Saturday, May 16, 2009

Square 4: Lessons from knitting

Story blanket square 004

Many artists are plagued by perfectionism; I seem to suffer from the opposite. Sure, I can be very picky when I choose to. When preparing a written piece for publication I can become a fussy self-editor. Alright I admit, I can meddle with a casual email or blog post for hours to get the words just right, especially when there is something more important I should be working on, so maybe I have a tight orifice somewhere. But generally when I'm knitting, drawing, doing photography or writing a poem I just do it and enjoy the ecstasy of creative absorption. When it comes time to PhotoShop an image, rip out stitches, twiddle, tweak, revise or correct mistakes, I lose patience and would rather move on to something new and fun.

I tend to knit things for myself, so who cares if I have the wrong number of stitches, or knit when I should have purled? No one else will look closely enough to notice. When I make something for one of my daughters it will frequently be for a birthday or special day. At 3:30 a.m. on Christmas morning I am not about to rip out five rows to get that seam just right.

Usually I am grateful for this personality trait. I do not admire the way perfectionists can torture themselves. "Will I ever get this right?" "This is just bad!" "I am a lousy writer, lousy mother, lousy whatever." "I do not deserve to live." I think I am happier in the Meatballs camp: "It just doesn't matter!"

But last year when a friend commissioned me to knit a hat, that changed. I didn't want to miss a single stitch. It was one of Danny's traveling rib hats, the most challenging pattern I have undertaken. I had to rip out work many times to master the technique. The cost of perfection was high, but in the end I had never been so satisfied with a knitted piece.

From that experience I learned not only some kick-ass knitting skills, but also tasted the pay-off of great patience.

When I finished and moved on to another project for myself, one which had lain idle for almost a year, I determined to do the same. It was an entrelac scarf using Noro Silk Garden colour no. 249. It is my favourite yarn ever. The palette seems to be drawn from a Van Gogh painting like Wheatfield With Crows. I wanted the scarf to be exquisite. There would be no mistakes this time!

I taught myself the entrelac technique from Debbie Bliss's book, How To Knit. More experienced knitters have told me entrelac is too hard for them. Sure, it was a challenge. The first few rows were excruciating. When I got a quarter of the way through the scarf, I noticed that my guage had changed as I got the hang of the technique. I didn't want one fat end and one snug end, so I ripped out hours upon hours of work and started over.

Thing is, I never got tired of working with that gorgeous yarn. Watching the colours blend and contrast, row after row, became a zen experience. I was mesmerized and delighted. I had bought four skeins of yarn for the scarf, but was disappointed when it started to run out. Not that the scarf was too short. I just wanted to keep knitting. In the end, it was my favourite thing I have ever knitted (I'm wearing it in the icon on this blog).

The blue and orange yarn in this square were left over from that scarf. It is a reminder of two important lessons.

First, perfectionism has its place. You might notice errors in some of the squares of this blanket. The first peice was my first attempt at a mitred square. Starting out, I decided to leave some of the flaws alone. After all this is my life, and mistakes are part of the story. But so is excellence, and hopefully that will emerge in the course of this adventure.

Second, the right materials and technique will turn a chore to pleasure. I suppose every artist must learn this lesson somehow, sometime. During the past year I have discovered my own deep well of patience. Yes, I can stick with a big project when it engages my senses and curiosity. It was this self-knowledge that inspired me to launch The Yarn.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Square 3: Danny

Story blanket square 003

This square is for Danny, who taught me how to knit. He gave me the crimson yarn, one of his favourites left over form an old project. Crimson, the colour of love!

He also gave me the idea of inviting friends to participate in this blanket by donating yarn. The stories come from my life, and my friends are part of that.

That's all the story I have for this square, so I'll take the opportunity to tell you how to participate. If you are a knitter like Danny, hopefully you will have some cherished remnants from a finished project and a story to go with it. If not, or if you are a non-knitter, feel free to donate yarn anyway: something that speaks to you, about you or about me. Worsted weight is preferable (just ask at a yarn store), but I can accommodate other sizes, too. Any questions or suggestions?

The mailing address is Van Waffle, Box 115, 3-304 Stone Road West, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 4W4.

I bought a few skeins of two dark colours of Cascade yarn (this dark green and the dark purple in the previous square) to use throughout the blanket as a unifying element, so they will appear frequently.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Square 2: Mom's chemo cap

Story blanket square 002

When Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, she initially resisted taking any treatment. She had led a clean, healthy life and never spent a night in hospital since I was born in 1964. Chemotherapy and radiation would make her sick, and she did not want to be sick.

It was a hard stance to take and I think most of the family did not understand, but when she told me about it I said, "It's your life and your choice to make." Of course I wanted her to stay alive as long as possible, but I meant what I said. She was grateful that I was prepared to accept her decision, and willing to listen.

Eventually she changed her mind and accepted the oncologist's recommendation of a course of chemo. It made her sick for a year. It burned her mouth and she lost the ability to taste most foods.

Her hair fell out. I knitted a beanie for her with one of my favourite yarns, Noro Silk Garden. I don't know whether she wore it much. It was probably too colourful for her taste, but I know she cherished the gift. Our relationship had had some trouble, but during her battle with cancer we became close again.

After the treatment she had another healthy year. Then in 2005 we learned the cancer had reappeared in a lymph node. The road got harder from then on.

In the summer of 2007, when we knew that the disease was terminal, I asked her how she felt about the prospect of death. Once again she seemed grateful that I was willing to talk about it. She said she felt lucky to have learned the value of a day. Some people go through their entire lives and nothing makes them stop to think about it, so she was grateful to have learned to savour every one.

I said: "I understand. I have learned the same thing from battling with depression."

That surprised her, and I couldn't explain it, but it was true. I was happy for the glimpse of insight we shared into one another's lives.

Mom died peacefully, at home, on February 20, 2008. The blue and purple Silk Garden in this square, a remnant from Mom's beanie, reminds me to make the most of each day, because even the hard ones are worthwhile. To live that way is the best way I can think to honour my mother.