"The Nation's Leading Bi-Regional Knitting Blog" --Ann's husband • "Kay sure is wasting a lot of time on this" --Kay's husband

August 31, 2009

Helsinki and the Partial Leonardo

Dear Kay,

We almost didn't see Helsinki. That's just a fact. Almost slept through it.

After three days of pectopahs and blasting around St. Petersburg, the fellas were double jetlagged--you lose two hours from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg, just when you're over that first jetlag. And they were homesick. For the ship. We had missed Team Trivia two days in a row. Captain Dag had taken all the kids up for a tour of the bridge. The 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle had been finished without our help.

Nooooo, we'd been off mooing through the Hermitage museum to see, through a scrum of overheated tourists, one-quarter of Leonardo's Madonna and Child with Flowers, the 1478 one, not the much stranger 1490 one that was about twenty feet away and even more consumed by viewers.

It was so crowded that I couldn't even see the whole thing. I can hardly express how unsatisfying this was. Imagine how Leonardo would be laughing his Renaissance head off to see this scene: such an airless room, his painting sealed in some sort of bulletproof plastic box. I should make it clear that this painting was the one work in the entire Hermitage that I had had in my sights. His paintings are truly rare in the sense that he didn't actually MAKE many of them, and I didn't think I'd be back in St. Petersburg anytime soon. I had written a book group paper about a Leonardo biography last year, so Leonardo had been on my mind.

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At least I got to see the faces. If there are 12 Leonardo paintings in the world, and two are in the Hermitage, that means I was in the presence of 16% of Leonardo's paintings, and I actually saw 2% of Leonardo's paintings, which is pretty good for a Wednesday, I guess.

The fellas were deeply uninterested in any of this, and I don't blame them. It was a hot mess, literally.

The Hermitage was so rich in treasures that it was OK. There was armor. There were antiquities. You look to the left, and you're in a gallery of 19th-century, recently de-looted treasures. There I spent a long while, all by myself, with one of Van Gogh's last works, "The White House at Night."

If you click on this link, and click on the image to enlarge it, you can get as close to this painting as I did. For free! Go ahead--Van Gogh's hand is clearly visible in every stroke of his brush. He's right there.

I feel tender about my Van Gogh experience at the Hermitage, inches away from the original work, looking at this relic, this thing that Van Gogh touched himself. Right then, in 1890, in his last raging days of creativity, he put that paint onto that canvas. But as I look at this digital image, sent to my computer from who knows where, where it lives on some anonymous server as a batch of digits, it's every bit as real. It's right here.

O Helsinki!

How glad we were that we scraped ourselves off the ship and walked into Helsinki. Helsinki, you are truly beautiful. We were there on probably Helsinki's most glorious day of the year, and we had only one destination:

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The skateboard art exhibition at Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art. This was Clif's Leonardo moment. As you know, Clif loves to skateboard, so this was a fine thing to see, never mind the fact that it looked basically like his bedroom at home.

We passed a hugeosic Marimekko store. The mother ship. It really was spectacular. This all led me to have a thought for you, Kay, but no time to scrape up some fat quarters for you. Besides, I probably would have picked out the ones that most closely resembled fabrics from the Civil War. We'll have to get back there so you can load up on pear-embellished bedsheets. They have factory shops. My reconnaissance indicates that this would be worth a trip.

At the harbor market, we had lunch, and I watched as this knitter steadily cranked out hats:

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She was working less than two hours per hat. She was incredible. Never sat, never stopped knitting, rarely even looked at her hands. She was a performance artist, really.

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After many monuments to battles and large-sized lady tsars in St. Petersburg, it was encouraging to see Finland's national poet, J. L. Runeberg, front and center in the beautiful Esplanade park. Runeberg! I never heard of you! But I'm glad your son put up this statue of you so I can go Google you now! (Here are some fine photographs of his house in Porvoo--excellent wallpaper and animal pelt/firearm decorations.)

And how strange, on our way back, to find another statue right there at the harbor:

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Coin activated, even.

Love,
Ann

Next up: Stockholm, Or, Trying to Trade in Our Passports for Swedish Passports

Posted by Ann at 11:53 AM | Comments (26)

August 27, 2009

St. Petersburg and Its Many Ресторанs

Dear Kay,

Here we go with the lighting-round final dash through the city. I wasn't sick of being totally illiterate, but I did wonder what would happen if I had to leave our guide behind. Talking louder does not, I discovered, make the words come out sounding any more Russian, no more than using a Russian accent helps, either. I was sounding like Natasha on Rocky and Bullwinkle to very poor effect.

By the third day, Hubbo's game of figuring out the Cyrillic alphabet meant that he could show me how "Ресторан" meant "restaurant." Total Helen Keller moment for me--as we drove around, there were Ресторанs ALL OVER THAT PLACE. Pectopahs everywhere you look.

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Cafe Stolle . . . we loved these lush pies so much that we kidnapped a cherry pie.

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The fruit man really does balance a watermelon on his head all day long.

OK not really, but this market gave us a glimpse into Russian butchery of a mundane sort. The fellas—OK, we, OK, I—didn't last long once we found the displays of meats that still looked pretty much like the thing they used to be before they got caught. This entire trip has left me realizing what a nonrevolutionary, comfort-seeking, unable-to-gaze-upon-a-skinned-rabbit WIMP I am.

(Maybe it was the story our guide told us about why they leave the furry paws of rabbits on the otherwise skinned carcasses. OK I'll tell you: it's to prove that it's not cat.)

I did have a heroic moment when one vendor of slurpy things in white plastic buckets handed me a thing on a toothpick. It was dark, shriveled, and damp. To my amazement, I ate it without a blink. Either a pickled mushroom or pickled . . . something.

I quickly headed for the solace of the fruits. Fruit can't be weird, no matter what language it speaks.

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Kay, this is the Russian word for sausage. Do you know how it grieved me to see my favorite savory treat turned into this unrecognizable word? Even SAUSAGE was lost from me? If it hadn't been for our guide's translations, I wouldn't have even known there was sausage in the BUILDING.

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"One day, children, you will thank your mother for doing something as superpretentious and boring as taking your picture by this plaque at Dostoevsky's house. Remember, sons: you need to read at least the first three chapters of at least two Dostoevsky novels in order to pretend that you have read Dostoevsky."

Ah, how I treasured this glimpse of the street that appears in Crime and Punishment, one of the world's great novels and certainly Dostevsky's finest, in my opinion.

Having read SO much Dostoevsky. Of course. Достоевский, I mean. Because at this point, I've got my Russian DOWN.

Artillery Museum AKA Costume Institute of St. Petersburg

At this moldy old arsenal, we saw many weapons of mass destruction.

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Russian mortar versus American Coca-Cola. We all know how this one ended.

I don't like military uniforms. I LOVE military uniforms. This place was lousy with them. I could have stayed here all day long.

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And then it was time to go.

Back on the ship, I put up my beTsuboed feet for a rest, and when I opened my eyes, expecting to see the Gulf of Finland, I saw an apartment building, CLOSE, not fifty yards out my window. Wha? I ran out to the balcony and discovered that Captain Dag, our supertall Norwegian captain, was taking us out of town through a narrow canal, not the open sea that I had thought would be the logical exit route. Crazy Norwegian hotdogger cruise ship captain!

I was looking straight into a ninth-floor apartment window, and a man stood on his narrow apartment balcony looking at me with an expression as surprised as mine.

I made a timid wave, and he nodded.

The apartment dwellers watched us from the shore, and children ran along with the ship. An old woman in a house dress pointed at us as if she wanted to make sure the children playing beside her didn't miss the 13-story-tall, white cruise ship that was casting a shadow on them.

In our own apartment building, somebody up on Deck 12 was lobbing ice cubes into the water, which looked like hail. Somebody below yelled up, "Who's throwing ice?"

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Love,
Ann

PS Much crazier Russian touring can be found in Ian Frazier's brill two-parter on his road trip from St. Petersburg through Siberia to the Pacific coast. Part I begins in the August 3 issue of The New Yorker. Reminds me of my brother Clif and his wack travels to wack destinations.

Next up: Helsinki On Some Unrecognizable Amount of Finnish Kroner A Day.

Posted by Ann at 02:22 PM | Comments (49)

August 26, 2009

St. Petersburg: Land of Many Monumental Contrasts

Dear Kay,

Among the Things They Think You Want To See is the large category known as monuments.

I don't mind a monument. But the density of monuments in Russia is really, really something. In the basement of the Estonian Museum of the Occupations, they have a bunch of leftover Lenins gleefully removed from every street corner in 1991 when Estonia became independent. In St. Petersburg, our poor guide could barely finish describing Catherine the Great's statue before we ran into another monument made from the leftover columns of some memorial cathedral. Monuments made of monuments!

The Siege Memorial

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This was the one that stays with me. In this middle of a busy highway roundabout, there's a brutal-looking '70s-era memorial to the siege of Leningrad during World War II. You descend underground, past rows of lights, 900 of them to mark each day of the siege. The Nazis surrounded the city for two and a half years, but the Russians never gave up despite total starvation and the death of over a million civilians.If you read about the siege, you will be absolutely horrified.

You enter a vast chamber filled with heavy, solemn plaques and flags. The thing that got me was a short, silent film that ran in an alcove, on a loop, accompanied by Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, which he completed in St. Petersburg during the early days of the siege. It was documentary footage shot during the siege, blurred and grainy and nightmarish. I will never forget the flickering image of two bundled women sitting in the middle of the frozen Neva River, lowering a small cup into a hole in the ice. So slow, their movements. Such a struggle to pull the thin rope out of the hole.

Our guide told us that her family members who survived it never talk about the details of the siege. Some things really are unspeakable, she said.

Meanwhile . . .

In a lighter place, I was amused to see this one, to the great Russian poet Pushkin, whose use of everyday language in his poetry made him beloved by the people:

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He looks like he used to be standing heroically but frankly just needed to take a break.

The Official Shoe of BalticCrawl '09

I told you I was going to endorse a product, and here you go:

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Shortly before we left on this trip, my sister Buffy and I went shoe shopping, and she VEHEMENTLY opposed my purchase of the Tsubo Koti, even at half price. I think she was reacting to the immense size of a size 10 shoe, being a measly size 7 herself. But I also think she thought they were "really bad." Or "not good." Or "godawful." I bought them anyway, wore them all over the place, and I never ever wever had a moment's grief. Way to go, Tsubo! Don't send me any of your kookie high-wedge platforms, but feel free to send me some more of these things, because I love those bubbly soles!

And at Day's End

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David had become addicted to Risk at camp--when he wasn't licking doorknobs and contracting the flu. So we set up a game on the tiny table in the boys' cabin and started invading each other. I had a hard time being cheerful when David "Call Me Stalin" marched his way through my territories. Singing didn't help; appeasement was worse. With every roll of the dice, my beleaguered armies evaporated. I left the game in charge of Hubbo for a while; when I returned, to my HORROR, I was down to Argentina and Brazil. Merciless! I hear there's a monument in Cabin 925 now, marking the spot where the Army of Ann capitulated and went to get a cookie.

Love,
Ann

Posted by Ann at 11:43 AM | Comments (31)

August 24, 2009

St. Petersburg: Land of So Many Contrasts That It All Blurred Together

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Dear Kay,

Top down, bottom up. Top down, bottom up. That's the phrase that came to my mind, over and over, as we toured St. Petersburg. The push of dictators, the push back from the people below them. The revolutionaries become the oppressors, up goes down, down goes up.

Our steady American democracy, however balky it sometimes feels, has nothing in it to match the sort of ferocious upheaval that Russia has experienced. Our watery borders give us such an advantage--when I heard that it takes maybe four hours to drive across Estonia, I realized how vulnerable some of these European countries were. Four hours from Nashville puts me in Memphis. I haven't even left the STATE. I have my bone to pick with Memphis, but I don't especially feel like INVADING it.

I couldn't wait to see St. Petersburg, even if at a trot. I had lined up three days of wandering around with a guide and a driver. The driver was clearly a spy: sunglasses the whole time. I'm sure he was a spy.

We had just come off a day of stories about Estonian heroism in the face of Russian tyranny, of Latvians and Lithuanians and Estonians holding hands, across 400 miles, across their countries to protest for freedom. It was a perfect time to tour the palaces of the tsars, because I was pretty much ready to pass out torches and pitchforks for a revolution. Never mind that all the palaces are now museums, and the government views palaces as a lure for tourists--I was ready for some outrage!

I'd been trying in fits and starts to bone up on Russian history all summer--Robert Massie's Peter the Great had taken me through the reign of the Big Guy who founded the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. He was the one who pushed to introduce the ideas and styles of western Europe to eastern, smoky old Russia. He was six foot seven, he was an avid amateur dentist, and he loved above all things boats, shipbuilding, and the sea. Russia didn't have a port city in the West, so he built a hut on the shore of the swampy low land at the mouth of the Neva, and got busy.

Palaces: The Things They Think You Want to See

We decided to forego a visit to see Peter the Great's collection of teeth that he gleefully extracted from his courtiers. That museum also contained the pickled privates of the mysterious Rasputin, and I was not going to risk even a chance encounter with that thing, so we headed out of town to see some tsarist lifestyle.

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We saw several billion dollars' worth of palaces, and I can honestly tell you that you need to see only one palace in St. Petersburg, not four. You start hating everybody around you, and you begin to feel a lot of scorn for herdlike movement through room after room--until you look across the ballroom and see yourself in the mirror, chewing your cud and mooing right in there with them. This was not my idea of a good time.

Astonishingly conspicuous consumption is actually a pretty straightforward thing.

If you have a wall, embellish it.

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If you have a ceiling, put stuff on it.

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If you have a floor, cover it in parquet.

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If you have a canal, put a charming pavilion over it.

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As I gazed at this particular folly (it's at the Tsarskoe Selo, at the Catherine Palace if you're keeping track), I looked down and noticed a railing.

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How spectacular! How genuinely delightful! I realized that I'd been looking at all this stuff the wrong way: it was the details that were going to be beautiful, not the numbing scale of these palaces. Suddenly, everything was lovely, once I thought about the craftspeople who had done all this work. The Hermitage museum is full of Titian and Rembrandt, but it's those nameless scaffold-climbing painters and railing makers that I wish I could know.

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And the sculptor who managed to make fabric flow through a piece of marble.

Speaking of Modest . . .

At Peter the Great's summer palace, Peterhof, there's a little minipalace, Monplaisir, away from the big house. Peter preferred this place, apparently--a few rooms in the Dutch style that he liked because he had spent time in Holland learning shipbuilding. Monplaisir was at least halfway human in scale.

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The ceiling is so LOW. They almost didn't need a scaffold.

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Such a modest amount of lacquerwork here. Just a daily dose.

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My favorite room of all turned out to be this charming room. When I asked, it turned out that this was Peter the Great's PANTRY.

I'll leave you today with the thing we all loved the most. Peter the Great engineered an insane park of fountains, all run by gravity.

It wasn't the grand ones, like these:

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It was these that we liked:

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Some of them have mysterious features.

Yes, I tried it, and yes, my dry children were smug at how bad I was at navigating the stones.

(And if you know the secret of the stepping-stone fountains, I FORBID you from revealing it here! I'll yank your teeth!)

Back on the Hyatt Regency of the Seas

Just when I thought my head would snap off from all the visual clutter we had absorbed, St. Petersburg saved the day by providing us with this:

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A rainfall so absent of wind that you could actually hear the sound of a million raindrops falling on the water.

Love,
Ann

Next up: Chowhounding and a Product Endorsement

Posted by Ann at 12:47 PM | Comments (39)

August 23, 2009

Summer Sunday Brunch (Free Pattern!)

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Dear Ann,

This time of year, as surely as hurricanes threaten coastal areas and dogs lie down on the sidewalk and refuse to move one more step, you will find me wracking my brains to design an entry for Janet Nogle's Dishcloth Calendar. My entry-in-progress for the 2010 edition is most intriguing. So intriguing I am taxing my skill set trying to make it work. It will work, dagnabbit! And it will work elegantly!

But late summer also reminds me that I am free to release to the world my contribution to the 2009 Dishcloth Calendar. It's a straightforward, swatchy sort of dishrag, inspired by my twin passions: linoleum floors and stitch dictionaries.

Here you go, dishcloth knitting freaks of the world. Have at it! Please post your Linoleum Dishcloth results over on Ravelry, where there are already some very nice examples.

Linoleum Dishcloth
(Copyright Kay Gardiner 2008)

The styles and artifacts of the 1920s and 30s never cease to fascinate. From futuristic Art Deco furniture to the pastel prints of the era’s housedresses, there is always something interesting to look at. This dishcloth was inspired by the geometric patterns of linoleum floors, which were popular through the 50s and beyond. I searched through stitch dictionaries for a pattern reminiscent of linoleum tiles, and found this interlocking diamond motif in several sources.

A bonus: this is a slip-stitch pattern, so it results in a scrubby cloth with an attractive woven appearance on the wrong side. It’s quite simple to follow the row-by-row instructions, but once you get going, it's a pleasant challenge to work this pattern from memory, following the diamonds as they expand and contract.

Yarn: Peaches & Creme worsted weight, 100% cotton, 2½ oz (71.5g), 122 yds (112m), 1 ball each in solid colors A, B and C.

Size 7 (4.5mm) needles (or size 6 if you knit loosely like I do)

INSTRUCTIONS

Using A, cast on 43 stitches. Knit one row.

Row 1 (RS): Using B, k1, *slip 1, k9; repeat from * untill 2 stitches remain, slip 1, k1.

Row 2 (WS) and all WS rows: Repeat the previous row, but place the yarn in front when slipping stitches.

Row 3: Using A, k3, *(slip 1, k1) 3 times, slip 1, k3; repeat from * to end of row.

Row 5: Using B, k2, *slip 1, k7, slip 1, k1; repeat from * until 1 stitch remains, k1.

Row 7: Using A, k4, *(slip 1, k1) twice, slip 1, k5; repeat from * until 9 stitches remain, (slip 1, k1) twice, slip 1, k4.

Row 9: Using B, (k1, slip 1) twice, *k5, (slip 1, k1) twice, slip 1; repeat from * until 4 stitches remain, (slip 1, k1) twice.

Row 11: Using A, k5, slip 1, k1, slip 1, *k7, slip 1, k1, slip 1; repeat from * until 5 stitches remain, k5.

Row 13: Using B, k2, slip 1, k1, slip 1, k3, *(slip 1, k1) 3 times, slip 1, k3; repeat from * until 5 stitches remain, slip 1, k1, slip 1, k2.

Row 15: Using A, K6, *slip 1, k9; repeat from * until 7 stitches remain, slip 1, k6.

Row 17: Repeat row 13.

Row 19: Repeat row 11.

Row 21: Repeat row 9.

Row 23: Repeat row 7.

Row 25: Repeat row 5.

Row 27: Repeat row 3.

The dishcloth consists of 3 repeats of this 28-row pattern. For the second repeat, substitute C for B. For the third repeat, change from C back to B. Using A, knit 2 rows and bind off on the RS.

Texture variation: On WS rows, except for the first and last knit stitches of each row, work all the knits as purls. This results in a smooth stockinette on the RS, and WS rows are faster to work because it is not necessary to switch the yarn from back to front each time a stitch is slipped. Because I like to maintain some scrubby texture on the RS, I alternate WS rows between purl and knit rows. But my favorite is still the original, all-knit version.

Color variation: Substitute variegated shades for the solids, and watch what happens. The diamonds emerge in a shimmery way. Warning: if two variegated shades share a color, it’s easy to lose track of the pattern. Recommended for licensed and experienced practitioners of this pattern (i.e., people who have already knit one).

Wishing you durable dishcloth fun,

Love,
Kay

Posted by Kay at 03:07 PM | Comments (40)

August 22, 2009

The Hamptons: Land of Zero Point Zero Contrasts

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Dear Ann,

Hi doll. I'm out in Southampton, where the geraniums are all lipstick red, the dogs are all blow-dried, and the American flags flutter, but do not flap. And where you will be ticketed if you stay in that parking space for longer than 30 minutes. Especially if you are as haggish as moi, in my flip flops, and my straw hat that is old enough to have belonged to Gertrude Jekyll. There ought to be an ordinance against me. Maybe there is!

(The other thing that hurts my feelings about the Hamptons is that the gas stations have prettier gardens than I do. Ouch! I think this is because deer do not like the smell of gasoline. But still, it's humiliating that the Russian Sage at the Hess station is so much happier than mine.)

But you go girl! You and your unpronounceable, unspellable linguistics! I'm impressed!

Or am I? After all, I am a woman of the world. I have friends whose true names are not even read from left to right. Take Orna. Every day since she moved to this country, Orna has had to spell her own name in an alphabet other than the original Hebrew. Personally, I would find this hard. You are not going to see me emigrating somewhere where I have to learn to spell "Kay" in Cyrillic. I worry about that letter that looks like a P but is not a P. Not having it, I tell you.

Perhaps mutual unorthodox orthography explains why, one evening last winter, Orna was approached by someone named Hrafnhildur Arnardottir). Did they spy each other across a crowded room, and each think about the other, "I bet that one is not named Debbie, either"? Orna was at a concert and Arnardottir, aka "Shoplifter", famous for her "aimez vous avec fervour" piece, which is pictured here and, I believe, still graces the Museum of Modern Art's street window, approached her. She was interested, artistically, in Orna. Specifically, in Orna's hair. You do not see hair like Orna's everywhere. If you are an artist whose medium is hair, and your work requires hair of a certain scale and magnitude, you can't be shy. You have to march right up and speak to the hair. You have to sign the hair UP.

For Orna, this was charming, but it was also kind of been there, done that. "So, you want my hair? Take a number." But, being Orna, she was amused and interested, and agreed to allow her hair to participate in Arnardottir's work. Orna showed up on the appointed day, not knowing what role her hair would play. A dress had been made specially for her. There was a lovely young woman there. And also her hair. And so it was that two world-class heads of hair were combined into one epic work of art.

Ladies & gentlemen, I give you the Mason-Dixon Knitting premiere presentation of "Siamese Solitude", co-starring Orna's hair. Creepy! Arty! More of Arnardottir's work here and here!

Only in New York, kids. And to be honest, not all that often in New York.

Love,
Kay


Posted by Kay at 09:18 PM | Comments (26)

August 21, 2009

Tallinn, Estonia: Land of Many Contrasts

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Dear Kay,

At about this point in the trip, I started to feel seriously stupid. The street signs were starting to get to me--I couldn't figure out the name of anything, and the increasing number of umlauts and serial vowels meant that I was sounding out words in my own made-up Danish/Swedish fake language. I sounded like somebody from The Vague Land of Scandinavia.

Furthermore, all the money in my pocketbook was colorful, varied in size, and the coins were sometimes surprisingly valuable. There's nothing like holding your hand out with a pile of coins in it and letting the store clerk pick out which ones she likes.

Hoping to get a peek at Estonian, I blew some 25-cent-a-minute cruise-ship Internet to see what the deal was with the Estonian language. It's like this. I found cheerful encouragement over at Speak Estonian!:

So why learn Estonian?

You enjoy a challenge

With fourteen different cases and an utterly unrecognisable vocabulary, Estonian should test even the most capable linguist! If you've studied other European languages in the past, you may find it refreshing to learn one where you effectively have to start entirely from scratch.

Refreshing? Try Mystifying. Supersecret. Like Ubbi-Dubbi. Hats off to anybody out there who can rattle off some Estonian.

I had only a knitter's understanding of Estonia. The words nupps, Estonian mitten, and Nancy Bush pretty much sum up my understanding of the place. I knew it was small, that it was recently independent, and the whole country had the population of Nashville.

The tour we took provided a moving window into a place where I came to see that the fierce knitting comes from a fierce people. Our guide Annili told us about her upbringing in the 1970s when Estonia was still under Soviet control, and it took about ten seconds for us to figure out that she and her fellow Estonians pretty much TOTALLY DESPISED the Russian government, even as they lived with Russians who were imported to Estonia to colonize it. The tsar-built superdeluxe cathedral in the middle of the city, the Alexander Nevsky, was seen as a symbol of Russian oppression. Daily life was unspeakably grim.

As we passed the big ampitheater on the edge of town, she showed us a postcard of a sea of people at the ampitheater, and pointed to the lower right corner. "That's me," she said. It was the Singing Revolution, the nonviolent protest in the late 1980s that resulted in Estonian independence in 1991. I just found a documentary, "The Singing Revolution," that I want to see. Here's the trailer, which is lovely. People rising up and singing for their independence is the sort of thing that really amazes me.

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A dome from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Estonians are feeling better about this place now, which they express in new plaster and paint.

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Beautiful gate, troubling place. This was the KGB headquarters in Tallinn.

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Apparently there were some quality control issues with the stone collecting. Somebody got fired, about six feet into this wall.

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Ah, who doesn't like a Soviet submarine tour? Hotbunking! Sleeping over a torpedo tube! Thirty days with no baths! Just like our cruise ship!

I let the guys go back to the ship so that I could wander around, illiterate and armed only with some colorful currency that might or might not work, along with my ATM card and a map in Estonian. About three minutes passed until I came across my first Estonian mitten, which was followed by dozens more, and sweaters, and hats, and nupps and lace and piles and piles of socks. I had come across the Knitting Wall, a bunch of stalls stuffed with knitting. OMG, take the day off, ladies!

At a yarn shop called Jolleri Käsitöökamber (I'm sure it means Purl or Loop or Yarn Barn), I found a piece that looked not particularly Estonian, but it looked particularly beautiful to me.

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A linen wrap, knitted on a size 2 or 3 needle.

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It cost $31. I think.

Love,
Ann

PS Next: Another day, another indecipherable language.

Posted by Ann at 12:12 PM | Comments (42)

August 20, 2009

Visby: Land of Many Contrasts

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Dear Kay,

Until this trip, my knowledge of basic northern European geography was embarrassing. If anybody had asked me whether Denmark and Sweden are neighbors, I would have said, "Yeah, or Holland. Isn't Holland in there?"

I'm including this handy Baltic Sea map to show you our itinerary, and also in case anybody else gets the jones for a sea-based yarn crawl. I'm telling you, it is impossible to travel this region without crossing paths with yarn, sheep, handknitters, and handknits. It is the Promised Land of the Knitterly Arts.

Shortly after leaving behind Copenhagen's Middelgruden Offshore Wind Farm, I sat in our cabin, pondering the weirdness of it all: this eleven-story-tall ship, the ample selection of sequined party purses available in the gift shop downstairs, the fact that for the first time, our family was traveling with two boys in one room, their parents in another, with no connecting door. There was mutual glee at the idea of our all having separate rooms, but when the moment came where they were there, and we were here, I wondered what they were doing. Ordering room service, already? Eating all the fruit? Chucking fruit off the balcony? Chucking themselves off the balcony?

We missed casual bridge, bocce, team trivia, and a flower-arranging lecture before we even looked at the ship's schedule of events. Good grief, this is exactly like Monteagle, I thought. We've gone 4,500 miles to end up at a senior day care center?

I heard a roar outside the balcony, and I went out to see whether they were launching lifeboats without having asked us if we wanted to go, too. The lifeboat drill had left me a little skeptical--no way could they fit 156 people into one lifeboat. The attractive Danish people would probably get first crack, and we Americans would have a rope off the side to cling to. And the ship--too big, this thing. Too much ship! It could sink halfway before we even noticed! We could be playing paddle tennis up on Deck 12, while a whole Kate Winslet/Leo DiCaprio scenario could be going on right under our feet.

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I watched in amazement as this boat roared up to the side of the ship, right there below me. It made me realize that the HMS Bigfoot was moving quite fast, even though the motion was barely detectable up on Deck 9.

Motion! I forgot about motion. Oh crap! I took a pre-emptive Bonine. Would I get seasick on this thing?

All of a sudden, as the boat nestled beside our ship, kicking up a big wake, a man in a dark business suit jumped onto the metal platform of the pilot boat from our ship: It was the the pilot from Copenhagen, leaving us now that we had entered unCopenhagenish waters. He straightened his coat, glanced up, and gave a big wave as he headed back to port. I wanted to tell him he did indeed look like James Bond.

The colors of that pilot boat made me sit down. And I kind of wished I was on such a fast low-rider.

Ship fact of the day: in the Baltic, our ship sat six feet lower in the water than it does in the ocean, due to the reduced salinity of the Baltic Sea. I thought, Isn't six feet a lot? We're in a ship built for the WRONG SEA?

Goths! Literally!

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Visby is a little medieval town on the island of Gotland. Supercharming. It's fun to read all about its history. It's even more fun to wander its bumpy streets on a bright, cool day.

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Here's the thing: after being tangled up in knitting so intently in recent years, this summer has been a time for me to step back, to knit a lot less, to let life re-set just a little. It's a very good thing, knitting, but it was time to stop thinking about it all the time, time to let it be a hobby. This meant that when I was planning this trip, I didn't do what I might have done before--I didn't make a list of every yarn shop in every port, and I brought only the most desultory sort of knitting projects. I was behaving like some sort of civilian! And I have to say, it felt good.

Of course, less than ten minutes into our day in Visby, I passed a window for a shop called Yllet--a clean, spare space inside an ancient, cobbled building. I had never heard of it, had no idea how to pronounce its name, but I loved it. It looked like Eileen Fisher, with beautiful linen blouses and simple pullovers. As I wandered the shop, my yarn detector went off: in a little room I found woolly yarn and linen and mohair, all labeled Yllet, all in colors that were natural and subtle and needed to come home with me to Nashville.

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I talk a good game about balance, but a quick six skeins later, it was obvious that I couldn't possibly resist such great yarn. I now know that the yarn is made from the wool of the native Gotland sheep, a "quiet, friendly, inquisitive sheep" according to Sheep! The Voice of the Independent Flockmaster. Yllet is a great company. And this quick interlude--discovering all this--made me eager to knit, all over again.

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Next up: Suddenly Illiterate

Love,
Ann

Posted by Ann at 12:53 PM | Comments (44)

August 19, 2009

Copenhagen: Land of Many Contrasts

Dear Kay,

So we made it to Copenhagen, on a flight stacked to the bulkheads with attractive co-passengers. One gorgeous mom mesmerized us all by walking up and down the aisle with her downy-headed tot in her arms, fresh as a daisy at 3 am, her tiny bundle of Danish DNA smiling delightfully or snoozing in a picturesque way. As I endlessly adjusted my Saran Wrap blanket and wondered whether I was getting the flu, I thought, What is this strange land we are flying to?

Well, Portland, Oregon, when you grow up you're going to be Copenhagen. All the things that make Portland adorable are magnified in Copenhagen by ten. The amount of cuteness we saw during our brief stay left me certain that Copenhagen is the cutest place on earth.

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The Church of our Saviour, with a curlicue spire that lets you climb to the top! With friendly wind turbines in the distance. This batch of 20 turbines, the Middelgrunden Offshore Wind Farm, provides 4 percent of Copenhagen's electricity. It's right there, about a mile offshore, visible from many places in town. Strangely, I found this one of the most moving landmarks of our trip. And cute!

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The Jane, puttering through the harbor. Popeye's boat, surely. Table for two set with white cloth and comfy chairs.

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This is where my teeth started to hurt, it was so enviable. Bicycles everywhere, bike lanes that actually function, and terrain so flat that the bikes all had one gear: GO.

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And to cap it off, a visit to Tivoli Gardens, the amusement park begun in 1843. So charming that Walt Disney is said to have used it as inspiration for his Disneyland. This place, so small in scale and so digestible, gave me flashbacks to our trip to Disneyworld--remembering how unmanageably huge it was, how overwhelming.

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If you really want a free mindtrip, go to an amusement park when you're seriously jet lagged. Everything is hilarious, and terrifying. The six-bucket Ferris wheel left Clif and me plastered to our seats. I thought I was going to die.

We didn't even get to the Little Mermaid statue, but I was fascinated to read that Hans Christian Andersen was a conflicted kind of guy, and that made me like Copenhagen all the more. If you haven't read "The Little Mermaid" recently, here you go--I forget how dark his fairy tales really are. Not so cute, when you get right down to it. The fact that he is a national hero--and Kierkegaard! and Hamlet!--makes me wish I had more time in Copenhagen. What lies behind all the adorableness?

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A word on knitting: I have never left for a significant trip like this so poorly armed for distance knitting. In a desperate, last-minute gambit, I decided to go with (from left) Lynne Vogel's brilliant handspun, Alpaca with a Twist Fino laceweight, and Rio de la Plata kettle-dyed sock yarn. No patterns, just needles, with the secret plan of trying to squeeze in a yarn shop or two when the fellas were off staring at some historic place. Or TV.

We arrived the port to find our ship, the S. S. Gargantua of the Seas. No wait: it was Immensity of the Seas. Or the Majesty of the Vistas? The DreamSong? The Song of the Husky? Aw hell, it was a big, white cruise ship, smaller than some, bigger than others, but certainly a vessel that on a daily basis probably sucks up the 4% of electricity that all those winsome wind turbines generate. I'm not going to go into the issue of carbon footprint guilt here, but please know that I was suitably conflicted as we sailed past the Middelgrunden Offshore Wind Farm. "Copenhagen, I'm sorreeeeeee!" I yelled as we headed out to the Baltic. "I promise I'll blog your turbines when I get home!"

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Next up: Ultimate Visby.

Love,
Ann

Posted by Ann at 12:23 PM | Comments (33)

August 17, 2009

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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Dear Kay,

Thank you for all your valiant correspondence in recent days. I don't really want to dwell on it, but all that pretty stuff you're doing is called "quilting," not knitting. I think it all looks great, but I just had to point that out because it may have escaped your notice that it's a sewing machine you're using now, not knitting needles.

I'm happy to report that I am BACK, after successfully covering six countries in eight days, returning home with a pocketful of kroner, kroonies, euros, some other kind of kroner, and rubles. It was a Grundy County-to-the-Baltic sort of headspinning journey, with an unscheduled road trip to northern Michigan along the way.

The Michigan part added an exciting randomness to the week leading up to the departure date for this trip. Once the phone call came from the infirmary at David's camp, it quickly became apparent that we were not going to be able to fly David home with his friend as planned--what airline would take a befevered, hacking-cough-ridden, Kleenex-trailing boy? Fedex was not an option, it turned out.

So I flew up, rented a car in Grand Rapids, drove through every town named for a General Motors product, and tired of Madame NeverLost telling me where to go. I found my fella in the Boy's Infirmary, along with at least a dozen other rheumy waifs, looking like a character from a Dickens novel. I would like to say that I was a stalwart supermom when I arrived--all business and hand sanitizer--but when he limply handed me the little copper crab he had made in metals class, and showed me the way the pincers opened and closed, and said it was for me, I cried and cried until he quietly said, "It's not THAT great, Mom."

The Boy's Infirmary was absolutely competent, but I had to get him out of there. They kept moving him from bed to bed as new victims arrived, and when they announced that a batch of girls was going to take over the room he was sharing, I scraped him up and ditched out.

I was totally fatalistic about everything: I knew I would get the flu from David, I knew our dreamy cruise was not going to happen. But none of that mattered. I was consumed with a ferocious love for my slim 13-year-old boy, and I knew that I would have driven to the North Pole to retrieve him.

Of the sanitizers I used, I found that Purell had a nice, no-nonsense fragrance. Stay away from the Walgreen's store brand, whatever you do. You smell like you've rubbed Jolly Ranchers all over yourself. We made the trip in 13 hours, windows down to suck out the virus, and I'm pretty sure I hallucinated all the way through Kentucky. There is no state as wide as Kentucky. When we finally got home, I discovered that we had made a stop at an outlet mall, where I apparently landed some awesome J. Crew t-shirts.

The next days passed in a schizophrenic Florence Nightingale/Eugene Fodor mix of nursing and packing for a cruise. Which way would it go? To paraphrase the Clash: Should we stay or should we go? If we go there would be trouble; if we stay it would be double.

The Decision

His fever broke, just in time. I debated stocking up on Tamiflu for the rest of us, but our doctors weren't too interested in pre-dosing us for something that we didn't actually have. We concluded that we would just see what happened. Once I decided that I absolutely was going to get this flu, I had a peace of mind about it that meant, of course, that I never actually got it. None of us did.

Here's a note to you I started on the day we left:

I'm sitting here in Atlanta, on a very hot Delta flight to Copenhagen, with David and Clif in tow [Hubbo was to meet us the following day], waiting to take off, and I'm thinking to myself, Man, what a good-looking set of passengers. Who are all these tanned and fabulous mothers toting these white-headed babies, these people wearing clothes that you can't get at the Gap? Everybody looks like Sting. One kid has jeans that bunch up at the ankles. Denim harem pants! OMG! I'm going to take more of these flights! Nobody looks tired! SCANDINAVIA, here we come!

To be continued, needless to say. There is knitting to come, and yarn, and the secret to feeling YOUNG!

Love,
Ann

PS Guess where I am in the photo above. YES! The quilter's Valhalla: the world headquarters of Fiskars! Do you know where that is?

Posted by Ann at 06:43 PM | Comments (36)

August 15, 2009

Stitches Per Dollar Is The New Gauge

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Dear Ann,

I saw an ad on Ravelry that tickled me for some reason. It was a photo of an exquisitely translucent lace stole, accompanied by this copy:

"BAD ECONOMY? LACE IS CHEAP."

Now that's telling it like it is, sistah! It makes sense: since yarn is priced by weight, the thinner it gets--the closer to laceweight-- the more stitches--and hours-- you can knit, for less money.

Sheer knits, ultra-fine-gauge knits, are econo-knits. Everybody: get busy on a Belinda shawl or a Cardi Cozy. Whisper-thin never looked so not cheap while being so actually cheap.

In some future, more flush time, we'll sit on silk divans, cocooned in chunky cashmere sweaters, drinking champagne lattes and laughing about the bad old days. "Remember how diaphanous our knitting was?" "I swear, my sweaters got so thin, they were illegal in 7 states!"

What happens if times get rilly hard, and we can't even pinch enough pennies together for a thousand yards of laceweight? The next phase: Virtual Knits. How it works: You find a pattern. Think of the most luxurious yarn you can imagine. You're not going to buy it, so turn it up to 11! Now, making sure you follow the pattern EXACTLY, and using the correct needles (you already own them, so why not amortize the investment?), virtually knit the whole thing. Just sit there moving your needles. No more balls of yarn bouncing down the subway car! Actual yarn is SO 2007! It's the honor system, y'all. You can't just randomly clickety-clack, like a dang mime. You must follow the pattern, and sometimes you must even rip back your imaginary project a few imaginary rows to correct an imaginary mistake.

Hey wait a minute! Is there already an iPhone app for this? WiiKnit?

Think of the money we'll save! And before you know it, people will be blogging about how they've got too many imaginary UFOs, and it's creating imaginary clutter and collecting imaginary dust bunnies, and they are imagining their husbands bitching about the imaginary credit card bills, and they're feeling imaginarily guilty but not really.

Or maybe not. Maybe we can just knit from stash for The Duration. Stash, when you think about it correctly, is what the accountants call a "sunk" expenditure. Translation: it's not just cheap, it's FREE. Knit it up.

Love,
Kay

Posted by Kay at 11:17 PM | Comments (42)

August 13, 2009

Knitting Poem of the Week

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Dear Ann,

I am so happy to have discovered the Knitting Poem of the Week. This one is also the Dyeing Poem of the Week, for all you cochineal fans (and you know who you are).

(With thanks to our literate, kniterate Champagne Bohemian, for leading me to the Poetry Society website.)

Let's all visit every week, and hope they don't run out of knitting poems.

Oh! And while I'm getting all arts & lettersy, I wish so hard that I had been the wag who thought of the natural sequel to chick lit--hen lit!

BOK-bok-bok-bok!

Kay

P.S. The photo was snapped on one of my Belinda-led straggles around London markets, as inspiration for a quilt or knitted log cabin blanket. I love those blues, the way the white is all concentrated in one spot, and that it's books, good books.

Posted by Kay at 12:12 PM | Comments (21)

August 10, 2009

Favorite Crafting Tips, Continued

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Dear Ann,

How the heck are you? Have you been slicing and dicing any ancestral table linens lately? Highly recommended!

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Favorite fabrics featured: Kaffe and Amy.....

The responses to my question about how to finish the raw edges on the back of my surgically enhanced French tablecloths were exactly why I love convening these basement blog meetings and polling whoever shows up. I gave deep, prayerful consideration to all of the clever ideas so generously shared. I was especially intrigued by the cross-stitch option that Charlotte suggested, and by Emily's tempting idea of backing it in muslin or linen and doing some light n' elegant free-motion quilting to hold the two layers. (She makes it sound so easy.)

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....Liberty and Lotta....

Clearly, to my mind anyway, it boils down to What Is The Governing Principle Here?

If the Governing Principle is As Heirloomy As Humanly Possible, by which I mean, make it so it will not raise the eyebrows of any Table Linen Traditionalists at my Passover seder, I think the line-it-and-quilt-it response is the right one. You would see nothing on the back but sumptuously plain cloth and glorious swoops of machine stitching. Ahhhhhh. I could hand that down the generations with pride. My heirs would not call me Weird Tablecloth Granny, or at least not Poorly Made Tablecloth Granny.

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....Naomi Ito/Nani Iro....

If the Governing Principle is As Close to Japanese As a Nebraska Girl Can Get, then clearly some kind of charming hand-stitching is required. In this case, I'd see Charlotte's fantastic cross-stitch idea, and raise her some quirky running stitches or other sashiko-inspired embroidery In perle cotton, running parallel to the strips on the right side, and tackng the seams flat on the wrong side.

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....Orla Kiely for Target (originally a dishtowel)....

But what if the Governing Principle is I Don't Want To Think About This Any More?

You see, when I finished the seaming, and the pinking, and the hemming of the inserts to (sort of) smoothly bridge the gap between the hemming of the original tablecloths, and I pressed it (a little) and hung it on the clothesline, I realized a couple of things:

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1. It looks just fine (with the usual disclaimer, "if you like this sort of thing").


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2. It looks fine on the back, too. Keep moving, nothing to see here. Don't judge me. My seams are pinked, what do you want from my life?

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3. It's at least 2 feet too long on the ends. Even for my fully-leafed table on the "All Folding Chairs Are In Use" setting, the thing looks like the train on Princess Di's wedding dress. It would require royal pages to fluff it up and keep it from getting stepped on. I simply do not have the staff.


4. Sigh. Easily fixed, but SIGH. Measuring things: try it sometime. Why so stubborn, Kay, about the not measuring? Why all this emphasis on the joy of the winging it?

SO. I have lovingly folded it up. I am having all kinds of thoughts about what to do, based in large part on comments and emails from people who actually know what they are doing. (Flat-felled seams? Be still my heart!) Right now, I'm leaning toward a resting period. I'm thankful that at least I was able to get all the pieces back together into recognizable tablecloth format before pooping out. And I'm thinking that if it still seems like a good idea in a week or so when I'm near the sewing machine again, I'll cut off the excess length on either end, trim off all the machine hemming, do a beautiful pieced binding of the entire edge to (sort of) match the inserts (goodness knows I have the scraps for it), and do some running-stitch embroidery along the edges of the seams, perhaps with a strip of hemmed muslin covering the seams on the back side. (I know, Emily! I said I didn't want to bind it like a quilt! I changed my mind!)

And if it doesn't seem like a good idea, I'll have a gin & tonic and knit something. And there it is, my favorite crafting tip: Have a gin & tonic and knit something.

Love,
Kay

Posted by Kay at 01:02 PM | Comments (72)

August 07, 2009

Enough About the Back of Your Neck

Dear Ann,

Hot town,
Summer in the city
Time to stick your kid
In a tube of knitting
.

'Tis the season, apparently, for cranking the Lamb's Pride Bulky into chewy felted rugs. Happy weekend, everybody.

Love,
Kay

Posted by Kay at 10:36 AM | Comments (16)

August 05, 2009

"Remember That Time Mom Cut Up The Tablecloth?"

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Dear Ann,

I don't know what makes me do the things I do. They always seem like a good idea at the time. Recently I cut up 2 fancy French tablecloths that are precious to me as heirlooms, as souvenirs of happy trips to France and as reminders of how much I love a good tablecloth.

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Background: Before knitting, and certainly before quilting, I had a Tablecloth Thing. When I saw a gorgeous tablecloth (and this was usually in France), I would buy it for my "collection". My collection eventually numbered a modest half dozen absolutely stunning, ass-kickingly beautiful tablecloths. (If you like that sort of thing. If not, they are just tablecloths.) For all you tablecloth aficionadas out there, yes, I am talking about Beauville, and I am talking about Souleiado. I have worn out a couple of petits fleurs de France, such is my affection for them.

Somehow, I managed to buy the same exact pattern twice, on trips that were 10 years apart. When I was picking out the second one, Carrie said, "Don't you have that one?" And I said, no! no! It's similar to that one, but it couldn't possibly be the same.

Well. It was the same. And neither of these twin tablecloths fits my actual table anymore. And Carrie thinks they're too gray and beige. So the idea occurred to cut them up and sew them back together with inserts pieced from a few of my most favorite scraps of fabric.

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The project is at the 3/4 point. It's too late for second thoughts, so I'm having them. I pinked the raw edges to make the back neater, seeing as how I still consider this Frankenstein tablecloth an heirloom. But I don't think that's heirloomy enough; I don't like seeing the seams and I'm not sure they'll launder well. (I had considered French seams but rejected them as too bulky.) Now I'm thinking there will be some way to put a lining on the back of the two pieced strips to tidy up the seaminess. I can hand-sew it down like a binding. Any actual seamstresses out there with ideas for me? Bueller?

Speaking of Expert Seamstresses

On a recent visit to Providence, my mind was blown by a visit to Kreatelier on Hope Street, which is the boutique and studio of Pernilla Frazier. Pernilla hails from Sweden. She has an aesthetic that makes one curse the fact that one was not born in Sweden. I almost could not resist the urge to hunker down at a sewing machine and demand to be taken on as Pernilla's apprentice.

For example, here is Pernilla's take on the venerable concept of the Tea Towel Quilt.

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Old linen tea towels, with appliques from a favorite vintage fabric, I think from curtains. (Pernilla does not throw out old fabrics.) There is something Japanese mixed in with the Swedish, don't you think? It's heavy as can be. An ancestral bedcover if ever there was one. It's fresh and modern and also looks like something that might have been on the bed in My Antonia's sod house--which is exactly the look I go for.

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And here is a Hankie Quilt by Pernilla. How does she manage to do this without that fusty Victorian vibe that can overtake a hankie assemblage? Can you imagine what would happen if you set Pernilla loose on a small stash of Vera dishtowels (she said, eyeing her small stash of Vera dishtowels)? This girl has got it going ON.

I will admit that I did not leave without commissioning a Small Work.

And here is the coup de grace. Dotty Chair Fans, put your hands together and scream We're! Not! Worthy! for Pernilla's Dotty Chair to beat all dotty chairs:

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It is a wonder I didn't move in.

More about Pernilla later.

Love,
Kay

Posted by Kay at 09:18 AM | Comments (56)
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