Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Harvard Square Hat, the Homeless and Charitable Crafts

Harvard Square in Cambridge, a city just north of Metropolitan Boston, is an eclectic mix that includes the inhabitants of the ivory towers of Harvard University, retail & restaurant workers, shoppers, foodies, tourists, buskers and artists selling their work in the open air. It also has a fair number of  homeless people, of all genders, of all ages, in various states of desperation and despair.

I go to Harvard Square a lot. It is home to one  of my favorite bookstores, The Harvard Bookstore. It is conveniently located on the redline, and my apartment is also conveniently located on the redline, a branch of Boston's subway system. There are lots of nooks and crannies to write in and plenty of park benches to sit on and play with yarn. It's also a great place to walk around and clear your head of pattern puzzles or to be dazzled by a few flashes of inspiration.

I was there in December, a week before Christmas, to pick up an order at the bookstore. It was chilly and crowded. I was there with one of my best friends. We made our way through the crowds to the store. I picked up my book, and after a little while spent browsing the shelves, we headed back to the T. I saw, on the edges of narrowed vision, the homeless scattered up and down the block, but I didn't really see them. I didn't think about them. I was concentrating on getting back to the T station. It was easy to block them out because of the crowd. Brian and I stopped in front of the station and debated if we wanted to go to more shops in Harvard Square or if we should just go ahead to the fair trade store in Downtown Crossing. Ten Thousand Villages won and we turned to enter the Harvard Square Station.

As we were about to descend the stairs, I heard a voice. Quiet, but distinct enough to catch my attention.

"Merry Christmas guys."

I looked down. Sitting in the small space between the stairs and the escalator, his back pressed against the wall, was a young man with a Dunkin' Donuts cup. He was maybe 20, possibly younger, and a little disheveled. He had brown wavy hair, brown eyes and a sweet smile. I noticed that he was not wearing a hat or gloves, and his jacket was suitable for fall weather, not winter. He had nothing but the cup he was holding on to tightly. He didn't ask for anything. There was no sign requesting money, no pleas, no appeals for assistance. Our eyes met. I wished him a Merry Christmas but didn't put anything in the cup. I got to the bottom of the stars and hesitated. Should I go back and give him money? Should I buy a gift card at the Dunkin' Donuts to my immediate left and give him that so he could have something to eat? Instead I ran to catch the train. As I sat in the crowded subway car I debated going back and trying to find him. I felt guilty then and days later. I still feel terrible now as I write this.

Homelessness had a face and I had turned away from it. Or at least that was how I felt at the time.

My struggle with the way I handled the encounter led to a debate among a few of my friends and co-workers. When you give to pan-handlers and the indigent  are you helping them or exacerbating the problem? Are you aiding them or soothing your own conscience? It was a mixed bag of answers to questions that made us a little uneasy to ask.

An article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson in 2011 asked those very same questions. You can read the piece in it's entirety here. As the story is subtitled the short answer is no. You are better off donating to a charity that you know is going to use the money to help those in need and not waste money on "administrative" costs.

Thompson cited the article in Good Magazine in the UK, also written in March of 2011.

A few months ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a UK-based nonprofit that does amazing work in the field of poverty and social exclusion, issued a surprising report that deserves a much wider readership.The study evaluated the success of a radical new way of working with the long-term homeless. Instead of soup kitchens, shelters, and mobile health clinics, the charity Broadway simply selected 15 homeless people that their outreach workers had found the hardest to reach (one had been on the streets for an astonishing 45 years), asked them what it was they needed to change their lives—and then bought it for them.

And the results?

Two refused to engage with the pilot project altogether, but of the 13 who agreed to take part, 11 are now off the streets. Several have entered treatment for addiction and mental health issues, some have reconnected with their families, and all are exhibiting an enhanced ability to function independently in society (i.e. paying bills, signing up for welfare, and turning up for training courses, etc.).

Another excellent article about solving, rather than managing, the problem of homelessness is Million-Dollar Murray by Malcolm Gladwell that was published in The New Yorker in February of 2006. In that article he tells the story of Murray Barr, an ex-marine that lived on the streets of Reno NV. Gladwell examines the problems with the systems we have in place to deal with homelessness, and how many of them are insufficient. Ten years later the story is still an accurate reflection of the issues regarding homelessness in the United States. Even when removing altruism from the equation, our inadequacies of handling the homeless population are reflected in the lives of those living on the streets and the escalating high financial costs for taxpayers. People continue to throw money at the problem, but we may well be depositing the cash into the wrong places. 

So what can we do and how can we help? It turns out that maybe crafting can help in a small way.

At the end of the The New Yorker article, the social worker in the piece that worked with Murray Barr, Marla Johns, told Gladwell: “Christmas comes— and I used to buy him a Christmas present. Make sure he had warm gloves and a blanket and a coat. ”

The winter months are the most difficult for the homeless. There is a constant need for hats, gloves, scarves and socks to assist in staving off the brutal weather conditions many of them are forced to endure. By stitching and donating your handcrafted accessories, you are helping the most vulnerable members of our communities. The homeless in this country are not just individuals with untreated mental health issues and substance abuse problems. Extreme poverty, domestic violence and children being bounced from one foster home to another all add to the numbers of people living in shelters and on our streets. 

There comes a time in every crafters journey when you run out of relatives and friends to gift your creations to. Crafting for charity is a wonderful way to continue to immerse yourself in the passion of the work and channel it into a place where it is appreciated and desperately needed. 

Before that day in Harvard Square I practiced charitable crochet. I have made items for bazaars that were sold to raise money for animal shelters. For the past several years I have committed to making 100 hats for our local Caps for Kids every year. It's a program where I work that makes hats for homeless and under-privledged children in the Boston area. You can learn more about the program here in this Boston Globe article. Working in a cancer hospital I have also crocheted and knitted several hats for our chemo patients. 

I know that giving that young man money might have helped him briefly, and it would have made me feel less guilty for a few minutes, but I also know that there are more constructive ways to help. The voting booth is one place and the yarn store is another. I designed the Harvard Square Hat (and the cowl and the fingerless mitts) with that young man, and all of the individuals in similar situations, in mind. I hope that people download the patterns to make gifts for loved ones but I also hope that it is used by crafters to practice their own charitable crochet for whatever cause they hold dear to their hearts. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

More Free Patterns!

It's a grey Sunday afternoon here in Boston. Both of my roommates are sick, and we are expecting 4-8 inches of snow overnight tonight, so I am hiding in my bedroom working on all things yarn, trying not to get too worked up about how hideous my morning commute into work is going to be.

This post is mostly pictorial. I have some yarn sitting beside me waiting to be swatched. Hopefully those swatches will grow up into beautiful shawls that I can share with you over the next few weeks. There is one shawl I am working on right now I can't wait to release. It's been a joy to design and make. Shawls are going to be the hot accessory this spring and summer and I have a few that are right on trend.

I posted three new patterns on Ravelry yesterday and they went up on Craftsy this morning. The Copley Square Fingerless Mitts, the Copley Square Hat and the Copley Square Cowl. All three are free and they are beginner friendly. I stitched them in Valley Yarns Northampton, using the colors Stratosphere & Deep Periwinkle. It creates a warm, but not too hot, set that is perfect for the transitional weather of spring & fall.

Two more free patterns are coming in the next few days. The Arlington Clutch and the Heart of Glass Hat. I'll let you know as soon as those are up.

I thought I'd share with you a behind the scenes look at my work. I was shooting pics of the the Copley Square Cowl and this is a wider view:

Necessary items for all photoshoots; a cat, an x-large dunkin' donuts coffee, a vitamin water, a makeshift light box and a small box of yarn in the corner. The only thing missing are the cupcakes!

Lastly, I tweeted about the Cassandra Mitts and mentioned that they were named after the character in Neil Gaiman's short story "The Thing About Cassandra". Mr. Gaiman responded to my tweet and wrote "how cool".  I was so dorky excited it was really embarrassing. It's a very wonderful thing when someone you admire artistically -he is one of my favorite writers- turns out to be a kind, thoughtful human being too. So go buy one of his books! 

I'm finishing up Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. More on that in the next post!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

New Free Patterns!

I can't believe how long it has been since I posted on here. That is one stubborn case of writer's block when it comes to this blog. I don't believe in New Years resolutions but if I did, posting more consistently would have definitely been one of them.

I have been very busy playing with yarn and creating a new website. The new patterns will be rolling out over the next week or so but a bunch of them are already up on Ravelry & Craftsy. Here are three of them.

Alice's Shawl is made with Cascade 220 yarn, 5 skeins of Color 7802 - Cerise. It's one of the first things I designed officially and it was named after my stepmother. I even entered it in a design contest but I didn't win. I still love this shawl though and I hope you do too.

Cassandra's Mitts take their name from one of my all time favorite short stories -"The Thing About Cassandra"- from one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. The story is in his book Trigger Warnings, now out in paperback. Check it out. You can wear these mitts while you are reading!

I made the sample with Valley Yarns Haydenville, Color 21- Yellow, available from WEBS


Bergy's Infinity Scarf is the companion to the Bergy Slouchy hat, named after Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. It's made entirely with single crochet in Valley Yarns Northfield, Colors Summer Plum & Avacado, also available at WEBS. Go Bs!

I'll have more on the new website, lots of new free patterns, posts about yarn stashes, creativity & some brilliant books I have been reading. Stay tuned!


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hi Everyone.
I hope you are all enjoying the summer.

I have been busy writing and crocheting samples for the book. I think you are all going to love the new designs! It' been a lot of hard work but I am having a blast. I'll be able to share more with you soon.

I received two emails this week about the Bella Shrug. It seems that there is some confusion about the assembly once the rectangle is complete. I uploaded a revised version of the PDF to both Ravelry and Craftsy, but I thought I would add the new schematic and revised instructions here also.

Repeat rows 8-11 until the piece measures 27 (28, 29, 30) inches. End with a row 11.

Work 6 rows of sc. Fasten off.

With wrong side facing, fold lengthwise. Measure & pin 8.5 inches on both of the shorter ends to form sleeves.  Seam the ends together using your preferred method. For the sample I used slip stitch crochet. 

I hope that helps clarify the construction. The "cuffs" mentioned in the previous version are simply the 6 rows of sc that are at the beginning and end of the rectangle. If you are still having problems just send me an email. I am basically working two jobs at the moment so it may take me a few days to get back to you, but I will try and answer as quickly as I can.

Finally, I have been reading the George Smiley series by John le Carre on my commute to and from the hospital. It's outstanding. If you love mysteries and thrillers don't miss these wonderful novels. I don't even mind if the trains are delayed because it gives me a few more minutes to read!

More soon...

Happy Crocheting,

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Hook me up!

I have a friend who ardently believes that the first actor you see portraying James Bond in a movie will forever be your favorite movie James Bond throughout your life. His philosophy may explain both my preference for Sean Connery and my way of thinking about crochet hooks.

I learned to crochet on a pair of aluminum hooks that were passed on to me by my Aunt. She kept those hooks in a yellow, repurposed chocolate box. Today I keep my aluminum hooks in a green, repurposed glass flower pot I purchased at Goodwill for 15 cents. I tend to favor the same Boye crochet hooks that my aunt favored. I don’t know if it is in the design, or simply a fond childhood memory firmly rooted in my subconscious, but there is something about those hooks that just feels right in my hands.

Hooks have been made from various items over the years. Steel and bone hooks were the most popular from the 1900's until World War II, when rationing and the war effort curtailed hooks being made of steel. Boye introduced their aluminum hooks in 1949. Today you can find hooks in everything from steel, plastic, aluminum, bamboo, rosewood, ebony, clay and several other sources, natural & manmade. A quick search on Etsy will reveal a multitude of artisans creating custom and one of a kind hooks. There are also a growing number of people who collect vintage hooks. Something I have managed to avoid so far, but the quick search I did on eBay for this post made it tempting to start.

The bottom line is that there is no one ideal hook. Try a few out and go with what feels the most comfortable for you. There are no crochet police, so make sure you are always having fun with this! As long as the stitches are coming out okay, how you hold the hook and what material your hook is made of is entirely up to you.

What you choose to make with that hook (and some scrumptious yarn) is also entirely up to you. To help with that portion I'm giving away a copy of the new pattern book, Quick Crocheted Accessories (3 Skeins or Less) by Sharon Zientara


If you would like a chance to win this great new book with some really stunning patterns all you have to do is enter here: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. 

Ends the earlier of Jul 12, 2015 11:59 PM PDT, or when all prizes are claimed. 

See Official Rules

I will be giving away more books in the future, some crochet, some knitting, some other stuff, so keep checking the blog or follow me on twitter for the latest news regarding my giveaways and your chance to win some fabulous books!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Twitter Sweepstakes

I'm having a sweepstakes and you can have a chance to win a copy of A to Z of Crochet, The Ultimate Guide for the Beginner to Advanced Crocheter. Everything you wanted to know about crochet tips, techniques and tools can be found in this book. It is a must have for any crocheter's library.

It's simple to enter. All you have to do is follow me on Twitter! 

See this #AmazonGiveaway for a chance to win:

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of May 5, 2015 11:59 PM PDT, or when all of the prizes are claimed. See Official Rules

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Makers, Vintage Patterns, and Anonymous Designers

F&K's 1940's bag Butterfly and my version in pink
Makers: Women Who Make America is a brilliant documentary directed by Barak Goodman, and written by Goodman and Pamela Mason Wagner. The project was created and founded by Dyllan McGee of Kunhardt McGee Productions. Shown on PBS in 2013, the three part film deals with the struggle for equality by women in the United States over the course of the last fifty years. Full episodes of the the first series, and several of the second series, are available to stream on line here

The second series, Makers: Season 2, began airing in September of 2014.  It is a six part series with each installment focusing on a different career field, and features prominent women in that particular field. Topics include Women in Comedy, War, Space, Hollywood, Business, and Politics. 

It's easy to forget that the struggle for women to gain a foothold in the working world was really not that long ago.  Fifty years is nothing in the grand scheme of time. I am always sobered by the thought that when my grandmother was born in 1902 women did not have the right to vote in this country. That did not come until 1920. Women have only had the right to vote in the United States for 96 years. 

When women first started entering the world of business, advertising was one of the fields where they could not only be hired, but excel. The male marketing forces recognized that it was the women who controlled the consumer markets, making most, if not all, of the purchases for the family. Who better to target the motivations and desires of women in the retail environment than other women? 

Makers: Season 2, Women in Business features Mary Wells Lawrence, who was the first women to found her own advertising firm in 1966 and also the first female CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. She was the creative force behind several campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, Ford and Midas. Her company created the "I Love New York" campaign in 1977 that is still used to this day to promote tourism in the state of New York.  (For more on women in the history of advertising check out Malcolm Gladwell's 1999 New Yorker piece "True Colors" on his website,

So if advertising was one venue open to women, what were the other options? The fashion industry was a consumer market driven by women, and one that allowed women into it's ranks, but very few female workers rose to prominence. Most women toiled away in fashion houses, or in sweatshops, or doing piecework out of their living rooms, making clothes and accessories that would be branded with someone else's name.  

What about the yarn industry and the books of patterns they created to sell their brands?

I have an extensive collection of vintage knitting and crochet pattern books. Most of them are from yarn companies that went out of business years ago. Jack Frost, Quaker, Dritz, Wonoco, Raphael Brand Gimp, Glossilla, and my personal favorite for handbags, F&K. 

The market for vintage patterns is a large one. There are several sites that offer free vintage patterns. You can find several dealers on Etsy, eBay and Amazon selling the original pattern books and digital copies available as downloads. Book publishers are still interested in books showcasing vintage patterns, and several books are scheduled to be published this fall featuring retro crochet and knitting patterns. Some of these patterns have been around for so long they have fallen into Public Domain status. 

My version of F & K's Sophistication
To make an item from one of the old pattern books is no easy task. Sometimes the most you get for instructions is a paragraph. The yarn is no longer available and trying to find the equivalent can be a monumental task. Usually, when I am trying to make a pattern from a vintage book, I tend to make an inspired piece using modern techniques and yarns to create an item similar to the picture in the pattern book. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail. Either way it's an interesting and challenging process and I usually end with something unique and usable. 

The clutch with the large blue bow is an example. I used Lion Brand Cotton Ease yarn and a G hook for my version. The original, Sophistication, used 1 large spool of Corde and 3-75 yard spools of multi-colored Corde. It was interchangeable with Soutache, Ribbonette or Straw (whatever those are/were). The required hook was a number 5 crochet bone hook. 

Bone hook? It's a struggle to even figure out where to start!

Most of the women who spent long hours designing and making these patterns are completely anonymous. Names rarely, if ever, appear alongside the patterns or anywhere in the pattern books. The one exception is K. Melina whose name is prominently featured on booklets published by the Hiawatha yarn company. She created gorgeous handbags, many of them were beaded crochet, as well as hats. Who she was, and how she managed to receive credit for her design work remains a mystery, like many of her contemporaries.  

Fan Bag, No, 519 by Melina for Hiawatha and my version in green
Designers now receive credit for their work but a few of the yarn companies still seem to have a hard time giving credit to the designers. Most of the larger companies have in house designers. That makes sense from a business viewpoint. If you sell yarn you want to offer people patterns as an incentive to buy your yarn. Some of the patterns are free. Some of them come with a price, usually anywhere from $3.95 to $6.95. The practice of charging for booklets with patterns is still practiced and that makes sense too. The yarn company needs to cover the cost of the printing associated with manufacturing the books. 

Some of the companies in business today, like the businesses in the past, do not give credit to their in house designers for their free patterns. Some will give credit once the pattern is downloaded, but not on their website. The large majority of yarn manufacturers do make sure that their designers are fully credited and promoted. The really forward thinking companies, like WEBS Valley Yarns and Cascade Yarns, showcase the Indie designers creating patterns with their products on their Facebook pages and blogs. (In the interest of full disclosure I have been the recipient of posts from both of them so I am slightly biased)

For the most part, women are no longer anonymous in today's society. Equality may still be out of reach in some areas, but we are no longer invisible, and we are learning to stand up for ourselves. Today a book publisher would never dream of publishing patterns without crediting the designer of the pattern.  Sites like Ravelry and Craftsy not only offer designers (male and female) the opportunity to showcase their work, they encourage and promote the artistry and talent of so many of them.  Any time art and creativity emerge from the shadows of obscurity it's an amazing thing.