A Revelation, of Sorts

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The summer days roll on by, an ice-cream swirl of open swim and lazy mornings, library books and watering the flowers, Ikea trips and riverside afternoons. It's already August, and time is about to enter super-speed. At night, I knit, and knit, and knit, listening to the sound of evening traffic and neighborhood noises through the open windows. Never has there been a more perfect summer to knit, as the weather here still continues to be entirely civilized in every respect, while the rest of the country and the world is more or less on fire. Not here. Here it is cool in the morning, hot in the afternoon, sometimes cloudy. Occasionally it even rains. It’s vacation weather, come to life.

One fine day, Amelia and I went to JoAnn's to get yarn for a new ballet sweater. I've made two in the past, and both went unworn due to "scratchiness." I didn't think they were scratchy, but she did. One got given away and one sits unused in the sweater basket. Thought I, "That's it." Off to get some very soft acrylic yarn we went. She needed black (there's a dress code) so it was not hard to find. We settled on Premier Yarns Everyday Baby. I had two 50%-off coupons, and got two skeins of yarn, totalling $4.99. I knit the sweater and — great experience. The yarn was nice. It did not annoy me at all. It says it's anti-pill. She deemed it soft enough. I was PSYCHED that it cost five dollars.

Amelia is almost seven and has no sweaters that fit her. I went zooming off to my computer to find more yarn. Everyday Baby comes in colors I don't like. I wound up ordering Stylecraft Special DK and Paintbox Simply DK and Schachenmayr Bravo. The color palettes of each were huge, and I could make a sweater for, again, about $6. This was astonishing.

I spend, in general, a lot of lazy time late at night or with coffee at 5 a.m. browsing Ravelry for patterns. For me, the browsing is a huge part of the creative process, and I love it. The new yarn came, and I started re-looking at every sweater pattern ever written for kids in DK-weight and worsted-weight yarn. I'm not kidding. I looked at hundreds and hundreds of sweaters. It was weirdly relaxing. I knew what I wanted. Naturally, I could not find a pattern for it. How is this possible. Hundreds and hundreds, literally hundreds, of sweaters. Oh, Alicia. . . .

I thought back to 1995, when I was trying (again) to learn to knit. I wrote a long blog post about that here. I still find it very moving to read, if I do say so. I think part of why it moves me is that I hadn't often done things in my life that I wasn't good at, or that didn't come naturally to me. Knitting did not come naturally to me. I tried to learn to knit several different times, many years apart. The fact that I stuck with it mystifies me; it was not my style not to quit. I must have really wanted to learn, and I don't know why I did. I didn't really know anyone who knit, it was years before there was any sort of internet community around crafting, Pinterest didn't exist so there were no pretty pictures to be inspired by, and . . . I don't really know why it was so important to me that I kept trying to do it.

If you read the post I wrote in 2010, you'll see that I took a beginner class at a knitting shop in Missoula, sometime around 1996, and it didn’t go well. In retrospect, it affected me profoundly. The teacher was super intense, and went so fast. I remember thinking at the time, "This is seriously the last person I would think would be a knitting teacher." She was like a hummingbird. She had a frantic, edgy energy. I was a frantic, edgy person. I fumbled, exasperated. Her voice was high and fast. She wasn’t trying hard. She made hats for Andie MacDowell's kids! She knew so much and I was lost. Her knowledge came flying out, making the room spin. And her first rule of knitting was only ever knit with wool. Only wool. I was so intimidated by the whole experience that I think I internalized that directive on command. Only ever wool. (Years later, when I finally learned to knit here in Portland, the first thing I made was a baby sweater for my niece out of a super fluffy mint-green acrylic novelty yarn, and I remember that there was freedom — my new teacher had told me to pick anything! — but also guilt in that choice.) I have hardly used 100% acrylic since. Not that I have always used wool, far from it. I've gone through phases. Alpaca is okay but stretches out of shape. I don't like cotton at all. Bamboo and silk are much too shiny — I hate any kind of sheen in my yarn, generally. Ease of care has never motivated me — I'm always knitting and blocking something around the house, so hand-washing stuff is not a big deal (if I wash it at all, quite frankly). I think I was used to thinking that acrylic would be 1) too shiny and 2) not have any give to it, and so not feel that nice to knit with. Also: There are microplastics produced by synthetic fiber, and that is a major downside; I never feel good about consciously choosing to consume plastic and try pretty hard otherwise to do it as little as I possibly can. Hmmmm. Not really good. 

I was never a big Elizabeth Zimmerman fan, for no other reason than it feels so hard to just access the patterns and the writings somehow. Is it just me, about that? Maybe. The format, layout-wise, is totally daunting. I keep thinking that someday I’ll relax and dive in. People love her, and with good reason, I know. I have The Opinionated Knitter and I did try to read it once, but I just got so confused by both the crowdedness of the page layout and all the references to various newsletters that were out of print (when you wanted to follow the thread on something, for instance) or other books I didn’t have. I'd missed the EZ trend and kept stumbling, trying to catch up (go back?) afterwards. It's both charmingly and frustratingly analogue, in a way. Also, I'm still not a very intuitive knitter at all. She is the thinking-person's knitting teacher, and I don't like to be a thinking person when I knit, apparently. I like to be a direction-following robot so I can continue to stay with the plot of whatever episode of Vera I am on. Ravelry says I have knit over a hundred things. I would guess that almost none of them have deviated from any pattern more than the slightest bit to accommodate whatever yarn I had or, I don't know, something else small. I can follow a knitting pattern. Now I even write (doll) knitting patterns, even though I said I'd never write knitting patterns. Going off-trail does not come easily to me.

But I ran into this sweet little sweater by Adele Louise and I just had to make it. I literally became obsessed with this sweater for Mimi. That happens sometimes. It's a heady feeling. There's desperation involved, some mild bewilderment. Whyyyyyy do I care about this? I once spent hours in the middle of the night trying to track down a pattern for a pair of gloves I'd seen on a Norwegian Instagram account, with no reference to the pattern at all. I. found. it. Silly "problems." I specialize. Adele Louise mentioned that she used the percentage system to calculate her cast-on and then all of the other counts for making a round-yoked bottom-up sweater. My eye twitched. I Googled "percentage system" and saw that it was an EZ–invented thing. And suddenly I remembered that first knitting class in Missoula, and how, for our first sweater, our teacher was having us make a sweater based on the percentage system. I didn't realize that that's what it was — the Percentage System, a thing — at the time. I was so confused and overwhelmed by it all. This is how you have to make something? She took my gauge and my measurements and did the percentages and the calculations and literally nothing was coming out right. My sweater, in my fraught, anxious, self-defeating hands came out miniature, practically felted from go. It all seemed much bigger than knitting. It was much bigger than knitting. I never finished the sweater. I have no idea why it wasn't working, or what I was doing wrong. I threw it in a bag and never looked at it again. (Also, the sweater was made from Lamb's Pride Worsted, which is wool and mohair and is what I use for my doll hair. I would literally never be able to wear a sweater made out of this yarn. It is way too scratchy for me [personally]. But it was wool I could afford.)

2019. Adele Lousia's knockoff, then: I got my gauge with the copper-colored Stylecraft (4.5 sts/in) and took Amelia's measurements. I did the calculations and wrote them in my notebook. I worked out the lace pattern from my dear Nadia's original pattern on my cast-on number. I had a plan. I kept going. I figured out how to join the sleeves to the body at the yoke and still stay in lace pattern. I kept measuring. The yoke should decrease at a specific rate, three times, and wind up a certain length (5 3/4"). I kept going. I kept going. I finished it.

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It's a weird, sort-of full-circle knitting experience (that apparently took twenty-five years), with major thanks to not only Elizabeth Z. but Adele Louise and Nadia Crétin-Léchenne, who has inspired my knitting for years and years. And even my first teacher in Missoula, whose name I have no idea of anymore. The yarn blocked out soft and drapey, with nary a shiny highlight in sight, and fits my darling child like a dream. I am so proud of this.

74 comments

Amanda Schnabel says: August 02, 2019 at 09:57 AM

You are such a gifted writer and you have made my Friday afternoon! Giggling about following pattern directions exactly while watching a British TV show--you summed me up in one simple sentence--and, made me happy knowing that for as often as we feel "no one knows what we're going through"--there most certainly is someone! Thank you for sharing your gift of inspiration, of words and of course, your stunning, stunning photos!

Thanks for inspiring me for about the millionth time!

I love how the sweater turned out. It looks so wonderfully cozy and is a brilliant color. I think Amelia's hair will absolutely gleam next to the richness of the copper!

I have a similar relationship with sewing. I rarely, if ever, sew. It's an utter challenge for me and more often than not I cry when I am stuck/confused. While I'm not in the same place you are as a sewer, I know I will get there if I keep trying. Thankfully, my mother is an immensely patient woman and will always help me when I struggle.

What a wonderful story of trial and error and success! The sweater is beautiful, but I've thought each thing you've done since I found your blog - has been perfect. I'm glad you're enjoying the summer. Mine has been marred by the death of my nephew a week ago and then just days after that, the sudden death of my beloved older sister. We bury her tomorrow. :-( Thank you for letting me lose myself in your wonderful images for awhile. ((hugs)), Teresa

I’m thinking that was probably NOT a beginning knitting class you took in Missoula! I’ve even to a yarn shop in Missoula, Siren Song, and they finally closed a few years ago.

I know what you mean about becoming OBSESSED with finding a certain pattern. I’m that way sometimes about artwork, artists, Quilt patterns, Quilt fabric, knitting patterns, yarn etc. it’s exhaustin! I guess in this was the internet is both a blessing and a curse!

Lois Clark says: August 02, 2019 at 03:18 PM

Love your site! The only one I follow all the time! Love the pictures, and your cottage! Thank you for sharing your family and life with us!

Wonderful post as always! All crafting makes me too frustrated and impatient, but I love seeing the beautiful things other people create. And your writing and photographs are so evocative and lovely. Do you follow Marian Parsons, Miss Mustard Seed? While her work is mainly about paint and decorating, she reminds me of you and your blog, in the simple beauty and inspiring self-expression. And I'm envious of your weather; while we've had some nice days here in Minnesota, we have so many darned biting BUGS.

t.a.knight says: August 02, 2019 at 07:22 PM

Yes! As a new knitter I loved zimmerman look and found her method completely overwhelming.\ But forward 10 years and I now can get it. She is not for the beginner. And the lila cloud. My favorite. My girl loved it so and I sized it up very successfully to a 12. Vintage acrylic shiny awful yarn she found in my moms basement from the 80s. But you know what its shimmery white and washes great every time and does look just like a cloud.

This makes me want to revisit crocheting. I know how to knit (rudimentary) but have always been drawn to the lacy quality of crotchet. I enlisted my grandmother to teach me and she deemed me "too tense" after several tightly bound failed attempts and advised me to chill out a bit before trying again. It's been 30 years so I think I'm chilled out enough. I just need to find someone to teach me.

Mimi's sweater is perfect! I wish I had been your knitting teacher---I would have given you lots of chocolate and made it fun. I have all of EZ's books and have read through them many times, but I think she had a family of incredibly average, medium-sized people. No one had a big belly that made them look nine months pregnant, or a hump between their shoulder blades or was huge busted, so she doesn't really tell you how to make sweaters that fit real people with real bodies. I tried to make my ex a sweater with her percentage system, and while the chest measurement was huge, the neck opening was American Girl doll size. It seemed tragic at the time.

Jerry L jones says: August 03, 2019 at 05:15 AM

oh your little girls sweater is so beautiful !! I knit one pair of mittens 40 years ago..LOL....my Mom was a beautiful knitter , she sold her creations in stores in our city...I loved to sit by her in the evenings and hear the tick tick of her needles , and to hold up my arms for her to put her yarns around..she taught me to knit ..I love to look at knitting ,but I have never mastered it , just that once ...I miss the joy of being in close proximity to knitting !Your writing brought that feeling back to me , thank you! Karen Jones.

Lovely, lovely sweater and those cute dolls! I had to laugh a few times with your knitting story (which I can relate to in many ways). I do knit and crochet, but knitting does not come easy to me. Even many of the directions are mind boggling. I have to purchase yarn from a knit shop because if I have a problem I can run over for help. My method for buying yarn that feels soft is I place it by my neck - surprisingly most of them feel scratchy even though they do not feel scratchy when I feel it with my hand. I, too do not like scratchy yarn. Shops usually have expensive yarn though and if I had more "experience" I would buy from Joann's too. Maybe I just need to devote more time to knitting and get beyond the fear! Thanks for sharing - as always enjoy all your posts!!

How can she be almost 7?!?!...I understand what you mean about the wool, almost everything I ever knit for my g-sons were deemed "itchy". I gave up. Now theres really nice superwash for kids and I so appreciate that. Here in maine we ar are having your summer, too hot to do anything. And we MAiners have such thick blood to survive the winters we are all laying down...too fatigued to enjoy the summer. Hopefully it will pass. Amelia has the most beautiful widows peak Ive seen, she 'll never be able to have bangs but that peak is too pretty anyway. I miss it out there and need to come see my nieces who live there. Looks like a wonderful summer!

I was so hoping the pattern came in a whole range of sizes, 1 to 14! I have Elizabeth Zimmerman's book, well one or two anyway, but it always seemed too tricky. I change patterns all the time but I've never figured out percentages and continuing lace patterns into yokes.... My granddaughter is Mimi's age and I know she'd love that sweater. Can I do it? Will I take the time to figure it out?
The next part, wool vs. acrylic. My mother taught me to knit and had to same rule, wool only. While my granddaughter doesn't find wool too itchy, she got the last sweater (pale pink) very dirty before I offered to wash it. My daughter felted a couple of sweaters before handing them over for me to wash. Acrylic sounds like the perfect solution to the felting problem.
What about the cake and the delicious looking shrimp, egg, avocado concoction? Your anniversary?
I'm off to review percentages, gauges and all the tricky stuff!
Thanks for the inspiring post!!!

Anniewiththeducks says: August 03, 2019 at 09:05 AM

Your blog is such a peaceful place-the beautiful photographs of where you live, your darling girl growing up and all of your crafts. I guess I have been reading your blog since Mimi was very little and never got around to reading older posts or somehow missed that you were sort of new to knitting. Looking at your beautiful sweaters and clothes for Mimi I would have guessed that you had been a seasoned knitter from birth! Everything you knit is gorgeous and you have inspired me. I, too, don't know what it is about knitting-something zen I think in the rhythm of the stitches that allows your mind to wander as you create-so very soothing.

Very interesting origins of knitting story. Someone should write a compilation story of how/when people learned to knit (prior to YouTube, too). I was taught at 11 years old in boarding school in the mid 70s. I was homesick and miserable and the woman and who taught me was firm but not especially kind. I picked it up again at 31 years old and my hands remembered how to do it. It’s scares me to think of I could have almost lived a life without the pleasures of yarn and needles.

I love this SO much and that sweater is adorable! I remember your first post about knitting and probably commented back then, too. It doesn't come easy for everyone, for sure. My babysitter taught me to knit when I was 6 years old and sent me home with a set of knitting needles and some cobalt blue yarn. I could do the knit stitch really well, but never learned to purl. :) Increases and decreases were baffling to me! After I was married a friend finally taught me the purl stitch. She helped me chose a pattern and I made a sweater, which I never wore (but still have) because my gauge changed and one sleeve was much larger than the other. In recent years I've taken both online and in person classes and was finally able to knit a cabled sweater that I love. I tell my husband that I want to be buried in it. :) It was a long journey and maybe a metaphor for life. xoxo

Enjoyed this and your learning to knit post very much. I learned “American” style in college but at my first real job my supervisor was Norwegian and said that wouldn’t do. She taught me Continental style, so much easier for me. Britt learned in grade school as was their practice and she was an excellent teacher and knitting role model.
She taught me to fearlessly repair errors. I remain grateful more than 40 years later.

Oh my word, hearing about your very first knitting class just made my blood boil. I can’t believe what your instructor said! I used to teach the beginners in the knit shop I worked in years ago and the first thing I always told my students were their were NO knitting police!!!! If it looked good to you that’s all that matters! Also to buy the best yarn YOU can afford. If it’s at Michaels or JoAnn’s, that’s just fine and they sell very nice yarn. One large class I taught we had an 8 year old in the class and she hadn’t gotten there yet and I told the other gals, now this little girl will pick it up quickly and take off and I don’t want any of you to be discouraged or intimidated, but that’s what will happen. One asked why that was and I said because kids don’t think or question it, you show them what to do and they just do it. And that’s exactly what this sweet little girl did. After the class 3 gals thanked me for the heads up on that. So, what I’m getting at is knitting should be fun and relaxing and important to find the right fit on learning whether a kind patient teacher, a good how to book, or you tube. But good for everyone not giving up on learning a new skill. Decades ago I taught myself how to knit from a booklet called 10, 20, 30 minutes to knitting and THREE day’s later I was doing it!!!!

This sweater is GORGEOUS! I am also a bit obsessed when I am inspired by a picture. I once looked for a quilting design (I am a quilter by obsession) for TWO solid weeks (I mean 3-4 hours a DAY) and I.found.it.! I can tweak a quilting pattern any which way, but knitting...STICK to the pattern! lolol! Your summer looks golden...

Alicia, it gives me such hope that even you have struggled with knitting! I took a class in a yarn shop back in 2007, and while the actual knitting and purling came to me naturally enough, following an even slightly complicated pattern still intimidates me. Somewhere along the way I always make a mistake and don't know how to fix it and give up on the thing in frustration. Except for socks, which I seem to be pretty confident at making now. I'd love to be able to make (not to mention wear) a sweater like that--maybe someday! Your writing inspires, as always. :)

Sigh. I envy those that knit. I crochet and no matter how I try, knitting just
has me perplexed. I haven’t given up yet. I will keep trying. It’s on my bucket
list. And I’m starting to see more time behind me than in front of me! So, I
will try again and hope time will be my friend.

I remember years ago first ordering an Elizabeth Z. book and thinking I had discovered the Holy Bible. Then “The Principles of Knitting” came along and it was like the second coming. I am a technical knitter; I revel in finding new methods & techniques to improve my less than perfect knitting. I so share your love of the craft; I have carpel tunnel in my dominant hand & crushed vertebrae in my upper neck but I just cannot put the needles down! Ravelry is my late night obsession, including following you! Your ability to manipulate colour and design into the most beautiful creations is such a joy to see. And your latest projects are simply beautiful. Here in Canada our nights are still light late into the evening and provided we can keep the mosquitos at bay, my husband reads and I knit on our deck, while following the con trails of international flights. Soon enough we will have snow, but for now I share your love of late summer.

Your knitting journey sounds similar to mine. I tried for literally years to do it but everything i toughed was a mess. It was taking a class on Craftsy that finally clicked with me but even then it has been slow progress from cowls to hats and now finally sweaters! I adore Amelia's little red sweater and how nice it looks with that blouse. Did you have a lovely anniversary? your cakes always look so tempting. Some really beautiful photos here and i'm glad i am viewing them on my laptop instead of my phone (tho i'm missing the emojis). I'm excited for the doll pattern!

Ah, Elizabeth Zimmermann! I, too, found her patterns obtuse and too wordy. I am a bullet-point pattern fan, and do so like to have all the directions right in front of me before I start. It wasn't until about a decade of knitting that I "got" EZ and her percentage system.

The sweater you made is beautiful! Moving past a difficult first experience/teacher can be so hard, but feels liberating when it happens! Thank you for making acrylic cool :)

And I am absolutely jealous of your weather! My part of the country happens to be one of the ones on fire, albeit a very humid, sticky one. I hope your summer just melds into a delightful fall fo you.

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About Alicia Paulson

About

My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com

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Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.