Knitting Old and Knitting New

Knit word bag

Most of us knitters have several projects in baskets, velvet bags, drawstring pouches, little baskets.

As I finish up my Moody Ella Coat, I’m excited about getting to work on several projects, some new, some languishing.

I’ve had a creamy-white, bulky-weight coat in the works for a while (3 years!). She is so close. So close. Sleeves and some decisions about the hem and cuffs. And the considerable but exciting finishing that includes a Mohair goat (beautiful) or Blue Faced Leicester fur collar, cuffs, and trim down the front. She needs a name. Constantia? Constance? She’s been patient. Harlow? (meaning a pile of rocks or a hill . . . I’m thinking ever there, waiting). She’s been very very patient. Hope? You get the idea.

Ella Coat Bulky White

And then there is the blue-black Ella-inspired duster I am going to make for my sister. Ella goes out West?  Ella learns to ride a Palomino? This color is stunning:

blue black yarn

And then the Pumpkin duster I am going to make for myself. The yarn is a DK weight, so I’ll be re-writing the stitch counts for the lighter weight. Of course it will take a while but the drape and swing will be lovely. The pumpkin is show-stopping with blue jeans or a black ensemble.

Pumpkin Yarn

I’m going to work a lovely little easy pattern into the work:  2 rows of St st and one row of K1, P1. Repeat the 3 rows. So pretty and so easy.

Pumpkin stitch pattern

I’m learning to crochet. My friend Roxy is teaching me. She’s tough. I keep telling her how fast I’m picking it up and then she laughs and rips it out and tells me to start over. I like it. This was last night’s practice session on my own. It’s a bit rough but I’ve got some things I want to make so I’m going to stick with it. A little each day.

Little crochet swatch

There is a lot to keep you up-to-date on as I progress through multiple projects!

Next update will be my Moody Ella . . . then we will see what’s next.

 

Recovering and Knitting

Ella Coat Palette.jpgWhen my son doesn’t write to me when he is at camp I know he must be having a great time. It is when the food is terrible or one of his tent-mates wakes up crying in the middle of the night, every night, that I hear about it.

I think I am the same way. You have not heard from me because I feel so great and I have so much energy.  I have not taken a single pain-killer in two weeks time, only 2 weeks out from surgery. I wake up at 6-ish am without an alarm (that never happened pre-surgery). Sleep is so restful. Walking feels amazing. So smooth. So easy. I am taking my little dog for hour-long walks, even in this cold (you should see how I bundle her up). Noni original girl dog coat coming soon!

I have taken everyone’s facebook advice about how to hold on to gratitude in everyday life. I strive to take stock each morning of the abundance around me. It is truly a time of renewal for me, of yet another reinvention. I am working on projects new and languishing. Friends are visiting since I am house-bound until January 10th when I see my surgeon again.

I have a lot to share with you. Today, my latest new project . . . another Ella coat is in the works. Are you surprised? The picture above is my original palette. I picked a number of tone on tone hand-dyes from several different dyers in a worsted weight – I’m pretty sure they are all the same base. You can tell I had stripes in mind. As I started knitting, though, I started to think that I really had two different palettes.

One with the greens and bright turquoise. I’ve since added more colors and some yellow.

ella coat palette partial greens and turquoise

And another colorway with the darker, moodier tones: royal purple, dark purple-magenta, blue-black, royal blue, black-purple with black-magenta elements. There were two skeins of a colorway that seemed so different I had to get both. One has turned out to have too much white, so I’ve gotten an array of sharpies to tone those little bits down. It’s fun! Hand painting stitch by stitch. Meditative. The finished results are really great. More about this below.

This was my first go at the new moody stripes colorway.

ella-coat-palette 1

And here is the palette I ended up with, but including the bright purple-magenta in the center above. I loved it so much I ran out! I searched everywhere in my considerable collection but could only find a brighter, more pink version that just didn’t want to be moody like the rest of the palette.

2017-12-29 16.17.01

And here is how it looks worked in stripes . . . this is my Ella sleeve.

2017-12-29 16.17.36

Back, briefly, to those 2 skeins that seemed so different. One had more color contrast, the different colors in the skein set off in blocks. In the skein it was dramatic and drew my attention. It’s colorway mate from a different dye-lot was muted. All of the same colors were there but they didn’t block up. To me, a different dyer’s hands were in evidence. I loved them both. What I didn’t love is how the color-block skein ended up with too much white. Some parts of the hank didn’t seem to have been dyed nearly at all. These near white stitches drew so much attention to themselves that they were distracting. Unfortunately, in my coat they were right across the bum and the bust. Looks almost like I planned it. Not what I wanted. When the body of the coat was nearly done, and thought about ripping it all out. Several times I thought about it but I kept going, reasoning I”d think of something.

And that something . . . was Sharpies.  I did a little test in a tiny corner with their most enduring original: the black Sharpie. I really liked it. Toned that white right down to nothing but moody wonderfulness, worked with the rest of the coat without being maudlin. The original teal or blue or raspberry was still there but without the distraction.

You probably know that Sharpies come in all different colors now. House-bound as I am until 1/10/18 and alone for the moment because my guys are in Utah skiing (I miss them but it has been lovely to work on my pile of projects). In any case, I had to put off shopping at Staples and the immediate gratification that would have brought me and ordered a 12-pack on-line. They came yesterday!

I love the results and the work is a meditation. I’m painting stitch by stitch. This process has alerted me to other moments in the work where there was not enough dye saturation and a little bit of too-much-whiteness shows through. Dab of the Sharpie in the right color and it’s gone. Beautiful.

Here is a before the Sharpie picture.

Before Sharpie.jpg

And after the Sharpie magic.

After Sharpie.jpg

Side By Side Comparison

Sharpie vs Non Sharpie.jpg

I might go over these sections with a little bit of black, or just paint in some darker bits with the same colors I originally used, or layer different colors sans black. Still a work in progress. I will assess after it is put together and then adorned with finishing touches such as hand-dyed silk around the neckline and cuffs. I’m toying with the idea of a wide hand-dyed/painted velvet collar but that’s going go take a while. Maybe I’ll go with the ruched silk around the neck as my immediate gratification so I can wear it tomorrow as I draft the collar, make the final version, and then hand-dye/paint it at my friend Gwen’s farm. However long it takes is however long it takes . . .  My coats are nothing if not patient.

What are you working on? I’d love to hear what you are doing in the comments. Post pictures, too!

 

What I’ve Been Doing and Where I’ve Been

2017-08-15 16.05.18

You might remember that I shuttered my studio in February nearly two years ago. I went to teach at a small private high school, with fond memories of my teaching at the University of Maryland as a strong motivator for that move in my life. I taught college composition, creative writing, and English literature to undergraduates for twelve years and loved it. Most of my students were thoughtful, motivated (or they became so), and I watched them change and grow over the course of a semester. I am still in contact with some of my students who have now become friends, gotten married, started families, and have interesting lives. It was rewarding, satisfying, intellectually challenging work. But my students of nearly 15 years ago are not the students of today. . . smart phones, and laptops, and the wifi in the classroom transform it and I’m not jazzed about how. It is not my cup of tea anymore.

I decided not to pursue that path though I am now glad I had the short experience I did in spite of the significant pain it caused me at the time. Even negative experiences are so valuable for helping us make choices about how we want to live our lives. For a long time I focused on my garden, on settling into my life in a different way. I read books. I cooked really pretty dinners. I was recovering in a way. Contemplating. Quiet.

Since late this past summer I have been spending time working in a brand new (and thriving!) yarn store called Knits and Pieces of Annapolis Maryland. I love it. I has re-awakened the designer in me and I am working on some new things I will introduce you to in short order, so more on that later.

I have also been in pain. It turns out I have really bad osteoarthritis in my hips. My grandmother on my Dad’s side had both of her hips replaced in a time when the technology was not so great. So I knew I was in for it: I have always had troubles with my hips. But now it’s official and since last winter for sure, it has been debilitating. It takes up a lot of brain space to be in pain. It is a series of constant calculations. How far can I walk. Can I do this. . . or this, or this.

On Monday the 4th of December, I had a double hip replacement. I am healing. I am excited. I am thinking about the mountains I will climb next summer with my son. We have the goal to hike all the 4,000 footers in the Adirondacks, all 46 of them. We will be called 46ers when we are done. We will get special patches that we will proudly wear on our backpacks. We have 44 to go! I’ve told Soma that he better be ready to hike every day for a week next summer.

Some of you may want to know how I am doing as I continue to recover. I will keep in touch with you through my blog and through my facebook page. I will let you know how I am doing and what I am up to, both in my recovery and in my creative life. This parentheses of recovery will be a time of renewal for me: there are some creative projects I want to tackle and I’ll bring you along with me as I do that work. And then there are the designs I will introduce to you.

The picture here is a walkway on a hike that Soma and I made this past summer. It was more or less level ground on my account. The walkway crosses a wetland and is all crookedy because bad spirits can’t turn corners. I love this. And I love the iconography of journey that is embedded in walkways that lead into the unknown. Our lives are full of twists and turns, jaggedy journeys to places we never expected. I invite you on this journey with me.

Thank you for following me. Nora

When you seek inspiration, look into the world

Bluebells-Gauntlets-with-Forget-me-notsI look forward to and enjoy Spring flowers more than I ever did before I wrote my book on knitted flowers, Noni Flowers. It has always been my favorite time of year, but the process of working on knitted flowers for my book taught to me notice things about plants that I had previously been a bit blind to: the structure of a flower, the coloring of its petals, the way it unfurls, the shapes of buds, the procession of leaves, bud, flower. . . there are details I had not previously noticed. I notice the color of stems now, the shapes of sepal leaves, the colors and form of stamens all with an eye not just to enjoy but to knit.

The Forget-me-not flower details we can't usually see.

The Forget-me-not flower details we can’t usually see.

When an interviewer asked me, on the heels of the book’s publication in 2012 what inspired me to make these flowers, “lifelike flowers,” my answer to her question is, in many ways, the same answer or, rather, advice that I gave to writing students so many years ago and to my knitting students now: When you seek any inspiration, the basis for a story, a description of place, events in the past or future, a design theme, a color scheme, a fair isle design, the colors to pick for the tulip you might be inclined to knit out of my book, you don’t have to come up with that material whole cloth out of your own brain.

tulip-color-possibilitiesIf I resorted only to what resided in my mind already, the flowers I might knit would look little different from those in the drawings of daisy-like or tulip-ish flowers I drew as a child. They were approximations of what I was then capable of drawing, the flowers most familiar to me.

I suggest to all of my students to become better observers of the world, but also to trust their own creative impulses. So often we talk ourselves out of our ideas. The first idea might be so grand we don’t think we can possibly make it real . . . but maybe we can. Maybe you can. When I started working on my book, I didn’t know if I could pull it off. But I said I could and I told Random House I could. And then I did. There were flowers I chose not to try, telling myself they were too hard: orchids, for example. but I am quite certain now that if I set my mind to sit down and work on an orchid until I could hold the finished one in my hand, I could do it. I could make an orchid out of yarn.

It’s not easy to sit down and do what you don’t think you can do. . . but what if you do and you create something amazing. There are examples of this everywhere. Take a look at this inspiring Ted Talk “Embrace The Shake” by artist Phil Hansen. And his inspiring and unconventional work:

Phil Hansen's beautiful portrait on Starbucks cupsHis recipe for exploring the limits of your creativity?

phil-hansen-quoteDon’t talk yourself out of your creativity.

Expect to fail. Expect the creative process to lead you to a place you might not have thought you’d go.

 

Amazing Amazing Wool!: Felted Soap

I am going to my little boy’s classroom to teach the kids about wool, about felt, and then we are going to make felted soap. I have spent the weekend trolling through videos that show lots of different ways of doing this . . . and I have made a number of bars of felted soap myself. I have to say that I have loved the process. . . and loved the process of thinking about how to introduce my great abiding love for wool to second graders. So, what follows, at least for now, is my lesson plan. I have 1.5 hours in Ms. Woods second grade class. . . I confess that in all my years of teaching (teaching English, Creative Writing, Literature, Knitting, Felting. . . ) I have never spent so much time and put so much thought into a lesson plan. Even this bare bones outline can’t possibly convey the hours, the worry . . . nor can it convey the finished result [to commence at 12:30 on today!]. I plan to take pictures and post them here, but it may be that I get so drawn into the experience I forget and take no pictures. . . hmmmm. Perhaps I will task my son with the role of documentary photographer . . .

In any case, if you have kids or just want to get your hands REALLY clean, this is a fun project. And here is my lesson plan: I am going to use this blog posting on a smart board in the classroom.

Rules for Today:

If you might want to say EWWWWW, instead say AHHHH, So INTERESTING! You will learn more if you are interested and open-minded than if you reject something as gross.

You will learn more by making mistakes than by getting it perfect, so don’t be afraid to mess up. The worst that can happen is you start over. When you start over, you become an expert faster!  How cool is that?

 

WHAT IS WOOL?

Wool is the hair of sheep.

 

Liester Longwool04-grazers_louise-fairburn

There are MANY breeds of sheep: they all look different.

Rare-breedsSheep have been living with people for so long that most breads have fur that keeps growing and growing. They need people to cut their hair. Cutting a sheep’s hair is called “sheering.”

This is Shrek, a sheep that was not sheered for 6 years!Shrek-before-sheering This is what Shrek looks like during his first sheering.

Sheep-getting-sheeredWool is AMAZING!

It has incredible characteristics:

it is warm. And it can keep you warm, even when it’s wet.

It kills germs! And resists mold.

Wool has an oil on it called lanolin that is a wonderful oil and good for the skin. It also makes wool water-proof!

Wool can felt . . . This means that wool fibers matt together with other wool fibers and make a fabric.

People have used wool’s felting power to make lots of things that are useful:

To make Boots . . .

original_Sheep-wool-booties-group-NOTHSFelted boots2And slippers. . .

felt_slippersAnd Clothes

Felted Jacket1 mens felted jacketnunofeltedjacket

And bags

LIPSTICKANDCHANGE-Sparkle-line-upBag for St. John's Parish School fundraiserAnd Rugs

beautifulrugwormfeltedrug

Here is a video that shows how to make a felted rug.

You can also make Houses OUT OF FELT!

felt_yurtmaking a yurtWhy does wool felt?

Here is a picture that shows why wool felts: each hair has “barbs” or scales that want to lock together with other wool fibers.

fiber_compare-480x296

What makes the fibers do this?

Irritation! By friction (hands rubbing together, pounding on the felt, putting the felt in the washing machine).

Change in PH!  Add a little soap (this creates an alkaline environment) and this irritates the fibers even more. . .

Change in temperature. Shock the wool between hot and cold and the wool freaks out and grabs onto its fiber friends!

 

Now we are going to see first hand how wool felts . . . Before we get started with our project, I want to talk a little bit about how we are going to learn about felting.

Learning Styles: Everyone Learns in a Unique Way

Some people learn . . .

by seeing (watching) . . .

by listening . . .

by speaking . . .

by doing . . .

by teaching . . .

So, for today, this is how we are going to learn:

1. Watch what I do.

2. Listen to what I tell you.

3. Then tell me what i did.

4. Then do it.

5. Then teach someone else. Go home and teach your parents and your sisters and brothers. Teach your friends.

 

Now. . . for felted soap!

First is the decoration . . . Just to get you thinking. . .

MonsterSoapsfelted soap 3mini_monster_felted_soap_blueFelted-Soap-Labelsfelted-soap-kitsfeltedsoap2 feltedsoaps3mini_monster_felted_soap_pink_2red monstor soap zombie_ate_my_brains_felted_soap_1blueowelsoap Brightly-Colored-Felted-Soap

More Felted Soap Ideas

Materials You Need:

Soap

Wool (I am using carded Merino top from New England Felting Supply)

Water

A bit of a “sock” (a bit of stocking works well! I cut knee high stockings into 3 pieces after knotting them in 2 places.)

A bit of friction (rubbing hands and then, at the end, plastic canvas to rough things up)

Temperature differential: have a bath of cold water and a bath of hot water and shock the soap back and forth (if necessary) between the two. Squeeze out excess water and keep going.

FIRST STEP: Make a little bed for your soap that is no bigger than half a sheet of regular notebook paper.

RULE 1: If you are using more than one color, the colors must overlap.

RULE 2: If you are using sparkle, you must put a little wool spider web over the sparkle.

RULE 3: The wool be shouldn’t be too thick, or too thin, but just right.

This is the step in which your creative brain is going to be working. While we are working on our designs, we belong to a creative community!

Rules for a creative community:

1. Learn from each other.

2. Inspire Each Other. Share Your Ideas. Don’t be afraid to Copycat but add your own twist. This is what creativity is.

3. Help Each Other.

4. Comment respectfully on others’ work: all of our creations teach us something.

 

SECOND STEP: Make sure the little bed is not too thick. Think spider web rather than blanket!

THIRD STEP: Put your soap in the bed and wrap it up.

FOURTH STEP: Put the little soup in a blanket in your sock.

FIFTH STEP: Get it wet, then get the excess water out.

SIXTH STEP: Gently rub on all sides until it suds.

SEVENTH STEP: “Wash hands” for 2 rounds of the Cup Song (at least) before checking your soap!

Original Version of the Cup Song

Irish Version of the Cup Song

TROUBLES?

There will always be troubles! This is part of the creative process. The REALLY IMPORTANT part is HOW YOU SOLVE THE PROBLEM, FIX THE TROUBLE, AND WHAT YOU LEARN FROM THAT!

Too much wool? DOES THE SOAP HAVE A MOHAWK OR  AN EXTRA ARM OR SOMETHING?  Fold the extra over onto the soap, rinse, squeeze out all extra water, and keep going. Use your scrape tool for extra friction and keep going.

Too little wool? ARE YOU SEEING HOLES? Add another spider web layer and try again.

Best Apple Pie Ever, if I do say so myself . . .

Best-Pie-Donei don’t know what the weather is like where you live. . . but where I live it’s COOOOOLD! And when the weather gets cold, I make apple pie. The pie above is a picture of the Christmas apple pie I made with my Dad in Maine. It was . . . delicious!

You see, old fashioned apple pie has a rather legendary status in my family. And I have been perfecting my version for a long time now. In the last few years I’ve hit upon a pie everyone who tastes it loves, every-single-time.

If you want a step by step with precise measurements, I’m sorry I can’t do that, because, simply, that’s not how I make pie. What I can say is that I started with recipes (I have a whole shelf of books on pie) and then started to play around. My apple pie is never exactly the same and that’s what makes it an adventure. Here’s what I do:

 

Prepare the Pie Dough

I confess that I got my secret ingredient from a recipe in Cooks Illustrated. I won’t include their recipe here as I’m a great lover and ardent respecter of copyright law.  But their basic recipe is pretty much the same as every basic crust recipe I’ve ever made.

So, follow your favorite pie crust recipe to the letter and make it a double so you can make both the bottom crust and either a lattice or full top. I personally prefer an all butter crust, so I don’t mess around with lard or oil: only 100% sweet cream butter for me. Once you’ve got the butter cut until the flower and butter mixture resembles course corn meal, you can add the cold cold water like you always do and then, here’s the secret, add the same amount of vodka. It does not activate the gluten in the flour so you get the most amazing flake, almost like puff pastry. The extra liquid makes the dough more workable without over-activating the mechanism that holds the crust together. Too much water and crust is too tough, too little and the crust will shatter.

I put half the dough in one piece of plastic wrap and the other half in a second piece of plastic wrap. I shape the dough quickly into a rough ball and then flatten to a thick disc almost a personal pan pizza dough shape. Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and put in the freezer to store for a while, or, at the very least, put in the fridge for a couple of hours before rolling out.

 

Prepare the Oven

Preheat the Oven to 425 degrees.

Put a metal cookie sheet in the oven with a big piece of parchment paper on it. I put the cookie sheet in at the start of the pre-heating process so the sheet will be really hot when the pie pan goes on it. The function here is to get the crust cooking from the bottom up so that the crust is beautifully crisp even on the bottom.

 

Prepare the Filling

While the oven is heating up, start preparing the filling.

What Kind of Apples?

I like sweet crispy apples. My favorites:  Honey Crisp. Pink Ladies are in close second.

How Many Apples?

I get out my pie pan. Fill the pie pan with Honey Crisp or Pink Ladies apples in a single layer for big apples and add just one extra apple if you want a really big pie. This plan works no matter how big or small the pie pan is.

Apples-in-pie-pansPeel and core. I use a peeler that also cores and slices the apple. I cut each slice into thirds. If you don’t have such a gadget, peel by hand, cut the entire apple into thirds or quarters (and core at the same time) and then cut each section into pieces that are about a quarter of an inch thick or slightly thinner. Next, I put a little citric acid over my cut apples to keep them looking pretty and fresh. A little lemon juice or Fruit Fresh does the trick.

And now the fun starts. Here’s my basic philosophy: If it tastes good in the bowl, it will taste good in the pie. Go for fabulous but a little less sweet than you want the finished product to be. Never fails.

What to Add to the Apples?

Sugar. I use a cup measure and start with about a cup and a half rough. Then I sweeten to taste (but not yet).

Mix-in-the-sugar-etcSpices. A shake or two of Cinnamon, a pinch of dried Ginger, Clove. A scrape of Nutmeg. I use a fresh Nutmeg with a tiny little scrapper. A generous splash of good, real Vanilla.

Fresh-Nutmeg-2Spirits. And now, drum roll please, add a shot or two of excellent Bourbon. I have been known to use delicious brandy or even just good ole Maker’s Mark Whiskey (welll, like the very last time I made pie).

MakersmarkMix until the sugar starts to pull the juice from the apples. Now taste and taste often! Not sweet enough? Add a bit more sugar a bit at a time until it is almost, but not quite, sweet enough . . . That means it’s perfect. Dust with a bit of flour or corn starch to thicken the juice during cooking. Maybe 3 or so tablespoons, roughly. Taste again. If you are smiling, and love it, it’s going to be amazing. Stir thoroughly and set aside with the big spoon just sitting there loving where it is because you’ll mix it one more time before pouring into the pie shell (don’t forget).

 

Prepare the Crust

If frozen, the dough will need to rest on the counter for a while until it is workable.
If in the fridge, it might still need a few minutes on the counter. I have hit upon the method of starting the rolling out process by rolling around the edge first–this works well to keep the edges from splitting too much.

If a full top crust, cut some slits to let the steam escape. I prefer a lattice top most of the time, so I score with the top side of a regular kitchen knife and then put together while it is on top of the pie. I then sprinkle the top with water and then drizzle granulated sugar all over the top – don’t go wild, of course. Just enough to make it glisten and add a bit more sweetness to the top crust.

Then the crimp. I have to say, this is possibly my favorite part. If you have not already done so, study crimps, pick one, and then make it your own. Here are some ideas from simple to fancy:

piecrusts

I am teaching my son to make pie (he is 7 right now) and he has not yet developed his own crimp, but definitely his own “look.” The little pie here is one he made all by himself! And it was delicious!

Crimp

More crimp ideas:

101144029.jpg.rendition.p rope-pie-crust-s3-medium_new BraidWhat you want is everyone who sees your pie to say is, “O, this must be one of your pies! I can tell from the crimp!”

Best-Pie-Before-PictureStart in the oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes or more depending on the size of the pie and the amount of apples:  bigger pie full of apples, better make it 30 minutes.

Baking-in-a-325-ovenAfter that, turn the temperature down to 325 and bake the rest of the way. If the crust starts getting too brown, just put a piece of aluminum foil on top or just where it is getting too dark (sometimes on the outer crust/crimp) – this will protect the crust while it finishes cooking. The pie is done when a nice golden brown and the juices are thick, a bit darker, and at a slow bubble. This means the juice has boiled and activated that thickener you put in.

Almost-DoneRemove and let it cool on a rack.

Then, have at it!

Best-Pie-DoneHmmm. Delicious!

Saying Yes: Acceptance, Limitations, Creativity, and the Power of What If. . . ?

Every year in mid-October I travel to the fair grounds nestled in the heart of Rhinebeck, New York for the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival. Noni has a big booth there.  There are women who come every year to purchase a project. The next year they come back with the finished bag on their shoulder or wearing a beautiful coat and buy the next next project. I love this. Watching those beautiful bags and coats come back, I feel some measure of pride in being a small part of that project, that growth.

This year (meaning, actually, this past Rhinebeck of 2013), a pair of women I remember from the previous year walked into the booth together and found me. They live, I think, in the City and are dear friends. They had both purchased kits for the Ridge Bag.

Ridge-Bags They had done the knitting together, felted together in the same washer, the in same load even, as I think they told me. I will name these woman Clotilde and Veronique.

Clotilde’s bag was nearly done —it had lovely crisp shaping at the bottom, shiny nickel bag feet, the zipper sewn in, the handles in place with 6 evenly- spaced rivets. All that was left to be done was the turnlock, about which Clotilde asked advice (and about which I am currently working on a Noni Q&A blog, so stay tuned and check back on Friday). The bag looked, to my eye, maybe better than the original I made myself which hung, at that very moment, on a wreath hook above us.

Veronique’s bag was not finished and had been bunched up in a tote, brought to show me its imperfections. At first, I thought the subtle creases were simply due to being folded while still damp into that same tote. And, truly, this may be partly the case. Even in its rumpled state, the bag was lovely to me, and not with the rose-colored glass eyes of someone who sees only perfection where it does not lie. I saw all of its faults but also what it would, or could, become. I’ve seen a lot of lovely and not so lovely bags. This one was pretty darn terrific.

One of the things I like about the Ridge is how the rib pattern, when felted, gives the bag defined vertical stripes.

Ridge-Detail-1Veronique held the bag toward me for me to see. I took it all in, and, without a bit of dissembling said, “It looks great!” I was thinking of the work she would do, how she would thoroughly soak the bag in a sink full of hot water, how she would press out the water so that it was simply damp and pliable, how she would cut the stiffener for the bottom and sew it in, tacking directly into the overly-felted places, if there were any, and also into any less-felted place so as to even the surface and make it almost impossible to see such inconsistencies and also almost impossible to feel them. She would put in the six bag feet, matching up the prongs of the bag feet with both the holes she had punched on the stiffener inside as well as the lines of purled stitches now striping the bottom. She would lay down the second layer of stiffener carefully covered with a bright fabric surprise or a subtle grey lining to match the bag itself. She would rivet on the handle, sew in the black zipper, stitch the metal label on the back. She would rivet on the turnlock flap with the six or eight shiny nickel rivets to match the six or eight rivets holding each handle ring.

Ridge-detailWith every step, the bag would look better and better due to the dampness and her work, the attention of her fingers pressing the fabric smoother and smoother.

But Veronique has not finished as many bags as I have, I think, and she has not seen the imperfections that have come out of the washing machine in my kitchen, imperfections I have had no luxury to nurse: Photo shoot in two days, no time to knit and felt again. Had to go with this bag, as it was, had to fix it. Had to say yes.

“No, look at it,” I think she said, and held it out to me again, insistent. She pointed to all the places she felt were problems. She compared her bag to Clotilde’s. Hers was not as good.

“Why did this happen?,” she wanted to know, despair and disbelief in her voice. “We wanted to show you our beautiful bags. We had it all planned.” I could see the image of what was supposed to have happened in contrast to the little triangle we now formed. Her question was so big and there are so many possible answers. Maybe there was an inconsistency in the knitted stitches that etched themselves into the felting. But maybe not. Maybe the bag got creased up in the washer and couldn’t undo itself. Maybe the lingerie bag was too small or too large and tied itself in a knot, maybe the color of Veronique’s bag made it felt differently than Clotilde’s bag. But knowing why something happens doesn’t fix it and these answers seemed only to make Veronique feel worse. I had no magic. I only had solutions that involved working with what was.

I told her that the imperfections she was seeing in the depth and the texture of the purled stripes mattered more to her than to me. I should have thought to get down the Ridge bag I made myself, the one that hung not 2 feet above our heads, and scour it for such disparities. I am sure we would have found it. But in many ways, this is not the point . . . and it would not have consoled her.

Felt is not perfect. And if it appears to be, it is fooling you. Even leather is not perfect, decorated as it almost always is with notices about it being a natural product and therefore full of inconsistencies. A leather bag wears the imperfections that the creature who before bore that skin sustained during its life: the surface bears evidence of a cow’s movements next to a barbed wire fence, the calluses of sleep and use, a wound, the bite of a horse fly, the habits of the body in the world.

So, too, the felt in a bag bears witness to our own moods sometimes: one day my knitting might be tighter than the next, it has lain forgotten in a bag for months, nay a year. The very fiber itself is made from the fleeces of many animals, and some of those fleeces are incredible, soft and strong and supple, while others are not. There is great diversity in a single strand of yarn. And the felt bears witness to all that has brought it into being; the grain a Merino sheep eats, the tenderness with which it is raised, the age of the animal, the weather it endures, the soil under its feet, the skill of the shearer, the the twist in the milling, the way the steam sets the twist, the hands of the knitter, the swish of the washer, the heat of the wash, the alkalinity of water, the particular tumble it receives, the attention it is paid during all of that, the violence of the spin that dries it to dampness.

Even my bags come out of the washer looking like lumps. Sometimes I pull them into a shape and smoothness that seems impossible given all the variables. And sometimes they come out with problems I did not expect and I must find a way to fix, or at least disguise. Veronique wanted me to tell her what to do, how to fix it. And I tried.

I held Veronique’s bag in my hands as though it was, as I felt it was, half mine, in all its trouble, and I said, “If these places bother you so much—and they bother you more than they bother me—then you can distract the eye. Picture this—this is a lovely dark grey bag. What if you make even just one, though I think 2 would be better, but just one big Oriental Poppy out of shades of grey. Long grey stems. Let the stems circle around here,” as I gestured across the face of the bag and drew the stems over the places that bothered Veronique the most. “The face of one flower is here, the other flower here, their stems twining together, a scattering of pewter seed beads here to catch the light, pull the eye.”

I tell you, I could see it myself and it was beautiful.

But if Veronique could see what I saw, her own picture of her hopeless bag pushed the one I had just painted away. She protested that working too much over a bag, like a piece or jewelry, just makes it a “hot mess.” That’s a term I despise for its ugliness, but she’s right, of course: sometimes, in our efforts to fix something, we end up piling things on top to the point that it is overdone, overly freighted with good intentions and desperation. That is, I agree, not usually beautiful. But careful, restrained, thoughtful attention, a good plan, and some hard work are different.

Veronique was so unhappy, so disgusted. I could feel it and it felt terrible and I have been her before but I have also been her and gotten myself out of that rut of thinking. All that money in the yarn. All that time. Photo shoot tomorrow. No choice. Say Yes. Make it work. Get to work.

Her sadness made me so sad because it seemed, really, so much bigger than the bag. Of course it was, wasn’t it? We make the bag or something else into a bigger true statement about ourselves. But the statements we make to ourselves are not always true, even if we believe them and think they are. I wanted to spend the day with her. If she had been in one of my workshops, I like to think, she would have trusted me, and then, in trusting me she would have started to trust herself. We would have tried at least three different ways of dressing her bag and they would have been so different, but each one wonderful. In fact, (and I told her this) I am confident that once we were done, her bag would have been much more beautiful than it would otherwise have been. Better than Clotilde’s, or my, “perfect bag.”

But I didn’t have a day or two days. I had minutes. And I am afraid, in the end, it may not have been enough. I asked her to stop saying such ugly things about her bag. I held her shoulders in my hands and looked into her eyes and asked her to stop, breath deep, feel my heart. Open her heart to what I felt in my heart about her bag, with all the problems she saw there.

“Feel my heart,” I said again.

And I think she did. She tried to reset her thinking.

Maybe she closed her eyes, took a breath, stopped the ugly talk for a moment.

She said quietly, “Ok, I see what you are saying.” She squared her shoulders, I think. She turned toward the bags on display and gestured to one, said she liked the quilted look of the cabochon rivets on the front of my Dinner Party Backstage bag.

I liked her choice and said, “Those bright cabochons arranged the same way on the Ridge would look great. Use the vertical stripes to make the pattern nice and even. Decorate just the front or the whole thing.”

She could start with the front and then order more rivets later if she wanted to. They would go well with the brightness of the turnlock as a focal at the center of the bag. I could see it. It would look smart and it would be a faster than knitting two Poppies, hand-beading. Very different finished bags, but both terrific.

We picked out the rivets. I gave her a big hug. She looked like she felt better. I said, “Send me a picture.” She smiled and she and Clotilde left.

Hours later, Clotilde came back without Veronique, the rivets and the receipt in her hand. “She is not convinced,” is what Clotilde said if I remember right. We refunded the money and put the rivets back on the wall. I felt sad all over again.

I still feel sad, because I can still see that amazing bag Veronique could have made (may still!, I hold out hope), and I am convinced to my very core that it would have been better than the bag I originally designed and that hangs even now from the wreath stand in my studio. If Veronique came to the studio and spent the day with me, I still think she can do it . . . I mean, she knows how to do this. Her hands know. Her brain knows. And I know she can do it without me, too. I hope she might read this and be convinced, at least enough to say yes and get to work.

Because, you see, it is at just this moment of despair, when things don’t turn out the way we wanted or predicted, that most challenges us and requires a creative approach. I agree with Phil Hansen, an artist who had to overcome the way nerve damage in his hands made it impossible for him (a pointillist in the beginning) to make a simple dot or draw a straight line anymore. His Ted talk called Embrace The Shake holds such stark truths and can inspire us all. But we can’t always move without help, without someone else asking a question or making just the smallest (and biggest) suggestion: What if you embrace the shake? What if you put a ruffle here? What if you tuck in the sides? What if you cover that up? What if dots become squiggles? What if. . . What. . . if  . . . ?

I taught a workshop where a knitter I will name Clara only realized after her bag had felted that the handle across her tiny market bag was not centered in the middle as it was supposed to be but went from one corner of the bag to the other across the top at an angle. Her face was a cavern of misery at the beginning of the class. And if she had believed that it could not be saved, then she would likely have left the class early. Where she saw failure I saw possibilities. . . mainly, believe me, because I have made so many mistakes. I took her bag in my hands and said, “But what if you just say yes to the handle and do this?” I nipped in the sides so the bag had more structure and allowed the handle to fold in the middle. I held up a pretty snap that shows on the outside and put it in the middle of the front. There was a pleased and unanimous “Ahh!” from the class. She tilted her head to one side and smiled a little. Maybe she said, “That looks nice.”

Someone from the class donated bright red Hydrangea flowers to her little sage-green bag. Clara found 4 shiny crimson bag feet and put them on the bottom. She tried the Amazing Magnetic snap, liked it, and covered up the ugly back on the outside with one of those sweet little red flowers. She lined the stiffener piece at the bottom with bright red fabric. She blocked the handle into a lovely arc across the top of the bag and tacked it there with invisible stitches.

What she did was a collaboration of ideas that I and other members of the class offered and she generated herself, a beautiful synergy. That is what creativity is: it is work, hard work, in a community of other people engaged in a creative process.

And creativity is, as Phil Hansen suggests, working with a limited scope of materials and exploring an idea within those limitations. It is saying yes to adversity and absence and restriction and making something out of it. Clara could have whispered, in the light of all of our suggestions, “No, it’s ruined.” Other students in other workshops have done so, turned away, left early. Instead, Clara said yes. And, I tell you, her bag was so pretty. We all loved it. I secretly wished it was my own bag and maybe everyone else did, too. And she, rightly, loved it most of all, saying, as she left, that she had it in mind to go shopping and get a new red dress to match. She was going to the opera soon, or a special wedding anniversary dinner—something wonderful, I remember—and she was going to carry her new bag and wear her new red dress. She was radiant and beautiful with her accomplishment.

When we follow a pattern, it is not always easy, but there is, nevertheless, a certain amount of safety in doing so. So when the pattern fails us there is greater risk, but also opportunity. Phil Hansen found in himself a creativity that would not have been spurred into being had he not damaged his own body in the execution of that same art.

So, what if next time something goes awry, instead of saying “It’s over, it’s ruined,” (or go ahead, say it and get it over with. I mean, even Phil said to himself that his life as an artist was over . . . for three or so years he said it!) say instead, “What if . . . ?”

What if . . . ?

And then get to work.