Knitting Fail: the Top-Down Turtleneck Cardigan

This is the first knitting project I’ve done where I finished and said, Huh.  I don’t really like this.  And that’s a little sad.

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Let’s start by saying that this post is NOT about: this post is not about my out-of-focus cell phone photos, or my frowny face (mostly cropped) from the sun being in my eyes, or my lack of ironing on my tunic.  Stay focused, my friends.  This post is about the fit of this sweater.  Last summer, in anticipation of our Big Trip to Scotland, which I learned during my pre-trip research was going to be 30 degrees cooler than Atlanta, I knitted two sweaters: the Georgia sweater and the Top-Down Turtleneck Cardigan.  Both are made in the same Purl Soho Mulberry Merino yarn.  One is yellow and I lurve it.  The other is…this one.

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The color is divine.  The feel of the yarn is a dream.  It’s the fit that I don’t like.  At all.  I should point out that this sweater has not been blocked, a practice I am still a little scared to pursue, despite the fact that I knitted (knit?) seven sweaters last year.  And so I’m wondering: is that the problem?  Or is it that I just don’t like this shape on my body?

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Because here’s the thing about this sweater: the armholes are WACKADOO.  I mean, like sooooooo low.  Can you see that in these photos?  I generally prefer a higher armhole anyway, and looking back at the design and still photos of this pattern from the Purl Soho website I don’t think that the error is in my knitting or in their design–it’s just that it’s hard to really appreciate that the armholes are way down the body when the sweater is lying flat.  You don’t really see it until it’s on.

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And y’all, they are WAY down the body.  Like, almost my waist.  Certainly way below my bustline, which you can clearly see in this photo above.  Granted, my waistline is higher than the average person, but also: holy smokes.

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The yarn is BEYOND spectacular.  It’s a wool/silk blend and it’s completely amazing to work with, the kind of yarn that makes it hard to purchase yarn ever again, because once you’ve gone fancy it’s hard to go un-fancy.  And I think the knitting is pretty good work, if I do say so myself, and I do.  But in the photo above, you can see that the armhole stitches start to veer off?  I think the armhole should end about where the seam changes direction.  And it doesn’t.  It goes on for another, what, six inches?  INCHES?  On my body, that’s hugely unflattering.  I’ve learned through years of sewing that certain shapes will NEVER look good on me, no matter how great they look on the pattern envelope–it’s one of the toughest things to ever learn about sewing, honestly, that your body WANTS some shapes and will STRONGLY REJECT others, and that it’s OK.  Transferring that idea to knitting is trickier than I thought, because a sweater is just a sweater, right?

Nope.

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I love the *idea* of this sweater.  It’s a turtleneck cardigan, and speaking those words together give me joy: TURTLENECK + CARDIGAN.  I love the simplicity of the construction.  I loved the near-mindlessness of the knitting, even the short rows on the neck for shaping.  But I do not love the final fit.

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I MEAN, YOU GUYS.  LOOK HOW LOW THESE ARMHOLES ARE.

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I don’t feel pretty in this sweater.  I feel frumpy.  I haven’t blocked it, true.  I haven’t added buttons, also true.  But I am not motivated to do so, because currently, I am pretty bummed that the fit isn’t flattering.

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So here’s my question for you more experienced knitters: if I’m considering taking the whole thing apart and recycling the yarn (I believe the technical term is weeping frogging), should I block it first just to be SUPER SURE that I hate it?  Or do I call it now and just stop the hemorrhage?

Suggestions warmly welcomed, y’all.  I’ve had this experience with sewn garments before, and it can really derail your progress.  I made this sweater on purpose to pair with a lined vest, and there’s no chance it’s going to fit under those armholes as it is now.  Can it be saved with blocking?  And if not, will blocking make the yarn less usable for another project?

Side question for you SUPER experienced knitters: what measurements are you checking on the knitting pattern to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen to you?  On a sewing pattern, I know just how to look for that information, and how to apply it–there must be some parallel in knitting patterns, but I need help finding it.  Thank you, internet friends!

How To Sew On Patches

How to Sew On Patches By Machine | Whipstitch

For our children’s Junior Ranger backpacks, I worked hard to plan the design to enable the maximum number of patches to be added over the years.  Every Junior Ranger receives a pin when they are sworn in, and I’ve seen some children at various national parks with dozens of these on vests and jackets.

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Some of the parks, however, also award patches to their Junior Rangers.  They do these in different ways: some parks give the patch as a matter of course.  A few have levels of patch, based on the age level of the Junior Ranger in question, and kids can earn more than one patch at that particular park by completing more Junior Ranger activities on subsequent visits (this is usually only the very largest and most popular parks, like Yellowstone).  Other parks have it in the gift shop where it can be purchased–but only after showing the pin badge as evidence of Junior Ranger-ness.  Some, like Grand Canyon, also have them in the gift shop, but behind the counter where Junior Rangers must ask for them and then purchase.  A few (like when we visited Mojave National Preserve this spring) award the patch only if the Junior Ranger activity booklet is completed on-site, versus being mailed in after the visit.*  And others have no patches at all, or at least not any specific to the Junior Ranger program (although we have encountered a very, very small number that didn’t have SOME kind of embroidered patch available).

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I can’t entirely explain why I’m so obsessed with these patches, but I am.  I love that each one is so unique, I love that the come in different shapes, and I love how specific they are to the parks.  And my kids feel so excited to really EARN each one–the Park Rangers who award them take the whole process pretty seriously, too, and we have consistently found that they look at every page and every activity the kids have done, ask questions about what they’ve learned, and then swear them in with genuine solemnity.  So preserving and displaying them was a big part of the design consideration for these backpacks, and making sure that they’re not going anywhere was a big part of attaching them.

After the recent Total Eclipse of the Sun, I had new patches to add to our kids’ backpacks!  So I shot some quick photos while I was at it, in case you’re hesitant to start your own collection because you’re (1) not quite sure how to put them on or (2) worried they won’t stay put.  Have fun!  [NOTE: these are not Junior Ranger patches, although there is a Junior Ranger badge for the eclipse; you can find these same eclipse patches here.]

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Many, but not all, of the patches are adhesive.  You can tell if a patch does have heat-activated adhesive on the back by examining the wrong side of the embroidery–while many patches have a coating over the stitches, only heat-set patches will have a thick, slightly translucent or “tacky” backing.  It may even have a peel-away paper to protect the glue, which you can remove when you apply the patch.

fusible patches for sewing

If there is only embroidery thread and no coating, your patch is sew-on only; skip the next two steps at the iron, and instead consider using a sewable glue stick (like this one from SewLine) to anchor the patch in place prior to stitching at the machine.

press cloth for iron on patches | Whipstitch

If your patch is of the adhesive variety, you can stick it semi-permanently to the fabric with heat. Do this with a very hot iron and a press cloth.  Put the patch on the surface where you want it to stay, and be sure it’s squared the way you like.  For me, the heat setting is a temporary measure designed to hold the patch in place until I can stitch it down, but in some cases, it can be tough to sew a patch where you want it–existing seams can interfere, or the fabric may be too thick.  The adhesive on most of these patches is very strong, so if you do a good job of fusing it now, it will hold for a long time.

iron on patches | Whipstitch

Cover the patch with the press cloth, taking care not to jostle it out of position.  Lower the iron over the press cloth, and DO NOT PUSH.  We’re not ironing the patch in place, we’re pressing it down, so this is a vertical movement of lowering the iron, not a horizontal movement of pushing it across the fabric.  Hold in place for a solid, slow count of 10, then lift and lower again in a new position, slightly overlapping the spot where you previously fused.

Continue like this until every edge has been thoroughly heated–it’s the EDGES that really matter here, because that’s where the patch will peel up if it does.  Taking time to make the edges super fused and secure will ensure that the patch stays put.

checking the fuse iron on patch | Whipstitch

From there, determine if you want to stitch your patch in place in addition to fusing it.  For almost all of the patches on the Junior Ranger backpacks, that’s what I did, only skipping the ones that I just couldn’t get to on my machine (for example, the ones near the base of the front pocket).  You can test the quality of your fuse to help you make the decision: wait at least ten minutes, then gently tug at the edge of your patch.  You should feel no movement or tearing of the patch coming away from the fabric.  If your patch does peel away, either fuse again or move on to sewing it in place.

sew on patch | Whipstitch

For best results, and easiest sewing, I use lower feed dogs on my machine and use the free motion presser foot, which prevents me from having to rotate the bag or drag large amounts of fabric under my machine arm while I’m stitching.  If you don’t have a free motion foot, you can try your regular foot with a little Scotch tape on the bottom to help it glide; if you can’t lower your feed dogs on your machine, try setting it to a straight stitch at length ZERO.

Before sewing, be sure to match your thread to the outermost ring on the embroidery.  This will help it to blend and disappear the best.

free arm to sew on patches | Whipstitch

As you sew, stay in the rolled outer edge to best hide stitches in the “lip” of the embroidery.  Keep your stitches short and even, and slowly rotate the patch until you’re able to stitch the entire circumference.  For square or triangular patches, pivot at each angled edge to change directions.  Using your machine’s free arm makes this easiest with bags and the like, to give more freedom of movement.

sewing on patches | Whipstitch

Stitched on this way, these patches should last years to come! The same technique will work for adding patches to jeans, jackets and tees.  Easy fix for rips and tears, simple way to show off your affiliations and interests, and fun way to embellish your clothing.

Junior Ranger Backpacks with Patches and Pins

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I make a lot of things for my children.  I don’t often make things for them that I want to get out and play with when they’re not home.  This time?  Yes, I totally do.

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These are one of my very favorite projects I have made for my children: their Junior Ranger backpacks.

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We love, love, love the Junior Ranger program.  Sponsored by the National Park Service, it invites children from the ages of 5 to 15 to complete activities related to each of the more than 400 locations governed by the park system and earn a Junior Ranger badge.

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Channel Islands National Park, California

Kids can collect the badges, chart their visits to the various parks, preserves, recreation areas, monuments, trails and historic sites in the park system, and learn a ton along the way.

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To earn a badge, they request a booklet at the visitor center at the entrance to the park, complete the required number of activities–which range from mazes to writing an original story to designing a logo to searching the site for answers to clues or questions–and then turn it back in to the Park Ranger to be sworn in as an official National Park Service Junior Ranger.

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After our kids earned their first three or four badges, I really wanted them to have a place to keep them safe and to showcase them.  They worked hard for these!  They should get to display them.  We considered the Junior Ranger vests, and I thought about doing another bandolier, but neither of those seemed to have the practical use and over-the-years staying power that I prefer in a project.

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Enter: the Junior Ranger rucksack.

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This is an original pattern that I drafted based on measurements from my children’s bodies.  I was trying to strike a balance between being an appropriate size for my elementary-aged children now, and being something useful to them over the long term.  I have an image in my mind of them still treasuring these when they’re older, carrying them ironically in high school, even passing them along to their own kids.  Delusional?  Isn’t ALL the best crafting + parenting a little delusional?

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I used a very heavy green brushed bull denim for the exterior of the backpacks, and it was super dreamy to work with.  For once, I didn’t pre-wash, because I wanted to preserve maximum stiffness and body in the finished bags.  To the same end, all the exterior pieces were interfaced with black Shape-Flex to give them support with stiffness and no loft–I learned about this interfacing from Sara at Sew Sweetness, and have loved it ever since, especially for bags.

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There’s a large front flap that extends all the way to the base of the bag, giving a huge amount of acreage for future patches and badges.  There’s also an interior pocket with a zipper.  We’ve found over the past couple of years that the pin badges have a tendency to pop off if they’re exposed to rough handling and stress, so we’ve been adding them to the interior pocket to keep from losing them (I’m also considering anchoring the pin mechanism with a blob of hot glue, but I haven’t tried that yet–I’ll let you know how it goes).  The flap is held in place with two large magnetic snaps–the youngest got two small ones, because I ran out of the bigger size, and they really do need to be the larger snaps to hold snug.

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The zippers are standard off-the-rack zips (got mine from a dear friend who was de-stashing on Instagram, a shopping practice that I highly recommend!) and then I added these sweet little zipper pulls.  They make the zippers way easier to operate, but also lend a little professional look to the backpacks in general.

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The interior of the entire bag is lined in this National Parks fabric, which I think was released limited edition for the National Park 100th Anniversary celebration (you can still get some here, and from various sellers on Etsy).  I love, love this fabric, and was super excited to add it to these bags.  Like the exterior, I didn’t bother washing this before sewing, and I interfaced it lightly with a pretty standard off-the-rack fusible interfacing–similar to my all-time favorite Pellon 906F.

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There’s a small interior pocket on the back of the backpack, with the same little zipper pull as the front exterior pocket.  Doesn’t it just jazz the project up?  I matched the zipper pull to the zipper color on two, but on the third I didn’t have a good match, so it has pink zippers with yellow pulls.  It’s very ice cream-y and I lurve it.

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All the edges are bound with bias tape made from the same denim.  It was thick to sew through, but the denim is kinda squashy (in a good way) and my machine + a heavy duty needle crushed it, maybe literally.  I love the roundness of the bias tape, and how simple it made it to create clean edges around the whole backpack.

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As I assembled the backpacks, I added some of the existing patches in places I knew I wouldn’t be able to reach later–so all the patches on the gusset were sewn before the bias binding was applied.  I measured the sides to be just wide enough to accommodate the average round patch, and then spaced them out to leave enough room for a D-ring on the side.

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These bags have backpack straps, obviously, but I wanted to leave the option of a shoulder strap at a later date, or for carabiners to hold water bottles, flashlights, and accessories.  Plus, doesn’t the little tab with the bright pop of yellow look RIGHT?

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Straps are made similar to the shoulder strap in Elizabeth Hartman’s Sewing Circle Tote, which makes a wonderfully sturdy and soft shape that’s just the right size.  They’re padded with Annie’s Soft and Stable, which I adore–just the right loft, plenty of support and softness.

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At the lower end of the strap, it’s attached to the body of the bag using standard slider hardware and this delicious poly webbing.  I accidentally ordered 25 yards of this stuff, but not really accidentally, it was just a way bigger roll than I expected.  But it’s so good!  And I’ve used it a ton.  Very sturdy and can put up with a lot of abuse, but the color is rad and it works so well with the forest green.

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I should note, though, that the poly webbing must be heat sealed before sewing to prevent unraveling.  If it isn’t, as we learned, the weave will come apart, and even though it’s sewn securely, the webbing will fall out of the stitches and fall apart.  It’s easy to prevent that: use a lit match or a lighter and hold the flame under the cut edge for just a few seconds. It will melt with just a little heat, and the ends will fuse, so that the weave holds over time.  Take care not to heat it too long, though, or it will scorch and blacken.

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Disneyland!

We have used the stink out of these this year, from our Spring Break trip to Southern California, which included Disneyland and five national parks; to visiting local national parks in our region; to flying to France this summer.  If I were to change anything–and I still may–I would have added a large chunky plastic zip at the top of the main compartment, because the kids really wanted to overstuff these, and gravity had a habit of working against them.  Other than that, they are very nearly the perfect kid hiking backpack, and I am excited to travel as many national parks as we possibly can with them as our kids grow!

Organizational Tools for Creative Folks: On My Desk

planning and organizing for creative jobs | Whipstitch

Over the years as I have grown Whipstitch and altered focus or direction, I have developed an ad hoc system for keeping organized through both short-range and long-range projects.  This isn’t a “system” so much as the means I use each day to keep myself on-task, to keep ideas in order so that they don’t get lost or misplaced, and to enable me to meet as many deadlines and goals as possible.

I have two big needs each day: I have to both keep track of HOW I spend my time, meaning the hourly obligations and expectations for each day as the clock ticks by; and I have to keep track of WHERE I spend my time, meaning which tasks I have prioritized above others and which ones I have gotten going but want to keep on track.  I have learned over the years that no planner really has space for both of these goals–my daily planner, which I’ll share below, does a great job with day-to-day and hourly, but doesn’t give room for note taking or brainstorming or long-range detailed planning (which includes taking a sewing project from “idea” to “on the hanger”).

So this isn’t a professional system by any stretch, and I see parts of it that represent a certain level of redundancy.  It’s also not at all, even remotely a system for people who desire to go all-digital, because I am a paper planner and writing ideas and tasks down makes them much more concrete to me than adding them to EverNote.  But it is a system that gives me room to keep track of my ideas AND my time, so I thought it was worth sharing for other folks who have a creative endeavor plus an actual life, because both of those are worth organizing.IMG_4125

All of these, with one exception, are tools I have used for at least three years, and that I rely on every single day–nothing that gets shelved and forgotten, these are what you’ll find on my desk, next to my laptop, every morning when I come into the studio to work.  I keep them up to date, and I review them occasionally to make sure I’m not being delusional about how much I’m getting done.  There is no question for me that they’ve helped me accomplish more in the last three years than I did at any other point as a business owner–and maybe as a human.  So when people on Instagram tell me I’m organized, or they seem impressed that I popped a casserole in the oven on delayed start before taking the girls to ballet class, I have these tools to thank.  Being organized is a habit and a skill–one that took me a LONG time to learn, but that has totally changed how I feel each day about how much I have accomplished.

organizational tools for creatives | spiral notebook | Whipstitch

SPIRAL FIVE SUBJECT NOTEBOOK: every idea + long-range plans

About six years ago, I bought a large spiral notebook during back to school shopping for my children.  I love school supplies, I love the excitement and the options and the designs and the PROMISE they invoke.  So I don’t know that I had a particular plan in place for the notebook when I purchased it, just a vague sense that I could find a place to put it.  Nothing could be simpler than a basic school notebook for tracking ideas, goals, plans and projects.

creative organization tools | spiral notebook | Whipstitch

I use mine to jot ideas, to make long-range plans that have multiple steps, to keep track of projects and how close they are to completion.  I’ve been using a modified “bullet journal” approach to making a table of contents that helps me know what’s where (although I was much better at this last year than this year).  I have one five-subject notebook per year, and have usually almost filled it up but not quite, which means I’m working with the perfect size.

One of the unintended benefits of using a different notebook from January to December is that if I remember an idea from some distant time in the past, I can usually narrow down when it was and then go find it in previous notebooks, all of which I keep shelved in my studio for reference.  I generally tuck smaller pieces of paper with measurements, sketches or corrections into the pages, and tab the pages with ideas that I go back to again and again.  Flipping through the notebook on occasion reminds me of Really Great Ideas! that I was super excited about but put on the back burner, and that’s fun, too.

organization for writers | moleskine | Whipstitch

MOLESKINE: one specific project, start to finish

Additionally, I have been using smaller moleskine notebooks to organize my writing for the Murder Mystery Quilt.  Each year, members of the clue receive a monthly mystery quilt pattern, which combines with patterns from all the other months to form a lap size quilt that helps them solve the crime in the chapters of a mystery story, which they read in a serial manner, one chapter at a time, delivered with the pattern itself.  The mystery stars Dr. Kitty Campbell, archaeobotanist, who uses her archaeological and botanical knowledge to solve mysteries in various delicious locations.

organziation for writers | inside a moleskine notebook | Whipstitch

Each small moleskine, aside from being easy to carry around and having wonderfully smooth paper, is just the right size for keeping a single storyline organized so that I have lists of characters, plot points, an overall outline, and a place to jot questions and ideas as a I write.  Plus, since these come in a six-pack from Costco, I have plenty of future stories that I can add details to over time, meaning that when I sit down to outline the plot, I already have a bunch of background information to guide me.

organization for creative jobs | day designer planner | Whipstitch

THE DAY DESIGNER: hourly and daily plans to combine regular life + creative work

My primary planner, though, in terms of getting me organized each day is the Day Designer.  I went on a hunt for the ideal planner for a creative business a few years ago, and looked at all the options.  This one was by far the best for me, and there are a few different details that make me feel that way.

organization for creative jobs | inside the day designer planner | Whipstitch

First, I love that every month has a monthly overview, and then each individual day has its own page (except weekends, which share a page).  I need to see BOTH in order to feel I have a handle on what’s happening hour-by-hour and day-by-day, and I love that a couple years back they added monthly tabs to make it simple to flip between overview pages and get a clear picture of travel, commitments, long-term projects and downtime.

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For the daily pages, the absolute GAME CHANGER for how I function and how much I get done is the two column design: on the left, I get an hour-by-hour schedule so that I can add in consistent tasks that create obvious boundaries for my time (when the kids go to school and get picked up, what days they have after school activities, when I have meetings), and then on the left, I have a bullet list of “to do” items.  Having these side-by-side seems like such a simple thing, but the truth is that it makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE.  I can easily see when my to-do list will absolutely not fit the windows of time I have available, and make allowances (and forgiveness) for when I know I won’t get to certain tasks.  (You can download a free sample of this page to try it out.)

Above that–both literally and figuratively–there is a TOP THREE list, and again, this is a feature that is such a game changer for me.  Donald Miller talks about making a top three, and paying attention to the fact that we don’t work at 100% all day, so scheduling yourself as if you do is foolhardy at best.  We work great at the top of the day, then at 75% and then at 50% and then we’re cooked.  So thinking through that to-do list and pulling out the three tasks that REALLY must get done each day while we are at our best, and ordering them apart from the other little tasks that eat into our time, makes a world of difference in terms of how much gets accomplished in those limited windows of time.

best planner for creative jobs | day designer | Whipstitch

I also love that the Day Designer leaves room to plan dinners, and to track income/expenses, and to offer gratitude each day, and to make notes to myself.  It really does cover a lot of bases, and if I were to only have ONE planner to replace everything else here, there’s a chance I could almost get by with this one alone–seriously, if looking at FOUR notebooks makes you feel crazycakes/think that I am, that’s cool, just go with the Day Designer.

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BEST SELF JOURNAL: turning long-term goals into short-term realities

I’ve added one more this year, however, and I’m liking it so far, although I confess it has some level of redundancy.  I found the Best Self Journal, and am using it to track and motivate my progress through shorter-term goals.  It’s set up on a 13-week cycle, which is right around three calendar months.  It allows me to drill down super specifically on THREE goals/projects/plans and then map out how to make them real in the space of three months.

It’s always so much harder to take ideas in our heads and make them concrete–I was really drawn to the idea that if we step back and look at how much time we really have (finite time, not “someday” time), we can figure out what it will take in practical means to actually see it happen.  If I want to learn to sew with leather, it helps me to select a project, but then I have to actually nail down the time to execute the project.  If I want to lose ten pounds, I can’t just visualize that–I have to have steps in place to get me there, incrementally.  If I want to launch a new sewing pattern, I have to be honest with myself about how many hours it will take to get that in gear, and then prep and plan those hours into my (already busy) days.  This tool helps me do that in a way that the Day Designer doesn’t.

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image via BestSelfCo; not my personal journal

I really like that the journal is set up to track weekly and daily, but even more than that, I like that I am forced to REWRITE my goals again and again, every single day.  I can’t really communicate just how much clarity you get when you have to re-phrase and re-define what it is you hope to achieve when it’s tied to a SPECIFIC END DATE.  It totally gets your rear in gear, you know?

I don’t use the hourly stuff on the left page (above), because I’m already doing that in my Day Designer.  Instead, I use this as an actual journal, like a diary of sorts.  I use the entire left page to write about where I am and how I’m feeling, what I’ve learned and where I’ve failed, and to brainstorm solutions to problems that haven’t quite worked themselves out yet.  I do this as a writing exercise each morning, and spend under five minutes on it.  But the effects last the entire day–I am more aware of the impact each chunk of time makes, and I am more reflective about what’s getting written down in my other three tools.

I appreciate that for some folks–in particular my ALL DIGITAL folks whose faces are absolutely horrified when I bust out a paper calendar–will look at four notebooks and think, Boy howdy, she’s making it harder than it needs to be!  (Spoiler: that’s my jam, don’t knock it).  But my focus is always on making the most of my time so that I can enjoy my PEOPLE more.  I have lots of ideas, and I could pursue those all day and all night–but I’d be in isolation, sewing and cutting and plotting in the dark.  What I want more than that is to narrow down my loooooong list of Things I Want To Do and drill into the few that will pay me the biggest returns, emotionally and professionally and creatively.  When I do that, I can use all the other time to spend with my husband and my kids and my friends and my community.  I hope at least one of these tools will help you do the same!

Great Women in Sewing: The Seamstresses of Manzanar

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I taught tenth grade for a long time.  Part of the curriculum for that level in the state of Georgia is to cover the Holocaust, a tough topic no matter where you live.  Here in the South, discussion of any type of racial or cultural discrimination inevitably leads to discussion of the legacy human slavery has left in our backyards.  As Oprah pointed out in an interview with Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and author of Night, we don’t compare our pain, and the heartbreak of the concentration camps can’t be held against the heartbreak of African slavery in the 19th century, but they both beg the question, according to Wiesel, “What is there in evil that becomes so seductive to some people?”

Heavy stuff for a sewing blog, I know, but I promise that I’ll bring it all back around.

When I was teaching this topic, I used materials provided for free by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to combat hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation.  They not only include primary documents related to the Holocaust and to the Civil Rights movement in the American South, but also the Japanese internment camps in the United States during the second World War.

The who in the what?  I had no idea what that was.  Japanese internment?  Like, concentration camps?  IN AMERICA?

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Yes.  In America.  And this year during spring break, my husband and my children and I visited the most famous of them: Manzanar.

You may not think you’ve heard of Manzanar, but you have.  If you watched the original Karate Kid, you saw Miyagi mourning the death of his wife and son–the telegram tells him they died at Manzanar.  If you loved the original Star Trek, you are familiar with Lieutenant Sulu, played by George Takei--who spent a part of his childhood living at Rohwer, another camp similar to Manzanar.  If you’re younger, in the past fifteen years you may have read a young adult novel called Farewell to Manzanar, about the experiences of children living there.

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It’s a hard story to tell.  Fearful that Japanese living in America would feel greater allegiance to the Emperor of Japan than to their adopted nation, the United States government made the decision to centralize Japanese-American citizens in camps like Manzanar for their protection.  The argument was that they were a security risk, and so the entire West Coast was made off-limits for anyone with Japanese ancestry, including both issei (those who were born in Japan and emigrated to the US, and who may or may not have obtained citizenship) and the nissei (those of Japanese ancestry who were born in the US, and were by definition all American citizens).

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The area of California set aside for Manzanar, west of Death Valley but east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is breathtakingly beautiful.  The mountains rise 6000+ feet above the valley floor, and the wind whips the snow from their peaks with a constant, tugging power.  The wind, the wind, the wind there never, ever dies.  It is an all-encompassing presence at Manzanar, as real as the buildings and the sandy soil that gets into every crack.  This is desert country, with desolate stretches that seem devoid of all life.  It is not a hospitable place to live.

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At the time of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, approximately 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry were living in the United States.  In a nation already rife with racial prejudice, the Japanese community found itself under concerted efforts to isolate and eradicate them.  Although many were born on US soil and fully citizens, processes were put in place to move all Japanese Americans away from the “military areas,” in this case defined as those parts of the country closest to Japan and thus at greatest risk from spies and Japanese on US soil loyal to the Emperor.  This included the entire west coast, from Southern California to Washington state.

In February 1942, with the US fully at war with Japan, Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and while it was not specifically worded with this intent, it authorized the removal of all individuals of Japanese ancestry, both immigrants and born citizens, away from Military Areas and to neutral territories–mostly to the central United States.  The camp at Manzanar was one of these evacuation areas.  Called internment areas or relocation centers, they were for all intents and purposes concentration camps for American citizens, on American soil.

IMG_2058It is a breathtaking place.  The air whips around you, the mountains tower over you, and the desert sand flies ahead of you as you walk the trails that were built by the hands of individuals who had only days to gather their worldly possessions, load onto buses with their families, and arrive at a destination where they knew nothing and no one, where even the buildings to house them had not yet been constructed.  The barracks would be built by their own hands after their arrival.

Left behind were businesses and homes, no longer considered the property of these individuals who had been denied due process and rights to citizenship.  When they returned, there would be nothing left.  The families were assigned registration numbers, their belongings were catalogued and confiscated, and by November of 1942, the relocation was complete and all those with Japanese ancestry had been transported to one of ten camps east of California.

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It is the reaction of this community that most astonishes me about this place.  They arrived at one of the most desolate and lonely locations I have ever encountered, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire–not that it mattered, because they were hemmed in by the desert and the mountains and they had nowhere to go.  In this place, they built gardens and ponds, homes and workplaces, cemeteries and hospitals.  The signs still stand at the National Site to mark where they would send their children to school over the coming years, where they would hold sock hops and weddings, where they would bury their dead and mourn their losses, celebrate victories and fight for peace.

Mrs. Mary Nagao | Seamstresses of Manzanar

We also saw there the factories that were built, built by Japanese who had been evicted from their homes and transported away from civilization, built so these individuals could voluntarily contribute to their nation’s war effort from behind their barbed wire fences.

The young men at Manzanar, as at every other relocation center, were given the opportunity to enlist.  They did so at disproportionately high rates, although doing so was challenging for many: in order to enlist, they had to denounce their allegiance to the Japanese Emperor, something the nissei (born in the US) could not do, as they had no loyalty to denounce–they were American citizens, and had no political ties to Japan.  The question was equally troubling for issei, born in Japan but immigrants to the US, because as Japanese citizens living in America, denouncing the Emperor would mean they could never return to the land of their birth, and despite their willingness to fight for the US, that was a difficult line for many to cross.  Eventually, the question was re-worded in a way that made it simpler and clearer to answer, without asking enlistees to claim or deny loyalty they did not hold, and thousands joined the 422nd Infantry, one of the most decorated units in World War II.

Back at the internment camps, women and men worked behind the scenes to weave camouflage nets for the army and to sew uniforms.  Alongside these factories, small cottage industries sprang up–tailors and seamstresses from their prior lives began to offer their services to the families inside the barbed wire and create clothing for them.  According to one source, one popular shop took in 220 orders a week, all sewn by hand until machines became available in 1943.  Residents of the camps refashioned World War I surplus garments into fashionable clothing, transforming pea coats and men’s shirts into dresses, dress shirts, slacks and skirts for families to wear.

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Having seamstresses inside the camps was essential not only for providing adequate clothing, but for basic necessities.  It took a full three months after the arrival of the buses before shower curtains could be sewn to allow internees to bathe in privacy–as many as FIFTY DOZEN to ensure that the common complaint that the communal showers lacked privacy could be addressed.

Eventually, seamstresses in the camp would also produce dish towels and aprons for the mess hall staff, and mailbags for the internal mail service.  They even made smocks for barbers.

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Sewing in the camps served other purposes, too.  It allowed the culture and identity of these families to continue.  When they arrived, they had no idea how long their incarceration would last–even if it would ever end.  The attempts of these families to bring beauty and tradition and a sense of belonging was essential to getting them through the years that would follow.

It also allowed them to build trust and lasting friendships.  While all but a very few* of these families was Japanese in origin, they were mostly strangers to one another, and forced to start over building networks and relationships.  The ability to create small gifts and tokens in a place where every resource was appallingly scarce offered them an important link to one another.

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I am tremendously grateful to the National Park Service for creating a memorial for the hardships that the internees endured, but even more than that, I am grateful for the snapshots of the lives they lived while inside the fences.  Many of the women and men who arrived at Manzanar did not know how to sew.  They learned while they were there–for work or for recreation or for connection and community.  For all those reasons.  And sewing was something that gave them meaning and purpose and relationship when all that had been taken from them.

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In a very real and practical way, sewing tied a large group of strangers together into a community.  Tensions still ran high, fights broke out, and life was difficult.  But there was something tangible in sewing that improved their time together and that leaves a legacy for us today.

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In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, acknowledging that the United States government had acted against due process and that the internment centers were unconstitutional.  It formally apologized for Manzanar and the other camps, and paid financial restitution to every family that resided there.  It took ten years of congressional lobbying by Japanese American groups to gain approval for the act.

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Sewing was not ancillary to the events of Manzanar.  It was not an afterthought or a footnote.  It was central to the experiences of the people who lived in the camps.  It was a skill that was brought with them from the outside, something that had value to those both within and beyond the fences.  It was an activity that made use of the time they had once their homes and jobs had been taken from them, a way for them to be useful again themselves.  It was a connection to the war effort, a partiotic activity that allied them with the nation they called home, working on American soil for American soldiers.  It was a community they built amongst themselves, a means of finding security and interdependence with others who shared their circumstances, a method of making something beautiful from an uncertain future.

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Sewing creates the world around us, in no small way, every day–in wartime and in peace.  It is not a secondary part of our days, or a secondary part of our lives.  It is literally the thread that ties us together.  Manzanar is a painful reminder of this beautiful truth, and remembering the lives that were lived there gives power to the magic that your needle wields.  I am grateful that this part of our history is memorialized, and is shared.  I was deeply affected by our visit there, and startled by how moved I found myself of looking at images of women sewing, women who but for time and circumstance, could have been me.

I am grateful for the seamstresses of Manzanar, unsung Great Women of Sewing.

We are all seamstresses.  We sew the world, together.

 

 

Many of the images in this post were shot by Ansel Adams on a visit to Manzanar.  You can see a teacher’s lesson plan for using these images, and access full-size files with educational copyright permissions, here.  Other images are direct from the National Archives, here.  All other photos were taken during our recent visit to the National Historic Site in California, where honorable American citizens insisted that the words “concentration camp” be used to give weight to the sacrifice of the families who lived there, despite political pressure to tone down the language of the signs at the site.
*One of my favorite stories from the National Monument displays was of a white American wife of a Japanese-born husband, who on learning that her husband and son would be sent to Manzanar and that she wouldn’t “have” to go, flat out refused to be left behind.  Over the course of the days before the buses left, she repeatedly packed her bags only to have them rejected by the authorities, as she was not Japanese.  They finally allowed her to accompany her family, and she lived with her husband and son at Manzanar until their release in 1944, stating that if they were going, she was going, and the government wasn’t going to keep her out.

 

How to Store Wool Yarn & Fabric

how to store wool yarn and fabric | whipstitch

When I started knitting, I realized I needed to think about storing my textiles differently.  For one good reason:  MOTHS.

Moths are the enemy of long-term textile storage, which we learned the hard way at our house from one vintage jacket purchased at a second-hand store that worked its way through three prized sweaters before we discovered what was going on.  Textile moths LOVE wool, which is why closets have been made of cedar and old ladies have smelled of naphthalene for decades.

With my fabrics for sewing, I admit that I didn’t think too much about storage, certainly not specialty storage.  I mean, cotton, right?  Fold it up, stick it on the shelf, done!  I have had a number of wools rolled up in a basket for years and never gave them a second thought, probably (and I’m ashamed to admit this, but it’s true) because I got them cheap at a closeout sale, so I didn’t ascribe any particular value to them.  Insert conversation about cost vs value here.  Sigh.

But yarn!  Oh, my, yarn.  One of the first yarns I really splurged on was from Purl Soho, their wool/silk Mulberry Merino blend, and even though I got that on 30% off sale, it was still GASP levels of pricey.  It hurt to purchase a sweater’s worth of this stuff–ten skeins, even at a discount, was a major chunk of change.  So I suddenly was enormously invested in thinking about how to preserve my precious new preciouses.

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Almost all of the yarn I have purchased comes in a plastic bag, so that’s how I’ve chosen to protect them.  Mostly, your choice is between storage containers or bags, anyway, and bags are inexpensive and take up very little space.  Plus, as an organizational tool, I like using very large zip top bags and placing one kind of yarn in each, either every skein I have of one color, or all skeins of one type, like sock yarns.

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We also liberally employ lavender oil to prevent pests (read more about that in this article, along with other tips for preventing moth infestation).  In every load of washed laundry, we use these dryer balls with a few drops of lavender oil to both freshen the load and to keep pests away (at the very least, I HIGHLY recommend using dryer balls with lavender in your linen loads, because it can make ALL the difference for kids who are reluctant sleepers–soothes them right off to dreamland!).  On top of that, for garments that can’t be laundered, we use small sachets with lavender flowers and oil, tucked into dresser drawers or on shelves in the closet, to protect our clothing.  Same idea applies to stored yarns and fabric, where sachets can be placed in bins or between bags of stored textiles to keep moths from eating their way inside.

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And don’t overlook the obvious: vacuum and dust often, to keep your collection fresh and keep an eye peeled for any developing pests.  When we discovered them in our closet chewing through our knits, they’d done some damage to sleeves and hems that couldn’t be repaired, but if we’d caught it sooner maybe there could have been some mitigation?  I don’t know, that’s what I tell myself now, as I’m spending weeks knitting a sweater and trying not to think about the ephemeral nature of all making.  At a minimum, you should be able to eliminate an infested item before the creatures move on to another pristine selection that you treasure.

Again, these tips apply both to fabrics AND yarns, including WOOL BLENDS.  Just because an item isn’t 100% wool doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be protected!  For basics on mothproofing before a problem starts, Martha has a list of tips–and she’s got you covered should you discover the little buggers nibbling away at your favorite wools, too.

Because making stuff is more fun when you don’t find holes in your fibers before you even get going.  Have fun, you guys!

Hand-Knitted Socks

Hand-knitted? Hand knit?  Whichever.  I thought at one point I would never, ever, ever knit socks.  The stitches are just soooooo tiny, you guys.

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But my friend Alexia assured me that once I got going they were really fast, and the appeal of knitting something that was so eminently practical was pretty strong.  Like when I started thinking about Sewing All The Things, the idea that another entire sector of my wardrobe had the potential to be Made By Me was hypnotic.

I cast on.  And then I ripped it out and I cast on again.  For some reason, getting the in-the-round thing going was super tricky for me, even though I’d done it before.  Finally, I got it going and started my first pair: Hermione’s Everyday Socks,  which I found on Ravelry (you can find me there as @whipstitchdeborah).  I used a beautiful yarn I scored from an IG sale with @skeincocaine (most aptly named IG account EVAR), and it’s lovely and squishy and soft, and did most of the knitting in the car on the drive back from Grand Canyon.

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These were much easier to knit that I would have expected.  And fun!  I know, I know.  But really, I’m not just saying that.  I can’t read in the car, and I want to talk to my husband, anyway, but I intensely dislike wasted time, and cross stitch while riding shotgun was just too finicky.  All the switching colors and splitting floss, yikes.  This is vastly more straightforward and easy to manage without making a mess.

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I got the first sock mostly done in the cozy car hurtling east on I-40 between Arizona and Atlanta, even working while we out-raced a winter storm to avoid getting stuck in Little Rock.  I cast on the second once we get home, as IG friends with far more knitting and sock experience than I have (I only wear them three months out of the year, after all–hooray for a warm climate!) suggested that starting to knit socks two-at-a-time was maybe a recipe for frustration, and learning sock “structure” by knitting them individually first would be a better approach.

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Maybe you’ve never read or heard people geek out about “turning the heel,” the point in sock knitting where you take the tube part–either coming from the top down or from the toe up–and make it “bend” to head the other direction at 90 degrees.  Most of the time, whenever someone uses this term, it is followed very closely with the word “magic.”  There’s a reason for that.  IT IS MAGIC.  There appear to be lots of ways of doing it, but they all seem to involve grabbing stitches that are headed north/south and knitting off them to head east/west.  It’s a little tricky and took me a couple YouTube videos to understand what I was sticking my needle into before making the next stitch, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty fun–and the results feel like you’ve just gotten your letter to Hogwarts in the mail.

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These are the completed socks, which have seen heavy wear, and have also faded every so slightly from washing.  I’ve been running them through the washing machine and then hanging to dry.  They are soft and squishy in a way that I never comprehended a sock could be before I knitted my own–even better than the $20+ socks from the outdoor store that you would swear are your favorite socks ever.

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Naturally, because it’s me and I can’t bear to do things the easy way if there’s any chance for there to be a method of complicating matters, I cast on a second pair that were far less simple: these are lace and mock cables, and they’re so, so pretty.  The pattern is the Monkey socks, and it feels wild and carefree compared to Hermione’s socks. The yarn is Sea Witch by House of a la Mode on StevenBe, and it was the colors that drew me in.

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I mostly worked on these on the sofa and at ballet classes; thought I’d only done half of one, but looky!  I find I am far more industrious than even I thought.  I set these aside for most of the spring, and worked on a sweater for my daughter instead–I don’t really like having more than one project ever going at the same time, for exactly this reason.  I had actually almost forgotten about these, and they’re still unfinished–and with the pattern, it’s not quite suitable for knitting during the church service, which I freely admit I do.

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The yarn overs–where you wrap the yarn around the needle but don’t stick it through a loop first–make the lace pattern, and they also feel wild and daring, because you’re basically making a hole in your knitting AND THAT’S JUST CRAZY.  The interaction of those strategically-placed holes and the winding pattern makes “leaves” and I think these might be the prettiest socks I’ve ever (almost) owned.

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I vaguely recall the heel on this being made differently from the Hermione heel, but it’s not a clear memory.  It looks pretty good, though, yeah?

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At some point this spring, I cast on a third pair, I think right before we left for our big family trip this summer as a project for the planes/trains/car while we were in France.  These are the same as first pair, but without the repeating pattern, so they’re basically just a plain sock in the same dimensions and with the same heel.  They’re FLOWN along, and are so pretty.  The yarn is a commemorative Prince colorway called I Wanna Be Your Lover, dyed by LushKnit and snapped up in one of her Instasales.  They’re bright and bold and PINK and I love them.

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I worked on these all the way to, through, and from France this summer, followed by on the drive back from South Florida to Atlanta after seeing family in July.  Because there is no pattern, it’s just around and around and around, which makes the time fly by and makes it easier to concentrate on conversation (or on finishing up the Harry Potter audiobooks which SAVED OUR LIVES when all three children had to sit across a single back seat in the rental car and were on the verge of eating one another–put on a little HP and TOTAL SILENCE while looking out the windows, enraptured!).

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I’ve just got to finish off the toes on these and they’re done!  I was traveling without a blunt darning needle, so I had to work a temporary solution on sock #1 to free my needles and cast on sock #2; so far, so good.

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Believe it or not, I tried to make them match exactly, but the “striping” effect didn’t play out quite the same between the two–one had big fatty stripes, and the other they’re a little skinnier.  But who cares?  And I don’t even mind at all that no one will know by looking at them that this is a commemorative Prince-themed yarn BECAUSE I WILL TELL ANYONE WHO STANDS STILL LONG ENOUGH.

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None of these socks are perfect.  There have been dropped stitches that I had to find and drag back up to the needle, which causes a little under-breath muttering that may or may not go over poorly at church.  There are a couple rows where something got away from me or where I split the yarn and didn’t get a smooth result.  I honestly don’t care.  I sincerely enjoyed knitting all of these, and wearing them will make my winter so much cozier.

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Finishing is FUN!  I had read people complain about the Kitchener stitch, which makes an invisible join along the toe but requires “sewing” the toe closed, but once I tried it, I loved the repetitive nature of the stitch and found it pretty easy to pull off.  As long as I could remember the steps, that is.
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Why bother to make socks, then?  Seriously? It IS a lot of work, and I do live in a climate where it’s over 80 degrees for six months out of the year.  Is this really the best investment of my time, if we’re being analytical?

The truth is, they really do feel amazing.  So, so much softer than I can describe.  Plus, unlike a lot of other shapes, it’s simple to knit with large sections that don’t require referring to the pattern.  Knitting socks is easy to transport, which gives it an advantage over almost every garment sewing project, and they’re quick to complete.  I like that as you’re working on socks, everyone can tell what it is, deflecting lots of irritation questions about your “what is that, crochet?”

And maybe the strongest argument: sock yarn is SO PRETTY and very affordable.  I may or may not have two dozen more colors waiting to go–which gets me one step closer to, well, maybe not a 100% handmade wardrobe, but at least one where 100% of the categories have at least one handmade option in them.  It’s a mountain I am willing to climb–in hand knitted socks.

Fiesta Fun Fabrics Romper for Summer

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I first met Dana through a benefit auction online.  I offered up one of the dresses I used to design, and she was the second bidder–outbid by a dollar.  And we bonded over how, in a benefit/charity situation, maybe our goal shouldn’t be winning the auction by the least amount possible, because maybe the goal isn’t winning the auction, but rather making an impact and the “winning” is icing on top.  We became fast friends.

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Last Chance to Find Your Sewing Buddy for 2017!

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TODAY is the final day to register for the 2017 Sewing Buddy Project!  After nearly a decade and over 1000 sewing friends matched, the Project is here to find you your perfect sewing pen pal!  A one-time fee gets you hand-matched to another sewing enthusiast for a year of sewing prompts, chances to connect, and the kind support of someone who really GETS you.

Already registered?  Don’t forget to log on to your account and visit the main group page to complete the Google doc with your information in order to be matched!  Matches will be emailed directly to your inbox by Feb 2, 2017.  I can’t wait to introduce you to your new sewing best friend!

Find Your Best Sewing Friend: The Sewing Buddy Project

sewing-buddy-button-2017At the beginning of 2010, I sent out a quick survey to see what it is that most of us see as the reason we aren’t able to successfully get our sewing goals met each year.  Is it time?  Or how much space we have to work in?  Is it lack of accountability?  Or something else?  The answers were varied and came from all over the globe, and I was fascinated to see what everyone had to say–and even more fascinated to know how many of us are having the same experience, despite very different backgrounds!

The results of the survey said that all of us had some goals to meet–goals we’d been sadly ignoring in years past.  Some of them were expected, and others were a surprise–not all of us felt the same way about every aspect of our goals and obstacles, but there was a lot of overlap in the answers.  Want to see my super-scientific-I-have-a-social-sciences-degree analysis of the answers that were submitted?  Here ya go!

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