Sunday, August 31, 2008

Knit Like An Egyptian

After a careful project like the Cherry Leaf shawl, I guess I must have needed a quick one, because here I am all of a sudden with another finished object.

I found myself attracted, earlier this summer, to the Crossed Laces tank top by Beth Whiteside, in the Summer 2008 issue of Knitter's magazine. Knitter's is a worthy magazine that publishes patterns by big name designers and puts on the estimable and wildly fun Stitches events. But I have to admit I occasionally find something mildly off-putting about the designs themselves. I can't put my finger on exactly what. Perhaps it's the color choices.

The Crossed Laces tank, on the other hand, is a very simple pattern given excitement by the masterfully nuanced colors of the Colinette yarn it uses (greener-looking in the printed magazine than in the link above). I am helpless before these colors. The model's smoldering expression, cascading hair, and the perfectly contrasting bead-decorated skirt the top is shown with probably don't hurt any either. Yes, I can be drawn in by such things, even when I'm fully aware that I'm being played like a violin. So I knit away on other things, but kept flipping back to that pattern to take another look. The yarn called for is Wigwam, a cotton tape yarn, hand-dyed like all of the Colinette line, in the Toscana colorway. I visited a couple of local yarn stores, casually sightseeing, hoping to see this unfamiliar yarn and get an idea of what it's like. But neither stocked it. I did see a single skein in one shop, but it turned out to be a loner, there only as part of an afghan kit of mixed yarns.

Finally, I could stand it no more. I had to have that tank top. I started shopping seriously, zeroing in on sources. It turned out that, here in the US at least, Wigwam is pricey yarn. Even the relatively small quantity needed for a sleeveless top was enough to make me stop and think. I found a good buy on the yarn, but with only a few colorways to choose from. After a little pondering about whether I'd be content with anything other than the colorway shown in the magazine (come on, have I no imagination at all?), I took a chance on one.

I chose a colorway with lots of tones of blue and green and gray and red, and dashes of yellow. It's called Pharaoh. Why, I wasn't sure. When I think of ancient Egyptian paintings, it's all fluttering white linen and kohl-rimmed eyes, and lapis lazuli. Pharaoh arrived before long, and the colors were deeper and stronger than I had pictured. The yellow in particular is a hot saffron color, and the blues and reds are dark and bold. Now that I think of it, though, those colors are quite in keeping with some of the artifacts in the fabulous King Tut exhibit now closing in London and making its way to the US. It's not a colorway that I would probably have chosen for myself, had I been able to see it in person, but it has gotten me away for once from the typical palette I gravitate to, so why not?

The Wigwam yarn itself looks a lot like linguini and feels much like a stretchy shoelace. The Crossed Laces pattern is all done in twisted stockinette, which with the cotton tape creates an interested furrowed texture. Too, I seem to remember reading somewhere that knitting in the Near East was often done in a twisted stitch, an inconsequential but obscurely satisfying tie back to the (had I but known) aptly-named Pharaoh colorway.

It wasn't the most flowing knitting; it was done on US size 11 needles, and the crossed stitch tightens the loops so it doesn't slide along as readily. But it knits at a chunky gauge and goes quickly. I decided to make it in a size with a couple of inches of negative ease, and I'm very glad that I did. If I had made it larger, I think it would have hung like a bag. (In fact, I believe I could even have gone another size down, for a more form-fitting look.) As it is, it's heavy and slinkily stretchy, and it clings slightly but attractively.

I love it. And the colorway combines well with a lot of things, from jeans to jackets for work.

Since it turned out well, I can't help thinking about that Toscana colorway. Maybe a second one would be nice....

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cherry Leaf Jubilee

The little Cherry Leaf shoulder shawl is done, beads and all! This is a modified version of the one in Jane Sowerby's lovely book, Victorian Lace Today.

I made it smaller and replaced the fancy lace edging with something quite understated. I knitted it in Malabrigo lace yarn, using US size 7 needles.

Blocking has wrought its usual parlor-trick transformation. The lumps are gone. Cherry Leaf now looks open and lacy and hangs beautifully.

I'm really pleased with the plainer edge with just some beads crocheted along the edge. Its simplicity leaves the focus on the leaf pattern, but the beads give it a finished look and add some weight and drape. And their low-key polish offers a nice contrast with the slightly streaked variability of the kettle-dyed color.b

For a while, I was afraid I might be knitting a kerchief, rather than a shawl, even a small one. With just one 470-yard skein of yarn, I knit as far as I dared before binding off the upper edge. I had to guess at when to stop, wanting to end at a full repeat of the leaf pattern and reserve some yarn for an edging that had yet to be chosen.

I was still holding my breath as I was wove in the ends and readied Cherry Leaf for its blocking. Once wet and pinned, though, it stretched out to a petite but usable 53 inches from tip to tip. It's not what you'd call ample for tying in front at the chest, but it's doable, and it also looks fine with the pointed ends left hanging straight down. I think, though, that it would be just right for lapping one end over the other and closing it with a shawl pin or brooch. And I do love the shorter length. I wasn't looking for a big enveloping shawl, beautiful though that might be, but just a little light wrap for the shoulders. Pretty much what the name implies, in fact.

Why the daredevil act? Because I had only the one skein, a souvenir yarn bought on vacation last fall in the Pacific Northwest. I had no idea what project I would use it for, and little idea of how much yardage a shawl or scarf requires, not having done very much lace knitting before. But the skein was a pretty thing that I wanted to bring home, a reminder of my trip. I could, I suppose, have ordered another to supplement the first, but, with the kettle-dyed yarn, it wouldn't necessarily have matched. And only this skein has the special magic of a well-loved vacation.

Now that Cherry Leaf is done, I'm trying to decide whether to wear it myself or give it as a gift. Because it's so pretty, I'd love to give it to my mom. But she's taller than I, and I'm not sure how well this little mini-shawl would suit her. Yet I feel somehow that beautiful things should be bestowed and not kept greedily for me. Maybe the cure is to make more!

So, for now, Cherry Leaf will stay tucked away in tissue, awaiting its moment.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Olympic Medal Count

I watched the Olympic closing ceremonies this weekend, enjoying the festivities, and just a bit regretful. A final celebration amazing in its scale, precision, and fireworks. The events are done, and I too must put aside my Olympic garb. Two weeks of incredible achievements, athletes striving and besting world record after world record, truly living up to the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius. And closer to home: Woolly, Woollier, Woolliest! It was two weeks of wonderful entertainment to knit by.

I didn't enro
ll in any of the on-line knitting Olympics events, though. (Set a personal challenge! Knit an entire garment from start to finish during the course of the Olympics! Try something really hard!) Having just made a push through three weeks of Tour de Fleece spinning, I wasn't quite ready to sign up for another sporting proposition requiring a firm daily commitment. I imagine that athletes, too, who have been in training gearing up for one big event must sometimes need a little time afterward to rest and regroup before heading into the next. So I did plenty of knitting, sure, but kept it casual and indulged completely according to the whim of the moment.

I did cut loose and do
a little yarn shopping, however. I'd been holding back for quite a while. I have plenty of yarn on hand as it is, of course, and my spinning hobby, pleasing as it is, produces yet more. But sometimes it's just fun to nab some nice new things. So my personal medals are not of bronze, silver, and gold, but of cotton, silk, and wool.

But at least it was mostly sock yarn, so I fell for only one skein of each, instead of sweater-bound skeins by the dozen. And here are some of my new trophies. :)

Trekking XXL

Cherry Tree Hill Sockittome in Spanish Moss

Cherry Tree Hill/Louët Gems in Northern Lights

Colinette Jitterbug in Kingfisher

Cherry Tree Hill Supersock in Misty Moor.

Well, really, how could I have been expected to resist? Nobody could.

Now, with the 2008 Olympics now in the history books, what am I going to do for televised spectacle, I wonder.... On to politics and confetti, perhaps. :)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tiny Baubles

Last week, the Cherry Leaf Shoulder Shawl was coming along nicely. It showed promise, despite the crumply look, which blocking would magically cure. But I thought it was going to need a little something at the edge to set it off. I wanted a fairly modest edge, to keep the focus on the pretty leafy pattern in the body of the shawl. As a practical matter, too, I wanted an edge that wouldn't take a lot of yarn, since I was working with only one 50-gram ball altogether.

The leaf pattern was already framed in a solid band of garter stitch, and I thought of leaving it as understated as that, just adding a row of single crochet to neaten up the edge. But that seemed just a little too Jane-Eyre-unadorned. The fancy lace edging from the original pattern, on the other hand, while attractive, was too attention-getting for what I was envisioning.

I thought maybe what it needed was a simple lace edging with a few beads. When I showed the partly-knitted shawl to my semi-knitting (partly quilting) group, a friend independently made the same suggestion. That settled it. It definitely needed beads. Nothing flashy, just a subtle glint and some weight that would add a bit of drape.

I pictured beads that would be almost the same color as the yarn. Something kind of like the beads on my favorite flip-flops, which I found myself eyeing covetously. But no, that would never do. So I toddled off to a bead store to see what I could find.

There, I came up with some rather nice seed beads in a dark color mix that blended harmoniously with my yarn. I hoped this size would work, and I loved these deep mysterious colors. So it seemed I needn't plunder my footwear after all.

To attach the beads, ordinarily I would just have strung them all right onto the strand of yarn, and then pulled each one up to knit or crochet in as needed. But this Malabrigo yarn, a very soft laceweight single-ply yarn, was probably too fragile to withstand the sliding of dozens and dozens of beads up and down the strand. The cast-on end of the yarn gave an indication of how delicate it is; it had already abraded quite a bit just from the wear and tear of rubbing against the partially completed shawl and my lap. That didn't bode well for its survival, and I didn't relish the thought of the strand giving way, spilling beads and vexation.

So I went with a different approach. I placed the beads using a little steel crochet hook, tiny enough to thread right through the eye of the bead.

This way, I could pull just one little loop of yarn back through the bead. This allows the beads to be seated one at a time directly onto the stitches where they need to go. And each little length of yarn runs through a bead only once, rather than over and over.

It just requires a bit of patience. That wasn't difficult, though. The Olympics were on, so I wasn't going anywhere. I was perfectly happy to piddle about over my beads while watching feats of athleticism. The biggest challenge was to remember not to jump up in excitement, sending beads flying onto the couch and floor, when an amazing swimming race or gymnastics performance set me to cheering.

And, really, I think these tiny baubles will do nicely, don't you?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sheep Antics

Bess asked: where is this county fair I was speaking of in my last post?

It's the very nice Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, in Montgomery County, Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. It's a surprisingly homey event considering how built-up much of that area has become. And for anyone who happens to be in the general vicinity, it's going on for a couple more days yet, so if you're in the mood there's still time for a visit! Prizewinning pickles, and skeins of handspun, and quilts, and old-time dry goods, and antique engines, and carnival rides, and funnel cakes, and farm animals are there waiting for you. :)

Back behind the barn, where the animals were getting prettied up for a turn around the ring, I got a chuckle out of seeing the sheepwash. To be honest, though, I'm not exactly sure whether that was a freshly shorn sheep or a goat. It may have been a goatwash.

Either way, it looks like this guy is saying, "uh-oh, I think I might be next!"

Visiting all the animals in the barn reminded me of something. Wandering through the barns at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival this year, my friend and I spotted a little lamb standing perched atop his Mom's broad back. He was swaying around trying to keep his balance, and probably thinking "whoa, how on earth am I going to get down from here?" We, on the other hand, were asking "how on earth did he manage to climb up there?"

Somebody wiser in the ways of the barnyard soon snorted and straightened us out. Apparently, it would have been much easier to climb aboard when the ewe was lying down in the straw. And then she stood up. That pretty much trumped all our wild theories. But it was fun to imagine him clambering up there somehow.

And anyway, well... OK then, smartypants. How do you explain this? :)

Monday, August 11, 2008

The County Fair!

I've always loved a county fair. As a kid, I loved to go and look at the displays of perfect vegetables grown by proud gardeners, entries of home-canned foods and layer cakes, drawings and stitcheries. I loved fair food. And most of all, I loved visiting the animals in the barns. I really haven't changed much.

The closest fair to me, though, is disappointingly citified. It has the carnival midway and rides, concerts and tents with local businesses, yes, but there's nothing left of homely skills and rural ways. This weekend, along with world's-most-patient husband, my parents, my brother and his fiancée, I went to the good honest agricultural county fair I remember.

All the delights were there. I welcomed the preserves, the home arts, the 4H displays like old friends. I happily indulged in the usual square meal of funnel cakes and fresh lemonade. And none of your pre-made funnel cakes briefly rewarmed in the deep fryer, either. These were the real thing, batter drizzled from the pitcher directly into the hot oil and lifted out, delicate and scrumptious, to be showered with confectioner's sugar and pulled apart gingerly, nearly burning your fingers!

There were new treats, as well. Fresh, sweet roasted corn on the cob, served on a stick and doused in melted butter. Crab cakes deep-fried in a pastry wrapper. Fried Oreo cookies. "Curd snacks" from the Wisconsin cheese booth, soft irregular chunks of just-made cheese not yet formed into a mold and aged. Tasting rather like cottage cheese, but with just a touch of Cheddar tang and saltiness. And then some pit barbecue to round things off with a return to tradition.

In the car on the way to the fair, clicking around the radio dial, we happened to hear Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame, telling one of his slow stories about a woman preparing to serve breakfast after a visit to a state fair. Melting two pounds of butter, spearing the toast on a stick for dipping. Well, I could just about understand that.

Visiting the animals was as much of a thrill as always. Of course, now that spinning has me in its grip, I see the sheep and goats and alpacas and long- haired bunnies a little differently than I used to. I recognize some of the breeds. I handle the wool samples as if I were at a fiber festival, trying to discern their spinning qualities. I look at this regal llama and think, my, that's a lot of straw to pick out of his fleece!

But at the county fair, there were also animals I don't get to see at the fiber festivals. There was a brand spanking new baby, not too steady on his legs yet, having a rest.

There were soft, velvety short- haired bunnies. There were ducklings and chickens, ponies and mules, and a little donkey. There were tiny piglets with their mama.

There were other piglets, too, these a little older and feistier, scampering headlong around a little sawdust track much to the delight of crowds of children.

And among the quilts and the knitted entries, the home arts displays had one more unexpected bit of fun in store for me: a crack fleece- to-shawl team. These gals, a team of four in their matching themed costumes, take the raw, unwashed fleece there on the floor and with three spinning wheels, one loom pre-warped with hand-dyed yarn, and three hours of non-stop effort, produce a beautifully textured, six-foot long hand-woven shawl.

I've heard about these at the fiber festivals but had yet to see one. How this all gets done in three hours is beyond me, so I was eager to check it out. The team members answered questions graciously while ticking steadily along in their well-choreographed efforts. It was fascinating.

I flitted from one thing to another and finally headed home tired and happy. I never even made it to the carnival rides. After all, there are other carnivals, but there's nothing like a good old-fashioned county fair!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Off the Clock

With the Tour de Fleece safely over with, I'm no longer spinning against the clock. As much fun as it was, it's nice to spin and knit again just as I please, without the pressure of a deadline or a stopwatch. A little break from spinning might be in order, in fact. I seem to have developed a strain or a touch of tendinitis between two fingers on my drafting hand.

Luckily, knitting doesn't seem to bother it at at all. The knitting project I started a couple of weeks ago, when parted briefly by travel from my spinning wheel, is coming along nicely. It's the Cherry Leaf Shoulder Shawl from Victorian Lace Today.

The shawl is fourteen cherry leaves wide now. (Isn't that a nice measure? A little more vivid than inches or feet.) I've used 30 of 50 grams, and the suspense is building about how big it will be. The shawl shown in the book is full-sized, swathing each beautiful model down the length of her glamorous torso. But from the name shoulder shawl, I picture something a good deal more petite, knotted in the front at the chest and reaching partway down the upper arm. Mine is at least large enough already to be a pretty triangular scarf to wrap around the neck, and I'll just consider anything beyond that a bonus.

I'm enjoying the softness and the kettle-dyed color variability of the Malabrigo lace yarn. Wear and tear may be a problem, as it's a whisper-soft single-ply merino yarn, but though it may blur and abrade in time, it's such a pleasure until then.

I'm thinking about what to do for the edge, to finish the garter stitch that frames the leafy center. The pattern adds a lacy edge a couple of inches wide, with fretwork and peaks to stretch out in the blocking. As beautiful as that is, I'm leaning toward something more restrained, a plainer edge to let the mesh of leaves stand out more. I'm also wondering about adding beads. Nothing showy, just a few beads in a color matching the yarn, for a subtle glint and some added weight and drape. I don't know how well the delicate yarn will stand up to having beads threaded on it; I haven't done much with beads. Before deciding, I may need to visit a bead store and see what the possibilities are.

In my imagination, the shawl is already finished and beaded and blocked and looking lovely. I only hope the reality will match the dream!