Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Now, What Was So Scary About That?

I did it! I did it! I took the plunge and knitted some of my own handspun.

I had run out of delaying tactics. The Merino Lace socks were finished, and all the additional wool in the new gray color was spun. I told myself that I was not allowed to start any other knitting or spinning projects until I got started on the handspun sweater I've been sneaking up on all this time. That gave me just the little push I needed to get over the hump. I felt stymied, briefly, bottled up and frustrated. But in a couple of days I gathered my mental energy, got up a head of steam, and got going.

First I needed to get better acquainted with the yarn, which up until then I had only petted and admired. I tried doing the wraps-per-inch test, but I'm not sure I had that right, as it kept coming out as chunky weight, which it assuredly isn't. Next I painstakingly counted all the threads in the skeins to estimate yardage and wound them into balls. It felt alive and resilient in the handling. I carefully weighed each ball and calculated the yards per pound. That didn't really tell me much either. How many yards per pound should there be for a given thickness of yarn? I'm not experienced enough to say. The one thing this exercise did tell me is that, although it looks fairly consistent, the yarn varies quite a bit in thickness from ball to ball.

Finally, there was nothing for it but to actually knit some of the stuff. I took a wild guess and grabbed a pair of US size 7 needles, jumped in and started swatching. It worked up in the neighborhood of a worsted-weight gauge, a little loftier than I realized.

And you know what? It's real yarn. Yarn that you can knit with. Rather nice yarn, in fact. It's crisp and eager to please. It doesn't drape lazily like the Cashmerino; it perches on the edge of its seat, ready to jump up and go, light on its feet. Right then, I told it, let's get to work! I still had some work left to do to sort out the details of the sweater design, but set to it with a will and soon had it done.

I needed something that would use the five different natural colors of Coopworth wool that I had spun. I didn't actually set out, originally, to make a multi-colored project; it just happened. It all started with a half-pound of dark brown Coopworth that I bought to practice on when I first got my spinning wheel. Then, wondering what to do with the yarn, I found other colors to combine with it. Of course, I don't think I'll end up actually using that first bit for the sweater. It's the yarn I learned on, and it shows, though I love it all the same.

I settled on a color-blocked design, with set-in sleeves and a square neck, and swatched to see how the colors would look. The warm tan really seemed to jump out from the other colors. So instead of graduating all the colors from dark to light, I moved the to the bottom as a sort of edge accent. I tried out the cable motif I want to use down the front, to make sure it would work. And since it needed a name, I dubbed it the Cannonball sweater.

So now I'm happily on my way. In fact, I took it with me on yet another trip this week. Normally, I take socks for portability, instead of a bigger project, but I think I've had enough of socks for now. So I packed circular needles for the plane and straight ones for the hotel room and, optimistically, five balls of yarn, one in each color.

I did get quite a bit done by the time I got back, thankful to be home again. Here's most of the back, and I'm partway up the front as well. Of course, stockinette stitch in worsted weight does go quickly -- a welcome change after a stint of lacy patterns in tiny sock yarn. In any event, I'm awfully excited to have this project underway and see how it will turn out. And I'll never again be quite so hesitant to dive in and knit with my handspun.

Thank goodness, the Cannonball sweater is finally rolling!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

All Over but the Grafting

Hang on; just give me a minute... fuss, fiddle, pause, squint, grunt, pick, tug, tug. Deep breath, repeat. There! Done.

Yes, I'm happy to report that the Merino Lace socks are finished. They were my travel companions for quite some time. They journeyed on airplanes. They hung around in airports and stayed in hotels. They vacationed at my in-laws' house. But they finally got tired of being neglected between trips and declared they would not put up with being a travel-only project any more. They insisted on going out with us to ballgames. Really, at times they seemed starved for attention. Poor darlings.

Here they are, my version of the Merino Lace socks by Anne Woodbury from the Favorite Socks book. And honestly, the photo in the book, where they look handsome but a little blah, does not do this pattern justice. They are much prettier than that.

I was intrigued enough, though, to want to give them a try with a skein of Schaefer Anne yarn I had on hand, that I bought from Carodan Farm at last year's Fall Fiber Festival. I used one skein and had 37 grams left over. There's a lot of yardage in those skeins.

I knitted them using US size 1 double-pointed needles, although the instructions are actually written for two circular needles. I don't care for all those cables and points whanging around, so I used inoffensive double-points. Bamboo, for airports.

The Anne yarn, a beautiful concoction of merino and mohair, is on the thinner side of sock yarns. It's thinner than the yarn called for, but I thought the relatively low-contrast analogous blues and greens in my skein would look pretty in the lace pattern. I wondered if it would affect the size of the sock, but figured I would risk it.

Well... I had to do a bit of a do-over. When it came to point when I could try it on, the moment of truth, the first sock was so tight you could bounce a nickel off it (that is, if it hadn't had my leg in it and had been stretched over a drum, I guess). Those soft, subtle space-dyed colors had arranged themselves fetchingly into big thick stripes that I had been careful to ignore, rather than get upset. Embrace the pooling! Become one with the pooling!

I ripped out the whole thing and added a couple of ribs symmetrically around the narrow lace pattern on each side to make it 78 stitches instead of 66 stitches around. You can see the little ribs in this picture, coming down the side and splitting to go around the gusset. That worked out a lot better.

The extra stitches solved the size problem nicely. And I think the added ribs sharpen up the look and set off the lace patterns rather well. As an extra bonus, the pooling disappeared (except for the toes where the stitch count decreases.) The distinct colors blend into a soft, heathery effect.

So now I'm very happy and can just admire the pattern. These are really very pretty socks. Look how the petal-y lace runs right down the back of the heel. They're long- stemmed beauties.

I think I'll make a gift of them to my tall, elegant mom, who loves her hand-knitted socks so much that she bought a pair of clogs just to show off my handiwork.

Ahhh. Hear that? It's a deep sigh of satisfaction.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sticks and Nets

It's been pouring rain here lately, packing an April's-worth of showers into just a couple of days. Everything is in bloom and mistily green.

Earlier in the weekend, though, we had a beautiful soft spring night and went to see the Yarnstruck nephews in their latest sport, one that involves sticks and nets. Boys with sticks and nets make me think of picking fruit, or maybe shaking pecans from the tree. But, of course, they weren't in an orchard. They were playing lacrosse.

I don't really know a lot about lacrosse, I'm afraid. One thing I did observe is that, though its fans are clearly avid, it doesn't pack the stands as football and basketball do. That makes it a perfect place for... an impromptu one-person stitch-and-pitch! Plenty of room and not so many people to think you're strange.

Perhaps I didn't learn as much as I could have, that night, about the sport of lacrosse, had I only watched a little more and knitted a little less. But I made very good progress on the Merino Lace socks.

I did draw a few odd looks. The little red-headed boy there in front of me sat commenting, older than his years, expertly to his father on the game, the coaching, and the calls. He also cast quite a few narrow-eyed sidelong glances over his shoulder at me, obviously wondering what on earth I was doing and what that thing was in my hands. He looked as if he had a pretty fair suspicion that I was up to no good. Eventually, I happened to look up at just the right time -- or just the wrong time, from his perspective -- and caught his eye, whereupon he immediately glued himself face-forward to the action on the field, never to peek again.

Alas, in the end, the Yarnstruck nephews and the rest of their plucky but inexperienced team got a drubbing from their opponents. (Incidentally, out of curiosity, I looked up the word "drub" in the dictionary and was highly entertained to learn that its first definition is "to beat with a stick." Perfect, isn't it; it lacks only a net! Isn't language wonderful?)

No matter, the Yarnstruck nephews took it philosophically. Afterwards, as world's-most- patient-husband and I walked out to the parking lot, a flowery scent filled the air. We looked up, and saw this mature crabapple tree in full bloom, lovely even in the dark with a camera flash.

So there was my orchard after all. Just a little too early in the year for picking fruit.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Greedy Profusion of Books

I am not one to live on the web alone. I love libraries. I love bookstores. I love overflowing shelves and coffee-tables of books. I love knitting books. Oh, how I love them.

A friend once asked of cookbooks, another all-too-collectible category well represented on my shelves, "but how could anyone use more than ten or twelve?" What could you possibly need from other cooking books that wouldn't be covered in those? Well of course, if it were simply a matter of putting good food on the table, he'd be right.

But there's a lot more than a decent selection of good useful recipes in cookbooks. There's adventure between those covers! There's sociology, and history -- how things came to be the way they are. How and why they're different from place to place. There's international culture. How they fit into the local ways, and celebrations, and traditions. There's emotion. How people feel about foods and dishes and what they have meant in their families, their forebears, their own lives. There's technique. There's science. There's fashion.

Knitting books are the same way. I don't particularly want another dozen how-to-knit books. They cover basic ground I learned many years ago. But there's so much more to know. Knitting traditions in different places, and how they grew from people's commerce, their local resources, their livelihoods. How they were influenced and inspired by their landscapes and their aesthetic sensibilities. What it means to them. The individual voice of the writer. Techniques and refinements won over a lifetime and shared with readers. A special way of explaining something tricky that makes it all clear. The eye of a talented designer or editor. A stitch collection that includes a few things not seen anywhere else. New eye-opening ways of putting a garment together. A lively personality. A time capsule of what was in fashion when the book was published. Exciting patterns that are in style right now. The reassuring timelessness of other patterns.

Do I need all this? No, of course not. But it enriches my own knitting. I love looking through the excellent collection at my local library. It has introduced me to authors and designers and traditions I knew nothing of. (Once, years ago, I lived for a while directly across the street from a library. Heaven.) I love the treasure hunt at a used or new bookstore for something wonderful that I haven't seen before. I can spend a happy evening sitting cross-legged on the floor going through the knitting section a book at a time. (How lucky we are to have such a flowering of knitting books being published these days!) I love having books at home. I love to settle in and browse through the books I have on hand, learning, looking for ideas, finding inspiration.

Does the web provide all that? Not with the quality, depth, and permanence of printed books. On the web, there's some great stuff, but plenty of slush to wade through. There's much that's haphazardly organized or transitory. There's a great generosity of offerings, but not always a surplus of the editorial discipline that helps ensure lasting value.

I'm a happy and grateful tourist on the web. But home is among my books.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

How Fleeting Our Shared Memory

Knitters have built community and shared experiences and a deep and rich vein of reference material on web sites. The more we interact, the more information we discover on these sites, the more we contribute ourselves, the more we turn to them as our shared archive, and the more we think of it all as permanent.

Why print out patterns? Why go to the library? we might start to think. After all, there's more on the web than we have room to store. With the enormous resources out on the network and almost supernaturally effective search engines, we begin to feel we can rely on finding anything we need to know, right at our fingertips, right when we need it. But there are times when we see it isn't so.

The sudden shutdown of MagKnits is one of those times. MagKnits was an on-line knitting magazine that published free patterns from many talented knitting designers over the last few years. These patterns included some very famous ones, beloved of bloggers, like Grumperina's Jaywalkers sock pattern. Whether from frustration, financial dead-end, or just plain exhaustion, the maintainer of a formerly reliable web site can just... stop. Knitters who had been intending to knit one of the patterns some day, who counted on being able to go get it when the time came, are left uncertain.

The patterns are not exactly gone. Echoes are everywhere. On the laptops of people who had already downloaded them to knit. In Ravelry, where many had been made available before the shutdown. In the caches of Google. In the giant web archive project known as The Wayback Machine. In the records of the designers, who thankfully still own their own copyrights for these patterns and may publish them again. But the primary lode is gone. The echoes are scattered, some of them denuded of their charts and photos, and many of them evanescent.

The patterns originally published in MagKnits, though, have enough of a following, enough of a magnetic pull, that I believe they will coalesce again. Other losses, not so widely noted, may not.

I've seen cases in which a knitter's blog, an individual on-line personality and all it has shared, has suddenly stopped. Months go by with no new posts. We begin to wonder about the real person behind the on-line identity. We hope boredom, not hardship or tragedy, has caused the outpouring to stop.

I've seen cases in which an E-Bay seller has suddenly stopped. An artist of gorgeous hand-painted spinning fibers, whom I'd bought from more than once, who posted about her farm and the rescue animals who live there. Time wears on and no new items are offered for sale. We begin to wonder why she stopped and if she's OK. We wonder if the animals are being taken care of.

The web sites remain, still there, unchanged, seeming now a little ghostly and sad. Perhaps they'll stay, frozen, until the paid-for term of Internet service expires and they disappear, to be replaced by the commercial sites that crop up to trap the unwary.

But I hope they are only resting.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Knitting Machine Magician

On my recent trip to the retirement regions of the South, I had a chance to visit with world's-most-patient-husband's aunt, a dear lady who also happens to be a world-class knitting-machine expert. Maybe even a knitting machine magician. Before she wrapped it up a few years back, she was a dealer, teacher, and conference speaker on knitting creatively with these contraptions. Oh, she enjoys hand-knitting too, for fun, but for the serious stuff, she really makes those machines do pirouettes.

While I was there, Auntie-knitting-magician showed me her set-up. She has not one, not two, but three knitting machines. She may not be running her business any longer, but a gal likes to keep her hand in, after all! She has not one but two rooms of her house devoted to knitting. But, really, who wouldn't, given the chance?

She gave me a little demonstration of how her knitting machines work. Two of them are computerized, and the other one is manual and runs from punched card patterns. These things look pretty complicated, but I believe much of that to-do in the picture is just there to feed the various yarns into the business end at the right tension for a multi-colored stitch pattern.

If your satisfaction comes mainly from designing garments, from considering and deciding on color, stitch pattern, cut and seeing it all come to life, you could knit like the wind with these things. I imagine that sewing up is by far the slowest part of this process.

Auntie-knitting-magician was a young mother when she became involved with these mechanical marvels. A hand-knitter then, she noticed her children's friends' mothers seemed to be producing sweaters considerably faster than she was. Her interest captured, she was off and running for decades to come.

The only drawback she mentioned is that the machines are noisy, chattering and clacking as the shuttle (if that's the word) slides back and forth across the array of hooks that do the work of knitting needles.

Auntie-knitting-magician seems to have her two knitting rooms remarkably under control, considering the number of projects she has cranked out. Most of her yarn is hidden away, but just look at all the half-pound cones she needs to have casually out on a handy rack within easy reach!

She showed me some of the things she has made over the years. Fine, fine yarns, and complex overall stitch patterns. Lightweight, multicolored knits. Mosaic patterns. Multi-directional cables. "Oh here's a little thing I designed for a class I was giving." Things you probably wouldn't even think of doing by hand. Knife-pleated knitted skirts. Tailored jackets and slacks. Stupendously complicated intarsia florals, with each blade of grass separately colored and shaded.

I may be a back-as-close-as-I-can-get-to-the-sheep hand-knitter myself, but I can certainly appreciate and respect what Auntie-knitting-magician can do with her amazing machines. She's a virtuoso.

Clack on, Auntie-knitting-magician, clack on!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Few Distractions

What's been keeping me? One might well ask.

Well, there's been a little bit of this. Enjoying the company of our little visitor, all tuckered out in this picture.

Like any dog, she's always good for some entertainment. One evening, I found her curled up next to a red potato. Where she got this treasure, I don't know. And why. But don't the two of them seem cozy together?

And there's been some of this. Hosting family for the holiday. That's always great fun, though it does take a little time away from the knitting schedule.

But it's well worth it. There's much hilarity, not to mention the traditional making of blue lipstick out of robin's egg malted milk candies.

There's been some of this. Visiting the in-laws, who a few years ago got restless and betook themselves to a warmer place, where some of the trees wear Spanish moss for jewelry, others spike their hair in fronds, and the golf carts run wild.

There also, unaccount- ably, are some of these. For no obvious reason, their community keeps a small herd of pet buffalo. Yes, buffalo. I hear tell that they have a soft, downy undercoat that's lovely for spinning, but I wasn't even tempted to pluck these fellows.

One of the highlights of the trip was feeding the buffalo some carrots, about which they seem quite enthusiastic. One shoulders the others out of the way for a chance at the vegetables. He takes a carrot gently, showing a neat, even row of lower teeth, and occasionally sticks out a black, leathery tongue to help things along.

On the way, there was plenty of time in places like this (it took flight delays to make it look so deserted and calm). Airport time brought the travel knitting project back into play.

My travel knitting project of the moment is a pair of Merino Lace socks from the Favorite Socks book, using Schaefer Anne yarn on US size 1 needles. The yarn is a little thinner than the one the pattern calls for, but I thought the design might be stretchy enough that it wouldn't matter. It seemed to have lots of give when I tugged on the partial cuff. I whizzed along on the first sock until the heel was turned and then tried it on, just to be sure.

The stitch patterns looked nice, but the sock was a little too tight. I could have persevered and left it as is, but I would never really have been happy with it. I took a picture to remember it by, took a deep breath, and ripped out every last stitch, much to the amusement of my in-laws' cats, a minor complication I hadn't anticipated. But we got it done without any serious mishap.

I didn't think this yarn would work well in a larger gauge, so I stuck with the US size 1 needles, added some ribs to the design to gain a dozen stitches in girth and started over. That seems to be working out fine. I'll take a picture when it gets a little further along.

Happy trails!