Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Great Expectations (and a Free Knitting Pattern)

The link to the PDF for this pattern is found at the end of this post or on the
"Free" page (found above).

Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.
                                               -Jane Austen

As I discussed in my last post, as a teacher, throughout the school year, I anticipate the joys of summer.  I envision savoring hours and hours of delicious time alone to pursue my knitting, to work in the garden, to cook wonderful homemade meals with fresh produce, to travel, and to go out at night. 
Take Sunday evening, for instance.  For years and years, my husband and I have discussed going to Ri Ra, a bar and restaurant located in uptown Charlotte that hosts a live Irish band on Sunday nights. In typical weary fashion, however, as we discussed the possibility of going, Dennis and I ultimately shied away from the prospect--not discouraged so much by the minor challenge of driving to the city, but of having to face returning home later. So, I cooked some hamburgers and we settled in to watch some episodes of the BBC mystery series Rosemary and Thyme that I’d picked up at the library.  While I watched the program, I knit a miniature mouse--the May Queen pattern from a bonus booklet that came shrink wrapped with a British knitting magazine I’d purchased months ago.

Somehow, as a young woman, I’d never imagined myself home on the weekend, sporting pajamas in fabric printed with winsome cats.  I'd never anticipated that I'd ever watch British mysteries while busily knitting away before retiring to bed prior to 9:00 p.m.  (I guess it isn't surprising that my children equate  their parents' very existences with boredom and view us with horror as some kind of pitiful anachronisms in the modern world.)     

Alas, much as I grossly overestimated my time and energy for creative output and visits to night spots this summer break,  I was able to achieve a minor accomplishment.  I created a pattern and actually completed knitting it. While some might find this achievement minor, for me (still a somewhat novice knitter), this task was a formidable one that entailed swatching, charting, and hours and hours of frogging. (I’m only 5’ 3” tall and what was initially to be my final product would have looked fabulous on an Amazon.)

Whatever pitfalls I encountered, I did complete a pretty garment and I learned how to make a knitting chart along the way. I also garnered some other lessons, from which other knitters could benefit:

Like your favorite jeans that fit snugly when taken out of the dryer and sag sag loosely in the afternoon, cotton expands. A neat and tidy 4 x 4 swatch has a gauge that a designer can use to plan a pattern, but that same yarn, stitch, and needle size will have an entirely different gauge when knit up into a large project, as cotton, or cotton-blend yarn, will expand and drape, seemingly endlessly growing like some mutant aberration.

Beaded yarns are expensive for a reason. After four or five trips to the craft store to purchase packs of beads and hours spent stringing said beads at home, at a friend’s house, on the beach in South Carolina, on a lake in New York state, in a coffee shop, I realized that I could have bought the beaded yarn and probably had enough time to knit several shawls, along with a sweater or two and saved money, too (those packs of beads might only cost $2.99 each at Michael’s craft store, but the cost of gas used to take me to and from the store probably could pay for a nice meal at an elegant restaurant or a skein or two of beaded art yarn).  Conversely, the very mindless nature of stringing beads is a wonderfully soothing occupation. 

Finally, while executing the design and producing it was engaging and interesting, doing so was a job and trying to focus and work at home is not easy.  With two sons who eat an amount of food equal to their respective body weights each day, I found that constant cooking and shopping filled many hours, not to mention the mountains of sweat-soaked laundry (football practice went on all summer) that needed to be attacked.  So this summer, once again, I found that I didn’t have the endless hours I’d projected to sit in the garden, sip iced tea, and lazily knit project after project. I did, however, complete one design and project. The pattern in provided here in PDF form. 

Note:  My school's summer break ends Wednesday, so for me summer is almost officially over.   

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Knit Stops: Seasonal Interruptions

"Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability. " 

                                                                           Sam Keen

My mother-in-law's blueberry patch provides more than enough fruit to last my family all year.   
At the end of last school year, I envisioned myself posting on my blog several times a week.  There, I would proudly display many finished projects as well as original designs I’d devised.  I’d also anticipated spinning the two large bags of fiber stashed in the closet under the stairs.  Alas, my summer break is almost over (my school semester begins on August 1), and while I have knit a bit each day and worked slowly to create a pattern for a shawl (which should be posted next week), I have not created copious amounts of knitwear.  And while I do have several ideas floating about in my head for knitting patterns, actually executing the designs and completing finished garments will, I know, take me months.  In addition, while my spinning wheel hasn’t sat completely idle, I haven’t faithfully worked with either speed or efficiency. 

When I am done, I will have balls and balls of very scratchy, lanolin-rich wool. Now I have to decide
what to make--definitely not scarves.
 Tapioca flour used to thicken the fruit filling worked very well for this
blueberry pie. I used Martha Stewart's Pate Brisee recipe for the butter crust.
 If you use this recipe, make certain that you don't mix the dough
for too long, or you will end up with a tough crust.
 (I learned this lesson the hard way in the past.)  
But it is summer.  This is the time of year I dream about, not only for its unstructured days but for the fresh fruits and vegetables that come with the season.  While my backyard gardens haven’t done particularly well, as the soil is basically red clay over a layer of shale that’s a foot deep in places, I am still fortunate enough to have other sources for local produce.  At the beginning of summer, I dream of the first local tomato, ripe and uncooked, in whose delights I will revel, a foreign relation of its pale tasteless hothouse relatives at our local supermarket.  By the end of the summer I usually have so many of these (given to me by my mother-in-law who lives in the country) that I am busy cooking them to make pasta sauce.   In fact, my love of fresh foods and their availability is part of the problem with my lack of summer knitting and spinning productivity.  Aside from holiday travel, when I am at home during the day I am also spending time preparing food.  During the school year, I simply lack the time to cook dishes using fresh ingredients—aside from some quickly thrown together salads or steamed vegetables.  So, while this is a knitting blog, I thought I’d post a few pictures of projects I’m currently working on (and one tiny one I’ve completed) and also show some images of the culinary activities that have cut into my knitting time. 
I used local tomatoes, homegrown basil (in a pot), and fresh mozzarella (found cheaply at Aldi's) to make a homemade pizza (shown here uncooked).  For the dough, I used a recipe entitled "Mitch's Fabulous Pizza Dough," which never fails to make great crust.  Find it here. 
I don’t, however, lament the fact that I didn’t apply myself to my blog and knitting like a full-time job this summer.  The luxury to get up each day and to devote myself to a variety of activities—leisurely or productive—is the joy of savoring summer break.    
I'm making this Ice Cable Hat from the Rowan "Winter Gifts" booklet with handspun alpaca I bought last week. 

My Sullivan's Island Shawl is nearing completion.  While my sample has a few mistakes in the center panel
(as a result of pattern tweaking) the design is actually really simply, so I had to take a break from its
repetitiveness to work on other projects. 
The seashell pattern is simple--including 36 rows of beads is a bit more labor intensive. 
I've strung beads everywhere, on vacation
at a friend's house, at home watching
television . . . but the results are
worth the effort. 

I did manage to finish one humble project this summer. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

New York State of Mind

The Suri fiber shown above is being used by Evelyn at YB Normal Suri Alpacas to make the yarn shown below it. 
The landscape changes dramatically as one drives up from the Charlotte area through West Virginia. The mountains appear and rapidly become steep and craggy, and there are long expanses with little sign of gas stations or motels. Last week, at the onset of a vacation, after driving for five or six hours, my family found ourselves in the dark in a motel in West Virginia from which we watched a raging thunderstorm rip strips of vinyl siding from an adjacent building. While this state of affairs might have seemed to be an inauspicious beginning to our trip, we were fortunate that we’d returned from dinner and were safe inside, albeit in the dark and annoyed by motel guests on either side of room who did not take advantage of the lack of electricity to go to bed early, but rather made noise for hours. One older couple (the husband used a walker) fought incessantly, taking a break for a while and then resuming their cranky comments at 3:00 a.m., while another more jovial older man to the other side of our room played noisy games with his grandchildren until the wee hours.
Tamarack, located along Interstate 77 in West Virginia, is a good place to stop, view the handicrafts, and take a rest.   

These strange events followed an even stranger dinner, in an artsy looking old storefront replete with bright orange paint, Christmas lights, a pottery studio, and an eclectic collection of antique and modern knick knacks and furniture. Our waiter, who was the only server in the place on a Friday night, was utterly overwhelmed and suffered from an obvious disability that prevented him from remembering orders or carrying more than one item at a time to a customer. Many of our fellow diners, after waiting forever, gave up and ordered to-go boxes but those didn’t seem to arrive either. My sons’ hamburgers were huge, but my salad could have fit into a teacup.
Our schizophrenic dining experience and primitive motel conditions, however, didn’t put much of a damper on our holiday spirits—at least we were safe inside for the storm which wreaked havoc on the state’s power grid for days, and our car was undamaged.

We arrived safely in New York, where we spent a week in a small town with Cindy, a longtime friend and my former co-worker who retired from teaching in North Carolina and moved back to New York to the community where she was raised.  Cassadaga, with a population of 400 or so, is a tiny magical place, with a beautiful lake surrounded by rolling countryside dotted with farm stands and Old Order Amish farms.  My family and I swam in Cassadaga Lake as well as Lake Erie, rode on the Chautauqua Belle, one of only four steam ships in operation in the United States, took a tour of the Chautauqua Institute, and some of us kayaked a bit too on Cassadaga Lake.  
While famous for its Concord grapes, the area of western New York we visited grows many other types of wonderful produce.

I was also extremely fortunate to have an opportunity to indulge in my yarn hobby.  Cindy took me to a knitting store in Mayville, NY--The Yarn Cottage at Brick Farm, where I purchased some bulky yarn to make the frog purse on display in the shop.  Cindy loves frogs, so I plan to give her the bag as a Christmas present.  The pattern calls for worsted weight yarn, but the owner of the shop had knit up her sample in bulky weight, and I decided to do the same as the material gave the bag a great thick, woolly look.  This shop is located near Lake Chautauqua and apparently there is a sister shop, St. Elmo's Fiber, etc., in the Chautauqua Institute itself, but when my family and I visited there, it was the evening, and it seemed that most of the shops were closed already, so, much to the joy of my children, I didn’t take the time to locate the yarn store.  I’ll have to go back someday. . . .
The Yarn Shop at Red Brick Farm has a wide array of yarns for sale.  I particularly liked the new Casablanca yarn from Cascade, a linen blend with an interesting nubby texture. 

On the day that Cindy and I went off by ourselves to the Red Brick Farm shop, however, I was also able to visit a Suri alpaca farm and store.  This property was originally owned by an Amish family, but is now in the possession of Evelyn Brumwell, who is busy renovating the farmhouse and tending to her alpaca herd, along with spinning and running a farm store as well as an Etsy shop.  I purchased some two-toned yarn after seeing a shawl she had on display made with the soft fiber.  I also couldn’t resist two skeins of hand-painted alpaca yarn—out of which I think I will make fingerless gloves or a cowl.  Evelyn has a blog with lots of pictures of her operations and local scenery.
I wished I had lots of money to spend on the soft alpaca yarn at the YB Normal farm store.  But for now am happy with the
skeins below that I did buy. 

On this trip, my husband and I were also extremely fortunate to spend a few nights in a large historic house.  A retirement venture of Cindy’s sister and her husband, this venue is used for weddings and other events.  But most of the large parties are held in the beautifully rustic converted dairy barn out back.  The business is a nonprofit one, and proceeds derived from Red house events go toward youth development efforts in the Cassadaga Valley region.  No one lives in the house, so, for a few days in the middle of the week, my husband and I lived in the style to which we would like to be accustomed.  It was, however, a lot more cozier and lots of fun to stay in my friend Cindy’s cottage by the lake, with its homemade quilts and quirky cat Graymalkin (named for the Weird Sisters' cat in Macbeth, not the member of the Young X-Men from Marvel Comics).  I enjoyed many pleasant hours there, chatting and knitting on the porch. 
The Red House's website describes the house as "one of the best examples of 2nd
 Empire  French architecture in Western New York."  It is a stunning place.  
I had to put on a long skirt and sit and knit in this sunny alcove. 
With two stories of party space, the dairy barn is large enough to accommodate a wedding reception for several hundred people.

Cindy's sister made the chandeliers in the barn from Amish buggy
Another freak thunderstorm cut short my family's enjoyment of a Fourth of July parade in Mayville.  The Scottish bagpipers, however,
not to be dissuaded by wet conditions, forged on.