Fiber Menagerie – Part I

SophiaImagine it: Gainesville, Monday night, June, 2019, sitting on the Square, a knitter is asked what’s in her yarn by a non-knitting friend. Three natural fibers rolled out of the knitter’s mouth. Now that Sophia Petrillo has set the scene it’s time to get down to business.

There is actually a lot of fiber that can be spun into yarn and there are times the choices can be a little overwhelming.  I’ve not written an educational post for a while so it’s time to put together the mini primer for fiber basics.

Fiber can really be split into two main categories, natural and synthetic. This will be split into several posts over time because we are finding new ways to create fibers not only from natural sources but creating new synthetics ones, but we’ll start with some of the animal sourced fibers first.  I think we can comfortably say, most of the animals that produce a usable fiber that can be used sustainably in yarn production have been discovered.

All of these fibers come from animals that have either all or part of their wool/coat/fur harvested through shearing, combing, or collecting natural sheds during the spring and summer.  If done responsibly it does not injure the animal.  Although many of these animals are now found all over the world, many of these fibers are still harvested closest to the areas where the animal was natively found and domesticated.

The Natural Critter Sourced Fibers

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Baaaaaahhhhhh!

Wool! More specifically sheep’s wool is the most common animal sourced fiber spun into yarn.  It’s nature’s first dri-fit material.  Yep, wool will wick moisture away to be evaporated and despite the belief that wool can only be worn during the cold months it can be worn year round because of its wicking and thermogenic properties.  It also has UV resistant properties.  There are a few types of sheep wool fibers to watch out for, other than the generic wool term, you’ll find a couple of specialty sheep provided goodies.  Merino is a specific wool fiber that is less likely to cause allergic reactions and is touted as softer than most wools.  Shetland wool is specific to the Shetland Islands.  Icelandic wool – well you can guess where it comes from.  Regional wool varieties and types can cause this post to go on and on, but overall most sheep wool has similar properties. Sheep wool is harvested all around the world, but most notably the UK, New Zealand, and Australia.

 

 

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Cashmere Goat

Cashmere! Also called Cash Here in some circles is supplied by the Cashmere goat.  It has a silky feel and is great for anything worn close to the skin during the cold months and is more or less the fiber gold standard – for now – cashmere’s supremacy is beginning to be challenged by other animal fibers that are more sustainably produced.  It’s very warm and very soft and incredibly insulating.  It’s pricy because of the time and effort it takes to comb and sort the useable fiber from the undercoat instead of the more coarse protective topcoat. The Cashmere goat is native to Tibet, China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh and Baltistan (Kashmir region).

 

 

 

 

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Angora Goat

Mohair! This is a fiber produced by Angora goats.  These goats have a curly locks and the yarn spun from this fiber will have a natural “halo” or fine fuzz to it.  It’s another very warm, insulating fiber, where a little goes a long way.  A garment made from lace weight mohair will be just as warm if not more so than an item made from a bulky sheep’s wool.    The Angora goat originated in the district of Angora in Asia Minor, but are now more common in Turkey, Argentina, and the United States. 

 

 

 

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Emo Alpaca

Alpaca! It’s soft, it’s squishy, it’s warm (okay most animal fibers are) and it’s possibly hypoallergenic.  It has the best silky soft features of cashmere without the price tag.  Alpaca seems to have grown in popularity over the past decade or so.  I can understand why, I could cuddle up and sleep in a mountain of Alpaca yarn.  This is another fiber that is know for its moisture wicking properties making it great for garments and gloves. Alpacas like the higher elevations of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Northern Chile.

 

 

 

Bunneh
Fluffy Bunneeeeee

Angora! Not all fiber comes from goats and sheep.  This one comes from bunnies.  Angora like cashmere can be a little on the pricy side.  It has the feel of cashmere with the halo of mohair.  The fiber is collected by pulling the loose shedding fibers from the rabbit.  If you happen to wander of to a fiber fair you may see hand spinners with a rabbit sitting quietly in their lap while they pull the fiber and spin it seconds later.  Properly done this does not hurt the rabbit at all as it’s the loose fiber that has to be brushed from it’s fur on a regular if not daily basis.  Angora rabbits originated in Turkey and quickly spread throughout Europe in the 1700s.

 

 

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Yakkity Yak

Yak!  This may be one of the largest animals fiber is harvested from.  Handlers brush the undercoat out of their longer guard hair.  Yak is gaining in popularity since it has many of the features of cashmere with the soft silky feel, but is considered a more sustainable alternative since yaks are more adaptable than the cashmere goat and produce a greater amount of fiber.  They are native to Tibet, Mongolia and Russia.

 

Ox
Musk Ox

Musk Ox!  I had to toss an odd one in there. If you think cashmere is pricy, let me introduce you to qiviut. Qiviut much like the most of the other fibers is good ole undercoat that will naturally shed from Musk Ox when things start warming up.  Musk Ok are native to Alaska and parts of Canada and the fiber is generally collected from the natural sheds from the ground and whatever the Ox is rubbing up against.  There are some farms that are able to comb their Ox but I’ve been told from a pretty reliable source that Musk Ox can be a little testy and it’s just easier to pick up the fiber. This fiber is warmer than wool and proven to be softer than cashmere.  Qiviut production has deep ties into regional First Nation’s yarn production and knitting culture (sounds like a topic for future blog posts).  Qiviut has become a little more mainstream with blends becoming available.

I’ll touch on this subject again, there are so many usable fibers out there that trying to cram them all into a single post would be exhausting, and quite possibly a novella in length.  Stand by, more fiber education to come.

 

Double, Double Toil and Trouble -Two at a Time Socks

I definitely didn’t win the lottery last night, so I’m on the road again and stashed in the travel gear is a sock project, my ever faithful travel partner…well…as long as the pattern is simple enough.

There’s a set at home that are in the UFO (unfinished object) cabinet that requires 6 pages of cable charts.  Those are NOT good travel partners.  Having neglected knitting virtually all summer I got a wild hair to work up a quick, simple pair based on the Time Traveler Socks (simple toe up – Fleegle heel) , before jumping back into Area 51 – the unfinished object cabinet – to finish a sweater, two tops, multiple shawls, the complicated socks, a blanket, and a few stuffed animals.  Yeah, I know, I might have a problem.  A lot of those projects were left over from when I was teaching on a more regular basis and as the class ended they went on the back burner to finish at a later date as time allowed.  My gut hunch…this winter is actually going to feel like winter with appropriate weather to stay home on cold days and catch all this stuff up.

So….those socks.

I had kidnaped a friend from a car dealership while her car was in for a bunch of regular maintenance and we just played the day by ear until the car was ready to go. Both of us being craft nerds found ourselves in Yarn Junkies in Hoschton, GA. We didn’t plan on going to a yarn shop…it just happened…money was spent, it happens, despite swearing I wouldn’t buy any more for at least a year.   Yarn Junkies is a well stocked shop with a good selection, and on the new arrivals wall, I saw a box with two balls of yarn.  Attention grabbed!  It was Uneek Sock hand-dyed self-striping sock kit by URTH designed to make two matching socks.  I’m lazy when it comes to matching stripes, if the yarn doesn’t do this magic trick on it’s own I’m not bothered with it.  The shop only had two boxes left in two different color ways.  I did notice something immediately though, the sample photo on the boxes does not seem to remotely match actual colors of the yarn.  I picked up sock kit 59 which shows yellow, black, purple, red, grey and maroon striping on both the packaging and the URTH website.  The colors actually in the box were purple, black, mustard, lilac, rust, and green.  My friend, purchased the second kit, and it had very different colors than the indicated photo as well.  From a review standpoint, this would be a huge turnoff if I had ordered yarn offline and received colors so vastly different, but coming straight from a shop and seeing what I was actually purchasing didn’t cause a bother.  The yarn itself is soft enough to be comfortable on one’s feet, but has enough nylon included that it should wear well for quite a while.  The quality of the Uneek lines have improved under the URTH brand name, but I’m still curious about the link between URTH and Feza, but that’s some research for another day.

pCaxb63hRN6uKjaNol96PASince these kits were split into two even balls of yarn, I thought it would be a good time to try knitting two socks at a time using the magic loop technique.  I’ve seen it done a few times, and get the logic, but oddly enough have never tried it, which is a little surprising since I have experienced Second Sock Syndrome on a few patterns.  There’s quite a few videos out there explaining the technique and how to start, this is one of the few times I’m going to let you find a video instructor that works best for you (until I get around to making a video – wink wink).

My friend and I both picked up Size 1, 40″ circular needles and headed off to go cast-on until the car was ready.

So how’s it going?

So far, so good.  Cast-on, and the first two or three rows were a little odd getting started with a toe up pattern. I would imagine this would be an issue with any experienced knitter but one that can be worked through with a little patience and practice.   Let’s be honest, the beginning of a single sock, on either circulars or double pointed needles can be a bit fiddly.  I used Judy’s Magic Cast-On.  I set up sock one, and then tied a very simple knot with the working yarn and the tail to keep sock one from running away while I set up sock two.

Eventually, you’ll fall into a rhythm with managing two separate balls of yarn and having two separate parts going at the same time.  I thought a 40″ cable would be overkill, but it does allow ample room to manage both socks without risk of sliding your project to the very end of the cable loop and loosing that divide between the front half and back half of the sock.

Even the most simple of sock pattern will require just a touch more attention, once you accidentally forget to drop the yarn from the first sock, and knit it into the second sock and realize you’ve begun to knit the crotch of tights instead of separate socks, you probably won’t make that mistake again.  The technique will begin to feel like you’ve done it a thousand times after you get a an inch or so into it.

For the heel in this case, I will have to work one heel completely and then slide over to sock two and complete that heal, I don’t see a logical way to work my favorite heel without having to move unworked stitches around from one side to another on every pass.  I could, it would insure 100% consistency in this case, but personally, I’m not sweating it.  As long as the the foot, and leg are even, I’m happy.

At least there are a few obvious benefits to taking the wee bit more effort to manage two socks at a time.

  • No Second Sock Syndrome! You’ll either have a pair at the end of this process, or you just won’t.  LOL
  • Row counts and measurements will be consistent between both socks, which should eliminate a lot of time measuring or counting between the traditional one at a time process.
  • Did I mention no Second Sock Syndrome?
  • Gauge will be more consistent between the two – there’s been an odd occasion or two that a second sock has been a half to full stitch off on gauge no matter what I do.  Same needles, same yarn, just slightly different.  It’s not greatly impacted fit for me, but it can be frustrating when you can see a slight size difference, especially if you’re gifting a pair.
  • If you make a change in a pattern you can carry it right over to the second sock then – you know – just in case you forget to write it onto your pattern (cough, cough, guilty, cough)
  • And again, no Second Sock Syndrome

If you’ve not given two socks at a time a shot, get experimental on your next pair.  If the magic looping two socks at a time doesn’t work for you, throw one sock on a stitch holder and work one at a time.  No harm done.

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Yarn Snobbery: Justified?

Yarn-Snob-Pin-IvoryIf I’ve learned anything hanging out with knitting types is that there are varying levels of yarn snobbery.

I’ve met them before: the true, honest-to-god-, in the wild, classic yarn snob.  These are the people who only knit 100% natural fibers, usually with the highest price tag, and shrivel at the notion of touching any man-made fiber.   I’ve actually had a classic yarn snob say to me with a straight face that they were allergic to acrylic yarns and meant it. I’m not saying that an acrylic allergy is impossible but the gut hunch in this situation was this person felt the need to justify their fiber extravagance with a statement that many wouldn’t go out of the way to question.

There’s another classification of yarn snob; the acrylic snob.  Yes, they actually exist, and usually stand aghast in a local yarn store when they see the price of high-end yarns.  These folks love their yarn work, but they can’t justify the cost of pricier yarns for a myriad of reasons.

Both sides of the snobbery fence can make beautiful knitted or crocheted projects out of their materials of choice; and often stand in judgement on one side of the fence or the other.  The classic snobs are seen as pretentous the acrylic snobs are accused of beign cheap. Is it really worth it to park firmly in one camp or the other?

That answer is NAH!

I’ll admit that I’ve railed against certain brands of mass-produced commercial yarns (cough cough Red Heart cough cough) but even it has its purpose in the crafting world.  Most beginning knitters and crocheters begin with these types of yarns.  I fall into that category, dozens of projects were hooked in my childhood and teenage years.  Honestly, chain craft store yarn was really the only thing available to me for a very long time, and I really didn’t know any better.  I learned to knit in my 20s on the same yarns, and then I eventually wandered into local yarn shop and my knitwork began to change dramatically, and went through a few solid years of classic yarn snobbery.  It was lacework that forced me down the classic snob path, and I still won’t use a anything but a natural fiber for the thinnest of yarns, personally, I think it’s a risk to do fine lace work and then not have it block out correctly because of a too high man-made fiber content.

Being a classic yarn snob is expensive as hell though, and I evolved into a yarn connoisseur by necessity and a great deal of crafters fall into the connoisseur category.

Connoisseurs have learned the pros and cons to different fiber types and blends of those types.  An 100% acrylic yarn can’t be traditionally blocked and may not be the best for a garment, but an acrylic yarn with a 20-30% natural fiber content will block beautifully most of the time instead of dropping $150+ for higher end natural yarns for a sweater.  We’ve learned that there are some projects that an inexpensive acrylic yarn can really be the best choice, especially for items that could really end up taking a beating like toys and some afghans.  We’ve learned that the super squishy soft cashmere and wool blend would be gorgeous for that baby sweater for a friend but know that it would realistically be a burden on a new parent to have to hand wash it so it’ll end up worn once and put in a drawer, so we find a soft, washer and dryer friendly yarn instead. We all know that one craft-worthy friend that simply can’t wear animal fiber due to allergy or lifestyle choices, blends of cottons, bamboo, viscose, or other materials are acquired. Knowing fiber types and how they function and are made go a long way, and is absolutely worth taking the time to learn, and help others learn that walking down the middle path of yarn acquisition isn’t a bad idea.

While introducing crafty types to different yarns and manufacturing processes – they learn how to make an educated decision for their individual project needs.  But, what one ultimately chooses is entirely personal choice. Yep, totally personal choice.  Curling your nose and someone’s choice of yarn isn’t polite.

I personally prefer animal fiber or mostly animal fiber blends for myself.  I will admit that this preference isn’t the most budget friendly at times, but it helps if you have a talent for catching a good sale here and there.  If you take a good look at my horde though, you’ll find a pretty fair split between high-end animal fibers, and animal fiber and man-made fiber blends.  There’s even a fair amount of acrylics for oddball needs here and there.  It’s a balanced horde, and one I’ve sworn to work from for quite a while (well, unless someone asks me to knit them something specific as a commissioned project).

 

All in all, to each their own, it all really boils down to we’re making stuff for ourselves, and for others, and are having a great time doing it.

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.