Sock…fail?

I don’t want to jinx myself, but I am on the verge of producing two wearable socks. They are not the same as one another, but my diabolical plan to avoid SSS is going smoothly. I finished the first Jane last Sunday and immediately cast on a Francie. Aside from the cast-on being a shade too tight on Francie (it is not unwearable, but I wish I’d made it looser), they are both going incredibly smoothly. I’m really improving at picking up stitches and doing lifted increases. I’ve been knitting for over thirty years and it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I’ve been ashamed of my pickings-up for as long as I’ve been knitting socks (at least a decade now). I could just never figure out how to get it right. Other people would have gone into the yarn store and asked someone by now. I can be special that way. I’ve even been reluctant to ask my own mother. It’s possible my grandmother doesn’t know.

While all of this has been going on, I have been avoiding finishing the pinwheel blanket for two reasons: I have to graft garter stitch, and it’s awfully hot to have the thing on my lap. My cousin reports that she’s having some contractions, and I find myself unmotivated. This isn’t a pretty newborn blanket; it’s a play blanket for rolling around and looking at toys. That buys me another couple of months at least.

Update: In the very short time since I wrote this draft and edited it, my cousin had the baby! Welcome, Declan! Your blanket is…indisposed…and you will have it before you’re old enough to remember not having it.

Last Wednesday, I went in to the Historic New England archives to look at the Codman women’s knitting papers. There was far more than I could see in one visit, so I’m going to have to go back (I have an appointment on July 18). So far I have discovered two things: my French is only as good as my ability to read nineteenth-century handwriting (and vice versa), and grafting in either garter or kitchener is the perennial problem, since I found handwritten instructions for both (in English, thank goodness) among the papers. One thing I’m thinking about now is how to take what’s there and turn it into some kind of interesting story or how to explain its significance to the history of the family. I don’t want to get too esoteric. It was a time when a lot of women knitted; the fact that they did isn’t significant in and of itself. And a lot of women knitted for the WWI soldiers and collected garment donations to be sent overseas. It seems like a rather prosaic activity for such a well-known family. I wonder if there are journal entries that I’ve missed. I should look for that when I go back.

I’ve been interpreting that house for five years this year, and the experience of really knowing the family continues to elude me. It’s sometimes strange, trying to be a historian after many years of being a literature scholar. You can be much more free with interpretation in literature. The characters are fictional; you can’t offend them. But with real people, I’m much more concerned with fairness, and to some degree, with sympathy. I work in their home; I want to like them, or at least understand them. I’m very conscious of not projecting anything on to them that isn’t there. It’s difficult.

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Come back, autumn!

Just a quick update to say that I’ve been making good progress on the Lia sweater, but had to quit working on it until the weather cooled off. It was really going great during that first mid-month cool snap, but then it got hot and humid again, and the sweater had grown to the point that it was too hot to have it on my lap while I knitted. I switched back to mittens and socks in the hope that the cool weather would return…and that was almost two weeks ago. Sigh. I admit it: I’m not committed enough to be a four-season knitter. I like to knit, I do knit in the summer, but I definitely flag when the weather gets hot. And because I’m a wimp, that tends to mean anything more than about 75F in the house.

Still on my agenda is work in the Historic New England archives on the Codman family knitting activities and papers. My plan is to go on October 27 and combine it with a gallery talk for the third embroidery exhibit installment at the MFA that is scheduled for that day. I may have made a connection to give a talk on the Codman research, and heard another rumor of some WWI-related research on other families whose houses are part of our organization. I may be able to turn this into something! More as things develop. I’m still finishing the last of my edits on my thesis, and that’s been taking up my free time when I’m not teaching or pinch-hitting as secretary/IT support for my husband’s budding law firm. One more computer problem solved or office supply order placed and that job is going on my CV, I swear it. I’d planned to knit a lot of Christmas gifts, and that time is going to have to come from somewhere.

One thing I’m really looking forward to is the With Cunning Needle conference at Winterthur in a few weeks. I registered last spring, and since I rarely get to go to these things (or stay in hotels by myself while someone else cleans up after me), I’m excited all out of proportion to the event. I’m even looking forward to the seven-hour drive. I’ll be able to listen to books and podcasts while nobody pukes in the backseat. Yes, I’ve reached a sad stage in life where that is something that I must happily anticipate, rather than take for granted.

One good thing about the weather lately:

I haven't seen one like that since Grand Canyon in 2006.

Some other beginning’s end

I’ve been meaning to post, but something (thesis) has always had to take priority over writing, so forgive me for the quiet weeks. My thesis is very much in the home stretch, and my advisor spent two hours on the phone with me on Monday night. She approved the chapter on the Penhallow bedspread, thankfully, making only a few suggestions to improve its flow, and she really loved the parts of it that I found most interesting, so that’s always gratifying. “Interesting” is a strange animal in grad school. To a professional scholar, “interesting” means “could write at least twenty pages about it, if not a book, and in my wildest fantasies, redefine the entire field.” It is the holy grail of sentiments.

In my copious spare time, I’ve gone on with Via Diagonale, and have about four inches on it now. It’ll be a Christmas present for one of my sisters, and I think it’ll look really good on the one I have in mind. If you’ve hesitated about this pattern because you don’t like colorwork or haven’t done the slip-stitch technique, I urge you to give it a shot. I really don’t like colorwork, and this is as painless as it gets. You never carry the yarn more than one stitch, so there are no concerns about too-tight (or too-loose) floats, and you only work with one color at a time, so the patterning is uncomplicated. Better still, you work MC-MC-CC-CC all the way up, two rounds of each, and the second round of each color is just purl of the first. You don’t even have to pay attention to the pattern after you’ve set it with the first round. And as it’s a repeating pattern, it becomes very easy to read the knitting and tell when you’re off or when you need to k3 or k1 instead of the most common k2, sl1.

I also wanted to pass on an opportunity for those of you who may do some stitching on the side, or have an interest in supporting a large needlework exhibit coming up at Winterthur. They are currently showing the Plimoth Jacket until January, and this fall will mount a large exhibit with the jacket in it, called “With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery.” Tricia Wilson Nguyen of Thistle Threads put up a very informative blog post about the challenges and expense of mounting exhibitions, particularly textile exhibitions (which nearly always have to be temporary, to save the objects). She has designed a small project to support the exhibit, a tent-stitch tulip slip that can be made into a very pretty pincushion. You can get the kits here and the directions here. Or alternatively, donate without the kit purchase by going here.

You keep using that bedspread. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Wow. I am chin-deep in knitted bedspreads. And not in the good way that means I’m getting to go to sleep soon. In the other good way that means my research is starting to snowball, I’m getting to pull seldom-used books from my shelf (thus justifying my long-standing habit of hoarding books), and I have more to work with than I need.

To wit:

1. People really liked making those bedspreads. Or else they liked to read about making them and pretend they would eventually make a whole one, enough that other people thought that they were serious. There exists a whole body of literature that goes on about the marvel that is knitted bedspreads. Some of that is pattern-writer enthusiasm. Some is not.

2. I have seen no evidence–and this is corroborated by the author of the Piecework article from January–that these patterns even existed in the Revolutionary era. They seem to have been invented in about 1850.

3. Rose Wilder Lane tells a very florid and complex story about a woman from Maine who went to an unspecified location in the west in the late 1860s or thereabouts and brought back the pattern for a knitted bedspread and pillow shams remarkably like Jacqueline Fee’s example from last winter’s Knitting Traditions. What anyone west of the Mississippi in the 1860s wanted with a fussy white bedspread that kept no warmth and would be dirty in a trice is anyone’s guess. This is not a frontierwoman’s bedspread. Her mother never had one. I virtually guarantee it. Nellie Oleson? Maaaaaybe.

The Maine woman, though, is real. I found her with The Google.

What we have here seems to be the Victorian equivalent of a 1970s Colonial Revival coffee table. People loved to make them right through about the 1920s–or at least pretend/claim that they did–and claim that it was their grandmother’s/great-grandmother’s/grandmother’s grandmother’s/Martha Washington’s counterpane pattern. The fad was helped along by Grace Coolidge, who did a lot of needlework, actually did knit one of these, and also designed and crocheted a custom spread for the Lincoln bedroom when her husband was President. Grace Coolidge was not exactly the Martha Stewart of her age, but she was definitely a tastemaker. She was popular and friendly and people definitely wanted to know what she was doing/wearing/enjoying.

I still have not finished the one square of the Penhallow bedspread. Once I got going on the other research tasks, the urge to actually knit the thing faded. Plus, compared to the Fee/Lane bedspread (they are nearly identical), it’s plain and not that interesting. Plus plus, I have a feeling I’m joining a lot of my foremothers–not in the taste for the bedspread, but the weariness with the task of knitting the thing. I just burned out sooner.

I cannot wait until this thesis is off my desk.

Depends what you mean by “easier.”

So in the course of working on my thesis chapter about the Warner House bedspread project (which Ravelry calls the “Penhallow” bedspread, if you go looking for it), I realized that I could add some information if, like the Plimoth jacket, I had actually done some of the work on it. The project itself happened 15 years ago, but Piecework/Knitting Traditions published the pattern, and whee, I need something to do with my hands before my thesis eats my brain. I didn’t exactly swear off knitting for the duration, but I’m acutely aware that whenever I do something that is not working on my thesis (like writing blog posts, sleeping, raising my sons, having lunch, driving places, showering, doing laundry, etc.), I’m stealing time that I should be working on my thesis. But if I knit a square for the Penhallow bedspread and time myself, I will have data for my chapter. Yes.

When assembled, it doesn't look nearly this...codpiecey.

I obtained some Coats #10 crochet thread (my, that’s fine) and a set of 0/2mm Kollage square aluminum single-points. I was swayed by Kollage’s claim that square needles are more ergonomic and hence “easier on the hands” than round needles, and as I am a tight knitter, figured I’d give that a try. I do end up clenching my needles in my fists more often than I ought, especially if they’re small and the stitches want to pop off. That is no less of a problem with these, incidentally. And my hands don’t feel noticeably better after knitting with the ergo needles than with regular ones. The square shape does make it easier to pick up my tight stitches, though. I don’t really mean to make them too tight. I don’t yank the working yarn to snug each stitch. I just don’t like when the yarn is all over the place and trying to make a break for it. At any rate, with thread this fine, it’s hard to argue for knitting any more loosely than one must. The thing would have zero structural integrity–and this is a bedspread we’re talking about.

I worked for just over an hour, and got half of one square done–about 35 rows out of 68. If I were feeling lazy, I could extrapolate that the 1024 squares would take knitters of my ability about 2048 hours to knit, but I want to be precise, since the second half of the square is just alternating bands of stockinette and reverse stockinette and will probably knit faster. Besides, a scan of the block would look nice in my chapter, and I can use the photo without clearance.

It’s been a long time since I used single-points. It feels a little weird. I suppose now I’ll have these in my collection and my great-grandchildren can look at them in all their 2mm glory and think about how people back then had more time to do insane things like knit anything that fine. If I actually made the whole bedspread, which is not likely, I could blow their minds.