Monday, 22 November 2010

Sheep to sweater - the beginners version

During August, the same week that I started spinning and had my love of breed specific yarn and  fleece raised to new heights, I was able to observe a Sheep to Sweater challenge.  The concept was wonderful and totally intriguing, but for me it was very much something to observe rather than ever contemplate doing.  Well, to be honest, it still is, but I've just had my own beginners mini version and I'd like to share how totally chuffed I feel about the whole thing.

 In one sense it started with an impulse buy at The Knit Studio in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago.  Despite having enough fleece stacked up in pillow cases to consider insulating the house, this little plait of Shetland tops below found it's way into my bag

This image shows the label.  The reason for the photo having been taken while it was draped over the spinning wheel will be explained.

I just fell in love with the colours, although I had no idea how it would spin up.  However with it being Shetland I had confidence that I could spin it.  I've come to have a great respect, as a beginner, for Shetland fleece, which is proving to be most forgiving and to do its best to spin beautifully regardless of what new technique I'm trying or how irregular my drafting and twist is.  

While I'm singing the praises of Shetland I should add that my love affair with it started when I began doing Fair Isle knitting and steeking.  Shetland is a yarn that was created to do lots of friendly things when 2 colours are knitted together and that behaves impeccably when steeked.  One swift cut of the yarn and the cut edges just curl back nicely and give a little reassuring cling to the reverse side of the fabric, removing any horrific nightmares of hours of knitting unravelling.

So my pretty little plait came home with me and entered the realms of what I've learnt through Ravelry to call my 'Stash'.   I now have a yarn stash and a fleece/fibre stash.  The former is actually fairly modest by some standards since I had a big clear out and found new homes for a lot of yarn that I knew I wouldn't knit up this side of the mid century.  The latter is big in volume, but does have the benefit of insulating the room it is stacked up in.  I do however have a number of whole raw fleeces and distinct memories of some lovely people who know a lot more about fleece than I do telling me that it can't be kept forever in its present state and that some processing should be done before Christmas.  That's this Christmas - the one just a few weeks away.  Say no more.

The pretty little plait might well have remained in my 'admire and fondle' pile if it weren't for a little knit along challenge that was proposed on one of the Ravelry groups I'm in.  The challenge was to pick something small and quick to knit, post photos of the yarn, pattern and everything needed to complete it by Friday night and then to finish it by Sunday night.  What a lovely idea, and reading through the thread, lots of people also thought this was a good idea and lots of photos of patterns for knitted penguins and other small items appeared.  I should add that this is a group entirely moderated by penguins, but it is one of the British groups on an American heavy site, and one thing Brits are good at doing is chatting (lots) and being delightfully eccentric.

My personal challenge was that I would be spending most of Saturday at Tynedale WSD Guild spinning.  I'd organised puppy sitting and was really looking forward to a day of spinning with lots of lovely experts on hand to answer my innumerable queries.  Plus Tynedale does awesome shared lunches - I mean this is a Guild that takes the concept of a communal lunch to a whole new level.  Then I thought about my pretty little plait, and came up with the 'clever' thought that I could spin this plait on the Saturday and knit a head band to keep my ears warm when wearing my cycle helmet.

Now all experienced spinners out there will have seen the size of the plait, be aware of my novice spinning skills, and will be experiencing some amusement at my plan to 'spin' the whole plait in one day.  They will also have thought ahead to the little steps (ok, not so little) that I've forgotten about that come between spinning and knitting.  Things like plying, skeining, washing, drying, winding.  The bits of my very nice beginning spinning book that I hadn't really got to yet.

So, I take my photo of the pretty little plait with the equipment I'd need to turn it into a headband.  The multiple needles are because I wasn't sure how thick the yarn would be, so I didn't know what size I'd end up using.  I load up the car, not forgetting the essential contribution to lunch and swan off for a day of puppyless freedom away from the house with its constant reminders that housework fairies no longer exist and ironing bags can multiply overnight.  

I must add, as Christmas is so close, that when I was recently having a frantic search for my Beloved's black concert shirt, that I came across all the Christmas table linen still un-ironed from last year.  No doubt it will remain lurking menacingly at the bottom of one of the ironing bags until Christmas Eve, although that does have the benefit that it can go straight from ironing board onto the table, missing out the folding and getting creased bit that most people put in the middle at some point during the year.

Dear future descendants, it would be impossible for me to hide the fact that housewifely tasks do not feature high up my list of priorities, and most photos you may find of the interior of the house have been carefully staged, sometimes involving that time honoured process known as "bung it behind the sofa".  This is a skill that some people, including myself, have acquired over years of practice, resulting in the ability to 'clear' a room in less than the time it would be polite to keep an unannounced guest standing on the doorstep.
I have a large sofa!

Anyway, back to Saturday and the Guild.  Lovely people that they are, any hysterical laughter concerning my weekend plans was carried out where I couldn't hear it.  There was a little mention of the word, brave.  This was from someone who has years of spinning behind her and can actually plan what thickness she wants to end up with and knows what ratios are.  But it is a lovely Guild, so I also got some essential tips to help me on my way.  I'd thought that I needed to let my spun singles rest before plying.  I was told this wasn't essential, but that washing the yarn between plying and knitting was important and would make a difference.  I realised that my original plan to spin for a day and a bit, spend 5 minutes plying and then whip up the head band in a couple of leisurely hours on the Sunday afternoon (that I have done before - headband in the round is a quick little knit) would need some serious adjustment.
In order to get the yarn dry after washing I would need to do all the spinning and plying before going to bed on Saturday night.  Right!

I got about half the pretty little plait (seemingly growing in size throughout the day I should add!) spun at Guild, aided by the fact that everyone very sensibly spun during the AGM.  I do like a group of people that share my priorities.  I'd forgotten to take my camera, but was able to find it when I got back.  Tea became DIY meal - fortunately my Beloved is used to this concept by now and just got on with it.

So this is what happened during the next few hours:

 I spun the tops onto 2 bobbins to make plying easier.  Oh I should add a bit of technical stuff here - I was after speed as much as anything so opted for a long backwards draw and was aiming for a finished plied yarn of about 4ply thickness (fingering to anyone reading this who lives the other side of the pond).  A bit of judicious weighing of the plait helped me to get equal amounts of weight of yarn onto each spool.  I also pull off quite short bits of bits of tops, pull them apart from the end to loosen up the scales, (I think the term Rolag is coming in somewhere here) and then fold it over my index finger and spin woolen from the end of the folded bit.  I'm quite sure there is a far more elegant and concise way of describing this, but anyway, it's a way that works for me.

What had quickly become apparent during the day was the very pretty colours the painted tops were producing when spun.  The yarn half filled the bobbins, so I was hoping that when plied it would all squeeze onto one bobbin.

To speed up the spinning and slow down the speed of my treadling I moved the drive band onto the next groove down on the bobbin, although this did make treadling harder work as the bobbin filled up.  Oh, and I have an intermittent squeak - a clunking sort of squeak.  I think it's related to the way my poor wheel get dragged around, carried through the centre of Stocksfield, and bangs around a bit in the back of  the car.  I can see why people end up with more than one wheel and why their collection includes a travelling wheel.

Now it will be obvious from the photographs that by this time it was dark outside.  In fact, by this time we were well into the 'wee small hours'.  If I was going to achieve this challenge then the yarn had to be washed before I went to bed so it could dry 'overnight' - well have a few hours at least to dry.  Overnight was by now becoming a rather more reduced concept than usual.

Finally, about 2am, the plying was finished and as you can see above it just squeezed onto the one bobbin.  It had taken me considerably longer than the 5 minutes I'd visualised.  I don't know why I have an image in my mind of plying being something really really quick. 

Last time I'd done it I'd ended up in a dreadful tangle with the singles wrapping round each other and themselves and anything else that came in their reach - it had been like having an overexcited Kraken at my feet.

Fortunately I got some essential tips on the correct use of a Lazy Kate from people at the Guild, and it did make a real difference with the tangling issue.  It still took a very very long time though.

The next stage was the Niddy Noddy.  Mine was quickly assembled and the niddying or noddying commenced.  By this time Jodi (the Guide Dog puppy, now 8 mths old) had realised that there was still someone up and about so she came into the front room to investigate.

My Niddy Noddy gives a full wrap of 1.5m, so a quick count of the number of wrappings, 150, told me I had 225m of yarn.  At this stage it was still looking sort of like 4ply thickness, although it's most frustrating when the 2 singles being plied together have either their thickest or their thinnest bits coinciding, rather than nicely cancelling each other out.
Anyone who knows dogs will recognise the expression on Jodi's face.  What she really wants to do is have a good investigation of this exciting thing that has been waved in front of her face for several minutes, but she has just been told to "Leave It", and is not impressed.

Whizzing on through the next bit which involved some figure of 8 tying of the skein (or is it hank?) so that it would all stay together nicely during the washing and drying and not do Kraken things in my sink.  I then realised that 'washing', according to the book, meant 'soaking for 20 minutes' in warm water with a bit of washing liquid added.  20 minutes at that time in the early hours is a very long time!  It did give me time to assemble the towels for drying/squeezing and the hanger to hand up the hank/skein - I know one is the untwisted and one the twisted, but I can't remember which way round just at the moment.  But anyway, you know what I mean.  After the soaking and realising that this miraculous 'blooming' was occuring, then a quick rinse in clear water with a dash of white vinegar (yet another use for white vinegar) and then a final rinse in clear water before the pressing with a towel.  Then, just about the time when the dawn chorus would have been starting if it had been summer, the hank was hung up on a coat hanger to dry 'over night'.

Needless to say I was not up bright eyed and bushy tailed at  my usual 6am the next morning - I wasn't anything at 6am other than comatose, and finally crawled out of bed just in time to grab Jodi (fortunately my Beloved had done the essential feeding of the ravenous hound at her usual time) and dash to Church with her - being Family Service it meant I could combine Church and her training trip into one.  I did actually make time to check the yarn - unsurprisingly it was not completely dry.  No fear, I was sure I'd heard someone at Guild mutter something about radiators, so the yarn was flung onto a radiator to dry while I was out.

Now anyone who has actually read all of this may have some recollection of the time I knew it would take to knit a cycling headband, and be wondering why the rush at this stage.  By now I'd reached the stage of having a finished yarn, so a leisurely afternoon of knitting should be all that was left.

The trouble is, as you can see from this photo, I'd ended up with a very beautiful looking yarn.  Even with the novice hand spun look of the structure of it, this was to me a very pretty yarn indeed.  Much too pretty in fact to end up hidden by a cycling helmet.  I also had a whole 225m or so of this lovely yarn.  There was only one reasonable solution.  I had to knit myself a proper hat.

Now I'm not the fastest of knitters so I knew from experience that even knitting a plain hat would take several hours.  I also thought it would be a good idea to knit a swatch to see what thickness of yarn I'd ended up with.  It looked, on average, like something between a 4ply and DK, but my attempt to use a WPI tool had failed miserably.  Even trying it on commercial yarns of known thickness had failed to give me a figure that matched the information on Ravelry for those yarns.  I obviously need to do a class on how to measure WPI.  

First though I needed to wind the hank into what I understand is called a 'cake'.  I used to wind what are commonly know as balls, but they do tend to skitter about rather a lot when knitting with them, and skittering and balls mixed with puppies ends in tears - always, without fail.  Fortunately I'd been taught to wind a centre pull 'cake' on my thumb (thank you Annie), so this was a fairly straightforward operation, all the more so since I'd acquired a swift and released my Beloved from the hank holding task.  Difficult to hide exciting little impulse purchases of yarn from others if someone else has to hold it for you for winding.  Anyone with a guilty stash needs a swift.

Swatching was more successful though - I should add that I was cooking Sunday lunch through all this - my Beloved was a little uncomprehending about what I was up to and why I was rushing around and staying up to Silly O'Clock, so I felt one of my roast lunches was called for at this point to deflect him from the important activity of the weekend.

Anyway, I ended up with finding that 4mm needles gave a lovely feel to the knitted fabric and it gave me a gauge of 22 stitches to 10cm.  Equipped with that information I hit the Ravelry pattern search and found a top down plain hat that promised to offer what I was looking for.  Heads are Round from the top down seemed to be what I needed.

Finally, after lunch, I was able to start knitting.  A slow start when I realised I needed to look up a figure of 8, or magic cast on, but eventually I found instructions I could comprehend in my sleep deprived state and the knitting commenced.  I should add that lunch had been a bit delayed, so it wasn't until about 4pm when I actually started knitting.  I had considered trying out my new and still unpractised continental knitting skills, since this can be a quicker way of knitting, but I decided the possibilities for a tension disaster or late evening frustration was too great, so I stuck with the familiar but slow.

It was actually pretty miraculous and wonderful actually knitting up something I'd spun myself.  It didn't all fall apart in my hands, and even better, the inconsistencies in the yarn seemed to hide themselves in the knitted fabric, just leaving that 'handspun' look about the fabric.  It was going so well that I decided, after the increasing and shaping had finished, to include a little patterned border before the ribbing.  Obviously by this time tiredness was influencing my judgement.  At about 11pm on the Sunday evening I posted this image into the challenge thread.  Fortunately there were still some Banterers around and I got some lovely encouraging replies to my decision to tough it out and keep knitting to finish it before I went to bed.  That was the challenge - not to finish on the stroke of midnight - just to finish before going to bed.

Finally at about 2.30am it was finished.  My hands ached, but it fitted, it looked gorgeous, felt amazingly warm, and I even had a little bit of yarn left over.  Knitting top down had been tricky to start, but it had saved me hours of 'will there be enough yarn' worry.  I knew that if I had run out, that using a different yarn for the turn up or brim could have been made to work.  Happily though that wasn't necessary.  As per the 'rules' of the challenge I posted the photo of the finished hat and crept off to bed.  It was so worth it though, and has given me a new perspective on what can be achieved with spinning.  So that's it, I've done it, I've taken a fibre you could tear up easily and scatter to the wind and made it into a beautiful, functional item.
WOW - right chuffed. ☺

Friday, 5 November 2010

One glass of grape juice. Or why I didn't get any knitting done this afternoon

The beginning of this tale has not been photographed – I mean, how many of us, at the beginning of a 'simple' event in the kitchen think to photograph it.

We have a grape vine growing in our south facing back yard. It was planted to be trained across the yard so that the leaves would shade the kitchen which has a lot of glass along that wall. It's also nice to sit underneath it when eating outside during the summer. The shading effect hasn't been quite as effective as I'd imagined, but after 3 years of training, pruning and tlc the vine is there to stay. This year, for the first time, we had grapes. Quite an achievement I thought for a northern outdoor vine.

A rather alarming tasting in September suggested that the grapes were of the red rather than green variety. I left them hanging. Despite an early autumn that didn't even attempt to be an Indian Summer the grapes did start turning a rather attractive purple colour during October, but as gales started to rage we had to pick them all before they were blown down. 

A quick tasting revealed quite an intense flavour in the darkest grapes, but there was a lot of pip and thick skin involved. Having spent most weekends during October at Apple Events and observed juicing of apples I decided the solution would be to turn our flavoursome grapes into juice. I'll skip over the rather tedious choosing and purchasing of a juicer, but we ended up with a juicing attachment for the kitchen workhorse – my food mixer.

By now the grapes had been sitting in the fridge for a few days, so there was no time to waste. I separated the purple and 'reddish' grapes from the stalks and the green grapes and filled 2 colanders. After rinsing the grapes I opened the juicer box. This was where it started to get "interesting" – this is my polite, possible future grandchild-friendly term for what actually happened.

 Having failed to take a picture of my overflowing box of grapes, this is what was left after removing the 'ripe' ones.

The 36 page instruction book had one page of diagrams and one page in English. This juicer is obviously shipped to every country in the world, and a couple of planets as well. That one page of English contained the assembly instructions, the 'how to juice' instructions, the 'warnings' (no, I hadn't thought of juicing underwater using my fingers instead of the pusher!), instructions on how to prepare the food, how to clean the juicer and finally the warning never to immerse the base in water. Given that said page is 21 x 10 cm, you'll appreciate the brevity of all these essential instructions.

However I was in full 'homemaker' mode and looking forward to a well earned afternoon of knitting at the end of a busy week. After all, I just had to pop the grapes through the juicer and then have a little sample drink of the clear fragrant, jewel coloured juice before putting my feet up and finishing my sleeve. Rolling around the floor with hysterical laughter is allowed at this point, although you may wish to include a glass of something that will anaesthetise you for the rest of the tale.

Dear family descendants – it took rather longer than anticipated to get the ****** juicer assembled and perched on top of the food mixer. I then discovered that feed tube was rather narrow and the shape of a kidney bean. The grapes had to be inserted by hand, virtually one at a time. By now I'm realising that future plans for juicing apples will include a lot of chopping and I am regretting not having purchased the juicer that said it could take whole apples.

I eventually ended up with a system that involved popping the grapes, one by one into the food tube, switching on the mixer, ramming the pusher down the food tube and trying to keep the plastic jugs in the right place so neither juice nor bits trickled onto the work surface. The ratio of pulped bits to juice was not quite what I had imagined. In fact 2 whole colanders of grapes was being reduced to about 200ml of juice. This was my entire grape harvest. 3 years of lovingly tended grape vine and half an afternoon of ******juicing was giving me 200ml of juice!

I looked at the vast mound of bits and decided that there was still a lot of juice lurking in there. It seemed eminently sensible to run the bits through the juicer again to extract all that 'waste' juice. After all there wasn't anything on the one English page of the instruction book telling me this wasn't a good idea. Plus, the bits poured into the feeder tube much quicker than the whole grapes had done.

With renewed enthusiasm I ran the bits through the juicer, not once but twice more. What a prudent home-maker I was, extracting every ml of clear fragrant juice from our grape harvest. Sadly I was so busy noticing that the volume of juice had almost doubled that I failed to notice that what was coming out of the juicer spout was rather lacking in either clarity or jewel red colour. In fact it resembled the sort of brown sludge you see in the waste oil bucket in a garage. My beautiful juice had acquired a sort of brown 'whole food' look about it. For those of you who have any memories of whole food cafés in in the 1970's, staffed by earnest sandal wearers, it had 'that' sort of look about it.

Time for plan B. Time being something that was quickly running out I should add. The knitting was starting to acquire cobwebs. First idea was to pass the soupy juice through a sieve. While it captured some of the sludge and the odd grape that had escaped being individually placed into the feeder tube, the smaller quantity of juice I was left with still looked like primordial soup. Next plan involved one of the muslin squares I use for making elderflower
hooch cordial placed inside another sieve. This was too efficient and very little trickled through. Squeezing the muslin to try and encourage things along went a little wrong and great dollops of primordial soup surged across the worktop and trickled onto the floor. By now I had every plastic measuring jug I owned in use and if the 'soup' had been red the kitchen would have resembled a serious crime scene. Final attempt involved the jelly bag I should have used in the first place and the results were acceptable. The volume was back down to about 200ml.

Anyone who has read this far and not resorted to a glass of some strengthening liquid or a strong cup of tea is advised to drink one now, while I divert to a textile aside from the juice story.

As I moved the chaos around the kitchen I noticed that the muslin had turned a rather gorgeous muted neutral colour.  The sort of colour that goes with everything, that you search the world for in a yarn, or spend hours trying to achieve in home-dyeing, but never quite find in the perfection that was there in my square of muslin.

I stood there amongst the ruin of my kitchen and tasted the juice. A mere sip was enough to tell me that the couple of grapes I'd tasted after picking were probably the only grapes that were ripe. Yes, there was a pleasing complexity of flavour, but my 'tubes' were being seared more effectively than I'd ever experienced with the strongest vindaloo curry.

By now it was dark outside and the knitting was becoming petrified. Deciding that the French were experts in the fruit of the vine, and having read that they added all sorts of things to their wine, I reached for the sugar. The result was palatable, just.

At this point my dearly beloved arrived having been on a train for 3 hours. He may have been expecting a warm welcoming kitchen and a hot meal – he got a glass of juice shoved in his direction to distract him from the state of the kitchen. To give him his due he very quickly seemed to realise what I might have been up to for the better part of the afternoon and early evening. He took one sip, announced it seemed to be very good for his virus ridden 'tubes' and suggested he have a glass of wine and meal before tackling the Grape Juice. There was some mention of the flavour improving with a little standing in a warm kitchen. He seemed very keen that we should divide the Grape Juice between 2 glasses and have a 'shared moment'.

As I write the glass of Grape Juice is still standing on the kitchen work surface.

I shall leave it there. You don't need any details of the clearing up or the intricate operations required to disassemble the juicer so it could be washed – oh and don't forget the bit about not immersing the base unit in water. I did! Just imagine the worst case scenario, take a swig of whatever fortifying drink you have to hand, and take your imagining several stages nearer to total disaster meltdown.

Ah, the joys of home making............

And yes, now we've eaten and drunk wine, we have shared some far pleasanter than anticipated sips of an intense, fragrant juice.  The 'moment' was a little tarnished however when 'he' (he's not getting any 'dearly beloved' after this) started trying to work out the cost per ml of producing the Grape Juice - I feel his final tally of 30p per 1 ml grossly underestimates the value of my labour!

Tutor Group Fund
There is however a lovely piece of news I'd like to finish with. The knit camp tutor fund I mentioned in my last post did start, more than achieved the minimum I had dared to hope it would, and the benefits for everyone who joined in went far beyond the purely financial. The story is told much better than I could by some of the people involved on both sides of the fund in their blogs. 

The company that organised knit camp still owes a vast amount of money to the tutors, and much smaller amounts to many of the people who attended. I hope one day that justice at least will be served.

Friday, 24 September 2010

September has been a whirlwind

I've been busy.  Not just physically busy, but also very preoccupied with a number of things, mostly exciting, but one of them has been something that has deeply offended my sense of justice and morality.

It relates to the Stirling Knit Camp that I mentioned in my entry for 19 August.  I've just read again what I wrote, still then on a 'high' from the wonderful experience I'd had and excited about new skills gained and exciting new chapters opening up in my life.  I'd realised in the few days before the event started that there were problems, but I had no idea of the extent of these, and I guess I trusted the organiser.  I've organised much smaller scale events myself (think Guides, tents, field) and despite my meticulous planning, some years things just didn't go to plan and we had to adapt and work around problems.  How wrong I was to have thought the Knit Camp problems were of this nature, and indeed to have trusted the organiser.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering how what I've written above can be about the same event I wrote about in August.  The answer is humbling and simple.  Everyone else who was involved in the event including tutors, volunteers, and employees worked exceedingly hard to bring about all the things that were great about the event, and, indeed, they pulled it off to a remarkable extent.  The vendors got creative with sign posting and greatly improved the market place at the end of the week.  The attitude of all the other people I took classes with, knitted with, and had fun with, also helped.  It was awesome in itself to be mixing with knitters from so many different countries and we generally accepted things as they'd turned out to be and had a really good time, despite everything.

Then gradually over the weeks after camp the whole dreadful truth started coming out.  The story from  a Tutor's point of view is best read in this post,   better expressed than I could do so here.  Basically, the reward for most of the tutors for all their 'above and beyond' efforts was not to be paid and not even to have their travelling and other expenses refunded.
One of the lovely people I met, Liz, also writes a blog I enjoy reading and she has written with integrity and honesty about her Knit Camp experiences here.

So what next you may ask.  Am I going to move on, doing lovely things with my knitting needles and spinning wheel?  In one sense, yes.   The good bits of the Stirling experience have inspired and excited me, altered my lifestyle and changed what I do. To embrace all that is to honour the efforts that people put in to give the 'campers' a fantastic week, despite everything.  

But I do tend to be a bit proactive about things.  If I get an idea then I try and follow it through.  Something that started cropping up in peoples' posts on Ravelry was their sense of appreciation and gratitude for what the tutors and others had done at knit camp, and a wish to try and help once the horror of unpaid tutors was revealed.  This echoed my own personal feelings.

So I've been setting up a scheme that will enable people to fulfil their wish to help the group most affected financially; the tutors.  What has taken the time is creating a scheme that is so professionally managed and so 'squeaky-clean' that people who have had their trust sorely tested will have the confidence to use it.  Doing things this properly takes time (note to anyone planning a future knitting event!). Even the Accountancy Firm I have engaged to set up and run the scheme has encountered delays with PayPal in setting up the account, but it is finally coming together and we, that is the amazing community of knitters I've grown to know and love through all this, will very soon have a means of safely donating  funds for the Stirling Tutor Group.  And love is also there for my husband, who gave a wholehearted affirmative to my suggestion that we cover all the costs of the Accountant, so that every penny and every cent raised will go straight into the Tutor Fund.

So now I'm feeling a bit like a woman in her 41st week of pregnancy.  A bit frustrated by delays (but it is so important not to 'launch' until every last detail is properly in place) and a bit anxious about what will emerge.  I know the scale of the monies owed, and I know how many people were keen enough to get involved to contact me personally, but I have no idea how much money will be raised and donated.  I hope that at the minimum it will cover the amount the tutors paid out in travel and other expenses, I dream it may be more.  What I do know is that already, just for the tutors to know that there is so much concern and gratitude and support for them from so many people has been of emotional help.  I also know that people have found it helpful that there is going to be a scheme that will enable them to express what they feel in a practical way by giving.  

And now for a discursive interlude with the Tudors - perchance not as discursive as it first appears.

Time for a picture.
This is the imposing frontage of Hardwick Hall.  Built in the 1590's for Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, it sits on top of a hill overlooking the Derbyshire countryside, and is visible for miles around.  Remembered in the phrase: Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall, it is a conspicuous symbol of Bess's wealth and power.

The six upper rooms have balustrades with Bess's initials ES, for Elizabeth Shrewsbury, clearly visible.
Ostentatious is a word that might come to mind.  Certainly Bess didn't lack ambition.  Her wealth grew not just through her 4 marriages, but through her careful management of her estates.  Five of her six surviving children she managed to marry into noble families, and the sixth into Royalty.

This is a painting of Bess as a young woman

Here as an older woman, now the richest woman in the country after Elizabeth I.

My impression, as I looked at both paintings during a visit to Hardwick Hall yesterday, is that Bess's experiences have hardened her.  It wasn't an easy task for her to achieve what she did.  She survived an attempted poisoning and charges of embezzlement.   She held positions at Court and some of her children had Royal Godmothers.  She skilfully negotiated her way through and around the Elizabethan laws of succession and inheritance at a time when women had few property rights.

In many ways an admirable woman with a remarkable grasp of the minutia of law and financial affairs, who succeeded in ventures where other lesser women or those with less care and attention would have failed spectacularly.

This illustrates her position in Elizabethan society

Bess also enjoyed gambling, as illustrated by this beautiful inlaid table at Hardwick Hall.  Unlike many gamblers who take too many risks and end up losing everything, Bess's accounts of 1593 show that her expenditure of £8,500 was significantly less than her income of £9,500.

Ambitions sometimes bear a cost, even for someone of the stature and ability of Bess.  In spite of Bess's intelligence, skills and accomplishments, a level of attributes shared by few other women, these costs affected other people.  Not all of her children's marriages were happy and the story of her granddaughter Arabella Stuart, a possible contender for the throne of England,  is tragic.  

Arabella Stuart as a teenager.

Arabella did marry Sir William Seymour, 2nd Duke of Somerset, although both led tragic lives.  Below is the Somerset Coat of Arms, complete with unicorn.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Musings from my spinning wheel

I've reached the point in my spinning where I can sit and do it for many minutes without stopping.  I sit with roughly combed raw Shetland fleece on my lap and it all behaves and thin strong threads get wound onto the bobbin.  I can even pick off little lumpy bits as I go, and my drafting triangle actually looks like a triangle and I have a modicum of control over it.

I've realised that spinning must be like learning to play a brass instrument.  It is relatively easy and quick to get to a point where you can achieve something useful and recognisable and enjoy doing it, but then moving on and learning all the subtleties may take a lifetime.  I'm definitely in that first phase.  Yes, I'm creating a single ply yarn that is behaving as if it will nicely form a 2 ply yarn, but the thickness and amount and type of twist is definitely on my natural 'default' setting.  Depending on how the plied yarn changes when it is washed, it looks as if I'm going to end up with something about the thickness of Shetland jumper weight yarn, or what we Brits call 4-ply, but is of course just 2 single yarns plied together.  I remember reading something about why our knitting yarns have the names that they do - fascinating but complicated.  Perhaps the Americans are onto something with their term 'fingering' to describe this thickness of yarn, but then they mess up their system by using the term 'worsted', which actually means a 'type' of yarn, to describe a certain thickness of yarn.

Anyway, I sit there with my fingers learning how to create a nice drafting triangle and produce a consistent thickness of relatively smooth yarn, and my foot learning how to imperceptibly communicate with my hands to produce the appropriate speed, and part of my mind is free to wander.  Strangely I've not been thinking so much about forming a link with my female ancestors who would probably all have spun before about 1800, and some possibly later.  It might be because what I'm producing is probably about the standard of those women when they were young children and first learning how to spin on a spindle.

No, what I've been thinking about are the 3 generations of women before me, and the clothes they knitted and why they knitted them.  I'm the eldest of 4 children, so I have clear memories of my mother always having some knitting with her, and at any spare moment taking it up and making jumpers, cardigans and hats for us.  She didn't knit socks, and I think she may have knitted mittens, but not gloves.  She wouldn't have had time for those, since she was also a teacher and then headmistress, and worked full-time for most of her working life.  If we were travelling and Dad was driving, then Mum had her knitting.  While we had swimming lessons she was sitting at the side in that unpleasant warm humidity, knitting.  When I was a young child she did all this knitting because it was the cheapest way to clothe us in warm knitted garments.  It was utilitarian knitting, but done with creativity.

Just looking through the family photographs shows garment after garment that she or my Grandmother had knitted.  Here I am just a few months old, and I don't know which of them knitted this little lacy cardigan.  It does however look very similar to the cardigans that Grandma knitted for my own children.

This is in my bedroom, sitting next to a mural my father painted, a little older, but obviously about to grow out of the cardigan I'm wearing.  The cuffs are turned down fully, but the sleeves still don't reach my wrists.  That was one of the advantages of knitting garments.  They could be customised, and all of Mum's knitting had extra long sleeves with deep ribbing cuffs.  When we first got the sweater or cardi, the cuff would be turned back to the maximum, and the sleeve was probably still a bit on the long side.  As we grew, and in those days most children grew upwards more than they grew sideways, the cuff could be turned down less and then have no turn up at all.  That way the period of time for which a garment would fit could be significantly extended.

This must be one of my earliest nursery or school photographs with the cuffs at the 'turned back by half' stage.  This must have been a very utilitarian sweater, possibly even in a colour suitable for passing on down to my younger brother.  Most of the sweaters and cardigans Mum knitted for us had raglan sleeves, and she knitted the sleeves 2 together on the needle so there was only one lot of counting and both sleeves would be identical.

My maternal grandmother also knitted for us, and may well have knitted for Mum as well, but there aren't many photographs of Mum as a child and those we do have are of her in 'best' clothes so not much knitting to be seen.  My father's mother died when he was still a boy, so I don't even know if she knitted.  I suspect she did, if only for economy's sake.  I must ask one of my father's sisters, a woman who is a very accomplished knitter, who taught her how to knit.

What I do know though because Grandma mentioned it, and I've recently found a photograph, is that Grandma's mother knitted.  She needed to.  She gave birth to 20 children, although we think 5 were stillborn or died shortly after birth.  Her first pregnancy resulted in twin boys who were premature and died before they were 2 weeks old.  One of her other children, towards the end of her child bearing years, died as a toddler.  That left 12 children who reached adolescence, and Grandma would recite the names in order.  She was the youngest but 2.  The photograph shows 6 of the children, and I think I've identified them from the order of girls and boys.  After the twin boys died, she had a daughter and then 4 sons, and I think this photograph shows the next 6 children and must have been taken about 1920.

The boy on the left, in his suit, is Francis.  He died when he was just 17 having had his leg crushed in an accident at the colliery, and contracted osteomyelitis which killed him in those days before antibiotics.  The little girl next to him with long hair is my grandmother, Beatrice.  The next 3 children with short hair are actually girls from looking at their clothes.  I suspect there had been an outbreak of head lice, for which the treatment then involved cutting the hair.  The eldest girl at the back, Margaret, died when she was 21 during surgery for a brain tumour, the day after Francis died.  She had married when she was just 19, and had a 1 year old son when she died.  Her sweater looks rather small on her, and I suspect those long blouse cuffs are hiding the shortness of the sleeves.  Mary, the youngest is wearing a knitted dress with a collar of tatting.  I have one of the tatting collars my great grandmother made, but it's rather more elaborate than this one.  It's probable that the knitted dress had been passed down through some of the older sisters before Mary got it.

This family, the parents William Charles and Margaret Jane, experienced many of the significant social events of the late Victorian period going on into the first half of the 20th century.  Another of their sons also died in his teens of the Spanish Flu.  I'm pretty certain Meg didn't spin.  She was an amazing cook and I still use her recipes which were passed on to me through Grandma and Mum.  She raised Mum from the age of 2 to 15 after Grandma's divorce.  She didn't quilt either, although that was a common way for County Durham wives to provide bedding for the family and sometimes bring in a bit of extra money.  Grandma did remember that she made ragmats, either hooky or proggy, and the stair-runner was one such mat.  She also made many of the family's clothes, sewn and knitted.  William worked for most of his life at the colliery, although after the 1st World War when he served in France, in his early 40's, as a stretcher carrier, he stopped being a coal miner and became one of the colliery ambulance attendants.  I've heard a lot about Meg's life from my mother and grandmother.  It is hard to comprehend how hard such a life must have been, pregnant for much of her reproductive life, losing a number of her children, and having to provide for them all on a colliery worker's wage.
I wonder what she thought about when she knitted?

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Spinning - a really exciting event in my life captured in photographs

So you're one of my descendants checking out Great Grandma, or you've happened across this blog and seen it's about knitting and my female ancestors and what do you get - a first post about a difficult period in MY life, and then .......Spinning.

I'd better explain.  Last week I was in Stirling at the very first UK Knit Camp - hopefully the first of many.  Had a totally amazing, stimulating experience learning new skills, meeting lots of wonderful people from all round the world, turning an interest in rare and specific breed fibres into a passion, and taking my first steps into the world of spinning.

I had an afternoon in a beginners spinning class with Deb Robson.  Between the frequent yarn breakages and production of yarn thick enough to make a rope of, there were some very brief but peacefully ecstatic moments when it all came together.   I came home from Knit Camp with 4 fleeces in my car and the details of where to purchase my first wheel.  Choosing which wheel to get had been more straightforward than I'd anticipated.  There were a lot of experienced spinners around who were only too happy to talk wheels and I got to try a few.  One name kept cropping up, and when I tried one of them I knew this was the one for me.

First thing Monday the order was placed and then yesterday I got the phone call to say it would be arriving today.  Which is one reason why I was up to silly o'clock last night/this morning setting up and starting my blog, because I knew once the wheel arrived then the blog-birth might be postponed indefinitely.

Then, just before lunchtime this arrived.

The box, not the dog - she's a puppy spending her first year living with us.  This is a very perceptive puppy and the look on her face shows that she has sensed the enormity of the contents of the box, and is perhaps a tad apprehensive about the implications for her.

Husband was around - he'd been on 'post watch' while I did the morning training session with the puppy.  He seemed relieved when I said I'd take the wheel into the front room and assemble it by myself as part of the 'getting totally acquainted' process.  In fact so relieved that he went and sorted out all the tools the instruction leaflet told me I'd need.  I think he has some traumatic memories himself of 'us' with a box of bits from MFI or Ikea and an instruction leaflet that was either missing or written in Martian.

He needn't have feared - this was an Ashford Traditional Wheel from New Zealand, where they obviously have quite a different attitude towards instruction leaflets.  The diagrammatic instructions were actually clear and precise, and just before I got to the tricky bit I found there were also written instructions, in English (that's proper English, not translated from Chinese by a 5 yr old who can only speak Portuguese) that made things even clearer.

There was a bit towards the end that involved a bit of strength with a screwdriver, so I invited him into the front room and he agreed to demonstrate his superior muscle strength and prowess with a screwdriver - which he did beautifully, but he did prefer me to do the 'banging the pin into the crank hole with a hammer' bit, so that if the hammer slipped he wouldn't have to spend the rest of his life knowing that I had to look at the 'dent made by husband' in my wheel every time I used it.  He even managed a modicum of sincerity when I asked him if he didn't feel that the atmosphere in the front room was unusually calm for this sort of construction situation.

I should explain that some of my past encounters with putting things together have been exceedingly fraught and traumatic, so his caution is actually quite sensible.  Anyway, we ended up with a wheel that looked like the one I'd tried at Knit Camp, it's still daylight outside, and most importantly - there are no bits left over!

Puppy managed to slip back into the front room once the 'yet to be named' wheel was completed and decided to pose for the final triumphant photograph.

Knitting through adversity

I've kept this knitted vest for 20 years now.  I don't wear it any more, but I keep it safe and very occasionally I take it out and look at it, feel it, hold it next to my face and remember.

It was a project that started out with such excitement.  I'd created my own design using a Kaffe Fassett design as a starting point.  I still have, tucked into the back of the book, that original simple pencil drawn design.  We were living in Alberta, Canada at the time.  There for a year, husband in an exciting, challenging and time consuming job, and me in the tiny apartment with a toddler and a 3 year old and no friends.  I had a morning 'off', the car, my pencilled drawing and money to spend in the fantastic yarn shop across the city.  My inspiration for the yarns - the awesome, vast Alberta sky.

There I was in the yarn shop with my little pile of exciting yarns, some expensive silky ones, but I only needed one ball of each.  Escaping from a life that had its difficulties and totally absorbed in choosing my yarns, my paint palette for my sky-inspired vest.  The phone rang and one of the staff approached me.  It was my husband - could I come straight home, our son had hurt his leg and he needed to see a doctor.  My yarns were bundled up, the staff rushed them through the till and I drove home as quickly as I could.  There I discovered that my 3 yr old had fallen while playing in the apartment, trapping his knee as he fell, which twisted and fractured his femur.

Getting to the hospital is a blur.  Our daughter was left in the apartment with one of my husband's colleagues.  I remember my husband carrying our son into the hospital and then me being separated from them as I had to sort out the paperwork with our medical insurance.  This was a cruel shock to someone who had grown up with the NHS and no need to be kept from a screaming child.  There was initially some suspicion from the staff until the X-ray showed the unusual spiral fracture along the whole length of his femur that exactly matched the description of the accident.  Any other bone being fractured would have meant a plaster cast and taking him back home.  Fractured femur meant traction and a 4 week stay in hospital.

The first night was horrendous.  Husband had to go to work that night, daughter was in the apartment with one of husband's colleagues, I was in the hospital with our son who screamed for most of the night with pain from the fracture and muscle spasms.  I endured because I had to, but I don't know where I found the strength.  For the next few days there were some cultural difficulties and learning our way around a totally different health care system.  I lived in the hospital and our daughter joined me during the day while my husband was at work.  When I could I knitted.  I knitted up that sky coloured yarn that I'd been so joyously choosing while my son was breaking his leg.  I measured my day in rows, slow painstaking rows with 20 or more colours per row.

After a week our son was sleeping through the night so I started going home to sleep.  Every morning I bundled our daughter into the car and drove to the hospital, driving east across a bridge with the huge sky ahead of me, revealing to me my palette of colours to knit that day.  The morning skies and my knitting were my crutch through that month long ordeal.  As my son's bone knitted together so I knitted my vest.  At the end of the month the X-ray revealed that the traction which had chained him to his bed had done its job  After 4 weeks of knitting my vest was finished.  He couldn't walk, so he crawled.  He cried the first time we lowered him into a bath - after a month he was frightened of something that had been a nightly playtime of fun and laughter.  As we finally all drove home together he exclaimed at the bare trees.  When we had driven him to the hospital the trees had been covered with leaves.

A couple of days after we were all back home in the apartment, Kaffe Fassett came to the city to give a talk.  I'd booked my ticket weeks before, so off I went wearing my vest.  It was a good talk, wonderful images, inspiring and exciting.  I laughed when everyone else laughed.  I was normal again, a young mother with 2 children back at home, wearing a vest I had knitted, and in knitting had kept my strength and sanity.