Creativity I (or the absolute necessity of stash)

Andrea has written a really interesting post about creativity in the context of parents’ questions about how to encourage their children’s creativity. Her post really triggered a lot of thinking about broader issues for me that I started to write about in her comments and then realized I had a whole post-full…

This is what I said in Andrea’s comments:

What you say about adult creativity is so spot on. I am conscious of working on this myself. I also think it affects how many and what sort of craft supplies we have. Just look at all the discussions on knitting blogs about ‘stash’. Folks seem to feel really guilty about having lots of yarn in the house, much of it with no defined purpose. And yet, the really creative knitters have a huge amount of stash. This means that if they get an idea they can start working on it, no matter whether the stores are open. AND that when they don’t have any ideas they can get (some of) the stash out, spread it out and look at it and feel it and be inspired. I frequently experience internal conflict about not having enough stash and not really ‘needing’ any more yarn.

In an e-mail correspondance that followed, we discussed a bit about frugality, as well. I think that there are several things at work here. One is about frugality. Not wasting money or the things you buy with it is one aspect of that. Another is not buying stuff just for the sake of it, which means having a purpose for it. There is also a protestant work ethic thing going on (which has become so pervasive, particularly in North American society that you don’t need any of the protestant religious belief that originally went with it). This contributes to anxieties about finishing things and also about doing them “properly”. That is then linked to the whole valuing of productive work over leisure, relationships, and other aspects of life which I’m mulling for a whole other post.

I returned to knitting a few years ago. At that time, I had a very strong sense that I should only start a project that I knew I could finish and should work on it until I finished it. I was living alone at the time and was unemployed (though looking for work). I remember going to a yarn store and thinking that I could commit myself to finishing something for Tigger. I really liked the Mission Falls cotton and asked for help finding a suitable pattern and out I walked with what I thought would be enough to keep me going for a while. I knit a cardigan (too big, still is 3 years later though closer) in 1 week.

I can’t remember what happened next but I think I just went and got more supplies. Then in the summer I went to a party and got talking to someone who also crafted. She mentioned some website she liked and when I got home (the party was in northern Michigan, don’t ask) I looked it up and followed links and . . . and discovered a great community of on-line knitting pals. At some point I actually asked these wonderful people about the issue of not finishing things or having multiple things on the go. One of them replied that it was even okay to throw half-finished projects in the garbage. This was mindblowing.

So I started to let go of my anxieties about finishing, multiple projects, and whatever was related to that. And I discovered that I actually finish more projects when I have several things on the go. This is partly because the several things are usually different kinds of things. So if I get bored with knitting a garter stitch cardigan (one of the WIPs in the current basket), I can pick up a lace shawl. Or if I am in a situation where I could knit but can’t concentrate enough to knit lace, I can knit socks (or the garter stitch cardigan). I keep socks in my purse for on the bus, in waiting rooms, in the pub, etc. They are small enough that I don’t mind carrying them around even if I don’t get them out, and they are mindless enough to do while carrying on a conversation. In my previous life, I think one of the problems was that if I got sick of a project I would put it down but then I wouldn’t start another knitting project because that one wasn’t finished. Mostly this led to abandoning knitting for long periods of time.

Now that doesn’t have a lot to do with creativity but in some ways it does. Part of freeing myself to have unfinished projects was about freeing myself from the obligation to the finished product. The process of knitting has become increasingly separated from the product that will result. I am still working on this but I am increasingly able to buy materials that are attractive and look fun to work with (in this case yarn, but it could apply to materials for any kind of creative project) with only the vaguest sense of what I might make with them.

Again, my on-line community helped greatly. I once asked how to decide how much yarn to buy. While some folks gave approximate yardage requirements for different kinds of knitted items (I now carry Ann Budd’s Knitter’s Handy Guide to Yarn Requirements in my purse), others suggested things like, “As much as you can afford.” (in cases of particularly nice but pricey) or “As much as they have.” (in cases of a good deal). Mindblowing again. I still need to be able to imagine one concrete product I could make with that amount of yarn, but I don’t actually make a commitment to myself to make a particular thing when I buy yarn now. It is more a case of “Is there enough to make anything with this.” than a case of deciding what to make before purchasing the yarn.

My stash is still pretty small. It mainly fits in six 1.7L containers in a cupboard (actually one of those has spinning fibre in it but there is yarn in the basket by my chair that probably balances that out). Some people have gone past the point where their stash can be an inspiration because they can’t get at it. But my stash could definitely be bigger. I recently had cause to lament the lack of sock yarn in the house, for example. (Don’t worry. Great friends have rectified that problem.)

And losing the focus on finishing a product that will definitelly get used also frees me from anxiety about whether the product will be any good. I can try new things and see how they work out. Knitting is amazingly forgiving compared to some other creative pursuits in that one can rip out and start again (or do something completely different with that yarn). But things can be tried and enjoyed for the learning process and the process of making them. The end product then becomes a nice bonus.

With my knitting this has led to two concrete outcomes: designing and lace. Designing has started from a desire to make things that fit and look nice. Much of it has been modifying patterns and pulling together elements from several patterns though I am currently working on (or not, since it is hot and it is wool) a sweater for Tigger that seems more designed than previous efforts.

And I have discovered that I love knitting lace. My initial reluctance had nothing to do with perceived difficulty (I know I am a skilled knitter) but rather with the perceived uselessness of the product. My sartorial style tends towards butch. Shawls seemed old ladyish. My decorating style tends toward the modern (therefore doilies would be really out of place). What need would I have for lace? Well, I got over that by knitting a lacy shawl for an old lady (my mother; I gave it to her for her 76th birthday, I think) and then I just knit lace. As a bonus, I discovered that wearing shawls was quite wonderful and that one can have a style that combines the best elements of butch (comfortable and easy to move in come immediately to mind) with a classy lace shawl. In fact it could be argued that the beauty of the lace shawl draws attention away from the fact that I am inevitably wearing sensible shoes.

Ah, but socks, you say. They are useful. And you would be right. But again this is only a bonus. Perfectly good socks are available from a range of reputable retailers (and even disreputable ones) for much less than the price of the wool I knit socks with (which assumes my time is worth nothing). I knit socks because I enjoy them. And I had a sock yarn crisis in April because I’m not going to knit socks with sock yarn I don’t enjoy knitting with. This means that Tigger has a pair of Koigu socks (which she lent to a friend and we haven’t had back yet, ARRRGH) and I have just started some in Lorna’s Laces for her. The fact that my father expressed a liking for the Regia Silk that I knit a pair out of for myself only gives me an excuse to knit with that again.

Freedom from the product also allowed me to take up spinning and to pursue it in a relaxed manner. When in New Hampshire at the festival and contemplating some lovely Grafton Fibres batts, I did ask how much yarn one could spin from one batt. But the answer (almost enough to knit a pair of socks but not quite) just made me realize that I needed two batts if I wanted to have any hope of making something useful out of my efforts (especially considering the likelihood of unevenness of spinning and the potential desire to be picky about which part of what I spun up would get used). To be really free to experiment with what you can do with a wheel or spindle, you need to feel confident that you have enough fluff lying around to play with.

And this nicely returns me to Andrea’s point. If you unduly limit the materials available, provide materials of low quality, worry a lot about the product and the ‘right way’ of doing things, you inevitably limit creativity. We need to free ourselves from these limits, or at the very least suppress our anxieties about them, if we are to raise creative children or become more creative ourselves. I do not pretend that freeing ourselves is easy. I am still working on it myself. But bringing them to consciousness is a good first step.

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8 thoughts on “Creativity I (or the absolute necessity of stash)

  1. “enough fluff to play with” YES – and in being creative, that’s kinda the point, really. 🙂

    I’m not kiding when I say I inherited UFO’s. I finally had to weed them out, however hard it was, because I would have neeeded an extra-large Rubbermaid container just to hold my grandmother’s stash. Not counting my own. Passing some on meant each thing was more likely to be finsihed. Although one wonders when my grandmother woudl have actually used the basket purse form the Craft-of-the-month club. I gave it to my hipster stepsister, who thinks it is the ultimate in retro cool. Some things I kept to finish, but I really didn’t need the box of red felt pieces, did I?

    I also had that craft store – I’m not sure if it was to justify my own stash, or an excuse to increase my own stash, but eventually it (and the extra stock) became an albatross. I could still clean out more, and should really. Let someone else enjoy it. (I sold off as much as I could and gave away a fair chunk, plus I still have plenty left over to create what anyone could want in an afternoon.)

    I don’t knit, but I do tend to look at fabric the same way knitters look at yarn. Buy enough to make something, even if you don’t know what it is yet. One meter is good, 3 is better. Buy fabric I love, not just cheap fabric. Cheap ugly fabric makes cheap ugly clothing (or quilts), so why make the effort?

    I have maybe 50 craft items started, almost all stored in a box somewhere. I havne’t done much lately, but I know they will wait for me. If it takes 20 years, that’s okay too. As long as it’s not a burden for me. Some things need to age, for when I am stuck. Some things may eventually be passed to others, some may change or become part of something else.

    (The quilt I started with a favorite dress of my grandmother’s – had to put it away before it became too painful, and I was at a juncture with big screw-up potential. The Christmas quilt I started because all the Quilt Guild members were doing it – now I’ve done maybe half a dozen blocks and discovered that no, I don’t really like machine applique either. Time to reform that into a wall hanging instead of a full-sized quilt.)

    It’s all part of the creative process. meanwhile, the kids watch andlearn AND get to participate, because there’s plenty for all.

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  2. I have found such personal satisfaction in my crafting (knit, crochet, scrapbook,etc.) because I hhave adopted this mentality. I sometimes lean on the side of perfectionist, and that is very inhibiting. I also used to be a tad bit too frugal. But then I realized that I don’t spend wastefully in so many other areas, that my hobbies are my joy. I buy what I want, when I see it, especially if it is on sale. I print out patterns and keep a file of interesting things to draw from later. I try new things, fully expecting to NOT get it straight away. I let myself rip it out and/or toss things I just don’t like, or yarn that feels odd. It makes the hobby so much more enjoyable, as it should be!

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  3. I like what you have to say, and you’re always telling me to let go of all the guilt crap and maybe once my house is a bit bigger and storage space feels like less of a luxury, I will. It’s certainly true that all I have to do is pop the top off a rubbermaid container or two and it’s a mad creative tear, pretty much every time.

    The only thing is that sometimes it’s a very unfocused, unproductive tear. I’m not sure I agree, for me at least, that the goal is a total refocus away from product–I want some sort of balance, because–and I think this is a pretty protestant kind of a thing–I enjoy the exploration less when I feel like I never produce anything. But beyond all the “shoulds” of the protestant work ethic, it’s true that finishing something that you’re proud of, and that you feel you put yourself into, is a heady creative experience as well, and I certainly feel like it feeds into the next exploratory, expansive phase. I also find I learn a lot more from FOs–I often don’t know what worked and what didn’t until it’s sewn and worn. Even beyond construction, it’s almost as if I don’t mentally log the experience of the sweater (“I’ve knitted a handspun aran!”) until it’s complete. But that may be the protestants again.

    Lots of good stuff to think about, thanks for this wonderful post.

    As an aside, though, who gives back koigu socks anyway? I’d say you should probably write those off and start knitting. Just saying.

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  4. I’m going to respond here because I’m loving these long comments. But I think I agree with Cate a little bit. I did say that I do finish more now that I have more things on the go. And I think I do learn from FOs. But a focus on finishing does seem to dull the enjoyment.

    And when is something finished? When the raw wool is cleaned and combed? Is that an FO? Is a bunch of skeins of relatively evenly spun wool, perhaps in an amount one could do somehting with? Or is it just the knitted thing?

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  5. this is the first time in my life that I have really had “stash”

    And it’s nowhere near some folks’. I have about 25 of the rubbermaid medium large containers – the ones that are a little larger than a milk crate. They have mostly spinning fibers in them – as that is my first love.

    As a result of that spinning, I have a couple of containers of yarns that I have spun up.

    I get asked all the time what I will make out of something as I am spinning it and my answer is usually “yarn”. LOL I don’t spin for a project. I do usually try to spin up 4 ounces of something – that way I could knit socks or a hat and scarf out of it.

    I love the creative side of this – I want to spin, so I go looking thru my stash to see what appeals to me on a given day. Sometimes I want to play with my drum carder – blend up different colors and fibers – not necessarily to spin right then – just to see what the fibers want to do.

    My partner is very understanding, but has suggested that I sell some yarn – SELL my babies????

    She walks away shaking her head.

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  6. I’m loving this discussion, as a knitter, stasher and fabric junkie. I believe creativity is a vital neurological process that enables humans to adapt and grow, and to survive in changing circumstances. It is closely allied with sex and pleasure, as the pleasures of the hunt and the capture are seen in the search for stash. You know that euphoria you get when you are at a fibershow, or in a really good yarn store?Or a bead show, fabric store, even Walmart? Here’s your mind mulling over possibilities, making comparisons of color, weight, useability, going through the million calculations that allow you to decide if it is worth buying. I think shopping in its most fun form induces a state of mind that activates what used to be thought of as the pleasure center, but is now seen as related to circuits for hunting and seeking food, sex, shelter. If you shop for finished objects, the fun stops when you get it home, unless you enjoy changing your clothes a lot and have places to go. But if you buy “raw materials” you can prolong the experience of pleasure seeking when you design a project or when you are in the flow of actually making it. Knitting appeals because there are so many possible steps of enjoyment that the finished object is not the only thing. I’d much rather make a garment than buy it, because I get to have the fun of choosing a design, choosing a yarn,winding the yarn, figuring out my size, knitting the thing (and ripping it out) and finally wearing the garment. So many steps where I can have fun! The cost of this doesn’t enter in, can’t enter in, because it would be prohibitively expensive. Folks have blanched when I’ve given them prices for my stuff, but they don’t often understand the processes involved. Usually the first thing “nonbelievers” ask is: how long did that take you? They don’t get that I enjoy the process or I wouldn’t be doing this. I might be doing something else.
    Ah, here I’ve gone into a long discourse, but thanks for the spark. I think we must feel guilty in the same way protestants feel when they spend the entire weekend in bed having sex and not for procreation either. If pure pleasure doesn’t produce saleable product, is it a sin?
    Jeri Riggs
    http://www.jeririggs.com
    http://jeririggs.blogspot.com

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  7. I love this post…. For me knitting is all about the creative process and the actual looping yarn around two sticks than actually making something useful… I have totally fallen in love with lace because it really stretches my creativity to unknown amounts….. I find that this post is very very inspiring…

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  8. I’ve beeen thinking about children and creativity a great deal lately. Both my kids, now 32 and 28, are very creative. My daughter, 32, does fiber things and my son is a fabulous, sometimes professional but usually amateur, chef. When they were little we did a lot of arty things around the house. They also saw me and other relatives at working creating things. Recently I’ve realized that a really important factor was their Montessori nursery school experience where children and their parents learned to respect the work of play. What kids did was called work and not simply dismissed as silly child’s play. Children (and again, their parents) learned the importance of structure and self-discipline, also essential to creativity.

    I’m not pushing Montessori here but the lessons the kids and I learned were invaluable and applicable throughout life.

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