Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Once upon a time, I didn’t know anything about needlework of any kind. 

So I researched it.  It was 1966; there was no internet.  Therefore, I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, jumped a rope when nobody was looking, and lifted the edge of a medieval tapestry to see how it was made.  I didn’t learn much before I was discovered and thrown out.  The second time I tried that, while enduring a Bum’s Rush to the exit, I protested.  “But I want to learn!”  “Get a book!” was the prompt suggestion.

So I did.  The closest I could come to “How To Make a Medieval Tapestry” was a McCall’s publication, “How To Do Needlepoint”.  It was (and still is) very simple – get a canvas, put the needle down in here, bring it up there.  OK. 

Off to the local five-and-dime, the only store in town that carried yarns, notions, and fabrics.  The tapestry needle and wool (not specifically “tapestry yarn”) were no problem to find.  But the clerks didn’t know what needlepoint canvas was.  They showed me the available canvas fabrics.  Well, it didn’t look like the mesh canvas in the book, but I wanted to get stitching, so I bought a half-yard.

I drew a picture on the canvas and counted the threads of the weave to achieve decent-looking stitches – two threads to the right and three threads up.  Of course, it isn’t real needlepoint; it’s counted thread embroidery and very wobbly since the fabric was definitely not an even-weave.  But I finished it because I wanted to hang it above my first son’s crib.  When my mother-in-law (an exquisite needle-worker) saw it, she first laughed and then educated me about the characteristics of a proper needlepoint canvas, proper tapestry yarns, and where, properly, to get them.  My second piece was much more correct.

But not more appealing.  This, my first piece, shows heart, determination and ingenuity.  Stitching it taught me many things, not the least of which is the beauty and efficacy of impropriety.

Don’t worry about doing it "right" – just get it done.

Stitch in Peace!  Karlin    (© 2012)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Good Wool

Our smallish group was all seated, chatting, waiting for only two more members to arrive before the Bible study could begin.  We ranged in age of 30-something to 93.  The late-comers were our oldest member and her ride.  Soon they arrived and amid greetings, we shuffled to begin the study.  Carolyn approached her seat slowly, but smiling as at a huge joke.  She got to her chair, but remained standing behind it until all of us settled down and were looking at her questioningly.

“How many of you remember World War One?”  she beamed.

Sheesh!  Most of us didn’t remember WWII and some of us were babies during Vietnam! 

But our 84-year-old said, “Well, I remember the end of it.  I was a very little girl, but I remember there was a big celebration, a picnic at one of the neighboring farms.  My family all rode over there in the buckboard.”

“Well,” said Carolyn, “ I was born in 1904, so I remember it very well.  See this scarf?” and she lifted the end of the simple, light brown piece of needlework draped around her neck, “I made this scarf when I was 12 years old.  My mother taught my sister and I how to knit, and we made scarves for the soldiers.  She let us each keep one.  My sister lost hers, but I’ve held on to mine because I made it and it reminds me of my mother.  I’ve been wearing it for over 60 years!  And look how well it’s held up!  No holes or worn spots!  And the color’s still good too!” 

We looked – it was!

“Now, “ said Carolyn, “do you know why it’s held up so good?”  And we waited for her answer without offering any interruptive guesses.

“Because,” she said impressively, “it’s made of good wool.  Let that be a lesson to you.”

True story.

Knit in Peace!  Karlin (© 2012)

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Right Stuff

Anyone can learn to knit.  Anyone can teach him or herself to knit.  Anyone can achieve good results with good tools.  The better the tools, the better the results.  So start, right from the beginning, with good yarn, good needles and good instruction.

For the yarn, choose an all-natural fiber, either cotton or wool.  My personal favorite for beginners is Tahki’s Cotton Classic, a cabled cord, or Lily’s Sugar & Cream, an inexpensive yarn that makes great dishcloths.  In wool, Brown Sheep’s Lamb’s Pride worsted, a one-ply yarn, works well.  All of these yarns do not split easily and render a nice even stitch.  You’ll like the look of it.  DO NOT use acrylic yarn to start with!  I know it’s cheap, but it splits and the stitches warp -- and your efforts will end up looking cheap, too.  Acrylic yarn is very discouraging stuff.

The needles should fit the task.  Since the task is learning and practicing, a 10” length in size 6, 7, or 8 will do (don’t worry; you’ll use them again for scarves and small projects).  Longer needles get caught in the upholstery, and big chunky needles are unwieldy for beginners.  Whether you use wood or metal needles is up to you.  Bamboo gives a little surface tension so the stitches don’t slide off as easily; metal needles are slicker.  Choose whichever is most comfortable and esthetically pleasing to you.  I would not recommend interchangeable needles to start with because the tips and cables can loosen slightly and catch the yarn.

Good instruction can be found in books or videos.  Coat’s & Clark publishes the Learn How booklet covering knitting, crochet and tatting.  It’s good for the basics (and has been around for decades).  Another reference book to eventually have on your shelf is The Knitter’s Companion by Vicki Square, which briefly but comprehensively describes and depicts all the basic knitting functions.  For accurate and simple video demonstrations, I recommend  Brittany goes slow, repeats operations and has the loveliest mellow teaching voice I’ve ever heard – it calmly lulls you into confidence!

Knit in Peace!  Karlin (© 2012)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Whence ‘The Raveled Sleave’?

Anyone who has seen “Shakespeare in Love” understands that William often conceived his beautiful poetry by observation of the living going on around him.  He copied from life.  So I imagine:

One day in a fit of writer’s block, he repairs to the town square for inspiration.  There he sees a mother, care-worn, poor and tattered. Several urchins tumble in the dust around her skirts.  She sits waiting for someone or something to happen by.  As she waits, she mends a child’s guernsey.  Nor is she darning a hole; with sticks fine as toothpicks, she studiously picks up the fallen stitches of the raveled sleeve.  She frowns in concentration until she has them all and then she smiles victoriously.  She begins to reknit the little arm warmer, satisfied that she is improving her sorry lot with an industry of nurture and economy.

And William pens, “ . . .  knits up the raveled sleave of care,” and puts it in Macbeth. 

That’s a pretty story, isn’t it?  Of course, it’s thoroughly untrue.  In the first place, Shakespeare’s ‘sleave’ was not the sleeve of a sweater.  A ‘sleave’ was a silken thread.  But whether we think the thread of care or the arm of care, the sense comes through that the raveled part of care can be knitted up.

In our time, Elizabeth Zimmerman, renowned for her knitting acumen, told all to “Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.”  She claimed that  “ . . . knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” 

Knitting is a meditative activity.  It provides time to think, and thinking while knitting mends many a raveled concern.  For instance, as I knit, I might remember dear departed friends or long distanced relatives.  As I knit, I might ponder an idea I heard somewhere, and I might try it on to see how it fits into my pattern of beliefs.  I might figure out how to pay the bills or I might plan an outing.  Thoughts go better with yarn.

“The Raveled Sleave” is a series of essays reflected on or during knitting.  Knitting itself is the silken thread linking all the stories together.   I hope it will entertain, inform, inspire, and encourage.

© Karlin Allen, 2012

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why “Tafferel”?

The name of a blog is very important.  It’s also hard to come up with. 

The name must be indicative of the philosophy of the organization and reflect the business at hand.  So we couldn’t go with “Tattler” because we’re not going to be tattling on anyone or spreading rumors.  “Tell-all” was scrapped because we don’t know all to be able to tell all.  After much deliberation, the word “tafferel” popped to mind.  Where had I heard it before?

Ah, yes!  It was in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:  “Yet we should oftener look over the tafferel of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum.”   I had to look up a few words; for all I knew, tafferel meant map and oakum might have something to do with noses.

“Tafferel” isn’t spelled that way anymore; now it’s “taffrail”.  A taffrail is the rail around a vessel’s stern, the back part of the boat.  Evidently, Thoreau recommended that we should not only be concerned with where our craft is going, but also where it’s been.  What kind of wake is the vessel leaving? 

I don’t know how lexicographers in the 1850s spelled tafferel, but I think Thoreau was delighted to use this spelling because he wanted to direct attention to the original meaning of the word.  “Tafferel” comes from a Middle Dutch word, “tafereel”, which means panel or picture.  So, paraphrasing Thoreau, every so often we should review the picture of our lifestyle to check out what we did and how our passing affected it.

Well, if that were all of Thoreau’s statement that influenced me to name this publication, I could stop here.

Thoreau said there’s a certain group of folks who go through life “like stupid sailors picking oakum”.  Oakum is hemp fiber obtained by picking the strands out of old rope.  It was an automatic, mindless, yet all consuming chore of lint picking.  But the picking of oakum was a necessary endeavor.  When out of sight of land, the sailors picked oakum to caulk the seams of the ship to prevent its sinking. 

Needle workers often get lost in their projects.  We pick and stitch and drift on the sea of our imaginings, hardly seeing the task at our fingertips, focused -- and yet not!   And many a needlework project has bound the family together and kept it going.  Though I perform a lot of chores around here to keep me going, I’m getting up now and again to look around me, like a “curious passenger”, to see where I’m headed and where I’ve been and where I am now.   That’s what the blog is all about, Charlie Brown. 

It’s a tafferel.