Saturday, 31 March 2007

After a long hard working week something straightforward but unusually beautiful is called for. As much as I enjoy the challenge and stimulation of designing a new sock, manipulating yarns, thinking about stitch counts, fabric guage and heel turns it is wonderful to plunge into the simplest of constructions, known by heart, and just wallow in how the yarn feels under my fingers and how the colours emerge and play with each other, like slipping into a cool blue sea after a long, hot, dusty journey. That's not quite how these socks make me feel but they are pretty gorgeous!

The yarn is one I haven't tried before - Apple Pie by Apple Laine. It has a seductive list of ingredients: 50% wool. 20% mohair, 20% silk and 10% nylon. Quite a potent brew.... I have used yarns which combine most of these fibres - just not all together at once. So far so good - the mohair lends a halo while the silk adds a slightly papery quality to the feel beneath my fingers as well as a glorious sheen. The shade is Grape Harvest. I am enjoying that the juxtaposition of colours has stayed constant from skein to ball and ball to sock with no obvious pooling or striping. I have, in the past found that a yarn can look quite different on the skein than on the sock depending on the eventual colour relationships. Sometimes it can be a lovely surprise. Sometimes a girl has to accept that the clown has been left too long in the blender.

Friday, 30 March 2007

My dear friend L and I were chatting last night. It is one of the miracles of the internet that we ramble on, sometimes for hours, several times a week, completely forgetting that he lives in Australia and I in London.

L has always been an enormous encouragement with my knitting. We are both passionate about the environment and traditions that value the work of the hand. We talked long about how society's current enthusiasm for cheap, throw away clothing has led to us treating children in countries beyond our sight in the same casual manner, with them working as virtual slaves for manufacturers whose only concern os their profit margin. By way of contrast, to carefully knit a garment for a loved one and for them to use and treasure it in the way it was intended really is its own reward.

L has roots in Cornwall so, some years ago, as a gift, I made him a traditional Cornish Gansey, which he is cheerfully modelling above. I chose a stitch pattern for the yoke which was associated with a local fishing village to give him a feeling of connectedness with his roots when he wears it. Despite the fact that this garment was made the hard way, in the flat, before I knew about circular knitting or had the courage to construct it in the round as tradition would favour, I derived enormous pleasure in the knitting of it. The destruction of 3 pairs of 2.25mm needles, sore fingers, and doggedly carting it around England, Ireland, Wales and Australia in the six months that it took me to finish it do not stop me feeling that this is probably the garment I am most proud of. The main source of this pride is that L wears it virtually daily for working on his land. It protects him from wind and cold, gets absolutely filthy, occasionally gets washed and is thoroughly appreciated.

He reminded me last night how he was stopped in the street by a knitter with a keen eye who admired it. He also mentioned that he rolled his trouser leg up and showed her his hand knit sock for good measure. She declared herself suitably impressed.

Conversations like this reinforce to me why I am proud to call myself a knitter and how much it means to me to carry on my cultural traditions. It is so heart warming to have them used and respected in the manner they were designed for. The next gansey I make will be in the round complete with underarm gussets - in line with tradition it may need to be a Sunday best!

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

When life gets busy, most of my knitting is done on public transport thanks to a long commute and multiple work bases. This undoubtedly accounts for my disproportionately large output of socks. However, one of the unexpected joys of knitting in public is that the way it sparks conversation with a remarkable cross section of the community which has been without exception warm and affirming.

Today I was talking to a woman who was hand embroidering a pile of fabric rabbits. She is an art student and as part of her project will be leaving them in art galleries that she visits. Do look out for them!

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

A thing of beauty... isn't always immediately obvious. Today introduces another current Work in Progress, a wrap cardigan in Rowanspun DK using a Knitting Pure and Simple top down pattern. I think my knitting life transformed when I discovered patterns knit from the top down. Notwithstanding my abhorance of sewing up - the fact that I am capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with sub standard finishing is not solely responsible for my enthusiasm. There is something very satisfying about allowing the whole garment to grow organically from one piece of fabric. Envisaging fit, even trying the garment mid construction are so much more possible.

I took the photograph with the idea of writing about how this work doesn't really look particularly attractive at the moment but on studying the photograph I am rather captured by the subtle shadings of grey. The pattern calls for the yarn to be knit at a slightly looser tension to that recommended on the ball band. It's a shame that I am unable to communicate the tactile pleasure of the fluid, slightly felted quality of the fabric. This is on many levels an unchallenging knit, but it is a perfect piece of work for all those times in a girl's life when she wants to be doing a couple of other things at the same time.

I am also very keen to wear it - spring is beginning to make its presence felt and this cardigan will be perfect for bridging the seasons. Whilst this project is the very essence of simplicity, the challenge here is to produce an even, rhythmic stocking stitch and achieve the best, most flattering fit. Part of the joy of knitting for me is the functionality of it - if I achieve my goal this garment will repay the time and patience devoted to it.

Beauty doesn't always have to shout and tie itself in fancy knots to get noticed.

Monday, 26 March 2007

The casual observer of this embryonic blog might be forgiven for imagining that my knitting journey is proceding entirely on foot judging by the over representation of sockage on these pages. Today I will attempt to redress that balance with a current work in progress, the Melon Shawl from Victorian Lace Today by Jane Sowerby. For a utilitarian like me the book errs a little towards the coffee table in its artistic presentation but we are talking about lace after all, lace which should be light and playful and just a little insubstantial and self indulgent. I have to accept that this is a new departure for me - the pattern calls for Kid Silk Haze and whilst the colour, a vivid lime green is well within my familiar palette, yarn so fine and frou frou is not.

But after all, this is a journey and I need to be stepping outside my comfort zone. The melon shawl seemed a perfect vehicle for this trip into the unknown - simple, not too large and offering a few new challenges - knitting with what feels to me like frog breath, patterning on both the knit and purl side and a Shetland style picked up border. Enough to keep me interested I think. There are those, I am sure who will reach and reach for ever more complicated feats of knitting virtuosity - I don't think I am or wish to become one of those knitters. My aspirations concern the challenge of a new skill learned well and the accomplished execution of a project whose beauty lies most in its simplicity and choice of materials.

Having said that, I am enjoying the first stage of this project - the fineness of the yarn took a certain amount of getting used to - I feel as if all my movements need to be slightly exaggerated to complete each stitch. I also learned that choice of needle is important - if I didn't have an alternative to the Addi Turbo this project would be in permanent residence at the bottom of my knitting basket - Denise Interchangeables aren't just for long haul flights!

Sunday, 25 March 2007

I have developed a positive mania for slip stitch patterns. I have long wished to introduce more colour into my sock knitting but after one somewhat unsuccessful attempt at what started out as a pair of fairisle socks turned into a sock and a half with a fairisle band around the top, I was chastened to admit defeat. No such trouble with slip stitches. They simply flow from the needles.

Being pleased with the effect of the flickering embers socks I curled up on the sofa with my stitch dictionaries (not a bad way to pass the time....) and came up with these designs. The dark green and pink use a Bargello stitch from Vogue Knitting Stitchionary and the green and purple pair use a heavily abbreviated version of Barbara Walker's two colour cable rib.

The designs aren't perfect by any means. I have learned that I need to ensure that I take into account the need for increasing the stitch numbers when a stitch has the effect of pulling the fabric in or adding an extra yarn over to the slip stitch to ensure that the instep doesn't bunch up compared to the sole but its all part of the learning and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. The yarns I have used are a combination of Yarn Yard Handpaints and Sunbeam St Ives for the dark sock and Opal Uni for the lighter one. If anyone is worried about the expense of a handpaint this is a good way to make a more expensive yarn go a little further and use up scraps of yarn - as well as an outlet for creativity - I'm sure the wartime sock darners would approve.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

EBay is a fascinating place. I never cease to be amazed by the treasures that can be unearthed by the enquiring mind and the surprises that it occasionally throws up.

A sock is a labour of love - which to be used properly is expected to submit to the daily rigours of an active life. I recently bid for a mixed lot of darning wools which I thought would be useful in sustaining the life of my socks. Hidden amongst the robust and sensible skeins of soberly coloured darning wool I found this little object - the finest cotton imaginable in a subtle range of stocking colours to be used for repair. It is good to be reminded occasionally that the everyday objects that we so readily throw away were, not so long ago prized and coaxed into longevity by patient needlework skills.

I hereby resolve to diligently darn my socks!
I've never been much of a joiner. I think it was Groucho Marx who observed that he didn't want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. However, in the interests of leaving my knitting comfort zone I joined the Yarn Yard sock club. Every month I am sent a skein of yarn expertly handpainted by Natalie and a small contrast skein. My first yarns, in January were definitely outside my comfort zone. I tried the prescribed use of the yarn, producing a big pink sock complete with its solid extremities. I hated it. It shouted at me. I could not face knitting it a mate.

Remembering that the inspiration for the yarn was the embers in a wood stove I had a bit of a think and ordered a skein of charcoal yarn and set about creating a sock which worked with this idea. With the use of a simple slip stitch pattern the flickering embers socks were born. What fascinates me is how a colour that jarred in its full on state should whisper so seductively when viewed through a neutral frame. I love the subtle colour shifts as they move from window to window across the fabric. I have now been inspired to experiment further with colour combinations and am fascinated by slip stitches and the variety of textures and effects that can be achieved. More later......

Thursday, 22 March 2007

I am a very keen sock knitter. I taught myself from a book about three years ago when my dad was complaining that his commercial socks were uncomfortable on his swollen ankles. I found some good, wholesome British sock yarn (Sunbeam St Ives) and the longest set of double pointed needles that I had because of course, the stitches would be bound to fling themselves like lemmings from the needle given half the chance. Several hours of wrangling metal and yarn ensued but by the end of the first heel turn I was hooked.

After a brief flirtation with the peculiar fascination of self patterning sock yarn I have experimented with handpaints, lace patterns, fairisle, cables, travelling stitches. Elegant little bamboo needles have replaced the nest of skewers. Socks are such a little jewel of a project - the mundane lifted to an art form. An opportunity for the habitual wearer of black (me) to embark on flights of multicoloured fantasy. The perfect project of travelling, Compact enough to cart around. No problem with jabbing fellow travellers when crammed into crush packed underground trains. Catalyst for conversation with habitually reticent London commuters. Such is my passion for this prosaic work of art I have taught sock classes which have turned into celebrations of the miracle of the heel turn and the guilty pleasure of a small but luxurious skein of yarn.

I am an unashamed advocate of the joy of socks.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

The purpose of this blog is to document a journey. To do this I need to describe where I am now - at the start of that journey.

Knitting has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember - I was brought up in an extended family of knitters. I know that I could knit before I went to school but I can't remember whether I was taught by my grandmother, my father or my mother. I expect it was a combination of all three. I have a mental image of myself as a small child persuing whichever adult was within striking distance clutching a dog eared piece of knitting, containing some clearly insurmountable fibry tragedy which they would miraculously set straight in a matter of seconds and set me on my way.

I remember the first thing I ever finished - a garter stitch scarf in red and beige stripes that I made for my father which he wore for many years on his motorcycle ride to work. I can still recall him coming into the house, bringing the smell of cold air with him, taking off his crash helmet and unwinding his scarf.

My knitting career wove itself quietly through my childhood, mainly consumed with learning the tricks of the trade from dolls clothes patterns from back copies of the Woman's Weekly and scraps of yarn left over from my mother and grandmother's projects.

My teenage years saw knitting overtaken by the usual preoccupations until a pattern for a mohair jumper in Jackie Magazine rekindled my enthusiasm. Several mohair items followed in quick succession. Some were more successful than others. The white mohair covered in appliqued cherries made me look like a baked alaska. Even for the 80s this was a peculiarly unpleasant garment.

Through my twenties there was always a bit of knitting on the go - lots of intricate summer cotton tops and fine guage patterns. Money was tight but it was still the era of the local wool shop where they would lay the wool by for you so that it could be bought a ball at a time as finances allowed.

My thirties saw many of my friends and family starting to have families so the knitting was about babies, love and friendship. When my sister told me that she was pregnant with my nephew my first thought was to get the needles out and produce her three cardigans in increasing sizes in bright primary colours as her first baby gift. We had a bit of a cry. She still recalls that when she woke up on the day after he was born, overawed by the prospect of motherhood the first thing that she saw was me, sitting on the end of her bed knitting and felt that all was well with the world.

The last few years have been much more about me as a knitting craftswoman. Up until recently I have been a technically competent but fairly limited knitter who could follow a pattern but beyond that had little comprehension of the craft in its fullest sense. Thanks to the development of online resources and communities, knitting groups and courses I have been able to develop in ways I had no idea of hithertoo. As with all things, the more one learns, the more one realises what there is to learn. This lengthy preamble is about setting the scene. This blog is part of my attempt to document my journey from proficiency to creativity in the fullest sense of the word.