Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Friday, 23 December 2011

Walk Away: On Becoming a Selfish Knitter

You've likely been there.  I know I have, numerous times.  You plan, you plot, you choose the perfect yarn (or spin it yourself), the perfect item for that special someone.  You craft with love and attention and all the skill you can muster.  With joyful anticipation, you give your special gift, only to run headlong into The Ungrateful Recipient.

The Ungrateful Recipient manifests in many ways.  She or he may greet your offering with a "What is it?"  They may trump your gift by buying a similar item (extra points if they buy the item they've requested you make or tell you that you could have saved time and trouble doing so).  They may feign enthusiasm or wear your lovely hat, etc. while complaining that it's the wrong colour, wrong size, or that-a classic-it itches.  They tell you that they will "save the item for good." Perhaps you receive a warm thank you and the gift is stored away, never to be seen again.

However the UR behaves, her reactions or the lack of them hurt.  When expectations aren't met, the results may be sorrow, guilt or anger.  I've seen gifts used as weapons, thrown back in the face of the giver as a sign that whatever she does, it will never be good enough.  Clearly, the intention of a gift, something given freely with love, is lost here. When there is so much emphasis on finding the "perfect" gift, when relentless advertising campaigns spread false cheer and proclamations on what to buy, to give and how your holidays will go, it's easy to link our egos with expectations.

It took me a while to learn this lesson, but I've discovered that you can't make other people behave.  You may want your UR to react differently, but he did not and there it is.  The only things within your control are your reaction and your behaviour. In the spirit of the season, and with some thought to next year, I offer some suggestions for taking our Selves out of holiday giving:

  1. Don't set an agenda.  If Aunt Clara is a die hard fan of synthetic yarns or scorns knitting all together, don't think to change her mind by knitting her a hand spun silk scarf.  Odds are, she'll complain about having to dry clean it and will refuse to believe that silk can be washed.  Trust me, you will not gain another knitting enthusiast.
  2. Give 'em what they want. Uncle Buck has spent the past year dropping hints that he needs a camouflage gun cover from Big Box Store X; he won't be thrilled if you've made a hand sewn cover in hot pink.  If you love him and you want to get him that something special, get him the gun cover.  If your conscience doesn't allow that, buy him a box of chocolates.
  3. Practice Random Acts of Knitting.  If you can leave gifts for strangers, no strings attached, you can learn to do this for family and friends.  Tastes vary and despite your best efforts, sometimes, you miss the mark. Hand over the gift and let it go.  Your work is done with the making of the gift.
  4. Don't turn your gift into a weapon.  We sometimes use our work to demonstrate our value to others.  If you suspect that your hand crafted gift is an attempt to play "I Love You More," to guilt the UR into gratitude, your efforts are bound to fail.  The result will be hurt feelings all around and a wasted "gift."
  5. Finally, Just Say "No."  That's right-if a first attempt at giving the hand crafted gift has met with failure, then don't do it again.  Don't waste time and energy repeating a mistake.  Learn to be a Selfish Knitter, in the best possible sense of the term.  Save your efforts for those who appreciate them-including yourself.   
Are you sensing a theme here?  When we learn to give something freely, with our best efforts and intentions, but with no expectations, with non-attachment, we change the game.  With practice, we can remove ourselves from the negative emotions that others send us when they don't appreciate what we've done.  What we're left with is love.

Like any mindful practice, giving with non-attached freedom is simple, but not easy.  We're human and the sting of rejection may never go away completely. (Decades later, it still hurts when I think of my handwoven bag showing up on the arm of a stranger, who had rescued it from the local thrift shop.  On the plus side, I no longer remember the original recipient, although I do recall the pleasure I took in weaving that bag.)  When we practice Selfish Knitting, which in this case is really Selfless Knitting, we learn to accept and maybe, just maybe, appreciate the lessons provided by our Ungrateful Recipient.  (May you have only one!)

And if you are the Ungrateful Recipient, I have two words for you: Thank You.  Yes, that's a hint. 

Namaste and Happy Holidays.  Love to all my family and friends.  I wish you all the best.

I've given myself the gift of learning to crochet!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Few of My Favourite Things and Welcoming the Winter Solstice

Tonight is the beginning of the winter solstice.  (The times vary, depending upon your location and point of view, but for various reasons, I'll mark the start of solstice late, late this evening.)  Bodhi Tree Yoga is celebrating its arrival by doing 108 cycles of sun/solstice salutations.   I will be there in spirit.  12 salutations would have me collapsed on the floor; I shudder to think what attempting 108 would do.  I will make an effort to do them, at home, in my mind.

I hope to be curled up on the couch with my knitting and spinning, a glass of wine in hand, visiting with young Mr. DD, who is scheduled to arrive by bus this morning. Young Ms. DD's flight is due in on Christmas Eve.  Once she is here, our celebrations will be in full swing.

In solstice spirit, I offer a very short list of what makes my life perfect as it is.  There are many more, but these are what make me grateful that I'm still on the planet:
  • Mr. DD and the younger DD's, plus Morris and Mickey.  They rock my world, although not in equal measure, of course!
  • Mr.  DD's brother, who in addition to being a great friend, is also a fantastic comrade knitter.
  • Bodhi Tree Yoga and all the teachers there.  This studio not only provides a wide range of yoga and meditation classes, its owners and instructors spend much of their free time volunteering in the studio and around the community.
  • Every spinner, knitter, fibre person I have met.  These people build the community I've explored for decades.
  • This planet and all the wonders in it.
And, as a countermeasure to all the syrupy festive songs which are assaulting my ears these days, I offer up my favourite holiday song of all.  I love it for its raw emotion and its honesty and the wee, wee glimmer of hope I hear in its despair:


Monday, 19 December 2011

Good Times and the Candy Wrap

Golden Willow held its holiday drop in on Saturday.  Our regulars brought treats and we knitted, spun, crocheted, visited, laughed and had a great time all day long.  (One person shed a tear or two over problems with her shawl, but we sorted that.)  We covered the gamut from recipe swapping, charkha spinning, sock knitting, to the best exercises for relieving finger cramps acquired, rather ironically, from knitting gloves.  The day reminded me why I value my community of fibre people and how important their energy is to me. When we come together with shared interests and generous spirit, the world becomes a better place.

Many people remarked on the poncho/wrap/shawl kinda thing I was wearing that day, knitted from a bulky Louet boucle yarn I dyed a few years back.  I had only one 225 gram skein of the yarn and it was discontinued a while ago.  I wanted to knit something simple, but useful, limited to that amount of yarn.  I needed a wrap to ward off a chill, a piece that was easy to pull on and off and that would leave my arms free for knitting or spinning.

What I came up with is so complex, so inventive, that I hesitate to publish the pattern here, lest you perish in awe.  It was-wait for it-a garter stitch rectangle, shaped at one end, with buttons added, so that I can vary the look of the wrap.  I knit the wrap loosely, which eliminates the need for planning buttonholes.  Depending upon how you button the piece, you have a poncho with the point in front, a wrap with armholes, a simple scarf or. . .whatever you can come up with as a way to wear the thing.

Off the body, this wrap doesn't impress.  (See the photograph with the wrap opened.)  Put it on, and the fabric drapes to suit almost any body. 

So, here it is, my Candy Wrap, named after Candace, who was running around the store on Saturday, looking for ideas for yarn to use for this wrap and who demonstrated her own special baby wrap with Alex, one of our favourite GW babies.

Candy Wrap

The wrap can be worn many ways.  I usually wear it with the buttons running up my arm.

200 to 250 grams  of a bulky boucle yarn or any other bulky yarn to give approximate gauge of 2 sts per inch.  My yarn measured about 200 metres per skein.  (Please note that the Louet Diana yarn yardage on the Yarndex site is listed as 185 metres per 50 gram skein.  My wrap weighs  215 grams with 3 large buttons and I am certain that this wrap did not require 740 metres of yarn.  40 metres per 50 grams would be more likely. I have long since lost the label for this yarn, but this yardage seems more accurate.) 

1-60 cm/24 inch 10 mm circular needle or size required to give gauge.

3 large buttons.

Finished Size: 45 cm x 140 cm/18 inches x 55 inches

You don't have to shape the end, but it gives the wrap more versatility.  Note the offset button.


Cast on 36 stitches loosely.

Knit in garter stitch rows for approximately 120 cm/48 inches.

Begin decreases:  Decrease 1 stitch each edge on every right side row:  K1, SSK (slip one stitch as if to knit, slip next stitch as if to knit, place tip of left hand needle into front of both slipped stitches and knit these two stitches together), knit across to last 3 stitches, K2tog, K1.

WS Rows:  Knit.

Continue decreases on every right side row until you have 14 stitches remaining.  Bind off loosely.  Wash and block the piece.  Allow it to dry completely before adding the buttons.

Sew 3 buttons at regular intervals along the bottom edge of the long edge of rectangle, i.e., the edge without the shaping.  (See the photograph.)  I recommend experimenting with button placement.  Sew your buttons in place temporarily and button them through the wrap in various ways to determine the best effect, before securing them. Notice that one of my buttons is inset a few centimetres.  I did this in order to make my wrap hang evenly when it was done up. 

Because of the loose knit and the strength of the mohair, you do not have to plan buttonholes for this wrap.  Simply loop the button through a hole in the knitting and you're good to go.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Inside: On the Value of Retreat

I have a friend who goes on retreat every year, between December 20 and January.  She cleans the house, stocks the fridge and pantry and organizes her outside workload.  Then, at the dawn of the Winter Solstice, she unplugs her computer and her television, turns off her phone and stays inside.  From the Solstice to the New Year, K remains alone, in silence, interacting only with her thoughts, in an effort to reconnect with her self.  (Yes, the cat gets fed.)

In this winter season, we get caught up in the frenzy of cooking, cleaning, shopping, knitting and social activities. Many of us find ourselves drained of energy and patience.  Rather than enjoying all the action, I notice that I'm becoming more short-tempered, frustrated and, well, just downright touchy over matters that really aren't that important.  Breath work, asanas and meditation aren't enough to keep me balanced.  And so, I retreat.

We may not be able to lock ourselves away for a week or two, but when you're overwhelmed by the energy around you, take a few moments to move inwards and cherish yourself.  Head to your fibre room, your meditation space, close the door and sit for a while.  Put aside that holiday knitting for a few hours.  Knit, spin, weave or engage in fibre work solely for your own enjoyment.

Most importantly, stop talking.   We tell ourselves that words explain, communicate and heal, but sometimes, especially when we are stressed, we use words as weapons or as a means to fill space.  We are incapable of listening, of hearing what others tell us or the messages of our inner voices.

This month, consider giving yourself what may be the most precious gift, the gift of silence.  A few moments, hours, a day or two may be all you need to focus your scattered energy, and appreciate the wonders around you.

File:Om hindu.jpg
"OM" from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Rise Up Part Two: Twist, Don't Shout

Knitters, spinners and others spend a lot of time sitting, often hunched over our work, with our shoulders rounded and our spines slumped.  If we work to counterbalance our habits, we may find that we can work more comfortably, avoiding stress and strain.

I've talked about the spine before and how important it is to keep our spines flexible and healthy. As we grow older, our spines become less fluid, more prone to injury, including osteoporosis, disc problems and general aches and pain. Doing mindful, slow twists can help strengthen our spine, helping us to prevent trouble and to heal existing difficulties. 

Twists help in spinal disc lubrication.  They increase lymphatic flow throughout the body and improve the vascular system, dispersing oxygen, lymph and blood to keep us healthy and helping us to move toxins out of our systems. Gentle twists relieve the stress and strain of slouching over our knitting and keep us alert during those long sessions working with our needles and spindles.

There are many, many ways to practice spinal twists.  Their safety and benefits rely on learning them with a skilled practitioner who understands that each body is different.  Along with that, remember that you are responsible for your own body, so know your limits, avoid competition, and work slowly, in small increments.  As always, consult your health practitioners before beginning a new practice.  Twists are contraindicated for some people; it's better to discover that before you begin twisting.

Because twists are so individualized, I won't provide instructions for specific twists here, but there are things that spinners, knitters and other fibre workers should keep in mind when they begin spinal twists.

Sit on the floor in a comfortable supported position with a long spine.  You can also sit straight in a chair.  Your legs should be parallel to the floor, with your feet planted under your knees at a 90 degree angle.  If your feet don't touch the floor comfortably, place a yoga block or other support under your feet.  Twists can also be practised while you are lying on the floor.  In all cases, find tadasana before you begin.

Always begin a twist by extending the spine before you start the twist.  Think of extending the spine up on an in breath, moving into the twist as you exhale.  Begin the twist at the belly and move up through the lower ribs, chest, shoulders and, finally, your head.  With each new movement, breathe in and extend the spine, moving slowly and mindfully on the out breath.  Begin the twist by moving to one side and then complete the same cycle twisting to the other side. 

Do not push through a twist.  My teachers describe trunk twists as "wringing out the dish cloth;" the benefits come from slow, thorough movements, not through over extension.  If you feel any pinching or discomfort, Stop and ease back to your comfort zone.  Feeling a stretch is desirable; feeling pain is not.  Remember that doing twists with modifications will be beneficial.  That includes working prone on the floor or doing the practice only in your mind.

When you're feeling tired and small after a long day, try two or three mindful twists in each direction.  Your body and mind will thank you.

File:Yarn twist S-Left Z-Right.png
Twist Direction in Yarn from Wikimedia Commons Images

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Rise Up: Ya Needa Break!

My stack of Finished Objects is building slowly.  The things I've made are simple-crocheted hats, scarves, socks, nothing fancy-but they're made with the recipients' tastes in mind and constructed with all good thoughts and love. 

Any one who does craft work tends to push things, especially when facing deadlines.  We can sit for hours, spinning, knitting, crocheting or sewing, forgetting to take regular breaks or refusing to stretch our bodies while we finish "just one more row."  Neglecting our own needs can cause sore muscles, headaches, and crankiness.

Athletes know to prepare and stretch for a marathon and we should, too.  Stretching and flexing before, during and after a session of fibre work will keep us flexible, help us relax and steady our tension, both in our bodies and our knitting.  Slow, simple movements may help in preventing repetitive stress injuries. Improving lymphatic flow moves toxins out of our systems, bringing more energy to our bodies.

There are a few movements I practice daily, before I spin, knit or crochet or at the start a meditation/yoga practice.  I pay attention to my state of mind and my breath, moving slowly through each one.  Each movement is designed to bring mindful awareness to the body.  The movements are beneficial to anyone who works with her hands. I present a few of them to you here.

While the suggestions below should be safe for most people, I am not a health practitioner.  Please consult with your doctor or therapist before starting any new exercise regimen.  Remember that you know your body best-stay in "the pain-free zone."

Sit in a comfortable, supported upright position, with your head, neck and shoulders extending upright, but relaxed.  You can also stand in tadasana.

1. Begin at your head and neck.  Slowly, carefully, with full attention, relax your shoulders, gently rolling them back to move your shoulder blades down your back.  Bring attention to your breath.  You are not trying to change your breath; just be aware of its rhythm.  On an in breath, lower your right ear to your right shoulder, as best you can.  (Don't move your shoulder up to your ear and don't push things.  This is not a contest.)  On your out breath, bring your head back to centre.  Repeat the process for left ear/left shoulder.  Do three or four cycles of these movements.

2.  Do some gentle shoulder shrugs in both directions.  Keep your head, neck and face relaxed as you move your shoulders in small circles.  Don't hunch your shoulders up to your ears.  Move slowly.  If you experience any pinching in your neck, shoulders, back or anywhere, do not do this exercise.

3. Extend your arms in front of you, hands up, palms out, bringing energy into your fingers, your hands, up your arms to your shoulders.  Gently bend and flex your hands at the wrists while keeping energy in your arms.  Repeat these motions several times.  Bend and flex only as far as is comfortable.

4.  Give yourself a gentle hand massage, paying special attention to the pads at the base of your thumbs and the spaces between your fingers.  Intertwine your fingers and stretch your arms out, away from your body, with your palms facing out.  Release your fingers and intertwine them "the way that feels weird," as my teacher says.  (If you usually intertwine your fingers with your right baby finger on top of your left, put your left baby finger on top of your right, etc.)  Repeat the exercise, noticing the changes you feel when you move out of one small habitual practice.

5.  Place your hands in prayer position, elbows bent.  Bring your arms in towards your chest, keeping your back straight and extended upward.  Gently bow your head, keeping your back neck extended.  Feel the stretch in the back of your neck.  Hold this position for a few breaths and then gently raise your head and lower your arms.

As you practice and while you're knitting, etc., take a few deep breaths on occasion.  Full deep breaths help with anxiety, stress reduction and oxygen flow to our bodies and brains, something all of us need, especially at busy times of the year. 

Enjoy your work and the season!


Thursday, 8 December 2011

Just Breathe: Difficult People

Another winter solstice is upon us.  Many people and cultures mark this time as a period of reflection and celebration.  We call it joyous and festive, but sometimes there's not a lot of joy and festivity in the air.

Everyone has difficult people in life. Throw a mix of personalities together and there are bound to be clashes.  People don't share the same values, or understanding of appropriate behaviours.  Some people are simply clueless, stuck in bigotry and racism.  Others are deliberately provocative.  Some days, it's a mad world.

You don't have difficult people in your life?  Good for you.  Now, go look in the mirror.  That face staring back at you is some one's difficult person.

When we're faced with things beyond our control-the long lines at stores, rudeness (never ours, of course)-the simplest thing to do is breathe.  Stand in tadasana, take a deep breath and stay present.  Put aside that list of what needs to be done and focus on what is happening right now, with you. 

When you're on the edge of a disagreement, stop, breathe in tadasana and then speak the truth. 

Being mindful and considerate does not mean ignoring truly bad behaviour.  In one of my favourite sections in Sylvia Fraser's book, The Rope in the Water,  Fraser wonders what she should have done when faced with her driver's sexual advances.  Her advisor recommends smacking the aggressor over the head with an umbrella, with all the loving kindness you can manage.  I love that passage.  I may not have ever whacked someone with an umbrella, but on several occasions, I've fantasized about it.

Before you go bashing about with weapons, try using your breath to help you.  It's always with you, it's much lighter than an umbrella and in most cases, breathing does no one any harm, unless, of course, you've been chewing on garlic bulbs.

Enjoy the moment.  And if I see you in a check out line holding an umbrella (around here, it's more likely to be a hockey stick), I promise to behave.


These stockings were a holiday commission.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Big Fish: a Meditation on Knitting and Life

We watched Tim Burton's Big Fish last night:

It's a story about a young man coming to terms with his dying father, who has framed his life in big events and tall tales.  (If this movie is not Tim Burton's explanation of why he makes the movies he does, then you can knock me over with a Handi Matic.)

One of the themes of the movie is that we become the stories we tell about ourselves. In the end, we return to what we always were. I thought about this and what it might mean in terms of the knitting I do. 

My knitting (and spinning) tends to be colourful, spontaneous and freeform.  I'm a fearless knitter; if I run across a problem, I repeat it until it becomes a pattern or I work my way around it until the problem is solved.  If a project really isn't working, I will abandon it and not look back.  Most of the time, I'm a process person, not a project minder.

Although I have lots of experience and training in fibre arts, my techniques tend to be haphazard, as does my attention to detail.  I'm a whiz at mending socks, but if I had spun the yarn and knit the socks properly in the first place, I wouldn't be doing so much mending.

I'm greedy about yarns and fibres, always wanting to be the first to have new stuff, but I'm working on changing that. As I slowly disappear under a mountain of fibre, I am beginning to understand that having too much of a good thing can hinder one's creativity, not help it.  I've learned to give things away and not look back, but there are many knitted projects and bags of unspun fibres that keep me attached, no matter how unlikely it is that I will use them.

What this says about me and my life is uncertain, but if I end up as a pile of unspun fibre and natural yarns, I'm okay with that, as long as I don't become a tangled mess.

Are there parallels between the way you knit and the habits that make you the person you are and the person you are becoming?

Are the stories you've woven about yourself the way you're actually living your life?

Can you contemplate life as a "non string person?" (Thanks, Mar, for that idea.)

My fibre room in full working mode: I can't think too much about what the state of it says about me!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Georgia on My Mind: Art Yarn Wrap Up and a Quick Knit Scarf

We held the final session of the Art Yarn Spinning class last night.  Everyone brought their yarn and projects, some of which you see here.  Others were too shy/modest to be included, but their work was lovely. (I mean you, Joan.) This is Hilary, who is working on the mittens found in Pluckyfluff's "Intertwined:"

Next up is Sheila, hanging out with us, all the way from Miramichi, New Brunswick.  Sheila recyles old fur coats into wonderful articulated Teddy Bears, one of whom is shown here wearing a hat and scarf from Sheila's yarn:

Jane and Susan are ignoring the camera.  Susan blogged about her yarn here:

Jane hides behind some gorgeous yarns:

Erin made a wonderful garland from her beaded yarn:

Then there is Wendy, who had just finished the beginning spinners' class, bought a wheel and jumped right into art yarn spinning.  Wendy announced that she had purchased a bit of alpaca.  When I say, "a bit of alpaca," I mean that in the way mountaineers speak of Mount Everest as "a bit of a climb."

I had a great time teaching this class, as I do with all my classes.  It's wonderful to hang out with like-minded people, people who understand the wonders of and a passion for string.

I made a few projects as samples for the class.  I knit this scarf from handspun Sweet Georgia fibres, in a merino/silk/bamboo rayon blend, spun and plied to a weight of approximately 5 wpi.  The scarf required 75 metres/100 grams of fibre, spun and plied in a hour.  I knit it in an hour or two.  (There is no pattern for the matching hat.  It's a hybrid, which involved chopping off the ribbing, reknitting and other fixes to make it presentable.)

I share the pattern for the scarf here, although it's so simple that I can hardly call it a pattern, let alone mine.  It's knitted in a Mistake Stitch Rib, balanced so that there is a one row repeat.  It can be knit in any yarn-Noro is a good choice for a commercial yarn-and can be adjusted in multiples of four for width.

Sweet Georgia Scarf

Multiple of 4 plus 2 plus 1 stitch.  (Knit in K2, P2 ribbing, with 2 stitches to balance the pattern and 1 stitch for the mistake.)

8 mm needles, circular or straight.

Gauge:  approximately 3.5 to 3 stitches per inch/ 2.5 cm.

Finished size: 10 cm x 120 cm or 4 inches x 48 inches.

Cast on 15 stitches.

All rows:  *K2, P2* repeat across row, ending in K3.

That's it.  Knit until you are sick of knitting or until you run out of yarn.  Bind off loosely in pattern.  Wash and block the scarf. 

If you have only a little yarn, you can turn this scarf into a cowl.  In all cases, use something soft and pretty.  When others express their amazement at your talent, say, "Thank you."  Do not say a word about how simple this project is to knit. 

Thanks to all class participants.


Sunday, 27 November 2011

Try a Little Tenderness: Compassionate Fibre

My understanding of mindful compassion is that compassion is a deep sympathy for the suffering of others, coupled with the desire to ease that suffering.  Compassion differs from sympathy in that it requires action along with feeling. 

If we see others suffering and do nothing to help them to the best of our ability, we may be sympathetic, but we are not necessarily practising compassion.  Of course, because mindfulness is simple, but difficult to practise, there is always the possibility that doing nothing is the required compassionate act.

Expressing sympathy while acting contrary to our words is hypocrisy.  If, for example, you claim to be sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, yet insist on taking actions which limit housing opportunities for the poor, you are being hypocritical.  (I'm looking at you, city councillors and the mayor of a certain city.)  At best, ignoring your beliefs will make you a shallow person with your hollow words.

So what does any of this have to do with fibre?  We may not be able to change the world, but we can act compassionately, one handmade item at a time.  I've talked about Random Acts of Knitting, still my favourite way to distribute fibre work to people who may need it.  If you've been using fibre arts as meditation practice, give away the things you've made.

The acts of spinning, knitting, etc. can express compassion.  Volunteer to demonstrate fibre practice at a home, a shelter or a school.  If you have more time, teach someone to knit or spin.  Give away some of that fibre stash to a person who may not have the means to build her/his own stash.

Be mindful in your actions; if someone isn't interested in accepting your beautiful scarf or having you demonstrate your craft, don't push the issue.  Don't attach conditions to what you do.  Give freely and quietly, without the expectation of a positive outcome, for you or the recipients.

Never think that your small actions will not make a difference.  You may never know whether that gift of a warm winter hat kept someone safe from the cold, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.  Your few hours spent knitting can save lives, so do the best you can and give from the heart.

We never know what footprints we leave behind.


Thursday, 24 November 2011

My Brain is Hanging Upside Down: Inversions and the Power of Changing It Up

My yoga teacher has spent the past few months turning me upside down.  I mean this literally--I've been hung from ropes, suspended with my head between two chairs and my legs up, and laid out flat on the floor with legs up the wall.  Yesterday, I did a forward bend with my back and head pressed along the wall.  It felt good, looking at the world that way.

Inversions lower your blood pressure, drain stale blood and lymph from your limbs and allow your lower body to take a break from daily wear and tear.  Inversions are helpful in calming anxiety.  They give you a new perspective and can help you break away from habitual ideas.

We all have our habits, fixed ideas of how the world does and should work, how people should behave, how life must go for us.  Habitual ways of living are necessary sometimes, but they often keep us from seeing someone else's perspective, lock us into ruts and are sources of suffering.

We can lock into habits in our fibre work.  This might not be as serious a problem as other fixed views, but insisting on always knitting this way or spinning one default yarn can deprive us of fresh ideas and new perspectives. 

At its worst, habitual practice in fibre work can draw us into The Fibre Wars.  We've all seen those; most of us have participated in at least a skirmish or two:  The best way to knit socks is toe up, short row heel.  Nonsense-socks must be knitted top down, on four needles, with a turned heel.  Two circulars, magic loop, etc., etc. 

Then there's spinning and the battles between those who spin on spindles and those who insist only a wheel will do.  (And that wheel must be Brand X.)  The best yarn is woollen spun 2 ply.  No, it's a 3 ply (not chain plied) worsted.  Art yarn!  Smooth yarn!  U R DOING IT RONG!

All this sounds beyond foolish when you think about it, but when you're caught up in the moment, battles over fibre or anything near and dear to your heart seem like the most important things in the world.

The next time you get caught up in drama and habit, try changing your perspective, if only for a project.  If you're a pieced sweater knitter, knit something in the round.  If you always knit mittens from the cuff, start a pair from the finger tips.  If you're a free form spinner, get out that control card and spin to a standard. 

If you never get caught up in drama (lucky you!), step away from your habits just to experience the changes. 

Give that brain a gentle shake and hang upside down once in a while.  Who knows? You may discover a new favourite way of working, along with a fresh outlook on the world.


(Note: Inversions have great benefits and almost any one can do them, but check with a medical practitioner before attempting inversions or other unfamiliar poses, especially if you have uncontrolled hypertension.)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Respect Yourself: Thoughts on Ahimsa and Fibre

Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word, is translated as "non-violence."  It is also translated as "no harm," a definition which I prefer because it encompasses more action.  (If you witness a violent act, you may not be acting violently, but if you do nothing to intervene, you can be causing harm.)  Whichever definition you choose, ahimsa encourages us to act mindfully in ways that are compassionate, without violence or harm to others.  Those "others" can and do include beings outside the human species and therein lies a problem, especially if you believe that there is some kind of life force in all things.  (I just can't imagine, for example, that a thousand year old tree doesn't hold some kind of awareness beyond its cells and I'm sure those mountains do have tales to tell.)

In order for humans to exist, other things must die.  We require food to nourish us and whether we eat meat or maintain a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, we need other life forces to keep us going. The issues increase in complexity when we consider the materials that go into our clothing and household goods and, in the case of fibre enthusiasts, the products we use for our work and hobbies.

Take silk, for example.  Currently, some people and companies are promoting silk fibres, yarns and products as "Ahimsa Silk," implying that these things can be produced without harm to the silk pupae and the silk moth.  Michael Cook, "Wormspit," explains some of the issues surrounding this fibre and why you may or may not decide to use it.  His site and this article in particular is well worth reading; Cook has devoted much of his life to studying silk through every level of production.  Whether you agree with him or not, Cook makes it clear that our choices in these matters are not simple.

Consider wool and other animal fibres.  The only way to ensure that wool comes from well-treated animals is to know the producers or raise the animals yourself.  You can't expect your local yarn shop to guarantee quality of life for whatever animal that yarn you love came from; a good shop will know its products, but can't be expected to oversee the conduct of each and every supplier.  Many companies are jumping on the organic bandwagon, but since standards for organic production vary from region to region, country to country, you will need to do your own research to ensure that products are made to your satisfaction.  "Organic" doesn't necessarily mean "humanely treated;" you can have one without the other.

A sweater knitted from a Jacob fleece I processed

What about cellulose and bast fibres?  There are naturally coloured, organically grown cottons, but cotton requires huge quantities of water to grow it and working conditions for harvesting and processing may not be the best.  Bast fibres such as bamboo, which is usually processed into viscose rayon, are often promoted as being less harmful to the environment but this claim may not be accurate. Flax and the retting it required for processing into linen was a notorious pollutant for European rivers; dealing with the straw has been a problem for flax producers.  Hemp production is politically charged, making the fibres and hemp textiles expensive and difficult to find.

We can turn to synthetic fibres, but many of those are petroleum based.  Fibres made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles require a lot of energy to transform them into yarns and fabrics. 

The problem grows when we look at dyes.  Natural dyes can require the use of toxic fixatives (mordants) such as copper sulphate, chrome, and tin.  Unless you know your dyer or do the dyeing yourself, you probably won't know what mordants were used in the dyeing process.  In these cases, acid dyes may be the safest, least harmful way to colour your fibres, especially for the home dyer.

"Night Hunter," hand spun and woven from naturally coloured Romney fleeces

So what is a conscientious fibre enthusiast to do?  We can approach our choices with open minds and hearts as we research the fibres and fabrics which appeal to us.  Don't rely on advice from people with a vested interest in promoting a cause, one way or the other.  Talk to producers whenever you can.  Study fibres as best you can-process a raw fleece, spin up some cotton bolls, visit a farm or mill if the opportunity presents itself. 

Buy local.  In my area, there are producers who raise sheep, angora rabbits, alpaca, llama and goats for cashmere.  All the producers I know welcome the opportunity to talk to their customers; many of them are happy to have you visit their farms.

Mickey will give up his fur for my causes, but only when he's in the mood.

Once you've made your choices, know that you have done the best you can with the knowledge available to you, allowing you to act with the least harm you can reasonably manage.  Do not judge others who choose differently than you do.  Behaving with self satisfaction or smugness about your "superior" choices goes against the principles of "ahimsa."

Most of all, take comfort and value the fibres, yarns and textiles you do use and remind yourself of the wonderful choices we have available to us.

Morris approves of spinning.


(Note: Wikipedia is not necessarily the best source for reliable information, but the sources cited here will give you a starting point for your own studies.  There are many good reference books on textile production; detailed internet searches will give you a variety of opinions.  No matter where you do your research, consider the source.)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Makin' It Work: Using Your Art Yarns

At the beginning of this series of articles, I explained that I don't consider my art yarns to be art in themselves. They require craft and care in the making, but my intent is to use them in projects.  If you are happy arranging your yarns artfully in a bowl or basket and leaving it at that, that's fine.  I often do this, but in that case, I'm spinning meditation yarns.  The purpose of spinning meditation yarns is to stay in the moment, without looking to the past or the future.  Depending upon the meditation exercise, I'm not necessarily concerned with form or function when spinning those yarns.

 For everything else I spin, theoretically, the yarns I make will be transformed, for better or worse, into something else.  I'll give you a few tips and ideas for projects in which to incorporate your art yarns.

Silk boucle yarn as trim on a scarf

Consider the weight and texture of your designer yarns.  Many of them will be heavy and many will be very textured.  A little goes a long way here, especially if, like me, you are short and have a small frame.  Tall people look dramatic draped in art yarn projects; I resemble a short, colourful Sasquatch.   You may want to use these yarns in small projects or as trim on a plainer piece.  Do remember that art yarns don't have to be "big."  Many of the yarns discussed in the previous articles can be scaled back to suit specific projects.

Meditation wrap knitted with hand spun Polwarth wrapped and looped with commercial cotton

Detail of meditation wrap

If you decide to make an entire piece from art yarns, keep it simple.  Cables and complex patterns will be lost using these yarns.  Now is the time for garter, seed, and stockinette stitches.  You can balance the weight of a heavy yarn by using large needles or simple yarn over lace patterns.  Remember that crocheted pieces tend to be heavier than comparable knitted pieces, so go up a hook size or two.

Magical things happen when you use art yarn in freeform projects.  Wraps, hangings, blankets, bags-all these and more can become one of a kind designer projects, with a special touch only you can give them.

Freeform scarf with looped respun sari silk yarn

Scarf detail

Designer yarns are perfect for weaving.  They are usually best suited for use as weft yarns because the texture can catch in the heddles, causing abrasion and breakage or poor shedding.  The warp supports the weight of a heavy art yarn, in contrast to knitting or crocheting, where the yarns must support their own weight.

Spend some time working to balance your art yarns when you spin them.  If your yarns are not balanced, as is often the case with coiled yarns, do some testing before you use them in a project.  You may want to sew that coiled yarn onto your scarf, rather than knitting or crocheting it in, which can cause the entire piece to skew and bias.  Heavy yarns such as coils can make fantastic art pieces or funky baskets when you coil the coils.  For more examples, most of them bolder than what I've suggested here, check the Novelty and Art Yarn Spinners group on Ravelry.

Just as you did when spinning these wonderful yarns, allow yourself time to play and find the best use for your designer yarns.  While you're doing that, arrange those yarns artistically in that bowl or basket and put them out to be admired!

Neck piece knitted with sari silk and wool hand spun yarns