Friday, December 26, 2008

2009: A Low-Fiber Diet

In case anyone hadn't noticed, the economy went to a small town in southeastern Michigan (Hell, population 266) and decided to stay for an extended visit. Things are tough for a lot of people right now: the financial system is tottering, jobs are getting scarce, and neighborhoods are becoming ghost towns in some communities as banks foreclose and people walk away from money pits they can no longer afford. At Christmas dinner last night, the topic of "hard times" came up once again, and my long-time friend, Betsy (she of the great attic emptying adventure) noted that it seems that every two generations, something really bad happens (war, recession/depression) because people forget. There may be some truth to that: my parents were born in the Depression (Dad in 1931, Mom in 1933), and I picked their brains, and later my grandmother's brain, about what life was like during the Depression. They got through it through hard work, frugality, and being creative; their "tricks and tips" can make getting through these Hard Times a little easier. While the Big Bad Wolf (an iconic figure during the Great Depression) isn't quite at the door, he keeps sniffing around, and I want to keep him away.

One way to make things a little easier for us to is reduce the discretionary spending. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without," was a popular chant during the 1930s and early 1940s, and tracking all those pennies means more of them stay in my pocket. However, my hobby/passion/avocation for all things fiber is one of the few things that I really hate to give up. Fortunately (?) I'm currently sitting on a huge stash: at least 6 fleeces, boxes of other fiber, and boxes of millspun fibers of varied types. There's so much that I really don't have any room left for any more fiber. So what's a girl to do when things don't fit? Go on a diet.

For 2009, I'm going on a "low fiber" diet. This means that I don't get to buy any more millspun yarns until I make a good-sized dent in what is already stashed away. This means that I don't get to buy any more rovings, fleeces, or batts until at least some of what I have is combed, carded, and/or spun. This means I finish the projects I've started and dropped, or I frog them and use the yarn for something else. The fiber has got to go! This is stash-busting on a serious scale, so I have to get serious about it.

The list of projects is long and varied, including:
  • an afghan for my mother
  • two sweaters for Stephen
  • two sweaters for myself
  • an Irish hiking scarf
  • 6 prs of socks
  • a "Canadian Cloud" scarf
  • hats, scarves and gloves for my niece and nephew
  • gifts for friends
At this point, projects underway (the second of a pair of Opal Peacock socks and a tea cozy) should be finished before New Year's, so I can start with a fresh slate. How much stash will will I use up in 2009? We can only wait and see.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Great Christmas Cookie Adventure

I know my way around a kitchen. There's a big sheaf of ribbons--mostly blue--for my cooking and baking hanging in the corner of the kitchen. I also got my grandmother's and great-aunt's recipe collections when they died, so I have multiple generations of recipes, especially cookie recipes.

Just like Christmas, Christmas cookies are a big deal in my family. Everybody has their favorites, there's a lot of entertaining, and naturally, I make nearly every "favorite cookie." I don't make small batches--most of these make 3-10 dozen, so by Christmas, I have a dining room full of tins of Christmas cookies, most of which will be eaten or given away before New Year's. I used to make several kinds of candy, too; that has stopped, as the weather is always a bit "iffy" around Christmas, and candy doesn't respond well to "iffy."

This year's great Christmas cookie adventure had to be in two parts, as I had a Christmas party to attend early in December, then I had to concentrate on work until the 19th. The first big "bake" included some of my favorites, along with mixing up the dough for the Christmas fruit cookies, a long-time, often-requested favorite of nearly everybody. For the first big bake, there were:
  • Georgia's Cookies (a kind of brown-sugar shortbread with pecans)
  • Spritz Cookies
  • Mincemeat Cookies
  • Christmas Fruit Cookies (a refrigerator cookie full of nuts and dried and candied fruit)
This year, I found a nice 9x13" shallow basket that serves as a perfect cookie transport and serving device. All it needed was a large towel folded in the bottom, then a fancy"Christmas" towel for the cookies to rest on until they were gobbled up. The first basketful of cookies went off to a potluck Christmas party, and came home nearly empty.

The second big bake was Christmas Eve, as the time until Christmas was drawing to a close. This was a "scary big" bake, so I could wrap up everything before Christmas Day. The day before, I had mixed up the doughs that needed chilling, so Christmas Eve I started early and worked hard, cranking out as many cookies as I could. This marathon cookie baking was interrupted only by a batch of jelly for Christmas gifts, but it was a nice break, because baking pan after pan of cookies gets old after six hours. For this bake, I turned out:
  • Christmas Fruit Cookies
  • Brown-eyed Susans (a short cookie with a Hershey's Kiss in the middle)
  • Striped Susans (the same cookie but with Hershey's Hugs)
  • Anise Drops
  • Spritz Cookies
  • Festive Cookies (my grandmother's name for Mexican Wedding Cakes or Russian Tea Cakes)
  • Santa's Whiskers (another sliced refrigerator cookie that is rolled in coconut)
  • Lebkuchen
  • and a batch of scones for breakfast
Making Lebkuchen is...interesting. The dough, full of nuts, candied citron, molasses, honey, and spices, is incredibly sticky, so there's a lot of flouring surfaces to keep the dough from sticking to everything. Flouring surfaces means everything is covered in flour, especially your intrepid author--I had flour in my hair, all over me, and I finally had to kick off my clogs and work in my bare feet, as I was starting to slide around on the floury floor. However, I got the little cookies, cut in the shape of hearts with an old canape cutter, into the oven and baked. So far, so good!

I hit a snag when I tried to glaze the lebkuchen. The "original recipe brought from Germany," which is identical to the recipe in my Betty Crocker cookbook, calls for making a sugar syrup, then adding confectioner sugar and glazing the cookies while hot. This was fraught with disaster, as I needed to create basically a candy syrup (cooked to soft ball stage) in the middle of a rainstorm, and the results were somewhat less than what I wanted. OK...take a deep breath and try option two: a thin confectioner sugar-water glaze. Better, but still not perfect. I had to settle for that, however, as I was running out of time. Later, my palate memory finally identified the taste as the wonderful "molasses" Christmas cookie my mother's close friend made when I was small. She finely ground the hazelnuts and candied citron, used cookie cutters to create fancy shapes, and then frosted them with regular cookie frosting and sprinkles. Ah-ha! The next batch (there's still dough in the refrigerator), will be frosted just as Mrs. Weaver's cookies were.

I finished the last batch of cookies around supper time, and Stephen chased me out of the kitchen to make us soup and sandwiches for dinner. Not fancy, but wonderful after a day spent up to my elbows in butter, flour, sugar, and spices. The dining room is full of cookies, the refrigerator is full of cookie dough, and I'm feeding all my friends cookies for the near future!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Playing Santa's Little Helper

Christmas gifts are lovely things--fun to give, fun to get. Handmade Christmas gifts are particularly lovely, as it means the person took some of their valuable time to make something for the recipient. The bad thing about handmade Christmas gifts is that they take time--something in very short supply these days. There's an old saw about "having either time or money": if you don't have the time, you can usually rush out to a store and buy the recipient something; if you don't have the money (these days, because you're unemployed), you probably have the time to make some thoughtful handmade gift.

The problem with this is when you: a) don't have the time because you're one of the lucky ones with a job; and b) you don't make enough to spend a lot of money on gifts. Trying to make thoughtful handmade gifts is tough when you're trying to fit 36 hours into a 24-hour day.

The economy, quite frankly, stinks this year; it's become chic to be cheap frugal. Handmade gifts sounds like an excellent alternative--after all, who wouldn't like a set of hand-embroidered kitchen towels, or a hand-knit tea cozy? Even better when the gifts can be made out of the overly large fabric and fiber stashes--stash-busting and giving at the same time is a "two-fer," and always a good thing. A great idea, but the sands of time are running out.

I gave it my best--got the kitchen towels, out of a beautiful bunch of huck toweling, sewn in a couple hours. The "wrinkle" was in the embroidery--even a simple Swedish weaving pattern on the end of a towel takes about 8 hours, and I have 8 to do. I think I can make it, if I give up eating, sleeping, and everything else between now and Christmas. Not practical; I'm on the 15 yard line, and it's 4th and long in the Christmas Bowl. Time to "drop back and punt."

Thank God for gift baskets. Those wonderful inventions, that in good years provide an interesting (if somewhat expensive) solution to last-minute gift-giving, are a lifesaver for the crafty giver. The trick is to know how the fancy baskets are done.

1) Smaller is better. The trick to a lot of gift baskets is the size of the basket--it's slightly smaller than all the stuff that's going into the basket. "Small" means the basket will be overcrowded, giving a feeling of abundance.

2) Excelsior is my friend. I love excelsior. It's the straw-like stuff that is in the bottoms of the fanciest gift baskets. It makes great padding, is natural and biodegradable, and is once again easily available. Fill up the basket well with excelsior, so the goodies are shown to their best advantage, then pile them in.

3) High quality items mean a high-quality basket. Cost Plus World Market is a wonderful place to find basket goodies, and if you're a great baker or an awesome chef, this is the time to whip up a batch of incredibly luscious treats, or put up that special Christmas jelly that everyone loves. Great handmades also personalize a gift basket in ways that commercial baskets can never duplicate.

4) Shrinkable cellophane. I don't know who invented this stuff, but it's a wonder. Just wrap up the basket (I usually pull it up to the top and put a big bow on), then use a hair dryer to shrink-wrap the basket, just like the fancy commercial baskets.

This year, everybody is getting "Breakfast in Basket," a selection of coffee, tea, cocoa, scone mix, and my award-winning homemade jelly. The baskets are beautiful, everybody seems to like what I put in them (they fight over my jellies and jams), and now I can focus on making wonderful, thoughtful handmade gifts for everyone next year.

Note: This was posted after Christmas, so my friends didn't find out what they were getting for Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hurry Up, Santa*

It's the most wonderful time of year--the papers are graded, the tests are taken, and the next two weeks are dedicated to celebrating. Like most teachers at the end of a term (our fall term ends the Friday before Christmas) the past several weeks have been a mad rush to finish the teaching and testing, the grading and the meetings; I finished entering the last grade at 5:01 p.m. on Friday evening and collapsed, exhausted but secure in the knowledge that I do not have a stack of papers awaiting my return on January 6th. Let the holidays begin!

First on the very long list is decorating the house. Being married to someone that didn't celebrate his first Christmas until he was 22 is a mixed blessing--Stephen loves Christmas, but doesn't know how to decorate a house, so the major task of cleaning and decorating falls to me, with an assist from him. This year, the annual decorating frenzy had to wait until school was finished; I'm ready to start, but my assistant has a full schedule of photo shoots, so I'm on my own, once the decorations are out of the attic. All the work in the attic hasn't deterred the squirrels: we discovered the center well of the Christmas tree stand filled with fiberglass, used by some enterprising squirrel to line a cozy nest. Fortunately (for the squirrel), we aren't putting up a large, live Christmas tree this year, so his nest is secure for a bit longer.

Decorating this year is relatively easy: wreaths on the front door (one on each side), decorated, greenery, and the Victorian feather tree in "pride of place" in the living room. I'm particularly fond of this little tree, as it's perfect for the largish collection of glass ornaments we've amassed over 32 Christmases. They're the only things that go on the tree, and the result is a tree with a glittery, jewelry appearance. I've purchased most of the ornaments, but there are some that have come from the Christmas fairs in Germany, and others that were made in Poland. Two special ones are little gold and silver glass balls that were on our first Christmas tree in 1977--they don't look like much, but at least one of them has been on every single tree we've decorated together.

Once the tree was up, I got all the presents that are finished wrapped and under the tree. There isn't much--yet--but by Thursday morning, the table under the tree will be groaning under all the packages. I still have some Christmas shopping to do, and many gifts to finish before Thursday, so I need to quit writing and get back to work!

Next on the list: Finishing Christmas gifts.

*but not too fast.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Restocking Time

Every couple of years, I have to buy yarn. No, I don't mean buy a skein here or there because I need a bit to finish a project. I mean Buy Yarn. I have to restock the stash with millspun yarns for my charity knitting projects, dyeing projects, and for any large-scale projects (sweaters, afghans) that are going to use up a lot of yarn.

It seems the Black Friday sales are the best time for big yarn purchases, and this year is exceptional. With the economy foundering, retailers have hit the panic button, and are in full discount mode. Recognizing this fear the way a shark smells blood in the water, I started watching the advertisements at the beginning of this week for the real deals on millspun yarns. My favorite is Patons Classic Wool worsted-weight yarn. It's soft enough I can wear it, it's good quality, and I like most of the colors and colorways available. I also like their Kroy sock-weight yarn, even though it's not superwash and I can't throw the socks in the dryer. Since those two are my favorites, a good deal on Patons is something I'm willing to investigate.

JoAnn's fired the opening salvo with their post-Thanksgiving flyer advertising Patons Classic Wool for $3.50/skein. They also had a 20% off coupon good for Friday morning. Michael's Arts & Crafts returned fire with their flyer: all Patons yarns for $3.49/skein and a 25% off coupon for Friday morning. Hmmm...this was going to require some thinking, as the two best caches would be approximately 20 miles apart.

Friday morning, I bounced out of bed early (OK, after 5 hours of sleep, I didn't exactly "bounce"), got some coffee, and headed to Michael's. I walked in the door at 7:45 a.m., armed with my coupon and a shopping cart, and proceeded to clean out their bin of ecru yarn. Ecru is a wonderful color, because you can dye the yarn to any color or colors you need or want. I supplemented with mound of ecru with some specific colorways for charity knitting--two variegated with purple got matching skeins of purple, while two green variegateds got matching green and olive skeins. I also got a good quantity of sock yarn, as it's not just for socks; gloves are also knit from sock yarn, and since I have a special request for a pair of "rifleman mittens" with a separate index finger, I need sock yarn to knit them.

Once I cleaned out Michael's, I headed to our Super JoAnn's. Much larger than a regular JoAnn's, the Super JoAnn's was also a lot more crowded, but I was prepared for the crowds. I found a nice gray for a special-request "skull" sweater, and some black for the intarsia skull. I also found several skeins of a lovely peacock blue for an Irish hiking scarf.

I dragged home all my yarn, cataloged it (thank heavens for Ravelry, or I'd never keep all this organized), and packed it away in the stash closet. I'm now set for another couple years, and can resist all the future sales (yeah, right!).

Saturday, November 08, 2008

BSP: Big Sweater Project

Sometimes, keeping a blog is tough. I don't want to write a litany of complaints about the current state of education ("Quick, Henry, the FLIT!* There's a whiny teacher outside!"), or a rant on the political process (How can we move forward and backward at the same time?). That sweet, patient man I live with has to listen to both those topics, so I shouldn't inflict them on the unsuspecting reader.

About this time every year, I start another Big Sweater Project (BSP). I actually like sweaters, especially wool sweaters, in the cool, damp weather we have through most of the winter in the Bay Area. This wouldn't be an issue, except that I'm sensitive to most of the wool used in commercially knit sweaters, so I have to knit my own to get something that doesn't itch horribly. Last year's BSP was that sweater knitted in the round, that ends up with a shawl collar. I made one out of a dark, heathery green Cascade 220; I finished it just about the time the weather warmed up, so I've had to wait until this fall to wear it. I haven't even had a chance to block it and photograph it (a job when the sweater is huge), so this is a picture from the pattern I used.

This year's BSP is another cardigan based on Elizabeth Zimmerman's Baby Surprise Jacket pattern that was created by EZ in 1968 and published in her book, The Opinionated Knitter. This is a very popular pattern for baby sweaters, probably because it's dirt-simple, and created a rather cool-looking pattern, especially if different yarns are used. The photo is an elegant example by Lynda Sorenson. However, it's difficult to "reverse-engineer," because the placement of the double-decreases and double-increases, which create the angles in the jacket, have to be understood to make straight rows of knitting bend 90 degrees. I looked at a lot of photographs, but without an actual garment to examine, I had to settle for locating a pattern. Success finally came when I won on eBay a complete set of Knitter's from the year 2000, which included the directions for an adult-sized Baby Surprise Jacket. Hooray! Now I can use up a bunch of the stash and make another sweater.

Next problem: the ASJ (Adult Surprise Jacket) uses a lot of yarn. I had squirreled away 8 balls of Lion Brand Wool in the original "Majestic Mountains" colorway (much more saturated than the current version), but that wasn't going to be nearly enough for a comfy wool sweater. Fortunately, Michael's Arts & Crafts had sent me a discount coupon off everything I could purchase at once, so I hot-footed it down the the local store and bought another 8 balls of solid-color Lion Brand Wool in Sage, Cadet Blue, and Cocoa. These colors are pretty close to the colors in my version of Majestic Mountains, so the plan is to separate wide bands of MM with narrow rows of the solid colors.

Once the colors were set, I started adapt the pattern itself to what was in my mind. First off, almost all BSJs and ASJs are knit in garter stitch, a stitch I truly hate, probably because it's b.o.r.i.n.g. Also, I'm using a nice-looking variegated, so I want the color variations to show. My ASJ is being knitted in stockinette, a simple change, as all of the decreases and increases happen in the odd-numbered rows (the "right" side in stockinette). The second change is going to be the collar--I want a shawl collar and a V-neck. The basic pattern has no collar, so adapting the front edges to include a shawl collar shouldn't be too difficult.

The execution is slow going, as the sweater is started by knitting around one sleeve, across the shoulders and around the other sleeve. I should know better, and run when a pattern starts with the words, "Cast on 440." However, I really want this sweater, so I cast on the required number using waste wool, and then switched to the first of the narrow stripes. The plan is to use the row of live stitches to extend the sleeves (if necessary), and create very clean/invisible shoulder seams when I finally finish all the knitting. Two rows of brown (A), two rows of blue (B), two rows of green (C), then ten rows of the variegated, before knitting a C-B-A-B-C set of rows and going back to the variegated. Each row takes about 30 minutes to knit right now, so a week of working on the jacket every evening has resulted in about 3 inches of finished jacket.

The execution also required some tricky stitchwork to get decreases I like. The first, SK2togPSSO is not that big a deal, except that it moves over 1 stitch each time to create a left-slanting diagonal. The second is more difficult. I wanted the decrease to be a neat as the first one, but the stitches are going in the wrong direction for a right-slanting diagonal. Solution? K2tog, pass the stitch back to the left needle, then lift the next stitch over it and drop off, creating a right-handed diagonal decrease. I'm sure there must be an easier way, but I haven't had the time (or, quite frankly, the inclination) to research an easier way.

This is also not a portable project. I hate weaving in ends, so I'm leaving the different-colored yarns attached for easy pick-up. Trying to move something spread over two 32" circular needle cables, with 4 different balls of yarn attached to it at all times, is difficult at best, so I don't even try. My portable project is yet another pair of socks, this time out of Opal, in the Rainforest 2 Peacock colorway. Socks are wonderful because they're portable, and I don't have to really think about what I'm doing until I get to the heel.

*FLIT was a popular pyrethrin-based insecticide manufactured by Standard Oil Co. in the 1920s and 1930s. The advertising, one of the first jobs by a young Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, featured whimsical flying bugs and the tagline "Quick Henry, the FLIT!"

Sunday, October 26, 2008


My studio is a complete mess--I'm surprised that I can find my work table, much less sit at it to write a blog. All this mess was created by the guild's annual swap meet, fondly referred to as the "Stash Reallocation Sale."

I'm committed to some serious stash-busting. The stash is just too darned large, and if I can make it smaller, either by selling, trading away, or using up the fibers, I have an excuse (As if I needed one!) to buy a bunch of new fibers. The stash is also a bit ridiculous--I have yarns that I got when I bought my floor loom--in 1995--that the loom's previous owner got when she bought the loom. All of these have been carefully stored for years decades, but I had to ask myself: When am I ever going to use up 14 skeins of pink and white bulky mohair boucle? I don't like pink, I don't like mohair, and I don't like boucle. The stuff needs to go.

Saturday was spent going through the boxes in the stash and deciding if I should keep it or let it go. A couple things started off in one pile and wandered back to the other: the half-pound of llama stayed to be blended with some cotted merino roving of a similar color; the black-and-white two-strand mohair stayed because it's really weird; the cut but unchained chenille warp stayed because I couldn't inflict it on my fellow guild members. Other things were easy: a 2.2-pound of very fine silver lurex was a no-brainer, as was the pink-and-white mohair boucle, and a bunch of other stuff. When I finished sorting through everything, I had 2 1/2 boxes of stuff, along with an inkle loom and a warping reel, to take to the sale.

This morning, I dragged everything down to the guild meeting, and before the sale even started, found exactly what I was looking for: a clock reel. A clock reel is a wonderfully tricky skein winder that has a counter built in for calculating the length of the yarn in the skein. The name comes from the clicking or popping sound the counter makes. The reel is immortalized in the song, "Pop Goes the Weasel," which describes the workings of a clock reel:

Round and round the mulberry bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to pull up his socks,
Pop goes the weasel!

Most of the clock reels I've been over the years have been antiques, and very valuable, so it was a delightful surprise to walk around the corner of the building and there one was, with a price tag on it! Made by Fricke Enterprises, my new clock reel has a two-yard circumference (so each "pop" is 2 yards), and is mounted on a small floor stand. This is going to make winding off and measuring yarns much easier, as I've always had to use a niddy-noddy in the past, and then calculate the amount of yarn by counting the number of rounds in a skein, or by using a McMorran Yarn Balance, which seems to be general at best. Now I can calculate yardages pretty accurately while creating skeins, so I'm saving quite a bit of time and effort.

Money isn't currently growing on trees, so I had to make sure I sold enough of my stash to pay for the clock reel. It was easier than I thought--the warping reel went almost immediately, followed quickly by some roving, some yarns, and a set of Denise interchangeable circular knitting needles that I bought years ago, used once, hated, and never touched again. At the end of the day, I sold enough stuff to cover the cost of both the clock reel and a small stack of vintage (1930s) needlework magazines. My clock reel was free! I packed what didn't sell (about 2 boxes of vintage yarns) and dragged everything back home; hence the messy studio. I gave the clock reel a whirl this evening, and skeined the black-and-white mohair: there's 256 yards, so I need to give some thought to what I'm going to use it for once I get the studio tidied up.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Color: An Excuse to Goof Off

With all the craziness that accompanies life during the school year, I needed to take a break. I really needed to take a break. Fortunately, Color: A Fiber Festival in Berkeley was yesterday, so I ditched the lesson plans and papers--I have nearly 100 essays on America's 19th century industrial boom to grade--and the Sonata and I spent the day with people and things related to fiber. Unfortunately, I forgot to take my camera.

Color is an interesting local fiber festival. This was the second occurrence of this festival (the first was in April of this year), and drew about 75 people to its classes, sales, and hanging out in a marvelous location, the Pacific School of Religion. The campus of the 160-year-old interdenominational seminary, spread over an acre on "Holy Hill" (Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union Library is down the block), features beautiful old Gothic Revival buildings set in lush green lawn, all with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate.

All this beauty was enhanced by the weather. For those unfamiliar with our so-called "seasons," October is actually "summer" in the Bay Area, with cerulean skies, warm days, and crisp-as-a-potato-chip nights. Yesterday was no different. What little fog there was yesterday burned off by 11:00, so most of us spent the day either sitting with our wheels or knitting outside on the patio beside the historic Holbrook Library. I schlepped about a half-pound of the black merino pin-draft down there with me, and spent several hours turning roving into very fine singles, as a group of us chatted about everything under the sun from the current political situation to the recent Yahoo! buyout attempt, to whose kid is getting braces next. Needless to say, it was an eclectic group! People wandered in and out of the group, taking breaks from spinning or knitting to take one of the several classes offered, or to shop with the vendors set up in the common room.

The classes were out-and-out fun. I took a short class on using a Weave-It, a tiny loom used by many people to create woven samples, taught by Karrie Weaver. A Weave-It (also known as a Weavette, or a similar tiny loom made by Hazel Rose) has been around for a number of years in a number of different sizes; I have a giant-sized version marketed during the 1950s as a "Loomette King," and used for weaving placemats. All these loom-like creatures work in the same basic way: wrap a yarn or thread around a series of pegs in a specific sequence, then use a long needle to weave through the threads, locking them into place. All of these looms come with instructions when first purchased, usually printed with microscopic diagrams in tiny books that are easily lost, so taking a class on how to use one clears us a lot of the mystery. I took the class with Jamie, another good friend I'm gently leading down the path to fiber perdition, and a couple other people, and by the end of an hour, we were turning out coasters for shot glasses on two-inch Weave-Its, and noting on how much this reminded us of childhood days spent at day camp. (Many thanks to the lovely people at Color and to Karrie for letting me "kype" this photo of her Weave-Its and weavings).

What would a festival be without some shopping? Festival attendees had their choice of fiber and yarn from about a half-dozen local vendors: Tactile, Ceallach Dyes, A Verb for Keeping Warm, Pan's Garden, Pigeon Roof, Girl on the Rocks, and Flynn Creek Churros (which my brain keeps turning into Flying Creek Burritos) had baskets, bins, and braids of fiber to spin, and hanks of yarn waiting for needles and hooks. Handsome Books had a selection of old textile books and a pile of quaint needlework magazines from the 1960s. I'm currently on a very strict "no fiber diet," and it was hard to resist, especially the braids of purple hand-painted superwash merino at Girl on the Rocks. I owe a debt of thanks to the people that bought all that superwash--I managed to make it through the day without adding to the stash. However, a lot of other people went home with a lot of good stuff, including one very happy woman who went home with a new (to her) drum carder.

All in all, Color is a nice little festival. I'm already looking forward to the next one, which should be in April, just as the Bay Area fiber community begins to ramp up for the summer fiber activities.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Juggling Lessons

I'm currently preoccupied with juggling lessons. No, not the kind where you throw tennis balls, fruit, or chain saws (for those fascinated by extreme spectacle), the kind where you juggle the demands of a life that is suddenly overly full of commitments.

School is back in session.

It seems I no sooner got back from the Golden Gate Fiber Institute (at some point, I'll write an entry just about "Spinning Camp") than I went down to Southern California for some family face-time. I came back from Southern California, and less than 72 hours later, I was sitting in meetings, trying to get answers to burning questions ("When am I going to get my class lists?"), and trying to rearrange my classroom in preparation for the return of the students. August 20 arrived too quickly, and my room was full of students once again. Wait! I just went on vacation! Where did the summer go?!?

Every year, my schedule is different. This year it's a single class of 14-year-olds taking 9th grade Geography and four classes (about 120 students) of 15- and 16-year-olds taking 11th grade United States History. It's funny: just about the time that teenagers reach that stage where they drive their parents crazy, I start to find them interesting. They are turning from children into adults, and once we get it clear that: a) I'm not their mother (or grandmother); and b) they are to be respectful to me because I am a teacher, we I have a pretty good time (they are miserable because I require them to work). The biggest change this year is my preparation period. After a year of not having students until almost 9:00 a.m., my schedule is completely reversed, and my first students arrive on my doorstep at 7:45 a.m. However, my last students leave at 1:45, rather than 2:45, and I have several uninterrupted hours to work on grading papers, writing lesson plans, or attend the endless meetings teachers have to attend.

So, what have I been doing for the past month? Not too terribly much since the end of the Ravelympics on August 24. The final tally was 4 pairs of mittens, and a good start on a knitted hoodie for Tracy's baby (due in October). I finished the hoodie (except the handsewing and finishing) this week, and I'm looking forward to gift-wrapping it so I don't have to look at it any more. I also discovered in knitting the baby hoodie that I truly hate garter stitch (the stitch used throughout the baby hoodie), and that I hate working with acrylic (essential when making baby clothes).

Because I've been so busy with school, I haven't had time to spend with my spinning wheels. Back in June, I bought a black Merino fleece from Nebo-Rock Textiles while I was at Black Sheep, and I sent it down to Morro Fleece Works for processing. I sent down 5 1/2 lbs. of gorgeous black fleece; I got back 4 1/2 lbs of perfect pin-drafted roving, neatly divided into four roughly equal "bumps" (the term used to describe a large ball of processed, unspun fiber). I'm spinning first one (and probably a second one) semi-worsted to create my standard knitting yarn--a moderately fine single that when 3-plied will create a nice DK-weight knitting yarn. Eventually, when I spin and ply enough yarn, Stephen will get a very nice sweater.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ravelympics Update

This is, by necessity, a very short entry simply because I'm spending all my "extra" time with flying fingers and clicking needles--Ravelympics 2008 is under way! Around the world, 5,651 fiber artists and needlepeople committed to finishing 16,210 projects during the 17 days of the Beijing Games. It's amazing how you can entice people into knitting, crocheting, spinning, or felting, simply by suggesting a timeline.

I cast on the first pair of mittens just after 6:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, and was well underway by the time I saw the fireworks shooting off from "the Birds' Nest," Beijing's very modernistic national stadium (which Stephen describes as "the Toilet Seat"). No, NBC's Olympic coverage wasn't on early--the fireworks were going off in the background as KNBC's representative was finishing his report. I started with both mittens on the same needles, but switched to singles after finishing the cuffs--it's simply too difficult to keep things straight when knitting mittens two-up.

In spite of some long "interruptions," including a trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to see Air Force One and and a Nancy Reagan's gowns, I was able to knit pretty steadily throughout the day, and finished off the first pair just as the Opening Ceremonies telecast began. The first pair, red-brown-blue-purple variegated with brown cuffs and thumbs, came out well and I cast on the second pair, knitted in solid brown wool. They were finished early in the morning on August 10th, and I proceeded on to my main Baby Dressage entry, Tracy's Baby's Hoodie, a garter-stitch hoodie knitted from pastel-variegated acrylic baby yarn. I've focused on that through the train trip back to the Bay Area, and most of yesterday, finishing the bottom and now working my way up the right front. The hoodie will make a good project to take with me tomorrow when I go to a series of meetings to start off the school year, and I'll keep cranking out mittens as fast as I can.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Big House Project 2008

Each summer, we try to do one big project around the house. It's a good time to do things that are either outside (the weather is good), or require both of us (we're both at home). Last year's Big House Project was landscaping the front yard. This year's Big House Project is installing cedar paneling in the closet of my studio.

I have two problems: a) a large quantity of protein-based fibers; and b) something that likes to eat protein-based fibers (either moths or carpet beetles). The critters have occasionally gotten into a skein or two in the studio, but I've been lucky--they haven't found the great mother-lode, my fiber stash. Everything is stored in bags (just in case), and then in those 12-gallon stackable bins--24 12-gallon stackable bins, along with (currently 3) muslin-canvas bags of scoured fleece. I also use No-Moth, a powerful moth killer/repellent, but I'm tired of having the studio smell like mothballs. So, this year's project was to line the closet where the wool (and silk, and camel, and so on) lives until it gets used up.

The closet is 71 inches wide, 25 inches deep, and 108 inches tall. The entire closet has to be paneled--ceiling, walls, floor and (if you're really anal) door--so we got 10 15-square-foot boxes of cedar paneling, several boxes of paneling nails, and set to work. We started off tag-teaming this project: Stephen cut the cedar planks to size, and I put them into place and nailed them down. We quickly found out the first problem: I can't swing a hammer accurately to save my life when I can't see what I'm doing. Did I mention that the closet does not have a light in it? By the time I was half-way up the back wall, I had hit my fingers at least a dozen times. Not good for someone who has to do so much work with their hands. Stephen gently took the hammer out of my hand, and told me to go do something else while he finished the back, did the sides, and tackled the ceiling. Problem #2: There's only 1 joist above the ceiling. Stephen tried gluing the boards into place, but gravity proved too much, and they kept falling on the floor. He finally gave up, swore a lot, but nailed the ceiling into place. I took over when we got to the floor (for some reason, I can swing a hammer straighter when nailing something flat.

Once we finished with the cedar planking, all that was left was installing a nice cove molding to hide the edges. I measured the pieces of cove molding, then gave them to Stephen (along with careful instructions) to cut. Then Stephen brought them in, got back up on the ladder, and started nailing them into place.

All in all, I'm pretty happy with my new stash closet. While it's not very roomy if you're standing in it, the closet is deep enough to hold all 24 storage bins, 3 bags of fleece, a lap inkle loom, a large box loom, and an assortment of other small things, and still be able to get the door closed. My studio now smells like the inside of a cedar chest, and probably will for another six months or so--it's a good thing I like the smell of cedar. My fibers are now safe, and I can concentrate on import

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SABLE (Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy)

I'll admit it--I have a really, really, really large stash. I'll also admit to being a bit of a packrat. It's probably pretty common for women of my age--we're the children of people that grew up in the Great Depression, and while there was a lot of love, fun, and laughter in my family, there wasn't a lot of money. My mother, bless her dear sweet heart, still pinches pennies until they squeak, and she taught her daughter well; I can pinch pennies with the best of them--a good skill for this time of economic hardship. She taught me to always shop for bargains, and how to substitute (when necessary) to get the results I wanted. I've taken that advice to heart, and I've stockpiled quite a nice little pile of fiber, some of it good, some of it atrocious.

When I married, I had a tiny stash, mostly of very fine needle- point yarns that came from Super Yarn Mart in Southern California. Super Yarn Mart was a wonder--acres of cheap acrylic yarns from the major mills, sold at a fraction of the price of the skeins you could find in TG&Y and Gemco. Super Yarn Mart sold their yarn by the ounce or pound, and it came in huge skeins that had to be wound into balls before it could be used for needlework (this was the days before umbrella swifts and ball winders became standard equipment). The stores were probably terribly tacky by today's standards, but they were full of yarn, carried lots of free patterns, and were a Godsend for fiberholics on tight budgets. Just like any disaster area, there was a little bit of heaven, in the form of their needlepoint yarns. I don't know where they were getting them, but they sold 40-yard skeins of Paternayan as "Persian Wool" for 59 cents a skein. I stocked up when I did a needlepoint for a magazine cover comp/Graphic Design class assignment in college, and those yarns formed the basis of my stash when I finally moved out of the parental abode, along with a book of needlepoint designs and a few knitting and crochet patterns.

The stash grew slowly over the next few years: a ball of crochet cotton here, some more needlepoint yarn there. Because I was still near the family, I often raided Mom's stash for fiber, then supplemented with my own. I started collecting books of vintage needlework patterns as an adjunct to doing historical costuming: some of the first Dover reprints of Weldon's patterns; a copy of The Workwoman's Guide; xeroxes of instructions from the Los Angeles Public Library's bound copies of Godey's Ladies Book. Each time we moved, the stash grew a little larger: I wanted a needlepoint rug for the new house; I crocheted an afghan for the living room. Excess yarns were regularly dropped off to grow Mom's stash. Then we moved to Northern California.

I suddenly found myself in a land where wool was not only wearable during the winter, but nearly mandatory (I thought I was going to freeze to death that first winter). I was living near lots of reenacting opportunities, and hanging with my friends, all of whom have a fine appreciation for mastering historical tasks, whether they are shooting, spinning, or knitting. I needed more fiber in my diet! At first I limited my fiber intake to my usual obsession with stockpiling fabric (but the fabric stash tale is for another time), but I began to get interested in adding the needleworked finishes to my historical garments. I was now 500 miles from Mom's stash, so I started buying my own fibers, stocking up when I found something on sale, and setting things aside for the ever-lengthening project list. Yarns were harder to find (Super Yarn Mart had gone out of business), but I could still find skeins in Michael's and Target, as long as I wasn't too fussy (I wasn't).

We were at Gold Rush Days in Coloma, California when I was introduced to the joys and frustrations of spinning. Another woman had brought her Ashford Elizabeth up to the reenactment to give a spinning demonstration, and was bedeviled by the intracacies of her wheel. I watched her struggle for a while, then asked if I could try when she walked away in disgust. She gave the OK, and I sat down, gave a couple of practice pushes on treadle, and began spinning from the rolag she left hanging down from the orifice. It wasn't great yarn, but I was hooked. Serendipity led Stephen to buy me my own wheel--a Tekoteko Wendy--from a tiny antique store next to our campsite, and I bought my first fleece--a Cotswold hogget--from the shepherd giving a shearing demonstration that same weekend. I was a spinner! Now the stash really began to grow. I started attending a spinning class through Napa Valley College, hanging out with other fiber folk, and buying a fleece or two when I could afford it. I still bought yarn--I wasn't confident enough in my own spinning to start actually using the yarns I was spinning. And I started thinking about weaving. I had done "little kid" weaving projects on looper looms and cardboard looms when I was smaller, and had wanted to take up weaving in college, but the weaving classes were always full, so I focused on printmaking. A friend offered to let me store her floor loom in exchange for use of it, so I started playing with warps and collecting fibers for weaving rebozos. I loved weaving, and when she was ready to move her loom back to her house, I started looking for my own floor loom to keep working. I answered an ad on the bulletin board at Straw Into Gold; the woman who posted it was a long-time weaver that was retiring, and she sold me nearly everything she had. I ended up not only with a floor loom, an inkle loom, a tapestry loom, and a Navajo rug loom, but about 300 pounds of fibers that she had gotten with the loom when she bought it, along with virtually her entire stash. I now had bins of fiber.

Over the years, I've continued to add to the stash faster than I can use it up. It takes time to use up stash, and I've had precious little of that, especially with a full-time teaching position and (this past year) graduate school. To that end, I've been, mostly, very good about not buying more fiber. I've decreased my mill-spun fiber purchases to very little (3 skeins in the past 15 months). Unfortunately, I've upped my quantity of unspun fibers with several fleece purchases, so the stash has grown even larger.

Storage of all this fiber is a problem. Northern California does not get hot enough in the summer to kill off a lot of bugs, and wool is particularly susceptible to both clothes moths and carpet beetles. To that end, we're cedar-lining the closet in my studio (my obsession long ago ago took over one of the bedrooms as an office/studio) to provide a safe habitat for my wools and protein fibers. The non-wool fibers (cottons, linens, and the acrylics I still have) are currently stored in the attic. But most of all--I have got to go on a very restricted fiber diet for a year or two, until I can either use up, sell, or trade away at least some of all this fiber.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hangin' with the Fiber Folk

Like clockwork--an odd saying, as clocks don't always run "like clockwork"--the fiber folk took over Dixon to celebrate all things sheepie at Lambtown USA. This is the 22nd time this festival celebrating Ovis aries has taken place; this year, the festival was back at the Dixon May Fairgrounds, after last year's attempt at having it at another site in Dixon.

A lot of history surrounds both the Dixon May Fairgrounds and Lambtown. The Fairgrounds and the May Fair have been a yearly event since 1874, and for many years, the May Fair (which originally started as a horse-racing event) served as Solano County's yearly agricultural fair. This changed in the early 1950s, when Vallejo offered to be the home of the County Fair (a much cooler place to hold a fair in mid-July), but the Dixon May Fair has continued as the 36th Ag District's yearly agricultural fair. Lambtown began in the mid-1980s as a mid-summer celebration of lamb (as in "leg of") to honor Dixon's largest employer, a lamb packing plant, and to draw people out to the Central Valley community during July--the hottest month of the year. A few years after the start, Lambtown began to include things of interest to the fiber arts community; when the packing plant closed in the late 1990s, Lambtown had incorporated enough fiber-related events that it has continued to be a popular little fiber festival. It has a small-town feel--the entire coordinating committee is only twelve people--and for those of us who like the idea of small towns, it's a chance to get out of suburbia and pretend we're "down on the farm" again.

This year, buzz about Lambtown started early on Ravelry, and by the time the fair rolled around on Saturday, a lot of people were making plans to drive out to Dixon. Carpools were coordinated, a group gathered online, and a Ravelry meet-up was organized--as well as could be by people unfamiliar with the layout of the Fairgrounds. The day arrived, and Jane and I went out early; unlike last year, I opted to save gas (and money) and take my skeins out the day of the festival, rather than driving out to Dixon the day before to drop them off. Getting out there early paid off--we got a parking place near the entrance. This year, Lambtown was given the best gift ever for a festival: lovely weather. Unlike last year, when it was over 100 degrees, this year's festival was hot only if you were in the sun; those of us opting to sit in the shade and spin or knit found the weather to be mercifully cool and pleasant.

The skeins dropped off, we went to explore the Fiber Fair, held in one of the two buildings taken over by the festival. Too much good stuff!! About 30 vendors had their wares spread out for the delectation of fiber fans, and I nearly had "fiber lock" (a condition caused by exposure to too much fiber choice too quickly). There was enough alpaca fleece to clothe an entire troop of Andean actors, hanks of Nancy Finn's luscious hand-painted silk roving everywhere, and something to delight the heart of nearly every spinner or needleworker. Brooke and Maia of Tactile Fiber Arts had more skeins of their natural-dyed yarns (I got a skein from them as a "thank you" gift for Betsy for minding Becky Fatcat while I was at Black Sheep), along with yummylicious hanks of silk-merino roving. They were sharing a booth with A Verb for Keeping Warm, and the entire booth was packed with patrons, petting the yarns and snapping up finds as fast as they could. Carolina Homespun had a huge booth, with lots of wheels to try, and lots of fibers to entice; I was good, and bought only the Strauch flicker I needed to start on all the BLX locks, but Jane spent a long time searching through the collection of spindles until she found her "baby": a Bosworth Maxi, perfect for spinning the bulky yarns she favors. I nearly succumbed to the rainbow-dyed silk hankies at Royal Hare, but I kept remembering all of the stash I currently have: 6 fleeces (or parts thereof), and pounds of other fibers, including silk. No fiber buying for me! I relented a bit, and bought a 2-oz. bump of hemp roving from Cavyshops. Stephen's greatest desire is to have real hemp rope for the linstock of his cannon, so this hemp will be spun and we'll set up a "rope walk" on the sidewalk in front of the house to ply it into the size he needs.

Part of the fun of attending a fiber fair is running into people you know. Pretty early on, Jane and I ran into a bunch of people from the Spindles & Flyers spinning guild in Berkeley, and we all hung out together most of the day, while we shopped, sampled the different food booths (the consensus was "more lamb!"), strolled out to see the sheep dog competition, and hung out with the other Ravelers in the meet-up area, under the big elm between the fiber buildings. At one point, we went to admire the angora bunnies in the wool show building--I lasted about 10 minutes, then fled the building, my eyes itching and nose running. Angora bunnies are so cute--and I'm so allergic. Because the competitions were going on in the same building, and the judging for the skeins and textiles was going on at the same time as the wool judging, I didn't see any of the wool judging this year. It probably was for the best--I really don't need any more fleece! Most of the afternoon was spent in the shade of the big elm, with about forty other spinners and needleworkers, chatting and working.

So, how did my skeins do? Not badly at all, considering that I didn't make the decision to enter until about three weeks ago, and spun the yarn specifically for entering at Lambtown. The two skeins entered were rovings that I had purchased from Carolina Homespun at the spinning event at Retzlaff Winery in June; they spun up nicely, and I decided to enter them for "hoots and giggles." The first was a 4-oz. hank of 100% Targhee roving, hand-painted by the people at Mountain Colors in the same colors as their popular "Northern Lights" yarn. I spun and two-plied it, and got nearly 400 yards out of the 4 ounces. I also got a red second-place ribbon for it, in the 100% handspun wool, plied, class.

The second was a 4-oz. bag of Rainbow Roving, colored "Victoria Into the Woods," from Crosspatch Creations. I was a little surprised when I saw the spun yarn at Black Sheep--it was much more yellow than my roving was. My roving, however, spun up into a heathery green novelty yarn. I tried something different for this roving, after reading different posts online about Paula Simmon's technique for spinning for speed and softness. I normally don't attempt a long draw, but I did on this, and it seems to have paid off--that is a blue ribbon on the skein. I have 350+ yards of 2-ply from this roving; I'm not sure what it will end up as, but it should be something interesting.

Once again, Lambtown was good, old-fashioned summer fun, and it's already on the calendar for attending next year.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Every Four Years...

Once again, the quadriennial madness has struck. In the United States, we go through the political process, as originally laid out in the Constitution, and elect a new president, vice-president, 33 senators, 453 members of the House of Representatives, and about 20 governors. The election campaign has been going on for more than a year, the last primary was more than a month ago, and we're still nearly 3 months away from the actual voting. However, politics goes on.

Outside the United States--and for many people inside the United States--every four years means it's once again time for the Games of the Olympiad. This one is #29, so the official title is The Games of the XXIX Olympiad. However, most people just refer to the Games by their host city; 2008 is Beijing, China, so most people just call them the "Beijing Olympics." This time the Olympics are fraught with controversy. China is looking forward to the Games serving as a showcase for how the country has grown from a largely agricultural monarchy at the end of World War II to one of the economic superpowers of the world. However, with all this publicity comes a certain amount of scrutiny, and China's ruling oligarchy doesn't have the best record of being nice. There has been tremendous controversy over China's support of repressive governments in Sudan and Myanmar, and her attitude toward the people of Tibet, the followers of Fulan Gong, and generally anyone the government or its supporters think is "dissing" China or her government. There have been some calls for boycotts of the Summer Games, but it looks like every county that has an Olympic Committee is sending athletes.

The Games begin at 8:00 p.m., on August 8, 2008 (8 is considered an auspicious number), and for the next 17 days, people around the world will be glued to their television sets, radios, and computers, following individual athletes, events, sports, medal counts, and the controversies that always arise: who was caught doping, who got hurt during last-minute workouts, or whether an athlete really can live up to all the hype. The Games give people an excuse to get together ("hey, why don't you come over and we'll watch the Men's Basketball semis"), and to organize their own events connected to the Olympic Games.

Ravelry (the online network for fiber folk) has jumped in with the Ravelympics 2008. Working on the basic premise that members will start and complete at least one project during the 17-day Games, the basic idea has exploded. More than 1,000 "ravletes" have signed up to participate in such events as WIP (Work In Progress) Wrestling, Baby Dressage, Mitten Medley, Homespun Heptathlon, Sock Put, Sweater Sprint, Shawl Relay, and a host of other events related to knitting and crocheting. Ravletes sign up for events (projects they want to do) and teams that may be related geographically (Team Canada; Team Indiana) or by common interest (Team Battlestar Galactica; Team Hopelessly Overcommitted). I joined Team TARDIS (full of fans of the long-running British SF series, Doctor Who) and signed up for three events:

WIP Wrestling--I will finish a blue crocheted sweater I started down in Los Angeles on a visit home in 1999.
Baby Dressage--A friend is due in October; this is a perfect time to knit a hoodie and booties for her.
Mitten Medley--This year's charity work. I'm going to crank out as many mittens as I can (while finishing the crocheted sweater and knitting the hoodie), box them up, and send them to Afghans for Afghans.

In the Ravelympics, swatching, and the necessary prep work that goe into knitting or crocheting a pattern are considered "training," and are allowed before the start of the Games. To that end, I've been working through the mitten pattern I've chosen (a simple 2-needle pattern) to find the flaws, errors, and glitches that make knitters crazy. However, the actual "medal mittens" won't begin until the evening of August 8. Then, it will simply be a race to complete as many as possible. The other "events" (projects) are either started (the blue crocheted sweater), or I'm familiar enough with the pattern that I don't need to swatch it, so they will also get a little work on August 8. Then it will be scraping bits of time together to finish as much as I can.

The very cool Ravelympics 2008 banner was designed by Raveler K2togKate.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Spin Journal #10: So--What Do You Do With A Ten Pound Fleece?

One of my big splurges this year at Black Sheep was fleece--I came home with no less than three. The hogget I already described. The second, a beautiful black Merino from Nebo-Rock, was packed off to Morro Fleece Works to be professionally scoured, carded, and turned into pin-draft roving (I don't have experience working with fine wools, and I'm not going to start with a blue-ribbon fleece). The third was a big, drop-dead gorgeous white fleece, shorn from the back of a Border Leicester / Corriedale / Merino cross-breed (aka, "the BLX") owned by Elizabeth Hubbard of Hub Corriedales in Bonanza, Oregon. Ms. Hubbard has a knack for raising amazing sheep--a Border Leicester fleece she entered in the Wool Show at Black Sheep last year was the Grand Champion fleece, and this year's fleeces seemed even better. I had to have that BLX, and through some terrific teamwork, the fleece not only ended up in my pile, but finally ended up back at my house a week after I got back from Black Sheep.

This fleece is big, tipping the scales at just over 10 pounds. It also has great lock structure, something necessary if you're going to spin from the lock, which I wanted to do with this fleece. However, this sheep is a heavy lanolin producer, and I've gotten away from spinning in the grease, so the fleece has to be scoured. But how to maintain the lock structure and get the fleece clean? I decided to do something different--separate the individual locks, wrap them in nylon net, and wash them that way. I trotted off to JoAnn's to buy a mile of nylon netting.

At first, I thought I could do all this washing prep outside in the backyard. It was a lovely summer day, so I took the fleece out and dumped it onto the 48" patio table. It completely covered the table, and I didn't have any place to work, so I carried all the TV trays out to the patio to create a horizontal work surface. Next problem--the breeze. The wonderful westerly breeze that keeps us cool was making it impossible for me to work outside: it blew the nylon onto the patio, blew the locks onto the patio, and (worst of all) blew leaves and twigs from the overhanging birch tree onto the fleece. Dang! So where is the next largest horizontal surface that I can use for this? Simple: the kitchen island, eight feet of uninterrupted, tiled, perfect height for working, space. So what if it means we can't use the island for a couple days? I need to get this fleece washed. Everything got bundled back up, carried back into the house, and I spread out on the island and got to work.

The nylon netting is 72" wide, so I cut it into 24" lengths. That's enough to allow 2 rows of locks, or 4 to 5 ounces (washed weight), and still have enough space to completely enclose the locks in netting. Once the packages were finished, I gently rolled each into a cylinder (a wool "cake" if you will), pinned it, and put it into one of the large mesh laundry bags I normally use for washing. Each bag holds 6 rolls; the washer holds 2 bags. Then I just did my usual scouring. Once the bags were done, I spread out the rolls on the kitchen counter (which had been scrubbed down by this time) to dry. Over the course of two days, I washed 4 bags (24 rolls) of wool.

Some lovely discoveries in doing all this work. #1: This is a lot of work. It took two days to process 8 pounds of wool, and I have about another full day of work to finish off the fleece. #2: It's definitely worth it. Once washed, the fleece is snowy white, with nearly all the crimp still intact, and very little felting. For the several pounds I put aside for spinning as white yarn, all I need to do is flick a dog comb through the tips of the locks, and they're ready to spin. There are also very few second-cuts or noils, because I was able to pull all those out as I separated out the locks. #3: With the locks already wrapped in nylon, it's a relatively simple (if time-consuming) matter to sew the rolls shut and then chuck them into dye pots. I've been doing that for the past two days, and I'm getting some really nice dyed locks that will be fun to comb and spin. #4: I got to lovingly handle all this gorgeous fleece--just the experience is well worth all the effort.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Spin Journal #9: Mr. Stinky

Sometimes my senses get ahead of my brain, and I get into trouble. I managed to do it again at Black Sheep, the big fiber festival. I cruised through the "non-show" fleece room on Saturday morning, just to check out what was for sale, and found a fleece that had real possibilities: nice color, good length, incredibly soft, and nice crimp. A good fleece; it was small (just under 3 1/2 pounds), but I wasn't looking for anything too large, so I bought it and dragged it back to the camp.

I should have looked closer.

My "find" was full of grass, bits of alfalfa, a few dung tags, and lots of tiny ladybird beetles. Worse, it stank--phew! I don't know what that sheep had been rolling in, but it was certainly fragrant. Oy vey--what had I gotten myself into? I wasn't really too sure, but I took a chance, pulled a random lock out of the bag, and trotted over to the ladies' room to give it a test wash with some of my shampoo. Hmmm.....the lock came clean, and when it dried, it was very soft, with a moderate amount of wavy crimp, and the same color as my own hair. The softness intrigued me--Romneys and Coopworths aren't really soft, but this was baby-fine, rather like llama. Could this be a hogget? Was there hope for this little fleece? I decided to take a chance on this stinky little fleece, packed it into the duffle bag with my beautiful black merino, and brought it home.

When I got home (and recovered from the train trip back to the Bay Area), I fired off an e-mail to the previous owner of this little fleece, Anna Harvey of Harvey Farms in Calpine. Specifically, I wanted to know what the sheep was that produced this fleece. While I waited for a return e-mail, I set about washing "Mr. Stinky." I normally don't pre-soak my fleeces--I buy almost exclusively from coated handspinning flocks, so there isn't that much dirt in the fleece. However, I don't think this sheep had even heard the word "coat," much less worn one. separated the fleece into three large mesh bags, filled the washer with cold water, and submerged the bags. The water turned black! I just shuddered and shut the lid on the washer to let them soak overnight.

The next morning, I drained and spun the mesh bags, and looked to see what was going on. The awful stench was gone, so I prepared for the next step: scouring. I use the directions given to me by Paula Shull last year, and they really work well for longwool fleece. I had cranked up the heat in the water heater to the highest setting, so I knew the water was hot enough for washing fleece. I filled the washer with hot water and 1 cup of Dawn dishwashing detergent, turned the washer off, and submerged the mesh bags full of fleece. Then I closed the lid and let it set for 40 minutes. I spun the water out, lifted the bags out, and refilled the washer with hot water again, then turned it off, and resubmerged the bags. After another 40-minute soak, I spun the water out a second time and took the bags out again. Once again, I filled the washer with hot water, this time adding a couple "glugs" of plain distilled "white" vinegar. Back into the water went the bags for their last 40-minute soak. After a ride through the spin cycle for the last time, I gently emptied the bags onto my drying racks.

To my amazement, it worked! The fleece was clean, soft, and beautiful. Most of the lock structure was still intact (important, as I'm combing this fleece), and I was able to shake out a lot of the vegetative matter (and lots of dead baby ladybird beetles). There's still a little VM left, but it's coming out as I comb.

The final treat was getting an e-mail answer back from Anna Harvey. It seems that Mr. Stinky is a ewe lamb named Vicky. So it turns out that Mr. Stinky is Miss Vicky, and Miss Vicky is actually a pretty nice hogget. Not bad for taking a chance and a day's work.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Good-bye G*d, I'm Going to Black Sheep, Part 2

Friday evening, the Ravelry members at Black Sheep gathered in the camping area for a potluck "meet-up," a new term for what was basically a mixer. About 20 people showed up, lugging chairs, knitting, spinning wheels, spindles, and goodies; not bad for something completely organized via the Internet. I was struck by how much many of us have in common, whether it's kids, work, or our love of fiber. All in all, it seemed a successful event, in spite of the oppressive heat.

The heat broke late Friday night with a patter of rain on the tent. As the first drops fell, I scurried out of the tent and gathered things up to shove under the awning over the central camp area. Throughout the rest of the night, we were treated to small showers of fat drops that sounded like popcorn as they hit the tent. Near dawn, several loud booms of thunder woke the entire camp, but we soon settled back to our respective beds. I learned later than the main part of the storm front was south of us; the dry lightning ignited nearly 1,000 wild fires in Northern California, many of which are still burning a week later.

Saturday was the big wool sale. Wool judging, under Letty Price, had gone on for most of Friday, but I managed to catch the end of the judging for the Breeder's Cup. In this competition, each shepherd/shepherdess has a group of 5 fleeces representative of his/her flock. When the judge pulled out a lock from a bag of Border Leicester, I couldn't help my self. "Oooh, sexy," came out of my mouth and fell into one of those absolute silences. Even the judge looked up. Everybody laughed and agreed, so I didn't feel quite so embarrassed. The sexy Border Leicester, along with a magnificent Border Leicester/Corriedale/Merino cross, secured the Breeder's Cup for Elizabeth Hubbard of Hub Corriedales.

Once the wool show and judging was over, the shoppers were allowed in for "the viewing." For about 30 minutes, everybody has the opportunity to examine the fleeces in the show, decide which (if any) are worth trying to purchase, and make plans to be the first person to the bag of fleece. This year, I was torn between two: a beautiful black Merino that had won the Colored Fine Wools, Greater Than 60s, and the above-mentioned Border Leicester cross. My problem was solved when someone offered to drive a fleece home for me. Next problem: How can I be in two places at the same time? Both fleeces were highly desireable, and across the room from each other. Fortunately, another spinner volunteered to run for the Border Leicester cross while I ran for the Merino. With our plans made, we exited the building and got into line for the big sale.

When the doors opened, it was an orderly, but hurried, scurry into the building. Some woman, caught sitting on the ground talking on her cell phone when the doors opened, nearly got trampled, but otherwise it was orderly. I ran over and grabbed the Merino, the other woman grabbed the Border Leicester, and within a few minutes I was standing in line, waiting to write out a check for both fleeces and receiving congratulations on the fleeces in my possession. The exclamations and congratulations continued across the parking lot and into the campground as we carried my new purchases back to the camp. I pulled a couple locks from each bag and hand-washed them in the ladies' room so I could see what I had gotten: they're beautiful!

Once I finished buying all that fleece, I was pretty much "shopped out," so I spent the rest of the festival enjoying myself--spinning, talking to people, attending the annual potluck and Spinner's Lead, and hanging out. The train trip back to the Bay Area was uneventful, and now I'm facing washing a mountain of laundry and fleece.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Good-bye G*d, I'm Going to Black Sheep, Part I

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the school year ends and spinners and other fiber folk gather at the Lane County Fairgrounds in Eugene to celebrate things sheepy and fibery. I don't want to get into a deep anthropo-socio-mumbo-jumbo analysis of the fact that the fiber arts seem to attract many more women than men, nor that the Black Sheep Gathering occurs in close proximity to the summer solstice; I just want to spend several days camping with friends, looking at sheep and goats, and spending money on something I really like: fiber.

I went to Black Sheep last year (see the posts dates 6/28 - 7/1), and at that time wrote a pretty thorough description of what the festival was like. This year was, on the surface, very similar: everybody that was camping stayed in Jefferson Park behind the fairgrounds; there were a slew of terrific classes (all of which I mightily resisted); the shopping was incredible, in spite of several long-time vendors not being in attendance; the Shetland lambs were once again voted "most likely to be smuggled home"; and the wool show and sale was irresistible.

Our little group on the train was larger by one this year, and Amtrak made a real effort to be punctual, pulling out of the Martinez train station right on time. This trip up I discovered that, in spite of my very best intentions to keep doing everything I could do when I was 20, Mother Time is starting to catch up with me physically--I can't curl up and sleep in a coach seat. I'd doze for a while, then my shoulder would start to bother me, I'd try to move around and get comfortable again, doze a while longer, and the whole process would start again. I finally gave up around sunrise, grabbed my knitting, and went up to the Lounge car to watch the sun rise over the Sacramento River and Mount Shasta. Beautiful! Eventually, I was joined by everybody else, and we had a grand time, taking over one end of the Lounge car. We found that some of the seats swivel, and Laura pulled out her Ashford Joy and worked on spinning up the fleece she got at last year's Black Sheep, while the rest of us spun, knitted, or crocheted.

Big surprise when we--and our mountain of luggage--piled off the train in Eugene. It was hot! Wait, this isn't what was forecast!?! We discovered that Eugene was in the grip of an unusually hot, unusually humid stretch of weather, and none of us had really prepared for hot weather. I brought plenty of jeans and long-sleeved Ts, but no capris or short-sleeved Ts. No matter--we can cope. We found a couple of taxis to get us--and our mountain of luggage--to the fairgrounds, got camp set up, then several of us braved the bus system and made our way to the market to buy provisions for the weekend. OK, so there was a slight detour to Ben & Jerry's for ice cream--we really needed it. We also opted for a taxi back to the fairgrounds, as we had exchanged our mountain of luggage for a hill of shopping bags full of good things to eat.

Friday dawned hot and humid. Very humid. I did the best I could, and made a beeline for the Black Sheep information and T-shirt booth, and picked up a couple short-sleeved Ts to get me through the weekend. After changing into one, I started fulfilling my main purpose in going to Black Sheep: shopping. A new WooLee Winder and some additional bobbins solved the last little problems with my Sonata, a nice chunk of targhee roving gave me something to spin, and I managed to "pick up" some other nice little doo-dads and bits of fiber: two sets of stainless steel DPNs; a protective cap for my favorite Spindlewood spindle; 2 oz. of passionately purple pygora; a bump of royal blue merino; and, of course, sock yarn from Blue Moon Fiber Arts. By lunch time, I had made all my "necessary" purchases, and settled into the Spinners Circle with my Sonata to enjoy the the comraderie, keep an eye on the Sheep to Shawl competition, and get some of that targhee spun up.

While all this was going on, a wide-spread but low-key game of Bingo was going on. Organized by two women on the Black Sheep Gathering group on Ravelry, Black Sheep Bingo was a variation of that old "icebreaker" game of bingo, where you have to find people that fit the descriptions in your bingo card squares. This time, the Bingo squares had the names and Ravelry IDs of the "squares," and "players" were to go around and find those people, who were wearing badges that identified them as squares. A lot of us were both squares and players, and it seemed that the most common greeting that weekend was, "I think you're on my Bingo card." The Spinners Circle became Bingo Central, and hanging out there guaranteed that you met a lot of people. While I didn't find everybody on my card, and didn't win anything in the raffle (not surprising--I don't have that kind of luck), the "game" itself was a tremendous load of fun. It also did something that frequently doesn't happen at fiber festivals: people got out and met new people with a common interest face-to-face. Too often, we travel to multi-day fiber festivals in others in our circle of friends, or with our guilds, and we socialize exclusively with those people. Black Sheep Bingo made people meet one another, and many new friendships were formed.

Tomorrow: a Ravelry meet-up and the Wool Sale!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Veni, Vidi, Knitti

Today is the fourth World Wide Knit In Public Day, so I did what hundreds of thousands of women (and some men) did today--I took myself and my knitting outside and knitted in public with a bunch of other women (and some men).

KIP Day began in 2005, when Danielle Landes, a fiber artist/jeweler/knitter decided that too many people knitted in private. People could go for years not knowing that their next door neighbor knitted socks, or that the woman up the street spun silk. To stop this artistic isolation, she came up with the idea that knitters (and other fiber folk) would get together in previously-announced locations on the second Saturday in June, talk, knit, and share their art and passion. In 2005, there were 20 sites. In 2006, KIP Day had grown to 70 sites, and more people were getting interested in knitting, crochet, and other fiber arts. In 2007, there were more than 200 sites, and local newspapers were starting to notice all these knitters.

In 2008, thanks to word of mouth (both live and electronic), there are 782 "official" KIP Day sites (ones registered with WWKIPD and listed on their website), and probably hundreds of other ad hoc sites where knitters simply are pulling their needles out and proudly knitting in public. While most of the sites are in the United States and Western Europe, there are people knitting on every continent.

Since there weren't any very local sites, I went down to Knit-One- One in Berkeley, to hang out and start a new pair of socks. A cute little fiber studio owned by Sile Convery near the Ashby BART stop, K11 is fronted by a wide sidewalk with street trees, and is next door to Sweet Adeline, a simply scrumptious bakery. Knitting was scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m., and by 10:30, 30-40 women (and a few men) were seated in a large circle on the sidewalk, sipping coffee, nibbling goodies from the bakery, talking, laughing, and knitting. Everyone admired each other's yarns and handiwork, ranging from tiny socks for a granddaughter, to a sweater, while several people used giant needles and bulky yarn to garter-stitch a "tag" for one of the trees: a "sweater" for one of it's branches.

I was in a bit of a bind for knitting-- nothing I had was truly portable. I wasn't sure of the space available, so I didn't want to bring my wheel. I couldn't take the Shawl of Many Samples because I didn't have any yarn. I have 3 skeins of yarn for the SMS, but they aren't washed, so they can't be knitted into the shawl yet. I thought I might have enough spun, dyed, and skeined Falklands for another pair of socks, and when I dug into the stash, I found this was the case. I wound the skeins (about 550 yards total) into balls, packed them up with my KnitPicks case, and as I sat there in the sun, did something I dislike intensely and almost never do: I swatched. I usually don't swatch because I can judge pretty accurately what needles are needed for nearly any type of yarn (a skill that develops with experience), but this time I wanted to try a different pattern (basketweave), and I like the color of this Falklands, so I want the socks to go very right. I knitted the swatch, and to reward myself for being so good, treated myself to a vegan dried-fruit oatmeal cookie from Sweet Adeline. Now that's a breakfast! I now have a lovely little basketweave sample, I was correct on the size needle I need to use with this yarn (size #4), so now I'll cast on the actual sock and get to work.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

I Can Quit Any Time I Want To*

There's an interesting thread on one of the Ravelry forums/groups right now entitled, "Are you a fiber junkie too?" Mostly it's a humorous discussion of the size of our respective fiber stashes, the hordes of equipment we've accumulated, and how we can't seem to pass up a deal on fiber, be it fleece, roving, or yarn.

However, this thread also has me thinking about the nature of addiction, and how we throw that word around so casually. True addiction is not funny--I've watched people battle uncontrollable dependencies on tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and gambling, and I've seen the havoc wreaked upon family and friends by their actions.

OK, this is getting waaaaaay too serious. Let's do a little etymology. No, not bugs, that's entymology; etymology is the study of words and their origins. According to Michael Quinion on his Website World Wide Words, the word was first used in written literature by William Shakespeare in 1598 to describe a strong inclination; in Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury marvels at Henry's knowledge of theology, saying that "His addiction was to courses vain." (Henry V, Act I, Scene 1) The word continued to be used in that fashion until the early part of the 20th century, when it was co-opted to describe someone with a dependency on a drug. By the 1990s, use of the word had expanded. Michael Larkin and Richard Wood of Nottingham University presented a paper to the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group in February, 1998 on this phenomenon, noting that the word has become “a scapegoat for the nineties — a moral label for what society feels isn’t acceptable. Lots of people are being called addicts when they’re just engaging in unusual behaviour." Under this definition, somebody that enjoys walking briskly every morning, or sitting down to relax by spinning some yarn on their wheel, could be considered just as much an addict as the junkie attempting to score his or her next fix.

I think many people (usually) outside the sphere of the "addict" use the term is because they do not understand the difference between dependency on and passion for something. Dependency requires that one surrender to the object, whether it is a drug or something that triggers an adrenalin rush. It is the object or the action that is in control, and the demands of the object or action are given first priority by the person.

On the other hand, passion causes the object to surrender to the person. It is the person that is in control, and while they may enjoy their pursuit, they are able to put it aside when necessary to focus on other tasks at hand. A fiber addict may enjoy buying and processing raw fleece, then spinning it into yarn to knit, crochet, or weave with, but they will not sacrifice the basic needs of themselves and their family simply to buy more fiber. The person is in control (even if we whine that we have no willpower, before bragging about our latest finds.)

We need a new word. I vote "avocation" (an activity taken up in addition to one's regular work or profession; a hobby). When I hear the word, I smilingly think of the quintessential Londoner pottering about his backyard garden after work, changing the plants in the carpet bed and moving the garden gnomes. For many of us, our fondness for the fiber arts is an avocation--we have good jobs that support ourselves, our families, and our growing stashes of fiber. We mess about with fiber as a way to relax, to express ourselves artistically, and to make the world a little bit nicer through our efforts. Our families may think it steals a little time away from them, but we come to them richer for our time spent focused on the beauty found in our collections of fibers.

*but why would I want to?