Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Oh To Be In England When The Yarn Is There...

Took a quick dash last week, across to the UK. All this activity with the sock machine and, more recently, nervous essays in the operation of a battered old Brother flatbed machine, meant that MORE CONED YARN was needed. And the one place well known to Celtic Memory as having all kinds of wonderful one-offs and strange finds is Uppingham Yarns, tucked away in Rutland, England's tiniest county. I used to live in Rutland and visited this treasure trove often - in fact it probably provided the baseline for the Celtic Memory stash which now requires an entire basement room of its own and is starting to murmur about really needing an independent yarny house in the grounds with not only a basement but an attic and big windows and - sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Uppingham Yarns.

Rutland, although tiny, is a very old region and thus well placed on the Great North Road, the ancient route from London to Scotland (or Scotland to London if you prefer). Some may refer to it rather prosaically as the A1 but to me it's always the romantic Great North Road. It's quite possible to nip into Stansted airport on the early morning flight from Cork, grab a rental car, and be in Uppingham by eleven in the morning.

Now Uppingham Yarns is not one of your predictable little LYSs. It does have some ball banded yarns, true, but not many. Its huge attraction is in its vast range of coned goodies, stacked high on tall shelving units in numbers of rooms. Aladdin's Cave has nothing on this place!

Heaven bless the Traylen family who opened their business back in 1980 to provide ex-industrial supplies for home knitters, whether hand or machine. That's Nick there, explaining the difference between two gauges of cashmere (be still my beating heart). You might well have met Nick at various Woolfests or Ally Pally knit days, but his stand at those events, delightful though it may be, isn't a patch on the home ground.

This is the Shetland room - all of those lovely shades are the repeatable ones, I think, but round the sides and down at the back, you find smaller cones, discontinued colours, one-offs - you know, the kind that is even more fun to track down than the always-available sort.

Every room has more treasures, aisles to be explored carefully and painstakingly, not a corner left searched. You simply never know what you're going to find.

It's hard not to get carried away in the fancy section, where the most incredible Italian ribbons and glitters and eyelashes are piled in profusion. You get new ideas for designer combinations on every shelf.

This room is devoted to cotton. And silk. And silk tops for spinning. And some hemp. And more. Small wonder that after five minutes in the building I suggested kindly to DH that he might prefer to wander around the picturesque little town and take pictures while I totally lost myself. Being an understanding soul he did - so the images you see here were all taken fairly early on in the visit, and then he left me to get gently hysterical in peace.

Not before we made a couple of nice discoveries though -

I just don't remember these from my last visit, so maybe Nick Traylen has only just put them on display. My mother had just such an old high-standing heavy iron flatbed machine as this. I still have one of the sweaters she made me on it.

And look at this lovely thing! A sock machine with lots of shiny brass, and its own useful iron table with handy inset containers for needles and hooks and things.

But this one I'd never come across before. A circular knitting machine, but a tiny one. It has only about six needle slots. It has to be a cord maker, right? Fascinating. Love it!

Had a most enjoyable couple of hours, going around each room, going back again, starting in the opposite direction, taking turns around shelves from unexpected angles, scouring dark corners - you know how much fun it can be. And got some pretty nice loot to play with over the next while (thank heaven DH had a spacious rucksack with him as well). Always nice to revisit Uppingham Yarns and come away with treasure.

In the meantime of course, DH had been wandering happily around the town of Uppingham, which is gloriously photogenic with that unique character which rural England does so well -

The main street was basking in the warm sunshine (warm sunshine! It was pouring with rain and chilly to boot when we left Cork!) and you could hear the echo of peaceful footsteps as people went about their shopping.

The churchyard of Ss Peter & Paul was looking impossibly picturesque

- and the wallflowers were blooming on old moss-covered roofs and walls. A lovely place. I do like Uppingham and indeed all of Rutland. Multum in Parvo is the county motto, much in little.

Rutland, you may or may not know, lost its independence back in the 1970s, despite public outcry, and was hauled into neighbouring Leicestershire. The local people, however, never accepted this (a bit like Iowa taking over Nebraska maybe, or Massachusetts airily grabbing Maine) and fought constantly to get back their independent status. It is a source of gentle pride to me that I was part of that campaign, and was there in the House of Lords on the night that Rutland regained county status, in the 1990s. Good on you, Rutland! Always remember you with deep affection even though I'm back on my own native soil now.

By the way, this day trip took place during Round Three of Sock Madness, so, although you haven't seen much evidence of them, the socks were very much part of the day's activity, being worked on during the flight, in cafes, in the car when DH was driving, and even back at the airport.

A particularly lovely design this time, created by YarnYenta and called Talia's Wings.

And here's the finished pair (why does it always seem to be late at night when socks are finally done, and one has to try to photograph them under artificial light?) Very entertaining pattern to knit, and it introduced me to the sewn bind-off (they were worked toe-up, forgot to mention), which is an exceptionally useful technique, giving a stretchy attractive top to the cuff. I've already used the method on several other things, to implant it firmly in the Celtic Memory mind.

Now before Round Four of Sock Madness starts, some dyeing up has got to be done here in West Cork. No use waiting for fine weather, they'll have to hang in the greenhouse to dry. Sock yarns of course, in lovely shades of apple blossom and bluebell and all the other flowers coming out at this time of year, but also some laceweights, since so many have been asking for them. No time to lose!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Muffy the Yarnslayer Enters Sock Madness Contest!

Yes, it's true. Abandon hope all ye who hitherto thought you had a chance - Muffy has entered the arena.

Said she'd had enough and more of all this fuss and was going to show us all how it should be done. Collected a few balls of yarn, unearthed two rather vicious-looking six inch nails from her store, and dragged the lot under her cupboard. She's been clicking away busily in there ever since. Can't wait to see the results. I did point out she would have to make a set of four and she looked at me like I was daft.

Well of course you have to have four socks. How many paws does anybody have, for heaven's sake? I mean, what eegit would make - say two for example? G'wan away and don't be annoying me!

She did have some justification for her sudden decision to become a late entrant for Sock Madness (don't worry, moderators, she's created her own sub-division, called, with blinding simplicity, just Muffy, so she won't be throwing anybody else out of the running) since the one who feeds her and generally looks after her welfare has been noticeably distracted this last week or so, since the second round of the aforesaid Madness started.

The pattern for Round Two was due out on Saturday of last week, on or after 1 pm Irish time. But Celtic Memory was not at home. Nope, she was travelling with DH and was, at the appointed hour, somewhere north of Dublin on an attractive estuary where himself was photographing redshanks feeding.

It was fascinating to see how quickly the gulls had learned how to avoid finding their own food; they simply marked down a redshank, and as soon as that unfortunate creature had snaffled a juicy worm, they would descend and bully it until it reluctantly yielded its prey. Kind of reminds you of some human behaviour, doesn't it?

My mind was only half on the bird activity though, as the clock approached the fateful time. When would I hear that the pattern had been issued? The signal that would mean I had to dash for the nearest Internet access? (No, they tend not to have good websites right by the water on a muddy track, bit of an oversight really, I agree.) An hour passed peacefully. DH clicked away. I worked ferociously on a pair of Jeanie Townsend's Cathedral Socks to keep my mind from fretting. What kind of pattern will it be? Can I manage it? How long will it take? Are there others much faster than me? Why do I do this? And so on.

Then it happened. The bleep of a text arriving, followed almost instantaneously by a phone call. Bless the kinship of knitters. Chris texted to say the pattern was HERE and Rosemary in Somerset actually rang, to make sure I knew. Aren't friends great?

Overriding DH's protestations (he'd spend all day like that if he could, honestly, would we knitters spend all day on something? OK, forget I said that) I got the car turned and dashed for Malahide, a little seaside town. Big hotel on outskirts looked promising, and so it proved. Sitting in the car park gave enough of a signal on their wifi to download the pattern. Really, the things we do for knitting.

Work started immediately and didn't stop for the rest of the day. Continued while DH and a bundle (a flock? A gaggle? A gathering?) of birdwatchers watched short-eared owls at dusk -

- and even when one owl swooped low enough for me to glance up and see it in between frantic rounds of ribbing.

These are beautiful birds and not at all common in Ireland which is why we came to be up in that neck of the woods on that fine Saturday.
I think this owl was rather impressed with my knitting actually. He even made a second pass to get a closer look at the colourwork.

Oo, is that stranded knitting? Lookin' good!

Knitted late into the night in the hotel, knitted in the pre-dawn light (a mistake that, meant several rows needing to be tinked back). Even knitted all the way home (don't recommend following a chart on a bumpy twisting road for more than three hours, really don't).

But we took a break on the way, to visit Warren at Craftspun Yarns in Johnstown.

He's only just moved to this new shop in the town and was still getting the stock in order.

But it's a glorious place, already almost full of the most divine yarns, and big ultra-soft cushiony balls of roving too, of several different types. (Yes, yes, he does ship, check his website.)

If I hadn't already bought tons from him, I'd have snaffled even more of these irresistible fibre goodies. But I did come away with a cone of divinely soft Aran weight Blue Faced Leicester yarn. Well, it'll always come in handy, won't it?

It took a good two and a half days to finish those socks, a beautiful two colour pattern designed by Tricia Weatherston, and called Tokena, the Maori word for sock. It's ages since Celtic Memory has done any colourwork and on size 2mm needles it can be a bit hard on the hand muscles. In fact the thumb joint is still aching. But it was worth it. It's no harm to push your abilities now and again, and the result was pretty satisfying.

Of course the usual thing happened: having completed the socks in fairly quick time, found it impossible to stop knitting the darn things. And this is where Celtic Memory has been having a great deal of fun. A LOT of fun.

You remember that lovely old sock knitting machine I inherited? Well, thanks to the assistance of several helpful friends on Ravelry, it is now working fairly well (no you can't do complex colourwork on it unfortunately, believe me I thought of it!) so the time seemed right for a little bit of experimentation. You see, although I can now crank out tubes of knitting with the best of 'em, I haven't quite mastered turning heels and shaping toes yet. So lots and lots of practice tubes.

Until - like Paul on the road to Damascus, a blinding light hit me. Why not turn these tubes into socks with the addition of some hand knitting? Simple? Undoubtedly. Somebody thought of that already? Probably. But I genuinely thought of it by myself and that's always the best way.

Drum roll please. Remember Celtic Memory decrying cutting, steeking, any form of disfigurement of a piece of knitting? Well -

Here is a tube of beautifully soft merino knit being deliberately cut! Actually it only needed one tiny snip of one stitch and then some careful unpicking. But it was a first, a definite first, and nearly gave me a heart attack. That divided the tube into two. Then picked up stitches at one end on each piece (a 2.5mm needle was just right to match the machine stitches) and knitted the toes.

Then came the heel. Another terrifying, deliberate, counter-to-all-previous-learning snip.

Thank heaven for the training received in last year's Sock Madness. I knew how to do an afterthought heel. Hadn't ever tried it from raw stitches before, but it worked. IT WORKED!

Knitting the tube, about ten minutes. Finishing heels and toes, one evening. A bit of dip-dyeing and drying.



OK, so they're plain, no patterning, cabling, lace or other decorative stitchwork there. But they were so much fun to make. And already there are ideas forming for stripy heels and toes, colourwork cuffs at the top, so many other options. You just do all that long boring bit first, and then have fun with the decorative bits.

I'll probably be drummed out of the Sock Machine group for doing it this way round, and similarly from all the handknitting sock groups, but it's such a satisfying combination of hand and machine that I'm mad about it. And I've tried cutting a single stitch and it doesn't make everything fall apart! Isn't life full of fun surprises?
Made some new friends at the weekend: Linda and her family were over from Montana to explore West Cork and Kerry, so we met up in Killarney and went down to Kerry Woollen Mills. We saw all that lovely traditional bainin yarn, and also some delectable Jacob wool fingering weight.

Here is Andrew Eadie showing Linda a new design he's rather pleased with, a beautifully soft felted knit jacket.

And here is Linda, wearing one new jacket, carrying another, with husband Bruce and daughter Kimberley, ready to head off to Killorglin for more adventures. And she brought me a skein of Mountain Colors from Montana too, bless her! Hope the rest of the trip goes really well for you Linda, and that the weather holds out.

That same weather has been a bit mixum-gatherum here for the past few weeks. Went out one day about a fortnight ago to explore some lesser-known tracks over the mountains above Inchigeelagh.

It was dank and drizzly and not at all pleasant. Just look at that mountain road winding ahead for miles. It puts you in mind of Bilbo Baggins bumping along on his pony and wishing with all his heart he was safe at home with the kettle just beginning to boil.

Yet a week later, the lambs were gambolling in the fields -

the wild plants were already flowering -

- and even on the driveway at home, a determined little clump of violets had pushed their way up through the tarmac.
If you celebrate Easter, then a joyous Eastertide to you. If you celebrate other festivals, then happiness to you this springtime.