A new take on Kaffe Fassett …

I’ve been nuts about Kaffe Fassett knits since his wonderful colourful designs exploded into the knitting scene in the early 80s. You may have read in my earlier blog about the knits I made using his patterns. But my Kaffe knits (as I like to think of them) sort of fizzled out as we came to the Millennium – partly this was because I was very busy on the employment front, and partly fashions in knitting had changed.  Like many other knitters I explored knits that focused on texture rather than colour.  I now have lots of lovely single colour shawls.

But last year I sort of came to a halt with my knitted shawls.  I had lost heart – they weren’t really my thing.  What I really longed to do was to return to my original knitting passion and knit multi-colour again – with strands and strands of differently-coloured yarn – just as Kaffe had taught us.

But those huge boxy garments! To some extent they were necessary for the enormous dramatic patterns, but I knew I just wouldn’t wear a new knit that was as large and ungainly as this.So I began to think small pattern.  This is Kaffe’s Little Circles pattern (which you will find on p.136 of his Glorious Knitting)If you look carefully at my sample piece (and in much better light) you will see that my circles are much smaller than in the original pattern, and some rows feature designs that are not circular at all. Because most of the yarn is so variegated, in many rows you lose definition anyhow.I was pleased with this – I liked the colours, especially the odd shots of fuchsia, and the pattern may be pretty random at times but it still looks regularly patterned to the casual eye.

This irregularity was important because I’d decided to knit a cardigan using Truly Myrtle’s Timely pattern. This is a striped top-down knit – and far from being baggy and saggy as those old Kaffe knits were, this is fitted, and funky!  I love it! Because it is a top-down knit with no seams there are lots of increases and decreases.  The irregularity of the stitch pattern is important in that it allows me to make all these alterations without revealing these adjustments as glaring mistakes.

I’m sorry to do this to you, Libby, but here is my very shabby printed copy of your lovely pattern – you can tell it’s well-loved …I selected two yarns for the background stripes. The vibrant green yarn is Madeline Tosh.  It’s a fingering weight merino (Tosh Merino Light) called Jade.

The other yarn is my own hand-spun.  It’s predominantly a blue/green/black alpaca batt dyed and prepared by The Border Mill but I have added bits and pieces of my own hand-dyed silks and wools.  It’s very light and soft, and combines beautifully with the Madeline Tosh, making this garment much softer and lighter than my old Kaffe Fassett knits (into which I threw every yarn I could find – including my own hair.)As for the rest of the yarn …. well, in proper Kaffe Fassett style it is a motley collection.  There is handspun, and shop-bought – but most importantly there is Rowan Kidsilk Haze.  This is such a useful yarn for projects such as this.  Being a very fine fluff yarn, it lends itself so well to padding out another yarn that is just too thin to fit in to the general ensemble … So, I started knitting …It was tricky.  After all, I was knitting alternate pairs of rows in first one background colour and then the other, with extra yarns introduced to give the stitch pattern. At times the variegation of colour in the yarn meant that I was knitting with almost identical colours …With any knit like this, you are going to have to stop and sort out muddled yarns frequently …However with persistence, I very soon had enough body to try it on.  This is the beauty of a top-down knit.  You can tell so easily how well the fit is working out – and see too how the decorative pattern is developing.  You can tell that I’m pleased!The original Timely cardigan pattern had a deep ribbed border, but I felt that wasn’t suitable for such a very patterned knit , so I opted to knit a picot edge instead …It looks nice here – a very pleasing detail – but alas, it was so darned frilly! I’d have to think about it …Picking up the sleeves and knitting down on 6 needles (yes, 6!!) was horrible knitting.  So fiddly! It didn’t help of course that I was working with so many yarns …The knitting needle and yarn muddle made for truly miserable knitting – the sort when you really don’t want to pick your knitting up because you know you’ll have to concentrate so hard …How pleasing then to get to the bottom of the sleeves and finish them off with these very fine cuffs! As I said earlier, I didn’t feel plain ribbing was suitable for this very patterned knit, but this two-colour rib works very well. (It’s a 2 purl, 2 knit rib.)Then I returned to compare that picot hem against the ribbed cuffs.  Yes – it’s definitely time for some frogging …I got so excited with the success of the re-knitted two-colour hem rib that I forgot to photograph it before I completed the cardigan.  But this pic does very clearly show how much nicer the ribbed hem is than the picot one …Now for the button band.  I did get my picot edging in here.  Because the yarns were so soft, I double knit each band and then folded them over. This works more easily with the button band than the buttonhole band (where you end up with rather unshapely buttonholes which have to be tidied up.)The tidying-up method I favour is binding with buttonhole stitch (of course). When pressed it gives a very nice edging …And finally for the neckline – where I followed the Truly Myrtle instructions to the letter. I do like this informal slight neck border …That last pic reminds me: there were ends to darn in. Lots of people hate this part of the process, but I (luckily) find it rather restful …So – now for the finished cardi!I’m very pleased with it!  The Truly Myrtle pattern is just what I wanted for this project – it’s a comfortable and stylish fit. The cardigan is very light and soft to wear.

And no – I didn’t block it.  I pressed the button bands with a hot iron through a very damp protective cloth, but that was all.  I like the rough texture of this multi-yarn knit.

Of course, I made it much harder for myself because I used a two-colour background.  Were I to knit such a cardi again (and yes, I’m already mulling over how I might translate one of Kaffe’s bolder patterns to a modern knit), I’d definitely restrict myself to a single yarn for the backing.  Perhaps a variegated yarn or I might change the yarn as I went along, but I definitely wouldn’t want to be carrying two main colours right the way through another knit.

Off now for some serious mulling …

That darn Noonday Demon!

In the fourth century AD, Christian monasteries sprang up in the deserts near Alexandria in Egypt. In these harsh conditions monks struggled to live ascetic lives of prayer and deprivation in the belief that this would secure them eternal life.  One can easily imagine how these monks might lose heart and be distracted from godly prayer – particularly in the sleepy postprandial times of the midday lull. One monk, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote about the tiresome demon behind these temptations of listlessness and lassitude, calling it the Noonday Demon.

Over the last few months, I too have struggled with this darned Noonday Demon – though in my case, it has broken all the rules, and will not stick to the stipulated noonday hours of ten to two …

I did complete my doodle stitchery as I wrote in my blog post last month. But otherwise I seem to be just flitting from project to project, unable to find the energy or drive to complete anything in particular …

At the beginning of the summer I started another Judi Dench tapestry, this time replacing the greens with blue tones …It came on a couple of train trips with me, and then I lost interest and it got put to the side …So I thought I would try some spinning … I got out my best most glorious colours …And yes, I did find the spinning very comforting and pleasurable, and got quite a bit done.  But I lost interest when I saw what how the dark tones submerge the brighter colours in the finished spun yarn …A pile of my most beautiful fabrics came out one weekend when Stephen was away …I did a little machining …Played with some other fabrics …But it just didn’t grab me.  So I put it all away – and the only being happy with the whole event was the cat …I know! I declared to myself. I’ll go back to my first proper knitting love!  I’ll do some Kaffe Fassett knitting! And I was indeed very happy with this blue/green/purple strip of knitting – but then unruly thoughts niggled at me  … Was this planned knit really going to be useful … Kaffe Fassett knits are so cosy with all that stranded knitting at the back.  Do I really want to wear that sort of cardi any more …It got put to the side, ending up next to the wastepaper basket – oh dear, what indignity!I got books of inspiration out …I was sent fabulous fabric scraps by generous friends … but nothing seemed to spark my creative wires …I did complete one other piece – oh yeay! I was asked to stitch a Berwick Worm for the Tweed 1000 celebrations …This is a community stitchery being worked to commemorate the Battle of Carham of 1018. That almost unknown battle resulted in  the Scottish/English border being set as it is now, adjoining the River Tweed, rather than near Edinburgh. The pieces being worked are all linked with the history of the area.

There are many stories of Worms in the area – probably the best known is the Lambton Worm of County Durham.  The Durham locals have a song about their worm which you can hear here beautifully sung by a famous County Durham boy, Bryan Ferry. It’s a great worm story!

The worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,
An’ grewed an aaful size;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggly eyes …

I was so very chuffed to be allocated the Berwick Worm.  I got out my fabrics, and started stitching …Sadly, I have to say my heart wasn’t really in it. Although I think he’s quite a pleasing worm and I’m not in any way ashamed of my contribution, I didn’t find it quite as unputdownable as the best projects are …The one other long-term stitching project that I have toyed with this summer is an old friend which I started last year when I first learned about Alabama Chanin’s embroidered clothes.  I wanted to make a garment for myself but decided to start with a sample piece – and here it is at the beginning of the summer …I have picked it up recently and enjoyed adding quite a lot more different stitches to the background …I’m not alone to struggle with this problem. Others call it different names – for Ann Wood, for example, it’s Natsubate.  Some know it as Accidie.  Myself, I like the personalization of that imp, the darned Noonday Demon.

Perhaps it’s just this very long hot dry summer that we’re experiencing in the UK right now.  And I only need for the heavens to open to right my energies? With the political temperature soaring all over the world, it seems more than a trifle shaming to be so concerned with the pace of my creativity.

It’s just the small things though, isn’t it, that are really important?

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to rest.

Wendell Berry: Sabbaths 1999, VII

Ever in hope I have started a new knitting project! There is nothing like a knitting shawl for comforting ease of project and I have several very long car journeys later this summer when I will need some knitting.  I had to undo a shawl that I didn’t think was quite right for me to reclaim this beautiful Old Maiden Aunt yarn.  ( It’s a beautiful 4ply baby alpaca, silk and cashmere combo called ghillie ghu.) I’m hoping to knit it up as a Karie Westermann Bibliotheca shawl.Wish me luck – I so wish to find a project that will be absorb me!

Spinning a cat hair comforter …

Two funny little cats, Eggy and Ilsa, came to live with us some 18 months ago …Unlike any other kits I have had (and I’ve had quite a few in my time) they need constant grooming. This isn’t surprising really as they are half Persian and half Exotic Shorthair, inheriting from their Persian father a gloriously luscious outer coat and a dense, soft undercoat. Left unchecked, this undercoat matts badly – so they need the regular grooming to keep their coats shiny and silky.

It occurred to me last summer that I might well be able to spin this undercoat. Why I had quantities of it available! The very cream tones are from Ilsa (on the right above) and the darker colours are from Eggy (on the left).But it’s not exactly a long staple, being just a couple of inches at most.  Sometimes there are guard hairs too, but mostly what I was getting from grooming sessions was the soft grey you can see by my fingertips below.I decided the best thing was to blend it with some of the Cornish alpaca I still had spare. This is a beautiful creamy lustrous fibre (once washed – it was almost grey with dirt and dust when I first acquired it), but similar in texture to the cat hair, so I expected the fibres to blend well. On with the alpaca to the carders then …Followed by the rather grubby cat hair (this I didn’t wash – full explanation to follow) …It carded very well together …Giving a beautiful silver grey rolag …Actually there were lots of tones in the rolags, reflecting the different colours of the cat hair.  I rather like this variation, being true to the original cats …What did the kits think of my work?  Were they at all interested in this processing of their hair?  After all it must smell of them … And they were about much of the time as I was busy carding and spinning …Ah yes! Look at Ilsa in seventh heaven padding away at my rolags!  Can you see the little bits of alpaca fluff floating up and catching in her whiskers? And Eggy keeping a sharp eye behind?!Eggy had her heavenly moments with the rolags too.  This looks like pure cat bliss to me too …Happy summer days …Why I was even tempted to card straight from source (as it were) …!Time to start spinning my rolags …With my not-so-helpful kitty companions … I spun the mixed cat hair and alpaca fiber very fine with lots of twist to hold the cat hair and fluffy alpaca in place.  Any relaxation of the twist and the yarn easily broke …Then the cat hair/alpaca strand was plyed with pure alpaca …Giving me a yarn that was 25% cat and 75% alpaca … (pure white alpaca in picture here to show the colour difference) …Time to get knitting! I wanted a very simple pattern, so adapted my knit from this Viewfinder cowl in Alexa Ludeman and Emily Wessel’s Road Trip. I’ve knit it before as a cowl, but this time wanted to knit a comforter ….. Are you familiar with the term?!  Well, it is the best word – in my opinion – for a shawl or scarf.  Time to consult our wonderful 1891 Webster’s! A knit woolen tippet, long and narrow. Just so – thank you, Mr Webster.  Only I would add: something to offer the physical warmth of succour … a woolly hug, perhaps … You see this comforter was planned as a gift for my daughter whose cats these really are.  They no longer live with her, but with the unwashed (now you see why the cat hair wasn’t washed!) comforter, she could wrap herself in comforting almost pure cat … So effective was it (and so pleasant to knit), that – having plenty of yarn still – I knit another comforter …You can see the catty variations in the spin quite clearly …And laid out you can see how the lacey stitchwork has distorted the rectangular comforter into something quite shaped with pointy ends …I decided to dye the second comforter, mixing up a vibrant fuchsia colour from my Easyfix AllinOne Dye powders …Such a pleasing result!Was I influenced at all by the colours of the season ….?You can see quite clearly the distorting effect of the lacey stitches as the comforter dries …The resulting knit matted a little bit in the process – but that’s not a bad thing as it stops the comforter shedding cat hair so much …And boy, is it cosy and comforting to wear!(Not mine for long as it’s off to give comfort with its predecessor …)

Glasgow weekend

Last weekend we had a very kind offer of cat-sitting so leapt at the opportunity to head off to unexplored places.  As it was snowy and icy, we decided the best thing was to travel by train, and settled on Glasgow, a city that we’d only visited briefly on a day visit last summer.

The streets in Glasgow had been gritted and cleared of snow, but not so the pavements which were icy and treacherous …But walking up to the glorious Kelvingrove Museum in bright sunshine, that didn’t seem to matter …How the sunshine transformed the great hall …Opened in 1901, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is such an extraordinary statement of ostentatious Glasgow prosperity – with an organ, no less, in that Great Hall! It was comfortably busy and bustling when we visited – lots of children, visitors of all nationalities, people waiting for the organ recital (which was splendid, and I wish I could play it for you here) …I love the detailed craftsmanship on show in the museum itself – aren’t these brass door handles very fine?Just as much as I love the modern jostling with the old. The hanging heads are part of an installation by Sophy Cave of Event Communications …I wish all museums were as upfront about their display policies …There was lots and lots of tempting things to see, but what I most wanted to look at was:This is a very big year for Charles Rennie Mackintosh admirers because it is the 150th anniversary of his birth – and lots of big events are being planned, including a major exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum itself opening in March, and the re-opening of his refurbished Willow Tearooms.

Another exhibition planned – much smaller but of considerable interest to me and my friends – is the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers National Exhibition in July at Strathclyde University. This will celebrate its presence in Glasgow on this particular centenary with an exhibition of Guild members handmade jewellery in the style of Mackintosh. “Jewellery can be of any textile nature, for example, they could be spun, dyed, felted, knitted, crocheted, tatted, woven, braided – whatever shows the creativity of the entrant.”

What an exciting challenge!

So here I was to look at the exhibits in a particular way: to see how I could re-interpret Mackintosh’s work in a piece of jewellery.

I had to be careful first of all not to be led astray by some of the gorgeous exhibits by other Glaswegians. We were both immediately struck by this very beautiful wall panel from the Argyle Street tearooms, dated 1898-99. But this was in fact made by George Walton & Co. A pity – this is truly inspirational!And this fine washstand with those characteristic Mackintosh long lines (look at the side panels) is in fact by John Ednie c.1900.  We spent ages looking at it because according to the information tab it was made of oak, glass, metal, marble, ceramic and leather.  Blowed if we could see any leather!  Must be inside the drawers, we decided …So where was the Mackintosh in all this gorgeousness?  There was a chair, of course – and very intriguingly displayed next to others of the period.  It’s the centrepiece here – designed for the Ingram tea rooms …And it was in the Chinese Room from the Ingram Street tearooms, designed by Mackintosh in 1911 that I found my best inspiration …Two things particularly struck me – first the little pagoda light … And secondly this Chinese key panel which was carved over the doorway of Mackintosh tearoom … those square curls … Lots to think about – I’ll keep you posted …Intriguingly we found upstairs among the historic Scottish exhibits pattern work very similar to that of Mackintosh and his Glasgow style compatriots. Look at these curved axe-heads and the long lines of this bronze dagger.  They are part of the Gavel Moss hoard found at Lochwinnoch and dated 2000-1400 BC …This Thistle brooch is 10th century Viking work, but could happily sit downstairs with Mackintosh and his fellow Glasgow artists of the 19th/20th century …The snow plough was out gritting the streets of Glasgow on Saturday night – which made us chuckle – no sign of snow on the streets anywhere! But we laughed a little less on the Sunday as we set out on an icy grey snowy walk up to St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. It was cold – and there was more snow …We were well wrapped up …I was wearing all my handmade, homespun, woolly knits (even sporting my handknitted felted handbag), so I was toasty! But Stephen disdains my lovingly-knit creations, saying they’re too scratchy.  Well, who looks most cosy here?!Lots of fascinating items covering the breadth of religious faith and worship in the St Mungo museum, but I was struck by two pictures – and intrigued by my reason for liking these two very different pictures.

This 1992 Aboriginal painting titled Kangaroo Wild Cabbage, Ceremonial Spear, Possum and Bush Carrot Dreaming is by Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Bessie Nakamarri Sims and Pansy Nakamarra Stewart, Warlpirri People, Yuendumu. It tells the story of the Dreamtime travels of some of their many spiritual ancestors. I struggle a bit to understand this picture as such – this is all so different to my culture, I guess.  But what I really love are the colours and the patterns …And it is pattern which draws me to this picture too. It’s called The Sabbath Candles and is by Dora Holzhandler. What a pattern fest – pattern everywhere!By now the snow was coming down hard – a beautiful snow globe view of Glasgow Cathedral and over to the Necropolis …But we had a colourful treat for the end of our Glasgow trip – just time to drop into my favourite shop here: Paperchase!  Now if this colourfest isn’t sustaining in the snowy grey, I don’t know what it is.  And – on that note – time to go home …

 

Border Union Show

The Border Union Show is traditionally held on the last weekend of July, at Springwood park, just south of the river Tweed and the Scottish Border town of Kelso.  If you look carefully at the banner picture above this post, you will see Kelso’s historic Abbey looming dramatically over the glitzy showground site.

It’s primarily an agricultural show – a chance for the farmers of the locality to meet, greet and compare. But lots of other bodies join in the fun – and I was there as a member of the Tweed Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to demonstrate with my little Innerleithen spinning wheel.

I’ve been going to the show as a demonstrator for several years.  We’ve had scorchingly hot years, and a thoroughly miserable wet year (last year – see my 2015 blog post for the Tweed Guild for how we survived the rain), but this year was proper traditional Scottish weather with sunshine and showers.  The plastic covers went on, and the plastic covers went off.  We ran inside with spinning wheels and our knitted displays – and then they all came out again!  It was hard work, and a long, tiring day, – but great fun too.  Not just for me – everybody everywhere seemed to be having a blast.Kelso Abbey watching over fieldThis year we found ourselves in the best of company.  We were sharing a tent with the Dunse flock of rare breed sheep!Rare Breed flockThey are lovely – but at close quarters, in a tent all day – yes, they do pong a bit (especially when their fruity fleeces come inside to avoid the rain).Rare Breed fleeces I did not envy those members of the guild who spent the day based inside the tent. But they put up magnificent displays of felting and basketry, and demonstrated their skills with energy and enthusiasm right through the day.demonstrators inside Tweed Guild tentThere was lots of interest.inside Tweed Guild tentThe Tweed Guild also had an interesting display of some of the different breeds of sheep and their fleeces.different fleece displaysAnd next to it, a beautiful display of natural-dyed materials.  (I’ve been really naughty here and snuck my acid-dyed royal blue Fika shawl into the display 😦 )Tweed Guild displayOutside there was a group of spinners.  This worked very well, as we attracted a lot of interest from passers by.Tweed guild spinners outside tentAnd there were spinning lessons!  Lots of youngsters were fascinated by the spinning wheels. Such a great pleasure to show them exactly what spinning entailed.giving spinning lessonsBut we were only a teeny tiny part of an enormous enterprise occupying 46 acres of parkland. I cannot do justice to it all because I only took short walks around, but let’s make a start with the animals as they were after all the raison d’etre for the show.

As we walked around, an enormous bull lumbered out of the showground.  It looked docile enough, but we were stopped well away to allow it to pass a safe distance from the public.getting the bull over the public pathThe other bulls were waiting inside looking remarkably peaceful and calm.bull waiting area - CopyFurther on, we came to the sheep. I love to see farming folk studying the sheep, leaning into the caging – as they have done since time immemorial (check out this fine Ravilious picture in the Beaford archive).sheep in pensThere were even some Blue-face Leicester sheep – highly prized by spinners!blue-faced leicesterCanny sheep were taking advantage of all the food on offer.sheep feedingIn a nearby tent, there were goats – interesting to see what a lot of young people seemed to be involved with them.goatsNot all animals were flesh and blood.fanciful creaturesI was particularly intrigued by the egg judging in the poultry tent.  For some reason, I had not thought that eggs would be judged – only the birds. Clearly the quality of the yolk is an important part of the judging criteria.  Not Stephen’s favourite spot (he doesn’t like eggs).judging eggsI’ll finish the livestock pics with some of rabbits because Stephen took an enormously large amount of photos of them.  Aren’t these little cuties?!rabbitsIn the main ring, meanwhile, young motorcyclists were entertaining the crowds with terrifying daredevil feats.Daredevil motorcyclistsOh my goodness!oh my goodnessThere’s definitely a macho feel to this place. There are big boys’ toys (photograph kindly contributed by Stephen).boys' toysWe are never allowed to forget that there is serious money behind all of this.  There were more spanking new four-wheel drives on this showground than I have ever seen before in my life.  The big landowners are in evidence – not just in their tweeds and their cavalry twills, but at the stalls.

This is the Roxburghe Estates tent.  Roxburghe Estates are based at the magnificent nearby Floors Castle (home of the Duke of Roxburghe) and from there they run a large and diverse local business empire.Serious land ownersThere are plenty of expensive shops around.expensive shopsThank goodness for cheaper treats that we can all enjoy on a sunny day out.hot enough for ice creamsWhat fascinated me most was the Industrial Section.  Inside were competition entries for jam-making, flower-arranging, children’s pictures, knitted garments, cake baking etc etc.  I’ve never heard it referred to as Industrial before – it’s more what I would have expected to be the province of the local Women’s Institute.jams and jellies behind wireWhat really shocked me about the displays was the wire fence caging them in. To stop passers-by handling the goods, or worse, perhaps to prevent theft?!  Either way it looks dreadful.  Particularly in the case of the children’s competitions.children's art workI’ll be the first to admit that my taste is never the same as the judges.  Here’s a prize-winning floral arrangement.First prize flower arrangingAnd here’s the one I would have chosen – the honeysuckle arrangement on the left.My preferred flower arrangementPerhaps there is a bit of an old-fashioned look to some of the competitions?  Hard to say really because nothing is shown to best effect behind chicken wire…baby wear in the industrial sectionLastly, just time to show you one of my favourite parts of the showground.  Small demonstration beds where they were growing sample plants for fallow ground – linseed, red clover, marigolds and cornflowers etc.  How wonderful it would be to see more of these grown over our landscape!test plantsAll in all: a grand day out 🙂

A slow blue – and unsuccessful – knit

Last summer I wrote in my Fleece blogpost about dyeing some fibres to spin and knit Julia Farwell-Clay’s Tambourine cardigan. I had a productive dyeing session and ended up with a wonderful basket of blue-toned fleece just ready for spinning.blue fleece in basketOver the winter, I got spinning!Yarn, fleece and rolagsMy yarn is perhaps particularly colourful and flecked.  This is partly because I get bored with spinning just a single colour, and partly because I love the variegated hues that you find in old materials.  Look at the shifting tones in this carpet for example. carpet tonesTo achieve my flecked and variegated yarn, I spin both from rolags and teased-out fleece, thus getting both blocks of plain colour (the teased-out fleece) and blocks of blended colour.  Here, I’m preparing a rolag with white clouds to sit amongst the blue.blendingblending continuesAnd here, I’m using stronger accent colours of scarlet and purple to stand out against the blue. Some little bits of glossy alpaca amid the fleece.lots of colours on cardersThe finished rolag still shows the accent colours quite clearly.finished rolagYou will see from my finished basket of rolags that there are all sorts of different hues and colours in the rolags alone. Also in the basket is some teased out alpaca ready to be spun as a solid colour amid the blended rolags.fleece and rolagsI also add little sharply-coloured pieces of brilliant fleece (or perhaps mohair or silk) as I’m spinning to act as highlights.  If you look at this spool, you may be able to make out the three components of my spinning: softly-blended rolags, solid colour and accent colours (the little shots of vibrant green).spinning the fleeceI have large baskets of coloured fleece sitting around as I work; clouds of inspirational colour just itching to be spun.  basket of fleeceHappy cat Poe helps me with all this processing in her own inimitable way.help from the catIt is so immensely satisfying to end up with this.handspun yarnJust a wash on the line, blowing in the Northumbrian breezes, and the yarn is ready to knit.washing the hanksTime now to do some knitting and see how this yarn is going to knit up …working on the tension sampleI’m really pleased with the flecks and variation of colours, but will it work with the raised nups which are an intrinsic part of the Tambourine pattern?  Time to look at the swatch properly …Tension swatchYes, I am so pleased with the swatch – I think the nups stand out well against the variegated yarn.  Also good news, my yarn measures up to the same tension as in the pattern, so I shouldn’t need to do any adjustments with the calculations.  I decided to do some measuring against another short cardigan that fits me very well.  This is Kate Davies’ Deco – a pattern that I love, and a cardi that I wear a lot. So I’m fairly confident that if I base my measurements on this cardi, I will come up with a Tambourine cardi that will fit.Comparison with DecoAlas, that’s not the case! I get so far, and I know this cardi is too small for me.  It is meant to be a close fit, but this is a closer fit than I want. knitting progressingOh dear, time to do some unravelling, and start again. I am always impressed when I read how positively other knitters undo their work – I hate it!  I feel dispirited, and although I love the way my yarn is knitting up, I can’t understand how I’ve got my measurements so wrong.

But back I go to my needles, reknitting the cardi a size larger.  Through the spring of this year I busily knit away. New kits come to live with us and discover what fun my knitting is.somebody's discovered my knittingI’m really struggling with this blogpost now.  Moment of truth. I have enjoyed all the spinning, and dyeing and knitting of this project (well, almost all – not the undoing) but I will level with you: I am not happy with the re-knitted and completed cardi! Not happy at all. Oh dear, so much love, so much labour, so much effort!

I finished it a fortnight ago, and so dispirited was I that I just put it away, in a cupboard, out of sight, out of mind.  It is only today that I have got it out, and here it is.finished cardiIt actually looks very good considering it’s just tacked together, doesn’t have any buttons, and hasn’t been blocked. The nupps look great, the flashes of colour are good.

But it looks awful on me – the colour is wrong (far too washed out and pale), and the style just doesn’t suit me at all. I don’t really like it at all. I know I won’t wear it.K with new cardiHmm – I’ve been mulling what to do with this yarn.  I have over 1,500 yards of it – about 550 g.

I could do another cardi using this pattern that I swatched a long time ago, and which I like very much.  But it’s double stranded as you carry the colour behind the back which makes it very thick. I don’t wear thick jerseys any longer so I don’t think it would work for me.old swatchOr, I could do another shawl like this one I finished recently.K with fika shawlThis is Karie Westermann’s Fika shawl, and it is also knit with my homespun. You can see my trademark colour streaks in the detail of the shawl below. I am glad to say that I am very pleased with this shawl indeed!detail of shawlI’m still just mulling this over.  I guess the first thing will be to be brave and actually unravel my Tambourine cardigan.

I’ll keep you posted on what I decide to do next.

And, if you have any suggestions for how I might use my lovingly-produced homespun, please let me know!

Cornish alpaca

We came back from the Cornish wedding last year with spinning treasure – 3 large bags of creamy white alpaca.  My just-married step-daughter, Ellie, had negotiated the sale with a work colleague (and got me a very good deal too).  The car was laden, but we managed to squeeze the bags in somewhere – far too good to leave behind.

I’ve never – in all of my thirty years of spinning – spun alpaca properly before, so I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. First I needed to lay out my treasure (and this is only the first bag) …alpaca on sitting room floorOf course, Poe had to inspect it first …Poe with alpacaNow to consult the experts …Spin Off mags on alpacaWriters in these Spin-off magazines wrote of the difficulty of spinning alpaca – how slippery it is, how heavy and lifeless your yarn will be.  Yes – I have to admit that I don’t terribly like spinning alpaca – everything, everywhere was covered with fluff – far worse than when grooming the cat.  Alpaca was in my mouth, my nose … ugh! And yes, it did break constantly as I tried to spin quite a fine yarn – just slipped through my fingers.

Hmm …. there were all sorts of other suggestions in these Spin-off magazines.  One article strongly recommended that you ply your alpaca with another yarn, so I found an old batt in my spinning stash which I think is synthetic yarn of some sort – can you see the sparkle on it? – and got a nice little hank of mixed fibre yarn.stash yarn and plyed with alpacaHowever, others wrote that you can produce “straight” alpaca. So that is what I did too.   This yarn I produced is very soft and fluffy and has just a bit of lustre. I rather liked the result, – so much so that I got carried away and started knitting without remembering to photograph my pure alpaca hank.

I’d decided to knit Emily Wessel’s Tin Can Knit’s Loch hat with the alpaca.  The Tin Can Knit’s ladies have come up with these lovely lacy patterns which – after initial lacking-confidence struggles – I am now enjoying knitting more and more.IMG_1960Easy peasy – in no time at all, it was finished.  Completed alpaca Loch capThe alpaca knit up like a dream.  It’s softly fluffy as opposed to lustrous, but you can still clearly see the wonderful pattern.  detail of Loch alpaca capThing is – I don’t really see myself wearing an off-white hat – just not a colour I feel comfortable with.  So could I dye it? I’ve always been given to understand that you could dye fleece and dye yarn, but not a finished product because it would felt.  However, perhaps if I dyed it in a microwave oven, which would be a very quick process, with minimum disturbance, I would get away with it …? Time to consult the dyeing books …synthetic dyeing booksFrances and Tony Tompson only cover microwave dyeing very briefly in their excellent book, Synthetic Dyeing, but by very good fortune a friend had attended a workshop they ran and was able to give me the course notes which expanded the information on microwave dyeing considerably.  At the end of them they say:” Finally, the wool will remain soft and springy with no chance of matting.”  Sounds promising.  Gail Callahan also gave excellent clear information on microwave dyeing.

In the end, I came to a rough mix of their times and their temperatures.  I mixed up the colour from Easifix’s AllinOne Acid Milling Dyes: Emerald Green, Golden Yellow, Ultra Blue and a little Black to act as a saddener.  Into the microwave my pot went.  Oh, it does look so very promising!Microwave dyepot of alpaca capAnd what an excellent result!  When wet, of course, it was much darker and I was afraid that the dark colour obscured the pattern definition.  But dry, it was just perfect, and honestly not matted at all.green Loch capCuriously, it has a little darker crown.  I didn’t change yarn, so I can only think that I must have spun a different part of the fleece here which didn’t show up when it was all creamy-white.  I rather like it.top of green Loch hatAnd luckily, the weather is still cold enough to go off for a brisk seaside walk well wrapped up and sporting my new alpaca beanie!K out for walk in new green hat(The camera and light are playing colour tricks – the outside photo is closest to the actual colour.)

Christmas gifts – and wintry weather!

December knocked me flat.  I feel quite ashamed to admit this because in retirement we enjoy a leisurely and simple Christmas.  No longer are there small children to delight and exhaust, no longer are we heavily involved with parish church festivities, and no longer do we have working schedules that get more and more chaotic as Christmas approaches.  I look back on those times with amazement – and wonder how we did it all?

This year, it is only now – as Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the end of the Christmas festival, approaches – that I have recovered sufficient mojo to look back on December reflectively.

Of course lots happened.  But for the purposes of this blogpost, I’m going to concentrate on homemade Christmas gifts.  These made me very happy – and I hope they gave the recipients pleasure too.

I just love the small furry animals devised by Kerry Lord, the talented brains behind the Toft alpaca story. They are so cute – so quirky – with so much character – surely, I thought,  they would be acceptable gifts to our very grown-up children?

The first Toft creature I made – a bunny – was crocheted using Toft’s own alpaca yarn.  I’m not a crocheter and found the pattern very hard to master so I was just pleased as punch when I finished her.  Isn’t she a sweetie-pie?Toft BunnyA wintry day in December found me up in my woolly workroom, with Poe, our cat, putting together some more Toft creatures.  I didn’t have enough of the Toft yarn to crochet more creatures, so dug into my stash for some hand-dyed homespun. A single strand of Rowan Kidsilk Haze added to homespun  gave the Toft creatures a soft furry finish.

The trickiest part to making these Toft creatures is the stuffing – they need to be tactically understuffed. I’m getting better at this – not easy.   But it is the sagginess that adds to the character. Each creature also has a little bag of “ballast” sewn into their belly to help provide core stability.working on Toft animalsThese two were meant to be Siamese cats but they do not look at all feline to me. No, they are foxes, surely – little Fennec Foxes, I think!Toft Fennec FoxesHere’s my Toft gang before they set off bearing Christmas love and good wishes. Most of them went to new homes, but three little ones (the darker ones – my earlier attempts) keep me company and stay here.  As it is cold and wintry, they all got stripey scarves to keep them warm on their travels.Toft animal collectionSome Toft creatures found themselves making new furry friends in their new homes … Others got Christmas cuddles when they arrived …Hats were my other focus this Christmas.  Browsing through old Designer Knitting magazines, I found this two-colour cabled hat designed by Cully Swansen in the Winter 2009/10 issue.   Just a great pattern – and excellent for using up smaller amounts of yarn.  I changed the pattern slightly, adding a wide-ribbed headband in place of the garter stitch of the original pattern.  All the pompoms are alpaca and were purchased from the Toft alpaca shop – I can’t tell you how lovely they are: soft and furry and very fluffy.Cully Swansen's hat patternMy first attempt was this green and white hat. The white is the leftover yarn from the Toft bunny above, and the green is homespun mixed fibres yarn (wool, silk, and mohair).  I picked up a small ball of what I think is Noro Silk Garden in a charity shop and put a strand of that with my homespun.  This added to the variegated effect and the softness.Hat for BarbaraI was really pleased with the green and white hat – so made another. It took me a long time to work out the colours. I knew I wanted grey – but what to put with it. I tried red – no, too obvious. But khaki golden yellow? Hmm – yes, that looks very promising.  I think its what is called Grellow in knitting circles these days.  The yellow is left over Rowan alpaca colour (a gorgeous soft silky yarn) and the grey is two strands made up of Lang Donegal and another grey yarn (name and details lost – oh dear, system slipping).Jam's Christmas hatWe had perfect weather over the Christmas period for the wearing – and modelling – of the new hats.Jam & Barbara in hatsI made three of these hats as Christmas presents. This last is more a beanie because that’s what my husband wanted.  He didn’t think a pompom was for him …   (The black is Debbie Bliss Fine Donegal combined with my own homespun, and the name and origins of the red scrap is lost in history – but it is a lovely thick flecked yarn.)Stephen's cabled beanieAnd now I’m making one for myself. I found it very difficult to restrict myself to two colours so with my own hat, I’ve allowed myself to use three colours. I know it doesn’t show off the clean lines of the cabling, but the colours work well together. One of the yarns is a beautiful hand spun merino yarn my husband brought back from South Uist.  It’s red and orange and brown and yellow – Uist Landscapes – Peat Stack is the name the spinner, Denise Bridge, has given it.  So evocative.  The variegation confuses the cable pattern further, of course, but I don’t think that matters.  The homespun merino is like little flames in the green and brown, isn’t it?  (The green is a Rowan Tweed, and the brown is my own homespun combined with a strand of dark purple Rowan Kidsilk Haze.)Katherine's cabled hatMy son asked for the present we all want – more time.   And this is what my clever Stephen gave him – why, of course, let’s up the hours in a day from twelve to thirteen!  That’s 8.3% more time a day … Look how pleased my Jammy is!  The secret of this time cook-up lies with Stephen, but I can let you know that there were cheap Homebase clocks and Excel broadsheets involved …13 hour clockThere were a couple of new GiveWraps for these presents.  Both went to cat-loving ladies. I think these Japanese ladies work very well with the cats – for some reason …Japanese ladies and cats GiveWrapAnd this GiveWrap went to a lady who loves cats and Mexican Day of the Dead images  and Moomins – and those scratchy cats of Alexander Henry’s keep up on cropping up everywhere …Even an old child’s pillowcase has started a new life as a GiveWrap … happy memories …  Mr men GiveWrapI was given the most generous of gifts – gifts to feed inspiration.  There were books and fabrics and yarns ….

Perhaps you read my blogpost about dyeing fleece, and my undisciplined methods?  This year I am going to learn how to dye properly – thank you, Gail Callahan!Hand dyeing bookThese wonderful Japanese fabrics were a gift from my daughter.  They are such an amazing vibrant colour – and the patterns!  I sort of have the seeds of an idea for another quilt – and perhaps these would be part of that …Christmas fabrics from HelenMore fabrics from Stephen. This is an entire sari – silk, of course.  It is vintage – I guess that means somebody threw it out?  It is very soft, both in texture and in colour, and I will not be throwing it out any time soon.  There is enough material to make a full length dress, but my seventies days are over, and I’ll probably be making a tunic to wear over leggings.  Gorgeous to wear in the summer.recycled sariFrom another Ebay website, Stephen got these silk sari scraps.  These are the good parts from old, damaged and worn-out saris.  They will make some beautiful GiveWraps.recycled sari piecesLots and lots of inspiration there.  Now the days are grey and dark, windy (very) and miserable.  I learn from a Brittany instagrammer that the Celts call this time Les Mois Noirs.  Apt description indeed.  We look out on wet puddled fields …view from window and wild seas …Spittal beach promenadeOnly the seagulls seem not to care …Seagull soaring over wavesOur lane is eroding as water forces new pathways …View down our laneTime to put all the lights on so that I can actually see some colour, and get playing with all this gorgeous new stuff!

(I must add that although the weather here is very wet and windy and generally horrible, we have not been flooded.  Many homes in the UK have experienced awful flooding troubles over the last few weeks.  There are some poor souls watching and waiting as I write, fearing they will be flooded soon with this continuing rain. It’s been a heartbreaking Christmas for many.)

Walnut dyepots

When my cousin Polly came to visit earlier this summer, she brought with her an exciting gift.  She had been walking the fields and byways of her Cambridge home, and discovered a walnut tree, dropping its fruit onto the public path.  Patiently, and over several walks, she collected as many walnuts as she could, and brought this small collection for me to use for dyeing.

I’d used walnuts to dye fleece many years before – and with considerable success – which is why I was excited by her gift.  A cursory search didn’t produce any of my notes about my previous walnut dyepots, but I still had a good collection of books on natural dyeing to turn to for advice.Books of dyeingThe large book in the photograph is Seonaid Robertson’s Dyes from Plants, and I found her recipe clear and relevant so I followed that most closely.  Polly had brought me 27 walnuts (weighing 175g).  Most of them had their outer hulls still in place and these were nicely black and rotten.  Looked very promising!Walnuts in dyepotI brought them to boil in 6 pts of water, and simmered them and then left them to steep for several days.  A wonderful witchy black and oily brew – looking even more promising!Oily black walnut dyeI added 100g of wet white fleece (BFL x Portland), brought it to a gentle boil and simmered and steeped for a couple of days.  Wow – it looks promising!Dyed fleece in dyepotI finally decided I could put off the final dénouement no longer … time to see what sort of result I had got.Washing dyed fleeceOh, crestfallen.  That is all I can bring myself to say.  Just so disappointing.  The murky black liquid dripped away to reveal coffee-coloured fleece.  It does smell lovely …. but worth it? … hmmm …Dyed fleece on washing lineAs I said above, I had dyed fleece with walnuts many, many years ago – and got a great result. This was the reason my expectations were so high before this recent experiment.  I did a serious search for my old notes – and finally found them.

My very brief notes were in a scrappy old knitting/spinning notebook, dated 1986.  I was quite a new spinner.  I was staying with my parents in Kent during the summer holidays with my two small children.  A near neighbour of theirs had sheep – Cotswold sheep – and most generously offered me a fleece.  I was too new to spinning to know much about different sheep breeds, but I readily accepted, and got straight to spinning – and dyeing.  It was a beautiful, beautiful fleece, with long, lustrous, silky locks.

As it  happened my parents had a walnut tree in their garden.  Every summer my mother would pick the walnuts when they were green and pickle them.  However, this year, she generously gave them to me.  According to my notes, I had 4 ¾ lbs of green walnuts.  They were cut in half and covered in water.  That’s the end of my notes!!  No record of how much fleece dyed, how long cooking took place…..perhaps my small children distracted me?!  I just have memories of fantasticly rich dark brown fleece, fading to softer golds in later dyebaths.

However, there are further records in my notebook of what I did with the dyed fleece.  I made my father a jersey – and I have the jersey now (my mother handed it back to me when he died).  I also have the first swatch I knitted as I worked out my designs for his jersey.  (The swatch – along with other swatches – is now part of a knitted patchwork blanket I made.)  My notes record that this swatch was knitted in three-coloured tweed stitch, using white fleece (from a Shetland sheep called Charity), dark brown fleece (from a sheep called Ada – think it may have been a Welsh Mountain fleece) – and brown fleece (walnut-dyed Cotswold fleece).  Trinity stitch swatchI wasn’t happy with this pattern – I don’t know why, – but in July 1987 my notes record that I started another attempt to make a Christmas jersey for my father.  Here it is.  Quite different, isn’t it?  It looks to me as though I used the same yarns (but omitting the white)  as those I used in the swatch above, and probably added a few more russet colours as well.  My father's jerseyThe yarns in both the jersey and the pattern sample above have faded.  They’ve also faded in this old hank of handspun yarn which I am pretty sure includes some strands of walnut-dyed silky Cotswold yarn.Old walnut-dyed yarnRe-reading and re-thinking these walnut dye experiments, I realise the problem with my recent attempt was that the walnuts were too ripe.  After all, I recorded that I’d cut the walnuts in half in my initial attempt – that is far from ripe.  And look: this is what I was left with after my recent dyepot.  I think there are well-formed walnuts inside all that prune-like fruit.Walnuts after dyeingPerhaps I’ll presume on Polly’s kindness and try again next year.  For now, I’m happy to remember this jersey I made my father – it was a great success and he wore it all the time.  Here he is, still wearing it, Christmas 1993.  RHE & HMN 1993********************************************************

Addendum (for those natural dye techies)

I realised it might be helpful to see the dye recipes I consulted.  This is from Seonaid Robertson: Dyes from Plants (1973)Walnut dyeing (Seonaid Robertson)This is from Dye Plants and Dyeing.  A Handbook.  published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record (1964)Walnut dyeing (Brooklyn Botanic Garden)This is from Anne Dyer: Dyes from Natural Sources (1976)Walnut dyeing (Anne Dyer)Here is Violetta Thurstan: The Use of Vegetable Dyes (1975)Violetta Thurstan - walnut dyingAnd – should you wish to pickle your walnuts, this is from Mrs. M Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (repub. 1976)Pickled Walnuts (Mrs Grieves)

Fleece

Most spinners will recognise that uncomfortable moment when their partner remarks “And is that all the fleece you have? Really? Promise?”  Crossing every digit, you mutter “yes, of course“, knowing full well there’s another stash buried deep in a little-visited cupboard upstairs.

Well, here is my coloured fleece stash – and yes, I promise: this is all of it!  Honest.Baskets of coloured fleece in gardenA full coloured fleece assessment was called for yesterday as I checked over my spinning projects.

Earlier this year I’d decided the time had come to dye some more fleece.  It was spring, and my  palette was strongly influenced by the colours of nature.greeny fleece on washing lineUp close and personal, as the wet fleece begins to dry you can see what gorgeous colours these are.closeup of green fleece on washing lineA little bit of acid lime to pep it all up.closeup of greeny yellow fleece on washing lineI couldn’t help letting a little bit of fuchsia creep into the dye pot.pink fleece on washing lineI had it in mind to knit a cardigan for myself.  I was very taken with Julia Farwell-Clay’s Tambourine (which appeared on the front of the Spring Issue of Pom Pom Quarterly). I love the rondels on front.Pom pom map coverWithstanding all the temptations of amazing indie yarn producers, I was determined to spin the yarn for this cardigan myself.  After all, I had all this fleece, and I loved spinning.  What I found I was doing was spinning odd little hanks that weren’t really enough for anything much.  Yes, they would work for the odd scarf, but I really had enough of those.

So, I assessed my fleece …pile of dry greeny fleece did some carding …Carding green fleece and got spinning.  Here’s the product: some lovely variegated green yarn.Spun green fleece hanksI wasn’t satisfied.

Let me explain.  It looks lovely as hanks, incorporating all the flecks and variegated colourings that I like.  But when knitted, it was rather dull and muted.test knitting samplesIf you go back to my fleece “puddle”, you’ll see why I was disappointed.  Look at that glorious top note green on the top of the pile.  It’s being swamped by the darker greens lying below.pile of dry greeny fleeceBack to the drawing board…err, dye pot. And a completely different colour palette.stainless steel bowl of dyeing fleeceAll these yarns (and they encompass wool from Shetland, Jacob, BFL and other sheep, mohair, silk) are rainbow-dyed using acid dyes.  You can now purchase excellent small dye kits which are complete in themselves (in the old days you used to have to add vinegar, washing up liquid, levellers etc).  And modern acid dyes are very safe – I wear a face mask, rubber gloves – and I clear all food stuffs from the kitchen before I start.  In recognition of the possibly undesirable effects of the exhaust, I pour as much of it as possible into the ground.  It’s not a small undertaking, so I set aside a day for dyeing and will dye at least half a fleece at any one time (making successive dyepots, reusing the exhaust from the previous dyepot).

My first dye pot and I got berry colours – nice, but a bit darker than I wanted.winey red fleece dyeingNext lighter redder, orangier colours – very pleased with this, but a bit taken aback when folk greeted my instagram pic with the statement that it looked like body parts!  Wonder what you think?body part fleece dyeingFinally some blues as well.blue and red fleece dyeingNow, lets go back to where I was at the beginning of this blogpost.  A fleecy assessment.Baskets of coloured fleece in gardenWhen you pull the fleece out of the baskets and boxes and bags, you realise just how much coloured fleece I’ve got here (this is a very honest post).  This fleece has come from a lot of sheep!centre basket and piles of coloured fleece on grassIt looks even more abundant when I start to make plans and move this gorgeous stuff around.

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I have several projects in mind.

First, I’ve decided to try spinning some blue yarn for the Tambourine cardigan. blue fleece on grassSecondly, I’m putting together some nice brightly coloured fleece to take to spin when I’m demonstrating with the Tweed Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at the Border Union Show near Kelso at the end of this month.  Last year I took some fuchsia fleece and it was a great success with the young beginner spinners.  This is what I’ve come up with for this year.red orange pink fleece on grassI’m very taken with the orangey/scarlet/red tones that I’ve dyed so I’ve allowed myself to put a little bit aside for some comfort knitting this winter – I’ll probably end up with just a few skeins that will make a nice scarf.  Doesn’t it look cosy in it’s basket?red orange fleece in basketI’m also very excited to start spinning the basket of blue fleece.  Hmm – I’ll have to think this through – shall I card, or just spin?  Perhaps a bit of both.  The difference is that carded fleece will give me gently variegated colours.  If I just pluck the yarn from the basket to spin as is, I’ll get much more sharply contrasted colours – and you’ll see I’ve added some red and green mohair for sparky little contrast.blue fleece in basketI’ve already started to spin the fleece for the Border Union Show.  It looks great!spun pinky fleeceThe rest of the fleece gets packed away in the baskets for other projects other days.  There are colours in my bags and boxes that are leftovers from ancient projects that I worked on a long time ago.  I’m always careful to make the fleece unappetising to moth before it gets packed away.fleece and moth ball But I’ve left some fleece out for the cat to enjoy for a bit.

Happy cat, Poe!Poe on fleece