Saturday, July 04, 2009

In Which The Source of Unspun Icelandic Is Sought, And A Sea Of Blue Lupins Discovered

Myself, I blame Meg Swansen. And quite probably Sandykins and LilyMarlene would agree, wouldn't you girls? There she was at UK Ravelry Day, looking absolutely stunning in her own version of the EZ Ribwarmer (I think she calls her design Ribwarmer Revisited, but I could be wrong), and what could any knitter worthy of her needles do but instantly vow to try. Or, in my case, try again. You may or may not recall that I first attempted this cunning little bit of engineering a year or two ago with a very nice variegated boucle. Realised before even hitting the decreases that it would fit an elephant and one with no very good idea of fashion sense at that. So to the frogpond it trotted, and I eschewed the EZ Ribwarmer for ever. And ever.

But after seeing that gorgeously chic little oatmeal number, edged in i-cord in a slightly darker shade, I couldn't pretend disinterest. Came home and hunted out a cake (a wheel? A round? A big squishy flat sort of plate) of unspun yarn and started over. Now this was a particularly nice oatmeal shade, this unspun, but - let's whisper this bit - I wasn't entirely sure it was the real McCoy, the genuine unspun Icelandic. I'd bought it in Finland, so maybe it was the wrong nationality?

Surely that wouldn't make much difference? Aren't we getting just a bit too purist here? Of course we are. Cast on forthwith, worked merrily away, posted about it, boasted about it, coasted around the corners at full speed, and finished it in short order.

'Twas a bit big, even with all that careful measuring en route. No matter, a bit of felting will soon fix that. Into the pot with it.



Now I don't really need someone to explain how a felted piece can come out with one part of it more shrunken than the other. Accidents can occur in the best regulated felting families. 'Could happen a bishop', as my mother would say comfortingly to the cats when they made the occasional idiot of themselves (you know how cats simply hate making idiots of themselves, it throws them off completely, whereas dogs don't mind in the slightest, and in fact do it all the time without even trying).

But I would like to know how one armhole came out twice the original size while the other had gone down to half its original dimensions.

I screamed and ranted about this on one of the Ravelry groups and Zemy was kind enough to suggest running a safety thread through armholes and edgings before felting. I'll try that, Zemy, next time. But to get one twice the size and one half?

The vest now resides in Muffy the Yarnslayer's bed. She likes it a lot, and does some work on it in the evenings.

The iron, however, remained in the soul. And rankled. Which is distracting, especially late at night or early in the morning. Or anytime really.

Where had I gone wrong? I mean, look up the Ribwarmer on Ravelry for heaven's sake, and it appears that every knitter in the world has laughingly thrown dozens of perfect examples off the needles in less time than it takes to say 'What an easy knit!'

WHY ME? (Or, to put it another way, why not me?)

I'd checked the gauge. I'd followed the pattern. I'd used unspun yarn...


Maybe that was it. I had used what I considered to be an appropriate yarn, but was it the right one. Was it the very exact specific unspun specified in the specifications?

Maybe NOT.

Only one thing to do in circumstances like that, and as chance would have it (no, honestly) DH offered the one possible path of hope and opportunity.

Had fully intended to go to Woolfest last weekend, but a few days before, he instead dangled the thought of heading further north (a lot further north) so that he could look for seabirds and I could perhaps track down the elusive yarn in its natural habitat.

Did I hesitate? Did I 'eck!

And so, towards the end of June, we came at last to Iceland

and to one of the most hauntingly beautiful and remote landscapes I have ever seen. Mountains (volcanoes really, several of them still in grumbling mood), vast stretches of grassland, moss, and lava fields. This country is slightly larger than England, Scotland and Wales combined, yet it has a population of just 300,000 - that's hardly more than County Cork, for heaven's sake! Since most of them live in Reykjavik, that leaves a great deal of empty countryside,

with the occasional tiny white church emphasising the remote emptiness of it all.

But there are some industries in Iceland. Guess where this is:

Not too difficult, even if you can't read the writing on the van. How many cars have colourwork knitted fenders?

Yes, it was Alafoss, legendary old mill where Icelandic yarns have been made for generations. They have now moved production to a more modern mill, closer to Reykjavik, but the old one has been turned into an outlet where they sell knitwear and yarns at cut price.

I bet you're drooling. I could hardly wait for DH to stop the car before I was in the door.

It's a wonderful place to wander around, full of the most exquisite handwork in caps, scarves, vests, sweaters, gloves, socks...

even tapestry kits of Icelandic birds (DH liked those a lot).

Look at these lovely little knitted figures, grouped around the old hand-cranked sewing machine.

But I had come on a mission, and I wasn't going to be distracted.

Didn't dare to look at all the other yarns on offer, but concentrated on the Plotulopi, which is the unspun favoured first by EZ and now by Meg. When you find all these cakes of yarn stacked up high, in every colour you could imagine, it's hard not to lose your head entirely and run round in circles babbling feverishly. Did that for a while, before buying lots and lots and going out to reassure DH that I hadn't dived into the cellar and gone to sleep on a bale of wool.

The yarn here at Alafoss is cheaper than anywhere else at any time, but right now the Icelandic kronur is at an all-time low, so the yarn was too! Pity a poor girl who had only travelled with cabin baggage (I know, I know, but believe me if you have to go through several airports these days, you do not, repeat, do not, want to think about checked bags, really you don't. It can turn a quick weekend into a lengthy imprisonment very easily. Go check out their website - they'll ship. But don't leave it too long, can't tell how long their financial recession will last.)

After that pleasant little introduction to the country, we went out to explore a bit more of Iceland. Not the whole lot - you wouldn't expect to get around the UK in three days, and nor could you get around Iceland where they haven't heard of dual carriageways yet, let alone motorways. We confined ourselves to the Western Fjords which were quite stunning enough.

This is the must-see of this far northern land - the majestic mountain/volcano called Snaefelljokull. Why? Well for one thing it's pretty dramatic, and even when the rest of the country was basking in midsummer, it was still a land of ice and snow up there. But the real reason of course was Jules Verne.

Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of Scartaris caresses, before the kalends of July, audacious traveller, and you will reach the centre of the earth...

Devoured the book in childhood, saw the movie, but never really thought I'd be there. And just before the kalends of July too, what good timing!

You'll have to look pretty closely to see a tiny figure down there, but take my word for it, that's me. In the crater of a volcano.

No, it wasn't actually Snaefelljokull. As you could probably gather from that previous picture, it wasn't exactly casual hiking weather up there. Besides which, I'm not that keen on exploring the centre of the earth. In fact, although I wouldn't like to admit it other than here, among friends, I was a bit nervous clambering down even into that one, which hasn't erupted for about four thousand years. Kept sort of expecting the ground to crumble away below me, and precipitate me into lakes of molten lava, you know?

Another sight people obediently trek to see in Iceland is a geyser - or Geysir in fact, the original old fellow who gave his name to the phenomenon. And the Blue Lagoon where you can sit in natural hot water by the seashore and do yourself lots of good.But we weren't in the mood for tourist attractions so we went off and found our own little smoking water supply.

When you see this from the road, it looks for all the world like a tip, with rubbish smouldering, you know the kind of thing? But when we went down to check, it was a little bubbling spring right enough, with boiling water spouting out from the sand.

You might be able to see the steam on the right of the picture here, rising from the stream as it rushes into the sea. It was too hot to hold my hand in, even there.

I only then remembered that when my father went to Iceland back around 1950 (and it was quite an adventure back in those days, he had to take one tramp steamer to Scotland and another onward to Iceland, passing St. Kilda on the way, which really made me jealous, tiny though I was at the time) he told us on his return that he washed his socks in these natural hot water springs. I think it would have felted mine. Heck, should have brought that Ribwarmer and given it a good shock!

Now in the middle of summer, there is virtually twenty-four hour daylight in Iceland, and the flowers are blooming as fast as they can, to get seed set in time before the twenty-four hour nights of winter.

Even on the rough volcanic pebbles at the sides of the roads, the wild thyme was blooming. It had a lovely scent here, almost more like lavender.

This glorious sweep of bog cotton was just the place to photograph the Noro shawl in progress.

What really took our breath away though were the lupins. Swathes, lakes, fields, whole valleys full of them. We first saw them as the plane circled before landing and couldn't believe our eyes. They were everywhere and more plentiful than I've ever seen them anywhere else. Apparently they were introduced from Alaska to help save the soil of Iceland from complete erosion by wind and sea, and they're doing a jolly good job. Tucked a few seed pods into my pocket to try out in the gentler climate of West Cork.

Of course we saw lots of sheep. Next to fishing, wool is one of the vital industries here.

Icelandic sheep very often have twin lambs. They come in a lot of colours too.

Opinions were divided as to whether this Arctic tern was collecting warm wool for its nest (me) or warning the sheep to keep its silly clumsy hooves away from aforesaid nest (DH).

And yes, we did find that rare breed, the Icelandic ponies. Lots of them.

Again, these come in every colour, from dapple grey to black, chestnut to roan, even skewbald, but all with that characteristic identifying thick mane and lovely heavy fringe over the eyes.

This one was enjoying his quiet time far too much to get up and come over, although we coaxed. We could just see one eye regarding us sleepily through the buttercups.

There were so many other lovely things to see, we didn't have half enough time.

Spectacular waterfalls cascading down dizzying cliffs.

Felted slippers , headbands, and mittens in a tourist information centre.

Delectable cakes in friendly cafes. See, Icelandic isn't that difficult after all, is it?

In fact it's a very old language indeed, and exceptionally close to the original spoken by the Vikings. So much so in fact that modern Icelanders are in the happy position of being able to read the ancient manuscripts in the original - must make research a whole lot easier! I was entranced to see that they still use the letter like a 'p' with a stroke top and bottom, which stands for 'th' in Anglo Saxon and old Norse. It links you right back across the centuries.

And on the way back, guess where we flew right over? Guess?

The Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. Alice Starmore is down there. We probably flew right over her house!
No I did not. I simply inclined my head gracefully, waved elegantly, and flew on. I could afford to be magnanimous. I figured we were safe enough at 35 thousand feet. And that has just got to put me on the winning side, hasn't it? Now I can essay another trial on St. Brigid - maybe?

So what eventually did get crammed into the rucksack, which was already packed enough with the bare essentials like a warm sweater and a toothbrush, several spare lenses for DH's cameras, the current knitting project, a book, a spare pair of socks, a woolly hat?

Quite a few wheels of unspun (there's another of the darkest charcoal already on the needles with EZ Ribwarmer MkIII); a whole colour card for the unspun, given to me by an utterly lovely lady at Alafoss whose name I somehow omitted to get, but who spoke perfect American, and with whom I intend to strike up a deathless friendship; and a copy of Icelandic Colour Knitting, which has details on how to make those fascinating knitted inserts for shoes which I think I already saw in the Bulgarian mountains. Oh and two Colonial Rosewood circulars which happily they stocked at Alafoss. My favourite needles of all time and this is the second occasion on which I've struck lucky (-the last, if you recall, was in Talinn, in that shop which took some finding, seeing as how it had no name outside, no notice, no indication whatsoever that it was actually upstairs over a fitness gym in a side street. But I digress.)

Some of those wheels of yarn had to be squashed into little bags and tucked into side pockets. Others went in DH's pockets (well I was carrying his lenses, wasn't I, and they were a lot heavier). The lupin seeds went undetected (unless a member of the Irish Ag & Fish reads this blog in which case I'm in trouble).

An absolutely wonderful weekend. Well stocked up now with unspun, and will order more online as needed. On second thoughts though, might just go back to get it in person. Coming?


Cornflower said...

Would love to come! (I am going to Lewis soon, though....)

Anonymous said...


Alafoss was a find. My favourite coat is from Alafoss.

The photos are beautiful and you must have pre-arranged the Icelandic weather.

Best of luck with the Rib Warmer.


Dawn in NL said...

Jo, I am very jealous. You brought back happy memories of a two week holiday I had as a young adult (too many years ago) in Iceland. Breathtaking, isn't it. I brought a few 'wheels' of unspun back too, with the intention of knitting a traditional Icelandic jumper, but it never happened.

All the best,

Lynn said...

Lupins = lupines = come to Texas next spring. Ours are cousins; we call them *bluebonnets*. I will concede that the Icelandic variety is rather nice, too. [We had them in Idaho, too, when I grew up, but nothing as pretty as what you've shared or what I see every March or April here.

You will be pleased to note that the word verification today is "thiesse", which sounds very Nordic to me, and it's a lupinesque blue.

Suzy In Oklahoma said...

What a beautiful country! Thanks for sharing the memories and the beautiful pictures! Best luck on the Rib Warmer.

Bionic Laura said...

Great post and such adventures. Myself and himself have wanted to go to Iceland for a long time and this post made us very envious. Beautiful photos as always. The hot springs sound great.

Have you seen those vacuum bags for travelling? They look they'd be useful for squishing yarn down to smaller sizes.

rho said...

Jo - I have always been happy for your travels and an occasional twinge of envy - but DANG I am freaking jealous - actually pea green with envy of this trip!

btw you even said they ship - so why didn't you have them ship you bunches and bunches of that wonderful yarn.

Nancy Knitski said...


Always a joy to read the latest installment of the Celtic Memory's adventures over a cup of coffee first thing in the morning.

Iceland is high on the list of must see countries.


Kate/Massachusetts said...

I love to read about your travels! Does the mill do mailorder over the Net? EZ's Ribwarmer is on my to-do list one of these days. They are beautiful and elegant. Did you see the one Jared knitted - do a search on the Brooklyntweed blog.

Anonymous said...

You live in one of my favorite lands in all the world-- now you've visited Iceland, another favorite, and flown over a third: the Isle of Lewis. I enjoy vicarious travel with you and wish only that I lived close enough to jaunt about Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the continent on long-weekend trips!

Do they still have beautiful blankets at Alafoss? Look for those next time. They're striking in appearance and have a wonderful hand, made as they are from pure Icelandic wool.

Thank your husband for his wonderful photos, as evocative as your prose.
-- Gretchen

ps: verification is "sonferna"-- sounds quite Scandinavian.

Anonymous said...

oooh, I might need to plant a few more lupines! karen

Tricia said...

Oh Jo, I purchased the Lopi Knitting book last year and have drooled over the pictures of Iceland ever since and now you you bring more wondrous pictures and wool to boot.

One day, some day.

marit said...

I'm green with envy! What a great trip! Beautiful photos! I lived in Iceland for 18 months, many years ago, and loved it! Plötulopinn is great to knit with, and they also have eingirni, which is a singlespun yarn, lovely for shawls and such.

tmjackson said...

Oh, how delightful. Thanks for another wonderful travelogue and for putting Iceland on my list of places to go before I die. Also, word verification is "iceadi". which is just fun.

CraftyGryphon said...

Oh, Iceland looks like a wonderful place to visit in the summer. It's been on my List for quite some time... thanks for sharing the lovely photos. And for pointing out one of the local wool-sources so I can visit it (someday!)!

Lol said...

Hi, I rushed home from Coventry and ordered a Ribwarmer kit and DVD from he Schoolhouse press. My heart sank when I picked up the first wheel and the thread immediately broke! But totally sold on it now.

I was wondering why you felted your last Ribwarmer - Meg's wasn't felted, it was just knitted.

Just love the blog.

gwtreece said...

Totally jealous. Love the pictures.

Helen said...

Ok, I get the hint. Add Iceland to my list of "must-visits."

And take the largest carry-on and smallest amount of stuff I can get away with :-)

Out of interest, with just carry-on, how do you go on with liquids / gels like toothpaste etc?

Tan said...

Thanks for sharing! We are in love with Icelandic ponies here. Not to mention the wooly products.

pacalaga said...

Would love to, Jo dear. I savored every bit of your post, as it's hotter than hot here and I knew your pictures would be full of green and beautiful things. And just the word Iceland cools me down...

Anonymous said...

Another fabulous post full of good stuff. My brain flits like a hummingbird when reading your posts, so many thoughts, as well as oohings and aahings, aroused.

One niggling question begs an answer: the accented p - is the th pronounced as in thistle or thanks?

Robin said...

Beautiful pictures! The landscape is so serene looking.

Else said...

Oh, you went to Iceland. I love it there and have many good memories from my two trips there. Too bad I wasn`t knitting much in those periods so I never bought any yarn there.

Hope you are having a nice summer.

em said...

isn't it the best store ever? was the highlight of my my iceland trip

Tina said...

What a great trip you had. Thanks for sharing. Iceland must be breathtaking. I think I have to order some new yarn tonight and I know who might be to blame…

Anonymous said...

Great pictures from your visit to Alafoss. We are excited to see that you enjoyed your stay in Iceland and we hope that you come back soon.

We've also just added the tapestry kits to our product offerings on our website. Hope you enjoy.

Thanks again for visiting.
The Alafoss Team