I am not Stephen West (or, My Hiberknitalong2020 Story)

Stephen West wearing his Woven Chevrons Shawl

If you, like me, have been knitting your way through the pandemic and scouring the knittisphere on social media for ideas day after endless day in this year(s)long weekend, then you already know: I am not Stephen West. Don’t get me wrong: I think I have above average self-esteem, have been described as “fun” and “funny,” and I’m getting better every day with the old yarn and needles, but in no way am I the gregarious, wildly prolific, color-pop of a showman superdesigner that Stephen West is.

Stephen Weber (me!), wearing his Woven Chevrons Shawl (made following Stephen West’s design)

And yet, a friend who follows my Instagram but who is not a knitter herself thought I was. She said, “Oh, I thought when you were posting about ‘Stephen West’ that was just your IG pseudonym.” I about died; for one thing, I wish I were that creative! And, for another thing, if I were going to use a pseudonym, I’d do better than to swap out the last three letters of Stephen Weber and replace them with an -st.

But I digress. She was referring to my posts during the #Hiberknitalong2020, during which time thousands of people around the world knitted one of two shawls designed by Stephen, posted about their progress throughout the month of January, admired each other’s work and congratulated each other along the way. Knitalongs (KALs) are not a Westian invention, but I first became aware of them as people I follow on IG were posting about the Mystery Knitalongs Stephen orchestrates, where he’ll release the sections of a pattern piece by piece every week, and the participants have no idea what’s coming or what the final product is meant to look like. Everyone’s posts from the fall Mystery KAL were a lot of fun, and I definitely felt that I was missing out, so I was determined to join his next event (which, fortunately, wasn’t too long after the fall Mystery KAL).

Verdigris dreams

Here I should take a moment to describe for those who don’t knit what it is that’s so “fun” about knitting in general, and about knitting a Westknits project in particular. Folks who don’t knit but who have admired my own work have said, “Oh, that must be so relaxing!” and, of course, it is…..mostly. But there are definitely times when I’m working on something, especially something with a little complexity to it, and I’ll watch as the pattern develops…and I don’t want to stop! It’s exciting to watch the colors and textures unfold and blend together, and there are times when I’ll go to bed after a few hours of knitting and can’t fall asleep because my mind is still racing with the click of the needles and the image of the color and pattern development. I think the best analogy I can make is that several years ago I was a bit of a Candy Crush Saga addict, and when I’d try to go to sleep after playing too long, I’d remain wide awake still seeing the colorful screen in my head. Knitting isn’t that bad, but it must trigger some kind of stimulating chemical release in the brain, and this even more so when the work involves color changes and a variety of stitch patterns.

ALL the colors. (photo by IG: @dsmithstudio)

Westknits designs use ALL the colors and ALL the stitch patterns, and in such playful, surprising ways that so often I just did. not. want. to. stop!

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I’ve made it sound like I’ve knit many Westknits pieces when, in fact, the Hiberknitalong Woven Chevrons Shawl was my first and so far only (but not my last!). I’ve been an admirer of Stephen’s work since I first learned about him when I set up my knitting Instagram account a year ago, but at that point, initially, I thought his pieces were really cool and funky and beautiful and creative, but perhaps a little too “out there” for me. My preferred color palette consists almost entirely of neutrals and earth tones and has been that way for years — colors that allow me to blend in to most surroundings — and, as Westknits fans all know, one of Stephen West’s mottos is “Neon is a Neutral.” I feel comfortable saying that has never been true for me; if you’re wearing a Westknits garment, you want to be seen. So while I wanted the experience of knitting a Westknits piece and joining the #westknitsarethebestknits community, I figured I’d probably make it for someone else whose fashion sense is bolder than mine.

Hoboken camouflage

Well…as it happens…after a year of knitting voraciously almost every day, and of looking at hundreds of thousands of beautiful sweaters and socks and shawls and mittens and more from people around the world, I started to think, “Perhaps I would like to stand out a little…” I had decided to do the Hiberknitalong whether I liked the patterns he released or not, so when he made yarn kits available through Stephen & Penelope (the famous local yarn shop in Amsterdam of which he is part owner), and when I saw that one of them was a mix of wintry greens and blue-greens, I was all over it. Yes, the colors fit snugly in my comfort zone of hues, but the design (as I would discover) makes them vibrant, full of movement and life: definitely a more look-at-me! garment than I usually wear. Apparently I was one of the lucky few to snag one of the limited edition kits: when I went on IG to share my excitement about getting one, all I saw were upset people lamenting that they were too late and begging Stephen & Penelope to release more; such is the emotional drama of the knitting life. It didn’t feel right to gloat, so I never did share that I’d scored one of the kits (sharing it now; hopefully the pain has subsided for those unfortunate others). The yarn included in the kit was Mominoki‘s Finnwool line; so soft, super warm and perfect on these freezing cold days when I want to wrap my entire face up during my morning walk.

St. Stephen & me. I traded his stones for Mominoki Finnwool yarn. (photo by my stepdad, Don Rohman)

When he released the two shawl patterns on December 26th — St. Stephen’s Day, wouldn’tcha know… — I knew instantly that I’d be making the Woven Chevrons. The Winter Lights Shawl is also gorgeous (and I might make it another time), but the geometry of the woven chevrons, the dancing optical illusion of the thing — it blew me away. The pattern seemed complex at first, but there’s an aha! moment in every pattern where suddenly the logic of the thing makes perfect sense and you can pretty much knit the rest without looking. (Well, almost…). I’d say I internalized it just after I was finished with the first section of chevrons, so the rest of the project flowed easily as wave after wave of blue-green V’s descended from the needles. It was heavenly.

I give you: Woven Chevrons!

And now it’s done, which is great because I LOVE WEARING IT and I wear it everywhere (so much for being “out there”…), and I’ve already gotten many compliments around town. But it’s also a bit sad because I enjoyed working on it so much that I kind of didn’t want it to end. I suppose that’s the genius of a brilliant design.

So. While I am not Stephen West, I do now know that I enjoy knitting and wearing Stephen West garments, and I also know that by doing so I might be an even more vivacious Stephen Weber (but I’m still not Steven Weber from Wings; no amount of knitting will change that.)

If you’d like more information about Stephen West’s designs, follow him on IG @westknits and Ravelry, check out his wildly entertaining YouTube channel, and be sure to check out his store, Stephen & Penelope. Also, you can purchase the Woven Chevrons Shawl pattern on Ravelry and Gumroad.com.

Follow Mominoki Yarn at @mominokiyarn.

And if you’d like to see more of my own projects, you can follow me on IG @knitphen.

And finally, just because, here’s my favorite Westknits video. Makes me laugh every time (#BOOMyerinparis).

*All photos of Stephen West shared with his permission. Cover photo credit: Darren Smith, IG: @dsmithstudo

Myths and Hymns

I’m long overdue in sharing this, but my chorus, MasterVoices, is producing something incredibly special this season: Adam Guettel’s “Myths & Hymns” presented in four chapters. The piece thoughtfully places Greek myths alongside freshly orchestrated Episcopalian hymns to meditate on the ways we strive — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to bring meaning into our lives: through Flight, Work, Love and Faith.

“Chapter 1: Flight” premiered a month ago, and I think it’s one of the most impressive performances I’ve been a part of. It includes six pieces, each presented as a video, each video directed by a different talent, and featuring a truly remarkable array of soloists from Renee Fleming (!!!) & Kelli O’Hara of the opera & Broadway worlds, to Take 6 of gospel and a cappella fame, and many others you may recognize if you’re a regular theatergoer in NYC…or, if you’re not, then they’ll be new voices for you to discover! (And, of course, if you pay attention, you’ll spot me a few times; vocally I contributed to all of the songs except for the opening piano duet and Pegasus 🙂 )

If you enjoy this (and I’m confident you will), consider joining our watch party for “Chapter 2: Work” on YouTube, February 24th, starting at 6:30pm. Also, if you enjoy this, please consider making a donation. The video is completely free, but, as I’m sure you know, the arts — and performance arts in particular — have been hit hard during the pandemic. MasterVoices has done a lot to keep people working and producing inspiring, joyful pieces like this one, but with no ticket sales this season we’re depending on individuals to give freely — and any amount helps! (Donation links are in the video description). And now (finally!) I give you, Flight!

Notes from a Pandemic

Looking ahead.

The clever reader will notice that my last blog post was from February 2019, nearly two years ago, so my absence from this site cannot be attributed to the covid-19 pandemic that ignited the now cliché “dumpster fire” that was Anno Domini 2020. No, it’s had much more to do with the fact that, simply put, I had nothing to say. Or, rather, nothing to say that I felt like sharing. It wasn’t just my blog either. I haven’t revised the novel I worked on so painstakingly. I’ve barely even written in my physical, personal journal, which has been a matter of habit for decades. I suppose I’ve been on retreat for the last two years or so, very much engaged with the people who are physically in my life and intimately connected to me, but approaching society at large — and social media — with a permanently raised eyebrow.

2020 didn’t help much.

And let’s face it, 2021 isn’t off to a very auspicious start, but after sitting out awhile, I feel like putting my toe in the water to check the temperature, and maybe I’ll dive back in.

My goal, if I can see this through, is to write about books and wine and theatre and art just as before, with a special emphasis on my own creative projects and what they mean to me, why it is I feel compelled to write and produce and make them.

The difference with this go around is that there will be a lot of focus on knitting. I can’t tell you how many miles of yarn I’ve shaped into garments while in lockdown, but I can tell you that, whereas my desire to write diminished in the past year, it was replaced by a desire to make things by hand and to revisit an art form I learned how to do fifteen years ago, but have only now begun to inch towards mastery.

The desire to make things led to a desire to show them off to people who would appreciate them. In order to do this, I created an instagram account (@knitphen) almost exclusively dedicated to following people involved in the fiber arts. Interactions with other knitters, crocheters, dyers and makers of all sorts really pushed my skills forward and made my stance towards social media soften a bit. So here I am, back at it on the blog, with a focus on sharing and growth, inspiring and being inspired by others.

Let’s get (re)started.

Night Songs & Love Waltzes

47384327_2047790578644245_8302776883930464256_oValentine’s Day may have just passed, but that’s no reason to let that lovin’ feeling wilt away like the dessicated bouquet of flowers you’ve got dropping petals all over your table. Keep the love alive by coming to hear MasterVoices’ Night Songs & Love Waltzes, a night of Liebeslieder (German love songs) by the masters of Romantic music! (Here’s the official MasterVoices promotional text):

This evening of songs and piano works will feature the music of such influential Romantic era composers as Felix Mendelssohn, Clara and Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, and Johannes Brahms, as well as today’s Ricky Ian Gordon and Stephen Sondheim, and the poetry that inspired them. With soloists including soprano Nicole Cabell, mezzo Kate Aldrich, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Nmon Ford, and duo pianists Anderson & Roe, Night Songs and Love Waltzes will display multiple musical configurations, including vocal solos, duets, trios, and quartets; men’s chorus, women’s chorus, and the full MasterVoices chorus; as well as arrangements featuring cellos, horns and duo pianists. 

In the days ahead I’ll post video links to the various artists we’ll be working with, but don’t wait for that in order to buy your tickets. Get them here, and we’ll see you on March 1st!

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Scholarship for Student Travel

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Students in front of St. Paul’s, 2015  (the second time I was in the UK with students on a trip that traveled from London to Paris to Florence (& Assisi) to Rome

 

Greetings, Readers!

During Spring Break 2018 I’ll be leading a group of students to Ireland and the UK. I’m really excited about this particular trip because I’m planning to align my English curriculum to it, unlike the first trip I planned in 2010.  That trip abroad was to London and should have linked effortlessly to what I teach, but, being my first student trip, I was too much of a newbie organizer to connect it with my teaching — I just wanted to make sure it went off without a hitch.

Only six students attended that particular trip, and this trip already has sixteen — I’ve gotten better at recruiting.  But I want to take even more than that, especially since so many of my English students will be studying curriculum designed especially for the trip, it would be a waste if I couldn’t bring as many of them along as possible.

So I’ve established a scholarship that will allow us to bring two to four more students along for the ride.

Please consider making a donation to the cause and helping students experience the world.  You can do so by visiting our GoFundMe page.  And click here if you’re interested in seeing our itinerary (just don’t enroll, please, without permission!).

And while you’re at it, check out this video from our trip to Greece in 2016 so you can get a sense of what an enriching experience student travel can be.

 

 

 

Novel Progress

kayak hh

Here’s a pic of me not doing my writing (BAD, Stephen!), but kayaking alongside dolphins (not pictured) in Hilton Head, SC, July 2017.

I recently visited a friend I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years and one of the things she asked me was how my novel was coming along, and I realized this is exactly the reason why I need to post about this process on social media.  If everyone knows I’m writing it, even friends I rarely get a chance to see, then it helps keep me focused.

So here’s an update.

In March I presented my draft to my writing group, the excellent and talented members of Jersey City Writers, and got some really useful feedback.  I was slow in implementing it due to the demands at school, but once summer started it became my main focus.  So help me God, I will have a revised draft finished by the end of summer, one that is ready to present to agents and publishers, or ready to publish on my own.  We’ll see…

Part of the problem with my original draft was that I wrote it for NaNoWriMo without planning much of it out.  Now, I love NaNoWriMo for all the enthusiasm it generates for writing, as well as the bonhomie it stirs up among those crazy enough to attempt writing a novel in a month.  However, I am not a pantser in any other aspect of my life, so I shouldn’t have supposed I could be one as I novelist.  I should have begun the process of writing this book with a formidably well-parsed outline.

But I didn’t.

So now I’ve taken the feedback from my writing group along with what I know of my characters and their general story, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time organizing the flow of their tale to address some of the readers’ issues, adding some rather dramatic plot points that seem so obvious now that I’m ashamed I left them out initially.

I did quite a bit of searching online for useful ideas as part of my outlining reformation, and  I want to give a shout out to Katytastic, a YouTuber (kat_tastic on Twitter) whose video I found particularly helpful.  I use Scrivener for most of my longer works of writing, and this video demonstrated a really smart way to outline using Scrivener’s features that I hadn’t used before.  After watching her video and putting her strategies to work, my story seemed so much more solid.

Now that I’ve got it fleshed out a bit better, I’m back to writing it.  And trust me, if you’re reading this blog right now, then I will let you and all the rest of the world know when it is finished, because as much as I love my dear little fictional Ohio town of Villandry, I’ve already got three more novels I’m itching to write and as many protagonists getting pissed off at me for taking so long.

And a memoir.

And maybe a play.  We’ll see.

For now, though, please check out Katytastic’s “Outlining with Scrivener.”  (BTW, I really can’t figure out why the link starts the video in the middle.  I don’t seem to be able to correct it…but you can manage to drag it back to the beginning, right?)

 

 

‘Babes’ in Review

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Look two heads to the right of Kelli O’Hara, hovering over the female cellist in the second row of the chorus: c’est moi! 

Our two performances of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland took place this past week at Carnegie Hall and the Tilles Center; the reviews are in, and — by and large — they’re all great!  I want to contribute my thoughts to the conversation with the chorister’s-eye-view of the experience, but it’s late on a school night, so for the moment let it suffice that I merely round up the official opinions.

Broadway World

Theaterscene

Berkshire Fine Arts

Classical Source

La Scena

Huffington Post

Voce di Meche

ZealNYC

 

Babes in Toyland

Toyland” is possibly the first song I ever learned.  I’m not sure.  I only know that it entered my repertoire at some time before I have memory of it doing so.  I don’t remember if it was a snow globe or a music box or what it was that put it there, but that tune has been in my head for a very long time.

Which isn’t to say I ever imagined getting to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall in the company of Broadway and theater legends like Bill Irwin and Kelli O’Hara, but that’s exactly what will happen later this month when my choir, MasterVoices, presents Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland as part of our 75th anniversary season.  Babes is a show that has remained popular since its creation in 1903, yet hasn’t had a showing in NYC in over 80 years.

Might be 80 more before you get another chance to see and hear this fun show with its iconic score, so don’t miss it!

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