In Our Tools, Ourselves, we get to know fiber artisans of all walks, ages, styles and skill levels, by way of their tools. For more on the series, read the introduction.
When I was first knitting and trying to make friends on Twitter — in the days before the knitting community migrated largely to Instagram — one of the first people to follow me (back?) was called @pinkbrutus, a rather memorable name. Her real name is Courtney Spainhower, and in the Instagram era, hers has become one of my very favorite feeds. Courtney is one funny lady, and I’m happy to have her in Our Tools today. By the way, I asked her where the name comes from and she said she and a friend were brainstorming her rockstar name for one of those web quizzes one day, putting random words together, and they settled on Pink Brutus — not knowing that was apparently the name of a professional wrestler once upon a time. That was enough to seal it.
You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and Ravelry, as well as at her website.
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Do you knit, crochet, weave, spin, dye, sew … ?
I am a knitter straight to my marrow, but that wasn’t always the case.
I learned to crochet first, at age 13, taught by my aunt on a quiet afternoon. She was doing her duty and passing the craft to the next generation, just as my great-grandmother had handed the hook off to her. I dabbled a little with crochet until my oldest was born and I lost interest entirely. I have also tried my hand at the dye pot (my oldest still says she smells yarn every time the twang of vinegar is in the air), and at the drop spindle, and the spinning wheel. In fact, I purchased a very inexpensive drop spindle soon after I learned to knit and began practicing day and night. I ordered a spinning wheel soon after because with my degenerative autoimmune disease I just couldn’t hold my arm in the air any longer! It took me three hours to figure out how to assemble that spinning wheel. During those three hours, my children were wailing in agony from boredom and possibly because in all the excitement I had neglected to fix dinner. Needless to say, my husband was thrilled to come home from work to find two half-starved children on the floor and a “little house on the prairie looking thing” in the living room. I’ve even had a go at sewing, quilting, cross stitch, and embroidery. However, none of those endeavors ignited me in the same way knitting did. Though I really enjoyed dyeing and spinning, I knew I could easily buy expertly dyed yarns from a passionate yarnie and be far happier with the result. The same rang true for spinning — however, especially in the warmer months when knitting becomes more laborious, I still enjoy the meditative whirl of the wheel.
So, to the knitting. When I was expecting my youngest in 2006, my mother-in-law took a knitting class at a local craft store. I begged her to teach me but she only knew how to cast-on and work the knit stitch. I learned what I could from her and the rest on my own from books, online tutorials, and of course, many YouTube videos. There are a few reasons for my continuing love of the craft: Knitting is portable and takes up very little space (until you make career of it, but that’s another story) and I create via process and was a ceramics major in college with a printmaking minor. Process is where I feel most at home, and knitting is the ultimate process craft — from swatching to knitting, ripping, frogging and blocking (not to mention all of the extra when we throw design into the pot) that I’ve never become bored or felt I’d learned all there was learn. It’s an expansive craft, perfect for my restless little soul.
Tell us about your tool preferences and peccadilloes.
I love my circular needles. I have two interchangeable sets — one plastic, one metal — and a random collection of wooden points. Because of the nature of the design cycles I have many duplicate sizes so that I can knit two or three samples using the same size needles without having to pull tips and cap cords.
I have whittled down my tool collection over the years, but I’m by no means a tool snob. I do prefer my wooden points to all others simply because I love the way the points feel against my fingertips as I work. I have little knitting ticks, like running the point lengthwise on my index finger at the start of every row, and so I am in fact searching for a third set to round out my collection in wood.
I use double points only as necessary but I have two sets of those also, and a set of tiny 4″ DPNs that are just the cutest.
How do you store or organize your tools? Or do you?
This is probably the single most difficult part of the craft. Storage. I have a small work area that houses the bulk of my yarn and tools including sewing machines, the spinning wheel and blocking tools. A picture of my storage area went viral a few years ago when I first decided to hang my hanks on two inexpensive, adjustable curtain rods. I still use this system — it’s practical and lovely. For my double points and hooks, I have two large glass jars for quick access, and a tall, slender floor basket holds my blocking wires. I think circular needle storage is the toughest for me to settle into. I’ve tried dozens of methods; bought the little needle holders, made my own, thrown them into a storage box, hung them from rungs … . There has to be a better way. Right now, all my circulars, spare cords and point sets are tossed in a storage box with a needle gauge. HA! It works for now.
How do you store or organize your works-in-progress?
This is a tale of two baskets. One is a lovely chicken-wire basket with two hinged handles gifted to me by my mother, which lives in my workroom. The other is a large rice basket that I purchased from Fringe that lives next to my couch or chair or anywhere else I have settled in for work. The rice basket houses the most pressing projects with the nearest deadlines. I will keep swatches and all the yarn needed to complete the projects in a large plastic zipper bag in the basket, along with the needles I’ll need, and a pouch of notions, needle gauges and snips. This gives me little reason to break concentration in the midst of a particularly productive session to grab those double points I need for the sleeves or the tape measure to check the body length. Any WIPs I take on the go are tossed straight into my Bento Bag. I was lucky enough to receive the bag as a surprise gift from the mother of one of my closest friends. She’s an amazing woman who has actually become the queen of surprise knitting gifts around here.
The chicken-wire basket houses the “next” or “recently wrapped” projects. If I have a self-published piece in full swing and receive yarn for a publication sample, the self-publish goes right to the chicken-wire basket. Any yarn left over from a sample I finish and don’t need to return will also get tossed into this basket until I’m ready to sort and store it.
This system was born from necessity after wrapping up the dozens of samples for my book. For that undertaking, with maybe fifteen samples with the same deadline, I invested in a large system of racks with sixteen wire drawers. Each drawer held the yarn and sketches for one sample with the swatch pinned to the front. When the sample was not in-progress, or after it was finished, it went straight back to the drawer. When I no longer needed those massive organization strategies, I honestly couldn’t break from it completely to return to my previously less organized non-system.
Are there any particularly prized possessions amongst your tools?
I don’t feel like any price tag on yarn or tools is a splurge at this point (it’s all for the sake of progress, right?) but there are a few things I hold dear. For any sketches that need to be submitted, I go to my Micron pens and Fashionary templates, and I use Stitchmastery software for all of my charting. I don’t use much else in the way of software, though I am diving into the depths of Illustrator so that I can produce my own schematics (for self-published work). We’ll see how that goes!
Other than that, my swift and ball winder are my most valued tools outside my needles, of course. I made the mistake of buying the ball winder first. I knew I wanted to be able to wind hanks into cakes quickly and jumped to the conclusion that the ball winder would do that for me. Don’t most people make that jump, or is it just me? Well, it does its job very well if you have a method for holding the hank. For anyone considering one or the other, since they can each be pretty pricey, please do yourself a favor and start with the swift. You can happily hand-wind a ball from a swift and may never even need to invest in a winder!
No one told me that, so I would often post pictures on Instagram of my hank holding methods during a ball winding session — draping the hank over a chair, around my knees, and my most trusted, on my husband’s outstretched arms — and cried out to the universe one day that I needed a swift. A few days later a mysterious package appeared at the front door. It was long and thin and very heavy for its size. My husband saw the shipping label from Amazon, sighed, and slapped his forehead in dread. (Remember the spinning wheel story?) I swore up and down that I was innocent! I hadn’t purchased anything and I couldn’t begin to guess what treasure was sealed inside. When I pulled the beautiful wooden swift from its bubble-wrap cocoon, I declared a knitting fairy was responsible. I posted a picture on Instagram asking if anyone knew how this lovely swift magically appeared and my dear friend called me soon after. She said her mother had seen the picture and called her to asked what a knitting “swiffer” was, then ordered one for each of us. See? Queen of surprise knitting gifts.
Do you lend your tools?
I don’t tend to lend my tools out and, now that I think about it, I don’t even lend my tools to my students when I teach classes. I have duplicates of everything for practical purposes, and I suppose I may be more attached to my systems and my tools than I previously thought!
What is your favorite place to knit?
I’m surprised there isn’t a crater in my couch where I spend most of my mornings and afternoons! Because I’m normally writing or charting as I knit, I sit squarely on my couch with my laptop and notebook within arms reach at all times. I would love to be able to knit in groups, abandoning this reclusive life! It can be tricky though, since I’m rarely just knitting along or following a pattern and so conversation is the enemy. Many times I’m working on something for an upcoming publication and I tend to feel a bit strange about answering that big question in every knitting group: So, what are you working on?
I miss the early days when we had a large group that would get together weekly and all the kids were small — we would knit little hats for each other’s children and laugh to tears sharing our recent knitting fails. Even though those days weren’t destined to last, as kids started school and many of us had to return to the work force, I’ve come to know the distinct line that forms across the threshold from knitter to designer.
What effect do the seasons have on you?
Other than having to crank the air up in the summer so that my yarn isn’t sticking to me, the seasons make little difference. With most design work, schedules dictate that you’re knitting all summer for patterns featured over the holidays or whipping up summer frocks while snow drifts down in heavy flakes. This used to really mess with me, especially when you consider social media. It’s not always easy to be knitting off schedule from the rest of the western world, but like anything else, eventually it becomes the new normal.
Do you have a dark secret, guilty pleasure or odd quirk, where your fiber pursuits are concerned?
I do not condone “start-itis.” I fell under its spell early on, as many crafters of any kind do. The banishing of multiple projects sprouted from a new year’s mantra “multitasking is the enemy of progress.” I dumped out every basket, bag and corner of my life with a WIP stuffed inside it, and I began frogging everything. That included old sewing, spinning, crochet and cross-stitch projects also. Any yarn I didn’t love I tossed into a donation bin, and the rest I washed and re-hanked. It was one of the smartest decisions of my crafting life. The determination to purge, focus and cleanse with wild authority opened me up to moving forward rather than turning back and wondering why I had started those socks, remembering the frustrations I had with that cable panel, or cringing at the cheap, old yarn I bought on day one of my knitting journey. It freed me from the guilt of not finishing what I had started and instantly provided me with thousands of yards of beautiful yarn that had literally been tied up.
At this point you may be scratching your head because I talked previously about how I manage my various WIPs. This is something that was actually very challenging for me when I slipped into a designer role and had multiple, sometimes overlapping, deadlines that needed to be met. I had to take a step back and visualize the differences between multiple deadlines and “start-tis” which may be very clear to an outsider (professional vs personal), but I had re-wired my brain to only allow myself one project on the needles at a time. In fact, I had spent the previous five years working one project at a time because I was finishing projects more quickly, having an incentive to do so (especially if I found another project I was itching to start). I still prefer to work up a single project or design from start to finish before moving on to the next — I believe it is the root of why I tend to not only meet but exceed my deadlines.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, the biggest project I’m working on is my book. The knitting and writing is done, but that — I’ve come to learn — is the easy part. There is a thick mash-up of excitement and anxiety churning inside me as I sink into the process of approving edits and facing promotion schedules.
If you’re an independent designer, you have to hustle — always. So, I’m also working on various pieces for book contributions right now — two for an upcoming Interweave book along with another Knit Picks pattern. I’m also working with editors on final reviews for three additional patterns. I can’t share any details of those, of course! That’s why I’m always excited to see pieces I worked on ages ago reach publication dates — and it’s about that time for Pom Pom summer (eep!).
Self-published patterns are about as close as I get to personal making anymore. I can share at my discretion and I design to fulfill a knitting itch. If I feel like knitting a long cardigan with pockets, I’ll design one! So, right now in addition to the book and the publication work, I have one sweater queued up for self-publication and one that I just released last week. The Adrift Pullover just came out of testing and became available on Ravelry last Wednesday. It’s a really sweet little sweater knit using Malabrigo Rastita, from the bottom up, in the round, seamlessly, with set-in sleeves (also knit seamlessly), and some really different yoke shaping. It’s comfortable and casual but has a lot of detail packed in. The other is the Freya Cardigan. If you follow along on IG, it’s the dove grey piece with spicy orange mosaic work and pockets. I absolutely LOVE this sweater. In fact, I’ve hardly taken it off since pulling it from the blocking board. This one is worked up in Northbound Knitting MCN, from the top down with a gorgeous circular yoke. It’s also completely seamless, about hip length, and features mosaic front panels along with front pockets. I need to send it out for full testing yet, so this will be a fall release. Hopefully I won’t wear holes into the sample before then!
PREVIOUSLY in Our Tools, Ourselves: Christine Chitnis
Photos © Courtney Spainhower