Monthly Archives: March 2014

The “Witty Little Knitter:” A Talk With Tara Carstensen

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Tara Carstensen (aka Witty Little Knitter) works on one of her Fourth Doctor scarf creations at El Paso’s Sun City SciFi. Photo by Rick Tate

Since she was 15 years old, Tara Carstensen has been watching Doctor Who and knitting Fourth Doctor scarves.

Like many Whovians, she intensely studied photographs and videos to create patterns for her early attempts, although she said the results were “crude and totally incorrect.” As her work began to improve, she received her first official BBC pattern from John Nathan Turner, producer of the series from 1980 to 1989.

By 2005, she begin studying the scarves even closer. She even had a chance to examine what she calls the “Shada” scarf (the pattern used in the famous episode from Season 17 that didn’t air until 1992), as well as the Season 18 variant scarf. From there, she begin to design patterns, find colors and yarn types, and create scarves that would be as close to accurate as any fan-made scarf available.

Today, many scarf knitters consider her the “go-to” site for the best patterns. They visit her site for pattern downloads of scarves from classic Who seasons 12 through 18, as well as the Shada scarf, a “blue variant,” and the Seventh Doctor’s sweater vest.

She also teaches knitting classes for those with some knitting experience at conventions throughout the country. Upcoming classes will be held at L.I. Who in Long Island in November, as well as at the world’s largest and longest-running fan-created Doctor Who convention, Gallifrey One, which is coming to Los Angeles in February 2015.

For American Doctor Who fans, the Fourth Doctor’s scarf is arguably the most popular and recognizable costume prop in the history of the show, but Carstensen said, from her experience, that it is primarily a U.S. Whovian obsession.

“In the UK, it has a bit of a negative connotation,” she said. “People who wear them are often branded as ‘nutters.’ I’ve worn a Who scarf several times in the UK and received a not-so-warm welcome among other Who fans.”

She said United Kingdom fans are warming up to the scarf today, as it is getting a little more love in its home nation. She feels the reason for the scarf’s American popularity likely comes from the Fourth Doctor being many American viewers’ first peek at the series.

“(In) the States, most people’s first Doctor was Tom Baker,” she said. “He had a seven-year run and PBS stations could often get a deal on it with other British shows. So, most people before the reboot in 2005 think of the scarf when they think of Doctor Who.”

Even the Doctor himself has taken notice of Carstensen’s work. Baker owns one of her scarves, as well as actress Daphne Ashbrook (Grace Holloway from the Eighth Doctor movie) and talk-show-host and proud Whovian Craig Ferguson, among other famous customers. The Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Doctors, Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, and Matt Smith, have also worn her scarves for convention photo ops.

“Well, of course, Tom Baker receiving one of my scarves was a high point,” she said. “When two of my scarves appeared on the same episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson—one was Craig’s the other was Nerdist’s (Chris Hardwick)—that was another high point.”

It takes her about 40 hours to knit the “basic” Doctor Who scarf.

“I once cranked one out for a last-minute charity auction in a week,” she said, “but that was eight hours a day of knitting, every day, for a week.”

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Carstensen’s full-size TARDIS replica and its official transport are a hit a Who events and conventions everywhere. Photo by Rick Tate

While scarves may be what she is best known for with crafters, her other favorite creations include a full-sized TARDIS some friends and her former husband built in 2008. The nine-foot-high, half-ton police box makes its home in her living room, but has traveled with her to conventions and events from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where thousands of people have gotten the chance to take their picture with it.  It also has a webcam, working lights and sound effects, and has been known to play music. The TARDIS’s transportation of choice is her TARDIS Chase and Recovery Vehicle (aka THE TRV), a custom Toyota Tacoma she claims is run by a Gallifreyan Flux Capacitor “jiggery-pokeried” for her by the Tenth Doctor and Back to the Future’s Doc Brown.

She has other projects in the works, as well.

“I’m currently working on building a Dalek, “ she said. “I’m always collecting small TARDISes and I finally have my collection of TARDIS keys.”

Her autograph collection is another continual work in progress.

“I have a book I’ve been collecting Who autographs in for 30 years,” she said. “I have nine of the 13 actors who have played The Doctor sign it, plus close to a hundred companions, authors, directors, producers, and other people directly responsible for keeping the show going for 50 years in it, and it’s one of my most prized possessions.”

Carstensen encouraged knitters to not be afraid to tackle their own Fourth Doctor scarf and offers some words of advice for those reluctant to get started.

“Join a knitting group.  Look in local coffee shops and libraries or start your own,” she said. “Ravelry.com is another great recourse, if there simply aren’t any other knitters in your area.”

She said setting reasonable goals helps as well.

“(Say to yourself) ‘Today, I’m gonna get through three stripes’ or  ‘Today I’m going to sit down for an hour and knit,’” she suggested. “Once you’ve mastered the garter stitch, knitting can be quite relaxing, even a form of moving meditation.  I read or watch TV while knitting.  I also knit in the movie theater, in lines, anywhere I’m stuck waiting on something.  It’s a great way to feel like you’re accomplishing something when all around you is chaos.”

She said the effort is certainly worth it when she sees how much people love the scarves.

“I know how happy they make people, and then they make people who see them being worn happy.  So knitting one spreads a lotta happy around,” Carstensen said. “That gives me a great sense of accomplishment and makes me feel that I’m adding some random happiness to the world.”

To see more of Carstensen’s work or download her patterns, visit wittylittleknitter.com.

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Some of the pattern downloads found on Carstensen’s “Witty Little Knitter” site.

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They Wrote SciFi, Too?

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Despite it’s undeniable popularity, it seems even today, science fiction gets the proverbial literary wedgie from some “real literature” bullies.

I’ve even had polite-but-pointed brush-offs from fellow moms in a book club, who, upon finding out the last book I read was a science fiction, said in slightly piteous tones: “You might not enjoy what we read. It’s more ‘real world’ stories.”

Ouch!

Of course, I regard the science-fiction genre to be every bit as “real” as any other form of fiction, many of which I enjoy just as much. However, I’m sure I’m not the only sci-fi lover who feels they have to defend their reading choices, just because it may involve robots, outer space dog fights, evil computer overlords, or clones.

As it turns out, plenty of “real” authors have taken a break from their most notable styles of classic literature, adventure, thrillers, or even science fiction’s closest literary neighbor, fantasy, to dabble in straight-forward science fiction. Here are a few lesser-known science-fiction writers you may not know about:

Jack London: There may be no other author so readily associated with man-against-the-elements or wild adventure stories where characters take a backseat to the wild Alaskan wilderness, but London wrote several key works ofRadium-Age science fiction including the post-apocalyptic The Scarlet Plague in 1912, set his hometown of San Francisco. Although not as well-known as his adventure stories, his science fiction has been noted as having an influence on writers such as H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. These stories aren’t light reading, and do demand some attention from the reader. One that I personally remember the most is “The Shadow and the Flash,” the story of a pair of rival geniuses each trying to achieve invisibility. Their methods of doing this were innovative, unexpected, and surprisingly hypothetically doable.

C.S. Lewis: A far reach from the fanciful fantasy world of Narnia, Lewis released his “space trilogy” from 1938 to 1945, following the voyages of Dr. Elwin Ransom on Mars, Venus, and Earth. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra (aka Voyage of Venus), and That Hideous Strength (also published in an abridged version as The Tortured Planet) are a series, which follows Earth’s battle of dark forces bent laying waste to the planet. Those familiar with Lewis’ style will recognize many of the common elements celebrated by his fans and discounted by his critics, from a variety of otherworldly creatures to underlying spiritual themes, but the futuristic space setting certainly shows a different side to his work.

Mark Twain: Twain’s science fiction is an extension of his own adventure-driven life and writing. In addition to his most famous in this area, the time-traveler’s tale A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, his sci-fi works run the gamut of futuristic inventions, space travels, time travel, alien visitors, and dystopian futures. The one story that has gotten the most attention in science-fiction circles is From The ‘London Times’ of 1904. Written in 1898, Twain is often cited as having predicted the internet and social media in this story by describing “the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.” Wow.

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Many authors, including Mark Twain, enjoyed dabbling in the science fiction genre.

Rudyard Kipling: This turn-of-the century Nobel Prize-winning author may have taken most readers into the jungle and exotic lands on Earth, but he also wrote a handful of science-fiction stories. Like Twain, Kipling’s “future” contains many details and devises, which pretty much predicted several of today’s modern realities. This includes artificial intelligence, especially in regards to transportation as in the stories .007 and The Ship That Found Herself, wireless communication in Wireless, and mechanical advancements as in As Easy as A.B.C. Much of his science fiction can be found in collected volumes.

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s work wasn’t all angst-ridden horror and macabre. He also enjoyed writing mystery, essays, and adventure. Some of his science fiction was fun, clever, and, in some cases, humorous; not the type of works readers think of when they hear the name Edgar Allan Poe. The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, for example, is the voyage of one man’s travels to the moon that could almost be a steampunk classic in the company of Jules Verne. Most of these tales, however, do merge the horror/science-fiction genre, such as The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and Mesmerism, so fans of Poe’s gothic darkness can have the best of both worlds.

Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle: Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the only eccentric lead character to emerge from the mind of Conan-Doyle, he also created the Professor Challenger series, featuring an adventurer he called the “caveman in a leisure suit.” Unlike the Holmes stories, where it was vital to both Holmes’ stories and persona to remain rooted in only what is possible (despite how improbable) in the real world, Professor Challenger gave Conan-Doyle an outlet to go crazy with time travel, space travel, monsters, aliens, and even fantastic inventions. His most famous, The Lost World, puts Challenger up against some foes from a prehistoric world; hardly the type of adventure suitable for Sherlock Holmes. This character did have his own fan base at the time, too. However, he wouldn’t exactly be the focus of today’s “Sherlocked” fangirl mania, being less Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and more Zach Galifianakis.

We already know the impact that classic-era science-fiction writers, such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and H.P. Lovecraft, had on literary history. However, with these other authors proving themselves fans of the genre, today’s science-fiction lovers can consider themselves in good company—very good company

How to Use Those Comic-Con Buttons

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Don’t just toss these little freebies in a jar or drawer, get creative!

Call them buttons, badges, or pins, these little round freebies accumulate like Tribbles in junk drawers, jewelry box tops, or random trinket holders around the house. These little promotional goodies seem to be everywhere at comic-cons (and comic book store special events), book and record premieres, concerts, amusement parks, political and athletic events, weddings, quinceañeras and Bat Mitzvahs…at least it seems like it.

At any rate, we’ve amassed quite a pile over the years, especially when our kids just can’t resist picking up free stuff. Since it is sometimes hard to part with these little tin memories, here are five simple ways to help reel in the chaos:

koozie• Cork Board Art. Since many people like to throw these buttons onto their bulletin boards, why not get a little more creative? Get a square or circle of cork board from a craft or home store, and arrange the buttons into different shapes. This makes for really cool game room art, and invites people to take a closer look.

• Fashion Jewelry. Yes, technically these buttons are accessories in themselves, but there is only so much room on the purse or lanyard to keep them. Plus, pinning too many on your shirt might make people ask you if you work at TGI Fridays. A few adjustments could turn these into some fun novelty jewelry.

button jewelryThe metal in some of the cheaper buttons is thin enough to poke holes in by placing the button face up (with pin removed) on a folded rag over a concrete surface, and tapping a nail through it lightly. Now, these are ready to be used as earrings, attached to French hooks, or threaded onto chord as a necklace or bracelet.

A button could also be pinned on a thick ribbon for a choker. Make sure to secure the pin with small pliers so it doesn’t end up poking you in the neck. You can also use a glue gun to cover and “cushion” the back of the pin.

tic-tac-toe• Pencil Holder. Many of us are guilty of tossing these extra buttons into a desktop tumbler or pencil holder, but it’s more fun to display them on the outside for everyone to see. This also makes use of another often-used promotional item: the koozie (the big puffy ones, not the floppy flat ones).  Pin the buttons around the edge of the container until they completely cover it, to keep memories nearby on the a work or study space. Remember to make sure, when pinning buttons, they don’t go all the way through. You don’t want bunch of pointy ends sticking out on the inside of the container.

button board• Geeky Tic-Tac-Toe:  Make a game square by cutting a 6” x 6” square piece of felt or thick cloth, and draw the classic Tic-Tac-Toe “hashtag” on it in cloth paint or marker. Find 5 or 6 similarly colored buttons for each side, and remove the pin backs. Find clever ways to pick sides (heroes vs. villains, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, movies vs. music, etc.). These can be kept in a small pull string pouch or plastic storage container for a travel game. The board should fold up nicely as well. Feeling industrious? This idea works just as well as a checkers game if you have enough buttons to fill each side.

If those buttons are going co-exist nicely in our home, they are going to do it with style and purpose, otherwise there’s always the sixth and least popular option…throw them away.