There’s something about macramé that makes me very nostalgic. Not for the 1970s, but the 1990s.
A dear friend and I spent a holiday night, last January, crafting macramé keychains for the fun of it. As we knotted the thick ropes, I realized that macramé resembles one of the very first crafts I ever learned: friendship bracelets (remember those?).
Camilla Gryski’s Friendship Bracelets, which sold at my elementary school book fair, was the first craft-book I ever used to teach myself a new skill.
It was the late 90s, and I was in my last years of elementary school. In our small schoolyard world, friendship bracelets were right up there with GAP perfume, jeans with torn cuffs, and over-sized Disney-NBA jerseys. I remember that a few of my friends bought Friendship Bracelets one year, and we started the hobby together. I remember going to the local mall-craftstore to buy a handful’s worth of embroidery floss. I remember how we challenged ourselves to try more complicated patterns — first, the simple “spiral” cord, then diagonal stripes, the arrowhead, then X’s and O’s. The brave and determined makers tackled the formidable ‘double-thickness’ bracelets. I remember the process of choosing from all those vivid colours of floss, the feel of the smooth, separable strands, and the sheen of the little completed knots, lined up like tiny pearls. The point of all of this was to trade what we made. The swap brought its own joys — the moment of reveal, the rite of tying a bracelet to your friend’s wrist at recess, the warm feeling of loved-labour given away. Creativity, new skills, and sharing — aren’t those the things most beloved by craftspersons?
But I digress. To return to the macramé… Last April, I was in the process of winding up the last bits of thesis writing. Being homebound and under lockdown meant getting much more acquainted with my inner critic (!) than I’d expected. It was a nervous time. I needed a way to wind down. Not too long before, I had borrowed a copy of Fanny Zedenius’ Macramé – the craft of creative knotting for your home and had recently ordered a large spool of cotton cord.
I was grappling with a few writing tangles at the time, and I guess this knot-based craft felt comforting and appropriate. Macramé suggested, in its form, that a ‘knot’ was not inherently a bad thing. In the right situation, a knot was a design element (this made me feel better about all of the “knots” left in my paper… it’s just written macramé, after all).
So I started a new project. An hour before bed, I’d hang my dowel on the back of the bathroom door where the light is good, queue up a talk or podcast, and let my fingers do the rest.
It was a straightforward project, but it helped me get through a tricky writing period. The cords are substantial — full of heft and weight and texture. In contrast to knitting and crochet, macramé makes you wrestle a bit. And when I finished the project, I hung it proudly on the wall of my crafting/writing nook.
My favourite part of the project was combing out the rope-ends to make swishy tassels, then cutting them level — very “doll hairstylist” (though it seems I cut a tress too short. Whoops).
Now, I’m trying to figure out what this cotton spool can do next…
Happy Monday. Wishing you good things on the make!
Where has all the time gone? I was just posting about my little Afmaeli cape and before I knew it *poof* two weeks. Gone.
I’m happy to say that the capelet has worked a little bit of good magic. I don’t wear it for all my writing-times, but I keep it close by, on a stool. And something about having made it, and seeing it, has helped me continue to establish my good relationship to the writing work at hand. I think it reminds me that things are possible which I don’t and can’t always anticipate at the outset. It nudges me towards building up a liiiiiittle more tolerance each day for the unknowns. It reminds me to stay attuned to the thing in front of me, and to the process, which is like the weather: full of changes and differences and odd turns and more or less conducive days. The less conducive days don’t erase the good work done on the days before it; neither do they doom all efforts afterwards. Getting intentional about process, it turns out, can be a very good anti-dote to my tendency of getting sidelined by the hopes and horrors of product. Let the product be a document or artefact of process — all those individual, variegated days of commitment held together…. like stitches! (Knitting metaphors for the win!).
So. The cape has become my writing emblem. I recommend making a special garment or outfit to clothe and emblematize your maker-self!
And speaking of time. I celebrated a birthday last week and ushered in a new number. It was a sunny day. And sunshine and new numbers warrant an ample serving of sangria at the local watering hole, and some sheep-ish grinning.
Hello! I hope your May-month is off to a beautiful and prolific start — that new ideas are slowly pushing up violets and greens from the soil like so many spring-time crocuses.
The more I craft, the more I realize that I turn to making to help me solve various kinds of practical problems. I’m learning that very good things can come from the quandaries. Let me explain how I mean this.
A Writing Problem
After my writing trickled to a near and painful stand-still last year, 2018 brought a very good and welcome change: that homecoming-feeling of slowly finding comfort and ease with words again. More than ever, I’m willing and able to regularly sit for the repeated roll-up-your-shirtsleeves sessions that will lead (hopefully) to a completed first thesis draft. The work of writing is still slow-going; first drafts are always the most painful and embarassing. But, I’m learning that self-forgiveness can soften the process, and curiosity about what’s next is enough to keep me tethered to the pages. This is a project that I have been working on, in some fashion, for several years; it’s refreshing to know that the renewal of curiosity is still (always) possible.
BUT. It seems, my physiology has something to say about this. Specifically, my natural tendency to coldness. An hour of work in the wrong conditions can leave me feeling bone-chilly, energy-sapped, and in dire need of tea followed by a pulse-quickening run. The usual writerly haunts — the cool, air-conditioned interiors of libraries and coffee shops — are great for quick visits. But the temperature needed to preserve coffee beans, open-faced lox sandwiches, and the spines and fibers of books is getting hard to tolerate for sustained reading and writing. Just too cold.
So, what’s a writer to do?
Knit for the Writing
I decided to address this issue by knitting myself something warm to wear. It would, preferably, be snug, non-lacy, shoulder-warming, and thick enough to keep out A/C drafts. It wouldn’t need to be a full sweater, maybe just a cowl or capelet. I noticed that felt bear, bedecked in a snug and cozy poncho-thing, had the right idea. And so I took my fashion cue from, yes, a toy.
After some Ravelry-time, and some tinkering with other capelet-pattern stitch-counts, I decided to design the thing myself. Having knit clothing for dolls in the past, I could surely design something simple at my own scale, right?
Inspired by the abundant crocus beds on my school campus, I imagined a bold violet capelet with bright stripes running all around the yoke. I committed to this vision, and even saw myself wearing it, being writerly and productive and tea-drinking and all that. On April 20th, I cast on, working in the round, bottom up. After a week, I had this:
Sadly, this very inspired capelet got about 60% of the way through (a few rows shy of the yoke decreases) when I lost the nerve and verve to continue on. At first, I feared that my former writer’s block had somehow crept onto the needles, morphing into knitter’s block (oh no!). I stepped away from the work for a few days and reflected on how an inspired idea could so quickly careen into a case of the blahs. I found my reason: the colours felt static and separate, ‘trapped’ in stripes. I wanted them to move and do a little more footwork. This dance metaphor led me to discover that what I wanted was some stranded colourwork on that yoke. Light bulbs pinged.
At first, the thought of taking up stranded knitting struck a note of fear in my heart: so far, my stranded projects have been plagued by tension problems and wonkiness of all sorts. Why would I commit to wearing the wonkiness out in public? But, I also knew that a project like this would, for all of its imperfections, help me build the very skills I had so long admired in others’ stranded work. I took a note from my little Creative Block Survival Guide (i.e. last year’s lessons) and I made the decision to forgive myself, in advance, for all of the knitting wonkiness that I was about to produce: all the bad tension, all upcoming puckerings of fabric, all loose or slipped stitches, all awkward fitting, the whole gamut of potential, catastrophic-feeling errors. It was all going to happen in some form, and that was okay. “Mistakes” could be undone, re-worked. New information and skills would come from all of it (*deeeep breeaath*).
Perhaps like many makers, I struggle with true beginnings. But little gestures like this — intentionally giving imperfections a ‘space’ and wide margin before embarking — can act like myofascial release for creativity muscles, working into the knots and areas of tension to loosen up tissues and allow things to get moving again. Acceptance frees me back up to enter into the curiosity: my favourite place.
So, with some reluctance, I unraveled the purple poncho and sent it, with love, into the frogged knits afterlife. Maybe it will come back another time.
In the next post, I share what became of all those yards of frogged yarn. Until then, I hope you are enjoying this first flush of Spring!
What helps you overcome creative block? Any go-to strategies? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Long post alert (but with some knitting updates in tow).
I’m coming to recognize and examine a few things about myself:
1. I like to get lost in work. Different kinds of work. Usually, whatever it is I have to do. Call it engagement, “flow,” or trance, I rely on that state of zoned-out engagement for a sense of balance and productivity.
2. I am a slow worker. By this, I mean that I like to take my time. Whether preparing a piece of writing, a piece of knitting, or a meal, I like to consider possible alternatives, undo and re-do my efforts, enjoy all the different steps of a process. I’ve often felt that my slowness has been, up until now, a disadvantage. World records, rewards and races endlessly validate speediness; “slowness” gets a bad rap. But, when I work slowly (and can manage to tame the urgent sense that I should work faster), I get the most work done over the long term. Slow work adds up.
When I first became aware of it, my habit of slow work seemed counter-intuitive and almost paradoxical. Business-y internet clip art and related images of productivity have taught me that productivity thrives on speed: doing multiple things on the go, doing them quickly, one after the other, life-hacking tasks to cut the time it takes to do them. But, the more I committed myself to the kinds of projects I actually enjoyed doing, the more I discovered that there are many things to which shortcuts don’t apply. Some very worthwhile processes are not very “efficient” or streamlined at all. For these processes, slow and steady plodding (with its second chances, pauses, and time for deliberation) feels more comfortable to me. I’m starting to appreciate my disposition for slowness, and am beginning to discover its benefits and advantages.
I cultivate my inner ‘plodder’ through knitting, which is the ability to create durable and interesting things one stitch at a time. Well-intentioned people have reacted to my knitting in ways that expressed that they thought it was admirable, but amounted to a form of tedium. In those moments, I wished I was capable – through some sci-fi mind melding – to transmit the states of pleasure and engagement that come from working on a project. For me, there’s the zeal of the pattern-search, when I entertain hope and collect aspirations; there’s the thrill of a fresh cast-on; there’s the mid-way chill-out that comes with seeing the knit grow (and growing into the knit); and the satisfaction of the final bind off. All of this, further, comes wrapped up in anticipation and self-doubt: I never know how the thing is actually going to turn out, so I knit for the simple pleasure of seeing what happens. There’s always some dread that a project might end up quite horrible, so I don’t rush to my doom.
I’ve made progress on the recycled yarn sweater of the previous tutorial, posted in April. I recall purchasing and unraveling the sweater in March. I’m mid-way through re-knitting it into a new sweater – 3 months coming! Now, that’s a slow sweater.
Writing provides similar refuge for my slow-plodder. I’ve been working on a writing project for nearly 3 years. I was once told by someone that, were they in my shoes, they would have given up. I wanted to convey to them how I get lured (tricked) into writing, how there is a wave-like cycle that oscillates between productivity and fallow-time, between the momentum of strongly desiring the things I’m going to write and being absolutely sick of the things that I have.
Unlike knitting, where I can watch my knit grow as I inch towards that FO, I’m often caught off-guard, when writing, by how quickly unrelated content can pile up. A big hunk of my written words, I’ve learned, will have to be cut from the next draft. The equivalent to this experience, in knitting, would be to start, say, a scarf, only to discover that a hat, sock, and some other unrecognizable stuff have also started to insinuate themselves onto the needles. Constant mutation! If my knitting constantly shape-shifted in this way, I would be faced with deciding which one of the emerging projects to pursue; this would come with a twinge of pain at having to say no to some very promising beginnings without any guarantee that they’d be completed later. Having newly committed, say, to knitting the sock instead of the scarf, I might once again find myself re-directed by some new emergent stuffand have to re-decide what it is I’m doing. This is how uncertain and non-linear the process of writing feels to me.
On still other days, there’s just the blankness to contend with. Either way, in the past, I could only make it to the writing table kicking and screaming.
The fear abides. But, I’ve learned that I can make things a little more bearable if I plod gently and slowly: I work my way to the chair, put on some music. I try to keep in mind that none of it is set in stone, and doodle things with pens that no one will see. I work one word at a time, one tiny revision at a time – time enough to build that awkward sentence, register that up-welling horror, and then take a gentler, more yielding stance to it, reworking it where I can. With slowness comes some space to practice forgiving myself, as I go, for all of the bad prose produced. I’m discovering that writing can be a valuable exercise in self-acceptance; the fear is always there.
More recently, I’ve found a new home for my slow, plodding ways: running. Not the race-you-to-the-fence kind of running, but the kind done slowly, at your own pace. Jogging, I guess.
Last weekend, my partner and I ran Chicago’s 5K Ridge Run. I ran the course in 40 minutes (a plodding 13-minute mile). I found myself – a barely trained running neophyte – having to slow my pace down in order to keep going. But, this pace was slow enough for me to not have to hurriedly toss the little cups of water they hand you to the ground (which felt wrong, the course was in a residential neighbourhood). Instead, I simply jogged to the nearest bin. It was slow enough to see and appreciate the good folks who had shown up, on their own time, to cheer the runners on. And it was slow enough to register the odd bit of chatter between runners – the way one mother explained to her small daughter the meaning of the word determination (“it means you don’t give up even when something gets really hard”).
We ran in honour and memory of my partner’s father – a seasoned and dedicated runner who ran a Ridge Run (10K or 5K) every single year since the race’s beginnings in 1977. That’s an unwavering 39 races run, over 39 years, in addition to a number of marathons also run, over the years, and all the training that happened in between. I have always been amazed and inspired by this example of commitment. He was able to not only complete courses most would find harrowing, but to maintain his dedication to the sport over decades.
It’s an example to live by.
How do you work best? And how do you, on larger projects, keep motivation alive long enough to go from start to finish?
Happy making, friends. Wishing you a beautiful weekend.