Monday, August 14, 2017

FO: The 5 Year GAP-tastic Cowl

Anytime I finish a large knitting project, I am left with a little void in my life. Don't get me wrong, I love that accomplished feeling of holding a finished object in my hands and being able to show it to others, but I always am a little nostalgic for that moment when I was back in the middle of that project just knitting away. I suppose it's because I just like the act of knitting so much. I completed my Anaheim Sweater on a Sunday afternoon, leaving me with the awful problem of not having anything to knit that night! I didn't really feel like planning and starting a new project, but I had a sudden flash of memory about this cowl I started back when I first learned to knit 5 years ago (!?!), so I decided to unearth the ufo and see what I could do. This only took me 2 hours to finish :/ But now it's done and I don't have to feel guilty about such an old unfinished project :)
This is the GAP-tastic Cowl by Jen Geigley, a free pattern on Ravelry. I had only been knitting a few weeks and I was looking for beginner friendly but cute projects when I saw a lovely version of this pattern made up in a friend's Ravelry account. I went to the only place close by I knew to get yarn - Walmart - and grabbed the only type of Bulky yarn they had in a color I liked and I got to work, trying to get used to seed stitch in English style knitting. I knitted a few inches, but I was quickly bored with this. Seed stitch in English style is tedious to say the least. A few inches in I realized that I had accidentally switched to rib stitch for over an inch and I was so frustrated that I set it aside. I think I pulled it out once more over the years, but I bored quickly again so I put it back in my original WIP box (a clear tub that contained this cowl, a swatch of yellow acrylic garter stitch I was thinking would be a scarf, and crocheted limbs for a Winnie the Pooh I never finished).
When I picked up the cowl after 5 years, I decided to just keep knitting and not worry about the rib stitch area. This yarn is Lion Brand Homespun in the Waterfall colorway, and while the colors are lovely this was probably the worst yarn to make a textured design with. Homespun is spun in a way that makes it bumpy no matter what, which completely masks the knitted texture of seed stitch. In the photo above I can see the rib stitch section like a big shining beacon, but in reality this will be doubled up around my neck and bunched up to where no one will see anything wrong unless I point it out (which I don't plan to do). I remember I was so bummed 5 years ago when I noticed this mistake - seriously just 1 stitch wrong caused this - but I also remember I didn't know how to fix it. I didn't want to pull out all that work, and in this bumpy yarn I had a very hard time differentiating between what was a knit and what was a purl anyway in my inexperience. Isn't it funny to go back to old projects and see how much we've improved? I had worked on this cowl for weeks and only got a few inches knit only to fast forward to now and finish the whole thing in 2 hours. Crazy. At least I know I'm better now, I guess. Click here to see my post in August of 2012 when I was showing off this project for the first time.
Here's a close up so you can see the details and colors better. See the ribbing? lol I can't look away! I like the fading colors though, and the loft of the yarn will certainly keep me nice and cozy for the 1 or 2 days a year I can wear it in Florida, haha. What was I thinking back then? I had never heard of a cowl except as a neckline on a shirt before I started knitting, so I don't see how I thought I could use one. Ah well, I certainly have something to wear if I vacation anywhere cold.
I only had one skein of this yarn (and I was not about to go buy more), so I just knitted until I ran out of yarn. My cowl is a little narrower than the pattern calls for - mine is 12" deep - but seriously on a piece like this it makes absolutely zero difference. Also my cast on was (unsurprisingly) too tight for this loose gauge, so my cowl is only 60" long instead of 72" like the pattern specifies. You can see that the seed stitch area would definitely stretch longer, but the cast on holds it back. Again, it's a common beginner mistake, and it's not keeping me up at night.
Once the cowl is doubled up and arranged around the neck none of these details matter. All that matters is that I managed to finish such an old project and that I have something wearable to show for my efforts. This also means I can burn that awful fixed Boye cable needle I bought to make this with too (seriously after 5 years that plastic cord still had the original folds in it from their packaging, ugh). Who am I kidding, I keep everything. It now is in my great grandma's knitting basket with all the other needles I never use :)
This photo was taken under my husband's art direction, lol. I spite of this snarky post, I am really happy about this cowl. I'm happy to have it finished, and I'm thrilled by how much my knitting abilities and know-how have improved since I started. Finishing this got me pretty jazzed about finishing old projects, so I'm hoping to keep the momentum going and finish a few more. I have that box of projects plus a granny square blanket I made 25 squares for, about 15 squares for my Happypotomus, and a Lady Russell Shawl in cashmere that need knitting and crocheting not to mention my drawer filled with very old sewing projects (an apron, at least 3 Frenchy bags, a baby dress, an entire quilt, plus a few dresses for myself). Maybe one day I will deal with all these things, but I'm sure I'll produce more ufos in the meantime :) At least I can mark one off the list.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Reviews: 16 - 20 of 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them - I decided to listen to the new audio book of this, and it was lots of fun. The audio book is narrated by Eddie Redmayne (who plays Newt in the movies), and there is a new forward added by J.K. Rowling. I read the actual book back in high school for fun, but the audio book is very cute, with sound effects and growls for different animals. I definitely recommend giving it a listen if you get the chance!

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko is a book I still reference in conversation all the time. Most lists of financial books everyone should read include this book, and there is good reason. The book is based off the research these two men did about the typical millionaire in 1995-1996. Until that point, most advertisers had a particular flashy lifestyle in mind when marketing to "millionaires", and these men set out to understand who millionaires really are and then sell their info to advertisers. Happily, they decided to use the info to write this book as well, so we can all benefit from the habits of millionaires. The book sets out to dispel the myth that all millionaires drive brand new luxury cars, live in mansions, and make sure to wear the latest fashions. In reality most "millionaires" (meaning that their net worth is over 1 million dollars) are average people who are very good at saving and investing wisely. Most of who we would look at and assume they are millionaires are actually very cash poor and spend more then they are worth to keep up their lifestyle. This book outlines spending habits and characteristics of millionaires, making it seem much more possible for you to become one yourself if you knuckle down and make wise financial decisions. I loved this book, and definitely recommend that everyone read it. Everyone is bound to learn something they can apply in their own life. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is a makeshift biography on Chris McCandless, a young man who died in the Alaskan wilderness while living off the land in 1992. Krakauer follows the trail of McCandless' young life from a well-off family of the Washington D.C. area through college and through going "off the grid" to his family and friends for several years before he died on his biggest journey. Chris believed that people were too commercialized and that the only way to live a true existence was to shun modern civilization and make it on your own with what you could find - to live "honestly". He did ok on a few trips by himself, but he underestimated the hardships and desolation of Alaska. He ends up stuck and alone with very little food and eventually becomes too weak and starves to death.

I'll tell you ahead of time: this story is very much biased to try and make you like McCandless. The author, Krakauer, sees similarities in himself and Chris McCandless and tries to add deep meaning to Chris' death. This doting appreciation of a kindred soul couldn't mask the truth of Chris' life and mistakes: that he was a spoiled middle class guy who turned against his family because they live up to his personal ideals. As Krakauer references the few journal entries Chris wrote on his trip, he tries to lead the reader around to thinking Chris saw the error of his ways, but there is no proof of that in the information that was found. I'll confess, I read the book because I found the film interesting, but the book did little to kindle that interest. Obviously this is my opinion, but McCandless seems to have been a pretentious know it all of a guy who committed the same error so many people do in their twenties - thinking they are invincible. Obviously he was not, and now there's this book trying to make people like him when in reality making people like him was the lowest thing on his list of priorities. The book references that Chris was Tolstoyan, but he missed the big messages Tolstoy put into his more famous works: that your life is only as valuable as you are to those you love, and when you live only for yourself you will live a meaningless life. So how could a boy be "Tolstoyan" that renounced his family and the company of anyone and wound up dead in the wilderness only to be found by hikers months later? Doesn't add up to me. Nice try, Krakauer. I still don't like Chris McCandless. I give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

The Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro tells of the events of Darlington Hall, a large English hall from the 1930s to 1956. Mr. Stevens has been the butler at Darlington for all this time, and by 1956s the estate has been sold to an American man. His new employer allows Stevens to take a motoring trip to see some of the country, and Stevens uses it as an opportunity to try and rehire Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper who left the life of service to have a family. The story follows Mr. Stevens' trip and his reminiscences about things that happened both in his personal and professional life before the second world war.

The story's underlying theme for Mr. Stevens is the question of following his love or being what he feels is the best he can be in his profession. Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton have a very passive aggressive romance over the years, ending when Miss Kenton has clearly waited long enough and decides to marry someone else. All this happens with the backdrop of Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer and owner of Darlington Hall, hosting events with German state officials and other influential people from around Europe and America. The story is beautifully written and gives an interesting look into the classic life of English service. While Mr. Stevens seems to have given up so much in his life, he is happy in his old age knowing he did his duty with dignity. He still seems to wish he could turn back the clock with Miss Kenton though. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Tenth of December by George Saunders was recommended as "a very important book" to me, so I decided to give it a read. The book is a collection of short stories, some that have obvious meanings and some that seem to have no meaning at all. As with any collection like this, some of the stories stuck with me and some are gone. The Semplica Girl Diaries is a strange way to look at how we define what is appropriate commercialism. This story seems to get stranger and stranger once you realize what is happening and why. Victory Lap shows a young, parentally controlled boy's inner turmoil over whether he should help his neighbor who is being kidnapped. Puppy shows what happens sometimes when we think we are making a choice for someone's own good. Escape from Spiderhead is a sci fi story of human experimentation on murderous criminals. While I didn't necessarily understand each story at the time, after they've soaked in for a while I started to see the deeper implications in a few of them. The book will certainly make you think, and probably about topics you've considered but in a completely round about way. I still don't give this book quite as much credit as others, but it's worth a read. I give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, August 7, 2017

My Daily Painting Challenge with Yao Cheng

Every once in a while there is a challenge that kicks my rear in gear and makes me want to really try something new. I posted about dabbling in watercolor painting back in March, but to be honest I haven't done any painting since then :/ I was still very interested in trying to get better at painting, but I just struggled with what to paint and when to fit it in. When I saw this new Creativebug class I knew it was just what I needed to get me to give it another try and (hopefully) make a habit of painting.
I waxed poetic about Yao Cheng's beautiful painting classes on Creativebug back in March (click here to see all of her classes), and I still love her effortless style of painting florals. Yao had a new Daily Challenge class that released on July 1st. The way it worked was that a new chapter of the class was released each day to show how to paint a new type of flower. I was stubborn, so I didn't start on July 1st like the class is meant to do, but by July 10th I could no longer resist the temptation. I pulled out my palette and dove in.

I painted all of #1 through #8 on the 10th, then I painted #9 through #11 on the 11th. After that I did each flower on its assigned day. Things didn't start off terribly or anything, but I wasn't exactly thrilled by what I was able to paint on these days. Mostly I was happy that you could tell what type of flower they are supposed to be, lol. These are: 1. Craspedia, 2. Lavender, 3. Hyacinth, 4. Tulips, 5. Goldenrod, 6. Orange Firethorn, 7. Agapanthus, 8. Stock, 9. Dill Stems, 10. Allium
By the 11th, I had a decent grasp on the techniques and got slightly better. These flowers are: 11. Hydrangea, 12. Rose, 13. Fuji Chrysanthemum, 14. Carnation, 14. Pincushion Protea. I enjoyed painting the hydrangea, but I really don't love how watery my results are compared to most of the other flowers. By this time I had a better handle on my leaves and I was better able to control my color bleeds. I LOVED the Fuji Chrysanthemum. This became one of my favorites even though it's not as well executed as later flowers (and it was with my cheaper materials). The carnation saw a new technique - wet on wet. You actually paint with just water and then drop the colors you want onto the edges to get a natural looking bleed. The pincushion was fun and was fairly easy to get the desired result.
This set is when I started to realize the failings of my materials could be causing my frustration. These are: 16. Dahlia, 17. Muscari, 18. Sunflower, 19. Ranunculus. The only one in this set I like is the muscari. I was getting major puddles on my paper as well as major warping where I used more water - you can see this in the way the paper scanned all wobbly and this was after I set the dry paintings under heavy books to flatten them out. This was when I decided that my paper wasn't great. I also noticed I was having problems with the depth of my colors when dry. I know watercolor is sheer by design, but mine were much more so than Yao's and it didn't seem to matter what I did. I put that question up on the class message board and the consensus was that I needed better quality paint. Since I had an Amazon credit, I sprung for a pan set that had good reviews and people specifically mentioned the vibrancy of the colors. Day 18 (the sunflowers) was the first day I had the new paint. I couldn't resist trying to add a little of my new gold paint in there, lol. I also must confess - I was afraid of getting my colors muddy in the pans - this is why the sunflowers are such solid colors, particularly in the leaves. I got over this by picking up a porcelain plate at the Dollar Tree to act as a palette - basically I get that plate as muddy and mingled as I want while keeping my pans mostly original. This has worked really well for me, so if you're at all OCD particular about your colors like I am, I recommend a wide open palette to mix with. Also day 19 was my first day I repainted, but I still wasn't really happy with it. The first time I got a lot of accidental bleeds and then I accidentally dropped my loaded paint brush and I was really done. I painted another version that night, but I think it looks like a lollipop, lol.
This set saw things really start to turn around. These are: 20. Hibiscus, 21. Water Lily, 22. Poppies, 23. Pansies, 24. Lily. I was very happy with my hibiscus ... until I added the gouache for the stamen, lol. I couldn't find gouache locally except for full kits, and being on my very tight budget I went with the cheapest option, lol. Well, the gouache I got is kind of useless. I'm not sure if it should even be called gouache. The paint wasn't opaque and kept activating the color beneath, mixing their colors and dimming my yellows. It was also very goopy even after I mixed it with water. I'm still very happy with the flower itself and the leaves of my hibiscus. I finally got better paper on the 22nd, and I'm sure you can see the difference in this day. I had no puddling or warping of the paper and it was so great, lol. Again I was happy with this until I had to add the gouache. I still like the green and pink poppies though. The pansies are another wet on wet technique and I need to practice it more. Mine was not quite wet enough to spread the color fully, so I had to go back and add more. The lily was one of the more difficult flowers in that it took about 3 layers to do. I was frustrated at the time, but it's really not that bad now that I look at it after the fact.
These next two lines are the final week, and this is where I really saw definite improvement. These are: 25. Cherry Blossom, 26. Anemone, 27. Cosmos, 28. Alstromeria. I loved my cherry blossom until I added the gouache (again). This gouache did come out better than others though, so I still like it a lot. By day 26, I had purchased a micro brush for the wispy details and this was the first day I used it. Oh man what a difference! These anemonies became one of my absolute favorites I painted this month. The alstromeria got painted twice because I forgot to add the yellow while the base flower was wet, so I ended up painting two. In the end I actually like the first try better, lol.
And the final few days are certainly some of my best work - go figure. These are: 29. Delphinium, 30. Foxgloves, 31. Peonies. I LOVE these peonies. I really like all 3 of these, but the peonies in particular came out really nicely. 
Overall these were my favorites. Some of them I can see aren't fantastic now that I've improved a bit, but I still remember feeling proud of them at the time I painted them. I will definitely be painting all of these again :)

What I learned:
  • Cheap materials give cheap results - I talked a big game about saving so much money on my watercolor supplies when I first started, but to be honest I have replaced ALL of my components throughout this challenge. The paint I had wasn't giving me reliable pigment (probably because there wasn't a lot of pigment in the mixture), so I got a better set. My paper was warping something awful on every single painting, leaving rings around the areas where the water puddled, so I bought thicker paper (Strathmore 300 Series). My brushes just didn't seem to hold the amount of water that Yao's did, and after further research I discovered it was mostly due to the bristle type of the brushes, so I bought a few nice brushes (synthetic squirrel) in the sizes I used most. I still shopped sales at local stores, and somethings came from Amazon, but I still spent considerably more than my original $20 or so. I've really enjoyed painting everyday, so this cost was worth it to me, but it would have saved me money if I had just bought the decent stuff in the first place. 
  • Not all brush types are the same size - Yao is pretty good about telling you which brand of brush she is using as well as what size and why. When she used a size 12, I grabbed my size 12. I started to notice that I wasn't getting near the swipe size she was, so upon further examination I realized my cheapy brushes were considerably smaller even though the number was the same. I even found this with a nicer set of brushes that was a different material - as in I bought a set of brushes that included a size 6, then bought a nicer synthetic squirrel brush in a size 6 and the squirrel brush is a decent bit larger. This isn't a terrible thing, just keep in mind that you will get a different result.
  • You can improve at ANYTHING if you devote yourself to doing it a little every day. I certainly don't think I'm some amazing painter by any means, but I can see decided progress from my flowers at the beginning of the month to the end of the month. This is why I wanted to post all of my flowers here to show the difference. The differences are not just in the quality of my materials (which is noticeable as well) but in the decisiveness of my strokes, the quality of my color blends, the shapes of the flowers, etc. Just from spending a little time each day with this skill, I have improved.
I was so into watercolor that most of my other hobbies kind of stopped in the month of July. It's not that I didn't enjoy sewing and knitting still, it's that I really was having fun with watercolor and I wanted to keep that momentum going. I also painted a few extra things this month since I was in the mood and all my supplies were out. I tried Yao's geometric blending exercises from her Beginning Watercolor class a few times to test out my new paint set - *hint* all of these have metallic paints because I just couldn't resist. Then I decided to try painting birds,which turned out pretty well - a few of these were copied from tutorials I found on Pinterest, but the cardinal I painted from a photograph (cardinals are my favorite bird). Then another night I decided to paint my Crown of Thorns plant (which was on the new paper with new brushes) and I was very happy with how the leaves and buds look (still need to work on the thorns and the pot though, lol). One of the draws for me to start the flower challenge was to actually have something in mind to paint as this used to be my biggest hang up (meaning I would want to paint, but I just could never decide what subject to actually paint). Now I just have things pop into my head that I should paint, so this is another nice perk of completing this program. It made me realize that it doesn't have to be a big song and dance - just paint something!

I'm surprised and excited with the results of taking this class. What started as an innocent, "Hey why not?" type thought has turned into something that I love to do. I would never have guessed that I would take to painting in any form if you'd asked me any time before the last year. It's crazy that something I always thought I was no good at would become something I actually feel a little proud of now :) It's nice to see the results of dedicating yourself to something new. So, if you have a notion to try out art, I cannot recommend this class enough. It doesn't matter that the month is over because you can still watch each class and do this at your own pace. You can also do like I did and watch Yao's Beginning Watercolor class first so you have a little understanding of what to do going in. Both of these classes are included with a $4.95 monthly membership (you can even get 1 month free as a new member!) and I recommend watching anything and everything that spark your interest. I had a lot of fun and have a great jump start into a new skill. I'm also super excited for Yao's new class that comes out this Wednesday!

Friday, August 4, 2017

FO: Melvin the Manatee

This project spawned from real life inspiration. My husband and I were walking our dog at night along the dock at my complex when I heard coughing in the water. It turned out to be porpoises, and they swam right up next to the dock under the street light so we could see them as they hunted for fish. It looked like a young one was being taught. I was so excited that I insisted on walking back down the dock to see where they went and possibly watch them again. We walked along staring at the water, and when were almost to the edge of my complex we saw a large dark mass swim into the light along the dock - a manatee! Even though I live on the water, it has been a long time since I was in the right place at the right time to see any wildlife like this. Then I was so excited about the manatee that I insisted we walk all the way back down the down again to watch him. I'm very glad we did because in between lighted areas we were able to see his outline from the bioluminescent algae that clung to him, so he was a glowing outline of a manatee swimming slowly down our dock. He stopped a few times where fresh water ran off our property and we got to watch him drink it up :) It was so neat. And I am a total nerd, but I was excited like a little kid. I had a lot of fun. Once the manatee swam past the span of the dock, I waved goodbye and walked home. My husband looked at me and said, "You're going to knit yourself a manatee now, aren't you?" I went inside and immediately pulled out the yarn and started knitting :)
This is Melvin (I also named the real manatee Melvin, so this is an homage). I've had the Manatee pattern by Rachel Borello Carroll of Yarnigans in my stash for a lont time, but this finally gave me cause to knit it up. I'm so glad I finally made this! The pattern was very well written and it was so quick to knit. I finished this in just a few hours over 2 days.
You start at the nose and you can actually see the manatee's mouth take shape without the stuffing. I was impressed by how good it looked so early in the pattern. Once you finish the pattern has you embroider nostrils and a mouth, but really that's just to amp up the cute factor as you can see what it is without this touch. I used 6 mm safety eyes a,d just white embroidery floss for the face.
The back spirals shut very quickly like a hat and I love the shaping lines he gets. Since I was working immediately and late at night, I grabbed the best gray worsted yarn in my stash - this is vintage Patons Canadiana I got at a thrift store and it really is a great yarn (I'll be sad when it's all gone, lol).
If we're being technical - the tail should be much bigger, wider, and more rounded, but this is designed more to be a cute representation than a realistic one. If I was going realistic I would have to add barnacles and a healed boat propeller gash to his back (unfortunately this is normal). The whole body is knit seamlessly, which definitely helped speed up the process.
It's a knitting thing, I'm sure, but I get great satisfaction looking at those perfect increase lines :) I tried to attach the flippers as smoothly as possible, so I used a duplicate stitch. The mouth and nostrils were embroidered with a chain stitch. Take your time on the embroidery! I lost count of how many times I had to pull it out and try again because I wasn't happy with the shapes.
So that's my little Melvin :) I'm tempted to make him a small water bottle too just to commemorate our experience, lol. He's a fun little addition to my sewing room, and I'm so glad I have this little memento about a simple but memorable evening.