Thursday, December 9, 2010

Field and Fireside

When I went tramping through the fields to the fiber festivals this fall, I had a pretty scrumptious new sweater to wear. It's the Fireside sweater pattern by Amber Allison.

There's a bit of a story behind this pattern. There was a cute little romantic comedy movie in 2006 called The Holiday. It starred Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslett, as two strangers in the US and UK who, each unhappy and needing a change, swap houses for a brief vacation. The movie was lightweight and pleasant, but a buzz developed about the wardrobe worn by Cameron Diaz. One sweater in particular, extravagantly cabled and trim, really caught the eye. (It's the fourth one down the page on the preceding link.) Knitters ogled it, sighed over it, and tracked down the impossibly expensive source.

Amber Allison did more than sigh. She was so determined to have this sweater that she (dare I say obsessively?) studied pictures from the movie and recreated it as nearly as she could, stitch by stitch. She also, to the gratitude of legions of knitters, wrote out the pattern and adapted it for a range of sizes. It's remarkable, considering she'd never written a pattern before. On the other hand, I've never read a pattern written quite like this, either. There were a few directions like, "I suggest doing it this way, but I'm not going to tell you how to live your life." Quirky.

I stumbled across the Fireside sweater through Chesley Flotten's Knitting Experience Cafe blog (named after her much-loved but now-closed knitting shop in Maine). Chesley, who has an immaculate eye for great sweaters and a welcoming heart, had picked out the Fireside and was preparing to hold a knit-along for her band of loyal knitters. I, despite living in Virginia -- far, far away from Maine -- decided to join in. It was the first time I'd participated in a knit-along, where lots of knitters work on the same pattern at the same time, in a variety of yarns, discuss their progress, and share their results. It was great fun.

Chesley had scoped out some suitable yarns for the sweater. I ordered some Cascade Eco-Plus wool in the Grape colorway, downloaded the pattern, and got to work. Eco-Plus is a heavy-worsted weight 100% wool yarn and was, I thought, rather lightweight for the gauge of 4 stitches per inch. To get gauge, I ended up with US size 10 1/2 (6.5 mm) needles, and the fabric seemed a little loose. But it worked out well with the heavy cabling. It shows those cables like nobody's business. And the finished sweater feels great.

I made some significant adjustments to the pattern. I checked out out a number of finished Fireside sweaters. (You can see some good pictures of one finished Fireside on the Posh Knits blog, here.) For sizing, I noted a few complaints about tight, skinny sleeves. I chose a fairly snug size but decided to make armholes and sleeves according to the next size up. I also used the length measurements of the next size up. Still, I felt the waist decreases and increases looked like they would be kind of abrupt (this may have been partly due to my row gauge), so I made them longer and more gradual.

For construction, I didn't much relish the recommended procedure of knitting the sleeves in the round and then fitting them into the waiting armholes, so I knit them flat and seamed more conventionally. There were also a few rough edges in the details of the pattern, and I changed some small things in the underarms and the back neck shaping to refine it a bit.

But the sweater came together well, and all the adjustments and changes worked out fine. And, let me be clear, I LOVE this sweater! It's a beauty. Warm, cozy, and cabled, but sleek. It looks great tramping around in the open with jeans or dressed up in a tailored outfit with serious earrings. I venture to say you might even get away with it, in this jewel-like color, as a funky companion for a big gathered silk sort of skirt, the kind of styling you might see in Vogue Knitting magazine. I love it from the top of its stand-up cabled collar to the tip of its purposely over-long sleeves.

And did I mention that it's sexy? From the back, without the bulk of the overlapping off-center fronts, you can see the overall shape, almost like a curvy jacket. And the way the cables swoop in and out with the waist and shoulder shaping.

It's a really good-looking sweater. When I wear it, I get a ton of compliments, some on the style, and some on the fit. And some, from knitters, impressed with the cabling (which, honestly, is simpler to knit than it looks). You couldn't ask more than that!

Oh, and thank you, Chesley. :)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Little Thrill

I've had an unexpected little bit of happiness recently -- seeing my yarn made into someone else's creation!

Here's how it happened. When I first got Miss Muffett, my little Louet Victoria spinning wheel (yes, I guess you could say I'm spoiled :), I immediately spun a few little bundles of hand-painted fiber. I didn't have anything definite in mind to do with the yarn. I was just spinning for the pure joy of revving up my new little hot-rod spinning wheel.

Of course, that didn't stop me from taking the yarns to show off to my knitting group friends. One friend in particular oohed and sighed over one of the skeins. It's the one in the front in the photo above. I'd spun it from two ounces of combed merino top from Fleece Artist, in Nova Scotia, bought a couple of years back at the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival. It had long color transitions in muted shades of green and lavender, pink and blue-gray, and it really spoke to her.

She admired it and gave me fulsome compliments. Just being nice, I thought. But over the months, as the fruits of my spinning wheel came and went, she kept bringing up that one particular skein. "That was so pretty," she would say, "and so soft. I just loved those colors." I began to believe her.

In the end, I decided to wrap up that little skein and give it to her as a birthday gift. I was pretty sure she'd appreciate it. :)

And she did. When she opened that package, she recognized her favorite skein right away and squealed with happiness. She dashed around some of the neighboring offices to show it to people. Pretty gratifying.

But then a couple of weeks later, the really exciting thing happened. She showed up at work in a new scarf. I glanced and did a double-take. And a triple-take. And then a full-on stare. It looked very familiar. "Wait, that's my yarn! Eeeee! That's my yarn that's my yarn that's my yarn!" She just beamed.

I was so surprised. There were only about 200 yards of a fingering/sport weight yarn, and I hadn't thought she'd be able to do much with it. But she'd searched out a pattern and knitted it up.

And it's so pretty! She chose a pattern that works beautifully with the subtle colors and long transitions. It's the Susan Scarf, a free pattern by the talented Kristen Hanley Cardozo. And she did a beautiful job knitting it.

It was really exciting to see another knitter's vision of what could be made of my pretty yarn. We're both proud of that scarf. (You should see how great it looks when she wears it with her dark green sweater!)

It's as if I gave her a little present, and she turned around and gave me one right back. What a nice little thrill.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bringing in the Fleece

This year, I got to see another side of the lovable Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, by helping out as a volunteer on the Fleece Sale.

A fleece sale, for those not familiar with the concept, is a chance for handspinners to buy a raw, unprocessed whole fleece, just as it comes from the freshly shorn sheep. Raw fleeces are full of all kinds of stuff: bits of weeds and vegetable matter that has clung to the sheep, fresh moist natural lanolin, pleasant ripe animal smells, and -- most of all -- possibility.

The SVFF fleece sale is juried, meaning the fleeces are inspected for quality by an expert judge before being admitted into the sale. It's a big job for the two experts, and so there are opportunities for willing volunteers to help with the physical labor, listen, and learn.

The day before the festival begins, the shepherds bring their fleeces to the judges to be evaluated and entered in the sale. Some bring just a couple of fleeces, and others bring half a dozen or more, each a large double-armful in its own plastic bag.

Now the volunteers swing into action. One writes up tags, noting down the shepherd and the breed or hybrid of the sheep that supplied each fleece, and often the individual sheep's own name. Others empty the fleece from its plastic bag onto a mesh table, loose debris falling through onto the concrete floor.

Spreading out a fleece so it can be examined is a careful job. A skilled shearer will have trimmed the fleece off a sheep all in one big piece that hangs together in the shape of the animal itself, a phantom sheepskin rug. It's easy enough to dump the bundled fleece out of its bag, but the mass of wool must then be gently picked open and fully unrolled on the table, without the loosely linked clumps of wool becoming tangled and breaking apart from the delicate whole-body shape.

After the fleece is unrolled, the volunteers check it over quickly for any bits and pieces that should come out. The shepherd will already have taken out the mucky parts and poor quality areas around the hindquarters. But still, there are smaller things to be removed, like second cuts (bits of short, unusable wool where the shepherd ran the clippers over an overlapping spot again), or burrs and noticeable bits of hay or weeds.

Then the expert judges are called over. They plunge experienced hands in to feel the fineness of the wool. They check the length of the fibers in the locks of wool. They test small clumps for soundness, both visually and by a good sharp lengthwise tug. They assign the fleece to a category, be it fine, medium, long, or double-coated. Sometimes the category is clear from the sheep's breed, and sometimes the judges rely on their own assessment, particularly for hybrids, which can vary widely from one individual to another. They write notes on the fleece's tag, commenting on such things as the quality of the wool, the color, the length, the cleanness, or appropriate uses, to provide guidance for buyers.

When the judges finish with each fleece, the volunteers fold and roll it into a neat ball, stuff it back into its bag, and cart it to its spot on the long table of fleeces for sale.

It wasn't glamorous work. The temperature hit 98 degrees that day. Each fleece typically weighed 4-7 pounds. The wool was full of dirt and grease, and our hands shone from the lanolin. We were grubby and hot. But it was fascinating, and I learned a lot. One thing I found interesting is that the judges actually did reject a few fleeces, for instance, if there was a weak spot in the length of the wool resulting from the animal having an episode of poor health as it grew. Truly, only good-quality fleeces were accepted for the sale.

And the day was at times poignant. I met shepherds who handed over a number of fleeces with obvious pride, shepherds who hoped their fleeces would sell to bring in some money to keep the flock fed, and one dear lady who shears her sheep with ordinary scissors and great care.

To a spinner's eyes, a fleece is just beautiful. Just look at that rich natural color, with the tips of the sheep's coat lightened a little bit by its year in the sun.

Lovely as they are, though, I resisted buying one the next day when they went on sale. I've processed one small fleece so far, and it takes some time. The lanolin and dirt have to be washed out in a series of hot baths, the fleece laid out to dry, and the sweet-smelling clumps of clean wool carded or combed, and put away ready for spinning. I'm game to do it again, but not just yet. I've got a lot of work to do first to clear the decks.

So it wasn't easy, but I held back from buying both there and the following week at the Fall Fiber Festival, where I strolled purely as a shopper.

I simply gave the fleece sale tent a wide berth and stayed as far away as possible from temptation. :)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Festival Season

The bright crisp days are here, and that can mean only one thing: it's fall, and festival season! OK, only two things, if you want to be picky. :)

Yes, in my annual autumn frenzy of festival-going, I've been to two of my favorite festivals in the last two weekends. Of course, they all seem to be my favorites, but then, they're all wonderful in different ways.

The first, the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, in Berryville, Virginia, was moved this year for the first time to late September (to avoid a conflict with the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair). And the Fall Fiber Festival, on the Montpelier Estate near Orange, Virginia, was held as usual in early October.

Both are quite small, relative to the behemoths that are the Rhinebeck, New York, festival in the fall (or so I hear, never having been) and -- oldest and biggest of them all -- the mighty Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in the spring. The tidy small size of the Shenandoah and Montpelier festivals, in fact, is one of their great virtues, as there's room to stroll around and browse without being utterly overwhelmed by crowds and overstimulation. And there's plenty to look at, between the shopping, the fiber-bearing animals on display, and at Montpelier, the sheepdog competitions going on all day nearby.

My experience with the Shenandoah festival this time was a bit different from past years, as I got a chance this year to help out in a small way by volunteering! Of course, that meant less time just strolling around shopping and taking pictures. So the visual souvenirs here are from the Montpelier festival. Rest assured, though, there were plenty of treasures at both festivals.

By the time the Montpelier festival rolled around, the weather had cooled, blessedly, to the point that festival-goers could actually wear some of their hand-crafted productions. I love seeing the knitters showing off their hand-knit sweaters, lace shawls, berets, and just about anything else that can be fashioned out of wool.

It was a jolly day entirely. World's-most-patient-husband was a good sport and chauffeured me on the beautiful but long-ish country drive to the festival. I browsed and shopped and wandered and chatted to my heart's content while he napped and read a book he'd brought along. I even parked myself on a picnic bench for a bit to spin some newly bought fiber just for the joy of playing with my new toys.

Oh yes, indeed there was some newly bought fiber. Some of it is here, braids of wool to spin in bright citrus colors and dusky subtle colors and whatever else was appealing. Let's see, the one on the left is a merino "pigtail" from Stony Mountain Fibers in Virginia. The two in the center are a wool-and-seacell blend from Creatively Dyed in South Carolina, and the one on the right is blue-face leicester wool from River's Edge Fiber Arts, here at the festival all the way from Michigan.

And then there were heaps of wool-mohair blend roving, which is lots of fun to spin. The orangey-tan roving on the left is wool, kid mohair, and a touch of sparkle, in the Bronze colorway from Steam Valley Fiber Farm in Pennsylvania. Charmingly, the label they provided tells me exactly which goats and sheep are responsible for the fiber, by name. So, thank you, TinMan, Neptune, and the rest. :)

The two pretty rovings on the right, one in rose and the other in a soft coffee color, are from Kid Hollow Farm in Virginia, which has provided me with many, many hours of spinning pleasure before. My tall-elegant-mom, my trim-athletic-dad, and I all have accessories or sweaters I've spun and knitted from Kid Hollow fiber. The rose colorway is called Puerto Rico, and the buff is called Chestnut. This time, I think I may spin a strand in each of the two colors and ply them together.

And that little twirly thing? Wait, how did that get in there? It's a Tom Dyak drop spindle from DyakCraft (formerly Grafton Fibers). I didn't really need another spindle, but those mischievous River's Edge ladies had it right there, where I couldn't help seeing it, with its cheery bright colors.

Really, what could I do? :)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hand-Dipped Tappan Zee

(Wow, she's really let herself go.)
No, I haven't!

(She just hasn't been taking care of anything.)
Yes, I have.

(She probably hasn't been doing any knitting at all.)
Have too.

I can hear you, you know.

I have I have I have!

In fact there are finished objects strewn all around the place. Here's one now.

Amy Spunky Eclectic King had a pattern in the spring issue of Knitty that seemed just about perfect for some spinning fiber I had on hand in a pretty, pretty color. Amy is well known as a wonderful hand-dyer and is also the author of one of my very favorite spinning books, Spin Control.

The Tappan Zee pattern is casual and breezy, designed for handspun yarn, and -- most importantly -- made with only about 6 ounces of fiber, at least given Spunky's expert spinning technique. Allowing for the difference between her results and my, ahem, somewhat less expert spinning, I thought I might just pull it off with the 8 ounces of fiber I had. It's from the very nice and encouraging Kate Bostek of Roclans Farm in Fairfield, PA. The colorway is called Heartfelt (awww...), and it was one of my finds at the 2008 Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival.

Still a bit nervous about whether I could get enough yardage out of my 8 ounces, I came up with a back-up plan. At the same show, I had bought 4 ounces of another spinning fiber in a similar but slightly darker color, called Raspberry Whip. (I remember getting it home and wondering what on earth I had been thinking!) It was, if memory serves, from a vendor called the Brazen Sheep. I think I was dazed by the fact that it had 10% cashmere in the blend.

I decided to blend the two colorways in gradually varying proportions to spin a range of yarns that would shade from light to dark. I measured out by weight how much fiber of each color to spin together for each color gradation. Then I got busy spinning 12 ounces of fiber, aiming for sportweight.

Here's how the yarn came out. See how the color changes from the top of the picture to the bottom? That's not an illusion!

I adore it. I want to try this trick again.

Still and all, I wasn't entirely sure how my idea was going to work out in the actual sweater. It could either look like a really cool custom design, or like I ran out of yarn and had to finish the knitting in a different colorway that didn't quite match.

Or like I sat in something. :p

But there was only one way to find out. So I got knitting. The yarn was light and springy, a pleasure to knit with, and a relief after all the careful concentration that went into the spinning. And Tappan Zee is a nice pattern to knit, easy and straightforward. It's knit top-down, with enough decoration at the yoke to be fun but not fussy. I changed practically nothing -- a rarity. I only needed to add a couple of extra rows here and there to lengthen the yoke because my gauge was a bit off.

Actually, it's a miracle that the gauge was only a little bit off, because this was the first time I really tried to spin a sweater quantity of yarn to a specific weight for a specific pattern. Before, I've just spun whatever yarn the fiber seemed to make, and then found, adapted, or designed a pattern to work with it. For a first time spinning to order, I really didn't do too badly. :)

And look how it turned out!

Isn't it pretty? I had a hard time getting a picture that shows the color change. But look at the color striations in the main part of the sweater. That's one of the things I love about handspun. And, if you look closely near the bottom on the right, you can see how the color just blends imperceptibly into the darker shade.

Since the colors are so close, it does sort of look like a different dye lot of the same yarn. Or like I sat in something.

But I prefer to think it looks like a hand-dipped ice cream cone. So that's what I say it is!

Hand-dipped Tappan Zee. Delicious. :)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Baby Who Sweater

One of the members of my broad-minded knitting group (includes an awful lot of quilters for a knitting group) is hugely pregnant. We only meet once a month and don't get a chance to see much of each other in between, so it took us a while to wake up to this fact. Once we did, though, we were pretty quick on the uptake. Hey, wait a minute, we knit (or quilt or whatever)! We could make her something!

To get a little extra time, we delayed our next scheduled meeting by a week on a flimsy but plausible pretext -- hoping she wouldn't surprise us by having an early baby -- and got to work. So, now to pick a project.

Our mom-to-be is a happy-spirited sock-knitter with a boisterous color sense. The colors in this cocktail napkin are in the ballpark, though there aren't enough of them and the whole effect is a little too quiet. (That should give you an idea!) I knew pale baby pastels were not for her. She and her husband had also chosen to be surprised, so there were no clues as to the pink-ness or blue-ness of the imminent arrival.

I wanted to make a little sweater, and after a quick mental inventory, I was certain there was nothing in the house to fit the bill. It needed to be colorful, washable, and worsted weight -- for speed of knitting! And I didn't have time for ordering on-line. I found myself near a new local yarn shop with a few spare minutes and dived in to see what I could find.

After a brief mental dalliance with some wildly colored (but not machine washable) Manos yarn, I came upon a basket of Mochi Plus, from Crystal Palace Yarns. It was a merino-nylon blend. *So* soft, washable, not babyish, and worsted weight. Clearly a winner. Though it wasn't violently bright in color, it had nice long-transition colorways. I picked out three different ones and hoped for the best.

Rooting around for worsted-weight baby patterns, I came up with Jimmy's Baby Gift Sweater Set from the nice people at Jimmy Beans Wool. It's a little top-down raglan that's perfect for multi-colored yarn. And, a great advantage when you're in a rush, no seams to sew! (It couldn't save me from buttons, since I did want to do a cardigan, but you can't have everything.) I needed to make the larger, 1-year-old, size, given the exuberant bloom of our sock-knitting mom-to-be. It was cutting things close, with the 285 yards of yarn I had, but looked like it could be done.

I puzzled for a while over how to combine the three colorways and decided to knit wide stripes of each in sequence. Though I wasn't sure how it would look, I needed to get started, and fast. It turns out that knitting a small sweater in a variety of pretty striping yarns is lots of fun and went quickly. And the wide stripe sequence of the three colorways worked beautifully.

As with most projects, I made a few adjustments. I replaced the garter-stitch hem and cuffs with ribbed ones, which seemed to live more comfortably within the gradually striping colors. I changed the neckband and button-band to mainly reverse-stockinette welts.

Knitting the cuffs at first as written, I thought they looked a little small for chubby baby fists. So I redid them adding a few extra stitches to the wrists.

I couldn't resist picking out some extra bright sections of yarn and using them for contrast color-tipping on all the cast-off edges. And I found some bright shiny red buttons.

I got the little sweater done in the nick of time, sewing on the last of the buttons at midnight the night before our knitting group meeting. It was a rushy evening entirely, what with getting a cake, finding suitable wrapping and card, and finishing a little sweater, but it did all get done.

And we did surprise her. I think I even saw some brimming eyes, before she blinked it away. Our little group came through beautifully, with a pile of handmade goods. A wildly colored pompom-adorned knit hat. A crib quilt and quilted diaper bag. A crocheted beanie. Sweet little appliqued t-shirts.

And a pretty fine-looking baby sweater. :)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Heat Exhaustion?

Hey, I thought they said wool breathes when it's hot! That's what these little guys must have been thinking. Their mouths are hanging open a little, as they try to keep cool in the shade.

The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival was a scorcher this year. Each year, I hope for cool weather, so everyone can wear something hand-knit. But, once again, in gentle early May, the festival happened to fall upon a very hot weekend.

Late as I am in checking in here after the festival, I'll just blame it on the heat. And, incidentally, I do still make things. There are even some finished objects to show you, but I'll get to that next time.

So, casting my mind now back again to early May.... I tried to take a restrained approach to the festival this year, as I really am trying not to continue accumulating supplies faster than I can use them. Beautiful they may be, but logic says to have faith that, when the time finally comes that I truly have space for more, there will still be plenty of beautiful things to find.

The fleece sale challenged my fortitude, I have to admit, especially since I'd just taken a class on how to choose a good fleece. I wandered around in there for a while examining fleeces, appreciating their color and crimp, looking at the differences among the breeds of wool. But still I managed to restrain myself.

And I consciously managed my MDSW visit a little differently than in years past. I limited my strolling time to a couple of hours, and I focused on some of the events that I normally just go right on past, in my haste to trot from one vendor to the next. Also, as I now have a very portable spinning wheel, I brought it along in hopes of joining the evening Spin-In .

I stopped to watch and enjoy the kids (human) visiting the kids (baby goats from Kid Hollow Farm).

Look at those tiny little horns sprouting. and the ringlets of soft baby mohair. They're just adorable, aren't they?

I spent a little time taking in the sheep-herding demonstration, watching the expert dogs and their human handlers, and the obedient sheep, spooked into compliance .

I wandered over to see what was going on at the auction. Everything from boxes of magazines to spinning equipment was being disposed of with swift efficiency.

Of course I visited the vendors. It just wouldn't make sense to be there for that awe-inspiring assemblage and utterly pass it by. But I kept my acquisitions to quite a modest level. A couple of quarter-pound bags of fiber and some beeswax candles. Just enough to feel I'd partaken of the feast.

The fiber, from Misty Mountain Farm, is awfully pretty, too. In the foreground is Polwarth top, in a colorway called Forest Moss. In the background is super-fine Merino in Raspberry, a color I just seem to keep coming back to.

So, I still shopped and bought a little, but I tried not to make it such a central focus of my trip. Heck, if I keep this up, maybe one day I'll make it over to see the sheep-to-shawl competition. I've always meant to, but have been too busy loading up on supplies and inspiration.

Once the sun went down and the festival closed for the day, I retrieved Miss Muffet from the car and found my way to the Dining Hall (blessedly air-conditioned) for the evening Spin-In. There were about 65 like-minded souls there, spinning and chatting happily away, with wheels and spindles. There were two wonderful women serving as ringleaders and camp-counselors. They organized door-prize drawings, puzzles, and silly competitions. We had timed spinning races for distance, blindfolded, and with plastic bags on our hands. The latter two were, remarkably, not nearly as hard as one might think. In fact, I turned out to be something of a plastic-bag-hands specialist. That was the competition I came closest to winning. And there was a very entertaining 11-year-old boy challenging everyone to see who could make a spindle spin the longest.

It was fun enjoying the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival this year in a different way. I might do it again next time.... unless I can use up all the wool and yarn I have around the house by then. :)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Taking Her Out For A Spin

Well, what's a tiny little new spinning wheel for, if not to hop in the car and go for a spin? Miss Muffet and I found ourselves a spinning event to go to and that's exactly what we did.

When we got there, she settled right in next to a Majacraft Little Gem. It's also a cute little portable wheel, but we all have our own tastes, and Miss Muffet is definitely my favorite flavor. The Little Gem's owner (whose name I'm sorry I can't remember) was also a brand-new weaver, and the scarf she's wearing in the picture was one of her first efforts, woven earlier that same week. It was beautiful and drapey, and I was quite impressed.

The event was kind of a small fair, with vendors from the local region lining the walls, selling yarn and roving and fleeces and patterns and accessories and lots of tempting things. It catered for knitters as well as spinners.

The spinning circle was set up right in the center, and it was a new sight for many of the knitters wandering by to shop. It felt a bit like being on display at a living history museum. Quite a few people stopped by to watch, talking in hushed tones to each other. With a little encouragement, though, they were happy to chat and ask questions. The woman next to me, with the Little Gem, was quite a promoter for spinning. She enticed several people to sit down and give it a try. I wouldn't be surprised if a new spinner or two was born that day!

When I got up for breaks, there was also another "exhibit" for me to gaze at and ask questions about. Near the spinners was a group having a rug-braiding class. It looked like fun, too. Though I'm afraid this isn't the clearest photo, you can see how there's a clamp attached to the table, and the rug-maker is braiding together strips of roving in different colors. The rug-making is not a one-day process, though. Students were to take the braids home, felt them, and come back to the part two class, to learn how to sew them together.

Meanwhile, there was lots of shopping going on, too. You don't need a giant festival to have plenty of things to entice a spinner. I think practically everybody went home with a few more things than she brought -- some more than others. And some just couldn't contain themselves. This big newly purchased pile of fiber was trailing directly from its bag onto an enthusiastic spinner's wheel.

Of course, I also walked around and window-shopped to see what the vendors had brought. And of course I had to get myself a few goodies. :)

These are some of them. The two balls of roving are Cormo wool from Wallys and Frank Peltier at Mt. Airy Farm, in Marshall, Virginia. I just adored the colorway and bought all 14 ounces they brought. It probably won't make a whole sweater, but maybe a vest. I believe I must have been talking to Wallys. She told me that they hadn't dyed the wool in roving form before, only as yarn, because they'd been worried about whether it would felt. But she was pleased with how this had come out. And so am I. :)

The braid in the front of the photo is Superwash Bluefaced Leicester from Spirit Trail Fiberworks, Jennifer Heverley. Jennifer -- in addition to finding wool of fascinating rare breeds to offer spinners -- is a master dyer with an absolutely lovely color sense.

This braid is a one-off; not one of her regular colorways but just the result of a session playing with the dye-pots. I could just drown in these colors. But there's only 4 ounces of it, so I'll have to think about what I can make from it.

All in all, a very fun day. Miss Muffet and I went home tired and happy.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Meet Miss Muffet

I've been beset with a raging case of spring fever. Why? Of course, there's the bright sunlight, and the longer daytime hours, and the balmy breezes. Those do their share in setting off plenty of cases of spring fever, that's for certain. But I'm talking about my spring fever, and that's spring spinning fever. For that, there just might have been one more factor that came into play.

Look, over there -- what's that twirling daintily in front of my ankles? It isn't Rastro, my trusty and beloved Lendrum spinning wheel. It's something a bit smaller. Positively petite, in fact. Yes, it's an adorable little Louet Victoria, my wonderful Christmas present this year from world's-most-patient-husband. I feel like the most spoiled girl on earth. :)

Much as I've always enjoyed spinning on my Rastro, I had started daydreaming about also having a second wheel that would be a little easier to cart around, to take outside, to carry off to spinning events. Maybe even to take on a plane, if my spinning mania ever comes to that. :)

I saw the Victoria at a fiber festival back when the model first came out. I was fascinated by how small and light it was. At the same time, it had a decent range of ratios, and the woman showing it off assured me that it spun like a serious wheel, not some little plaything. At the time, I really didn't imagine having a second wheel for myself. But as time wore on, the thought slowly seeped into the back of my mind, eventually taking shape and filling out and becoming a full-fledged wish. Finally I started hinting and hinting to world's-most-patient-husband who -- while he still no doubt thinks it's nuts to have one spinning wheel, let alone two -- loves to do things that make me happy.

And when Christmas rolled around, there she was, Rastro's new little sister, Miss Muffet. She came with the greatest little case, too. She folds up and fits in there like a puzzle, and then I can throw the strap over my shoulder, and off I go.

Miss Muffet is actually only the second wheel I have ever spun on. I've heard all the good advice, of course, about trying out different wheels before you buy. I'm just not very good at following it. :) Both times, I've made up my mind on the wheel I want without ever having sat down to give it a try. So it's been very interesting for me to note how different Miss Muffet feels to spin on. All the skeins I showed in the March 31 post were spun on Muffet. While Rastro feels solid, comfortable, and smooth, Miss Muffet is a tricksome little thing, with the jittery, jouncy feel of a fast dune buggy. Now that I've got the hang of it, it's great fun.

So the spring fever is a little aggravated this year. Rastro sits in the prime spot, right next to my giant supply of spinning fiber, and gets plenty of action. Miss Muffet perches here and there around the house and gets popped in the car for an outing when I come up with any excuse. Rastro does the yeoman's work on big projects, while Miss Muffet spins frivolous little braids of fiber for fun. Did I mention that I must be the most spoiled girl on earth?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Itsy Bitsy Things

I've been in the mood to spin. I didn't have a real project going, but sometimes that urge to spin is well nigh unstoppable.

I wanted to spin so much that I began spinning the beautiful little bits of stuff that I'd felt were too nice to use up. Or maybe that I wasn't a good enough spinner for. It didn't matter.

I had some braids, from the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival of 2007, of hand-dyed fiber by Fleece Artist, of Nova Scotia. Only 50 grams of each. I think I loved them for their beauty just as they were. Those colors! But their time had come.

First was the braid in the upper right corner, merino top in soft lavender-grays and greens and pinks. On the bobbin, the colors somehow separated and strengthened.

I spun it just to spin, not worrying at all about the thickness. After plying, it came out somewhere in the range of fingering to sportweight. And the colors fascinated me again as they combined. The finished skein is stronger and greener than I'd expected, but complex and subtle. And the yarn, my first pure merino, is bouncy and lofty. What a pleasure.

That was so much fun, I had to have another. Next, I spun the braid of Bluefaced Leicester wool in the lower right corner, the one in pink and gray-blue and creamy vanilla. I spun it at a fingering-to-sport weight again. I enjoyed watching the colors draw out, emerge, and mix, and liked the result so much that I wondered how I could have waited so long to spin the fiber.

It seems like it must be tiresome listening to me rhapsodizing fuzzily about one fiber after another. So about the last braid of Bluefaced Leicester, I'll just say that I kept thinking of tangerine and raspberry sorbet as I was spinning it. It made me hungry for dessert. :)

The plied skein is a little darker and stronger, but still, it surprised me when a friend commented, "that's a good autumn color." Of course, she's partial to the brightest of the bright, so perhaps that had something to do with it!

Incidentally, the finished yarn of Bluefaced Leicester wool turned out a little differently from the merino. Still fluffy, it has a bit less bounce and more drape. And both were nice to spin.

So I have 50 grams each of yarn in three colorways, and pretty much no idea what I will do with these small quantities. (Although I must say that a friend has been admiring that merino skein so vociferously that I might just decide to make a gift of it to her.) They're not enough even for a scarf. I need some itsy bitsy projects to make with my itsy bitsy skeins. I think the longest one is about 150 yards. Though I'm a bit short on the yardage, there's a pretty cowl in the latest issue of Spin-off magazine made with about two ounces of sport-weight handspun that just might work. Perhaps I'll make a wardrobe of fine-gauge cowls!

But the question is, what on earth gave me these wild spinning urges?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Eloise Gets Out

Eloise is a charming and inquisitive little girl, in a beloved series of children's books from the middle of the last century, who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Eloise is also the name of the pattern I've just finished knitting. It's a little cardigan from the book, Noro Knits, by Jane Ellison. The sweater is designed for Noro's Blossom yarn, a nubby textured silk blend in a chunky weight. I, however, had a couple of bags of Debbie Bliss Soho yarn and was looking for a suitable sweater to knit. Soho is a thick-and-thin wool singles yarn, multi-colored with short, busy color runs. (It's now discontinued.)

I searched for a long time for something to make with this yarn. With so much going on in the yarn itself, it doesn't suit an elaborate design. I swatched some cables and some openwork stitch patterns and, with few exceptions, it swallowed them alive. The Debbie Bliss patterns I found designed specifically for this yarn did include a few simple cables, but, honestly, you can barely even see the cablework. So, clearly, it needed to be something fairly plain. But I didn't want to bore myself silly.

I stewed over it, looking at patterns, thinking about designing something, for a long time. Months. At the same time, I'd admired the Eloise sweater regretfully every time I leafed through my Noro patterns looking for something to knit with a Noro yarn that wasn't chunky weight. It's a simple reverse stockinette cardigan, with a deep bottom ribbing and a knit-in edging. Finally, on the relieved and carefree day after Christmas, I put two and two together -- chunky simple pattern with no yarn? chunky multicolored yarn with no pattern? Why not give it a try? Ready, after weeks of gift-knitting, to start on something for myself, I went right ahead and cast on.

I actually don't know why I liked the Eloise pattern so much. You can't see much of it in the pattern book -- there's only one photo, and it's one of those artfully posed ones that, while stylish, leaves much of the sweater to the imagination. But like it I did. And, lo and behold, I like the finished sweater a lot, too!

I knit it on US size 9 (5.5 mm) needles and knit the pattern pretty much as written. I did decide to knit the small size for a snug fit, but using the lengths from the medium size so it wouldn't be too petite. I also added a couple of extra stitches when switching from the ribbing to the stockinette section, but as it turned out, it really didn't need them.

One of the things I like is the reverse stockinette surface that mixes and blends the colors in the yarn. I was surprised, though, by how little effect the thick-and-thin texture of the yarn had on the appearance of the stitchwork. You really can only see the variation in thickness in the ribbing.

There is one thing about the pattern that I would definitely change if I knit it again. It has no back neck shaping at all. Notice how that makes it bunch up in the photo? Maybe you can get away with that in the Blossom yarn, which probably has more drape from the silk and mohair in the blend. But Soho has more body than drape, and so it sits up there instead of hanging. It's not a big deal, and I have yet to block the sweater, which may help smooth it out. But I'd definitely add some shaping if I had it to do all over again.

My choice of buttons also gave me some temporary worries. I went hunting with my swatch and was happy to find buttons in the perfect color. (This was not a foregone conclusion, by the way, for a sweater knit in fuchsia, purple, and rust yarn.) The only hitch was that they did not come in a large enough size. I kept looking at other options, but I had fallen for these buttons and no others would do. As expected, they were too small, and, once on the sweater, wouldn't stay buttoned. But in the end, I was able to tighten the buttonholes up with an overcast stitch around the opening, so all is well.

So little Eloise has gotten out of the hotel, perhaps taking a taxi, and gone to Soho, where she has had a little adventure, been looked after fondly by everyone she meets, and then made it safely back home. I only wish she'd managed to use up about five more balls of yarn. (It was sale yarn -- I had a lot. :)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Knitting on the Darkside

No, I haven't suddenly gone moody on you.

It's just that I made a quick project on impulse called the Darkside Cowl, by Sarah Fama. It's a simple and straightforward free pattern, available here.

I had almost a full skein of Malabrigo worsted weight yarn in colors a friend had admired, and I'd been looking for a pattern to make her a little something nice with it. A single skein of yarn didn't give me a lot to work with, but I'd seen lots of nice cowl patterns that don't require a lot of yardage, so that seemed like a good option.

The challenge was to find something that would work well with the contrasting multi-colored yarn while not being ho-hum and plain. I've certainly found that to be a tricky balancing act many times when trying to find an interesting stitch pattern for a beautiful skein of sock yarn in a busy colorway. I spotted this cowl looking soft and cushy in a solid color on Beate's Cloudberry Knit blog and tracked it down.

The yarn has short color runs of strong greens, purples, magenta, and a more muted plum. (The colorway, which I think is discontinued, is called "239 saphire magenta.") The Darkside Cowl uses a zigzagging rib/welt pattern, identical on both sides. Squinting appraisingly at the stitch pattern, and comparing it with my yarn, I thought it just might work. I was hoping it would highlight the color changes in interesting ways without making a muddled hash of the whole thing.

I crossed my fingers and cast on. (This complicates the cast-on process unnecessarily, however, and I don't recommend it. :) And wonder of wonders, it worked! The colors mix attractively and weave and dance around each other without tripping over their feet.

And, as I've experienced before, Malabrigo is some of the most unbelievably soft yarn to knit with. It's really hard to imagine what kind of secret could make wool feel like this. It's luscious, and combined with the textured stitch pattern, it made a cowl that I just wanted to squeeze like Mr. Whipple with a roll of Charmin'.

All that fun for only a couple days' work. It almost doesn't seem fair.