Knitting: Selbu Modern Tam

This Selbu Modern tam is my second colorwork piece (the first was a tam as well), and, while I still need practice to get the tension perfect, I am definitely hooked. It makes a simple stockinette piece oh-so much more interesting.

It took me a while (almost two months) to complete, but I was working on several other projects at the same time and took a long hiatus around the holidays.

This picture shows the true colors better than the others.

I can’t stop wearing it! It’s out of Berocco Ultra Alpaca Fine, a delightfully soft yarn and a pleasure to work with (even if it is a bit splitty). The colors are Turquoise Mix and Blueberry Mix, both slightly heathered and wonderfully deep, saturated colors.

Watch This Now: Bombay Beach

love

tenderness
ambition
+
choreography
in the most depressing place in america.

Bombay Beach is a tiny miracle of a film, one that whispers louder than most documentaries scream. If you’ve never seen the Salton Sea,* this is a beautiful introduction to its innate conflicts–the epitome of a failed city. Following a “hyperactive” well-meaning boy born at the Salton Sea, an NFL-dreaming teen transplant from Compton, and an old hardscrabble man who bet on the Sea and lost.

The cinematography (and the audio recording) is dazzling.

The music by Beirut and Bob Dylan doesn’t hurt, either.

*For a look at the more whimsical side of the disaster that is the Salton Sea (and an in-depth look at its past and present), watch Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.

Small Crafts

I took the time today to wrap four of my hangers in leftover lengths of cotton yarn. It reminded me of the importance of small crafts, those which are wholly unimpressive. I spend quite a bit of time working on things meant as much for others as for myself–the intricate fair isle/selbu hat I just completed, for example, which, as my fingers became fatigued and my eyelids twitched, I pushed through by imagining all the compliments I would received once it was finished and paraded down Smith Street. Small crafts, like these “Nanny hangers,” as we call them in my family, are meant only for their owner. Rarely are guests in my home invited to peer into my closet–but when they do, they always comment on the rainbow inside.

The often-crazy color combinations are not usually trendy, nor are they generally classic. They represent the random balls of scrap yarn my grandmother, Nanny (or Sophie–though even some of her peers call her Nanny) pulled from her stash contained in plastic bags (“Nanny bags”, as we call them). She isn’t a crafty woman–she was much more content to scrub floors and watch the kids than sew hems or iron curtains–but she made an art of Nanny hangers. She gave them out, six at a time, to anyone who asked for some. And everyone who saw them asked for some. We would help, six years old sitting next to her with a hanger squeezed between our knees to keep them upright like she did, but she had to start them–that was the trickiest part. Usually we just picked out the color combinations for her–purple and hunter green, lemon yellow and ketchup red–and enjoyed the fruits of her labor.

Nanny is the one grinning on the right.

Every time I open my closet, I smile and thank her for the dozens of Nanny hangers she made for me. They’ve held up remarkably well. They add an unexpected burst of color and handmade to my dark and often dreary closet; they don’t squeak when you slide them across the bar; and (the most coveted quality) nothing ever slips off them, not pants or camisoles or silky boatnecks.

This is a quiet craft, modest and unpretentious and workhorse, much like Nanny. But it makes life just that much easier, that much quirkier, that much happier–just like, you guessed it, Nanny. I’m glad I paused to make a couple, the way Nanny taught me, and remind myself that the payoff of hand-making things is not always about the praise.

*Note: I would have used this opportunity to give you a lesson in making wrapped (or Nanny) hangers, but my amazing little sister is working on developing a consumer-charity (think Tom’s Shoes or Warby Parker) in Kenya based on them, and I didn’t want to jump her shark. I’ll talk it over with her and, with her okay, share with you.

Nostalgia

My dad had a stock response whenever someone said they wished they had been born in 1450 or 1850: “If I was born then, I’d be dead by now.”

I always interpreted his response in two ways: one, a reference to the short life expectancy of those time, so that, at 55, he would in all probability have exceeded his time on earth; two, pointing out that it is only by living in the present time that we are able to nostalgically long for a different time–he’d be dead and unable to long for times gone by.

Ever notice that no one ever idealizes the present moment?

Plenty of people today will say that the fifties were a wonderful, simpler time, when everything made sense and things were just taken care of. But have you realized that most of the people who say those things were children in the 1950s? When you are a child, everything is wonderful, simple, and gets done for you. It reminds me of Sylvester Graham, one of America’s first health-nuts and professional nostalgists. In the 1850s, the first full-fledged phase of the Industrial Revolution, he advocated a return to the ways of the turn of the century, when the woman was the center of the home and bread was baked in the hearth (not purchased at a bakery). Of course, this was also the time when Graham was a child, and his idealized worldview could be said to reflect his displeasure over the fact that his vision of the world from his childhood days was gone.

I find that in a lot of the “homemade” “homestead” “back-to-the-land” rhetoric, there is a notion that there was once a time in America when everything was right, and we just have to get back to it. But I’ll wager that, if you were able to go back to any point in history, you wouldn’t find anyone who said that this is the right time. No, they’ll point you towards a still-earlier time. This is a theme propounded by Woody Allen’s recent, surprisingly popular Midnight in Paris. I believe we are, by nature, a forward-thinking and backwards-looking people. I won’t deny that I often succumb to the mentality that new is probably bad. If it was good enough for the elders, it was good enough for me. But we have to remember that just because people used to do it that way, doesn’t make it the best way. Maybe it’s wasteful, inefficient, illogical. I remember by grandfather in the mountains used to burn all the paper garbage in a steel drum in a stand of birch trees uphill from the house. I can still see him in my mind, thick yellow kid leather gloves pushing the magazines and paper bags into the roaring flames, then covering them with a sheet of steel and watching the smoke billow out among the branches. It was truly magical. Of course, now I know that this is a terrible way of disposing of your recyclables.

So this ramble was just a reminder to myself and others–to really change the world, we need to be mindful of the present, not dismissive of it. All our great historical figures were innovators–reversionist people like Sylvester Graham are remembered, when they are, as kooks reluctant to advance or anachronistic extremists (and as inventor of the graham cracker–ironically, intended to be produced in the home). It is fine to take lessons from the past, but realize we’re bringing them into the present, with all the things that entails.

Lesson No. 2: Plans Don’t Always Go As Planned

My “serious” life got in the way of my “fun” life–it seems to do this even when I take “fun” very seriously. But I am back now, and full of resolve and resolutions. I don’t tend to make those, mostly because I don’t tend to keep many of them, but this year I decided to be  a full-fledged member of our goal-oriented society. Here goes:

  • Use this blog as it was intended–to spur me to do new and sensory-oriented things.
  • Learn at least three new crafts this year (soap making? embroidery? quilting?)
  • Do my best (this is something I honestly have never tried before).
  • Try at least three new food preparation methods this year (canning preserves? pickling? tagine stews? fireside cookery? Edit: Just saw this related blog post from the Kitchn.)
  • Learn to play the banjo (it’s been intimidating me since last I picked it up).
  • Take better care of my surroundings.
  • In the crafts and cookery I do know, make an effort to learn three new advanced techniques this year.
  • Start designing my own handknits–three designs this year (already starting one!)
  • Finish what I start, or truly give up on it–no leaving things half-assed.

Is that it? I think that’s it. Any more and I would be setting myself up for failure. Wish me luck, and see you back here soon.

Lesson No. 1: Butter

I’m planning on making these Lessons a series here on the blog, but I want you to know that this isn’t about me teaching you lessons. It’s about the skills I’m learning as I’m learning them, and documenting that process for you. I can’t guarantee that they will always be successful or correct, but they will let you learn with me.

For our first lesson, butter. Something I’ve always wanted to make, but always had some reason to put it off. Well, finally, no excuses. There’s something so appealing about taking an organic substance, adding a bit of human-generated labor, and arriving at something so totally different. Plus, it harkens to an earlier time, a reminder that our ancestors did something very similar. Shaking up a bottle of cream gave me the image in my mind of the wool-clad Staten Island dairy farmer paddling his cream to Manhattan and arriving with butter after passing through the choppy channel. Oh, and it’s dead easy. Really. Fool-proof. A good first lesson.

Step 1: Buy heavy cream. I used localfreerangeorganic, mostly because I figured if I’m using cream from factory-milked cows, I might as well buy factory-produced butter. It helped that they were the same price, though, I’m not gonna lie. Quantity doesn’t matter here–it all depends on how much butter you want. I used a pint of cream and ended up with just over a cup of butter. Fill a glass jar 2/3 full with the cream. I overfilled mine a little, but it was no big deal.

Step 2: Start shaking. You don’t have to shake hard–about a shake a second is fine. Put on music and play it like a maraca. When your arms get tired, you can roll the jar around for a while. You really can’t mess this up. All in all, you’ll be shaking for about 15-20 minutes. Enlist help if necessary.

Step 3: As you’re shaking, you’ll notice that it is getting harder and harder. You’ll wonder if your arms are just giving out. Maybe, but it’s also because the cream is turning into whipped cream. Keep shaking, even though it doesn’t feel like anything’s happening. You want to “break” the whipped cream, like can accidentally happen when you’re making dessert (now you know for next time–you didn’t break it, you just made butter!) I know there came a point about 15 minutes in where I became convinced that this method didn’t work because there was no way my shaking this solid mass of whipped cream was doing anything…

Step 4: And then, Presto! All at once, you’ll hear a slop and a buttery substance will start sloshing around in a watery substance. You have made butter and buttermilk!

Step 5: Keep shaking even after the cream separated until it seems like you have a solid mass or two of butter in the jar.

Step 6: Pour off the buttermilk into a container. I didn’t use a strainer for this, just my hands holding the butter in the jar. Note that this is not the cultured buttermilk you find in the store–you could make that, too, but you’d have to leave your cream out overnight before starting (at least that’s how I understand it) and then it would take longer to separate. So it’s not tangy–it’s sweet, actually. Use it in recipes that call for milk or water.

Step 7: Wash the butter. I had to watch several YouTube videos before this made sense to me. The idea is to get all the buttermilk out of the butter. Some people don’t do it, but if you don’t, your butter will go rancid more quickly (about a week!) First, you rinse the butter. Do this by putting it in a bowl and running water through it. Drain it until the water runs clear. Drain again.

Step 8: Then knead the butter. As you press it and smush it around, more buttermilk will come out. Keep kneading, draining, and washing until no more cloudy liquid comes out. I realized later that I could have gotten more liquid out of mine, but the butter was getting too soft to knead effectively. Next time, I’ll put it in the fridge for a few minutes and keep going.

Step 9: Add salt. I don’t have a picture of this because my hands were covered in butter. Basically, add as much salt as you like. I put in about a teaspoon of sea salt. Knead it in. Salt not only tastes good, it also acts as a preservative.

Step 10: Place butter into whatever container/mold you like. I like Pyrex.

Step 11: Run around the house squealing, I made butter! I made butter! Invite friends over for pumpkin cornbread slathered with the stuff and let the ooh‘s and aah‘s wash over you when you reveal it was all made from scratch.

And there you have it. You have acquired Frontier Skill no. 1–and you didn’t even have to buy a churn off eBay.