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The Last Days of Madrona

I'm beginning with a sidebar, then getting on to the knitting. Ahem:

Nobody reads Edward George Bulwer-Lytton anymore. Though popular in his day, he just doesn't hold up the way Dickens or Eliot do. In his commercial triumph The Last Days of Pompeii, the opening sentence alone is enough to put you off your feed:

"'HO, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?' said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb."

He's most famous for this gloriously overwrought opening sentence in Paul Clifford:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

He lives on in re-readings of Peanuts cartoons, and the Bulwer-Lytton contest for intentionally bad opening sentences--and, of course, any time someone titles a book, movie, op-ed piece, or blog post "The Last Days of ______," as I have done here.

So, on to knitting (and related textile arts). Madrona is a Fiber Festival held in Tacoma at about this time every year. It's been a going concern for 20 years now, but it is ending. This was the last one. Its progenitors are retiring, and they have every right to, even if I am taking it personally having only discovered this wonderful event three years ago, thereby missing out on 17 years' worth of it, curses.

(I'm going to leap ahead quickly to what would ordinarily be the ending of the piece, just so some of you don't panic: some fresh new people have taken it over, so to speak, re-branding it Red Alder so we can tell it's a new beginning, and it will be in the same place, same time next year, phew.)

If you haven't attended, here's what you missed:

  • Classes, with great teachers: the people who write the books or the blogs, the experts themselves. People like Sally Melville, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, Carson Demers, Anne Berk, Michele Bernstein, Franklin Habit, Amy Herzog, yada yada yada). It's like going to Film School and learning from Spike Lee, Judd Apatow, Tina Fey, and Wes Anderson—or if you prefer, they're are the Rock Stars of the Knitting World, the Beyonces, the Chers, the Tina Turners. I'm in awe.

  • Vendors, with an emphasis of local, artisan, hand-spun, hand-dyed, etc. And they're lovely and helpful—some of my best new Madrona friends are among the vendors.

  • Coffee, free. This very much bears mentioning. Here's an event, with No Entrance Fee (you pay to attend a particular class, or if you want dinner, or if you buy yarn, but otherwise it's free) and they have Free Coffee available all day, including decaf, or Tea if you'd rather. I've been to actual work conventions costing hundreds of dollars with no free coffee, urgh.

  • Three evening events, 2/3 of them free: a teacher Talent Show, a keynote and teacher meet-and-greet (and show-and-tell, their most stunning creations, laid out on tables so you can gasp and touch), and a keynote and banquet (that's the costly one). Our speakers this year were Danish sweater specialist Vivian Høxbro, and longtime designer and teacher Sally Melville, whose Einstein Coat pattern is reputed to be one of the most popular ever (at least in the coat category ... as a relatively lazy person I can't imagine knitting a coat, but it's apparently been done).

  • The best part: an encouragement of social knitting: tables and chairs galore, so you can just sashay up to total strangers, ask to join, knit for hours on end, and walk away with new buddies. I love it, I love it, I love it.

  • Some kind souls even brought in their swifts and ball winders so we could turn our newly-purchased skeins into balls and start knitting immediately. Thanks!

On Day 1, I arrived, set up camp in the Rotunda, knit like crazy while getting to know some new folks, and reacquainted myself with last year's new friends (or those from the year before). I'm shy, so it's a thrill having a few different folk each hour approaching me and remembering me, or, even better, hoping I'd be there! (There's a world of difference between being pleased to see someone, and actively having hoped they'd be there).

Also on Day 1, I ventured over to the vendors and bought up all the greyish DK out there for an intarsia* vest.

I swatched, sort of (it's hard to do when you have 9 different yarns, but I grabbed three representative ones and gave it a whirl), and adjusted the pattern (I'm writing my own!) to reflect the gauge.

On Day 2, I lugged Sophie's Universe in (my giant crocheted Queen-sized bedspread), and barely got any knitting done as there was a fairly steady stream of curious onlookers who wanted to see it in all its glory--I kept putting my work down so I could unfold her and show her off (once even laying her out on the carpet so she could be photographed). I suspect I am now responsible for at least a handful of new people trying out her pattern--oh, and everyone agreed with me that making her in all white would be silly.

Also on Day 2, I managed to eke out several rows of my brand new intarsia vest. Looking good! That night was the talk on Danish Sweaters, and the teacher show-and-tell, and I discovered midway through the talk that I'd managed to wrap my dangling butterfly* around my rows and had knit with it, creating a vertical strand on top of the right side of my knitting. Oopsie. So I had to rip The Entire Thing to its component strands, and begin again (and made it a bit smaller, since my original gauge swatch lied to me, of course), and before bed I had about 8 new rows completed. I also got the thrill of embarrassing myself by asking the world's dumbest question of the speaker: "My mom says Copenhagen's expensive and I shouldn't go there. Is that true, and if so, what about the rest of Denmark?" Sometimes I should remember Silence is Golden, but it's hard for me.

On Day 3, I had my first class, a morning class with Gayle Roehm, who translated the Japanese Knitting Stitch Bible and is an expert on how to read the slightly idiosyncratic (but, in their own way, absolutely consistent and helpful) charts that that culture produces. She went to the trouble of finding four tricky stitch patterns from actual garment patterns, so we'd be prepared for what we might encounter in the wild. I don't speak Japanese, but if I can read their charts, a world of exciting new stitches will open up before me--they have some particularly clever designs. The class was tricky, but very engaging, and Gayle explained everything so well. I like my little swatch so much that I'm going to pick up some stitches and knit it into a round toque for some lucky person (probably me).

As a relatively new knitter (although at 4 1/2 years+ perhaps I have to drop the pretense soon) I was surprised and delighted to realise something that most of you have no doubt noticed: if you make a bunch of decreases in a row, they make up a little pattern in your knitting. I knew a k2tog (knit 2 together) apparently was right-leaning, but I didn't appreciate that if you k2tog, then later, 1 stitch away, k2tog again, and so on, you can create the effect of a column of knitting that's entirely on the diagonal! (Or, with ssk (slip slip knit), a diagonal in the other direction). I'm overwhelmed with possibilities now.

On the evening of Day 3 it was banquet time, and a talk by Sally Melville that made me tear up right away (not tear up as in rip up, tear up as in liquid flying out of my eyes at a rapid rate). She announced her retirement, so it was to be goodbye Madrona and goodbye Sally Melville. Then the normally sangfroid-filled Stephanie Pearl-McPhee took to the stage and started crying, and introduced Judith MacKenzie who burst into tears, and so forth. On a cheerier note, a lady at my table started telling me about a man who had brought a beautiful afghan in the other day. "That was me," I said, delighted that one of my projects would be so attractive that somebody would want to tell somebody else about it, though a bit disappointed I wasn't memorable myself.

Day 4, and it's Stephanie Pearl McPhee's class on being a smart knitter, where she began by congratulating us—there are 35 million knitters in North America, but only a handful who attend such classes and care about our art and our craft. We're the top, apparently. I am elated, since I soak up compliments like Bounty soaks up tough spills. As she enlightens us about yarn purchasing (in a nutshell, if it makes you ooh and aah over its softness, don't buy it, or consider yourself warned), this Top Knitter notices that in his new intarsia vest which is supposed to consist of 10 stitch wide squares, at one point there are accidentally 9 stitches next to 11 stitches—halfway up a square, so obviously in error. Disaster. I refuse to rip out again. I will either paint over the error or possibly attempt duplicate stitch.

In the afternoon, it's Sally Melville's class on knitting essentials. It turns out this is her very last land-based class (she's teaching on a Hawaiian cruise later next month, but that shouldn't count). So my swatch, demonstrating some cast-on techniqiues, bind-off techniques, and decreases in between, which she laid hands on and held up for the entire class to see, is the very last demonstration swatch held by Sally Melville in continental North America ever (unless she changes her mind and starts teaching again, but she says she won't). Here it is, next to my convention lanyard. I will never part with it, unless you write to me and offer something substantial (enough for a new skein of yarn, at least):

Sally taught us a lot, but the trick I'm going to remember is when you're binding off and you have to weave a tail through the final loop, don't: just pull the loop out and weave it in. It works. I'm amazed, and there's no nasty carbuncle in the corner of the finished piece.

That evening I arrived back home and attempted to disguise my intarsia error with Failed Duplicate Stitching* ... then, as I gently drifted off to sleep, I came up with a brilliant solution: pockets! I would knit a pocket that consisted of the correctly-knit squares, and it would cover up my error. Brilliant. Thank goodness I goofed in a place where pockets would be, rather than the middle of my hat, the end of a scarf, or on the collar of a sweater.

Off the Needles

The Age of Steam and Brass, knit for a colleague, and doesn't it look lovely on her? As I knit at one of the social tables last week, one of my friends was finishing her own Age of Steam and Brass in a more suitable yarn, it looked gorgeous. Mine is soft and fuzzy, and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee would have warned me against it had I but known.

On the Needles (and actively being worked on):

  • Sophie's Universe crochet project #1 (doing extra rounds, to turn it into a queen-size bedspread, I'm on round 118))

  • Persian Dreams Blanket (round 25 of Hexagon 8)

  • Grey Intarsia Vest (my own pattern, almost finished the first set of squares which will be more like rectangles, I think)

  • Hat (my own pattern, using Japanese Knitting Stitch Bible Pattern #52 for its motifs, halfway through the motif which is repeated four times around the hat. I'm using Noro Kureyon, which is not necessarily the best choice for this, but I love Noro Kureyon so what can you do?)

  • Sophie's Universe crochet project #2 (Part 6: Round 46)

  • Ridiculous Giant Blanket, finished the border, on to the body.

  • GGN Norwegian Ski Sweater (finished the torso, currently well above the cuffs of Arms One and Two (I'm knitting both at once--but on separate needles, I'm not that clever yet))


*intarsia = a method of knitting small areas of localized colour into your garment, as opposed to stranded knitting which is more appropriate for a two-colour pattern that continues around the entire knitted round

*butterfly = a smaller subset of your yarn ball, removed and wound in a particular way to allow for an easy centre pull—useful for intarsia, which requires many small bits of yarn.

*duplicate stitching = going over already done knitting with new yarn, "simply" by following the path of the knit yarn with a tapestry needle and some replacement yarn—handy for very small areas of colourwork, or to hide a mistake (if you know what you're doing) ... doesn't work so well for connecting mistakes near the joins in intarsia, sadly.

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