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Making the Best of It: Lessons from a Tangled Mess

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Over break I started on something years in the making: “The Icarus Shawl.”When completed, I will have my own pair of golden, lacy wings connected by a feathered back and tail. From the moment I found the pattern and accompanying photos I knew I had to make it. At the time, however, I was an awkward middle schooler still mastering pattern reading, so I tucked the magazine that I found it in safely on a bookshelf. Over winter break, though, I found the perfect golden mohair, a soft, light kind of wool, on sale at Fancy Tiger Crafts in Denver, so I knew it must be time to finally make my wings. I figured time has passed, and I can now read patterns and follow diagrams, so there was no way this would be a problem. Or so I thought. While there is a written pattern for the shaw,  it was apparently published with lots of errors so I have to cross reference it with a sheet of revisions. On top of that, the diagrams are in three colors, worked continuously but not in full rows, and have overlapping stitches due to the stitch type.Which just so happens to be the crocodile stitch, one that I’ve tried before for a purse that ended up in lots of tangled yarn and swearing. In short, my dream project has turned into a monster since I have to follow a diagram that looks like a small child’s scribbles, a set of instructions with as many small errors as a paper written in a frantic all-nighter, and uses one of my least favorite stitches. Great.


So, brandishing my hook and surrounded by papers, I took a deep breath and started. While projects that are a breeze are nice on occasion, the ones that start out horribly are also the ones that I end up most attached to. There’s a “simple” cylindrical pillow that took four tries to make round, a pink sweater that is a hairy mess, and an afghan that took over a year to make, just to name a few. You could say the only reason I like these is that I’m justifying all the effort that went into making them, but that would be oversimplifying things. I love these projects because of what they have taught me.


These monster projects have taught me some important crochet techniques that have opened up the possibilities of what I can make. On my own, I never would have considered trying to figure out things like colorwork and shaping sleeves, but the context of a beautiful project proves why they are worth the effort. In addition, I’ve learned the gist of what kind of math and ratios goes into various shapes so that I can use them as the base for whatever I want to make without a pattern later on. This is extremely important, as it opens up the possibility of making something that is tailored to my vision.


These projects have also taught me about myself — about my own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned exactly how stubborn I can be and that stubbornness will literally drive me to focus on something for hours on end, skipping meals and ignoring everything around me. While this tenacity does come in handy, as it insures that I will finish what I start, I am also now aware that it can be a huge weakness. It leads to forgetting to take care of myself and going in circles as I repeatedly try the same thing and grow more frustrated. Neither of those things helps complete my goals, and they are actually a form of self-destruction that I can justify in the name of getting things done. This lesson is invaluable here at Swat because there are so many assignments and tests that could easily destroy me if I let them become my primary focus.


One of the most important strengths I have learned is that I have the magical power to create. Creation adds a sense of fulfillment and a way to make my mark on the world. It allows me to express who I am through color and textures and patterns. It is a way to show my loved ones how much they mean to me while also giving them something that serves a purpose. Creation also opens up a door to healing from the pains of everyday life. It can distract, or be a productive way to fidget while thinking, or even be a vessel to hold whatever anxiety there is while wiping it away with soft fibers.


In the end, taking on something difficult is worth it. And attempting something hard within my comfort zone in small doses every day helps give me the strength to take on other challenges. So bring on the yarn tangles.

Making the Best of It: Crochet Resources

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Whether you believe or not, spring break is finally within reach! Ten days of free time, here we come! With all that free time, it’s the perfect opportunity to pick up a new hobby that will give you a break from all that mind-numbing reading and help keep you awake in lectures once we’re forced to come back. What is this you ask? Crochet!  I know it sounds daunting, difficult, and maybe even dangerous, but crochet really is something that you can learn to do and enjoy. Don’t worry, I’ll point you in the right direction and be there to help you every step of the way.


First for some basics. Crochet is a method of making fabric by tying together some sort of fiber, usually yarn, together using a set of loops and a hook. It’s a method used by people all around the world, from Russia, Chile, Japan, Syria, Ireland and everywhere in between. Much like knitting, it can be used to make a variety of clothing, accessories, home goods, toys, and pretty much anything else you put your mind to. Unlike knitting, crochet is not possible to make using a machine and also uses about a third more yarn.


It doesn’t take many materials to get started, and they’re all relatively easy to find, if you know where to look. The easiest place to get what you need is to go to a store, such as Michael’s or Joann’s. The employees will be able to help you if you have any questions and they have a great variety for getting started. If you don’t want to leave the comfort of your home, there are lots of online stores too. Some of my favorites include KnitPicks, LoveCrochet, Wool and the Gang, and Herrschners. You can also find a small amount of supplies on Amazon, which are sufficient for getting started. However, I would not recommend relying on getting your yarn there for most pieces as their selection is small and generally of poor quality.


There are a few supplies that you will need to get started. The most obvious one is yarn. The best kind for beginners is one that you can easily undo if you make mistakes on your first piece (and believe me, you will, and that’s OK). These are yarns that are twisted tightly, easy to get more of, and not hairy. Red Heart brand yarn specifically their “Super Saver” line is a great first yarn as it comes in a huge variety of standard colors and is easy to undo. However, it is acrylic, meaning it’s made of a man-made, petroleum-based fiber. If you want a natural fiber, Cascade brand yarn is made with different kinds of wool from sheep and alpaca; I would recommend their 220 line to start. Lots of patterns for beginners will tell you exactly the brand to get too, which you can also do if you want to use a pattern.


You’ll also need hooks. You can use either plastic or aluminum hooks to begin with since both are smooth and durable; I would not recommend wood hooks because they can snag the yarn, making them harder for beginners to use. The other thing you’ll need are stitch markers, which you use to keep track of counting when you do circular or big pieces.Everything else you need might already be in your desk drawer: this includes a ruler and scissors.  However, don’t buy anything until you see what your instructions call for.


Finding beginner instructions is extremely easy. Searching “how to crochet for beginners” on Youtube will bring up a variety of different step-by-step tutorials and starting projects. If you don’t want to weed through all of these results, finding a single blog with tutorials helps too. My personal favorite is Mooglyblog.com. In addition, Amazon Prime offers a video class included in your membership. There are also websites that specialize in video crafting classes. My favorite is Craftsy, where you can buy a single video series and watch it as many times as you want. They also have helpful forums you can use to get help. Another option is CreativeBug, which requires a subscription, but once you have one you have access to all kinds of classes.


You can also go old-school (*gasp!*) and learn through books and human interaction. Most books of patterns have tutorials at the beginning of them, but they aren’t always comprehensive enough to learn from scratch unless the whole book is labeled “for beginners.” Generally, you want something with lots of illustrations. A great beginner’s book is “Chicks with Sticks Guide to Crochet,” which has a variety of different patterns and plenty of pictures. Don’t be afraid to check out your local library or Barnes & Noble either, as they will have more than you think. To find someone to teach you in person, you can either ask around to find someone to help or go to store and sign up for a class.


Okay, so you have supplies and you have instructions on doing stitches. Now for your first project! Most classes have set projects you can make, but if you are using Youtube videos that don’t give a specific pattern, the easiest thing to make is a scarf. This way you don’t have to focus on reading a pattern, but can work on using that hook and making the stitches. Using your yarn and a 4.0mm hook, make a chain the width you want the scarf; your instructions will show you how to do this. Then work on doing single crochets, the smallest stitch in crochet. After you get about a third of the length of your scarf, you can switch to half-double crochet, the medium sized stitch, and then move on to double crochet, the tallest crochet stitch.


If this scarf doesn’t catch your fancy, other easy things you can make and find patterns for include hats, fingerless gloves, blankets, bags, and mug cozies. Googling what you want followed by “for complete beginners” should give you what you need.


There is also an amazing site called Ravelry that is home to an international fiber art community. On it you can find forums for help, patterns, make a catalogue of the yarn you own, and keep track of the projects you make. It is as nerdy as it sounds, but it is super helpful and easy to use. You can find me on it as bessbg23, so feel free to reach out using the messaging if you need help!


Before I send you forth into the world to start your crochet journey, I want to leave you with a few words of encouragement. Learning it may be a challenge, but don’t give up! If one method of learning doesn’t work, try something else or a combination of resources. I know you can do it. At the same time, remember to take a break if you need it. There will be times where you’ll be frustrated and want to throw the whole thing in the garbage, but set it aside for a while and come back when you’ve calmed down. You will need to undo what you’ve done sometimes because of mistakes and that’s okay. Really, it is, and you will finish that piece eventually. As a word of caution, you will get tangled up at some point, but this is part of initiation into the world of yarn. Don’t squirm too much, ask for help getting untangled, and if all else fails cut yourself out and start over. Finally, if you’re called a grandma, own it! There’s nothing wrong with knowing how to make things, and there are plenty of us young’uns who make.


Now, go forth and make

Making the Best of It: A Talk with Tara

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One of the first makers that I met at Swarthmore my freshman year was found in an unexpected place: the freshman job fair. Costume shop manager Tara Webb ’ 94 was there looking for student shop assistants. I recently sat down with her in the shop to find out more about her experience making at Swarthmore, both during her years as an undergraduate and her recent years here working with students.


Webb’s mother was a weaver, and she grew up having a variety of materials around.


“[Crafting] was something I was given to do after school,” she said.


In high school Webb began drawing, weaving, and sewing for herself and her friends. Later she picked up embroidery and knitting. Swat, however was a different story.


“I didn’t have as much time to make because it’s, you know, Swat,” she laughed.


Webb does recall making large collaborative watercolors with her friends that were “psychedelic mixes of styles.” The dorms she lived in at the time also had collaborative poetry steno pads in the lounge, where people would add lines when inspired and also leave notes for one another. Webb also found a creative outlet working in the costume shop as an assistant herself.


The LPAC costume shop was relatively new at the time, so her position as an assistant consisted mostly of organizing the large piles of clothing that didn’t yet have racks to go on. However, she still considers it a wonderful experience that led to an internship after graduation and, later on, a career in costuming and design. Working in the shop provided a chance to fit some making into her schedule and get paid as well.


Webb’s favorite medium to work with changes over time. Currently, she likes making her own natural fabric dyes out of food scraps such as avocado peels, a skill which she shared in dye workshops on campus this past fall. She also aims to have a sustainable wardrobe by cutting down on her clothing waste through upcycling and repairs. Knitting, however, is something she still enjoys, even if it’s a slow process, taking up to two years for a hat. Time is also a factor that plays into what kind of mediums she uses, like it does for many makers. While embroidery is something she loves, it is harder to fit in especially since she no longer commutes by train.


As for the changes in the making community here, Webb has observed that it changes drastically depending on the students on campus at the time. Psi Phi’s predecessor, SWILL hosted some crafting-oriented events along with LARPing (live action role playing). The Women’s Resource Center has been a prominent space for making and gathering as well. Various knitting groups and sewing centers have also come and gone on campus.


Another huge change she’s seen is with the ease of learning a new skill with the wide variety of online resources, especially YouTube.


“Before it had to be someone sitting and showing you, but now you can just look it up,” she says. This, she believes, is one of the reasons that there are more makers, which makes it so much easier to find other makers to befriend.


Webb also gave me a variety of recommendations for fun places to find supplies in Philly. For fabric, she recommends Gaffney’s on Germantown Avenue, Fabric Row on South 4th Street, and Jomar for discounted manufacturer quality fabric. Loop on South Street is the place to go for yarn.


This interview left me inspired and hopeful. There’s something about hearing about all the other options for making that others love that makes me want to try even more new mediums. While there may not be as much time to make here, there is a light at the end of the tunnel where there is a bit more time for making. And who knows, maybe there can be a career in it as well.


Making the Best of It: Hooking Up

in Arts/Columns/Uncategorized by

For some reason, “making” is something viewed as a relic of the past, something that was done out of necessity and boredom before the Internet. This however, is far from true: there are millions of people around the world and in the U.S. who sew, make pottery, knit, crochet, embroider, and use any other variety of media to express their creativity and make. Despite knowing this, for the longest time I thought that I would never meet another maker my age. The only makers I knew before coming to Swarthmore were people my parents’ age or older.

Here at Swat, however, I met more makers than I ever could have imagined. Many of them introduced themselves when they saw me crocheting in lectures and in various spots around campus. Others work in the LPAC costume shop with me, where we spend hours working on costumes and our own projects in each other’s company. There are some whom I’ve spotted from a distance, doing cross-stitch in psychology classes, knitting during chorus, and wearing their own clothing designs. I’ve also met a plethora of people who have expressed an interest in making but don’t know where to start or don’t think they have much of a reason to start at all.

I started making when I was five years old and grew determined to learn to crochet like my mom and I’ve been hooked ever since. I love how tactile the whole process is, with the yarn running through my fingers, hook rolling in my right hand, and the new fabric pooling gently in my lap. I love purchasing yarn and digging through my stash, feeling the variety of textures and feasting my eyes on every color imaginable. I love the sense of accomplishment when I’ve finished a piece and see it in use, especially when I can create something to bring joy to another person.

For me, crochet and crafting is not just a hobby, but a supplement that improves the overall quality of my life. It’s a bit of anxiety relief that I can pull out of my bag at any moment. It’s a channel for me to work out the stress of the day and turn it into something beautiful. It is something that even when I’m feeling my least capable, I know that I can do. Even when what I’m crocheting is difficult, it is a problem that is physical and tangible— it is still a relief from the other problems of the day, which tend to be theoretical. Crochet is a way for me to be able to provide something high quality to my loved ones so I can express how much they mean even if I can’t show them that with my wallet. Crafting is flexible enough that I can always find a way for self-expression, even when I’m at a loss for words.

Because of how much I get from making, I can’t help but have a strong emotional and somewhat spiritual connection to it. This, in turn, means that each piece I make contains a bit of myself in it. And while I may not be able to speak for all makers, many have a similar connection to their craft. Having this kind of creative outlet and connection is something that is especially important here at Swat, as it can provide a much-needed break from and an outlet for all that stress. Without it, I would truly feel like I spent the majority of my time on assignments and other things I don’t enjoy.

While the pieces that we make usually have a set function, they should not be discounted as a form of art all their own. Color, form, and composition all come together in craft pieces to serve an aesthetic function as well. My current crochet project, for example, is a patterned shawl that draws on traditional Scottish knitting motifs and is composed of several shades of grays and purples. Even patterns for children’s stuffed animals that I’ve crocheted are designed with a deliberate aesthetic in mind, ranging from minimalistic lions, vibrant maximalist fish, whimsical fairytale frogs, and punk tattooed rabbits.

Throughout the semester I hope to use this column to share this love of making with you all. There will be tips on places to find classes and supplies (spoiler: you may not even need to leave campus),  inspiring interviews, and hints on how to have crafting fit into your life. And who knows, maybe some of you will find inspiration on how to make your life a little better too.


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