Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Great Sock Rant of '05

The Great Sock Rant of Aught-Five.

Ok, I'm going to violate a personal rule against over-generalizing by saying that everyone preparing for peak oil ought to know how to make socks. I mean everyone - that means gentlemen as well as ladies, the crafty and the uncrafty, rural and urban. Why? Because the one category of clothing that someone is bound to run out of sooner or later is socks - the simply wear out too fast. And they are totally essential - ask anyone who has ever walked 30 miles in boots without socks how the experience went. Or ask someone living in a cold climate who doesn't have good socks how many toes he has left after working outside all day in -20 degrees.

Even if you live somewhere warm and your bare feet are as hard as diamonds, I'm going to suggest you know how to make socks anyhow - first of all, hard times make a lot of refugees, and none of us knows for sure where we're going to end up. Second of all, it is a simple, useful skill that could make you some money with little outlay of cash. For the disabled, elderly, pregnant and those tied down by infants, sock knitting is an essential service that you can provide and be useful with. With practice, it can be done by the blind or in very low-light situations, making it possible to do useful work while sitting around and singing, talking, but without extra lighting. It is a lot of fun, almost everyone can do it, and it can be done almost anywhere. You need not have a farm, money, lots of free time, expensive tools or anything else to start.

Basic information - socks are made from yarn. You could sew fabric socks with cloth and elastic, but the quality is not as high as knitted or crocheted, and they wouldn't stay up as well or wear well. Now where do you get yarn after peak oil? Well, first of all, you can store yarn for sock making. Socks can be knitted from any natural fiber (not sure how silk socks would work out), although wool and cotton make the most sense. Most sock yarn is pricey, and has some nylon in it to give it extra strength. If you have the money, you can buy that stuff, of course, but otherwise, you could easily buy any cheap wool, cotton or blend yarn and store a lot of it. Good sources for cheap yarn are www.knitpicks.com and www.elann.com. If you buy wool, keep it in a mothproof place.

Or, you can make your own yarn. Yarn can be made from a large range of animal fibers - urban dwellers without easy access to sheep, for example, might try using dog hair (although I'm told that it smells like wet dog when wet ;-P, or keeping a few angora or angora cross rabbits for meat and fiber). Neither angora nor dog will last as long as wool or cotton, but it is better than nothing, and both are tremendously warm. You also could buy roving or raw fleece from someone with sheep, or some raw cotton. You might find some to practice on at www.woolery.com but probably would get the best deals buying direct from shepherds or small scale cotton growers. If you live in a warm climate and have a garden, you can grow cotton. If you live somewhere cold you can grow flax for linen. If you have land and inclination, you can have sheep or rabbits, alpacas or camels, yaks or llamas or some other fiber animal. You might want to stick with wool and cotton to start, though.

Yarn is made by spinning, and you do not need an expensive spinning wheel to make yarn. You can easily buy a drop spindle on ebay or at www.woolery.com, or make one by following the instructions here and using a dowel, a metal hook and a freebie CD. Drop spindle spinning is considerably slower than wheel spinning, but much cheaper, the equipment fits easily in a pack or bug-out bag, and if all you are going to do is make socks, it probably isn't worth buying a wheel. Instructions for making a spindle and using it are available here: it takes practice, but it isn't a terribly hard skill to learn. Like all skills, it is best if someone shows you, but you can learn it fairly well from written instructions. If you do want to buy a spinning wheel, take a class or at least try a bunch of wheels. My personal recommendation is for a Kromski wheel - reasonably priced for a beginner, good enough for when you get better, and made entirely of wood and metal parts, so that it can easily be repaired or parts made after the peak (I have no connection to Kromski, other than owning and liking their stuff.) Lee Raven's book Hands On Spinning is a really good place to start learning. This website has some useful information as well.

Once you have yarn, you need to know how to knit or crochet. It is impossible to learn how to knit socks without learning how to knit other things. First you've got to learn straight needles. Knitting is definitely one of those things best learned from another person, so take a class in adult ed or at a yarn shop, get a friend or family member to show you, or try trading visits at a local nursing home for knitting lessons. But if you must learn from written instructions, the best book I've found is Melanie Falick's Kids Knitting - well worth the money or the interlibrary loan. The book is pitched to 8 year olds, but is great for uncoordinated adults like me who have trouble with visual instructions. It also has a very simple sock pattern, with no heel turning in it, not a terrible place to start. You could also try to learn from www.learntoknit.com but I've not tried it, and I can't promise anything.

The initial investment for knitting need not be large. In a pinch, you can make needles out wooden dowels, sharpened in a pencil sharpener. Otherwise, a good way to get a reasonable range of needle sizes is to buy a bunch from an estate sale or on ebay - large batches often go quite cheap. You could easily get away with one pair of straight needles, size 10 (for learning basic skills) and a couple of sets of double pointed needles, but more is better. You really can make them too. They come up cheap at yard sales too.

Socks are tubular, so they are knitted on double pointed needles, or on two circular needles. Here's a link to visual instructions and a basic sock pattern for dpns - most patterns are written for these. If you want to get fancier, Nancy Bush's _Folk Socks_ has wonderful patterns and a wealth of information. The most useful book on doing it with two circulars (which requires a larger initial investment but is my preferred method and IMHO is faster) is the inanely titled (but useful) Socks Soar on Two Circular Needles_ by Cat Bordhi. There's another book out there called _The Magic Loop_ (don't know the author) about doing them on one really long circular as well, but I know nothing about this.

Crocheting is easier than knitting, although I find it more irritating as repetetive motions go since I have carpal, and IMHO, not as versatile for socks, but you certainly can make plenty of socks by crocheting. To crochet, you need a couple of hooks, which could be easily made by anyone with a modicum of woodworking skill, or which can be bought cheaply in bunches on ebay or at walmart. A good size range of aluminum hooks costs about $5. One advantage crocheting has over knitting is that the hooks are not tied up in the piece of work - you can have six pairs of socks going at once using the same two hooks.

The best book I've seen for beginners is Pauline Turner's How to Crochet although it does not include a sock pattern. The best book on socks is Rehfeldt and Wood's Crocheted Socks! Again, you really only need one basic pattern, and can probably find some easily on the web. But if you can, get someone to show you the tricks - it really is easier.

Felted boots can be easily made by knitting or crocheting a large sock and then felting it - felting is what happens when you accidentally throw a wool sweater in the dryer - it shrinks, the material becomes less permeable to water, thicker, warmer - all good things in footwear. I don't know of a pattern for felted boots, but I more or less made up my own by knitting some really big socks on size 15 needles, and then felting them, and using laces (made of felted wool or leather) to tie them tight - it doesn't really matter if they are a little big. Felting only works with wool, which is why, unless you live in the tropics, wool is probably the most practical material for boot making - but if you live in the tropics, you probably don't need snow boots anyhow, and can simply use the tire sandals. A good book on felting is Knit One, Felt Too , although I've forgotten the author's name, but while it has some sock and slipper patterns, it doesn't have a scandinavian style felted boot - but you can figure it out. Crocheting should work fine too, but I haven't tried it.

Re:wool - lots of people think they are allergic to wool, and some genuinely are. But many are allergic to the chemicals used to strip the lanolin from wool, not the wool itself, and can use organic wool or handspun. If by allergic, you mean you find wool scratchy or itchy, you might try merino wool, which is very fine, and commonly worn next to the skin by babies. My mother, who has severe eczema and thought she was allergic to wool can easily wear merino handspun. If you are allergic to wool, you might still try the felted boot idea, if you can get someone else to make it for you, since there is no reason you can't wear socks of some other material between your skin and the boot.


Sharon in upstate NY, where she is all set on sock yarn for the apocalypse

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

We're upright and walking!!!

Isaiah took his first steps yesterday! 13 1/2 months - right on target for my kids. I'm always a little relieved when they start really walking - the proto-ambulatory stage tends to be one of the most dangerous for little people. Toddlers are so top-heavy, they fall right on their faces.

I had thought Isaiah would be an early walker - by the time of his first birthday, he had all the physical skills down - cruising, could stand unassisted, etc... But I did not reckon with creativity, a creativity that obviated the need for joining the homo erectus - he figured out a way to crawl with things in his hands, even both hands. Isaiah managed to create a weird, hunchbacked, Lon Cheney thing in which he used on knuckle and one leg to drag himself across the room with books, toys, etc... One has to imagine that had things evolved a little differently, we'd all be hauling around like that, and "Igor" would be a name of honor.

There was an article in the Sunday Times this week on family life blogs - about how there are thousands of the things, documenting every moment of family life, all giving comic exposure to the funny and dark side of parenthood. Now parenthood is indeed both dark and funny, and I enjoy reading about it in that particular tone. I write about it that way sometimes too. There's nothing in the world that can make you feel so stupid, and amoral and small as bad parenting (and I've done more than my share) and nothing funnier than watching yourself doing it with ironic detachment - except hearing it described the same way and having one of those "aha!" moments where you realize that you aren't the only one in the world who has actually named the cheerios that your children eat off the floor (ok, I think we probably *are* the only ones, and Eric coined them "floorios" when Eli first started throwing solid food).

And yet, despite the temptation, I try really hard not to write about my spouse or kids too much that way. Oh, there are moments. But I've been the subject of those stories as well, and I know that if they don't sound totally affectionate to me, they won't to my children. I'd like to think that if they ever cared, they could read the remnants of Mommy's blog, and not see themselves mined, however lovingly, for comic relief.

But the other thing is that ironic detachment is not how I connect to my family. I realize this sounds soppy and stupid, but I *ADORE* my husband and my kids - and I mean that literally. Of course they drive me insane. But then, I'm famously annoying, and they love me anyway, so that doesn't matter too much. I want to write about them as they deserve - and mostly, they don't deserve to be the subject of my humor. Instead, they deserve praise to the skies - I want everyone to know that my husband, despite having serious reservations, picked up and moved to the country for me because I couldn't stand not having a garden. He grew up in a household where you called the super to change the lightbulbs - but he learned to maintain small engines, shovel manure, hatch chicken eggs and build farm implements. He's cute and smart and funny, and he thinks I'm beautiful. You should understand how insane that last thing is - I am not even pretty, and while people who loved me have seen me, through the light of love, as attractive, even striking, nobody but Eric has ever thought me beautiful. And he thought it before he loved me, thinks it when I've been working in the garden on a 90 degree day, and says that he likes to "show me off." How many men are there like this?

The same is true of my kids. Eli works so hard to talk to me, even though language fits him about as well as my Dad's size 14WWWW shoes would. And he comes home from school and leaps into my arms and demands to be tickled, even though half the time I have no idea what he's saying or what he wants and needs. Simon sits on the potty even though he's scared to death of it, and explains to me (with total respect, although with some confusion as to why I don't get it) why he's picking invisible hummingbirds off the tails of our cats and Isaiah sees me as the source of all warmth, love, milk and goodness. So yes, they are funny. But they are sources of such profound joy that I can't bring myself to mock them, even with love. It's superstition, I guess - the belief that if you don't value things properly, you might not get to keep them.

Please don't take this to mean that when I write about my children it will be a Hallmark card, an unending sapfest that induces vomiting and seizures in the ironic. I hope not. I'm perfectly capable of making fun of them and myself. Nor do I think comic writing means lack of love. But I can't bring myself to make them the comic center of self-deprecating narratives, for fear that someday, they would feel (as I did before I had children) that I found them funny because I did not see them as worthy of my respect.