Sunday, August 09, 2009

Of Sea Eagles, Ancient Annals, And The Inadvisability of Plying Yarn

It seems like such a good idea at the time. You have this beautiful yarn, perfect colour, begging to be used, but it's too thin for your purpose. For any purpose really except fine socks or a sadistic Starmore special on triple O steel needles. So you do the sensible thing and ply it. Twice, maybe three times (Celtic Memory has been known to use four plies when occasion demands).

But... and this is where the inadvisability comes in - the project doesn't always work. In my case, it was back last January when I was battling the flu bug from Hades and got the feverish idea late one night of creating a beautiful guernsey from a book of Japanese patterns, using a particularly gorgeous cone of violet pure wool I'd snaffled on a trip to Texere Yarns in Bradford some time back.

This was the yarn, if you remember. And you may also remember if you read that post, that I realised the error of my ways about half an hour into the project and frogged what little I'd done.

Only... I'd plied the yarn double, to get it up to usable thickness, hadn't I?

And... this is undoubtedly one of the rarest and most attractive violet yarns you've ever seen, isn't it?

And... I've just got the hang of combining machine knitting with handwork, haven't I? Which opens up delectable new possibilities of working whole garments in hitherto impossible fine gauge yarns?

So it became clear that the violet yarn needed to be unplied.

No worries. Got a ball winder now. Got several skein winders. Surely two different machines can be brought into use together to return the yarn to its original gauge? (Stand by Ireland, the industrial revolution is about to hit your shores at last).

Of course it never works out as simply as you think. Even when you wind a ball casually by hand (or, in my case, flu-ridden last January, feverishly and incoherently and quite badly), you inevitably twist it. And that twist is seriously bad news for unplying. What should have been a fairly easy task of winding a skein and a ball at the same time turned into a major task, involving swearing under the breath and the bringing in of any handy local hook or knob or surface to deal with tangled loops and lengths.

There are lengths and loopings on the floor there too, if you look closely enough.

Here's a closeup of my adorable Victorian skein winder which I persuaded my dear friend Warren Ogden of Craftspun Yarns to sell to me. It's all cast iron and brass, with a lovely dial that counts up to 80 yards, and when you're winding you can't hear a thing, it all runs silently and smoothly. Love it, even if my 2 metre skein winder is a little more practical for the dyeing and selling side. You simply can't beat this wonderful old 19th century machinery. Warren called it something else, I can't remember what, but it was originally designed for making up little sample skeins for customers. He still uses one himself - pop into his lovely shop in Johnstown not far from Dublin and you'll see it in action.

I may just have mentioned a few odds and ends that I was trying to finish up in my last posting. Well I soldiered on with those, much encouraged by your support. As advised by BB, I went for the easiest one first, and completed the Tofutsies in short order.

I am enchanted by the way the colour works out on this yarn - in the ball it looks like a mixed scrimmage, but when you knit it, suddenly waves and stripes and pools appear and it's all a lot of fun.

I was so touched by the number of you who sent Tofutsies to West Cork after I offered to trade for my hand-dyed. It is certainly a winner on the sock machine and I now have enough to see how every colourway in the range looks when knitted up. The socks are cool and light for summer and wash in the machine like a dream. Thank you. You really are the best, my worldwide gang of knitter friends.

One Conwy sock is finished, and the other is started, no more than that. Been experiencing a bit of RSI in the thumb joint from fine sock work, and stiff shoulders too, so had to slow down on the thinner yarns and needles a bit while Chinese massage worked its miracles.

Oh by the way, while I think of it, you've a chance to get your own creativity and brilliance recognised! The moderators of Sock Madness are looking for pattern submissions for next year's crazy event (one of the daftest, also one of the greatest going), and you need to get started right away. Look up the rules on the Ravelry group and start working on that pattern NOW. Well of course you're on Ravelry. If you're a knitter and aren't, WHY?

The mohair boucle wrap has had another few inches added. It just goes on, that yarn. The ball never seems to get any smaller! Sooner or later I'm going to have to take a decision and cut it, bind off, finish.

What do you mean, I haven't got much done? It's only a few days since I posted - oh, gosh, is it as long as that?

Well - OK, there were a couple of distractions. Pleasant ones.

Confirmed and total handknitters, purists, look away now. I'll tell you when it's safe to come back.

I've been machine knitting. On a flatbed.

You've latched on to that already anyway, from comments further up, but here it's time to come out of the closet and admit that machine knitting can be a whole lot of fun. To be able to create acres of stocking stitch in half an hour, to whip up a pair of sleeves in no time, a vest while you're getting ready to go out, is rather marvellous when you've grown accustomed to weeks of labour and very little to show for it. More, it means you can really concentrate on the complex bits instead of being so exhausted from the endless rows that you can't be bothered. Maybe a bit like having a full-time, super-efficient nanny for the children (and an additional, soundproofed, nursery wing to the house), so that when you meet them briefly in the evening before dinner, you can lavish love and delight on them instead of being a bit too tired to care? Or maybe not.


All the manuals and online sources advised making little swatches to get some practice. And then making striped swatches to get more practice. Which was fine, but I don't like wasting time like that. So I started making very long striped swatches. And then more of them. And then created a patchwork vest.

This isn't put together yet. The middle strip is half the length of the (doubled) side pieces and will be the centre back. Only...

Take a look at that second-last square from the top centre. The dark one (it's navy in fact).

I'd been popping down to the workshop at all hours to do a little more on the machine, and on this particular occasion, it was late and dark. I reached for the cone of navy Shetland, threaded it in, worked the square, threaded in the pale lilac, went on, and finished off.

It was only when I came to wash and block it that I realised I'd picked up a large cone of acrylic in exactly the same shade of navy (I keep it for experimental work). Will you look at that? Hideous!

I'm undecided between making the whole strip again, thereby condemning the three perfectly virtuous Shetland squares to oblivion, or making just one square and grafting it into place. What would you do? (Apart from switching on the light when working late at night, I didn't need that crack, smarty pants!)

But my second project worked out rather better.

This is the Dangerous Kimono, discreet black until you turn or move and a flash of wicked scarlet reveals itself. Got the original idea from that lovely pattern - is it Iki? - in Vicki Square's Knit Kimono, but the design is my own. Strips were all I could do as yet on the machine, so strips it would be. Wide rectangles for the sleeves (first red, then black), two long pieces for the body, going up and over the shoulder, and also with the red facing at either end, a narrower strip for centre back, and finally two very very long strips, one in black, one in red, for the band. Oh and four little red strips for the side slit facings. The final touch was a length of i-cord worked on the machine (didn't believe it would be easy, but it was), and twisted into a Celtic symbol.

Really really chuffed with this. It's in a hideously expensive and luxurious Italian mousse merino which feels like silky velvet and costs so much that when I made a mistake halfway through one of the long pieces, the only option was to frog back two or three rows v-e-r-y gently and re-hang the whole thing on the machine. (It was a lot faster to type that last sentence than it was to carry out the awful task, I tell you.)

I am so pleased with how it turned out. It's almost like a designer version of a PhD gown, isn't it? That's OK, I'm entitled. Less chance of tripping over the folds too.

OK, purists, confirmed and certificated hand-knitters, you can start reading again now.

Another job got done too, and I hadn't posted about it beforehand because it was a secret. Socks for DH.

Modelled by the man himself. (You want me to pose with them? On my feet? Me?) A nice blend of wool and cotton, tubes worked on the sock machine, cuffs, toes and heels by hand. Can't begin to tell you how nice it is to work the bulk of dark colours on a machine. Much easier on the eyes.

The socks were for his birthday. This is our birthday weekend (mine on the Friday, his on the Saturday). He got home-made pecan fudge, among other things. You should have seen me the night before, leaping from the sock finishing to the stove and back again, picking up stitches for the afterthought heel, stirring the fudge, working the decreases, chopping the pecans, grafting the toe, beating the fudge... It all got done in time.

And yes, now that you ask, I did secure a little loot for my own birthday. Just a yard or two of yarn...

From left to right, lower row at back: black worsted spun, about fingering weight; a really rare Suffolk fingering weight (hadn't scored that particular breed before, lovely grey shade); and a big cone of superwash merino fingering weight, destined for hand-dyed sock yarn. Top row, L to R, three cones of that seductive Italian mousse yarn. Front, a cone of cashwool, that Italian fine gauge merino that feels exactly like cashmere. And in the foreground, a delightful cone winder dating, I would think, from around the 1960s, which I got from the lovely Rosina at Mostly Knitting Machines, and some little treats from DH who knows my (other) weakness. Enough to keep me going for a while maybe.

But Friday was the most special day out. I knew exactly where I wanted to go - Innisfallen Island on Lough Leane in Killarney. Innisfallen is fabled in history because it was here from the 4th century onwards that the community of monks created and continued The Annals of Innisfallen, probably our earliest and most historically valuable documentary source. The original is now in the Bodleian in Oxford, where it can be cared for as it should be, but some friends of mine at Cork University have placed a translation online where everybody can benefit from it. You can look it up here.

It's only a small little island, but it's well out in Lough Leane, and you have to take a boat from Ross Castle. Which we did. Boatman Fergus does this run all the time, in between taking people right up the three lakes to Lord Brandon's Cottage for tea.

We were halfway across when I spotted something in the sky and said, 'Holy heavens, what's that?'

Those of you living in wilder parts of North America may not consider this particularly unusual, but here in Ireland we're pretty bereft of the larger raptors. Eagles, buzzards, died out long ago. But there has recently been a drive to re-introduce both the golden and the white-tailed sea eagle, and this could be none other than the sea eagle.

Of course DH grabbed his 500mm lens and started firing bursts, while Fergus obligingly brought the boat around and steered towards the thicket of trees on Innisfallen where the bird seemed to have landed. But as we got closer we saw something horrible.

Oh no, no, no, it can't be. Please don't let it be. How could the bird be dead? We'd only just seen it flying. Or - was it another one, caught and somehow trapped, unable to free itself, some time ago? Was the other one searching for it? All kinds of thoughts and half-finished sentences were running around as we edged in closer.

Thank heaven! After a few agonising minutes, it suddenly seemed to come back to life, flapped those huge wings, and got itself upright on the branch. It had to be a young bird, virtually on its first flight, then. We've seen this with smaller birds leaving the nest - often they crash land on a branch and then slip right round, their claws firmly grasping the twig, but unable to keep upright. They're fine once they work out what's happened. And so it must have been with this huge beautiful bird. Which meant that it could only just have been released. Immediately rang our friends who were masterminding the reintroduction project and they confirmed that yes, half a dozen of the birds recently donated from Norway (thanks Norway!), had been let loose that morning from a secret location way in the heart of the mountains.

This, then, with the prominent wing tag (and radio transmitter which you can't see) is the female, Feenagh. May you have a long and happy life here with us in Ireland, Feenagh, and may the wind be always underneath your wings.

It was good to have seen her land on Innisfallen too; one of my favourite poems, which dates from just about the time the Annals were being written, is an Anglo-Saxon one, The Seafarer, with the line,

The erne screams, icy-feathered...

Erne being the old name for the sea eagle (and you'll still find it as a clue in crossword puzzles to this day!)

It was a lovely birthday present for DH as well. Couldn't have timed it better, that bird.

And so the boat's keel finally grounded on the pebbly shore of Innisfallen and we entered an older world.

Although the abbey dates from the 4th century, most of the buildings are later, around the 14th century. Some scraps of the original do remain though, built into the walls of the medieval structure.

This tiny cross was discovered in the lake some years ago, and brought back to the island from whence it must surely have originated.

Hundreds of coins had been placed carefully, reverently, around and even on the little cross. There are some instinctive beliefs and rituals that lie unsuspected below the surface in all of us, until one day we are in a place where we have never been before, and suddenly know what we must do.

This is the view of the mainland and McGillicuddy's Reeks much as the monks must have seen it as they took a break from their slow illuminative and scribing work, blowing on their cramped fingers and unstiffening their joints, bent too long over a sheet of vellum.

Didn't want to leave that peaceful place, but evening was drawing on. We saw these fishermen on the lough on the way back, and one was determined to show us just how big the one that got away was!

Ross Castle really looks at its best when you come to it by water, doesn't it?

Everything went right on this day. We drove into the woods to see if we could find any of our native red deer, and we did.

This doe was protective of her young fawn who still had his dappled spots.

And then the stag came along and ushered them both away to safety. So we withdrew as quietly as we could. It's their woodland, not ours, after all.

And finally we took a long and winding and extremely circuitous route over the hills and far away. Coming down at last as dusk fell to a secret valley and the Last Homely House - or, more exactly, Gougane Barra and our dear friends at the hotel there, for a wonderful dinner. Altogether a magical day.


HPNY KNITS said...

so much in one post! wow.
but I have to say the Dangerous Kimono is stunning!!!

Susan said...

Now, that is what I call a magical day...sigh
Stunning idea for the kimono...Hmmm

CarolGene said...

With Irish ancestry, I follow your blog as much for the knitting (which I do too) as for the "irishness" of it. I love today's travel post. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

A lovely day. Many happy returns to you and your husband.
-- Gretchen

pamela said...

I echo Carol's sentiment. Not only do I enjoy reading about your lovely knitting and spinning, but I've learned so much about Ireland. I have Irish ancestry too (the Fitzgeralds of Kilkea Castle) and until I'm able to visit one day, I get to see Ireland through your eyes. I love to read your posts with my morning coffee. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It's always a pleasure to read your posts and through you, I get to visit such wonderful places! Happy birthday to you and your DH!

Windybrook Spinner said...

Is there really so much beauty in one place on this earth? Thank you for sharing it. The erne was magnificent! I think you should just graft in a different square for that strip. Happy Birthday!

Sally said...

Jo, your country is absolutely enchanting! Thank you so much for sharing both your home and your birthdays with us. Hugs!

Charity said...

Happy Birthday! That kimono is really stunning, so good to see what you've been up to! :o)

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday to a lovely couple. What gifts your adventure held!

Unknown said...

Happy Birthday to you and your husband! I'm glad your weekend together was so enjoyable!
I've been to Innisfallen! It was one of my favorite spots that I went to in Ireland. I am also almost positive it was Fergus who brought us over, and he also gave us a discount. We were three college-age women (this was just last year) in April, so not exactly tourist season. It felt so good to me to be in a quiet place, as I'm from rural United States and I was living in London. Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful kimono - well done Jo! Happy birthday!

LaurieM said...

Happy birthday to you and hubby!! I'm glad you had a happy one.

I just finished re-reading "The Eagle and the Raven" by Pauline Gedge. Have you read it? Your description of people knowing what to do made me think of it. In the book, the tribes had a practice of leaving a coin or piece of jewlery for the goddess...

Silver Phoenix said...

Many happy returns to you and your husband! Those photos are glorious--what a wonderful birthday trip. I really am going to have to get to Ireland one day....

And it's not just the wilds of North America that have raptors and hawks. I live in the suburbs of a big city and we have Peregrines in our neighborhood. My brother says his lilies have never lived so long (the rabbit population is way down) although one that was hunting almost killed me while I was on my walk. Shot by right at head level in a killing dive after a pigeon, not two feet in front of me. Beautiful birds. Hazard to safety aside, I'm quite glad the city decided to reintroduce them to the area.

And I say...graft a new square on if you can't make the acrylic work. No point in redoing all the work!

Wendy Stackhouse said...

Fabulous post, Jo!

Angeluna said...

LOVE the kimono. As for the blocked vest, I agree with Silver Phoenix, just appliqué an appropriate square over the acrylic. It would work as a design element if it overlapped the other strips a bit.

And what a perfect trip to Innisfalen. I know how much that eagle must have excited DH. Actually, you should have been here a couple of days ago. I came home quite late at night to find a huge blue heron standing on one leg in the garden, for all the world looking like a pink flamingo yard ornament.

Bionic Laura said...

Happy Birthday to you and your husband. You certainly had a lovely day. It's so wonderful to see the eagles back in Ireland, you were lucky to see one on her maiden voyage. I hope I'll be as lucky next time I'm in Kerry.

Jean said...

The Kimono is so lovely, I especially like it against the touch of red. Your photos are so lush and I love all the details you include in your posts. Thank you for sharing your wonderful life.

sara said...

I love the kimono. It inspired me.
I also love your posts about Ireland. We have visited a couple of times and it is a magical place.

rho said...

Happy Belated Birthday to you both - it sounds like you had a fantastic one!

I need a knitting machine to do the fiddly bits I love doing the plain part - which is great since I am still only able to knit knit knit - purling still makes my arm scream at me after about 10 stitches (you would think it has been long enough for that to stop wouldn't you) - I have been having fun finding garter stitch patterns though -

love the bird pictures - what fabulous timing for you to be there ....

Anonymous said...

Breithla sona daoibh! Sorry, I couldn't figure out how to get the fada over the "a". But Happy birthday to the both of you anyway. It sounds as if you both had a wonderful day.

Vicki in So.Cal.

LinDragon said...

Belated happies to you both.Lovely post, lovely everything.Fab Kimono!
And I agree....just graft.

Knitski said...

Always a treat to stop in for a bit of knitting and Irish history. Thank you for sharing!

Lol said...

What a beautiful post. I always wait with anticipation for each new one.

EGunn said...


That merino is lovely (why are the lovely ones so difficult?), as is the kimono. And you're so productive with your knitting machines!

I love your travel posts, also. It's so much fun to discover new places!

Lea-Ann McGregor said...

Wow! I *have* to get my DH reading your blog. He wants to go to Scotland (macgregor, ya know) but I am falling in love with your wonderful pictures.

Oh, and I have an idea for you. reknit the offending square piece and try your hand at grafting on the machine if you haven't already -- there are instructions to be found on the www somewhere. . . .

pacalaga said...

Happy Birthday to you and DH. A long and soothing post, again. Reading your posts is like taking a vacation to where everything is beautiful and full of meaning and wraps you in a hug.
We have a pair of nesting eagles in a huge tree right over a main street in my town. In the spring when they're feeding the babies I nearly kill myself and others trying to watch them and drive at the same time.

Melissa said...

Happy birthday to you and your DH! What a truly amazing day together.

I really love your kimono. the flashes of red are an especially nice touch. I want one for myself :)

As for tangled, unruly yarn...I know all about that. It seems every other time I dye something goes amiss and I have to spend hours picking at finicky yarn.

KiniaCat Crafts said...

The Kimono is lovely and grand. Quite spiffy.
I vote for grafting in another square on the strip.

Belated Happy Birthday to you and your husband and thank you for sharing it with us. Lovely.
I feel as though I've had a nice visit with you.

Deborah (aka Mt. Mom) said...

What a lovely day! Happy Birthday to both of you. And congratulations on all the knitting progress.

sprite said...

Happy belated birthday, Jo! I hope the celebration continues!

Jones the Search said...

Lough Leane, in English means the Lake of Learning.
Certainly learned something today. Magical, the Ernes are stunning; I do so hope they thrive. The Knitting’s brilliant too! I love the Jacket.
I’d unpick the long striped swatch with acrylic intruder; it will bug you forever and a day.
Your blog is a real spirit lifter. Thank you Jo, for taking time to share your lovely day with us.

Lindy said...

Happy Belated Birthday Jo and for your hubby as well. What a fantastic day you had.

Thank you so much for the Sea Eagle - it touched my heart.

Ross Castle - I will have to enlarge and print that picture. My great grandfather, Duncan Ross, was brought to Newfoundland, Canada by his parents from Scotland (other family members were in Ireland at the time) as a boy. When he was 18 he moved into the US - to Michigan's Upper Peninsula where the family remained.

Thanks for such a really great post,

Lindy in Arizona

marit said...

Happy belated birthday to you both!

What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing. Here in Norway eagle is called "ørn", which is the same as your erne...loved the photos of it:-)

Knitting Out Loud said...

Wonderful photos! Thank you for sharing.

Laurel said...

I have been lurking for some time (and I don't even remember how I came here originally; it must have been knitting-related, of course!) and this post finally inspired me to delurk and tell you how much I enjoy your posts. As a nature-lover, as a knitter, as a pagan, as someone who's never made it to Ireland but would love to go there some day. I love hearing about a life that's so different from mine. And what a beauty, that sea eagle! (I am a birder at heart, too, though I haven't had the time to bird for real in years.) Thank you for bringing joy into my day, and for teaching me something new about the world.

Brenda said...

I love the Kimono. I too have a flat bed knitting machine, but must confess, that I find the set up so tedious - that is getting the gauge right and stitches on the machine, that I rarely use it. Your Kimono has inspired me though. maybe this fall.

Dez Crawford said...

I am back, dear Jo, and catching up on your blog. I haven't fallen off the edge of the earth -- I've just been swamped with work. I got a little chill at what you said about the placement of coins on the little cross -- it is so true. There are things inside us that know what must be done at ancient places, things which do not speak to us every day in the midst of the daily grind. And I do love that kimono.

Rima said...

The kimono is one stunning piece! It is lovely...

BB said...

Happy birthday! Looks like you had a well-deserved, grand day.

I was tickled (chuffed?) that you followed my suggestion for the 7 Deadlies. Could you use the knitting machine for the mini-shawl? Else I'm afraid the shawl will languish from boredom once it takes an hour to knit 1 row.

BB said...

PS, on the machine sampler vest, try moving the middle strip to the far right. Or replacing it with a long single-color strip of the acrylic if you like symmetry in patchwork.

~ ~ Ahrisha ~ ~ said...

I've nothing to say about your knitting except Extrodinary as always. I have been reading backwards as I have not visited in some time.
I so enjoy visiting and making the trips with you. Sometime I will do the real thing and show up on your doorstep.
~ ~Ahrisha~ ~

Nancy Fletcher said...

Thank you, Jo! I always love my trips to Ireland via your blog!

Stephanie said...

I love it when you say something like "Ross Castle really looks at its best when you come to it by water, doesn't it?". Like we all come to Ross Castle lots of ways. Very charming.

Anonymous said...

Hello --

I just saw your photo in one of those pricy, classy British knitting magazines that are starting to show up in shops in the U.S. --- your sweater looked great!


SisterDaughter said...

Blessings from Donegal; your blog is fascinating indeed.. thank you. If ever you have oddments of yarn to spare? Here, I design and knit various items which we sell to help our Sisters to care for abandoned babies in India. My output is governed by what yarns I can beg; just now what they call "funky" hats are selling well ... we are always deeply grateful for any yarns, however small the balls..if you email to anchoresscj at yaho dot com I can send the address.. meanwhile, I am working on a one ply lace Christening Gown...

Roggey said...

Just to warn you, when I finally make it over there, I'm going to try to steal your Dangerous Kimono (even though it would never fit me properly) - so sexy!