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.
In recent months, Beth Thais — I mean, @beththais — has become one of my very favorite Instagrammers. You may recall she was also one of the WIP of the Week winners last summer. I don’t really know anything about her other than that she’s an incredible sewer and knitter, takes beautiful photos and lives in the Bay Area. Since encountering her online, I’ve wished I had made friends with her while I still lived there, and having asked her to answer my Our Tools, Ourselves questions — reading her answers and seeing these photos — has made me wish I had moved in with her. Forgive me if that sounds creepy, but I think you’re likely to feel the same way. ;)
In addition to her Instagram feed, you can find her on Ravelry as beththais. Thanks so much for doing this, Beth!
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Do you knit, crochet, weave, spin, dye, sew … ?
I knit (14 years running), sew (five years) or quilt (two years) almost every day. I enjoy spinning and crochet on occasion. I dyed my first-ever skeins of yarn last month and I liked it.
Tell us about your tool preferences and peccadilloes.
I get attached to the potential tools bring, and their sentimentality. Like fabric on the bolt, it’s easy to pick up a tool and picture all things you could make with it — that sense of possibility is so heady and hard for me to resist.
I do most of my sewing on a modern Bernina and a Brother serger that I researched and bought deliberately. And my rotary cutter and mats and my first good pair of sewing scissors were the same. Most other things I use, including the 1950s Gimble sewing machine I learned on, are things I’ve stumbled across online or at garage sales, or I am lucky to get them as gifts from family or friends.
And I know it’s bizarre, but I just don’t care that much what kind of needles I knit with. Metal, wood, circulars, DPNs — I care about the yarn and the pattern, everything else is background.
How do you store or organize your tools? Or do you?
I have a big cabinet for yarn and another for fabric. The fabric cabinet was pulled out of the dining room of a 1920s home in Burlingame, California, before demolition and came to me by way of Craigslist years later. My husband restored it and installed it in the spare bedroom I use as a workshop. He did such a beautiful job — it looks like it’s been a part of our house for a hundred years.
My yarn cabinet is a 1930s kitchen cabinet with stove burner etched glass that I bought from a woman downsizing her home in Oakland. She had used it for many years to hold painting and ceramic art supplies, so it’s on a second tour of duty storing tools for making. My rolled sewing patterns are in a ceramic umbrella stand I found at a garage sale. Boxed patterns are in two baskets in an order I can pretty much recite but has no real organization behind it.
I have a yellow standing sewing box that I treasure. It’s a bizarre little piece of midcentury furniture built entirely with making in mind: pin cushions on the inside of the lid, dozens of little pockets lining the inside for your tools and notions, a deep curved bottom for your sweater or hand sewing project in progress, and little wheels so you can drag it all around the house with you. It is incredibly useful, but also so specifically built to my purpose that I can’t help having an affinity. We share interests, it and I.
When my projects leave the house, I have little tool kits to go with them. Tasa Gleason came to a monthly Seam Allowance meeting at A Verb for Keeping Warm in Oakland with a Sew Together bag she had made. We all loved it and kept after her until she agreed to teach a class so we could each sew our own. I have a full-sized one for hand sewing and the mini size for knitting. They have built-in pin cushions and needle stops and a million pockets and I know by heart what goes in each one.
How do you store or organize your works-in-progress?
With exceptions for gifts made on a deadline, I give myself freedom to work on what inspires me. I use a big bulletin board to plan projects obsessively when it suits, but also wait for that idea that bewitches me out of nowhere. Some of my most euphoric makes are completely unplanned and heady with that sense of giving into a wonderful whim.
My Snoqualmie cardigan sent me on a bus to buy yarn on my lunch break, and I cast on during my commute home despite not having the right size needles to do a tubular cast-on properly. So one sleeve starts with a long-tail cast-on and it looks a little different than all the other hems, and while I completely get that most people think that’s totally nuts, I don’t know … it’s never bothered me. I look at that cast-on that doesn’t match and remember how much I loved that sweater when I first saw it, and how thrilling it was to turn around and suddenly be making something so beautiful and complex with my own hands.
This approach begets many active projects. I have a drawer for sleeping or misbehaving WIPs, and an accordion wall rack that has the ones I’m rotating between more frequently. I’m a huge fan of the Stowe Bag for active projects — if I end up with more WIPs than bags, I can always make more. There is literally a Stowe on the project rack that has pieces of other Stowes-in-progress inside.
I’ll pick the project that speaks to me and head to my little rolling sewing box if I’m working around the house, or grab the right travel bag if I’m headed out the door. It’s a system that works surprisingly well, and I’m grateful for the freedom to have most days start with thought and a decision about what I’ll spend time with.
Are there any particularly prized possessions amongst your tools?
I inherited a beautiful blue spinning wheel that has been in my husband’s family for generations. I spin on a modern wheel, but think about restoration.
I have a small gold thimble from my husband’s grandmother. There’s a scissor case that looks like a pizza slice that I made on a whim that I’m bizarrely attached to and take everywhere. My husband is a geologist and my pattern weights are all rocks he’s brought home over the years.
I have a standing mirror that was the mirror my mother-in-law shared with her sisters in their room growing up. The table that holds my sewing machine and serger is an old oak desk built for two people to use facing each other. The drawers open in either direction, which I adore, and it’s full of weird little corners and drawers that I fill with patterns and notes and books and tools.
Do you lend your tools?
About two years ago, a woman at an improvisational quilting class who was much better at improvisational quilting than I was gave me a 12 x 12 ruler because she had a spare and I didn’t have one yet. It felt like a validation of the skill I was trying to learn, and support of the work I had left to do. I will lend anything and give most things if you need them; I believe in our community and the support we can give each other.
What is your favorite place to knit/sew/spin/dye/whatever?
I work away from home and I have young children who don’t nap anymore, so nights are my creative time. And I’ll get up much earlier on weekends that I ever do during the week, and have the sun come up while I’m cutting out pattern pieces if I’m feeling ambitious, or sit on the couch with sleepy pets and knit and think about the day. It’s a meditation, a beginning and end of the day I always recognize.
What effect do the seasons have on you?
I’m consistent in my inconsistency; seasons tend not to change my approach.
Do you have a dark secret, guilty pleasure or odd quirk, where your fiber pursuits are concerned?
I knit everywhere, I sew everywhere, but I only feel like spinning if it’s 75 degrees and breezy and I can sit outside, listen to music and have a glass of wine. It happens maybe four times a year and it is transcendent.
I take a project with me everywhere; it’s like a comfort object. The one day I leave the house convinced that bringing a WIP is silly will be the day I get a seat on the train and that train will break down and spend 45 minutes stuck in a tunnel. If you happen to meet me in the supermarket, know there’s at minimum a sock-in-progress somewhere on my person.
What are you working on right now?
I have a crocheted afghan that lives in a basket on top of a cabinet. Knitting feels the best to me, but I’ll crochet a square every few weeks just for the feel of something different in my hands. There’s a Furrow Cowl by Jared Flood that’s been my project of choice for a few weeks and is nearing the finish line, knit off a treasured cone of Sally Fox’s naturally colored cotton.
My most ambitious undertaking is an English paper pieced quilt called Patchwork of the Crosses, designed by Lucy Boston. It’s my first hand-sewn quilt, my first English paper pieced project. Weaving, crochet and spinning are enjoyable, but I’ve never found them captivating the way I do knitting and sewing — and I think I assumed I had found the two types of making I’d love most. But I folded the two first little fabric scraps around paper templates and stitched the edges together and I knew immediately that I’d do this forever. It’s such a surprise and a gift, to find another thing to fall in love with.
PREVIOUSLY in Our Tools, Ourselves: Karen Templer
Photos © Beth Thais