Sunday, July 28, 2013

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

"By the pricking of my thumbs.  Something wicked this way comes."

When I recently saw a picture of the new Harry Potter Knits magazine posted on Facebook by some distant yarn shop, I knew I would have to buy this publication.  So on a recent trip to Cottage Yarn, I was thrilled to see a stack of glossy, inviting copies  for sale.  I need to take a break from buying yarn for a while, as I have one too many projects cast on and don't want to leave any of them lifelessly lingering or abandoned forever, but I view magazines and books as valuable additions to a library, and a knitting magazine related to Harry Potter was too irresistible to ignore.

At my age I am not in the habit of reading a great deal of children's literature, although I loved having an excuse to read aloud some of favorite, albeit none-too-girlie, titles to my boys when they were little.  But I've always been an enthusiastic adult Harry Potter fan.  As a child I loved stories set in boarding schools, so this series appeals to  this previous fascination and, as a teacher, these books often offer a satirical, albeit allegorical, look at education. (Regular readers of my blog also already know my adoration for British literature.)  But aside from these areas of affinity, the magic, so desperately needed in our mundane lives, has to be a primary source of attraction for me and other Potter fans.

Harry Potter Knits includes an article about real places in England
associated with the films and books, but Oxford isn't mentioned.  Here is
bar near the dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, a place which looks like the
perfect setting for a glass of butter beer.  

The staircase below was used in one of the films.  I'm not certain about the passageway I'm in, but it looks suitable for
a Hogwarts scene.  

When the books came out there was controversy here in the Bible Belt.  Some of my high school students (not a majority but a significant minority)  were and still are not allowed to read the books or watch the films because they deal with magic.  One of my son's friends back in elementary school was forbidden to read of view anything Harry Potter, but strangely enough played violent level "M" (for mature) video games as a fifth grader and was allowed to watch The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf the magician plays such a prominent role.  Anyway, I don't really understand what sets the Potter books and films apart from so many other stories, where magic plays a role, and don't intend to examine that issue here, except to say that the massive popular appeal of these works may have something to do with the objections to them.  

I do have to concede that the Harry Potter films and books do deal with a scary dark evil foe whose depiction on film is, indeed, not suitable for younger audiences.  I learned this lesson the hard way when I allowed my then seven-year-old son Jonathan to view The Sorcerer's Stone, a decision which resulted in nightmares that prevented him (and his parents!) from sleeping through a full night until Jonathan reached his teenaged years.  The images of Voldemort's macabre face, which is unveiled near the end of the film, prompted some awful nightmares (from which Jonathan arose screaming and jumping to the floor with a loud thud).  While this experience is a supreme example of a parenting mistake that will haunt me forever, it still does not dissuade from my appreciation for Rowling's works.  The magic in the stories is presented in so whimsical, charming, and clever a manner and the stories offer such a moral message about self-sacrifice and unconditional love that I find them irresistible, and I can't imagine forbidding older children to read them or to view the films. 

Having Jonathan dress up as Hagrid for a midnight book  release party on a hot
and steamy July night (in 2007, I think) was probably another parenting mistake.
He wore real rabbit-skin books purchased from Goodwill to accompany the long, furry coat.  

So my pleasure is doubled:  Harry Potter . . . and knitting.  Together!  There are some beautiful patterns in this magazine--including those for an ethereal cape and a cabled men's canary sweater, but the owl cardigan shown on the cover is an item I intend to cast on soon.  I have some worsted weight wool that I dyed with blueberries last summer, and I have been stymied as to what to do with it.  Somehow this yarn seems suitable for this project, as its hue is the result of boiling concoctions in large pots after much measuring and weighing of chemicals and berries, and while I'm not a witch (although the high school students in my English classes might beg to differ) my soft earth-hued yarn seems to me to be the product of some weird process--not alchemical--but close enough.

Anyway, I refuse to put needles to this purple-gray yarn until I finish my Midsummer Aran--the red/rust colored sweater (discussed here) that indeed seems magical--as it a garment whose creation must be governed my mischievous bad sorcerers who trip me up at every turn.    Yesterday, I tore out an entire sleeve, yes, an entire sleeve, because, once again, I'd misread the pattern.  (When knitting in the round, remember to read all chart rows from right to left!)  I refuse to be conquered, though, and hope that my Harry Potter inspired cardigan project, when I begin it,  brings with it good magic back to my knitting experience.  

I had to find a suitably scary prop to use with my scary sweater sleeve
 (the partially reknitted one).  This cat was sculpted by my mother,
when I was a child.  

The locking mechanism on this trunk on display at the divinity school at the Bodlean Library looks whimsical and magical enough for a Hollywood film.  The school itself, shown below, is the location where the infirmary scenes in the Potter movies were shot.  

Oxford offered other treats for magic lovers, such as an exhibit of Magical
Books, which included a first Folio of Macbeth and sketches for J.R.R.
Tolkien. Go to the Bodlean site for more information.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Merrie Olde England

"You are nostalgic for an England that does not exist anymore.”

My husband said these words to me last year after I’d waxed poetic about the blog of Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse, a woman who resides in an English country village, enchanting her readers not only with pictures of her handmade crocheted and sewn items but also with images of her speckled bantams, of homemade cakes dripping with honey from the beehive in her yard, and of her English country garden.  I passed these comments on to Mrs. T (a moniker she uses to refer to herself), and she seemed intrigued, so much so that when I was finally able to meet her in the flesh a little over a week ago, she and her husband seemed quite determined to prove that the charming England of my childhood storybooks, 19th century novels, and BBC costume dramas is not a bygone memory. 

After passing nearly a week in the English countryside with the Tittlemouses (Tittlemice??) I have to say that the England I knew through literature and film--one of hedgerows and teatime, magic and fairytales, and quirky aristocrats and folksy villagers--still exists, if one looks beyond the frantic hubbub of the city and slows down enough to savor it.  My experience spending the week before my visit living and learning at Christ Church in Oxford also confirmed this sentiment.   

Views from a Week in Oxford
In this world, Beauty lurks behind ancient walls.

A magical staircase leads to the dining hall.  

And the hall looks like this.  

Here a library is beautiful and mysterious, with nary
a computer in sight.

Fireplace screens display fantastical creatures.

And a walk in a garden in the surrounding countryside has a
magical quality.  

In this place, even pigeons have a quaint, cozy home.

A kitchen garden is a work of art.  

And nature gilds everything.  

Views from a Visit in Oxfordshire

Thatched cottages still exist. 
Cows are plump and sleek and inquisitive.

And most are convivial and want to join in on the fun. 

Medieval churches dot the landscape.  

And eccentric clothing doesn't seem out of place.
(I sported this garb at Jane Austen's Chawton Cottage, a place, as a Janeite,
I've always wanted to visit.)

Here bells from a faceless clock created in 1525 measure out
one's days.

And Sunday visitors come bearing handmade gifts.
(This charming pincushion  was made for me by blogger Judith
Hamid of I Read, I Sewed, I Crocheted.
Go to her blog to read a post about the lovely visit she and I and Mrs. T. shared.)  

Romantic possibilities abound in the landscape.  
(This is Downton Abbey!  Well, really Highclere Castle--
the place where the BBC series is filmed.)

An afternoon snack is a home-baked scone, slathered with clotted
cream and homemade raspberry jam from fresh-picked

Woolly lambs grow fleeces that will one day become snugly sweaters.

Whimsical handcrafted trains travel in the backyard.  

And even church pews reflect artistry and imagination.  

Iron Age mysteries lure us with their voices from the past.
(Image is of Vale of the White Horse.)

Here a walk in the countryside with a new friend provides easy companionship
 and awe at how common bonds unite us, even when we live in worlds miles apart.
 (You can go to Mrs. T's blog to see a picture of us together.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Knit Oxford


While historic Oxford has inspired the creative whimsy of the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lewis Caroll, this bustling city--with the university its very heart and fiber--also has knitting shops to contribute to its vibrancy.  When I stayed there last week, I managed to squeeze in a visit to both of these locales.  The fact that both of these shops are relatively new to the city (the Oxford Yard Store opened in the past year and Darn it and Stitch turned three this past June) reflects current trends.  The knitting craze  among younger people that has swept the United States has, perhaps, been a bit slower to overtake Great Britain, even though wool production is historically such an integral part of this nation's economy . . .  but is now quickly taking hold.  While perhaps some Brits were reluctant to divorce themselves from the idea that knitting is a purely utilitarian and economical activity suited for older women, it now seems that slowly these notions are fading away and the energy of the new generation of knitters is being felt in this part of the world.  

This yarn bombed post is adjacent to the Bodlean Library.

This little yarn and fabric shop with a vintage flair is just 
a few footsteps away from Christ Church.

The Oxford Yarn Store is charming inside and out.

Taking a leisurely two-mile stroll from downtown Oxford to the shop
offers one a chance to soak in history and quaintness.

I decided to purchase some yarn from the Oxford 
Yarn Store that was made in the country I am visiting.

Leaving Oxford for a restorative sojourn in the countryside of Oxfordshire (after an exhausting time spent in the hustle and bustle of both London and Oxford), I've encountered many creatures who provide the raw materials for my hobby.   

These sheep grace the churchyard of the lovely medieval church in the charming village of Lockinge, in Oxfordshire.

I've managed to cast on a few rows of the Prairie Shawl from Juju's Loops.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Art (and Craft) Imitates Life

Loop is on the left.  

It seems fitting that when I arrived in London two days before I was scheduled to travel to Oxford for a week-long seminar dealing with two novels by Charles Dickens--Bleak House and Oliver Twist--that I found myself like so many of this author's characters, wandering forlornly about the city sorely lacking basic necessities, sporting a dirty shirt and wrinkled pants striped with grime about the cuffs.   Not an auspicious start to a journey.

I'd planned carefully, and on July 4, after much angsting about considerations such as the wisdom of packing three different pairs of black shoes, I flew to England via Miami.  Arriving in London tired but wired with anticipation, I learned that my my luggage had not arrived.  I also experienced some serious technical difficulties with an apparently ancient and anachronistic international cell phone (a loaner from Verizon), but won't bore my readers with a lengthy and tedious recounting of the hours and hours I spent troubleshooting, both before and during my trip.  Let's just say that phone cards are a much better option for overseas travel. 

I am an independent person and previously had been energized at the thought of taking off solo for parts unknown.  The bag issue unnerved me a bit,  but I attempted to remain optimistic that the missing item would be delivered to my hotel that night or the next morning at the latest.  Before modern bar codes and the Internet, I'd seen and heard how the airlines were efficient about getting missing luggage out to people overnight.

I should have known, however, that, in our modern technologically advanced age, sorting out the suitcase mess would not be so simple, as I'd experienced some ominous forebodings on the plane.  There, while attempting to work on a cabled circular designed sweater (an item I'd already ripped out about a hundred times due to a misreading of the chart and some sloppy errors), I found that I had a bunch of mistakes and had to tear out about five rows (204 stitches in each row) and then caught the tail somehow on some metal hardware that was a part of my seat and had to roughly rip to separate my so-called sweater from the the seat.  Not a good sign.

But ignoring any inauspicious omens (hope waxes eternal), when I arrived at Heathrow I filled out a missing bag report and navigated to my hotel. I then went out to explore the city and found myself sweltering with the groundlings at the Globe theatre watching a production of Macbeth.   After one of the teenagers students in the throng pressed around me fainted, I decided that I might to serious damage to my health by staying past  the intermission, as I'd had little sleep and my plastic clogs (the only shoes I had with me) were causing my feet to ache.  I couldn't bear the thought of wearing my grubby shirt any longer so set out on a quest for a new top and, after seemingly miles and miles and miles of walking, I found a simple cotton shirt at an outrageous price, but I was desperate.  Somehow, however, I couldn't make myself pay 25 pounds for a pair of underpants.

In a bit of a distressed state--exhausted, jet lagged, unable to contact British Air not only to technical difficulties related to my loaned phone but also to the fact that no human beings seem to actually be employed by the customer service department of that airline, I went to bed, but not until after discovering that my beautiful linen, alpaca, and wool sweater in progress was stained with strange gray blotches.  I'd found earlier that some body wash had leaked in my carry-on, but the substance on my knitting didn't appear to be soap.  It was gray and sticky, and, as I learned, indelible.  In a sleepy fog, I tore out nearly four inches of my sweater, cut off the yarn, attempted to wash the yarn to reuse it, and realized the gray matter was holding on fast.

On Saturday morning, Elizabeth, aka Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse, a talented and gracious woman I've gotten to know through blogging, swept into my hotel like some ministering angel, bearing two blouses, a skirt, a pretty handmade kimono, and a carefully packed bottle of laundry detergent.  These offerings were balm to my wounded soul,  and a very civilized lunch with her at the National Portrait Gallery after a visit to Loop added to my healing, even if I still didn't have my suitcase.

Loop is a charming shop located on a winding street bordered by quaint storefronts.  Anxious about how much money I might need to purchase clothing, I didn't engage in a major stash expanding shopping spree, but I certainly took advantage of the opportunity to absorb the colors and textures around me, forgetting my luggage woes for a while.  And I did purchase a skein of gorgeous hand dyed lace-weight yarn by Juno Fibre Arts, a British company and a book of patterns designed by the owners of Loop.  

Alas, my knitting and technical issues and luggage problems continued from the Friday I arrived until I learned on Sunday (after a train ride to Oxford) that my luggage was being held at my hotel--in London.  Amazingly, though, knowing that my luggage was finally located and secured, even if it was an hour's train ride away, I calmed down a bit and was able to knit without too many hitches on Sunday night and also worked a few rows on Monday morning, while sipping coffee. And I happily plied my needles on my sweater on a round-trip train ride to retrieve my bag.  (At this point after too many frustrating attempts to count to contact British Air, I was fearful of placing my bag in their hands again.)

Here at Oxford, from where I'm writing this, my schedule is a bit packed to complete too much knitting, but what I have done has not been fraught with too many technical difficulties, perhaps reflecting my lightened state.  Despite some glitches, I'm happy I packed my eerily prescient knitting into my carry-on--if only I'd included some clothing there, too.

My troublesome sweater looks right at home in its new surroundings.

A final note.  Things not to say to someone whose suitcase has been missing for three days:  

"I always pack a change of clothes in my carry-on."

"I never check any luggage."

"Just go out and spend.  The airlines will reimburse you."  I might believe this, if I were not suffering from computer generated voice menu overload and had proof that somewhere breathing beings handled airline business.   

"I've never had any problems flying."  This line, when delivered by a wealthy, well-groomed, imposing older woman in pressed white linen jacket to a short, rumpled woman with frizzy hair (blow dryer and flat iron were in suitcase) and plastic shoes particularly hurts.  This statement is even more painful when one considers that the individual to whom it was addressed has flown four times in the past two years and in that time experienced two cancelled flights--one leading to spending over 20 hours standing in the airport spread out over two consecutive days--with a brief break for some sleep in-between--and one forcing her to madly create substitute plans while simultaneously controlling gleeful high school students (who were thrilled their teacher had to leave school unexpectedly early to catch a flight to New York from Charlotte, NC).  This new flight, replacing the cancelled (and non-stop one), also provided same teacher with an opportunity for geographical enrichment, as she was able to see Chicago en route to New York from Charlotte (efficient route??), in the snow, from the runway where she sat for some time waiting for the plane to be de-iced.  

Clean with fresh clothes, I am now able to enjoy my surroundings.  (Here I am at Rousham Gardens.)