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.