Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Stroke of Luck

First of all, thank you so much, everybody, for the nice comments about the handspun vest! It's great fun to chew things over with others who understand what it's like getting through the little challenges and hurdles of a knitting project to a happy outcome. :)

And, as for spinning, well, I'm with you, Amy. It's still hard to believe you can really go from what's basically a wad of animal hair to something pleasing to wear. It makes me feel like a pioneer woman, who could scratch sustenance from the land and fashion clothing from raw materials, instead of from a shopping mall. Maybe one of these days I should try my hand at building a sod hut. Oh, I don't mean to make light, of course, of the hardships that people went through in settling the Plains of the western United States. It's just that making things by hand gives an interesting feeling of self-sufficiency that's sometimes hard to come by in modern life.

The handspun vest, fun as it was, was actually just a temporary diversion from the real knitting business at hand. I'm still at work on Christmas I.O.U. knitting projects. The sweater for my trim-athletic-dad is coming along steadily.

But the socks for my good- humored brother have hit a snag. It seems I have yet to learn that it takes more yarn to knit socks for a tall-ish fellow than for an average-sized woman. You'd think that might be obvious, but it's not. Apparently.

In my defense, when I first ran into this life-lesson, last Christmas, it was with Blue Moon Fiber Arts' Socks That Rock Lightweight yarn. That yarn's virtues are its creative colorways, and firm bouncy texture, rather than exceptional yardage. A skein of Socks That Rock packs 360 yards. It's an ample amount for socks for me, but I wasn't entirely surprised at running short before completing a pair for my good-humored brother, who is indeed a tall-ish sort of fellow. So after some hand-wringing and whatever-shall-I-do-ing, I ended up ordering another colorway and knitting a contrasting toe.

This time was different. This time, I was using Zitron's Trekking XXL, a yarn of bountiful yardage. At almost 100 yards more, 459 yards in a 100 gram skein, surely it gave me a great safety margin. And I may have been unduly influenced by the many posts on Claudia's blog on socks knitted for her husband from Trekking XXL. That gave me a nice comfortable feeling. Of course, if I'd paid closer attention, I might have noticed that she says she's a loose knitter and only uses 64 stitches. I, on the other hand, am not and don't.

I knitted along, quite enjoying the soft hand of the Trekking yarn and its subtle color shifts, until I noticed that I seemed to be using up yarn faster than I ought to before the first sock was finished. I grew nervous. I began weighing what was left in the skein as I went along, calculating how many knitted rows I was getting per gram. The skein dwindled to 53 grams. I had to concede the awful truth. My illusions fell to the floor. Clunk. This skein was not going to finish two socks.

Oh, for heaven's sake. Not again. Recently, I'd watched with pity as, in the same local shop where I'd bought the yarn, a customer pleaded for an extra skein of Trekking XXL to finish a not-quite-done pair of socks. The owner was sympathetic but afraid she might not be able to order that color any more. Thank goodness that wasn't going to happen to me, thought I.

Ha! Now here I was, in much the same pickle. I'd bought the yarn months ago, and I needed more. Maybe if I was lucky, there would still be a skein left at the shop. If it was a different dye lot, I could always work it in so it wouldn't be obvious. I ran back to paw through the shelf. It wasn't there. It seemed even to have disappeared from the shop's order book. Gulp. Was it discontinued? Now I was not sure I could get any more of my colorway at all, let alone in the same dye lot.

I looked on-line at Webs. There, promisingly, it was still listed, though shown as back-ordered. I watched like a hawk, checking daily. As the days wore on, I grew a little despondent. Would it ever come in again? Or was it really gone? I tried to resign myself to looking at compatible yarn options for a contrasting toe.

That contrasting toe idea was a good dodge the first time, but if every pair made for my good-humored brother has a contrasting toe without the corresponding heel and cuff accents, it begins to look suspiciously like a sisterly lack of planning. Which, of course, it is. I had to try to find it.

A chance mention by the Yarn Harlot reminded me of the Simply Socks Yarn Company, run by Allison, where I'd browsed happily before. I rushed there, and -- Eureka! -- it showed my colorway in stock! Two days later, I held a second skein in my grateful hands. Thankfully, it looked like the dye lot was going to be a pretty good match.

On a whim, I checked the labels. What? It wasn't just a pretty good match, it was the very one. Good old dye lot 8230 itself.

Can you believe it? Months later, bought from a site based a thousand miles away from the shop of my earlier purchase, and it was the same dye lot.


Really lucky.

Now, to do my penance. I shall write it out 100 times:
1. I must plan ahead and buy more yarn when making men's socks.
2. I must plan ahead and buy more yarn when making men's socks.
3. I must...

This could take a while!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

... And Out Pops a Vest

After last weekend's spinning workshop, I was so excited that I kept right on spinning that night and the next day, until a tired thumb on my drafting hand told me it was time to stop. But still I could think of nothing but spinning and handspun. So I set to cataloging my handspun skeins and counting up the yardage. I just needed an idea of what could be knitted from them.

Lovely Dalis at Dancing Leaf Farm pointed out a little book called Noro Designer Mini Knits, by Jenny Watson, as a good source of small projects that could be adapted for handspun.

This yarn in particular was a pretty thing I'd been wanting to make into something nice. I'd tried starting a shawl with it, some time ago, but it just wasn't right. This was some of the first of my handspun that I'd ever knit a stitch of, and I was frightened of making a mistake. After I backed away from the shawl idea, it just sat on my coffee table looking decorative. For a long time. A long time.

I spun the yarn over a year ago, from this luscious hand-painted roving. Of course, I suppose more precisely it's wool top. (For non-spinners, that means it's been prepared by combing instead of carding, so that the fibers are more smoothly aligned.) I know some people are very unhappy with those who refer to any kind of thick rope of prepared fiber as roving. But roving is such a nice word, and I suppose I'm a bit of a carefree phillistine about the difference, at least for now. After all, I'm still pretty new to all of this. It seems a bit like expecting someone to speak of cars as coupes or sedans when he's just getting used to the idea of a wheeled motorized vehicle. I expect I'll get better about my terminology as I go along.

Anyway, I had 10 ounces of the wool It was from Lorna's Laces, in the Watercolor colorway. I had bought and spun it simply for the fun of working for the first time with a pretty hand-painted I was still practically a novice, and this is the that taught me how to spin softer yarn.

It was such pretty fiber, and I spun it happily, expecting a beautiful yarn. I didn't split the fiber; I just enjoyed the colors and the long transitions I got by drafting from the entire thickness of the I was also working on spinning consistently at a heavier weight, and aimed for a thicker yarn than my beginner efforts. But when I plied the first skein, I was disappointed in the result. The yarn was kind of dense and firm. Even the colors seemed flat. I had enough experience by then that I had developed some ability to control my spinning, so I decided to try putting less twist into the yarn, hoping it would be softer.

What a difference that made! You can see it in this photo. The skein on the left is the first one I spun, about worsted weight and, sadly, a little hard. The one on the right is what I got with a lot less twist. It was bulkier and much softer.

I was much happier with the yarn after that. But the evolution in the yarn made for a challenge in coming up with a suitable project. I had about 500 yards, about 2/3 of it in the soft bulky yarn, and 1/3 in the firm worsted weight.

Nevertheless, this time I was gung ho and ready to try something. Looking at projects in bulky yarn from the Noro book, I found a simple pullover cropped vest that looked like I could make it with plenty of yardage to spare. I was in the mood to just dive in, so off I went.

I knit merrily along and soon had this. Although the long color transition was interesting, I did not love the overall effect. The pattern was written for Noro's Blossom yarn, which has a lot of textural interest (and maybe some bits of leaf and twig, from the looks of it). But in my handspun, a smoother yarn, it was a bit blah and seemed to need something. So out it came.

After a little more swatching, I decided to loosen up the gauge and add some bands of moss stitch.

That did the trick.

It even worked out so that I could use the soft yarn for the body of the vest and the thinner yarn for the neckband and armbands.

I ended up using about 450 yards of bulky handspun, with US size 10 (6 mm) needles. In addition to adding the stitch pattern, I lengthened the vest a couple of inches, made the scooped neck deeper, and made the neckband and armbands narrower.

It went so fast, I had it done in six days flat. I couldn't wait to wear it right away yesterday, not even holding off to block it first. World's-most-patient-husband and I were out and about and stopped by for a visit to the Yarnstruck niecey and nephews. Showing impeccable taste, my little niecey immediately spotted my vest and complimented it. I might have attributed that to tact rather than taste, had there been so much as a hint that it was one of Auntie Yarnstruck's projects. No, clearly little niecey has excellent taste. :)

And I'm tickled that finally, in hardly any time at all, the pretty yarn that waited so long after I spun it has turned into a pretty vest that I can wear and enjoy.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Rastro Fulfills His Destiny

This weekend, in the midst of the hearts-and-flowers of the romantic holiday, my spinning wheel, Rastro, and I had a Valentine's Day treat. We packed up and went to a spinning workshop! (I rejoined world's-most-patient-husband later for a nice dinner, of course. :)

But earlier in the day, I folded Rastro up, and stowed him in the trunk of the car along with bagsful of way too many different choices of wool to spin. I didn't know what to expect, and I didn't want to come up short!

Of course, I needn't have worried.

There was plenty there for anyone who might have run short. Or just become entranced by another pretty fiber to add to the collection.

When everyone got settled, we had a great circle of companionable spinning. (Some of the owners of those wheels were off browsing the tables of spinning supplies.) It was wonderful! There were people to compare notes with; to talk about sheep and wool and techniques and twist with; to ooh and ah with over things spinners care about. And, being self-taught, I've never before spun with anyone else. It turned out to be great fun.

We had a fascinating talk from Jennifer of Spirit Trail Fiberworks, who does beautiful hand-dyeing of yarns and fibers. She specializes in seeking out rare, endangered, and little-known breeds of sheep, finding farmers with remaining flocks, buying fleeces, and offering their wool to spinners, in natural or gorgeous hand-dyed colors. I had no idea of some of these small, isolated populations and their history. She'd brought along wool from several virtually unknown breeds for show-and-tell and to buy.

I'm afraid that, like an over-excited child at story-time, I may not have sat and listened quite as quietly as I should. Jennifer took it in stride, though. It probably happens all the time. :)

We also had a talk and demonstration of spinning silk from caps. I'm not sure I'll be rushing to try spinning silk. When the silk fiber in cap form was passed around, I was very startled by the way it felt to the hands. There was something about it that made me shiver uncomfortably. And there's an awful lot of lovely wool in the world. But it was really interesting to see and learn about.

There was a great variety of different wheels. I think in the whole group of 15 or 20 wheels, there was only one pair of twins. Just in the picture there, clockwise from the left, we have an Ashford Joy, a Bosworth Journey Wheel, a beautiful antique wheel, and a Schacht Matchless. (At least I think so; don't hold me to it.) And my Rastro.

Rastro is the handsome blonde down in the right-hand corner. He's a Lendrum double treadle. When I first got my wheel, I tried calling him a fancy, girly name that I thought would suit a spinning wheel. He would have none of it. He wouldn't answer to that name. He's lean and eager and straining at the leash to get to work. Naturally, he didn't care for a frilly name. When I started thinking of him as Rastro, it immediately stuck.

When I picked out a wheel, I specifically selected one that would fold up for travel. I was indulging in castle-in-the-air fantasies of carrying it to spinning gatherings.

And now they've come true. :)

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Real MacGyver of Fiber

I have to say, I was very entertained by the idea of myself as some knitting MacGyver, on the strength of my high-tech nail-file and wax-paper solution to a broken bamboo needle.

For anyone who somehow missed it, MacGyver was an American TV series in the late 1980s. I only remember seeing it a couple of times myself, but even so I quickly grasped the essential premise. Here was a guy who, when he found himself in a tight spot, through resourcefulness and wits, would build just the clever contraption needed to get out of a sticky situation and save the day. Out of something like toothpaste and pocket lint. I may be exaggerating, but according to this list of MacGyverisms, not by much!

All right, I may have some mild MacGyver-like tendencies. I may do some improvising once in a while to save the day when the chips are down.

Or maybe just to save the chips when the day is done. Here's an example of my amazing resourcefulness. I was finishing up a meal at a sandwich place and realized I wasn't hungry enough to eat my whole bag of delicious kettle chips. But how could I take them home when the bag was already open? I had no bag clip or rubber band! I'd have chips strewn all over the car or the inside of my handbag. The soundtrack started to swell and I looked around in desperation, starting to sweat. Would the bad guys really win?

Then, with no suitable tools at hand, inspiration struck! My brilliant solution?

I tied up the bag with the empty wrapper from my drink straw. My afternoon snack was saved. My car and handbag were safe. MacGyver would be so proud.

Still not convinced? OK, then, how about this?

Improvised ruler on the back of my knitting pattern when stuck on an airplane flight without a measuring tape?

Or this?

Eyeing the bamboo kitchen skewers covetously because they sure look like you could knit a big pile of socks on them if you sharpened the other end?

OK, I admit it. These are MacGyver-like tendencies only in a small way. A very small way. As a MacGyver, I've got a long way to go. I'm not really cut out for it. I actually like to have a nice array of proper knitting tools.

But if you want to see a real MacGyver of fiber, have a look at Rosemary Knits. Check out the spinning wheel made of a bicycle wheel, pieces of soda-bottle-plastic, and scraps of 2x4 lumber. Watch as the woman spins cotton from a cotton ball. Nothing is as humbling as the real thing.

I bow before her.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Milkweed Fluff

My Christmas I.O.U.s are coming along nicely. One is done, and the other two are underway.

Today, I sewed in all the ends to finish the soft brushed mohair sweater for my tall-elegant-mom. It's so light and soft, it reminds me of the white fluff, drifting on currents of air, from the seed pods of milkweed, beloved of monarch butterflies.

This sweater, like the last one I made for myself, is knit from hand-dyed Kid Hollow brushed mohair yarn, purchased at the 2008 Fall Fiber Festival in Montpelier, Virginia. This colorway is almost a solid silvery gray, with darker streaks here and there making it a semi-solid and giving it depth.

And, like the last sweater, I knit it using the Kid Hollow Mock-Neck sweater pattern designed by Puff the Magic Rabbit. It's a nice simple stockinette pattern, to keep the focus on the soft texture and the hand-dyed color. It's a worsted gauge pattern, but because the yarn is so fluffy, I found I needed to use US size 6 (4mm) needles.

This time, though, I made some modifications to suit my mom's more classic style. I changed the rolled edgings to a restrained ribbing, and I knit a crew-neck instead of the mock-neck in the pattern.

The yarn has a lovely fuzzy halo. I actually think the halo will continue to develop as the sweater is worn. I think a lot of the long fibers are still caught in the stitches and will work their way out over time.

I'm happy to say that I think the sweater will fit tall- elegant- mom just fine. I did a better job of knitting to gauge on this sweater than on the one I made for myself, so it didn't come out oversized like the other one. With her height, I think it will actually look better on her than it does here on me.

After knitting two sweaters with this lovely yarn, I've learned some useful lessons about working with brushed mohair. First, I don't need to baby it. To get gauge consistently, I need to knit it with just as firm a touch as any other yarn. But when unraveling, it's time to be very gentle with it. At the tricky spots like ends of rows where it's apt to tangle, tugging the yarn tail to try to pull the stitches out is asking for trouble. (Believe me, I know!) It responds much better to having one stitch lifted off another with lots of slack.

And all that fuzz makes it hard to count stitches. Stray bits of fluff often look like extra stitches. I wasted quite a bit of time looking for mistakes when I saw phantom stitches. But eventually I figured out that it was much more reliable to count the stitches from the back, with the reverse stockinette side facing me. Somehow, the little purl bumps on the back were much easier to distinguish. That saved a lot of grief. So I've learned to manage the yarn better, and knitting this second sweater was a much more relaxing experience than the first.

Now that this sweater is done, it's amazing how different it is from the last one. Small changes in the edge treatments, gauge, and color transformed the same sweater design in the same yarn from a funky hippy shirt for me to wear with jeans into an understated classic that my tall-elegant-mom can wear with tailored slacks and heels. It came out very nicely. I really think she will like it.

So now, with gusto, I can exclaim, "one down, two to go!"

Jingle bells will soon be ringing. :)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Minor Bumps and Bruises

Aside from the neckline of my tall-elegant-mom's Christmas I.O.U. sweater, now happily re-banded and resting tidily, I've had the occasional little mishap lately. Nothing too terrible, just mildly alarming.

This was one.

Over the holidays, I finally wore my Feather and Fan socks of the much-lauded Socks That Rock yarn. We went to a party. I showed them off proudly to anyone who would hold still long enough and collected good-natured acclaim.

When I got home, I took off my shoes with a contented sigh. Aaah. But something didn't seem quite right. What on earth was it? I did a double-take. It looked a little fuzzy in the back....

Here, have a closer look.


Yes, that's right. A great big hole in the heel. The first time I'd worn them. I'd only admired and patted them until then.

Well, that was certainly an unpleasant little surprise. I still don't know what caused it. It clearly wasn't just ordinary wear and tear. After one wearing? No. But I don't remember snagging it on anything or even noticing any rough spots in my shoes. Maybe there was a weak join in the yarn, I don't know.

I'll get it patched up. The good news is that I have leftover yarn. I have a darning egg. And I know how to use them.

But did I say mishap? Mishap? I should have said mishaps. Plural.

This was the other one.

Although metal needles are my favorite, I sometimes use bamboo for socks, especially if there's any travel on the horizon. I figure wooden needles are less likely to excite X-ray machines, airport security staff, and fellow passengers than shiny little metal spikes.

Honestly, I also figure that if they got confiscated, I'd be less upset about losing them. But, shhhh, don't let them hear me say that! They serve me well when called upon, and I don't mean to be unkind.

So I wasn't very pleased with myself one day recently. I got distracted from my knitting, carried off one little needle that happened to be in my hand, sat down to rummage for something, and got up only to find I'd sat on the poor thing. Snap.

I remember clearly having thought beforehand, "you know, you really should put that back with the other needles before you walk away; you're liable to put it down somewhere and lose it if you carry it off on its own." Of course, in the end I broke it instead of losing it. But, nevertheless, I smelled trouble coming and ignored my own good advice. That happens more often than I'd care to admit.

Now I was in a minor fix. I had a busy evening, a sock to finish, and stores closed next day. What's a stubborn person to do? I took the longer piece of broken needle from the wreckage, sanded down the jagged end with a nail file, and rubbed it with a piece of wax paper. So it would glide, you see. :)

I ended up with a perfectly good four-inch one-ended double-point needle and knit the rest of the sock with it. That is, I used the undamaged pointy end to knit the stitches onto, and the blunt misshapen end to knit them off of. This wasn't particularly comfortable, and maneuvers like decreases were tricky to do with that blunt end serving as the left-hand needle tip, but I managed.

It somehow felt like proving a point. I know, stubborn. But then, why not keep on using that stubby little excuse for a needle? It got the job done, didn't it?

Nope. Nobody's that stubborn.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Buck Up and Get On With It

When last heard from, the neckline of my Kid-Hollow-mock-neck-converted-to-a-crew -neck was looking sadly messy. I was searching for a clever cast-off technique that would tighten it up enough to look neat but still stretch out enough to fit over my head. (Well, my tall-elegant-mom's head, actually, since this is a gift.) I was piddling around, looking at books and web pages, desultorily knitting inadequately-sized samples, and just generally fussing about it.

Certainly there are lots of clever cast-off techniques out there (and thanks for the good suggestions!) But in truth, I was pretty sure I knew what was the real root of the problem. Sometimes I outsmart myself. I've noticed that the little knit-stitch columns in ribbing tend to sprawl open and look loose in comparison to the ones in the body of a stockinette piece. I had gone down to quite a small needle size to to keep the ribbing stitches from loosening. But I'd gone too far in trying to prevent that problem and created another. Those small needles had created a too-small neck opening. I'd re-done the cast-off to make the neck edge bigger and wound up with giant sloppy stitches. I'd been trying to fix that by finding a cast-off that could be knit more tightly and still stretch like a rubber band. Deep down, though I didn't really want to admit it, I had a feeling I knew the cure. It was to rip out the entire neckband and re-do it on not-so-small needles.

But every time I looked over at it, I saw a scary little monster with sharp knitting-needle teeth grinning back at me. I had only recently had the character-building experience of ripping out an entire sweater in the same fuzzy mohair after being off on my gauge. Even though the neckband was only a few rows, I wasn't eager to do any more fuzzy-mohair-unraveling. I worried about whether the solution would work. I worried about whether it would put noticeable wear and tear on the yarn's fuzzy surface. I worried about whether I ought to go all the way back to picking up stitches again. Mostly I just put it off.

Finally, I decided to take the excellent advice of Christina, who encouraged me to just buck up and get on with it (though she, of course, put it much more gently and diplomatically. :)

So this morning, fresh and determined, I sat down, teased open the fuzzy stitches, and off it came.

I got it all undone and re-knit, with a needle a couple of sizes larger than before -- and still one size smaller than I used for the main body.

It looks a lot more sensible this time, doesn't it? And the ribbing isn't sprawling too much. I didn't even have to bother with an especially elastic cast-off this time. I just used an ordinary cast-off, with a bit of a light touch to keep it loose. The finished neckline fit over my head without a struggle.

The fuzz didn't suffer unduly either (though it doesn't photograph well in a head-on shot.)

All's well, the impasse is broken, and I got most of the way done today on sewing the seams. It will just take a good session of darning in ends and tidying up to get it done.

So what on earth was all that fussing about? It wasn't so bad! :)