Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Long and Winding Road: Looking Forward to the Tapestry of a New Year

Over the years, I've built a lot of superstitions into the coming of a new year. The tree must be taken down, ornaments packed away and the house swept and returned to its natural, messy state before December 31. I allow myself as many sugary treats and wine as I care to consume between December 24 and January 1, but I go back to my usual eating patterns after that. During the week between Christmas and New Year there's a tendency towards idleness, although I prefer to think of it as quiet introspection as I stay tucked inside my warm house. As I sit, sometimes meditating and sometimes just sitting, I plan the ways I would like to start the new year. I gave up on resolutions long ago, but there is one thought which stays with me: "Begin as you mean to leave off." I'm not sure where I first heard this advice. Perhaps I read it or perhaps it was said to me, but wherever it came from, it stuck and since the idea was planted in my head, I've done my best to follow it.

So it was that yesterday found me warping a tapestry loom in preparation for a new weaving. I've done this many, many times - I teach the process, in fact - but with this warp, I managed to make every rookie mistake that could be accomplished. When I plan cartoons, I draw them specifically for tapestry, but this time, I decided to translate a small painting into yarn. I dusted off a loom I haven't used in ages and used a wool warp I haven't worked with before. I didn't expect trouble, but trouble I got. The cartoon was perfect, exactly the way and size I wanted it to be. Too late, I realized that I hadn't allowed for hems (Rookie Error #1). Oh, well - I have woven small pieces without hems before and had always intended to try this on something larger. Apparently, now was the time. Problem solved.

With this loom, the warp is continuous, but it's wound one thread at a time, with each thread sitting side by side, regularly spaced. I don't know what laws of physics were in place yesterday, because it should be difficult to cross warp threads (Rookie Error #2), but cross threads I did. Several, in fact. The fix for that is to unwind to the crossed threads (which are always in the middle of the warp) and rewind the warps. Error #2 corrected.

After two hours of winding on 114 threads, I was ready to tighten the warp and twine across the top and bottom of the warp ends to ensure that each warp is regularly spaced. It was at this point that I discovered Rookie Error #3. This error is the Mother of all Errors and really, should always be considered Error #1, but I didn't notice it until I had taken care of the first two problems. Veteran weavers will laugh now: I didn't check the level of the loom. That's right; despite the fact that there are marks cut into the wood of the adjustable bar at the top of the loom, in spite of the other fact that I own several levels of various sizes, most of which are right beside my weaving table, I failed to notice that the top loom bar was crooked until I had the loom warped. For the non-weavers among you, this is a really, really big deal. It causes tension problems. It distorts your weaving. Your finished piece will not block square. (At this point, Mr. DD came upstairs to find me laughing rather hysterically. When I told him what I'd done, he agreed that this was definitely the Error of All Errors. He did ask why I was laughing, which was a fair question. I could have flung the loom across the kitchen, cursing as I launched it. I took the high road instead. That's my story. I'm sticking to it.) There are two fixes for this problem: either unwind the warp and begin again or release the tension, level the loom and then adjust the tension on each warp end by hand, pulling the loose threads towards the warps on the tighter side and going back and forth until the tension is evenly distributed. I chose the second option, so the next hour was an experience in warp tension adjustment, but I did manage to fix Rookie Error #3.

After that, it was smooth sailing. I began twining with hemp cord across the bottom of the piece. Twining helps to space the warps; I use purple hemp in lieu of a signature on my tapestries. I decided to use two rows top and bottom, to help secure the warp threads which, hemless, would be left without much support and might shift when I cut the piece off the loom. The two rows at the bottom presented no problem; however, when I turned the loom over to twine the top, I discovered - a fricking, fracking crossed warp thread, Rookie Error #4. Worse yet, that warp thread wasn't just crossed with its neighbour. Oh, no. That would be too easy. This meandering warp decided to cross with another 3 threads over. The fix to that? Removing the warp and rewinding everything was an option, but I was beginning to think that, if I pulled off the warp, I'd never rewarp the loom. If that happened, in light of my superstition about beginnings and endings, I might not weave at all in the new year and I wasn't having that. I took the only other option I had, one which I haven't done in decades: I cut the misplaced warp thread and added a new one, tying the old and new together at the back of the loom. (This also means that my plan for using the back warps as my tapestry diary is going to be problematic.)

Last night, I began weaving. Apart from having to push the cloth back in place because there are no hems to support it, things are going well. I can't and don't want to match the colours in the painting to the tapestry. Some of the nuances in the painting, textures which can only be achieved by brush strokes, will be lost (which is why when I paint, I paint and when I weave, I weave), but the weft yarns are providing interesting textures of their own. If the weaving doesn't work, if the whole project falls apart, it will be okay, because I look on everything I do as an experiment, but right now, I think things are looking up.

What this says about how the New Year will start for me, I'm not sure. I've decided to take my mistakes as reminders to stay in Beginner's Mind, that challenges and problems always have solutions and I should plan to expect the unexpected. All those errors could also simply indicate that I'm a bit careless, but, hey, at least I'm weaving.


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Home for the Holidays

Iceland's Yule Cat on the Prowl
(Google Public Domain Image)
The energy level in our home has shifted, as our young adults return home  and bring new perspectives to life. There has already been much joy and laughter in the household, along with some sorrow and a few tears, as friendships and life choices change and goals diverge.

Ms. DD arrived safely in the wee hours of the morning, bearing birthday and Yule gifts from her trip to Iceland. Among them were balls of Icelandic wool yarn and knitting tools for me and a book about traditional Icelandic Christmas trolls. They include an ogress named Gryla, with a taste for dining on naughty, lazy or rude children. One of Gryla's sons, Stekkjarstaur, "The Sheep Worrier," is known for sneaking into sheep pens and attempting to suckle from the ewes. (He fails because he's too stiff to bend. Perhaps yoga would help?) Stekkjarstaur is kinder than his mother and leaves a small toy, a piece of fruit or some sweets in a child's shoe. If the child is naughty, she/he gets a potato. Icelandic children are also familiar with the Yule Cat, " a grossly overgrown housecat turned feral...cold, mean and ravenous." Yule Cat delights in eating children, "choosing those who haven't recently been given something new to wear!" (The Yule Lads, Brian Pilkington) I'm told that people knit up a storm there and that, even today, all good parents make sure that every child receives a pair of socks or gloves, preferably hand knit and, once upon a time, hand spun, to ward off Yule Cat as he comes prowling.

Tonight will include visits with family and friends, our traditional Christmas Eve feast of nachos, as we watch A Christmas Carol (in black and white, with Alastair Sim, of course) and later, a visit from Santa, who will always believe in you as long as you believe in him. There will be five of us at Christmas dinner, although we will feel the presence of all those who have gone before us. Mr. DD will cook and I will make the cranberry pudding. We will talk until late, packing in as much time together as we can, before Ms. DD flies back home on Boxing Day. There is never enough time. All is as it should be.


Friday, 19 December 2014

Open Your Hearts, Part 3: I'm Looking Through You - Social Responsibility in Governments and Corporations

Google Public Domain Image

Over the years, there's been a shift in social perspective, away from the expectation that governments can and should provide for those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances involving their health, employment or living situations. Corporations are given tax breaks while service costs are shifted onto the middle class and working poor. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there is an expectation that private resources will provide whatever is needed. There is often another undercurrent of belief running through this narrative - an assumption that the poor and the suffering must somehow have brought their circumstances upon themselves.

When our local governments hold Housing Summits in which they tackle homelessness by redefining the parameters of what constitutes affordable housing and claim success because there are or will be a handful of living spaces available for purchase under $150, 000, when American Walmart executives believe that it's perfectly acceptable to hold food drives for their own employees while refusing to pay living wages or provide benefits or decent working conditions, something is terribly wrong in the system.

In my last posts, I've written about ways in which each one of us can help others with small acts of kindness. Such individual acts do not absolve governments or corporations from social responsibility. Even if every person with means was able to provide for those less fortunate, our governments and the businesses which rely on the fruits of our labours have a duty to give back to the community.

Businesses exist to make profits. There's nothing wrong with that; it's what businesses do. When businesses and corporations claim status as citizens while mistreating employees and laying off people to add to already huge shareholder profits and executive bonuses, it's past time for some push back. Here's where our individual actions can come into play.

Corporations speak in dollars, so the advice to "Shop Local," and support small, personal, family run businesses is sound, but there is more that we can do. We can call out corporations who disguise advertising in the form of donations and we can insist that our governments fund the services we need, rather than hiring consultants to study problems yet again. We can pressure these institutions directly, in writing. We can lay out our cases to the media. We can protest on the ground. We can educate ourselves on the actual costs of corporate and government models for P3 partnerships and use that education to question those who provide us with statistics which don't ring true. We can continue to call for clean air, for clean water, for the preservation of our planet. We can demand that every being is respected, regardless of their gender, race, culture, spiritual beliefs or social circumstances. We can and we must let our voices be heard.

I believe that these three segments of society - individuals, government and business - bear responsibility for the support of the entire social system. When we shift the weight of social responsibility from one or two of these segments onto a single support, the entire system is in danger of collapsing. Balance requires cooperation among all three.

There is no new insight here. I am simply restating what has been discussed for decades, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue repeating the message. We may think that our voices will never be heard, but that's the nature of Karma Yoga. We do these things because they are necessary. While we hope that our words and our actions will bring positive results, it is our only reasoned, moral, conscious action that is required. At the very least, we can practice "Doing No Harm." It's a start.


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Open Your Hearts, Part 2: Just a Little Tenderness

We often think of charity or philanthropy as existing only in the big picture. Media call attention to the grand gesture - someone donates a large sum to a worthy cause or knits 4000 hats for the homeless and the press is right there. A corporation provides matching funds to a food bank drive and its logo is plastered all over the promotional material. Once in a while, someone runs a story of the small act of kindness, such as the recent story of a local man who bought a cup of coffee for someone suffering in the cold, but it's easy to form the impression that only acts of largesse are worthy of attention or have an effect. Direct acts of generosity are most often presented as exceptional, rather than things which all of us can do. We seldom consider that, if everyone did one small act of kindness every day, those efforts just might grow into something larger. Better yet, they may help us connect on a personal level.

Unlike big fundraisers, where those who donate may never personally cross paths with the people they are funding, personal acts of kindness always require engagement with the people they affect. Working in a soup kitchen means you see the effects of poverty and homelessness up close. Buying a coffee and a sandwich for a street person requires you to make the purchase and hand it to the recipient and, perhaps, engage in the exchange of a few pleasantries. The act of giving a $5 bill (the scene I witnessed yesterday) may mean that you have directly provided a meal for someone who desperately needs it.

It's not that we should abandon our larger charitable efforts. Food Banks need those sums of cash and food donations. Corporations should give back to those who provide company profits and to those who are not fortunate enough to reap the benefits of free enterprise. If you don't have those big things to give, never think that your heart-felt act of kindness has no effect. Every gesture counts in building the human connection.

As well as donating what extra cash we have on hand to worthy causes, we can begin to think outside those charity boxes. This past spring, young Ms. DD took a turn at helping to walk a homeless couple's dogs while the woman was in hospital and the husband wanted to sit with his wife while she healed. (That one made my heart sing. I'm one proud, proud mother. She'll not be happy I've told you about this, as she'd rather not be mentioned in my blog. I'm making an exception.) It takes little effort to tuck some chocolate or a granola bar into your bag and offer it to that person sitting on the street; knitters and crocheters can do the same with hats and scarves. Ask someone if he would like a meal, buy it and bring it to him. Not everyone wants your help, so always be prepared to accept the refusal of your offer with the same kindness with which it was given. If you can do nothing else, a warm greeting and a sincere smile as you pass by can do wonders in acknowledging the humanity that we all share.


Google Public Domain Images

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Open Your Hearts: A Brief Tale About a Different RAK

Image from Google Public Domain

There’s a shopping centre near my home. It’s a typical neighbourhood mall, with a gas station, restaurant, doctor’s office, grocery store and a liquor outlet. Every day I pass by or through it, there’s a line of men, always men, on the sidewalks outside. They ask for change or busk for coins. The days that I stop in the liquor outlet, there is often a line of some of these same men inside.  Like the rest of us, they’re buying what comfort and cheer they can afford, something to take the edge off or dull the experiences of their daily lives or simply to make the day seem a little bit better.

These buskers and beggars stand in the sun and the rain and the cold, day in and day out, never bothering people with more than a quick request, but they annoy many of us who would rather not be bothered with these people at all. We sometimes assume that there is something different, something better that these men could be doing with their time, that the money we give them will be wasted on drink or drugs or cigarettes. Such thoughts may not be charitable, but they’re human, a way to protect ourselves, to convince our egos that we would never be in such a position, asking for money in the streets and parking lots of a booming city.

This morning as I headed into the grocery store, I passed a young man at the entrance. His head hung down and his hand shook as he held out a stained paper coffee cup. He said nothing, made no eye contact, but in the time it took me to enter the store, several people muttered disapprovingly at his presence so close to the doors. One woman did something different; she tucked a five dollar bill into his cup. She smiled as the young man thanked her and blessed her and wished her a “Merry Christmas!” Then, she, too, carried on with her routine.

I either give or don’t give money to people.  I make an effort not to question what they might do with the few coins I drop into their cups. A gift is a gift and their spending choices are not my business, but, oh so very humanly, I sometimes catch myself assuming that whatever I hand them will soon find its way into the tills at those nearby liquor stores. This was my first thought when the woman gave her gift. I was instantly ashamed of that thought and worked at replacing it with a more generous hope for the young man and all like him as I bought the day’s groceries.

When I left with my purchases, the young man was nowhere to be seen.  It flashed across my mind that I knew where he had headed and then the thought was gone. As I walked towards home, I turned a corner and there he was, sitting on a bench, eating from a box full of chicken and chips. He’d used his money to buy food; the shaking I’d witnessed was likely from cold and hunger. My heart sunk a bit at the carelessness of my assumptions.

Just as I realized my error, the woman with the five dollar bill came past me. The young man recognized her and smiled. “Thank you,” he whispered. The woman said nothing; she simply bowed her head, smiling again as she nodded. In that moment, I was witness to the human connection we acknowledge every time we bow to each other in our yoga/meditation classes, as we chant “Namaste,” a connection we so often find difficult to put into practice as we go about our busy, busy lives. For an instant the open-hearted woman and the young man were One.

As I headed for home, my eyes began to water. It must have been from the cold and wind.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sanctuary: Random Acts of Knitting Sightings

A friend and I spotted these lovely things when we were out for walk today. Someone's been busy!

Sir John A. got into the act:


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Violette: A Last Minute Gift for You and Yours

The stockings are hung; the tree is beautifully decorated; the solstice log nestles in the fireplace, waiting to warm celebrants. Each handmade gift is finished and lovingly wrapped, ready to hand round to family and friends. You’re done your holiday gift-making! Congratulations.

Shortly before the Big Day, you remember that your niece is visiting from overseas. A last minute gift exchange name draw happens. Somehow, in all the rush, you managed to leave your sister off the shopping list. What on earth to do?

This simple headband knits up in about 3 to 4 hours and its retro style is sure to please any recipient. This version, with its vintage ceramic button, is decidedly feminine, but if you omit the button and the finishing trim, it will suit anyone. The stitch pattern resembles a tiny cable - it’s actually a member of the family of travelling stitches and is a great introduction to working stitches out of order. The twisted stitches make the band slightly thicker and warmer than traditional K2P2 rib stitch. Apart from the twisted stitches, the band is knitted in basic K2, P2 ribbing, so it is easy enough for an Advanced Beginner.

I knit this band in a firmly spun and plied hand spun Merino, with approximately 15 twists per inch in the singles, 5 in the 2 ply yarn. The angle of twist is 30 degrees; wraps per inch are approximately 17 to 18. This firm yarn is soft, but shows the twisted stitches nicely. Substitute any similar commercial or hand spun sport weight yarn of your choice.


Violette: The Pattern

Approximately 50 grams of sport weight yarn.  I used about 22 grams of a 100 metre/44 gram skein.

1 pair of 3 mm straight needles or size needed to match gauge.

Tapestry needle, scissors, and vintage button (optional).

Gauge: 8 sts per inch/2.5 cm. over twisted rib pattern before blocking.  (Multiple of 4 stitches + 2)

Size before blocking is approximately 2.75 inches/7 cm. wide x 18.5 inches/46 cm. long. The band blocks to about 4 inches/10 cm. but will draw in again when worn. You can widen the band by increasing in multiples of 4.

Right Twist: Knit into the front of the second knit stitch on left hand needle, knit into the first stitch on LH needle as usual, drop both stitches from LH needle after working.

Left Twist: Knit into the back of the second knit stitch on left hand needle, knit into the first stitch on LH needle as usual, drop both stitches from LH needle after working.

Cast on 22 stitches, leaving a long tail for sewing.

Row 1 (Right Side): K2, P2

Row 2 (Wrong Side): P2, K2

Repeat Rows 1 and 2 twice more for a total of 5 rows.

Row 7 (RS): *RT, P2*across row, ending with a RT

Rows 8 to 12: Work in rib pattern (as in Rows 1 and 2)

Row 13 (RS): *LT, P2* across row, ending with a LT

Rows 14 to 18: Work in rib pattern. There are 5 plain K2P2 rib rows between each pattern row.

Repeat from Row 7 to 18 until you are approximately 1 inch/2 cm. short of the required length when the band is stretched around your head (approximately 17 to 18 inches/42 to 44 cm.). You want the band to be snug around your ears and head. The band will relax after washing. End by working a pattern row.

Starting on the WS, work in pattern for 6 rows, binding off on Row 7 and leaving another long yarn tail after fastening off last stitch. Wash and block the band before sewing.

Using mattress stitch and one long end of yarn, stitch the Cast On and Bound Off edges of the band together from the right side, matching knits to knits and purls to purls. Secure yarn end.

Finishing for Violette: (You may omit this cinching.) Thread the tapestry needle with the other long end of yarn. Run this yarn through the tops of the knit stitches on both sides of the seam. Pull the yarn up firmly to cinch up the middle of the band. Secure yarn ends and sew on button.

For an even faster, more casual style, work the band on 14 to 18 stitches in a heavier yarn.

©Deborah Behm
December 2014

Friday, 28 November 2014

So Bad It's Good: Beginners' Mind and a Sense of Play

The wind is howling round. There's a heavy snowfall warning which is expected to last until tonight. The plans to walk over to the yoga studio for a noon hour class were put aside in favour of playing at home. I prepared a few small canvases and splashed around more acrylic paint. When I finished, the estimated 30 minutes of swinging brushes was actually over two hours of total absorption in the process of investigating acrylic paint. Time had become focused; hours vanished. This. This is what has been missing.

One of the art professors at our local arts centre used to say that painting with acrylics is like "painting with snot." (She taught acrylic painting classes.) Ugh. After a few days of mucking about with these plastic based paints, I'm beginning to see what she meant. Watercolours run and flow whether you want them to or not, a quality which means there's uncertainty about the process. Acrylic paints, even if you thin them to watercolour consistency, tend to stay put. Every mark you make stays as it is, so it matters which brushes you use and how you use them. It's difficult to work without a plan and some of us are not fond of plans. On the other hand, it's easy to cover an error or have a change of heart with acrylics because their opacity covers many flaws. These paintings have many flaws.

The point of painting is not to produce work that is good. The point of painting is to paint, just that and nothing more. My paintings are not unique or dramatic or thought-provoking. The subjects are common place. My lack of experience means I'll do poorly,which frees me to simply enjoy the process. It's working pretty well that way, so far. (My go-to failure used to be dancing. I was spectacularly bad at dancing, but I took classes, anyway, much to my teacher's confusion. I don't think I'll ever be as bad at anything as I was at dancing. One has to have limits.)

Years ago, another art teacher, the most difficult, challenging instructor I have ever had, refused to allow me into his Figure Drawing classes. I was more than a little pissed off at that and told him so, because when I decide to study a subject, I tend to research and explore that thing in depth, sometimes to obsession and I wanted into his classes to further that. His only response was, "Don't let me or anyone else tell you how to draw bodies." Other artist friends advised me not to go to art school because "it would suck the life out of me." I didn't understand what they were telling me and was hurt by their comments. Now, I suspect these artist teachers were helping me to recognize the importance of staying in Beginner's Mind and out of Knowing.

We've all heard that term, "Beginner's Mind." Yoga teachers, artists, teachers in general, tend to talk up the idea of Beginner's Mind, often at the same time they are pushing you/us to get better, to change, to improve. The drive to improve is not a bad thing; I'm very grateful for the many things which have been improving for me in the past few years, whether this happened by chance, circumstance or hard work.  At the same time, if we're always reaching for that next best thing, if we struggle to get past the beginning stage of anything, we'll miss Here, Right Now. That's too bad, because Here, Right Now is very interesting. Exploring the moment with an open, beginner's mind allows us to see that we're Special Nothings, being Nothing Special, Ambient Beings in a world full of universes. If we're absorbed in a practice of not knowing, that time we spend fully engaged will fly by and expand simultaneously, just as time expanded and stood still for me this morning. It's an exciting experience. We might as well enjoy it when and while we can.

If I could wield my tray of snotty plastic paints and paint the image of our Special Nothingness what a great work that would be. Or not. I'll never know. In honour of that practice and those teachers, I don't plan to do too much more research into acrylic painting, because I'm afraid I'll lose that edge, the sense of uncertainty which come with doing something unfamiliar. Sometimes, not good enough is just - good enough.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Painted Love: A Riff While Waiting for the Next One (For Matthew)

"It's not the job of the artist, the writer, the musician to play nice, be positive, make pretty or sing praises. She may do all those things or none, but the real job of the artist, the writer, the musician is to draw out those images, those words, those notes which tell a Truth. The job of the artist, the writer, the musician is to hold up the mirror and show the world what Is as she sees it."

I'm restless. Winter has swirled in with driving full force, dripping snow and dipping temperatures. I'm between teaching jobs and between tapestries. Truth be told, I never know if there's another paying gig or another piece of weaving in me - each last one feels like The Last One. I've tossed my net out into the Universe. Now, I wait.

There is a tapestry waiting for my attention. The loom is warped; the cartoon is in place. I've spun the yarns. I'm not ready to begin weaving, yet. This latest idea is intense and she's not pretty. She's inspired by my experiences with the Renew for Cancer classes I teach, but she refuses to play along with conventions about "fighting cancer," "being a warrior," and other ideas which have served out their time. She's personal and she may never see the light of day, although something keeps whispering, "Let her out."

Last night, on "Checkup Panel," on CBC National NewsDr. Danielle Martin called for an end to the "militarization" of cancer. She suggested that, instead of talking about "battling cancer," we begin to think of "living with cancer." The 3 medical experts on the panel presented thoughtful, realistic approaches to the treatment of cancer. They cited statistics and dispelled myths. They spoke truth to what I witness in every Renew class: many of us are not interested in fighting anything, especially not our own bodies. We'd much rather focus on healing, on learning to live with life as it is presented to us, whether that involves cancer or any other lesson which every one of us will encounter as we walk along our paths. We're tired of being told how to look, how to live and how to feel. We're looking for a way to just Be. It's this discussion to which the tapestry in waiting speaks. She won't be an easy weave, if she's woven at all.

When you're caught in a struggle, adjusting to the end of something and waiting for the birth of the next thing, it's easy to become frustrated. The rocks on your path may appear as one great, impenetrable wall, rather than individual challenges to be surmounted. When I've had enough of stillness, of waiting to discover whether I need to go over, around or through the rocks, I turn to other forms of creativity.

Today, it was painting. I chose acrylic painting, because I haven't a clue how to do it. (Google was my friend.) I had old tubes of paints, a few brushes and a number of small canvases tucked away for travelling. I hauled them out, cleared off my weaving table and played. I slopped paint, tossed water on my canvases, rubbed out spots with towels and made a mess. The result of an afternoon's work was two tiny paintings. They're nothing to champion, but that's what makes them important. They're pure play, unattached to outcome and I know this is the process that will eventually tell me how to proceed in my latest struggles.

Years ago I designated my fibre room off limits to negative thoughts and behaviours; it can be a challenge to stay with that, but it's an important rule to follow. Thoughts come and I allow them to flow, but I don't chase them. They aren't the way through the rocks. The way through the rocks is to release my usual perspectives, to shift my focus until a bit of light flashes through the cracks and shines the way to an opening for a clearer path. When that happens, I'll know how to proceed, whether it's with the new tapestry or new work.

If you're a creative being (and who among us isn't?) who finds herself in a crisis, personal or artistic, I suggest trying something you're not very good at doing, then do it. The way through a crisis is not to sit and weep at the wall of rocks. At least, it isn't for me. The way through that wall of rocks is to sit, wait and then use the rocks to build something new. Ugly, pretty, good, bad - the words are judgmental. The work itself is not. We're glorious messes of humanity. Go make a mess.


"Winter Light" 12.5 cm x 17.5 cm

"Galaxies" 7.5 cm x 7.5 cm

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

RAK It Up: Revisiting Random Acts of Knitting

We took a quick plunge into full winter temperatures here at the beginning of November. Our warm fall days crashed into minus double digits and for the past week, temperatures have been in the -10C to -15C range; high winds have shifted those temperatures so that it feels as if it's in the -20's.  Those temperatures are to be expected in late December and through January, but not so much in November, where the daytime average is around -3C with a low of -15C.  Brrrrr. It's a great time to be bundled up inside, reading, knitting, enjoying homemade soup.  I've been spinning Merino wool and working on a shawl and some socks as I attempt to finish older projects to clear my slate for the few holiday knits that remain on my list.

As I sit wrapped in a hand knit sweater, on my cozy couch, I listen to local news on the radio. This weekend, a homeless man froze to death in another part of our province. Fortunately, this is still rare enough that it made headlines which garnered compassionate responses; however, the reaction from some people and particularly the Minister for Social Services has been less than stellar. There have been hints of "Not my problem" and more than one suggestion of victim blaming and a shifting of responsibilities for homelessness and hunger onto "other people." (To those who think that homelessness and hunger is not a problem in our city, I invite you to take a walk around our downtown, any time of day.  Then consider that the people you see wandering the streets and sitting on grates are a mere fraction of the people in need.  In our climate, much of the problem is hidden at this time of year, as people are huddled in alley doorways, around power boxes behind malls, moving from bus shelter to bus shelter to stay out of the wind and living in abandoned houses and vehicles.)

As I sit with a woollen shawl draped around my shoulders, in my comfy chair, while I watch another show on Netflix or play on my computer, it occurs to me that this time of year in particular and really, any time, brings perfect opportunities for an intersection between yoga and the work of our hands.  Donating to charities is great, passing along used clothing to organizations to distribute to those is need is wonderful, but perhaps we can also take a hands-on approach to "Being the Change." We can participate in karma/action yoga by sharing our knitting, our crocheting, our weaving or any handwork. We can do that without relying on third parties, by taking our fibre crafts to the street.

Several years back, a group calling itself "Random Acts of Knitting" was active in this city. Group members distributed their hats, scarves, mittens, and other items around town by draping scarves around sculptures, hanging hats from light posts, dropping mittens on park benches and in bus shelters.  Each item was clearly marked to indicate that it was a gift for anyone who wished to have it or to pass along to someone else.  Sometimes, a piece of clothing would be accompanied by an energy bar, bits of chocolate or candy, some dried fruit-anything that isn't damaged by intense weather and which provides fuel to people stuck out in the bitter cold. Gifts were freely given, with no concern as to who might receive them and no expectations of feedback.  Although I'm not sure this group saw its expeditions as such, I think of these events as yoga in action, i.e., karma yoga.

Members of that group are active still, although it's been a long time since they went on a RAK expedition together.  You can join this group as well.  There are no meetings, no fees, no rules.  All one has to do is knit or crochet or otherwise make an article of warm clothing. (There are patterns available on Ravelry.  My free crocheted hat pattern, "You Can Leave Your Hat On, is quick and easy to work.) Whatever you make, be sure to label that the item is there for anyone would wishes to take it. Don't assume that people help themselves to stray articles of winter clothing; I've seen lost hats and sets of mittens stay on the street for weeks, possibly because people think the owners may come looking for their missing apparel. Consider tucking a cold-resistant food item in with your garment.

You can leave your RAK in public places: decorate statues, drop your work on benches, slip things into bus shelters, behind malls, anywhere you wish.  You can offer items directly to someone, but be mindful of approaching people you assume to be less fortunate. They may not need or want your help.  Don't allow your good intentions and gifts to be a source of taking away people's dignity.

As I sit with my feet warmed by hand spun socks, in my well-stocked home, it occurs to me that one hand made hat or scarf is no big deal.  It also occurs to me that if, every person who works with fibre and yarns did a single RAK, together, we could blanket the world.

I spotted this RAK a number of years ago, just before the snow flew.  


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sanctuary: Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Yesterday, as I walked through the park, I noticed the colours of Winter against a grey sky on a cold, cold day:


Sunday, 9 November 2014

True Colours: Finding Buddha Nature Through Coffee and Cats

A while back, I was having coffee in the Church of Robin's. Mr. DD and I had bumped into a friend and her husband, people we hadn't seen in quite some time. I had worked with Ursy for years in an arts centre; Ed, her husband, had been in the studio on a regular basis, helping Ursy make her massive sheets of paper, assisting with the construction of her art pieces and maintaining the equipment needed for Ursy to work. The four of us were having a good catch-up. I was waiting for the start of yoga teacher training and was babbling about my yoga practice and how excited I was to be entering the programme.  Ursy asked me how long I had been practising yoga and meditation. When I told her, proudly, that it had been decades, she looked at me and deadpanned, "Well! I would have expected you to be a much better person by now."

We laughed so hard we thought we'd be asked to leave. With that one sentence, Ursy pierced through my ego, right to the heart of the matter.  She knew nothing about yoga or much about meditation, but she knew me, knew when I needed to be encouraged and when I needed to be reined in.  She also was perceptive on a much larger scale; Ursy knew what I was just beginning to suspect: our practice does not make us "better," if only because there is no need of that. We are fine the way we are; what we need is to become more of ourselves, in all our messy glory.

Learning to be and to accept ourselves is not an easy process. I mess up every single day. I jump in with opinions when it is best to remain silent, speak too quickly, hurt people unintentionally, take actions which later make me cringe. It's hard to find a balance between observing these behaviours and chastising myself for having acted in ways that are, well, exquisitely human. When I shift to observing what I do "right," I run the risk of smugness, arrogance and rationalization of bad behaviours as "just being myself."

If we work on accepting events, behaviours and conditions as neither good nor bad, but simply as that which happens, we may be able to find what Heather, my meditation teacher, calls "equilibrium." Finding equilibrium allows us to develop clear view, a point where we can engage fully in our lives, while accepting that we are humans who screw things up and get them right. Practising balance can lead us to simplicity and a sense of ease. If this moment is not quite to our liking, we can learn to enjoy it as it is. Perhaps (most certainly) the next moment will bring something else.

And guess what, Ursy? Now that I have passed through teacher training, and despite the fact that I make an effort to maintain a regular practice, I am not a better person.  I still mess up, still speak too quickly or too soon.  I am often thoughtless, but I'm more mindful about doing so. Finding equilibrium, our true Buddha Nature, is no easy task. I shift from aversion to attachment and back again from moment to moment. What has changed is that the compassion I work on extending to others is spilling over a bit to myself.  Instead of chastising myself for days over some minor mishap, I work on observing my behaviours.  I make an effort to allow those actions which seem to be closer to my true nature to shine through all the layers I pile on to hide my Self.  Layering never works; as Ursy pointed out so clearly in the coffee shop, shielding ourselves behind ego or anger or compassionate acts (if practised for recognition or anything other than the act itself) doesn't protect us. Someone or something will always pierce to the heart of the matter.  Practising balance will help us do this for ourselves.

It can be difficult to find someone to guide you in this practice.  I've had many teachers over the years and they have all provided valuable lessons, but, the creature I would most like to emulate is Mick, my very old, often miserable cat. Although he has been with us for 16 years, Mickey retains some of his wild street nature from his early life.  Age has mellowed him, but he is still prone to demanding a cuddle then slashing or biting you without provocation. Over the years, we have learned to be keen observers of Mick's true nature.  Mick's behaviour is nothing personal; it is simply the way he is and we love him for it. (We do remind him that very few humans would have put up with him for as long as we have.) Because of this, we nicknamed him "Buddha," because whatever Mickey is, he is always true to himself. I find this ability inspiring, although I work on avoiding the slashing out or biting aspect of his nature.  Here he is, guarding the current knitting and spinning projects:

"Yes, I am sitting on the kitchen table. What's your point?"

I've observed Mick and his Buddha Nature as he learned to trust us after we brought him in from the streets.  I've nursed him through mishaps which occurred in our early days when he sneaked out of the house and returned to roaming the streets.  I've worried as he went through what was nearly a fatal illness, an illness through which he suffered great pain and distress and which he bore stoically, as cats do. I've been grateful for the time when he put aside his aggressive tendencies to sit with me for hours, days and months as I dealt with my own illness (which I didn't accept as stoically as he seemed to accept his own).  I laughed when he returned to being a thoroughly miserable beast when I was well again. I know that I will lose him one day, just as I have and will lose all the friends and gurus who have guided me in finding myself. That, too, is our true nature. It is enough.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

This Morning, Waiting for a Bus

While you were busy, watching the world on your devices
I was busy, watching mice
As they crawled in the bushes.
At the stop where you were checking the daily rushes
Of life as it flashed by on your machines,
I was checking the tracks of the mice scampering
When they saw that they had been seen.



Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Somebody That I Used to Know: Revisiting an Old Sweater

Once upon a time, I knit many complex sweaters, mostly using stranded colour work, with a few Aran-style and lace sweaters thrown into the mix.  I've been sorting through these garments, reliving their creation, deciding which should stay, which should be reincarnated as mittens or other accessories. (Not Swants-Stephen West's 2013 tutorial on making pants from sweaters has resurfaced and I've had several people ask me to make swants for them. Swants involve sewing, not knitting. I am allergic to sewing.) A few things will go off to goodwill shops; one or two will be binned because they're worn out and, really, I should not be clinging to them.  Their time has come.

I've had one sweater packed away for a long time.  I know from the style that I knit it in the early 1990's.  It's actually quite a nice sweater: all hand spun, the yarns were made from wools, angora, camel down, alpaca, silk, and Samoyed dog hair. There's even a bit of yarn spun from one of my long ago cats. (True confessions time: one small band on each sleeve, knit in alpaca, is suspiciously consistent in the spinning.  There's a possibility that I included a commercial alpaca yarn there, although I can't think why I would. The other explanation is that I was a far better spinner than I realized.)  The motifs are personal, paying tribute to creativity, the Feminine, spinning and fibre arts.

I really like this sweater, but several design flaws made me feel foolish every time I tried to wear it the past few years.  Some were just a matter of changing tastes, but there was one huge problem that could not be ignored and made me wonder what I was thinking. Something had to be done if I was going to save this thing, so I grabbed a pair of scissors and started remodelling.  Unfortunately, I was so determined to get rid of the hideous flaw that I chopped it out and began my re-styling before I thought to take a picture. I'll try to give you idea of the magnitude of the problem as I go, but trust me, it was really, really bad.  Here's the sweater, shortly after I cut off the lower parts of the sleeves:

You can see that the tops of the sleeves are quite wide.  Imagine those wide sleeves continuing to the wrist and ending in tight bands of ribbing.  Yes, the sweater suffered from the dreaded "puffy sleeve syndrome." That was the style then, but it certainly isn't now and as you may have gathered, I'm very fashion forward. (Snort.) The waist is nicely fitted, but the bottom edge of the sweater flares out.  I reknit the edging once, but the yarn had stretched and the sweater bottom was too wide to begin with, so everything sagged and bagged.

The biggest problem, the one which makes me scratch my head and wonder, "What the H*## was I thinking?" Well, remember that dog hair I mentioned?  Yarn spun from Samoyed dog is quite lovely. It resembles angora; it's soft and doesn't smell after washing and dyeing.  The thing about dog hair is that it fluffs. And fluffs. And fluffs, seemingly forever. Here, I'll show you what I mean:

That light blue band across the wheel motifs is the dog hair and no, the image is not blurry. Pure dog hair expands to what can be an alarming degree.  On its own, without wool in the mix to tame it, dog hair has no elasticity, so not only is it fuzzy, it grows to fill all available space.  This can be quite pretty in small areas. This sweater's problem?  Well, imagine that fuzzy, blue yarn knit in a 4 inch/10 cm deep band on the lower edge of the sleeves, almost to the cuffs. Imagine those bands stretching and become fluffier with time and wear. (I really am sorry I didn't take a photograph. Perhaps it's better I didn't.  Just keep thinking, "Oh my goodness gracious!" over and over again as you try to picture that in your mind's eye and you'll be on the right track to imagining the horror of those sleeves.)

The other problem was one which I didn't anticipate because dog hair yarn really doesn't smell after washing and dyeing.  For some reason, those sleeves must have magically trapped the original dog scent, because whenever I wore the sweater, I attracted attention. Yes, I probably had a lot of attention from humans, who were puzzled as to why I would think wearing huge fuzzy patches on my sleeves was a good idea.  Likely, they were also wondering how to lure me into their annual Ugly Sweater Contests.  I could deal with that, but this was something worse: animals from far and wide could not leave my sweater alone or me, when I was in it.  Cats, dogs, an adorable hamster or two, most of them not my own, all creatures were intrigued by my sweater sleeves.  Some advances were clearly amorous (ugh!). Some were a bit aggressive and involved chewing on the dog yarn at every opportunity. I came to realize that one day, I'd be out walking and a passing dog, impressed with the splendour of the dog hair sweater bands, would decide to greet the creature I was wearing by lifting his leg on my sweater. I would be inside that sweater. (It didn't happen, but there were a few close calls.) The sweater, in all its blooming glory, was washed, lovingly folded and retired to the closet, where the past cats occasionally attempted break-ins, howling for the return of their beloved garment.

When I thought about salvaging this piece, I knew I had to start with those dog hair bands. Off they came.  The bands went straight into the garbage. (I really, really should have kept them.) I picked up the stitches for the first wide, wide sleeve.  Of course, I discovered that, because the sweater was knit so long ago, I had none of the original yarn left and I was not going to spin more to save this thing. I reclaimed what I could from the sleeves (which, in case I haven't mentioned it, were extremely wide, so there was quite a bit of yarn for reuse), picked up the stitches around the edge and began knitting. I decreased the first sleeve rapidly, going from about 70 stitches (approximately 18 inches around) down to a more reasonable 46 and 36 for the cuff (roughly 12 and 6 inches around). I duplicated yarns and designs as best I could, then knit the other sleeve to match.  This was much, much better.

Next, I cut off the bottom edging on the sweater body.  (That's when I discovered that I'd reknit this band on a top-up sweater.  I reknit the band top-down.  If you're a knitter, you'll understand the error there.  If you're not, never mind.) I decreased madly all at once, narrowing the hem by a good 5 inches around and then reknit the ribbing until I had just enough to bind off. I turned her inside out-she's nicely finished on the inside, which was another reason to save her:

I darned in ends-there were a lot of them-picked off a few pills, took photographs and tried on the sweater. I think she looks much better now, on and off:

There you have it.  My reclaimed sweater is now soaking in a warm bath, to smooth out the transitions from old to new. I'll block her gently, let her dry and she'll be ready for the cold nip of winter that we feel coming for us.  The big test will be whether or not I attract any wild or domestic animal interest when I wear her while I'm out walking. I'll let you know. Now, if I could only find a way to discourage those Swants aficionados... .


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Simple Things: Deb's Boot Cuffs/Toppers/Leggings

A long time ago, in another life, I used to knit for complexity.  Intricate lace, fancy colour work, any challenging stitch I came across made its way onto my needles.  I have a cedar chest full of bobbled and cabled sweaters, hats, sweaters and socks decorated with images in detailed colours and shawls built of lacy motifs. It’s a nice collection, stored away along with whatever notes I made at the time.  Once in a while, I sort through decades of knitwear and marvel at the person who knit those garments.  I admire her determination, her patience and her creativity.  She’s gone now, tucked away with the memories those pieces carry.  As the song says, “Now she’s just somebody that I used to know.”

The current knitter in me has a taste for simplicity.  She’s still fearless when it comes to string, but this knitter designs simple shawls, which are really the same one or two shawls, dressed up in different colours.  She knit socks, the same socks, experimenting with a variety of yarns.  She spins luxury fibres and turns them into a scarf there, a wrap here.  She knits nothing fancier than garter stitch or stockinette (garter stitch in the round), although she's been known to splurge on seed stitch from time to time.  Her lacework consists of *knit 2 together, yarn over,* judiciously placed, reversed or repeated throughout the length of a garment, which makes the thing which is simple looks deceptively difficult.  This knitter loves the rhythm of simplicity, the texture of yarn as it moves through and around her fingers, winding its way into useful fabrics. 

We tend to catch our breath and look with wonder on the complex.  Lacework in fine yarns, worked on the thinnest of needles, draws our attention, as do meandering cables, pattern on pattern of colours and garments displaying great attention to detail.  That’s as it should be, but sometimes, we overlook the beauty of simplicity.  As knitters, we think of garter stitch as something for beginners, the fabric we graduate from, not something we return to when we become proficient with our knitting.  While many of those patterns marked “Beginner” are basic, some of them written without much thought or skill, the same thing can be said of patterns which strive for the excessively intricate. “Simple” does not necessarily mean that something is not well-planned.  As the knitter in my past discovered, intricate stitches and colours can hide a lot of flaws.  Stockinette stitch shows all. It requires a bit of skill to make a plain garter stitch or ribbed pattern interesting, engaging and attractive.

Boot cuffs and toppers are in style these days. They’re a great idea in our winter weather.  They add a layer of warmth when we’re tromping around in minus 30C temperatures and they keep snow out of our boots when we’re piling through drifts, especially when they’re knit in a basic stitch which repels moisture.

These boot cuffs/toppers/leggings are quick and simple to knit in the round on double-pointed needles in a bulky yarn.  I used Noro Hitsuji, but any bulky yarn which gives you the correct gauge will work.  The yarn will need to resist abrasion from the tops of your boots, so choose something with a bit of firmness to it.  (If you’re spinning the yarn, stay away from Merino and try Blue-faced Leicester or Romney. Spin woollen for warmth to approximately 6 wraps per inch.) I choose K2, P2  for the cuff because the fabric will shed snow. The leggings are worked in K1, P1 to reduce bulk and to hug the leg, which also incorporates a bit of knitted shaping. I added straps across the feet so that the leggings don't ride up or slip when I’m walking and so that I can use these leggings as yoga socks in the studio.  Each option for these cuffs/toppers/leggings is noted on the pattern, so you can make several sets in whatever style suits you. You’ll notice that I played with the Noro colours, so that I have a matched pair (well, almost).


The Pattern
130 grams of Noro Hitsuji (2-100 gram balls) which is enough to make the full length set in the size here plus an extra pair of cuffs.  This size fits a 15 inch/39 cm calf over leggings.  You can fit any size leg you wish by increasing the number of cast on stitches in multiples of 4, each of which will add just over an inch/2.5 cm to the circumference.  The full length leggings are 17 inches/44 cm; again, adjust the length as you require.  When increasing in size, remember to buy more yarn, although 2 balls of the Noro Hisuji should be enough for a full length set that will fit up to an 18 or 20 inch calf (approx. 46 to 50 cm.).

1 set of 4 double pointed needles, 6 mm, or size to give correct gauge.
1 stitch marker, tapestry needle, scissors.

Gauge:  3 sts/4.5 rows to 1 inch/2.5 cm. worked in K2P2 ribbing (Knit 2 stitches, Purl 2 stitches) in the round. K1P1 ribbing: K 1 stitch, Purl 1 stitch. If you are shaping the leg, you will also need to know how to K2tog, P2tog, and SSK.

Read the pattern through before casting on.  Please note the option points in bold letters. Make 2 of each.

Boot Cuff:

Cast On (CO) 32 stitches on 2 of your double pointed needles (dpn’s).  Working in K2, P2 ribbing, knit 8 stitches onto first dpn, 12 stitches on 2nd dpn, 12 stitches on 3rd dpn.  Place marker, join round and K2P2 (4 sts) from 2nd needle onto the first needle before using your 4th dpn.  (This keeps the stitch marker in place.)  Continue in pattern until the cuff is a minimum of 4 inches/10 cm long, approximately 16 rounds.  (Option: This minimum length keeps your cuff from sliding down your boot.  Bind off all stitches loosely in pattern for boot cuff only.  Otherwise, continue to Boot Topper instructions.)

Boot Topper:

Change pattern to K1,P1.  Knit 8 rounds then begin leg shaping. (Option: For a looser fitting garment, continue working over your cast on stitches without decreasing.)
Next rnd:  P2tog, continue in pattern to last 2 sts before marker, SSK. (30 sts.)  Knit 3 rounds, keeping in pattern.
Next rnd: K2tog, continue in pattern to last 2 sts before marker, P2tog. (28 sts.)  (Continue decreases every 4th rnd if you have CO more stitches.) Continue in pattern, working even, for approximately 8 inches/20 cm. (Option: Bind off all stitches loosely in pattern for boot topper.  Otherwise, continue to instructions for Legging Foot.)

Legging Foot:

Arrange the remaining stitches so that there are 7 sts on each side of the marker on 1st needle (half the sts on the back of leg, below the decreases).  Leave the other 14 sts on the other 2 needles.  Break yarn and reattach at right end of 1st needle (with the marker). Working in pattern, BO 14 stitches loosely.  Continue in pattern around other stitches back to opening made by the BO sts. (Option: If you omitted the leg shaping, you will centre 8 sts. on each side of the marker.  BO 16 stitches in the back, work round in pattern, then CO 8, place marker, CO 8 and continue in pattern.)

Next rnd: CO 7 sts., replace marker, CO 7 stitches. Work in pattern to end of rnd. 

Work 8 rnds of K1P1 ribbing, then BO all stitches loosely.

Darn in ends, reinforcing the sts. at the edges of the legging strap.  Make a second cuff/topper/legging to match.

Wash in a no rinse wool wash product.  Dry flat, blocking to fit, or shape over sock stretchers.

©Deborah Behm, October 2014


Saturday, 25 October 2014

Colour My World

We've had lovely warm weather for most of October, so warm that the leaves on the bushes in our backyard are still green, which is unheard of here at this time of year.  There is that autumn crispness in the air, though, and the forecast is for a cooling off.  We know that cold, snow and winter are coming, so we had better think of ways to enjoy them.  In a very short time, we'll go from this:

To this:

I've been knitting like a fury the past few weeks, using my rather large stash of Noro yarns. They're almost the only commercial yarns I work with in my textiles; I love the colour changes, which can appear very random indeed, although  Noro Knitting magazine (#4) assures me that they are not. (Noro yarns are known for their very long colour runs, using a large number of colours. According to one of the articles in the magazine, theoretically, you might need to knit up to 320 yards before you reached the end of a full repeat. This explains a lot.)

My current passion has been winter wear, leggings and yoga socks mostly, with a cowl or two (reknitted from another hand spun cowl) thrown in for a change. I notice that my fall and winter wardrobe tends to blacks and greys-when I say "wardrobe," I mean t-shirts and sweaters over blue jeans, yoga pants or leggings-which can be pretty drab, but it does make adding colour easy because anything goes. I don't feel properly dressed in cooler weather unless I'm wearing at least three hand knitted or woven things, all of which should be bright enough to save a hunter in the woods.  (Not that I hunt in the woods, but the motorists around here seem to be hellbent on hunting pedestrians and it gets worse as darkness falls. My bright attire alerts them to my presence on the street.  I'm not sure if that's a good idea.)

As I work through the stash, I've build up this basket of accessories. With their rich, autumn colours, they make me happy just to look at them, but I think they'll make me even happier when I wear them:

Apart from the blue cowl and the shaggy leggings at centre right, everything else here is knitted using Noro yarns.


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Your Body is a Wonderland: On Practicing Safe Fibre Work

For the past few days, I've been following an on line discussion on spinning and posture. It's a lively discussion and several comments have caught my attention. There are suggestions for wheel selections, debates as to whether one should use single treadle or double treadle wheels, treatments for pain that spinners have found useful. There's a lot of anecdotal chat (which I do not dismiss, since experience can be a very effective method of scientific discovery), a bit of medical advice. While I am not a medical practitioner of any kind, or even a yoga therapist, I do have some practical experience and training in various ways of dealing with pain, posture and strain on the body.  Because of this, I want to address a few of the points that came up in this on line conversation and give some tips that may help in our practice, whether that be fibre arts, yoga, meditation or anything we do on a regular basis.

Although physical problems can and do occur because of genetics and factors beyond our control, many of us tend to think of our bodies as objects to ignore, units which contain problems which can be discounted or pushed through, instead of celebrating our bodies, all of our bodies, as the wondrous vessels they are. We ignore what hurts until we no longer can.  We assume all our good intentions will keep us safe, that doing what we love is healthy, until those good intentions lead us down the road that is the special kind of hell in the form of repetitive stress injury, chronic pain or illness.

I was surprised at the claim that spinning does not cause poor posture (rather, it brings poor posture to light), because, in fact, anything that we do which rounds the upper body, puts strain on our spine and keeps us sedentary for long periods of time can and will cause deterioration in our posture, if we do not practice with care and attention.  We tend to forget that these things we do for enjoyment-knitting, crocheting, spinning, weaving and the like-were (and still are) considered hard work which wears the body down. I sometimes wonder what our ancestors, the people who had to do fibre work in order to survive, would think of us if we could tell them we find so much of this stuff "fun."  I suspect they might question our sanity and who could blame them, since some fibre activities were known to be hazardous, if not life threatening. (My physical therapist can tell when I've been weaving tapestry because everything tightens up, despite the fact that I pay careful attention to my posture and I stretch and take frequent breaks when weaving.  Tapestry work is hard, physical work which constantly constricts muscles, particularly in the upper body and, as a result, can restrict breathing as well, which is seldom a good thing.)

Another comment that caught my attention was one from someone who could spin 8 to 10 hours without pain, because, well, I've been that person.  In my early spinning days, my husband went off to work one morning while I was sitting at my wheel.  He arrived home, 8 hours later, to find me sitting at my wheel. When he asked me how long I'd been spinning, guess what the answer was?  Yup, 8 hours.  I had been so immersed in spinning that I hadn't stood up from the wheel for a snack, or a glass of water, or, more remarkably, a bathroom break. Nothing hurt then, but it took me several more long, continuous spinning sessions before I made the not so amazing discovery that the fact something doesn't hurt at the time does not mean it isn't going to cause physical problems down the road.  I've had to learn the hard way about taking frequent breaks, practising to relax, shortening my fibre sessions, staying hydrated and testing spinning ergonomics in order to continue my fibre practice safely.

The third point which seems to escape many of us is that most fibre work is sedentary.  As much as spinning and weaving and the rest make our hearts sing, they really don't have direct benefits for cardiac fitness, or joint mobility or breath movement, unless we consciously practice to make that so. Fibre people don't like to hear this, but, if your life consists of sedentary activities such as sitting at a computer or behind a desk and your down time consists of sitting at a wheel or loom or with needles or hooks and string, you can be increasing your chances of excessive weight gain, decreased joint and general mobility and restricted breathing, all of which feed into one another and can potentially lead to health problems. Yes, fibre work can be good for you, but there's is always the possibility of harm through doing too much of a good thing. We all need to get up, get out and move our whole bodies from time to time.  If you're going to sit constantly, then plan some time for a walk or a yoga class or other exercise.  Better yet, walk to that yoga or exercise class!

So what are the solutions to the wear and tear caused by fibre work?  There are many, some medical, some therapeutic, some common sense. Most of these are well-covered by chiropractors, physical and massage therapists and yoga therapists and others, so I won't repeat them here. Carson Demers. a physical therapist, gives excellent advice on spinning safely in every issue of PLY magazine (full disclosure: I sometimes write for this magazine); he also offers classes in ergonomics for knitters.  Personally, I think his articles alone are worth the price of the magazine.  If you are having massage or physical therapy or seeing a yoga therapist, be sure that your caregivers understand exactly what you do in terms of fibre work-take your spindle or photos of your loom with you to treatments and/or demonstrate your habitual practice.

In addition to a regular yoga, breathing and physiotherapy practice, I do have a few tools which have helped me stay relaxed, aligned and comfortable when I weave or spin or knit.  (Most of these were suggested by therapists, so ask yours about these things, too.) Among the least expensive, most effective, portable therapeutic devices is a racquetball. That's right-racquetballs,which usually sell in sets of 3 for about $10 a set.  You use the racquetball for massaging fascia, muscles, etc. and working into deep tissue. Rolling on a racquetball on a regular basis is a bit like carrying around your own personal masseuse. There are techniques for rolling the feet (wonderful!), the back muscles-don't roll along the spine-and into the glutes. You can also work the front of the body and the legs with a racquetball, or sometimes, two taped together.  (Tennis balls work, but not as well, because the tennis balls are not firm enough.  Don't start rolling with street hockey balls-they work well, but can be too intense at the start.)  I get students rolling on the wall with racquetballs and once they accept that sometimes, working on those "juicy spots" (as we like to call what other people might refer to as "pain)" can actually be beneficial, as long as you don't over do it.  (Usually, once I introduce people to racquetballs, the only way I get them to stop rolling in a class is to confiscate the balls.) The beauty of racquetballs is that, unlike larger, more expensive equipment (like a physio roller, which is also a great tool, but harder to carry around inconspicuously), you can toss a racquetball into your spinning kit or knitting bag without taking away space for that precious project.

A more recent tool in my kit is a Gaiam Restore Strong Core & Back Kit.  (I don't usually endorse specific products and I haven't tested similar items, but this one works for me.) The kit, which runs around $15, comes with a dvd exercise programme (which I haven't watched), a pump (which didn't work, so I used a bicycle pump) which is used to inflate what Mr. DD described as "a strange-looking bumpy green peanut."  Rather than use this device for exercise, I use the peanut as a substitute for sitting on an exercise ball (which I also have and curse because it takes up so much space in my fibre room).  I pop the inflated peanut under my butt and centre my sitz bones on it when I'm weaving or spinning. This small thing has done wonders for my posture and for strengthening my lower back muscles, all of which opens my chest and improves my breathing, especially when I sit at my tapestry looms.  The Gaiam peanut can also be tucked into your fibre kit if you're heading out to fibre nights or workshops where the chairs are guaranteed to be uncomfortable and ergonomically detrimental to safe fibre practices. (I checked with my physical therapist about the efficacy and safety of using the Gaiam peanut.  It works for me, but like anything else, you should check with your health practitioner before using or doing anything in the way of therapy.)

These are a couple of practical tips for improving and maintaining good posture and decreasing strain while spinning, knitting, weaving, etc. Like anything else, fibre work can help us or harm us, depending on how we practice. Knowing how to sit well can make a huge difference to our bodies and minds. Another bonus to good, well-structured fibre practices is that comfort and care with our bodies and minds will transfer into improvement in our yarns and textiles.

It's great to explore the Wonderland of our bodies!


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

On the Knitting of Socks: A Western Interpretation of Karma, Jnana, Bhakti and Raja Yoga

The yoga socks are coming along nicely, although the search for the elusive Noro Bonbori yarn is not. Helpful strangers have pointed me in the direction of various sources, but these stashes are only available in the United States or the shipping fees and extra charges applied at the border make the cost of the yarn prohibitive.  I've found a couple of substitutes, themselves discontinued. (Ah, Noro, you try my patience sometimes.) None of them are perfect; a few contain silk, which some people don't like to wear; others are just that much thicker or thinner that I have to rewrite my pattern for each yarn. I have a batch of another Noro yarn on its way, which may prove satisfactory, although I'm sure I'll have to modify the sock pattern yet again to use it.  It's keeping me busy sampling and the sock pile is growing quickly.

In my post containing the plea for more Bonbori, I mentioned that knitting these socks was part of my karma yoga practice.  Because of that offhand comment, I've had a few people mention that it was nice that I "knit for charity." I was surprised, because I don't see myself as a  charitable person, or at least, not as a person who does charity knitting.  I realize that the common assumption is that "karma" means doing good deeds or that the actions we take will bring about equal reactions or consequences in this life or another and that we need to concern ourselves with that. This is not quite what I had in mind when writing about a karma practice and it makes me realize that there are other yoga terms I use liberally which people might misinterpret.

My understanding of yogic terms come from my limited understanding of the Eastern roots of yoga, filtered through our Western experiences and minds. In truth, although I've studied yogic traditions and Eastern philosophies, I can only practice yoga through my own Western perspective. (I used to get annoyed when the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying that Westerners need to look to their own cultures for their belief systems, rather than looking to Buddhism, but I may be getting a glimpse into what he means.) I still use the terms "karma," "bhakti," "jnana" and "raja" yoga in my practice, partly because I appreciate the links to history and tradition and partly because these were the terms I was given to explain a deeper yoga practice. If I'm going to use those terms, it might be a good idea to explain what they mean to me and how they apply to what I do.

In Eastern philosophies (as I understand them), "jnana" is the yoga of knowledge. Someone who practises jnana yoga is a person who studies and researches, deeply and fully. In traditional yogic practices, this means studying philosophical and religious texts.  A jnana yogi may study yogic texts and practices, but at a deeper level, as in all forms of yoga, she is studying these things in order to study herself.  At its core, jnana yoga seeks to discover our true nature and its connection to all, which leads to contemplation and introspection.

For my purposes, jnana yoga means the study of my fields of interest.  If I am working on yoga, then I immerse myself in the texts of that practice, without attachment.  When I learned to weave, spin and knit, I absorbed every work I could find, taught myself as much as possible and took every class, every workshop I could manage.  At first, I did these things so I could Know, but gradually, it occurred to me that I can never know it all, so now practising jnana yoga means that I discover some things only to realize that there is so much more that I will never know.  Rather than letting that discourage me, this type of practice allows me to see that I am part of a larger whole. To give you a really simple example: those yoga socks I knit are worked from my own pattern, but a quick search turns up thousands of people knitting the same kinds of socks, in various ways. Although I cannot possibly knit all those patterns (nor do I want to),  knitting socks makes me part of a community of sock knitters, a tiny piece of a larger whole where people who may never know one another personally have connections beyond the personal.

"Bhakti" yoga is the practice of devotion, usually in service to the Divine, which may take the form of traditional god/goddess worship, service to a particular religion or cause. Bhakti is often spoken of as "Love," in the sense of a higher emotion, beyond our ideas of love of family, friends, country or wherever our attachments lie.  If I apply a bhakti practice to my fibre work, then I am devoted to that work.  I do it day in and day out. That practice alone is simply habit; bhakti applies when I realize that my ability to do what I do comes from something deep within and beyond me.  I'm not one who believes in higher powers in the traditional sense, so bhakti involves acknowledging all those who came before me and all those who will follow, each carrying the thread of our work through time.

The most common Western belief about karma is that "karma" involves judgement or values-"Karma's a bitch;" "That's some good karma she's got going there." In reality, "karma" simply refers to "action."  Karma is neither good nor bad; it simply is. We do something mindfully; we do our work, whatever it is, without concern for the consequences of our actions. (It may be that Newton's Third Law was pressed into play here:"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." If that's so, we could be in trouble, because, well, what is the opposite reaction to doing good? "No good deed goes unpunished?")

So, when I say that knitting is part of my karma yoga practice, I simply mean that I knit.  I knit, spin, weave, teach, because that's what I do, what I must do. The socks may warm my feet or someone else's; they may end up stuffed in a drawer or packed off to a thrift shop or even (although I hope not) in the landfill.  I knit and there are socks.  I teach and then I've taught things. I do these things to the best of my ability, mindfully. That is all. If pride or the urge for self-promotion sneaks into the mix (and it always does), then it's no longer a karma practice. These things mean the Ego has landed and I have to work to get it back in flight and on its way again.

Finally, "Raja" yoga is "the yoga of Kings."  The practice has a literal connection to monarchs and royalty, but beyond that, raja yoga might be thought of as the over-riding principle of all yoga.  If we practise to apply all of the paths of yoga to our lives-jnana, bhakti and karma-it may be that we are practising raja yoga, the yoga that will lead us to meditation, to glimpses of how all things connect.  If you are making an effort to "Live your yoga," or "Live your beliefs," or however you place yourself in the larger context of all things, then you are a raja yoga practitioner.

Whew!  I can see the eye rolls from my house-this is all deep stuff for something that involves sticks and strings.  If it reads as pretentious to you, I understand, because this is what happens when I write about things which can only be explored in action. What all this boils down to is that I am a perfectly human being attempting an imperfect yoga practice. What started out as an asana practice has grown into something larger, with many more paths to explore.  Most of the time, I don't think about the connections.  Most of the time, I just do my thing, knowing that I may be full of shit about all of it. That's how it should be. Most of the time.

In the mean time, I have socks: