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Or, Variety is the Spite of Life

Every knitter - or rather, every knitter I know - has a stash. Some are larger than others. Some are neatly organized, others are confused and tangled masses. I know a knitter who has, at any one time, just enough yarn for the current and one future project. I know another with closets full of oddballs - not enough of any one to make even a short and narrow scarf.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I admit to being a bit of an impulse buyer. I go through binges the way any other shopper might: I find myself celebrating small victories with yarn purchases. I celebrate big victories with yarn purchases. I celebrate sad events big and small with yarn purchases. I celebrate lunchtime with yarn purchases. The rate at which I complete projects in no way keeps pace with my yarn acquisition. I've swatched stuff and totally forgotten what size needle I used. I've lost ball bands galore and have many many skeins of mystery yarn. And I still want more.

It's not just yarn. Knitting books often advise having multiple sets of needles in duplicate sizes - after all, what if your only pair of 7s is stuck on a project and you just must start something new with that same size needle. Boy, did I take this to heart. I pick up things I am sure I might someday need, but already have in spades. I am embarrassed by the number of stitch markers I have. And I can count on one finger the number of times I've actually used stitch markers. But you never know when I might someday, in the middle of the night, madly and desperately need a stitch marker. So I've got tons of them, just in case. And though I've never actually used any of my 15+ sets of double-pointed needles, they're there, just in case.

I've always thought that my obsessive stashing was the reason I seem to have trouble finishing projects. I've got halves of sweaters lying around, foot-long scarves-to-be, even several dozen granny-squares for a long-abandoned afghan project. I wondered if I had a peculiar form of ADD, that I was wrested from one project by the siren song of a luxurious tape ribbon only to be ripped from that by an oh-so-soft alpaca blend. Yet on I go, buying, collecting, sorting, stashing. I think I reasoned that if I had enough yarn/needles/tools/knick-knacks, I'd be able to do anything as soon as the spirit moved me, that if Inspiration were ever to slap me upside the head, I'd jump up, needles in hand and yarn at the ready and show it a thing or two about how to get things done.

One day my sweetie and his two-and-a-half year-old daughter were at my house playing. She and I decided we wanted to color. I jumped up, excited because I have tons of nice paper, expensive colored pencils and a full range of crayons [yes, I stash art supplies, too]. My sweetie, seeing me going for the expensive paper hastened to assure me that a plain old notebook was just fine. I grabbed a box of 24 crayons and started to head to the designated drawing area when he stopped me. "Just one or two colors," he said. "Too many will overwhelm her." I couldn't imagine such a thing, but I grabbed a brown and a green crayon and drew with this tiny person whose assurance was humbling. Apparently, a small child doesn't need cornflower, midnight blue, indigo and sky blue crayons. She can scribble a brown line and make a duck, a green for a strawberry, or a bunny's lunch or anything else. Too much variety, or any variety at all, was extraneous and sensory overload to her. I noted this, and filed it away.

A few weeks later, I was having what I like to call a "Midas Day". This is when I get out and catalogue all of my stuff. All of my yarn, each needle, crochet hook, cable needle, pair of scissors, everything. It is useful to me to do this on occasion because knowing I have, say, 4 sets of size 7 double-pointed needles lets me a] believe in my heart I could knit two socks at once if I ever learned to knit socks and b] remind myself yet again that I already have size 7 double-pointed needles. I spent a few hours sizing my circulars, sorting yarn according to color, or fiber, or hank/skein/ball. I made sure my row counters and bobbins [which I've used on exactly one project [unfinished] and loathed because they'd unwind and fall on the floor constantly] were all present and accounted for. After I had counted and recounted and written yet another list of everything I had [I keep losing the lists], I sat back and surveyed my domain. Suddenly the excess of it all struck me.

I'm convinced that my stash is on the smallish side, but still. I've got wool yarn, cotton yarn, linen, rayon, mystery blends in all sorts of colors. I've got every kind and size of needle, tons of pattern and how-to books, gewgaws and gimcracks and everything I could ever possibly need to create a fabulously unique and oh-so-me article to wear. But I have never done such a thing. I've tiptoed through a few scarves and sweaters, altering patterns and disdaining them altogether, but where was the article of clothing that said, "This is me!" I've felt it lurking in my periphery for a while now, but I can't seem to get it in my sights.

The words of my sweetie came back to me. I sat and looked at my stuff, the bulk of it, and suddenly, the way a cartoon character's desert island mate turns into a roast turkey or hamburger, my stash turned into a large box of crayons right in front of my eyes. I had tons and tons of crayons - so why couldn't I draw?

It occurred to me that something about the endless number of possibilities I had set up for myself was preventing me from taking advantage of any possibilities at all. Like a frat boy with a trust fund, with everything I could ever need right at my fingertips, I was unmotivated and spoiled. Perhaps I continued my stashing behavior because part of me was hoping that the magic creative spark was contained in the next acquisition, ready to explode into insanely groovy knitwear.

It took me a few days to process what this meant. Because I don't particularly care to liken myself to a frat boy with a trust fund, I decided to do something about it. Perhaps I had to figure out how to court that creative spark with what I had.

I looked at my stash with a newly critical eye. There were some monsters in there, ugly ugly yarn that in a world without evil would not exist. What if, like my sweetie with his daughter, I limited myself to two colors? Would I be able to liberate myself, vault into new creative waters? What if I further limited myself to two of my most unusable yarns? I rolled up my sleeves and decided to go for it.

I chose a difficult champagne-colored chenille of unknown fiber content from a slightly sun-damaged cone that I purchased in my first innocent blush of love for eBay.

I remember when it came. I sat back and regarded it the way you might a blind date who was tragically misdescribed to you. Something about the way the cone sat there, squat and belligerent, told me that the only thing I could be sure of with a garment made of this stuff was sweat stains.

The second yarn I selected was a brownish wool from what must have been the Methuselah of sheep, it was so scratchy and rough. I held it against the chenille - such a pairing was really unthinkable. It couldn't wash together: the chenille I was sure would fall apart the second it hit water, whereas the wool looked ornery enough to felt at the drop of a dime. I had committed myself, however. I rubbed each of it between my thumb and forefinger, determined to make something, anything, with this pairing.

Not being a masochist, I decreed that my experiment would not take more than two hours of my time, start to finish. A small knitted square would suffice. I rifled my pattern books and, in an out-of-print booklet of charted Transylvanian embroidery patterns, I found a cunning little bird that would be a quick-and-easy Fair Isle design. I copied it onto graph paper so I could read it and set to work.

The chenille proved to be entirely too thin on its own, so I ripped out my first attempt and using two strands, began again.

The wool acted like Velcro against the chenille and I had to untangle the strands at least once every row. Two hours later, I bound off the last stitch. The resulting square was awkward looking, the different qualities of chenille and wool made the design look clumsy and amateurish [never mind that I have yet to master two-handed knitting]. But there was the bird. Really, it's a bird [see below]!

I still hated both yarns, but the proximity to the chenille turned the wool's boring brown color into a rich chestnutty hue. The chenille, doubled, looked almost substantial and the doubling seemed to eliminate the "worming" problems I have always had when knitting chenille. It didn't look champagne-colored anymore, reminding me instead of the color of Midwestern fields in January under a flat cloudy sky.

Which made me think of working with some of my long neglected earth-toned wools, creating something - a vest - Fair Isled and reminiscent of the winter landscapes I grew up with. I'm still thinking of how it will manifest, but I am turning it over in my mind in a way that feels new to me, more assured and purposeful. I look often and kindly on all of the yarns in my stash and I am able to see new possibilities for each of them.

But the bottom line is this: will this experiment help me tap into my latent creativity and curb my rampant stashing behavior? It's too early to tell, honestly. Old habits and ways of being die hard. But I can say this: some time after this exercise, I spent more than an hour in my favorite yarn store and walked out with only a new ball-winder. No new yarns, not one new needle, row counter, bobbin or anything.

I'm encouraged: it's a pretty safe bet that even I couldn't rationalize buying a second ball winder.


Kate Boyd lives in Oakland, California, with her animals, too much yarn and way too many books. Her most recent accomplishment was the successful purging from her library of never-read critical theory from her long-ago undergraduate studies.

She constantly battles the urge to surrender her second bedroom to yarn storage.