Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Concerning Secrets of Speed Knitting, Supremely Sensible Supermarkets, and The Fox That Yearned For Kneesocks

I said I was going to track down the secrets of super-speedy knitting and that's exactly what I did. Got on a flight to furthest Norway (Finnmark to be precise) and went a-looking. Of course there were other aspects to the trip too. Wildife, for one thing.

The reindeer were everywhere, their big eyes reproachful as they lumbered out of our way. My landscape, not yours, they seemed to say. Take that noisy vehicle away.

This little stoat whisked across in front of us out on the Hamningberg peninsula, a place that deserves the title of The End of the World if anywhere does.

He even posed for a closeup, unable to resist the flattering temptation of a master photographer (no, no, not me, DH!)

The violet kneesocks really came into their own up there. (Jenny Lee's you may remember, from this year's Sock Madness). They were warm and fortunately so. Late May it might be in southern Europe (even Ireland) but it was still winter on the fells above Batsfjord.

This fox was totally enraptured by the same socks. 'I wonder now', he asked politely, 'would there be any chance of you making a set for myself? They would be ideal for the cold weather.' Three points here. Firstly, it is interesting he didn't consider the current icy conditions to be genuinely cold weather. Secondly, his words may have suffered a little in translation to Irish/English, for which blame this writer, not the Norwegian fox. Thirdly, if you are planning to make socks for a fox (or indeed a dog, cat, rabbit, reindeer) you need to think four, not two. And possibly adjust the toe shaping, if they're for a cat or dog rather than a fox. Just alerting you.

There were tantalising glimpses too of beautiful Lappish traditional dress dashing past in a snowy wood (I think she was shy).

The thing about this part of the world is that knitting is totally part of everyday life, and a necessary part at that, not an occupation for idle moments of amusement.

Look at this supermarket aisle in Ivalo, the northern Finnish town into which we flew before driving on into Norway. See that aisle on the left, where the woman is wheeling her trolley? Yarn, needles, and fixings, right in there with other household essentials.

And this? Now here we have a very small general store on the Finnish/Norwegian border at Utsjoki. Only the bare necessities. Which of course includes yarn. There on the right, opposite the fruit. Don't you just love these supremely sensible supermarkets? A pound of apples, two bottles of lemonade, and four balls of sock yarn, please. Certainly madam. Oh and I might as well take one of those 3mm wooden circulars too. Wouldn't want to run out.

Kirkenes is the place I remembered and shamelessly cajoled DH into revisiting. I said, wide-eyed, that it was for the scenery and the birdlife, but truthfully it was for this.

I would emphasise that this is a huge general store-cum-supermarket, selling food and drink, thermal underwear and diving gear, books and magazines, gardening equipment and spare tyres for 4 wheel drives. And it has a complete wall of yarn at one end. A whole wall!

If any of you are planning to visit Kirkenes (you might, if you're on a Midnight Sun cruise) then be warned - there is a very charming souvenir shop in the centre of the town which sells yarn as well as national dress and linen items and so on. But their yarn prices are two to three times as high as those of the Spar supermarket down on the quayside, for the same labels. I paid the equivalent of €1.40 to €1.50 each for most of the sock yarns and baby wools I bought here at Spar. That's about $1.50-$2 or thereabouts. The baby wools are almost nicer than the sock yarns - no sickly pastels for Norwegian babies, but bright vibrant primary shades, easy to see against the snow or fir trees. Yo for bright babies!

No, I hadn't forgotten. Speed knitting. This hunt was of course created by this year's Sock Madness where the Norwegian participants easily outdistanced the rest of us. I wanted to know why. And so I visited lots of yarn shops and watched and spied and asked discreet questions. Actually they were quite pleased to share their secrets and show me how they knitted.

This lady in Vadso was working on a complicated colourwork sweater for her granddaughter, and doing it at a frightening speed. She showed me. Ah, as I thought. Continental style, the yarn held over the left forefinger, not the right. Picking, not throwing. I can't do it. But yes, you can. Try again. See? But how do I purl? Like this. Like that? No, no, put the needle behind the yarn. Now! Good!

I bought one ball of really inexpensive thick yarn and a suitable circular (isn't it lovely, they have their own brand of bamboo circulars up there, appropriately named the Viking range) and worked for three days solid on mastering this new (to me) technique. Finally I thought I had it, and to celebrate cast on for a tie shawl which would be made entirely by the picking rather than the throwing technique.

In the meantime, I had packed every available corner of the car with spare yarn (well, you never know, and I did score a few balls of rare Faroese sock wool) and we had headed reluctantly back for Ivalo and home. But at the airport, what should I see in the souvenir shop?

This lady was knitting ribbed baby socks and although I had seen some speedy knitters up in Norway, this Finnish technique was supersonic! Her fingers simply flashed around the sock.

We hauled her up and made her pose in front of the shelves of tiny socks, felted boots, mittens, headbands and caps that she made for visitors to buy on their way home. Isn't that the best thing ever? To stock your shop not with mass-produced souvenirs, but your own handwork?

Huh? Oh yes, of course she was knitting by the Continental method. But so fast, so fast. And I did learn something new yet again. This is where it gets technical, so those who aren't really into knitting technique, skip the next bit. Generally when you purl, you put the yarn over the needle and then bring it in and through to make the stitch. Where she was working the purl stitches, she was bringing the yarn in from below, which is much faster - that is, bringing it under and up, not over and down, if you get me. And yes, that does create a knit stitch facing the other way if you're doing back and forth knitting rather than in the round, but so what? Knit it in the back. No worries. As long as you have uncrossed stitches, where's the problem?

OK, technical bit over. You can come back now.

The tie shawl a-la-Continental turned out superbly. It's in Knit Picks Andean Silk by the way, about a 5 or 6mm needle, I forget which. (And that cunning crochet two-colour twisted edging comes from the Traditional Danish Tie Shawl by Dorothea Fischer.) I was so pleased with it, especially as knitting it was fun and fast. And do you know something? It's wonderful to wear too. Tie it on whenever you feel the need, and you're warm without being smothered.

If you get hot, take it off or let it hang loose. Great. I love it! Consequently felt impelled to make several more by the same method, and thought I ought to share this with other knitters too, so listed a whole bundle of ideal yarns on eBay, trawled from the gigantic Celtic Memory stash.

These are the lovely homespun-style ones. They're on cones I sourced from a secret location, still with much of the original lanolin and factory dressing on them, but they're pure gold. Well, pure wool actually. They remind me most of Rowan Tweed. But nicer. Natural, denim blue, and a heathery lavender, all flecked with tiny lights of other colours, three different thicknesses, in that order, thickest to thinnest. The heathery one is about light worsted and the others go up from there.

And these are the beautiful Italian boucles. What I love about these is that the yarn and its colours do all the work. You can just whip off a quick garter stitch shawl in the simplest shape and it will look wonderful.

And finally of course the sock yarns some of which I am tempted to take off sale again and use for my own pleasure, to make little lacy shoulder shawls, to spice up whatever I'm wearing and suit the mood of the moment. If I haven't taken them off, you'll find them over on eBay. If the tweedy ones (ID 170506217549) have all gone, contact me and I might be able to skein some up for you.

The main purpose of this posting though is to alert you to several important points:

One. Never, but never neglect a close examination of Scandinavian supermarkets. Scan every shelf with a keen eye. You never know what you might find amidst the buns and the broccoli.

Two. If you want to improve your knitting speed, go Continental. Don't give me that 'Oh I couldn't possibly' defeatist line. You can, and you will. NOW!

Three. Start making shawls immediately. It could possibly become an addiction as serious as socks. And that's saying something.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Roan Inish Rediscovered

Yes, we finally got there. At last the weather relented, and blue skies plus calm seas meant we were able, at long last, to set foot on the enchanted island.

Hang on, let's get a few knitting matters out of the way first, though, just to ensure that those who log on here solely and only for matters fibrous and looped will not be disappointed.

Sock Madness continued to an exciting finish, with the final winner being Erica from Oslo. Strewth that girl can tackle a pair of entrelac socks (yep, entrelac, no kidding) between breakfast and lunch, and still have time to look after the family, weed the garden, whip up something pleasant in the kitchen, and probably write out a detailed plan for world peace for all I know. I forthwith determined to learn Norwegian speed knitting and you'll hear more about that in my next posting.

This was where I called it a day. Full length, fully-fashioned knee socks, no less, with Celtic motifs on the sides and a most cunning sideways slip on the foot. They were designed by Jenny Lee, and I don't mind admitting that they nearly sent me over the edge. Gorgeous stockings, and I'm thrilled to have them to show off on state occasions, but millions of stitches, thousands of rows... it was a marathon and no mistake.

So what does one do when finally it all comes to an end for this year? Why immediately cast on another pair of socks, of course. OK, so it's an addiction. Maybe I like addiction.

These are the Rigel design from Anna Zilboorg's Socks for Sandals and Clogs. I love the way you have a plain and demure sock from the front, and then turn round and ZA-ZOOM! I added the fuchsia toe myself, thinking it gave just that extra touch of je-ne-sais-quoi. Didn't have the right yarn in the stash (do I ever?) so plied some angora-blend twice and some Shetland three times to get the two colours.

Even found time to dye up some new sock yarns but still haven't found a window of opportunity in which to list them on eBay. Tonight, tonight, I must do it. No point having all that yarn hanging around when there are eager knitters out there clamouring for it. Merino/tencel and merino/bamboo, nestling on the buttercups and daisies of an Irish June. We've waited long enough for the weather to get better here, but finally it has. Which is why we decided to try again for that elusive island.

It was a beautiful morning when we drove down yet again to the remote stretch of coastline beyond Glandore and Union Hall, hoping to find someone who would rent us a currach or kayak. Nobody around though. And no kayaks lying invitingly on the shoreline either which one might borrow casually for an hour or two.

It was so frustrating to sit on the cliffs and look across at that little silver beach and those ivy-clad ruins, so near and yet so far. It was almost close enough to swim, but that really wouldn't be advisable with the undercurrents you get on this stretch of coast. Was it going to be yet another day of disappointment?

Somewhat downhearted, we got back in the car and made the long detour inland and out again to get to Squince Harbour (it's only about half a mile if you traipse over the rocks and cliffs) and here our luck changed. DH leaned over the sea wall and saw a fisherman loading gear into his boat. Casual pleasantries were exchanged, and then DH very casually let drop how much we wanted to visit the little island. 'Sure, come along with me and I'll drop ye off on my way out to check the pots,' said the fisherman genially. 'I can pick ye up on the way back, in a couple of hours, if that would suit.'

Would it suit? Would it? We were down on the shore and in that boat before you could blink.

And so at last we came to Roan Inish. Yes, yes, yes, it's called Rabbit Island on the large scale ordnance survey map, but you can't tell me that isn't Roan Inish.

Look, even the guardian seals and the all-knowing gulls were there, watching us, ensuring we were kindred spirits and not likely to break the peace of this place.

The feeling of actually landing at last on that silver strand, of waving goodbye to the friendly fisherman, and then climbing a steep track to the grassy top of the island, knowing we were the only people there, was indescribable. A lost world, with the sea breezes blowing over it, bluebells and buttercups growing rampantly in the unmown grass. Of course we headed first for the old ruined cottages - wouldn't you? Oh, I forgot, I'm taking you along on this trip, so that's what you wanted to do too. Look, you're there, right now. Climb into the pictures, relax, breathe deeply. Now, don't you hear the gulls crying, and get the scent of the salt air?

You couldn't really see it from the shore, but from this vantage it's much clearer that there were once at least two and possibly more cottages here, facing each other across a green lane and built sideways on to the sea (as all sensible seaside cottages were until the trendy days of double glazing and superstrength picture windows). Totally quiet and peaceful now, can't your imagination just see and hear what was once there? Children shouting at play, women's voices calling, the cluck of hens and the mooing of a cow waiting to be milked. The grating sound of a currach being pulled up on the beach. The whirring of a spinning wheel at a cottage door. There was a whole community living here for centuries. Now they're gone, but the landscape is still imbued with their presence.

From the cliffs on the seaward side it's easier to see that this is actually quite a big small island, if that doesn't sound too contradictory. You could spend a good afternoon following its indented coastline. See that tiny beach up there at the top of the picture? The one that looks totally deserted?

Not deserted now. Just one castaway Celtic Memory. Wonder how many islanders came down here after a storm to search for timber, firewood, anything useful washed from a ship's deck? All islanders are natural foragers and it's not unusual to find furniture, doors, windows, even carts, fashioned from wood picked up on the shoreline.

In places the thick grass, prickly furze, and wiry heather made walking quite difficult, especially if your four little legs were rather short. Someone got rather tired and appreciated a bit of a lift now and again.

Fortunately we found a stream trickling down a gully in the cliffs and Sophy was able to clamber down the rocks and have a large and lengthy drink. Trouble was, she then decided that it was rather nice in there in the shadowy cool, and just lay down and refused to move. Now you will appreciate that when a small dog stirs up a small pool, a great deal of mud is the result. And furthermore, when said small dog is disinclined to bestir herself for the homeward journey, anyone seeking to assist in such bestirring is likely to acquire quite a bit of said mud. As was indeed the case in this instance.

The Roan Inish imagery was everywhere. You could just see Fiona picking bunches of these bluebells. I expected to see baby Jamie pushing off his coracle from a dozen tiny hidden coves we chanced upon.

And what better place to fall asleep and dream on a sunny day? The feeling everywhere was - how can I describe it - like a long-ago afternoon is the best I can do. You know that feeling?

It was very hard to leave. Those cottages cried out to be lived in once more, to be whitewashed and tidy, with sturdy thatched roofs and geraniums in the windows. The little overgrown fields wanted to be tended and dug, and planted with potatoes. The island wanted voices again, laughter and busy movement and a way of life that had endured for centuries. But our fisherman was hailing us cheerfully from the beach, and we had to go.

We'll be back, though. We'll return to you, Roan Inish, one day very soon. Promise.