Joining a new community

I’ve recently began to knit and the process of learning a new skill strikes me as akin to immigrating to a new country. There is an entire language to master. Terms like stockinette, seed stitch, garter stitch, gauge, bind off, cast on, quickly became part of my everyday vocabulary. Acronyms also abound: KAL, LYS, K, P, K2Tog, M1L, M1R, the list go on… Types of fiber: wool, alpaca, cotton, linen, mohair, silk, and all combinations of the above… Thickness of yarn: cobweb, lace, fingering (or sock), sport, DK, worsted, aran, bulky, super bulky…

Just like moving to a new place may involve realizing that the new community you are joining is more diverse than you imagined, I soon discovered that the knitting community cannot be easily generalized into one type. There are many different subcommunities and a tendency to ascribe forms of identity based on preferences. You are either a DPN knitter or a magic loop knitter, one that promotes metal needles or wood needles, lace vs straight knitting… This past week I learned a new one. I was asked whether I was a process knitter or a product knitter. A process knitter is someone who knits for the actual act of knitting. The process knitter doesn’t really care all that much about the finished product as much as he or she enjoys the process of making it. The product knitter is focused on the finished product. He or she gets inspired by the specific cardigan or shawl rather than by the process. I suppose I fall more into the latter category. I can get bored in the middle of working on a project. I feel impatient to finish and try it on. I am totally focused on the end product.

Whenever these questions are brought up at my knitting group, we talk about it lightheartedly but I cannot help but notice the passion with which some justify belonging to one subcommunity or another or how an identity formed on a preference for a particular technique can quickly become a fixed identity. A woman at the store was once faced with the problem that she did not have the right size of double pointed needles – which are used to knit circular projects like sleeves, socks, hats – to finish a project. I suggested she used her circular needles since they would achieve the same result and she would not have to purchase another set of needles. She looked at me horrified and said “I cannot do magic loop (which is the technique used to make small tubes with a circular needle), I am a DPN knitter!” The tone seemed to imply that if you do one you cannot ever do the other without betraying yourself, which is kind of silly when you think that both techniques basically involve splitting the stitches between a number of needles (2 in one case, 3 or 4 in the other) and knitting back and forth.

The great danger of course is when you exclude, limit yourself, or make assumptions based on these forms of identity. I see many knitters who have not knit lace declare that they could not possibly follow a pattern because they only do straight knitting. Or that despite having been knitting for years,they cannot possibly read a chart. Which is akin to a musician saying he or she could not possibly learn a new instrument because they already learned to play another one. Or the hurt tone on the voice of the woman was too quick to dismiss using her circular needles because she was a “DPN knitter.”

I have no overall conclusion about any of the above. These are just reflections about my journey into a new community.

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My Berlin impressions

The list below is in the order that came to mind. There is no real hierarchy although number 1, is definitely number 1.

  1. Fabiane & Yasar. I met Fabiane online (more specifically at an Orkut community) a few years ago. I left that particular social media platform, we lost touch, but recently ran into each other again on a Facebook group to which I was invited by a mutual friend. When I floated the idea of going to Berlin for a bit of vacation, she generously insisted we stay with her. Fabiane and her partner Yasar proved to be the most generous hosts we could hope for and we got along so easily and effortlessly that we left with plans to spend vacations together again.
  2. Amazing interior design. I went to four third-wave coffee shops in Berlin and although the coffee was good and the cakes to die for (more on this later), what really caught my attention was the space. All the cafés had utterly inviting spaces that were not only comfortable but also stylish in that mid-century European kind of way.
  3. Cakes. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but I have to mention German cakes. They were incredible. No matter how so-so the restaurant, the cakes were always amazing. Their version of Spanish almond tart (aka Torta de Santiago) is even better than the original.
  4. Bread. My German friends in Barcelona always complained about the bread available in Spain. We thought it was ok. Now I know why they complained so much. If I had been raised eating bread that good, I too would suffer anywhere else. I dare say I found it even better than French bread. Beer was awesome too, of course.
  5. Ethnic food. I was keen to try German food and had some of the best sausages, sauerkraut, and mustard I ever had, but what swept me off my feet were the Vietnamese, Turkish, and Greek food we had. Our last meal in Berlin was at a Greek restaurant that looked like a small tavern out of a Greek island somewhere. It was packed and luckily Yasar called ahead and we got the last table available. He knew the place well, having patronized it for nearly twenty years, and we never even looked at the menu. He simply told them we would like to focus on fish and seafood and were treated to course after course of the freshest calamari, octopus, shrimp, mussels, and fish we ever had. I’m sure I’ll dream about that meal for a long time. It definitely made it to my very short list of my best meals of all time.
  6. Christmas Markets. They were a bit too crowded for my liking but the food more than made up for it. Ah the Glüwein and Bratwurst!
  7. Handmade Berlin. The selection of yarn does not compared to my local yarn store but the space, of for that beautiful space. I would live there if I lived in Berlin.
  8. History. Historical memory is fostered by all levels of government and we could all learn a thing or two from how the German preserve their history and teach others about it. Everywhere we went the past was very much alive. I could not help but think/imagine what it must have been like to walk through those streets in 1938, 1942, 1945, 1968, or even 1989….
  9. Prenzlauer Berg. I didn’t have time to visit too many neighbourhoods in Berlin but I know I could live in this one. Yes, it is gentrified, trendy, and somewhat posh. But it is also artsy, leafy, and has a creative vibe to it. The shops and cafés were inspiring and we kept going back.
  10. Train trip from Frankfurt to Berlin. What can I say? A comfortable ride. Picturesque German villages. Weissbier in a tall glass. Traveling by train is so much nicer than by plane!
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Food as the entry point into a culture

In his recent book, Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the role of cooking in human society, illustrating powerfully how the transformation of the ingredients offered by nature into specific foods or dishes connects us both with our communities and nature at large. At a personal level, food has always been the key factor that connects me to places, peoples, and experiences. Talking to a friend recently about traveling and choosing where to go, the topic of food came up. She mentioned that food is important but it is not the reason for traveling. That stopped me dead on my tracks. “What do you mean?? Food is definitely the reason I travel.” She asked me to explain what I mean. Like everyone else, I may learn about a destination either through reading a book, browsing the internet, leafing through a magazine, watching a movie… That may foster in me an interest for the place. For example, I spent half my undergraduate years studying the history of modern Germany. As a result, I became intellectually interested in the country. My German history prof recommended a number of novels written by German authors, which turned me onto German literature and made me interested in learning the language. I still didn’t think of actually traveling to Germany for my next vacations. Then I lived in Spain, had lots of German friends, learned yet more about German culture and how amazing Berlin is now. Still no plans to go there. And then my German friend, who also happens to be a cook, makes us a traditional German meal and suddenly the thought occurs to me “I must visit Germany!” It is inevitable. I learned to appreciate European-style beers in Toronto, to love all manners of charcuteries in Catalonia. Suddenly I HAD to go to Germany and try local German beers, German sausages, find out what modern German cuisine is like. And we now have a trip to Berlin scheduled in about two weeks. It is hard to explain what it is – but it is as if I suddenly, through eating someone’s food, I suddenly feel connected. It is not that the food rocks my world. That plate of käsespätzle was not the best noodles with cheese I had ever eaten. Yer, it did seem to awaken inside of me the curiosity to explore the culture further, to see how its people live, what they eat for breakfast, what they buy at the market… 11 days and counting… stay tuned.

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Summer Wrap

I started this wrap at the end of may. It’s my largest knitting project to date, requiring six skeins of yarn. Today I started the last skein.

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Each new knitting project teaches me an unexpected lesson. From this one I learned that I could actually knit a cardigan one day. Cant wait to finish it. It’s my summer 2013 project.

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Wool and endangered sheep breeds

Little did I know how much more there was to knitting than I imagined when I walked into the yarn shop and registered for my first knitting class back in 2010. I assumed I would mostly learn about the act of knitting itself – how to move a set of needles in such a way to create knitwear of various shapes and designs. It turns out that was only the tip of the iceberg. What became fascinating to me is the endless types of yarn one can use – the types of fibers, the different weights, thicknesses, natural, dyed, and all the different combinations of protein and plant fibers. Even something I felt I instinctively understood such as wool turned out to be a field of interest all of its own.

As Clara Parkes puts it in her The Knitter’s Book of Yarn wool is “as varied as the sheep on which it grows, running the gamut from rugged and ropelike to delicate and ethereal, with just about everything in between.”  There’s variation even within the same breed! Talking to my friend Kat, who is a bit of a sheep connoisseur, has sparked my interest further and as I prepare to go to Barcelona and Girona for a bit of research I began to search for local yarn I could buy. In that process I came across the xisqueta sheep of the Catalan pyrenees, an endangered breed of sheep that have inhabited the region for over 5,000 years.

Xisqueta sheep – noted for their white fur and black nose and ears.

Uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions of the Pyrenees, these sheep allowed the development of thriving communities. By the 1960s, unable to compete with sheep grown industrially in many parts of the world, the xisqueta population dwindled to the point of being placed, in 1995,  on a list of breeds at risk of extinction. This allowed the shepherds who specialize on xisqueta sheep to organize themselves in a cooperative to better protect the breed. Efforts were also made by the cooperative to market its wool as fair trade by compensating farmers fairly and educating customers of the importance of the sheep for the survival of many Pyrenean communities. Its status has now been raised from endangered species to protected species as its population grow. When I visit Barcelona next month, I look forward to contribute to the survival of these lovely sheep by buying some of this  yarn:

Undyed yarn spun from 100% xisqueta wool available at http://xisqueta.bigcartel.com/category/llanes and various shops in Catalonia

The dyed versions are equally nice and are all done with natural dyes:

The only question now is how much yarn to buy – enough for my first cardigan?

 

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My first lace shawl

When I saw the shawl below at EweKnit, I knew I had to attempt it.
Holden Linen by Nikoleta

Linen Holden ShawlI had seen the pattern on Ravelry and knew it was a good lace pattern for beginners as it was fairly simple. I even had the yarn already. The only difference is that I needed two skeins and I had one in each of two colours: pewter and yellow. I decided to do the plain knitting section in pewter and the lace section in yellow with a few stripes transitioning from one to the other. The entire shawl took about 2-3 weeks to finish, knitting mostly in the evenings and a bit on weekends. Considering how slow I am, it was super fast! I’m in love with the result – the linen proved to be extremely soft once I blocked the shawl and everyone tells me it will get softer and softer as I wash it again. I’m VERY pleased.

 

Linen Holden Shawl
Linen Holden Shawl

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Roadtrip!

My older brother and his family are spending the year in Vicksburg, MS. My younger brother and my parents are visiting them from Brazil this summer and we promised we would come for a visit as well. After looking at flights and realizing we would have to rent a car once we got there anyway, Alan suggested we drive down. We haven’t had a road trip for a while and he misses driving. The timing is not ideal for me as we are in the midst of curriculum planning for next year, which means I’ll have to bring work along, but unfortunately, july and august will not be any easier work-wise. Even if I have to work from there, at least I’ll get to see the family and spend my birthday with my brother and his family!

So far the plan is to leave Toronto early on Friday, have lunch at Ann Arbor, MI, sleep over in Louisville, KY, and then move on to Memphis, TN, where my brother and his family will be spending the weekend. Monday, May 27th we leave Memphis to Vicksburg and spend the week there at my bother’s. We celebrate my birthday on Friday and come back to Toronto early in the morning of June 1st so we can get home by Sunday evening. I haven’t had much time to think about the trip yet as it took a while to confirm and I’ve been busy at work but planning gets into full swing this week. The main thing? Finding places to eat along the way!

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Handmade things

I have always appreciated handcrafted objects of all kinds. I was never a particularly vain child and couldn’t have cared less about clothes, but I remember three pieces of clothing that I cherished above all else: one was a white crochet dress and matching hat that I had when I was about 4-5 years old made by my grandmother, a yellow cardigan knit by my mother when I was 7, and a red and white dress sewn by friend’s grandmother. I don’t remember ever mentioning it to anyone but somehow, the fact that someone I knew had spent hours handcrafting those items made them all the more special.

I grew up secretly envying anyone who could create anything: friends who could draw, paint, play musical instruments; my mother and other relatives who could grab a bunch of ingredients and combine them to create delicious food; my cousin who could carve wood, my grandmother and aunt who could produce the most intricate crochet lace…. When I was about nine years old I learned to make crochet bracelets with my friend. I was very proud of that and now I wish someone had taught me to make more things out of crochet. For a while I could cross stitch.

Knitting seemed to me the hardest of all crafts. It puzzled me with all those needles waving in the air and somehow the act of pulling thread through the right loops produced intricate fabric. I was sure it probably required superhuman coordination and assumed anyone who knit must be super smart or talented. To be fair, I was not exposed to it much considering that I grew up in a tropical country where knitting sweaters and socks were seen most often in foreign movies on television.

In the summer of 2010 I finally took the plunge and took a couple of private classes at Lettuce Knit, a yarn shop in Kensington Market. I wish I remembered who taught me. At the end of the summer of 2010, when we drove to Prince Edward County, I started knitting my first scarf in a luxurious merino wool. Turns out it was not as impossible as I imagined and quite relaxing. Life took over, that Fall I began teaching at New College while also finishing my dissertation and the scarf lingered half unfinished in a bag.

I finally returned to it last summer. I finished the scarf (which I wore a LOT this past winter), took a couple more classes and began honing my skills. I attempted lace a bit too soon, and have knit a pair of fingerless gloves in a lovely tweed yarn, another scarf, two cowls that did not really work out because I did not keep the propery gauge, a lovely neckwarmer in alpaca for my mother, a shawl, a baby hat for my little granddaughter, and I’m now making a baby dress. I discovered a new community of knitters out there and have been learning all the lingo – Ravelry, LYS, frog, wip, DPNs, magic loop, the list goes on and on.

I can’t explain the feeling of watching a single thread being transformed into something both beautiful and practical by a combination of skill and two needles. Growing up, my solace was reading. It’s what I would do whenever I had a spare moment. I always had a book on me and I read walking down the street, waiting for the bus, waiting for appointments, in class when I was bored, everywhere. Once reading became part of my job as an academic, however, I started feeling the need to have breaks from reading. I needed something that would help me relax but also that it would get me off my head, something that I could do with my hands. Knitting has filled that hole.

Expect to see much more about yarns, patterns, fibers on this blog.

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Wonky hip

Thirty-seven years. That’s how long I’ve had a wonky hip (aka an asymmetrical hip with one side higher than the other and twisted more to one side). I discovered it when I was about twenty-one years old. My mother had the exact same problem so doctors shrugged it off as a genetic mal-formation. Nothing they could do, they told me. But be careful since you could probably get a herniated disc.

It’s stiff most of the time. Sometimes I pinch a nerve and my leg goes a bit numb. I have mostly learned to live with it but finally asked my doctor to recommend me a physiotherapist since I want to run but don’t want to make my hip worse. Perhaps the physiotherapist can recommend some exercises or at least tell me what I should not do.

Yesterday I went to the physiotherapist for the first time.

Twenty minutes. That’s how long it took her to straighten my hip. She made me lie down and pulled my leg. She kept pulling and loosening it. It did not hurt at all. After about twenty minutes she asked me to get up and we examined my hip again. It was straight. Both sides were the same. I still cannot believe it! She said it may shift again and if it does, I can go back. Meanwhile, I’m free to do whatever exercise I want.

Conscience cleared I started my running regimen today following the Running Room Learn to Run program. By the end of the summer I should be running 5km comfortably. I hadn’t realized how much it bothered me to have a wonky hip until the day it got magically fixed. I’ve been feeling euphoric all day!

This is going to be a good summer friends.

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Freedom

I know we all love to complain about the lack of an European-style cycling infrastructure in Toronto but I have to say, it’s such a good cycling city. We seldom have to take the TTC from now until november as we get everywhere by bike. Cycling along College st this morning, with the warm Spring sun keeping the cool morning air at bay, I felt so free and exhuberant I wished I could whistle.

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