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On Trying Something New

Hand carved wooden spoon and carving tools

“How long have you been knitting?”, people frequently ask. Oh, forever. My grandmother taught me when I was nine, I truly became obsessed when I was 19, and it’s been 10 years since that.  I knit on public transit, I knit while reading, I knit on the sofa while watching movies (to the surprise of new friends!). For the most part, it isn’t that much of a challenge, but it’s always a joy.

One of the big themes in my life lately has been fear of failure. I’ve recently finished a book that finally made it clear: most of my decisions have been based on the fear of failing, the fear of getting hurt, the fear of not being good at something. When you think about it, it’s crushing. What else could I have done, what else could I be enjoying, what person would I be if I’d given myself a little bit more leeway to fail?

Well. It’s one thing to realise it,  and another to change it. When a spot suddenly opened up in Alichia‘s spoon-carving class, I had to try. I hadn’t touched a power tool since middle school. My mother was always fixing things up, but that was her domain. My inner voice insisted that I’d be terrible — not that I would hate it, but that I wouldn’t be good.

Too bad. I’d already paid for the spot. I was doing this.

The workshop was yesterday, and I had the best time. I’m pretty sure I’m grinning like an idiot in every picture that was taken in the workshop: using all of my upper-body strength to scrape out a bowl in a chunk of cherry wood, using a bandsaw (!!), chiseling away at the handle, and spending hours sanding and polishing and re-sanding and re-polishing.

For what? For a kitchen implement that I could have bought at IKEA for fifty cents? Maybe, yeah. And it is crooked, and I could have spent another while sanding the bowl down. But I tried something I wasn’t good at. That’s a good enough start for me.

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My 2015 Reading List

My 2015 Reads

This is a cross-post from my non-craft blog

I didn’t set a reading goal for 2015, but I’m pretty pleased with the result: 16 books finished, most in the last three months of the year. Here’s a tally, with a brief review for each one.

Two caveats: I’m using Goodreads to track which books I read this year, but only started using it in earnest around September. This list might omit books I read in early 2015 but forgot to add. It also doesn’t include books I haven’t finished yet, or don’t plan on finishing.

One more: you’ll notice there aren’t any business books on this list, and that most are fiction. I went hard on entrepreneurship books in 2014, but found that I get a lot more value out of articles, blog posts and podcasts in that genre. More on that later.

My full reading list is on Goodreads. Add me if you have an account — I love to find new book recommendations based on what others have liked.

In chronological order:

  1. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed.
    Read in January 2015
    I was an avid fan of the Dear Sugar column (home of the “Write like a motherfucker” line) and couldn’t wait for this book, especially when the author was revealed as Cheryl Strayed. I read most of this book in an afternoon, drinking red wine in a courtyard. It’s a soothing read, and I would have loved it even more when I was in college.
  2. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
    Read in March 2015
    Didn’t everyone read this in March 2015? It sure seems like it. This was a great read, and the length factor is mitigated by the fact that the setting changes so frequently. It feels like a mini-series, not like a novel.
  3. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
    Read in April 2015
    Another trendy read — I’ll just stop noting that for now. I really disliked this book, as I rarely do. The writing is fine, the translation probably could be improved, but the premise (you have too much stuff! You don’t need most of it!) doesn’t need a whole book. The medium is the message, I guess. Thankfully I bought this as an ebook, so I don’t have to worry about the clutter created by the hardcover version (beautiful as it is). I’m probably not the target audience for this, having moved continents with one suitcase five years ago. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
  4. Dept. of Speculationby Jenny Offill
    Read in May 2015
    This was fantastic. It’s a look at marriage from within one, as it breaks apart then slowly comes back together. It will make you reflect on your own relationship, and your own choices, in a whole new way.
  5. Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life, by Bea Johnson
    Read in May 2015
    Do you sense a theme here? Just like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, this book was meant to have me question my life choices and simplify. Instead, I became concerned about the vast amount of waste others must be producing if the lifestyle described in this book is viewed as extreme. I should just stop reading this kind of book.
  6. Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
    Read in October 2015
    Yes, that is a rather long gap between books. I’m sure I read some other books in the interim, but I don’t remember them.
    This one, though, this was great. It starts as three stories that eventually merge into one. I love Barbara Kingsolver’s settings — often rural, always small towns, the kind of place I can see myself in one day.
  7. Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver
    Read in October 2015
    Another great book by Kingsolver, again set in Appalachia, this time with the harsh financial realities of farming in America. It made me question my approach to talking with climate-change skeptics, and, really, anyone whose opinion on a topic seems incredibly naive.
  8. The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver
    Read in October 2015
    I took a vacation in October and spent most of it reading Kingsolver novels. Pure pleasure. This is probably her second-most recommended novel (after The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve read many times), both for the quality of the writing and for the charm of the characters. It made me long for small-town America, with its dirty motels and cheap diners, in a way I hadn’t in a long time.
  9. Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver
    Read in October 2015
    Yes, one more. Last one. This was even better than The Bean Trees. It’s a sequel of sorts, but focuses on a completely different issue: Native American adoption and the laws and customs surrounding it. Once again, this book gave me renewed compassion for people with strong, different opinions. It’s heart-wrenching to agree with every character in a dispute.
  10. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    Read in October 2015
    After I’d binge-read through my suitcase full of Kingsolver novels, I picked something up at the English bookshop in Ubud. That place was amazing: heaps of cheap paperback editions of English-language novels, and one shelf of amazing books on textiles and sewing. No room for those in the carry-on, unfortunately.
    This was the first thriller I’ve read, and it was good. Not enough to hook me on the genre, but I did find powering through it on the nighttime flight home. I haven’t seen the movie and don’t think I will.
  11. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
    Read in November 2015
    This book destroyed me, to the point where I couldn’t look at it without starting to cry. In fact, I quickly passed it on to the first person who showed any interest at all in reading it (sorry Adam). The reviews will tell you all you need to know, but my main reason for loving it was that I’d never really looked at male friendship before. I mostly read (fiction) books by female authors, most of my close friends are women, and I’ve (obviously) never been privy to the details of friendship within groups of men. It’s a topic we should probably talk about more, as a society (there’s no Sex and the City for guys, is there?).
  12. The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
    Read in November 2015
    Quand j’aime une fois j’aime pour toujours” and all — I’ve taken to binge-reading through an author’s catalogue, can you tell?
    This was good, not as gripping as A Little Life, but the structure was fascinating. It’s written as a memoir, with a foreword that announces something crucial: every narrator in this book is unreliable, as is the “editor”. It’s a fascinating plot device, and it kept me guessing at the “real” events at every page.
  13. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
    Read in November 2015
    I expected to sob my way through this book, but found it mostly numbing — that’s deliberate, I’m sure. I loved the backwards-and-forwards narration, and the fact that the author/narrator/subject is an older woman, one of the groups we most seldom hear from. She reminds me so much of my aunt Thérèse, in all the good and bad ways: intransigent, loving, elegant, demanding, intelligent. If I loved this book, it’s because it brought my great-aunt back to me for a few days.
  14. Holding the Man, by Timothy Conigrave
    Read in November 2015
    This book follows a couple from high school through to the 90s AIDS crisis. It’s deeply Australian, deeply touching, and did more to personalise AIDS than years of documentaries and articles. Top-notch.
  15. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
    Read in December 2015
    This was recommended by friends on Instagram after I asked for a non-depressing novel. I’m not sure they really understood what I was looking for, but at least this one didn’t leave me sad for days afterwards. Set in a post-pandemic world, it’s the closest I’ve come to reading a disaster novel, and I kind of loved it. The questions raised by this alternate reality (why didn’t they… surely they could have…) stayed on my mind for days, and were revived once my partner also finished the book. Maybe I should branch out into some science-fiction next year.
  16. What’s Stopping You: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Canby Robert Kelsey
    Read in December 2015
    The first 60% of this book was a revelation: I have a high fear of failure, and not everyone in the world is like this. I soon started to classify my friends and colleagues into two camps: those who are motivated by achievement, and those who avoid failure at all (or most) costs. It explains so much!
    The rest of the book was fine, but not nearly as interesting. There’s some fairly standard entrepreneurial advice, and a few chapters cribbed from How to Win Friends and Influence People. Worth reading just for that new world view.

 

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Good riddance, 2015

  

Australia takes holidays seriously. It’s simply assumed that everyone will take the time between Christmas Eve and the Monday after New Year’s off work (and for some businesses, that stretches right through to the end of January!)

I haven’t taken quite that much time off, but I’ve been out of the office for a week, working from home, working from cafes, occasionally working from bed. It’s a lovely change of pace, and it’s let me to do a lot of thinking and planning. 

2015 has been a rough year. There have been health crises, deaths, work stress, immigration stress, family stress, and, through it all, an enduring feeling that things just aren’t right. In classic Ophelie-style, that sent me into problem-solving mode. Surely I could DIY myself out of this! Surely reading the right books, writing enough in my journal, talking to the right people would make life feel right again. 

Yes and no. I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s changed in the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the health issues finally starting to resolve themselves; maybe it’s the daily meditation habit, or the acknowledgement that I need a lot of alone time to feel okay. I have read a lot of books in the last few months, some of them specifically aimed at feeling better, others just for pleasure. I think both have helped. 

With 2015 almost behind me, I’ve gone into full-on planning mode for 2016. And tonight, the day before the day before the year starts, I wonder: is that really helpful? 

The last book I finished recommended that I picture myself in 10 years, and work my way back from there to get a five-year, two-year and one-year plan. From there, it’s just a matter of planning each day until that one year mark. Easy! Right. 

That can get a bit obsessive, and it fits with my obsessive tendencies. If I pick a direction for the next 10 years, I’m going all-in. The last 10 years haven’t been the most carefully planned, but they turned out great. Would they have been incredible if I’d planned that trajectory with more thought? 

I promised myself I’d loop this thought back to craft, but I’m coming up empty. 2015 was a hard year; it was also my best year for crafting. Maybe that’s the link. Maybe in the harder times I’ve found solace in making, in stitching together fabric and creating loops of yarn, in sharing the knowledge I’ve gained with others. Truly, making has been my saving grace in the last year, more than the books, the meditation, the journaling and the long walks in the woods.

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Two New Things!

Hi everyone! The last few months have been busy, busy, busy: first the Craft Sessions, then a few health issues that took way too much of my energy, and more recently some travel. It’s good to be back to normal life!

I’ve decided to challenge myself and make a few YouTube videos to talk about projects, yarn, techniques, and other knitting. In this first video, I talk about my current project: a massive scarf that’s headed to Canada. I don’t miss the days when I needed three-metre wool scarves just to head outside!

After chatting with some friends, I’ve also started a new mini-community for crafters on Slack. If you work in the tech industry, you’ve probably heard of Slack: it’s a fantastic messaging app for teams. Since I spend most of my days with Slack open on my laptop, on my phone, or both, I thought it would be nice to have a space for crafty discussions. You can join us via this form.

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At the Craft Sessions

   
 
Spending a much-needed weekend in the Yarra Valley at my favourite event, the Craft Sessions. 

This is my second year, and it’s wonderful to see friends I made last year, and to finally meet in person some of the Aussie makers I admire most.

I’m teaching three classes this year (sock knitting, blocking, and introduction to lace), but have most of today off. Free time to read, knit, drop in on other classes, and think.

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Almost Spring

2015-08-24 09.02.35-1

 

It’s the end of winter. We’ve already had a few days of irresistible weather, where the sun rises unexpectedly early and stays in the sky up to cocktail hour. One day last week I stepped outside and felt warmth on my face. Australian winters are short, but spring feels just as good.

I’ve been all over the place lately — my body is inflamed and angry, my mind races, I can’t focus. I don’t feel balanced, there isn’t a ton of certainty about anything these days. Between work stress, ill health and immigration paperwork, I’m having trouble nailing down what I need.

I even doubt craft, the thing I come to again and again. I read Felicia’s blog post on how craft has centred her during challenges, and I can’t fully relate right now. I scan my Instagram feed (yeah, I know), filled with cups of tea and books, knitting projects and fabric, sighs of contentment at stealing a moment away for craft. That’s not where I am right now, and I don’t see my current state reflected anywhere.

Truth is, even with some beautiful projects on the needles, I’m having trouble getting excited. The relaxing moments just aren’t as soothing as I’d expect them to be. So what do we do with that? When normally all I need is a long walk and an afternoon by myself to recharge, I’m finding it hard to get my energy levels up.

Last year Belinda wrote about farming, and how she knew it was what she needed to do. Reading her words again tonight, I’m envious, not about the farm, but about the feeling. That’s what I want.


 

What do you do, loveliest of reader, when you’re stuck?

 

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Which Needles Should You Use?

  
I still remember the frustration of my first project on circular needles. I bought cheap-o needles from Zellers, and cursed them with every stitch. The joint between the needle tip and the cable was so jagged that every single stitch had to be pushed onto the needle with a fingernail or a tug at the project. Can you imagine what that does to the yarn? My project was already pilled and worn before it was finished. The cable also coiled on itself terribly. I tried all kinds of tricks to straighten the cables: ironing on a low setting (thereby slightly melting the cable!), hanging the needles vertically, twisting the cable in the opposite direction. Nothing worked, and the cables kept tangling. I couldn’t understand why anyone chose circular needles!
Then came my first experience with the wonderful Addi needles. They were still fairly new to North America then, and I reeled a bit at spending that much money on a single circular needle. But they felt so nice in my hand, and the cable was so flexible, and stitches slipped right onto the needle, with no tugging.

Since then I’ve built two collections of needles (one is in storage in my dad’s garage back in Montreal, and one is here in Melbourne), though it seems like I’m always buying more 3.5mm needles (where do they go?). I’ll occasionally pick up a pair of Clover wooden needles if I’m working with something particularly slippery, like silk, viscose or bamboo, but that’s it.

Lace, Nickel, Interchangeables?

I ask that students in my lace knitting workshops use Addi Lace needles. Learning to knit with small needles and tiny yarn is difficult, and new lace knitters really don’t need the added frustration of blunt tips or snagged cables.

Addi Lace needles have a sharp point and a long end, making it easy to insert into small stitches. They are also coated in brass, giving them a slightly stickier finish than nickel needles, without the risks of splinters from wooden needles. They can be a bit too sharp: these aren’t the best fit for splitty yarns like worsted-spun cotton, as the point can go through the yarn. I’ve also worn a hole in my index finger many times from knitting with these — if you have a habit of pushing stitches off the needle with your finger, using these needles might hurt!

The standard nickel-plated Addi needles are perfect for projects that don’t need a sharp tip, and for yarns that tend to split. I prefer them to the lace needles for working with wool, as the nickel plating is less grabby than brass, and stitches slide smoothly. I always buy needles in the longest cable available in the shop—usually that’s an 80cm or a 100cm cable— and use the Magic Loop method if I’m working in the round.

I love my interchangeables (I have two sets, one in bamboo and a set of the Addi short tips), but don’t recommend using them for fine yarns or detailed work. They aren’t usually made in the small sizes needed for fine yarns, and the cable join is never quite as smooth as on fixed needles.

That being said, the KnitPicks/KnitPro interchangeables do have a nice detail that is useful for lace knitters: there is a hole in the base of the needle (where you insert the key to tighten the needle). If you thread a piece of cotton yarn through it, then knit as normal, you wind up adding a lifeline to that row without the extra step. Neat!

Which tools have become indispensable for you? I’d love to know what I should try out next.

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Low-tech 

 


Despite all the fancy apps that claim to improve the modern knitter’s life, this is still my favourite way to track rows and decreases. Paper, pencil. Measuring tape. A sewing gauge with a little red slider is about as fancy as my tools get.

I’ve seen countless iterations of basic knitting tools: measuring tapes shaped like sheep! Square knitting gauges, triangular ones, pink ones, wooden ones! Darning needles in glass tubes, in plastic boxes, in felt sleeves. Square needles, ebony needles, colorful needles, see-through needles.

I’m not competing for the title of least materialistic crafter of the year. When I see gadgets of all types being hawked to makers, though, it makes me wonder: who are these things for, and what are they for?

Surely not to make nicer things. That comes with time, patience, dedication, raw materials. Better tools, sure, but probably not cuter tools. Does a carpenter use a tiny hammer painted with hearts?

Is it for convenience? Oh. If convenience is the aim, I should probably set my knitting aside and head to Uniqlo instead.

Excuse the slight snark. I’m tired of seeing new crafters become overwhelmed by the plethora of tools they think they need, and by the useless, low-quality junk being hawked at them.

I work in tech, where the stereotype employee has every latest gadget and can’t wait until the next Apple announcement. What I’ve found, instead, is a group of people who are as obsessed as I am with craftsmanship, this time of hardware, code, pixels. I never expected we’d have that in common.

When I spotted an Apple Watch peeking from under a coworker’s sleeve, I gently teased him about his latest indulgence. “Yeah, I know, but yesterday, when it was guiding me through the city? It was awesome.” He had the dazed look of someone who lives in the future. The tool worked.

When a knitting novelty can do that? I’ll start buying. Until then, pen and paper it is.