Saturday, December 17, 2011

You know you're a spinner when...

You've got something like this drying in your back yard. 
Isn't it pretty?  This is some of the Polwarth that Erica dyed in one of her photo dyeing adventures.  I took one look at the first of those fibers (Duck Water), and snapped it up.  It's been sitting near my spinning wheel for what feels like forever now (nearly five months), waiting for me to have time to spin it.  I finally got to it last week, when I'd finished the last of my baby knitting (there's a deadline on that stuff, you know - it's not like you can exactly ask an expectant mother to hang on because you've still got one more seam to finish), plus some Christmas spinning that I can't show you now.
Didn't those colors come out beautifully in the yarn?  I was so afraid I'd ruin it that I almost didn't want to spin it.  I can't tell you how squishy and lovely this fiber was in the braid.  Polwarth has an amazing hand - it feels almost like merino to me.  I wanted to maintain as much of that squishiness as I possibly could, so I spun this up woollen, into a nice round three-ply.  I think I have about 200 yards there (I need to count again once it's dry)(which reminds me, oh you spinners out there - do you reskein after washing your yarn, and does that give you a more accurate sense of how many yards you have?). 
The first two pictures are more accurate representations of the color.  This is four ounces of Polwarth, and I have to tell you, I am flat-out in love with Polwarth as a fiber.  It spun up like butter, I tell you, just like butter.  Erica must do something really special while she dyes this fiber, because it drafted like a dream - no compacting or felting to speak of.  I could have kept on spinning those singles forever and ever.  I absolutely have to get enough of this fiber to spin a sweater out of at some point, no doubt about it (I wish I could knit a sweater from this color, actually - it is so absolutely right up  my alley; I might have to figure out a way to use it in a sweater, come to think of it; must meditate).  I sort of had a hat in mind, or maybe some mitts, but we'll see.  Any suggestions are, as always, welcome.

I was reminded the other day of two Younger Daughter stories that, in retrospect, also suggest that I am a spinner.  Story the first: a year or so ago, my mother asked for a kitchen scale for weighing things (as one does) in the kitchen (note: she is not a knitter or spinner - although she sews beautifully - and both the girls know that).  So off we went to Sur La Table (an adamantly cooking-oriented store), to get her the scale that I have and love for weighing fiber and yarn.  (It lives in the fiber room - which Rick asks me to tell you is really the den, the DEN! - and must be hunted up on those rare occasions when I weigh things in the kitchen.)  Younger Daughter went along to keep me company, no questions asked, until we were just about to check out and she looked at me in a puzzled sort of way and said, "But mama, why does memere need to weigh fiber?"  I love that my daughter's baseline assumption is that scales are for weighing fiber, in spite of all of the evidence that suggests that I am the one using a scale in ways that do not match the norm.

Story the second: also about a year ago, we were in the Bay Area (where it is often chilly, no matter the time of year), and I was realizing that I needed more in the way of a jacket than I had brought.  At the same time, it came to my attention that the outdoors store right next to the hotel was about to have a sale on fleece outerwear.  So as we got up one morning, I told Younger Daughter that we needed to run out quickly before heading out on the day's adventures, so that I could buy a fleece.  Once again, she willingly went along, tra la.  It was only as we were walking over to the store, and she asked, "What are you going to knit with the fleece?" that I realized that she'd assumed (as if it were the most natural thing in the world) that I was going to buy a sheep fleece.  How many kids would even think of that as an option?

Only the child of a spinner.
(Taken in her new-to-her solo dress - a wonderful and unexpected gift from the dance mom who made it for her daughter, now grown out of it - at last weekend's feis.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Knitting and linguistics

So.  I think I said in my last post that, in our conversation during her class, Cat described to me the way she's been thinking about knitting in terms of linguistics.  Needless to say, I loved it.  So (because I like to share the things I love), I thought I'd try to explain the whole thing here, and see what you all think.  This means that there is going to be a linguistics lesson.  This is, in fact, a very fibery sort of post, in the sense that (if it all goes well), we'll be talking about knitting by the end, and talking about it analytically, but if linguistics isn't your thing, I completely understand.  Next time, there will be pictures of knitted objects and spun yarn (yes, I have been spinning!).  Note, you will need to say things out loud during the reading of this blog post - shut your office door, if necessary.

I'm going to lay out what we said in class in brief, just to kick things off, and then back up and define the main linguistic terms.  Then I'll go at the linguistics/knitting thing again, except it will be clearer, and you can (and should!) join in the fun. (I should say that there is just no way to do this justice in one blog post - this is just sort of a kick-off.)  In essence, Cat said that she was intrigued by the linguistic unit of the "phoneme", and thought that it could apply to knitting.  I even wrote to Cat to make sure that I remembered what she said about how that would work (by the way, can I just tell you how much fun it is to meet someone who's as enthusiastic about thinking this way as I could ever hope to be, and who is totally willing to talk to me about it, even though I'm sure she's crazy busy?): "Any unit of stitch manipulation that could be placed into or removed from a piece of knitting to alter its appearance/ texture. This would include single-stitch units such as knit, purl, yo, etc., as well as larger horizontal units like cables and larger vertical units like slipped stitches, etc.  What seems essential is that each unit, whether simple or complex, carry its own distinct identity/meaning (thus morpheme is better than phoneme)."  That last bit is because when she expressed this idea to another linguist in another class, that person suggested that the idea of "morpheme" might better capture what she was thinking.

And so beginneth the lesson.  First, the "phoneme".  Phonemes are defined as units of sound in a particular language.   The main idea to get here is that speakers of particular languages treat sounds which are, acoustically, different from one another as if they were the same.  In doing so, they are acting out an unconscious agreement among the speakers of that language that those variants will not change the meanings of words if they are changed.  So, for example, in English, we use a sound which I will represent with the symbol [t] (a linguist would say that this symbol stands for a sound which is described as a "voiceless alveolar stop").  You can hear that sound in a word like "stop"; it is the second sound in that word.  (I won't get into it in too much detail here, but it is absolutely critical to remember that spelling is NOT language, and that we are talking here about SOUNDS, not about the way those sounds are represented alphabetically.)  There is another sound in English that is very similar - it is represented by linguists as a [t] with a little superscript "h", which I can't make Blogger do, so we'll call it "aspirated t", which is what it is.  It is very much like the first [t], except that it has a little puff of air associated with it - you can feel that if you say the word "top".  Feel how there's a much bigger puff of air when you say the [t] in "top" than when you say it in "stop"?

Now.  You tell me.  Would you consider those two sounds (and believe me, acoustically, they are definitely two sounds) to be two different sounds, or simply variants of the same sound?  In other words, are they as different as [d] and [t], or not?  Note that [d] and [t] are "different" enough to speakers of English that they will distinguish between words - for example "dill" and "till".  But would [t] and aspirated [t] do that?  

Most native English speakers will, at this point, either say "no", or they'll look at me like I'm nuts for even asking ("duh" being a stronger version of "no").  For English speakers [t] and aspirated [t] are simply variants of the "same" sound, while [t] and [d] are "different" sounds.  (But make the sounds [t] and [d] for a second, paying very close attention, and notice how similar they are.  Acoustically and articulatorily - the way you move your mouth - they are as similar as [t] and aspirated [t] are; [t] is a voiceless alveolar stop, and [d] is a voiced alveolar stop - the only difference between them is whether your vocal cords are vibrating or not.  Cool, huh?)  This is specific to English - some languages view [t] and aspirated [t] as being utterly distinct sounds, as different as [t] and [d] and just as able to distinguish between words (Bengali is an example of one such language).  But for English, the sounds [t] and aspirated [t] are variants of what we consider to be "one sound" - linguists call that "one sound" a phoneme, and we call its variants "allophones".

One way to think about it is this.  Clark Kent and Superman are really the same guy, right?  I mean, they look really different from one another, and they always show up in entirely different environments, but they're variants of one person - [t] and aspirated [t] are the same way.  When he's at home, alone, with no-one to see him, who is this Clark Kent/Superman guy, anyway?  He's the phoneme.  And Clark Kent and Superman are his allophones.  They are variants whose appearance is conditioned by environments - Clark Kent writes newspaper articles and pines after Lois Lane, and Superman gets to save the world.  In the same way, aspirated [t] appears by itself at the beginning of words, and [t] appears in other places in words.  (It's more complicated than that, but I'm simplifying.)

(For another fun exercise, say these pairs of words: beet/bead; etch/edge; bus/buzz; block/blog.  Do you notice that in each pair, there is one word where the vowel in the middle is just a little longer than in the other word in the pair?  Do you notice it's always the second word that has the longer vowel?  Those vowels - short and long - don't distinguish between words in English (if you say "beeeet", you'll just sound like you're emphasizing the fact that you're talking about beets rather than turnips), but they are distinct from one another.  Long and short vowels are allophones in English.  There are other languages - like Kawaiisu - where short and long vowels are distinctive phonemes in the language - they will distinguish between words.)

Phonemes have no meaning by themselves.  But by contrasting with one another, they can create meaning within words - no English speaker will confuse words like "till" and "dill".  So, phonemes are minimal sound units within a particular language.  They are building blocks, but by themselves they mean nothing.  And phonemes have variant forms which cannot create meaning distinctions.

Now we move to morphemes.  Morphemes are defined in linguistics as "minimal meaning units" - the smallest bits of language that have meaning.  In a word like "cats", there are two morphemes - the morpheme "cat", which means furry thing with whiskers that purrs, and the morpheme "-s", which means more than one of whatever it's attached to.  Morphemes, too, have variant forms (we call them "allomorphs").  In the case of the plural morpheme in English, there are three variant forms - pay very close attention to the way you pronounce the plural morpheme at the end of the words "cats",  "dogs", and "churches".  Really, really close attention.  If you do (and it can help if you put them in front of another word, like "are", in a sentence), you'll notice that in the first one, we pronounce the morpheme [s], in the second [z], and in the third, something like [ez] (for any linguists out there, I'm sorry - I can't make Blogger speak IPA).  Cool, huh?  But we wouldn't want to say that there are three different bits that mean "plural" - we'd want to say that these are just variants of the "same" plural morpheme - they are allomorphs of the plural morpheme.  (There are lots of other examples, but just by way of one more, think about words like "impossible", and "intangible" and "inconceivable" - if you pay close attention, you'll hear that you say that last one, in casual speech, more like "ingconceivable".  That prefix im/in/ing-, meaning "not so much", has three allomorphs.)

OK.  Back to knitting.  The question is, are there units of knitting that are comparable to phonemes and morphemes?  Are there units which are basic building blocks of the language of knitting, with variant forms, which don't have meaning in themselves?  And are there other units (again, with variant forms) which do have some kind of "meaning"?  Looking even more broadly, is there a knitting syntax?  A way of combining larger and larger units of knitting to make "sentences" and even "narratives"?

After much contemplation (probably more than I should admit to, given that it's not even been two weeks since Cat dropped this lovely little cognitive plaything on me), I think that the knit stitch is a phoneme.  I think it has two allophones: the regular knit stitch, and the twisted knit stitch.  I think that the knit stitch contrasts with another phoneme, the purl stitch.  I don't think that either a single knit stitch nor a single purl stitch has meaning in itself, but I do think that they contrast with one another in larger knitted structures.  I also tend to think that a yo is a phoneme.  And maybe decreases and increases are phonemes, and the different kinds of, say, decreases are allophones of one phoneme.  In other words, a k2tog and an ssk will not distinguish different meanings within a knitted structure, but either one will contrast with a kfb or a M1.

I think that things like k2,p2 would be a morpheme - the "ribbing" morpheme.  I think that it's a morpheme because when stitches combine like that, they have a meaning within a knitted structure.  I also think that that morpheme has allomorphs, like the k1,p1 allomorph, or the k2tbl, p2 allomorph.  I'm wondering whether cables are morphemes, and at what point is one cable different enough from another that they're two different meaning units?  And, are small cables surrounded by purl stitches simply allomorphs of the ribbing morpheme, or something else?

And should we be calling these something else?  Alloknits and allomotifs?  Or...?

I love this analogy. It's making me think about what kinds of "meanings" are recognizable in our knitting, and I do think that there is such a thing.  When we see someone else's knitted garments, we know what they're trying to do.  We may not always find whatever it is appealing, nor think that it's the best way to convey a particular "meaning", but it's recognizable.  This is very much the same way that a syntactically appropriate sentence of English may be appealing to some speakers, while others think, "I wouldn't say it that way."  But it is recognizable as English, and it is recognizable because it follows the rules of the language which are acquired, unconsciously, by all native English speakers (I do not speak here of eighth-grade grammar class rules, which aren't the rules that linguists are interested in).  I do think, though, that there comes a point where this analogy may break down.  The combination of morphemes into words, and words into sentences, is subject to a pretty stringent and inflexible (all things considered) set of rules.  But that doesn't seem to be the case in knitting, at least not when it comes to knitted motifs (although probably when it comes to bits of garments - for example, you wouldn't want to put a sock cuff on the toe).  

And maybe that's the best bit about knitting?  It's rule-governed, but not rule-bound.  I think I like that.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What I did with my Friday

Or: The Things I Get Out of Knitting Classes That I Can't Get Out of a Book

What did I do with my Friday?  Briefly, this:
And why I was I dancing on the tabletops, you ask?  It was not just an example of my ever-present joie de vivre (at least, not in this case).  Rather, I was letting people get a closer look at this:
So that everyone in the class would know to finish turning their heels when they'd gotten as far as this (if you embiggen, you'll see that there's a piece of yarn being held across my foot at the sweet spot for heel finishing):
(I admit that when the building manager happened to peek in at this moment, he looked a bit worried; I'm sure he was wondering just what kinds of knitting-related accidents were covered under his insurance policy.)  The good news is that no knitters were harmed in the making of these photos, even though I'd climbed up there with not one but two Signature dpns in the top of that sock.  (Notice how wisely I'm balancing myself with a hand on the ceiling?  I was trying to behave like a grown-up.)

So there you go.  My Friday was spent taking a class with Cat Bordhi at my favorite LYS in the whole world (as you all know): Yarning For You (thanks, Deb!).  I can't tell you how grateful I am to have an LYS in my backyard that creates learning opportunities like this (and others; her class schedule is always busy).
 And I loved every minute of it.

People sometimes ask whether a knitting class (or retreat, or...) like this is worth the money and the time it takes to do the homework and come to the class.  The question is usually asked along with something like, "but couldn't you just learn that from the book/pattern/website/YouTube video?"  And the answer to that part is yes, of course.  I'm a pretty smart chicken, all things considered (and you are, too), so there's almost no technique that I (or you) couldn't learn from one of those places, if we put our minds to it.  That said, I don't think I've ever been to a class that I didn't think was worth it in the end, and I've been trying all weekend to articulate the reasons for that in my own head, so that maybe I'll have a chance at coming up with something vaguely intelligent when asked that question in the future.  Since you are always so patient with my musings, I'm using you as guinea pigs for my potential answer(s) - lucky you.

My thoughts keep circling around - there are so many reasons - but I think that the heart of the matter, the place they're centering on, is this: knitting is a practical craft, like cooking, but it can also be, at its best, a practical art.  I am a huge fan of the Arts and Crafts movement, and of its essential, foundational philosophy that things which are practical can and should also be beautiful in ways that derive directly from, and enhance, their practical purposes.  Knitting is uniquely suited to fulfilling that vision.  But in order to at least attempt, some of the time, to make my craft into art, I need to understand the fundamental building blocks of that craft.  I need to know how knitted garments are put together; I need to know the way that knitted stitches are formed on the needles; I need to understand what yarn is and how yarn interacts with the knitted stitch to create garments, and how those things together can work to cover the human body (or whatever else we're covering at any given moment) both usefully and beautifully.  The more I know about those things, the better my knitting is.

Knitting classes serve my desire to learn in so many ways.  For one thing, if they do nothing else, they create time.  They say that I believe that my learning and the eventual products of that learning are worthy of the effort involved in carving out space to focus.  Once I go to an all-day class like this one, I'm essentially saying that my knitting is worth the commitment of that whole day.  I realize that non-knitters may not understand this, but I think it's critical.  It is so easy to say that we'll spend a whole day at home knitting, only to find that any one of a myriad of other important concerns have eaten into our time.  I have the urge sometimes to go out to the garage and turn on power tools to protect my knitting time - people so rarely interrupt someone who's working with a table saw, have you noticed?

Then, there are also the techniques that are the most obvious purpose of the class (the stuff on the syllabus, as it were) - in this case, it was to learn about Cat Bordhi's Sweet Tomato Heel (that link is for the ebook, which I will be buying; I like almost every sock in there, and this heel fits like a glove).
In itself, that's worth the price of admission (especially since I immediately absconded with it and used it for the toe of my sock as well).  In the end, even if a class ends up presenting a technique that I will never, ever use again, it's still something in my toolbox, a skill that has taught me more about how knitting (or maybe Knitting) works.  If I were a painter, it seems to me that even if I thought that pastels were the total bomb - the only way to paint, EVER - I would still need to have at least tried oils.  If nothing else, painting with oils might teach me something about canvas, about how it absorbs and reacts with paint - it might give me more reasons to love pastels, and more ideas about how to exploit the properties of pastels to make even better art.  I'm not a painter, so maybe what I just said is a bunch of hooey.  But I bet you get my point.

And then there's the pleasure of spending time with people, both the teacher and my fellow students, who are in and of themselves founts of knowledge about knitting.  People who also find knitting to be interesting and compelling, and who have maybe thought of techniques, or thought about knitting, in ways that I haven't. 
Cat and I had one of those conversations. 
 It turns out that she had to take a linguistics class when she was training to be a teacher, and she loved it.  (As any sensible person would.)  And she has had some seriously amazing thoughts about the ways in which the tools that linguists use to analyze language could be applied to thinking analytically about knitting.  That is worth an entire post on its own, and believe me, there will be one.

Often, those conversations are what I think about the longest after the class is over.

So there you have it.  At least some of the reasons why I spend my time and money on knitting classes, when I can afford to do it.  How about you?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oh, Canada!

We're back!  In one piece, too, after many travel adventures and a stop in Sacramento on the way home (not really, but close enough) for a wonderful Thanksgiving at my parents' house.  The summative statement?  I love Canada.

To be fair, I'm making that statement on the basis of a very limited visit to a very small part of a very large and diverse country.  But I'm ready to go back again to make sure that I have it right, and I think that's a pretty good sign.  Thanks to everyone who wrote with suggestions - we tried to hit as many as we could realistically, and we enjoyed every one we made it to.  As a side note, the conference presentation (the reason for the trip) went very well (to my delight and relief), as did my presentation to the business meeting of my professional section.  Whew!

If I had to sum up the one thing that so many of our wonderful experiences had in common, I'd say it's either kindness or serendipity.  Serendipitous kindness?  (Not one word, but it works.)  To give just one example among many, we went to Notre Dame de Bonsecours in Montreal, on the excellent recommendation of people like greenmtngirl (I don't have a link - if you have one, send it and I'll attach!)(I'm embarrassed because someone else told me unequivocally to go because the view from the tower of the church is so wonderful, and I can't for the life of me remember who - whoever it was, you were right!).  We climbed and climbed and climbed to the top of the church (263 stairs, if I remember correctly; the docent kindly told us the exact number before we started), to come out onto a breathtaking view of Montreal, laid out before us in the crisp (not to say frigid) evening air.  My camera died right then (I'm convinced it was the cold), but my cell phone came through for me, and I was able to take pictures of the two remaining lifesized angels standing guard on the roof.
 You can see a glimpse of the St. Lawrence river in the top right corner of the skyline there.
Amazing, no?  Then down, down, down we went, through the exhibit on Marguerite de Bourgeoys' life (the founder), back to the entrance of the museum, where we began to rug up for our walk back to our hotel.  As we did, another docent came through the gift store with three people in tow.  He stopped, turned back to us, and said, "Do you want to come down to the archaeological dig under the church?"  Did we!  And off we went.  I still don't know how the tour came about (it isn't the time of year when the dig is usually open to visitors), but we loved it, and things like that just kept happening in both Montreal and Quebec.

I loved the rampant bilingualism of both cities.  It's not something that one sees very often in the U.S.; the use of languages other than English in public places is fraught in so many ways.  And it may be that there were language politics playing out of which I was blissfully unaware as I moved through both cities, but I will say that I felt absolutely that people were more than willing to let me try to make my way along in French, and equally willing to help me out when my French failed me.  It is rare that I get to feel like a participant in code-switching interactions (French not being a very common language around here, and my Spanish being too embarrassingly bad to try to join into any bilingual conversations that I may be lucky enough to be privy to), and I loved every minute of it, as both a linguist and a marginal francophone.

We ate.  We ate like pigs, in fact, and I think the only thing that saved me from rolling home is the fact that we also walked and walked and walked.  Our hotel in the Latin Quarter was a half an hour walk away from the Palais de Congres where the conference was held, and we walked all over the rest of the city - to the McCord Museum (also recommended by greenmtngrl), which had a particularly stellar exhibit on oil (the kind that comes out of the ground) and the cultures that spring up around both its use and the results of its use; to the Cathedral; to the river; and back around again.  We went out to the Botanical Gardens, which were fabulous.  We visited the Insectarium there (where I held a stick bug the size of my hand), and the greenhouses, where we saw flowers that I've tried to grow here, but which seemed much happier there.
And where we were also assaulted by squirrels.  I begin to understand why The Yarn Harlot writes so fearfully of Canadian squirrels, in fact.  I kid you not when I tell you that these squirrels not only approached us when we were standing still (I have seen that before), but they also quite literally chased us when we walked away, coming within inches of our heels without backing off.  As we were alone in that part of the garden at the time, we became rather nervous of being conked on the heads and stashed away in trees like nuts.  However, we escaped, noggins intact.

Quebec was equally wonderful, although even colder.  It didn't once get above -2C when we were there, which I am assured is cold, even for people who aren't from Southern California.  Younger Daughter was extremely grateful for the many handknits I'd schlepped along with us.

She pretty much walked around huddled up like that the whole time.  But look at that sun!  It was like that right up until the morning that we left, when it snowed.  The sun meant that the views of the city were stunningly clear and beautiful.
There's the Chateau Frontenac, which we didn't get to visit on the inside.  That picture is taken from the Citadelle (home of the only francophone military unit in Canada), which we did get to visit.
Doesn't it look French?  The whole city felt like being in France.
And we saw all of the old city - we even circumnavigated the ramparts (I told you we walked a lot).
There was so much to love that I almost hesitate to mention the two flies in the ointment.  The first was small, all things considered - we didn't make it to a single yarn store.  (I know!  How wrong is that?)  The second was something that surprised me, actually, given the many ways in which Canada is a stronger advocate for her First Nations peoples than we are here in the United States.  That said, though, I was surprised by the handling of the many museum exhibits that we saw which dealt with the founding of Montreal and Quebec City, and with the relationships between the settlers and the indigenous people of the area.  In every exhibit we saw, the "good Indian"/"bad Indian" narrative was alive and well.  You know the one (we have it here, most definitely; I see it in exhibits at missions up and down California, and it makes me frothing-at-the-mouth mad every time).  It's the collective narrative that says that the European explorers engaged in fair and friendly encounters with the "good Indians", who immediately converted to Christianity and labored alongside the settlers in an egalitarian society where everyone was equally invested in the long-term success of white Europeans as they settled in their new homes.  And the "bad Indians" kept launching unprovoked attacks on the settlers and their new friends.  I am almost quoting, actually, from one exhibit that we saw (especially the bit about laboring alongside and unprovoked attacks).  Given the otherwise tremendously high quality of the curation of the other exhibits that we saw (including an amazing exhibit on Indian - as in the subcontinent of - culture; the contrast was stark), it was surprising how uncritical the presentation of these founding narratives was.  And, as a person who has spent nearly her entire adult and professional life working with Native Californians and educating college students about the problems with uncritically presented narratives like these, I couldn't help but feel frustrated every time I saw it.  (Younger Daughter heard many an earful, poor kid.)

Still and yet, I'd go back in a heartbeat.  Especially if I could go back when there's more daylight to explore those two cities.  There was so much more I wanted to see, people I wanted to talk to, food I wanted to eat.  I guess that's the best way to leave a place, right?  Wanting to go back.