Feeding Refugees in Fortress Europe

my latest venture, knitting for refugees. You can help.
my latest venture, knitting for refugees. You can help.

 

This weekend, my husband and I went with Act!on Food to a stopping point for refugees, to provide free food, tea, donations of warm clothes, and basic first aid. You can read Act!on Food’s tumblr post for more info on logistics. The five of us volunteered for two nights shifts in a row, from 10pm to 6am. Here are some things that happened.

photo from Act!on Food
photo from Act!on Food

 

We heard plenty of stories about police violence, and saw ample evidence of same. Most of the refugees were boys aged 16 to 20, from Afghanistan. A nice fellow with nerdy glasses and a big smile showed me his fat lip where he’d taken a stick to the face several days before. Another guy had scabbed-over dog bites on his wrist and ankles. There were lots of crushed purple fingernails, apparently from one particular police force’s special technique for forcibly taking fingerprints.

Afghans do not like oatmeal, and they claim to not like cinnamon in their tea, although if I snuck some in while they weren’t looking they seemed to like it just fine.

I learned that Bulgarian and Pashto share a surprising number of cognates. Conveniently for us, two of them were “soup” and “socks.” The popular hangover cure here in Bulgaria is a thin, tangy, beef tripe soup called shkembe chorba. As I served up vegan lentils on Friday night, a group of guys getting soup were talking in Pashto and I heard them say “shkembe chorba” repeatedly. “Shkembe chorba?” I asked them. They looked at me and laughed. “You mean beef tripe? This?” I motioned to my stomach and mooed like a cow. The guys went absolutely nuts, clapping and laughing.

photo from Act!on Food.

 

A young man was helped to our tent by some friends with worries that his leg was broken. He and a large group had jumped two stories to avoid being captured by police. The red cross tent was closed since it was very late, so I called an ambulance. The dispatcher listened to my request, and then without warning, transferred me to someone who began interrogating me. He asked if I was a journalist, why was I calling, was I with an NGO, what nationality I was. I asked if they were really sending an ambulance and when he confirmed that they were I hung up. The ambulance came surprisingly fast, in about ten minutes. An hour later some police rolled by, asking us questions. I wonder if the person who questioned me was a police officer.

Saturday night, even at a refugee checkpoint, can still be festive. Once they got soup and tea, plenty of young men just stood around by our tent, smoking, sharing stories. A few who spoke English ended up hanging out with us all night, which helped to pass the time and was extremely helpful to us. Lots of them asked us which country they should go to. We didn’t know how to respond but gave them a card with websites and resources on it.

Both nights, we saw one young man who smiled a great deal. He didn’t speak English and had a bandage on his face. Someone told us that he’d gotten his document already, which gave him the right to travel to the next checkpoint. This document can be had quickly, if you have money. Those who can’t pay might wait two or three days, sleeping outside and eating nothing but the lentil soup, bananas, and tea that us grubby leftists are handing out. There were rumors of people in the checkpoint, who were helping other people navigate the system to get their documents faster, in exchange for money. The guy with the bandage, someone told us, was doing it for free. He was free to go but decided to stay a couple extra days to help out other refugees.

The guy with the bandage sat next to our tent for a few hours on Saturday night, playing Afghan pop music from his phone. Some guys bobbed absentmindedly while they talked, a few sang along. A teenager who spoke English jokingly scolded, “This isn’t the time for dancing! It’s the time for crying!” But he smiled as he said it.

One guy we met had been an interpreter for the US Army. He spoke perfect English and told my husband and I that he was “glad to see Americans again!” He was very nice, and stayed for awhile to translate for us. He asked us if we knew which country in Europe would help him. We didn’t know. He told us that he left Afghanistan after someone from the Taliban threatened him. He didn’t go into detail, but the threat was serious enough that he left then and there, without going home to say goodbye to his family. He felt it would be safer if he didn’t.

During one busy period, a man came up to the side of the tent and got my husband’s attention. He handed him a bag of Afghani flatbread. The only bread we had was European-style white bread. We put out the bag of flatbread and it was gone in minutes.

Another refugee pressed a ten euro bill into Lorenzo’s hand, insisting he take it. We donated it to the volunteer group we were collaborating with, who will use it towards rent for their cooking space.

Plenty of people had harsh criticism for the Taliban. Lorenzo met two Kurdish men from Iraq. He overheard one of them say the name of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as the two men were talking to each other. Upon mention of his name, both men scowled and stomped their feet on the ground, cursing him.

I learned some basic first aid skills from another volunteer. I watched her rinse someone’s eye, after he was scratched by a tree branch. She washed her hands, put on gloves, and stepped out of the tent with a plastic cup of warm water. She asked the guy to lie in the street, where the streetlight was brightest so she could see what she was doing. The most common ailments were sore legs from running in the mountains, diarrhea from eating too much soup after a few days without a meal, and hands and feet that were cracked and swollen from dry skin and overuse. One person’s foot was particularly bad, after walking a long ways in old tennis shoes with no socks. Another young man translated for him, and washed his foot with warm water and a clean, disposable diaper that we gave him. The diaper gave everyone a laugh. Then the volunteer covered his foot with diaper rash cream, bandaged his toes, and gave him clean new socks.

I saw plenty of people without warm socks, coats, or hats. Many had blankets wrapped around their shoulders. A 16 year-old boy named Bilal spent lots of time with us at our tent. He was very sweet and spoke good English. He was skinny, and all he had was a thin turtleneck sweater and a peacoat that was much too big for him. He turned down the food we offered, but stayed to talk with us. Finally, one volunteer convinced Bilal to take a coat from our donation box, a sporty ski jacket with a hood. He thanked us, but offered the jacket to a man who was shivering, to drape over his knees. The next morning, though, we saw Bilal in his new jacket, smiling and looking much warmer. A volunteer sat him down in a chair, and despite his objections, forced a cup of soup and a few bread slices into his hands. We all snuck glances and noted that he was eating happily.

If you want to help, I’m knitting warm hats to bring to the checkpoint next time we go. With every purchase of something from my new shop, Balkanite, I’ll knit one item to donate. If you just want to donate a hat, you can do that too.

Toroni: A Super-Quick Shawl Recipe

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Life in Bulgaria has a very seasonal rhythm. Bulgarians love their four distinct seasons, and even in Sofia, there are palpable differences in how people spend their time from one season to the next. Summer is for eating salad and going to the beach.

Last summer, we had a thunderstorm practically every day. It made running errands a real pain, and meant a mediocre year for grapes, tomatoes, and other summer produce. What made the summer even worse is, it was following an unusually mild winter, and many people felt restive and somehow thrown out of balance.

“We used to have four seasons in Bulgaria and it was very nice,” a taxi driver said to me once (Thomas Friedman would be jealous of how many conversations I have with taxi drivers), “Now the climate is changing, so we just have a few months of cold and the rest is warm and wet.”

In the long run, this may bear out to be true. Every snowstorm, every perfect breezy day, every tree full of plums or bush full of rosehips might be our last. This year at least we managed to get our seasons. Winter was respectably cold and snowy, and this summer has been relentless; the days are hot and long. The tomatoes are what Westerners would call “heirloom,” the kind that would raise rents in the surrounding neighborhoods if they were sold in any farmer’s market in the urban USA.

In winter, the question people ask each other is, “What do you heat with?” Answer “electricity,” and you’ll get a groan of sympathy. In Sofia, steam is the most fortunate answer. Everywhere else, it’s wood.

In summer, the question is, “Are you going to the sea?” For two years, I lived within an hour of the Black Sea. There, we never asked each other this question, because everyone was already at the sea. Sofia is several hours inland, though, and trips to the seaside are relished.

summer in Halkidiki
summer in Halkidiki

My husband and I took our beach trip two weeks ago, to a quiet village in Halkidiki, Greece. For this, I needed some instant-gratification knitting. You know the kind. Something small, in a fun yarn. Fingering weight was ideal, because it meant lots of blissfully repetitive stitches. An off-center triangle shawl, started at the narrowest point, requires little shaping and practically no thought at all. The end result shows off hand-dyed and variegated yarns perfectly, without being too busy or overwhelming the rest of your outfit. A project like this is the tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich of knitting.

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Here’s my formula.

Toroni Shawl Recipe

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materials: 100g fingering-weight yarn (sock yarn works great). I used Republic of Wool Twist Fingering in color Thrasher, which I found at Twisted in Portland not too long ago.

US #6 needle; I like 24″ circular

gauge: doesn’t matter!

Abbreviations:

KFB: Knit next stitch through front and back. 1 stitch increased.

Pattern:
Using long-tail method, CO 11 stitches

Row 1 (WS): K2, P to 2 stitches before end, KFB, K1
Row 2 (RS): KFB, K to 3 stitches before end, K2tog, K1

Repeat Rows 1 and 2 until you’re almost out of yarn (leave at least 3 yards for bind-off). Bind off stitches using your favorite method. I recommend a stretchy bind-off like EZ’s Sewn Bind-Off (click for link to tutorial), or this pretty lace bind-off (click for excellent youtube video by Laura Nelkin).

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Note: Repeating these two rows will give you a stockinette-stitch shawl, which might curl at the ends. You might have also noticed in the photos that my shawl has some little purl ridges on the right side. You can achieve these purl ridges by working the wrong-side like this instead:

Row 1 Version 2 (WS): K to end, KFB, K1

Super-easy! Knit all the wrong-side rows, and your shawl will be in garter stitch instead of stockinette. I love how stockinette shows off the flecks of color in the yarn, so I mostly did that. Just for fun, every time I picked up the work afresh, I would knit the first wrong side row I worked instead of purling. This added a little planned spontaneity to the shawl, and created a little record of how much I worked at a time (the purl ridges got progressively closer together, as the shawl increased in size).

Once the shawl is finished, weave in the ends and don’t be afraid to block aggressively, especially if you’ve worked mostly in stockinette. I wrung mine out and stretched it on my clothesline.

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beach hair, don’t care

Does anyone else have go-to vacation projects? What’s your ideal instant-gratification knitting?

Fiber Find: A stash of crochet and Bulgarian embroidery

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To bolster his Bulgarian skills, my husband volunteers at a charity center that helps single mothers. He makes needle felted crafts with the other volunteers, mostly older women, listens to their stories and pushes himself to tell his own stories.

The ladies know I’m into knitting, and invited me to join Lorenzo one day, and to paw through a bag of scraps. Someone’s grandmother had passed, leaving behind her craft stash, and anything I didn’t want would end up in the trash.

There’s something very intimate about going through a stranger’s unfinished crafts after they’re dead. The bag contained sharply creased linens, half-embroidered with pixellated traditional designs. One corner of the linen might be completely filled in, the motif fading outwards into a single thread.

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Besides embroidery, this person also crocheted breathtaking little bits out of stiff cotton thread.

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When she was tired of one, she’d stuff it into an empty candy box (which, post-Communism, are now artifacts in their own right) and start a new one.

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There’s also an unbelievably exact little handkerchief with samples of different hand-stitched patches, which, according to the tag, might have been stitched by a third grader.

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"V. Noshkova 3a class No. 14"
“V. Noshkova
3a class No. 14″

Sifting through this treasure trove has inspired me to blog more examples of local textiles. I’ll be carrying my camera around, so stay tuned for more fiber finds.

I look for crafts
I look for crafts
Emi looks for pigeons
Emi looks for pigeons

Inspiration Everywhere: The Rugs of Chiprovtsi in HAND/EYE

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my favorite of Yulka’s rugs

Last weekend Lorenzo and I went to Chiprovtsi, a little town in the Balkan Mountains famous for its handwoven rugs. The trip happily came just before this piece I wrote about Chiprovtsi carpets was published on HAND/EYE Magazine‘s website.

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back in September, learning how Yulka’s loom works (and wearing my featherweight)

Our first visit was in September, with my in-laws, to see Chiprovtsi’s famous carpets and meet some of the people who still make them. Going back this weekend was a little poetic. Back in September, it was warm and green. Everyone’s red peppers were hung out to dry and the farmers took their goats out to graze every morning. Lorenzo and I weren’t even planning on getting married that year, and I was writing a piece on Chiprovtsi in the hopes that HAND/EYE would publish it. Yulka and Yordanka, the women we met there, were anxiously waiting to hear from UNESCO about whether Chiprovtsi’s carpets had won the intangible heritage award they applied for.

This time, we arrived to a layer of fresh snow. The goats were snuggled in their stables with their new babies, and instead of fresh salad we ate pickles, sausage and potatoes. Chiprovtsi had won its UNESCO status, and we were there to pick out a carpet, handwoven by Yulka, a present from my mother-in-law in honor of our hasty wedding in November.

wintertime goat snuggles
wintertime goat snuggles

You can read more about Chiprovtsi, and see more photos of their beautiful traditional rugs here on HAND/EYE. Here’s our perfect kitty enjoying our new kilim.emiChiprovtsi

Quickies: Little Yellow Chushki

left: обикновена чушка right: самодивска чушка
left: обикновена чушка right: самодивска чушка

My friend Lora has knit some adorable little Chushki with a kind of maryjane vibe. Chushki is part of my Woodstove Series, four fast, toasty little accessories for the chilliest part of winter. Here’s what she says about her mods:

I did a single crochet seam on the outside – I think it’s quite pretty. Sewed up the toe side for only about 8 selvedge stitches. Then folded the slipper and sewed from the top of the heel side for about 8-9 selvedge stitches. So it makes a cute little elfin slipper.

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I bet these elfin Chushki would be great slippers for sitting out on my balcony on a sunny morning. As an awesome bonus, Lora shared a little glimpse of her Bulgarian childhood:

There’s a whole variety of ‘terlici’ [Bulgarian for ‘slippers’] that can be created from this lovely, quick, and easy pattern… In any case, I absolutely used to abhor terlici as a child – my great grandmother and grandmother would knit endless piles of them, from home-spun wool that I had probably helped to clean earlier in the year. Despite how romantic this all sounds now, I used to think they were prickly and horrendous looking, and as a young person with good circulation, simply could not understand why my feet had to be constantly swaddled in thick wool (the draft of course, the dreaded draft!).

It seems the younger you are, the better your body is at keeping itself warm, and the more your elders will worry that you’re cold. Many many times in Bulgaria, particularly on the train, an older person has remarked on how “naked” I am (post-Communist Bulgaria is not a particularly prudish place, but in winter, Bulgarian grandmas will accuse you of public nudity for having your collarbone exposed). If I assure them I’m warm enough, they bob their heads from side-to-side and say it must be my “young blood.”

Check out Lora’s project page for her “Zholti Chushki,” and see all of her gorgeous knitting here. Thanks for the story, Lora, and happy knitting!

 

 

Knitting Is A Right, Not A Privilege

my inspiration
my inspiration

An article has been circulating that has fueled a lot of discussion among knitters, entitled “Never Say This To a Knitter. Really, Just Don’t Do It.” What exactly are you never supposed to say to a knitter? You might think it’s a remark about him/her having too much time on their hands, or an ageist joke about who, stereotypically, is “supposed” to knit. It’s neither of those. The author, Anne Miller, argues—and many knitters agree—that the comment she least wants to hear (and does hear, often) is “You should sell your knitting!”

The first thing I noticed is that the article was published by Yahoo! Makers, which is apparently a thing that exists (neat, I guess). The headline is classic clickbait, designed to compel and stir up discussion. But the article’s thesis, that knitters are tired of hearing well-intentioned randos insist that they should commodify their craft, is familiar and resonant. I’ve heard, and felt, the same sentiment many times.

When someone tells me I should sell my handknits, I take that for what it is: a compliment. But sometimes the complimenter persists, and wants to know why I haven’t pursued this brilliant business plan already. This might be someone who, earlier, told me they never spend more than a few dollars on a t-shirt, or that they think $100 is way too much to pay for a pair of jeans. Since textiles have become one of the cheapest commodities on earth, and the people who make our clothing are increasingly denied living wages or safe working conditions, I don’t know where someone would get the idea that making clothes, by hand, is a smart moneymaking venture. That’s when it veers into uncomfortable territory, when I have to explain how much money and time actually goes into a handknit item, and how much such a thing would have to cost in order to bring in even a small profit. When I explain that I do sell patterns for my designs, and that I’m happy to teach anyone to knit who wants to learn and will pay for my time, that’s usually where the conversation ends.

So I very much relate to this piece, as did plenty of people on the WEBS Facebook page, where I first saw the article posted. Most people who comment on my knitting are not interested in having a conversation about their role, and moral responsibility, within the garment supply chain. Knitting, like any textile art, draws you closer to the beginning of that chain. Making a garment changes your perspective on clothing, and about how much of yourself you’re willing to invest in something you love.
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My 2015 Crafting Resolutions

photo by George Chelebiev. Check back in a few days for the hat pattern!!
photo by George Chelebiev. Check back in a few days for the hat pattern!!

I don’t always make New Year’s resolutions (and I almost never stick to them if I do). In 2014, I made a point of not making a single resolution. After about a year of living in the USA again, I was disillusioned with America’s achievement-centered culture. Bulgarians don’t generally define themselves by their jobs, or their exercise routines, or how often they floss their teeth. Americans, on the other hand, are supposed to be always striving to do more, to be better, thinner, richer, more successful. Life was not a series of moments, to be enjoyed as much as possible with others, but instead a competition, to be won. So, in preparation for starting a new life in Sofia, I decided that no resolution at all was the most appropriate choice.

However, resolutions can be a great thing. I appreciate the American tendency to be proactive, and that Americans like to feel in charge of their own lives. That mentality has definitely served me well.

I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution last year. Still, I managed to move to Europe with my sweetheart, find an apartment and a great group of friends in my new home, get a job, quit the job to be a freelance writer, get married, and knit six sweaters. 2015 is the first year of my adult life that I don’t have an imminent job change, location change, or relationship change on the horizon. So it seems like a great year to focus on what I really want and go for it.

Because themes are fun, I’ve decided my New Year’s resolutions will all be knitting-related. It’s been 2015 for a whole week, so I’ve had some time to really think about these. Here they are:

1. Stick to a yarn budget.

Unless I have a steady supply of store credit (shout-out to my WEBS days), I’m a careful yarn shopper by necessity. My resources are limited, and living in Bulgaria means that I can either choose Bulgarian or Turkish wool, or pay for shipping and customs to import the yarn I want. My stash is fairly modest, and for the most part all my yarn purchases turn into finished products eventually.

Even still, I only have a vague idea of what I spend on yarn each year. And, since I’m generally concerned with consumption, and more philosophical questions surrounding materialism and ownership, I could always benefit from reflection and awareness of my buying habits. So this year I’m putting myself on a yarn budget of $35/month. That might sound extravagant, or painfully strict, depending on who’s reading this. Budgeting is very personal, and based on my own knitting habits and income, I’ve decided that’s a decent amount for me. It’s certainly less than I spent in 2014, because part of this exercise is to push myself to be creative and deliberate in my choices, and to work from my stash when possible.

I’m not counting tools or books in this number, just yarn. I almost never buy tools anyway, once I have them, and the only tool on my list for 2015 is a good pair of fabric scissors. Books we’ll get to in a minute. This gives me about $100 every three months, which is usually more than enough for a sweater quantity.

And, since I’m an open book, I’ll be tallying my budget and my purchases right here on my blog for all the world to see (click on the little burger icon at the top of my homepage).

2. Blog more.

Which brings me to my next resolution. My goal for 2014 was to start a knitting blog, so, mission accomplished. But, my updates have been sporadic, and for 2015, I’m reflecting on why I started blogging in the first place, and how to motivate myself to update regularly.

At some point around 2011, I started wanting more out of my knitting, and myself, than just a pile of FO’s. I wanted to learn, and grow, as a crafter, incorporating fiber arts into every aspect of my life, and pushing myself to learn more about the supply chain that feeds my addiction, instead of being a passive consumer. This blog should be a record of that growth process, not just a place to show off what I make, but to collect things that inspire me and bring all my disparate beliefs, tastes and desires together.

Concretely, this means blogging at the very least once per week, although 2-3 times is better. I’ll also be taking care to organize my updates into categories, including inspiration/wants, projects, techniques, environment, etc. Most importantly, I won’t limit my writing to strictly about knitting, although knitting will surely work its way into every post. Instead, I’ll try to integrate more inspiration from the rest of life into my posts.

3. Define my color palette.

As a yarn store clerk, the type of customer I encountered most often was the color-cautious knitter (and by extension, the color-cautious dresser). I’d often spend several minutes assuring a customer that she would look gorgeous in teal or burgundy. She might look longingly at the brighter color, before finally insisting that she needed navy because she’d “wear it more.”

This was a baffling new perspective for me, since I’m afraid of lots of things, but color isn’t one of them. I’ve always gravitated towards bright pinks, reds and oranges. Particularly as a knitter, my first instinct is to pick the color that will be the most vibrant and fun to look at while I’m knitting it. Learning to knit was a dangerous and liberating new outlet for my color cravings, since I could knit garments in colors I couldn’t find in stores.

Like many things that seem like a great idea when you’re 20, my color choices didn’t always stand the test of time. Plenty of projects I stripped for parts before they were finished, as their impracticality became more apparent. As I get older I’m trying to streamline my entire wardrobe, not just my knits, into a collection of pieces I absolutely love and wear all the time. I’ll never be someone who wears head-to-toe neutral, and I don’t think I’ll ever like the way black looks against my skin. But, I no longer dismiss neutrals out of hand.

I’ll be asking a lot of my clothes, and my knits, in 2015. I used to be susceptible to impulse buys in wacky prints and colors, either second-hand or (gasp!) fast fashion. But there’s nothing like moving to Europe, then moving back to the USA, and then moving back to Europe, to make you think really, really hard about the things you buy. Now I’ve resolved to add to my wardrobe only items that I love enough to hypothetically bring across an ocean. I want colors that flatter me, that coalesce with my entire wardrobe, and that typify my style. Whenever possible, I’d also like to favor naturally-dyed yarns, and for neutral pieces I’ll look for un-dyed wool.

4. Grow my library.

Besides Knitter’s Almanac, which I’ve bought, lent out, and bought again at least twice, I’ve never been motivated to buy books on craft. With my favorite novels, I’m the same way, carrying the story in my head, but picking up and giving away ragged paperbacks willy-nilly. It was mostly out of necessity, since I did so much moving around in my twenties. But I’ve missed out on quite a bit by neglecting my reading list, and I’m ready to start building a library that will serve me for the rest of my knitting, and reading, life.

This is part of why I’m adhering to a strict yarn budget this year, because I want to prioritize great books instead. As much as I love making, I want 2015 to be just as much about learning. At the end of the year, I don’t need another pile of sweaters (although I’m sure I’ll have one). What I need is to grow my own understanding of craft, and what kind of crafter I want to be, and that means growing my library.

My Christmas list included no yarn, and three beautiful books. First, Clara Parkes’ The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, which I’ve thumbed through in yarn stores and libraries countless times and wanted to own. Then, Cirilia Rose’s gorgeous new book Magpies, Homebodies and Nomads, and finally, a re-print from Schoolhouse Press of Anatolian Knitting Designs, by Betsey Harrell. A classic stand-by, a new masterpiece, and a nearly-forgotten little gem. In shopping for books, I’m inspired by my grandmother back in Portland. Her craft room held a library of knitting reference books, old volumes of traditional regional knits, and stacks of dog-eared back issues of Vogue Knitting. In addition, Gramma collected handsome art volumes, and beloved children’s stories, which all felt right at home among the knitting books. It might take more than a year, but someday I’d like a library as indispensable and eclectic as hers.

So, for 2015: Less yarn, more writing, more reading, and prettier colors. Do you have any knitting resolutions this year?