Work-to-Glory Ratio

In the early, sporadic days of my knitting, when I was making the transition from wistfully reading knitting blogs to actually doing some knitting myself, I had the great good fortune to stumble upon TECHknitter. Though their identity remains (to me, at least) a mystery, they are clearly a capable and inventive knitter, because their blog, which spans more than 10 years, is really an electronic book full of improved solutions to many of knitting’s everyday challenges. From them I have learned a gap-less, jog-less way to join a piece of work in the round, three ways to bind off circular knits depending on the type of project, and ten methods for weaving in ends (though I’ve only used four or five of them to date).

Much of TECHknitter’s writing deals with the mechanics of knitting, like why a stockinette edge curls (and why adding a border doesn’t really fix the problem), and how to use that knowledge to your advantage. But sprinkled throughout are bits of knitting philosophy, such as when to choose an excellent but fiddly solution and when to settle for a pretty good one. Very occasionally—only a handful of times in a decade—TECHknitter treats the reader to a pure philosophical refection on the craft.

The one that’s stuck with me, that continues to thread itself through more and more of my thinking, is the work-to-glory ratio. Originally posited by TECHknitter’s friend Carol, the work-to-glory ratio is the relationship between the amount of effort that goes into a project and the degree to which the result is impressive or satisfying. A project that appears difficult but was in fact easy to knit has a good work-to-glory ratio, whereas a project that was tedious or hard and turns out indistinguishable from something machine-made has a bad work-to-glory ratio.

As TECHknitter is quick to point out, there are of course plenty of projects that are both challenging and gratifying: some projects are rewarding precisely because of the time and effort that went into their making. A practical project in a workhorse yarn with a familiar pattern might turn out precisely as useful as the knitter intended. For TECHknitter, the work-to-glory ratio is more an observable phenomenon than a guiding principle.

The orange sweater above, a CustomFit version of Amy Herzog’s Foyle’s Pullover, has proven to have a pretty good work-to-glory ratio. The allover lace on the front is an easy-to-read and memorize six-row repeat where the wrong-side rows are all purled, and it’s a great design to practice decreasing in pattern (though no specific instructions are given for this, and the source I was going to recommend is no longer available online). Meanwhile, the back and sleeves are simple stockinette, yet these large swaths of plain stitching somehow recede into the background so as not to draw attention to the fact that two-thirds of the sweater are mindless TV knitting.

While to my eye there’s nothing really outstanding about this pullover, everyone who’s seen me wear it has been impressed by its handmade origins and convinced that it must have been quite a bit of work to produce. Oh no, I think, it wasn’t nearly as fraught re-knitting every piece of this sweater to get a mediocre fit, or as mind-meltingly tedious as dealing with the kajillion ends on this one to make it wearable. Both of those projects took far more time and mental energy, but you’d never know it by looking at them.

(In case anyone thinks I’m underwhelmed by the results here, let me assure you that I’m very happy with the outcome and feel it’s my best CustomFit sweater yet.)

The smile of someone who wears their new sweater at least once a week

The work-to-glory ratio as a framework for thinking about things that take work—even if they’re not thought of as work, as a task or a job—has slowly crept into other areas of my life. Increasingly I’ve been thinking about it in the context of friendships, and I’ve been struck by how even a healthy friendship can at times have a pretty poor work-to-glory ratio.

The daily work of being friends, of nurturing a relationship, can involve so many small acts to affirm, question, encourage, and comfort. Making time to call, remembering milestones, knowing a person’s favorite treat or pet peeves—these are all part of the skill of being a friend, a skill that must be learned and can be cultivated.

But it’s also work that can go unrewarded. A deliberate effort to ask about something a friend is working on might lead to a dead-end in conversation; a genuine desire to check up on their wellbeing might go completely unanswered or unacknowledged. Frequent small touches become shallow interactions, which can start to feel like more of a rote exercise than the practice of making a genuine human connection.

In my lowest moments, I wonder if the work isn’t worth the paltry sum of glory.

And yet TECHknitter offers another way of thinking about this too: work as product plus process. The idea that the value of a thing lies in the thing itself, and also in all of the moments that went into making the thing added up. A handknit sock is no longer just a sock: it’s an act of care, patiently created to be something functional and comfortable and beautiful that someone can use and enjoy every day. The knitter knows it, and so does the wearer, and that knowing is as much as part of the joy as the sock itself.

The time, place, and emotional space the knitter was in while they knit are also part of that sock, whether the wearer knows it or not. They become folded into the process part of the equation, bringing further dimensions to that sock’s intangible value.

But beyond even these things are the very act of making itself: the friction of yarn sliding over the tensioning finger, the clicking of needles in motion, the rhythm of forming stitches and turning the work. Watching the balance of yarn change, the unraveled cake collapsing as the yarn is raveled back into a slowly lengthening sock. Choosing to see and hear and feel the process of yarn becoming a sock when it would be far faster and simpler to buy socks at the store.

How much better to think of friendships as product plus process! To imagine each moment of connection, no matter how seemingly trivial, as another stitch in the knitting—by itself practically inconsequential, but in aggregate absolutely essential. To treat the intention behind each small act of kindness as equal to the outcome of the act in importance. The goodness of a friendship is thus measured not only in how meaningful are the conversations or how memorable the events, but also in how much love and concern motivated every effort to have those moments, even when those efforts appear to fail.

The work of friendship and the rewards of friendship are not two sides of an equation to be weighed against each other: a friendship is the sum of the work and the rewards, the product and the process added up and divided between friends.

Turning Point

Caitlyn is standing in a local park with one hand on a tree and the other on her hip. She's wearing a striped sweater and jeans and smiling directly at the camera.

Caitlyn is standing with her back to the camera and her hair pulled forward over her shoulder. Her striped sweater has alternating rows of fuchsia, turquoise, lime, and light grey with light grey ribbing at the neckline and hem.

Caitlyn is hugging her chest and looking playfully over her shoulder at the camera while showing off how the pink, blue, green, and grey stripes on her sweater match across the side seam.

A close-up of Caitlyn's forearms and hands. Her striped sweater has wider fuchsia, turquoise, and lime stripes alternating with thinner light grey stripes, and light grey ribbed cuffs.

Caitlyn is resting her hands on the back of a green park bench and smiling at the camera. The stripes on her sweater aligned across the body and sleeves, and the ribbing on the cuffs is echoed at the hem.

Given this sweater was on the needles for two years and two months, is it any surprise the photos sat on my phone for nine more months after that?

I kicked off this project right at the end of 2015, and I showed my progress on it at the beginning of June 2016. I’d just started on the sleeves when we experienced the basement flood that derailed the remainder of our summer, and that cemented 2016 as a terrible year for us. (There were many terrible things that happened that year. It was a bad year for everyone. But that was our personal tragedy.)

Eventually—I don’t remember when—I pulled the sleeves out of their abandoned project bag and finished knitting them. I’d ignored the CustomFit instructions for binding off the shoulders in favor of using short rows, as usual following the handy guides provided by TECHKnitting and Knitty. Seaming the shoulders was a cinch using a three-needle bind off.

Attempting to set in the sleeves (in the flat) revealed that I’d made a mistake on one of the sleeves and the cap wasn’t tall enough. I wish I could say where I’d gone wrong, but apparently I didn’t see fit to leave myself any explanatory notes about this. I ended up ripping out the sleeve cap to the underarm bind off and re-knitting, meticulously counting decreases on the second try.

Setting in the sleeves so that the stripes matched across the upper chest and the sleeve caps was a struggle and a half. I looked at many, many pictures of hand-knit and ready-to-wear tops with stripes to determine what properly matched stripes should look like. (I later discovered the Seamwork article “How to Match Stripes Like a Pro” also gives a clue.)

I concluded that a match stripe is typically located at the widest point on the chest, which generally corresponds to the lowest point of the armhole. You can place the match stripe at a higher point on the chest and sleeve, especially if you’re cutting and sewing a garment, but the armhole bind off provides a convenient matching point to work from on hand-knits. Importantly, you may be able to match more than one stripe above it, depending on the height of your stripes, but the closer you get to the top of the sleeve cap, the less likely the stripes are to match.

This should have been obvious to me, since I had specifically worked out what color stripe to begin the sleeves with precisely so my stripes would align at the armhole. But when it came time to seam, I got it in my head that I should be able to match all of the stripes on the sleeve cap to those on the body. That was an evening of self-induced crazy-making, let me tell you.

Once I finally stopped trying to achieve an impossible perfection in stripe-matching, setting in the sleeves and then sewing up the side and sleeve seams proceeded as usual—mattress stitch all the way!

I mentioned in my progress post that I was using one of TECHKnitter’s eight tricks for weaving in as you go. I chose the overcast method because it can be used for same-color or different-color joins in both flat and circular knitting (so versatile!) and because it’s recommended for fine yarn (no added bulk!). Unfortunately, I haven’t mastered the proper tension required to make this work well, because the tails are distorting the stitches they’re trapped against. Some stitches are pulled taller and other are squashed shorter, making it looks like there’s jog in the stripes. It’s not visible at a distance, but I can see it when I’m looking at the sweater up close and it bugs me (probably more than it should). My solution will be to only knit stripes where the unused yarn can be carried up the edge of the work. Or knit fewer striped garments. (AHHAHAHA yeah, right. Like I can stop myself.)

Even weaving in as I knit, I had an unforgivable number of ends to deal with. To stave off utter despair, I made myself weave in about half of them before I let myself pick up and knit the neckline. It helped. Somewhat. I still had to weave them in, but breaking the work up over a couple of evenings before and after the final knitting sprint did keep my twitching eye in check.

Now that I’ve not only come to the ends of the ends, but also worn the finished sweater a couple of times, I feel like I’ve formed an honest opinion of it.

I’m glad I knit a CustomFit design more or less as written. My previous CustomFit sweater involved heavy modification due to less-than-optimal yarn selection. This sweater has given me an opportunity to evaluate my measurements and what CustomFit thinks of as a close fit, including the placement of bust darts, the circumference of sleeves, and so on. Overall, I’m happy with the silhouette, and I’m less inclined to tinker with the pattern generator to try to get an even slimmer fit (which could result in unflattering straining or wrinkling).

When I wore it out for the first time, I was lukewarm about my yarn choice. I love Cascade Heritage Silk (blogged evidence here, additional proof on Ravelry) because it’s an affordably priced wool–silk blend that offers next-to-skin softness and a rainbow of colors. But the drape of the silk means that it can feel like it’s bagging out when I bend or sit and sagging over the course of the day. But after multiple wears, I’ve realized this is mostly in my head. While it’s true it doesn’t have the recovery of 100% wool, it doesn’t actually grow with wear or get sloppy-looking. For a lightweight sweater worn on its own or over a camisole, it’s a solid choice and I’d recommend it.

The turning point this sweater is named for was the realization that this sweater pairs exclusively with jeans and gym shoes. It doesn’t look like any of the other sweaters in my drawer; it doesn’t go with anything else in my closet. It clashes with my complexion, especially now that I’m a redhead.

The candy-colored yarns that were irresistible on the shelf seem strangely muted when knitted up together. (I know that’s hard to believe, looking at those photos.) Their vibrancy waned with my enthusiasm, and didn’t return even after I finished the project.

I remember when I got those yarns, from the now-closed Yarn Tree Studio in Raleigh. I bought them first and foremost because they looked good together, like they belonged together. Not because I wanted to wear them. Which is so silly, in hindsight, because I’d always intended to wear them—as a sweater, as a shawl, as a something. I only saw them as “pretty yarns,” and didn’t for a moment consider them as “the stuff to make clothes.”

I could defend my decision by saying I bought the yarn six months before I did Wardrobe Architect for the first time, but I find I’m not actually interested in justifying this sweater to myself. Instead, I feel like I’ve finally learned something that all of the meditations and mood boards didn’t drive home for me: just because something looks good on the rack/on the yarn or fabric shelf/on someone else, and just because I like how it looks, doesn’t mean I need to own it or wear it.

If my goal right now is to have more things in my closet that work together to create cohesive outfits, then I need to think about my buying and making in terms of projects that support that goal. There’s nothing wrong with owning styles that aren’t “flattering” or are one-of-a-kind, unless my goal is to have more garments in flattering colors and remixable shapes—then I’m just going out of my way to dilute my closet and increase the chance I’ll have “nothing to wear.”

I don’t like making mistakes, and the idea of learning from my failure has never captivated me—I’d much rather save time and heartache by learning from the mistakes other people have already made, if that’s an option. Despite reading and observing other people’s style journeys, it took personal experience to learn this particular lesson about making what I want to wear. It was a long walk, but I got there in the end.

I’ve already seen the payoff: during a trip to the New York City Garment District this summer, I went with a plan to look for specific fabrics intended for specific garments, all of which should work together in a variety of combinations. As soon as I catch up on my backlog of finished projects from the last few months, I’ll share my autumn/winter sewing plan, which is already in full swing!

Caitlyn is sitting on a green park bench facing away from the camera toward houses in the distance.

New Growth

When I look back at these photos, which have been sitting on my hard drive, edited, since the end of January, I recall distinctly how unhappy I was—that day in particular, but also that week, and indeed that entire season. Winter was a difficult time for me, the too-short daylight hours filled with a grinding work schedule aggravated by interpersonal conflict. Despite having few to no creative opportunities at work and craving self-expression, I often came home too drained to pick up any of my projects. 

That was frustrating enough by itself, but what added insult to injury was the fact that I was also being confronted on several sides by the opinion that the parts of myself I was managing to express were cold, intractable, and unlikable—in short, unacceptable, and in need of changing. I was counseled on being optimistic, willing to compromise, and above all, being personable. 

I spent a lot of time reflecting on what it is that makes me me, whether those things can be changed, and, significantly, whether they should be.

For a time, I practiced change. There were days when I exhausted myself with the effort of being easy to get along with. The act of being inoffensive.

I’ve never felt less like myself.

On the day these photos were taken, a Thursday, I was working from home due to the snow. After an increasingly taxing work assignment escalated to full-blown railing and stomping through the house, I finally set aside my computer and picked up my knitting and camera instead.

This hat is something new made out of things familiar and leftover: the pattern is the Lotus Hat from Uptown Purl, which I’d previously knit into my Meditation, frogged, and wanted to revisit; the yarn is the remainder from my Mashion. Modifications are detailed on Ravelry.

The whole thing came together in five days, and it only took that long because I kept doing the crown decreases expecting to run out of yarn. When I didn’t, I was able to increase the number of repeats to make a deeper hat.

Putting on a handmade hat (and handmade gloves), standing outside with Justin, and smiling at the camera in the cold reaffirmed that I make things, and will continue to make things, because I care about putting more into the world than I take out of it. I am resourceful, and I can adapt. I also have people who care deeply about me, and who I care about in return.

I didn’t know it at the moment these photos were taken, but the brief emotional respite they provided enabled me to understand, in the days and weeks that followed, that I was growing. It was difficult, and painful, and I would rather the catalyst for growth had been something other than this kind of hardship, but through it I found myself valuing my own work more and criticizing it less, strengthening relationships, and seeking to build new skills.

Spring brought its own share of troubles, but they were diminished in some small way by the feeling that I had survived worse, and could overcome this too. Summer has had its struggles as well, but more and more I find I want to focus on what I can make for myself.

I’m glad to finally say that, while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, I’m happier than I have been in months, and I’m relieved to finally close this post and start afresh.

Me-Made-May ’17: Wrap-Up

Now that I’ve logged my two sewing projects from May and cleared some space mentally, I’m ready to review my Me-Made-May experience. I know we’re more than halfway through June and the sewing blogosphere has moved on already, but you’ll humor me, right? You’re the best. 🙂

Except for one missed day during Week 3, I kept to my goal of wearing at least four me-made garments each week. (Then again, the last week of May didn’t have four days in it, but I managed two me-mades anyway, so I’m calling it a wash.) There were definitely repeated garments, but no completely repeated outfits, which is a feat I didn’t think I’d be able to pull off, especially since I tend to go through phases of wanting to reach for whatever feels easiest or most comfortable at the time, over and over again.

Though I didn’t end up posting weekly here as I’d thought I would, and though I still can’t get on board with Instagram—I’m a words person through and through—I did take photos every day that I wore a me-made garment so that I’d be able to spot trends, reflect on silhouettes, and identify wardrobe gaps.

Week 1: Active in Aqua Workout Top & Pants // Mashion Cardigan & Black Leggings (unblogged) // Black Leggings (unblogged) // Easy Tartan Scarf

Week 2: So In Love Cardigan (on Ravelry) // Sage Pleated Skirt & Holden Shawlette (on Ravelry) // Sunbird Shawl (on Ravelry) // Floral Sorbetto

Week 3: Haruni and the Tree of Stories Shawl (on Ravelry) // Vanilla Skirt // Pumped Up in Pink Workout Top & Pants

Week 4: Rings of Ouranos (on Ravelry) // Easy Tartan Scarf // White T-Shirt // Black Leggings (unblogged)

Week 5: Floral Sorbetto // White T-Shirt

Seeing everything laid out like this, I’ve realized several things:

  • I wear a lot of black. (I wore even more than you see here, on days when I didn’t wear any me-mades.) I don’t actually want to wear as much black as I do, because I find it looks quite harsh against my skin, especially near my face. But since I bought most of my office attire during a few major shopping trips during and immediately after college, and I’ve neither grown out of nor worn through most of it, those initial purchases continue to linger in my closet. I’d really like to phase them out in favor of more navy blue, warm browns, and even some grey, but options in those colors tend to be more miss than hit most seasons at the few stores I shop. I need to either a) expand my shopping horizons and try other petite -friendly retailers besides Express, b) find a tailor I can trust to alter pants from regular misses sizes , or c) learn to sew my own perfectly fitting pants. At this point, I’m not actually sure which of these is the path of least resistance.
  • I’m grateful that the May weather was so variable, because a sizable chunk of my handmade wardrobe comes in the form of handknit accessories. I’m complete okay with this, but could stand to add a few more sweaters, particularly cardigans of various weights, to the mix. There’s absolutely zero chance you’ll find me in handknits in the summer, though—it’s unbearably hot and humid here, and wool, no matter how magical its properties, will never feel good on a 100-degree, 100-percent-humidity-but-somehow-no-rain day.
  • I’ve been gravitating toward skinny bottoms balanced with looser tops. I need to make more of both.
  • I only wore one dress (with leggings) and one skirt (with tights). I’d say dresses and skirts were underrepresented this month, but only barely. I can probably chalk this up to the fact that most of my dresses, me-made and ready-to-wear, are too casual even for my laid back office. My office is also freezing, so I’d just end up covered in a fleece blanket at my desk anyway. But I love the idea of pulling on secret pajamas a comfortable dress and rolling out in the morning, so maybe I need to suck it up and make a dress or two.
  • My outfits are dying for more texture. My wardrobe is overwhelmingly simple, solid-colored separates, which means that outfits tend to fall flat visually. They’re crying out for a statement necklace or shoes, a cute handbag, a textured fabric like bouclé or suede, or a textural design element like pleats, pintucks, ruffles, or visible ribbing. Anything to break up all the solid blocks of color and smooth fabric surfaces.

These observations open up a lot of different creative directions, and it’s so tempting to try to run down every path at once. But I’m going to try to rein myself in and remember that neither a handmade wardrobe nor a strong sense of personal style happens over night (especially since recent household budgetary constraints have me limited to my existing stash, which may not jive with my current seasonal/situational needs).

Despite feeling like my current wardrobe is a long way off from my ideal, participating in Me-Made-May has convinced me that it’s not impossible for me, personally, to one day have a wardrobe where I could wear at least one thing I made every day, if I wanted to. I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve—or even aim for—an entirely handmade wardrobe, but it’s gratifying to see that what I’ve made with my own two hands takes more than two hands to count!

Just for fun, because I’ve secretly wanted to do this every year that I’ve followed along with Me-Made-May, here’s a gif of my outfits each day:

Me-Made-May ’17: My Pledge

What’s this?

I, Caitlyn of Practice Makes Pretty, sign up as a participant of Me-Made-May ’17. I endeavor to wear a self-made garment at least four days of each week for the duration of May 2017.

That’s right. No more sitting on the sidelines while this great maker community supports, encourages, and celebrates one another. No more watching the parade of lovely handmade garments and accessories and lamenting my own lack of me-mades. No more hollow self-consolation, telling myself “I’ll be ready next year.”

I want in, and I don’t want to wait any more. Time to stop holding myself back.

Am I ready? I don’t think so, not yet. But I will be. I know that Zoe is firmly opposed to panic-sewing, but as she points out in her MMM’17 announcement, “if you want to use taking part in the challenge as the kick in the butt you need to finally hem that half-finished skirt, or rework an ill-fitting garment, then great.” I’d like to think this includes projects that you have the materials for and want to make, but haven’t started yet.

So, during the month of April, I’m (unofficially) committing to carving out time every day to work through as many of my queued patterns and stashed fabrics as I can. I’ve had garments lingering on my to-make list for months, just waiting for me to sit down and sew. But I’m extremely susceptible to indulging the thrill of planning and the borrowed satisfaction of imagining a finished project, then not following through. So I’m done planning. There is no plan, just sewing. (And knitting.) With a focus on finding joy in the process, and on placing more value in the fact that I finished something than the fact that the thing is good.

Consider the fire lit.