Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Creative Gene, My Aunt Phyllis, and the Bergy Slouchy Hat

My aunt, C. Phyllis Olson
I had a wonderful aunt, her name was Phyllis, and she taught me to crochet when I was seven. I don't remember if I tortured her to teach me, or if she decided one afternoon to show me to get me out of her and my grandmother's hair so they could have 30 minutes peace. I suspect it was a little of both.  I didn't hold the hook correctly, and I fed the yarn with the wrong hand, (I still do both of those things to this day), but the stitches came out the way they should, so she let me happily churn out rows and rows of crocheted fabric in my own unique way. 

Phyllis spent her days as a bank executive during a time when women didn't become bank executives. She started as a teller at the Bank of Boston after she graduated from high school in 1943 and was a vice president by the time she retired. My grandmother was Boston Irish and my grandfather was Swedish, bestowing upon their descendants a Scandinavian name and a Celtic mentality. Phyllis and my father grew up in Dorchester in a triple decker (a three story apartment building) not far from where I live today. 

My Aunt Phyllis was an intelligent, perceptive, creative woman who had a spine of steel. I vividly recall the chair she always sat in, by the fireplace, in the home she shared with my grandmother. She usually had needles or a hook in hand, transforming a simple skein of yarn into a warm, wearable piece of art. For me it was magical, and it still is. Learning to knit and crochet was a way I could bond with an adored aunt, and one of my fondest memories from childhood. 

I am a lot like my aunt in many ways. My love of all things crafty is one of those. So I have often wondered if my creativity is an inherited trait. Is my addiction to yarn a result of nature or nurture? 
Me in a poncho Aunt Phyllis made
I have been spending a lot of my time thinking about the creative process. I am somewhat obsessed at the moment, and my research on the subject of creativity has led to more questions, fewer answers and a lot of reading. The study of creativity is fairly new by most standards and relatively few scientists have shown an interest in the subject. Most serious analysis in the modern era began in the 1950s and 1960s. It is easy to find self-help titles written by self-professed gurus that promise to unleash your creativity or teach you to use your untapped creativity to succeed. Typing "creativity" into the amazon search engine will confirm the plethora of books available if you find yourself creatively constipated, but there is very limited scientific material available.  

Recent economic trends and societal demands have shifted the focus on creativity. Technological advances have resulted in people having more free time and turning to artistic pursuits to fill that time. The resurgence of crafts is one example of this. At one time sewing your own clothing wasn't seen as creative, it was viewed, rightly so, as a necessity. You either made your own clothes, or, if you were wealthy, you paid someone to make your clothes, in order to survive against the elements. Now, in most cases, non-professionals design and sew clothing solely as an artistic expression.  

Fueled by social media and websites dedicated to any pastime imaginable, creativity is emerging from the shadows of science. As more businesses look for ways to meet the recreational demands of the general public, one of the results will inevitably be more funding being directed towards the study of creativity. Human beings are closer to an explanation, but there is still a lot of data to be sorted and questions to be resolved. 

Which leads to the question I posed earlier. Is my addiction to yarn a result of nature or nurture? Does a creative gene exist? Perhaps because of the constant bombardment of news regarding gene research by the scientific media, American culture has become obsessed with using genetics to explain away every behavioral trait, good, bad or indifferent. We like to think that we are the way we were coded and that there is a gene for everything. For example, it's much easier to blame our genetics for being overweight than to admit we need to eat less and exercise more. So despite the fact that it may seem like I inherited my craft skills from my aunt via a genetic link, in the opinion of some researchers, there is no scientific proof of this. According to R. Keith Sawyer in his fascinating book Explaining Creativity, the research shows that creativity is based on the same mental abilities we use in non-creative activities. It originates in the everyday cognitive process.  
The answer is not quite so simplistic however. Some recent studies demonstrate that there may be more of a hereditary link than scientists originally believed. In a superlative Notes and Theories blog post by David Cox from The Guardian Newspaper in September of 2013, he noted recent findings arguing that the explanation for creativity may indeed lie in human DNA. Kenneth Heilman,a behavioral neurologist, along with his research team at Cornell University, discovered that creative personality types had smaller corpus callosum, a network of fibers that join the two halves of the brain. Dr. Heilman suggests that this creates a critical component of divergent thinking, a process necessary for creativity. Creative individuals don't just rely on the right side of the brain, highly artistic individuals are able to successfully use both sides of the brain in their creative endeavors.  

Cox also mentions the work of Szabolcs Keri, MD, PhD, at the National Institute of Psychiatry and Addictions in Budapest. Dr. Keri states: "Creativity is related to the connectivity of large-scale brain networks. How brain areas talk to each other is critical when it comes to originality, fluency and flexibility." The way the brain connects to other areas is theorized to be more widespread in creative individuals, and genes and DNA are thought to play a major role in the formation of those pathways. The advances in technology in regards to neuroscience, and the ability to scan the brain, have lead to these breakthroughs. Researchers can visually study what areas of the brain "light up" during creative endeavors. 

In her excellent August 15, 2014 piece for The New Yorker website, What Makes a Family of Artists?, Maria Konnikova pointed out that for now, most current research studies result in a draw. The conclusion is usually that nature and nurture both play a part in the development of creativity. Most of us possess the aptitude for creativity, it just expresses itself differently in each individual. I was exposed to crafting experiences at a young age and perhaps the pathways in my brain allow me to process creative tasks more quickly than I would a calculus problem. Without my aunt's patient teaching and encouragement I may have abandoned crocheting, or possibly never discovered my talent for it. If her guidance never occurred would those pathways in my brain have become dormant? Do I have those pathways because my DNA passed on by my paternal genes was hard wired for creative thinking? 

Why does it have to come down to nature vs. nurture anyway? Could it be as simple as nature needs to be nurtured to flourish? 

If there is a gene for creativity there might be one for hockey fanaticism as well. Like my aunt I am a diehard fan of the Boston Bruins. This week's free pattern is a slouchy hat, Bergy, named for the Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron. If Phyllis was still with us she would adore Bergeron, for his skills and conduct on the ice, and his charitable accomplishments off the ice. Stitched entirely in single crochet, it is simple, stylish, versatile and unisex. It is available for download on Ravelry & Craftsy. 
Bergy Slouchy hat


1. Sawyer, R. Keith. Explaining Creativity, The Science of Human Innovation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). 
2.  Retrieved 9/20/14
Retrieved 9/20/14

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Mad Hatter and the Wonderland Beanie

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?' ~ Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I'm mad about hats. I love making them and wearing them.  I’m captivated by a well crafted chapeau and I am not alone. In an instant gratification society, which we are here in America, the hat pattern has it all. This week, as I puzzled through where my own creative fascination for hats originated from, I wondered if someone who is passionate about hats is the same as someone who is a mad hatter. It turns out that the two are remarkably different.

In the past, making hats could be detrimental to one's health. Mad Hatter disease, also known as Mad Hatter syndrome, is the more commonly used term for chronic mercury poisoning. Mercuric nitrate, which is both toxic and colorless, was used regularly in the production of hats in the 17th , 18th and 19th centuries. Hatmaking was an important industry, supplying the demands of society for head coverings. No decent citizen of the times would emerge in public without a hat upon their head. The majority of these hats were created from animal fur that was stripped, boiled, steamed and then rubbed into a workable felt.  Mercurial nitrate made that work more efficient and more economically productive. Working long hours in that particular manufacture process resulted in the laborers suffering from chronic exposure to the poisonous vapors of the mercury. Physical symptoms of the disease include tingling and tremors in the extremeties, excessive drooling, inflammation of the gums and loss of teeth. Psychological indications are paththological shyness, anxiety and significant fear of being scorned or treated with contempt. These irrational fears can result in explosive fits of rage, which may explain the term's eventual link to violence and crime in the 20th century. 

Several Mad Hatters in history have been villains. The American gangster Albert Anastasia, a boss in the Gambino crime family who was violently murdered in a barber shop in 1957, was also nicknamed the Mad Hatter. It is believed he had knowledge of, or was directly involved in committing over 400 murders as a member of Murder, Inc., the enforcement branch of the crime syndicate.  James Madison was a criminal who robbed 17 banks wearing a variety of different hats during his crimes. He too earned the nickname of the Mad Hatter, not for his demeanor, but because he wore a different hat at each of his robberies during 2006 & 2007 in New Jersey. Batman also had to deal with a nefarious foe known as the Mad Hatter in the comics. 

For most however, the phrase “Mad Hatter” is forever linked to the character from Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. The character is simply referred to as “Hatter” in the book, not “The Mad Hatter” as a large number of people believe. As eccentric and unconventional as Hatter is in the tale, and despite the fact that at the time it was written Carroll would have been familiar with Mad Hatter’s disease, there is no proof in Carroll’s personal diaries or letters that he was created as a fictional representation of a victim of mercurial poisoning. Populist theory today suggests that Theophilus Carter, a peculiar furniture dealer who would often stand in the threshold of his furniture shop wearing a top hat, was the inspiration for the character. (Carter’s claim to fame was the invention of an alarm clock that would tip the user out of bed when the bell went off.) There is also no evidence to support Carter as the model and may well be nothing more than speculation on the part of scholars. The inspiration for Hatter remains another unanswered literary riddle. 

I think it is hard for human beings to accept, but some things, like the origins of the character of Hatter or the inspiration for a new hat design, may just be born in the imagination, given life by a brilliant spark of ingenuity. There simply may not be an explanation for creativeness that we have yet to define or understand.

'Have you guessed the riddle yet?' the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
'No, I give it up,' Alice replied: 'what's the answer?'
'I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This week's pattern, the Wonderland Beanie, is a nod to the bizarre and nonsensical world created by Lewis Carroll. Wonderland is also the last stop on the blue line, part of the mass transit subway system in Boston. It was once the home of an amusement park and a race track, and it is still the stop for Revere Beach, the first public beach in the United States. 

Wonderland Beanie is a basic, unisex beanie pattern that can become a charity cap, boyfriend beanie, sports hat in your team's colors, or a quick gift. The color combinations are endless. You can download the free pattern on Ravelry or Craftsy. 

Happy Crocheting!



Monday, September 8, 2014

Swimming in the Social Media Sea

This past week I have been busy getting my Social Media universe in order. Please take a minute and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and/or Twitter. The posts will be minimal, just alerts to new patterns and blog postings. Since you are already here reading the post, please consider following the blog on Google+ too.




Some upcoming posts and patterns include some new headgear; slouchy hats, beanies, berets and a toque. I am also going to start posting some patterns I have for bags. There is a clutch, two purses, a tote bag inspired by one I saw on the T, and a great messenger bag crocheted from kitchen twine. There might also be another infinity scarf or two in the mix along with a few cowls. You won’t want to miss any of those designs! My goal is to have a new pattern up every week. Hopefully my non-yarn life allows that to happen. :)

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Middle Bar

A few people have asked about the mysterious middle bar that features in my Sheffield Infinity Scarf pattern. I hope this brief post offers some clarification of the where the middle bar is located.

Also known as the horizontal bar, it is the little bar in the back of the hdc stitch, and is located below the two top loops. For this pattern, you would insert the hook underneath the middle bar, also catching up the two top loops. 

I hope the above illustration helps to explain and answers any questions.If you are still having problems please feel free to email me.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater and The Sheffield Infinity Scarf

The Sheffield Infinity Scarf

Several years ago I was involved with a man who was British, and he lived in Sheffield, England. Despite the fact that I was here in Boston and we had the vast Atlantic Ocean separating us, I was smitten and I wanted to create a hand crafted testament of my affection for him. No mere hat or scarf would do. Gloves? Mittens? NO! I wanted to craft something warm, that would envelop him and make him think of me every time he wore it next to his skin. I wanted to make him a sweater!

Some of you let out a gasp right now. You are the savvy women & men who are aware of the dreaded Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater. AKA the Sweater Curse or the Curse of the Love Sweater. This legend has been passed down in knitting circles and families for generations. If you knit your significant other a sweater, you are invoking the curse and the relationship will be doomed to end. In some versions of the myth the relationship will end before the sweater is finished. This is not an obscure folktale. It is a discussion that takes place in yarn stores, knitting/crocheting groups, either online or in-person, and has found it's way onto blogs and into mainstream media. It's not taken lightly either. In a 2005 poll conducted by the online knitting magazine Knitter's Review, 41% stated that they had thought twice about knitting for their romantic interests. 15% of those polled admitted that they were victims of the curse. 

I was not aware of this until I went searching for the perfect pattern for him. There were whispers I ignored. I had not gone back for a refresher course in knitting yet at that point, so I was still crocheting exclusively. The curse seemed to be less invasive in that section of the Yarn Universe. Then I came across Debbie Stoller's The Happy Hooker and the Jolly Roger sweater brilliantly designed by Lynn Zykowski. Matthew was, at the time, going for his masters in archaeology, specializing in osteology (the study of bones) and there were supposedly pirates in his genealogical background. The pattern could not have been more perfect. I decided the so called curse was an urban myth. Besides, it only talked about knitted sweaters. I was crocheting a sweater so it didn't apply to Matthew and I. Our love would be curse free. 

Elated, I floated into Downtown Crossing (okay I took the T) and purchased the precious skeins called for in the pattern. It cost about $150 at the time, which is not an inconsequential investment for a gal who lives paycheck to paycheck. I don't remember exactly how long it took me to finish it. I worked on it incessantly, and since crocheting works up faster than knitting I am going to estimate that it was maybe 3-4 weeks. I can remember being on the shuttle bus commuting home from the hospital. As I worked on one of the sleeves, I was gushing as I told the poor guy sitting next to me what I was making and for who. 

When it was finished I lovingly wrapped it, packaged it, addressed it and posted it to the UK. And then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally I got the text it had arrived and he was, well, lukewarm. I know he's British and tended to be a bit stoic but I was heartbroken. It was not the response I had hoped for or was expecting. 

This is a picture of Matthew, in the stunningly crafted sweater I made for him. He sent this as a sort of an apology. He knew his response to the sweater had crushed me. Look at that expression on his face. That should have been my first red flag. It wasn't. It ended. Not right away, it took a while before that happened, but end it did. Badly. When it was over I demanded the sweater back. He sent it back. I put it in a box in my closet where a mouse got to it and ruined it before Orlando got to the mouse. I wish I could say that was the worst of my behavior during the break up but I can't.

Was my relationship with Matthew doomed? Yes. Was it because of the sweater curse? No, but I still would have to think long and hard before I made something else for someone I was involved with on a romantic level.  I'll happily knit and crochet hats and anything else for friends, family and charity, but if I am infatuated with you, you will have to go to the store to get your knit/crochet wear.  It's not that the item itself is cursed, or that the item is poorly crafted. I think it's the symbolism that is woven in with the stitches that causes the problems.

Sometimes the Crafter can sense the relationship is about to end and unconsciously creates an item as a last ditch effort to salvage what remains. I did this with another boyfriend and a blanket. That relationship was pretty much over by the time I fastened off. The receiver can also see the gift as something too intimate too fast. Especially with an item like a sweater. The gift represents a commitment that the person is not yet willing to be obliged to make. Or it could be as simple as the knitter/crocheter sees the gift as something significant. They know the hours and money invested in the item. The time it took and the number of stitches. To them the sweater is a testament. To the receiver it's just a sweater like the 10 other sweaters in the closet. Or, like it was in my relationship, a little bit of all of those things landsliding into one big avalanche of tension.

He actually loved the sweater and was disappointed I asked for it back. In the aftermath of our implosion he said that for him it was a reminder of everything that was precious about the time we had spent together. Common sense tells me that the curse of the boyfriend sweater is nonsense, but my heart still remembers the pain and overrules my head.

The sweater wasn't the only thing I made for Matthew. I also made him a hat. I think I let him keep that, I can't remember, and a scarf that he never received because it ended before I had the chance to give it to him. That scarf is the basis for one of the new patterns I posted on Craftsy and Ravelry this weekend.

The original was my own creation, a scarf with tassels on either end. Because of the color work there were a lot of ends to weave in and I HATE weaving in ends. The tassels were an easy way to avoid that dreaded task. I made it in his favorite color of green and accented it with black. The yarn I chose was Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride Worsted. This scarf was stitched with love and perhaps a small amount of desperation to keep something going in a deteriorating relationship. I think I too wanted to create something that was a reminder of what was precious during our time together. We had both forgotten those things by then. 

I kept the scarf over the years as a reminder for me of him, of the intimacy we shared, but also because I liked the style. I wore it one day last winter and a woman on the bus asked me about it. I didn't tell her the whole story, but that encounter planted the seeds of publishing the pattern. Revising the scarf for publication would create something special out of the mess it was originally created in. I truly believe that sometimes the most beautiful things can come from the most difficult of circumstances. Even if it's something as simple and symbolic as an infinity scarf.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Iconic Hats: The Cloche

Cloche/ klōSH: A woman’s close-fitting bell shaped hat.
Origins: late 19th century: from French, literally 'bell'

There is some debate in fashion circles, but the invention of the iconic cloche hat is attributed to the French milliner Caroline Reboux in 1908. Reboux began her career as a designer in an entry level position at one of the hat shops that existed on avenue Matignon in Paris, France around the age of 15. She would later open her first shop, which would serve as her base for the remainder of her career, on the same street in 1865. At a time when image was vital to societal status, she crafted a back history that portrayed her as the child of an impoverished noblewoman and a man of letters. Tragically orphaned at an early age, she made her to way to Paris to live, eventually finding work in the fashion district where pluck, talent and artistic vision led to her phenomenal success.

Reboux’s ascent to the rank of the “Queen of the Milliners” however was not the rags to riches story it appears to be on the surface. Her meteoric rise was a combination of several factors. The more accurate version of events is that she began her career in Paris at a time when haute couture was reaching the tipping point. What had begun with Marie Antoinette in the 1700’s was now within reach of all of the affluent women across Europe in part due to the expansion of transportation. With the emergence of railroads and steamships the wealthier classes of women could easily travel to Paris to obtain their custom made, unique fashions. Dressmaking became an art rather than a simple necessity of life.

During this time, hats were re-emerging as essential fashion accessories. The simple bonnet was being replaced by extravagant chapeaus. It was the perfect time to be a master of millinery arts and Reboux was fortunate enough to have been discovered by the Empress Eugenie,
the empress consort of Emperor Napoleon III of France. Other notable customers included the infamous socialite Princess Pauline von Metternich and the French writer Elsa Triolet. The Empress Eugenie not only endorsed and wore Reboux’s creations, greatly increasing her clientele, but was a financial supporter as well, allowing her the opportunity to open that first shop. Reboux went on to launch shops in other locations in Paris and eventually in London as well.  

In addition to her innovations as a designer, Reboux was also an innovator in the business world, supporting other women as a mentor both creatively and financially. She trained several apprentices who later went on to open shops in New York and Chicago, including Lilly Dachè, who trained under Reboux for five years before emigrating to the United States. Reboux employed approximately 150 women in her various shop locations. She consistently recognized and rewarded her employees for excellence.  One of Reboux’s standard business practices was to divide half of her profits among her staff.

The first cloches were custom made hats, crafted individually by wrapping fabric around the customer’s head and then cutting, folding and sewing it into shape. They are worn snug against the head, low around the eyes, with or without brims. The hat gradually evolved from the exclusive realm of haute couture into the ranks of ready to wear and by the 1920’s it was a fashion necessity for every woman’s wardrobe.

The cloche became closely identified with the “Flapper,” a young brash incarnation of women in the 1920’s, a historical time period that is characterized by the social, political, economical, and cultural instability in the aftermath of World War I. The Flappers wore short skirts and slacks, cut their hair, and rebelled against what was considered acceptable behavior at the time.  The cloche was also popular with less rebellious women because they could tuck their hair under the cap allowing for the illusion of shorter hair without actually having to cut it. The popularity of the bob, or the crop cut, did not take hold firmly throughout the female population until the middle of the 1920s.

Haute couture designs were often intricate, expensive hats, many of which are now on display in museums throughout America and Europe. The initial cloches were made of felt but as they gained popularity other materials like straw were used. While the cloches were, and still are, often wore plain, allowing the quality of the design and designer to speak for themselves, hats could be adorned with brooches, feathers, flowers, beading, embroidery and ribbons. One of the advantages of this practice was that it produced a fresh look to an existing hat. Various appliqués were also used as pop culture code. Depending on the item and the way it was affixed to the hat, it could indicate the relationship status of the woman wearing the cloche.

My basic crocheted cloche pattern was named after Lois Long, a writer for The New Yorker magazine from its origins in 1925 until 1968. In the beginning she wrote under the pseudonym “Lipstick” about her daily, and more often nightly, exploits as a flapper in New York City. Her work was immensely popular. Long was not simply a kiss and tell confessional writer however. As the roaring 20s came to end she evolved and continued to write as a columnist under her own name for The New Yorker. If you are interested in a compelling and often hilarious view of New York during the 1920’s take the time to look up her work in The New Yorker archives.

If you would like to crochet your own cloche, you can download my free Lipstick Cloche pattern in my pattern stores at Ravelry or Craftsy. It's the perfect canvas to dazzle your part of the universe with your own style and creativity. Add a bow, brooch or flower and make the hat your own statement piece.



Monday, August 18, 2014

Patterns & Pages, Books & Blogs

I hit a milestone last week. My patterns, on Ravelry & Craftsy combined, now have over 40,000 unique downloads in less than 9 months. Woo hoo! I never thought I would have 40 downloads total when I posted that first pattern (Orlando) so I am more than a little excited to have that many. This small success on the road to, well I am not really sure where this road is leading me to, but the next two stops along the way involve writing. The first is this blog. I have also decided to venture a little deeper into the designer pond and doggie paddle my way into the deep end of the publishing pool.

Let Creativity Rule. (I have an Alex and Ani bangle that confirms this.)

It's been a bit cool in Boston lately, especially for the dog days of August, and I am already busy designing and stitching new patterns. I have two new infinity scarves using DK weight yarn, and a bunch of new hats I am busy working on for the book proposal. I also am working on a bag to be submitted for the 101 Little One Skein Crochet Wonders book. The hat patterns will not be published on Ravelry or Craftsy, at least not anytime in the foreseeable future, but I hope to offer at least one of the patterns, free, to people who decide to follow this blog. Yes, it is a form of blackmail but I have no shame. More on the hats and some pics of the new designs cooming soon.

Keep Calm & Crochet On 

I take mass transit everywhere. Our subway is called the "T" and I used it over the weekend to go to one of my favorite independent bookstores, Harvard Bookstore. (  It's right in the heart of Harvard Square and if you are ever in the Boston/Cambridge area it's a great place to visit. The staff is amazing. 

They were having a sale, it was a tax free weekend here in MA and it was a convenient excuse to indulge and buy a few new hardcover books I had been coveting. I'm sure I will be writing more about my selections here soon. I told myself I was only going to buy one book for a friend. Ahh how easy it is for me to deceive myself. 

It's a quick trip in on the red line branch of the T, and my friend Brian and I headed in. About three stops into the trip a woman got on the train with a crocheted bag. It wasn't handmade, it was manufactured, but I LOVED the striping sequence. So I dug into my bag, pulled out my handy, dandy, ever present sketchbook and began to write down pattern sequences and draw the purse. Because I have to tinker with everything creative (it's a sad, sad disease I am infected with) I modified it while I was transcribing it. I have some cotton yarn in a fern green and a bright copper that will work perfectly. I don't know if I was more excited about a new pattern prospect or the new books. The new hairstyle I had done on Saturday morning,  that I really like btw, came in a distant third on the "exciting things I did this weekend" list.


The soundtrack to this post was the album Kick by INXS

Currently Reading: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. 

Orlando helped with this post by walking across the keyboard twice while I was writing and typing a bunch of letters I had to erase.