The Devil’s Needlework

I don’t like feeling incompetent. I was one of those children who was easily pushed into doing things by being told, “I bet you can’t”, and a certain amount of that trait has endured into adulthood. However, there has always been one exception to this desire to learn and get on with things: crochet.

“I just can’t get my head around it” has always been my go-to excuse. And to be fair, it’s a very different structure to knitting. It’s possible to go meandering off in all directions and get lost, rather than the simple back-and-forth (or round and round) I’m used to. As far as I could see, the only advantage was that with just one live stitch at a time, the consequences of dropping your work were likely to be less severe.

Part of the the trouble is that I learned the basics of knitting at such a young age that they’re ingrained on a muscle memory level. I would say it’s like riding a bike, but given that I never got the hang of that one either, this is pure guesswork. At any rate, while I didn’t start knitting properly until my early twenties, the movements and concepts were familiar, and therefore easy to build on.

I don’t have any recollections of crochet pinging my childhood conscience in a similar way, other than it being the occupation of choice for the titular character of the Milly Molly Mandy series when she gets stuck in her room (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s a series of delightfully anodyne children’s books that are more or less Enid Blyton on steroids in the midcentury nostalgia stakes). I remember wondering briefly what crochet was, but having no interest in making dolly bonnets, I quickly went back to talking to thin air and pretending to fight dragons. Yes, I was an odd child.

Now, the anti-crochet stance has always been something of a personal inconsistency, and I try to avoid those. So ti was that I sat in front of my laptop clutching a 6mm hook and some leftover aran with grim determination. I was going to get through the flailing beginner stage for real this time, and the nice lady on Craftsy with the soothing voice was going to be my guide. I’ll admit, this wasn’t entirely without ulterior motive. While I hadn’t promised to lovingly crochet an object for a special occasion or to win someone’s heart (because my life is neither a quirky sitcom or a source of viral social media content), I do have a problem with my left wrist. An old sword-dancing injury, my dears, what else?

Anyway, it turns out that not only is tendonitis a bugger to get rid of once you’ve got it, but that driving a car with a clunky, worn-out gear box will make sure it sticks around for years. Being right handed, I reasoned that crochet would aggravate the bad wrist far less than knitting. The idea of not doing anything yarn-related with my hands had been immediately dismissed as absurd.

“What?!” said the Yarn Widower when I told him how I’d spent the afternoon. “Isn’t that the devil’s needlework?” (He’s very receptive to my prejudices, or well trained, depending on your point of view). I explained to him about trying new things and how my wrist was getting really sore, and he seemed to come around. However, he did note that I seemed pretty stressed, and he had a point.

Being a beginner at something sucks. Basic concepts make no sense, the tools feel all weird and clumsy in your hands, and anyone even vaguely competent looks like a fucking wizard in comparison. I hate hate hate hate hate it. But I dutifully churned out yards of chain, then misshapen lumps of double and treble (single and double for our transatlantic cousins, but that’s a rant for another time) crochet. I discovered that my previous attempts had gone wrong because I’d mixed up slip stitch and double crochet, and you can’t make a slip stitch fabric because it’s too tight or something. I don’t know, that’s what the lady on Craftsy said, at any rate.

Eventually, she told me I was ready for a proper project, so with my usual sense of proportion…

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BLANKET.

To be specific, it’s the Modern Granny Afghan, which is available free at the Crochet Crowd website in the link, and the yarn is Caron Cakes in Honey Berry.

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It took a little while to sort out how to turn the corners, but by George, I think I’ve got it.

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A Touch of ME

Warning: this post is not about knitting. It is full of angry, tired and important stuff. While you’re free to skip this in favour of the next time I manage to summon up some sock-based humour or whatever, I would really appreciate you taking the time to read this. It is something that needs saying, and this is the best platform I’ve got.

Those of you who know me in real life will probably be aware that I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the illness formerly known as ME (although this varies based on your doctor, and I’ve never made the switch). If you’ve never heard of it, this pretty much sums it up. It has been, and continues to be, dismissed as “not a real illness”, despite now being officially recognised as such. You may also have heard it disparaged as “yuppie flu”. Only one person has ever dared to use that term to my face, and those present say they’re still not sure how he’s still alive.

Long story short, ME is vert real, and has had a very negative impact on my life in pretty much every way you would expect. I have been trying to claw my way back to having a vaguely normal life since I first became ill three years ago.

Over the last few months, I have found that more and more people are telling me something along the lines of, “Oh, I think I’ve got a touch of that ME”.

No. No, you do not.

While I’m aware that none of these people mean harm, the fact remains that it’s incredibly unhelpful and needs to stop.

Let me explain. First of all, ME does vary in severity, but it is a real disease, one that has diagnostic criteria and specialist doctors. Imagine claiming that you had “a touch of diabetes” because you were feeling a bit peaky. Now imagine the spectacular lack of awareness required to say that to someone actually living with the condition. That is what you sound like.

I can see how it happens though. Many people use “tired all the time” to describe what it’s like to have ME. It’s pretty relatable. We all get overtired sometimes, even utterly burnt out and exhausted. You could almost say that modern life encourages it.

But “tired all the time” doesn’t even begin to do ME justice. Nearly all the fellow sufferers I know make a distinction between “normal tired” and “ME tired”. It’s a deep in the bones tired, the kind of exhaustion that comes with the knowledge that when you stop moving, you’re going to turn into a zombie for a week, minimum, and no amount of rest or sleep will help. It’s needing to lie down from the exertion of changing the bedsheets, and knowing that, if anything, you’re going to wake up more tired than you went to bed.

As previously mentioned, ME is a recognised medical condition, but that doesn’t mean that getting the label applied to you is a straightforward procedure. Because so little is known about it, it’s a diagnosis of elimination. The doctors have to rule out everything else that vaguely matches your symptoms. For about a year, I underwent a series of increasingly convoluted blood tests and scans. At one point, a hospital phlebotomist was reduced to tears by a request for 16 vials of blood out of my dodgy veins. Now, this process only took a year for me because my family intervened and sent me to a private consultant to speed things along (there’s a family history of ME, so we had suspicions from fairly early on). I imagine it takes most people rather longer, given the current state of the NHS. Even with my relatively speedy passage through the system, I have cried at test results that told me I didn’t have a brain tumour, because it could have been fixed with surgery. On the other hand, ME has little in the way of reliable treatments, and nothing that even resembles a cure.

[NOTE: the first person to send me a culty email about the benefit of the Lightening Process or similar will be fired into the centre of the sun]

It’s one hell of a process, especially given that some doctors still won’t take it seriously, despite recognition from the CDC, NHS, NICE, WHO and plenty more. So when you claim to have it, apropos of feeling a bit tired, you undermine not only the reality of living with the condition, but ongoing attempts to get it more widely accepted, and maybe persuading people to fund some research into what the hell causes it, and possibly even some better treatment.

The other problem with describing ME as “tired all the time” is that it’s only part of the picture. Yes, fatigue is the main symptom (if the pain is primary, then the diagnosis is more likely to be fibromyalgia), but ME causes many other problems. For instance, pain (especially in joints and throat). This has improved for me, but at one point I was unable to stand because it felt like my bones were crumbling under my own weight. When I was still dragging myself to an office job, I would cling to the walls on my way in because of the dizziness, praying my colleagues wouldn’t think I was drunk. Digestive problems are also common, along with mental health problems, because – surprise! – being too ill to get on with your life can make you fucking miserable.

Add in flu-like symptoms, palpitations, nausea and an inability to cope with temperature changes, and you’re starting to get the idea. For me, the biggest non-fatigue problem have been the cognitive issues collectively known as brain fog. I have difficulty concentrating, my short to medium term memory is screwed, and I frequently have trouble finding words (notable example: I once took ten minutes to remember the word “wheelbarrow”). You should be able to infer what this did to my copywriting career, where speed is of the essence. “Tired all the time” is convenient shorthand, but doesn’t even begin to cover what living with ME is like.

And bear in mind, my symptoms are classified as “moderate” (or mild on a good day). This disease puts people in wheelchairs, leaves people housebound, and makes some resort to feeding tubes because they don’t even have the energy to swallow. You do not have “a touch of ME”, and I sincerely hope you never do. Please find a less infuriating way of saying you’re tired.

Smitten with Mittens

Firstly, a ballgown update: I’m just about to join in the fourth ball of yarn, and it does appear to be growing, albeit very slowly, rather than just chewing up my yarn and giving  me nothing in return. Progress!

One of the upsides of knitting just enough of the damn thing each day to make progress is that I have time and space for totally different knitting that can border on the obsessive. Today, I want to tell you about one of those projects.

Last year we went to Riga for a few days as part of a wider Baltic odyssey. Naturally, I looked up woolly places to visit, and discovered the wonders of Hobbywool. By sheer bad luck, the two days we were in Latvia fell on the summer solstice, which is the basis for a massive summer party/celebration of national pride – in many Eastern European countries, this is particularly important, given the repression of national identity during the Soviet era. Also, most of these countries are the same age as me in their present incarnations, which is pretty mind-blowing. Long story short, this meant that everywhere was shut because both days were national holidays, so all I could do was look mournfully in their window as I went past. On the plus side, all public transport was free for the duration of the festivities, which is something I can get behind. As I sat in the shade with an iced tea, I told myself that it was far too warm to do anything (40C, or 104F in old money), least of all play with warm, sticky wool.

But I was still disappointed, especially when watching the evening celebrations, which featured men wearing suits printed with popular mitten motifs (mittens are a HUGE deal in Latvia).

In a stroke of good fortune, I happened across the Hobbywool stand at Yarndale (of which more here) and picked up a mitten kit. I went for Autumn Leaves Number Four, but could quite happily knit any and all of them.

Now, maybe I’m just a bit simple-minded, or maybe it’s just that I’ve not done colourwork for ages (possibly both), but I’m utterly enchanted. I’ve been smoothing my work out every row to admire the magic tumbling from my needles. The needles in question are 2.25mm DPNs, for the record. The pattern recommends 1.5mm, but I found this came out absurdly tiny and ripped back.

I even learnt how to do lateral braids to make the mittens extra fancy, and I’m delighted that just purling and twisting the yarns in the front of the work can make something that looks so clever. Although note to self, this mitten has a RIGHT-LEANING braid, must replicate this on the other hand.

 

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Needs a block, but it’s so pretty!

I think I may be in love. This definitely isn’t travel or TV knitting (carrying three colours in one row is making my head hurt), but there’s something so hypnotic about watching the charts slowly unfold that they’re working up quickly. The instructions for the afterthought thumb placement took a bit of puzzling out, as the pattern has been translated from Latvian, and it sometimes shows, but I managed it in the end, Now I’m flying. And I may have ordered a book of Latvian mitten charts.

NOTE: A great deal has been written about the incredible tradition of Latvian mittens by people who know far more than me. If you want to learn more, the authoritative books seem to be Latvian Mittens by Lisbeth Upitis and Mittens of Latvia by Maruta Grasmane. Have fun falling down *that* rabbit hole.

It Turns Out You Actually Have to Knit It

So, those of you who like to hang around these parts (who am I kidding? Hi, Mum!) may have noticed that I’ve been a little quiet on a certain subject.

Yes, I’m still working on the ballgown – although it turns out that if you don’t knit on it, instead choosing to put it in your handbag and ignore it in favour of something more interesting, it will stubbornly refuse to get any bigger. I don’t really know what to tell you. It’s still a big blue thing on circular needles, and there’s no way of making that more exciting, even if I photograph it in intriguing locations. In terms of actual progress, it’s now about six inches long (shut up: with 963 stitches to a round and row gauge of somewhere between 12-13 to the inch, that’s not too bad). I recently joined in the third ball of yarn, out of the twenty I anticipate this project taking, and the thirty I actually possess. Hey, it was discounted and on sale, and there’s no way I’m running out on a project of this scale.

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It’s *this* big now…

Because the progress thus far has been somewhat pitiful, I recently made a commitment to knit at least one round on the blasted thing per day. This may not sound like much, but my reasoning is twofold.

Firstly, a round is a decent chunk of time (did I mention it’s nearly a thousand tiny stitches?), but it’s eminently manageable, meaning I’m far less likely to come with excuses like having too much to do. It’s also more embarrassing if I fail, but I’m choosing to overlook this for now. Secondly, it means that I will have time to work on other things, which should make me resent the bastard thing slightly less. Slightly. I am a flawed, impatient human being, and that extends to my knitting.

And little things add up. It may not be terribly fast, but there’s no denying that all those rounds are going to turn into feet and inches eventually. What’s more, I’m taking advantage of the fact that it’s still pretty small and portable, and upgrading it to my handbag and travel knitting until it gets a bit bigger (which could take a while…). I’m going to miss plain socks, but it seems the situation warrants this kind of sacrifice.

An added bonus is that I have several long drives to visit family coming up, as well as an all-day masterclass, which should translate to a decent chunk of extra progress. One of this project’s few advantages is that it’s entirely stocking stitch in the round for now, meaning I can work on it without looking at my hands or paying too much attention. Perfect for dark cars, twisty roads, situations where I need to concentrate on something else, or any combination of the above.

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Ball gown crossing the M62

Here we go. Prod me if it looks like I’m falling off the wagon, won’t you?

Clawless

So, about those gloves… It turns out that adding four tiny tubes to the end of fingerless mitts is actually… not that bad, Ok, it’s a little fiddly, but nowhere near the massive stumbling block I had previously assumed.

I think a lot of knitters have a similar experience with socks. I missed out on this, because my second knitting project as an adult was a pair of socks, and therefore I didn’t know they were supposed to be scary. After a bit of digging, I came across a tutorial (Silver’s Sock Class, which I still think is excellent) that soothingly told me all I needed to be able to do was cast on, knit and purl. It would teach me the rest. And it did. It took a while, but I managed turn out a perfectly usable pair of socks that I still wear to this day. I’ll probably have some kind of existential crisis when I walk them to pieces.

Anyway, the gloves. I love them! They are so cozy! As it’s me, I made a few adjustments to the pattern, because I can’t leave well enough alone, even when I’m learning something new.

This included repeatedly trying on the gloves to make sure the fingers were long enough (I have pianist’s fingers, just with none of the associated keyboard skills). I also managed to obtain some conductive thread to work into the fingertips, so I could use my phone while wearing them. In practice, this hasn’t worked so well, but never mind. I only had enough for one hand, so it became apparent I was going to need something to tell each hand apart.

I had a little think, and then decided to work a set of purl rows in the fourth finger of the non-conductive glove (I’m right-handed). It’s subtle yet effective.

It also seemed thoroughly appropriate. Because there’s been a recent acquisition that goes under the glove…

Yes, after nearly six years, the Yarn Widower decided he wanted to make things official. Shortly after he asked, he pointed out that he’d had the ring made “without a claw setting, so it wouldn’t catch on your yarn and stuff”.

I think I’m keeping this one.

The Finger Dilemma

Good evening. *Adjusts glasses, adjusts lecture notes importantly* Today, I would like to talk to you about gloves. They’re things you wear on your hands… No, not the same as mittens, there’s an individual tube for each – no, I don’t mean fingerless mitts. You know, I really didn’t think the basic concept was going to be so challenging.

While I’m (mostly) joking, you have to admit that there aren’t that many glove patterns out there. The stumbling block seems to be the making of fingers – mitt patterns and arm warmers abound (and goodness knows, they’re useful in a chilly house during the winter), and mittens are widely regarded as an arm form. Especially when combined with thrums, mittens can be the warmest option of all, on account of how they keep your fingers all smushed together. While great for dexterity, fingerless gloves are not the cosiest, hence why I find them most useful for taking the edge off indoors. Living in the North, gloves with fingers are probably my best bet for not freezing and not having to peel them off my hands every time I want to unzip my handbag.

The Yarn Widower and I are taking a little trip to Munich at the beginning of next month. With all the exploring and trolling around Christmas markets and so on, I’ll need something to keep my hands warm. While I own a (very lovely) pair of sheepskin gloves, which are definitely coming with me, they are thick enough to throw up the aforementioned dexterity problems. And since I have weirdly long fingers, they also don’t fit terribly well.

I have lots of lovely sock yarn, I thought to myself. I bet I could whip up a pair of gloves in a couple of weeks. Sure, I could buy them, but as a knitter, that’s tantamount to heresy. Also, they probably wouldn’t fit very well, as outlined above. Visions of wearing said beautifully hand knitted gloves while sipping mulled wine instantly began to dance in my head. While seductive, I am aware that these visions are not entirely accurate, as in them I am outside in the cold with rosy cheeks, but without a freezing, streaming nose or the accompanying supply of tissues. Regardless, the idea stuck.

No! cried another part of my brain. Gloves are frightening and fiddly, and you’ve never made them before! You can’t do that!

I will allows my readers to decide whether it’s bloody-mindedness or an admirable desire to push myself, but my knee-jerk reactions to anyone telling me I can’t do something (yes, even myself) is to say, “Just watch me.”

There are all sorts of ways I could explain this impulse. Imagine where would be as a species, for instance, if no one ever did things that were new and maybe a bit scary. We would never get anything done. Innovation and adaptability are two of humanity’s greatest strengths, after all.

But this is just high-fallutin’ post-hoc justification. The real reason is this: while I’ve on.y been at it a few years, I see myself as a confident, willing-to-try-anything-once kind of knitter. I felt a trace of doubt and hesitation cross my mind at the thought of gloves, and it challenged my perception of myself as both a knitter and a person, overdramatic as it sounds. Also, I really do need a pair of gloves.

There’s really only one solution to this.

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If you’re curious, the yarn is Crazy Zauberball in Herbtsonne, and the pattern is Very Basic Dancing at Lughnasa Gloves (free on Ravelry). So far so good, but wish me luck.

A Woman, Without her Knitting, is Nothing

Recently, the Yarn Widower and I went out for the evening. This in itself isn’t terribly unusual or noteworthy, but something happened that was very revealing.

We had gone to see a band called Public Service Broadcasting at the Manchester Academy. Now, because this is quite a big venue, and Manchester in particular has had some terrible things happen at concerts recently, security was tight. Think metal detectors and bag searches.

I was prepared for this. Earlier, I had gone through my handbag and removed the hipflask half full of whisky (yes, left over from Yarndale; and no, I very rarely clear out my bag) because venues don’t normally approve of you bringing your own alcohol. I had even taken out the stabby embroidery scissors.

It hadn’t occurred to me that knitting needles would cause problems. I’ve flown with knitting in my hand luggage many times before, even when Brussels was locked down due to an ongoing terror attack.

“What’s in that little bag?” asked the security guard.

“Oh, just my knitting,” said I, blithely.

“Can I have a look?”

“Of course.”

He caught sight of my 3.25mm KnitPro Zings (circulars, of course) and sucked his teeth. Long story short, he called his supervisor, who called his supervisor, and it was determined that my knitting needles were officially deemed “offensive weapons”.

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Offensive weapon, with thumb for scale

Mutter, mutter, could do as much damage with a biro, don’t you realise I’m far more dangerous without my knitting, and all the things knitters traditionally say when faced with over-zealous airport security (knitting needles and crochet hooks are allowed as per UK government guidelines, for God’s sake). However, as I mentioned, the UK in general and Manchester in particular is currently feeling very twitchy about security, so there was no point arguing. For those of you concerned about the fate of my poor, blameless knitting, don’t worry – I was able to leave it in the security office and pick it up on my out. Just as well, as that’s about a third of a jumper on those needles.

So that in itself wasn’t overly interesting: it’s what comes next that tells. We had arrived shortly after 7pm. The support act was due to start at 8, with the main band on at 9. Because I have CFS/ME and we had standing tickets, it was decided that I would sit in the bar during the support, so as to hopefully have enough energy to stay upright during the headline set.

In other words, this meant that I had an interrupted period of sitting from about 7.30 (once we had obtained drinks and so on) to just before 9, with no knitting. Just let that sink in.

Readers, it was horrible. At first, I was compulsively checking my phone and bombarding people with texts to pass the time. If you were one of the victims of this frenzied activity, I’m sorry!

However, it then became apparent that a) I was sitting in one of the few signal blackspot in central Manchester, and b) I had brought my battery pack, but not the appropriate cable, so I would need to preserve my battery for the journey home. Therefore, my secondary distraction was now also useless.

By this point, as the Yarn Widower will attest, I was getting quite cross and fidgety. For the record, we were having a perfectly pleasant conversation and generally enjoying each other’s company. That’s not the problem. I just need something to do with my hands to keep me calm and fit for human society. Shut up, it’s not an addiction, it’s a coping mechanism.

Luckily, I had my bullet journal with me. I am aware it makes me one of those people. In my defence, it’s supremely messy and in no way Instagram or Pinterest fodder. So I set up my November pages, got a few lists up to date, and then…

That had taken ten minutes, tops, and I still had ages to wait. No I understand why normal people get so cross when they have to wait for things. It’s mind-numbingly, face-meltingly boring, rather than the gift of guilt-free knitting time.

The sweet, blessed relief of getting on the penultimate train home after I had been reunited with my knitting cannot be overstated. It’s moments like this that underscore just how important knitting has become to me. It’s also an illustration of just how much it helps me to cope with the vagaries of daily life.

It’s good for me. Not an addiction. Now, just a few rows to take the edge off.