Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The pleasure of threads

In NYC last week for lunch, I took advantage of my recently retired status to spend an afternoon appreciating textiles. 

The Japan Week exhibit at Grand Central Terminal was a bonus. I hadn't expected it. But sometimes, those are the most fun. One popular offering was the guy dressed up as a samurai. Lots of people wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to dress up in a shorthand edition of the armor and stand for a photo with the fully-attired actor (at right). Lots of braids on both outfits. Traditionally, the suits were tied together with kumihimo braids hand braided of silk by guilds, which guarded their traditions and skills almost to the death of the braiding techniques.

Next stop was the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum for a some costuming inspiration. 

Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, an exhibit of about 100 objects from the museum's collection, explores the world of original designs vs. licensed copies vs. imitations. As one of the museum's video announcers says, 'you can't copyright color or shape' so it's very difficult to prosecute counterfeiters. In many cases, it's very difficult to tell the difference between the original design and a knock-off. And it's getting harder all the time.

The exhibit's entry features two suits--one a 1966 original day suit by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (France), day suit (left) and a licensed copy made in the US in 1967. So what's the difference? According to the information plaque, the differences are in the sewing techniques, the lining and the waistband.

Even more interesting to me than the side-by-side originals and copies, was considering the pieces as design possibilities. For example, the late 18th century Jean-Baptiste Huet original L'Hommage de L'Amerique a la France, at right, has a stunning little bolero-type jacket, but check out the free-standing lace on the sleeve's underside seam.


Two Missoni dresses illustrate the 'massclusivity' trend in which high-end designers partner with mass-market retailers to extend their name and styles downstream. The 2003 Italian-made version is displayed next to a dress that was part of a 400-piece limited edition collaboration between Missoni and Target in 2011. The 'look' is certainly similar, but the fabrics and knitting techniques distinguish the high quality original.

The other exhibit, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning The ’70s, was nostalgic. Their names alone conjures up images of the era's styles. Cleaner, crisper lines, for one. The exhibit focuses on shared themes, one of which was the influence of menswear on women's fashion.

Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits is on view through April 25, 2015.
Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning The ’70s is on view through April 18, 2015.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

99 ways to add and subtract knit stitches: Book review

Just reading Judith Durant's introduction pulled me into her soon-to-be-published book. I identified with her approach to knitting. A self-taught knitter, the 'how' always seemed obvious--manipulate the threads on two needles to achieve what looks OK. That appraisal--OK--is accurate. I just made it work. 

Probably because knitting isn't my only fiber focus, I realized rather recently that I'd neglected a wide range of knitting detail techniques. For example, Kfb (knit front and back) was my go-to for increases and K2tog, for decreases. I could do other increases and decreases, but never spent time to evaluate and match the most suitable technique for a given knitting project. I relied more on the final appearance rather than using standard knitting shorthand to achieve my goals. Clearly, I hadn't integrated the abbreviations with the techniques. 

A book such as Durant's, Increase, Decrease: 99 Step-by-Step Methods, to be published in May by Storey Publishing, will help me on my way. This is not a book to read on one sitting. At least it wasn't for me. 

Increase, Decrease is a reference book that I wanted to return to time and time again. Durant, a book editor herself, organizes her 99 how-to's by types of increase and decrease methods (as the subtitle implies). 

Part One, for example, covers neutral increases--those that do not lean right or left. Do you want the increase to be visible? Use an open increase such as a yarn over? Or do you want it closed, meaning, invisible? From neutral increases, Durant moves on to cover right- and left-leaning increases, multiple stitch increases, and closed centered double increases. 

Part Two covers decreases--43 different ways to eliminate stitches from a row of knitting, to be exact. Single, double, and multiple stitch techniques? All there.

I particularly liked her summary lists of characteristics and uses that accompany each technique. She lets you know what it will look like: Is it nearly invisible? Does it lean to the right or left? What does it look like on the right side versus the left? And where is the technique most appropriate: Decorative only? Lace work? Does it need to be paired? Mirrored? And more. Lots more.

Part three combines techniques to detail how to use increases and decreases for decorative effects. Bobbles, closed-ring cables, rushing, textured patterns and lace are all covered. She concludes with a section on shaping textured, lace and color patterns. 

The text is extensively illustrated with close-up photos of swatches to accompany each description plus a series of images showing how to do the increase or decrease step-by-step--somewhat like a very slow motion YouTube video. 

I didn't count to confirm that there are really 99 methods, but knit and purl variations on each type of increase or decrease multiply each technique by two, just for a start. Some of the variations are minor, to be sure, but they are legitimate.

The illustrations are generous, but I've often wondered why the publisher's graphics department doesn't retouch colors to make it very clear which thread is in front of another. Inevitably, no matter what yarn color or how big the photo, the threads visually merge. It's not really a big problem--but something I've long pondered.

Increase, Decrease won’t be out until May, but I plan to add it to my library as it puts a wealth of technique information in one place.

Monday, February 16, 2015

7 habits of highly successful instructors

Thinking about my occasional disappointing experiences with instructors teaching fiber art skills got me thinking about what I expect from teacher. Please note that these thoughts relate only to paid coursework, not to study groups and other unpaid venues.

Instructors first. From my perspective as a student, the best teachers share their passion. They are experts who love to share through teaching others. Although it is impossible to quantify and itemize what exactly makes a good teacher, this is my short list of best practices.

Excellent instructors:
1.    arrive early enough to greet arriving students and start at the scheduled start time;
2.    are well-organized with a lesson plan, but also plan for the unexpected;
3.    demonstrate knowledge by freely sharing any and all relevant information 
·      Unreserved sharing opens windows to new ideas. This applies to just about every aspect of life;
4.    adhere to the course description and fulfill promises made
·      For example, if the description states that each student will get a pattern, they do,
·      Sometimes, a teacher adds value and enhances the perception of 'time-well-spent.' This might be a free give-away, unexpected handout, etc. It isn't necessary, but it adds fun to the event;
5.    effectively manage group dynamics
·      acknowledge and interact with all students equally. 
·      actively manage those who compete for center stage;
6.    downplay sales during the scheduled course time 
·      if offering anything for sale, complete the transactions after the class ends;
7.    stay a short time after the scheduled end of class to tie up loose ends (other than sales).

For the most part, the instructor takes overall responsibility for a successful class. After all, students pay to be there, but students have responsibilities, too. After recently observing two classmates vie for knitting and personal one-upmanship throughout an entire afternoon, I was reminded of the importance of self awareness and courteous behavior. So it's only fair to consider students' responsibilities from a teacher's perspective:

Now class attendees
Whether there are two or twenty (hopefully, not more), most adages are related to courtesy. While sharing can be a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration, some students come to preen. I find attendees who come to show off their knowledge and accomplishments especially tiresome.

Do's and don'ts for students:
1. do arrive on time;
2. do come prepared with supplies and equipment, when requested;
3. do give the teacher some space before the class begins unless otherwise indicated;
4. do follow directions;
5. do remember that the class is a business for the teacher. If he or she wanted to donate time, they would volunteer;
6. don't expect the instructor's undivided attention unless this is a one-on-one class; 
7. don't use the class as a forum to impress others. Resist the urge to dominate the class by sharing your proficiency and/or many projects.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Class notes

When I sign on for a fiber-related course, I don't expect a miraculous encounter. Over the years, I've poked around in lots of corners of the fiber world and have built up a pretty broad foundation of skills. I don't expect everything to be shiny and new in any given three-hour class.

I do expect to be inspired, learn a new way of thinking or acquire a new skill. Any one thing that will an generate an 'Aha!' moment is enough to satisfy my yearning to learn.
There was a materials fee for this

Which brings me to the image at right.

I've kept this piece of paper and string for several years now and every now and again, I uncover it amidst my 'stuff.' Really, it's trash and has no other value than as a stark reminder of the fine line between trust and disgust.

This colored piece of paper and cotton string still make me angry. I paid a $5 materials fee for this person's five-line course outline and a piece of cotton string. I thought it was outrageous at the time, and for most of the class thought there must be something more. After all, string and yarn were on the materials list to bring to the Rhinebeck class.

Alas, that was all there was. I didn't want to create a scene, so I fumed silently. The coursework was fine, but I will never recommend or sign up for another class with this person--and all because of a few dollars charged for nothing.

Instructors are people and they are unique, but the good teachers stand out. (Anyone who worries about how effective he or she is probably has nothing to worry about.) The fiber community shares its experiences, both good and bad, and for the most part, it is a forgiving lot. But when an instructor's reputation gets tagged with non-professional behavior--think repeated last-minute cancellations, little-to-poor preparation, larger-than-life-ego, disorganized, or rudeness, the tarnish is hard to remove.

The classroom is not a place for those who withhold their knowledge, ideas and techniques. For those who do not want to share, please don't teach. Students know.

For me, teaching is an honor. I love to share my skills and my passion with like-minded people who are interested. And in return, I almost always get more back than I give.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A riot of colors and shapes

Shawls, vest, hats, and more
I've partaken of the visual stimulation and enthusiasm of Steven Be and Stephen West, the maestros of modular knitting, color pop, and bling. After three sessions with them, my mind roils with colors and shapes.

Signing up for the course seemed predestined, thanks to the timing of a very thoughtful gift from work colleagues and the availability of the Stephen&Steven MixTape tour at Woolbearers, my LYS (local yarn shop). I decided on full immersion and signed on for all three tutorial sessions.
Stephen West and his red shawl

After the first two back-to-back sessions my mind was in a state of wild chaos. I was far too stimulated to sleep as ideas and plans ran through my brain.

Look at this red and fuchsia shawl that Stephen West is holding at right. The charcoal lines make those colors stand out and look like more variations in color than there are. Primarily achieved with garter stitch and short rows, this shawl starts in one corner, here at the far right, and builds to the left. His Westknit patterns are on Ravelry as well as through his web site. (There are some free ones there, too!)

Stephen's partner in knitting passion is Steven Berg, aka StevenBe, shown here at left. He wears his passion and follows his advice, "Let no continuous strand go unknitted." Although the detail doesn't show, his jacket is knit through with multimedia tape of a family event. What a way to carry your family with you.

Although the sessions focused on knitting and included some 'how-to's,' the strategy is applicable to any creative process. It's as valid for weaving, dyeing, cross-stitch--even painting or woodworking or you-name-it--as it is for knitting. Skills first, then push the boundaries. As StevenBe says, "Once you have the skills, bust it out."

Today I'm ready to bust it out.

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