Sunday, 28 September 2008

Handspun Resolutions

I've been spinning for about eighteen months now and whilst my technical skills are still pretty hit and miss, if I point myself in the general direction of the sort of yarn that I want to spin I can usually produce something usable. As with most skills, the more I learn, the more I realise that there is to learn which is one of the things that keeps me so fascinated with the fibre arts in general.

Today I wanted to show you the range of yarns that I have been spinning and you can see what I mean, both about my hit and miss skills and the infinite variety!

I have now set the twist of the skein of Romney shearling that I made on the drop spindle - about 18 grams of fingering weight which is quite lightly plied but very soft and bouncy as I spun it straight from the lock. I wish you could feel how soft and lustrous this is.

Next, something completely different! This is the batt I bought from Rockpool Candy at the IKnit day spun up on a large drop spindle and Navajo plied. This was so much fun to do. As the batt was very lightly blended and a chaotic mix of merino, corriedale, soya, silk,banana and angelina I decided to tear off strips, fold it down the middle and let the twist run up into the batt, pulling with it whatever it liked to create this glorious confection of heavy aran weight yarn. I have about 90 metres from 100 grams so have reassured myself that I can spin thick yarns if I put my mind to it!

For those of you who find that level of indiscipline hard to cope with here is my next spinning project, the second 100 grams of the Yarn Yard merino silk in the Menthe colourway for my entrelac scarf. This is the second time I have spun merino silk on the Little Gem and I'm much more pleased with the result this time.It's much less over spun and thin and is lovely and glossy and squishy. There are about 150 metres here.

Lastly, here is 50 grams of Blue Faced Leicester dyed in a lovely sepia colour by Pixeldiva which I bought at the Iknit show before last. I am working through the stash slowly but steadily. This has turned out to be a rather lovely sport weight.

As you can see, I have small amounts of hand spun yarn coming out of my ears so one of the things that Natalie and I were talking about in our now infamous late night chats was writing some patterns for small amounts of hand spun yarn. Some people,I must point out, are in a different league to me. Diane Mullholland does this so beautifully and I have eagerly snapped up her tutorials and patterns as she has released them and will be working my way through them diligently as a way of improving my technical skills.

In terms of my own work, I am taking a slightly different approach. I know that I, along with a lot of enthusiastic new spinners, am looking for ideas that celebrate the rough and ready, uneven character of our beloved first yarns. One of the wonderful things that I have noticed is that knitting can be terribly forgiving of an uneven beginners yarn and can still create an interesting and eminently usable fabric from the most unprepossessing piece of hand spun. Just the act of knitting with yarn that you have created yourself from a pile of fluff is such a thrill, and I have certainly learned more about yarn in general by working with something that I know the structure of inch by inch.

So here is what I have been working on and the answer to the button question in my last post. I was heartened that so many of you agreed with me and went for the recycled glass ones although it was a difficult decision. I bought them from a stall at Ally Pally last year but I'm afraid I've forgotten the name of it.

This neck piece was inspired by the Scholar Collar that Brookyntweed created. I know that he is a great advocate of garter stitch but I find it quite a difficult stitch to use in a garment as whilst it is simple to work and doesn't curl it doesn't hold its shape well. I was working with about 150 metres of Yarn Yard merino silk spun to about an aran weight so with an already drapy yarn I wanted a stitch with a bit more structure so I used this waffle rib which is very simple to work but makes the fabric more solid and, I think, shows of the variegated yarn very well.

I am trying this pattern out with a commercial yarn after which I will pop it up on the blog as a freebie. I have a few more ideas of things to do with eccentric hand spun so watch this space!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

All buttoned up

We all know that a love of the textile arts often brings with it the desire and habit of stashing away lovely materials for future use. Most of us own up to a yarn stash but a knitter's house will often be populated with a number of 'sub-stashes,' depending on his or her preference. I know knitters who love collecting vintage patterns, I've seen a whole book dedicated to the collection of knitting needle gauges and a friend of mine is a self confessed dpn tart. I too, am guilty of the development of a number of sub stashes, particularly useful for that bit of retail therapy when you have sworn you are on a yarn diet and know in your heart that when you have enough yarn for 150 pairs of socks, sock yarn most certainly counts as stash.

Today, I wanted to share with you a small peek at my button stash... During one of my late night tea drinking sessions with natalie we were talking about mini projects using 100g or so of hand spun yarn and I started developing an idea that I have had for some time. While I was away in Italy I finished the knitting but there was one ingredient missing - buttons.

I had great fun sorting through my button stash and came up with the following shortlist...

As you can see the yarn is a hand painted merino silk mix spun into a heavy DK bordering on aran weight in a mix of deep pinks, greens and browns.

The first button I auditioned was a square paua shell with a wonderful, deep iridescent quality which complements the sheen of the yarn.

Next comes a vintage art deco Bakelite button which puts me in mind of the front of an old radiogram in the colour of a freshly fallen conker.

This vintage plastic button reflects the pink and green tones and sheen of the yarn very well.

Mother of pearl this time with the greens and pinks again reflected in the button but in a much more muted way.

I was amazed at how many buttons I had which have colourings completely suited to this colour combination. This wooden button reflects back the greens and pinks of the yarn but this time the colours are much more matte.

Being a good green, alongside the reused vintage buttons come buttons recycled from old glass bottles. I love the irregularity of this button and the way that it reflects the shade of the green in the yarn but allows much more light through.

Back to vintage Bakelite again, this time combined with mother of pearl to create a really spectacular effect.

As you can see, I was really spoilt for choice and don't like to reflect on how many garments I would have to complete to use up my button collection but I look on it as an heirloom. I had hours of fun and entertainment as a child, sorting through this collection which originally belonged to my grandmother and has been enhanced by my mum and now by me. The children in my family find it equally irresistible.

Can you guess which buttons I finally chose? I'll show you the finished article very soon.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


I have become so accustomed to having my knitting in my hands through most evening entertainments with friends be it chatting and drinking wine, watching television or just the stars, when someone says after dinner, as I am just contemplating with some satisfaction that I will be turning the heel on my second sock, 'What about a game of Kniffel?' my face might momentarily display a wave of shock and dismay at all that potential knitting time wasted. Now, as a well trained house guest I know that to refuse would be breaking the unwritten rules of the invited guest which include:

No bringing strangers home to spend the night
No leaving hair in the plug hole
No refusing to play board games on request.

Basically, Kniffel turns out to be Yahtzee in German which is an extended form of poker dice so not too taxing for the mathematically or strategically challenged such as myself. What shocked me was how grumpy I became and at points downright surly when convinced that my host thought I couldn't add up or hissed disapproval when he considered that I had made a tactical error. I am sure that if I had had my knitting in my hand and could have thrown my dice through some ingenious foot pedal system I would have been the most congenial playmate but sadly for poor Juergen he was soundly beaten (at least once) by someone with all the sportsmanship of John MacEnroe on a bad day.

So, the Yarn Harlot was right, it is the knitting which makes us patient and sanguine, remove the needles at your peril....

This undeserving creature was further chastened by the most wonderful trip we went on on my last day in Italy. This time we headed up into the valleys, gorges and high plains of the Apennines. As we wound deeper into the mountains the sides of the wooded valleys seemed to swallow us up, giving a completely different atmosphere to the landscape compared with the hilltop towns looking down over fertile valleys that I had become accustomed to.

Our first stop was Visso, which, as you can see already has a slightly out of the way feel with the high hills surrounding it on all sides.

We pressed on into the mountains and came to the high plains. Across the valley on a small hill is Castelluccio which has to be my favourite place of the whole journey. It is set in this vast expanse of rolling hills and fields leading up to mountains which even now are beginning to be covered in snow.
The town itself, which has been sadly knocked about by earthquakes makes few concessions to the tourist trade.
Much of it is still being repaired and refurbished.

But where else could you eat your lunch with a view like this? It's hard to describe but I found it so beautiful that I could feel the tears at the back of my eyes. They say in the spring that the plains are a mass of wild flowers but there was something about the starkness of the early autumn landscape that really moved me. I think it has something to do with the fact that for most of the week I have looked at buildings and paintings that demonstrate how clever and creative human beings are. This scenery and the struggle of Castelluccio to cling to its hill reminds me of how small we really are and how magnificent natural beauty is. I've always been on the side of nature. I really want to create something that will remind me of this beauty but I fear my skills are far from adequate for the task.

And just in case you thought I had completely forgotten that this is a fibre arts blog, look what I saw in a shop doorway in Norcia on the way back. It does make me a little sad to see abandoned and neglected spinning wheels like this used as an ornament. It makes me want to rescue them and take them home to be used for the purpose intended.

Next time normal service will be resumed. I have plenty of hand spun to show you, a couple of finished objects and an idea or two of what to do with hand spun.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

La cage aux folles

As I mentioned in my last post I have just been spending a week in Italy, Umbria to be precise, or Casa De Diavalo to be even more alarmingly accurate. I have been staying with my very hospitable friend Juergen and his dog Effi and have been dividing my time equally between adventure and quietly knitting away in his olive grove - more of which later...

If I were left to my own devices I would probably spend all day every day sitting on the veranda knitting and spindling but having a host who is a retired head teacher means that this holiday needs to have just the tiniest element of the educational side of a school trip. Umbria is full of the most amazing hill top medieval towns and villages and, this being my third visit I am becoming quite familiar with them.

We discussed our itinerary on my first evening;
Me: So what shall we do tomorrow?

J: I thought we wold go to Gubbio.

Me: We've been there before haven't we?

J: Yes, but this time I thought we would visit the monastery up on the rocks behind the town.

Me:(gulp)Is it a long climb?

J: No - (airily) They have a sort of....cable car.

Me: (naively) Oh that's all right then....
Imagine my surprise and delight when we arrive in Gubbio next morning and park next to this!

When someone says 'cable car' to me I expect something nice and solid with windows and doors and even seats - not a string of flying birdcages. How I laughed when I was told to stand on a large red spot, wait for a man to grab one of these contraptions which is moving at quite a clip,I can tell you, prise open the door, shout at me to start running then bundle me in and slam the door behind me. It was only the fact that I was surrounded by a coach party of surprisingly nimble SAGA pensioners that stiffened my resolve.

I mean look at the things -and look how high we are...

I could barely look down.

Thank goodness I had my knitting.
but for views like this I would probably do it again.

After all this exercise and excitement I needed some quiet time with my stuff. I'd soon made myself at home on the veranda, surrounded by everything I needed. This, I might add is not all the knitting and spinning I brought with me. Packing at 3.00am meant that I may have been a bit dazed and confused and might have over packed just a little. When I finished the first two projects within 24 hours of arriving I did have a momentary vision of running out of knitting but I did the maths and realised that technically I probably had enough knitting for two weeks of knitting solidly for 24 hours a day.

And here is a close up of my latest spindling project.
Of course, sitting on a veranda knitting is a particularly fine thing to do if you have a view like this to enjoy as you click away gently.
It's even beautiful when the weather is like this:
And there really were olives on the tree.

I could have quite easily whiled away day after day knitting away and staring down the valley but someone else needed to indulge their favourite hobby too.

How could you resist a game of ball with a little face like this?
In my next installment I will discover that the Yarn Harlot was right. Knitters only seem patient until they are separated from their knitting...

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Sheik Yerbouti

...with apologies to those of you old enough to remember Frank Zappa...

In case you have run away with the idea that I have abandoned all acquisition and usage of yarn and fibre this post should redress the balance. I give you, in no particular order as I am posting on dial up in Italy on a German computer and do not, it appears, have the attention span necessary to wait for it to follow my instructions.

So, here we go. First up is my next portable spinning project, some more merino tencel from the Yarn Yard, a club fibre from earlier in the year. I just can´t seem to get enough of spinning with this stuff.

Next is my ´club yarn´for this month. I posted on Ravelry that I guessed that it would be the colour of ripe rosy apples in honour of the harvest month. Due to some counting issues I got to be in a club by myself with my own bespoke yarn - how cool is that?

I told you this was a jumble.... next we have some beautiful Finn wool which was given to me as a hostess gift by Hanne. It is a gorgeous semi solid forest green. I will think carefully about the project as it is just my sort of yarn, earthy and natural.

What´s this? Oh, I remember, it´s some naturally dyed sock yarn from the Woolly Workshop in some wonderful sophisticated shades. Wish I could remember the brand - will edit to add when I get home.

Here is a batt from Rockpool Candy containing all kinds of different fibres which I thought might be fun and take me out of my usual comfort zone. The woman on the stall was very friendly and engaging and we had a long chat. She mentioned that the guild of weavers spinners and dyers in Northern Ireland were launching some study weekends which might be worth looking into. Some years ago I worked in Northern Ireland and have always planned to return to explore more of this beautiful part of the world.

Speaking of Tutorials, on the Tuesday night before I left for Italy I attended a spinning masterclass with Diane Mullholland. This woman is an absolute goldmine of information on spinning and sheepy things generally having been taught to spin as a child and being brought up on a sheep farm. She is an excellent teacher and not afraid to be opinionated. I love working with people with strong opinions because they are absolutely clear that they are just that, opinions, and absolutely individual to them. For example, Diane looked at my batt from Rockpool Candy with a mixture of horror and amusement and then proceeded to show me four different ways of preparing it for spinning - perfect! I know that she is planning lots more spinning workshops in and around London over the next few months so my advice is run, do not walk to sign up for her classes as I doubt you will find a better teacher or someone who shows by example how to find your own creative style. Again, I will add links when I get home.

Switching back to the Iknit day briefly, my only other purchase on the day was a ´sushi roll´of sock yarn from Jon at Easyknits which is a preknitted flat of Blue Faced Leicester sock yarn which you unravel and knit into a sock. The basic idea is that it gives a different dying effect from dying in the skein. We shall see!

Finally, a small amount of evidence of my industry. I have finished the spinning and knitting of the Flutter scarf but it is yet to be blocked. I think it will be a very useful addition to my autumn wardrobe.

I have also started another mindless sock project using my hand spun Sock Hop yarn. Thankfully it is a lot softer and better spun than my effort of a year ago so I am making some progress. I also heavily edited the roving to try and avoid large expanses of white which seems to have been effective so far.
Finally, I am very proud of this tiny hank of hand spun Romney shearling as it is the first time I have processed yarn straight from the raw fleece and whilst it is by no means perfect represents a lot of learning. Diane scrutinised it carefully and observed that whilst it is somewhat under spun it will probably make a lovely knitted fabric. She is also, I swear, a sheep whisperer. She looked at one of the locks and told the sheep´s fortune. Apparently, a few weeks before it was shorn it had some sort of nasty shock like being caught in a thunderstorm which caused a weak spot in the hairs of its fleece. She recommended just pulling the last inch of the lock away before spinning it. I was highly impressed with this information, I can tell you....

At the moment I am in Italy but without the connector to download any more photos so I will tell you all about my adventures when I get back later in the week, suffice to say I packed far too much knitting and still panicked when I thought I might run out and nearly went to hell in a hand basket but managed to hang on to my knitting. Arrivaderci!

Free range knitting

So what happens when two knitters, still hyped up and excitable from the IKnit day hit London for a day out?

We knit in public of course, in front of the gigantic murals on the side of Tate Modern.

We photograph our desserts in the company of a sock in progress in honour of the Yarn Harlot.

We get terribly pleased with ourselves for managing a creditable action shot of the start of the Tour of Britain which draws praise from a photographer with a far more important looking camera. Doubly pleased as knitting, my usual subject matter stays co-operatively still most of the time when I am trying to photograph it.

We were suitably impressed by the labours of another artist whose chosen medium was sand on a tiny beach at the edge of the Thames at low tide. Unlike a knitter, his art meant that he had to accept that as we walked back we watched the last pieces of his work being swallowed by the rising tide. At least our work has something approaching longevity about it.

In between all this rushing around embracing all that a Sunday afternoon on the South Bank could offer we talked about our favourite subject. At 1.00am we were talking about knitting as we closed our bedroom doors and when we opened them at 7.00am we picked up where we left off and didn´t stop until we said our goodbyes at the station. Natalie and I have enough ideas to keep us busy for a lifetime but keep checking back on both our blogs to see a few of them take shape...

Monday, 8 September 2008

I knit, you knit, we all knit!

Late to the party as usual it has taken me a few days to think about posting about the last weekend. As a centrepiece to the proceedings the IKnit show is pretty hard to beat but the weekend was much more than that.

On Friday, after much furious use of the 'carrier bag tidy' approach to housekeeping and the wedging of large boxes in front of cupboard doors in case of landslide I was at my post at King's Cross Station at 3pm to meet Hanne and Natalie. Hanne, visiting from Finland was brave enough to accept my invitation to experience English knitters' hospitality and Natalie, having made the trip from Edinburgh was staying with me for the long weekend and intent on making the most of her time in London!

It didn't take more than an hour for us to have covered my relatively tidy floor with yarn, fibre and spindles and for me to throw caution to the wind and excavate to the back of the cupboard under the stairs in search of my button collection. There is something about being surrounded by the woolly stuff that can turn three relative strangers into a happily chattering play group in a matter of minutes and for me to remember that hospitality is much more about warmth than tidiness!

Eventually, Hanne caught her bus and Natalie and I decided it would be a good idea not to sit up all night sharing our woolly thoughts and retired for the night.

Saturday dawned in changeable mood but we were prepared. Packed lunch and knitting in hand we set off.

Other people will be able to give detailed reports of the event better than I as it rather passed me by in a blur of impressions. I really don't know where half the day went and there were loads of things I could have happily spent more time doing or was sorry that I had missed.

The first impression was of the size and scale of the building and how Gerard and Craig must have felt the day after they booked the venue. I just wouldn't have had the courage or the vision. Kudos for them for filling it with energy, chatter, enthusiasm and intelligence which were the over riding senses that I got from the assembly. Knitting and crochet really seems to draw together a group of people who are extraordinarily diverse yet remarkable in their shared creativity.

The next impression is of the people that I met, both for the first time and for the friendships I was able to renew and build on. I really wished I had had more time to talk at length with people as it often seemed that I was only able to share a wave and a smile with people I would have been happy to sit and catch up with for hours.

I think that one of the reasons for knitting and the fibre arts in general to be such a universal activity is the number of levels that it can be practiced on and the folly of trying to categorise it. Making loops with and creating a continuous fibre can lead in so many directions that a lively mind should always be able to find something new and exciting to stimulate their creativity.

It can also lead a person to be very sure that there are some dimensions of the fibre arts that they couldn't imagine pursuing.

For those of us who spend most of their time plying the small pointy sticks great big ones like this hold a strange fascination.

And we are reassured to see the big balls that go with them.

I will admit that one of the things that stands between me and entirely embracing the 'Knitting as Art' philosophy is the burden of utilitarianism bred into me by parents who lived through rationing. I find the idea of doing a single sock just as a learning experience or an abstract practice piece, come to think of it even a tension square difficult unless I can see an intrinsic usefulness in it as an object. However, I was quite blown away by the furniture from the knitted house created in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital. It is all quite beautifully made and the attention to detail is astonishing.

I'm embarrassed to say that when I was framing the next photograph I thought to myself 'It's a shame that Fire Extinguisher is in the way- health and safety gone mad!' Oops...

Another thing that struck me is that I am very lucky to have such talented and creative friends. Natalie's Yarn Yard fibres and yarns continue to grow in reputation due to her attention to detail and good eye for colour. Here she is, posing with a sample knitted in some of her lace weight yarn by none other than Jane Sowerby of Victorian Lace Today. Can't do much better than that!

I thought Natalie couldn't top that until I read the Yarn Harlot's Blog and found that she had a big fat juicy mention there as well, and deservedly so for her awareness raising work for Medecins Sans Frontiers but I will let Stephanie and Natalie tell you all about that!

Which brings me on to the centrepiece of the day, an audience with the Yarn Harlot herself, Stephanie Pearl McPhee.

I'm ashamed to say that burdened by my typical British reserve I sometimes find an element of over hyping of people and products from the other side of the Atlantic so whilst I wanted to like her very much I was a little cautious. I was also very worried in case members of the audience took to whooping. Nothing wrong with whooping per se but it's just not me.... My fears were misplaced however as her performance was natural, witty, charming and much more erudite than I imagined it would be. Rather than a collection of knitter friendly gags and one liners she developed complex points with a very deft hand whilst maintaining a very warm and accessible style. If you get a chance - go and see her! The audience was also warm and appreciative, applauded enthusiastically and laughed heartily in all the right places. No whooping. I was very happy.

I was also impressed that she could sit and sign books for hours and hours and hours without failing to have a friendly comment for everyone. She said I was witty. I was very pleased. She signed my book. It was legible. After all those hours. I was impressed.

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned one single piece of retail therapy. To be honest I didn't do much shopping, I was too busy talking and listening and observing but I will show you what did follow me home in a future post.

By the end of the day I felt as if I couldn't speak to another person or fondle another skein of yarn. Wimp. I didn't take much persuading with promises of imminent food to go out for dinner with Franny, Sharon, Natalie, Ellen and all too briefly, Noo. What is it about knitters? Once again, a group of women, some of whom knew each other previously but having never been together in a group before telling such outrageous stories that by the end of the evening my stomach ached from laughing. I will never think of my clapotis or a still life of flowers in the same way again. Just sayin'...

I know that quite a number of us haven't been having the best time in the rest of our lives recently so the final impression I have is of the IKnit day being a fabulous opportunity for us to come together and live in the woolly moment for a bit and, I hope, carry on supporting each other as, after all, that's what a community does.