Daring to make hats 


I’ve never made a hat before by knitting. It’s supposedly easy, at least according to those who’ve been knitting hats for years. For those of us who’ve never knit in the round before it seems daunting. 

Don’t twist the knit!


I don’t quite know how this will turn out. I’m not following a pattern, merely putting one knit-stitch in front of the other until the round of a hat appears. I know that there’s fancy ribbing I could do, all sorts of patterns. I know that hats work better in multiples of eight, for some reason. I know that my own head needs about 24″ around. I have no idea if this hat will meet any of those conditions. 

The first condition is to not twist the knit as you work it in the round. The yarn has a tendency to work itself into a spiral as you knit. That’s fine if you’re making a scarf — it’s just straight line after straight line with nary a pun or a punch line in sight. But knitting in the round and not paying attention leads to a twist. And a twist leads to Möbius strips and Klein bottle covers, in knitting. 

I’ve already completely undone this hat once. I don’t plan on doing so again. Sometimes it’s better to finish a bad hat, and learn from the mistakes, than to start again and again, never going beyond the beginning. 

31DoM: Cord Magic


Today’s work with magic in the 31 Days of Magic is cording magic.

Cording lore: Spinning

I am neither a novice nor non-partisan about cording magic.  I knit, I spin, I lucet, I weave, and I do nålbinding. I make my own tools for working with yarn and cord, from knitting needles to drop spindles to inkle looms.  I also sew, and I believe that a good magician makes his or her own robe.  And, in addition, although some of my colleagues in the strategic sorcery course have panned this kind of magic as “old women’s work”, I think it’s important to recognize that some of the oldest statuettes of women ever discovered are wearing skirts and aprons made of string and beads — the act of clothing and sheltering and decorating someone has been women’s work for 20,000 years.  At least.

Cording lore: knittingHere’s how I used these arts today.  I knit a few rows on a scarf today  — a holdover from attending last night’s “stitch and bitch” at a local coffee house.  Every week I’m in town, I meet with three to ten other people to work on making useful and beautiful objects that keep people warm in the winter. Every object is made with love and care — it has to be made with love and care, because if it isn’t, it will fall apart.  I’m doing ten-ish rows of alternating black and blue — black for Saturn, to remind myself that I can’t do everything; blue for Jupiter, to remind myself that I can do considerably more than I think I can, and that practice will make me better at anything — including knitting.

I also finished spinning two single strands into a double-strand, using a trio of drop spindles that I made myself.  Single ply thread represents the power of a single course of action— but it’s also a good way of understanding certain chemical processes.  Today, I completed the work of spinning one spindle empty, and making about 100 yards of double-ply spinning.  Someone’s always spinning, right, Gordon?  Right, Deb?  For me, making my own spun yarn was a way of demonstrating one of my personal key principles of magic — that tools make tools, make things, Make Things Happen.  Carpentry tools made my drop spindles. My drop spindles made yarn.  My carpentry tools made my knitting needles. My knitting needles will make my yarn into a scarf, or a hat, or a pair of gloves.  See above about how important knitting-done-with-love really is.

For me, making these two or three hundred yards of single-ply yarn into Double-Ply yarn is also about one of the key elements of this magic I’m working on in these 31 days — finding partners in the work. Finding co-teachers and co-carers in the work of creating and making and inventing, who will help other students create and make and invent.  I’ve called this person in.  I’ve taken my thread, and joined it to theirs.  I’ve joined them together for a long ways.  In this way, a single-ply thread is made stronger and better.  It will last longer and eventually be made into something still more beautiful and useful than a skein of string — it will be a scarf. Made with love.

Cording lore: Nålbinding

The cording lore is not difficult to learn.  The basics can be learned in a few hours from YouTube videos. But it is not always easy work.  I’ve been fussing around with Naalbinding, or nålbinding, for weeks without quite getting good enough at it to make a hat or a scarf or a pair of mittens.  It’s a ‘flow’ activity, which means that all I can do is show you a finished product, or a project at the start before it becomes anything: a handmade needle and a hank of about a yard of yarn torn off by hand.  Making the tool one needs to do it was the easiest part of the work so far.

Cording lore: lucetingThe act of luceting a cord is a powerful example of Tools making tools making things making things happen.  I make luceted cord as a component of many kinds of magic — from edging on bags and jackets and tunics and robes and other costumes, to raw material for bindings and wrappings and hangings — three kinds of objects mentioned in Cornelius Agrippa’s 3 Books of Occult Philosophy.  You can think of it as like a continuous mala, really — each stitch or loop of the work can be endowed with its own power. Today’s cording work was dedicated to the principle that my magical actions shall be square (sturdy) and strong, and that no one shall undo my work without difficulty.

More than that, though — that those who see this work, either in person or in photography, shall instantly consider five or six ways that these skills of working with string could be applied to their own practice.  For that’s one of the things that I want to get across in these 31 Days of Magic: that working with string isn’t just magic, it’s Making, and that all of these skills could easily help students be more hands-on and skillful in their encounters with the world.

Make Summer Camp: Elemental Scarf


Elemental ScarfI don’t plan to say much about this scarf.  It’s mostly rows of knit, 66 stitches wide.  I made it in order to learn if I have the patience to make a Doctor Who Scarf, and the answer is that I probably don’t.  There are mistakes in each of its four colors. Some of these mistakes are dropped stitches. Others are added stitches, others are just a mess.

The worst mistake: I completely unraveled about eight lines of green during the effort to bind off—a dozen stitches fell off, and then several rows below them unraveled rapidly.  I undid three or four more lines than necessary in the effort to get the whole scarf back on to the needles to bind off again.  The second time, it held.

It’s by no means perfect.Elemental Scarf

When you look at this broad wall of Yellow, for example (for air, for spring, for the east, for the dawn, and in some systems for the Sun), it’s hard not to notice that mess at the top left where I’ve woven in some of the extra string. Something similar is going on along the bottom where it intersects with red.  And from a true magical prospectus, the colors are out of order.  It might be, top to bottom, fire, air, water, earth (red, yellow, blue, green).  Or it might be an infinity scarf, with twelve roughly-equal fields of these four colors, with a Zodiac sign knitted in cable work in a flashing color (I’m not that talented a knitter).

But still, it’s done.  My next knitting project was going to be something in linen stitch, but it’s looking more like Bamboo Stitch is going to be my next project.

Maker Lab: Wool, Yarn, Knot, Dye, Cloth


Knitting Needles, Drop Spindle, LoomFollowing on from that Latin Illustration course that I’m running, and the move of the Design Lab to its new quarters, I’m pleased to say that I’m finally getting to offer my class in the technology suite of spinning, weaving, dyeing and knitting.

And the first step is to make the tools.

We’ll be using the Design Lab’s new capacities as a wood-working shop to make the inkle loom, and make the drop spindle that I learned to make from Caveman Chemistry.  (This means I have to learn some dyeing skills from Caveman Chemistry over the next few weeks, which should be fun.

But the other thing that we’ll be doing is making a pair of knitting needles. Obviously, these are not particularly hard to make.  Each needle got sharpened in an electric pencil sharpener, and then had a wooden bead attached to the opposite end — the bead’s hole had to be drilled slightly wider, to accommodate the 3/16″ doweling of the needle.  Awesome.

The loom, of course, is a more complicated instrument, and making the wooden parts is only the first half of the battle; the second challenge is assembling it, and then making the heddles out of string, and then stringing it with the colors you want, and… and there are of course, way more colors than I can possibly accommodate as requests from students for colors to had to our supply list.  But we’ve got a good start, at least, on providing kids with a good range of colors from the primary and secondary color markets. And maybe in the class on dyeing, we’ll find a few more.

There’s been some discussion online lately about what constitutes a Makerspace vs. a Design Lab vs. a FabLab, and what constitutes a STEM or STEAM program against a Maker program in schools.  The Nerdy Teacher has a bit about how, as an English teacher, he sees the Makerspace as something more flexible than a STEM-oriented robotics lab, and more available to all students and adults in a school community. Engage their Minds talks about the value of squishy circuits for teaching electronics awareness, and I totally see us doing this activity (again) at some point — (the challenge is that the dough goes bad before I can have more than a couple of classes use it). There’s a whole playbook of opportunity for what Makerspaces can do, even.  But a Makerspace can also be a computer lab, even if it sometimes feels like preaching to the choir.

For me, I’m interested in showing students how tools make other tools. How we use carpentry skills to make textile tools; how we use textile tools to make and decorate clothes and accessories; how we use clothes and accessories to communicate culture.  Call it HEM, or maybe AGE — History/Engineering/Mathematics, or Anthropology/Geometry/Engineering.  A Makerspace or a Design Lab at a school doesn’t get to just teach kids how to do something; we also have to teach a way of seeing the world that shows them how to think about tools and technology differently than they do.

To paraphrase and contradict Steve Jobs, it’s just not magic. John Michael Greer recently pointed out that technologies come in suites or group packages, and that simple technologies are far more stable than those that must externalize their costs.  This means that technology isn’t a monolithic thing (as much as the tech industry would like you to believe otherwise).  The technology that produces clothing (as opposed to the tech that markets and brands it), has been pushed to the fringes of the industrialized world — in much the same way that the first radio signals Earth produced are now at the outer fringes of a circle 300 light-years (is that 30 parsecs?) across.  The earliest industrial technology, machine spinning and machine weaving, is now found mostly in the countries where the poverty wages of William Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills are still acceptable.  (As wages continue to fall in the industrial world, I suspect these technologies will gradually return from overseas, very likely with painful results).

Inkle Weaving

Inkle Loom set up for weaving

So why teach kids to make their own knitting needles? Why teach them to spin their own yarn?  Why teach them to make tablet-woven strands of cloth? Are these legitimate Makerspace learning opportunities?  I think so.  Because the underlying principle here is to make explicit what is implicit. Weaving, knitting — these are invisible technologies to most of my students, as they were to me before I learned to do them myself.  

(And, because I can’t teach them to raise sheep in my Design Lab.  At least, not yet.)

The Knitting Lesson: Sestina on Knitting


People keep coming to my blog looking for knitting poems, and there’s part of me that has wanted to keep this poem in reserve for some reason.  It’s dumb to hide it; it’s a good poem, and worth sharing, and a great way to show off my skill as a poet, yadda yadda blah blah blah.  There are other poems about knitting that I’ve written, but this is the best one.

Mom and my cousin come from the store
With balls of yarn and knitting needles.
Mom intends to teach a little lore
And some women’s secrets held in store
Like some giant and luminous pearl
Passed down from the wise women of yore,
Part of that knowledge that women store.
Today, cousin Claire will learn to knit
And somewhere the two of them will sit,
To wind loops of string around a core.

Matron teaches maiden a new art,
Beginning as one should, at the start.
And Claire gets off to a rocky start.
She counts to five where she should count four
And her first loops are too far apart.
Her fingers have no feel for the art,
No dexterity with the needles.
Mom undoes her loops and makes her start
Over again, learning from the start
The correct method to knit and purl,

And get the red yarn to twist and curl
Just as it should, onto the needles.
At last she gets the tricky first bit,
And row by row she begins to knit.
Soon she and mom are exchanging wit
As Claire grasps the basics of the art:
Thirty-two stitches of purl and knit
With each single loop designed to fit
On bamboo shafts she got from the store.
In the kitchen she chooses to sit,

Content quite simply to talk and knit
A red scarf on number eight needles.
Two inches hang down from the needles:
Claire really seems to have gotten it.
She holds on her pinkie a red curl
Of woolen yarn that waits for a purl.
“Wait, does a knit come next, or a purl?”
Mom glances from her work and sees it
Is time to go the other way — “purl,”
She says crisply, “a whole role of purl,

And that will bring you back to the start.
Then a row of knit and one of purl.”
Mom brushes from her face a gray curl
Of hair I had not noticed before.
When did she become a crone of yore,
With her hair turned the color of pearl,
With its wayward opalescent curl
And a face full of laughing wrinkles?
She helps Claire through her many muddles,
Wondering whether to knit or purl.

We get lost in the clack of needles,
The tiny clack of bamboo needles
As in the quiet kitchen we sit —
Claire with her yarn and knitting needles
And mom with all her women’s riddles,
Her wit as fast as her needles that dart.
Mom talks as she works the ancient art,
Speaks her mind to metronome needles,
Giving practical advice and lore
Just like the women in days of yore….

And I sense that I stand on the shore
Beside one of those seaside puddles
Watching the tide of womanhood curl
Around my cousin, learning to knit.
She is gathered to the ancient art.

There’s some things which are wrong with the poem.  It’s not exclusively women that knit.  I’m a knitter, for one, and for another, men used to do most of the knitting in the world until relatively recently; the Industrial Revolution moved knitting from an activity done at home to an activity done in the factory to work done by a machine.  It’s not an exclusively female art, etc., and maybe it was wrong to structure the poem around that. But at the time, I didn’t know very much about knitting other than that my mother was teaching my cousin, and that it seemed like a powerful way to knit two generations together.

Tai Chi Y2D148: Onward


Here’s what I did this morning:

  • 10 push-ups (badly
  • Five Golden Coins
  • Eight Pieces of Silk
  • The Tai Chi Form I know

The push-ups are getting easier. They’re not easy.  I don’t want you to think that.  I’m moving around 300 pounds around with my arms.  That is to say, me… Not ideal.  But at least I’m getting better at it.

New Knitting Project I began a new knitting project yesterday.  So far it’s turning out well.  I do a row of knit, and a row of purl, and the resulting pattern is called stockinette. It looks pretty cool; the weave is very tight; and this is going to be a rather handsome scarf in a bright olive-like green.  In order to make this scarf, I had to learn to purl-stitch, which Vicki taught me last night at the local stitch ‘n’ bitch.  I produced about 4″ of length in this particular scarf, which is a good beginning.

The workmen are here in my house at the moment, disassembling my shower and bathtub.  They’re ripping apart the whole bathroom to replace some faulty plumbing that — from the looks of it — dates from the 1600s.

It would be easy for me to assume that just because I didn’t spend 2-3 hours doing tai chi this morning that I’m somehow not doing enough.  But the evidence of my life shows that I’m doing plenty — there’s a half-dozen scarves out there which will keep people warm this winter that came from my knitting needles. There’s art work I’ve made that has inspired many.  There’s this blog, which (while it doesn’t have as many readers as I’d like) still apparently inspires a couple dozen people daily.  I’ve taught hundreds of students in my life, and made a difference to many.

What other measurements matter?

We keep going.  We keep onwards.  We’re in this business of living, and sometimes it’s tedious, and sometimes it’s beautiful.  Keep doing the work.

Poem: What is Work?


Poem-ScarfI was making this scarf at a poetry reading at a regular summer festival I go to in mid-July.  The crowd was pretty awesome, but I hadn’t prepared much in the way of poetry over the last year, and aside from a few pieces of OPP (Other People’s Poetry), I hadn’t performed anything at all to an audience in months.  This is one of the crowning readings of my year, and I wasn’t ready at all.

Meanwhile, I was knitting.  I was trying to remember the poem about knitting that I’d written a long time ago, figuring I could do that. I couldn’t pull that poem’s third and fourth line out of my head, though, and leaving them out would have been a drastic change.

Instead, I had to think of something else to do. Or not read.  But it was hard. My memory wasn’t working properly; I couldn’t find the poem that would speak to this moment.  And I’d been having conversations with people about work, rather than words, at this festival, and thinking about work rather than words.  All very challenging to make words while other people are talking, and saying very deep and important things that you want to listen to and understand, and when words are not foremost in your mind.

So I’d just about given up on the idea that I was going to perform anything at all.

And then I realized I’d knit just enough that I was about to run out of white yarn.  That it was time to bind off the stitch, and be finished.  And … something gelled. Something about what all the other poets had said affixed itself in my mind.  And I improvised a poem, called What is Work? that was in part based on what I’d heard other people say at the reading, and partly on what I’d talked to people about all week during the event.

This is not that poem.  But it is an attempt to get across what I was thinking and feeling that day.  Maybe it’s better than that poem, maybe it’s worse, maybe it’s not the right words now in the way that it was the right words then, while I was knitting and making [yet] a(nother) scarf.  But here’s the poem.

Words don’t matter to me much any more.
I spoke and spoke, and still I speak,
and no one listens to them, and nothing changes.
Words themselves do not alter the course of history,
nor turn the planets, nor remake the Cosmos,
not unless Work follows after.

And so I turned to Work.
Work has power: it is the heat under the alchemist’s flask,
it is the lathe spinning under the chisel,
the steel pitting under the laser,
it is the needles going clack
around the oroubouros of the yarn,
it is the whorl upon the drop spindle,
it is the skin of the sheep producing wool
it is the angel telling the grass to grow,
it is the fire of the Sun,
it is the consequence of the first Word,
Light, let there be.

Work is done one stitch at a time,
one line at a time, one bit at a time
one loop at a time.
It is the management of atoms
and the rearrangement of patterns,
it is the unweaving of stories
and the crocheting of myths,
it is the task of taking a single string of yarn
and giving it width and length,
breadth and warmth and story.

With due respect to Lyra,
Words matter when they Work,
when they set an intention
and then follow through,
mistakes and all, rough edges and
dropped stitches,
missed bolt-holes and bad angles
and all.

My friend Daniel likes to say,
build the whole prototype
because the first mistake is rarely the last.
See the work through from beginning to end,
complete the effort, learn from the errors,
and try again.  The Work is never finished,
not really, though the lead turn to
alchemists’ gold in the crucible,
though the yarn-basket be empty,
though the food be eaten and the dishes clean.

And this, dear one, is part of the meaning of Work,
that it carries on from one task to the next,
unraveling the things that do not serve the world,
re-making the broken things so that they do.

This Work is accomplished one stitch at a time,
one row at a time, one scarf at a time,
one project at a time,
one set of tools,
one set of plans,
one hand, and one heart.


So, that’s the poem.

A few words in conclusion:  Lyra, mentioned twice, had written and read an absolutely brilliant poem about the power of our words, which I hope she’ll post somewhere that I can link to it, because it deserves to be read; her partner is referenced in the line about the steel pitted by the laser near the start.  My blogging colleague Deborah Castellano’s yarn was used to make the scarf; and Daniel was sitting in the audience — he’s an accomplished poet himself.  And of course, my friend and colleague and brother Steve is now-ish wearing the scarf that is also this poem (sorta).