“Keep to the River”

Oh, my heart. Back in February, when our days were more ordinary than they are now, my friend and colleague, Sara, contacted me about a blanket for her dad’s June birthday as a gift from her sisters and her. I trimmed the binding last week, in the nick of time, and mourned when I sent it on its way, for I grew to love this blanket that took shape in a time of turmoil.

I began this project with trepidation, yet not because of world events. Sara’s is a blended family of interesting, accomplished people and makers, and Philip, the birthday honoree, is an artist. I admit I felt the weightiness of designing something for this creative man and his gifted offspring.

Phil’s story includes young love and marriage, the birth of two daughters, divorce, a second marriage and another daughter. The sisters—civil engineer, doctor, and speech language pathologist—have made it a point to pull together around their father.

Phil kept these sweaters carefully stored away. They came to him via his mother, father, and wife who all have now passed on. When one of Phil’s daughters attempted to quietly remove the sweaters from his house, he alertly took note and expressed concern about where they were going. And who wouldn’t? I can understand why they are meaningful to him.

Of the group of sweaters above, Phil’s mother Fern hand-knit three. She made the top left sweater for Phil. She made the bottom wide-striped sweater for an unknown recipient. And she knit the top right sweater for Phil’s dad, Bob. This sweater had the most character of all: instances of darning (which, according to Sara, often took place while the sweater was on Bob); very old elbow patches which I would’ve included but they didn’t come through the washing process well; and discoloration at the neck from cigar smoke. (Did this character make it into the blanket, you ask? Well, just sit tight…)

The other sweaters mostly belonged to Phil’s wife Cheryl. She, in fact, had felted several with plans to make something from them but did not ever get to it. In spite of the sweaters’ range of condition, age, and color scheme, they eventually sorted themselves out for me. I always experience a huge moment of relief when this happens! (And I was able to include all the sweaters except one which felted up too thickly.)

Once those sweaters sorted themselves into what became three color groupings, the outline in the photo below popped into my head and I sketched it down. I expected it to be just an idea to get the process rolling, but in the end this one simple picture guided me through the whole stage of blanket design.

So here is “Keep to the River.”  The blanket is part abstract, part concrete, and altogether influenced by the stories Sara told told me and by life going on around all of us since February.

There are two interrelated impressions I have about this river—

First, a river is like life itself: flowing immutably forward, sometimes swiftly, so there is barely enough time to react to one development before we are racing toward the next; and sometimes gently, and we can absorb, rest, reflect, and make (some) sense of things. Keep to the river! Live fully into the life you have been given!

And also: A river is a trustworthy guide, giving us our bearings, pointing out the route, sustaining us, joining us up with others and their routes. Keep to the river! You’ll find the way!

And so this river feels appropriate for a birthday marking many rich years of life and for a blanket representing full, rich lives of several interconnected family members.

For Philip:

May this blanket hold within it the fondness and love your three unique daughters have for you. May you also find in it wonderful and warm memories of Cheryl and your parents.

Happy birthday!

Blanket Details:

• Three daughters, three swaths of color in the blanket, three buttons—

• What were these two circles originally? To me, they looked like Scottish tams. Or maybe they were to be small pillows. “You don’t have to use them,” said Sara. “We don’t even know where they came from.” But aren’t they interesting? And fun! Yes, they belonged in there too. To me, they’re stepping stones. But what do you see? —

• The philodendron leaves represent a personal and tender expression of Philip for his wife Cheryl, a gardener, at her passing—

• These two pictures show Fern’s repair handiwork (in green) on the the backside of Bob’s sweater. At the lower edge you can see a bit of that (cleaned-up!) cigar discoloration—

• Pockets! —

• The back, as per usual, is simply unfinished seams, which tend to hold up very well due to the wool content and felting. Without a backing the wool maintains its unique drape—

• The bold stripes! I loved their colors! But I couldn’t figure out how to get them to play well with the rest of the blanket. They kept wanting to take over, be the squeaky wheel, grab all the attention. Finally, I separated them and they quieted down, at which point they earned an important job: They got to encircle the whole—

This is a custom order blanket and has already gone to a good home.

© Joan Olson
“Keep to the River” (56×72)
Felted wool sweaters

A golden wash of afternoon sun

[Don’t forget: During the coronavirus shutdown, the Wool Blanket Master Class is open for enrollment. It’s a work-at-your-own-pace video course with clear instructions and access to me for questions and feedback. Check it out here. Questions about it?  Write me a note here.]

Amid many rainy days, we have had some spring beauties: clear, warm and sunny. To my mind, there’s no better place to work with wool than in lucid sunlight, where color and texture come alive together.

A recent day like that beckoned me to cut the sweaters for a custom-order blanket I’ve been sketching out. The late-afternoon slant of the sun set such a tranquil mood that I wanted to share some photos.

This blanket was requested by a friend and colleague I’ve worked alongside for over 20 years. The blanket will be a gift from Sara and her sisters to their father for his June birthday. In it will be three handknit sweaters made with care by his mother, Sara’s grandmother, many years ago.

A record of my work environs is incomplete without a quick pic of my “foldable rubbish bin” below, tucked in by the legs of the antique table which, when it’s not being called upon as a dining room table, holds my cutting mat.

I’m delighted that both my cutting space and my sewing space, two separate areas of our home, face west, into the sunset (and toward my the land of my roots!). Each spot coaxes me to linger and do just a little bit more in a golden wash of afternoon sun.

Mike’s Life: To Love and to Laugh

I’ve got one final post for 2019!

Admittedly, I’ve created a much quieter year online for myself. But I’m so happy to still be here, peacefully plodding away (haha! it’s true!) at making and then recording the things that come about.

My large and final project for this year was a custom order of three blankets. This came about through wonderful Marilynn, who first contacted me over a year ago about “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.” That blanket, an all-time favorite of mine because of its heartfelt subject matter, is now with Marilynn in her home in Arizona. Yea!

At that same time, she told me about her husband’s passing two years prior, the sweaters that he had loved, and her idea to have some legacy blankets made for her and her two sons.

I cautioned her that I had several other custom order conversations underway that involved nearly a half-dozen blankets … and Marilynn was content to be patient. Timing worked out well, and these lovelies were finally shipped off to her mid-November.

Marilynn and her husband Mike raised their family both in the US and abroad as Mike, a civil engineer, shepherded major public work projects to completion. He loved his profession and he loved creating and building. But above all, he loved his family and he loved humor.

My assignment: to take more than 2 dozen sweaters and combine them pleasingly for 3 unique blankets. I needed to make sure that sweaters that were particularly significant to each family member made it into their blanket.

With many of the sweaters, I included pieces of them in all three blankets, while working to maintain the integrity of each blanket’s vibe and color scheme. This project took a ton of thinking + trial and error!!

By the way, most of the sweaters were Mike’s, a few were Marilynn’s, and one was Dan’s from childhood.

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I’ll begin with Dan’s blanket:

“With Dad: Life Around the World.”

© Joan Olson
“With Dad: Life Around the World” (73″x68″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

Since Dan as the older son had the opportunity to live overseas as a child and still travels frequently, I dove right in for a blanket that portrays something of our planet’s variety. The patchwork style hints at a view from a plane window. The patterned cream stripes even remind me of two latitude lines on a world map: the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

Most specially, the sky blue pieces in here come from Dan’s own tiny sweater from Denmark. In the two photos below, Dan’s and his parents’ Scandinavian sweaters are lined up, left to right: Dan’s is the light blue, his dad’s has the brown patterns, and next is a sleeve from Marilynn’s blue and white one.

Mike had three half-zip sweaters by Orvis, two with large, wildly colorful brand labels inside the sweaters’ necklines. At first glance I thought they were mosquitoes (!) but then realized they’re fishing flies. So much better! I wouldn’t do well with a mosquito inside my shirt.

Each blanket got to have the neckline (if available) and the zipper from one of the Orvis sweaters. I assembled a pocket behind each zipper for a secret storage spot.

Scroll back up to the VERY FIRST photo at the top of this blog post. You see the close-up one in the shade? There my camera best captured what this blanket looks like in person. It is soft and muted, with much less contrast than appears in the stepped-back pics.

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Next is Adam’s blanket:

“With Dad: A Richly-Colored Life”

© Joan Olson
“With Dad: A Richly-Colored Life” (73″x66″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

Younger son Adam spent his growing-up years mostly in Arizona, so for him I put together the strong, warm colors of the desert, deep and rich. Mike’s sweaters provided great raw material for this.

The V-necks with contrasting color insets remind me of the mountains that rise straight out of the flatland all over the American southwest where Adam continues to live with his family and near Marilynn.

And you know I love that desert!! I’ve written more about that here (a luscious desert landscape), here (its heat and color), and here (visiting grandparents).

In the midst of Adam’s robust solid horizontal lines I laid out two blocks of one of his mom’s sweaters (the soft blue and white) and chunks of his dad’s brown-and-white patterned sweater (the same that creates the “latitude lines” through Dan’s blanket). I felt that setting them in relief like this quietly marked his parents’ presence in the whole of his life.

Adam’s blanket gets the fantastic purple Orvis label inside the forest-green sweater along with its leather zipper and pocket.

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Finally, here is Marilynn’s blanket:

“A Life in Sweaters.”

© Joan Olson
“A Life in Sweaters” (75″x70″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

Marilynn sent me two very special sweaters of her own in this collection, both blue and white. She received one from her father, who bought it in Copenhagen in 1964. I believe the other is from Denmark as well, and was bought with Mike. These two sweaters along with a third, a cream cable of Mike’s from Greece, formed the centerpiece of this blanket.

Marilynn is actively engaged with family, community, and travel but says she likes to stay behind the scenes, looking for ways she can help others. She’s been an EMT, worked for the Arizona Republic newspaper, and has taught in junior high. She simply likes people.

After I learned that Marilynn has spent time volunteering at a Phoenix art museum as a docent, I decided to preserve the three main sweaters’ neckline tags on small museum-label “plaques” underneath each corresponding sweater, in a sense representing Marilynn’s dad, Mike, and Marilynn herself.

Now Marilynn reports she is learning bridge—”To get ready for the retirement home!” she says. Hmmm. I can’t tell if this very busy woman is joking or not.

Marilynn’s blanket got the blue Orvis sweater (no fishing fly label though!) and its beautiful leather zipper. In the pic below you can peek through to the sweater that lines the back of the pocket. These were just plain fun to construct.

Marilynn has also sewn and quilted for most of her life, which is likely why she saved all Mike’s sweaters in the first place: to make something out of them, right?? I love the way she thinks :)

Marilyn, Dan and Adam—may these blankets allow you to bask in the warmth, memories, and pleasure of your wonderful family. In them, I’ve aspired to convey the joy and fullness of life Marilynn shared as she talked about your family. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this project!

Greta’s Blanket: A Girl and a Pearl

Our second granddaughter turned 1 last month. In the weeks leading up to her birthday—and with (coincidentally!) a visit cross-country to her family for that very date—I knew what time it was.

Time to make Greta her very own blanket.

As was true for our first granddaughter, I had to wait to know this little one awhile before attempting to create a blanket for her. (Her sister Miriam’s blanket is here.) Blankets always begin with mulling over ideas, images, sensations. And so it was with Greta’s.

My inspiration for Greta’s blanket began first of all with her smile. It is big, bold, ebullent and endearing. Most stunning of all, it appears immediately when a loved one enters her line of sight.

Next was her name: Greta, a short form of Margarethe or Margaret. It means “pearl.” The Bible talks about the pearl of great price, and I knew this was one reason her parents had chosen the name.

Next: what colors look good on her. This girl has her dad’s features and her mom’s coloring—blue eyes and light hair that’s already showing the red glints of her mama’s copper-colored hair. I automatically started turning over in my mind the greens and goldens that her mom looks great in. But when I pulled up the family photo stream just to check, I was surprised to find Greta is in her niche in bright pink and navy. Apparently her skin tone is cooler than her mom’s!

Once supplied with several thoughts to get the project rolling, I found the right colors in my stash and got started.

The color arrangement came together easily. And I knew I wanted to put a pearl in the center somewhere, but where and how? As I played with different ideas, and especially with oyster sketches, I discovered something very close to a “G” for Greta in the upside-down opened oyster. What better than a sweet cipher right there in the middle of her blanket?

And so it all came together. I finished in time for our trip, and Grandpa and I were able celebrate  that amazing first birthday in person. (And eat scrumptious homemade birthday cake!)

The following note accompanied the blanket. It’s for later, when Greta’s language skills are a little stronger and this precious girl begins to mull over the things of life herself:

Sweet Greta,

You are a little small for some of the symbolism in this blanket, but your name is so wonderful it couldn’t help but show up here. Your name, Greta, means pearl. Your dada and mama told us when you were born that their prayer is you would come upon the MOST precious, valuable pearl—that’s Jesus!—and want to know him more than anything else.

So there, in the middle of your blanket, is a pearl in an oyster. And if you turn that oyster upside down, there’s a secret “G” for Greta.

We love you more than words can say, Greta, and pray this same prayer for you. Happy first birthday!

© Joan Olson
“Greta’s Blanket” (35″x36″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

“Baby Walt”

Our Disney aficionado strikes again!

This wonderful client, with me since the very beginning, has adopted many Green Sheep blankets into her family, several with a Disney theme. (For her grandchildren there’s been I Love Minnie, Mickey and Theo, Dory Finds a Pearl, and 11,12, Dig and Delve. Other blankets in the family are The Light Changes Everything, In Argyle Style, The PondA Quiet Creature, and Nap Hunting.)

You can read more about how Disney got to be so special to them here.

Now a little guy has joined the family, and so another blanket arrives as well.

This is for four-month-old Walt. (Is his name a Disney coincidence??) Walt joins two sisters and one brother, perfectly leveling things out, at least for now (two boys, two girls). He is big-eyed and curious. He loves gazing at his mama. He glows whenever he sees his dad. He loves kisses and smiles from his big sisters and brother. 

And when his grandma calls him “Sweetness,” his tiny face breaks into a giant smile.

In my original sketch for the blanket, I had the diagonal striped piece with the blue neckline nearer to the top of the blanket. But when I actually laid out the appliqués this way, I found they didn’t balance well—they were too far apart from each other. So I rotated the blanket and laid the castle on that colorful stripe. A soft serendipitous sunset appeared behind the turrets!

When I told my client this, she said the colors in the stripe are reminiscent of early Disney Hotel decor. She explained that had drawn her to this blanket’s colors in the first place. (I searched for this vintage Disney palette on Google Image but could not find it. If any of you are familiar with this and find it, please share it with me!)

Sweet Baby Walt. I hope you will always fill up on the smiles of the fabulous people in your life. This big family of yours—your mom and dad, brother and sisters, grandmas and grandpas, aunts, uncles and cousins—they love you wildly. May you flourish in that love always!

© Joan Olson
Baby Walt” (38″ x 41″) 
Felted Wool Sweaters

This is a custom-ordered blanket.

“The Work of Her Hands”

[“The Work of Her Hands” joins other Legacy Blankets on this blog. These are custom order blankets made from the sweaters of a loved one who has passed on. Learn about them here.]

“I hear you do something with old sweaters,” Bill said while we were all eating coffee cake.

My husband and I were at the home of friends. Bill’s daughter Dawn, my friend, had earlier told him I could help him put to use the sweaters of his late wife, Dawn’s mom. Nan had been a crafter par excellence, and knitting was one of her skills. Bill had saved a few of Nan’s sweaters after she passed away—a couple hand-knit by her, a couple store-bought. He was packing his home to move and wanted to do something meaningful with them.

“You heard right—” I answered, “I make blankets!” I began to tell how I took a loved one’s wool sweaters, felted them, and turned them into something gorgeous and functional. But as soon as I said “felted,” I knew the concept would be difficult for this gentleman to imagine, no matter how much crafting his wife had done.

So Dawn got her iPad and we opened up this website. I was able to show Bill what in the world we were talking about.

“Okay, then! I think I’d like to do that,” said Bill, and I left with Nan’s beautiful sweaters, ready to make a blanket for Bill and his new home.

I learned more about Nan. “Anytime she sat down,” Bill had told me, “she had something in her hands to work on. She knit me a pair of argyle socks—while we were dating!”

Nan loved knitting, sewing, ceramics, counted cross-stitch, and celebrating the holidays with several of her desserts on the table and her handmade items for decor. It sounds like she shared herself with those she loved through creating things. Bill fondly recalls all of this.

But one of his very favorite memories is how she loved others with a listening ear. She did this often, especially for younger women, some very distressed. Nan had words of counsel that grew out of the experience of her years. “Now, think it out,” was one of her best recommendations to encourage someone to pause and consider things carefully. Then she would listen some more.

When Bill first showed me Nan’s sweaters, I was pretty sure the two colorful ones hand-knit by her (one with her favorite bright turquoise blue) did not contain much if any wool. It was true; they did not felt up with the others and so I wasn’t able to include them. But the wools I was left with were a beautiful collection of more masculine colors, perfect for me to work with for Bill.

Oooh, but they were BUSY together—high contrast and tons of pattern! I laid the pieces of this blanket out one way and then another, several times, wanting to corral the chaos and introduce some calm.

The calm finally came. I put mostly medium and light hues in the center, organized the multiple patterns so they could lead the eye, wrapped those up with an interesting band of light chainlink, and reserved the darkest pieces for the outer border. I loved it.

One of these sweaters felted up particularly thick, thicker than I will usually put into a blanket. But I stuck it in anyway because it was gorgeous and meaningful, and I’m happy to tell you it is doing just fine. Because of that, this may be my weightiest, warmest blanket. 

For Bill—and the whole family—I hope this blanket reminds you often of the work of Nan’s precious hands and heart. You’ll have to make her pecan pie yourself, though. I hear it’s an excellent one ;)

© Joan Olson
“The Work of Her Hands” (60″ x 72″)
Felted Wool Sweaters

[“The Work of Her Hands” joins other Legacy Blankets on this blog. These are custom order blankets made from the sweaters of a loved one who has passed on. Learn about them here.]