Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Introducing the Bouldnor Mitts

This weekend, the 26th and 27th July is rather a momentous one for me. For the first time, my friend Nic and I will have our own stand at Fibre East, a lovely fibre festival in Bedfordshire where Nic will be selling her beautiful hand dyed yarns and I will be selling my patterns.

I'm delighted to say that I have a new collection of patterns which will be launched in hard copy at Fibre East and will be available online via Ravelry next week. I thought you might like to see a preview of at least some of them.

As you will know, my favourite things to design are fingerless mitts. I love wearing them as they are such a practical item for someone like me who lives in a city and needs something to keep my hands warm when it is chilly but is forever getting on and off buses, in and out of shops and really can't be doing with pulling my gloves off every time I need to reach for my Oyster card or rummage in my handbag.

Despite living in the city, I am still a country girl at heard and most of the inspiration for my work comes from my childhood home on the isle of Wight. The first pair of mitts I wanted to show you are no exception.

 I am pleased to introduce the Bouldnor Mitts. The inspiration for these heavily cabled mitts comes from a small, rather inaccessible and rocky beach on the north west coast of the Isle of Wight. On the surface it doesn't have a lot to offer as once you have scrambled down the overgrown footpath to reach it there is only a small patch of shingly sand and blue slipper clay, perfect for getting on you shoes and annoying your mother with.

As you explore further you discover that there are rocky ledges and long fronds of seaweed making the footing quite treacherous so after much slipping around and gasping and giggling everyone is pretty much wet through. It is these fronds of seaweed that inspire these mitts.

Although the charms of this beach may not be obvious it has hidden secrets which it doesn't give up easily. We always used to visit with our Uncle Bern and Aunty Gert who knew every inch of the land and shore. They would bring with them huge prawning nets (and a small one especially for us kids) which we would push through the seaweed and sand and if we were lucky would catch ourselves enough prawns for a beach barbecue.

There is nothing quite like sitting around a fire, wrapped in towels after hours spend splashing around pushing heavy nets through the water, peeling fresh prawns and watching the sun go down over the sea from a beach where you are the only people there. On an island crowded with holiday makers this was a rare and special secret place.

When I look at these mitts I think of the way the fronds of seaweed wrapped around each other and how jealously they guarded our harvest. It is, however, a simple cable pattern knit in fingering weight yarn, in this instance Quince and Co Tern, a wool and silk blend in the appropriately names shade Kelp.

I hope to see some of you at Fibre East. Nic and I will be in Cotswold Tent. Do come over and try on these mitts and imagine yourself sitting on a rock, looking out to sea from a small deserted beach.

Thanks to Nic for the great photos.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Sound and memory

Yesterday I had a brief Twitter conversation with a couple of friends about how one person might find a particular sound sinister and unsettling whilst another might find it soothing and reassuring. This resonates with the images and memories that a certain sound, possibly heard many years ago, might evoke.

The sound in question was the tinkling of wind chimes. For some it is eerie and reminiscent of horror and suspense movies. I blame John Carpenter for this. Other people find any regular sound that they are not in control of disturbing. I love the sound as it holds warm and happy memories for me. Our family had a set of Japanese glass wind chimes which were too delicate to be used every day so they were carefully packed away and brought out every Christmas along with the more traditional ornaments. I remember being allowed to gently pull the string and listen to the soft tinkling sound the chimes made as they touched each other. Inevitably, even with this careful use, one by one the chimes broke until it was no longer repairable.

My sister and I often spoke nostalgically of these chimes. None of the modern ones sounded  or looked 'right' to us. One day, however I struck Ebay gold...

Two very unprepossessing cardboard boxes arrived in the post.

The packaging gives a clue to the vintage of their contents. We think they must date from the 1950's or early 1960's.

Inside, instead of today's ubiquitous bubble wrap is a nest of the finest wood shavings to protect the delicate contents.

Slowly and gently, the chimes start to emerge from the tangled strands and the wind chime starts to take shape.

The glass chimes are all hand painted in very simple, but obviously Japanese strokes of colour. Some are long and thin and made of clear glass.

Others are diamond shaped. They are joined to the frame by the most flimsy of red strings, secured to the glass by small circles of gold paper.

Whilst the painting style is consistent, the shards of glass are cut from a range of clear and textured glasses making me wonder whether these were the offcuts from domestic glazing re purposed into something beautiful.

The whole thing is suspended from a network of red strings attached to two fine circles of tin, all knotted at the top to secure them with a small grey tag hanging down which can be gently pulled to hear the chimes.

It was so lucky that I was able to find two of these so I gave the other to my sister as a way of evoking happy memories of gathering together at Christmas as a family. As I write this I listen to the news and can't help but think about those people who set off on journeys and will now never return home and also of those whose homes are no longer safe places.

While I prepare for Fibre East I am reminded that no matter how busy I am I will make time to visit the P-Hop stand. Never has the work of Doctors Without Borders been more important.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Sheep in the City

As regular readers may know, my friend Nic and I have been working with Stepney City Farm over the last year. We run a knitting group there every Thursday lunchtime, have organised a Fleecy Fun Day and participated in their recent craft fair and are very much known as 'their knitters!'

As with most City Farms, Stepney is run as a working farm with the purpose of offering an educational and community development resource to local people. Amongst their livestock are four Jacob sheep, Tallulah, Trixie, Rosemary and one other whose name I am afraid I have forgotten.  

Jacob sheep are a rare breed with coloured fleeces which whilst not the softest in the world are still popular with hand spinners. This year two of the farm workers were trained in sheep shearing and we were asked to process their fleeces and to use them to demonstrate how the wool on a sheep's back can be put to use.

The first task was to wash, or scour the fleece which in its natural state is full of lanolin, dust and vegetable matter. As you can see, no specialist equipment is required, simply hot water, liquid soap, a clean cat litter tray and an old colander. Feline supervision is optional.

Once washed and dried an old pillow case makes a handy storage bag for the fleece.

The next part of the process is to  select some nice long locks from the fleece. Despite being first timers, our novice shearers did a really good job with plenty of usable fibre to be had. You might have noticed that in the photograph the sheep looks light  brown and white. You can see from this photo how the tips of the fleece have been sun bleached and that underneath it is a dark, rich brown.

Once the locks are selected they need to be carded to open them up ready for spinning.

This turns them into a fluffy cloud of fibre known as a rolag.

Now comes the spinning of the fibre. One of the wonderful things about Stepney City Farm is that they have a Rural Arts Centre with studios for craftspeople in residence. One of these Barn the Spoon, is an expert green wood carver who, whilst he specialised in spoon carving surprised and delighted us with this lovely drop spindle.

The wood for this spindle was harvested locally in Cemetery Park and carved using the simplest of hand tools.

I particularly like how you can see every stroke of the knife as it was cut into shape but at the same time is perfectly smooth and fit for its intended purpose.

It spins well and smoothly and fits in with the way that we have processed the fleece, slowly, carefully and with the minimum of fancy equipment until there is enough for a tea cosy for a teapot which Jess Joslin, the resident potter has promised to make to add some style to lunchtimes for the volunteers.

I will, of course, keep you posted and show your the teapot and its cosy when we have made it. I have absolutely loved being part of this process, collaborating with the other craftspeople on the farm to create something that represents the combined efforts of the team who care for the sheep, the shearers, the woodcarver  the potter and the fibre artists.

I'm sure the tea will taste extra good.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Taking the plunge

I am often astonished when I look down the sidebar of the blog to see that in the first few years of recording my knitting activity how much I used to finish. Nowadays I am lucky enough to earn my living as a professional knitter which strangely enough seems to leave me a lot less time for knitting - how did that happen?

Whilst I still absolutely love knitting socks, my output has certainly slowed from the memorable year that I attempted the 52 Pair Plunge, an online knitting challenge organised through Ravelry,  and managed a reasonably creditable 29 pairs.  With this in mind, and having examined the still alarming number of socks in progress I have in my knitting basket I have decided to join the much more modest 26 Pair Plunge and see if I can move them on to my sock drawer. The rules of the challenge are that socks need to be finished between July1st 2014 and June 30th 2015 but it doesn't matter when they were cast on so it is perfect for motivating me to do some finishing.

So, I a very pleased to report that I am able to present my first finished pair for this year,  Dawlish Socks from Coopknits Socks by Rachel Coopey knit in Clan, a much loved but sadly discontinued yarn by The Yarn Yard. I love Rachel's designs and when I cast these socks on last September entertained the notion of working my way through the book using my precious stash of Clan which, lovely as it is, being a discontinued yarn can't really be used for my own designs. I'm very tempted to raid the stash for  casting on the next pair but I really should finish some works in progress first.

I'm really pleased with the way the socks have turned out although having such a long hiatus between starting and finishing meant that I found it hard to regain the rhythm of the pattern and did about as much ripping out as I did knitting on the second sock. The pattern is perfectly well written - it was just me repeatedly losing the plot by thinking I remembered what was going on rather than referring back to the pattern!

One of the reasons that the yarn is a great favourite of mine is that the multiple plies make a dense, smooth yarn that gives excellent stitch definition. It is on the heavy end of the sock yarn spectrum which makes for a very dense, warm fabric.

I love the regular but asymmetric design of these socks. I must confess that they are designed to be a mirrored pair but I chose to make them identical as making sure I have them on the correct foot first thing in the morning would be a step too far for me at such an early hour.

Right, off to rummage in the knitting basket for lonely single socks.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Down to the sea

I have just returned from a few days in a cottage in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. Aldeburgh is a small, quiet and artistic community famed for its annual music festival. The High Street is full of picture postcard cottages, book shops and galleries and an amazing fish and chip shop. 

However, my favourite part of Aldeburgh is the seafront. There are none of the usual features of a seaside town here - no amusement arcades and kiss me quick hats but equally, no exclusive restaurants and bars. What struck me most was the simplicity of a small town which continues to make some part of its living from the sea.

Of course, there are some artfully placed reminders of the history of fishing in the area with this beautifully restored boat.

And a steady stream of tourists ensure that fishermen can find a ready market for their catch straight from the beach.

The beaches that I grew up with are very different to this. I am used to cliffs and bays and coves but have to say that I am drawn to the straight lines of sky, sea and beach that this open coastline offers.

I love some of the juxtapositions of modern fishing boats and their ephemera with the coastal plants attempting to gain a foothold and softening the stark lines of the landscape.

There are no jetties here so the boats are simply hauled back up onto the beach by tractors and winches,

Nature starts to overwhelm abandoned machinery.

All the equipment for the task of fishing lies out on the wide expanse of beach.

In some cases threatening to engulf the boats entirely.

And what was I doing while all this hard work was going on?

Sometimes I put my feet up on the patio and knitted.

And sometimes I knitted by the sea. It was wonderful to spend some time just sitting and watching this simple landscape accompanied by the gentle rhythm of my needles. A perfect way to relax.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Slow Craft

Another of the things that I love about knitting is that it is a slow craft. Fabric is built stitch by stitch with every inch of the yarn passing through the knitter's hands and finding its place through their deliberate movements. Friends who love to sew can dream of a garment in the morning and be wearing it in the evening. Not so the knitter. Whilst we don't get that instant gratification, any garment that we produce really feels as if it takes part of us with it as it has been our companion for days, weeks, months or even years. 

I decided I needed a new cardigan back in November and chose to knit Old Town by Carol Sunday. I described my fascination with the construction and the fun of not really knowing where the piece was going to take me next. This of course, once the bodice was complete subsided into swathes of stocking stitch because I had of course decided that I wanted a long line cardigan. Perfect TV knitting if I watched much TV.

Therefore, despite really enjoying every stitch, it has taken between November and now for me to finally put the finishing touches to my cardigan. I often feel slightly sad when if sew in the very last end, particularly with a large project as it has now stopped being my knitting and is now just a cardigan. But it is a beautiful cardigan in one of my favourite yarns, Elsbeth Lavold's Silky Wool, in a gorgeous rich brown and I'm looking forward to wearing it.

 I'm afraid the coat hanger shot really doesn't do it justice.

And it looks even less prepossessing from the back but let me assure you, I really like the way it fits and the beauty really is in the detail.

I love the fact that I can't see the provisional cast on at the back of the bodice. The only clue to its existence is the change of direction in the lace border.

The short row shaping of the shoulder gives a really good fit.

Increases to give the skirt a slight flare work flow beautifully into the lace edging.

This is definitely a more feminine cardigan than I am used to wearing but its easy shape means that I think it is going to become a firm favourite.

It was worth waiting for.

Monday, 16 June 2014

How to knit an aeroplane

When I wrote the title to this post I couldn't help but be reminded of Holly Golightly's line in Breakfast at Tiffany. 'I might be knitting a ranch house...' I may be a keen knitter but I usually confine myself to garments and accessories. However, when English Heritage asked me to run a knitting workshop during World Wide Knit in Public Week to help raise awareness for the Britain from Above digital archive of aerial photography I was intrigued.

The RAF Museum at Colindale has kindly offered to host an exhibition of this important archive which   makes available to everyone thousands of aerial images of Britain taken by the Aerofilms company between 1919 and 1953. 

To provide an extra talking point and to get people involved with spreading the word about the archive, Britain from above decided that a knitted aircraft was just the thing! When I was first told about the project I have to admit that I imagined a full sized plane. I was somewhat relieved to see that our plane is a replica, kindly made by students at the University of Hertfordshire. Even so, our needles needed to get flying! (Sorry...)

With the assistance of lovely volunteers Laura, Yvonne and Maggie, Sandra from English Heritage and I spent a busy and enjoyable day encouraging people to come and sit down and knit a few rows. We also taught lots of children to knit and finger knit. Special thanks to Rachel, a mum who came with her husband and son and happily settled in with us for the day, producing metres and metres of knitting and finger knitting while they spent the day looking at planes. She thinks that the Museum should have a permanent knitting corner - of course we agreed!

It was sometimes a little disconcerting to look up from our crafty corner to see ourselves and our little woolly biplane dwarfed by planes of all shapes and sizes.

The smallest plane in the building has to be this little blue one - but it has a very important role in the project and is one that everyone can join in with.

Britain from above has produced a knitting pattern for this little aircraft and is inviting people to knit one, or more, and using their photography skills and imagination, choose a photo from the archive and attempt to recreate it and send it in to the team at Britain from Above. They will upload the photo into their gallery. This is a chance for the whole family to get involved. The pattern is really simple so even a beginner knitter could make one. After that, everyone can bring to bear their creative and photographic skills to make the most spectacular and imaginative image that they can (without of course risking life and limb..). We talked to families, Scout Troops and Brownie Packs who all took away leaflets and planned to have a go.

Why don't you have a go too? Let me know if you do. I'm planning to knit a plane and take it on my summer travels!