Thursday, August 30, 2012

Falling for the Season's Line-up (of Knitting Contests)

With the impending change of seasons, knitting magazines are chock-full of the kind of woolly, romantic looks I love.  Along with these sartorial markers of change come opportunities to take part in design competitions and other knitting-related challenges.    

Before giving details about these contests, I have to say that I think this whole blogging thing has gone to my head.  I may only have a handful of people who read my blog, but the fact that I have a presence in cyberspace has filled me with a deluded sense that I’m somehow part of the whole knitting/media/design industry—even if I’m really just a high school English teacher with an obsessive interest in knitting.  So when I received an email from Rowan stating that I might be interested in vying for a coveted slot as an “ambassador,” I have to say that I was puffed up with pride a bit—I thought that somehow, magically, I’d been singled out, like a social climber garnering a coveted invitation to an exclusive society gala, and that magical word “ambassador” with all its elite connotations kept rolling around my brain.  As this challenge requires submitting a photo of me wearing a project knit with Rowan yarn, in a virtual fog of feeling special and sought after, I poured over yarns and patterns online and purchased some gorgeous Rowan Tweed Aran and Tweed Collection, a new Rowan pattern book.  (I’ll show pictures of my work in progress after my package arrives and I’ve cast on.) 

I have to say, my thoughts and behavior were a bit like those of Malvolio imagining matrimony and donning yellow cross garters in response to a missive from his “lady love” (those familiar with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night will get this reference to the puffed-up Puritan man servant who falls for a ruse in the form of a fake love letter addressed to him).  Anyway, my mind swam with dreams of fame (at least in the knitting world) until I did some searching today and realized that Rowan’s offer to become a “Rowanette” (or “Rowanet”) is splashed on Facebook and on the company’s webpage.  In actuality, anyone--who knits, that is--can send in a submission for consideration.  While Rowan Ambassadors won’t be provided with rides in limos or offered invitations to chic London parties, they will be offered other perks, such as the chance to review Rowan yarns and publications.  Armed with this new information and a wry   amusement at my previous inflated sense of my media presence, I do still plan to prevail— I’ll knit a garment, model it in a photograph, and submit that image along with 100 words stating why I would make a great Rowanette.  Whatever the outcome, I’m always happy to have an excuse to indulge in my passion for gorgeous tweed yarn.  

Here is one of the colors I will use in my project.  I purchased
the yarn from Jimmy Beans Wool.

Debbie Bliss is the sponsor of another competition.  Entrants must design a baby blanket using Baby Cashmerino or Eco Baby, photograph it, and send the image, along with the finished project’s measurements, to Debbie Bliss herself.  The deadline is January 21, 2013, so I might actually have time to knit the design I’ve sketched—if I don’t get too sidetracked by creating holiday gifts.  Details appear on page 14 of the Fall/Winter issue of Debbie Bliss Knitting Magazine, a publication which not only offers a stunning visual feast, but also contains some engaging reading, including an interview with Eisaku Noro and a moving account of Louisa Harding’s participation in a Nepal Hiking Challenge in order to raise money for Macmillan Cancer. 

Finally, one other contest recently came to my attention, but, as I’m still somewhat of a novice knitter, I’ll probably have to decline participating in this one as I’m still pretty shaking about calculating garment measurements and incorporating complicated details into a project—especially in a few months’ time.  The elegant 30th anniversary issue of Vogue Knitting includes instructions for participation in its annual design challenge, one where the winner will receive a free trip to New Zealand.  Participants must design a garment using Zealana’s yarns—the company’s possum fiber is intriguing and its limited edition pearl infused yarn (in honor of Vogue Knitting’s 30th anniversary) is sublime.  Entries must be submitted by November 30, 2012.  Winners will be announced in January at a gala dinner at Vogue Knitting Live in New York.  Go to Vogue Knitting for information. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Working Strands Together

A woman of a certain age sits alone by the fireside, quietly plying her needles.  The anachronistic ticking of a clock keeps time with the supple movements of her hands.  The obligatory cat nestles at the woman’s side.  Like her owner, the cat is languid and plump, ignoring the yarn that feeds the project, its sinuous motion no longer tantalizing, as it was when she was a kitten.    

This image is one that is evoked in the minds of many people when they contemplate knitting.  I didn’t buy into this stereotype when I taught myself to knit a little under four years ago, as I had a vague idea that that somewhere in the world there were young knitters (some of them even celebrities), but I did accept the solitary nature of the craft, as I had no notion of the vibrant social aspects of knitting.  At that time, I picked up yarn and needles in the cold and dark of December and taught myself to knit.  I did view online instructional videos and had heard Ravelry mentioned a time or two when I made initial forays to the knitting store, but ultimately my activity was a solitary one.  

As my knitting skills have progressed, however, I have found that my private knitting has evolved into an avenue for me to make connections with other people.  Last spring, I participated in in a Downton Abbey knitting exchange sponsored by two bloggers.  I not only loved the time I spent browsing the internet and magazines, looking for inspiration for pieces reflecting the time period in which the program is set, I also was able to share gifts and correspondence with a hospice nurse in Colorado.  When I traveled to Italy last summer on a school field trip, I mentioned to a teacher at a school we were visiting that I loved to knit.  Her mother, who had recently passed away, had been a knitter, and touched perhaps by the fact that I shared an enthusiastic interest in this same hobby, this woman offered to drive me (in her neat little Smart Car) to a yarn outlet, an amazing place with room after room of low-priced gorgeous yarns.  This Italian woman and I now exchange letters, the real kind, and discuss visiting one another someday, and I continue to knit with the yarn I purchased on this trip.    

I received these items as a part of the Downton Abbey exchange. 
There is nothing like the pleasure of receiving a real letter, delivered to my mail box in front of my house. 

While taking part in Knit and Crochet Blog Week last year (sponsored by Eskimi Makes), I spent some time reading other participants’ blogs.  One of these, struck me---not only for its aesthetic and oh-so-British appeal to my Anglophile sensibilities but also because its crocheting creator and I seemed to share an affinity for certain interests, including but not limited to:  Beatrix Potter, British literature, baking, and English country life.  In response to some mutual correspondence, Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse sent me a care package to feed my love of all things British (and my love of knitting), and I sent her some books we’d discussed as well as some other items, including a handmade crochet hook holder. 

My new British friend sent me some wonderful yarn from her region of England, which I'm using to create a swatch for future fingerless gloves.  She also sent me the book below (which presents a warm and witty vision of a teacher's life in a village in England some years ago) and a beautiful journal with a cover she'd made from scraps of Liberty Fabric. She also included some family recipes.   
Interestingly, cheese straws are British fare, but are a part of southern American cuisine as well.   I'd never heard of them until I moved south. I tried the recipe this past weekend, and my family enjoyed the small dainy snacks (so much so that they were gone before I remembered to take a picture). 

In addition to meeting other knitters at the rare, but so precious, times when I am able to take a class or venture to a knitting event (such as Vogue Knitting Live that I’ve raved about in past posts), knitting has also forged a link to the past for me.  I recently learned that my great grandmother was a knitter, and an aunt has given me a copy of one of her patterns as well as a diminutive needlework book that belonged to my grandmother.  This work's prose has a  a formal tone that speaks volumes about how our language (and body of seemingly intuitive female knowledge about needlework) has devolved over time.  I love how some of the knitting patterns include words such as “invariably” to discuss how simply and easily the knitter will find a certain number of stitches on each needle when working a complicated pattern using fine cotton thread. 

     Serendipitously, at a time in my life when I am burdened with a barely manageable schedule of work and family demands, a time when a visit with an actual flesh-and-blood female friend might happen once every couple of months (if I’m lucky), I have discovered a way to make connections through my knitting.  But both the social and solitary aspects of knitting have their place.  While there exists an element of shared excitement and pleasure when my knitting and the outside world intersect, there is something pleasing about sitting alone (or curled up with a cat), in a house that is quiet and serene, moving my needles, satisfied as rows incrementally  increase to build a garment.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Hope Strings (or Sometimes You and Your Lace Project Need Counseling)

When the lace pattern and its
bobbles flow smoothly, life
is good.  (I'm making Louisa
Harding's Oaksike from Little
Cake pattern book.)
You fell in love.  The romantic image of a dewy young woman, standing by a hedgerow in the English countryside captured your romantic sensibilities.  She sported a lacy cardigan, long-sleeved, the color of cornflowers, a garment seemingly crafted by fairies, so gossamer and perfect was the yarn from which it was created.  You searched high and low, willing, this time, to pay the price for lavish yarn, a rare heathery mixture of silk and wool, in dusty rose, rather than the sample's blue.  Your passion was worth the extravagance.  In the throes of your initial infatuation, you cast on, put the project away for a while, picked it up again, and knit three rows, and then eight more, in perfect lace—no tearing out, no coming to the end of a row and finding that you were shy of one necessary stitch, no picking up dropped stitches along the way.  This match was made in heaven.

It is evening.  You glance at the pattern.  You look again, this time with more concentration.  Your brow furrows.  You read, “Change to 3.25 mm (US 3) circular needles.”  This statement appears before the instructions for the last eight rows.   You were supposed to cast on and knit several rows using size six needles and then switch to size three.  Such an unorthodox beginning, you think.  Normally it’s smaller needles and then larger.  You’ve used the wrong size—not the first time you’ve made this mistake in a new relationship (see my blog post "Throw Me a Lifeline" from March of 2012).  You’re irritated, but not angry.  Bumps are natural along the way of getting accustomed to your project, you suppose.  Sadly you rip out and begin again, knitting away, gradually forgetting your dismay at this initial eye-opening revelation, and rekindle your love affair. 

You and your project are now knit together in a fine marriage of purpose and high ideals.  You will come together and create something refined and beautiful, an offspring worthy of the gods.  You ply your needle and the fabric grows.  Along the way, you discover, however, the rocks that need to be pulled from your field, in order to keep smoothly plowing, so that your harvest will be bountiful. 

You find that noise, troublesome pets, demanding doorbells and cell phones, unyielding school schedules drain the vitality from your marriage.  You mean to devote more time to your project, but when you try to steal a few moments in the evening to bond with it, you find yourself peevish and ultimately furious when you realize that you’ve bungled a row, three rows back.  You discover that the perfect slip one stitch, knit two together, pass slipped stitch over  that creates wonderful stacked Gothic arches in your knitting has produced instead an off kilter, leaning tower—sixteen times in one row of your sweater.  You need time!  An expanse of calm to deal with flaws and wounds to your psyche. 

You pour some wine, and then some more, and attempt that row with sixteen repeats and a total of 32 yarn overs again.  A discussion of dental appointments the next day interrupts your labors, and then the dog jumps on the couch, fastening your ball of yarn securely under her bulky heft and gazing at you with abandoned, mournful eyes.  This time you’re more than peeved, but not at the dog.  A string of invective emerges from your lips.  You need a break to reassess this relationship.

The morning dawns fine and bright.  You’re contrite.  You don’t want to sever yourself from your lace sweater.  You extract the fine mess from your knitting bag and begin counting stitches and then ripping out, but you’re halfway through a row and you notice that it’s time to go to work.  The fact that your issues can’t be addressed immediately festers all day.  You know that when you return home in the evening, you will be bleary eyed and tired, in no shape to deal with painful complexities. 

This process repeats itself, with moments of blissful peace, when the atmosphere is calm, when you are not fatigued, when the sun shines, when you are able to find stolen moments when productive harmony prevails, but those times are few and far between.  The months roll by.  Your initial aspirations have paled a bit.  You just want to finish this project.  At times, a glimmer of your initial idealism and hope shimmers through.  The rest of the time it’s the deadening day-to-day routine that sucks the life out of much of your relationship. 

With a picot edging and sides and a back that are knit in one piece, this pattern has heartbreaking appeal. 
Ultimately, however, the choice is yours.  Abandon hope or persevere?  Should the knots and thickets become too frustratingly agonizing, it may be best to sever ties completely.  Tear out. Rewind.  Give the yarn away.  Or maybe it’s time to get to work.  Schedule a retreat somewhere, where you and your lace can regroup and recommit, free from the cares and interruptions of your ordinary life.  Ultimately, with time and dedication you’ll end up with something beautiful, maybe not the romantic vision of your dreams, but darn close, despite the snags and tears along the way. 

Note:  I saw Hope Springs this past weekend and, after some uncomfortably embarrassing moments watching Meryl Streep’s and Tommy Lee Jones’s characters attempt to rekindle their romantic passions, I made a connection to my own relationship (with a current lace project). 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bag Ladies

Bag lady you goin' hurt your back
Draggin' all 'em bags like that
I guess nobody every told you
All you must hold on to is you, is you, is you

Erykah Badu - "Bag Lady"

Fabric swatches from homemade curtains. Halloween costumes in varying stages of completion. Hand-smocked dresses. Cards of paint samples. These are some of the items a former co-worker used to bring school, where she would proudly extract them from bags--to display to anyone who chanced upon her in the hallway or teacher's lounge. She was the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher and her speech—peppered with “Bless her heart!”--flowed out in a thick drawl. Her upbringing and culture were vastly different from those of my own northeastern childhood, but we shared an interest in creating, color, and design, and I enjoyed hearing about and seeing her projects.  

During those years of diaper changes and potty training, I was too frazzled to do much sewing, except during summer breaks, and I hadn’t yet learned to knit.  I did enjoy taking LOTS of pictures of my children, though, and I have to confess that I, in a manner similar to that of the aforementioned co-worker, typically had a stack of photos at the ready, for whatever unfortunate victim passed by my classroom door, where I stood ready to pounce on my prey during class changes.

Here's a recently finished felted project I haven't
dragged to school to show off. The
pattern is "Kiss a Hundred Frogs" by
Interweave Press. I changed the eyes,
though, and felted round balls with
black centers (using white and
black roving). I also knit little hoods
for the eyes.

I’m a little older now, and my interests have shifted somewhat, but the desire to say, “Look at what I made,” seems to be just as strong. I don’t knit at work, but I carry a large project bag with me every day.   I am certain that most of my fellow teachers do not care about knitting and, in fact, don’t seem particularly interested in handicrafts of any kind, so I’ve learned (after my initial enthusiastic project parades) to limit my sharing to those who I know appreciate crafting, sewing, or art. While some faculty members do admire my knitted garments when I don them for school, I have a niggling sense that those same people might view me as immature if I pull out works in progress to show them. 

I'm determined to work on this now, a cardigan from Louisa Harding's Little Cake book.  I loooove this Louisa
Harding Willow Tweed yarn.  I haven't brought this particular work to school, though, as there isn't much to see yet.

This is a capelet that will have an over-sized turtle neck.  Unfortunately, I have run out of yarn, and this Debbie Bliss
Como yarn (it's her pattern, too) has been discontinued and is virtually impossible to find in the US.  Luckily, however,
I found some Como from the same dye lot on sale at an online  shop in England. 

I am also perplexed by the conundrum:  Does my desire to show off my creations reflect a kind or arrogant boasting or is it a manifestation of a need for constant praise and affirmation, due to a deficiency of self-esteem?  I’m not certain.  Maybe neither.  Perhaps proudly blazoning my knitwear is a product of a simple need for others to recognize my competence.  Like a child who screams, “Watch, Mom,” before he jumps into the pool, and is rewarded by a  sense of mastery and a parental smile, displaying my wares is a way of saying, “I may be forgetful sometimes, I might lose my cool with difficult students, and I occasionally lack the self-control to squelch a cranky complaint at a faculty meeting, but I can knit lace—with mohair! 
I love this yarn.  It's made of wool and cashmere, and is
perfect for cold weather.  I hope something similar goes into production again.

Or maybe I am altruistic—I want others to share the pleasure I gain from handling and working with colorful fibers, and the excitement I experience as I delve into creating new garments.   
I need to finish my May Queen Mouse.

Thankfully, I don’t have to flourish knitwear in front of unwitting co-workers any longer to fulfill some sort of enigmatic inner need, as I’ve discovered the world of blogging, Facebook, and Pinterest, as well as a flesh-and-blood knitting group.  Of course, sometimes I just can’t control my urges and have to waylay some poor soul between classes at my high school.  To him or her I might seem like juvenile behavior, akin to a child shouting, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  But maybe, just maybe, I’m not so unusual.  This need for affirmation, or maybe  shared joy at appreciating the same object, is perhaps in all of us—just not always visible when it is not manifested in a big knitting bag filled with yarn. 

This baby cardigan from Debbie Bliss's Essential Baby Knits is a pleasure to work.  Watching the tiny neat rows--knit with size two and three needles--grow is very rewarding. 
The solid-colored yarn is from Cascade, and the variegated is from Berrocco.  I plan to made a garment that is a bit of a cross between a shrug and a shawl.  The pattern is worked holding two strands together, so the finished product will be quite

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Vogue Knitting Live . . . in Charlotte!

I took this picture at Vogue Knitting Live
in New York (January 2011).

I was surprised when I opened the latest issue of Vogue Knitting magazine a few weeks ago and saw that Vogue Knitting Live (VKL) was coming to my neck of the woods this fall--from Thursday, September 20 through Sunday, September 23. A smaller version of the Chicago and New York events, VKL Charlotte offers fashion shows, shopping, as well as an array of classes taught by members of the knitterati.  I’ve signed up two take two:  “Design Your Own Triangle Shawl," taught by Brooke Nico and another entitled “Edging and Flower Power,” instructed by Nicky Epstein.  Lectures, given by prominent individuals in the knitwear industry, are also offered, and I'll be attending one on design inspiration given by Lily Chin.  Vickie Howell will also be present at the beginners' lounge. 

While I am thrilled to be able to take advantage of VKL's close proximity, I was once again frustrated by the unyielding demands of my day job as a public high school teacher that prevent me from signing up for a five-part course in couture knitting that is divided into multiple sessions held over several days.  All teachers, barring their admission into the intensive care ward, of the hospital must be present for training on periodic early release Fridays, such as the one on September 21 (when part one of the couture class is offered). 
This couture creation greeted visitors at the entrance to VKL in
New York (2012). 

Alas, while I might sound a bit bitter, I do understand that feeding my family must come before knitting.  I can’t help, however, but lament this sacrifice.  On a brighter note, however, there are lots of happenings on Saturday and Sunday, and I plan to avail myself of fashion shows and shopping opportunities on those days. 

My local yarn shop, Cottage Yarn, will have a prominently-placed booth, where its wares will be on display before the large group that should be in attendance.  VKL in Charlotte is being held in conjunction with the Southern Women’s Show, an annual gathering of scores of exhibitors whose offerings include lifestyle, fashion, beauty, and cooking products and services. 

I hope that all Carolina knitters, and those from adjoining states, attend and sign up to take classes.  Maybe if Vogue Knitting Live is successful, next year will see the same event on a larger scale.  Our small southern city seems to be gaining in stature and exposure lately, so anything is possible. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Dyeing for Blueberries

This book provides a wonderful introduction to creating and
using plant-based dye.
A little over a year ago, full of creative aspirations, I purchased a book at my local Barnes and Noble.  Entitled Natural Dyeing, this work is a well-organized, clear, and visually appealing  guide to using fruits, roots, leaves, and other natural products to create colorful raw fiber, fabric, and yarn.  This weekend I finally took the time to experiment with dyeing wool yarn with blueberries I had in the freezer—fruit which was a couple of years old, shriveled, and dehydrated. 
While Jackie Crook, the author of Natural Dyeing, does not give specific instructions for dyeing blueberries, I followed the general directions she provided for using blackberries.  I’ll share some instructions here, but be aware that there are different processes for different types of fiber, and that some substances, such as indigo, require vat dyeing—a procedure different from the one I used.  The author of this beautifully designed and informative book, however, does encourage fiber artists to experiment—as I did a bit with my project, since I used blueberries instead of blackberries and yarn, rather than the raw fiber suggested in her chapter on blackberry-based dye. 
Synthetic fibers do not retain natural dyes, so wool, cotton, and silk are the best choices.   There are many types of
mordants, which help fiber hold color, but to dye using blackberries, the author suggests using alum, combined with cream of tartar (so I used the same mixture for my blueberry experiment).   
I wound my yarn on an old-fashioned yarn winder, so that it would open up to absorb dye.  Be sure to
tie hanks of yarn in several places, to avoid tangling. 
Add a few drops of laundry detergent to the hanks of yarn and let soak, then rinse. 
I used a kitchen scale to measure the alum and cream of tartar.  For wool, the amount of alum used should equal 10 percent of the dry weight of the material to be weighed.  Cream of Tartar equal to seven percent of the total weight of the fiber should be combined with the alum.  Look at the weight in grams on the yarn package and do some calculating. 
Let the water with the mordant and the yarn simmer for an hour, and then let sit,
preferably overnight. 
In her book, Crook suggests using 10 1/2 ounces of blackberries for every
100 grams of fiber.  I had a lot of fiber (three skeins at 227 grams each), so I figured that I should have an amount of berries equal to Crook's instructions for blackberries.  I guesstimated a bit, but used at least five-to-seven pounds of berries.  Take berries and simmer for one hour, and then steep for another hour.  Strain berries.  (I wasn't too concerned about consistency of color, so I strained right into the pot that contained the yarn.) 

Simmer the wool in the dye bath for one hour.  If you want consistent color, be
 sure to stir a bit.  Cool until yarn reaches desired color. 

Rinse the yarn in water that is the same temperature as the
cooled dye bath. Notice how the hue really changes after

Hang up to dry. 

Wind into ball and start knitting!
As the state of North Carolina is set to demolish my mother-in-law's blueberry patch (the prolific source of the berries in my freezer) in order to build an access road to a highway, I hope to use my new yarn to create a garment to wear as a reminder of summer hours in the country spent picking berries.  Robert Frost's poem "Blueberries" best expresses the awe-inspiring nature of each new crop:    

"You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson's pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!"

Announcement:  The winner of last week's prize giveaway is Knitmish.  She is a nursing student who is also a prolific knitter, with a display of gorgeous projects on Ravelry.  Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment on my blog.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pay it Forward: Free Knitting Goodies

While the rest of the country enjoys the steamy last month of summer, I am back at work.  Busy scrambling, I am hoping to present my students (who return on Monday) with a classroom with some modicum of organization (managed by an instructor who doesn’t look as if she just rolled out of bed).  After an emotionally fraught first day back yesterday, when I discovered that over 15 years’ worth of my digital files had been erased from my school’s server, I am back on track today toward my goals for a smooth start to the school year.  My hysterical rant to several of my school system’s technology staff resulted not only in traumatized young male engineers, but also in my files being extricated from some mysterious cyber storage area, so I am back in business.  
In the midst of my desperate quest to retrieve files, en route to our school system's central technology office,  I made a frantic trip to Target to purchase an external hard drive (to use to store transferred data).  There, I made a quick stop in the ladies room.  As I speedily washed my hands, an old silver-haired lady with a walker, who stood near the paper towel holder, smiled at me and inquired, “In a hurry?”

She had such a pleasant face and for the first time in the several hours since my discovery of a vacant space on the “H Drive” of my computer, I exhaled and released some tension.  I told the woman that I needed to be at work, but that I had an urgent errand.  She gazed at me warmly and said, “You’ll slow down someday.” 

While her statement might be interpreted as reflective of a pessimistic, cranky attitude, the woman's delivery and demeanor was so comforting that her words had a positive effect.  They, coupled with her walker and feeble appearance, made me take pause, bringing me back to reality from my overindulgence in stressful emotion.  Her presence highlighted more essential and important human concerns, and made my loss somehow seem trivial—not nearly as important as aging with its physical frailty and ultimate outcome. 

In honor of this woman (whose name I don’t know), I am giving away a couple of items:  Tea Cozies 3 (a new book with lots of cute patterns), the newest issue of Interweave Knits (for some reason I receive two copies every month), and a small gift of yarn (specific type to be determined).  Here’s how to enter to win:

Post a comment here, telling me what type of yarn is your favorite and why.  You do not have to mention brand names, but doing so is okay.  I will randomly pick a winner.