woolen weather

The thermometer says that it’s a lowly 61 degrees out. The wind is tearing out to sea and threatening to take the house, the trees and several well-meaning telephone poles with it. Everything is trembling and huddling close to land. There is thick fog hugging the ground and the raindrops are splitting mid-air, shattering in the force of the gale mid-air. The gulls have taken shelter in the backyard, roosting in the grass and looking like a well-tended field of puffy, white marshmallows.

I think I’ll knit something. Something woolen – something for the winter.

I usually start the bulk of my winter projects in the blistering heat of August, with sweaty hands and ambitious heart, plotting and planning and casting on in order to get everything ready for the arrival of Cold and then, before I’ve had time to catch my breath, Christmas.  It’s a treat to be knitting in August and not have my yarn stick in between my fingers like tacky spaghetti.

Truth is, I’d be knitting even if it were 100 degrees out. I’d be knitting something distressingly cozy and warm, my fingers would hate me and everyone who saw me would say, “I can’t believe you’re Knitting in the Summer!”

I can’t believe it, either – but here I am. Knitting in the Summer.

This season I have several projects to get onto needles before time gets spread too thin by the autumn; a bright red hat knit in a bold cable pattern for my son as well as a new sweater – the one I knit last summer when I was pregnant for him has been outgrown – a sweater for me in a gorgeous plumb color, and then a sweater for my husband’s cousin’s dog, Eva.  Eva’s sweater is also going to be plumb-colored, but that wasn’t done on purpose. There are sundry other little things I’d like to knit for Christmas presents, and sometime next March I’ll give up on meeting the deadline and give them as inappropriate summer birthday presents. Because who doesn’t want a pair of hand-knit, wool boot socks for their birthday… in July?

Perhaps an August will come when I won’t eagerly get out my patterns and try to remember just how frigidly cold it will someday be as I slip woolen yarns into my project bag. But that is not *this* August. *This* August I will get started on my winter projects with my customary fervor and knit on.

Happy stitching,

Ann

Getting Ready For The Big Event

I am not athletic. At all. The End. I was that ‘slightly-taller and bigger boned than everyone else in class’ girl who stood in silent agony, waiting to be picked last for any and all sports during gym class. Truthfully, I was never picked last. I was never picked at all. Cross-eyed Tim was picked. The annoying girl no one could stand any other time of the day was picked. Even Chelsea, the gorgeous blond who never did anything but stand there and look disdainful got snatched up. Our PE teacher, a benevolent and incredibly handsome grad student named David, had to *place* me on a team.

When I realized that I would never be one of the greats – or even one of the slow-but-steady support players – I gave up on sports, all competitions really from dodgeball to Monopoly. I threw myself into other activities like writing, reading and knitting. Things people could do while sitting down, preferably with tea and muffins.

I am a good knitter. I would never say so in public, but it’s like a secret super power I carry with me everywhere I go. If all the jocks and I were on a desert island with nothing but bamboo and wild goats and coconut fiber, when they had all exhausted themselves kicking around the coconuts and worn out their gym shorts – I could knit them new ones. Sometimes I daydream about this scenario.

When Mim told me about the Maine’s Fastest Knitter Competition that is being held during Rockland’s World-Famous Lobster Festival, I felt a little betrayed. Someone had taken my beloved refuge and turned it into… a sport. Vulgar. It was the same creeping feeling I get when I watch the movie adaptation of a well-beloved book and they’ve absolutely butchered it. I don’t care if they say it’s all in good fun – something sacred has been mingled with the sweaty earth. My super power has been blithely diluted by its kryptonite.

When I got over myself (which means I knitted for a while, rehashed all of my childhood mortifications, breathed deeply and then let it go) I realized that this actually might be a lot of fun. Though I rejected sports, I maintained a healthy competitive spirit. I’ve never been able to turn down a dare and there is a certain part of me that would love to go up there and win that race. It has become my new daydream, complete with an applauding crowd and the sudden reappearance of my elementary gym teacher who presents me with the trophy – a golden ball of yarn with bejeweled needles thrust through it. I’ve begun my training.

Exactly how does one train to compete in a knitting race? I have no idea. I’m making it up as I go along, but I supposed that the first thing to do was to collect information. I assumed my most nonchalant, ‘I can’t believe people take this seriously’ attitude and grilled Mim for details. I needed to know the rules, who won last year and what their ‘score’ was, how much we would be required to knit and with what materials (because if this is a lace-weight on size 2 needles affair I’m out already) and how the race is to be conducted. 50 stitches with worsted weight yarn and reasonably sized needles – four rows of garter stitch. That’s it. My pulse quickened and my palms got a little sweaty. I can do that. I can do this. I can try, at least.

That night after my husband went to work and the baby was in bed I sat down and cast on 50 stitches. I knit a few rows and let myself relax. Each stitch is like a little breath for me, rhythmic and subtle, building one on another, looping, snatching, flicking, pushing. I told myself that this must be how real athletes feel as they stretch out their limbs for a big race. It’s all muscle memory, letting your body remember how to do what it does best, whatever that may be. I pictured myself sprinting across the finish line – finishing that fourth row and throwing my hands in the air – needles grasped tightly – Victory. Golden yarn, adoring fans, being recruited by a professional Knitting Team, a knitted jersey with my own number on it. I got completely lost in my fantasies and when I ‘came to’, I had several inches knitted in tidy little garter stitch bumps.

I keep my 50 stitches cast on at all times and when I get a moment or two between meals, diapers and laundry I set the stopwatch on my phone and knit furiously for a minute. It’s added a whole new and delicious dimension to my knitting life. I am a knitter in training. I knit competitively. I love saying it to the cashiers who look at me with questioning eyes as I quickly knit four rows while waiting in line. I feel as though I am letting them in on a secret, flashing them the brightly-colored, spandex Super Hero costume I have hidden under my civilian clothes.

The best part? No one has to pick me – I can do it all on my own steam. There’s no agonized waiting, I’m not too tall or too slow, I’m doing what I love with a bunch of other people who love what they do, too. I think it’s going to be a real hoot and whether I win or not it’s going to be a race I can finish and be proud of participating in.

See you at the race,

Ann

The sad and awful truth about casting on loosely.

You know those patterns that ask you to cast on loosely, then proceed to tell you to try casting on over two needles to make it looser?  Well, I’m here to tell you that is a terrible lie.  And here’s why.  The reason you want to cast on loosely is not so you can get your working needle through the stitches when you knit your first row.  It’s so the edge will not be smaller than the knit stitches that come above it.  A tight cast on will pinch the first few rows of knitting, giving a rounded-corners look.  You want your cast on edge to be almost as stretchy as your knit fabric and you want it to be the same width as your work, with nice, even square corners.  But here’s the kicker…the looseness of your cast on is not a function of the size of the stitches you are putting on your needle.  It is a function of the space between those stitches.  Let me say it again.  It’s not the size of the stitches, it’s the space in between them that determines the looseness of the cast on.

Here…I’ll prove it to you.

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Here I’ve cast on over two needles, Nice and loose, right?  So loose that there’s even space between the needles.  Big, loopy loose stitches.

 

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When I take out one of the needles, there’s enough loose space in the stitches you could drive a truck through.  This should be plenty loose.

 

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But when I knit a few rows, you can see I am in trouble.  The edge is round-cornered and bumpy.  Yuk.

 

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A closer look will show you that all I’ve done is distort the first row of stitches and make a mess on the edge.  Sigh.  Not what I was after at all.

Now take a look at this…

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By holding my right fore finger between the stitches as I’m casting on, I can extend the amount of yarn between the stitches.  This stretches the overall width of the cast on.

 

 

 

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I can actually slide each stitch as far away as I like to achieve the right looseness in my cast on.

 

 

 

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After knitting a few rows, you can see that my edge is the same width as my work and my corners are not distorted.

 

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A closer look shows that the spaces between my actual stitches is the same as the spaces between my cast on stitches.

Keep a close watch the next time you cast on.  You see exactly what I mean.  And don’t let anyone fool you ever again.  Casting on over two needles just makes a mess.  Use your finger!

Provisional Cast On

Indigo: Can we talk?

For as long as people have been people, we have loved color.  Our impulses to decorate and embellish are deeply ingrained in our DNA.  In the immortal words of Clairee Belcher, from Steel Magnolias, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”  And Accessorize we do!  Part of that accessorizing is finding ways to alter the color of the materials we use to make things.  Painting and dying have been around since people have been people.

For the first few millennia, we were dependent on colorful things in the natural world around us.  Sometimes minerals or animal byproducts work to color things, but plants are plentiful, easier to catch and prepare, and have the widest range of color possibilities.  Nut hulls; barks, twigs and roots from trees; flowers, leaves, stalks, skins, seeds and roots of smaller plants; lichens, mosses and fungi all have found their way into the dye pots of our ancestors.  Then we discovered how to mimic these colors with human made substances and synthetics were born.  (But synthetics are a conversation for another time.)

In recent years, or a couple of decades, there has been a rediscovery of those natural, mostly plant based dyes.  Especially among DIY and back-to-the-land types, or those with an eco friendly bent, a whole hand dying industry has sprung up.  The interest in “natural” dyes has spread and these labor intensive dye stuffs, and the fibers made with them, command respect and premium prices.  Deservedly so.  It’s harder work than you might think.

And the colors are so wonderful!  These are some of the colors you can achieve with mushrooms.

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When you start out with something that looks like this…

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It’s easy to see how you could end up with something like this…

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And that’s just for starters.  (There’s a great pictorial article on mushroom dying here.  I lifted the photos from there.)  Madder root gives wonderful reds.  Lichens can make some of the richest pinks and mauves.  Onion skins and turmeric make a whole range of yellows. Walnut or butternut will yield browns from a light tan to a warm cocoa.  And for blues?  Well, indigo of course!

Indigo is not a single plant, but rather a chemical constituent of several plants.  Indigofera tincoria, the plant we think of indigo; Isatis tinctoria also known as woad; Lonchocarpus cyanescens an African contender; Marsdenia, a type of milkweed; Nerium tinctorium, a type of oleander; Polygonum tinctorium , a kind of buckwheat, all have the right stuff to produce those vibrant blues we lump together as indigo and all have been used.  The process to extract this magic substance is pretty much the same for all of these different plants; get some leaves, chop them up, let them ferment in some kind of liquid, use a solvent to extract the vital essence, dry it into powder…and Bob’s your uncle!  In some cases it took our ancestors only a year or so to get the desired powder.  (There’s a more extensive description here, if you really want to know more about how it’s done.)

And just in case you were hoping for a “natural” dye that is organic, non-toxic or earth friendly, that leaves a small footprint, please notice that the indigo powder used for dying is a highly processed substance and requires some pretty harsh chemicals to bring out the color and make that color stick to your fiber.

If you do a Google search for anything related to indigo, you’ll notice one phrase or concept popping up over and over again.  Indigo does not dissolve in water.  I can hear you saying, “So what?”  So what, indeed.  Well let me tell you.  Reducing the concept of dying to its most basic form, there are two ways a color can be added to fiber.  First, a colorant can chemically bond with the fiber itself, in which case the color is said to be “fast” as in “holding fast to your beliefs, your principles or your shade of blue.”  It means it’s permanant…mostly.  Sometimes bleach or other harsh chemicals can break the chemical bond between your fiber and your colorant and the colorant can be washed away, but it’s hard and you really have to work at it.  Think for a moment about drawing with a Sharpie marker all over your favorite T-shirt.  That sucker is pretty much never coming clean again.  The magic Sharpie fluid has chemically  bonded to the cotton fiber of your T-shirt.  They’re married at an atomic level and they will never be torn asunder.  Fiber reactive dyes work in this way.

Second, the colorant lies on the surface of the fibers and can be easily removed through friction.  In this case, the color is not “fast,” and will fade as the colorant is wiped away, bit by bit.  Imagine taking sidewalk chalk and grinding it deep into your favorite T-shirt.  It may take a few washings, but eventually it will all come out.  It’s not permanent.

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In its dye ready, processed form, indigo looks like blue lumps of coal.  (for more on how to use this magical powder, there’s a great tutorial here.)  Indigo is like sidewalk chalk.  It does not dissolve in water.  So, what?…is that indigo does not chemically bond with the fiber.  Like a fine chalk dust, it sits on top of the fibers and will rub off.  For ever, until it’s all gone.

Let’s talk about blue jeans for a minute.  When you get a new pair, do you wash them before you wear them?  If you wear them brand new with a pair of white undies, what happens to the undies?  Do they get a little blue-ey grey tint to them?  Of course they do.  The dye rubs off on them.  If you wash the jeans first, what happens to that brand new looking blue?  You know the answer; go ahead and say it.  That’s right; they fade!  The indigo dye is only sitting on top of the fibers and gets rubbed away with each washing.  Eventually, after several washings, the fading process slows down and your jeans don’t shed as much color as they did in the beginning.  But is there a lovely among you who would throw a white shirt in the washer with a load of jeans, even well worn jeans, and expect the shirt to stay white?  If so, you might have to re-take Laundry 101.

Indigo enthusiasts will point to the still vibrant color of ancient textiles…like Egyptian tomb finds  url

(This was a kerchief found in King Tut’s tomb and is still discernibly indigo blue.)

Or the Bayeux Tapestries

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(This is a detail section of that famous textile with blues that are still brilliant.)

But when was the last time either of these puppies was tossed in the wash, or even handled or exposed to sunlight?  If we treat indigo dyed fibers with care, washing them gently and infrequently, we can preserve the color we love so much.  But for as long as the indigo color stays precariously perched on top of the fibers, it will continue to rub off on whatever it gets next to, and it will continue to fade.  Eventually it will be so small an amount as to seem almost nonexistent, but I promise you, it’s still happening.

Why does this matter to you as a knitter or crocheter?  Well, my lovelies, I want you to be prepared.  Indigo dyed yarn is beautiful.  And while you are working with it, the indigo will rub off on your hands…and your shirt, and the sofa cushion you set it down on and the inside of your project bag.  It will also rub off on your needles, most especially if they are wood or bamboo, and the indigo can even get carried from your needles to your next project, leaving its characteristic, tell-tale blue tint on everything it touches.  Like with blue jeans, the amount of indigo that your yarn will shed decreases over time, but you should be careful.  If you use wood or bamboo needles or hooks, dedicate some for use with indigo only.  If you use metal needles or hooks, wash and dry them carefully before transferring to another project.  Keep your indigo dyed yarn away from other textiles you don’t want blue streaks or shadows on.  And wash your hands!

If you don’t want to have to take all the precautions, you might give more than a passing thought to using yarns dyed with synthetic blues that are color fast.  If you’re determined to use indigo…well, forewarned is forearmed.  Read the labels and follow the care instruction precisely.

Among natural dyes, indigo makes the most beautiful blues known to our color loving species and that’s the best reason we make the trade off.  If you treat it carefully, indigo dyed yarn will delight your soul.  Just know what you’re getting into and be prepared to work with what you have to get what you want.