Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why I Spin, or, The Smell of Home

I used to card wool when I was, like, 8-12 at the home of a family friend. She had a spinning wheel and they raised sheep and angora rabbits. She would sometimes set the kids to carding, if we were willing, to give us something to do while the adults played bridge. Their family did the local 4-H stuff and several fairs each summer, and sometimes my family went along for a nice, wholesome, inexpensive day out. I also washed my first fleece with them - although, it was still on a live sheep that was being prepped for show (For the record: The sheep did not take to it kindly, which was why it was “the kids’ job”). My mother’s favourite mittens came off her spinning wheel and needles.

My childhood was, in retrospect, mostly idyllic.

Naturally, I got older, and forgot everything I knew. I moved away to a large city for university and an even larger city after that. I remember asking my grandmother to teach me to knit when I was in high school or college, to which she replied, “Oh, honey, you can learn that from a book a lot faster than from me.” A few years ago, still mourning her and using her old needles, I did just that. Grandma Helen was a gem, but not really one for the patient teaching. It was probably for the best.

Not quite two years ago while I was visiting my parents, I spent a couple days at a medieval event that is held very nearby. I was pleased to have a chance to spend some time with my then 19-year old niece. I also wanted to experience this large event that seemed to have grown up with me. I had watched - from the road - as it expanded over the years. I crashed in my niece's teeny-tiny trailer, which she graciously shared, and she served as my guide for part of a day.

We split up in the afternoon, and I wandered around for several hours, in and out of merchant booths, people watching. My old memories of sheep, wool, fairs, farm shows and pioneer festivals (especially if it had a blacksmithing demo - Dad was all over that) began to work their way up to the surface as I walked. Some of the smells were there: grass, dirt, sweat. Fried foods from the food tents, complete with the teenagers who made spare summer cash working them. I had friends who did that every summer in high school. I spent one memorable summer week volunteering for charity at a dunk tank at the county fair, myself.

There was something missing. A smell common to all of those summer events, modern or historical. The smell of the animals. Something clicked in my brain. Yes.

I turned around, walked determinedly back into a merchant booth and left with a drop spindle and some roving. This seemed a good compromise; I had been thinking about it for a couple weeks. I had never spun before, but I knew I didn’t have room for a wheel and couldn’t, at that moment, do what I did remember (washing and prepping fleece). Worst case it would make a nice display piece. I netted another bag of roving, a book, and a second spindle from another merchant a few minutes later because I didn't know if I would be able to handle the fancy low-whorl one I bought originally. Tired of walking, I bought some iced tea and plopped myself down under a shady tree overlooking a sea of tents. With the ever-present sound of drums and laughter as a soundtrack, I had at it for a while.

My niece found me there a little later, in our pre-arranged meeting spot, trying to practice joining, a few feet of impossibly overspun yet still lumpy yarn on the spindle. I must have had the most content look on my face ever.

"I didn't know you knew how to do that," she said.

"I don't. Er, I didn't. Well, not for a long time, anyhow, since I was, like, 10 or 11. And then I never learned how to spin, just card wool."

"Oh. Well, it suits you. Like you've been doing it forever."

"Thanks, hon."

24 hours later, my spindle, iced tea and I were sitting under the same tree, joined by a pound of lovely RomniX fleece. Earlier in the day, I had found myself sitting in a tent with a handful of ice, chatting with a lady and admiring the piles of lovely fleece surrounding her, wrapped up in sheets and peeking out in bursts of browns, cremes, whites and greys. My new fleece was washed, but it still smelled a little sheepy. I didn’t have carders or combs, so I spun a little straight from the locks. And quite suddenly, with all those smells together (sheep, grass, earth, iced tea), all was right with the world.

Sheepy Goodness is not a common smell in a large city, unless you know where to look. It had never occurred to me to try. But it's a smell I've known since childhood. My niece and I woke the next morning in our cramped accommodations to the sound of a cannon shot (ooops, missed the opening ceremonies of war week, I guess). I rolled over in my sleeping bag, and came face-to-face with the fleece. Again, there was the smell of grass, and earth, and sheep.

I knew I had finally come home.

And so that's why I spin. Because when I spin, no matter where I am, I am home. My drink of choice while spinning is still iced tea, and I’ve determined that I prefer sharp, pointy combs to carders. I’m in no hurry to get a wheel. I have processed a fleece straight off the sheep. I continue to acquire more drop spindles at an alarming rate.

It feels like I've been doing it forever.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The only knitting request he's ever made... finished. Here's the completed Season 12 Dr. Who scarf. I wove in the last few ends and put on the tassels Tuesday evening. It has already been slept on by the cats, so I guess it's officially done.

Total unblocked knitted length without the tassels and not under tension: 15' 6"

The tassels add about 4" on each end, and when worn, its own weight will always cause it to stretch some. On DH, it's wearable by looping twice, unless he wants to trip over it:

He really prefers to be behind the camera, but he's a good sport

I've requested that he not wear it dragging on the ground, as is traditional. This is not about it getting dirty or damaged, because that's going to happen no matter what, and patches on a Dr. Who scarf are traditional. However, he does take a bus, subway, several escalators and an elevator to work. Under those conditions, a dragging scarf could be... unfortunate. I don't think I'll block it. It doesn't need any help to stretch, and it looks more authentic like this.

I continue to spin the black superwash merino/golden-brown tussah silk batts into laceweight singles. I tried out my new tulipwood nostepinne to wind the first spindle-load into a centre pull-ball.

At least I finished something, even if it wasn't my Big D proposal revisions, which were "due" a week ago. I vaguely remember a time when deadlines meant something...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My laptop, iced tea, and a bucket of pee...

Why does seem that I get the most poetical when it involves pee?

I am enjoying having a table outside, although I really do need some kind of a shade, so that I can work out here. A laptop in direct sunlight is next to useless. A black laptop in direct sunlight is just begging to be allowed to overheat. But even a few minutes out here with lunch and a drink is better than sitting in the house on the couch all day!

Ford is more annoyed that I'm not inside feeding him than he is wanting to be outside

The black rubbermaid container, with its well-fitting lid, contains the 2-gallon glass jar (with - you guessed it - a lid), which is serving as the indigo vat. The temps have warmed up slightly over the last few days, and it's sunnier, so I'm hoping to encourage fermentation and try to get the indigo to reduce even though we won't be up to daily warm summer temps for a while yet. The black bin retains heat much better than the white bucket, particularly in direct sunlight, even when the outside air is cool overall.

In fact, I removed the jar from the white plastic bucket entirely, because it seemed to be working overtime at keeping the jar cool, even when the whole contraption was inside the black container. The air inside there is toasty-warm when I open it, but the white container and the liquid was still very cool to the touch. No chance of fermentation like that - let's hope this move does the trick and that we get some critters to be fruitful and multiply in there soon. Grow, little friends, grow. I'll continue to monitor it daily - if the jar warms up over the next few days but I don't see any sign of fermentation by next week, maybe I'll add a couple chopped dates.

The lilacs are just about ready to go crazy. Sigh. Why do lilacs have to be so pretty and enticing, and yet make me so miserable?

Hello, allergies. As if you weren't bad enough already.

I am trying, and failing spectacularly, to get my Big D proposal revisions done. They were expected today, which is obviously not happening. I'm crossing my fingers, because no one has come looking for them yet. The committee meeting is on June 3, which means even if I give it to them next Tuesday that still gives everyone their two weeks to read it - but that's not the point. I was given today as a deadline, and I agreed, and I didn't get it done.

I hate this part so, so much - the part where I have to work myself into a frothing frenzy of self-loathing to get anything done. Every time, I swear to myself that it won't happen again. Never again. I'll work on it every day for an hour, maybe two, and before I know it, it will be done, all with less stress and none of this insanity of late-nighters and mental meltdowns. And yet here I am again.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Our weekend anthem

...just some oak and some pine and a handful of Norsemen...*

So, we made an IKEA run this weekend, and finally picked up some patio furniture. Nothing fancy, but within our price range, and I like it better than the crap that we found in every single box store from Home Depot down. I might also get a small parasol that clips onto the table so that I can sit out there with the laptop and still have a hope of seeing the screen. Or something.

Which brings me to work. I'm on a deadline this week. I turned in a substantial draft of my Big D proposal to Lady S. in mid-February and received extensive comments from her on it in early March. It would have been nice to have done those revisions in March, or even April, but a conspiracy of family obligations and other work has kept it off the table until now. I finished the piles of grading last week, took a couple days to get myself in order, and now I have several days of straight writing and revisions to do.

This means, naturally, that I'm writing a blog post, making a latte, finding reasons to poke the cats - who are miraculously leaving me alone right now when I should be working - and looking wistfully outside at the indigo vat, hoping that it is starting to ferment.

Okay, okay, I'm going...

*Here's the studio recording, but I do so love watching Jonathon Coulton's** live performances. Of course, if he did a concert in Toronto, I wouldn't have to be content with YouTube, would I? Go on, click that link and add to the demand. Toronto is only 6th on the list right now.

**Who is this guy? Go here. Listen to The Future Soon, Tom Cruise Crazy, Chiron Beta Prime and Code Monkey. If you're liking it, listen to Re: Your Brains, Skullcrusher Mountain, and (if you're OK with NSFW and a lot of cussin') The First of May. He also wrote the closing credit song for the video game Portal. If you're still really into it, go to Eventful and Demand him. Then come back here, because I like you.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Not so much with the May flowers here...

This was the backyard in on April 26, before last week's cold snap encouraged the magnolia flowers to begin turning brown and start dropping petals.

The buds on the unknown tree opened and became this:

Perhaps a wild cherry? Still not sure.

The little white petals are now peppering the ground after Saturday's torrential downpours, and all the flowering trees will soon be going green. Also, the yellow tulips had some company. Several reds opened a few days later, and a pot of purples came from my mother-in-law. I transplanted them, but I'm not certain they'll survive.

Yellow and purple are bare stems now, but the red are still going strong

The lilacs aren't open yet. I'm actually thankful for that. But we are enjoying the magnolia tree.

And what is this innocent-looking white container?

Not kitty litter

In all honesty, I wouldn't open that if I were you. Not without a mask, gloves and a strong stomach. I'm still in shock that I'm willing to open the damn thing. We'll see how long my will holds out. About as long as I can hold my breath, I suspect.

That's right, I officially started the indigo vat on Monday when I added the indigo to 2 gallons of increasingly stale urine and left it well-covered in a sunny spot. Inside that innocuous white bucket is a 2-gallon glass jar with a plastic bag tucked around the lid. Twice a day, with well-gloved hands, I am supposed to reach in there to swish and rub the nylon stocking containing the 3/4 oz. of unreduced indigo powder that is dangling inside it. This encourages it to dissolve and reduce in the urine. Other than that, I let it sit in the sun and hope it starts to ferment.

I'm hoping that with slightly warmer temps this week, it will soon begin fermenting, but realistically, it's probably still a little too cool outside to get it warm enough, so we're looking more like weeks instead. Unfortunately, the sunny parts of the yard are the closest to the house and neighbours. The area where I envisioned the vat residing (i.e. far away from civilization) is in cool shade much of the day.

We'll see how it goes. For now, all I'm willing to say is that it is certainly... pungent.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

You've won this time, double-knitting! But I'll be back!

A couple weeks ago I was pondering idly as I trudged along on the double-knit hat I started for Daniel last month, wondering what simple, even, repeatable pattern of contrasting colourwork I might start in another inch or so. As I thought, I realized that I had cast on 142 stitches. Divided by two, because this is double-knitting, meaning half the stitches are the outside layer and half are the inside - this gives 71 stitches in each colour: a beautiful prime number which is not evenly divisible by anything.

I sigh. So much for an even, repeatable pattern, I think. I wince a little due to my inner OCD, but whatever, I think, it’s not critical, and I’m not ripping it out. I've done too much of it, and it seemed to fit OK when he tried on the headband the day before.

I mention my little quandry to Daniel, intended (non-knitter husband) recipient of the hat. "Uh-huh," he says, eyes focussed on his computer screen, reading.

A couple minutes of companionable silence later, and he looks up at me. “Can’t you just, you know, add in like two more stitches in there or something?" he says. "That would give you 144. Then you could do an eight-stitch pattern. A couple more stitches won’t really change the size, right?”

“Er, you mean increase,” I say, blinking at my knitting stupidly and mentally smacking my forehead. “Um, yes. Right. Thanks, honey.”

Well, I’ll be. He doesn’t know knit from purl, but I guess he does listen sometimes!

Two M1s later (one in each colour), which would conveniently be hidden by the brim that folds up, my cheeks were somewhat pinker, but I now had 72 stitches in each colour, a nice, divisible number. My OCD was satisfied.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Fast forward a couple weeks. I have ripped out and restarted the double-knit hat. Once I was 6 or so inches in and had him try on the headband again with the brim flipped up (oh, but for the camera! There were balls of live yarn hanging off it and peach acrylic through the live stitches!), he reported that it was a little tighter than he liked. I was afraid of that.

I used a long-tail cast-on, and I had repeatedly started with too little yarn. With this method, you cast-on with the main colour 2x the number of stitches needed for one side of the hat, and then you divide the work into front and back by starting a second ball (of, say, the contrast colour) on the first round, purling every other stitch and keeping the yarns separate as you normally would in double-knitting.

By the third try at casting on long-tail, when I finally got 142 stitches on the needle and still ran out of yarn, frustration kicked in. I figured screw it, that should be good enough, I'll see how it goes, right? I also wasn't completely happy with how the long-tail cast on looked at the brim edge of the hat, which I plan for him to wear folded up. The cast-on edge stuck out strangely:

Using long-tail cast-on, a very visible cast-on edge

So I sucked it up and pulled it all out before I got any further. There is honour, I remind myself, in fighting valiantly but admitting defeat and readying oneself to do battle again another day. At least I now know what doesn't work.

One month on the needles, 7 inches of tube double-knit, 10 minutes to pull it all out and re-ball the yarn.

And then, three tries over five hours one evening last week to get it cast-on again the way I wanted. My brain and fingers could not work out a provisional cast-on to a spare cable, and that seemed like the best way to proceed, since I was going to pick up the stitches later, right? Bah, I finally got it on to some waste yarn. Guess I'll have to practice that.

This time, I did 84 stitches in the provisional cast-on with a needle one size larger than before. This should make it sufficiently bigger, but not monstrous, and I can come up with a 2, 6 or 12-stitch pattern to repeat.

Using provisional cast-on, the bottom edge runs smoothly into the contrast colour

The neat thing about using a provisional cast-on to start double-knit is that after a couple rows, you can fold the cast-on edge up and bring the live stitches that are on the waste yarn onto the working needle, picking up one between each stitch already on the needle. And suddenly, you have two-layer knitting and a beautifully smooth bottom edge with no obvious cast-on seam.

OK, so it's not a brand-new discovery or an Earth-shattering epiphany, but at least I'm pleased with myself, even if I did have to learn it the hard way!