Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Accentuate the Positive

Eliminate the negative. After a wretched week with that stomach bug, I'm already back to feeling positively chirpy!

So let me tell you what I've been doing with the pennywise roving. This is the generic bargain roving that I bought on a whim, without looking too closely, only to find when I got it home that it's filled with lumps. But beauty is only skin-deep, as they say. I went looking for its inner beauty.

I bought six colors, with blending in mind. Three of them I put aside, thinking they looked particularly nice together. That left me, hoping for the best, with these three. I have a half-pound of each, about the right amount, in all, for a sweater. The colors looked, if not exciting, at least possibly compatible. And, to be honest, I really didn't feel like I had a lot to lose.

So off I went with it to the Frumious Bandersnatch, my drum carder, to see what we could make of it. I took a hunk of each color and pulled the compressed sausages apart, opening them up into filmy layers. They sighed with relief to get some air. Having a heathery effect in mind, I stacked the layers on the intake tray.

After it was all cranked through onto the drum, the wool looked like this. It was better than I expected. Rather a nice streaky effect, I thought. And, though muted in color, not a bit dull.

This, incidentally, is what the Frumious Bandersnatch lives for! The main reason I wanted a drum carder in the first place was to be able to play with blending colors and fibers. The yearning for raw fleece came later, once the idea of a drum carder had sunk in for a while and made itself right at home.

Anyway, rather than running the wool through again to mix the colors more thoroughly, I decided to stop right there. I peeled the batt off the drum, rolled it up, and stretched it out into a pleasantly streaky ball of roving. Then I made another, and another. I rather grew to like it.

Oh, I haven't lost sight of the fact that it's full of mess. You can see that just by looking. It's just that I've gotten over the initial shock. I can look past the homely exterior and see the character within. I can contemplate long sessions of lumpy-oatmeal spinning with equanimity and envision a comfortable, nubby sweater as the eventual result.

Driving home one evening a week or two back, I noticed a really dramatic-looking sky. It was freshening for a storm. Deep, thunderous blues were slashed across with clouds in frowning, dirty beige, and ethereal silver-gray. It was utterly beautiful. And in fact, it was almost exactly the colors now streaking through the blended pennywise roving. So I now have a name for the roving, the yarn, and whatever sweater is made from it: Stormwatch.

See? Inner beauty.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Out of Sorts

But Getting Sorted Out

The last few days, I have not been feeling at all the thing. A headache, a fever, ripened into a stomach virus that led me a merry dance. The glorious weather all the long weekend lured others outside. To me, it beckoned in vain. I did not so much as venture here into the blog's front parlor -- the laptop stayed cold and silent. No, I retired to the end of the couch, there to await the return of better days.

Listless as I was, knitting and spinning seemed boring and stupid. That was just the virus talking, but I had no energy to argue. I wondered why I waste my time on this silly hobby and felt oppressed by all the yarn and wool around the place demanding attention. I couldn't think what I would do with the yarn I'm spinning from that neppy pennywise-pound-foolish wool, other than being obstinately determined to persevere with it. One of my local yarn shops was even having its annual sale, and I was resoundingly uninterested.

World's most patient husband, bless his sweet heart, worried because I wasn't eating, offered me chocolate cake, evidently thinking that might work when all else failed. But to no avail. I could only nap and read books and try to wait it out. Eventually, though, after days and days of this, I wandered back to the spinning wheel to piddle around a bit. It seemed pleasantly absorbing instead of boring and pointless. That was a good sign. Then, a little later, I knew I was truly starting to come around when food started smelling and tasting like itself rather than an instrument of dismay.

And I, in turn, am beginning to feel almost like myself -- or if not like myself yet, then at least like someone who could possibly be a nodding acquaintance of mine. I've been up from the couch, cautiously eaten a bit, done a little housework (too little), and have started having ideas about what I might do with this yarn. I think there's a big comfortable, scoop-necked cardigan somewhere in my future. With roomy modified drop shoulders and sleeves for layering over other things. It will most likely be all in stockinette but for the ribbing, since the lumpy-bumpy yarn is likely to work best in the simplest of stitches.

I keep feeling, though, as if I ought to work in a touch of a fancier stitch pattern or some kind of decorative fillip. However, that's probably just some subliminal terror instilled by Barbara G. Walker's rather strong-minded dictate, in the introduction to her Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns, saying that any knitter who is capable of it must add some interesting stitch pattern to a project. Why? To distinguish it as handiwork and make it worth the knitting, which it otherwise wouldn't be. Of course, we have to keep in mind that she was probably just excited about her book of stitch patterns at the time (as am I; it's a doozy). But I think stockinette is rather beautiful, even unadorned. It's particularly good when you just want to emphasize the line of the sweater or the character of the yarn. And I think this yarn is going to be a character, all right.

It's good to have the ideas and plans starting to bubble at last. It's a sign that all will soon be well with the world again.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Beginner's Luck

The Cannonball sweater is finished -- woohoo! It's the first thing I've ever knit from my hand-spun yarn, and I can't believe it actually worked. But where once there were only bags of wool, there's a real live sweater now. A transformation right before my eyes, with nothing but a spinning wheel and some little pointed sticks. What a thrill!

I'm also amazed that, as a beginning spinner, I was able to (a) spin a sweater's quantity of usable yarn in a few months, and (b) end up with a wearable, attractive-looking garment. Once I got the general hang of spinning, the learning curve turned out to be not quite as steep as I expected.

Here are the particulars. I spun the yarn from five colors of natural, undyed Coopworth wool. It's about worsted weight -- on average, that is -- see "beginning spinner," above. I knit it with US size 7 needles for the main parts and US size 5 for the ribbing. It has set-in sleeves, a squarish neckline, and a bit of back-neck shaping.

Ideas for the sweater design came from here and there. I came up with the color-blocking as a way to use approximately equal amounts of multiple colors, inspired in part by the Michael Kors cabled turtleneck from the Fall 08 issue of Vogue Knitting (this one). I found the cable motif in Elsebeth Lavold's Viking Patterns for Knitting.

I'm so glad it's finished. I've been cheering for the unusually chilly spring weather we've been having here lately, hoping it would hold out until the Cannonball sweater was done. I wanted to be able to wear my new hand-spun sweater at least once before saying goodbye to woolly sweaters for the season. And now that Cannonball has made its debut, the warm spring weather is graciously invited to return, thank you very much.

I learned some good lessons making the Cannonball sweater. For instance, the finished sweater weighs only about one pound. Uh-oh. That means I've probably bought way too much wool for each of the -- hmmm, one, two, three... well, let's just say several -- sweaters-to-be that I've got stored up in my spinning fiber stockpile. Oh, my goodness. I know the weight required will probably vary with how lofty a yarn I spin, but I'd been thinking I needed two pounds for each one. That could add up to an awful lot of extra fiber. If I go to any more sheep and wool festivals this year, I'm going to have to try to look but not touch.

Another thing I learned is that the thickness of the yarn I spun varied, a lot more than I realized. Though all the colors of wool were from the same breed of sheep, each had its own characteristics that, especially given my inexperience, affected the result. The creamy white spun as fine as sportweight in spots, making the fabric a little open and airy compared to the rest of the sweater. The silver gray, by contrast, is a coarser fiber and made a beefier yarn, almost a heavy-worsted weight. And, given that the lightest and heaviest weight colors are adjacent, that made for a bit of suspense about whether this was going to work at all. Luckily, though, knitted fabric is pretty forgiving, one of its many lovable qualities.

The varying gauge did affect the sizing, in places. The medium grayish nut-brown color also spun into a lighter weight yarn, and so the arm just above the elbow has less ease than planned. It feels slightly snug there, but at least it didn't cause a visible case of Popeye-arms!

I'm so glad it came out reasonably well. As a new spinner, this really gives me the encouragement I need to keep at it, explore, and try things. Is it perfect? No, far from it. Am I happy with it? You bet I am!

Friday, May 16, 2008

To the knitters and spinners and all the ships at sea

I think it's about time I said thank you. To anyone who has visited here, who has stopped a while, who has read a post, who has shook her head or smiled. I'm so pleased to have your company.

To those who have left a comment, or a few, I'm especially grateful. I treasure every one. It's lovely to continue a conversation with someone I feel I'm coming to know, and it's a delightful surprise to hear from someone new.

I don't always know how to reciprocate. In this blogging adventure, I'm still learning my way. I enjoy going to visit a blog and pay a call and get acquainted with someone who has visited here. For visitors who have left a comment but not a website or an e-mail address, I know of no place to visit, though, to say hello in return. And most of what I write here seems to come out more as little essays than as direct dialog. My appreciation is heartfelt nonetheless.

In my circle of face-to-face friends, there are not many kindred spirits who share my enthusiasm for knitting or spinning. But here there are people who match it and more. It's rewarding to find that once in a while, for someone, I've struck a chord. It's wonderful and astonishing to muse aloud, to tell a story, or show a project, or bemoan a difficulty, and find that someone has stopped by to offer advice or moral support, a suggestion or a similar experience, a compliment or sympathy. It feels like magic.

I began writing here a few months ago, thinking I was shouting "hellooooo" out into a canyon and might hear just the echoes of my own voice reverberating. Instead, it feels like I've set some words loose upon the air and conjured up new friends. I wasn't sure I wanted to begin, and now I don't want to stop. So, new friends, Amy, and Bess, Beate and Bette, and others who have visited now and then, thank you for your ideas and your wisdom, your thoughts and your quips, your encouragement and your smiles.

This pink heart of Corriedale roving is for you.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Nothing but Nepps

Sometimes an impulse should be resisted.

On impulse, last week at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, because it seemed like a bargain, I bought half a dozen bags of generic wool roving in pretty colors, half a pound each. At that point, I was practically shopped out and ready to leave, and that's probably exactly what I should have done.

I haven't mentioned the vendor's name in previous posts and I shan't now, because this roving is a mess. It's the first time I've experienced wool so badly prepared. It's honestly very much like what I was removing from the drum carder to throw away when processing my own little fleece. It seems to be, literally, almost nothing but nepps. For non-spinners, nepps are those little balls of lumpy fiber you see in the picture instead of a nice smooth river of wool.

I have to believe that their product is usually better than this. Perhaps they let the children run the woollen mill for a day?

I took samples of the gray, light brown, and blueberry colors and blended them using my drum carder. I wanted to see how they would look together, and whether some of the messy stuff might card out. That didn't happen; to get rid of the messy parts, I'd have had to throw away the whole lot. In fact, I thought seriously about cutting my losses and doing just that. I wished I knew someone who needed a quantity of wool to stuff a mattress with.

Failing that, I thought, let's just try it out and see what it's like. After all, isn't silk noil made up of all the little bumps like this that don't make it into the smooth silk fiber preparations? Wool noil, that's what it is! I took the blended roving to my spinning wheel Rastro to see what the two of us could make of it. I started spinning and found that, try as I might, it was going to come out as lumpy, bumpy, thick and thin yarn. Maybe I could go with it and knit it into some kind of very slouchy, casual sweater. In any case, there was no way to spin anything else with this roving. Slubs automatically formed around all the little fiber pills. I actually wondered if there was enough good sound wool in the mix to serve as connective tissue between the bumps.

Nevertheless, I spun a couple of single strands and plyed them together. The result was better than I expected. The spinning itself is painful, and I'm not convinced the yarn is strong, but it's holding together for now and doesn't look half bad. It just looks like a very rustic yarn with lots of texture and character. If I can stand spinning my way through a pound and a half of this involuntary bumpiness, maybe I'll have the makings of an attractive simple sweater.

I'm so glad I didn't encounter wool like this any earlier, before I got some decent spinning experience under my belt. I'd have thought it was coming out that way because I wasn't doing it right. I'd have tried and tried and probably ended up having a good cry out of sheer frustration.

Now that I more or less know what I'm doing, I can handle it, and maybe even make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. We'll see.

And then there will just be the other pound and a half of this stuff to get through!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

More Strolling and Woolgathering

I couldn't resist just a few more glimpses of the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival before saying goodbye for another year. So here's a little photo album.

The Spinner's Hill booth, in the Main Barn, with gorgeous- colored batts of spinning fiber and dyed locks -- though not as many as the day before!

These lustrous dyed locks are from another vendor in the Main Barn, Triple "R" Farm.

Just a couple of guys taking their alpacas for an afternoon walk. What's so unusual about that?

The stall where I found this cutie bore a ribbon that said "Champion Ewe." I'm not sure if that's for a particular breed or an overall award like Best in Show. But she gets extra points in my book for the hairdo alone.

This booth was full of nothing but Icelandic wool. There were whole fleeces in the bushel baskets. I coveted them, but I'm not ready to take on another fleece just yet.

There were plenty of interesting books to be had. This one came from the Yarn Barn of Kansas.

Mid-afternoon seemed to be a drowsy time in the sheep barns. I love the rich plummy brown color of this guy's coat.

This young man was playing beautiful music with his hands, while operating a pedal with his feet that made the puppets dance.

Some charming family togetherness from the little lambikins.

Here's to another wonderful festival, and many happy returns!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Funny You Should Ask...

Did I get a chance, at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, to fill that great big shoulder bag? Why yes, Beate, as a matter of fact, indeed I did. :) Thank you for asking!

In anticipation, since the New Year, I've been tamping down my acquisitive urges, keeping yarn and fiber buying to a minimum, looking forward to shopping joyously at the Shangri-La that is Maryland Sheep and Wool. I decided to concentrate on spinning supplies, though the offerings and selection of finished yarn are inarguably superb. For now, I am infatuated with handspinning, and spinning fiber and tools are much harder to come by than beautiful yarn at the local yarn stores within easy reach.

At the same time, I didn't want to go overboard buying at the festival. I've already built a respectable stockpile of fiber, and I'd rather not inflate my backlog to hopeless proportions. My goal was to find fiber for one sweater, a wraps-per-inch tool, perhaps another spindle, and maybe a few other odds and ends. A secondary theme was to continue sampling types of wool that I haven't tried yet.

So there was a sweater's- worth of this Rambouillet wool, from Mangham Manor in Charlottes- ville, Virginia, the owner of the colorful stall pictured in Sunday's post. Their rack looked even more bounteous before I relieved them of the batts you see here. Rambouillet sheep are a French strain of Merino, so this wool should make a very soft sweater. These lovely colors are destined for blending using the Frumious Bandersnatch (my drum carder), to make a subtle heathered yarn.

There was also this hand-dyed roving of wool and silk from Cloverleaf Farms in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Their address there is on Huff N Puff Lane -- isn't that wonderful? The roving is in a colorway called Oz, quite a bit greener and more brilliant than it looks in the picture. (One of these days, I really must learn more about how to adjust my camera to balance the colors.) I've never tried spinning anything with silk in it yet, so this should be fun. It ought to have a bit of drape from the silk, so I'm thinking it may need to be spun at a fingering weight to make a scarf or shawl.

I found the wraps-per- inch tool I was looking for at Woodchuck Products, a crowded booth where I had to stand in line for an hour! I've seen a couple of very utilitarian models that are readily available, but I was hoping for a pretty one. This one, made of cocobolo wood, fits the bill nicely.

For any non-spinners out there, this tool is used to measure the thickness of the yarn you've spun. You wrap the yarn around and around in one of the notched areas near the top and the number of wraps that will fit in the measured notch helps tell you the weight, whether it be sport-weight or bulky or anything in between.

In keeping with my theme of trying new fibers, I bought this little taste of Icelandic wool, from the Three Farms Icelandics booth. Because of the severe climate where they live, Icelandic sheep have a thick double coat, with long outer hairs and a soft undercoat. In processing an Icelandic fleece, spinners may choose to separate the two types of wool or mix them together. This particular package comes from Aboundingful Farm in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, and contains roving that mixes both coats, like the famous Lopi yarn.

I've been toying lately with the thought of another spindle. I taught myself to spin initially on a handspindle, but soon developed a ferocious desire for a spinning wheel. Once I made the acquaintance of Rastro, my spinning wheel, I had little patience for my spindle.

However, as I've become more skillful with the wheel, I understand drafting and twist so much better that I think I could enjoy the spindle more as well. I've also learned about having spindles of different weights for different purposes. And you sure can't beat the portability. This beauty is a lightweight 1.5 ounce spindle made of zebrawood, from Millpoint Emporium, in Amsterdam, New York.

What might I want to try spinning with my delicate new handspindle? Well perhaps this lovely little one-ounce sample of pure superfine cashmere from Hillcreek Fiber Studio in Columbia, Missouri. It seems too fragile to spin on the wheel. In fact, I'm not exactly sure what I will do with it. I really just wanted to see what it's like. I may spin a little on its own and save the rest to blend with a bit of alpaca. Or I may just keep it around to fondle. This downy fluff is incredibly soft.

There were a couple of other items, but I think I'll leave it at that for now. As I write this, at a time when I would best be in bed, outside the window a late-awake bird is singing his heart out. He's perhaps a mockingbird, as he's working his way through a whole repertoire of musical numbers. Though it's been dark for hours, he's chirping away cheerily, for all the world as if he were in a meadow on a bright sunny day. Odd, but nice.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mighty, Stunning, and Wondrous

I'm home, foot-weary and salty-skinned, but happy and parcel-laden. Home from the mighty, wondrous Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

I've lived all my life within striking distance of the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. But I never knew it existed, for years and years. I believe it was through reading knitting blogs that I finally got wind of it. Two years ago, for the first time, I packed up world's most patient husband and went to have a look.

Oh my goodness, what I had been missing. It is a hard-to-believe assemblage of vendors and demonstrations and livestock and events and music and committed knitters, spinners, and weavers. Plus a fair number of families and visitors just enjoying the colorful scene. It is overwhelming and wonderful. I will not miss it again if I can help it. I mark the date on my calendar and wait all year for it now.

That first visit planted the seed that eventually made a spinner out of me. The second one, last year, infected me with an interest in hand-carding that led inexorably later that summer to raw fleece.

As the day for this year's festival approached, I wondered, what more could it do to me? Would I yearn to play the hammered dulcimer? Would I long to repair to the countryside for a life as a dilettante gentlewoman farmer making pets of three or four sheep carefully chosen for their fleece? Would I harbor a burning desire to learn woodworking and carve lovely spinning tools? Well, with this year's festival behind me, I don't seem to be that far gone yet. But one never knows, once the urges have had a little time to ripen.

In any case, yesterday, I grabbed a great big shoulder bag and my tall elegant Mom and headed for the festival. The weather could not have been more perfect, a dazzling sunny day in the mid 70s. It was, alas, a little warm for a hand-knit sweater, but many doughty festival-goers ignored the temperature and adorned themselves in knitting nonetheless.

I had never before gone on Saturday. It's reputed to be more crowded than Sunday, and it certainly was. There were long lines for restrooms, food, and some of the booths. Inside the barns, the aisles were at times impassable, filled with bubbling masses of generally good-tempered celebrants, hard to navigate through, but easy enough to float along with.

I had been a little worried about whether my Mom, not a knitter, would grow bored before I could get my fill. But she was a great sport, with impressive stamina. She dived right in, admiring the fiber, looking through books, enjoying the music, sweet-talking the sheep, visiting crafts booths, helping me choose colors, savoring the whole event.

And there was so much to see and enjoy.