Wednesday, April 28, 2021

I Now Wield A Hook (and a new level of insanity)

This winter has driven me to madness. Or maybe it's the beleaguered education situation that's left the schools in our district in their sixth learning model since the start of the pandemic. The poor kids, not to mention the teachers, don't know if they're coming or going some days. Or maybe I'm missing family in Singapore, a world away in more ways than one, at least until the quarantines are lifted for travel. My friend and ex-colleague died last month, which made me sad on many complex levels. I've been dreaming about my Dad - he appears on each occasion in one of his many-colored polo tees and makes me wonder if I'm subconsciously collecting a literal rainbow of hypothetical memories. And I'm working through what it means to be Asian and once-ferocious in my home country but not really now that I'm here where the rules are different.

It isn't because of what's been happening in the news, although that has stirred new interest, certainly. Losing Dad and Auntie Laura creates ripples and echoes, is all. Grief does that, I'm told. I have more stories to share about that sometime soon. With the world increasingly hospitable to the more communal aspects of loss, people I know are planning memorial services and finding (or at least moving toward) closure. And I am remembering things about my own surreal season of early grief: the emergency funeral, the dream-esque interactions with people, the almost mystical way in which nature intervened to comfort us, trailing its living fingers ever so faintly across the heart of a reeling family. 

It's not been all gloom, though. Remembering can be - and has been - beautiful and healing. 

This winter, though. A rollercoaster of all the ways a person's body can hold on to the tension of the past year. That's not to say that previous winters were parties. The winters of Minnesota have always been one scant uffda shy of a mental breakdown. We'd always found ways to cope: calories, jigsaw puzzles, home reorganization, fantasizing about garage-saleing away all our junk, trekking through snow in subzero weather in the name of enjoying nature simply because the sun peeked out for ten minutes - you know, stoic denial in all its creative forms. After all, Minnesotans are nothing if not creative with their resources. This winter, however, stretched that creativity and those resources, let's just say. I bought a grow light for my depressed houseplants and a hulking cat tree for Milo and Maisy so they'd stop being passive-aggressive with our furniture. I also swam obsessively. Not necessarily skillfully, mind you - just obsessively. In January, at the apex of my winter ennui, I bought a box of 100 postcards and started writing to people just so I'd remember to be thankful they were in my life. And I made myself take walks - not the casual Vitamin D strolls around the block, but the sort that involved hours of militant marching so as to burn off enough cortisol and adrenaline to let me sleep at nights without a racing heart and a mind on overdrive. 

I share this not to be a downer, but to be honest. Winter is hard for many, many people for any number of reasons. It's hard for me because I used to live on a tropical island, and the sound and smell of the ocean and the feel of sun on my skin are home to me in ways that crisp air in a crystalline birch forest, no matter how beautiful and invigorating, can never be. 

So, in February, when my friend Karin offered to teach me and another friend to crochet, I said hurrah, because the literature all purport that learning a new thing is good for loss (and general crabbiness). Plus, there is something wonderful about being in the learner's seat - a true, from-scratch beginner, I mean. You're a blank slate upon which to learn new habits without any old ones to unlearn. You're uninhibited with questions, even ones you fear might sound moronic. You're keen and optimistic and nonjudgemental. You're heady from the novelty and agog with the anticipation of What Could Be. What a rush learning is. 

I've been writing sewing patterns and teaching sewing and other things in various capacities for so long that I often forget what it's truly like to learn something from the very, very beginning. When I was a classroom teacher, my approach was always to first find out how much a learner already knew, so I could take them from where they were to where they needed to go. I've tried to do that in all my instructional sewing blog posts, but over time it's easy to forget how much folks may not even know that they don't know. 

So in addition to being a brand new learner, learning to crochet this winter took me back to when I was a more careful teacher. Even while I was learning, I was re-evaluating that learning process in light of all the sewing information I've been putting forth here on ikatbag. How much of it might have gone right over people's heads, for instance, because I'd not thought to bridge gaps between where they actually were on their sewing journey and what I was so giddy-happy to introduce them to. Or how different it was to learn sewing in the age of technology (when everything's freely available online, sometimes overwhelmingly so) than back when I learned it under the discerning curation of a family member.

One of the first things Karin asked me was what I wanted to learn to make. That's an excellent question, but it threw me because I'm typically motivated to just learn the skill itself. Certainly, everyone picks up the techniques that build a particular skill in increasing order of complexity, and one of the most organic ways to accomplish this is by working on a specific project that utilizes those techniques. For as long as I could remember, however, I'd ask my parents (or any adult), "Teach me to sew" or "Teach me to work with wood" or "I want to learn to cook". I hardly ever recall saying, "I want to learn how to bake chocolate chip cookies" or "I want to learn how to sew a pair of overalls". Projects were seldom the starting point - I'd always thought that if I could learn the skill, along with the its foundational secrets, I'd be able to ultimately make any number of projects in the future. I realize that this approach puts the onus on the teacher to devise a curriculum that methodically transfers their skill to the learner, and not all teachers teach that way. Regardless, I am happy to report that in spite of my unhelpful response to her question, Karin systematically began at the very beginning, worked through basic stitches on little sample swatches, and knew exactly how to get me and our other friend feeling confident and informed yet not swamped. Over the next few days and weeks as I practised on my own, I took photos to document my learning process. 

If I remember right, this was my first sample. Karin started a couple rows of single crochet (UK: double) and let me continue - you can tell where her good stitches ended and where mine took over, like locusts devouring a landscape. So funny. I pulled everything super tight and ended my rows in random places. This must be what is known as "dropping stitches". Although given that I didn't even count how many I started with, I don't know if I dropped stitches as much as simply believed they didn't exist.

This one was supposed to be double crochet (or triple crochet for friends across the pond). Again, Karin started the foundation row and let me run with the rest of it. Check out how I overcompensated for the last sample by now adding more stitches as I felt like it. "I'm working on the tension," I rationalized, "therefore the actual number of stitches isn't the point." Isn't it gloriously liberating to flout the rules? I felt such a kinship in that moment to sewing folks who say, "I don't care if my stitches are wonky and my SA wobbles from 3/4" to 1/8" throughout the seam and the print is totally upside down as long as I can use this tote bag for library books when I'm done."

Also: how refreshing that crochet is as neurotic as sewing in its multiple languages. I used to be frustrated with having to translate all the UK terminology in my head into American sewing lingo, but behold! The crochet world does it, too! Apparently, it isn't the sewing (or crochet) itself - it's the people trying to describe it who are bonkers. 

Now, this weird swatch. I think it happened when I decided to express my independence by starting my own sample. So overachieving, I know. "Eclectic gauge" might be an accurate way to describe it. I think mental health professionals should employ crochet samples as indicators of stability - or the lack thereof. This sample would "hint at elevated levels of cortisol in the bloodstream." 

Here's another attempt at tension-management. Yarn-tension, I mean. Not mental-tension. Although it could've been that, too. My diagnosis: still hysterical.

Here's where the story goes off the rails, so brace yourselves, people. There I was, studiously crocheting away, when I suddenly and desperately decided that I needed a yarn-dispensing system. A bag, preferably circular, with a tiny hole or something, and no zippers for snagging the yarn, would be ideal, I felt. Thus inspired, I abandoned the sadly misshapen swatch I'd been working on and started sketching a Yarn Dispensing Bag. Then I became convinced that I couldn't possibly be the only person in the cosmos who had use for such a yarn-dispensing wonder, so I Googled it to see what other people had been using.

Very dangerous, the internet. First, it produced all the wrong kinds of bags in the search results. Multi-purpose all-in-ones, the websites called them. True, they dispensed yarn, but also hooks, needles, patterns, WIPs and the kitchen sink, they were so enormous. 

Next, the internet generously suggested DIY versions made from soda bottles and ice cream tubs with holes drilled into them. All well and good, but what if a person wanted to switch projects (and yarn balls) without cutting the working yarn strand? One would probably need a soda bottle for each ball of yarn in one's stash, unless one planned ahead or were a one-WIP-at-a-time kind of craftist. Which, if my sewing history is any indication, I have no hope of ever being.

Finally, and most dangerous of all, the internet helpfully recommended Other Things I Might Like Based On My Browsing History. And I found these round bins. Which of course I had to make, because, well, they were round. 

Never mind if they had nothing to do with crochet or yarn-dispensing, 

and ended up being receptacles for my sewing paraphernalia instead.

Then, because round things must always be mass-produced and shared with the rest of mankind on account of their supremeness, I knew I had to make a couple more for Karin and the other friend who'd been learning to crochet alongside me. 

But first I had to draft the pattern. And to do that, I had to first decide on the dimensions. 

Which meant that, in order to justify making these bins while in the middle of a search for crochet stuff, I'd better at least pretend they might hold a yarn ball, however impractical or improbable.

Which meant that I had to exhume my yarn collection and roll them all into balls, so as to have a range of sizes to accommodate in my draft. Now, one of the advantages of NOT having been a crocheter or knitter previously is not owning an actual stash. My modest (and thus space-saving) yarn collection is limited to shades of brown (for doll hair) or truly random colors the kids bought for craft projects involving the glue gun or plastic canvas. One of the disadvantages of not working with yarn much, unfortunately, was being disinclined to organize what little I did have. Much detangling was necessary before I could proceed, it turned out. 

When I finally got to rolling the yarn into balls, though!

That, I thought, was the absolute best part of the whole crocheting affair. Rolling yarn balls was therapeutic and mindful and relaxing and gratuitous like I wouldn't have believed. And I found an old pair of hose and cut it into tube segments to make these sleeves. Which turned each yarn ball into a self-contained yarn dispenser. Which, you know, brought my quest for a yarn-dispensing thingamabob full circle. Literally. 

If that's not a Give A Mouse A Cookie story, I don't know what is. 

So, finally, having solved the yarn-dispensing dilemma, I was able to resume crocheting again. And those multihued yarn balls inspired me to want to learn to switch colors mid-project. So pulled up a Youtube video and voila! Not hard. (Remembering stitch count, though, still was, bah.) 

Later, I collected all my dismally amusing samples and surveyed them. How sad but earnest they looked! And how incredibly mind-blowing that I'd made fabric. Fabric! How fascinating to make something I'd only ever hacked apart before, you know, so that I could sew the disparate pieces together and call it a bag, or a skirt, or whatever. Crochet = reverse-sewing! And that wasn't the only difference: where sewing was all finaloutcome! 3D visualization! floorthepedal!, crochet was small-picturey, in-the-moment, and all about each.single.tiny.stitch. Total paradigm shift.

So that's where I've been, friends. Making fabric from scratch, as it were. 

Currently, I'm making washcloths to practise my stitches. Not unlike beginner seamstresses making face masks or tote bags or burp cloths. These are a tad psychedelic, because that's all the cotton yarn I happened to have on hand.

And then I thought I'd make a washcloth for each new stitch I was trying out. 

The internet informs me that this one's called the royal ridge stitch, not to be confused with the front loop thingystitch. Behold the funky right edge where I ran out of yarn and had to graft on other colors.

I'm working on this fancy thing called a cluster stitch now. I am beyond thrilled that it's somewhat rectangular rather than trapezoidal or hourglass-shaped. I ran out of yarn (again) so had to pause (again), this time to go shopping. Came home with 8 skeins, none of which were this yellow color I needed. A bit exasperated with myself - do I really need another hobby that involves hoarding and impulse buying? 

Whatever. Point is, until I brought home this new haul today, my "stash" fit comfortably in ye olde lunch bucket. Now, I'll have to find it a new home. Maybe I do need one of those ginormous multi-purpose crochet bags after all. Incidentally,  this was the very first lunch bucket I made - it must've been about three decades ago - which inspired my modern line of ready-to-ship lunch buckets and the sewing pattern


I'm doing well now, in spite of how manic I sounded at the start of this post. The promise of approaching spring (and summer, and outdoor swimming) has helped. The kids' happy faces now that they're back in school makes my mama heart sing. And crochet has been great, regardless of how entry-level I feel at the moment. Actually, especially because of how entry-level I feel. There's something exhilarating in knowing there's a multitude of Youtube videos and an ostensibly infinite directory of crochet stitches to discover. I have grand plans to learn to crochet in rounds next (because circles are superior) and eventually make blankets or something larger than dishcloths. I don't imagine I'll venture into sweaters anytime soon. Mainly because I can't for the life of me decipher the code that is crochet patterns. But also because I'm so finicky about the fit of anything I sew to wear; fabric and seaming are fiddly enough without adding gauge and whatnot to the mix. That's not to say I won't change my mind later when I'm onto my 1000th washcloth and bored into a coma - for now, though, crochet is what calms me when I need my mind to be on autopilot after a day of precision sewing and navigating life. 

Speaking of sewing, I'm working on a new pattern which I'll share soon, hopefully in time for spring. I'm excited about that, because it's made me feel uncommonly productive, which is especially nice after a season of loss and recalibrating myself. I've missed you guys. I hope winter's been kind to you. If not, hang in there, and breathe. Know that you're not alone, and certainly not the only one tearing your hair out (or hiding in the car hyperventilating). We've lived through a record-breaking freak of a year, and somehow come out on the other side with some of our sanity intact, and - on some wondrous days - with grace to spare, even. If that's not a miracle, I don't know what is. 

By the way, I know that many of you crochet, too, and if you have any tips for a newbie, or simple projects and useful websites to recommend, please do! Thank you in advance!