Library Collection Data Analysis with Excel

This tutorial will walk you through the steps needed to do simple data analysis for library collection and circulation data.

What you need:

  • Excel (I used )
  • A dataset (.csv, .tsv or .xls format). I’d recommend walking through the steps with a small sample dataset before applying them to your target dataset. I’ll be using the dataset MROBKJFI.xls for this tutorial.Your target dataset should include at least the following fields:
    • title
    • author
    • date of publication
    • call number
    • total loans
  • patience and fortitude!

What you will learn:

  • How not to be scared of spreadsheets
  • SUM
  • LEFT
  • Text to Columns
  • Pivot Table
  • Conditional Formatting
  • IF
  • Fill down shortcut
  • Paste values only

Step 1: Make sure you understand your data (at least sort of)

Ask yourself some questions before starting to do anything with your data. Where did this data come from? What column headings does it have? Do you understand what the column headings and file name means?

Step 2: Make your data easier to understand and share with better metadata

First of all, change the name of your file to something that is easier to understand, and which contains important information about your file. File naming conventions are important for good data management: read more about them in this excellent LibGuide from Purdue University Libraries. Use the following naming convention for your file:


So the new file name for my file is:


Yes, it’s a mouthful, but using good naming conventions will save you lots of trouble and heartache later, especially when working in collaborative teams.

While you’re at it, make sure you know where you saved your file (since you probably downloaded it from somewhere and it’s easy to lose track when you do that). I’m saving mine to the desktop.

Now, we’re going to write a short readme file for this data. A readme file is an unstructured form of metadata. It’s written in plain text so it’s easily preserved and shared, and it contains the important information users might want to know about your data. Readme files are useful for other people using your data, but they can also be useful for you, because you might forget exactly where your data came from and what it contains.

So, open Notepad and write a short description of your data, including

  • where your data came from
  • what date the data is from
  • what format the data is in
  • anything else you think would be helpful.

You might want to leave this step to the end once you are more familiar with your data.But don’t forget to do it! Metadata is important!

Step 3: Clean up your Data

Make your data much easier to work with by formatting your spreadsheet as a table:

Select your entire worksheet by clicking in the top left corner. From the Home tab, click on Format as Table, and select your preferred table style. Click OK for any dialog boxes that pop up. It may take a few moments for the formatting to take effect, especially if your table is large.

Then, scroll through your spreadsheet and take a look at any data that looks unusual. You might notice that the data in the barcode field (if you have one) looks odd: try making that column wider.

Take a look at the Pub Date field. This field is pulled from the MARC field 260 subfield c. Catalogers often use non-numerical characters such as square brackets, question marks and ‘c’ (for copyright) when populating this field. Before we can run calculations on this date data, we need to strip out non-numeric characters. To do this:

Select the Pub Date column.

Click “Find and Select” (on the Home tab, at the top right).

In the Find what field enter the non-numeric character you would like to get rid of.

Leave the Replace with field blank.

Important: To replace question marks, do not just enter ? in the Find What field. The ? is the wildcard operator in Excel, and if you do this, you will erase all the data in the column. You will need to add a tilda (~) before the ?, like this:

Some ideas for characters to strip out: [ ] , . c, ©, Â, etc.

Once you have cleaned up your Pub Date column, it’s time to check to see whether the columns in your worksheet are formatted with the correct data format. Excel will process date data differently than it processes text data and numerical data. In order to perform calculations with dates, however, it’s easier to format them as numbers. And there are lots of numbers in catalog data that actually behave like text. For example, you would never calculate the sum of 2 Dewey Decimal numbers, but you would want to sort them. To format the Pub Date column as numerical data:

Select the Pub Date column.

Right click, choose “Format cells.”

Select “Number” from the category list, and select 0 decimal places.

Click OK.

So, go through each column in your worksheet and format it. Columns containing numerical circulation data (e.g. total number of checkouts) should be formatted as numbers. All other columns should be formatted as General. 

Once you have formatted your Pub Date column as numerical data, all the numbers should be aligned to the right. If any are still aligned to the left, you need to check them and do the following:

  • keep stripping out non-numerical characters
  • make sure the cells each contain only one year – if 2 years are listed, keep the most recent year (which usually indicates the date of a reprint or new edition, which is a better indicator of the age of the book for collection management purposes).

For more tips on cleaning up Excel data, see Top Ten Ways to Clean Your Data. 

Step 4: Add some additional columns to make your data more powerful, and delete some columns (cautiously!) to make it more manageable. 

You have a lot of data to work with already, but adding some additional columns will provide you will make it even more powerful.

In addition to analyzing publication year, it’s also helpful to analyze the age of each item. To do this, you will need to create a new column and (cue drumroll) use a formula. 


If you have never used a formula in Excel, take a look at this guide from the University of Michigan Libraries.

To create the “Age of Item” column, first add the heading “Age of Item” to the column next to “Pub Date.” If you need to add a column in this position, use the “Insert” button on the Home tab.

Then position your cursor in the first empty cell in this column, and type


then use your mouse to click and select the cell containing the pub date (which should be right next to the cell you are working in). The selected cell should change color and get a flashing border.

Press enter.

The “Age of Item” column should now be populated with the age in years of each item.

One major problem with circulation data is transferring data from one ILS (integrated library system) to another when you upgrade your system. So you end up with a situation where data such as number of checkouts is stored in two or more places: you can have one field in your current ILS which contains the number of checkouts since that system was implemented, and another field that contains the legacy circulation data from the old system. For the purposes of this exercise, it’s not important to compare circulation from before and after the implementation of an ILS (although this could be an interesting question for another day). So let’s combine the columns that contain data from both sources. While we’re doing this, let’s also combine the number of checkouts with the number of renewals, since we’re not interested in comparing checkouts to renewals: we only want to know about the total circulation of the item.

In this example,

Circulation information from the current ILS is contained in the column Koha CKO

Legacy circulation information is contained in the column Past Use

Renewal information is contained in the column Koha Renews.

First, change the heading of the column next to “Age of Item” to “Total checkouts”.

Then, place your cursor in the first empty cell of that column.

Type the following:


Then, click on the first cell in the Koha CKO columnn

Type a colon :

Click on the first cell in the Koha Renews column.

This should select the first cells in each of the Koha CKO, Past Use, and Koha Renews columns.

Type a ) to finish the formula, and press enter. Your new column should be populated with the total of all three columns.

You will be working with the Total Checkouts column for the rest of the exercise, but don’t delete the columns you used to calculate it!

Finally, we want to create another column that gives us a broad classification for the materials. Right now, we have a column containing call numbers (in either Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal format), but it’s difficult to use complete call numbers for analysis because we can’t summarize them easily. It’s pretty pointless to say “We have one book with call number 025.26407 and one book with call number 025.3445” but it’s quite useful to be able to say “We have 300 books in Dewey class 025 and 600 books in Dewey class 027, but the ones in Dewey class 025 circulate at three times the rate of the ones in class 027.”

Luckily, both Dewey call numbers and LC call numbers are designed in such a way that they can be compared more easily if you truncate them. It’s easiest to see how this works if you just dive in and do it. So,

First, change the heading of the column next to “Total checkouts” to “LC Class” or “Dewey Class” depending on your data.

Then, place your cursor in the first empty cell of that column.

Type the following:


Then, click on the first cell in the call number column. You should have something that looks like this (if Column G is the column containing the call  numbers):


The number after the comma in this formula is the number of characters that will remain at the left of the data once it is truncated. 

So, if you use the formula =LEFT(G2,2), this is what will happen to the following call numbers:

025.23 –> 02

PN5677 –> PN

You can see that for Dewey call numbers, it’s more useful to truncate them to 3 characters, and for LC call numbers, 2 characters is better. If you were doing more detailed analysis, you can even truncate Dewey numbers to 4 characters and get useful data. But for this exercise, let’s stick with 3.

So, choose your number of characters, close your formula with a closing parenthesis, and press enter. Your new column will be populated.

Gluten Free Sandwich Bread, for soup

So, remember way back, when I shared the recipe for Socca with Roasted Tomatoes, Swiss Chard and Goat Feta? I mentioned then that I sometimes cooked for family members on gluten free diets. Well, I am now one of those family members. So any recipe that I share here from now on will very likely be gluten-free. And I had to share this one – it’s the first GF bread I’ve tasted that really tempted me to have another slice. And what’s more, it tempted my (non-GF) husband – he stole part of my piece, and then got his own.

Along with it, I’ll share a recipe for curried sweet potato Balti soup, which is a variation of a dish I’ve had many times, but never made. We are still working our way through about 20 pounds of sweet potatoes that we received as part of our CSA (community supported agriculture) membership this past season. I was dismayed to find that this had only used about about 1 pound of the haul! Balti Seasoning is a spice mixture from Baltistan in northern Pakistan – I got it from Penzey’s spices. According to Penzey’s, it contains “coriander, garlic, ginger, cumin, dundicut chilies, Ceylon cinnamon, brown mustard seeds, cardamom, clove, fennel, fenugreek, charnushka (kalonji, black onion seed), ajwain, star anise, black cardamom, cilantro, anise seed and bay leaf,” but I would say that the coriander, ginger and cinnamon are the dominant flavors. It also contains kalonji seed, which is one of my favorite spices – great to have on hand to add a subtle onion flavor to curry, and fabulous sprinkled on pita chips when you make them at home (Pita chips, alas, are not gluten-free! Sob!)

Here’s the bread recipe – soup recipe will follow shortly!


Gluten Free Sandwich Bread
adapted from Kneadlessly Simple, by Nancy Baggett

Note: This bread can take anywhere from 24-48 hours from start to finish, including 2 rises. So don’t start making it if you want bread right away! Luckily, it requires no kneading, so most of that time is just waiting for the dough to do its thing.

1 2/3 cup brown rice flour
2/3 cup gluten free oats (rolled – not instant)
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup tapioca flour
1/3 cup flax seed meal (you can grind your own in a food processor if you have whole flax seeds in your cupboard)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast (I used SAF Instant Yeast which is much cheaper than buying it in individual packets)
1/3 cup corn oil or canola oil
1 1/3 cups ice water (I usually use spring water for baking, since our hard water sometimes kills yeast)
3 tbsp honey
1 egg
1/4 cup plain yogurt (I used whole milk cream top yogurt)
1 1/2 tsp baking soda


Mix 1 1/3 cup of the rice flour, the rest of the flours, and flax meal thoroughly in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, mix the ice water, oil and honey, and whisk vigorously. Tip: Pour the oil into the tablespoon measure, then pour it into the 1/3 cup measure and top it up. Use the oily tablespoon to measure the honey, and the honey will slide right out! Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir thoroughly (do not knead). I found this dough quite wet, so I added about another 1/2 cup of rice flour until it didn’t stick to the bowl anymore, but was still moist inside.

Cover the bowl (I used one of the Abeego reusable food wraps that I got for Christmas – thanks twin sister!), and refrigerate for about 3 hours, then take it out of the fridge and leave it at room temperature for about 12 hours. I started making the dough on Friday night at around 8 – exciting nightlife! – put it in the fridge at around 8:30, took it out of the fridge before I went to bed, and did the next step the next morning at around 11. The dough smelled yeasty by that point, but it did not look like it had risen at all. This step is primarily to develop the yeast flavor – the rising effect comes from the baking soda and yogurt.

Next, mix the remaining 1/3 cup of rice flour, egg, yogurt and baking soda thoroughly in a small bowl. Pour this mixture over the dough, and stir vigorously with a fork. Note: the original recipe called for you to keep back 1 tsp of the egg and use it to brush over the top of the loaf, but I thought this was too fussy (nevermind how fussy it is to make bread that takes 48 hours – ha!), so I just brushed the top with milk instead.  Empty the dough into a greased loaf pan. Leave at room temperature for another 5-7 hours until it has risen above the top of the pan. But mine never actually rose above the top of the pan, and it was still fine. I did put the loaf pan next to the heating vent for the last three hours, and I think this helped.

At this point, my photocopy of this recipe is cut off, so I guessed at the baking directions. Bake at 375F for one hour, until the top is brown and the loaf sounds hollow when you knock it on the top with your knuckles. Let the loaf sit for a few minutes, loosen the loaf from the sides of the pan by drawing a knife around the edges, and turn out on the counter. Dig in!

Bookish Holiday Gift Lists – #1

‘Tis the season for giving people hard rectangular packages, the kind where you can actually get sharp corners in the wrapping paper, which itself might have been reused from last year’s hard rectangular packages. Or perhaps for you, ’tis more the season to slip a gift card into a card, or to send email with a code for your favourite purveyor of ebooks. It’s the season to buy people books for Christmas!

But which ones?

Lucky for you, a librarian friend of mine who writes for the Ottawa-based blog Apt 613 (tagline: “Arts. Culture. Ottawa. Puns”) has written this post Librarian in Residence: The unofficial holiday gift list for 2013. Click through, and you can discover her picks for  books for people of all ages and interests, including “Best Teen Book that Wasn’t Post-Apocalyptic” and “Best Book About a 100-Year-Old Man”. Despite the quirky categories, this list isn’t merely link bait (by which I mean those posts of “Ten Things I Miss About the 80s” and “15 Magazines Your Grandma Will Love if She Loves the Ellen Show”). The author has one of the most jam-packed ereaders I’ve ever seen, and reads children’s, YA and adult books like some people eat cookies. She’s the only person I know who walks into one of the best bookstores in the Midwest  and starts swapping tips with the buyer for the children’s section!

Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon with more gift-giving tips!

Little Free Library – Healey Willan Park Branch Opening!

Just dropping by the blog today to announce the opening of a new branch of the Little Free Library this time in Toronto! This one’s in one of my favourite parks in Toronto, and I am looking forward to paying a visit over the holidays.

I’ve written a few times about Little Free Libraries in Madison (hereand here). I keep noticing so many cool new ones around town. I need to go on another Little Free Library photo safari (especially because I bought a fancy new camera!). There’s the one that looks like an Arts and Crafts Bungalow, the one that looks like a church, the one with the beautiful inlaid sunburst roof, and the one that has recently gotten a second floor addition, to match the addition of its “host” house . . . Watch this space for photos, soon! And the photos will have beautiful snowy backgrounds, no doubt – we’re in for a chilly weekend. Maybe it’ll even be time to wash my wool blanket in the snow again.

Since I haven’t taken those photos yet, I’ll leave you with a photo of another library. Here’s the beautiful wooden screen that you see when you walk into the new  Central Library of the Madison Public Library. The best part? The cut-outs in the screen were re-used to make the occasional tables scattered throughout the space! If you are in Madison and haven’t visit, it’s definitely worth the trip. And if you aren’t in Madison, you can see a great gallery of photos (from the Cap Times) here .

MPL Central Screen

Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi: Recipe for Socca with Roasted Tomatoes, Swiss Chard and Goat Feta (Gluten-free)


One of my birthday gifts was the cookbook Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Ottolenghi, whose Israeli heritage has obviously shaped his approach to food, is a chef in London, and also writes on vegetarian and other types of cooking for the Guardian newspaper. I was really excited to get this book, as one of my sisters is a rabid fan of Ottolenghi’s writing in the Guardian (well, she’s a rabid fan of many things in the Guardian, but particularly of Ottolenghi!). As I leafed through the book, it struck me immediately that these were different from the vegetarian recipes I was used to: they seemed lighter, with a greater emphasis on vegetables rather than trying to simulate meat dishes, and they made heavy use of Middle Eastern and Asian flavors. This is a great book to check out if your primary vegetarian cookbooks have always been of the Moosewood cookbook variety.

In comparison with another recent acquisition, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, this book seems less accessible to the inexperienced cook. First of all, the book is organized according to the primary vegetable used in the recipe. Initially, this seemed to me like an excellent system, especially for a cook who was interested in eating seasonally. I pictured myself plucking a strange vegetable from my CSA (community supported agriculture) box, (perhaps one fitting the theme of the chapter titled “Funny Onions”?), locating the relevant chapter, and going on my merry way to cooking a masterpiece of seasonal appropriateness. However, the more I tried to figure out how to fit this book into our daily cooking, the more I realized that this is not actually the way I plan my meals: I think that categories such as “curries,” or “noodles”, or “salads” (hopelessly old-fashioned, I know!) are more helpful when you are trying to figure out which recipe might be appropriate to a certain day, pantry situation, or level of hunger.

The other criticism I have of this book is that, in comparison to the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook or some of my other favorites, such as Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, the instructions for each recipe are somewhat scanty, and there are few “process” photographs and no illustrations. It’s often hard to visualize exactly what the author is describing, and there are few tips or pointers to reassure you. One of the things I find most useful about the Smitten Kitchen cookbook, for example, is the fact that the author will tell you “the dough should have enough flour incorporated so that it does not stick to your fingers” or “the fritters should be golden brown after 1 minute: if they are not, turn down the heat.” It’s tips like this that actually ensure that you will have success with recipes, so I will be interested to see cooking with this cookbook will be more challenging. It’s certainly not a book for a beginning cook.

So, what is this book good for, then? Inspiration! Many of the recipes combine ingredients in ways that I would never have thought of, to make less-usual categories of food such as cold noodle salads, flatbreads with toppings, etc. One featured ingredient that I had never used before is chickpea flour (sometimes sold as garbanzo flour, or pakora flour, since it’s what those Indian fritters are made of). I had, however, eaten chickpea flour many times, because I love love love pakoras, and I had also eaten socca, a Provencal chickpea flat bread, while in Europe several years ago. I made a variation on Ottolenghi’s recipe for Socca, which appears in the “pulses” section of the book. While Ottolenghi served his version with a tomato, onion and thyme topping, I made a topping of tomatoes, chard, fresh herbs and goat feta. Ottolenghi adds two egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks, to his socca batter. I omitted these to make the recipe quicker, since I had seen socca recipes without eggs, and the pancakes were delicious.

Note re: chickpea flour:

I think chickpea flour will become one of my new favorite ingredients: it’s tasty, high in protein and iron (good for vegetarians), and it’s also gluten free (I’m not gluten-intolerant, but I sometimes cook for people who are, so it’s good to have some GF recipes up my sleeve). Surprisingly, it wasn’t available in the bulk section of my local (extremely well-stocked) food co-op, but I finally located it in the baking aisle. The kind I bought was made by Bob’s Red Mill. It can also be found in the bulk section of natural foods stores, or in bulk stores, or in grocery stores that carry South Asian/Indian foods.

The Recipe: Socca with Roasted Tomatoes, Swiss Chard, and Goat Feta


For the socca:
1 3/4 cups chickpea flour (see Note above)
2 cups water
pinch salt
1 teaspoon olive oil (for the batter)
canola oil for frying (or other neutral vegetable oil)

For the topping:
2 pints cherry tomatoes (2 small containers) – You could also use large tomatoes, cut in quarters. I used cherry tomatoes because I was making this in the winter, when cherry tomatoes have better flavor than other kinds, but I would make this with large tomatoes if they were in season.
1 tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch fresh mint (about 1 cup, chopped)
1 bunch fresh basil (about 1 cup chopped)
1 large bunch swiss chard (about 6-8 cups, chopped roughly)
about 6 oz goat-milk feta – You could use sheep-milk feta or cow-milk feta but I like the flavor of goat-milk feta

Equipment note: You will need to use a frying pan to cook the pancakes, and the swiss chard. I used a large saute pan to cook the swiss chard, and a cast-iron frying pan to cook to the pancakes. If you don’t own two frying pans, cook the Swiss chard first, set it aside, and use the same pan to make the pancakes.


Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut each cherry tomato in half and put the tomatoes in a baking dish (I used a ceramic casserole dish). Drizzle olive oil over top and season with salt and pepper. Place in the preheated oven and roast until they are starting to shrivel and release juice – about 30 minutes.


They will look like this when they are done:


Wash the swiss chard, and chop it roughly:

Make the socca batter. Put the chickpea flour in a bowl and add water, oil and salt. Whisk until it reaches a smooth consistency. Leave the batter to sit for a few minutes, then whisk again and add a little water if it seems too stiff. It should be a thick, pourable batter, like pancake batter.


Fry the swiss chard with a little olive oil until it is soft, but not mushy (about 10 minutes).


While the Swiss chard is frying, make the socca pancakes. Heat a spoonful of oil in the frying pan, wait until it is hot, and pour in a large spoonful of the batter. I think I used about 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. Wait until bubbles appear on the top of the pancake, and the top of the pancake is no longer wet-looking and appears solid.


Flip the pancake over, but don’t worry if it breaks – you will be eating this mixed up with the toppings anyways!


While the pancakes are frying, chop the basil and mint, and set the table with bowls containing the herbs, feta (crumbled), swiss chard and roasted tomatoes.


Everyone can help themselves to a pancake and top it with vegetables, herbs and cheese!

They know me too well

I had a fairly momentous birthday this month, which led to these wonderful sights:


Flowers (delivered!), a giant pile of packages at the breakfast table, scrambled eggs for breakfast, and, on the left, a knitting-themed card and the latest installment in the series of book look-alike gifts from an enthusiastic user of the Royal Mail. Yes, folks, that is a box of hazelnut Bacio chocolates in a tin that looks like an early 20th-century Italian novel! Happy Birthday to me!

Jefferson Henley Pullover (a finished object)

For those readers of this blog who also knit (that is, a fairly large proportion of the total, I suspect), I thought I’d drop by the blog today and show off my latest creation: a sweater I’m calling my Jefferson Henley pullover. This sweater is a very greatly modified version of the Topeka Henley pattern by Kate Gagnon Osborne. I’m calling it my Jefferson Henley because I made it out of yarn I bought in Jefferson, Wisconsin, during my very first (but definitely not last!) visit to the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival. I’m so happy to have a knitted memento of that wonderland of yarn, sheep-shearing demonstrations, baked potatoes and bratwurst from the 4-H club and talkative sheep farmers (including the farmer from Iowa who started chatting to me in the line-up for lamb burgers and pulled out of his wallet a long string of photos of “his girls” and bid me admire the length and staple of their curly fleeces).


The details
Pattern: Topeka Henley, by Kate Gagnon Osborn
Yarn: Northport, by River’s Edge Fiber Arts This is a 3-ply 100% Merino yarn, which knits up very soft and springy. Another great thing about this yarn is that it is put up in giant skeins of 500 grams (over 700 meters), which is fabulous for sweater-knitting. Fewer ends to weave in!
Color: Mulberry. I bought two skeins and found that they were slightly different colors (I don’t believe I checked the dyelots). So one sleeve is obviously a different color than the other, but non-knitters have told me they don’t really notice unless they look hard! It’s a lovely color: here’s a close-up:


Pattern modifications

Size: I cast on for the 39.5 inch bust size, and eventually decreased down to the 35.75 inch bust size for the bust and raglan shaping. I knit the body section about 7 inches longer than the pattern called for: the original pattern is for a fairly cropped sweater, ending right at the waist, which I don’t find very flattering or practical. I wanted something that would keep my mid-section warm, and also look good with skinny jeans or skirts, sort of like a tunic.

Shaping: Because of the added length, I added increases at the bottom (to create what Kate Davies calls an “arse accommodator”, although she added her shaping in the center-back, whereas I added mine at the side seams). I then decreased back down to the stitch count for the waist called for in the 35.75 inch bust size. I knit the arms longer (I think) than the pattern called for.

Stitch pattern: Instead of garter-stitch welts and details, I used moss-stitch/seed stitch.

Edgings and buttonholes: I used an i-cord cast-on for the body and sleeves, and then cast-off using an i-cord cast-off at the neck. I love love love the effect of the i-cord cast-on on the sleeves; it creates a nice “bubble” of fabric at the wrists:

I did not create any buttonholes at the neck when I was knitting the main body pieces. First of all, I found it fairly confusing to keep track of the raglan shaping in the first place (it didn’t help that I knit much of this section during Christmas holidays at busy family events!), so I didn’t want to add another set of numbers to keep track of in order to do the buttonholes. Secondly, I find that no matter how careful I am, I make quite untidy buttonholes, so I wanted to try something new. After I had completed all other parts of the sweater, I took out my buttons and placed them evenly along the Henley neck – I ended up using seven buttons instead of the eight called for in the pattern. Seven looked nicely spaced, and since I only had eight of these buttons in total, I wanted to keep a spare. It will be fairly tough to find a matching replacement as they were a gift from a family member’s visit to New Zealand! Once I had established the spacing, I used a measuring tape and some scrap yarn threaded on a darning needle to mark the rows where the buttonholes should be. I just passed the scrap yarn through the edge of the row in question, cut off a short length of it, and tied the two ends in a knot.

I then used applied i-cord along both sides of the Henley neck. Whereas the i-cord along the neck is three stitches wide, the buttonbands and buttonhole edging are five stitches wide, which I thought looked sturdier and more pleasing. If you have not made i-cord buttonbands like this before, I very highly recommend it! It is so neat and tidy, and it is lovely not to have to worry about making buttonholes as you are zooming through your decreases at the end of a bottom-up seamless sweater. I will definitely be making buttonholes like this again!

Other changes: This sweater has armpit gussets, which were not a feature of the original pattern. This was the result of a SNAFU when I was putting the sleeves together with the body. For some reason, no matter how many times I did this, I ended up with much looser stitches and gaping yarn loops at either side of the sleeve joins, and I was getting pretty fed up. So I cast on eight stitches on either side of the join, using the slack in the strange loops of yarn I had there in order to make the stitches and tighten everything up again. This worked extremely well, but then I was left with many more stitches at the underarms than specified in the pattern, and the extra cast-on stitches made a sort of ‘H’ shape, with the original armpit stitches as the crossbar. Instead of just grafting them all together, I waited until everything else was done, and then picked up all of the underarm stitches in a big circle, knitted four rows to create a small triangle or pouch under each armpit for a gusset, and then grafted the stitches. Now that I have made a sweater with accidental armpit gussets, I believe I will try one with intentional gussets. They certainly make the sweater more comfortable, especially as I knitted the sleeves and bust to have very little ease. Some of the sweaters in Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans have gussets, and I would be interested to try again with the idea.

Overall, I am very pleased with this sweater, but ambivalent about the original pattern. I feel like the look of my sweater is quite different from the original, and more flattering to me (at least I think so!). I found the layout of this pattern to be non-intuitive, and I had to make many notes on my copy in order to keep my math straight. Towards the end of the knitting, I essentially stopped following the pattern, and eyeballed the final stages, using what I had learned from knitting another raglan sweater based on the instructions in Knitting Without Tears. So, if you are a beginning knitter, I would not recommend this as a starter pattern. But if you are more experienced, it could be worth a look – I had never thought of knitting a sweater with this neckline until I saw this pattern, and now I realize that it is a very practical and flattering style, as you can undo some of the buttons if you are getting warm (or if you are wearing a nice necklace you want to show off!) or leave them buttoned.

Next up on my knitting list is an Antler Hat (free pattern). I’d like to pretend that by the time it is finished, the recipient might not have a need for it anymore this season, but alas, we are supposed to get more snow this week! It is beautiful though:


Wild Rice Gratin with Kale and Gruyere (Smitten Kitchen Cookbook Test 1), and a textile bonus

Wild Rice

Wild Rice – Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Flick (Creative Commons License)

One of my Christmas presents this year was The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman, author the blog of the same name . I was pretty excited to get this book even before I had a chance to take an in-depth look at it; I have already made several recipes from the blog, and I have found them to be both delicious and well-tested. Nothing I have made from Smitten Kitchen has failed or been even vaguely disappointing. (Tip: Try the pumpkin muffins)

I’m happy to report that this recipe was no exception! I’m afraid to say that I have misplaced my iPod, which is my only camera (don’t panic! I think I just left it at work!). So this post won’t have any pictures of the cheesy goodness. But this recipe was fabulous! For those of you who don’t already have the cookbook (and you should! Valentine’s Day gift? February splurge?), the gratin is pretty simple. You prepare cooked wild rice, steamed kale, and caramelized onions, and mix them altogether with swiss cheese, add more cheese on top, add breadcrumbs, and bake.

Now, I am sure that would be wonderful just like that. But I am constitutionally unable to make dinner recipes without modifying them – baking recipes, I can follow to the letter, but when cooking dinner I always have the urge to change things a little, often so that I can use up stuff in my cupboards. On that note, I cut down on the amount of wild rice, and cooked up some basmati rice to supplement it. This was for reasons of economy (wild rice is expensive, even though I do live near one of the largest historical centers of wild rice harvesting), and because I thought that a little basmati would make for a nice hearty texture. I also added some frozen chopped carrots, for a little color, and added a teaspoon of a herb blend in my cupboard called Tuscan Salt, from Les Soeurs en Vrac in Montreal. The whole thing looked a little dry when I put it into the casserole, so I slurped in some milk around the edges of the baking dish; I won’t deny that I was also hoping to get a bit of creaminess, slightly evocative of canned mushroom soup. Finally, I added a few crushed Ritz cracker crumbs on top, just because I could – I always read recipes for casseroles that have Ritz crumbs on them, but we hardly ever have Ritz crackers in the house. Right now, we do, as the result of overbuying for a Christmas party.

My husband saw the casserole before I put it in the oven and he said “It’s a . . . HOTDISH!” (the jury’s still out, though, on whether this is the correct Wisconsin term . I added to the feeling of Midwester midwinter cosiness by serving the casserole with some braised red cabbage that I had made earlier and frozen (a note on the linked recipe: do not use balsamic vinegar as called for: use red wine vinegar, or cider vinegar or even white vinegar). I then reheated the frozen cooked red cabbage with a splash of gin, reasoning that my dad often throws in a few juniper berries when making red cabbage and/or roat pork. The mixture of casserole and red cabbage was a winner, and we’ll definitely be eating this again.

The casserole has a great texture, with some chewiness from the wild rice and softness from the onions. The flavor is slightly reminiscent of stuffing. But the real genius of this recipe is the decision to use Swiss cheese instead of a more strongly flavored cheese. It means that a mild cheesy flavor permeates the whole dish, without overpowering it. It doesn’t hurt that we can get very good Swiss Cheese, living, as we do, near the Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA. As an added advantage, this recipe makes perfect use of local foods available in winter, without being a variation on “same old, same old” dishes. I’m now inspired to mix everything with Swiss cheese and wild rice, and call it dinner!

Bonus for lovers of textiles, printing, quilting, design, competitions, or any combination thereof

My friend Kate Austin is one of ten finalists in the Repeat(ed) fabric design competition on the Printed Bolt. I’m so excited for her! Check it out!

(and psssst, Kate also sells her fabric designs through Spoonflower. I love love love her Park Toronto design; it makes me homesick for my city).

Blanket in the snow

In addition to the ridiculous piles of yarn and sweaters populating my house, I also have a number of 100% wool blankets, which are definitely keeping me warm these days. In particular, I have a queen-sized Hudson Bay Point Blanket that we received as a wedding gift from my parents – it was tucked inside a cedar blanket chest built by my Dad. Best gift ever! We love this blanket – it keeps us toasty and it’s so heavy that it prevents the sheets and duvet underneath it from shifting during the night as well. But I was getting worried (to the extent that one should be worried about textile cleaning), that I would either a) have to pay an arm and leg every couple of years to get it dry-cleaned or b) have an increasingly grimy and smelly blanket on our bed. That’s why I was intrigued the other day to read this article in Mother Earth News on cleaning wool with snow. Who knew? You can clean wool blankets and rugs by scrubbing them with cold snow!

It’s been quite cold in Madison this past week, and last Thursday it was around 5F/-15 C. You need cold weather to make this cleaning method work, otherwise the snow simply melts on contact and makes the blanket too wet. So I decided to give this a try. I took the blanket outside and hung it on our clothesline for an hour or so, to pre-chill it. I then spread it on the snow (about 6 inches) covering the ground:


The article linked above simply said to walk all over the blanket, in order to smush the snow into the fabric. This didn’t seem like a good idea considering that I was wearing heavy, soiled boots! So I got on my hands and knees and crawled all over the blanket, then flipped it over and did the same thing on the other side. I took a break at one point to admire the scenic view:


and then shook it out as best I could (which wasn’t very well – that thing is heavy), and took it upstairs to hang it over the banister to dry out.

(OK, the real story is that between crawling all over it in the back yard and bringing it inside, I discovered that I had locked myself out of my house, in 5 degree F weather, wearing jeans and my Bucky the Badger sweatshirt, no mittens, no phone, no wallet. Thank goodness for neighbourhood stores that let you use their phone, and for the fact that our property manager lives around the corner. Phew!)

So, after I made an idiot of myself crawling all over a blanket in the snow, did it work? YES! Yes it did! The blanket smells much better, and I do believe it looks brighter as well. So I think this will become a yearly activity, and I’m happy to be able to continue using my beloved Hudson Bay blanket every day without worrying about it becoming too stinky. A good discovery!

(Finally, for those who are expecting that a blog called “Bronwen Reads” should include some mention of, well, reading, never fear! In between all of the textile-washing this weekend I had the chance to place lots of holds on library books – I’m particularly looking forward to getting my hands on Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford.)