because with all the stops and starts of this project I would forget important details of what I did in the first sock, and my gauge would change, and, possibly worst of all, because they discontinued two of the colors of yarn in that long time (and I lost one ball for a while), I was perilously close to having to complete one sock in a totally different color.  The result of some of these hangups was that I had to rip back the second sock from half-way down the sole allllllll the way back to the cuff twice in those four years.  If I would have been doing two at a time, I would not have had some of those problems and color match issues could have been mitigated by design changes.

At first, I vowed that I’d only do 2-at-a-time socks from now on… but then my Mom got me a pair of Addi Flexi Flips, sooooooo, maybe there are more singleton socks in my future after all.  I’ll just have to solemnly swear to work on them with more dedication!  Or maybe a series of one-off socks would be appropriate, fraternal twins and such…

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Book Review – The Knitter’s Life List

Confession time:  I’m a library junkie.

Related confession:  I use my library shamelessly like a “try before you buy” service.

I order online and have other libraries send my branch all the latest (and oldest) popular pattern books, stitch books, and technique books.  Why, back when I was doing the Master Knitter Level I, I ordered the original June Hemmons Hyatt Principles of Knitting, and was able to renew it for months on end… and this was back when it was out of print and it’s secondary market value was inflated to $300+!

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I voraciously preview crafting books from the library.  So far, I haven’t done much to review the hundred or so craft books that pass through my hands every year.  Most don’t intrigue me enough to pursue past flipping through the patterns.  But today I’m going to give a review, simply because the book I found was such an interesting oddity.

During a recent rare browsing visit to the library (usually I just pick up my holds and dash), I found a book called The Knitter’s Life List.  As far as I know, a “life list” is a term from birding, in which the birder has a list of all the birds in a region, maybe listing rarity, and checks them off as they are observed in the wild.  I think it’s kind of a self-competition thing, a goal to try to catch a glimpse of the “rare whosiwhatsit bird”, and it also provides hobbyists with a point of reference when conversing with one another.  I think I went on a field trip as a kid where we were given life lists to inspire us to search the area carefully and quietly for wildlife.

And inspiration is certainly the point of The Knitter’s Life List.  The book is chock full of entertaining tidbits about our knitting hobby, the “who’s who”, and what this author feels are the big accomplishments.  The book’s chapters are organized by categories such as yarns, fibers, techniques, and types of commonly knitted objects such as scarves.  In the beginning of each chapter, there is a “life list” for the category which is subdivided into categories such as who to meet related to the category, resources to discover, knitting techniques to try or learn, and maybe other sub-categories like places to visit or “extra credit” questions.  Reading the rest of the following chapter will help explain some of the items on the life list, which give you a sense of being lead through a lesson.

On the whole, this is a fun book to get from the library.  There are lots of odd little facts, quotes from the luminaries of the current knitting world, tips and tricks, bits of history, and lists of movies or books that contain some knitting homage.  It’s fun to flip around and discover something new.  There are one-page biographies too, that offer a little more insight into some of our favorite knitters:  for example, Barbara Walker who is famous in our industry for creating some really great reference books of stitch patterns, is also an award winning author in comparative religion and a painter.  It’s nice to have a little more insight about an knitting author than the back of a book jacket might provide.

The life lists themselves have challenging and intriguing tasks and accomplishments, even for a moderately advanced knitter such as myself.  Almost every crafter ever has some area that they are more accomplished in than another.  Let’s take a look at a few from the socks section, as I’ve only ever knit about a half-dozen pairs:  “Make two socks at once on one circular needle” – done, but didn’t like it.  “Knit a sock using double-point needles” – done, definitely my preferred method.  “Knit a toe-up sock” – you know, I don’t think I actually ever tried this!  Don’t revoke my knitter’s license now!  “Knit and donate a historic Red Cross pattern.” – well, now, that’s a really cool idea that I would never have thought of!  There’s a good page and a half more to the sock list, as well as blank spaces for your own ideas.

So the lists are pretty cool, and a fun idea if you like to challenge yourself to try new things in the world of knitting.  And the rest of the chapter between each of the lists is fun and enjoyable, in kind of a knitter’s Mental Floss way.

And yet, I wouldn’t really want to own this book.

There are a few reasons why.  First, I don’t enjoy writing in books.  Obviously, I didn’t write in the library’s book!  But in general, I dislike the concept of writing in a book like this. It feels like a regular, bound book, with semi-glossy pages, and the kind of book one is not supposed to write in.  I don’t even think the page texture will take a mark very well, and would probably get kind of smeary if you used pen.  Although again, library book – I didn’t actually try.  If it was spiral bound or something though, and they had the list section with a different page texture, maybe I would feel more “invited” to write.  Semi-glossy, soft-bound, 320 page books do not feel like an inviting medium in which to work on a list.

Then let’s talk about this layout a bit.  While I’m skimming along through the chapters, it is nice that there is a list and then information that explains the stuff on the list, but this isn’t a great layout for returning to reference a specific fact or list. I’m not going to flip through an entire book every time I want to see if I’ve accomplished something I can check off.  A discrete list, reprinted at the back might solve the problem.  Better yet, a discrete list reprinted at the back with perforations so I can tear out the list and carry it around in my knitting bag might be better.  Or even maybe, like the textbooks do it, a one-time use code that leads me to a code-locked website where I can download and print a personal copy.  Or a downloadable PDF I can keep on my phone for reference when I’m at a class or guild meeting.  But no, it’s like this book invites you to enjoy it’s list and then mocks you for wanting to check things off.  Indulge my hyperbole, if you would please, it’s fun to pretend to be a book critic for a moment.

So, I’m not running out to buy my own copy, but I did find The Knitter’s Life List to be inspiring and entertaining.  If you see it at the library, check it out!  And I think I’ll use it as a jumping off point to create my own “life list” of crafting accomplishments and techniques I want to learn as a challenge to myself.  But, I think for mine, I’m going to use Wunderlist or something, so that I can carry my list around wherever I go.  Digital is a very good medium for lists.

What about you?  Do you have a list of knitting accomplishments that you want to try or master?  Would you keep a list for yourself to challenge yourself, or would you rather learn new things as they come up in service of a particular pattern or class?

Until next time, keep your needles clicking…