Prairie knit companion

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As often as I can, I look around and marvel at my good fortune. It nestles around me everywhere in the dear family and friends that I have, the basic comforts of life that I try not to take for granted, and the fulfilling work that I have always had the pleasure to do.

Yesterday, the publication of the booklet pictured above reminded yet again of how lucky I am. Prairie Bliss (book 1) is a collection of gorgeous knitted and crocheted patterns by Austin-area designers, commissioned and published by Hill Country Weavers, an equally gorgeous yarn store that has been thriving here for more than 30 years. And I feel very lucky indeed to be a part of it.

With this and several previous design collections, HCW’s owner, Suzanne Middlebrooks, has savvily grabbed the age of internet craft by the horns. Rather than despair at the rise of online commerce, the store has positioned itself both as a physical respite from the internet’s intangibility (Google still can’t help you feel the yarn, I’m afraid) and as a destination for web-savvy customers.

Today’s knitters and crocheters are hungry for well-crafted, independent design that uses well-crafted, independent yarns. These collections go right to the heart of that hunger, using yarns like Brooklyn Tweed’s Shelter, MadelineTosh, Sweet Georgia, Habu, and the Fibre Company.

Suzanne has always asked us designers to take our inspiration from both the yarn and Austin’s unusually rich environment (physical and cultural). The photography for these collections (by the very talented Kennedy Berry and Meg Rice) reflects that same heady blend.

One of my favorite designs in the most recent book is the Enchanted Rock cardigan by Jennette Cross. If you haven’t come across Jennie’s finely crafted pieces yet, take a look. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of this brilliant designer, I can guarantee you.

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This is one of those garments that is just as beautiful and meticulously made when examined up close as it is when seen through the gauzy lens of great photography. Woman’s got serious talent of both the aesthetic and technical sort.

And then there are the designs that make me want to pick up the crochet hook again, particularly Ana Clerc‘s masterful Prairie Point Skirt. Ana is another one of those women with a brain firing on all 82 cylinders. Watch for some beautiful dye work from her soon, too.

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There are so many lovely things to choose from that it’s hard to control myself — you’ll just have to go take a look at all the lusciousness yourself — but I can’t resist showing you Kathy Bateman‘s beautiful knitted child’s dress, Little Honeysuckle, modeled by her insanely cute daughter. I’ve also examined this up close and talked with Kathy about its design and its another ingeniously constructed, fun-to-knit piece.

My own design in the collection, the Blue Sage Shrug, was originally published in a different form, and I love how the new photography and styling has fluffed some fresh air into the garment.

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As I say, feeling very lucky to be part of this talented crew. When I think about what inspires me most, it’s the artistry of my fellow designers.

Don’t you step on my Blue Sage Shrug

Recently, one of my favorite knitting designers, Teva Durham, asked her fellow designers what kind of Myers-Briggs personality they had, and how that personality type appeared in their design work. While I’m skeptical about how much any such test can reveal about each of our complex characters, I do think there’s some value in thinking about how in broad terms we can act according to type. There is such a thing as thinking we’re too unique.

In response to Teva’s question, I chimed in that I tend to take an engineers’ approach to knitting design. More than anything, I love a structural challenge: some way of building up a garment that hasn’t been tried, that perfect marriage of stitch pattern and garment shape, the kind of schematic that makes you want to pick up your needles and give it a try.

My latest pattern is a perfect case in point. This is called the Blue Sage Shrug, and it’s available now through Ravelry and Hill Country Weavers. This garment has two features that satisfy my inner engineer: fingerless mitts for cuffs and a lace pattern that automatically creates a shoulder cap.

First, the mitts: I have long coveted this shirt my friend Eileen wears. (Well, I have long coveted many things in Eileen’s wardrobe, but let’s just stick with the shirt, shall we?) It has a little reinforced hole near the bottom of the sleeve so that you can stick your thumbs through. For someone who is both fidgety and constantly having to tug at their sleeves, this seemed like genius to me. So I wanted to build it into a sweater design. Easy as pie: you just make the sleeves longer, knit the first 6″ or so in a contrast color to highlight the effect, and add what is basically a large buttonhole about an inch into knitting the sleeve.

The shoulder shaping was trickier and — initially, at least — accidental. On this shrug, I wanted all of the increases on the sleeves to be hidden inside the lace. (As they say about climbing mountains: Why? Because it’s there.) I tried this out and noticed that in this feather-and-fan lace pattern, those increases tend to heighten the vertical arch of the lace as much as they widen the sleeves. At first I thought this would kill the increases-in-the-lace idea, but then I saw how much that heightened lace arch looked like a shoulder and voila: the sleeve not only widens toward the top of the arm, but also makes a kind of natural cap for the shoulder.

Now, if I could just figure out the engineering feat that would make this garment look good on me.

Sneaky way to get your pattern in Interweave Knits

Someday I would love to have one of my designs appear in Interweave Knits, and in fact, I just mailed my first submission to them last week.

For now, though, I am enjoying the fact that a design of mine already does appear in their pages. It’s in an ad on p. 25 of their new “Weekend” issue.

That’s my shrug down there in the corner, knit in the delectable Madelinetosh Tosh DK. The entire collection is stunning, and includes about ten patterns. Hill Country Weavers strikes again!

I’ll post some more photos and information once the pattern is available – it’s still undergoing a little post-production work….

Sheltered: Introducing Modern Tartan

c Meg Kelly 2010

Hello, all. I hope you are each encased in human and yarny love today. Here in Austin, it’s 55 degrees and pouring rain, but tomorrow we’re headed to Baltimore from a more traditional winter wonderland.

I got an extra Christmas present this year: today, Hill Country Weavers released its pattern line featuring Shelter yarn: and the men’s sweater pictured above is my contribution. Hill Country Weavers is the big local yarn store here in Austin, and is one of nine flagship stores carrying Shelter, the beautiful new yarn designed by Jared Flood, aka Brooklyn Tweed.

Jared, of course, has his own beautiful line of patterns for his yarn. A group of designers here in Austin decided to try our own hand at the yarn, seeing what it would do under an Austin influence, thanks to some prompting from HCW’s owner, Suzanne Middlebrooks. The whole pattern line is gorgeous — and gorgeously photographed.

c Meg Rice 2010

This men’s pullover, called Modern Tartan, looks complicated, but is actually quite simple to knit. Not just simple, but also fun, since you start at the top and knit down, leaving very little seaming. You do have to cut a little — that zippered neck there comes from a steek that you cut down from the collar. But do not fear the steek, dear knitter — especially when the steek is to be cut into such a lovely, sticky wool like this one. This yarn wants to hang onto itself like so much velcro.

There is another way that the yarn and design marry well together: Shelter is so lofty in its construction that the sweater stays quite light — a good feature for the average hot-blooded male.

Design-wise, the trickiest thing to figure out on this sweater was how to make the raglan increases play nicely with the stranded color work. I finally landed on an easy explanation for how to do the increases that I think makes the final product look much more polished.

c Meg Kelly 2010

If a men’s sweater in five different colors of Shelter is too spendy for you, there are certainly viable alternatives. The wool you use needs to be worsted-weight, pretty sheepy (no super-softy, drapey wools), and relatively light. Berroco’s Blackstone Tweed or – even cheaper – Shepherd’s Wool from Stonehedge Fiber Mill would be great alternate choices.

Really, most classic worsted-weight wools would work — like Cascade 220 (ooh, I’d love to see this in a bunch of their tweed colors) — but just be advised that those heavier wools would make a warmer sweater. Seriously warm and toasty might be just the sort of thing you’re looking for right now.

Merry Christmas, and warmest wishes to everyone, whether this is your holiday or no.

Midlife crisis averted

It’s big announcement time. I am leaving my job as a tenured, salaried, health-benefitted full professor at a charming liberal arts college to begin a full-time career as a knitter.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

No, actually, I’m not kidding. As of May 2011, I’ll be on leave from Southwestern and I doubt that I will be returning.

The nervousness you hear in my voice is what “disbelief at my own audacity” sounds like. Yes, I’m actually doing it — that thing that just about every crafting blogger says that they want to do but quite reasonably balks at after assessing the very considerable risks. And I could not be happier. Happy but nervous. I repeat this again, nervously, but you know what? I like happy but nervous. It reminds me of that delicious feeling that you get before going out on stage to perform in a play. You could fail so so miserably and so so publicly — but without that risk how else could you get that electric goosepimply feeling?

To cut to the chase: what will I be doing to support myself? Or, to put a finer point on it, what will I be doing to meet my goal of earning at least half what I have as a professor? Mainly working at Hill Country Weavers, a venerable yarn store that has been an Austin institution for 30 years. It’s a great place to work for all kinds of reasons, not least that it has an inspiringly creative and engaging clientele, more kinds of yarn than you thought it was possible to fit in a Victorian bungalow, and an amazing location on Austin’s quirky South Congress Avenue.

I have lots of additional schemes in mind, many of which I have already begun: designing my own knitwear, teaching knitting classes, freelance writing, podcasting…. It’s all very exciting. In fact, it made me a little sad the other day to realize how many years it had been since I had had that feeling.

It’s funny, you know: for over a decade now, I have been mentoring college students who are making their way out into the world of work. There are these things that I tell them over and over again, such as:

  • “People will keep asking you what you are going to do with the rest of your life. You don’t have to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. You just have to have a plan for the next few years.”
  • “What can you do with a major in history? Put it in a nice frame and hang it on the wall. And then use what you have learned in all of your classes and go get the most amazing job you can find.”

I have other stock speeches that I’ve built up over time, but it’s struck me in recent months how much I need to heed my own words in these two. Yes, I spent six years in graduate school and then the typical harrowing time on the academic job market trying to get one of the handful of jobs available. Yes, I worked my butt off to earn tenure. And you know what? I don’t regret any of it. I learned so much from being a teacher and a scholar. But I have entered a phase in my life where I need something more tactile. In short, I can’t let the fact that I’ve worked so hard to get to this place in my academic career keep me from pursuing my passions in this new direction.

It has been even harder for me to heed my own advice about planning for the future. I’m the kind of person who needs to know what’s next. Not just tomorrow but a decade from now. The trait has stood me in good stead in a lot of ways, but I have decided that I also could stand to relax that impulse a little. I don’t have to know exactly where all this is heading. I just need a good plan for now, and then we’ll just have to see.

It feels good to release this news out to you all in the world, some of whom are very good friends, some of whom have become dear to me through the magic of online connection, and some of whom are complete strangers. Each step like this makes my decision feel that much more official, and it’s like all my internal organs suddenly got a bit more buoyant. I think I have been putting off this more public announcement (and thus my lack of blogging lately), but in the end, you can’t fight buoyancy.

Like knitting, only faster and with more apparatus

Kind of gives whole new meaning to “sticks and string,” doesn’t it? As part of my plan to become more of a well-rounded fiber artist, I took a twill weaving class last Monday at Hill Country Weavers, the largest of Austin’s local yarn stores.

The class was great. It was taught by the lovely, patient owner of the store, Susanne. She spent four hours with me and two other women, both of whom were more experienced than I was. Still, before the class was over, I managed to get all the warp strung up – a formidable task, I discovered – and did a few rows of the weft.

I’m using Blue Heron Soft Twist Rayon for the warp (that’s the rainbow-colored variegated you see run vertically) and Alchemy Bamboo for the weft (that’s the chartreuse-colored solid running horizontally).

I’m really pleased with how it looks so far. And it’s relatively fast, though not as fast as I thought it would be. (Might just be my novice-ness.) But I don’t think that weaving is going to intrude very far into my first love of knitting, because of the portability factor. I can pick up my knitting with very little fanfare or prep time. And I can take it with me. Weaving on a loom requires some commitment. I’m happy to give it that for now….