Rug Poetry and the Craft Tradition

I’m a writer. This means that I have a degree in creative writing and that I hold non-writerly jobs so I can have enough money at the end of the month to send my work out to literary magazines, which mostly reject it.

Earlier this year, one of my poems was accepted by Magnolia Journal, a print anthology of socially engaged women’s writing. The poem is about buying a handmade rug in Morocco on a trip I took fifteen years ago.

The rug is its own miracle. It’s next to my bed, which is too high to sit on comfortably, so I sit on the rug to put on my shoes and socks, lingering amid thoughts of God, of the distance a rug must travel, of the endurance of art—all commonplace mysteries.

I think I wrote the poem because the rug seller spoke to me in poetry. His description was accurate. He couldn’t very well lie, after all, with my sister and other members of our tour party standing around as he showed it to me, but he could have spoken in geometric shapes or traditional techniques. Instead, he spoke like someone who was still awed by the magic of turning separate strands into a whole.

At that time, I understood that awe second hand, marveling in my mother’s yarn craft, but five years later, when I came back to knitting myself, I understood it in a very different way, in the unexpected bafflement that comes when a completed project goes onto its hanger or into its drawer, so different from the loose skeins of leftover yarn rolling around in their plastic bag that they seem alien from the piece and from the hours spent making it, or the odd disorientation that happens when I suddenly realize I’m using something I made and wonder how I worked this or that detail out.

Then I started to think about all the women who had touched my rug, the ones who had dressed the loom with cotton yarn, only a little thicker than the yarn I use for dishcloths, the ones who drew the design, the ones who dyed the wool, the ones who wound the different colors onto bobbins and worked the different sections of the pattern, the ones who cut the finished rug off the loom, and the ones who tied the overhand knots at the ends to keep the rug from raveling.

Once I started thinking about them, I couldn’t stop. I would think about them as I sat on the rug, running my fingers over the pile, which felt surprisingly ordinary, like machine-made indoor-outdoor mats. I would imagine their conversations—the kids, the husband, the neighbor with the evil tongue–when I rolled the rug up on the bed to sweep and mop underneath. I would wonder who was smug about her housekeeping, who wanted to highlight her hair, who dreamed about being elsewhere as I touched the back, which has the same pattern as the front, but the texture of stretched canvass.

And I would think about them and about my mother, an executive secretary and later field hand, who sews, knits, and crochets every now and then to make her home beautiful; about my sister, a trauma nurse, who had no interest in crafts until she bought a sewing machine at the age of forty, about myself, a social service interpreter who made socks in psychiatric wards while other people fell apart. I thought of all of us, the women I knew and the ones I only pretended to know, as I knit, as I turned yarn into something other, something both ordinary and remarkable that other women know about and other men and women can overlook, until they suddenly can’t.

To read a blog post about the journal and to listen to the poem click here. The sound file, which includes both my poem and a lovely essay by another writer, starts as soon as the page loads. The sound may be low, so it may be necessary to turn up the volume. The poem is called “Having Been to Morocco.”

Solids, Heathers, Jewels, and More

Colors can be something of a headache, and asking sighted people for clarification doesn’t help because each has a different notion of what color matches what and which color looks good on whom. So I’m not even going to pretend to go there. Instead, I’ll mention a few general bits and pieces about colors that may come in handy while working with yarn.

Some Basic Characteristics

Light and dark are contrasts. If you’re musically minded, think of light as one octave above middle C and dark as one octave below it. Think of muted, a dull version of the color, as quiet (piano), and think of vivid or saturated, a bold medium dark to dark variation, as loud (forte).

While most colors can be light medium or dark, white, yellow, pink, and lavender are light by definition, and black and red are dark by definition.

Solid yarns are the same color all the way through and make fabric that is uniform in color. A textural equivalent is the smooth public side of a store-bought knitted sweater.

Tweed yarns are solid yarns with flecks of different colors and make fabric that is uniformly not-solid. We all did a little weaving in elementary school or summer camp. (Remember the potholder?) The yarn and loom were big enough that the fabric we made had a definite grain and a clear textural pattern: the longer lines of the weft lay across the vertical warp, which was mostly hidden to the touch. This texture is like tweed: the solid background color is like the horizontal lines of the woven potholder that are easy to find with our fingers, and the flecks are like the tiny vertical bits that we can also feel. The foreground and background colors are so uniformly distributed that the fabric isn’t described as being two different colors though the two colors are seen.

Heather yarns are different muted shades of a single color. The different shades would be something like light blue, light-medium blue, medium blue, maybe a turquoise that’s more blue than green. Muted means that the colors are visually soft or grayish, like a dusty or fuzzy surface. The overall textural equivalent of a heathered fabric is like the fabric that results from working with slubby yarns, the yarns that are thick in some places, but thin in others. This type of fabric is full of subtle, but unmistakable variation. It has loose, almost lacey areas where thin yarns form a meshlike fabric; it has dense areas where thick loops interlock; and it has normal areas where thick and thin loops come together.

Variegated yarns are a dramatic version of the heathers. Variegation progresses through unmuted shades of the same color or more commonly from one color to another. The cape I’m making now has several shades of pink and peach, , a related lavender, white, and green. Texturally, the general effect is like making a slubby fabric, only imagine that the different fabrics—mesh, dense, and standard—are made of different yarns, maybe silk, wool, and cotton, so while the way one color or texture blends into the next is subtle, the over all effect is not.

Jewel tones are vivid medium or dark colors resembling gemstones (e.g., ruby red, emerald green, sapphire blue). They’re usually solid or nearly solid (meaning subtle variations of the same bold color), and they draw the eye, so they’re best for items that make a statement, comparable to a melody heavy with fortissimos, allegros, or slinky syncopations.

Colors and Stitch Patterns

To show off stitch patterns, solids and heathers in light to medium shades work best.

The darker the yarn, the less likely people are to see the stitch patterns and the more impressed they’ll be by the person who could see well enough to knit or crochet with the color.

Variegated yarns are best for no-frills crafting, like stockinet, garter, or ribbing for knitters. People never see the stitches amid all the interesting color activity, so take it easy and let the variegation do the work.

Jewels are also good for no-frills stitching. The colors tend to be darker, and their vividness is pretty damn interesting in and of itself.

All of these are generalizations, of course. A sighted friend with color and craft sense can discourse on various nuances or, more likely, point out a specific yarn that does or doesn’t do well with intricate stitch patterns, but knowing broadly what these color terms mean and how they affect our work is takes some of the uncertainty about what to do with our yarn.