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Certified Handmade

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There is a funny sketch on Portlandia that I’ve been thinking about lately. A couple sits down in an organic bistro for dinner. The woman may order the chicken, but she first has some questions for the waitress: “Is this chicken USDA Organic? or Oregon Organic? or Portland Organic?” “Is the chicken . . . local?” To best field her questions, the obliging organic waitress fetches a bio sheet on Colin, the organic chicken in question. The couple peruse the bio sheet and admire the accompanying picture of Colin, (a stunning, obviously happy free-range chicken) still not certain that this is to be the organic chicken for dinner tonight. Hmm. Just to be sure, the couple decide to postpone dinner and drive to Colin’s farm to check everything out for themselves. The obliging organic waitress patiently holds their table for them.

Portlandia: Chicken Farm, Part 1

Silly, I know. But here’s why I’ve been thinking about it lately: I wonder if handmades need to come with a bio sheet for discriminating customers.

People buy handmades because they cherish the craftsmanship and labor of individual artisans. They love that this finished piece is the product of one artist’s vision and planning and preparation, culminating finally through lovingly wrought workmanship.

I recently finished knitting a scarf that is pretty, and ready to sell in the fall. It’s an aqua blue wool scarf with a subtle lace pattern, and has a nice balance of delicate design and practical warmth. I think it’s so cool.

But when I lay it out at my Christmas Open House, with a $48 price tag, it may be looked over. My customers may glance at it and think, “Blue scarf, I’ve seen it.”

So I’m going to write a bio sheet to accompany my blue scarf, worthy of even the most Portland Organic chicken.

“The idea for this scarf began as I planned a Road Trip Project (RTP) for a trip to New Orleans’ French Quarter Festival. Such a project necessitates good yarn and a simple-repeat knitting pattern.

“I bought the yarn from a knitter’s destash sale about two years ago (the yarn is . . local); it came as a 200 g. hank of undyed 100% wool, worsted-weight yarn. I dyed this yarn by hand, in a bowl in my kitchen sink, wearing the enormous Ron Popeil Rotisserie gloves that I use for hand dyeing (“set it and forget it!”). I used Rit’s Aquamarine shade to dye the wool, letting it drip-dry for five days in my basement. I then kettle dyed it with a diluted Forest Green dye, giving the wool a sylvan waterfall look.

“After winding the dyed wool into two center-pull balls, I explored understated lace patterns in my ten dictionaries of knitting patterns. As usual, I didn’t find anything that I LOVED so I tried out six or seven different lace patterns. Row 1-12 of this scarf were reworked several times as I tested each different pattern, swearing vapid profanity in my head the whole time. Ultimately (and as usual) I designed my own four-row repeat lace pattern, rendering useless my investment in knitting dictionaries.

“I knit Rows 13-70 while watching the sun rise over the flooded fields of Mississippi. We take the iconic City of New Orleans train from Illinois to NOLA and this classic trip arouses a cozy feeling of American pride in me. The landscape, as tidy midwestern farmland yields to cotton fields, slips into the laid-back rustiness of the rural South. Front yards host broken-down cars on blocks while wisteria grows wild like it’s nothing. While the riders aboard the City of New Orleans are always a diverse group, a lot of people riding today are headed to the same music festival we are. Affluent former hippies relax in the cabins next to us, with high-end mini stereos to play the trip’s soundtrack. We hear City of New Orleans at least once, and Johnny Cash’s Jackson as we pull into Jackson, MS. It’s going to be a good trip.

“Rows 71-114 are knit while sitting in a sidewalk cafe as the French Quarter wakes up from its romp last night. My travel buddies are all still sleeping and I like the time to myself. The narrow streets thwart most car traffic and instead the streets are filled with jaywalkers and delivery trucks. Shop owners water their balcony window boxes, which spill over with pink petunias and six-foot long vines, and the sidewalks are wet. My coffee is black and hot and I’m looking forward to a day of good festival music. I already got my daily run in, so I calculate how many beers I can drink for the day, allowing for the extras that somehow always sneak in there, too. Should be a great day.

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“I knit rows 115-168 after a long and tipsy conversation about Zydeco music. I came to this festival for the Zydeco and the Blues and I’ve heard lots of different artists, each with a unique sound, though all falling in these genres. I talked with an old music guy from Boston and he explained the Creole and Cajun influences in Zydeco, describing the differences between the two. As I listen to the current performer, I’m now able to tease out the Cajun sounds from the music. There is a lot of fiddle and bounce to this brand of Zydeco and I respond to it more. I decide that I definitely prefer Cajun Zydeco over Creole. But I still like Creole food.

“The scarf is finished at home, after my trip to New Orleans is over. As usual, I reknit the last row several times as I work to make the bound-off row match the cast-on row. Some knitters don’t care about this as much as I do, but I get fussy about this one detail and swear about it more in my head as I get it “right.”

“I blocked this scarf on a cedar plant with the nickel upholstery pins that I use for blocking. I steam the scarf, and the wool fibers relax to reveal the pretty lace pattern. Lily Chin once said that steam for your finished knit project is like hot rollers for your hair. She’s so right and the steam takes this scarf of course and bunchy, to soft and drapey. With the scarf now smooth and flat you can see the subtle changes in the aqua color, some areas are clear and vivid while other spots look shadow-cast.”

I plan to print out this bio sheet and paperclip a picture of the New Zealand sheep that lent its wool for this scarf. (Her name is Nellie. She is fluffy, and obvious a happy, free-range sheep.) And I’m sure that prospective customers will read the 738-word biography to learn the full background of the pretty blue scarf.

This is why people buy handmades, right?

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