Brain Status: Updates Complete

They say the brain is like a computer. They never mentioned that it was one of those annoying ones that is always needing updates, but doesn’t do them automatically.

Henry Markram: Brain research & ICT futures

No, the brain needs to be updated by the old-fashioned method of knowledge acquisition we call learning. If you stop learning, your brain gets obsolete and will eventually crash. Of course, when updating one’s brain it is important not to allow in any malware or viruses, but that’s another post.

I am both a good student and a bad one. Good, in that I like to collect information, always learning something new; and bad, in that if I don’t master something at my first try I am liable to give up. Seriously. There is only one subject I took all the way through high school: English, a.k.a. my mother-tongue.

So obviously I have a lot to learn, both in terms of facts/skills and character, and I like to think that knitting is helping with this. Apparently knitting can delay the onset of Alzheimers, basically because it’s exercise for the brain, using a variety of different areas and making them work together. Sounds good to me.

Хруцкий Старуха вяжущая чулок(1838)

Knitting is also developing my character, because it forces me to persevere when I don’t get it right first time: witness the number of unsuccessful attempts before I learned to turn a heel. It is helping me develop that difficult virtue: patience, in a relatively pain-free way.

I haven’t knitted socks in a couple of years, but just lately, I have returned to them, after diverging through various scarves, a balaclava and a stegosaurus, among other things. This time, I’m trying the socks from the toe up. As Joe Blomfield said, “There’s a great deal of engineering in a gentleman’s sock, I’ll have you know.” Ditto for ladies, or even, heaven help us, people whose feet are so small they don’t even walk on them, viz. babies.

Toe-up has a distinct advantage over cuff-down, namely that you don’t have to guess when you’re going to need to start the heel in order to have enough yarn left to finish the foot – risking ending up with no toes. You just keep going up the leg until you don’t want the sock to be any longer, or you run out of yarn, whichever comes first.

FO: Pedi socks

The difficult bit is that you don’t start with a nice simple tube: you start in one of a variety of ways, all of which are mind-bogglingly complex in description, not much better in diagram, and only somewhat confusing in video, because the knitter demonstrating the technique may well be knitting a different method or style from you.

I have, however, learned (and by learned I mean got it wrong a couple of times and then got it right) Judy Becker’s Magic Cast-On – it’s not the cast-on called for in the pattern, but I’m not going to let that stop me. The pattern is also for stripy socks, and I’m just using one variegated yarn.

Knitting, you see, is like cooking: adapting the recipe and substituting your own ingredients are expected – so much so that a lot of patterns don’t even bother giving instructions for the interchangeable parts, they just tell you to start with your favourite cast-on, and then use your preferred heel here, and so on.

And then a miracle occurs.

Speaking of preferred heels, I have also knit my first short-row heel – the pattern fortunately gave detailed instructions (which is why I chose it) and I watched a video of someone demonstrating the technique as well, which helped. Some things do not make sense in description until you actually know how to do them, which rather defeats the point.

Having tried this method of heel construction, I think I can honestly say that I will quite likely never knit a heel-flap-pick-up-stitches-along-the-side sock again. I loathe picking up stitches. Maybe it’s just the difference between my row gauge and stitch gauge, but I always seem to end up with a gap.

I also recently learned the “Magic Loop” method of knitting in the round, which may one day be of use in sock knitting. Unfortunately, my smallest circular needle has a diameter of 2.75mm (US#2), and the sock patterns I’ve seen generally call for 2mm (US#0) or sometimes even smaller. The ones I’m using now are 2mm bamboo needles, which flex slightly as you handle them. It’s rather like knitting with extra-long toothpicks.
But I’m learning.

What have you learned lately – skill, fact, or otherwise? Share the learning, share the love!

Making Cuts

I’ve been posting a lot lately about purging, decluttering, getting rid of things, seeking the essentials and hacking back everything else.

I don’t want to be one of those irritating people who give everyone else good advice but never follow it themselves; and I think what I’ve been trying to do with all these posts is to shift the balance of my thinking. It is not easy, as I’m sure you know. Mental habits are ruts that are hard to break out of.

Rutted field near Ravarnet - geograph.org.uk - 1144990

The good is often the enemy of the best, I wrote. This is a lovely aphoristic saying, full of insight and meaning. But it isn’t anything more unless you apply it, put it into practice.

There are a number of elements I consider as essential to my life: the love of God, my husband, family and friends. Writing, reading, and handwork. Those are my core activities and priorities. Then there are the necessary ancillary activities like cleaning, eating etc.

There are a lot of other things I would like to do – often, being all excited about a new shiny idea, I start doing them straight away – which there isn’t room for in my life, not without filching time from the more important activities.

Where this really lands me in trouble is with the sunk cost fallacy – having enthusiastically launched into a project or activity, I feel I can’t call it quits, because that would be wasting the resources I have put into it.

Does anyone else know the dragging guilt and wearying heaviness induced by too many unfinished projects? Are you in over your head too?

Raise your hand if you can't swim

Here’s the truth I have to face: if it wasn’t a good idea to start giving your time to something, it isn’t a good idea to keep giving your time to it.

The sensible thing – nay, the wise thing to do is to admit that there isn’t room in your life for this right now, and let it go.

That being the case, I am regretfully withdrawing from the Historical Sew Monthly. I made a shift and a balaclava, both of which are useful, and I am pleased that I did.

I also made half of an Edwardian maid’s apron – my first attempt at pleating – which I may use as a half apron, or finish with bib, straps etc in the fullness of time, either with the frou-frou Edwardian bib, or with a fuller, more practical one.

Spot the Jabberwocky!

Spot the Jabberwocky!

But as much as I enjoy historical sewing (or at least, the results thereof), it isn’t a high enough priority in my life for me to be devoting as much time to it as the HSM’15 requires. So, I shall take my final bow (that’s me in the back row) and retire to the audience where I can sit and applaud the efforts of others.

I do feel disappointed, I admit. But the disappointment is tinged with relief, knowing this was the right decision to make, and nervousness, knowing that this is very likely only the first of many such decisions.

HSM’15: Behold the Balaclava

There’s a saying floating round the internet: on a scale of one to ‘invade Russia in the winter’, how bad is your idea? Declaring war on Russia in autumn is definitely up the top end of the scale, which made it a fitting beginning for the Crimean War, a campaign so disastrous that a century and a half later it is still a byword for really poor decision-making. (Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die…)

Museo Torre di San Martino della Battaglia - affresco 04

The Crimean War began when the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia in October 1853 – the Ottoman Empire was weakening, and Russia thought this was an excellent opportunity to expand its borders, beginning by invading Ukraine. (Who says history never repeats?)

Other nations then joined in because – well, lots of reasons, mostly to do with not wanting Russia to get more powerful, or not wanting to lose face. (Oh, the countless deaths in wars fought because of What People Might Think.) Naturally, these were not the reasons given at the time. They seldom are, mostly because if you tell your troops they’re dying for the good of your reputation, they’re unlikely to join in with any enthusiasm.

Florence Nightingale. Coloured wood engraving, 1855. Wellcome V0004316

It was the Crimean War which gave us the Charge of the Light Brigade (which was, remarkably, successful – or would have been if their backups the Heavy Brigade hadn’t realised they were galloping into a deathtrap and retreated) as well as Florence Nightingale (before whose arrival troops were ten times more likely to die of disease than wounds) and the balaclava (named after the Battle of Balaclava, where the aforementioned Charge took place).

Following the Crimean War, the balaclava became a standard part of military headgear, particularly for use in cold climates. During the World Wars, demand exploded, and women were encouraged to knit for the troops. “Knit for Victory”, the World War I campaign exhorted, and by the Second World War, knitting was recognized as an important contribution to the Home Front.

Leisure and Entertainment during the Second World War D173

Women knitted at home, during breaks at work, in groups, or even in air-raid shelters, while waiting for the All Clear. The Anglican Church is said to have issued a ruling allowing women to knit during church services (something I still do, as I find keeping my hands busy helps me concentrate).

Socks were particularly in demand – they wore out quickly and needed to be changed more often than most knitted items – but scarves, gloves and balaclavas were also required. Naturally, the only colours allowed were khaki ‘drab’, or two kinds of blue (Navy & Air Force) – which soon lost their appeal for the knitters.

Newtown Women's Institute knitting comforts for the troops (4346388180)

Patterns were issued, including this one – for original visuals, click here and scroll along. (Thanks to the V&A Museum for making these available.)

This was the pattern I used – adapted to a more classic balaclava style by eliminating the front and back flaps which tucked into the uniform, as well as the ear-flaps.

I didn’t take any pictures of the construction, but if you want to visualize it, think of it as an upside-down sock: a section of rib to grip the neck (leg), a section of garter-stitch, then turn the parietal (heel). Except of course no-one needs a toe in their face, so the head-sock finishes with another section of rib around the face (mid-foot).

balaclava side view

So this is my latest entry for the Historical Sew Monthly: the Blue Balaclava.

The Challenge(s): Blue and War & Peace

Fabric: dark blue merino 4-ply (Ashford MacKenzie, if you want the details)

Pattern: The Balaclava Helmet from Essentials for the Forces: Jaeger Hand-Knit Series no. 44, courtesy of the V&A.

Year: first half of the 1940s

Notions: none. knitted on circular needles in widths of 3.25mm & 2.75mm, because that’s what I had

How historically accurate is it?: well, I fiddled the pattern, but I’m pretty confident balaclavas in this style (minus ear-flaps and tuck-ins) would have been around at the time – this one, for example.

blue balaclava

Hours to complete: I never know. Maybe ten, at a wild guess? When I knit I’m either relaxing, or doing it as a background to something else (reading, DVD, sermon…) so I never watch the clock.

First worn: in March, a day or two after it was finished. It was rather warm on the day itself – definitely too warm for balaclavas. But autumn is now here, and it’s getting a bit more wear.

Total cost: from stash, so officially none. It was part of a ball I’d used for a couple of other small projects. A whole ball (100g) is currently NZD16 – a bit over USD12. Alas, wool is no longer ninepence an ounce as specified in the pattern!

Part of what the Historical Sew Monthly is about is gaining a better understanding of the lives of those who lived before, and in this I cannot help but feel that I have failed. Unlike most if not all of the WWII knitters, I was knitting in peace and comfort, without being plagued by fear for a loved one’s safety, or grief for a loved one lost. Nor was I being bombed.

Air Raid Precautions at Kingston House, Knightsbridge, London, England, C 1940 D57

That’s the sort of thing you really can’t understand unless you experience it, and thank God, I haven’t. I knit my balaclava for a husband who is safely at home, and the cold it will protect him from is the nippy wind of a Wellington winter, not the bone-chilling frozenness of a battlefield (although to be fair, if we’d lived seventy years ago I’m pretty sure he would have been a much-maligned ‘conchie’ – a conscientious objector).

But if reading about the Crimean War and the women left behind in the World Wars has taught me anything, it’s to value peace. Because peace is a lot like breathing freely: you take it for granted – until you get a head-cold. And then you can’t think about anything else, and you’ll do anything that looks like it might help, and you swear you’ll never forget how glorious a thing it is, this breathing freely, this freedom, this peace.
But you do. You forget. We forget. And we mustn’t.

Ve Day Celebrations in London, 8 May 1945 HU41808