Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Marcia Shawl & The Outlier Toque Part II

If you ask any writer, artist, musician or innovator what question they are most often asked, I believe that the majority of them would respond that people want to know where they get their ideas from. I would also be willing to wager that it is the hardest question for them to answer and they may not honestly know what the sources of their inspiration are. 

My fascination with creativity is born from my own lack of awareness as to where my creative visions originate from. People ask me all the time where I get my ideas, and the majority of time I struggle with a reply. Sometimes I know where the spark initiated but tend to fall into a creative blackout after that. I wake up and have a hat next to me in bed with only hazy memories of how we got there. 

The Outlier Toque began as a nod to writer Malcolm Gladwell, and in particular his book Outliers. There is a previous post that explains this in more detail, but I wanted to explore some of the hypotheses of the book regarding success, our collective societal definition of that concept, and how it could relate to my work as an artist. 

There is a business aspect that needs to be present in order for any creative endeavor to succeed. That is my weakness, and I suspect the shortcoming of many talented artistic individuals. While it is a book on sociology, not business, Outliers prompted me to think about my craft, and my success as a pattern designer, with a new perspective.

I develop a certain fondness for my patterns for various reasons. I want them to succeed. I want the world to appreciate them as much as I do.  The Neely Slouchy Hat is one of those patterns. The Outlier Toque is another one. I am always surprised by which patterns take off and which ones don't. I love the pattern Berkley, but if you crunch the numbers some people may come to the conclusion it is not as successful as some of my other patterns have been. It's bewildering. 

How do you define a pattern's success? 

Neely has had 4,778 unique downloads since it was first published on June 10, 2014. Berkley has had 1,433 in a year. It was published on 10/27/2013. The Outlier Toque had 377 unique downloads in it's first week. 

Is it simply a matter of numbers and formulas or are there other ways to measure the success of an individual pattern?  

Sometimes, like with the Marcia Shawl, a pattern is inspired by a memory, a place, or a person that is dear to me. I develop a fondness for a certain pattern because I adore the person I created it for. The Marcia Shawl was originally created for one of my closest friends who fought a determined, but ultimately unsuccessful battle with breast cancer. It's still difficult to write about, and I have experienced a long internal debate on whether or not to publish this pattern. I want this pattern to do well for her, because so much of her spirit, courage and faith are woven in with every stitch. I hope that this pattern will succeed in providing serenity for others who are facing difficult times. It was designed for that singular purpose. That is a level of success that is not measurable, regardless of the number of downloads it has or doesn't have.  

When I was designing The Outlier Toque I also had a singular purpose, but one that was quite different from the Marcia Shawl. I wanted it to appeal to as many people as possible. My motto when I design is simple but elegant. This design needed to be easy enough for a beginner who has never stitched a hat before, but would also be handy for a more advanced crocheter who is looking for something quick to create. It should be adaptable in length, from a beanie to a super slouchy. I wanted something that would look stunning in a self-striping yarn or just as striking in a solid color. It needed to use one skein of yarn so it would be a great stash buster. This  pattern was created to be a "go to pattern" for holiday gift giving. 

I stitched the original in a sock weight yarn, Noro Kureyon sock, and published it on 1012/14. 

A few days ago I got the idea of experimenting with various yarn weights using the same pattern. I wondered if the yarn called for could make or break a pattern's success. Do knitters and crocheters have a loyalty to a weight of yarn? I tended to use worsted weight yarn exclusively for my designs. 

Why worsted? 

I didn't really have an answer. I have a lot of it in my stash but I have a lot of bulky weight yarns also that I tend not to use when I am designing. The popularity of the Fascination Street Slouchy, stitched in a bulky weight yarn, was the catalyst for my thoughts on different yarn weights. Which led me back to my ever dwindling yarn stash. All roads seem to lead me to those rubbermaid storage containers. 

I love the idea of being able to have one pattern and also have the ability to choose between 4 different types of yarn weights when you stitch that pattern. I have plans to try it with another hat, this time a beret. It's an interesting concept and one I intend on exploring further over the next few weeks in between hockey games. 

I have created a version of the Outlier Slouchy Toque in DK (A very special thanks to my friend Stuart who gave me the gorgeous yarn for the DK version as a gift), worsted and bulky weights in addition to the original in sock weight (The Outlier Toque). 

Success is still an elusive concept for me, but I am learning.

All four patterns are available for free on Ravelry and Craftsy. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell, The Outlier Toque & 10,000 Hours of Playing with Yarn

"Achievement is talent plus preparation"  
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers 

Malcolm Gladwell has been taking a fair amount of hits lately from the mainstream media and certain corners of the internet over a theory he popularized in his book Outliers, The Story of Success. I sometimes think that I have read a different book by someone with the same name, and the same book title, because the book they are describing is not the book I read. I even went back yesterday and re-read the chapter on the ten-thousand-hour rule just to make sure I wasn't idealizing what Gladwell had written. Yes, he is a proponent of the ten-thousand-hour rule. No, he does not theorize or promote that theory as the sole factor in succeeding. For those not familiar with the book, and if you haven't read it I highly recommend it, the ten-thousand-hour rule is roughly the amount of hours an individual needs to put in to become an expert in most fields where there is a level of complexity or skills to be mastered. 

A recent study came out reaching the conclusion that the ten-thousand-hour rule may be inaccurate. In fairness, I have not read the new study written by Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald, but I have read the one by Ericsson and his colleagues, the latter being one of the sources Gladwell used when writing Outliers

Most of the media pieces I have read about the release of the new study seem to gleefully toss Gladwell on the fire for popularizing the theory in a book that was published in 2008. That was six years ago. Outliers is not a book solely about the ten-thousand-hour rule. The part practice plays in success is one of several components, including innate talent and the opportunities, privileges and lucky breaks that make up the complete story. 

The ten-thousand-hour rule was a not a new theory when Gladwell wrote about it. The phrase "practice makes perfect" has been around since the middle of the 16th century and is a revised form of "use makes mastery," according to Forty years ago Herbert Simon and William Chase published their conclusions in American Scientist, estimating that it took between 10,000 and 50,000 hours to become a chess master. Another major study was conducted by researchers K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf TH. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer that was published by Psychological Review in 1993. Other authors have drawn upon the same studies including Michael J.A. Howe who wrote the brilliant book Genius Explained. 

As I read more and more articles I found myself wondering when the current study was initiated. Was Gladwell's writing on the ten-thousand-hour rule the catalyst for the new study? Or had it begun prior to Outliers being published? 

When I re-read Outliers recently I noticed that I kept thinking about my definition of personal success, not necessarily professional, and how the theories proposed in the book applied to my passion for my creative endeavors. I wondered how many hours I had put into crocheting over my lifetime. There were large stretches of time I did not work at my craft. Despite that, when I do the math, I probably do have about 10,00 hours in. I'm not sure I would call myself an expert, but I would say that I have mastered the art of crochet. There is a level of complexity and skills you need to be able to design patterns and I have achieved those. It would be interesting to know how many hours of practice the top crochet and knitting designers have. Unfortunately no one has undertaken that study yet, but I would love to see those results.  

My first and last knitwear design
I learned to knit at the same time I learned to crochet but for some reason I struggled with two needles as opposed to one hook. Crocheting was more organic, so I stuck with that and I quit knitting. I did eventually pick up knitting again as an adult. While I do have some proficiency knitting, I am not even close to master status, and would be hard pressed to design a knitwear item. I made my friend Deb a sweater I designed a few years ago,  but it was a struggle for me to accomplish the task. I would hate to see someone try and make a sweater from those pattern notes! I just muddled through as I went along so it was a fortunate mix of talent with yarn, luck and perseverance. 

Natural talent plays a role as to whether or not we stick with something. Most of us will not continue to play tennis, or the piano, or paint if we have no aptitude for it. You aren't going to get 10,000 hours of practice in if you aren't very good at something, and most of us don't enjoy doing things we aren't very good at. I'm a terrible runner, I hate doing it, so I only run for subway trains and buses. Although I should get extra credit for running in heels. If I had been as inept at crocheting as I was at knitting, or running, I most likely would not be writing this piece today. 

When I was younger I would ride my bike down to the local tennis courts at my high school. They had these concrete racquetball courts there and I would spend hours on my own just hitting the tennis ball against that cement wall. I got pretty adept, I went from constantly chasing missed balls to rarely fanning on a forehand or backhand. I never stuck with it though after I left high school because I had no confidence in my tennis talent.  It was just me on my own. I had the passion, I was putting in the hours, but was missing a key component to succeed. A mentor. 

I had the support of a master crocheter and knitter. That education played a vital role in my development. Success is also about being able to take advantage of opportunities as they are presented. My aunt supplied me with the financial and educational support I needed in order to practice my craft. Without either of those I would not have had the opportunity to put in the hours. 

I started designing and writing my own patterns at a time when all things yarn was coming back into fashion. The creation on the internet of sites like Ravelry allowed knitters and crocheters to find others with the same passions. Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of patterns available and not just the limited selection of 15-25 books on crochet at the local Barnes & Noble.  I had the talent, I had the 10,000 hours and I was ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it came along. 
“It is not the brightest who succeed,” Gladwell writes in Outliers. "Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

I think that practice has to be a key component in higher levels of achievement, but it is by no means the only component. Outliers, for me anywaysis an attempt to redefine the word success, and the criticisms currently directed towards Mr. Gladwell are an indication of the aftermath of success in this country. Creativity, genius, and the roles talent, genetics and yes even practice, play in the creation of personal and professional achievements are all questions that have yet to reach a definitive conclusion. Fulfillment is a blend of talent, practice, passion and opportunity. The business world has latched onto to Gladwell's work, but the possibilities for societal change regarding success and opportunity are what makes his work exciting for me. The best books are the ones you still think about long after you have read the last page.

The free pattern this week is a nod to Malcolm Gladwell, The Outlier Toque. A toque is the term Canadians use for what Americans call a beanie hat. It is a slouchy style worked up with with sock yarn. Two of the samples are made with Noro sock yarn and the solid color hat is stitched using Cascade Heritage yarn. The pattern is available on Ravelry & Craftsy as a free download. 

The Outlier Toque stitched in Noro Kureyon Sock and Noro Silk Garden Sock

The Outlier Toque stitched in Cascade Heritage Sock

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Yarn Stashes and the Fascination Street Slouchy

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  

The same statement can be applied to a skein of yarn. It’s just waiting for the designer to
discover it. Sometimes the paths to that revelation take various routes, some simple, some more complicated. I can have a pattern flow off my hook the first pass and sometimes I end up frogging it four or five times before it works.

Inspiration can be a fickle muse. 

Last Saturday I was recovering from a nasty stomach virus. I wasn't able to finish the post I had been working on, so as I transformed back into a human being I began to think about what I was going to write about, and more importantly what pattern I was going to put up. I have a sketch book full of ideas but nothing I could whip up in an afternoon. I was a little lost, which led me to my yarn stash.

A yarn stash is exactly what it sounds like, a secret, or sometimes not so secret, stockpile of yarn. Most fiber addicts view the accumulation of skeins as treasure chests overflowing with spun fiber gold and colorful strands of gems. In reality, at least in my case, it is a much less glamorous stack of about twelve large Rubbermaid containers. They are sorted by yarn weights and fibers.

Yarn stashes are popular topics on discussion boards, blogs and in local knitting/crochet groups. Most fiber enthusiasts have a stash of some sort. They range anywhere from a large shopping bag to a massive hoard. The picture below is from a craigslist ad for an estate sale. This was the amount of yarn they were liquidating from one person:

So why do a large majority of knitters and crocheters impulsively buy yarn when we have no idea what we are going to do with it? Wouldn't it be much more sensible to buy it when we have a project in hand specific to that yarn? There may be people out there that can manage to do just that, but after reading hundreds of posts online I think it's a rare occurrence. Stashes that range between 300-500 skeins of yarn are not as uncommon as one would think. The longer one has been a knitter/crocheter, the larger the stash.

So when does a stash cross the line into a hoard? In an article online for the Psychology Today website, writer Jessie Sholl states that there is a fine line between collecting and hoarding. A great deal of people who tend to cross the line consider themselves artists, or in fact are artists. There is an aspect of uniqueness that appeals to those with creative tendencies when they continue to purchase yarn spontaneously. A fiber artists buys that one skein of hand painted fingering weight yarn because they will never come across it again, and that one skein can easily turn into ten. All of those single balls of yarn accumulate, waiting for the right pattern to come along. 

In the book Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding, David F. Tolin, Ph.D.,Randy O. Frost, Ph.D. and Gail Steketee, Ph.D. wrote: "People who hoard often come up with idea after idea, saving things for all kinds of creative reasons but never following through with those plans. They have become victims of their own creativity." This quote refers to extreme cases, and yarn hoarding is very different from the horrific stories we see on the news of people hoarding trash or animals, but it is an interesting aspect of yarn collecting to think about. I may not have a hoard, but I do have a large stash and that quote applies to me. Am I a victim of my creativity?

For yarn collectors there also seems to be a an element of shame attached to their stash. The definition of the word stash, according to the American Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition: v. store something safely in a secret place. n. a secret store of something. Common words associated with stash discussions include guilt, shame, obsessive, compulsive and embarrassed. I'm not immune to those feelings. I am aware of them every time I search through my stash.

Do other collectors experience this kind of remorse? Comic Book collectors are celebrated and their collections are considered investments, even though the majority of their stash most likely has little monetary value. People collect all kinds of things in this world. How is a comic book, a coin, a stamp or a piece of pottery different from a skein of yarn?

Why as crafters are we ashamed of our collections?

The struggle to organize and control the stashes we possess is also a popular topic and has led to several self-help articles on the web. There are stash buster pattern books and mobile apps. It seems like everyone has advice on how to pare down the overflow of skeins into a more manageable number. I succumbed to the shame last year. After donating several trash bags full of yarn that I would never use to Big Brothers Big Sisters, I made a commitment to myself that anything I designed had to be made with yarn from my stash. I could not, and more importantly would not, purchase any yarn to stitch samples. I would "shop my stash" for projects. So far I have stuck with that. It has taken ingenuity and willpower to make it work, but sometimes, like today's free pattern, the inspiration for the project comes from the yarn itself.

The Fascination Street Slouchy didn't exist until I held a skein of Cascade 128 in my hands. I knew I was going to make a hat, and as I picked the colors I knew it would be a slouchy, but it wasn't until I was stitching the third round the vision of the design solidified in my mind. To be able to look at a skein of yarn, hold it in your hands and envision the hat it could become is a little bit magical. I like the notion of having those seeds of enchantment sown throughout my life. Sometimes I don't want the science of where that magic comes from to salt that soil.

Oddly enough the hardest part for me is not coming up with the patterns. The most difficult process for me is coming up with the name for the pattern. How did I finally decide on the title of the new design? I was listening to The Cure as I wrote this post. "Fascination Street" is a great title for a song and for a slouchy hat. It also seemed to fit in with this week's entry. Looking for ideas in your stash is a little like strolling through a Fascination Street, peering in bins, shelves and carts, looking for the one thing that will spark the creative process in your own mind. You'll never know what you are looking for until you find it.

This week's free pattern: The Fascination Street Slouchy

The pattern is available for download on Ravelry & Craftsy.