With a big, knitterly hug, we welcome the incorrigible, brilliant DG Strong to MDK. What follows is a tale we have been begging him to tell. Now, for the first time, exclusively on MDK, he shares his story. Grab a cup of something warm or cool, and settle in. (And do not miss the photo gallery up top.)
—Kay and Ann
Well, I suppose the first thing I should bring up (trust me, it’s the first thing I always bring up) is that long, long ago (2015), I won Best in Show (Knitting Division, not hogs or anything) at the Tennessee State Fair.
With the very first thing I ever knitted.
Which was basically a giant queen-sized washcloth.
None of these details matter in the least when it comes to the next part of the story; I just like to throw them in as often as possible, especially really loudly in groups of other knitters. Somewhat related: dinner with me is a nightmare. “Oh dear, a water spill. Too bad I don’t have my giant queen-sized award-winning washcloth with me.”
I say you don’t need to know those things before I go on with the rest of the story, but that’s not precisely true. You should know: once you get a ribbon, you want another ribbon. And then you want another ribbon. And suddenly you have enough ribbons to start a one-person rhythmic gymnastics team.
Those ribbons are addictive.
After my win, I immediately turned my attention toward winning Best in Show again. Alas, because of a rule that I am positive is unconstitutional, a person cannot win Best in Show in the same division at the Tennessee State Fair two years in a row. So now I had two years to rub my hands together and cackle and bide my time—bide my time—and come up with something that would win again. Now I knew just how Henry Fonda felt waiting 41 years between his Oscar nominations. It was exactly like that.
Let’s jump to January 2016. I had been thinking for a while about knitting something related to the National Parks in honor of the Park Service’s centennial. NPS Centennial souvenirs were already everywhere—mugs, t-shirts, coolers, hiking boots.
I think I even ate a Yellowstone-flavored tater tot at Sonic one week. The National Parks have been a longtime obsession of mine—an obsession borne not so much out of experience in the actual parks (though I had some), but more out of some strange, artificial nostalgia for them that was probably largely created via multiple viewings of The Long, Long Trailer when I was a child—oh, that Lucy! But I couldn’t quite figure out how to knit a tribute to them without just making a Pendleton-inspired striped blanket.
I got very, very lucky.
Endless half-assed Ravelry searches finally turned up a fantastic in-progress project called the National Parks Centennial Celebration Blanket, designed by a group of knitters from Utah, Smart Knits. It was a series of illustrative squares, each one inspired by a different National Park.
It was just up my alley in a lot of ways: the recovering graphic designer in me liked the pared-down, minimal quality of a handful of them and the folk art collector in me was attracted to the naive sensibility of a few of them and the National Parks supporter in me admired the charitable aspect of the whole thing. (All pattern sales benefit the National Park Foundation; they’ve donated over $2,000 so far.) It worked like a typical mystery knit—I got a package of five or six patterns per month—and since there are 59 parks (plus a NPS logo square), the plan was to finish it up in about a year, long before the 2017 State Fair entry deadline.
Plenty of time, I said. Plenty of time.
Right off the bat, it was clear to me that it was going to be tough and that a good chunk of it was beyond my knit-purl-knit-purl skillset. I didn’t make it any easier on myself, either—right from the start, I started making changes (I told you I was a nightmare at dinner): I switched from the recommended DK yarn to a worsted one, so all my squares blocked up larger and a little more inconsistently than the patterns indicated. I wanted to make the blanket eight squares by eight squares, which was going to leave me four short—what were those going to be? I ended up doing four signature squares. Four. Not since John Hancock has there been such a disproportionately large signature.
Since I discovered the project three months after it started, I was also already 15 squares behind. And on and on and on, so many roadblocks at the beginning. Border or no border? Seam in order or save it until the end? Swatch, test, rip, repeat. And, oh, the worst one: most of the designs involved intarsia.
I was not completely new to intarsia. During the in-between non-Best-in-Show-eligible year, I felt like I should keep a toe in the State Fair waters and knocked out an intarsia sweater that snagged a second-place ribbon. (It featured a silhouette of Bigfoot because what wardrobe is complete without such a thing?) I have no great love for the technique, and the fiddliness of it frequently drives me to just taking it outside and burying it in the yard and pretending it never happened.
But now it was March 2016 already, and I was elbow deep in making a picture of a bear cub climbing up a tree—though it also looks a little bit like the bear cub is, uhm, just really, really fond of the tree.
Every few nights for months, I would look at all the unknitted patterns and shuffle them around, trying to decide which intarsia nightmare would make me cuss the least, and that’s the one I would cast on.
In early November 2016, I said out loud to someone that I didn’t care who won the presidential election, as long as her first order of business was to immediately deactivate about half of the National Parks, thus saving me from having to knit any more of them. And let me tell you: after you fiddle around with seven bobbins in an attempt to honor the full, glorious majesty of Glacier National Park in a 31-stitch-wide square, your number one rub-a-lamp genie wish is to go back in time and smother the inventor of intarsia in her crib.
I’ll confess: about halfway through the project, I almost gave up. I was thisclose to just having 30 wool trivets. It felt like the blanket would never be finished, and I was extremely frustrated by my limited skillset. Every time a new set of patterns arrived, I had to pause and go learn some crazy new thing.
That weird pinhole cast-on.
Lacy, yarnover-heavy blocks.
Some crazy thing called a palm stitch, which had the nerve to show up twice.
One square involved making three-dimensional what I think are fish-scales? Coral reefs?
It was . . . a lot.
But, right when I needed it, I had an epiphany about the project during a woodland hike at Big South Fork with friends. We were having a conversation about the different types of hikers, and we determined that there are two types: waterfall hikers and trail hikers. Waterfall hikers just want to get to the waterfall and snap the picture and get back to the car. Trail hikers are happy to just be on the trail, looking at plants and animals and the way the light hits the bark and having Deep Thoughts as they hike. I am definitely the latter. Just like that, I knew that the blanket was a trail, and I was happy to be on it.
I barely made it under the wire. It ended up taking about 16 months, with a few expletive-laden “I’m never knitting again” temper tantrums sprinkled around. (My dog now thinks her name is F***ing Intarsia.) I tore things out I was unhappy with and started them over.
I threw things down in a huff and checked online to make sure that American Samoa even has a National Park. (It does.) But I did end up loving this particular hike, especially after I worked up the courage to veer off the designated path and redesign and chart a few blocks based on my own experiences in the Parks.
Doing that reminded me why I wanted to do a NPS project in the first place, even before discovering the in-progress Smart Knits group and their brilliant project.
I wanted to celebrate this amazing, uniquely American thing that’s been so important to me for so long by recording my own feet having been in some of them. I revisited my own journals and photos and drawings of National Parks visits over the years and came up with some squares of my own: Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Some are successful, some aren’t (my Carlsbad looks like nothing so much as a desperate plea for Batman to come save Gotham City), but I’m certainly not afraid to haul out the graph paper and just go for it in the future—you can just all look forward to my blanket commemorating the films of Barbara Stanwyck.
I finished seaming the last of ten thousand seams and weaving in the last of six hundred thousand ends just ten days before the entry deadline for the State Fair.
At the last minute, I flirted briefly with backing the blanket, but I was ultimately so proud of my seaming that I decided to leave it exposed.
Most intarsia is unsightly on the backside, but I almost prefer the back of the blanket to the front; it definitely signals the presence of hand, and that’s something I really love.
It’s a little bit like seeing how the sausage is made, but at least it’s very delicious sausage.
Are we at the end? (WE ARE).
Is now the time to spoil it? (YES.)
Did I win Best in Show again? (I DID.)
It’s only been a couple of weeks since I finished the blanket. It’s only been a couple of days since I learned I was going to have to enlarge my ribbon-holding room. And it’s only been a few minutes since I started a new project for 2019.
It’s an intarsia blanket.