Thursday, August 12, 2010

Handmade Gifts are the Best – Learn to Crochet

First post in a discontinuous series of homemade gift ideas

In my last post (Back to School Shopping) I managed to work in a line or two on learning to crochet. It’s my latest obsession, and with 5 pregnant friends (so far – more on the way!), I’m finding it’s a great way to make personalized and heartfelt baby shower gifts. Or bizarre birthday gifts, like the Hamburger Coasters.

Angel Wings Pinafore (made by Hayley) - free Ravelry pattern by Maxine Gonser
Handmade gifts really are the best, provided you avoid a few pitfalls. In the case of knit and crochet, don't knit/crochet anyone but yourself a sweater unless it's a baby and it has no say in the matter; don't make dolls that are actually toilet paper roll covers for anyone but yourself (no, just don't make them at all is my advice); choose neutral or fashionable colours - and don't go overboard with the bright acrylics and create something that resembles unicorn poop. Also be prepared for the inevitable - someone will not appreciate your creation. That's the way with all gifts, but it hurts so much more when you've put work into it. Accept this fact now and save yourself some pouting.

Learning to crochet over the internet (which is where I got 95% of my instruction) can be frustrating. But it is possible! Start with the Granny Square – you really only need to know two stitches: the double crochet and the chain (North American terminology). If you keep going with that Granny Square, you can make a square blanket or throw (or placemat or rug or . . . !) in no time. Or, at 20 cm (8”), you can donate it to a very worthy cause, Knit-a-Square. Knit-a-Square collects 8” knitted or crocheted squares and sews them together in South Africa to distribute blankets to AIDS orphans in the poorest slums of Africa. All you have to do is crochet one and pop it in the mail!

Invite some friends over, make some appies for potluck (but keep those fingers clean!) and try to learn together to make Granny Squares for Knit-a-Square. Not only a cheap (and entertaining!) evening, but a great cause as well. 

Once you’ve mastered the Granny Square, move on to new projects. The single crochet and triple crochet stitches are just simple tweaks to the stitches you’re already familiar with.

Here are the resources and materials you’ll need to get started:

  • Crochet hooks: Best place to buy them is Yokoyaya123 or the Daiso in Richmond. They sell very light weight and sturdy gold-coloured hooks in a wide range of sizes for $2 each. Go with a ‘medium’ sized hook between 3.5 and 5mm (5mm is an “H” hook in the US, and is a very common size for the patterns I’ve come across).

  • Yarn: Dressew Supply (Hastings – walking distance from Yokoyaya) is a great place to buy cheap yarn and wool. Wool is lovely to work with but will felt (i.e. shrink and fuzz!) if you wash it, which can be a neat effect. Wool blends are more forgiving – note that all yarn has washing instructions on the label. Cotton and cotton blends are some of the best for clothing and for things like dish cloths (another quick and easy beginner project). Rowan PureLife is a brand that produces organic cotton and organic wool yarns that are naturally dyed and come in a range of earth tones that are very pleasing to the eye. I’ve bought both wool and cotton from Rowan PureLife at Dressew. Another great option is to borrow some cheap acrylic (not so enviro-friendly, but nevermind) yarn from someone’s stash – anyone who knits or crochets generally has a stash of leftovers, and they’re usually pleased to share! A coworker of mine has a sister who recently gave up crocheting and generously donated ALL of her stash to me! I’m sharing the love and using it for teaching purposes at our next stitch and bitch (a colleague and I are starting up one for students in our program). For nicer yarns, try Baaad Anna's (it's new! East Van) or in Kits there's Homecraft Importers on 4th and Gina Brown's Yarn (also new - West Broadway).

  • Yarn needle: They come in handy, but you can get by without them in the beginning. They can be plastic or metal (go with metal – better option for the environment as you can pass it down) and look like big, blunt darning needles. Bought mine at Dressew for 25 cents or so.

Websites: Here’s the exhaustive list:

Crochet Cabana – a wonderful lady named Sandra Petit created this site. It has step-by-step photos for each stitch and several techniques (for example, joining pieces or squares together) and in-depth explanations. A great place to begin.

CrochetSpot – another good place to go if you’re a beginner! Rachel Choi recently added a bunch of guest authors (one of which is Alicia Kachmar whose blog I just love! Click here for her Safety Cone pattern) to blog about every crochet topic under the sun. Her site includes the CrochetSpot store where I bought my pattern for the Hamburger Coasters (hilarious and a great beginner’s project!) as well as many, many free patterns that are easy to read and for which she offers online assistance. 

Hamburger Coasters (made by Hayley for Chantal) - pattern by Rachel Choi,
YouTube – do a search for the stitch or technique you need help with. There are too many videos to mention, and do try a few to find an instructor that suits your needs. It’s a great accompaniment to Sandra Petit’s Crochet Cabana site – between her step-by-step photos and a video online, you’re sure to figure it out.

Ravelry – oh, how I love this site! I wasn’t too keen on it at first (overwhelming), but now, wow! Here’s where to go when you want to start making things like clothing or laptop cases or really funky household items. The patterns (free or for sale, usually as PDFs) are reviewed by the users (out of 5 stars) and are also rated by difficulty (starting with “piece o’cake” and working up to “impossible”). The pattern search tools are unbelievable, and with each pattern there are a list of user projects complete with photos (great for colour inspiration!) and comments. Those comments are so useful – if everyone’s telling you that market slouchy bag comes out really small, believe them! Ravelry is a fantastic resource for finding local yarn shops and groups (Baaad Anna’s has a group on Ravelry, and hosts stitch and bitch nights in the shop on Wednesday from 6pm to 8pm). If you need help with deciphering a pattern or simply learning how to do the basics, attend a stitch and bitch! If you can’t, get on a Ravelry forum for help from your peers.

Crochet Pattern Central – the ghetto version of Ravelry with free patterns only. No log-on required and there are an awful lot of toilet paper roll covers and tea cozy patterns. Don’t say I didn’t warn you – tackiness level 10. But if you’re up for browsing, there are a few free gems hidden away here that aren’t on Ravelry. I prefer Ravelry – most of the worthwhile patterns appear in both places.

Baby Hoodie (made by Hayley) - free Ravelry pattern by Moda Dea company
This is my first year of crocheting (although I once learned to make a Granny Square sometime in college, I think), and as you can see from my shameless exhibit of my work, I can actually make things! Try it yourself - if you're dextrous and crafty, you'll be crocheting gifts in no time.

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