Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Handspun Gift

I've come a long way from my earliest tentative days of fashioning wiry, scratchy, overtwisted yarn (albeit with a great sense of excitement!) My spinning has come along to the point that I feel comfortable enough to give something made of my hand-spun yarn, at least to an indulgent and tolerant family member.

At the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival this fall, among other treasures, I picked up this little ball of hand-dyed Romney roving from Catoctin Creek Farm, near Frederick, Maryland. (I have to think kindly of people who care enough about a humble ball of roving to tie it up with a satin ribbon.) I hadn't spun wool from Romney sheep before, and the colors seemed bright and kid-friendly. I thought it would be fun and might make a cute scarf.

Spinning the Romney wool was a real pleasure. It's a long-wool breed, with long, luscious fibers that drafted out so smoothly that they made me feel like a more skillful spinner than I really am. It felt cottony and flossy. The preparation was immaculate, a very welcome change from some of the fiber I'd been working with over the summer.

For spinners, who may care about such things, I split the rope of hand-dyed roving lengthwise and spun the two halves onto separate bobbins. The plan was for the color changes to occur in more or less the same place so that the colors would stay mostly pure when the strands from the two bobbins were plied together.

When I began plying, though, I found that either my splitting or my spinning was uneven enough that the results were unpredictable. The colors blended and softened and became surprisingly complex. It was prettier and paler than I'd imagined. The colors began to remind me of my grandma, who's always looked pretty in pastels. I started thinking that just maybe I could make something for her.

This was no small matter. I'd only knitted from my hand-spun twice before. Of my earlier efforts, another relative had said, "hmmm, it's kind of scratchy." That hadn't exactly encouraged me to think of it as gift-worthy. (And I have to admit that, while I do love the two hand-spun sweaters I've made thus far, I wouldn't be anxious to wear them against bare skin.)

I was reading something at the time that gave me a notion that fulling the yarn might make it a bit softer and woollier, so I decided to give that a try. When all the yarn was spun, after consulting my spinning books, I took my latest fiber processing tool in hand. (Yes, a plunger.) Ignoring the yarn's cries of protest, I shocked it cruelly in hot water and cold, and commenced to beating it senseless.

I didn't like doing it, but it was for its own good. I also learned a couple of lessons myself. One is that enthusiastically agitating yarn in a large sink of water is a very splashy operation. Less water next time. Or a raincoat.

Despite a certain skepticism I still harbored about the wisdom of all this, the yarn survived and even bloomed. The strands lightened and loosened, but bound together more as a whole, and developed a fuzzy halo. I think this may have been an experiment worth repeating.

I worked out a design for a scarf and got to knitting, thinking of my grandma all the while.

It was entrancing, watching the colors shift and merge as the scarf grew from the needles. And nothing really repeated. The color patterns were unique the whole way through. It was a lovely experience, from one end to the other.

I'm still worried about whether it's soft enough. For myself, I wouldn't mind a slight cold-weather scratchiness at all. But this is for my grandma. I think I spun it as softly as Romney can be spun, with low twist and plenty of air. But it is simply a coarser wool than the aristocrats of the woolly world, like merino. So I wish I could give it that buttery feeling, but it has its own nature. If it's not perfectly comfortable against her skin, maybe she can wear it outside a coat collar. Or not wear it at all, and just show it to her friends, and say "my granddaughter made this."

So I wrapped it up tenderly and shipped it off for Christmas, hoping that it will be nice enough. At least she will know that I wanted to make her something that I spun myself.

I hope she likes it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Under the Christmas Tree

I hope everyone has had a warm and lovely holiday with family and friends. I know I have!

It was a rush to the finish, but I managed to get things together in time for a Christmas with most of the trimmings. Oh, some of the decorations are still in their boxes, but we had a beautiful tree, Christmas lights, wrapped presents, a bit of Christmas baking, good meals, happy times, and music.

And a few little knitted gifts that made it by the skin of their teeth.

There were some knitted sweater ornaments for family Christmas trees. After all, a tree isn't really properly dressed until it has a sweater!

These little sweaters were adapted from the adorable Egg Cozies designed by Kristin Nicholas in Melanie Falick's Weekend Knitting book. The yarn is bits and pieces of leftovers, in various weights, from bygone sweaters and baby booties. The pattern is very cute and makes a good jumping-off point. I made my own personalizations, of course. I also thought, though, that the arms were hugely extra-long as written in the pattern, so I shortened them quite a bit.

There was also this little number, the Coffee Mitt from Judith Durant's One-Skein Wonders book, designed by Leanne Walker of KnitWit Yarn Shop in Portland, Maine. It's knitted in some Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride I had around the house. It's a yarn I really love, a single ply of wool and mohair. Some people seem to think of it more as a felting yarn, but I think it makes a beautiful sweater.

The Coffee Mitt looks like a homely little item -- it drew a chuckle when the present was opened -- but it really comes into its own when stretched around a tall black coffee or grandé latté. Then the handsome stitch pattern shows, the insulating wool and mohair feel cool and comfortable to the hand, and the world is spared another discarded cardboard sleeve.

There was a warm scarf in wonderfully soft Malabrigo Worsted baby merino.

This is the Cross-Stitch Scarf designed by Margaret Halas, from the Designer One-Skein Wonders book. This scarf has an interesting texture that has always caught my eye every time I've leafed through the book.

The one in the book is done with Manos del Uruguay yarn, a heavy worsted weight that knits in a larger gauge, but, like the Manos, Malabrigo is a single-ply kettle-dyed yarn, so I was pretty sure it would work well in the pattern with just an adjustment in the number of stitches.

The picture in the book shows off a dappled watercolor-like blended colorway, so the effect is different. I used the Malabrigo "saphire magenta" colorway 239. Its more contrasting and abrupt color changes give the scarf more of a sporty look.

I think it's quite pretty, and I was happy to see that the colors seem to suit the family member it was made for.

There was one more, of handspun, that I'll tell you about in the next post. I wish there could have been more, but I was really skating on the edge and lucky to get this much done.

And I was able to bestow the beautiful airy Cherry Leaf Shoulder Shawl, in Malabrigo laceweight edged with seed beads, on my tall elegant mom, who couldn't have been more thrilled.

And so here I am, moderately frazzled but now relaxed and happy. It's been a jolly good Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On Kool-Aid, On Dye-Pot, On Spinner and Twister!

On Foolish, on Headstrong, and Too-Optimistic!

Or, how the time does fly when it gets to be December.

This year I decided, with just a twinge of wistfulness, that I would not try to knit any Christmas presents. I didn't want to put myself under a lot of extra pressure in a season that's bustling with so many pleasant, but time-consuming, tasks as it is. This decision felt strangely familiar.

Right around Thanksgiving, though, I started getting urges. If I didn't have time to wrap my loved ones in hand-knits, maybe I could just knit a little token offering here and there. That, too, felt strangely familiar.

I begin to sense a pattern.

There have been other years when I sensibly decided I didn't have time to knit any presents. And in those years, too, a little knitting crept back into my Christmas ambitions. Or maybe a little crocheting. One year, I remember deciding to use up some yarn that, though well-loved, had been hanging around the place for a very long time, as "ribbon" to wrap presents with. First, though, without really meaning to, I crocheted it all. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Some single-crocheted, some double, some scalloped. Don't people do that?

So, late in the game, my mind started bubbling over with all the small things I could be making. And then I thought, wouldn't it be nice to make something for someone out of my handspun, now that I can produce respectable yarn?

I had some wool I thought might make something cute. Remember those Dorset locks I dyed with Kool-Aid? When last heard from, they were spread out all over the kitchen table, tickling me with their cheerful colors.

Over the summer I was gradually working my way through hand-carding it all. It took a while; at my level of hard-carding experience, 10 ounces is a lot of wool!

But it made the cutest little balls of roving. :) Needing to reclaim my table, though, I'd put the rest of the uncarded wool away, to work on other things for just a little while. I blinked, and here it was December. Well, there wasn't that much left to do. Wouldn't it be fun if there might be a little Christmas present that could come out of it? Surely it would be just the work of a moment to finish the carding. And spinning it up wouldn't take long at all, would it?

Well, maybe it would. I spun away, enjoying myself immensely, and thinking diligently all the while about how to organize the other tasks, the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating, so that I could get it all done in time without any last-minute panic. But..... I might have been a little too optimistic. I have to admit to myself that there may not be a Christmas present in it. At least not this year.

I have made an enjoyable little pile of candy-colored skeins, but with just eight days left until Christmas I now must get serious. The malls and the wrapping paper and the ornaments await.

But I might manage to knit one or two little things. :)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Summer's Sun Shines on Me Still

Or so it would seem.

After all, apparently it's tank top season. Oh, the sunshine may be watery and weak on this cold December day. And there may be a dusty trace of snow outside. But that's just quibbling. In here where it's warm, the Crossed Laces tank top is done!

The poor thing had languished when I, an inconstant lover, dallied for a while with new fiber festival yarn. Back in August, I wanted nothing more than to fly through this project and wear it in the last weeks of the summer. But I found myself stymied by a back-ordered wait for the yarn in the Toscana colorway that so entranced me. By the time the yarn arrived in September, I loved it still, but the urgent wish to knit it was tempered by the likelihood that I would have to wait through the long months until spring before I could wear the result.

I forged ahead anyway, my ardor only slightly cooled. I knitted away and watched the pretty colors with delight. But then our relationship reached that ticklish stage of maturity when the carefree joy of knitting gives way to the workaday responsibility of seaming and picking up stitches for neck and armbands. And that's just when the fiber festivals came along, where my wandering eye lit upon other beautiful yarns, and I fell for the cheap lure of casting on another project for a new fling.

Still, the day came when I was ready to return to Toscana. There really wasn't so much work left to do. It just took a little commitment. I sewed in the last of the loose ends in the waning days of November.

And that nonsense about not wearing it until next spring. Am I so easily discouraged? No, I am not.

How could I have been so blind? All it took was a little creative thinking. A high jewel neck and a jacket over the top are perfectly sufficient to hide a thin long-sleeved knit top layered underneath for warmth. Secretly long-johned, I'll be able to wear it no matter the weather.

I wore my new top to work this week, eager to share with the world a love that's true.

The pattern is the Crossed Laces tank, designed by Beth Whiteside, from the Summer 2008 issue of Knitter's magazine. I knit it in the yarn called for, Colinette's cotton tape yarn, Wigwam. It's an interesting yarn, with cotton's weight and drape and with added stretchiness from the knitted structure of the tape. It feels to me a bit like knitting with rolled-up strips of t-shirt jersey. I went up a notch on needle size to get gauge, as I often do, and ended up with US size 11 (8.0 mm).

It's a fairly simple design. The tank is done in twisted stockinette stitch for an interesting all-over texture, but mostly it just stands aside and lets those glorious Colinette colors shine forth. And, after knitting it once before in the Pharaoh colorway, I could attest from experience that it's a flattering top that hangs beautifully. I chose to knit it with a couple of inches of negative ease, and that counters the weight of the yarn with just a slight figure-skimming cling.

I knit it this time in Toscana, the same colorway photographed in the magazine, which was what drew my eye so compellingly in the first place.

I don't know what it is. There's just something irresistibly appealing to me about this particular combination of colors, like a green apple with a spreading pink blush.

I only know that it makes me happy. I don't have to know why.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Blessings Instead of Sheep

Judging from the sympathetic responses, my last post must have sounded pretty pathetic. Do not be deceived. Despite the occasional momentary fit of frustration, it's not that dire. I've got it pretty good and well I know it.

I have a rewarding job and a comfortable home. We have plenty of everything to our needs.

I have a loving family who were happy to drop everything and rush over for Thanksgiving together, even if my plans emerged a little late. I've had a good meal and stuffed myself like a toad into somnolence.

I've had another visit from a favorite extended family member. Doesn't she look cozy in her quilted bed and striped sweater? (But a commercial sweater? What kind of auntie is that, not to knit her one!)

I have the leisure to enjoy this favorite hobby that threatens, more and more, to take over everything, if not subjected to some sort of discipline. I have an indulgent husband, who's been remarkably tolerant as knitting and spinning supplies and paraphernalia creep in and make ever-larger encampments here and there around our living quarters.

I have an abundance of yarn and spinning fiber awaiting my whim, with visions of the possibilities of all the projects it will become.

I've got all the pieces re-knit for my kid mohair pullover, which now awaits only its collar and seams. Oh, I may have carped about all the ripping out, but, really, how bad could it be to be elbow-deep in these soft billows of mohair a while longer?

(And dear Puff-the-Magic-Rabbit, if you're listening, do not feel guilty! If I should be silly enough to knit my way blithely through your whole sweater pattern before measuring the result, that's hardly any fault of your favorite yarn or you!)

If I've heedlessly knit onward without checking gauge often enough... If I've preferred to stay in some happy knitting fugue state (A finished row -- oh look, how pretty! Another row -- oh look, how pretty!) ... until I finally realize that I'll have to rip it out and do it all over again, well... That just means I'll be enjoying all that entertainment for twice as long. And with the anticipation of a beautiful sweater at the end. If that's my biggest problem, then I'm just not doing too badly.

And on top of it all, it seems I've just won a lovely yarn prize, after entering a drawing by showing a photo of a mattress-stitched seam, on Susan's blog, I'm Knitting As Fast As I Can! Thanks, Susan!

So, though I may once in a while look for some friendly commiseration, it's all in good fun. I actually have a very long list of things to be grateful for. In the words half a century ago of Irving Berlin, if I'm worried and I can't sleep, I'll count my blessings instead of sheep.

And I'll fall asleep counting my blessings.