Tuesday, September 28, 2010

And September quickly zips to a close...

...and I'm trying to catch up! I don't feel like I'm doing a very good job. There are always more things on my to-do list than I have time...to do. Sigh. :}

So, looking back at the month, it's been a full one. We started the school year, which has been mostly painless, so that's a good thing. It's been a month full of extra activities, like check-ups and such that always seem to come due in the fall. Hoping there will be fewer of them in October.

Knitting-wise, there've only been two FO's...my Nantucket Red, which I already shared, and this pair of socks, which I knit for a friend. They were originally going to be for Christmas, but I ended up giving them to her for her birthday instead.

I knit them toe-up using Zitron Trekking XXL for the main color and Mondial Ciao for the afterthought heels and the cuff. These were generic stockinette toe-up socks, but they were my first pair of afterthought heel socks, and I'm really happy with how they turned out.I did a pretty decent job of making the stripes all matchy-matchy, too. :)

I've done a fair amount of casting on for other projects this month. Well, technically I cast on this, my Random Cardi, at the end of August, but I've been knitting it consistently all month.

I named it the "Random" cardigan because it truly is random. I had no pattern in mind when I started it. I mainly wanted to see how this yarn (Lorna's Laces Swirl DK in the Tuscany colorway) would knit up. I've had this yarn in my stash for ages...love, love, love the colors...and decided the only way to really see what it would look like in a garment was to knit a garment-sized swatch. So, I cast on enough stitches to accommodate the back of a sweater and off I went. I've basically been winging it ever since. The back and fronts turned out just fine. My first attempt at a sleeve, however, was not good. Had I been knitting, say, I leotard, it would have been GREAT, because that's how snugly it fit. Ahem. So, I ripped it out and started again, this time using the numbers in Ann Budd's The Knitter's Handy Book of Patterns as a general guide. Miraculously, the finished sleeve turned out as close to perfect as it could have, especially considering I hadn't knitted the rest of the sweater to the corresponding pattern numbers. However, I'm not questioning it. LOL I'm just working feverishly to try and finish it up by this Friday -- the start of Socktoberfest -- so I can both enjoy wearing it now that the weather is turning cooler, and I can focus my October knitting efforts on SOCKS, and a couple other projects.

Speaking of socks, I also cast on these...

This is Kirsten Kapur's Ampersand pattern, which was one of the patterns in one of my Mystery Bags. The yarn, however, was not the yarn I originally put in the bag. Because these are going to be a gift, I opted to change out the yarn to a color that is more suited to the intended recipient. This is JulieSpins M370 Superwash Merino in the Jasper colorway. I love how they're turning out.  The pattern is a cuff down pattern but I'm working it toe-up, as it was an easy conversion. The heel, however...argh, toe-up heels continue to be a challenge to me! I'm substituting Wendy Johnson's basic toe-up slip stitch heel, which is working fine, but man, I still cannot envision it intuitively the way I can when working the other direction. I have to say, I think I may prefer gusset heels better for toe-ups.

I also cast on for another Traveling Woman shawl, this one to be another gift. I've gotten as far as the stockinette top of it. It's stalled there until I finish my cardigan. I'm hoping to have it finished by the time I see the recipient in late October. I'm using Misty Mountain Farm Highlight yarn, a merino-tencel blend, in the Evergreen colorway.

I also cast on for another shawl, a Haruni, which was going to be a gift for my MIL for Christmas. I may have mentioned her desire for an all-white shawl before, and my extreme hesitation in trying to knit one, mainly because white is booorrriinnngg. I had some Suri Alpaca laceweight here in white, and so I started it in that. It was going fine, but I have an inclination that though it will undoubtedly be both pretty and warm, it is not what my MIL had in mind. I can't bear knitting yet another thing for her that she is not excited about (whole other issue there), so I instead have ordered some white fingering weight yarn from The Loopy Ewe and will either start this over or I may do Bitterroot instead.

OK...I have more to say, but no time to say it! Story of my month. So, until next time, let me leave you with this:

Only THREE DAYS until SOCKTOBERFEST! Woohoo!!! =)

Monday, September 13, 2010

All you wanted to know about flax but were afraid to ask...

...or perhaps never even thought about?

This past Saturday, Kevin, Emma and I went to the Stahlstown Flax Scutching Festival. Kevin's been to this one before with his antique farm equipment group, but I'd never gone, as it always falls on the same weekend as the Pittsburgh Irish Festival, and that's where Emma and I usually go to get our annual Gaelic Storm fix. This year, we opted out of the Irish Festival and headed out early Saturday to check out the festival of flax. It's a small festival, easy to see all there is to see in just a couple of hours, but it was pretty neat. In addition to being a beautiful day to be up in the mountains, there were buckwheat pancakes & sausage to be had, as well as several vendors selling all sorts of crafts, as well as some selling honey and maple products. (Mmm...maple candy. I love maple candy. Reminds me of my childhood.)

The centerpiece of the festival, however, is the flax demonstration. Apparently it is a very well known festival for this very reason, attracting people from all over the country and beyond, which seems odd considering how small Stahlstown is.

I admit, I was curious about how flax was historically processed into thread and then fabric. I knew very little about spinning plant fibers, and nothing about flax. I can't say that now, though! And I have a little pictorial essay to share my new found knowledge with you!

The gentleman who gave the presentation here is holding the flax as it appears when it is harvested, which is done by pulling it from the ground by its roots. The roots contain some of the finest flax fibers, so to cut it off above the ground would mean losing valuable fiber.

The first step in processing the flax then takes place out in the field where it is retted, or laid in the sun and turned over periodically so that bacteria that live inside the flax can begin to break down the woody part of the plant, thus helping to free the flax fibers.

The second step is breaking, which I didn't get to photograph. It's done on large frame-like tool with long wooden teeth between which the flax stalks are beaten. That breaks up the woody part of the flax even further and removes it from the flax fibers.

Once the fibers are free of the woody part of the plant, the third step is the scutching, which is what this girl is doing. It's basically beating the flax with that paddle to remove the more coarse fibers. This results in a tangle of the coarse fibers, which are called "tow," resembling the hair of small blond children, hence the term "tow-headed." The tow was used for a variety of things, including cleaning gun barrels and for insulation in homes.The tow could also be spun and made into coarse fabric used for sacks and other non-garments.

The next step before the flax can be spun is to remove even more of the coarse fibers by hackling (or heckling...depending on whether you are using the German or Scottish version of the word, I think). Hackles, or heckles, are those iron teeth sticking up like a big brush and the fibers are combed through it, producing more tow.

Finally, the spinning! Unlike spinning wool, in which you generally hold the fiber in your hand, the flax fibers are held on a distaff while they are being spun.

Also unlike wool, flax fibers do not have scales, therefore in order to get the fibers to hold together as they are being spun, the spinner must wet his or her fingers and the moisture then helps form the spun strand. That's what the little suspended water bowl on the side of the spinning wheel is for.

The ultimate goal for the fiber is to be spun into linen thread, which can then be woven into fiber. Initially it is spun onto a bobbin on the spinning wheel, then the thread is transferred from that bobbin to a longer bobbin that goes inside the shuttle used in weaving on the loom. This is accomplished by use of a much larger wheel, the walking wheel. Apparently it was possible to spin directly using the walking wheel, but it looked like that would have been a major pain, considering how often the drive band slipped off!

Thread being transferred to the longer spindle for the shuttle.

Finally the thread is used for both warp and weft on the loom and woven into linen cloth. Sometimes they would warp the loom with linen thread and weave with wool, resulting in a rather coarse fabric they termed linsey-woolsey. The very last step was for the fabric to be put through a linen press, but I wasn't able to get a picture of that, either.

So...cool, eh? They were selling various flax/linen souvenirs, and I asked if they had any of the prepared flax fiber for sale, as I'd have liked to have brought some home to try and spin it. Alas, they did not. It's hard to come by and they only have enough on hand for the demonstrations. I wasn't the only person who asked about it, though, I was told...so maybe in the future I'll get lucky?

Interestingly, when I was a kid, my mother's aunt gave me a bundle of flax fiber. It looked and felt much like a long, golden pony tail that got lopped off of someone's head. That both fascinated me and kind of creeped me out. I had that flax for many years, but my mom finally decided it should be thrown out because she was afraid it would attract bugs. I don't know if it would have or not, but I really kind of wish I still had it now. :}

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mysterious bags...

A couple of posts ago, I ended with a picture of a line up of mystery bags...

...and I intended to share the story behind them in my last post, but I forgot, and apparently some people really, really want to know! LOL So, my dear Rav friend, Ohgrumpy, here's my explanation! ;)

If you've read the Yarn Harlot's blog this year, you might know about her self-imposed sock club. It was her way of using some of her sock yarn stash and knitting patterns she's wanted to knit. Seemed like an ingenious idea. I too have a massive sock yarn stash -- enough to fill two large Sterlite bins -- and my Rav queue and pattern stash is full of lovely sock patterns I'd love to try, since I often default to my generic stockinette or ribbed socks.

I've read YH's blog this year, watching the success of her self-imposed sock club, as she's churned out pair after pair of beautiful socks. Granted, she's a fast sock knitter by my usual standards, but still. The idea remained in the middle of my brain (not the front, not the back...middle ;) ). Finally, as I was moving yarn and patterns and all my other knitterly goods up to their new home last month, I decided to follow in YH's footsteps and create my own self-imposed sock club. And that is what is in the bags. One skein of yarn matched with one pattern, the goal of which is to choose one at random each month over the next 12 months and knit a pair of socks.

Since I'm currently working on a pair of socks already -- the gift socks -- I haven't picked a bag for this month. I may wait until October to start, because that would give me time to finish the gift socks as well as the second Norwegian Rose sock. October is also Soctoberfest, so it seems appropriate to begin such an endeavor at that time, right?

So...mystery revealed! :)

Friday, September 10, 2010

September is off to a good start...

 ...mostly. I'm not counting the cold I've had this week that has been kicking my arse. Moving on...

I finished my Nantucket Red on Tuesday, which is not red but a pretty golden color...

Nantucket Red by Thea Colman done in Elsebeth Lavold Silky Wool.

It was a pretty quick project. I finished it in less than a month, and that was in the midst of the house stuff and some other knitting. There are more pictures of it on my Rav project page, along with my project notes. I'm 98.9% happy with it. I am having issues with the sleeve caps laying right...I think I could have made them about two rows shorter and they'd have been perfect, but clearly, that isn't a big deal. The fit in the left bust area is a little snug (yes, just the left...I'm slightly lopsided, LOL) but there really wouldn't have been much I could have done to make it bigger on just that one side without it looking odd. I'm confident that with wear, the Silky Wool will open up and it'll be fine. The only other issue is fixable...I may need to move my hooks/eyes closer to the edges. You can't tell as much in this picture because of the way I'm standing, but they aren't as gappy as they are supposed to be. We'll see how I feel about it after I wear it a few times. Again, though, overall...very happy with it, it was a terrific pattern, and I'm glad to have another Silky Wool cardi to take the place of my February Lady Sweater that is now way too huge on me.

I also finished my first Norwegian Rose sock this week...

I started this sock back in May, after Spring Fling, as part of a KnitGirllls KAL. I started off strong, finishing the foot part in no time, but when I got to the heel, I flagged. It's that whole toe-up heel thing. This pattern called for a short-row heel, of which I am not a fan, so I kept debating about doing a different heel and essentially paralyzed myself with options, so I just pushed the project aside. I finally pulled it out again a couple of weeks ago, deciding to just do the heel as written and see how it went.

Now that it's done, I have mixed feelings about it. The sock is definitely pretty, my stranded colorwork has enough give that the sock fits snugly but comfortably (and I can get it on, which is always a crap shoot with colorwork socks), and the short-row heel is ok, but the pattern called for a "mini-flap" above the short-row heel, which essentially made the heel too high for me and kind of boinks out unless I really pull the sock up, and it will never stay that way. I could omit it on the second one, I suppose, but then the socks won't match, and that will bug me. I could rip out the first one, get rid of the mini-flap and re-knit it, but....hahahahaha! I am not ripping out 6 inches of colorwork. Sorry. Not happening. I'll live with the boink.

As for other projects, I am working on another pair of socks (Norwegian Rose #2 is going to wait a while, I think), which will be a Christmas gift for a friend. First sock is done, second about 1/3 of the way. No pictures yet, though. I am planning to start a Haruni shawl for another gift (I am so on the ball with gift knitting this year...it's amazing!) -- the yarn is wound and the pattern printed out -- and I'm going to start another Traveling Woman soon, I think, for yet another gift, but I haven't decided on yarn yet. In the mean time, I've started a random cardigan with some Lorna's Laces Swirl DK I've had laying around forever.

And I do mean it is random because I have no pattern. This is some of the first yarn I ever bought when I first started knitting a few years ago, but I had no idea what I'd made with it. I finally decided to swatch to see what the colors would do, if they'd pool unpleasantly or what, but the only way to do that for a garment is to make a really big swatch. So I cast on enough stitches to accommodate the back of a cardigan for myself. I've got about 15" now, almost far enough to bind off for armholes. So...yeah...that's what I'll do. And then I'll try to mimic the same design in the front, I suppose. (Really, it's that random.) The sleeves may be a bit of an issue, as I have never tried to fake an entire sweater pattern before, but I know how to measure and divide and count, and I'm hoping that will yield functional and pleasing results. LOL It's actually kind of fun to be knitting something in this way. And I have to say, I LOVE how the yarn is working out. I love how it looks, and I love how it feels. The colors are awesome and not pooling unpleasantly.  So...I'll see what I end up with. Stay tuned!

On the fiber front, I had the day to myself on Tuesday, and though it was one of the days I was feeling kind of punk, I thought, Hey! What better to do today than make a giant mess in my kitchen! So that's what I did. I broke out the fiber and the dyes. By the end of the day, this is what I had...

I've been wanting to learn how to dye roving for some time now...it was on my "to do" list for the last two summers, actually. I've been gathering materials and equipment. I've been reading, reading, reading about the process. I finally decided that the only way I was really going to learn anything was to just give it a go. I chose some Southdown/Shetland cross fiber that, frankly, I don't think is of great quality. It's rough and very neppy and I'm not sure why I thought it was a good idea to buy a pound of it, but I did, so I used some of it as my guinea pig fiber. It dyed beautifully, but it's still a rough, neppy mess that is not the least bit fun to spin.

On the plus side, though, I managed to dye it without felting it, nor burning it. I did, however, use WAY too much dye, thus it took two more batches of fiber afterward to exhaust the dye baths. I also succeeded in dyeing my hands purple during one of the rinses because I forgot to put my gloves on. Live and learn. I feel cautiously optimistic about what I did, though. Next time I think I'll try it on some better fiber. Life is too short to mess with unpleasant fiber, period.

Oh, the reason I had the day to myself on Tuesday is because Kevin took an extra day's vacation for the long weekend. His big project for the four days was digging up his parents' yard in order to install a new water line. We were all over there on Sunday for dinner, and afterward I grabbed my camera and said to the kids, "Hey! Let's go have fun with the ditch!" This sentence would probably seem strange in most contexts, right? It says something about our family that the kids just shrugged and said, "OK!" So...here you have it...fun with a ditch...