Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The lonely guanaco

As regular readers may recall, I often visit my sister and her family who live in the beautiful and dramatic countryside in Mid Wales. After a long train journey it's lovely to be picked up at the station and make the familiar drive to their village. It's a comfortable feeling to comment on what has changed, what has stayed the same and look out for the sort of wildlife that just doesn't live in an east London back garden. My favourite part of the drive is across a high plateau where red kites and buzzards perch on fences and flocks of sheep graze nearby. Occasionally, if we are very lucky a rather more long necked creature will be grazing amongst the sheep. It's the lonely guanaco.

A guanaco is a camelid,  non domesticated member of the llama family which, I understand make extremely effective guard animals for flocks of sheep. Whilst in Mid Wales they might not have coyotes or wolves to contend with, at lambing season the flock can still be vulnerable to foxes and buzzards or badly controlled domestic dogs so this is a working animal. We have often wondered aloud why the guanaco is alone in a field of sheep but have discovered that two or more are less effective as guard animals than one. In other words, they are such sociable creatures that they slack off their job to hang out with their mates.

This is why we have always felt a little bit sad for the lonely guanaco, like a lighthouse keeper he is destined to spend his days alone, keeping others from harm.

I've told friends this story, also observing that according to the reference books, guanacos have an undercoat which is much prized for its softness, second only to vicuna in the fineness of the fibres. It needs to be separated from the coarser guard hairs which means that the yield per animal is not great. Imagine my surprise and delight last week when a friend who has just come back from the California Wool and Fiber Festival gave me a small caramel coloured cloud and asked if I knew what it was. I could tell straight away that it was a camelid fibre. How we laughed when she told me that it was guanaco, and baby guanaco at that! She said that as soon as she came to the Royal Fibers booth and got chatting with the owner about guanacos she knew she had to bring me some fibre.

Having never spun such a fine fibre before I got out my trusty copy of the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook and found the relevant section - complete with a photo of the creatures themselves in their native habitat. The advice was to spin the fibres finely even if I want a thicker yarn so I chose the lightest of my IST spindles and carefully began. I certainly requires more concentration and patience than the more robust fibres that I am used to spinning and I need to take care to remove the very few remaining guard hairs as I go but so far so good.

I have an ounce of the fibre which I am hoping so spin into a heavy lace weight yarn and maybe make some very delicate fingerless gloves so that whenever I wear them I will think of the lonely guanaco and what happens if you are too easily distracted....

Monday, 22 September 2014

When sock knitting bears fruit

After a very warm late summer, this morning, just past the equinox I can feel that things are starting to change. The sky is bright and clear but the air has a crispness to it mingled with the peppery smell of falling leaves on cool damp earth. Autumn may finally be here.

I love this time of year. After the humid lethargy of a London summer, autumn air has a clean energy to it. Best of all, I can continue to use my garden as an outdoor office by making sure I have a good supply of hand knits to wrap up in - what's not to love?

As regular readers will know, I have a large and growing collection of hand knitted socks but that doesn't mean that I take them for granted. Of course, I have many pairs, some knitted in beautiful yarns, others made with intricate patterns and colour work but there is also a place in the sock collection for those work horse socks made with £2 balls of yarn for wearing around the house as you see here. One of them might also have been washed with something red giving it a slight pink tinge but, tucked inside my red Birkenstocks they still keep my toes cosy and fit perfectly. I still wouldn't swap them for a commercial sock.

 At the other end of the scale, these socks that I have just finished are my idea of yarn heaven. I am still going through my top down, plain sock knitting phase and chose one of my precious last skeins of Mountain Colours Bearfoot, a wool and mohair mix which makes some of the cosiest socks I have ever owned. They get quite fuzzy with wear but that just seems to make them feel warmer.

I'm afraid my camera hasn't quite been able to do justice to the deep reds and blues of the yarn.

You won't find me pulling these on first thing in the morning for a day working from home but if you see me out and about in my glad rags you might just find me slipping my shoes off and showing off my socks!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Creative Blog Hop

Last week Rachel from My Life in Knitwear tagged me as part of a creative blog hop where invitees are asked to talk  about their creative processes and methods of working.

I am lucky in that I work in the fibre crafts industry, primarily as a teacher but also as a designer and in retail. Knitting, crochet and spinning are also my main pastimes so very often my professional life and personal life wind themselves around each other and it can be very difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins at times. For the purposes of this exercise I will be talking about myself as a knitter and reflecting on how that influences my world both professionally and personally.


1. What am I working on?

As you can see from the photographs I usually have a range of projects going at any one time on top of any design work that might be going on. I have never been a monogamous knitter as for me, knitting has several different roles in my life and the projects that I take on reflect this. Sometimes I use my knitting as a way to relax at the end of a busy day so I need a project which is relatively simple and repetitive so that I can get into that meditative zone where i can really shake off the issues of the day. I spend a lot of my time travelling on public transport so I like to have a small, simple project such as a plain sock on the needles to fill in the moments when I am lucky enough to get a seat. I have knitted so many socks in my life that I now have the pattern memorised so it is a very easy project but has enough variety in its anatomy to keep me moving forward. Sometimes my imagination is captured by texture and I need to cast on to remind myself of the tactile pleasure of the opportunity to handle so many different materials. In my knitting world there is equal room for the softest merino to crunchier yarns such as Shetland and Jacob so my works in progress reflect this.

Alongside the projects that meet my needs for meditation and tactile pleasure are those which I choose to build my skills whether it be a new shape or construction technique, an intricate or complex pattern or a project which may take months rather than weeks to complete.

I have huge admiration for many of the designers in the knitting community today and I am delighted that I have the opportunity to enjoy their work whilst creating a niche of my own.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I wasn't sure how the balance of my work would develop when I decided to become a freelancer in this industry but am really pleased that most of my opportunities have arisen in the field of teaching. Many of my contemporaries appear to be primarily designers who teach. I am a teacher who designs. I teach a range of skills from beginners in knitting, crochet and spinning to intermediate knitters and sock knitters whether they be top downers or bottom uppers!

I get the greatest pleasure from helping someone gain a new skill and to watch skills and confidence blossom. I find teaching a child to finger knit and seeing them concentrating really hard and showing their work proudly equally satisfying as showing an adult the magic of constructing a sock heel where disbelief needs  to be suspended until the shape emerges.

Being someone who loves the company of other people I really enjoy the way that I am constantly learning about how people learn and developing different ways of approaching the teaching of a technique. Above all, the whole process should be fun for all of us. I love to entertain people with the extent of my fibre geekery, tales of mistakes I have made and the size of my yarn stash and to see knitters grow in skills and enthusiasm.

3. Why do I create what I do?

I've been a knitter for as long as I have been a reader and a writer so it really feels as if it is part of who I am. It has woven itself through my life in many ways. I have used it to relax, celebrate important occasions, express love for friends and family and preserve a small part of my creative self whilst spending the majority of my life and career in making a living in the world of management. I believe that my passion for sharing the craft with others is partly influenced by how important I believe it is to retain a creative dimension to our lives no matter how busy we are. Knitting is so easy to pick up, carry around and put down that it can easily be used to create a space for quiet, slow craft in our hectic modern lives.

4. How does my creative process work?

It's quite difficult to find a way to incorporate the word 'process' into a description of how my creativity works. I have huge admiration for people who can produce a consistent volume of high quality design work or knit 52 beautiful pairs of socks in the course of a year. The inside of my head is a bit more like a pinball machine with ideas and enthusiasms bouncing around. I may be completely obsessed with knitting socks for a few weeks and knock out several pairs in quick succession but then all of a sudden I will be seized with the desire to cast on a hat and then someone might mention a particular pattern on a podcast or Ravelry group and I find myself sleepwalking into taking part.

It's a similar story with my designing - I may not design anything for weeks and then all of a sudden I will become obsessed with a stitch pattern or have a REALLY GOOD IDEA followed by a midnight rummage in the stash and then a design will be flying off my needles. I always design on the needles which can be quite time consuming but I am obsessed with fit and function so want to make sure that the garment really works before I launch it.

All in all, the main theme that underlies my creative life is that I get an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction from what I do and being a teacher allows me to share this with other people. I consider myself to be very lucky.

I'd like to thank Rachel for tagging me in this challenge as it has really made me sit back and reflect critically on my creativity. I am passing the baton to Natalie of The Yarn Yard  and Nic of Nickerjac whose creativity I respect enormously and would be curious to know how they approach these questions. I am also sneaking in a third tag to Frances of City Views, Country Dreams whose blog I really enjoy!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Simple pleasures

Well as I said in my last post, once I started knitting on those simple socks I found it very difficult to put them down. Within a matter of days I had a brand new pair of stripy socks! I used Yarn Yard Bonny, 2.5mm circular needles and a pattern which originated in the sock recipe in Ann Budd's Handy Book of Knitting Patterns which I have fiddled around with and memorised over the years. 

There is something very comforting about working on a project that is so familiar that I have memorised the pattern. Despite the simplicity, the project quickly moves through clear stages which prevents it becoming monotonous. Knitting down through the leg the pleasure comes from discovering how the stitch pattern is going to develop. Turning the heel still feels like such a neat and clever process. Most surprisingly of all, I have even learned to enjoy Kitchener stitch, something that until now I have never really felt happy with the results of. The secret for me has been to work the stitches fairly loosely then to place the toe over a darning mushroom and gently tighten up the stitches before fastening them off.

I enjoyed the process so much I couldn't resist casting on another pair, once again in Yarn Yarn Bonny.

One of the things that I find fascinating about knitting with hand painted variegated yarns is that you can never quite predict how the garment will turn out as the placement of colours is subject to so many variables, the length of the skein, number of stitches, size of the needles and most importantly the placement of colours by the dyer.

As you can see by the example of these socks, both pairs are knitted in the same yarn, with the same sized needles to the same pattern. However, the way in which the colours work with each other has led to completely different striping effects. I have no idea how it happens.

 With the grey and yellow socks the stripes are broken and shadowy whilst on the red and green socks the stripes are clear and unbroken.

I may have cast on another pair...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Going Back to my Roots

I hadn't realised how much my sock knitting had declined until the other day when my friend Sadie asked me how many pairs of socks I had knitted in the last couple of years. I thought about it, had a bit of a count up and realised that in that time I have made only five pairs for myself and three as magazine samples. A glance down the side bar of this blog will show that in previous years I made far more than this, peaking at the point where I managed to finish 29 pairs in one year when I took it into my head to enter the 52 Pair Plunge on Ravelry and failed. I am in awe of anyone who has the speed and dedication to manage all 52 as I was pretty proud of a score of 29!

As I mentioned in my last post I have come across a fair number of half finished pairs of socks in my WIP baskets and have joined the more modest 26 Pair Plunge this year as a way to motivate myself to get them off the needles. Next out of the basket are these, Kristi by Cookie A. This time I had already recorded them on Ravelry and was somewhat staggered to read that I had started them in August 2010 - exactly 4 years ago and had almost completed the heel turn on the first sock when I last put them down. Over the last few days I've managed to finish the first sock. The pattern in itself isn't difficult to accomplish but needs pretty regular reference to the large chart which means they aren't good for travel knitting. 

This probably explains why they were abandoned as most of my socks have been knitted on the go so I need a different approach to be able to complete them. I am aiming to do about an inch or so every evening between other commitments as I am determined to get them finished now I've been reunited with them.

This return to sock knitting and realisation that I have had half finished socks languishing in my basket for so long has made me reflect on how long sock knitting has been part of my life. I estimate that I taught myself to knit socks at least 10 years ago and have been knitting them steadily ever since. When I first started knitting socks I was charmed by self striping and variegated yarns as they made it so easy to make an interesting pair of socks with very little effort but as my skills developed and I started knitting more complex and patterned socks like the ones above, I became more interested in semi solid and solid coloured yarns and set the variegated yarns aside.

We human beings can be very fickle though, and as I was twisting stitches this way and that on my Kristi socks I started thinking about how lovely it would be to just grab a jolly skein of variegated yarn and just knit away on a good old basic sock, so I went on a little stash dive and came up with this little beauty, one of The Yarn Yard club yarns in what is still one of my favourite sock yarn bases, Bonny, a no nonsense 75%wool, 25% polyamide sock yarn which is properly warm and woolly and wears really well like a good sock yarn should.

Despite the fact that I have been knitting most of my socks from the toe up in recent years I decided that I might as well take the whole journey down memory lane and cast on some good old fashioned top down flap and gusset socks. That was last night and I can't seem to put them down...

 It seems to me that a lot of sock yarn dyers including The Yarn Yard have responded to their customers' desire for more semi solid and solid shades and good, well planned variegated skeins are a little more hard to come by. Which is why I am relieved that my stash diving revealed that I have a nice healthy stash of Yarn Yard Bonny to satisfy the craving for old school sock knitting for a little while.

Speaking of old school sock knitting I am delighted to say that I am going back to my roots and will be teaching a three week introduction to top - down sock knitting at Knit with Attitude starting on October 12th 2014. There will be more details on the shop web site very soon. Participants will have the chance to observe the true extent of my rediscovered sock geekery.

That means that I can now get back to the sofa, get out my sock in progress and carry on knitting secure in the knowledge that it is of course, teaching preparation!

Friday, 8 August 2014


Back in March I had a good rummage in my WIP basket and found these unfinished socks. With the help of knowledgeable blog readers I was able to identify them as Rosebud Socks by Wendy Johnson.
With pattern and socks reunited I was resolved to get them finished and immediately got several pattern repeats under my belt. It felt very strange working with 2.25mm wooden needles and was convinced that they would break at every stitch but didn't want to change needles as in my experience, even a change to the same size needle in another medium can affect my tension so I pressed on!

However, after making some good progress I am afraid that they were set on one side again as other projects took priority. Finally, at the beginning of July I decided to join the 26 Pair Plunge on Ravelry as a way of encouraging myself to get my large pile of half finished socks off the needles, one way or another.

I'm pleased to say that it was the encouragement I needed to finish these pretty socks and they are now pair number 2 of my 26 pair target.

Once the rhythm of the pattern is established it is an enjoyable knit which I was able to finish relatively quickly. The Artist's Palette yarn is a pleasure to knit with and these socks will make a welcome addition to my sock drawer.

Only 24 pairs to go...

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Is it really a week since Fibre East?

I can't believe it's a whole week since Nic and I made our debut as vendors at Fibre East. First of all, a huge thank you to everyone who came by to see us, try on samples, buy my patterns and Nic's lovely yarn. We were overwhelmed with how well received we were and the lovely comments that people made. It made all the hard work well worth it.

Nic's yarns are not only beautifully dyed, as you can see, they are also wound into 50g cakes and ingeniously packaged into ready to go wrappers which makes them look like giant sweeties! Perfect for the knitter who wants instant gratification. She will soon be putting any yarn that she has left up on her online shop so keep an eye out for it. 

Here is a close up look of my little case, inherited from my dad,  overflowing with samples, looking nice and tidy at the beginning of the day.

Fibre East is a lovely, well organised festival which manages to feel relaxed even though it is buzzing with fibre enthusiasts, teachers and vendors of all sorts, sheep shearing demonstrations and a whole marquee dedicated to 'having a go'. There is plenty of outside space and places to sit which is a good job as, particularly on Saturday it was eye wateringly hot. How anyone managed to try on mitts I just don't know but I certainly appreciate it.

Of course, it was impossible to resist having a little explore and appreciating the work of other vendors. I was delighted to see that one of my favourite yarn sellers, The Little Grey Sheep were at the other end of our marquee. I have knitted a pair of my Fairlee Mittens in some of their Stein lace and Emma, the farmer and dyer came over to say how much she liked them and graciously took one as a sample for her own stand. One of the things that I love about the fibre community is how people support each other.

Of course, I couldn't leave the festival without adding to my collection of her mini skeins of Stein Lace.. I mean, take a look at them - how could I not? They also appeal to the sheep geek in me - the Stein sheep is a cross breed between Shetland and Gotland sheep and has the bounce of Shetland combined with the sheen of Gotland. It is a light fingering to heavy lace weight - perfect for colour work accessories.

I am planning to have some colour work fun this summer.

The main problem is choosing colour combinations.

So I had a little bit of fun trying out some of my favourites.

The possibilities are endless.

It's hard to find a combination I don't like.

Don't you just love knitting?