Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Choosing the stitch: Rethinking yarn and hook combinations

Bottom line:  The tighter the gauge (within reason), the more the focus is about the stitch texture.  The looser the gauge (within reason), the more the focus is about the fabric texture.

Note:  I say 'within reason' for both because there is such a thing as stitching so tightly or so loosely that the resulting fabric is just silly.  It may have an artistic or other purpose, and it may be fun, so it may be worth making.  But that might be a different discussion.  Back to topic:

Crochet is usually about the stitches, about stitch textures.  There's lacy stuff, with holes between stitches.  There's three dimensional stuff, with posts and popcorn and other raised stitches.  There's color work, too, seeing how different colors interact in the fabric.  But it's all really about the stitches and about how fun it is to make the stitches.

Threadwork, especially, has traditionally been all about the stitches, but most afghans are about the stitch texture, too.  The fabric draws attention to itself, which is great for making an accent piece to accessorize a room or an outfit.

A fabric that draws attention to itself is great for special occasions, but mine is a quieter lifestyle and I often prefer a more subdued fabric for most of what I make, not just accessories. That's when I remember there is another perspective:  the fabric.
Crisp gauge: #10 cotton, size 7 steel hook
14 rounds, 7 inches square

As an example of the first idea, here's a sample motif I like to doodle from time to time:

It's a combination of granny square and pineapple motif ideas, with a hint of filet crochet added at the end, so there are lacy and solid bits (no 3D bits for this discussion).  In order for this piece to look traditionally nice, I want to use a firm gauge -- a small hook with the small thread -- so the stitch texture is crisp and well defined.

Sometimes, I like the look of that texture, but I want it to be bigger and make up faster, so I go to a bigger hook:
Loose gauge:  #10 cotton, 00 (3.5mm) steel hook
14 rounds, 11 inches square

Problem with just bumping up the hook size, making a looser gauge, is that the fabric ends up not nearly as crisp.  It can look almost sloppy.  But it is still drawing attention to itself, because that is what stitch texture is all about.  If the gauge gets too loose, the fabric ends up looking sloppy and confusing, and the stitch texture gets lost.

This is where a different approach to choosing the stitch comes in.  I like to do my random stitch.  It makes a fabric that isn't about how the stitches work together to make a design.  When I work it at a firm gauge, the fabric is very solid.   Great for making tree bark, which is where it started.  (I didn't make a sample of that for here.)  But when I loosen it up -- a lot -- it takes on a whole new personality, and I really like it.

#10 cotton, 00 (3.5 mm) steel hook - solid fabric,
maybe a bit too solid. 9 inch diameter/16 rounds
With the more traditional thread bits, I used #10 cotton thread and a size 7 steel hook (for the first one) and a size 3.5mm hook (like a size 00 steel) for the looser one.  Then, switching pattern stitches, the tighter sample is made using the same #10 thread with the 00/ 3.5mm hook - and it's a bit too solid.

Then I switched to a gargantuan 5mm (huge!!!) hook in random stitch, and suddenly the fabric is all about the fabric -- it's not about the stitch at all.

#10 cotton, size 5mm hook - lacy, soft drape
11 inch diameter/12 rounds

In the context of the shawl (in the photo below), over the large scale of the whole fabric, a pattern does show up -- this shawl was made from a 100-gram hank of lace weight merino (about 1200 yards), worked with a 4mm hook (again, huge!!), but it's not about how the individual stitches interact at the stitch level.  It's about the fabric.

This is a great way to get a grown-up fabric. And the stitch doesn't have to be this complicated.  Even something fairly simple, like (sc1, ch1) where you sc into the sc of the previous row, or into the ch1 space of the previous row (like a net stitch), works up nicely at a loose gauge.  And the chain stitches keep the single crochet stitches from stretching out of shape.

Cobweb weight merino, 4mm hook
The great thing about all this is that, with such a big hook, it works up much more quickly than any stitch-texture-based stitches - totally a win/win!

Santa Cruz Satellite Coral Reef at the Seymour Discovery Center

The official, professional Crochet Coral Reef exhibit, which has been travelling around the world for a few years, has moved on from UCSC.  But the closing of that show marked the opening of our own local satellite project, which opened at the Seymour Marine Discover Center.  Here are some pictures from the opening:

Some figures are more realistic than others.  Some are more fantastical.

Materials included yarn, thread, VCR and cassette tape, plastic bags, and twine.

White bits suggest bleached coral -- looks elegant but is actually not a good sign at all in our oceans.

At a technical level, this was a fun way to explore increases and decreases in crochet and thinking of the medium for three dimensional constructions.  I remember playing like this almost fifty years ago, when I first started stitching.  It is still fun.

The installation is a combination of lots - hundreds - of small bits along with larger pieces, all contributed by UCSC students and community members,

This exuberant display will be at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center through the summer and into the fall.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tangle Meditation

For whatever reason, perfectly good balls of yarn sometimes end up in the thrift store.  Aimless, without context or purpose, they lie, waiting.  They get bounced around.  Even the structure of a label often gets torn off a ball of yarn, so there’s nothing holding it together.  And the more disheveled the yarn gets, the less likely anyone will want it.  And so it goes:  a tangle.

The process of untangling is calm and gentle and quiet.  There are tricks to it:  
  • Recognize single strands of yarn from double strands.  
  • Know the difference between a tangle and a knot.  
  • Never pull hard or use force.  
  • Look for an end, to start rolling a new ball.  
  • Differentiate the different yarns:  one white is slightly thicker or less fuzzy than another – they are different yarns.  
  • Move from yarn to yarn, when a knot is threatening in one place, loosen it up and see if another strand could use more attention for a bit.  
  • Remember:  they aren’t trying to be tangled.

As I coax out the separate balls of yarn, I see different projects for each.  A coaster, a scarf, baby booties, doll clothes, dish cloth, basket or bowl, or an addition to another, bigger project.

Once all the yarns are separated into their own balls, they are ready to start a new journey, to become something that goes out into the world.  And it is good.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Crochet Coral Reef exhibit at MAD in New York - traveling to Santa Cruz

A haul of garbage from the sea.
On a recent trip to New York City, I saw the exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design, which has since closed and is on its way the UC Santa Cruz.  I took pictures of a number of the pieces, some of which are in this post.

At the entrance is a haul of garbage, thankfully cleaned off.

When coral is white,
it has been bleached and is dead.
The bleached pieces are striking, but you have to remember that the white ones represent the dead coral.  It's not a good thing, no matter how elegant it looks.

A number of pieces are wildly colorful, with all kinds of shapes.  A trip to the aquarium reminds me that these pieces aren't that far from reality!

There is a Muppet/Dr. Suess quality to much of the exhibit.
But then, reality is like that, sometimes.

Each case included a plaque with the names of the people
who made the pieces, along with where they came from. 
The show is meticulous in giving credit to the artists/artisans who made the individual pieces.  Each installation can include pieces by many people, from around the world.
Small groups of pieces allow the viewer to focus on the 
techniques used, which include beading, netting, knitting, 
macrame, and mixed media assemblies in addition to the focus
on crochet.

It was calming, too, to see a piece where the elements were all similar, like this one:

I was surprised that there were no souvenirs to buy.  I would have been happy to buy a hook commemorating the exhibit/gallery.  But I guess that just makes me a consumer.  Oh dear.  

Monday, November 7, 2016

Notes about a Ravelry post

A friend pointed me to a question on Ravelry about identifying a pattern stitch, because one response to the question suggested that the pattern stitch was crocheted, rather than knitted.  Here is the link to the post in question, which includes a couple of responses I made.  Here are pictures of the swatch I knitted, along with a picture of the original garment in question:

The original picture, from a gardening magazine
An enlarged picture of the fabric,
with apologies for the resolution

I knitted this swatch (starting at bottom, binding off at top)
to explore what the stitch might have been.

Enlarged picture of the pattern stitch at top of swatch.

Given the difference in resolution between the two pictures of the stitches, I find it easier to see how they are related by squinting a bit.  I do believe they are basically the same stitch.

The stitch I used was a very simple type of brioche:  over an even number of stitches, (knit 1, knit 1 in the stitch below) all the way across.  This is a one-row repeat, so the same row is repeated each row;  For this striping, change yarn every 2nd row.

Monday, October 31, 2016

My imaginary TED talk

You can tell this isn't a real TED talk because there aren't any pictures or videos.  But here goes.  

Do you ever feel binaried out?  Like you spend your days following instructions – and it’s good, in a way, because the instructions work, so everything turns out okay, and you know you’re being efficient.  But you’re not quite sure what you did.  And all those instructions start to nag at you from time to time because you have a vague feeling that you don’t actually understand what you’re doing.

I crochet because I get binaried out a lot.

There is something wonderful in the process of taking readily available materials, using a fairly simple tool, knowing how to use that tool, and turning that material into a finished something that I can send out into the world to be useful, knowing that it will be useful in a quiet, sturdy, rich, individual way that is not exactly like anything else.  

I can do this because I learned crafts as a child, learned from my mother, who practiced crafts, not for fun, but for usefulness.  Starting early, enjoying the process, and keeping it as part of my life, I look at the materials (the yarn), think about needs to be met, and figure out a pleasing way that the yarn can be arranged to meet the need, even if it's only a dishcloth.  This is totally cool.

The process of stitching is rich:  When I’m stitching, I’m not eating.  I’m also generally not shooting my mouth off, being rude to people, not being destructive to myself, to my environment, or to my society. 

The process of stitching is soothing.  It is a physical contemplation.  Some say it is cheaper than therapy, although I haven’t seen scientific studies to compare the two to see how each scores on specific metrics.  And it’s legal.

The process of stitching is an exercise that connects my thinking brain with my small-motor-skills hands, with my environment of materials and needs.  Even further, it connects me with the people who use the things I make.  A world of connectivity.  Again, totally cool.

Much of this can be said for other crafts, so, why crochet?

On the one hand, consider other crafts.  Crafts that have been around for a long time, thousands of years – like weaving, knitting, woodworking, ceramics – all have some things in common.  They started out being incredibly useful for making things that made survival easier, at a reasonable cost.  Then, each became industrialized, reduced to a set of steps.  It is interesting to see how much of these crafts surround us in our everyday lives.  Each also retained a basic level of one-off production, now seen as an artistic medium.  Here is a spectrum of activity, from mass-production to individual artistic expression.  And the two ends of the spectrum feed off each other.  Mass-produced goods keep from getting too cheap because there is the balance that people can still make stuff for themselves.  At the same time, people can look at mass-produced goods and say, “I could do that myself!” and are encouraged to learn the crafts.

Take knitting, for example:  If there were a magic wand that could make disappear everything that was knitted, most of us would not have underwear.  There would be no T-shirts, very little athletic wear.  A lot the fabric in our lives would disappear.  That’s how much a part of our identity knitting is.  Yet, at the same time, knitting guilds celebrate hand-knitting, with members who knit for themselves, for family, for friends, and for charity. 

On the other hand, crochet isn’t quite like that.  Some years ago, Lis Paludan tried to research the presumed ancient roots of crochet and found that apparently crochet has been around only about 200 years, when it may have evolved out of a combination of tambour stitch, a socially acceptable embellishment technique (adding texture to fabric, using a hook), combined with a simple knit-like stitching, called shepherd’s knitting, where people who couldn’t afford knitting needles (poor people, not socially acceptable) made warm fabrics for mittens and other accessories, to keep warm.  She wrote about it in her book, Crochet History and Technique.

The potential of this process, removed from embellishing fabric, to create fabric was wildly popular in the 1800s.  There were suggestions that the servant class should not be allowed to crochet, to prevent them from having thoughts of accomplishment beyond their station.  Husbands complained that their wives were neglecting their household duties because of it.  Crochet could imitate cheaply and quickly intricate forms of lace-making that had been around for centuries, yet in a new way that let the stitcher undo mistakes and rework the fabric easily.  

As a cottage industry, there may have been few barriers to entry:  The lace crochet needle, or hook, was made by modifying a sewing needle and sticking it into a cork for a handle.  The single hook, possibly made from a worn-out sewing needle (cheap to make), took the place of all the fancy equipment of other techniques.

Yarn hooks are bigger, for stitching with yarn, and presented a technical difficulty:  Even though the hook seems simple, it probably took the Industrial Revolution to be able to manufacture them with the strength, consistent sizing, and a finish smooth enough to be useful.

Once crochet developed its own identity, people started trying to imitate weaving and knitting for all kinds of clothing and household fabrics.  Without a long history, though, crochet as a serious craft was, and is, still in its infancy.  We are still exploring what crochet is good for.  Most of the crochet we see is about the stitches – pattern stitches, stitch texture, and how the textures interact with color.  In a world where we can go out and buy anything we need, cheaply and disposably - which has been more and more true over the last 200 years – crochet has been limited to an artistic identity, to be a way to have fun, for the middle class, and also as a therapy (both physical and psychological) for mentally retarded people (that's the phrase we've used) or for soldiers suffering from shell shock, battle fatigue, or PTSD, as we call it now.  The focus has never been particularly on the usefulness of the finished product.

We’re getting close to exploring the craft for what the fabric can do.  Compared to knitting (with which crochet almost shares the most basic elements of yarnovers, pull-throughs, and inserts as the key elements), crochet makes a fabric that is textured and sturdy.  Knitting, in comparison, makes a fabric that is lightweight and elastic.  Put in a negative light, crochet makes a fabric that is thick and heavy, and knitting makes a fabric that is wimpy and thin.  Focusing on the stitches – the textures – and the few materials associated with crochet, there hasn’t been much emphasis on the properties of the fabric and the wider range of possible materials.  

The use of crochet by Margaret and Christine Wertheim in constructing artistic coral reefs is a step in a new direction.  There’s a great TED talk about that from 2009.

Now, with so much of our lives and our work being impacted by big data and the efficiency of not only industry but automation and artificial intelligence, it’s easy to get binaried out.  We have become very efficient at being efficient.  On the one hand, efficiency has been seen as an unalloyed good:  Industrial efficiency over the last hundred years has lifted the human population out of poverty, raised the global standard of living, to a degree never before seen.  On the other hand, there have been costs, both to the environment and to the quality of our lives as workers. Lots of folks are working on the environmental bit, but I want to address the meaningful work bit here. 

The nature of efficiency is to remove the human element from manufacturing or any other process.  This can leave workers in a position where their work is dehumanizing – not meaningful work – and challenges them to search to regain their sense of humanity outside of work -- if they have the time to do that.  For some workers, there is comfort in the idea that the company they work for is doing really good work – but that is the company's, not the worker’s, work.  What is strange is that while marketing sends us on a wild goose chase after happiness, the most efficient way for humans actually to realize that they are happy is by doing meaningful work:  work that resonates, is useful, that involves understanding the methodology – the opposite of following instructions - and that is supported/appreciated by the group.

In this process of becoming more efficient through scaling up everything, we have managed to go from a society that asks, “Why spend good money buying something ready-made when you can make it better so easily at home?” to “Why waste your time trying to make something when you don’t know how and you can buy it so easily at the store?”  We’ve gone from being problem-solver members of groups to being consumer individuals.  And money - a man-made construct that does not exist in nature - is essentially the only socially acceptable problem-solving methodology, in addition to being a significant indicator of social status.

Granted, anything useful you can make in crochet, you can go out and buy, ready-made, efficiently produced, most likely from someplace outside the US, for less money, most likely by some method other than crochet.  So why crochet anything useful? 

Unlike knitting, crochet is not binary – it hasn’t been industrialized.  It is complex at a basic level, with five basic stitches, compared to the one basic stitch in knitting.  There is no crochet machine.  Crochet is subversive that way. A human being crocheting is a lot like a 3-D printer making something.  But just because a 3-D printer can make useful stuff, why should I hand over to a machine the most efficient way for me to be happy?  Is the imperative for mass production worth the cost of our humanity?

Crocheting some of the stuff I use every day makes me feel good, empowered – I’m doing my little bit to reduce the impact of mass-production in my life.  And there’s no machine that can replace what I am doing. 

But there's an interesting thing beyond that:  When lots of people do things for themselves, corporations start to notice – they may focus on some our improvements for their products so they can sell more, or at least retain market-share.  When people don’t make the stuff they use, mass-producers can increase their own efficiency and reduce costs by simplifying what they make – which can make their products less useful for us.  And if we aren’t making our own stuff, we don’t notice that the stuff we buy isn’t as useful as it could be. 

Notice the effect of the slow-food movement on the food industry.  Mass producers of food figured out that we crave salt, sugar, and fat – all of which are necessary, in small amounts, for survival.  In large amounts, which is profitable for mass-production, these same ingredients are linked to obesity, cancer, and heart disease.  As people realize how easy it is to grow and cook – and to understand how to grow and cook – nutritious food, mass-producers of food are now starting to make their own products more nutritious. 

And to top all this off, when children learn problem-solving methodologies (through play, not just through following instructions) in the family (the natural basic unit of society), they take into adulthood the empowering understanding that there is probably a way to deal with other problems and needs they face in life.  They understand to look for ways, rather than simply to hire someone else to do it for them. 

Now, I can’t make all the stuff I need.  But there’s a balance between mass production and individual production.  If we all each spend some of our time making some things that are useful - even if it is something as small and simple as a dishcloth - together we keep that lively balance going to make life better for everyone, with the side effect of being happy.

Thank you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Coral Reef Crochet

start of a coral
A few days ago, I went to some presentations put on by UCSC's Institute of the Arts and Sciences about the Coral Reef Crochet project.  Margaret Wertheim visited UCSC to introduce the concept.  Her talk was similar to her TED talk from 2009.  A current version of their reef is on display at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in New York City, and it will travel to UCSC in the spring.  The invitation went out for people to come together to make our own local reef, to go on display at about the same time.

Art students taking a class in 3-dimensional construction came to the talks -- they can get class credit for what they produce.  I worked with several small groups, getting them started with chain stitch and single crochet.

Regular crochet circles, to work on this project, will meet weekly at UCSC and monthly at the Seymour Marine Center.  I plan to attend as much as I can and make my own contributions to this bigger project.

This program was sponsored by the Institute of the Arts and Sciences, a fairly new venture at UCSC.  I met the founding director, John Weber, who also tried his hand at the craft.  Margaret Wertheim and her sister started the Institute For Figuring (IFF) in Los Angeles, where they promote the exploration of all kinds of intellectual stuff in non-traditional ways - a play tank, if you will, as opposed to the more traditional think tank.