Saturday, November 22, 2008

Born to work with fibre, I guess: An excavation of love

When Grandma Helen passed away over five years ago, my mother and uncle faced the herculean task of cleaning out her house and selling it. They could have called in help, boxed things up, sold things off and gotten it done and over with quickly, but they didn't. They decided to take their time. Gram was a firebrand, creative, a collector of quite a few things, and sorely missed by a lot of people. All the grandkids were allowed to come to the house when we wanted and set aside things we would like to have. Those things would be okayed by mom and uncle, and given to us. Mom gave away pieces of the glass collection to friends, anyone touched by Helen who wanted a keepsake. She still does it. It took them over a year to clean out the house and sell it, but it was worth it.

Early on, I offered to deal with all the fabric and fibre-related things. Gram was mostly a crocheter, but she also did a good amount of knitting and sewing (clothes for us, then later doll and puppet clothes). I asked Mom to check with uncle, his daughters and my sister (the other three grandkids) and see if anyone else wanted to join me while I sorted through the boxes, or split stuff with me. No one did. So one day four or so years ago, Mom and I spent the day at the house. We cried. We laughed. I swore at Gram when I was stabbed by rusty pins that she left in pieced-together pieces of fabric. Gram had far more WIPs and UFOs than I do, which is somehow reassuring. Take, for instance, this blue cardigan, found in a bag with a plenty more yarn, 80% finished and still on a circular needle:

I plan to finish it and give it to my older sister, who was very close to Gram and misses her terribly.

Most of the acrylic yarn (bags and bags of Red Heart) was given to a ladies' church auxiliary for making blankets. For the last five or so years of her life, Gram was far less mobile and spent a lot of time watching TV and making granny square afghans. Mom would buy 1 lb. balls of Red Heart by the bagful every so often and drop them off. Mom still has dozens of these afghans, which she occasionally gives away, and I have a couple:

The rust/mustard/white afghan is also crocheted by hand - by my great-grandmother K., Grandma Helen's mom. I've had it since my pre-teens and use it every day.

I also brought a big bag of acrylic home with me and sent most of it to my husband's home-bound grandmother. Most of the fabric stash, once I had removed all the rusty pins and updated my tetanus shot *rollseyes*, went to a family friend who is an avid quilter. I kept a few things, including all of Gram's knitting needles and crochet hooks. While I usually use my Denise interchangables for knitting, once in a while I use a set of her straight needles. I definitely use the crochet hooks.

She kept all her crochet hooks in that old alka-seltzer bottle for as long as Mom can remember.

Now that we're mostly settled into the house (it's been a year), I'm starting to delve into the boxes that were not meant to be unpacked for a while. One of those was the auxiliary knitting box: the sub-prime yarn stash, UFOs and things I don't use regularly but want to keep. And mementos. Here are a few tidbits, and their stories.

Several two-sided crochet samples, and a selection of crochet flowers.

The blue and white two-sided crochet sample in the picture above is special - Mom says this piece is exactly the same as a baby blanket that Gram made for me when I was born. Mom has the blanket. The crochet flowers are something that always make me think of Gram. In my teens, she began decorating sweatshirts with these in various colour combinations, also embroidering leaves and stems, and adding a crochet bit around the neckline. They became very popular at our church, and she made them for a lot of people. I think I still have a couple, but they don't fit any more. Mom definitely has some. I now have several bags of these flowers, apparently waiting for decades for their own sweatshirts.

The ladybug dress, with matching bag. All together now: "Aaaaaaaaw!"

This was also made for me as a child. I don't remember wearing it, but boy do I hope I did. That matching baggy is awesome. I think I need to make a bigger version, like, now.

As I said before, going through those boxes was a whirlwind of emotion. We laughed, we cried, I swore, we laughed some more. And then there were the things that stopped me dead in me tracks. Take, for example, the following:

An odd colour combination for granny squares.

Mom pulled out the bag with this yarn and four sample granny squares. It was all packed away together. I can think of only one good reason Gram would try fighting with fuzzy yarn to make matching orange and blue granny squares. I did my undergraduate at Syracuse University. It was my first time living away from home, and Gram was probably more worried about me than my mother. I would get cards and letters from her regularly, usually with a $20 bill tucked inside and a post-it note that said, "Get yourself a pizza. I love you, honey." But what does this have to do with the granny squares and yarn above?

The colours of Syracuse University - and a considerable amount of my wardrobe at that time, since I was in the marching and pep bands, were, and are, orange and blue.

We could be wrong - we're guessing about her intentions, of course. That yarn is pretty old (see label), but then, she was a frequent thrift store and yard sale shopper. But other things don't require conjecture:

Handwritten notes, and monogram initials.

There are hundreds of little pieces of paper just like this one, with notes scribbled on them - colour combinations, bits of patterns, sometimes mixed with bits of scripture. Tangible reminders, as if I need more, of her creativity, energy and faith. And the occasional tangible reminders of her love. Those monogram initials? They're mine, for my maiden name. Hard to say what project she bought them for specifically. It's probably in a note somewhere.

I come from a long line of women who worked with fibre. Even today, their work continues to add colour and warmth to the lives of many, not just mine. I know, without a doubt, with the assured knowledge of one who has experienced it, that with each stitch, they were thinking of the intended recipient of their work - very often me - and of those who came before them, those who taught them. Every night that I pull out that alka-seltzer bottle of crochet hooks, I honour her memory. Every time I cover myself or my husband with one of those blankets, I am wrapping myself in the love of my grandmothers.

Cheesy? Sappy? Youbetcha. But I will never go cold, and I will always feel their love.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Whoever coined the phrase "warp speed" apparently didn't have cats

So. I warped the loom. Again. After the unfortunate incident with the red warp yarn that we dyed, I picked up five balls of lovely, red, strong DK-weight alpaca.*

I warped this up the weekend before last onto a 10 dpi heddle and wove a few inches, only to realize that the loom was assembled wrong. This bugged me something fierce, so I took the warp off, fixed the loom, re-tied it and wove about five inches that Sunday night.

Monday I looked at the resulting fabric with a critical eye. The fabric was coming out a little too airy, and was not going to be as weft-faced as we want it. Since the weft yarn is our group's cochineal hand-dyed handspun from raw fleece, we want it to be prominent.

So, I took the whole warp off last Tuesday, and Wednesday night I re-warped it onto an 8 dpi heddle. I was all set to have DH help me wind it onto the loom that night, but that was not to be:

The union stages a sit-in.

Negotiations commence: Whose need is greater?

Negotiations are concluded for the evening.

In the interest of not interrupting an obviously necessary nap time, we wound it on early the next morning, before he left for work (DH is a very good assistant warp-winder-oner, no matter how much he doth protest), and I tied it up Thursday afternoon. I spent much of last Saturday sitting behind a table collecting entrance fees from people for an SCA event.

A knitted SCA combined Arts & Sciences badge. Made quickly a couple weeks ago at the request of the event head cook, to her specifications, to be used as part of a serving presentation during the feast.

During the afternoon dead time at the event, after everyone who was coming had shown up but before we could officially close down the gate, I got in some good weaving time, and had help from at least three others. In the spirit of a truly group project, I'd like anyone who wants to weave a few rows to get a chance, so I taught a few new weavers as well, and Sunday I did some more at home.

Who's happy? That would be me.

It's coming out beautifully. The natural variegation of our handspun wool shows well, and the little bit of warp that shows adds just enough red to brighten it up.


From the first 79 foot skein of weft yarn, we have well over a foot of fabric, 18.5" wide. We're getting 9.5 rows of weft to the inch. We need a little over six feet of fabric - two 3-foot pieces - and then it goes off to others for embroidery and finishing.

And as I finally finish this post and check the date, I realize that it is officially our 14th wedding anniversary. Happy anniversary, love.

* Which begs the question, from a historical re-enactment standpoint, can alpaca yarn be considered within the SCA period we're aiming for, i.e. loosely pre-1600 (1650-at-the-latest) Europe? The answer is, maybe. Alpacas are a South American animal, domesticated there for thousands of years. The Spanish were slaughtering conquering the Incas in the 1500s, meaning they would certainly have had access to alpaca. But did the European conquerers actually use alpaca? Um, probably not. Rather, the Spanish brought in their own herd animals, and it's possible that nearly 90% of alpacas were wiped out during the Conquest, the rest being saved by the natives who took them up into the inhospitable higher altitudes. All modern alpacas come from these surviving herds. Alpaca wool was not really used in Europe until the 19th century. (Note: please don't use me or these random web pages as a reliable scholarly source!)**

** All of which begs the further question - Do I care?***

*** Which brings us to the answer: Nope. I have warp yarn of the right weight and colour that will not break on me. It is not synthetic, and is in fact from an animal that was domesticated well before 1600 and known by Europeans at that time, even if they were too dense to bother using alpaca for fibre. Blows raspberry in the general direction of any authenticity police.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Shiny sale, and four random facts about me

Elisem is having a sale again. Look at what I bought! I really hope someone buys those necklaces that I keep looking at, because I don't know if I have the willpower, but I do know I don't have the budget. Especially since my horn is going into the shop tomorrow!

And now, to get my mind off Elise's shiny things, here are four random facts about me that not everyone knows:

1 - I have been able to recite the poem "Jabberwocky" from memory since I was eleven years old. I played the Cheshire Cat in a fifth grade production of Alice in Wonderland, and following that made it my mission to learn the whole poem. Of all the multitude of useless trivia I've committed to memory over the years, this is one I'm still inordinately proud of, even though I'm still not certain that I'm pronouncing everything the way it should be. Sometimes I recite it to fall asleep. It's better than counting sheep.

2 - I was a clown for two years, around age 10-11, or 11-12. The memory of the smell of greasepaint makeup and baby oil (used to take it off) still makes me a little ill. My clown name was (in the category of OMG-I-can't-believe-I'm-admitting-this-publicly) B-Sharp.

3 - Only a couple people who knew me in high school or earlier call me by the nickname "Bird." Only my parents and siblings use the nickname "Twiz," though they also occasionally use Bird. Even my husband doesn't use either of these nicknames. I like them both, and even in my mid-thirties I wouldn't mind a bit if people used them.

4 - I wish I were a better piano player, yet I know I'll never be as good as my mother because I lack the discipline. But here's the thing: I don't want to be as good or better than her. The fact that she is a far better pianist than I will ever be is an integral part of my image of her, and it is something special about her. I like it that way, and I like her that way. I do musical things that she doesn't do. We compliment each other.

Mother's hands

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The version of "The red warp story" with at least 85% less cussing

I originally posted this story on Ravelry the other day, in a forum where my occasional extreme potty mouth is not only accepted but expected. I think I'm now sufficiently calmed down enough to post it here with significantly fewer strings of naughty words.*

The background: I’m working on a project with a group of friends that started out a secret, but now is not. I've been babbling on about different parts of it for months. We’re weaving a pillow on my loom, which will be embroidered, finished and presented to some fine folks by the group. Since this is for an SCA (historical re-enactment) thing, we’ve made the weft yarn and the embroidery thread from sheep to finish - some members of the group attended the shearing, we all dealt with the raw wool, some dyed it, some spun it. It looks great and is working out just fine.

Since the weaving will be done on my loom, I made the call several months ago that we should go with a commercial yarn for the warp. It will be under tension on the loom and we didn’t know until recently how the lady-with-the-wheel’s handspun would hold up. To be a little more authentic, we bought a cone of white 2-ply commercial Shetland wool and dyed it red ourselves with cochineal.

Last Saturday, I started measuring it out on the warping board. By Sunday evening, I had it 3/4 measured.

At that point, I hit a snag in the yarn, so I sat down to pick it apart. I absent-mindedly gave it a good tug.

The yarn snapped apart in my hands.

Surprised, I pulled out another bit of yarn and did a tug test. It snapped like candy. No kidding. Wanna see?

I twisted two pieces together, tightly, hoping that if I doubled it up it would be OK. Nope. Snapped like a dry twig. This is bad. It can’t possibly stand up to the tension on the loom. I have 900 yards of red warp thread that I don’t dare waste my time threading onto my loom - it will break the minute I put any tension on it at all.

Here is where the strings of cussing came in. I have edited it down to a single word that sucinctly expresses my feelings:


This yarn? Is crap. It is weaker than my own handspun singles. Alas, the label neglected to mention that. I thought I gave it the old tug test when I first looked at it, but maybe not. It was sold as weaving yarn, from a weaving shop, so I just trusted that it was fine. I don't blame the shop, though.** It's also entirely possible that when I bought it, I neglected to mention that I was planning to use it for warp, and they assumed I wanted it for weft. I’ve been handling it for months and never noticed, never thought to check - and since we dyed it all, I can't be totally sure if it was this weak when I bought it, or if we ruined it in the cochineal/tin dyebath or subsequent hand washings.***

Total cost? Not much. $13 for the cone and about $8 for the dye materials. And several days of mine and a couple others’ time and sweat - mostly mine. I have no idea how I didn’t notice this before now. I honestly don’t know if this yarn is useable for anything.

As I was sitting there stewing and cursing under my breath, DH, who was quietly typing and observing the whole scene from a safe distance of a few feet away, asked if there was anything I needed. “Red yarn,” I said testily and with probably not a little sarcasm. “Wool, about this weight, that won’t fucking snap when I look at it funny.”

“Anything I actually have?” he asked, with infinite patience.

Pause. A few seconds passed. “A big fucking glass of port. This seriously requires alcohol.”

I rarely drink. I’m no tea-totaler, but booze gives me heartburn, one standard glass is enough that I can’t operate machinery, and my usual reaction to being even mildly drunk is to fall asleep. But DH didn’t even blink. He pulled out the bottle of port and emptied it into my glass.

Yesterday, I made an emergency yarn run and found some useable warp yarn. It’s not really a big deal. I am moving on. But sometimes you just have to say, "Screw it. Bottom’s up."

* Yes, I know anyone could look me up and find the original post on Ravelry. That's fine. Go for it. I am not embarrassed by it, nor is all the language edited out here, obviously. I'm simply providing a buffer between my in-person full-on rants and any readers with potentially more sensitive ears. Er, eyes. Whatever. It's just a courtesy.

** I will, however, be making a trip up there next week with a friend to check the cones on their shelves and see if I'm imagining it or if it really was this weak when I bought it, and to let them know, if they don't already, that it is absolutely, positively not suitable for warp.

*** ETA: I have since found two samples that the shop sent to me before I bought the cone. They are the same yarn, in red. We decided after getting them that we would use that yarn, only dye it ourselves. I tested one of the samples and it, too, snapped with little trouble. So I'm now pretty certain it's the yarn, not our cochineal/tin dyebath.