Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thoughts on Discrimination and Charity

In our desire for Perfect, how often do we fail to recognize and support Good?

A discussion on Facebook a couple of days ago has been occupying lots of my brain space since. Dan Savage wrote an article decrying the Salvation Army’s discrimination against LGBT people and families in need, and calling on readers to refrain from putting money in the red kettles which support the organization. The article was widely reposted, and the motion seconded by several people I love and respect.

I usually agree with Dan Savage. I think he deserves a humanitarian award for founding the It Gets Better Project in 2010. I think discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong, and I believe in marriage equality for all. But I think a more balanced assessment of the Salvation Army’s work is warranted.

The Salvation Army is an overtly evangelical Christian organization. They are right up front about their foundation in religious beliefs, and they refer to their various programs as their “ministries”. As with many religious organizations, they believe homosexual practice is forbidden by scripture. According to their website, “The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life.”

They also condemn the mistreatment or abuse of anyone based on sexual orientation. To quote again “…there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse.”

That’s not to say the many stories of discrimination are not true. As in any organization, decisions made by local people at the point of service may not comply with the stated policy of the organization. But the stated policy is “…the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation.”

Several years ago, my beloved younger brother fell into the dark hole of addiction. He had no money.  He had no health insurance. My mother was able to get him into a Salvation Army residential treatment program, followed by time in a Salvation Army halfway house. It is not an exaggeration to say that these programs saved his life. I will forever be grateful to the Salvation Army for making these services available to my family.

In a perfect world, such services would be available to all, regardless of income, race, gender, sexual orientation or religious belief. This is not a perfect world.

As a privately funded organization, the Salvation Army has every right to impose any criteria they choose on the provision of services. Their overriding mission is the promotion of their interpretation of the Christian religion. In pursuit of that mission, they make decisions about services based on their stated values. While I may disagree with these decisions, I support their right to make them.

We all impose our values on others when we decide whom to help. We all judge. We all discriminate. I know people who will give a dollar to a homeless woman with children, but not to a single, apparently healthy man. Others will happily give food, but not cash, because “they’ll just spend it on drugs.” Every time we make a decision to help or not to help, we are discriminating based on our values and perceptions.

Privately funded organizations have the same right. A free dental clinic for low-income children can decide not to provide services to anyone over the age of 18. A shelter for woman with children can choose to exclude single dads. An employment referral service can decide they will work only with those over age 50, or only with Veterans. And the Salvation Army can choose not to support gay rights.

Is this perfect? No. In a perfect world, there would not be so much need for charitable services.  In a perfect world, those who do need would be able to get the care they need, no questions asked.

In our desire to reach that perfect world, let’s not overlook the imperfect, but good that surrounds us.  The Salvation Army provides essential, life-saving services to many, if not to all. If they were gone tomorrow, would there be alternative, non-discriminatory organizations available to pick up the slack? In our quest to have our LGBT brothers and sisters treated equally, would we deny people like my brother the services they need?

In order to have equal treatment for all, we need to fund organizations that have real equality as a core value.  If you choose to walk past the red kettle, don’t just put the coins back in your pocket. Do your research and find organizations that provide similar services without discrimination. Put your money and time into organizations that share your values, so they have the wherewithal to put those values into practice.

As for me, I’ll continue to be grateful to the Salvation Army and to put money in the kettle in hopes that help will be available for someone else's brother when he needs it. I’ll also donate to secular organizations that promote tolerance and equality. And I’ll defend your right to choose where to put your time and money in accordance with your values and beliefs.

At this cold, dark time of year, may the light and warmth of charity shine on you.  May you share your abundance with those who are less fortunate. And may your heart by merry and bright.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Are you ready for some Football?

Tonight, the San Francisco 49ers play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football. Why do I know this?  Because I love football.
One of the reasons autumn is my favorite time of the year is football.  Few things please me more than the prospect of a Sunday spent in front of the television watching football and knitting. Football and knitting are perfect partners.  It takes a little over 3 hours to play a 60 minute game, so there is lots of time when you don’t really need to watch. The play by play announcers generally do a great job of describing the action, so you can follow much of the game with your ears while you eyes and hands are busy with your knitting. If you do happen to miss a crucial play because you were, say, turning a cable, you’ll get to see it on instant replay.
My father was a football fan (he loved the Rams when they were in LA), but it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I caught the bug.  I had a succession of boyfriends who spent Sundays devoted to football.

Back in those days I bore a disturbing resemblance to Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride- I was perfectly willing to shape my preferences to match those of the man of the year. Backpacking? Sure. Run a 10K? Count me in. Play darts in grungy bars? Sounds good. Times have changed.

An appreciation for NFL football (along with single malt scotch and great wine) has stayed with me. I have no interest in the game at the college level - it is professional football that floats my boat.
I came to the game in the 1980’s while living in San Francisco.  That was a great time to be a 49er fan.  Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig – all under the direction of Bill Walsh – the Niners were the dominant team of the decade. In the years since, the team has had its highs and lows. There have been many years where the celebrations were few and far between. This year has been the best year in a very long time. Under the leadership of Jim Harbaugh, we are 10-3 going into tonight’s game.
What is it about football that is so captivating?  I love the physicality of the game. I love that football requires both power and control.  I love the intricacy of the game. The best players are highly intelligent, analytical, and quick decision makers. I love the emotion of the game – the struggle, the drama, the elation. And I love that the emotion is collective. The fans are part of the game.
I also like the toned butts in those uniforms.  They don’t call them tight ends for nothing.
There are three games left in the regular season, and then we go to the playoffs. I’ll be scheduling my life around 49er games for at least another month.
If you need to reach me this evening, you know where to find me.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Sock Yarn Experiment

High-tech sock yarn seems like a bit of an oxymoron. Knitting is an inherently low-tech activity, and sock knitting in particular is deeply rooted in tradition. But knitters are always on the lookout for the new and exciting.  And the military/industrial complex is always looking for new ways to leverage their R&D investments. The past several years have seen the introduction of carbon-fiber knitting needles, and conductive yarns now available for industrial use will soon make their way to the hand knitting market, so you won't have to take off your gloves to use your i-phone.

A couple of seasons ago, one of my favorite artisan yarn companies, Lorna's Laces, introduced Solemate, a high-tech sock yarn. Solemate is composed of 55% Superwash merino wool, 15% nylon, and 30% Outlast®.

Outlast® viscose is a fiber that arose from NASA’s efforts to make spacesuits that would keep astronauts comfortable over a wide range of temperatures. It incorporates microencapsulated phase change materials.  What is a phase change material? It’s like water.  It changes from a liquid to a solid and back again in response to changing temperature. Outlast® is a cellulosic fiber (think rayon) that includes these space age components. I’ve seen in used in bedding and outdoor gear. When spun into sock yarn, it is supposed to keep your feet warmer in cold temps and cooler in hot weather.

Of course, the big question is “Does it work?”

I was given a sample skein of Solemate to play with while it was in the testing stage, long before general release.  I made a pair of socks, and they have been in regular rotation for over a year now.  They are soft and comfortable and pretty.  I wear them often.

In a recent gathering of knitters, I overheard a discussion of the big question.  None of the folks involved in the discussion had worked with Solemate, so it was a lot of speculation and conjecture.

It occurred to me that the only way to know if this yarn really does keep your feet more comfortable was to put it to the test. An experiment was born.  I would wear Solemate on one foot and a conventional sock yarn on the other foot, and see if there was any difference.

1.      This was completely subjective and unscientific. My only measurement was “how do my feet feel compared to one another”.
2.      This experiment took place on an early winter day in Northern California.  The high that day was about 62°F, there was a bit of wind, the skies were clear, and the sun shone bright. I was not shoveling my way out of a blizzard or hiking in Death Valley. I’m sure the folks at NASA tested the technology in much more extreme conditions. They probably wore lab coats and everything.

7:30 am On the left foot, I’m wearing a sock of about the same age as my Solemate sock, made of Lana Grossa Meilenweit, which is 80% wool, 20% nylon.  Both socks are about the same thickness. On my right foot is Solemate. Baxter thought if he helped, perhaps I’d hurry up with this camera business and feed him his breakfast.
8:00 am Wearing my walking shoes, ready for our daily walk to Starbucks.  Both feet were comfortable throughout the walk.
10:00 Sitting at my desk working. Both feet are just fine.
12:00 Wearing my clogs, out running some errands. No discernable difference between my feet – both are warm and comfortable.
2:00 Spinning at my wheel when it occurs to me that my feel are cold. After careful consideration, I determine that my left foot is slightly colder than my right foot.  However, my spinning wheel is a single treadle, so my right foot does all the work while the left is idle.  Could increased circulation to the right foot be making it warmer? I would need to borrow a double treadle wheel to control for that.  Science is hard.
5:00 Perched at a stool at Diane’s kitchen counter comparing the relative merits of a 2006 Russian River Pinot Noir and a 2009 Willamette Pinot Noir. Warm and comfortable from head to toe. It may have been the wine.
8:00 Sitting in my knitting chair watching TV, when again it occurs to me that my toes are cold. Neither foot is busy at the moment, so I carefully consider whether there is a difference. It seems that the left foot is a bit chillier than the right.
1.      I take my feet and their comfort very much for granted.  Unless something hurts, I simply don’t pay attention. It was odd to consciously monitor the comfort of my feet, and to compare one to the other.
2.      Under admittedly mild conditions, the Solemate sock seems to have kept my right foot marginally warmer than a standard sock yarn kept my left. But it wasn’t enough difference to make me go change my socks. And your mileage may vary, particularly if you live in a part of the country where extreme temperatures are common.
3.      It is a really good thing I did not attempt a career in science.

Would I make more Solemate socks? You bet I would.  They are comfortable and soft, with a pretty sheen. They have held up well, showing no wear after more than a year in the sock rotation.

If someone who lives in a colder part of the country decides to try a similar experiment to expand on my “research”, I’d love to hear about it.

PS: Lorna's Laces is developing a sport weight version of this yarn, and are holding a naming contest. Check it out here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

For the love of wool

A while back I wrote about my trip to the Wool Festival in Boonville, where my friend Diane and I decided to buy a fleece. We took our bag of raw, dirty, greasy wool over to the Morro Fleece Works booth and left it with Shari for processing.
Well, look what we got back last week...
Our 7 pounds of raw wool has been magically transformed into just under 4 pounds of clean, airy pin-drafted CVM/Romeldale roving. That's over a pound and a half each, more than enough wool for a sweater. This wool is a gorgeous warm medium gray color, with the most amazingly springy, lively crimp. There are no words for how happy this makes me.
As I began to spin, I thought about what I wanted to make with this wool.  I want this to be an everyday, throw on with my jeans classic cardigan/jacket. As I reviewed the options in my head, I realized I've already designed this sweater!
So, I'm spinning the wool for my very own Crane Creek. I'm going to make a woolen 2-ply, trying to retain as much of this wool's lofty elasticity as I can.
The real fun will be seeing what Diane makes with the other half of the fleece - a tale of two sweaters, if you will.  I know she is thinking plump, twisty Aran cables.  I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Who me? Knit a skirt?

 My skirt design, Midtown, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of Twist Collective.  I want to share a bit about this design with you.
I’ve been on a bit of a knitted skirt kick lately.  In a fairly short period over the summer, I made Barn Dance for Kollage Yarns, Rumba for Universal Yarns, and Midtown for Twist. The funny thing about this is that I don’t often wear skirts.  When I’m not teaching, I work at home.  I generally find pants more suitable for my lifestyle.  But I love the look of a knit skirt, particularly when it is displayed on hips that are narrower than mine.
For Midtown, I wanted a classic, tailored pencil skirt silhouette. I envisioned the sort of skirt you could wear to the office or shopping in the city, something sharp and modern and graphic.
I love stranded colorwork for a knitted skirt, because the strands of yarn across the wrong side help stabilize the fabric, preventing the baggy butt that can result after sitting for a while. I wanted a design with diagonal movement, not the strong horizontal that “fair isle” patterns often have. I also wanted to keep the knitting easy, so I wanted to avoid long color floats. I played around with pencil and graph paper, drawing lattice designs until I had one I liked with floats no longer than 4 stitches.
Here is a pro tip for you – when I’m working a gauge swatch in stranded colorwork, I make a hat. It is important that the swatch be worked in the round and that it be fairly large so you get an accurate sample of your gauge.  Making a hat accomplishes both goals, and you end up with something cozy and useful.  I don’t worry too much about finished size for these hats – after all, its purpose is to be a gauge swatch.  If the hat doesn’t fit me or someone to whom I want to give a gift, I’ll use it as a class sample or donate it to a charity program.
I decided against a slit at the hem of the skirt – after all, knitting stretches, so a slit wasn’t needed for walking ease. I wanted to avoid bulky, bunchy gathers at the waist, so the skirt is fitted, with a zipper at the hip. Since fine finishing makes me very, very, happy, I decided to knit in a facing that would cover the zipper on the inside of the skirt.
Here is what it looks like on the inside. Don’t be intimidated – the pattern includes step-by-step photos of cutting the steek, sewing in the zipper, and sewing down the facing.
For color, the charcoal gray and cream that Twist’s Creative Director, Kate Gilbert, selected really plays up the modern graphic effect of this piece.  I think it would also be great in other color combinations. I’m a big fan of self-striping yarns, and this skirt would be fun worked in a self-striping yarn together with a coordinating solid, or in two different striping yarns.
While you could use just about any sport weight wool from your stash for this skirt, let me just put in a good word for the yarn Kate chose for this design.  Blue Moon FiberArts BFL Sport may be my new favorite yarn for this kind of colorwork.  It is soft and springy, but smooth enough that each stitch is distinct.  This yarn is a joy to knit – it feels good in your hands, is exceptionally cooperative, and blocks beautifully. The hand dyed semi-solids we used give this pattern subtle depth and variation that a solid yarn just doesn’t have.
I’m really pleased with the finished skirt. It was made to fit Kate (because sample size and Sandi size are not the same), and she has already put it into her wardrobe rotation.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

We have a winner!

The winner of the signed copy of The Knitter's Book of Socks by Clara Parkes is...
ptraci, who said:
"My favourite socks are more than 30 years old, red, high, with toes and belonged to my mom. A schizophrenic aunt of mine knitted them for her all those years ago and despite the wear, they are still going strong.
I haven't learnt to knit socks yet, but I've been willing to try for a while now :D"

Congratulations!  Please send me a e-mail at with your mailing address so I can send the book to you.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Contest for Sock Lovers!

Remember a little while ago, when I told you about ClaraParkes’ talk and book signing at a Verb for Keeping Warm? And I raved about her wonderful new book, The Knitter’s Book of Socks? (It would be wonderful even if I didn’t have a design included in the book, but I do, so that’s even better.)
Well, I just happen to have an extra copy of the book to give away. And it is signed by Clara!
That’s right!  Clara’s erudite and entertaining exploration of socks, with an emphasis on the yarn that makes them luscious, plus 20 outstanding sock patterns from designers you know and admire, can all be yours.
All you have to do is leave a comment on this post telling me about your favorite pair of socks, and what makes them your favorite. Leave your comment by Monday, November 21.  On Tuesday, I’ll randomly pick a winner and send the book to you.
Good luck!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

It's a Soup Kind of Weekend

Sometimes I just need to make soup.  When autumn comes, and there is a cold wind blowing, nothing is warms body and soul like a pot of  homemade soup simmering on the stove.
Today's soup is one of my favorites, Butternut Squash. Easy, healthy, hearty and delicious. This recipe is an adaptation of one that appeared several years ago in Real Simple magazine.

Butternut Squash Soup
1 3-lb Butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes (or cheat like I do and buy 2 packages of already cubed squash at Trader Joe's - those suckers are hard to cut up. You need about 2 lbs of cubes)
3 tbs olive oil
1/4-lb bacon
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
about 6 large leaves of fresh sage, chopped
4-6 cups chicken broth (I like Trader Joe's Organic Free Range, or Swanson's Natural Goodness)
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the oven to 400. Toss the squash with 2 tbs of olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread it on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
While the squash is roasting, fry up some bacon in a heavy soup pot (my 6 qt LeCruset Dutch Oven works perfectly). 4 slices will do, though I usually cut up an entire pound and cook it all, because you can never have too much bacon on hand.
Set the bacon aside, pour off the fat, add the last of the olive oil to the bacon fat that clings to the pot, and saute the onion, celery and sage until the onion starts to caramelize and the celery is soft.
Add the roasted squash and the chicken broth and simmer uncovered for about 45 minutes.
Puree the whole thing - I have an immersion blender, so I do it right in the pot on the stove.  If you don't have one, use a regular blender and puree in batches. Check the seasoning - you may need to add salt, depending on how salty your bacon was.
Serve with a sprinkle of bacon bits and grated parmesan.  Don't skip this part - the smoky salty is a great balance for the sweetness of the squash and onions.
This makes a big pot of soup - It keeps well sealed in jars in the fridge, though I usually end up giving some away to friends.
Slices of toasted baugette spread with goat cheese are a perfect accompaniment.

On the knitting front, I sent off a new design to my friends at Kollage Yarns this week, and I have to say I'm happy to see it go.  For this project, I wrote up the pattern, then handed it off to Pat the Wonder Knitter.  When it came back, it was wrong. Just wrong. Too long, not hanging correctly, just bad. Not Pat's fault - the design was flawed. I begged more time from the client, ripped the whole thing out, re-worked the pattern and started again.

This design is made in Kollage's Milky Whey, a 50/50 blend of milk and soy.  The yarn is soft, with an incredibly fluid drape. This design was intended to make the most of that drape, but my original pattern included borders which caused constriction along all the edges, and spoiled the effect.  Now it works. Here's a sneak peek for you.
This was one of those projects that fell into a hole in the space/time continuum. It took 3 times longer than I thought it should.  In all fairness, I should point out that I am a master of self-delusion when it comes to how long a project will take. Still, this one is done, and it looks the way I want it to, and the client will love it (right, Susie? You do love it, don't you?).

Now I'm making swatches and sketches for a bunch of new designs, and plugging away on my handspun cardigan, which can only be worked on during 49er games (I get to work on it this afternoon. Hooray!).
I'm spinning the Rambouillet/Alpaca blend I bought at the Boonville Wool Festival a couple of months ago. This is some beautiful fiber - spinning it is pure joy. I'm spinning the singles as a fine semi-woolen, and plan to make a 3-ply that should come out to about sport wieight. I only bought 8 oz of fiber, and I'm thinking I should call Morgaine and see if I can get 8 more.

Heads up - the new issue of Twist Collective goes live on November 15!  I have a new design and an article in this issue. As usual, Kate's styling is spectacular, and the issue is packed with designs you'll want to knit.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sockupy Oakland!

Last night, my friend Clara Parkes was the star of a talk and book signing at A Verb for Keeping Warm. (Just Verb to its friends). The event was a dual celebration – Verb’s one year anniversary in their lovely, light-filled retail space near the Oakland-Berkeley border, and the publication of Clara’s new book, The Knitter’s Book of Socks.

First, let me brag a little – see the colorful sock on the cover? The one on the far left? That is Hummingbird, my humble contribution to Clara’s fabulous book. (Hummingbird also appears on the spine of the dust jacket, so I’ll be able to see it when the book joins it siblings on the shelf – how cool is that?)

These socks were specifically designed to use wildly variegated or stripey sock yarns. The arrangement of yarn overs and decreases breaks the surface of the fabric into chunks which can tilt and rotate (like tectonic plates). This lets the rows, and the stripes of color contained therein, swoop and bend. I made two versions of this pattern.

This one is knit in Step from Skacel, a commercial dyed yarn with a subtle stripe.

This one is knit in Crazyfoot from Mountain Colors, a variegated hand-painted yarn.

Go on. You know you want to knit a pair.

Of course, the book is about far more than my socks. Clara, the publisher of Knitter's, and the uber-geek of all yarny goodness, explains the qualities a yarn needs to make excellent socks. She discusses twist, ply, moisture management and abrasion resistance in a way that is technically thorough, but never boring. After reading this book, you will understand why your favorite socks are your favorites, why some have let you down by wearing out prematurely, and why some end up sitting in the drawer because something about them just isn’t right.

And then there are the patterns. This book contains designs from Cookie A, Kathryn Alexander, Karen Alfke, Marlaina Bird, Cat Bordhi, Ann Budd, Nancy Bush, Jane Cochran, Jared Flood, Norah Gaughan, Jennifer Hagan, Anne Hanson, Sivia Harding, Stephen Houghton, Melissa Morgan-Oakes, Lucy Neatby, Cirilia Rose and Jayme Stahl. Also me, and Clara herself. Cables, lace, colorwork, twisted stitches, double knitting – it’s all here.

If you haven’t already done so, buy this book or put it on your list for Santa. Check your local yarn store or independent bookseller first, but if you can’t find it there this link will take you to Amazon.

Clara is always superb company, funny and intelligent whether one on one or in front of a large crowd. The knitters who gathered last night had the pleasure of hearing Clara tell about her journey as a knitting writer. I was pleased to be able to spend some time with my buddies WonderMike and Carson Demers, and to meet Rachel Herron, Maureen Hefti and Brenda Patipa.

If you find yourself within 50 miles of Verb, it is worth a side trip. They have a lovely collection of natural fiber yarns and spinning fiber, much of it hand-dyed, including their own beautiful line of yarns. There is also a corner of the store devoted to fabrics, mostly printed cotton. Verb offers a full schedule of knitting, spinning and sewing classes as well. Check them out.