Monday, June 30, 2008


And a wedding. What more could you ask of a weekend?

This weekend we drove north to a green and pleasant suburb of New York city. On the trip up, construction on Route 95 afforded us plenty of time -- hours, in fact -- to enjoy a few miles of Delaware highway scenery. Plenty of time also for making progress on the conveniently portable Mockery socks, anyway.

After a restorative night's sleep, we found ourselves, with time to spare before an evening wedding, only a few miles away from a low-key treasure, Playland Park in Rye, New York. Playland is an old-fashioned amusement park, opened in 1928 and situated on the waterfront on the Long Island Sound. It featured in the 1988 Tom Hanks movie "Big" as the abandoned amusement park where the boys go in search of the fortune-telling machine.

With gracious old architecture and pennants flying and wooden rollercoasters and a house of mirrors and tall shady trees and mini-golf on the water and hardly any crowds, it's a gentler experience than many modern attractions.

But that's not to say it lacks thrills. It has scary things. It has rides that shoot you up in the air and jounce you around and make you giggle. It has a flume ride to spray you with water and a plunge ride that sends up a splash to drench you right down to the underwear.

It has rides that give you views out over the Sound when you're aloft.

It has bumper cars and a little train. It has a ride that sends you swooping through the sky strapped in face down as if you were really flying. It has hot dogs and an ice rink and fountains and a singing and dancing show with Elvis Presley songs.

And there's nothing sissy about those wooden roller coasters. They hurl you around tight corners and tease you with shallow bumps then hurtle headlong into sudden steep troughs. Sometimes they creak, so you wonder how solid they are. On the Dragon Coaster, the car is swallowed up into the mouth of a dragon and you veer wildly from side to side in the darkness. Wonderful.

And then, after a hearty dose of Playland fun and a bit of cleaning up, there was a wedding to enjoy. With a lovely serene bride whom we remember as a flower girl in a bygone wedding. Flowers now in her hair, and a level gaze of contentment, and a gown made by her proud mother. A thrilled groom, taking deep breaths to steady himself. A verdant garden setting. A sweet sister singing a heartfelt song. A lucky clear summer day with a breeze and, later, a momentary sprinkle, just enough to make a rainbow for them.

A reception later with raucous, happy friends and relatives and loads of dancing.

Truly a lovely day. And at the end of it all, a flower arrangement to remember it by. It's a little the worse for wear from the long ride home on a hot day, bounced around once or twice, but still so pretty.

On the way home, the socks came this close to being finished. They'd be done now but for needing three or four more rows of room in the toe after all. So there's a little more to do.

But all in all, a great weekend.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Practical Magic

I took another journey this week, the flight scuttling from city to city up the East coast between thunderstorms. My outward flight was delayed for hours waiting for the weather to clear once so the inbound plane could arrive and again so we could depart. After boarding, we sat another couple of hours at the gate. But I know by now how to arm myself for the airport. I didn't fret. I had fortifying snacks. I had a book. And I had the Mockery socks.

I clicked away while some passengers fumed and watched the clock. Oh, I was anxious to be on our way too; I had a late night and an early meeting. But worrying wouldn't get us there any sooner, so I concentrated on the knitting.

Here's how the Mockery socks are looking. If you just look at the surface and tune out the colors, you can see the undulating stitch pattern that gives the merest pen-and-ink suggestion of a cable.

I like those rhythmic waves. One day maybe I'll use the same stitch pattern in something solid-colored that will show it off to better advantage. But the eye-of-partridge stitch on the heel flap certainly suits the yarn well, doesn't it? It gives the color changes a beautiful mosaic-like effect.

On the return trip, thankfully, there were no more delays, just a packed-full flight. As the plane loaded and the passengers got themselves and their belongings stowed, I settled into my middle seat and got back to the knitting. The aisle seat next to me was still unoccupied. After a while, its owner, a large and vigorous young man, came bearing down the aisle. He spotted me, with my double-point needles bristling, and boomed out to everyone nearby, with faintly alarming bonhomie, "oh, we don't want to make her mad, huh?" Then with slightly more suspect jocularity, he added, "is that even legal any more?" TSA's website being clear on the matter, I parried, and he subsided good-naturedly.

A chatty seatmate, he returned to the subject later, asking what I was making, seeming interested in a you-don't-say kind of way, asking about who they're for and how you make sure the socks are the right size. He wasn't sure why he was fascinated, he said, since it's probably a pretty straightforward skill. True enough, I agreed, though some people seem to feel it's black magic.

He then jokingly mentioned Arthur C. Clarke's well-known Third Law stating that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I laughed, but thought about it afterwards. It turns out there's a variation to Clarke's law put forward by science fiction writer Charles Sheffield, saying that "any sufficiently antique technology is indistinguishable from magic." That, I think, is very apt.

Though knitting is having a resurgence, and sock knitting in particular is reemerging, it is as a boutique pursuit, a luxury, a form of expression for people already well fed, housed, and shod, not a way to clothe the population in hardwearing garments for daily use. In a society in which for a hundred years or more we've been provided with socks by far-away industrialized factories, cheaply and on a mass scale, is it any wonder that the antique and little-taught skill of making them by hand would come to seem as impenetrable as magic?

It seems to me there are quite a few once-basic skills that are the same way. While we take for granted our facility with once-unimaginable machines and sophisticated concepts, we are far removed from the production of simple things. If we had to fend for ourselves, we might be flummoxed. You mean people get fresh water by digging a hole in the ground? That sounds like magic. How do we make metal? Magic. We get our bread by grinding up the heads of dried grasses? Magic. We get sourdough from invisible yeasts that drift in on the air? Uh-huh. Spinning yarn from the coats of animals? Making clothes from the yarn? Definitely magic.

I'm pleased that knitting and spinning have gained converts recently. We need to know how things are made. I'm happy to be one of the new keepers of some ancient skills.

Practical magic.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Season of Storms

Today we had another in a string of violent summer thunderstorms, threatening trees and flickering the lights, and crashing grandly in the sky. I love to watch a storm. As long as where I am is safe, and no one is hurt, it's a beautiful thing to see, with the darkening light and the lightning bolts. And afterwards the sky scrubbed clean and little orphans of mist trailing among the hollows.

It's come earlier than normal; usually July and August bring the peak of the summer thunderstorms. But it's been the perfect season for working on the Stormwatch roving.

About a month ago, I was facing a mountain of roving that needed to be spun. I'd enjoyed the adventure of blending it on my drum carder, the Frumious Bandersnatch, once I got over the shock of how roughly the wool had evidently been treated at the mill where it was prepared. I loved how the blue, gray, and beige blended into a more complex color scheme. I'd named it Stormwatch because of its resemblance to a moody storm-torn sky.

When all the blending was done, it made a huge pile. I think I counted seventy little balls of roving. Even tamped down, it overflowed a bulging shopping bag. It seemed overwhelming. It perched atop my already-full spinning basket, looming over me in my spinning corner and glowering downward. I suppose you can't blame a storm for glowering, but still, sitting there in its shadow, I quaked.

As I couldn't think of any other way to placate it, I got to work and started spinning. I can't say it flew through the fingers, as lumpy and grabby as it was, but Rastro and I chipped away at it, day after day.

Sometimes we sang, to make the time pass. "Sixty-eight balls of roving in the bag, sixty-eight balls of roving, you take one down and spin it around, sixty-seven balls of roving in the bag." Well, maybe that wasn't such a great idea after all.

In a way, the fiber's very roughness set me free. It was a bracing experience for an overly careful and inexperienced spinner. Instead of meticulously controlling the thickness of the filament I spun, worrying when a few too many or too few fibers crept in, stopping and backing up to remove any slub that might dare appear, I knew such precision was a lost cause.

And there were delightful surprises here and there, like the occasional stray dash of contrasting color, like this bright purple. I actually began to wonder if the original blue, at least, had been intended as a tweed preparation, with little jots of purple and brick red and teal here and there. I welcomed the variation and spun away blithely, over nep, over slub, over hill and dale, never looking back, counting it all as part of the yarn's rustic charm.

And finally, I was rewarded with a bouquet of seventeen skeins of bold character.

An armload of storms! I feel like Thor in Valhalla, ready to cast down powerful lightning bolts.

Or maybe a cardigan.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Las Vegas Sockery

Las Vegas must be one of the strangest places on earth. I speak not of the suburbs, of course, where probably perfectly rational people live, but of the famous casino-lined Strip.

It's not a place I would ordinarily seek out, but it's nevertheless a place from which I've just returned. World's-most-patient husband and a couple of boyhood buddies had organized a quick weekend trip for a few couples to meet there. And once you're engulfed in its crazy theme-park atmosphere, with the pirate ship, and the dancing fountains, and the Roman statues, and the singing gondoliers, and the Eiffel Tower, what can you do but just surrender to the whole tongue-in-cheek fantasy of the place?

I lack the urge for games of hazard, so, for me, Las Vegas is a place for nutty sightseeing, eating out, and shopping. Where else could I wear flowered capri pants in an eye-splitting coral pink? And where else would I feel they really needed a pair of golden sandals to set them off? A temporary aberration, I assure you, but fun.

With long airplane flights on the agenda, I needed a compact travel project again. Awash in spinning and dyeing, I had nothing suitable in progress on the knitting front. I turned to socks. Temperatures in Las Vegas were expected to be around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so I thought of cotton.

I happen to have Knitpicks' discontinued Dancing sock yarn still lying around in a couple of different colorways. It's a summery yarn, about half-and-half wool and cotton, with a little nylon for strength and elastic for bounciness. I think I opined here once that it felt inelastic to knit with, like pure cotton, but that was a calumny. Well, not a calumny, maybe; it wasn't maliciously false, just false. Though I blamed the yarn at the time, it actually may have been the Jaywalker sock pattern that was uncomfortable to knit.

This time, I had the Mockery sock pattern from live2knit on the brain. (I'd seen it on Lime &Violet's Daily Chum, a wonderful blog of which I've recently become an enthusiastic devotee. Honestly, how do they find all this stuff every day?) The stitch pattern creates an elegant texture without bulk. I knew there was a good chance that the delicate pattern would be swallowed up by the bright, blippy color changes in the Dancing yarn. Truthfully, the pattern would probably look best in a solid color. But I figured I'd forge ahead. After all, I needed to knit something with that yarn. I guess I could do plain stockinette socks, but where's the challenge in that?

So I packed up the bamboo needles and dipped alternately into my knitting and a book of English Country House Mystery stories as the miles flew by beneath me. The Mockery pattern was easily memorized and agreeable to knit. The unjustly accused yarn was resilient and perfectly inoffensive. The colorway, while not necessarily a favorite of mine, looks as if it will go well with jeans.

I did have one bad moment. Somehow, in changing from one double-pointed needle to the next, I fumbled a little, and one needle sprang out of my hands and disappeared. I thought it had fallen into my lap, but inspection there was fruitless. I started having visions of long taxi rides to yarn stores for replacement needles. Before long, I had world's-most-patient-husband and the seatmate on the other side searching the seat cushions, and I down on the floor on my hands and knees, posterior skyward, feeling around desperately for my fugitive needle (and no doubt providing light entertainment for some of the other passengers.) Eventually, one of my random floor-pats dislodged the needle from alongside some sort of metal track where it had hidden. So we were reunited, and I clutched the needles more tightly for the rest of the flight.

I can't say I got a tremendous amount done on this trip; it wasn't really that kind of destination. A little cool and cloudy weather might have done wonders for the knitting, but it was all blazing, cheerful sunshine. I did get this far. The strong color changes are distracting, but if you look closely, you can see the mock cable pattern forming in the actual stitchwork. It may show up better after being blocked or in the actual wearing. Or then again, it may not.

But at least I'll know it's there!

Monday, June 2, 2008

This is How We Learn

After all, if everything went smoothly the first time, that wouldn't teach us anything, would it? It would just be downright boring. Wouldn't it? Well, no danger of that here.

Facing a mountain of Stormwatch roving to be spun, I needed a little something to give me a break and liven things up. I've been wanting to try dyeing wool, but it looks a little scary, with all that talk of safety and wearing dust masks and never using the same utensils in your kitchen again. But there is a less intimidating way to get your feet wet, relying on the master colorists at Kraft Foods: Kool-Aid dyeing. Intrigued originally by the description in Robin Hansen's Knit Mittens! and egged on by Linda LaBelle's Yarn Lover's Guide to Hand Dyeing, I dug out some old packets of Kool-Aid that have been in the cabinet so long I thought they'd be petrified.

I had ten ounces of slightly dingy-looking Dorset wool bought on-line that seemed like a good candidate for dyeing, and nine different flavors of Kool-Aid, so I decided to try dyeing an ounce with each color.

One packet, one ounce of wool, easy enough. I put the Kool-Aid in a pot, splashed in a little vinegar, filled it up with a lot of water for the wool to swim around in, and heated the whole works up. I dropped the wool in with keen anticipation, ready to watch the magic happen. I scooped it out now and then to have a look, and the magic seemed to be taking its time. Half an hour later, I was really beginning to wonder. Yes, when you came right down to it, the magic was a bit poky.

Well, I finally figured out that maybe a lot of water needs a lot of vinegar, even if it is just for one tiny little packet of drink mix. It wasn't the magic's fault. It was that happy-go-lucky approach of just dumping ingredients into the pot in haphazard quantities (a strategy that probably works a lot better once you actually know what you're doing). Things went better after that.

I had a wonderful time transforming one ounce of wool after another into jolly candy-coated colors.

I learned a couple of other useful things along the way. One was that, as I'd read somewhere, purples seem to be especially tricky to dye. The purples I got were subtle, nuanced mauvey colors, rather than the straightforward crayon purples I might have expected. I didn't mind that; I was just experimenting, and I thought the results were pretty.

Another thing I learned is that Kool-Aid is very good at creating juicy pinks and reds, and several of the flavors made very similar colors. I didn't mind that either, they're happy, pretty colors, and I can mix them together.

I did notice that the wool didn't seem to take the dye very evenly. I liked the streaks, though, and thought they might lend some nice variation to the wool once carded. But it may have been a clue to the last thing that I may have learned. When the dyed wool had sat overnight and was dry enough, I got out the hand cards to play with it and see what it would look like carded. I took a few locks of wool in one of the pretty pink colors and started carding it gently. It was a pleasure to see it open up and get fluffy, all in such a cheerful color. I rolled it off the card, and delicately pulled it out lengthwise into a mini-roving, just for the fun of it.

It had an interesting feel. I haven't used Dorset wool before, and all the sources where I've read about it describe it as "spongy." It did feel sort of spongy, in a pleasant, soft, springy way. But, as I handled it, I also noticed something else. My fingers began feeling soft and smooth. Hmmm. In fact, the wool felt a little greasy. Hmmm. The yarn dyeing books tell me that wool needs to be well cleaned to take the dye consistently. Now that I think about it, I'm really not so sure if that wool was billed as scoured or raw, when I bought it. It looked basically clean, albeit a little yellowish, especially around the tips. I thought it was just stained. But those attractive streaks I got in the dyed colors may have been a sign that there was a lot of lanolin still lurking in the wool, causing it to resist the dye.

Well, what care I? If there's grease in the wool that must yet be removed, so be it. I've tossed it all in a hot soapy bath to see what happens now. At the moment, it seems to be shedding a lot of excess color into the water. But it's all a joyful experiment, and, whatever the results, I'll know more than I did when I started. If I had done everything right, I might have a "recipe" I could follow successfully. But if I hadn't made mistakes, I might not understand as much about how and why it works and what happens if you veer off course.

This is how we learn.