What’s the opposite of startitis, again?

It seems I start a lot of posts (either in reality or in my head) by apologising for the loss of my yarny mojo. Indeed, this affliction is not limited to knitting: I seem to have stalled on a horrible number of projects in pretty much any fibre-based medium you care to mention. One of BlogHer’s earlier prompts for NaBloPoMo was to describe your writing space: I had initially planned to describe my crafting space (generally known as the Wool Room), complete with photos, as I initially thought it would be a more interesting proposition than just writing “whichever end of the sofa Stephen isn’t sitting on” in large letters under the title. However, a brief look through the door was enough to convince me that I couldn’t photograph that troll-cave of a workspace, to paraphrase Allie Brosh, in its current state. Maybe I could do it later in the month, but, for the moment, there’s no way that any sane person should see the carnage that’s going on behind the door.

My problem is only partly startitis (the knitterly condition in which one casts on numerous new works in process, only to let them languish in your yarn bag after the first few rows). It’s also a form of pre-startitis, in which I plan immense amounts of projects, buy or dig our the raw materials, tools and patterns, and then proceed to do absolutely nothing about starting the actual work. Zilch. Nada. I don’t even have the warm, fuzzy feeling of having started the project, which means you can at least console yourself with the thought that one day you will finish what you started. Instead, I have large, accusatory piles of fabric, yarn and unspun fibre, books and magazines, quilt wadding and crochet hooks strewn about every available surface in the wool room, as well as the floor. The crochet hooks are particularly ridiculous: I can’t crochet beyond the most limited sort of granny square, but I evidently hold a belief that I can learn by some sort of osmotic process, just by leaving enough of the requisite tools around.

It’s not even as if I’m picking hard projects: I recently bought this fabulous cheater quilt top from Spoonflower: if you like owls, I would urge you to have a look at this, as it is absolutely gorgeous in the flesh, so to speak. Or, at least, the unquilted top is gorgeous, even if I have not actually managed to assemble into any sort of quilt sandwich yet. I think I may need someone to give me a virtual slap over this: it’s not as if I really need to do anything: there’s no designing, no complicated piecing. It’s just a question of putting some wadding between two layers of fabric, and breaking out the running stitch, for goodness’ sake. Somehow, though, the constituent parts are still strewn about the wool room. The footstools I am recovering have suffered a similar fate: one has had a shiny new cover for the last few months. The other still has its old, tatty cover, while the paltry three – count’em – pieces of fabric I need to make the replacement remain unsewn.

I’m hoping that NaBloPoMo, with its attendant need for bloggable material, might give me the impetus to finish a few of these projects. I’m realistic about the likelihood of my learning to crochet any time soon (it’s slim), but I am sure I can at least manage to put together Eoin’s new winter jumper, or finish the braid of fibre which I started spinning in May. May! Seriously, I need a good shaking, don’t I?

I’m trying to sort myself out, in a creative sense. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the aforementioned part-finished spinning project. It’s a merino/soya blend from L Hogan, colourway “Bathing Suit”, which I bought in This is Knit, the last time I was in Dublin. As you can see from the unspun fibre I have left, it was pretty crazy in the braid, but I’m hoping it will come shading calmly from one colour to another.

Finished bobbin of singles, pink outwards

Finished bobbin of singles, pink outwards

Second bobbin in progress. We're in the blue/green section here.

Second bobbin in progress. We’re in the blue/green section here.

The remaining roving. Psychedelic-looking, no?

The remaining roving. Psychedelic-looking, no?

Wish me luck: I really hope that, before the month is out, I’ll proudly be showing you a finished skein of plied yarn. After all, I haven’t got much roving left to go, and plying’s way faster than spinning. Right?

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St Fagans: Esgair Moel Woollen Mill

Living close to Cardiff, we are lucky enough to be within easy reach of one of the National Museums of Wales, St Fagan’s.* It’s a huge open-air museum of Welsh life through the ages, complete with reconstructed buildings, gardens, farm animals and working craftspeople; as you can imagine, it’s a really fabulous place to go with small children, as well as with historically-minded grown-ups. Eoin and I made took advantage of the current glorious weather to make our first visit there yesterday afternoon, and we were not disappointed with what we found.

We spent several hours wandering around the grounds, taking far too many photographs, and, in Eoin’s case, lobbying loudly for ice-cream any time we passed somebody with a cornet in their hand. We even managed to finish off with a small-scale picnic in the hayfield, which gave Eoin a chance to ogle the high-speed trains whizzing by on the nearby line into Cardiff. I don’t want to make this post too picture-heavy, but I’ve added a little gallery below with some of the better general shots in it.

For both of us, though, the highlight was undoubtedly a visit to the Esgair Moel Woollen Mill, which neatly combined a whole raft of yarny goodness for me with more big yokes with wheels on them for the little fellow. The first hint that there was something good on the horizon was when we arrived at the building to find several tarpaulins covered in freshly-dyed fleece, drying in the sun: clearly this was not going to be a dull peek into a dusty building, but rather an interesting hands-on experience.

Esgair Moel, a mill dating from the eighteenth century, was originally located in Powys, but was moved to St Fagans in the middle of the 1900s as part of the living history element of the museum. It is in full working order, with a nineteenth-century carding machine, a spinning mule and two hand looms on display. When we visited, the museum’s weaver was hard at work producing his next batch of yarn: as you can see below, he has already spun a substantial amount on the mule, and is in the process of carding a second batch on the carder: In addition to all these industrial-age delights, we were able to have a close-up look at a great wheel, the first I had ever seen:

As you can imagine, I found this fascinating: I have never before been able to work out how Sleeping Beauty might have pricked her finger on a spindle, the flyer of my Ashford Elizabeth being neither the sharpest nor the most pointy thing known to humankind. The spindle on the great wheel, however, was another matter: it’s attached to the whorl which you can see at the right of this image, and, as it is lengthy and rather sharp, the whole wheel has been turned to face the wall, presumably to avoid unwary museum visitors impaling themselves on it. As interested as I was in the wheel, though, I’m sure you can guess who was even more excited.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s an enormous wheel there! It must be mine, all mine. Can we fit it in the car?”

After I had managed to persuade Eoin that he was not allowed to take the exhibits home with him, even if he did want to love them and take care of them and call them George, we had a chat with the weaver about all things fibre- and yarn-related. I was sorry that it wasn’t possible to buy skeins of the plied yarn for knitting with; although there are some lovely woven fabrics on sale, I was really hoping to be able to create my own project with some of the mill’s produce. It turned out, however, that that day was a lucky one for me: gesturing at a huge pile of teal blue roving, the weaver told me I could take as much of it as I wanted to spin at home, as he didn’t need it. I may have let out a small “eek!” at this point, grabbing an armful of the stuff and tucking it safely under Eoin’s pushchair with many expressions of thanks. It’s now safely in my kitchen, awaiting a meeting with Jenny or the drop spindle. I’m very excited about the possibilities, though Eoin might have prefered if we had left it behind: he did seem to feel that the car was more than usually sheepy on the drive home.

While the whole museum is a fascinating and fun place to visit, I’d really recommend Esgair Moel to any Cardiff-based fibre fans: the small scale of the place, and the personal interaction with the weaver, made it a really fascinating visit for me. I’ll certainly be going back, and I may be lobbying Stephen to let me attend one of the other fibre- and fabric-related events later in the year. After all, there can never be too much yarn in your life…**

*Sadly the National Wool Museum, up in Carmarthenshire, is a bit too far away to justify an afternoon potter. However, as you can imagine, I am planning to get myself up there soon.
**Well, obviously this is not strictly true, but I think that, provided you can still get in and out of your front door without too much trouble, your stash is at a perfectly acceptable level.

My creative manifesto, or what passes for it.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

(Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho)

A while ago, I received an automated email from WordPress suggesting the topic, “My Creative Manifesto”, as the title for a blog post. Now, you were supposed to respond swiftly to this, and, ideally, to blog within a day. Instead, I have been mulling the idea over in my head, trying to come to terms with what was being asked. I have had a troubled relationship to all things creative for some time, and this seemed like my chance to set the record straight, to articulate and, generally, to vent.* I’ve written several draft versions of this post over the last few weeks. One, written at a particularly low emotional ebb, was rather tear-stained and involved melodramatic sentences like, “If knitting is the only good thing in your life, then you should knit, because otherwise there’s just no point in carrying on”. Fortunately, things got a lot better, and I’m now able to take a much saner view of the situation.

As you’ve probably guessed if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I’m not any sort of professional artist. I’m not spectacularly talented, and I’m certainly never going to earn any money from the things I make. Added to this, I am not very neat: I have terrible handwriting and I’m dreadful at the fiddly sort of cooking which involves a lot of presentation. I am neither a perfectionist nor a planner by any stretch of the imagination. At an early age, it was made fairly clear to me that I was not conventionally any good at the creative arts, and that I may as well give it all up as a bad job. Looking back on this, I have realised that, in school, it’s often the ability to draw or to play a musical instrument which acts as an index of your creative ability as a whole. I was a useless draughtswoman, and my fingers still get tangled up when I try to play one of the four tunes I can just about bang out on Eoin’s toy xylophone. However, I loved working with fabric, and I took a GCSE in Textiles (I took it as an extra subject, which meant it got me out of Games for a whole two years: clearly a Good Thing), but I was always aware of the fact that the Powers that Be didn’t approve. In fact, the reason I had to take the subject as an extra was that I was deemed to be clever, and practical subjects were (the school’s words, not mine) “only for people who weren’t bright”. What a load of nonsense! I was supposed to take Latin instead, because of the aforementioned “cleverness”: I got an A in both in the end, which seemed, to my 16-year-old self, like one in the eye for The Man.

Gradually, though, the pressure of public opinion got the better of me. I went to university: nobody there seemed to be making anything, apart from allusions to Derrida, but I could never get the hang of the slashes. For years, I gave up on any form of practical creativity. Clearly it just wasn’t what people were “supposed” to do (at the time, I hadn’t heard of Debbie Stoller, Ravelry or Knit the City). Gradually, though, it crept back in: a scarf here, a bit of sewing there. It couldn’t hurt, surely, could it? And, anyway, I could stop any time I wanted!

Over time, I have carried on knitting, sewing, spinning, making. However, my early flaws still stand: I don’t plan well, I’m not neat, I tend to say, “Ah, feck it, it’ll do” more than I should. I am the mistress of the tweak, the fudge and the tink (a knitterly process where you undo a mistake by painstakingly working backwards: time-consuming, yes, but you won’t be faced with the sheer horror of rows and rows of frogged, needle-less stitches to marshal and pick up). Lifelines? Don’t talk to me about lifelines: I sneer at them! I don’t think I’ve knitted a single piece of lace which doesn’t have a mistake in it somewhere. In some cases, there have been some rather remarkable manoeuvrings with a crochet hook (accompanied by a soundtrack of sotto-voce swearing) which have almost, but not quite, corrected the original problem. Others items have surreptitious darns, duplicate stitching… Some people might ask, why don’t you just rip it out and start again? Why bother carrying on if it’s not perfect? These are presumably the sort of people who write really neatly, make canapés and petits-fours and, I imagine, iron their underwear.

Perfection isn’t the point. This isn’t high school, and nobody is marking you on your technique. Nobody, that is, but you, and it’s what you think that’s important. You can, to paraphrase Beckett, fail better next time. If it makes you happy, and you’re not hurting anyone, sew it, knit it, bake it, paint it or otherwise create it, and think later. Make it up as you go along: that’s fine. When it works, it will be wonderful, and, a lot of the time, even if you are a bit dubious, other people might think your somewhat wonky finished object is great (I’ve had an awful lot of nice comments on The Quilt that Would Not Die, although I still feel it resembles a fabric Frankenstein’s monster). It won’t always work, and you might have to do some ripping out of failed knitting, or scraping of exploded cake off the walls of the oven.** But that won’t happen all of the time. It won’t even happen most of the time. Most of the time it will be great, and, whatever happens, you did it! You created something wonderful.

Key, however, to the whole idea of failing better is that, even if you have no illusions about producing something perfect, you have to keep growing and learning: I knitted a lot of novelty yarn scarves in garter stitch in the early days, and, while there is nothing wrong with that per se, I’d be worried if I were still doing it. Part of the point of creative work, for me, is that you should keep doing new things, developing new skills. Bit by bit, over time, I have learned to knit socks, lace, wearable garments… Each time, as I embarked on a new project, I was scared that I was going to make a hash of it, but, usually, it didn’t turn out too bad. As a wise friend said to me when I started my first sock, “it’s just four sticks and some pretty string: how hard can it be?” Yes, there were the aforementioned mistakes and fudges, but, broadly speaking, things worked: my socks were wearable (and unbelievable cosy), people admired my lace shawls and actually wanted ones of their own, friends’ babies proudly wore the cardigans I had made for them.*** Although I appreciate that your friends are going to be polite, and probably won’t laugh in your face, I was amazed that others were so appreciative. Maybe I wasn’t so bad at this creative stuff after all? I stopped being afraid, and caring so much what the world thought.

Every small achievement is important, especially if other things aren’t going so well. Knitting, quite seriously, helped to get me through the difficult early days of a fractious, refluxy baby, not to mention some really very unamusing post-natal depression. These were the days of little sleep, little proper food, fairly constant sickness (one of the many fun ways in which the PND manifested itself): It wasn’t Eoin’s fault (he couldn’t help that I was going slowly off the rails), but things were pretty grim for some time. Suddenly, I remembered the knitting. Every time he’d fall asleep (on me, so sleeping myself, or indeed moving, wasn’t an option), I’d reach out for the shawl I’d started the day I went into labour, and I’d knit. Maybe I only managed a row, or even a few stitches, but every scrap made me feel as if I had achieved something, like I was doing one little thing right in the day. I know people might argue that achievement is not the point, but when getting dressed or eating or sleeping feel like very distant possibilities, and that little bundle of rage just won’t stop crying no matter what you do, looking a row of neat, intricate lace stitches and thinking, “I did that”, can really help to preserve your sanity.

I’m in no position to preach, but I spent a long time not doing anything creative because I was worried about what people would think. Honestly, life is too short, and you should be happy. Just do it. Jump in with both feet. Keep going. Keep making, keep growing, keep learning. It is good for your mind and for your soul. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

*If this isn’t your cup of tea, please feel free to skip to another post: there are recipes and lots of cute pictures of a loud baby. Go nuts.
**Ask me how I know. The spiced ginger cake debacle of 2010 still turns people white in our old road in Cambridge: the aftershocks of the explosion were felt several houses away.
***As far as a baby can be proud, at any rate. Eoin, for one, always had a fierce sense of pride!