Thursday, January 22, 2009

Low Tech Wins Another One

This is the time of year when the thoughts of middle-aged men turn to knitting.

(Sound of record scratching...)


Here lies a tale. As regular readers of this blog know, the daughter whom we have dubbed The Pillowfight Fairy likes doing crafts.

Well, sort of. She likes doing crafts that are easy, that she already knows how to do, and that don't take too long. She has this way (which she's slowly growing out of) of seeing something really cool, and saying, "I want to do that!" Until she realizes just how hard it really is, and just how long it will take to finish the project. She likes projects she can finish in an afternoon. She doesn't like things that will take until Next May. And that especially goes for those crafts that require any amount of practice to get down. The moment she realizes just how much work it takes to do something, her tendency is to want Mommy or Daddy to do it for her instead. As I said though, I think she's slowly growing out of this; when we try to instill some discipline in her and say, "No, I want you to finish," she grumbles less than she used to--and she keeps at it. And if she keeps it up until she masters the skill, she will eventually start to see it as fun and do it on her own--like she did today at piano practice, when she willingly kept on playing "Home on the Range" just for fun after her regular practice time was finished.

But it's tempting for us and for other relatives to buy her presents for her birthday and for Christmas that promise to make things easy! They promise that you too can have lots of fun by doing these crafts, and it's quick and simple!

The Fairy got a very interesting-looking Christmas present from some relatives last month, which she was (originally) quite excited about. It was this thing.

Actually, it wasn't that thing; it was that thing's predecessor. That thing is a knitting machine, intended for ages six and up.

I now know more about the inner workings of a knitting machine than I ever wanted to know.

With the original one, I carefully set it up according to its directions and started knitting on it, just to make sure everything worked. It didn't. Close inspection revealed that one of the hooks had a manufacturing defect, and didn't release the yarn from previous stitches properly, inevitably resulting in a tangled mass every time the machine was used.

So I packed that machine up and got it replaced with the one you see in the picture. And I did manage to make a decent tube on it. I didn't do it with the eyelash-style yarn which they provided, which kept getting snagged and broken; but I could get it to work on a very soft wool-blend we had lying around.

Well, tonight the Fairy got it in her head that she wanted to make a scarf for her sister. (Awww!) So we pulled out the machine, picked out some yarn, and started it up.

The knitting machine has two settings--one for making tubes, and one for making flat pieces. We set it for the latter. And then we quickly discovered that the little switch doesn't hold its position very well, slipping down into the "tube" position if you bump the machine a little too hard. So I had to tape it up into the "flat" position for the duration of tonight's fiasco.

And then the yarn started snagging all over the machine.

I hate to say it; the knitting machine isn't really all that well designed. I can tell how it's supposed to work: as you turn the crank, each hook in turn rises out of its sheath and snags the yarn; then the hook descends into its sheath and traps the yarn, while the previous stitch (which was wrapped around the sheath) is pushed up over the whole assembly to complete the knit. Then as the hook is raised for the next stitch, the previous one is pushed down around the sheath, and May The Circle Be Unbroken By And By.

Trouble is, the whole thing is made out of cheap, not-too-stiff plastic that doesn't handle the tension in the yarn well. And the yarn has too much friction to slide properly on the hooks and sheaths. And there are little sharp corners on the mechanism that snag the yarn when it's not supposed to.

By the time you put it all together, it takes so much concentration to inspect each stitch to make sure the machine didn't blow it, that you might as well learn how to do it the old-fashioned way.


So I broke the news to my daughter that I didn't think the knitting machine is going to be very useful to us. But! I Am Daddy, and as such, I am full of good ideas.

Turns out, way back in my college days, I caught a glimpse of a craft project that my mom was preparing for her fourth-grade class. You start with a board, and cut a long slit in it, maybe 1 inch wide; you line the slit with carefully-spaced nails; and with this as a template, you can wind yarn on it, and pull it off, in such a way that it produces a knit pattern.

At the time I saw it, I thought, "Now that is Cool! I can use this idea to make things--like sweaters for my girlfriends...." So I went out, got a board, and made a template.

The thing worked. And the girlfriends loved the sweaters.

(Note: by "girlfriends", do not imagine that I had plural girlfriends all at once. Good heavens, I had a hard enough time juggling one at a time.)

Long after college was over, I hung onto the board, just in case I ever felt the Spirit move me to make another knitted item. And today, the moment came. I explained to the Fairy that while the knitting machine may not be working right, there is another option that is actually easier. And then I went and found The Board.
Here it is, with some dark green yarn wound on it for the Fairy's project. And next to it is the scarf I made on it in college, when I was testing it out to see how well the thing worked. I seem to remember that I knocked that thing out over a couple of hours during a late-night BS session in my dorm room with my roommate and a few other assorted friends. Its length is about the same as my height--a little over six feet long. And it's warm.

So I showed The Board off to my daughter, and showed her how to handle the yarn and the crochet hook. She's a bit slow and unsteady with it now, but she was rather fascinated to see how well Daddy could do it. I think she'll get into it more when she's done it enough to gain some confidence.

And unlike the knitting machine with all those little, tiny, fragile moving parts, The Board isn't going to break anytime soon. And it isn't going to malfunction. There's nothing to malfunction. All problems are strictly User Error.

Of course, as cool as this thing is, it doesn't beat the old-fashioned way of doing things. Back in My Day, I made multi-colored sweaters on this thing; but it only allows for one kind of stitch, so I couldn't do knit-purl patterns or cabling or anything like that. And it only does flat pieces; real knitters can do socks.

One of these days I'm going to send my daughter over to my Sister-In-Law to have her taught how to do real knitting, the skill that a person can use the rest of her life to make beautiful things from nothing more than pointy sticks and pretty string. Now that's cool.

Even though I'm a guy, I can still say that, right?


B. Durbin said...

I am now deeply curious and want to know how that works.

(I also have a need for a nine-foot scarf. Perhaps the two impulses are related.)

Timothy Power said...

So, are you planning on impersonating Dr. Who? :-)

I'll think about how to go about describing my process in more detail. Maybe video blogging? I've never done video blogging before....