The itch to stitch: Top Gun Embroidered caps

I don’t often see the words “Top Gun” and “embroidered” in the same sentence. The combination brings to mind a cut-throat needlework academy – a place where high-flying crafting hopefuls train their way to the top, and break all the rules doing it. But, I digress. This week, I finished the embroidered knit project I had been working on for February.

The Task

The beau’s cousin, J, recently asked if I could knit him and his best friend a pair of matching caps. Children of the 80s, J and his pal are both big fans of the 1986 film Top Gun. I admit: what I know about the plot comes very second-hand. I haven’t redressed my lack of knowledge by watching it, but in the film “Iceman” (Val Kilmer) and “Maverick” (Tom Cruise) are fierce aviation-school rivals who develop a loyal wingmen friendship by the end. They also happen to be J and his pal’s favourite on-screen buddies. The knitting request was simple: could I knit 2 caps – an “Iceman” and “Maverick” hat for J and his pal, respectively? Knowing little about Top Gun fandom myself, I liked the idea of making something in the name of friendship while trying some new knitting techniques.

The Caps 

I chose to knit the Scraptastic hat pattern, using size 3 needles and two strands of fingering weight held together. At my gauge (slightly looser than the pattern), Medium turned out good, though a tad roomier than I expected. I knit the subsequent hat in Small for a closer fit.

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The Graph

Given full creative hat-design leeway, I thought that using the movie logo would be 80s nostalgic while channeling a little bit of the irony of a knit-embroidery tribute to a movie about tough-guy fighter pilots. On the gender politics front, I see no necessary contradiction between ‘masculinity’ and needlework (ah, this is a big topic, with distinctions between men’s and women’s work, and their value, at the heart of debates about gender in the US. I’ll point out the inadequacy of my treatment here, and save that for another time. The gender of knitting is something I think a lot about, as a knitter…).

I used Stitch Fiddle to graph my design out. It allows you to enter your gauge (over 4″/10 cm) to render a grid that reflects your particular tension for making colour work charts. Stockinette stitches tend to be a little wider than they are tall. Because of this, using square-box graph paper to plan a design may result in a slightly skewed final project. Programs like Stitch Fiddle allow for a better idea of what the finished design will actually look like. It’s simple to use; rows and columns are added and deleted with a mouse click. It’s like Excel for your DIY colourwork, embroidery, and cross-stitch projects. All I have to say is “yes!” to this indispensable online tool, and others like it.

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The Embroidery

Just a single strand of fingering weight and some duplicate stitching was enough to do the trick. I eased into embroidering slowly, working on the hats during free moments during the day. I tend to find my stitching stride best at night, after dinner. The fluid motions of embroidery, and the vigilance to tension, develop a finger-tip attentiveness to the materials quite different from knitting. In contrast to the hardy, elastic, and structured fabric of knitting, embroidered things feel a bit more fragile and precarious to me – until they’re done, my m.o. is to handle with care.

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Less exciting was weaving in all the ends. I learned late in the game to use a single long strand to embroider multiple letters, rather than cutting my strand after each character.

Also, I personally find it best to work the duplicate stitch from the bottom to top, starting at the base of a letter, then working up and across. It’s just a little neater that way, I find.

Finally, the Top Gun hats

On the way…

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And done.

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All in all, this was a fun project. It’s hard not to see blank stockinette surfaces as a canvas for some stitchery waiting to happen. It was a surprise for the knitting to unexpectedly serve as a gateway to embroidery.

To embroidering, and matching hats…and friends!

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Perler pixel necklaces

While working on a longer-term knitting project, I will sometimes manage the urge to cast-on something new (no harm in that, though!) by doing smaller-scale handmade projects.

I enjoy the things that perler beads – in their near infinite versatility – can do. I’ve just discovered perler jewelry-making: fuse some beads, add a chain here, a connector ring there, a clasp, and you have yourself some nifty new pixel-y things to wear.

Here’s a perler necklace picture-DIY for the curious (the patterns are not original).

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Jump rings: the knees and elbows of jewelry. 7 mm rings are big enough for perler beads.

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…and some BB-8 Star Wars love:

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Greetings from the messy work table…

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Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair

Yesterday (Sunday) saw two firsts:

one, Chicago had its first day of snow this season – the kind of overcast, subtly slushy city day that feels like a call to snowy adventure. I felt a bit like Peter in Ezra Jack Keats’ beautiful The Snowy Day.

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Two, I attended my very first indie craft show (!), the annual Renegade Craft Fair held in Chicago’s Bridgeport Art Center. This historic 1911 building is an industrial work space in wood beams, skylights, exposed brick, and 3,ooo lb-bearing freight elevators which shake and hum mechanically as they take you to the Skyline Loft on the 5th floor. The building oozes with the energy of creative labour, making the perfect meeting place for lovers of handmade and artisanal wares. Despite still coming off of the tail end of my head cold (this thing is really hanging on), I was determined to go to the Fair. Having first read about it in Handmade Nation, I was very curious about what kinds of things Midwestern crafters were working on.

When we arrived Sunday, the venue was packed to the hilt – really a bustling marketplace. Apparently, Chicagoans love their crafts.

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With roughly 250 vendors, wares included handmade knits, prints, candles, cards, soaps, ceramics, stationary, jewelry, housewares, handwoven textiles (even macramé plant hangers!). I was able to meet and chat with a few folks in the Chicago and regional arts/crafts community and was really inspired by their examples – people who combined hard work and creativity to produce original and magnificent (and useful) things. The ethos of the event, I felt, explored the unity of form and function – the view that art and artistry can be present in, and celebrate, ordinary life and the everyday. Finding and making beauty in the ordinary is something that I deeply value. [Aside: There happen to be no craft-persons or artists in my immediate family that I know of, so I’ve always wondered where this strong impulse came from. The only genealogical ‘art link’ I was able to find was my Great Uncle Andrew. According to the story, he studied with the Philippine portraitist Fernando Amorsolo and was a very talented painter who lived a mostly impoverished life. He’s been described as a kind spirit, perpetually fretful, and worrying.]

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Left: The Loopy Mango yarn booth and its hand-knit super-duper chunky merino sweaters.

I digress. With all the craft and design energy abuzz, I couldn’t help but have an inkling of what it might be like to participate in a fair one day. I started to think of what kinds of things I might be able to produce, and what steps I might take to begin to share my work. Would I choose one medium? Explore several? Or combine them all into a single, new, art-craft megabundle? What would my goals be? Until I decide, I’m happy to continue doodling, subway-knitting, avidly reading blogs, and being an all-around craft enabler and enthusiast.

At the end of the day, I was thrilled to bring home a new tote bag designed by Mustard Beetle Handmade. The tote features artist Elizabeth Jean’s gorgeous brush and ink work. We had a lovely conversation about ink and brushwork – a challenging medium which I also love – and I spent the ride home looking  (marveling) at the detail and beauty of the design (for more info and a link to the Mustard Beetle Etsy shop, see #2 in my list of Memorable Makes below).

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Brush and ink design by Mustard Beetle Handmade

If you are interested in some Renegade craft vendor highlights, read on, friend. And if you have participated in fairs or sold your wares, I would love to hear a bit of your story – how and when did you decide to get started crafting on a larger scale? What brought you to make that transition?

Wishing you a week of very merry making.  

Continue reading “Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair”

Knitting and weaving: a symbiotic relationship

I am just waking up to the mutually enabling relationship between knitting and weaving.

I have been generating lots of scrap yarn in the past month – odds and ends left over from various projects. I set aside the bigger scraps for future knitting, but have been scratching my head over what to do with the littler scraps.

It only recently occurred to me to take them to my frame lap loom. While my most recent woven mat was a patterned weave, I became curious about improvisational tapestry weaving. Looking at different works, I enjoyed how the fibres created paint-like dollops, dabs, and strokes.

I also find something musical about the motion of lap-loom weaving – watching colourful forms appear with each row is like strumming a strange, colour-capturing instrument whose notes are tenderly suspended in the warp. It’s that tender suspension that makes weaving magical to me. While I think of knitting as fabric made from rhythmic loops, I think of weaving as making cloth from melodies of colour – like ‘playing the loom.’ Both are delightful.

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In the spirit of curiosity, I warped my frame loom last Wednesday. It’s made from an old picture frame (note the chipping varnish).  The Weaving Loom offers a basic tutorial on how to warp a frame loom (and also how to make one with very basic materials). Warping is quite straightforward, even relaxing. The pieces of blue washi tape are surprisingly good at forming a thin ridge that keeps the warp threads in place. When tensioned, the threads do stay put.

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Left: Warping the night away.  Right: All warped up. I should have put down one more warp strand. They seem uneven. The strap on the left is my very first weave. I keep it on the loom as a reminder and dwelling place for the weaving muse.

I took to the loom the next day, Thursday, with my miscellaneous odds and ends. I decided just to start weaving, with no pattern in mind. I was feeling triangles that day, and started with a single form, in cotton yarn.

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I decided to add another one, in a wool-acrylic blend, taken from a knitting project I’m looking forward to completing soon. Working with this soft and fluffy pink yarn felt like weaving with cotton candy.

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Sending the needle through the shed, or the space created by separating alternating warp threads. I used a plastic ruler as a shed stick.
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Smoothing down the weft with a fork.

2 triangles led to a third, and more, incorporating the scrap yarn from my recent beanie project.

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By the dying light of dinner time, I decided to call it a day.

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Have I fallen down a fibre-craft rabbit hole, a reinforcing knitting-weaving cycle? It seems so. But, I’m happy to have found a home for all the wayward scraps. Plus, an extra dose of fibre is good for you.  🙂

I will revisit this project again soon; it will go and grow with the knitting. Happy weekend.

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Scrap yarn: Garter stitch fingerless mittens

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Because sometimes you need something midway between mitten and no-mitten

These mitts were my very first knit since picking up my needles again last month.

The yarn above is scrap yarn that I had mysteriously been saving since high school. Through multiple transnational/local re-locations (9 moves over the past 8 years), this yarn seemed always to find its way into my new home despite moving sales, giveaways, and my sometimes drastic attempts to clear the clutter and get organized. Stranger still, the yarn persistently followed despite the fact that I was not actively knitting at all during those years.

When I finally used the yarn for these mittens a little while ago, I began to reflect on its story: I remembered that it is the leftover of a scarf that I made in 10th grade for a beloved art teacher who took notice of my knitting hobby and encouraged an awkward teen to keep at it: a knitter herself, she gave me my very first set of double-pointed needles, a mitten pattern, and 3 skeins of beautiful wool. It was an unexpected, incredible, incredible gift (thank you, Mrs. Valerio!). I knit her a scarf shortly after, and was so thrilled to see Mrs. V wearing it at school.

I’m sure this is why the skein traveled with me all those stitch-less years. It was the other half of that knitting memory, waiting to find a touch-point again – a memory that knitting helped me to recollect (or should I say, unravel?). I hope these mittens have given it a new and proper home.

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Honey cozy

Perhaps I should have expected that taking up knitting again would leave me in the throes of a cozy pre-occupation. I like the way that cozies (sp?) add little dabs of life, colour, and texture to the taken-for-granted objects around me (in this case, the bottle of honey that sweetens my morning tea, and gets me on the right side of awake again). I’m coming to learn that I cozify objects to acknowledge their utility and significance. The cozy is a little embellishment of love.

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Excitement: first-time colour work in the round
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The reds were meant to be arrows. Oh, well. Still looking spiffy, honey.

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Quick knit: Seed stitch Cowl

While building new skills is an important, ongoing thing, sometimes, a knitter needs an easy weekend (or two). When I found a tutorial on how to knit a simple seed stitch cowl on sheepandstitch.com, I knew I had to try it. I found the cowl beautiful and the pattern well-suited for a needle-newbie like me. The cowl is knit in the round on a circular needle, and the pattern is versatile and customizable to a range of needle sizes. The tutorial also contains a useful lesson for beginners on doing gauge measurements and calculations (throwback to 9th grade algebra).

The seed stitch produces a wonderful texture that, despite its bumpiness, lays flat – great for cowls and scarves and other projects where one might want to avoid post-knitting curling in at the sides. This is also a relatively quick knit; bulky yarn knits up pretty fast. My only grievance is that the seed stitch requires the yarn to be moved from the back of the knitting to the front as it alternates between knitting and purling with … each…. individual…. stitch. Depending on how the yarn is held, this can get tedious. In response, I switched from English knitting (yarn held in the right hand) to Continental (yarn held in the left) to speed things along ever so slightly. This cowl has now turned me into a (mostly) Continental knitter, so perhaps this was a good thing (though I know that this is a controversial issue. To each his/her own, of course). Now that I am trying to learn Fair Isle knitting, or stranding, a knowledge of both methods is coming in handy (pun intended). I look forward to sharing my stranding thoughts on a future post.

I knit this cowl on a set of US 11 29″ circular needles, using a little less than 2 skeins of Loops & Threads’ Facets – a Bulky (#5) weight yarn (120 yds/skein). Using a circular needle for the first time was exciting, and took a little getting used to. At 30″ wide and 10″ high, the cowl is a little big. But, I think it will make a nice gift this holiday, especially given the imminent Chicago winter. According to Farmer’s Almanac predictions, this one is anticipated to be a long, cold, and snowy revenge-season for the higher temperatures we had last winter. The cozier the cowl, the better.

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Cowl-zilla

Aside: I am pretty grateful to be crafting in the era of the internets – being able to witness others’ unique and singular creative process keeps me inspired and in awe of the beautiful things that get to exist.

Happy Friday.

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Sock Talk: The parts of a hand-knit sock

For a self-taught knitter in the early stages of the craft like me, there is truly something miraculous about discovering that not all knitting happens ‘flat,’ in 2 dimensions. After knitting scarf after scarf, I wanted to push myself to tackle a new technical challenge: knitting in the round. This method produces circular tubes instead of flat planes of fabric (and is the earliest form of knitting, it turns out). Whether using a circular needle, or multiple double-pointed needles, I find that knitting in the round challenges me to develop new skills.

With autumn slowly making its way in, I decided, over the last few weeks, to tackle knitting on double-pointed needles by making my first pair of socks. Socks were among the first knitted garments (!), with the earliest knitted socks found in the Middle East, dated between the 13th and 16th centuries (thanks, Vogue Knitting).

I’m grateful that sock-making traditions and knowledge are easily available for curious knitters. While helpful online tutorials on the topic abound, I found Ann Budd’s Getting Started Knitting Socks a clear and useful guide to the terrain. It begins by introducing one basic all-around sock pattern, adapted to multiple yarn weights and gauges so that knitters can get started with whatever materials they have on hand.

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Get started!

What follows is not a detailed sock-making tutorial, but more of a very rough guide to the steps I followed to make my first pair of socks, a kind of sock anatomy 101. Goofy pictures included (advance apologies for the inconsistent colours). Continue reading “Sock Talk: The parts of a hand-knit sock”

Upcycled Seed Stitch Can

As a new knitter, I am always looking for opportunities to put recently learned skills to use. While cultivating the ability to work on long-term and larger knitting projects is important, I get excited when I see possibilities for using new-found skills to make tiny (and quick) crafts.

I recently learned seed stitch, and it was an instant favourite; I love the stitch’s bumpy and unusual texture. Seed stitch is a 2-row pattern. The ‘bumps’ are produced by alternating single knit and purl stitches on the first row (usually of an even number), then doing the opposite on the second row (knitting the purl stitches, and purling the knit stitches). Voilà!

I tend to hang on to discardables, recyclables and other re-usable items for my crafts, and I had been keeping an empty tomato-paste can, unsure of what to do with it, but bent on re-using it. 🙂 After reading about yarn bombing – a form of graffiti-knitting that transforms objects in public space with colourful knits – I began to look for the things in my immediate environment that could use some yarny love.

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I would love to do this. Photo source: wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarn_bombing

From there, I thought that a seed stitch pencil-can cozy would be a neat and quickly craft-able project.

Keep Reading!

Perler beads

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Often found in the kids craft section, perler beads are those tiny plastic rings of colour that can be arranged on a pegboard and ironed/fused together to make 2- and 3-D crafts. 2-D perler images often look pixelated, making perler beads great for reproducing animated characters and video game sprites. The model of bead arrangement on a plastic pegboard was invented and patented by Swede Gunnar Knutsson in the early 1960s as a form of therapy and recreation for the elderly – interesting origins of what is now typically considered (or dismissed as) a ‘grade-school’ craft. This medium is not to be underestimated! It’s very, very versatile – a kind of hands on and analog version of pixel art that can be used to make complex and stunning works. Crafters have pushed perler design past the 2-D pegboard to render 3-D baskets, bowls, trays, and ornaments. Some unexpected and beautiful examples of plastic bead-dom to try for home decor can be found here.

I have been on a perler bead kick since getting my first kit (beads, pegboards and ironing paper) on a whim a few months ago, using the beads to make small gifts here and there. I find the activity absorbing and calming – a bit reminiscent of playing with Lego, Lite Brite or other colourful, modular, pegg-y toys as a kid, and a bit similar to the craft of cross-stitch in arranging small blocks of colour on a grid-like plane. Dropping the tiny beads individually onto the pegboard takes, depending on the size of the project, a little patience, a little dexterity, and some care not to knock the still tenuously-lying beads over. Until I fuse my project, it’s about nimble and loving fingers – a feature of my favourite art and craft media.

The trick to fusing  the beads once the pattern has been arranged is evenly distributing heat across the work with an iron. Too little heat and the work crumbles apart; too much, and the work looks melty and/or unevenly flattened. Working small, I’m still honing my ironing skills! (I learned all I needed to know online. Thanks, Youtube).

More bead projects to come.

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Some Chicago love: city flag souvenir

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Sugar Bunny