(Don’t) Lower Your Expectations

Last winter, I made myself this hat.


I was disappointed with it, at the time. I wanted a slouchy beret, and I hadn’t made it long enough or large enough. Blocking it with a plate inside didn’t help. The color was wrong, not warm enough against my skin. I believe I told Twitter that it made my head look like a mushroom.

It wasn’t what I expected.

This wasn’t going to be a post about a hat. It was actually going to be a post about a conflict Jon and I had last week over what “doing the dishes” entails, and who should do them, and when, and how. But that made me feel petty and ridiculous, and I didn’t have any pictures to go with it, so here’s this hat.

I think, “Lower your expectations,” is terrible advice. I know the idea is that if things go well, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and if they don’t, you won’t be disappointed, but that’s acting as if your expectations don’t influence the way things go, and they absolutely do. I expect myself to get good grades, to be at work on time, and to speak kindly to people. If I didn’t expect it from myself, do you think I would do those things? Because I think I’d lie on the couch marathoning Battlestar Galactica for the third time and telling my family to leave me the hell alone. Thoughts have power. Lower your expectations and you won’t get anywhere–or knit anything.

On the other hand, you can’t quit knitting because your hat didn’t turn out quite as planned, and if half a sink full of dirty dishes makes you want to throw something or start to cry, you clearly need to reconsider something about your life. So where’s the middle ground?

When you join the Peace Corps, they spend a lot of time during pre-training and training telling you not to have expectations. You have no idea what you’re about to get into, and whatever vision you’ve constructed in your head about your future home or work is, assuredly, wildly off-base. Better just to not expect anything at all, right?

I always thought that was such a load of crap. How is anyone supposed to not have expectations? That’s some Buddha-level shit, right there, and let me tell you, nobody joining Peace Corps is anywhere near Nirvana. But, seeing the merit of the reasoning behind the advice, I tried the next best thing–having expectations, but acting like I didn’t. I didn’t waste time frantically trying to prepare for the unknown. My bags when I left were 20 pounds below the allotted amount, and I spent the next two years trying to convince future volunteers on Facebook that they would be just fine without quick-dry towels, or anything else from REI.


I think the trick is knowing how much to invest in your expectations. How much are you going to let them affect you? With Peace Corps, I was well warned to invest almost nothing in them–I read all the blogs, all the Wiki articles, even, “So You Wanna Be a Peace Corps Volunteer?” I internalized all the good advice about how Peace Corps is unpredictable and you need to be able to bend and not break. In the rest of life, I’m not always so well prepared.

The hat went into storage for the summer. When the weather got chilly and I found it in with my other handknits, I couldn’t imagine why I didn’t absolutely love it last winter. A few months took the edge off my emotions, and now I love the warmth of the thick cables over my ears. I love the wavy line where the hat springs directly from the cables. I love the near-perfect kitchener graft I did to join the cable band (visible in the above photo; I’m sure a knitter can spot it, but it’s almost invisible). The hat even makes my hair look good! It’s still not terribly slouchy, but why does it need to be?

On Saturday, Jon went out in supremely nasty weather because I was mired in homework and craving the warmth and comfort of red wine. He doesn’t even particularly like red wine–he just wanted to take care of me. And I’ve been doing the dishes myself, because for crying out loud, it takes ten minutes, and I do them exactly the way I want them done, and why should I expect anyone else to do that? I’m learning that the world doesn’t operate within the parameters of my expectations. The things I focus on aren’t the only things there are. Sometimes I forget that. I’m working on it.


The hat is Scathach’s hat by Mona C. NicLeĆ²id–it’s a free pattern, and I recommend it. And the scarf, well that’s a subject for another post. (There may be another post. Blogging twice a year is still a schedule, right?)


Pi Shawl, finished

I am celebrating this.

It’s done in laceweight baby alpaca, three skeins I bought many years ago and never got around to using. I adore shawls and scarves, but never made myself a really good shawl. On March 14 (Pi Day), the pattern was going around, so I cast on, and here I am!

Now I’m so excited to wear my new…. What’s that? Alpaca is warmer than wool? Summer is almost here?

…I’ll be so excited to wear my new shawl in about six months.

Leaving a mark


I found this mug in a thrift shop, yesterday. It’s custom-printed and features an older man repairing or building a chair using Elmer’s wood glue.

I had to explain, both to the girl who bagged my purchase, and to Jon, that I suppose I felt sorry for him. Someone loved this man and respected his skill (as a carpenter? handyman? husband?) enough to both take this picture and immortalize it on a mug. Then, some time later, someone (someone else? the same person?) sent the mug to a thrift shop, for reasons unknown. (De-cluttering? Painful memories? Clearing out an estate?)

I felt that, whoever the man on the mug is or was, he deserved some respect. And as he was clearly a maker, I feel some kinship there.

(Jon: “So do we have to keep it forever?” He indulges my flights of fancy but doesn’t necessarily understand them.)

As it happens, I stumbled across this mug at a time when I had another dear craftsman on the mind.


I snapped this photo in the park, while watching the twins play. I recently took up spinning again, and have found it remarkably well-suited to child supervision. But that’s a subject for another post; right now, I want to talk about the spindle.

My mom was, for some years, married to a man who built fiddles. He was an artist and a craftsman, and as I was living with them at the time I took up spinning, I asked him to make me a spindle. I had visions of some hand-turned, polished object of beauty, so when he delivered this, a dowel fitted rather poorly into a plain disc of wood, I was a little disappointed. But on it, I learned to spin.

Over time, the unfinished wood has developed a smooth, glossy patina. The spindle is just the right size and weight for my purposes. It holds a great deal of yarn. Since it’s a bottom whorl spindle, I can let it rest on the ground while I draft out extra twist, without getting the yarn dirty. It has no notches or hooks, no frills. It’s useful and it’s been used, and it was a gift from one maker to another. All that makes it beautiful.

The man who made it died of depression while I was in the Philippines. I cried for days, and no one understood why. “So… he was not married to your mother any longer?” They wanted to comfort, but they were confused. I couldn’t quite articulate at the time, but I think it’s the unfairness of the whole thing–that someone who added so many good and useful things to the world would leave it the way he did.

I think about him often. As a craftsman, he’s best remembered for his fiddles, but I have this spindle. I’m going to use it to make more good and useful things. It’s the best tribute I can think of.

Fish Blanket!

If you’re wondering what one does after inheriting a massive stash from another knitter . . . well, perhaps one has a coworker who had a bad house fire and could use a little comfort . . .

(The pink fish are actually from a sweater I got second hand ages ago, a nice merino/acrylic blend. They worked out very well to tie all the other multicolored fish together. My coworker loved it.)

A wordy post on yarn identification

So, one of the coolest and most challenging things about my recent stash adventure was determining what the yarns were made out of, and, when I could, what yarns they were and who manufactured them.

A lot of them still had the ball bands and tags, so that was pretty easy. Everything that was mostly intact and still had a tag went into my Ravelry stash, so if you have a Ravelry account, you can see them–mostly with photos!–here. (And if you don’t have a Ravelry account, you’re probably not an obsessive knitter, so you wouldn’t find that interesting anyway. No worries!)

And there was also this:

That there is a large collection of ball bands and tags. Each one has a scrap of the yarn wrapped around it, to make it easier to match the tag to the yarn. Many of them even have notes saying where they were purchased, or what project they were meant for.

I mean, dude, I didn’t think ANY knitter was that organized. Personally, I let my ball bands fall into the desk drawer where I keep my knitting, and every so often I clean out the drawer and throw them away. (I don’t feel too bad about this–my living situation is unstable enough that I can’t afford to store things like sacks full of ball bands.)

Still, even with all this information at hand, there was a lot of yarn that was not instantly identifiable. And since I was sorting for fiber content–I knit almost exclusively with natural fibers, so anything acrylic went into the “donate” pile–I had to figure things out.

Now, I’m pretty good at judging fiber content by touch. For example:

In this photo (click to embiggen! I just love that word, embiggen), we have three different yarns, all fingering weight tan mohair-style yarns.

The two on the ends have ball bands. The two in the center do not. Now, the ball bands tell me that the ball on the far left is 100% acrylic, and the one on the far right is a mohair blend (Sears Blend 131, 50% mohair, 50% acrylic, to be precise).

My fingers tell me the rest. It’s pretty obvious that the ball second from the right is exactly the same yarn as the Sears Blend 131. So, at this point, it’s that ball second from the left that’s still in question.

The photo exaggerates the colors, but in person, these balls are all almost exactly the same color. But that ball second from the left has the unmistakable soft hand and plastic-y feel of an acrylic yarn. You probably know the feeling–if you go in Walmart or Target and finger one of those incredibly soft, vaguely fuzzy cardigans, that’s what we’re looking at here. (Don’t be taken in, though! They’re soft at first, but as they wear, that fine brushed finish on the yarn will go pilly, and it will become more and more obvious that your sweater is made out of plastic.)

So, there were the yarns that I could instantly sort just by touching them. But, not ALL acrylic yarns are super-soft–some are quite rough to the touch. (Incidentally, not all wool yarns are scratchy. That’s a common misconception.)

So, in the cases where ball bands were absent, and my sense of touch failed me, I turned to the most awesome method ever: the burn test.

Essentially, the burn test involves literally lighting small samples of yarn on fire. I know, right? How awesome is that? You can tell a lot about a yarn by burning a bit of it and observing how it burns, how it smells, etc. There are details here, but basically, wool smells like burning hair and self-extinguishes when removed from flame; acrylic melts, burns quickly, and reeks of burning plastic.

Of course, things get complicated in the case of blends–and if I couldn’t judge the fiber content by touching it, chances are good it was a blend–but the test is good enough to at least give me an idea of which is more prominent, the wool or the acrylic.

(I wasn’t worried about cotton and other fibers, here–cotton is VERY easy to pick out by touch, and there isn’t really any way I know of to tell animal fibers apart in a burn test–sheep wool vs. mohair vs. alpaca, say. All I really cared about was whether it was an animal fiber or not.)

There were actually quite a few nice acrylic yarns in this stash–there were more than a dozen balls of that yarn second from the left above, in various colors–but since I very, very much prefer knitting with and wearing natural fibers, and since I’m very low on space right now, all the acrylic went into the donate pile, even the nice stuff.

There’s a local alternative school that’s collecting yarn to teach the kids to crochet–I think they’re making blankets for Haiti–and that’s where it’ll be going. (Admittedly, I personally think Haiti is probably better served by monetary donations at the moment, but I think it’s good for the kids to learn a new skill and to get involved in a charity work, and hey, the blankets can’t hurt anything.)

Hello Stash!

Last week I got the most EXCITING surprise! A family friend’s mother passed away five or six years ago, and happened to be an avid knitter. Well, I just inherited pretty much her entire stash, and it’s not like when someone says, “Hey, my mom left a bunch of yarn in the attic, you want it?” and it turns out to be a big box of moldy acrylics. This is nice yarn, and my own stash just grew exponentially.

(Actually, that’s not hard, because as a poor, recent college grad, I haven’t had the money or space to develop any real ‘stash’ as such. But STILL.)

It looked like this upon arrival.

I spent literally an entire day sorting it. I was in heaven. I love sorting things. I know it sounds OCD, but I’m not ashamed: sorting is one of my favorite things to do. And I also love fiber. So, spending a day sorting by fiber content, yarn weight, color, texture, etc.–it was a blast. (Well, other than the mothball fumes and cat hair, which did aggravate my delicate lungs. The fact that I was constantly burning tiny scraps of yarn didn’t help. More on that in a bit.)

The sorting process looked like this:

That was my favorite batch–good, solid wool yarns, in great colors. The lady whose stash I inherited bought a lot of novelty yarn–highly textured mohair blends and whatnot–which is fine, but not something I use a lot, myself. But give me a solid worsted wool yarn, and I’m in heaven. I think all those round balls in the center are some sort of Rowan Tweed, but they didn’t have the labels.

It was a strange thing, too, going through these boxes, because I learned a lot about this woman, but I don’t even know her name. I know she was pretty organized–not only were the various boxes and baskets already basically sorted by project, but I found a bag full of ball bands and other labels, each one with a little scrap of the yarn wrapped around it, so that it would be easy to know which band went with which yarn. Smart! (More on this in a later post.)

I know she mostly knit sweaters, and she liked colorwork. There are several half-finished intarsia sweaters in here, as well as a whole basket full of tiny bobbins of yarn from an intarsia project. The whole concept of intarsia rather terrifies me–so many ends!–so I’m impressed. (Non-knitters: Intarsia on Wikipedia.)

I know that either she liked mohair a lot, or it was popular in the time period she was knitting, because there are LOADS of mohair yarns in there. (Some of them are blends that just seem WEIRD these days, like the two sweaters’ worth of 95% mohair/5% nylon yarn.)

I know that she probably didn’t really knit socks–I found three vaguely neglected half-balls of sock yarn, sans labels. And the reason I take this as proof she wasn’t a sock knitter is this bit of common ground I found between us:

That’s one of many bags of basically unusable scraps of yarn. I’m very relieved to discover I’m not the only person who saves that last few yards on the very vague possibility that it might be useful one day. And believe me, if she was a sock knitter, there would literally be BAGS of sock yarn ends.

So, it was a little like getting to know this person through her yarn–an awesome experience, in more than one sense. Imagine inheriting a stranger’s library, and what you could learn about them from it–it’s like that, but with yarn.

And I think that it’ll challenge me as a knitter, since her projects were so much different than mine. I mean, I need to use the yarn–that’s why it was given to me, because her daughters wanted to see it put to good use–so I’ll need to stretch my limits. Yay!

I have more to say about this whole experience, so in the next couple of weeks you can expect posts about things like determining fiber content of mystery yarns, and all the fun tools that came along with the yarn.

My fantastic alpaca beret

Last summer, during a fiber emergency, I bought 7 oz. of gorgeous brown alpaca top, and promptly spun it all up. It was a dream to spin. Luscious. I chain-plyed it and ended up with about 220 yards of worsted weight alpaca.*

It looked like this:

It took me a while to decide what to do with it. I mean, 100% alpaca yarn is definitely a luxury–it’s rare because alpaca is expensive, and also because alpaca doesn’t have the natural elasticity of wool, meaning that whatever project I made had to be okay with a lot of drape and not a lot of ability to bounce back into shape.

I finally decided on a beret. I was in need of another hat that was cute but also warm enough for winter wear. I have warm hats, and cute hats, but not many warm AND cute hats. Fortunately for me, alpaca is an exceptionally warm fiber, because the individual hairs are hollow and thus insulate better than wool.

I didn’t use a pattern–I’m sort of allergic to patterns–though I did read a few beret patterns to see how other people had done it. After a few false starts, this is what I got!

I knit it from the center/top down, increasing with yarn overs to make pretty little ladders of holes spiraling out from the center of the hat. It took me a few tries to realize that I needed to twist the stitches beside the yarn overs–otherwise, the neighboring stitches would eat up the extra yarn there, and instead of a hole next to neat columns of stitches, I’d just get a few very loose and messy stitches.

(If you look at the full-size version, you can see how I inadvertently created a little flower at the center of the hat. It was an accident, but it’s one of my favorite things.)

It’s a nice, slouchy project that is for the most part totally okay with not having a lot of elasticity. The only place I really needed elasticity was the ribbed cuff. So I went down to the craft shop, and bought a little spool of knitting-in elastic (literally: that’s what it said on the package), and knitted it right into the cuff.

Knitter nerd note: I actually only knitted it into the knit stitches of the k1p1 rib. For the purl stitches, I just stranded it along the back. I figured I would get more pull inward that way than if I knitted it with every stitch (thereby increasing the length of the elastic around the brim, and decreasing the amount of inward pull). It’s just a theory, so I’m not sure it made a difference, but the cuff is springy and snug, so something worked.)

I can’t tell you how much I love this hat. The yarn is beautiful and soft and luxurious, the color is great, it’s warm (because of the alpaca), but also suitable for warmer weather (because it doesn’t cover my ears). And it’s cute!

And the best part is, it only used half of my skein of alpaca, so now I can use the rest for something else! I’m thinking maybe wrist-warmers, or a skinny scarf.

* Incidentally, to all you non-fiber nerds, I’m sorry the posts are so full of jargon. I just sort of decided not to gloss everything. That’s what Google is for, after all.