How to be the best fibre artist you can be

I started to knit very early in life. At the grand age of six I was wielding those knitting needles, and Tunisian hook like a tiny little savant. I have my extremely patient grandmother, whom I called Ouma, to thank for that. Even though my great-grandmother, Oumie, Ouma’s mother, was a crocheter who was talented beyond imagining, I did not learn to crochet from her, and didn’t learn until I was in my thirties. I applied dogged determination. I was going to learn to crochet if it killed me. My first fiddly attempts did not scare me off. In fact they galvanized my stubbornness.

At first it was excruciatingly difficult. While knitting gave one the idea of tension, it was rather different. Tunisian crochet was a sort of knitting / crochet hybrid, and was a tad helpful. I started to immerse myself in crochet magazines, books, websites, blogs, the whole lot. The one thing I did that was the game changer was crochet every single day. I would challenge myself constantly, and in so doing steadily increased my skillset.

A current WIP, Six day kid blanket by Betty McKnit (Beth Elliot) on Ravelry

I read a book a while back, when it first came out, called Atomic Habits by James Clear. I recently reread the book, or rather listened to it on Audible. I’ve been mulling it over in my mind for some time, and there are principles that apply to pretty much anything one wants to do, or learn. The book deals with some ideas that I found quite fascinating.

The first of these is the idea of 1% improvements, the rule of marginal gains. You may also see it referred to elsewhere as “microexcellence”. In the book James talks about the British cycling team, and how this theory was applied, and how it moved them from mediocrity to stellar performance. Often we think that focusing on just the big things will lead to the biggest gains, but small and consistent tweaks can make the real difference. The rule, or theory, of marginal gains relies on small but consistent improvement over time. It was Albert Einstein who stated, “Compound interest is the greatest force in the universe”. This applies to effort too.

To put this into practice, let’s talk a bit about crochet (or knitting, etc). When I first started out everything seemed so intensely difficult. I looked at patterns and wondered how on earth I would ever get to that skill level. By my reckoning the only way I would get there is by sticking with it no matter how hard it was. Crochet would have to be a habit that I practiced every single day, so that’s what I did. As I gained skill I kept challenging myself to continuously improve by attempting ever more difficult techniques. It has gotten to a point now where, when paging through a crochet mag, or book, there usually isn’t a pattern I don’t have the skill to take on. It doesn’t mean I know everything. I don’t think any of us could live long enough to know everything about our chosen craft, but by challenging ourselves all the time we can learn a staggering amount.

The next thing James talks about is the “plateau of latent potential”. This is an interesting phenomenon. I think it is best described as where you don’t always notice how far you’ve come, because your improvements are small, but one day you have an epiphany, and realise that you have made incredible progress. You have arrived at a skill level you didn’t think possible. It takes a little time to realise that potential, and it won’t usually happen over a short period. Over the longer term, looking back you will be amazed at how you have mastered your art.

Compound interest is the greatest force in the universe.

– Albert Einstein

In order to become something you must take on board the identity of what you want to become. You have to consider yourself a crocheter, knitter, weaver, whatever it is. Then you do what crocheters, knitters, weavers, do. The outcome becomes a byproduct of the identity you’ve adopted.

Practicing your fibre art means turning it into a habit. The four laws of habit creation are described in Atomic Habits as follows:

Let’s start with the cue. The cue must be obvious. That’s super important. Place your work where it is easy for you to pick up and work a few rows. The cue will trigger the craving. “Ooooh, I’d love to work a few rows! It’s so relaxing.” The response to the craving must be clear and obvious. Pick up the work and satiate the craving. The reward must be satisfying. I have no doubt that when it comes to fibre arts that the enjoyment, and relaxation, as well as the visible result of your effort, is a huge reward. This habit loop, practiced often, will lead to the consistent effort required for mastery. The reward will make you want to perform the habit over and over again. Making the hobby a habit may sound formulaic, and risks boredom, but it won’t. In order to become really good at anything you need to put in the time so that it feels natural. Mastery is the outcome, but with fibre arts you get the double pleasure of enjoying the journey too.

One of the easy ways to incorporate a new habit into your life is to habit stack. Habit stacking is where you tack on a new habit to an existing habit so that it’s easy to work it into your day. Maybe a few rows with the morning cuppa. That’s twice the enjoyment. What a pleasure.

To become really, really good at anything requires hard work, and consistency. With fibre arts mostly being skills-based, it is essential that the movements become as natural as breathing. The only way that is going to happen is if you do it every single day. I often tell those I have taught to crochet that it’s fine if they don’t have a lot of time to practice. Fifteen minutes a day is enough. Consistency is critical. I cannot emphasise this enough. Do as much as you have time for, but make sure you make it a habit. This may sound like it would take away from the pleasure, but on the contrary. By mastering the movements and skills required, you will take your journey to places you couldn’t have imagined. One day you will be quietly sitting with a cup of coffee (or whatever beverage pleases you), and you will realise you’re not a beginner anymore. You are very, very good.

“the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

― Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Minimalism and the art of yarn curating

For a long time now I have been on a journey to live a more minimalist life. It’s not so much about reaching a destination, because technically there isn’t one. Rather it is a way of living mindfully, and doing things with intention. For crocheters, knitters, and other crafters the idea of minimalism can strike fear in the heart. What about my stash?

Anyone who’s ever watched one of those hoarding programs probably did so in absolute horror. Most of us would never want to be considered hoarders. There is a difference between hoarding and collecting, in that collections are items of value that are properly stored, cared for, and sometimes displayed. Hoarders tend to attach value to things that have no real value, and amass large quantities of, what others would consider, junk.

I was the queen of my vast stash of yarn at one point. I really think that I was obsessive about collecting yarn, and it was an entirely separate hobby from crochet and knitting. We had to erect a wendy house, that was not insubstantial in size, to house this collection. All the yarn was neatly sorted by fibre, weight, and various other metrics. The reality was that I was not going to be able to use all that yarn if I tried. Some of it was impulse purchasing, and I actually didn’t like the yarn in question as much as I thought. Frankly, I think I overwhelmed myself, and really I didn’t know what to choose sometimes, and often ended up buying more instead.

While it certainly was a well curated collection, when we made our plans for emigration, and I had to decide how much of it was actually going with, it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t as attached to as much of it as I thought. Matt is great. He was fully supportive of me taking all my yarn if I wanted, but that was wasteful to my mind. I didn’t need it all. I didn’t like it all. I didn’t want it all.

My yarn stash was the final mental frontier in my journey towards a minimalist life. I had done a fantastic job of destashing the house. I was brutal with things I did not like, did not want, and did not need. What was very important to me was being more mindful of what I purchased. I didn’t want to make the mistake of decluttering only to have a house full of stuff in a year. This kind of intentional living is a lot harder than it seems. I didn’t think I was a really bad impulse buyer. I was kidding myself. I may not have bought vast quantities, but I did buy unnecessary and expensive.

When sorting the yarn to decide what to keep and ship overseas, I gave away vast quantities of gorgeous yarn that, at the time of buying, I had convinced myself I couldn’t live without. It was easier to let go of than I imagined, and I haven’t really missed it all that much if I’m completely honest. Since I got stuck in South Africa during COVID, and we decided to delay our plans a bit, the process is ongoing.

Yarn is not the only area of my life I took in hand. I have been refining my decluttering to include items of clothing, gadgets, and all sorts of things, I found it harder to declutter in the first rounds. I think it definitely gets easier. It’s like a muscle you build up. Even now I review my wardrobe, kitchen, books, crochet and knitting supplies, regularly and give away, and sometimes sell, the items I no longer need or want.

If I had to tell you what the biggest game changer is, it is not the decluttering per se, although it is important, it is making a mental shift to a place where you stop convincing yourself that you need stuff. I’m not suggesting taking up the life of a monk. What I am suggesting is getting to a place of enough. Where you feel you have enough, and where if you need to purchase something you are intentional about it. Good quality items that you actually need, and that will give you years of use.

I’m not a fan of the “one in one out” rule. It may work when you first start out, but it really is fooling yourself, and if you have the environment in mind, the consumption of more under this guise is not really effective. For me the tough one was gadgets. I am a gadget freak. I must always have the newest whatever thingie the moment it comes out. I’m an early adopter of technology. Sometimes it’s wasteful. Often it’s wasteful. I have really good stuff that will give me great service for years to come. The additional benefit I might get from a new version is likely to be in tiny increments, and not by degrees. This is a hard one for me, but I’m doing my best.

I’d love to share with you some of the people and ideas that made a huge difference to me.

My journey truly began when I read “The life-changing magic of tidying up” by Marie Kondo. Her methods are certainly effective, but perhaps a bit harsh for someone who finds it really hard to let go of stuff. I think a kinder approach is “Decluttering at the speed of life” by Dana K. White. It’s more practical in the sense that it recognises that the balls to the wall approach of Kondo is a bit extreme for some people, and may frighten them off entirely.

Things really stuck for me when I read “Stuffocation” by James Wallman. This is where the gears started turning in my mind. The title was extremely apt too. Having too much stuff really can be claustrophobic. Nothing gives me pleasure like clutter-free, tidy and organised. Thinking you can organise clutter is kidding yourself. This was my go-to before I embarked on my minimalist journey.

I have immensely enjoyed the books (the latest of which is “Love People, Use Things”), essays, podcasts, and documentaries, by The Minimalists – Joshua Fields Millburn, and Ryan Nicodemus. They really get it. They get how hard it can be. They offer so much to think about. There are so many areas that minimalism and intentional living can impact on, not just stuff. You may find that when you start to clear the clutter from your life, in parallel you begin to clear the clutter from your mind, your relationships, your finances, everywhere.

There are so many more things I’d love to share with you, but at the risk of waffling, I’d say this is a great place to for me to end, and if you’re interested, you to begin. If you are interested in a more minimal and intentional life, I would say, do it. You won’t be sorry.

Recent Projects & Yarny Goodness

Recent Projects from Jaarn Magazine

I realised I hadn’t shared my recently published projects with you. Frida the Frog from Jaarn Magazine Issue Three, Petals and Posts Scarf and Gloves, and Finn’s Blanket from Jaarn Magazine Issue Four. Better late than never, and all that. The magazine is available in digital format from the Jaarn Shop and Ravelry.

Petals and Posts image courtesy Bren Grobler @hookybren

Meet Olive the Guardian Angel

Olive is the prototype for a design I’m busy working on. Testing has been completed, so it’s really getting there. Olive is made from Vinnis Nikkim (DK, 100% cotton) and a 3.0mm hook. I’m toying with the yarn and hook combination to get a tighter finish without it being too stiff. I want to make several in differing skin tones for a nice variety.

I often use a 2mm hook with DK yarn for amigurumi, but it can be slightly uncomfortable as it is extremely tight, and tension can be tricky. Generally speaking I like yarns with a high twist for ami, such as Nurturing Fibres Eco-Cotton and Colourspun cotton. Both are very comfortable on the hands as the high twist has a bit more of a springiness, and stretch. Yarns with a low twist, like Vinnis Nikkim, can be trickier, but it is still a gorgeous yarn and comes in incredible colours.

While you can, technically speaking, use just about any yarn for amigurumi, I do recommend cotton as it washes and wears very well. My grandson’s toys are testament to that! It gives a smooth and durable finish. If you do want a fluffy finish then wool or acrylic might suit, especially if you brush it. As with anything I recommend going with the right yarn for the right application, and that you buy the best you can afford. I always feel that you put so much heart and soul into a project, why would you want it falling to pieces or pilling? It would be wasting all those hours you spent on it.

Playing with yarn

Winter is pretty much here, and so the evenings grow dark earlier. I find myself snuggled in bed with the pooches embarrassingly early, crochet in hand. I’ve always love African Expressions yarns, my favourite being Harmony. I decided that I wanted to try Joy. Joy is a 15% mohair, 40% wool, 45% acrylic yarn. It is wonderfully soft, with a lustrous sheen. It took a long time for me to work with real wool as I have incredibly sensitive skin. It took even longer for me to pick up mohair. This yarn is truly lovely, and I’ve recently completed a design with it.

I made some test squares with Joy, and this is what they looked like before blocking. I do recommend blocking this type of yarn. It will give a professional and smooth finish, and ensure even shaping. You can refer back to my tutorial on spray blocking if you need a refresher.

I’m glad it’s winter. I miss the Eastern Free State, crackling fires, and comfort food when it’s icy outside. Pretoria really is much milder, but as we hurtle through May I’m really getting that hankering for making blankets and comforting projects with squishy, soft yarns. I have recently destashed my yarns, but daresay I’m itching for another round. It also gives me a chance to go through the not insubstantial stash (even after about five rounds of decluttering), and remind myself of some of the amazing yarns that are in there.

Watch this space.

For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere enjoy the cooler days and nights, and those in the Northern Hemisphere, I hope the flowers and warmer days bring you much joy.

Cheers for now.

Making a granny border lie flat

Hi everyone. I hope you are all well. I have left my beloved Eastern Free State and am in Pretoria. Getting used to the city again, but it has its perks. Will be in Pretoria for a while before I can go to the UK to join Matt.

I thought I would share with you my tip for making a border on a granny blanket lie flat. It works for other types of blankets where motifs are used too. All too often you will see borders on granny blankets ruffled and the reason for this is that there are simply too many stitches. This is very simple to resolve.

First join all motifs for your granny blanket. You can refer back to previous posts on this topic for joining granny squares as you go.

The following steps are explained using UK terms.

Once you have your blanket all neatly joined and the ends worked away ensure that the right side of the blanket faces you. Begin in a corner, as you normally would, by joining your yarn, working a corner and then three trebles (UK) into the next chain spaces until the point where you have two motifs intersect.

For row two onward simply work as normal. By working a tr2tog on row one you have created a total of 3 stitches across each intersection where normally one might make 6. This will help your border lie flat.

Here you can see that as subsequent rows / rounds are worked they lie nice and flat.

And that’s it. A simple trick that really makes a huge difference.

Wishing all a wonderful weekend filled with crochet.