To Focus or not to Focus

Hello! This has become rather a long and complicated blog post, I’m afraid. I hope you’ll forgive me. Why not make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee before you dive in?

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To focus or not to focus, that is the question I am asking myself this year. Would a little (or a lot) more focus be a good thing in my knitting/life? (And if so, how?) Or would it suck the joy out of it?

I don’t think anyone would call me scatterbrained, but I often feel drawn in many directions and (except in my job) have a hard time deciding what to do first, last, or not at all. Never being bored and always having many projects on the go can be fun, but it can also lead to overwhelm, fatigue and UFOs – UnFinished (knitting) Objects.

I know I’m not the only one with difficulty focusing, so I thought I’d share some of my journey here, always focusing on knitting. To my mind, what goes for knitting goes for most things in life.

To find answers, I started as I often do – by reading a book.

(Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, paperback edition New York: Harper, 2014)

I chose this book because, well, it’s Goleman. And also because one of the chapters bears the intriguing title ‘The Value of a Mind Adrift’.

So what can this book teach a knitter (or anybody else)?

Uhm… that’s not so easy to say. Ironically, I think it’s a rather unfocused essay, without even a definition of the word focus. Still, for me, 5 things jumped out.

1 – Anxiety is detrimental to focus

In fact all emotional turmoil disrupts focus, but Goleman specifically mentions the detrimental effects of anxiety in relation to focus and performance. Small wonder that people are having difficulty focusing on all kinds of things, and can’t even focus on their knitting, in this anxiety-inducing time we find ourselves in.

It also explains why there is still no progress on this project of mine.

I still think it is beautiful and I still want to knit it, but I can’t seem to focus on it. In the past I would have set a deadline, made a plan and told myself to just get on with it. But I don’t want to force myself to focus in that way anymore. Least of all in my knitting.

Knowing that our inability to focus can be caused by anxiety, I think we need compassion. And also strategies for reducing such emotional turmoil.

2 – Different tasks use different parts of the brain

I have always felt that, say, knitting a simple sock takes a different kind of energy from knitting a complicated Fair Isle pattern, adapting a pattern for a better fit, or blocking a lace shawl. Goleman explains that it is not just about energy, but that different parts of the brain are involved in different tasks.

What he calls the ‘bottom-up’ brain takes care of more automatic and intuitive tasks. In knitting terms this would be knitting long stretches of stocking stitch, or simple socks (at least for an experienced knitter). The ‘top-down’ part of the brain is needed for tasks that take active cognitive effort, like Fair Isle, learning new techniques, doing maths or finishing a knit. ‘Top-down’ tasks also take more energy.

Let’s take my knitting as an example. I’m currently working on a reconstruction of my inherited knitting sampler.

Figuring out each stitch pattern is a job for the ‘top-down’ part of the brain. But once I’ve worked it out, the ‘bottom-up’ part can take over.

And knitting the long stretches of my Panel Debate cardigan was pure ‘bottom-up’ knitting. But now that I’ve adapted the armholes for a better fit and am at a loss how to adapt the sleeve cap, the ‘top-down’ part of the brain needs to come to the rescue.

Most of my knitting time is in the evenings. The top-down part of my brain is often depleted in the evenings. Ergo, to prevent this cardigan from ending up as a UFO I need to solve that puzzle at a different time of the day, when my ‘top-down’ circuits can deliver the right kind of focus.

3 – Knitting can help us focus

Goleman explains that tight focus leads to fatigue of the top-down part of the brain, ‘much like an overworked muscle…’ (p. 56)  And just like an overworked muscle, that part of the brain needs rest to recover. But how?

According to research by the University of Michigan, spending time in nature is one of the best ways to do that.

But according to Goleman, an even better way is ‘full focus on something relaxing’. What better way to recharge our ability to focus than some simple knitting?

4 – Creativity needs unfocused time

I was so glad to read that goal-driven focus is not the be-all and end-all. For creativity it is absolutely necessary to let our minds drift. According to Goleman, we do need a goal, but once we have that, it is crucial to have ‘protected time – enough to really think freely. A creative cocoon.’ (p. 46)

For me, being in this ‘creative cocoon’ is one of the best things in life. But I find it very hard to take the time for it. That is something to look into.

5 – We need positive AND negative focus

Most of the news we read and watch has a negative focus. Some people say that we should purely focus on positives. Just focusing on positives is certainly very tempting, but somehow it doesn’t feel right.

Goleman has something to say about that, too. Or rather, he quotes someone who has something interesting to say about that – psychologist and researcher Richard Boyatzis. ‘“You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive”, says Boyatzis, “You need both, but in the right ratio.”’ (p. 172 ) Turns out every negative needs 2.9 positives for the right balance.

Looking at my current sock knitting, I tend to agree. Starting on the foot of the second sock, I noticed that there was something wrong with the yarn. At first I focused on the positives (‘the colours are still sort of similar’), but…

… after a while I could no longer ignore the negatives. The colours really were very different from the first sock. And it was not just the colours – there were also irregularities in the yarn, and later on a knot followed by a complete break in the colour sequence.

So, I sighed a deep sigh and rrrrrrrip, there it went. All the way back to just before the heel.

That was a bit of a negative experience. But I’m glad I didn’t bury my head in the sand. All in all, with 1 part negative focus and 2.9 parts positive focus, I got a well-balanced pair of socks. Knitting as a metaphor for life. 😉

This book wasn’t an easy read. I struggled with all the talk about ‘leaders’ (mostly CEOs of big tech companies), as if we should all emulate them. Somewhere Goleman says that we are, in a sense, all leaders, but imho most of us do not lead anything but our own lives.

Having said that, it did give me food for thought. And applying some of the ideas to humbler and more personal pursuits has made reading it worthwhile.

Golemans book was a good start, but it doesn’t give us any ‘How-Tos’. I’m left with questions like: How to decide what to focus on? How to find focus when you’re procrastinating? How to stay focused until something is finished? And how about people with multiple interests or roles in life? I think I need another book for those.

Take care! Xxx

PS. In case you are wondering what my camera was focusing on in the picture at the top and during the rest of the walk – it was frozen moss:

Knitting Traditions

Hello,

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about knitting traditions. I’m not an expert or a researcher, but I am a great lover of traditional knitting techniques and patterns. There are many beautiful and interesting books about traditional knitting, and I’ve built up quite a nice library over the years. These books, as well as various museum collections, have always inspired me tremendously in my own knitting. But lately I’ve been thinking…

It started with a visit to a stunning sock exhibition last November. I was particularly inspired by three samplers with patterns taken from socks from all over the world (photo above), and thought it would be a great idea to borrow from them for all kinds of other projects.

Later, doubts crept in. Can we just borrow freely from other knitting traditions? Anything? From any tradition? When does borrowing become stealing? Or even cultural appropriation? What if a pattern has a special religious or spiritual meaning for the culture we borrow it from of which we may not be aware?

I don’t have the answers. These are just some of the questions that popped into my head.

Well, back to my knitting book library. Sometimes people generously and thoughtfully give me books to add to it. My sister-in-law brought back this lovely booklet from a holiday in the island of Gotland, Sweden, a couple of years ago.

It is filled with patterns for mittens, some with tiny roses, some with blueberries, and many with geometrical motifs.

All of them are beautiful, but are they unique to Gotland? They have a lot in common with Norwegian mittens I’ve seen, and the ones with the roses on the front cover look very much like some Latvian ones.

And here is a picture taken during our visit to the knitting museum in Selbu, Norway.

The 8-pointed star, prominent in the 3rd stocking from the left, is also known as Selburose and has been used a lot in that area. Does that mean that it was invented by the people of Selbu and belongs to them? Do they have a sort of copyright?

No, of course it isn’t as black and white as that. The same kind of pattern appears in textiles from many other countries and cultures.

Take, for instance, these hand-knit mittens I bought during a holiday in Shetland. There is a ‘Selburose’ on the back of the hand, but it looks slightly different knit in colour.

It’s only to be expected that the same kind of patterns and motifs occur in different regions and countries. Some motifs, like the 8-pointed star, flow more or less automatically from the nature of the knit stitch itself. Besides, Shetland isn’t all that far from Norway and there has always been a lot of trading and traffic between them.

Both have great knitting traditions, and there are similarities. But still, Shetland knitting isn’t the same as Norwegian knitting. They both have colourwork, but it’s different. Shetland has a fabulous tradition of lace knitting that Norway doesn’t have. Norway has thick mittens, while Shetland mainly has finer gloves. And Shetland has hap shawls, while Norway doesn’t. Why? Another question I can’t answer. I can only guess that it’s something to do with the materials available and the climate, as well as with local tastes.

Here are 3 of my favourite books about Shetland knitting: Heirloom Knitting (about Shetland lace), Fair Isle Knitting and Shetland Hap Shawls Then & Now.

Classics on the subject, but none of them written by authors from Shetland. Fair Isle Knitting was written by Alice Starmore from the Hebrides, and the other two by Sharon Miller from Devon. What do knitters in Shetland think of that?

I once knit a ‘Shetland’ hap shawl. I am placing Shetland between parentheses here, because it isn’t very authentic.

The wool is from genuine Shetland sheep, bought in Shetland. But, for one thing, I am not from Shetland and I spun the yarn at home in the Netherlands. For another, I used a pattern called Quill by American designer Jared Flood. It’s a hodgepodge. Is that okay? Or should we aim for more authenticity? And what exactly is authenticity?

I don’t think I’d be bothered about these questions so much if I lived in a place with a great knitting tradition, like Shetland or one of the Scandinavian countries.

And if I had grown up in a fabulous and colourful knitting tradition as that of Muhu Island in Estonia…

… I think I would be content with that, knitting within my own tradition happily ever after. (Photograph in Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island, by Anu Kabur, Anu Pink and Mai Meriste, p. 45).

But what if you live in a country without such a great knitting tradition? And at that my thoughts turned closer to home. Do we have a knitting tradition at all in the Netherlands? What kind of knitting did I grow up with?

To start with, I remembered a lot of acrylic, in orange, brown, purple and fluorescent green. But thinking about it a little more, I realized that even though our knitting tradition is not as impressive and extensive as that of some other countries, we do have a few things. There’s the Dutch heel for socks, for a start. We also have knitted lace caps for traditional costumes in some areas. And we have traditional ganseys (sharing many elements with English ganseys).

We also have Grolsche wanten – mittens with Norwegian-looking star patterns. Not bad, really. What else do we have? And then I suddenly thought of what I found in my parents’ attic.

To be continued…

Novels for Knitters

That I’ve called this blogpost ‘Novels for Knitters’ doesn’t mean that I think knitters are a separate species that can’t read ‘ordinary’ novels. Not at all! All it means is that I’ve pulled a selection of novels from my bookcases in which knitting (wool, yarn, etc.) plays a central role. I’ve had a fun time looking through them and photographing them against a backdrop of some of my knits, and hope you’ll enjoy reading about them.

Let’s start with the one in the picture above. A cosy scene, isn’t it? A cat snoozing in a spot of sunlight, flowers along a windowsill, a stack of knitted sweaters, a basket filled with yarn, and a knitting project on the needles.

The basket looks like my basket of yarn, and the knitting looks like what I have on my needles at the moment, but it isn’t. You can see my knitting in the background. The cosy scene on the book cover is the window of A Good Yarn, a fictitious shop on Blossom Street in Seattle.

A Good Yarn (Dutch e-book title De Wolwinkel) is the second book in a series of thirteen (so far) by Debbie Macomber. I don’t own the entire series, but here are the eight that grace my bookshelves (in reading order from left to right and top to bottom):

In the first book, The Shop on Blossom Street (translated into Dutch as Breibabes), the shop and its sympathetic owner Lydia are introduced. Lydia hosts a knitting class for beginners, with a baby blanket as an easy first project. While the blankets grow, the story about the lives of the people taking part in the class unfolds.

The thread that binds these novels together is the setting, Blossom Street. Lydia is the main character in some, but not all of the books. The variation in protagonists, all with their own stories, makes for lively reading. They struggle with all kinds of things, but on the whole this is a feel-good series.

A nice bonus of these novels is that some of them contain a knitting pattern connected with the story. There are patterns for a baby blanket, a pair of socks, a lace shawl, and a cable scarf. The patterns get more difficult as the series progresses.

And here’s another novel centred around a yarn shop – The Friday Night Knitting Club (Dutch title De Vrijdagavond Vriendinnenclub).

This time it’s a shop in New York City, and the main character is a single mum with a teenage daughter. Again we read about a group of people knitting together. They start out as strangers and gradually become friends (a phenomenon I’ve experienced in my own life again and again.) Again a feel-good novel, although I secretly wiped away a tear or two as well. I know that there is a sequel, but haven’t read it. Have you? Is it worth reading?

The novels I’m writing about here, are all fairly light-hearted, but the next one’s the fluffiest of all – The Great Christmas Knit Off:

When her fiancé decides that he actually prefers her twin sister and, to make matters even worse, something goes terribly wrong at work, Sybil escapes to the countryside. Here a totally unrealistic story (seventy-five Ho-ho-ho Christmas sweaters to be knit within an incredibly short space of time) unfolds.

Okay, it’s a silly story. But reading a silly love story involving heaps of snow, a picture-postcard English village, lots of yarn and knitting, and the rescue of an ailing haberdashery shop can be very therapeutic.

The next novel, Casting Off, is slightly more serious.

Rebecca Moray travels to an island off the Irish coast, together with her daughter, to do research for a book on Irish knitting. She also hopes to forget her painful past by getting immersed in her research.

I read this novel years ago and don’t remember the story very well, nor whether I liked it or not. Leafing through it now, I notice that the chapter titles are derived from knitting stitches and are followed by a definition. Here’s the definition from the chapter entitled ‘Garter’:

Garter. 1. The simplest pattern, created by knitting or purling every row, never mixing the two. 2. Doing the same thing over and over again, making progress in time, but never moving forward in spirit.’

Intriguing. Time for a re-read, methinks.

And here’s a borrowed book that I’ve just started reading, Dying in the Wool:

It’s a mystery set in Yorkshire in 1922, about a millionaire gone missing. Kate Shackleton, a young widow with some experience in sleuthing, receives a letter from an old acquaintance asking her to look into this mysterious disappearance. The back cover says that in doing so ‘she opens cracks that some would kill to keep closed.’

I don’t know how wool comes into it yet, but I’m dying to find out!

There must be more knitting-themed novels around. Do you know of any good ones?

March Miscellany 2020

Hello! How are you faring? We’ve had a lot of wet and windy weather here lately. The wettest February on record, our Meteorological Institute tells us. We could use some water after the past two very dry summers, but did we really need as much as this? I hope your feet, like ours, are still dry.

They also tell us that this was the second mildest winter on record, with the average temperature three degrees higher than normal. I can’t see this as anything other than a sign of rapid climate change and it worries me a lot. What can we, insignificant individuals, do?

Flowers never fail to cheer me up on dark and dismal days. I especially love roses, but roses flown in from Africa? Probably not the best idea. Tulips grown locally seem a more sustainable choice. I’m not terribly fond of tulips, but I’ll try to appreciate them more. I do love other indoor bulbs, though, like the magnificent amaryllis.

Bought from our neighbours’ boy, who sold them for a school project, I planted it in early December. It took a long time to come into flower, but when it did, wow!

Our front garden is still very bare after last year’s reconstruction, but some of the bulbs we planted are now starting to appear. Thank you, brave little dwarf iris, for your elegant flowers and beautiful colours.

I called this blog post March Miscellany because there are all kinds of things I need to show and tell you. I hope you can spare a few minutes more.

First there is the shawl where I was dithering over whether or not to include the grey. The entire crafts group at our local library and almost everybody else I asked said: ‘Leave out the grey.’ I felt the same. The other colours were harmonious together, the grey was the odd one out. And yet, and yet…

Then I looked at the book I was reading and knew what to do. Two tiny rows of grey stitches at the colour changes, a little like the small stones in the mosaic borders along the fresco from Pompeii on the front cover. That’s what I would do.

For those of you who’ve given me advice: thank you! Even though I didn’t do exactly as you said, your input really helped. It supported me in my feeling that an entire block of grey would spoil the shawl and made me look for other options.

This is what I was/am still reading:

Roman Woman, written by an archaeologist, is about a year in the life of Senovara, a young woman with two children, married to a Roman veteran turned shoemaker. It is AD 133 and the family lives in York, then called Eboracum. The chapters follow the months of the year, from Ianuarius to December.

Allason-Jones has cleverly woven loads of humdrum details of everyday life in Roman Britain into an engaging story. We see Senovara caring for her family, ‘ironing’ her laundry (rubbing the creases out of her linen with a glass ball), doing her shopping, visiting with friends and going to the bathhouse. I had no idea that women at that time already plucked their eyebrows and used depilatory cream!

Senovara is from a local tribe, while her husband is a ‘Roman’ from Germania, and I think it’s particularly interesting to read how different cultures and religions coexisted and merged.

Okay, on to the next subject. THIS IS A WARNING!

In a previous post I wrote about knit blockers. You know, those handy tools like small combs that can be used for blocking knitwork instead of T-pins. Well, recently I used them to block the swatches I knit for a new design of my own, in an airy, bulky wool yarn. This is the back of one of them:

Now look at the bottom, and especially at the left-hand corner. Can you see those tiny little bumps? They are hard spikes that shouldn’t be there. Fortunately it’s just a swatch. Had it been a scarf, those bumps wouldn’t have felt nice against the skin at all. The tines of the knit blockers seem to have worked like felting needles, felting the wool in the places where they went in, and damaging the blocking mat in the process:

It is the first time this has happened to me. The other times I used the blockers they were fine, but I thought I’d better warn you. I’ll certainly use them again, but will be extra careful not to push through if I feel any resistance at all.

Okay, next subject again.

Finally, finally the yarn for our daughter’s sweater has come. It crossed the Channel several times, as it went back to sender for unknown reasons. And when it finally reached me, one of the skeins was a different dye bath. Grumble, grumble. Was this my punishment for buying yarn overseas instead of locally?

Oh, well, it won’t show if I use the ‘wrong’ skein for the ribbing. The colour our daughter has chosen is a beautiful deep brick red (darker than in the photo). I’m looking forward to starting!

I wish you a lovely weekend, with some nice knitting on your needles or a good book to read. And I hope to see you here again soon!

Lemons and Literature

Thank you so much for all your well-wishes, both online and off! They have done me a power of good.

In the grand scheme of things, a bout of the flu is nothing, of course. But in my personal life it’s been rather disruptive, and I haven’t always been the most patient of patients. I’m on the mend now, I’m glad to say, and feeling a little better every day.

When life gives you lemons…

… make lemonade. Or so the saying goes. I feel ambivalent about the philosophy behind this. On the one hand it sounds nice and positive. But on the other, I would never, ever say this to somebody who is seriously ill or otherwise going through a difficult time. I side with Ursula Le Guin, who says:

Positive thinking is great. It works best when based on a realistic assessment and acceptance of the actual situation. Positive thinking founded on denial may not be so great.

(from: No Time to Spare, p.12)

In the case of flu, though, I do think it’s a good thing to do something positive with those lemons. Only instead of lemonade, I’d rather make tea. Our good friend Richard sent me his recipe for Lemon and Ginger Tea and has kindly given me permission to pass it on here.

Richard’s
Lemon and Ginger Tea

Ingredients

  • 1 litre of water
  • 25-30 grams of ginger
  • 2 bags of herbal tea*
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • honey or stevia** to taste

* Richard likes to use a detox blend, but says that any other (organic) herbal tea is fine. I used a blend of lime flower, chamomile and rosehip.

** The stevia powder available in most supermarkets is a mixture of stevia and sorbitol. Pure stevia is available from health food shops in liquid form.

Method

  • Bring the water to the boil
  • Peel and thinly slice the ginger and add to the boiling water
  • Leave to cool to about 80°C and add the teabags
  • Remove the teabags after about 5 minutes
  • Leave the tea to cool further to lukewarm
  • Sieve out the ginger and add the lemon juice
  • Sweeten with honey or stevia if you like

Drink straight away or keep refrigerated for up to 2 days.

This tea can be reheated gently (do not boil again or you’ll lose the goodness from the lemon), but is also delicious as iced tea in summer.

Tip: add some slices of orange and/or a clove for an extra warming winter tea.

Enjoy!

Tea label wisdom

Apart from the tea itself, the labels attached to the bags have also been nudging me in the right direction, with gems of wisdom like ‘This life is a gift’ (Absolutely, and I really appreciate it), ‘Kindness is the essence of life’ (All right, I’ll try not to be too grumpy), and ‘Create the sequence of goodness, consequences will be always good’ (Uhm, I need to meditate on that one for a bit, but I’m sure it will lead to something good).

Books

Books have been a great comfort to me during the past few weeks. I’ve been reading a lot, mainly re-reading books I’ve read before.

I’ve given this blogpost the title ‘Lemons and Literature’ because of the attractive alliteration. Whether everything I’ve been reading falls into the category Literature with a capital L is debatable, but I don’t think that matters all that much. Among my reading matter, was the book by Ursula Le Guin from which I quoted above.

No Time to Spare

Le Guin, who died last year, was a prolific writer. Apart from many novels, she wrote essays, short stories and poetry. She also published a new English translation of the Tao Te Ching. And she started blogging at the age of 80! No Time to Spare: Thinking About what Matters (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) is a compilation of some of her blog posts.

These are gems of wisdom in a different category entirely from the tea labels. Witty, warm-hearted and wise, Le Guin writes about subjects ranging from ageing to cats, literature and life in general. A book to savour in small chunks.

Tip for Book Lovers

No Time to Spare was a gift from my dear friend Pien, a fellow book lover and a book artist. Pien makes her own paper, in which she often includes plant fibers, like gingko, hemp or stinging nettle. She writes her own texts, prints them onto her hand-made paper and then binds her books by hand. Do take a look at her website Waterleaf Paper and Words if you’re a book lover too. All images on her website can be enlarged by clicking on them.

KnitLit

The book you may have noticed on my bedside table in my previous (very short) post, was KnitLit: Sweaters and their Stories… and Other Writing about Knitting. The title says it all: this is a collection of essays and stories about knitting, yarn, wool and other fibres, disastrous and successful projects and much more.

Some of the pieces are humorous, some moving, and some thought provoking. Most of them are no more than 3-4 pages long, and some only half a page, like ‘Silent Knit’, about the sound of wooden knitting needles versus that of plastic ones. Does anyone really want to read anything as nerdy as that? Well, I do. And apparently lots of others do too, as there’s also a KnitLit Too and KnitLit the Third.

Knitting

I have given my needles a couple of weeks’ rest, but I’m back to knitting now and hope to give you an update next week.