Sunday Morning Coffee and Stash Busting

I’m sitting here, still in my pajamas sipping on a cup of stove top espresso, a little classical music streaming from the Amazon contraption, and contemplating life.

Okay, maybe not life, but there’s quite a bit bouncing around in the ol’ grey matter.  Mostly it’s the great introvert conundrum, bouncing around ideas, trying to solve the great problems of the world (more like some close friends), realizing there’s little I can do to fix things other than being supportive, and plotting world domination.  I also think Sunday morning coffee triggers some of this great contemplation.  It’s just one of those things.

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I’m also contemplating the massive quantities of yarn I’ve amassed over the past few years and how many places it lives it this house.  It’s a byproduct of crafting, a lot of us also compulsively collect yarn with projects in mind for nearly every skein we put our mitts on, or see a skein in a colorway we fall instantly in love with and buy it to find a project for it later.  As the knitting mojo comes back (see previous post) with the knitting of a insanely cabled pair of socks I’ve come to another conclusion, it’s time to start stash busting.  It’s possible I have enough yarn squirreled away to open a tiny yarn shop.

With the exception of purchases for rare commissioned projects, it’s time to enlist some self-control and work from the stash bins for the next year.  There’s everything from lace to bulky to choose from so things may get a little interesting.

How about you guys? What are you contemplating with your Sunday cup of coffee?

 

Hand Knitted Socks Demystified

I’m in the middle of teaching a sock class this month, so it’s a good time to bring up socks.

There seem to be two projects that scare the living beejeebus out of knitters; sweaters and socks until they conquer their first ones. It’s understandable, they look a little intimidating at first, never mind the fact there are literally hundreds of thousands of patterns for each out there, and for socks there are at least 12 different types of heel construction and just as many toe shapes. No wonder why even some very experienced knitters won’t go near socks.

Here’s the official pep talk. Can you do a knit stitch? Yes. Can you do a k2tog? Yes. Can you do an SSK? Yes. Then guess what? You can knit socks!

It’s time to suck it up, pick out a ball of sock yarn and needles and get over it. Your feet will thank you!

All socks have the same parts, although there is some variation in construction. There is the cuff; usually made with a few inches of 2×2 ribbing. The leg; the tube portion that travels down the leg to the ankle. The heel; this is where the leg turns 90 degrees to accommodate your heel and ankle. The foot; the tube that goes from ankle to roughly the middle of the ball of your foot. Lastly, there’s the toe; where stitches are decreased to accommodate those odd little nubby bits that are at the end of your foot.

Most socks are constructed one of two ways, you either start at the toe of the sock and work your way up to the cuff (toe up), or the exact opposite direction, cuff to toe (top down). This is another one of those personal preference choices. I use both but prefer toe up. Top down usually comes into play when I’m using specific yarns that have some sort of matching technology. Yes, there are totally sock yarns out there that will help you make matching socks faster if that’s your cup of tea.

Socks can be knitted using circular needles by using the magic loop method, or by using double pointed needles (DPNs). I encourage people to try using both needle types to see what works best for you. Make your first pair using one needle type, then yes, start a second pair using the other. Personally, I dislike magic loop and love double pointed needles, but it’s different for every knitter.

Most needle size recommendations will range from 0 – 2 for typical sock weight patterns. If you decide you love sock knitting, you’ll likely find a needle size that works the best for you and stick with it for most basic sock patterns.

Your yarn choice for your first pair of socks is important! As tempting as it is to pick up a $3-5 ball off the shelf at the local chain craft store, I’m going to beg you not to. Many of these brands are splitty, or have a higher than needed acrylic/nylon/other unnatural fiber content making them slick and harder to knit, not something I would recommend for a first sock. I recommend a high Superwash wool (washer dryer friendly) content 70% or better. I can hear a few people mumbling now. Doesn’t she hate non-natural fibers? For the most part yes, I hate plastics in my yarns but there are exceptions to be made, it’s either a very pretty yarn, or it’s for socks. A bit of nylon, polymide, plastic by any other name, will make your socks more durable. My all time favorite sock yarns are made by Regia, their blends make great wool socks that I wear year round. Other recommendations include, Cascade Heritage and Happy Feet, Zauberball, Berroco Comfort Sock, and any of the Supersocke 4 ply yarns. Color can make a huge difference. Think lighter colors for your first pair, you’ll want to clearly see every stitch.

You have your yarn, picked your needles…moving forward.

Measurements!

Break out that measuring tape, you are about to get up close and personal with your tootsies. The two most important measurements you will need are the width and length of your foot.

For length, you will need to start of the center, back of your heel and pull the tape to the end of your big toe. If you have flat feet that spread forward when you stand, stand on your measuring tape to get this measurement, you might need an extra pair of hands to help line this up.

For width, you will wrap the tape around the widest point at the ball of your foot. Same applies here, if your feet spread quite a bit when standing, stand on your tape and wrap it around.

Some patterns may have you take ankle and calf measurements if they have very long legs, don’t use these patterns for your first time. The point is to learn the basics and then get into the fancier stuff later on.

Now what?

It’s time to cast on!

These are my go-to simple patterns for newbie sock people.

Whirlsie’s Vanilla Socks – top down construction with very clear directions and three size options.

Appalachian Socks aka Purly Bottoms – toe up construction, once again very clear directions and three size options. Plus there’s the added benefit of having the stockinette portion at the bottom of the sock up against the skin of your foot, it makes already comfy socks that much more divine.

There’s also a very simple pattern generator at the Sock Knitter’s Notebook that will spit out simple directions for you. You’ll need a gauge swatch in your yarn with your preferred needles size beforehand.

There you have it, enough basic sock discussion to get you going. Socks are one of my favorite things to knit, after you get a few under your belt, you’ll find they are easy to travel with and with the exception of turning the heel, are easy knits. If you are still a little nervous about striking out on your own, I’ll be offering basic sock classes a bit more often in the new year. If you’re not in my neck of the woods talk to the staff at your Local Yarn Shop, there should be someone to help you get started or can schedule class time for you.

Just remember one thing, they are socks, don’t stress over them

Blocking: A Necessary Evil

You’ve finally cast off a project that has taken ages to complete. You hold it up, and it looks, well, kinda blah. It sorta looks like the photos from the pattern but, it isn’t, quite right, even though you followed the pattern to the letter.

Well…

That’s where blocking comes in.

It’s like making gauge swatches and weaving in ends, no one really enjoys it, but if you want your handiwork to look amazing it just has to be done. So what is blocking? Blocking uses moisture to align all your stitches correctly, and the case of lace knitting, opens up all of those yarn overs.

I’ve had a small pile of finished work that need to be blocked, and an older piece that needed to be re-blocked after some cleaning (coffee soaks into wool pretty quickly, just saying). So I thought it was a good time do do a little tutorial on wet blocking. Yes, folks there are several ways to block but wet blocking seems to be the most universal.

First things first, you need to find a large, flat space away from the family pets and small children. In my case, I use my bedroom floor and shut the door. You can block on carpet, cardboard boxes, I’ve used my own bed to block large pieces, but the easiest thing is to pick up a few of those puzzle piece children’s play mats. You’ll be pinning your knit work, so the play mat surface holds pins well and since they are plastic, moisture won’t bother it at all.

For wet blocking you will need to soak your finished project. So grab an appropriate sized bowl, fill it with water, and a bit of specialty detergent. I prefer Soak, it smells great and it seems to get things a little cleaner. Eucalan has it’s own benefits but surprisingly I’m not a huge fan of the smell of wet wool and Eucalan seems to amplify that smell. These detergents condition the fibers and gently clean while soaking your project. There are a few other options out there, so find whatever you like the most. Just look for detergents that don’t require rinsing. Okay, so why are we getting everything wet? Natural fibers can stretch quite a bit more while wet, and as the fibers dry while in a stretched state, they will lock into that position. After drowning everything for about 15 minutes you’re ready for the next step.

After your items have finished their bath, it’s time to start getting them dry. You’ll need to squeeze all the water you can out of your work by hand. Whatever you do, DON’T WRING IT. Wringing can do some irreparable damage, so squeeze, squeeze, and squeeze some more. To get out additional water, lay your project flat on a towel, roll it up and either stand or kneel on it. Your project should feel damp to the touch when you’re finished.

Now to the fun part. Besides your flat surface you’re going to need quilting or T-pins at a minimum to pin your project into the its final shape. If you’re an avid knitter, one of the best investments you can make is in blocking wires. These are just simple metal wires that you can weave into the flat edges of your work to guarantee a straight line on your finished projects. For this tutorial I’m using both quilting pins and wires. My wires have taken a beating over the years and have gotten bent here and there when I was first learning how to do this myself. I was bad for over stretching on yarn weights that were a little too heavy for the wires. They still work fine. I’ve used three wires to define the flat edges of this cowl, and used pins to shape the points at the top edge. I only needed to stretch this project enough to open up all the lace work. In some projects, blocking will require you to stretch to certain dimensions or shapes. This cowl is actually the project that is being re-blocked after the coffee incident. Re-blocking does need to happen from time time after an item has been cleaned, or if an item looses its shape over time and use.

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There are also another handy tool out there for larger pieces. Knit Blockers are several pins mounted into a flat plastic handle. They let you cover a large area quickly and evenly, used with wires, they are a time saver as well.

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Now that everything is blocked out the way I want it. What’s next? Nothing. Well for a while anyway. You just go find something else to do for a few hours, because these projects will need to be bone dry before you do anything else. You can speed things up a bit by blocking in a warm room with good airflow. Good airflow = big ol’ box fan. Don’t go overboard and try to use a hair dryer or a space heater to speed things up, bad things could happen, like shrinkage. Once everything is good and dry, remove your pins, pull out your wires, and you should see significant improvement in how your project looks. With lace, the improvement can be downright dramatic. Weave in your ends and call it a day. Your item is ready to go!

SEX at SAFF

That title got your attention didn’t it?

For anyone about to go into vapor lock, no, there were no shenanigans like that today. SEX in knitting jargon is a Stash Enhancement Experience. Let’s be honest, there’s a large portion of knitters and crocheters that fall deep into the nerd and geek spectrum and we get a kick out of acronyms that raise eyebrows.

SAFF, yep another acronym, is the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair, and it’s held in Fletcher, NC every year.

I’ve had fiber friends talk about if for a few years now, but I finally was able to make the adventure up today. Yarn Rhapsody (the local yarn store in my neck of the woods) arranged a charter bus to ferry about 30 of us up for a day trip. After a crazy work week this was an absolutely brilliant idea, because the last thing I wanted to do was drive about 6 hours round trip today. Big Bear Cafe (another local Gainesville, GA place) provided us with breakfast biscuits and a brown bag lunch for the trip too. Side note: If you come to Gainesville, first you need to stop at Yarn Rhapsody. Second, you must eat at Big Bear.

Alright. So after 3 hours, and wrapping up a project on the way. The bus pulls into the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center and drops us off at the main building. Then it was off to the races. After walking into the main building and pulling my jaw up off the floor, exploring began. There was fiber vendor on top of fiber vendor through the whole building. Need roving? It was there. Need bison or yak blend yarns? They had you covered.   Need project ideas? Samples galore! Virtually every type of animal fiber was available, AND then there was another building, also spilling over with more vendors. I was on a mission to find yarns that were likely to be hard to find in yarn shops, gorgeous hand spun or brilliant independent dyers for my stash enhancement experience. An attack plan was formed, walk through all the interesting booths, and then go back to the ones I loved the most, and make decisions from there. Impulse buys would have had the budget blown in seconds.

After the first walk through, several of us wandered over to the livestock barns. As much as I wanted to cram a pygmy angora goat into a bag and run with it, I realized this plan wasn’t entirely feasible and the bus driver probably would have been really pissed if I put it on bus. Despite my heavy use of animal fiber, I’m still amazed at how many animals produce beautiful wool or hair that we use, and then amazed a second time when I see how many different varieties of these animals exist.

Sheep and goats had their heads and ears scratched, bunnies were petted and then decisions had to be made. Budgets had to be stuck to. I’m on an alpaca kick lately. It’s soft, it’s warm, it’s squishy! I found two huge and lovely skeins from Taylored Fibers for what felt like was a steal. I huge shawl is in the future. Being a Harry Potter dork, I replaced a good project bag that went AWOL a couple of months ago, and I was more than happy with my haul. Then out of the blue, after disembarking the bus and heading to my car, I was ambushed by a friend who handed me a bag with more gorgeous yarn, including a Game of Thrones themed mini-color set and a pattern to boot. (Since she may read this blog, I’m saying thank you for a third time!)

So what’s the overall take away from SAFF?

SAFF is a three day fair. I know people that leave Thursday evening, and will stay the entire weekend. I know people that like today, go up for a day. I’m going to firmly stay in the one day is enough camp. As much as I love supplying my knitting habit with amazing materials, multiple days may be overkill for most. With good planning, you can visit the entire site, and not feel rushed. I’m sure the Fletcher Chamber of Commerce will not give me a thumbs up for that assessment, by the size of the crowd SAFF does bring in a lot of money locally. Don’t get me wrong though, you can certainly make a weekend of it, Fletcher isn’t far from Asheville, and there seems to be plenty of good food, activities, and shopping within the area if that’s how you enjoy spending a weekend. It’s also fall, and it seems this festival hits autumn leaf change at just about peek, so there’s plenty of leaf peeping that can be done too. Some of us just need a quick change in scenery, this fair and the area is a good fit for that.

Will I be back next year? Of course it’s on the calendar, and it looks like Yarn Rhapsody may turn this bus adventure into a yearly event.

Did any of you folks reading this go? Leave me a comment, tell me your assessment of SAFF and what you added to your stash this weekend.

 

The Stories Strangers Tell: Knitting Adventures at 39,000 Feet

As a habitual knitter there’s always a small project that lives in my bag or backpack to work on if there’s a bit of downtime. It’s much more appealing to craft something tangible if a couple of rows can be thrown into a project than sitting and poking at a smart phone screen.

While sitting on a flight I pulled out a pair of Knitted Knockers (hand knitted breast prosthesis) to work on since I was trapped in the dreaded middle seat and there was absolutely no chance of a nap. Once in a while I’ll get a question or two about what I’m working on, but largely the yarn fidgeting goes unnoticed, other times like several other knitting in public adventures, there will a conversation I won’t forget.

Being trapped, both passengers on either side saw what I was up to pretty quickly. The first was a man in his mid-twenties who had just pulled out a game system. He commented that if he wouldn’t be teased that he would love to learn how to knit. Our conversation fell along the lines, of why worry about what his friends think, if he wanted to he could just knit in private, and there were plenty of men who knit. He asked a few more questions about where and how to start, and he was pointed towards his local yarn shop in Pennsylvania.

Now on the other side, sat a woman, well into her retirement years with a thick Brooklyn accent. “I knit. Mom taught me. Nothing fancy. Mom could really knit.” Really?

Her mother would knit her and her siblings new sweaters every year, ripping apart the sweater from the year before, knitting it a little larger and adding more yarn when necessary. When the yarns were finally too worn to reuse for the next year, the kids would pick from a handful of colors for their next sweater. Nothing too bright, nothing to extreme, simple colors that could matched if more yarn had to be added to in following years. She missed her yearly sweaters.

She asked me how I learned, and I filled her in. She asked where I bought yarn in Georgia, since she was going to be staying for a few weeks and wanted to make a couple of scarves for her grandkids. Filled her in there too, and how I was always there on Saturdays, but since it would be a long drive for her, I told her about a few shops I knew about near the family members she would be staying with.

Then she asked the big question. “What are you making anyway?” Knitted Knockers were explained and her expression changed entirely. It’s hard to describe what I saw on her face. Pain, grief, a touch of happiness, surprise. It was hard to read. I froze, and didn’t really know what to say.

She spoke first. I can still hear her story in my head.

Mom died in the early 80s. She found a lump in her right breast, and went over a year before going to the doctor about it. You’re far to young to know how cancer of any type was treated then. It wasn’t talked about, like it is now. There wasn’t support groups. There wasn’t information out there. The treatments were brutal. Mom had her breast removed. It didn’t heal well. It was always painful, there was no reconstruction choices. She was told to stuff the empty place in her bra, and go on with life. She began isolating herself. She was a housewife, she only left the house for errands stuffing her bra and wearing the baggiest clothes she had.

Mom found another lump in her remaining breast two years later. She chose to let it take her and was gone within a year. If she had one of these knitted things and felt better about herself, maybe things would have been different for her.

The woman went silent. I didn’t know what to say other than I’m sorry.

She spoke again.

The woman who started this organization and the people who are knitting these things are doing a great good in this world.

She picked her book back up and began reading. I took that as a sign that I should pick my needles back up and not speak further.

Others around us had heard her story and began sharing their own stories about family members that had fought cancer in many forms. I sat, worked, and listened. My neighbors in the row sat and listened.

The woman next to me, put her book back down, sat and listened in silence. Knitting triggered her memories of both happiness and pain. There were no more words between us for the rest of the trip.

I hope that the happy memories of the childhood sweaters and the scarves that she will make for her grandchildren will bring her comfort.

It’s been a few weeks since our conversation on the plane, she never made it up to Yarn Rhapsody during the time she said she would be in Georgia. I wish her nothing but peace.

The War on Wool

This week, the trending topic in several knitting groups has been the discussion of a 3 year old, graphic video produced by PETA, of sheep being abused during sheering. There is no disagreement with the fact that the sheep featured in this video are being horribly abused by those handling them, most of the video shows one individual, that I hope is no longer working with any type of animal. However, I will argue against PETA’s claims that the actions of a few in this video do not represent the actions of the many.

I have a personal objection to PETA, and their tactics. Animals should never be cruelly treated, but I refuse to consider the opinion of an organization that publicly claims to protect animals on one hand, but has documented, and convincing evidence of abuse and unwarranted euthanization of animals on the other. I have no intention of further discussing the merits/faults of PETA any further. I’m also not interested in discussing the vegan lifestyles vs. those that use/consume animal products.

That said, let’s remove PETA from the rest of this post.

There is no doubt, that no matter the animal industry, there is a chance an animal will be treated badly by an ill-educated, frustrated, careless, or flat out cruel individual. It is the responsibility of us as consumers to research our purchases to verify that they come from providers with excellent track records concerning animal welfare. If companies can’t provide information on their sources, we as consumers, should be demanding that information become public, or simply purchase from providers that are open with information. Change can be slow, but look at what has happened in the beef, pork, and poultry industries over the past 20-years when individuals demanded better treatment of these animals. Those industries are still far from perfect but there is continued improvement.

There is no doubt, that sheep farmers are out to be profitable, but having poorly cared for animals that are neglected, starved, over crowded, stressed or abused is like a store owner smashing all of their inventory and attempting to sell it. From an economic standpoint it makes absolutely no sense to mistreat livestock. Stressed sheep will not grow a good fleece and a bloody fleece also impacts its value. A single video is not representative of a massive, worldwide industry. I am also not naive to the fact that once an animal can no longer grow a quality fleece it will often be sent to slaughter for its meat. Livestock, no matter the type do not have retirement plans, but as living beings should be treated with respect.

I’ve seen my share of fleece providing animals sheered, and all of those experiences have been very similar. The animal is lightly restrained but standing, or placed on its side, the sheering itself is quick and as soon as that’s over, the animal is released and off it goes a few pounds lighter. The animals don’t seem overly stressed but there has been the occasional animal that doesn’t want to cooperate. Those animals have been held more firmly but once again, nothing I would consider abusive. The recent comparison that wool collection is as evil as the fur industry are simply incorrect. Sheering, done correctly, does not harm the animal. The animal is free to go, live its life and grow more wool. The fur industry requires the death of an animal for its entire skin.

This is also one of those topics were the “shop local” mindset goes a long way. There is no doubt in my mind that small family farms will always treat an animal with more care than a large corporate entities.

What those that claim wool collection is abusive tend to forget is most sheep herds are not “natural” breeds. Like most types of livestock they have been bred to produce a consumable resource be it meat or fleece. Most sheep require sheering or they will overheat, risk skin infections, and maggot infestations. What do these groups expect to do with these millions of animals if wool collection was immediately outlawed? Allow them to suffer and then die in pasture? It is our responsibility as the humans that have modified these animals from their natural state to care for them ethically, and in this case, that requires sheering performed correctly and appropriate times of the year. Wool, as far as fiber goes, is a 100% natural, renewable, and biodegradable material. Many of the alternative fibers, such as acrylics, are not environmentally responsible.

I encourage everyone to do their own research and form their own opinions, but I will continue to use, wear, and knit wool.

Classes Vs. KALs: What’s the Difference Anyway?

snake knittingWhat’s the difference between a class and a knitalong (KAL)?  This question has come up a lot in my knitting life lately since I began offering both options since beginning to teach group classes earlier this year.

A knitting class is easy to define.  Classes are situations where students will be learning specific knitting techniques, styles, or working through a complex pattern with the assistance of a hands-on teacher.  There’s several ways classes can be taught.  Some lead participants through a pattern row by row, step by step, others encourage a go-at-your-own-pace situation and will come to you as you reach a certain point and give individualized instruction.  In both scenarios you’ll have a certain amount of homework to try to complete before the next session.  I’m a fan of option two, with my own classes, I’ve seen a range of skill levels within the same class and feel that if I taught a row by row style class a more advanced student will inevitably get bored and shank me with a needle.  I don’t need any extra holes in my body at this point.

Knitalongs are a different beast.  KALs are group meetings where multiple participants will sign up to work on the same project togther, and if need be, help each other.   KALs are an opportunity to work through a project you know is within your skill level but you may be a little nervous about, or just a project you think is awesome and would like to work along with peers.  KALs typically do not offer the benefit of the dedicated teacher from a knitting class, in fact the KAL leader is most likely going to be sitting at the table working on their own version of the KAL project with you.

Hopefully that clears some things up.