Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween's No Reason Not To Knit

There are plenty of breaks between the trick-or-treaters!

I must say, I'm loving the little pirates and pirate wenches this year. Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me. I could really use a tricorn pirate hat. I'm sure with the right accessories....

Well, anyway. Maybe it's time for an update on my current work in progress, the long-sleeved pullover using Naturally NZ Harmony yarn. You know, I do believe this sweater needs a name. Just to myself, I've taken to calling it "Pine Bark," because the color and the texture near the bottom hem put me in mind of that. It pleases me, too, that it makes me think of Pine Bark Stew, a dish that I once encountered on a visit to Savannah, Georgia, at a restaurant in the old row of nineteenth-century warehouses along the riverfront. They serve it with a little sherry on the side to pour over it and mix in. Evidently, it's a fairly famous traditional dish in that part of the South. I think I still have a brochure squirreled away somewhere with their particular version of the recipe.

So, I've finished knitting the back of Pine Bark. Since I'm designing it myself, and making some of the decisions as I go along, that meant I had to at least figure out how wide I wanted the back neckline to be, and what kind of edging I would use for the neckband. (Why? to figure out where to start the slanting for the shoulder line.) On a sweater where I don't want to use a standard ribbing, I find designing neckbands a bit of a challenge. If it's not a high neckline, like a mock turtleneck or a funnel or a crew, I want the neckband to curve and pull in a little so it will lie confidingly against the throat or collarbone instead of standing away. If it's a stitch pattern that doesn't give me much scope for decreasing stitches, the best I've come up with is to use smaller and smaller needles as I get toward the edge. But I digress. There was much swatching and measuring of necklines on sweaters and tops in my closet, until I came up with an arrangement I hope will work.

Here's a picture of the finished back. Hey, waaait a minute... somebody seems to have taken it over.

Well it is Halloween. I guess it's her day. Maybe it's Spinning Spider Jenny.

Well, anyway, I've moved on to start the front of Pine Bark. I guess before long the depth and shape of the neckline will become critical. I have a vague idea of what I want to do, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I'm sure I'll sort something out when I really have to!

I've reached one important milestone: I'm now certain I will have enough yarn. Based on the numbers in Ann Budd's indispensable Yarn Requirements card, that wasn't entirely a sure thing for the gauge and the size I wanted it to be. But I got through the back with three skeins of the twelve, and it's all downhill from here. I'm intending for the sleeves to be fairly trim, so they won't take as much yarn as the front or back. It's a relief to stop wondering whether I'll run out of yarn; I didn't want to be mail ordering to New Zealand looking for matching dye lots. I'll probably end up having enough left over to make a scarf or hat and then feel like I could have thrown in a few cables after all!

As you can see, I've started the front but haven't yet gotten all that far. Just the bottom edging and the first few rows - Oh, for heaven's sake. A pumpkin's come to roost on my knitting hand.
Go away! Shoo!

Well, I'll just have to get a jar and see if I can't catch him and take him outside.

Happy Halloween to all! Aarrrr!!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Festival Plumage

When first I went to a fiber festival, I intentionally dressed in nondescript clothes. I considered the matter carefully. I thought, maybe I should wear one of my handknits; will other people be wearing theirs? Then I thought, naaaaw, I don't want to look like I'm trying to show off, for goodness' sake.

I wore jeans, sweatshirts, commercial sweaters, happy to blend into the background. As I walked around the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival (MS&W) for the first time, awestruck by the whole experience, I saw quite a few interesting sweaters on the festival-goers. I was happy to observe, but not to participate.

When I later went to another festival, though, I started feeling a little more a part of things. Maybe I at least didn't need to stick to neutrals.

I started reading in blogs of knitters rushing to finish a special sweater or shawl in time for Maryland Sheep and Wool or the Rhinebeck festival in New York State. (Just Google on "Rhinebeck sweater;" you'll see.) These people weren't bashful about their work. They celebrated it.

When I ventured to Stitches East, that sealed it for me. The place was a walking knitters' fashion show. There were fancy sweaters everywhere I looked, in the booths, on the crowd. Some beautiful, some stylish, some neither. Many were surpassingly bright. Here were technical tours de force, whose looks hardly mattered compared to the sheer impressiveness of the work and patience and skill it had taken to make them. Here were sweaters made in every type of yarn and every color. In the company of those who could appreciate it, knitters were showing their plumage, rippling and draping and fanning their feathers. Bobbing their heads and pirouetting around the shop displays and kicking up a little dust.

When it came time for the very nice but small and approachable Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, I was finally ready to join in the fun. The festival luckily came with cool, sweater-friendly autumn weather. I donned a favorite oldie-but-goodie from the time before my years-long, self-imposed knitting hiatus. (Have to get all those chores done first.... No, wait! Snap out of it!)

It's a colorful vest of Manos del Uruguay yarn, a riot of color, some of the patterning worked with stranding and some with intarsia, the overall effect vaguely like a colorful South American weaving.

This time, I was contentedly part of it all. During the day, I was stopped a number of times by people admiring and asking, "did you make that?" I can tell you it felt really good to be noticed and complimented by people who know knitting.

Manos yarn, by the way, is a treasure. It's a hand-spun singles, kettle-dyed, which creates those gorgeous striations in the solid colors. It's made by a cooperative in the countryside of Uruguay set up to help artisan women make a living. Malabrigo is made under a similar arrangement but I believe of much more recent vintage. They're both beautiful yarns with a lot of character.

In any event, I understand now that we wear these sweaters to share with each other, inspire and encourage each other. Who knows? Next year I may be one of the ones rushing to get a beautiful sweater done just in time for Maryland Sheep and Wool.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Oh Shenandoah, I Love Your Festival

Yesterday, despite foreboding weather in the morning, I went to the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival in Berryville, Virginia. Crossing the Shenandoah River, with a light heart and a fiber festival ahead, I broke out in song. (I can be sappy that way sometimes. Often.)

It was going to take more than a little rain to keep me away. And am I glad I did go. The weather broke, as you can see. The day was beautiful, and I had a wonderful time.

It's a new festival, only in its second year, small-scale, relaxed, and really enjoyable. It's spread out and roomy, and everyone seems to be chatty and friendly.

It has llamas.

It has a barnful of Angora rabbits.

It has children in Halloween costumes.

It has sheep, large and small. This little guy, on his way to the show-ring, is a four-month-old Black Welsh Mountain sheep, his owner was kind enough to tell me.

It has those amazing Border collies herding sheep.

And yes, it has a lot of nice fiber, local and otherwise. Here are a few things that begged to come home with me.

Hand-painted rovings for spinning, made by Fleece Artist, in Nova Scotia. The one in the upper right is Merino; the other two are Blue-Faced Leicester. Those colorways are so pretty, I'm not sure whether to dive in and start playing with them or drape them in a basket just to look at. The woman I bought them from was also demonstrating spinning with the great wheel. The great wheel is an older, historical type where the spinner stands instead of sitting, and turns the large wheel with one hand, while drawing the fiber with the other. That takes some coordination!

Coopworth roving from Misty Mountain Farm in Amissville, Virginia. I bought it as a little extra insurance, in case I run short of the wool I'm almost done spinning for my first handspun sweater.

Dyed Finn sheep locks, also from Misty Mountain Farm, in a beautiful dusky, purply mauve, ready to card for spinning.

Luscious, deep brown alpaca roving from Fall Line Fiber in central Virginia. The ladies there gave me a lot of help with ideas and estimating quantities.

French angora, from Aboundingful Farm, in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. The delightful owner gave me an extensive lesson in how to spin and finish angora yarn, in comparison to wool.

Malabrigo yarn, hand-dyed in worsted weight, from Y2Knit, in Funkstown, Maryland. They had a lot of really tempting yarns, including one with tiny filaments of sterling silver spun in. It's hard to believe. You'd think you'd be able to feel the difference, but it was soft and flexible like any beautiful yarn.

There were guilds and groups that were there just to demonstrate and share and talk. There was lots more. I even got that golden autumn day I'd been picturing, with slanting sunlight and leaves flying in the occasional breeze. All in all, a really nice experience, and one I'll definitely be looking forward to for next year.

It's all I can do to keep from jumping in the car to go back for the second day!

Friday, October 26, 2007

We Have Contact!

I imagine every wide-eyed new blogger who begins pouring out thoughts must wonder whether anyone will ever read them. Thanks to the gracious knittin' diva, I can now be sure that I won't have forever toiled away for my own eyes alone. Though it's obviously due to our husbands' behind-the-scenes communication, it's nonetheless a good feeling to know that the blog goes both ways. Knittin' diva also, it turns out, paints beautiful hand-dyed merino sock yarn, available in her etsy shop. I'm especially partial to this one; it's like being in a forest of old-growth conifers at nightfall.

Funny how things change; I remember as an adolescent making some tentative attempt at keeping a diary, only to feel too embarrassed to write about my feelings even for an audience of one. This may have something to do with my later gravitating toward math and technology rather than creative writing as a career!

Last night, on the spinning front, I figured out a little something new. I learned the value of teasing -- other than the value I already knew, that is, which was to annoy my little brother when we were kids. I'd been working with the Coopworth wool in different colors, but the preparation of the creamy white roving was different from the others.

Rather than the usual fluffy, rounded strand, it unwound off the ball of roving in a flat, pinched ribbon, as if it had been pressed with an iron.

Even after predrafting, it seemed balky, tight. In the spinning, we struggled a little together. It wasn't until after I'd spun most of it that way that I finally thought to give teasing a try.

Instead of just pre-drafting the roving lengthwise as usual, I pulled it slightly apart sideways to loosen the strands first. This is what that poor, tight, ironed ribbon looks like after a little teasing. When I tried spinning it this time, it was very relieved and much more cooperative.

Here, the picture shows one bit of roving pre-drafted straight from the ball (top) and another pre-drafted after first getting a little teasing (bottom) and a few affectionate chucks under the chin. Although you can't see a huge difference between the two, the top one is still a little more regimented, chafing in its school uniform and longing to wear bellbottoms, while the teased one is a little looser, livelier, happier.

I'd always thought teasing was something you did before the wool reaches the roving stage, but I guess it all depends on how it's handled before it reaches you.

That's one of the difficult things about learning a hands-on skill like spinning from books; it sometimes takes a lot of trial and error to turn the book-knowledge into the real thing. But it does make each bit of progress feel like a famous victory -- hurrah!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Heigh Ho the Dairy-O

A-Festivaling We Will Go!

I'm really looking forward this weekend to going to the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival. Hard to say why, since my stash is distressingly well stocked. Worsteds? bulkies? DKs? travel yarn? laceweight? sock yarn? check, check, check, and many more checks. Rovings and fleece? check. Needles? Books? (groan) really way more than I have any excuse for; check. So there's really not much I can come up with that I "need" to shop for. All I can say is that a fiber festival feeds the soul. Maybe it's the chance to ogle so many beautiful raw materials and inspiring examples, in the company of a lot of festival-goers who appreciate them and see their potential. And the thought of being outside in the crisp autumn weather, with the leaves beginning to show their gorgeous colors. Throw in a few sheep and border collies, and I'm just completely sunk.

This one looks like a small and cozy festival, enjoyable and no doubt much less overwhelming than the mighty New York State Sheep and Wool Festival at Rhinebeck that so many bloggers have been reporting back from this week, happy and exhausted. And how can you not love a festival that offers a peddler's corner where you can bring individual items to put up for sale for a small fee? Now that's downright neighborly. Not that I'm prepared to part with my precious finished objects, other than as gifts to people I care about. But it's nice having the option!

I'm not sure I'll get that golden autumn sunshine I'm picturing, since our region is finally getting some desperately needed rain, after a long and very serious drought. But if the vendors are there, I'm grabbing a rainhat and going. I won't melt!

Today, as if I needed it, I had fresh evidence of how knitting creates human connections. I had to spend some nerve-wracking time in a waiting room. I always stock up with reading and needlework for those situations. I had with me a couple of books and my current charity knitting project. At first, I didn't break out the actual knitting, but appeased the knitting urge by reading a knitting-related book I picked up last night, The Secret Language of Knitters, by Mary Beth Temple . It's a fun little book; some explanation of jargon, some comical recounting of things we'd all recognize ruefully and shake our heads over. It was amusing enough to keep me occupied, and I kept thinking I wouldn't be waiting long enough to warrant pulling out the knitting project.

But on the far side of the room, I spied two ladies sitting side by side knitting away in good-humored companionship. That, finally, was too much for me. I pulled my project out of the bag and set to work, with perhaps a little sigh of satisfaction.

I hadn't been at it for more than ten minutes before one of those same ladies was standing next to me, curious about what I was doing. I'm a Continental-style knitter, and she said they'd been trying to figure out whether I was knitting or crocheting, because they could see I was pulling stitches through without throwing the yarn. "And on those tiny little needles!" -- size 9s, I think, actually. I showed her how Continental knitting works, how you are actually creating the stitch the same way though you carry the yarn in the other hand. She was so intrigued that she drew me over to the other side of the room to introduce me to the other lady, who turned out to be her mom. They showed me their projects, simple but colorful and pretty scarves on big needles, and I showed them both the basic idea of picking stitches. Mom enthusiastically had a go herself, awkward though it is when you first try, and after much how-about-that-ing on their parts, and encouraging well-wishing on mine, I returned to my own seat.

When my sojourn there was finally over, and I headed toward the door, the daughter flagged me down for a moment to tell me that they were now both practicing with the Continental method. They were tickled with their new skill, and I was pleased that something nice had come out of such a time. I think we all parted just a bit happier. Knitting is like that, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why, yes, I do like color. Why do you ask?

Oh, yes, I see. Of course. Well, no, not all of my projects are in quiet neutrals. I know both the current knitting and spinning projects are gray or beige or brown, but that's not on principle.

Here, I'll show you a recent finished object, so you can see for yourself. Yes, it's a pair of the famous Jaywalkers from Grumperina. When I saw so many people talking about making these, I had to give them a whirl myself. Now, I'd call that color lively.
Maybe even unruly to the point of if-you-don't-sit-down- and-behave-yourselves- right-this-minute- I'm-going-to-have-to- turn-this-car-around.
There. That's better.

The yarn is a cotton and wool blend from Knitpicks, with nylon and a touch of elastic. It's called Dancing. So I guess that makes these dancing jaywalkers. Now, there's a fun image to picture!

Here's a closer look.
Anyway, with the cotton, it should be good for springtime socks. Summer's for sandals, cotton or no cotton.

And, honestly, who wears these colors in the fall?

The feel of the yarn did take a little getting used to. I think the elastic is in there to try to give it a bit more wool-like resiliency, but it still felt pretty much like knitting with cotton. And I don't know if that little bit of elastic makes any real difference in keeping your socks up! But the colors are cute, if you're in the mood for something cheerful and perky. It's a discontinued yarn; it looks like they're down to just a couple of colors.

I actually thought the short, bright color runs worked pretty well in the Jaywalker pattern. I'll be looking for other sock patterns that will show it off, since I think I have a couple more of the colorways squirreled away in the stash.... Otherwise, who knows, there may be more Jaywalkers in my future!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Into the Land of Spinning

"I am a spinner." At Stitches East last week, I said those words for the first time. Another shopper had asked what I planned to do with some rovings I was buying. (Sure, they're pretty, but what are they for?) I didn't say I'm just a beginner or novice or trying to learn how to spin -- though those things are still true. Unthinkingly, I called myself a spinner without demur, without timidity, without apology. I honestly think I have crossed some mental rubicon. And it feels pretty good!

But yes, I am a beginner. In fact, I have yet to knit a single thing with my handspun. Not one stitch. I just haven't quite taken that plunge. It's probably time, though. (See rubicon, above.)

I've played and practiced until what I'm producing is recognizably real, knittable, and appealing yarn.

Here's a row of fat little sausages I can squeeze and chuckle over and think "I made that." It's as satisfying as all get-out.

I'm well on my way to creating enough yarn for my first handspun sweater project. The balls of roving in my spinning basket are dwindling, and the pile of skeins is growing ever-higher.

The wool is Coopworth, in four natural undyed sheep colors. It's wonderful that we can appreciate sheep in their natural colors now, instead of expecting them all to be the generic white that's easiest for commercial processors to use in manufacturing yarn. Interestingly, the different colors felt completely different to spin. For me, the taupe-y mid-brown seemed the coarsest and most challenging to draft (partly due, no doubt, to my inexperience), while the light tan was soft and dreamy. I guess I'm learning that even in the same breed there can be a lot of variation from one individual to another.

I have a pound and a half of wool, which should be enough, as I'm not tending to spin a very heavy weight of yarn. It's not exactly consistent yet, but I'm guessing it's somewhere around DK weight. It's a two-ply yarn in which each of the singles tends to be a little finer than fingering weight. I keep wondering, though, whether I shouldn't get a little more wool, just to be safe. I actually do have another half pound of the dark brown color that I spun earlier, but it took the brunt of my learning and experimenting. I'm not so sure it could stand up to actually being used in a sweater.

I'm starting to think about what kind of sweater this wants to be. Shannon Okey, in her Spin to Knit book, suggests a top-down raglan as a pretty adjustable, gauge-forgiving way of using handspun of iffy consistency. Sounds like good advice to me! The other big question is how to make an attractive design using approximately equal amounts of the four shades. I could always go with color blocks, graduated light to dark or dark to light, or do various patterns of repeating horizontal stripes. I'd kind of like to put in a little fillip of stranded decoration somewhere, but with the yarn quantity in doubt, that might be risky.

For certain, I want to keep it classic. Since it will be my very first handspun sweater, I want to be able to wear it for a long time. I plan to be unreasonably proud!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What I'm Playing with Now

Here's a look at the main project I'm working on at the moment -- though, truly, it's play, not work! It's going to be a casual pullover for me, in a yarn called Harmony, from Naturally NZ. It's a felted merino wool, in an 8-ply, which seems to be roughly a DK weight. It's a treasured acquisition from a recent New Zealand vacation. Researching wool-buying opportunities in the places I go is of course a sign that I've got it badly; it's a symptom well-documented by the lovely Yarn Harlot.

I bought the yarn shop's entire stock in this color (more beige and not quite as gray as the picture shows), and since then have looked high and low for a DK-weight pattern that would suit the yarn, suit me, and be possible to do with 1500 yards or so. That meant that the sweater couldn't have too many hearty, yarn-hungry cables. That didn't seem so hard. But, thumbing through my magazines and more than a few books , nothing seemed quite right, so once again I've struck out on my own.

Looking on-line for what anyone else might have made with the same yarn, I didn't find many examples, but I did come across this post by another wandering American who fell hard for the same yarn at the same shop not long after I did!

The felted yarn is a little unusual. In the cold light of day it looks flat, dry, kind of cardboardy. At home, once the rosy glow of the vacation had worn off, I was worried that it wouldn't be soft. But thankfully, when knit, it has a lovely, almost velvety matte finish, with subtle color variation a bit like a hand-dyed solid. And yes, thank goodness, it is soft. Not a luscious kind of soft, but a broken-in-T-shirt kind of soft.

So I got to work swatching. I had some ideas about some allover knit-and-purl texture patterns to give it interest without a lot of bulk, but the yarn said no. Or rather, it said, "OK, I'll do this if you really want me to, but I'll be husky and outdoorsy." We agreed to leave that to some of the other sweaters in the closet; this one wants to curl up in a big soft chair with a book. So I swatched some more and tried some more restrained ideas until we found something the two of us could agree on. That's what you see in the picture above. I only hope the lovably lumpy look will flatten out as the yarn relaxes, maybe with a little help from a nice gentle blocking!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Origins -- how did this happen?

If my experience is any guide, you suppress knitting at your own peril! Sooner or later, she comes back in a fury, bringing her handmaidens: yarn buying, book collecting, and perhaps even spinning.

It's a seductive madness, isn't it? I began knitting as a child, first shown by my great grandmother, then buckling down with a book when a little older to really learn. I made hats for all my family, and, as a teenager, tackled a sweater for myself. It was a zip-front cardigan made in a variegated yarn in colors reminiscent of a tartan, moodily photographed on a gorgeous tam-o-shanter-wearing model. It appealed to my youthful romance for all things Scottish, and I tumbled hard for it. I made it, loved it, and wore it to ribbons. I moved on to a lovely Italian wool and a cabled sweater pattern, made it, loved it. I made up a sweater of my own to knit using the leftovers. I kept on knitting and loved pretty much everything I made. But it wasn't any grand obsession, just one of the things I enjoyed doing.

Later, jobs, house, chores competed for time. I felt I oughtn't to start any new knitting projects until the curtains for the guest room -- and any number of other important things -- were done. So I didn't. And so it went for years. It took a big, unexpected jolt a couple of years ago to put a stop to that thinking. We have to indulge in what makes us happy, even if it causes a few things to go undone.

I began another sweater, and never looked back. I wallow in books, magazines, and wool; I read blogs; I entice friends. Some day I'll get those curtains done.