Naples and Madrid

Napoli

I picked up a book of vintage knitting patterns from the Woolloongabba Antique Centre a little while ago, and made this light cardigan called Naples from some cotton I got in Paris a few years ago. It was well worth unravelling the ill-thought-through cable polo shirt I originally made out of it in exchange for this 1940s lace affair.

Napoli back

It was my first effort at a lace pattern, and there were only a few minor angry words at the beginning, and only a couple of minor beer-and-knitting altercations at the pub–but nothing that couldn’t be fixed in the morning.

Beer and drawing

Another excellent combination: beer and drawing on the veranda. Here I am making a copy of one of Antonio Lopez’s beautiful drawings.

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Where I’ve been

I’ve been feeding my brain and it’s full of thoughts on painting: Lambert’s lively portraits and Sorolla’s vibrating edges, Antonio Lopez’s severed ghosts hovering over crockery, Nelson’s seductive descriptions of shadows, Freud’s sexualised understanding of the unconscious set beside Klimt’s sensual drawings and paintings of strong women. Vienna in 1900 and the melting pot of neuroscience, art and psychology. Russian aristocracy and infidelity. Too much coffee. Too much wine. Cemeteries. Lace knitting.

Secret drawings and secret paintings are in progress.

Reading frenzy Vintage knitting

SewingCoffee

Book painting

The owls are not what they seem

The owls are not what they seem

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Holidaying

Snowy cardiIt being summer and all, I’m working on a couple of light cotton knitted things which I certainly won’t be able to wear for several months unless I put the air-conditioning on full blast in the car and drive around for at least an hour. But that doesn’t detract from the fun of the actual knitting! The above is a little short-sleeved cardi I am making up as I go, which has a rounded lower edge and some traditional Scandinavian textured patterns around the top. This textured knitting initially thrived in Denmark (says Sheila McGregor*, p. 13) and can be created from any two-colour chart by using knit and purl stitches with only one colour. The cotton is originally from a sweet little shop in Paris I visited several years ago, which I had knit into a polo-like cabled shirt which was so bulky and not at all the sort of thing I’d ever wear, I don’t know what I was thinking. I never wore it, so I unravelled the entire thing and set about making something better suited to my wardrobe. Unable to find a pattern, I made some hasty sketches and set to work.

Then a fortuitous visit to the glorious Woolloongabba Antique Centre found me in the possession of a gorgeous little knitting booklet from what appears to be the forties, boasting designs called ‘Paris,’ ‘Vienna’ and ‘Sydney,’ among others. Realising I had plenty of cotton to spare, thanks to all those ridiculous cables and collars and rubbish, I cast on a sweet little design called ‘Naples,’ which is sure to keep my shoulders snug in any air-conditioned environments I find myself in.

NaplesInspired by some voluminous skirts I spied at a market in Sydney, and by the classy ladies in Isabel Bishop’s paintings, I picked up a large bundle of mustard-coloured fabric to make the biggest swishy skirt I could imagine, and played around with double box-pleats until I’d come up with this:

Mustard

Unfortunately, three metres of fabric means there is a lot of unwieldy drapery hanging about one’s back tyre when bike-riding–so I learned when I biked to the pub last night. If it’s not speckled with paint, it’s dusted with brake-dust!

Christmas picnic

Christmas was, for me, a lovely bike ride with J down to a sprawling park in the city, where we picnicked and ran through sprinklers and climbed trees and read books and dozed a little. Our families live a couple of thousand kilometres north and south of us, so we enjoyed our first Christmas in Brisbane without too much fuss. I’m surprised to learn how little is open at this time of year–it feels like we are so culturally introverted, hiding away in our homes. A couple of cafes are still pouring coffee, so I can live a reasonably normal existence! And in the meantime, I’ve been getting out and doing some painting with Ryan and with a new toy I picked up in Sydney:

Mabef

 

*McGregor, Sheila. 1984. Traditional Scandinavian knitting. Dover Publications: New York.

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Crafternoons

I don’t really do downtime. I do craft. I made some stuff. Do you want to see it?

This blouse began life as a test project when I started to worry that I was cutting my glorious Liberty fabric from Paris too small. I popped down to Spotlight and picked up some heavy cotton broadcloth in this colour that makes me think of vintage soap and other wholesome things. I then spent a bizarrely meditative afternoon carving a sleeping cat image into half a potato and laboriously printing it onto a couple of metres of the stuff. I began to doubt my sanity, but I felt soothed and had managed to stop being over-stimulated for several hours. I’m not much good at slowing down my mind.

Instead of catching up on sleep, I spent my day off sewing this fabric into the blouse, pondering over the intricacies of the pattern. This was also very relaxing. My mum always sewed when I was younger, she made herself all her fancy outfits for weddings and such, and she made me custom spin-out skirts to fulfill my ballerina fantasies. I would make doll clothes and hat-shaped pin-cushions with her, copying her or making it up as I went. In high school I found out one could take classes and be shown how to sew, and demanded I be enrolled in such a class at once. I took sewing classes for three weeks, one evening a week, and produced two skirts, learning to set a zip, apply facing and treat seams. I learned that ironing is the key to sewing. Mum pronounced me a certified seamstress and took me out of the classes. I figured out buttonholes from her sewing machine instruction book, and the rest is history.

I also taught myself colourwork knitting. My nanna sees the things I knit and asks me, ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ The truth is that she taught me when I was six, and my oma taught me the purl stitch not long after, and pretty soon the internet came about I suppose, and I could YouTube most anything I cared to learn. It took a little fiddling about to work out how not to get holes when stranding your colours, and, indeed, how to strand them behind the knitting so they sit neatly and don’t get hooked on things, but I think I’ve got the hang of it.

The wool of my Sheep Heid is particularly exciting to me. I ordered it directly from a Victorian mill that goes by the name of The Jolly Jumbuk. Kate Davies designed this tam to be made from the nine natural Shetland sheep shades, but I did a little research to find out if an Australian equivalent existed, given, you know, our extensive sheep population. Jumbuk sell undyed wool in four shades, and several different weights; I’ve used the finest weight (5 ply) and adjusted the pattern to use less shades–a very easy substitution that loses no details, only perhaps has less subtlety in the transitions. The most delightful thing has been that each wool has its own quality–the darker wools are quite course and bristly, and the cream is by far the softest. The slate is especially marled in a way the others are not. All of them are quite irregularly spun, but I suppose this adds to the rustic feel. Now that I’m knitting with fancy wool from some other part of the world again, I realise that the Jumbuk experience is quite unrefined, but I like it for that. One feels closer to the sheep, even if the result is less polished.

And I made a table. I like to paint at it on the veranda now that it’s blisteringly hot again, preferably with iced bubbly water or (non-iced) wine. The wood came from an old bookshelf bedhead that I salvaged on curbside collection week, and the trestles and stools were my first ever Ikea haul.

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Discipline

Ready or not © Samantha Groenestyn

What’s been on your mind lately? I’ve been thinking about poverty, and whether it has any intrinsic morality. I haven’t been reading anything that overtly argues as much, only old French novels (by Simone de Beauvoir) populated with guilty petit bourgeois intellectuals and tough millionaires imposing their will on the former, and environmental science flavoured books (by Jared Diamond) that posit the correct functioning of business as to make a profit and not to hinder itself with social concerns. Those with money look out for their own interests, and take care to ensure that their money achieves what they desire. It’s therefore easy to paint them as the bad guys, forgetting about the rest of us, forgetting that they are acting rationally given their position. This realisation that it’s perfectly rational to act in certain ways when one has money—most notably, in one’s own interest—leads me to wonder whether having money is somehow connected to one’s moral downfall.

I’ve always viewed money as an enabler. I’m absolutely not the kind of person to argue that money is the root of all evil. But perhaps, money being the enabler that it is, once you have it you are able to act as yourself, unimpeded by poverty or lack of access to resources. And in so acting, you reveal your true nature. Some people will help others with their money. Some will spend it selfishly—not in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen plenty of others feel uncomfortable with it.

Testing out J’s new picnic blanket today at New Farm Park. Yep, you can sit on it. It also buckles onto his bike in a tidy little package, and it’s also homemade by me!

I started to wonder if my personality is best suited to poverty. Can such a notion make sense in the modern world, in which everyone is aspiring to earn and multiply their wealth? When I was on a salary, I could and did buy many things. I could eat more meals out, drink fancier wine and travel, and I picked up some very nice shoes. But I did these things haphazardly, and in something of a fog of not being sure what I liked or wanted. I had the means to do things, so I did them and thought about them later. Now I’m in no such position, I do all the thinking beforehand and make carefully calculated decisions and finally, when I’ve saved up enough, execute them. Is this a virtue—being discerning in your decision-making? Lack of money somehow clears my head and enables me to see straight. It imposes discipline.

Discipline in itself may not be virtuous, but it works for me—I can better order my life and achieve what I want to achieve, resources be damned.

Freight train sunset

I recently knit these Scandinavian mittens with some tweedy Harris wool sent over from Scotland from my dear friend Anna. Brisbane doesn’t get much of a winter, but fortunately I get up at 5am a couple of times a week to go open a cafe, and I open my eyes in the dark and hope that it’s freezing, and am often rewarded with 8 or 9 degree mornings, which warm up to well above 20 C. These mittens keep my hands toasty on the longish bike-ride down.

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Ideation

Owls © Samantha Groenestyn

It is true that I have a lot of interests. Yesterday I indulged my impulse to bike around and explore foreign parts of Brisbane. I painted a little, and knitted a little, and read a lot. I picked up some sewing supplies for pending projects.

Sketching in Toohey Forest

In 1939, an advertising man by the name of James Webb Young* put out a little pamphlet on generating ideas, and the crucial beginning of his five-step method is to gather raw materials—as broad a collection as possible, to supply yourself with a very deep reservoir of old things to combine in new ways.

For this is what an idea is, according to Young (p. 19): ‘an idea is a new combination.’ This is what is at the heart of Maria Popova’s brain-titillating site Brain Pickings, on which she argues (and demonstrates daily) that ‘creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs.’

While Young (p. 26) recommends an index-card filing method of collecting one’s ideas, a recent Design Matters interview with Ken Carbone reveals another method. Carbone’s journals have become somewhat legendary—he has been keeping them for fifteen years after having had the privilege to see Paul Gauguin’s journals in a museum’s archives. In his journals, Carbone documents his life, takes sketch-breaks at museums on his lunch breaks, records noteworthy events and writes mini book reviews, obsessively recording details chronologically that he refers to years later to mine for ideas.

‘Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics,’ Young (p. 24) insists. ‘First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested… Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.’

Young’s ideation method is as follows (p. 40):

First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

I have three types of books in which I record various stages of my ideation process. Most ideas get their start in something completely foreign: usually they strike me when I am knitting. Knitting lulls me into a concentrated meditative state, and my thoughts usually concentrate on a creative problem. When they arrive, I note them down in my Ideas Book, whatever my first impressions of them. They can be sifted and developed later—what matters initially is that they are captured. Rarely can I move directly to producing the idea, however.

My ideas graduate to a funny little sketchbook full of thumbnails, layouts, hand-lettering tests and border developments. I need a secret place to try my idea out, see what it might really look like when it takes form, work through the details of it. Sometimes I rush this stage, but I am beginning to enjoy it. I can take this book out for coffee or tea, and draw and draw until I can’t represent the idea any more, or make lists that extend a previous idea.

My most polished books, my ‘real’ sketchbooks, are full of life drawings and field sketches. Curiously enough, these books represent the beginning of the path to an idea: they accompany me on adventures through Europe and around Brisbane. They are a way for me to consciously explore what I see, because I carefully note down structures and colours. These sketches, more broadly, are representative of my interests—of taking time out from the solid work of painting to refresh myself and immerse myself in new experiences, to learn new things and incorporate this new knowledge into my reservoirs. Ready to be connected in new ways with other knowledge, later.

‘Part of it, you will see, is a current job, and part of it is a life-long job,’ (Young, p. 26).

Sketching in Toohey Forest

 

Do you know Kate Davies? She’s a formidable academic knitter living in my erstwhile home of Edinburgh, and the talent behind the above O w l s jumper. Her blog was the first I started following, and it set the bar decidedly high. You can find my Owls on Ravelry.

 

* Young, James Webb. 2003 [1939]. A technique for producing ideas. McGraw-Hill: New York. (↬ Maria Popova’s article led me to spending a fiver on this little book.)

 

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Throw yourself in

Star cardigan © Samantha Groenestyn

This is my favourite cardi, which I knit a couple of years ago, and which has travelled all over the world, gotten its sleeves dirty in cafes, gone out on fancy dinners and taken French classes. It’s an all-purpose winner of a cardi, made from an old 1940s pattern called Charm Star Cardigan. The buttons were a particularly spectacular Etsy find, being hundred-year-old Czechoslovakian buttons–a country which no longer exists! The wool is 100% Italian merino, very fine–lots of teeny tiny stitches. It took some time to knit, but the thin fabric was worth the effort. This was my first colourwork project, and I taught myself to strand the second thread behind the first, from a book!

(The dress I made from a 1953 Simplicity pattern, and the shoes are from Paris).

While J has been in Sydney making physics, I’ve been taking advantage of some extra alone time to do some wicked crafting. I whipped up these modified socks for my brother for his birthday, which each feature a little space-invader:

I’m not an avid sock-maker, but I’ve enjoyed these and will probably churn out some more, especially with winter and the promise of boots coming up. If you’d like to make some, I’ll be adding my instructions on Ravelry in the near future.

My knitting confidence is growing thanks to a relatively new acquisition of mine:

With a deeper understanding of how knitting builds a garment, and a scrap of paper to scribble on, it’s easier to think analytically about what one is doing when knitting, rather than blindly following a pattern. For these socks, I had to adjust the number of stitches to match sock wool (what?–I know, right?), and then work out proportionally where the decreases ought to go, or how wide the heel ought to be. The perplexing instructions I had called for very bizarre proportions with worryingly narrow heels that made no sense to me, and very long heel-to-toe measurements. Perhaps my brother has small feet, I don’t know. At any rate, they fit a treat, even without measurement, since they were a surprise gift!

Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s almanac is very different to what I expected, having read plenty about it fulfilling some sort of biblical role in the knitting community. It is essentially a storybook about an old lady who is knitting a different item during each month of the year. Sometimes she is on a camping trip, other times she is out watching extreme sports and napping in the car. She writes a narrative about the construction of her item, and then provides the ‘pithy instructions’ which are what we would ordinarily expect of a pattern. Reading the book is more like sitting down with your Nanna, ‘yarning up’ (Australian pun) and casting on, and being talked through the process of construction. None of the items are really appealing enough to make, but I have picked up some gems in terms of the strict angles created by particular decreases and so forth. In fact, she makes me think of Richard Sennett again, who discusses three ways of providing instructions: the cautionary, which looks out for pitfalls that the follower might walk into; the narrative, which aids understanding and memory by taking the follower on a journey; and the metaphorical, which I referred to here.

My other crafting includes a little black dress, replete with pleats. I always throw myself into projects with far more confidence that my experience ought permit–I have altered a pattern in crucial ways that I’m not sure I can think through the construction of it–but how is one to learn without extending oneself beyond what one already knows?

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Rands and your monetary worth

Evergreen © Samantha Groenestyn

The notion of value is a very important one to the commercial arts. Rather than expressing oneself, as an artist would, the commercial artist—illustrator or graphic designer, or both—solves visual problems that clients cannot solve themselves. This service is valid, necessary and skill-dependent, and for these reasons it is valuable. And when we speak of something’s value or worth, we often quantify it in monetary terms. I’m certainly not of the persuasion that everything of worth can be priced, but this is an instance where it ought to be. Solving visual problems is as relevant a contribution as any in the broader context of work, and no one else works for free.

Illustrators and graphic designers, sadly, work for free often enough that there is a name for it: speculative work. Holly DeWolf* (p. 154) defines speculative work as ‘doing work for free without the guarantee of compensation. The client basically says, “I’ll tell you if I like it when I see it.” Payment usually never happens.’ I’ve read enough books like hers to be wary of this type of work that ultimately devalues illustration and the problem-solving process more broadly. There’s even an online campaign against speculative work, NO!SPEC. I was therefore shocked to hear this spec-work anecdote from my graphic design teacher.

He told me a sad tale of a struggling photographer who couldn’t decide between the sleek, modern logo he’d designed for her and the stylish one based on her handwriting he’d provided as a second option. ‘Did she pay for two options?’ I asked, my inner Dagny Taggart doing some quick sums. My teacher explained that he simply tossed in the second one because he’d come up with a few ideas and they were no use to him so she may as well have them.

I was shocked enough at this lack of respect for the value of his own work, when he went on to explain that the photographer then lost her other job and couldn’t pay him, so he simply gave her everything—the website he designed, the posters and flyers and logo options. What I learned from this is, go cry at a man who doesn’t like crying, and he will give you whatever you want, even a free website.

‘This isn’t a cookie-cutter business,’ DeWolf (p. 154) sternly reminds us, imploring us to remember we are skilled, offering expertise and time, labours for which we should be awarded money.

Paul Rand, the designer revered by Steve Jobs as the ‘greatest living graphic designer’ (when they were both, clearly, living), and the creator of the IBM (including the eye-bee-M) and NeXT Computers logos, knew his worth. His ‘Randian’ perspective might be mistaken for the self-assured and economically-savvy views of one Ayn Rand, of whom he is no relation (though interestingly, they both adopted the name Rand in place of their previously identical surname, Rosenbaum). Paul Rand did not offer options, as Steve Jobs recalled, he offered a single solution, and demanded payment whatever the outcome:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution — if you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you — you’re the client — but you pay me.’

We would do well to remember this sentiment, and boldly proclaim our worth.

* DeWolf, Holly. 2009. Breaking into freelance illustration: the guide for artists, designers and illustrators. How Books: Cincinnati.
 Maria Popova has uncovered a fascinating interview from 1993 in which an overawed Steve Jobs attempts to capture Paul Rand in words.

I’ve started a series of paintings of things I have knit. This is J’s Scandinavian jumper, 100% merino wool, dapper pattern courtesy of Drops Design. When I start knitting paintings, you’ll know I’ve gone mad.

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Rhythm

Arthur's Seat and blossoms © Samantha Groenestyn

‘Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye,’ is how Richard Sennett* summarises routine. Rather than equating routine with boredom and mindless repetition, Sennett argues that ‘doing something over and over is stimulating when organised as looking ahead’ (p. 175). While thinking ahead to a finished product or a gained skill is motivating, the repetition comes to be performed for its own sake, a kind of cathartic release.

This is certainly something experienced by knitters, who, while they anticipate the finished garment, tirelessly knit stitch after stitch and take pleasure in it. People who do not make things always frustrate me with the same question: upon seeing a finished piece of any variety, they gasp and ask, ‘How many hours did that take you?’ Perhaps I could even answer the question if it was in the form of ‘how long’—perhaps a month or two, but only in the evenings, and I’m out several evenings a week—but something so specific as hours? This obsession with the commitment required to produce a final object starts from a false place that misses the point of crafts. If one knits, or sews, or paints, or writes, one knows that although possessing the consummation of one’s labour will be terribly rewarding, for now all that matters is the doing. A creative person is so caught up in ‘being as a thing’ (p. 174) and so consumed in the process, that she could hardly want it to end, and, indeed, immediately follows with another project so as not to have time elapse without the desired activity.

‘Sheer movement repeated becomes a pleasure in itself’ (p. 175).

* Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.

** A treat from an older travel sketchbook. I lived in Edinburgh a year, and this sketch was done on my street as the cherry blossoms exploded into Spring. This sketchbook marks the time I first started to take sketching seriously, having fresh material for my eyes, and started a habit that has become all-consuming.

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