Monday, July 31, 2006

The Moon Spinners

Everyone seems to have been talking about spinning lately. Reading Anne's weblog about working with that beautiful silk fibre made me yearn to get back to my dear little Haldane Orkney again. It's been neglected a bit recently as I went through a fairly uncontrollable phase of amassing yarn, but now that we're past midsummer and autumn is on the horizon, it feels like time to return to twisting my own.

I have always found it difficult to spin those lovely soft rovings on a wheel - perhaps because I learned wheel spinning with natural fleece that still had all its oils in. When you are then faced with the soft dry smoothness of best merino top, it just breaks every inch or so. The only solution there was to go back to a drop spindle, and that was very nice too. Much slower, but that's no bad thing in today's world. Which brings me to my exciting news - I am getting practically the first of the new Ladakhi-style drop spindles from Jenkins Woodworking (Wanda's husband, his link's on the sidebar), and it's going to be in apple wood. There isn't a tree I love more than the apple - it's one of the most important in Celtic folklore (along with the rowan) and to have a spindle made from its wood will almost guarantee power flowing into any yarn I make with it. (OK, OK, so I'm supposed to be a hard-bitten journalist, but when it comes to tree lore, my shoelaces are still plugged into the earth.) There is so much legend and tradition attached to trees in Ireland, including an ancient poem listing the kinds of wood which are best and worst for burning. I'll tell it to you when I find it. In the meantime, hurry up Jenkins, I can't wait to hold that spindle in my very own hands.

Thinking about spinning reminded me of the legend of the Moon Spinners - the spirits who take the moon as it wanes, winding its light on to their distaffs, and then bring it down to the edge of the sea and wash it so that it can be spun again for the new moon. I might just take the new spindle down into the orchard when it arrives, and spin with it there under the new moon by way of welcome.

I'm very fond of that orchard. It isn't particularly large, but I have planted some very old species of apple there. There is a horticulturist in East Cork who specialises in finding the ancient types and grafting them on to sturdy stock. Even here in Ireland there are hundreds of old varieties recorded, some of which have disappeared, others which have hung on long enough to be saved and propagated. When I was little we had one called Irish Peach in our garden at home; its fruits were pale yellow gold flushed with pink, and tasted wonderful. I have an Irish Peach in my own garden now, and look forward to the day I can pick a sun-warmed apple straight from the tree. Anyone who has the tiniest space should try to find and plant the old species of fruit. Someone has to save them!

Got some lovely very fine blue and white wool (it's barely 1 ply) from Mistylee78 on eBay today. She's great to deal with, very friendly and quick to post, and the yarn is going to be great fun to work with.

It's so fine that I'll either have to ply it, use it with another, or - yes, perhaps I could use it for very fine Irish crochet lace. I've always wanted to take that traditional whitework in other directions. A little jacket in Irish lace? Maybe. There are all those sock projects to finish first, not to mention the lace crop cardi and the silver top.

There are so many amazing yarns out there now, and of course the World Wide Web makes availability universal. It wasn't that long ago one could only dream of exotic yarns from other countries - now they're just a mouse-click away. You lot in the New World have had broadband (you might call it 'normality') for far longer than we have. DH had to bully me into agreeing to get broadband (in case you thought everyone always had unlimited Internet access all the time, we didn't here until very recently) but once we had it, I couldn't imagine how I'd managed without. And what it's done to my yarn stash... Now every day brings new temptation. This morning Angie emailed me about Curious Yarns so of course I had to look them up immediately. Dear heaven, those sock yarns!

I mean just look at this one. It's called Faded. Isn't it just right for the court of Louis XIV? And they do the most glorious silk yarns too...

I was talking about ancient Irish poems a moment ago, I think. We're all very excited here in Ireland since the recent discovery of a very old manuscript indeed (c. 800 AD), buried in a peat bog. It's being hailed as the greatest find ever in a European bog.

I heard Garrett's little green post van at the gate this morning and went down to find him half in, half out of the van, listening to a discussion on the find on radio. 'Isn't it great?', he enthused, handing over my mail. 'Wouldn't you love to be able to read whatever's on it?' I would indeed. I wonder whose hands wrote it, and who buried it for safe keeping when times were dangerous.

The Mughal Miniature socks are coming on fine but today I digressed briefly and made a start on copying that crochet shrug I bought. I used a particularly lovely mohair that I'd been keeping for just such a project, and made up the first motif fairly quickly. However I realised just after I'd fastened off and cut the yarn that this was perhaps not quite the gauge I'd anticipated. The original motif on the bought shrug was about three inches - this was nearer 12.

Yes, that's a 12" ruler underneath it. Oops - back to the drawing board on that one. Yes, it would make up the shrug pretty quickly, but you wouldn't get much shaping and definition with twelve-inch motifs.

Great excitement as I was dishing up dinner. DH called urgently that the baby wrens were out of the nest. I thought they had a week to go yet! Tiny short-tailed babies fluttering here there and everywhere, dogs following curiously, unsure whether to attack or flee.

This little chap was quite eager to start exploring this brave new world.

Mother wren of course was frantic; DH was rushing round brandishing a camera, and I left dinner to look after itself while I hared after the dogs. Some of the nestlings were quite lively and learning to cope even as they fluttered and stumbled; others sat crossly on twigs and demanded supper as they had been used to in the nest. I do hope they're all tucked up somewhere safe and snug tonight. It's such a responsibility!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Legend of Knitting...

Bouts of drenching rain interspersed with bright sunshine today. In this kind of weather the garden explodes into action and the grass grows six inches when you turn your back. The young swallows are out of the nest and sitting on the wires, waiting eagerly to be fed by their parents who must be yearning for the day they can use their return tickets to Africa and leave the kids to fend for themselves.

I was really pretty pleased with myself last night for having actually managed to cast on for the Interlacements socks on those miniscule toothpicks, and further, managing to knit two whole rounds on each. You want to look forward at that stage, imagine the delirious moment when they are actually FINISHED.

But Peg, you were absolutely right to question the number of stitches I had on the needles. FAR too many. Why? How did that happen? I followed gauge religiously, but that wasn't where the mistake came in. If I'd stopped believing implicitly that the pattern was telling the truth (well, you do sort of believe in them in the beginning, don't you, rather like Santa Claus? When did you first realise that there wasn't a Santa Claus and that patterns were not always perfect?), then I might have done the maths (math for you New World girls) and would immediately have seen that casting on 112 stitches, however tiny the needles and however fine the yarn, was going to result in a sock that would be a comfy fit on a medium-sized elephant.

And so this morning was yet another of those rip-it-out-and-start-again sessions. It's always heartrending as you eliminate in a few angry tugs those careful stitches upon stitches. Even the yarn, still holding the shapes of the individual loops, seems to reproach you. And casting onto those toothpicks yet again was no easier. I'm terrified that any second I will suddenly forget, clasp my hand shut or make a fist to shake at a dog shrieking at the neighbours (quietly working in their garden without a knitting needle in sight), and instantly shatter all five exquisitely made little rosewood dpns.

But now it's evening and I'm working on half the number of stitches. The needles are happier too. They were a bit overloaded with the original number (28 on each) and the tiny stitches were slipping off each end. This way they're moving along, although so slowly. At this rate it will be Christmas before I get beyond the cuff (yes, I'm working from the top down. I did look at some instructions labelled 'Extra Easy' for starting at the toe, but by the time I'd read through the details on Provisional Cast On eleven times ('now use the waste yarn, but ensure that the real yarn is kept to the back, not on any account to the front, and do not twist unless told to do so...'), I felt a brainstorm coming on and retreated to the comparative familiarity of top-down.)

Thanks to to those of you who told me where I could buy Handmaiden Sea Silk, that wonderful-sounding yarn which incorporates real seaweed in its make-up. As I'm fortunate enough to be going to British Columbia at the end of September though, I feel I must buy it within Canada, where it has originated. That way the magic it surely must contain will be full strength.

You might remember the Yarn Harlot saying she'd read somewhere that knitting was magical. It is. You weave spells, whether consciously or not, when you work with needles and yarn. There are so many old legends - we have dozens of them in Ireland - which relate enchantments that can only be broken by the knitting of garments in strange fibres. Have you ever read Judith Marillier's Daughter of the Forest? That is the most wonderful re-telling of the Children of Lir legend. In her book the heroine has to make the magic shirts of
nettles to free her brothers changed into swans. If you haven't read it yet, get it. The denouement is unforgettable.

Nettles, and brambles too, are like flax in their structure and you can make fibre from them in the same way. I sometimes strip really long bramble stems of their prickles by wearing (very) strong gardening gloves and
pulling them through my fist. Then I weave them in and out of a row of willow twigs to make fences round my flower beds. A lovely lady at a nearby tree nurserycalled Future Forests (must introduce you soon) uses raw
sheep fleece in between the interstices of the weaving to make the fence earthproof. She says the medieval monks used to do it that way, as well as insulating the walls of their stone huts with fleece.

And, oddly enough, monks are exactly what I've been thinking of when I've been getting used to my tiny dpns and brightly coloured sock yarn these last couple of days. I was thinking about the Book of Kells and how the monks in ancient monasteries sat stooped with fine quill pens and coloured inks over their sheets of vellum , working long hours by guttering candles for sheer love of the beauty they were creating - just like me with my tiny needles and jewel-bright yarn. Well, it's not so far-fetched an idea.

This is the biggest sample I could find from the Book of Kells on the Net - I can't locate my own copy of the book at the moment. But you see the fine detail and the colours?

And here are my little socks-in-progress. Well, I can see the link anyway. Look at your own WIP with an artist's eye. Are socks the new illuminated manuscripts? Let's reclaim our rightful place as fibre artists.

We have no shortage of ancient ruined monasteries in the countryside here, all ideal for wandering and dreaming of days past (even with rain dripping down your neck and brambles waving in the wind). Lots of ruined castles too. Within a five mile radius of where I live there are at least six. Even the junction outside is known as Castleview Cross, because of Mashanaglass Castle across the river. Then there are Macroom Castle down the road, Crookstown in the opposite direction, Carrigaphooka, Carrigadrohid, Dripsey, all close by. No, definitely no shortage.

There are however days of great yarn hunger when I'd swap you - oh, let's say three ruined castles for a package including one Joann's, one Michael's and a special yarn shop of your choice. Maybe a Hobby Lobby tucked in if there's room. I wouldn't be depriving Ireland of too much, honestly. Yarn shops we are short of, castles we are not. Come over and buy one if you want. Jeremy Irons did. He, having the requisite bank balance, did up his place on the coast beautifully. You sometimes meet him on the country boreens down around Schull.

And thanks too for letting me know that my yarns can't always be found on eBay. When you told me, I looked myself by typing in Celtic Memory Yarns and got a nil result, even though I only listed them on Friday. So then I went in the slow route by Buy, and Crafts, and Yarn, and Handspun/Handpainted, and eventually located them. It's worth remembering, I keep telling myself, that technology doesn't always work. Back to the knitting needles!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Tiny Needles and Gossamer Yarn - Am I Insane?

The rain swept in overnight and bathed the countryside in lovely dampness here. This morning the clouds were still swirling by from the south-west, but by mid-morning the rain had eased off and everything had a wonderful scent of green growth. An early stem of montbretia by the little pond where the birds bathe was iridescent with raindrops.

Working indoors is a good idea when it's raining, so it was time for some elementary carpentry. You remember that lace crop cardi that is being planned as a tour de force for Bantry Show? The linen/cotton yarn had looked a little dull so I blended in a matching fine Lurex thread. Trouble was, the Lurex was wound on a straight cardboard tube and didn't unroll easily from the bag in which I kept the project. I was getting worried that it would stretch and snap. So down to the workshop for a hunt through offcuts and scraps.

Why is it that men can never bear to see women handling power tools? DH is in every other respect the model of Modern Man. He washes up more than I do, is supportive of new ideas before I've even had them, and will even take the dogs out last thing at night when I'm swearing over a frogged back row. But as soon as he hears me pulling things around in the basement workshop he's down there anxiously surveying his precious possessions and offering to do whatever needs doing. He didn't quite say 'Women and drills don't mix', but it was in his eyes. I could see it.

However, this was something I wanted to make myself. I knew what I wanted and if he got involved he'd only start making useful sensible suggestions. I wanted to make my own mistakes. And eventually he left me to it, albeit reluctantly, and I know perfectly well he kept an ear open upstairs for sudden crashes or bangs.

It didn't take all that long to make, although it's odd how screws, no matter how carefully you measure, have a propensity to go in at the wrong angle, and pull pieces of wood askew. Eventually I triumphed and after giving my new invention a coat of white paint, put it into use (yes, of course it was quick-drying emulsion, you don't think I'm going to hang around for oil paint to dry, do you?)

Here is the holder, sitting neatly on my Welsh spinning chair, with the WIP in front of it. See how it holds the tube of Lurex perfectly? I'm so proud of it! Don't laugh, it's my very own invention. And don't bother telling me somebody else has already invented it: that groundbreaking design came out of my head, from my needs, and I dare anyone to say different.

(Has one perhaps mistaken one's vocation? Should one have been a famous designer of furniture, of beautifully shaped wood creations that would be desired worldwide? Perhaps not. One's unfortunate habit of sawing planks unevenly, and bending nails when they're halfway in, would definitely tell against success.)

Nevertheless, this small success and the testing thereof meant that another few rows of the lace cardi got done before the insistent sunshine and an impatient paw on my knee forced the donning of boots and a search for the car keys. Sophie wanted to go walkabout at Gougane Barra and I was nothing loth, since after the rain the streams which cascade down the mountains are spectacular. Do you know Callanan's poem?

There is a green island in lone Gougane Barra
Where Allua of songs rushes forth as an arrow.
In green-valley'd Desmond a thousand wild fountains
Come down to that lake from their home in the mountains...

Breda runs the old family hotel at Gougane, as did her father and his father before her. Today she was telling a story to a small grandchild as I went in.

'There was this farmer who had to get up very early one morning to take his cattle through the Pass of Keimaneigh to the fair at Bantry. He travelled through the pass in the dark with not a sign of life nor a sound all around. All of a sudden he heard music and singing and merrymaking ahead of him and could not think what it was. Then he came upon a company of folk amusing themselves and playing music the like of which he had never heard. "Surely now I'm among the Good People," he said to himself, and straightaway sat down on a stone to listen, while the cattle grazed quietly, not being bothered by the music one bit. When the music ended, a strange fellow with bright eyes came up to the farmer with a caubeen. Now the farmer knew you must always pay for the music you hear, so he put his hand in his pocket and took out all he had in the world, which was a silver sixpence. He put it in the hat, and all at once the man, the music, the merrymakers disappeared, and he was alone in the pass once more, with the dawn breaking and his cattle gazing at him as if they thought he was mad altogether.

So on he went to the fair, and didn't he have great luck altogether. He sold his cattle for more than he ever thought possible, and was able to buy the few bits of things he needed with plenty left over. Off he set home with a light heart, and it was only as he was turning into the pass again that he remembered the strange doings of the morning. On he went, all the same, and when he came to the selfsame stone where he had sat, what was lying there on the very top of it but his silver sixpence!'

The little grandchild was enchanted, and so was I. These old stories and legends were once told around every fireside in Ireland. Today television and computers have made some inroads into old customs, but Breda is thinking of starting up storytelling sessions in the old-fashioned bar at the hotel on winter evenings. Who wouldn't prefer that to sitting at a computer screen?

I was determined to make a start on those rosewood dpns from Scottish Fibres when I got home (after rubbing Sophie down with a towel - she somehow fell into the lake and then was disinclined to get out again, preferring to go sloshing round in the mud at the edge, looking at things), so got out the lovely Interlacements yarn from Simply Socks and wound two separate balls on my nostepinne. Then I took the needles out of their packaging.

Dear heaven, have you any idea how TINY 2.5mm needles are? I mean, I normally work with a 6mm for nearly everything. And to make matters worse, these ones were only four inches long! A few delirious minutes of staring at the miniscule toothpicks in disbelief didn't make any difference - if anything, they looked even tinier. If I left it any longer they'd disappear altogether.

I'm not sure that casting on 112 stitches and then transferring these on to four microscopic matches is the best exercise for calming the mind and relaxing the spirit. Plus it had to be done twice - since reading the revelation by Grouchywif on Knitter's Review Forum that she always worked on two socks at the same time, on two identical sets of dpns, I had determined to do the same. It's supposed to eliminate Second Sock Syndrome entirely, which can't be bad. Besides which I wanted to show you that I am a woman of my word. I had said that I would get started on them today, and that was what I was going to do. I got as far as two rounds of rib on each and was so relieved I took their picture for you.

No, they are not standing up by themselves. They're lying down. On a pillow. They should be in an incubator. I mean, will you look at the size of those little splinters? They're far too young to be out on their own. Do they start work at an earlier age in Scotland or something? I expect the Knitting Police to break down the door any minute and arrest me for cruelty to juvenile dpns.

Just to make the comparison, I put my usual 6mm circular underneath. See the difference? How am I ever to get a pair of socks done at this rate?

It isn't as if there aren't enough chunky, bulky, superweight yarns around, with robust jolly fat needles to match. Hundreds and hundreds of patterns for instant scarves, quick cardigans, jiffy jackets, superspeed shawls. And you're listening to a girl who habitually plans a sweater in the morning, casts on at lunchtime, and is wearing the finished project that night. Am I out of my tiny mind?

I have to say, though, that the Interlacements yarn is scrumptious, and boasts the most beautiful colour variations. If I ever were to complete these socks, they would be so beautiful that I would have to walk without shoes. Or find some of those see-through wellies, which is proving a difficult task (you can only get them if you happen to take a child's size as far as I can see.) Maybe the best solution would be to hire a sedan chair and get carried around with my feet gracefully resting outside so that everyone could admire the socks.

But this is daydreaming. This is wishful thinking. Can these socks ever get beyond Row 2? Even knitting with them is a very strange feeling. Your hand totally swallows up the little scraps and you feel like Hagrid in Harry Potter trying to make dolls' clothes . (Not that he ever did, but you know what I mean.)

There was a time, though, now that I come to think of it, when I had a passion for bobbin lace. A whole class of us would spend hours, days, working with gossamer threads on a pencilled pattern. Half an inch of lace in a week was considered pretty darn speedy. One day I realised that although this was very pleasant, not to say addictive, it wouldn't cut much ice in a pioneer, self-sufficiency situation (a favourite dream - I loved Little House On The Prairie), so I went back to the spinning wheel and the large needles. Now here I am again, working on the micro-scale. Why? Couldn't this have been avoided with some care? I really don't know where I'm going with these socks, and if we are going to make it as a team or not.

As the broken-hearted Sally says in that gorgeous weepie, Interlude, 'Must it happen once to everyone?'

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Sock That Went to Bandon

Just finished re-listing my yarns on eBay. I've been having such a nice time this past couple of weeks posting on my weblog and checking out everyone else's and making new friends that I quite forgot to put Celtic Memory Yarns into public view until someone sent me a plaintive message. Now all five of the newest collection are on there so I can relax. Lunasa is, I think, my favourite at the moment, although I love them all - I wouldn't have spent so long getting the blend just right if I didn't adore each and every one. And when they are finished and skeined up, I have to scour the countryside for just the right location to photograph them. I searched everywhere for a field of genuine hay bales as a backdrop for Lunasa and, wouldn't you know, only found exactly the right place half a mile from home at the end of the day. As Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz would say, 'Right in my own backyard.'

Anne was talking on her weblog today about St. Anne and how she remembered celebrating her feast day as almost like her own birthday. Anne asks if anyone else knows of St. Anne as being the patron saint of knitting. Coincidentally, Peg asked me today if I knew of just such a patron saint, since she is desperate for another 15 yards of Silk Stream by Fleece Artist to finish a project. Peg, you should definitely talk with Anne about this! To add to the body of knowledge, I had always heard that St. Brigid was the patron saint of spinning, and St. Katherine of lacemaking. And by the way, Peg, why don't you try Knitter's Review Forum too? They're lovely people and so helpful, and I'm almost sure they have a special section for yarn appeals like yours. Good luck with the search.

Somebody somewhere (and I'm really sorry I can't track down the location - was it Knitter's Review or on a weblog?) gave me the tip that it's really quite easy to use one very very long circular to knit a sock. Thank you, whoever you are. Put like that, it seemed a simple operation, so I just dumped one of the circulars from the purple sock and it worked fine, much to my surprise. I took it out with me this morning when I went over to Bandon for the Friday country market. Rho , you're the Harry Potter expert. Who, in which book, said, 'I didn't get rid of the Bandon Banshee just by smiling at her!'?

While having coffee I took out my sock and started working on it. This, by the way, is far from common practice in Ireland at the moment and it still takes a bit of courage to put oneself up for public attention, but I'm determined to spread the good word. An elderly lady who was sitting next to me immediately took interest and wanted to know exactly how the one-circular-needle method worked.

Mary talked in her soft voice about the little coastal town of Kilbrittain where she was born, grew up, married and still lives now. She brought out a composite photograph showing her son at different stages of his life - a teenager, on his wedding day, at a birthday party, and finally two weeks before his death from a brain tumour. 'There's a lot of sadness in life,' she said quietly, putting the picture away carefully again. But her eyes are serene as she gazes at passers by, and there is great strength in her quietness. She puzzled over the unfamiliar method of knitting for a little while and then her face lit up. ''I can see your sock now,' she said with satisfaction. 'So that's the way of it!' She finished off a row and handed it back, smiling.

Waiting in the supermarket queue was a good place to see how quickly another row could be done.

Therese Butler was on the checkout. 'I can indeed knit,' she agreed when asked. However, she revealed, cross stitch is also a passion, and she is searching vainly for a pattern to do badger and fox (her father loves wildlife). In Ireland we don't have access to all the magazines you do in the States, and I think Therese hasn't quite switched on to the Internet yet, so anyone who can help, let me know and I'll happily act as middlewoman.

In an odds-and-ends shop nearby I found some marvellous new containers for projects. I mentioned in a previous posting that Vogue Knitting had an advertisement for these lovely clear totes for your knitting, which could clip on to your belt while you worked, or stand alone, keeping yarn and needles safe. I was on the point of buying one until I saw the ridiculous price. Then I discovered those little plastic satchels which held toys, and found that they would do exactly the same job. Now I came across several more options which I immediately purchased and brought home to photograph for you.

In the background is a clear plastic rucksack of diminutive size, holding a child's picnic set. In the foreground is a clear pencil case with zip, lying atop a pop-up mini laundry bag.

Now here they are with some of my projects in:

The pop-up laundry bag is particularly useful because it folds flat and can be taken anywhere; then when you want to knit, it holds the ball of yarn securely and eliminates that maddening chase under and around table legs and the subsequent need to remove bits of fluff, hair, and other rubbish. And all these together for under ten Euros (oh don't bother to convert, we're worth more than you at the moment but by next week it could easily be the other way round), whereas the Vogue beauty was over 40 US$ as I recall.

On the way back over the hills to Macroom, the blue Ballyhoura Mountains looked beautiful after the rain.

I was playing an Enya tape as I drove, and the scenery matched her music perfectly.

When I got home, Richard met me with a secretive air and led me to a thick hedge where he had discreetly marked one spot with a single daisy. I peered in and saw a tiny nest. Putting in a tentative finger, I felt four warm, feathery, very tiny heads. (It's OK to touch them once they're hatched - Mum won't desert them now.) The baby wrens are too young and small to be photographed yet, but the sparrows busily engaged in gathering fibre for a weaving session of their own nearby were only too pleased to pose.

I really must stop knitting the rib of the purple sock. It just get so hypnotic that although the intention was definitely to create some sort of pattern - perhaps cables, or twists - I can't seem to halt long enough to change from that k1 p1 rib. So far every pair of socks I've started is rib all the way. Tomorrow I definitely brave those tiny teeny little rosewood dpns, armed with my new confidence and some divine Simply Socks yarn.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Keep Knitting And Maybe Nobody Will Notice!

That silver lacy top got frogged back right to the first stitch. I'd tried to ignore the increasingly obvious fact that it was both too openwork and a bit too large. I should have made it on the smaller size needles that I'd originally tried. Eventually this morning I woke up accepting the fact. I got up, slid quietly into the sitting room without waking DH (or, more importantly, the three small lively dogs down below who would immediately get out of bed and start demanding FOOD, FUN, WUV), frogged with fanatic calm, and cast on with the smaller circular. Then I thought I'd knit one pattern repeat before getting breakfast (the book I got it from, Ripple Stitch Patterns, calls it Guppy Tails, but I'd have called it a fairly simple horseshoe or fan lace pattern. Whatever.) The first row is never much fun, because the stitches aren't really set in place yet, so you have to work carefully. Which I did. But not quite carefully enough, apparently, since I arrived at the end and found I had three stitches over. Which should not have been the case.

What do you do when that happens? Frog patiently back until you find where you inexplicably started off a pattern repeat only half way through the last one? Ignore it, knit the leftovers, and hope that if you're very very good and very very careful from now on, nobody will notice, and it was only the first row anyway? Or do you rip the whole thing from the circular with a cry of rage and squash it into the WIP basket, slamming down the lid with unncessary violence?

You are invited to guess which option I chose. Breakfast was a rather silent affair. DH knows when to be tactful.

Turning to happier matters, the Scottish dpns arrived yesterday, and today Garrett the postie brought all the lovely yarn from Simply Socks . I was so pleased that I carried them all out into the orchard to have their picture taken together.

Garrett (he's working hard these days) also brought a marvellous surprise package of different leftover yarns from Angie. Angie and I (in the interests of better UK/Irish relations) have decided that we're going to swap back and forth like this once or twice a year from now on. Lucky bags we call them, after a childhood treat. Did you have those in your local shop growing up? A big sealed paper bag, usually in a bright colour, which contained some sweets, perhaps some sherbet, and a surprise - a plastic toy, a tiny game, maybe even a model aeroplane. Never knitting needles though. Well, we both realised that we might be older but we still wanted our lucky bags, so we're re-inventing them. Might make it stockings at Christmas. Everyone should have a Christmas stocking.

Reading your responses to my last posting, about that desperate struggle for yarn in the Balkans, I was so very glad I'd taken the chance and shared it with you. My instinct was right and you were absolutely the only people who would understand the way I wanted it to be understood. You really are wonderful. Every one of you empathised with those women. I only wish we could let them know. I send them good thoughts, wherever they are now.

It also got me thinking about how I've felt in different corners of the world when I've found myself without yarn and needles. It doesn't happen too often these days - the planning of which travel projects to take often occupies more time than the general packing - but there were occasions when for some insane reason I would decide that I didn't really need any handwork cluttering up my bag. Then of course I would arrive in some strange country and immediately realise that I couldn't live another second without something to work on. There was that village in Crete where a gnarled old lady and I made pantomime gestures to each other for half an hour before light dawned and she brought out a box of crochet hooks and some skeins of cotton from under the ancient wooden counter. And that Romanian town when I accosted two women knitting on a park bench and pestered them in a mixture of every language I could think of until they realised I wanted to be directed to the local yarn store. And that time I combed the back streets of Vienna until I saw a stray ball of wool in a window and knew I was on the right track... Can you remember times when you felt like that? And the sense of delight and relief when you knew you could settle down that evening in your hotel room or tent or train compartment and start to knit again? There's nothing like that happiness.

After a morning spent writing (as well as having scenes with that silver lacy top), it seemed a good idea to go out and get some fresh air this afternoon. Killarney is only half an hour from me, but as it is over the hills, the weather is often quite different. The clouds were down on Magillicuddy's Reeks and the rain was starting to fall as I reached Muckross. Muckross is an old gracious estate, once the home of the Herbert family who entertained Queen Victoria there n the 1860s and bankrupted themselves in the process. Now it belongs to the nation and everyone can enjoy it. The grounds are beautifully kept, and although I'm sure most visitors would have preferred sunshine, I think Muckross actually looks at its best in dark weather, when the white mists sweep over the mountains and make them look an even deeper blue in contrast.

They have quite a few industries at Muckross, including a weaving shed where they make scarves, wraps, hats and lengths of tweed in lovely soft colours. I've been nagging them for years to make the leftover cones of yarn available to buy. After all, if there isn't enough to use on another length of fabric, they might as well sell it. But it took a long time for the message to get through. Today, however, I could see that the effort had paid off. There was actually a basket by the door.

Unfortunately there wasn't a great deal of choice, and I didn't really need any of them, but at least it's a start. I'll call back next week and if nobody else has bought any, I'll have to take some of them home, if only to encourage the staff to put out more. I'm sure visitors would be delighted to get genuine Irish yarn - it's scarce enough.

Took Sophie for a wander in the woodlands before going home. The rain was fairly heavy by now, but under the leaf canopy only the occasional drop splashed down. Everything had a rich fresh green scent. These are very ancient woodlands, probably the natural descendants of the original forests in these parts. To walk in them is deeply relaxing and always makes me more aware of our instinctive links to the past and to the old ways of doing things. Who'd willingly opt for a machine when the satisfaction of creating with the hands is so consumately fulfilling?

DH found this quote for me last night, attributed to one Alex Levine:

"Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat."

And if you haven't tried Irish coffee in Killarney, you haven't tried Irish coffee. As hot as hell, as sweet as sin, and as strong as love. What's keeping you?

I must go to Vancouver Island. Now! Well, as soon as possible anyway. Peg has just told me of the most divine yarn made there of silk and seaweed. Sinfully gorgeous, she calls it. Now that's a yarn to make
a dream-catcher, seal-singing shawl with if ever there was one. When's the next flight?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Real Meaning of Yarn Hunger

Just want to make a few observations about that Elann lace crop cardi. Was I a bit too upbeat, too confident last night? Yes. Is the project proving somewhat challenging? Yes! And confusing. YES! Let's update on the stitch marker situation. The instructions are very clear on this point. Place markers every time you think it's a good idea. Place a few more. Go out and buy an industrial-sized pack of markers just to be on the safe side. Have a stiff drink and shove in another dozen or so. Excuse me, do we actually get to do any knitting round here? Oh good, we're starting. Work the first row. OK, so far so good. Now increase either side of the increase marker. Hang on. WHAT increase marker? WHERE? Back to the already tired-looking four printed sheets of detailed notes. No - nowhere in the instructions is ANY ONE of those goldarned little monsters designated as an increase marker. How am I supposed to recognise them? Shout 'Hey - all increase markers forward one pace!'? Say in an icily controlled voice, 'Nobody is leaving this room until the increase markers make themselves known, and that is final.'? Or am I just being dense? Is everyone else laughing helplessly and saying, 'How funny, she really doesn't know that in lace knitting the 7th, 19th and 147th markers are ALWAYS increase markers, oh dear, ha, ha, ha.' I wonder how long into August this lace crop and I are going to continue together? Here's how it's looking so far.

No, it hasn't got very much down from the neck, has it? How can it when there are constant halts to check the pattern yet again, to wrench balaclavas from the heads of disguised stitch markers to see if they are really increase markers in disguise? Strewth, and they call this relaxation?

But I wanted to tell you about something else tonight, something I haven't actually shared with anyone yet, even though I'm a journalist by trade and make my living by telling people things.

A couple of years ago I was out in the Balkans on an assignment. The horror of war was over, but the picking up of pieces and the attempted repair of what could never be the same again was ongoing. I visited a refugee camp in a disused mental hospital - exactly where it was doesn't matter. Some very keen and committed aid workers had just arrived with supplies for the people there. These refugees were wretched survivors indeed, torn from the lands and homes they knew, deprived of everything they possessed, and now stranded like tragic flotsam and jetsam in an alien place among alien people. They stared at us with sunken eyes as we walked in. I for one was painfully aware of my confident Western step, my casual Western clothes, my inherent knowledge that I had a passport in my back pocket and could leave any time I chose. You don't realise the importance of these things until you're faced with people who have none of them.

Three young American women had brought several huge sacks, full of balls of yarn, donated by generous people back home, and with happy smiles at the thought of the pleasure the supplies would engender, they set the sacks down in an open green area. Slowly the women of the camp gathered round, their eyes watchful. The girls untied the necks of the sacks and spread them wide. One took out a brightly coloured ball of wool and held it out to the nearest woman. Then it happened.

One minute all was quiet, a charming scene. The next, everything was chaos. The three girls disappeared in a melee of bodies, arms, fists even. Scraps of black plastic sack were flung in the air. One elderly woman on a crutch disappeared underneath a pile of struggling figures, crying desperately for help. The yarn went everywhere, strands knotting and tangling underneath the shifting, slipping feet. The few men nearby turned their backs in rejection of the scene. Perhaps they were embarrassed, I don't know. They certainly didn't try to remedy the situation.

Women who had been standing close to each other in friendship were now locked in struggle over balls of yarn. Every single scrap of wool was fought over as if it had been pure gold. The aid workers scrambled out of the melee, dishevelled and deeply distressed. I wondered frantically what had happened to the woman on crutches.

She's in the middle of the picture here, on the ground.

Gradually the fracas died down. Women hurried off to their sheds, their tents, the little spaces they called their own, with their loot. I saw the disabled woman sitting on the ground, her crutch by her side and rushed to pick her up. But she was smiling! And as I helped her to her feet, she triumphantly revealed the several balls of yarn on which she had been lying, hiding them from her comrades.

If I had written that story up for a newspaper, readers might have sneered at the bad behaviour of refugees. They might have expressed incredulity that anyone would think yarn worth fighting over. I didn't want to lessen the strength of what I saw that day by writing about it, so I didn't.

Now, however, I thought I would share it with you, since we are all self-confessed, avowed yarn fiends. But that experience in the Balkans showed me just how much a simple ball of yarn can mean to someone who has lost everything else in life. It showed me the real meaning of yarn hunger.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Is The WIP Basket Getting Out of Hand?

Another bright morning, but still no sign of the two sets of rosewood dpns from Scotland, nor yet the bargain yarn from eBay wool, nor indeed the Irish crochet pattern, bid for and won at such cost. Where ARE they? However, Postie did bring something rather important - the entry forms for Bantry Show. Now this means decision time. Bantry is a big show by West Cork standards, and it's probably the leader as far as arts and craft classes are concerned. Entrants take it very seriously indeed. Not as seriously as the baking contingent, admittedly. Only those possessed of unshakeable confidence and impeccable lineage (prizewinners on both sides of the family back to 1860 is about right) dare to enter for classes like Round Brown Soda Bread, Cherry Madeira (in a loaf tin) or Cold Tea Brack (8"). You see them walking up and down the aisles after judging, eyes narrowed, pens poised over programmes, as they note who has got the coveted red rosette this year, and who has been demoted to the green or (shame of shames) the blue. No-one who has not been born within sight of Bantry Bay would dare to gatecrash that sacred club.

But the crafts are a little more open and it's about time I took my courage in both hands and entered something. After all, it's practically my local show (Ballyvourney, Ballingeary and Coolea are fairly small, three-cow events which, though most engaging and pleasant experiences, are not in the same class as Bantry), and I have every right to put myself up for examination by the gimlet-eyed judges and public. The question is: do I make a start on that glorious Elann lace cropped cardi right now, with the aim of finishing it by September 3 (show date)?

I hauled out the Tivoli linen/cotton mix and looked at it again. It seemed a little dead, somehow, a bit lacklustre. Where's my box of glitters and glitz? Discovered a whole roll of very fine lurex in almost the same shade of teal. This lurex is probably all of 60 years old, having been inherited with the house, and in all likelihood originated in Paris where DH's mother was living at the time. It's in fairly good condition for its age, though, and blends perfectly with the linen/cotton yarn.

Not a bad match, is it?

Full of enthusiasm, I print out the instructions and search for the right circular. Circulars in fact, since this pattern demands that you start with 5mm, move up to 5.5 after one ball and then onwards and upwards until you simultaneously reach 7mm and the end of the jacket. The house is screaming for some tidying, the washing up is abandoned, the garden has given up entirely and is aiming to emulate Act 2 of The Sleeping Beauty, but the lure of casting on and just trying one or two rows is irresistible.

Dear heaven, the number of stitch markers they want! Every time you increase, place a marker. Every time you finish a repeat of the pattern, place a marker. Every time you get up to see what the dog is barking at,
place a marker. Every time you breathe... At this stage it resembles nothing so much as a cheap Christmas tree, and is rattling so much with plastic that I can't even see the stitches. And I'm still only 5 rows down from the neck! Do all patterns require this amount of traffic-conery or am I just really lucky?

I am beginning to wonder if I am taking this new freedom (i.e. to have as many projects on the go as I like) to extremes. I was lyrical with joy when I first realised (courtesy of Blessed Stephanie Pearl McPhee, original breaker of the mould) that there was nothing intrinsically virtuous about starting, continuing and completing just one knit project; and that conversely, there was something delightfully free and fulfilling about haring off in seventy-two knitting directions at once. (If, like me, you also incline occasionally toward crochet, double that figure.) But this evening, as I glanced over towards my WIP basket, I did begin to wonder... And so, setting my teeth (and carefully setting down the frightening heap of plastic rings and tangled yarn that is the early stages of the Elann jacket), I hauled the basket into the middle of the room and took out (most of) the projects inside, laying them neatly on the floor. Then I took a picture of the still-life.

In front, as befits the self-styled star of the show, we have the start of the lace crop cardi. To your left (stage right, for the theatre buffs among you) is the beginning of the silver lacy top (I may have omitted to mention that I also got going on that today. Well, I needed a lot more comfort for the postal disappointment.) To your right, the purple sock using the two-circular method kindly passed on to me by Rho . Immediately behind that (almost hidden) the stripy Regia sock on 4 dpns, and to its right (your left) the alpaca crochet socks (are we getting a bit too much into the sock thing here?) Draped over the basket is the Karabella crochet shawl with above it, firstly the Debbie Bliss alpaca silk slipover or vest, and on top of that, the poor neglected dolman-sleeved jacket of many colours. And believe me, that's not all. If I were really to hunt through cupboards and drawers, open boxes that haven't seen the light of day for years, I suspect the Unfinished Projects found would fill the room and I would be able to open a knitting needle shop (anyone want 17 pairs of 5mm straights in old-fashioned metal or plastic, only slightly bent?).

It's like those days you feel like checking out your library and you go round the house pulling markers out of books that you'd started and left unfinished. Sobering, isn't it? Particularly when you find markers made of receipts dating from 1980.

Anyway, by my calculation I have not only not finished anything, I have, in the last few days, started at least five new knit projects. And when the dpns and the eBay yarn and that laceweight from Eastern Europe (must have forgotten to mention that too, dear me), what can I do but make them feel welcome and useful?

I wonder what the chances are of finishing that lace cardi in time for Bantry Show?

Monday, July 24, 2006

You Can Never Have Too Many Projects On The Go

I was pretty miffed. Woke up with an excited feeling, rather like a birthday. Today my two little sets of rosewood dpns should arrive from Scotland and be welcomed into their new home. Perhaps that yarn I bought on eBay a week ago will get here too. And that incredible Irish crochet lace pattern. With a song in my heart I listened for the crash of the neighbour's cattle grid, which means that Garrett is on his way in the little green van. Dashed to the gate, accompanied by all three dogs, but - my heart plummeted. Garrett waved cheerfully, but sped onwards to Lissarda and Kilmurry. No post today. Not even a postcard. No lovely big squashy parcels of yarn, no large envelopes marked Do Not Bend. The sunshine went out of the morning for a bit, but after deadheading dozens of rose bushes and clearing the pond of weed, optimism returned. After all, as Scarlett O'Hara would say, 'Tomorrow is another day.'

After all, it isn't as if I had nothing else to do. Slowly, reluctantly, unenthusiastically sewing up Anny Blatt, trying to find a way of using one yarn for all the seams (although really the only way with a brightly striped piece like this is to use its own yarn for each section, but that takes ages as well as rather lending itself to ripping out during something really important like a symphony concert or an interview with Jeremy Irons.) Putting in a few more rows on First Ever Sock. Deciding on a pattern for that Aran jacket. Finding a lace pattern for the silver yarn. And in between, trying to climb the ironing mountain, attack the garden, find out which of the dogs is moulting all over the place (none of them will admit to it, but I suspect Muffy), finish Dickens' American Notes, oh yes, and write up some overdue articles. Plus tidy up my weblog and put on those new links (this business is becoming more and more like fishing for octopus (Octopi? Octopodes?) Each time you fish one out, it has another eight clinging to each of its legs, and each of those has another eight, and so on. Whenever I check somebody else's website, I find their links to other fascinating people and topics, and so it goes on. You have to run to stay still!

Angie says trying to put a new link on your weblog is always a hit and miss affair. I have to agree. You think you have it off pat, and then somewhere you miss out a tiny sharp-edged bracket or a quotation mark and the link either just doesn't appear (which is frustrating) or, far worse, it appears in a garbled manner which makes
you look like not only a computer geek but the kind of person who probably sews up jackets really really badly and doesn't darn in the ends either. Listen, we're knitters, right? How come we're the ones pushing back the borders of computer knowledge by learning how to control computer-speak? Shouldn't someone else be doing that? Still, I suppose it shows just how varied our capabilities are. Could a male computer nerd manage to knit a sock? I think not (not sure I can myself yet, so better not get too smug on that one just awhile.)

Anne assures me that sock yarn definitely doesn't count towards the size of your main stash. 'A side hobby all its own' she called it, which is a very good way of describing this most addictive habit. She also insisted that there was nothing to compare with spinning your own sock yarn: it really makes the project come alive. I think I'll test the truth of that with my new fleece. After all I did tell John-Joe I could, so I had better try to make the statement true in arrears at least. By the way, Anne's catalog (we'd still spell that catalogue here in
Ireland, but I'm aware I'm talking to the international set here), has some stunning patterns. The Criss-Cross Jabot Scarf is ingenious. I'm going to have to get that one, and also the Cable & Fold Scarf.

After my contretemps with Magic Loop, Rho, blessed girl, sent me a really detailed and well expressed set of
instructions for socks on two circulars. It is exactly what's needed for a beginner in this field - you're led by the hand every step of the way. That's good, even if you know the next bit - it's very reassuring to have the help on hand. Once I'd printed it off I immediately tried to ferret out two circulars the same size. Of course, unless you're into this method already, which of us habitually stashes several sets of circulars in the same sizes? But I was all afire to try the instructions out, so eventually settled for two almost the same, since this was a practice run really. And it's working. Yo! Rho you're a thoroughgoing petkin. Look, look what I've done!

OK, it's not much, but at least I've got it started. The dangling ends take some getting used to, and it probably would be better with shorter circulars as Rho advised, but needs must when the devil drives, Miss Furnival, as the saying goes.

Then, since I was still a bit cross about not getting any parcels in the post today, I did some more compensating for disappointment. After all, you can never have too many projects on the go, can you? (Thank heaven for Yarn Harlot who made it possible for all us Unfinished Project Hoarders to come out of the closet.) I swatched for the silver top in that Spritz yarn I got the other day. I know you're wondering about the hunky chunky that captured my heart - well, I know I wanted to get started on the designer Aran I'd in mind for it, but such things always take an age to get settled. There are so many lovely pattern stitches and combinations that it usually takes me a week to decide on which ones to use. Then there's the actual shape of the garment. An Aran-style sweater is really too warm for anything but the coldest weather, so probably a jacket which can be worn open - but then, cropped or hip-length, v-neck or collared, straight buttoning or that idea of a cross-wrap? You see how long it can take? And that's not counting the foul stage of working out the gauge - do you do it on stocking stitch and roughly divide by half (those cables can really drag a piece of knitting in like smocking) or do the decent thing and cast on enough for a whole pattern repeat (might as well start the blooming jacket and be done with it - what a waste of time!)

My problem was that I'd seen the way that flirty silver yarn had been looking at my hunky chunky. I got a bit worried that if I left them alone together for too long, something might happen. It was a bit like the old riddle of the goose, the fox and the bag of grain. Which do you take across the river in your boat first? The fox? No, the goose would eat the bag of grain. The bag of grain? No, the fox would eat the goose. Aha, the goose, then. But then on your second trip, if you brought the fox he would eat the goose while you were back getting the grain, and if you brought the grain, the goose would.... You get the idea. Anyway I decided to give the silver yarn something else to think about besides oatmealy charmers and gave it a really complicated lace pattern to work out for itself. (Actually it's not that complicated - it's one of those ripple-effects which creates a nice line of points at the bottom. I tried it in the recommended needle size but found that one size up showed the lace pattern off much better.

So the silver yarn is now busily multiplying and dividing and subtracting the yarnovers it first thought of, and hasn't had a moment to itself for wicked thoughts, which is no harm at all. And Chunk the Hunk is safely tucked away in a private box, humming to himself in a rumbling bass and probably thinking of nothing at all. That's often the way with stud muffins, don't you find? The brain is in direct inverse proportion to the brawn. Who's complaining?

We've had a very welcome though small amount of rain in the past day or two - it's been a most unusually dry summer in Ireland. However, even the barest dampening was enough to send all the plants off in a frenzy of growth. The snapdragons in the rose garden were looking lovely, I thought - and a very small baby rabbit felt the same, I discovered, as I spied him from the window above, thinking he was quite safe as he sampled these strange, brightly-coloured temptations that Mamma hadn't told him about down in the cosy family burrow.

I know, I know: serious gardeners will tell me that rabbits must be kept out at all costs. I should go out into the neighbouring field forthwith, and check the wire mesh for holes. But it's rather nice to see the babies playing in the grass and crouching motionless when one of the dogs potters by. Don't know what the dogs would do if they actually saw the rabbit. I sometimes suspect that they do in fact know they're there, but think it advisable to err on the side of caution. After all, a baby rabbit might be quite frightening when roused, don't you think? I did hold Sophie up to the window to show her the intruder but she took one look and then buried her head under my arm. Yes, clearly a dangerous foe.

No moon at all tonight. That means a new moon tomorrow. Don't forget to curtsey.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

This Is About Knitting, Not Future Chippendales!

It's a beautiful evening here in West Cork. A pale gold sky is overlaid with what I would call mackerel clouds of infinitely varying shades of grey and everything is gradually fading into dusk. I can look at skies like that for hours and try to work out how to capture it in yarn blends and compositions. I'm never really satisfied with the results but keep on trying. It's a kind of painting, I suppose, but with yarn instead of tubes and brushes. A lot less messy in one way, but can be fairly exasperating in others, when different yarns insist on getting snarled up together and somehow knotting themselves into inextricable relationships. It's nearly time to start getting the next collection ready. Somebody was demanding to know where Lunasa had gone to on eBay. I have to admit that I was having so much fun weblogging that I had forgotten to re-list it. Fine commercial queen I am!

Today DH and I were out and about from an early hour. He had a job (did I say he's a press photographer, yes a genuine member of the paparazzi, only we're not quite that relentless in Ireland) in Youghal, a seaside town in East Cork. On the way there we stopped at a friend's restaurant for coffee. Henry and Aisling run Gazebo's, a great place not far from Youghal, which obligingly opens from early till late to look after weary and hungry travellers in the best Irish tradition. Before she had Henry, two small children and a restaurant to look after, Aisling worked for Tivoli Yarns (you may have come across them in your LYS). She had not, however, interacted with circular needles before, so I brought down the last sleeve of my Anny Blatt for her to try out. She was enchanted with the way they worked (well, they were those divine Colonial rosewoods from Warm Threads ) and realised without my having to point it out that it would make those awful moments when an entire row slips off your needles, almost a thing of the past.

The event Richard was covering was the Maritime Festival in Youghal, which included lots of happy street events and the traditional 'Puc Fada' or 'Long puck' across the harbour - this involves grown men with hurleys trying to strike a ball an extraordinary distance. Its origins go back into prehistory and even Cuchulainn (tell you about him another time) played hurley. When the All-Ireland Hurling Final is on, there's no time for weblogging. It's not a matter of life and death - it's far more serious than that.

In the back streets they had a parade of vintage tractors and I found one rather delightful young man tinkering with a 1940s machine. I don't have any real excuse for presenting you with John G. Kelly of Knockanore, except that I have the sneaking feeling you'd like to meet him (settle down, girls, settle down).

Please rest assured that this weblog will not morph into a preview for the next Chippendales calendar. It's just that I love old traditions, customs and folklore. (Still can't see an excuse in there, really.)

Now to less happy matters. I left you the other evening with an excited prediction of my forthcoming first date with Magic Loop. I was looking forward to it, and expected great things of the relationship. Well it went nowhere. Was the fault mine? I did try, really I did. It's not as if I don't passionately love circular needles. I do. I wouldn't use anything else now. But for knitting in the round - or in the Magic Loop method anyway - I found too much tug and pull, where I expected ease and relaxation. Besides - and this was the real deciding factor - the online instructions I found told you how to cast on but then abandoned you entirely, leaping gaily ahead to turning the b*y heel for heaven's sake, when this frantic novice was marooned back at the cast-on stage, wondering what the hell to do next. You might as well have given me a piano and a set of instructions which read, 'Place hands on the keyboard. Now - play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. There - wasn't that fun?'

Is there by any chance a site which gives slightly more detail on what needle point to put where and indeed how? I feel a bit of a failure, frankly, and am looking forward to the imminent arrival of my two sets of rosewood dpns from Scottish Fibres . Really I prefer the little clicky things. And you have to admit they make a sock project look so pretty at any stage of the work. Take 'em out in a pub or cafe and you have instant attention.

Rho says the two circular needles method is really foolproof and has promised to look out an 'easy' version for me. (Thinks: is this going to be another hated phrase: 'so easy even you could do it?')

I found this lovely crochet shrug marked down to half nothing in a sale the other day and bought it: partly because (to my surprise) it looked quite nice on me, but mostly because I thought I could copy it in a nicer yarn (it's all viscose, this one) and make something really dramatic. What do you think?

The back and sleeves seem to be made up of individual motifs joined together, and then the whole thing has a very wide and flaring crochet border worked around it. Here's a close-up view of the back.

It might look nice in a mohair, mightn't it?

The GOOD news is that the Anny Blatt is finished at last. Got the last sleeve done while sitting in the car watching some energetic folk swimming a mile, cycling twenty miles and finally jogging five miles, all for charity in the Youghal Triathlon (very healthy the people of East Cork). Well, the main pieces are finished anyway. I am well aware that the most iffy section now approaches: actually sewing it up, making an edging band, not forgetting that buttonholes need to be worked BEFORE I'm up to the neck, finding buttons that actually fit. The finishing off is really half the task, whether it's a PhD or a cropped cardi and never forget that, you dozing at the back.

Anne, the thoughtful Anne (beautiful skirt you made there, how about seeing it in floor-length next?) ever mindful of my real needs, was delighted that I'd discovered Simply Socks and has recommended even more yarn sites for me to look at. Hey, I thought Addicts Anonymous was meant to help me NOT yearn for yarn. Or
did I get it wrong. Have I fallen in with one big happy family that only exists to help its members amass more and more and even more of the lovely stuff? Just please reassure me once more - sock yarn doesn't count, right?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Of Sheep And Socks And Stirring Yarns...

Those of you who demanded more pin-ups of the lovely Daniel P. Buckley, wool merchant (see previous post, Where Yarn Begins), here he is with his dad, John-Joe. Daniel is, I have to tell you, happily married with two children (sorry girls!). John-Joe, however, is a widower. 'Can you shear sheep yourself,' he demanded abruptly of me, as he held the pot of bright red raddle for his son to mark the newly-shorn flock. I said meekly no, but that I could spin the wool afterwards reasonably well. 'And can you knit the proper socks then, to go into the wellington boots?' I crossed my fingers and said I could. (Well, I'm half-way down one, so it was nearly true.) 'You're all right so,' he said generously, and forthwith invited me to take a cup of tea with them outside the shearing shed. I was genuinely honoured.

A great deal of yesterday was devoted to sorting out and tidying up my burgeoning yarn stash down in the workroom (a nice big spacious place where DH drills holes in things and nails bits of wood together and re-wires plugs and other helpful tasks). The Really Useful Box Company makes great see-through containers with clip on lids that stack neatly on shelves and are ideal for storing dozens of balls of the same colour, while coned yarns (seem to have rather a lot of those too) go into slightly taller, floor-standing plastic containers, also see-through. Oh it was a good old satisfying session, as oranges were tucked away with yellows, greens gathered together, all the purples put in a huddle, and one gigantic box allotted entirely to blues. Only - what do you do when you find a lovely ball of pinks and greens and browns? I put it in with pinks, then changed my mind and sent it to the green corner. Later I showed it to the browns but they simply turned their backs and ignored it, so I did what I should have done in the first place and ASKED the yarn itself. 'Pink, please', it piped politely, so back to pinks it went. I never did really trust browns.

(These are the ordinary yarns, the ones I fully intend to get round to using sometime. The real prima-donnas, the superstars who go into my Celtic Memory collections live in special boxes of their own, well apart from the mob. They don't socialise much, you understand. It would be beneath yarns of their aristocratic social standing and background.)

It looked really tidy when I'd done, and DH thought so too. He didn't actually say it, but I could see it in his eyes as he assessed the stacks of shelf boxes, the serried ranks on the floor, ranged all round the walls. (That is, those sections of the walls I could get to, which hadn't been already usurped by useless aggravating things like planks of wood, tool boxes, electric drills - the sort of junk you don't really want to see in a workroom. Why do some people collect so much rubbish?) Oh - sorry, back to what I knew he was thinking. He was definitely considering that I surely, surely had enough yarn to last the rest of my life and quite a bit over now. He might well have been wondering if I ought to adjust my will to provide for the long-term care and comfort of this gigantic yarn stash. Perhaps he was even considering a babysitter for the collection on those evenings when we went out (not that I've time to go out - there's all that knitting to do).

He didn't say anything, just sighed gently, patted my shoulder encouragingly, and went back to his computer upstairs. I, however, felt a bit guilty. Not hugely - after all, when you are engaged in work that is so important, so worthwhile, so fulfilling, you can't afford too much guilt. But a little. Enough to make me decide that perhaps I should slow down on the yarn-acquisition front for a while. Use up what I'd got. Perhaps give some away - but at this my instincts recoiled violently, so I hastily put the thought aside for when I felt stronger. But definitely no more yarn for - well, a month at least.

Was it chance that Allison from Simply Socks chose that moment to email with a note of postage charges for the gorgeous Interlacements yarn I'd ordered the night before? It was a lovely chatty email - she's that kind of person - but there was a subtle hidden message in there that spelt DANGER. She was delighted that I was her first Irish customer and said she'd tuck in some free patterns as a welcome, but that wasn't it. It was at the end, when she said casually, in a completely throwaway-line-sort-of-way, that actually the postage costs were the same whether I ordered one skein or a huge parcel. Then she signed off with good wishes.

Well? Did you spot it? A statement like that is bound to cause trouble, isn't it? Not at first, but gradually - well, about three seconds later in fact. I logged on to the site again, looked at what I'd ordered, and then thought I'd just take a peep at some of the others on offer...

Look, I don't want to talk about it, all right? Suffice it to say that I got good value out of the postal rate. And yes, I will show you the whole lot when they arrive. If there is enough space on this page.

Thoroughly ashamed of myself this morning, I went into town with DH who had some jobs to do there. 'Oh, I know,' I said brightly. 'I'll take my sock-in-progress into my LYS and you can take a picture of me there to put on my weblog.' This we did and then he headed off to do useful manly things while I stayed on awhile to chat with Bernadette while I put in a few rows on the sock. She was knitting a beautiful Debbie Bliss jacket design in pale blue with lots of cables and blackberry stitch.

Reading left to right: me in a Cherry Tree Hill shawl with my sock; Bernadette working on a cabled cardi.

Incidentally, did you know that Debbie Bliss has taken over Kilcarra Wool in Donegal? Let me tell you, although you may well know it already, that Aran is going to be HUGE this winter. If Debbie is on to it, then the rest of the world will follow at a hand- gallop. If you can't tell your cables from your honeycomb, your diamonds from your moss, better get clued up fast.

I'm not talking here just about the use of what is called aran-weight yarn. I'm talking about any design that incorporates a complex combination of relief patterns and stitches. In fact Aran sweaters and jackets often look better in a different weight or gauge - think of a stunning evening top in fine silver, or a cashmere cropped jacket. All you need to ensure is that the yarn is smooth and fairly firm, to show off the stitches. A furry or fluffy yarn would just blur them and reduce the effect of all your hard work. Not that Aran is difficult. It's pretty easy once you realise you don't actually need that cable needle, and it makes working up the back of a big sweater far less boring than yawning old stocking stitch any day. Plus it makes keeping count of the rows a breeze - you just check the number of diamonds or cable twists you've done.

(Horror - have I just used my pet hate phrase - 'It's easy - you just...'? Darn. So I have.)

All this blarney is to deflect your insidious questioning. 'You didn't just stay there awhile and knit, did you Jo? You didn't make your farewells and leave with just the sock project, did you? Come on, better give us the full story.'

Well, all right. It was only polite to wander round and see what was new on the shelves. This really pretty aran-weight silver yarn smiled and waved at me so I said hi and picked it up. It whispered 'Cute evening top, so cute... I'd look lovely in a lace pattern...''

Then I heard a low, deeply attractive voice from a shelf on the opposite wall and spun round. It was a really hunky-looking big ball of soft oatmeal-coloured chunky yarn, the kind you'd die for in a fisherman's sweater. What really attracted me to this tall blond stranger was the fact that he wasn't the slightest bit yellow. So many of these creamy yarns have that yellow tinge which does nothing at all for my skin tones. This fellow was tough and manly and just the right shade of off-white with tiny flecks of black and brown here and there.

The thought of possessing him, taking him home, running my fingers through his strands set my heart pounding. Images of utterly gorgeous lumber jackets, cropped Arans, overlap-front cardigans, rushed through my brain. It was love, I tell, you, love at first sight. I have spent years hunting for a thick yarn in just that off-white and never could find it. Apparently the rest of the world is quite happy living with knits that look like they have a bad attack of jaundice. Not me. And of all the LYS in all the world, I had to walk into this one.

Of course we left together. And yes, the silver yarn came too. (You could tell that already, couldn't you, since they were both photographed on my floor, not on the shop shelf, smarty pants!) Hold on, though, I did show some restraint. I only bought one ball of my husky he-man. 'Just to try it out,' I said sincerely to Bernadette who smiled back sincerely, knowing I'd be beating the door down Monday morning. Sock-in-progress, hang on, will you? I've got a date with a hunk. Oooohhh...

(You may have noticed that I have not once mentioned Magic Loop. I don't wish to discuss that issue right now. I may possibly feel like doing so tomorrow.)

Friday, July 21, 2006

Oh Help, The Sock Addiction Has Hit!

The rest of you knew I'd get it, didn't you? You were all sitting there in your own corners of the global knitting village, laughing away and occasionally dropping a stitch with mirth as you waited for me to succumb to the dreaded addiction. Well I hope you lost a whole row and had to frog back to the rib. You could have warned me!

I know it's been said all too many times before, but you really never think it will happen to you. I saw myself (as I suppose others have done) as tougher, more sensible, less vulnerable to such things. I even had the confidence (tempting fate, as it turned out) to look the danger in the face and dare it to try and get a hold on me. 'Not a chance,' I said, laughing airily as I passed on to better things (that Anny Blatt jacket, now all done except for the second sleeve), the Karabella crochet shawl, the much-neglected dolman jacket in all colours of the rainbow, the Debbie Bliss top...

I'm not trying to make excuses, but it sort of crept up on me, as these addictions do. You may recall that I howled and harangued and snarled all over my weblog and on several knitting forums about the idiocy of making these complicated little things. I made particular mention of a method akin to the worst excesses of Spanish Inquisition, known as the Figure of 8 Cast On. I asked how anyone could possibly want to spend so much time on something that took so much blood, sweat and tears, and that anyway could be bought for a few pence. I enquired exasperatedly as to what exactly was this irresistible lure of socks.

I suppose that was the open invitation to Fate, who happened to be passing by and heard me throwing down the challenge. Someone kind on Knitter's Review suggested a nice easy way to get started, bypassing that imp of Satan branded with 8. I found some lovely old dpns which had been well used by my mother in law. I decided to just have a little go, show that I could touch it and then leave it alone. Just proving my point.

The worry didn't really set in when I found myself knitting on the bus to town, nor yet when I took the project out in a traffic jam (no, no, DH was driving at the time, honestly). It seemed quite reasonable to do just another row or forty-five before bed, even though the stars had given up and dawn was in the sky. I think I was a little surprised at myself when I bought a bright green toy just so I could get hold of its sturdy little plastic bag to hold my precious sock. (You observe, by now I was calling it 'precious' - shouldn't I have been warned by the example of Lord of the Rings?) . I even hauled out from the bottom of the WIP basket the cute little crochet socks I started last September in British Columbia (oh these are well-travelled socks, even in their infancy). It's a beautifully soft alpaca yarn and already they feel so snuggly. How could I have neglected them for so long?

Last night a few of the abandoned items (jacket, shawl, top, others I haven't actually told you about because I'm a bit ashamed), called plaintively as I wandered past, little bag clipped to belt, 5 dpns clicking. 'What about us,' they pleaded. 'Are we to be left here, forgotten, devalued in the face of your new trendy friend?'

I was cross about that and told them there was no question of trendy friends. 'Sock knitting is so last century, so passe,' I said. 'I can give it up any time I want.' And to prove it, I typed in 'sock yarn' on Google.

There were no claps of thunder, no lightning flashes, no voices from the sky shrilling with triumph. The feeling I got as I stared at hundreds, thousands of entries, was one of ... exhilaration. I felt - yes, I'd better admit it truthfully - that I'd come home. The mouse had a volition of its own as it fled to Simply Socks . Who would have thought that there was a whole online shop devoted to sock yarn? Dear heaven the choice! The colours!

It was only when my online basket was half full with delectable treats and I was scrabbling around my bag for my credit card, that reality struck. Who was I fooling? I wasn't playing around the edges any more. I was in - way in, right over my head. And I couldn't give it up. I got belligerent. Why should I give it up? It's my party, I can knit socks if I want to. Lots of socks. Lots and lots of socks. All at the same time if I so choose.

Get a grip, I said sternly. Log off. Go to bed. So I did. But this morning I was out of bed at cockcrow and online again, ordering that divine Interlacements Tiny Toes mixture of blues and purples and greens. Then, as if Fate were determined to do the job properly, I was sent a link to a very helpful site for Magic Loop, by another Knitter's Review friend. I'm so wound up by now I can't find who sent it, but you know who you are and please get in touch again - I owe you! This link on Knit Addicted had such clear instructions that it hit me like Paul on the road to Damascus - I can do this, I'm sure I can. I can do this!

That ball of soft black sock yarn - where is it? Oh hell, you need two balls for the double-sock-at-the-same-time trick, don't you. Where's the nostepinne? I even carefully weighed the ball and kept it on the scales while I wound off half on to the nostepinne, to be sure of getting it right.

Half-way through I stopped. Hang on, this is a 50g ball - won't that mean I'll have to buy another ball half-way through, and there will be KNOTS in the socks. Are knots acceptable? Will my life work be ruined if there is one tiny knot in each?

'Gotta go out,' I called, grabbing my bag and heading for the door.

'You're not going to buy more yarn, surely?' said DH mildly, putting down the dog he'd been combing.

'Of course not,' I snapped. 'Why would I do something like that?' (Yes, I know, this is another characteristic of the hopelessly addicted, isn't it - the denial, the refusal to admit the problem?)

I had got as far as the car when common sense struck. Of course I could get started right away with the current ball wound into two sections. After all, how do people manage when they make striped socks? Knots all over the place, I shouldn't wonder. I admit I still looked longingly at the car - there is this urge to get another yarn fix whenever and wherever the opportunity arises, isn't there? But it was a long way to town and it would have taken up a lot of good knitting time. so back in I went and resumed winding.

Found an extra-long circular at the bottom of the needle box and had to soak it in hot water to unkink the cable. Gosh, 2.5 mm does look very thin when you're used to big chunkies and heavy yarn. Still the excitement is driving me on. Get this post on the page and I'll cast on. And heartfelt thanks to all of you on Knitter's Review Forum who said 'use any cast on method you like as long as it's loose.' I owe you too. Can't wait to see how it works out.

So... that means that right now, quite apart from the WIP basket, I have in hand:

One sock in variegated Regia on dpns, half way down the leg (the first-born);
One pair of soft cream alpaca crochet socks, origin Vancouver Island, coming up from the toe, neck and neck;
One pair of black socks in St. Ives yarn, about to get going via the Magic Loop method.

Well that seems quite reasonable to me. Didn't someone say you can never have too many pairs of socks? And the Interlacements yarn shouldn't arrive for ages anyway. Hope those two pairs of dpns from Scottish Fibres don't take too long, though.

Yo, I'm addicted and I'm glad I tell you, glad! Ha, ha, ha, ha ha!

More later!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Where Yarn Begins...

The one thing that links us all across the globe on weblogs like this is our passionate love for and desire to get as much as we can of yarn. Chunky or laceweight, colourful or natural, smooth or full of bumps and boucles, we can't get enough of it. We search every corner of every shop wherever we might find ourselves to ensure that no ball goes unnoticed or unfondled. At least I do. Doesn't everybody? And although we may dally with rayons, flirt with viscose, giggle at eyelash and occasionally have a brief affair with exotic strangers like soy silk and bamboo, we all know in our hearts that top billing, the main stage, always goes to pure natural wool. There is nothing like it, for spinning, for knitting, for crocheting, for weaving. It's the classic, the uncontested queen of fibres.

So it's nice to go right back to the roots of the business and see where it all starts, that long road to your local yarn shop. And that's exactly what I did this morning, heading out to the small town of Millstreet in North Cork to meet a man called Daniel P. McCarthy (he is particularly fond of that P - omit it at your peril. What does it stand for? Patrick of course. What else would it be in Ireland?)

Dan is one of a vanishing breed of Irishmen, a wool merchant. His father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather were wool merchants before him, when a single fleece fetched a high price and the profits of one season's clip was enough to buy many acres of good farmland. Today, the cost of shearing far outstrips the few pence obtained for each fleece, but Dan still continues the family business. He buys each year's clip from farmers throughout the southern counties of Ireland and stacks the wool in his warehouse before it is bought by industry. Once local mills would have spun it into blankets, rugs and carpets; back in the 1980s, when Dan first came into the family business, those mills had gone and the product went to the huge spinning industries of Yorkshire in England. Today, his business is mostly with China and India where lower production costs make it still a profitable industry.

Dan loves his work, and knows a great deal about the wool he handles. 'See now, this is from a mountainy sheep,' he says. 'That's a rough fleece, you'd use it for something that would get hard wear. And this is from a lowland sheep, it's much softer and nicer, but it wouldn't wear as well.' Millstreet stands at the crossroads between the mountains and the rich grasslands and all the wool grown on the backs of the sheep for miles around comes to Dan's warehouse. It used to be a local dance hall that warehouse in Millstreet, and often, he says, a farmer will come in who tells him he first met his wife there at a lively evening.

Dan hopes he won't be the last of his family to practise the trade of wool merchant. 'If it would only get fashionable for people to want a pure Irish fleece, or a jumper made from the wool of a sheep from, say, Dingle or West Cork, then we could survive in Ireland. If someone like Armani now, one of those big fashion designers would send an Irish fleece down the catwalk, we'd be made. ' As it is, he confesses, if keeping sheep in Ireland were to cease instantly tomorrow, it would not even be noticed on the world's market, so enormous is the contribution from larger countries. And that's sad, when since prehistory we have exported it across the world. Maybe fashion is the answer for Dan and his kind. Perhaps he should market the uniqueness of Irish wool himself. But he hasn't heard of the Internet, much less eBay. Maybe I should just pop back out there with a laptop one day, and show him how to set up his own weblog?

In the meantime, I did what I could and bought one of his luxuriously soft fleeces, fresh from the back of a healthy lowland ewe. He put it in a nice clean sack for me and placed it carefully on the back seat of the car. Then he went back to the shearing, while I drove home with the soft scent of raw wool all around me. Whenever I spin with that fleece, I'll think of Dan and his dreams.

The yarn you'll yearn for this winter, at an early stage of the process.

Of course when I got the sack of wool home, my own little canine yarn harlot thought all her birthdays had come at once...

See that wild glare in her eye? The flash of white? 'Mine, all mine,' she's saying.

I like spinning wool 'in the fleece' or with all the lanolin left in. It makes for a much easier job, I have always found. The problem of course is when you get hold of some supersoft merino roving and can't handle it on the wheel at all. With some lovely roving I got from Warm Threads some time ago, after several failures, I found the only way to deal with it was to go back to the beginning and use a drop spindle.

Using a drop spindle is quite addictive actually. You slow down to the pace it dictates and so what you only spin a few yards at a time. It's a project you can take anywhere and work on for the shortest space of time. Plus it looks really good if you happen to leave it lying around, which can't be said of some other hobbies - cutting up glass bottles, for example, or taking old motorbikes apart. The latter always seems to require acres of floor space, a lot of newspapers and generous helpings of engine oil on every available surface; but a spindle and roving can grace a polished table, a dresser, even an armchair. NO, not the armchair! I am blessed with three very acrobatic mutts, all of whom have a peculiar passion for wool. Maybe they're really Chinese sheepdogs. I've never actually asked them. But it would definitely be asking for trouble to leave something so tempting at an accessible level.