Have you ever made something that doesn’t quite turn out the way you thought it would? Haven’t you ever had that moment when you look at the thing you’ve made and thought, “Hmmm, I’m not sure about that”? I have, oh have I ever … My latest moment of “hmm” involved the hard cider and fermented hot peppers mentioned in last week’s post: the hard cider won’t sparkle and the fermented hot peppers might have fermented too much. Deep sigh. I call moments like this “project-fail”.
The interesting thing about project-fail are the lessons you can learn, hmm yes? Making hard cider has taught me that sometimes wild yeast is not your friend. The cider doesn’t taste bad, but it certainly doesn’t taste good. The Mister thinks that wild yeast got into the mix, so the next batch that I make will be under much more sterile conditions (I’ll keep the air lock in place until I bottle for secondary fermentation). As for the peppers, I just caught them before they succumbed to mold, which taught me that ferments need to be decanted as soon as signs of vigorous fermentation abate. (The peppers are fine – I put them into a clean jar, covered ’em with vinegar & tucked the jar into the fridge. I’m going to make hot sauce from them later this week.)
I bring this up to point out something here, people: project-fail doesn’t necessarily mean that the project itself is doomed. And even if the project itself IS doomed, that doesn’t mean that you are doomed to never master that particular craft. Just because I used my last batch of hard cider to clear the Houseproud homestead’s kitchen drains doesn’t mean I’m not gonna try to make a drinkable version in a few weeks. And fermenting hot peppers? I am so going to nail the next batch I make (which will be later this week). Of course, as with my other food-based experiments, I will make numerous batches of both hard cider and of fermented hot peppers before I serve these yummy-things-to-be to friends or family. That’s the approach I took when I learned how to make kombucha and wild-yeast sourdough bread: I made batch after batch until I got it right. And I’m so happy that I did keep making those batches, even though the first attempts were such project-fails. Drinking my own (perfectly fizzy) kombucha and eating home-baked bread makes me seriously happy, people.
Project-fail is okay by me.
Hard work and lessons learned is also why the wooly goodness in the picture to the left makes me so happy. From left to right, please feast your eyes on a crocheted throw, a knitted throw, a large knitted shawl, and two small knitted kerchief-like scarves. All of the things in this photo involved project-fail and/or learning experiences. Yes, ALL of them. Each one of these lovelies helps explain why it’s necessary to persevere when you are learning a new skill.
Let’s start with the first thing I ever knitted, shall we?
Ages ago a dear friend invited me to a “stitch and bitch” that she hosted, and I said oh, my, yes. (Well, that’s the clean version of what I said, but you get the gist.) I grabbed some knitting needles that my mum had given me, wandered over to one of those mall craft stores, and purchased a skein of bright orange acrylic yarn (at least I had the sense to bring the needles along to make sure they came close to the yarn’s suggested needle size). Along with the needles, mum had given me a (now long-lost) photocopy of some knitting instructions by Elizabeth Zimmerman, so I practiced casting on and knitting in anticipation of my first stitch and bitch. This was before the wonder that is YouTube, my pets, and my first efforts at knitting were laughably bad. Several kind souls attempted to take me in hand and show me how to truly knit, but still, I spent more time ripping that orange blanket out than I did knitting it. I carried it to every stitch and bitch my friend hosted; I brought it with me when I traveled and when I commuted; I worked on it on lunches, breaks and at home. I learned all sorts of important things in the knitting (and the un-knitting) of that throw. I learned how awful acrylic yarn feels when it feeds through your fingers as you knit (even the roughest wool feels better to knit with than cheep acrylic). I learned that I simply HAVE to check my work as I go along. (I still struggle with this – I’ll knit for rows and rows and rows before noticing a mistake waaaaaaay down below). Then I learned to fix the mistakes that I made (I got very good at ripping out rows). After months and months of working on the blasted thing and finally reaching the end of my second skein, I called the throw finished. The original throw was too short (it was only two skeins long, but I couldn’t work with that awful yarn a second longer), so I picked up stitches and crocheted a white wool panel to the end some (and that was the first thing I’d ever crocheted). Thanks to this throw, I became the boss of my knitting (to paraphrase Elizabeth Zimmerman). In fact, this first bit of knitting introduced me to Elizabeth Zimmerman’s books, for which I am incredibly grateful.
Of course, by the time I mastered the orange blanket of doom (as I took to calling it), I was hording wool like nobody’s business. I had a bunch of thrifted mohair yarn in complementary colors, but I didn’t have a pattern that fit the odd assortment of yarn I wanted to use. I decided to knit a shawl, and started by casting on three stitches of black mohair, which eventually resulted in my first shawl:
Ain’t it pretty? The yarn is not all the same gauge, but it’s all knit on the same sized needles, so sometimes the knitted fabric is dense and sometimes it’s lacy. I feel happy every time I wear it, even though it’s a bit of a monster (it is rather long, even with the top folded over, as I prefer to wear it). This project confirmed for me the necessity of using good yarn: it felt so lovely to knit with mohair. I learned to trust my sense of color on this project. I also learned that mohair hides mistakes, which is very good, as it’s impossible to rip out more that a few stitches of mohair at a time. This project was not nearly as traumatizing as the orange throw, and it gave me the confidence to keep on knitting. It was so simple to knit that in inspired me to take on a pattern or three, which lead me to Barbara Walkers and her EXCELLENT books of knitting patterns.
And while this shawl was my first triangular bit of knitting, it lead to many others, all variations on the theme. Here’s one of my favorite scarves, and one of the few that I kept for myself:
It’s knit from this wonderful yarn I purchased at the Oakland White Elephant sale, which is super pretty and very sturdy (translation: it’s lovely, but it is not a soft fiber). The increase stitches are made between the stockinette body and the garter stitch border. The scarf taught me how to make a garter stitch border (so the edges wouldn’t curl). Wearing it has confirmed what I’ve been told about the insulating properties of wool. This is the scarf that I wear if I’m biking in the rain or the cold, or when I’m hiking in snow. And while the yarn started off very “sturdy”, it has begun to halo nicely (it’s not soft yet, but give it 20 years and it will be). Which brings me to another thing this scarf taught me: sturdy yarn lasts longer. That sweet soft yarn that has you drooling in the yarn shop will pill as soon as you’ve worn it twice, my friends. If you want knits that last, then choose sturdier wool.
That scarf led to this scarf, which isn’t a triangle at all:
This is my second favorite winter scarf. It has a garter stitch border and a stockinette body, as the other one does, but its increases were made at the center. Also like the other scarf, the wool is lovely and “sturdy”. (For translation of sturdy wool, please see above.) Unlike my favorite scarf, I don’t wrap it around my neck twice if I need double insulation, as it naturally folds over a bit at the top, as the picture shows. The center increases created a top that peaks, making the shape of the scarf rather like a stingray. Who knew center increases would do that???
And on the subject of “who knew”, please observe this crocheted throw, of which I am hopelessly fond:
This is the second thing I ever crocheted, and I crocheted it twice. It’s made from white wool that I unraveled from an old sweater. The same wool went into the first thing I ever crocheted, which was the panel on that orange throw. I had no idea what I was doing with either project, and while that didn’t matter a bit on the orange throw, it did matter when it came to this throw. You see, I thought I was correctly following the instructions for making the squares, but when I showed the completed squares to a friend (a mistress of all things crochet), she paused before carefully explaining to me that crocheted squares ought to be square. I had looked at the non-square squares and thought that they would magically become square when I sewed ’em all together. “No, dear, it doesn’t work that way,” said my lovely friend. So I brought the “squares” back home, ripped them out, and made them right. After all the making and unmaking of the squares, I had just enough matching squares to make a pleasing pattern in the throw (I had to cheat with two of the squares). I’m not sure I’ll ever crochet another throw, but by gum I could if I wanted to, and it would be a lovely sight when I was through.
Let me repeat this: project-fail can be your friend.
With that as my mantra, let me show you the photo that started this post:
I am not sure how I feel about these flowers. There were some learning experiences to be had in the making of them, that’s for sure. I made them for a wreath that I want to make for the Houseproud homestead. I think I like them, really I do, but I’m not sure that the colors match my “welcome fall” theme. I am not at all sure about that yellow, you see. I’m also not sure about final form of the flowers – will I keep them single or double them (or perhaps even triple them)? What color should the stamens be? Should they have stamens? (Etc, etc, etc …) But here’s what I do know: I will keep playing around with them, and eventually they’ll turn into something I’ll want to hang on our wall. Moreover, whatever these flowers become will have as many wonderful, funny memories as those projects I described above, and what could be better than that??
Here are those flowers again, perched as they have been for the last week in our living room:
Aren’t they pretty? Won’t they make something swell eventually? Hmm, perhaps a if I added a few brown felt leaves …