They know me too well

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

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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!

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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).

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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:

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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:

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Visit Scotland, see well-dressed ponies

Greetings, long-neglected blog readers! I’m glad to be back posting here, and I’ve got lots of ideas for things to write about this year! And. most importantly – I finally own a functioning camera again, in the form of a new iPod touch, which takes surprisingly good photos, and, perhaps more importantly, is connected to this amazing thing called the Internet, meaning I don’t have to search through my desk drawer for my camera cord every time I want to overshare post something interesting.

Despite the lack of blog activity, the fall was not without reading activity, or cooking activity, or knitting activity, about which I plan to write more in the coming weeks. I’m toying with the idea of releasing a few knitting patterns, in fact, so watch this space. But the most exciting plan around these parts is definitely the fact that my husband and I are planning to spend this coming fall in Scotland, a wonderland for both book lovers (and book sculptors) and, of course, lovers of yarn and history. Sounded like a perfect plan to me just as soon as we came up with it. But I gained further confirmation that I was meant to be in Scotland when my twin sister notified me that in Shetland, they have started dressing their small ponies in intricately patterned cardigans. If one of these ponies had a book stashed behind its wind-beaten grassy hillock, we would be soulmates.

ponies in cardigans

Review: Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from Vesterheim Museum

I picked up a copy of Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from the Vesterheim Museum, by Sue Flanders and Janine Kosel, when I was downtown yesterday, browsing at A Room of One’s Own Books and Gifts. The bookstore is now in its new, expanded location on Gorham Street, and since it has merged with Avol’s Books, it now offers a wide selection of second-hand books, as well as new stock. There don’t seem to be too many second-hand knitting books, however, but this is unsurprising: most people buy knitting books to keep them on the shelf to refer to repeatedly, of course. I heeded the signs in the bookstore – “See it here, buy it here, keep us here” – and took away this lovely book to peruse in the coffee shop across the street.*

The book is a collection of patterns inspired by items in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Vesterheim, which means “Western Home,” was the name given to the United States by Norwegian-American immigrants. One of the most striking aspects of the book (and, presumably, the museum) is the feelings of connectedness between the “old country” and the immigrant communities in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. These connections are most clear in historical photographs from the museum that are spread throughout the book, showing women in long dresses on skis, children sleeping under intricate blankets, and little boys making snowmen, wearing Norwegian mittens. Are these photos of Norway or the US? Hard to tell sometimes, until you look at the captions. I loved these photos, and I wish the authors had included even more of them.

The book also includes photos of the historical pieces that inspired the patterns, as well as photos of finished objects and full-colour charts for knitting multi-colour designs. The lace patterns are not charted, but only written out. I can’t read lace charts, and I am, in fact, quite bad at knitting lace no matter how the pattern is written, despite the best efforts of chart-fans like Scottish knitting designer Ysolda Teague, who has written a handy tutorial entitled “Using Charts Even if You Hate Them. If you like knitting lace from charts, you might have to make your own charts for the few lace patterns in this book, which include a triangular garter-stitch shawl with lace edge that might just be at my skill-level for lace.

But, as you might expect, lace is not really the main player in a book about Norwegian knitting, and I really bought this book because I love love love to knit complicated mittens. Recent projects for lucky mitten-recipients include a pair of Kalev’s Mittens, from another excellent book, Folk Knitting in Estonia, by Nancy Bush, and Northman Mittens, a pattern by David Schulz. And this new book did not disappoint! There are mitten patterns ranging from a very simple pair of mittens in the style of Sami clothing, knit in bulky Lopi Icelandic yarn, to a fairly complicated pair of women’s mittens, knit in fine yarn with a snowflake pattern on the hands and another charted pattern of roses on the cuffs. I learned a few things about Norwegian mitten design as well. Some parts of the country favour asymmetrical designs, such as the rose pattern, while in some areas, the patterns are always mirror-images, such as the Selbu rose, which I usually see as a star or snowflake (picture of a Selbu rose mitten, below, by larskflem on Flickr) Selbu.

While I am very tempted by the more complex Daddy Long-Legs Mittens, winter is coming soon enough, so I think I will start by making Flower Mittens, with a Cross-Country Ski Hat to (almost) match. The hat reminds me of a hat my twin sister bought last winter in Tallin, Estonia, from the “Wall of Knitting.” This wall in Tallin, (pictured below by hilde h on Flickr), where women sell all kinds of sweaters and other knitted goods, is definitely on my lifelong “knitting tourism” list (which just keeps getting longer every year, by the way). Warm clothes all over

Until I can pay a visit there, and to other places in Scandinavia, books like this one will have to keep me going. Luckily, I have tons and tons of fine-gauge wool yarn, bought for me by various understanding family members on trips to Denmark, Iceland and Sweden. I was also pleased to see several patterns that were designed for yarns made by Blackberry Ridge Woollen Mill, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, which is close to Madison. It’s rare to find designers using their yarn, which comes in numerous rich colours, and is really hard-wearing. Wisconsin knitters, take note!

I do recommend this book, particularly if you enjoy knitting mittens. Several of the online reviews I have read (warning: don’t read Amazon reviews if you don’t want to get grumpy) have complained about the fact that it contains only two sweater patterns. First of all, the sweater pattern that is included is definitely something I have never seen before: it’s an adult-sized two-colour sweater, and a simplified child’s variation, in an interesting “Voss” pattern based on a headscarf in the Vesterheim museum, that has a striking neckline with four different diamond motifs, and an all-over two-colour pattern on the body that consists of diagonal lines mirrored around the central line descending from the neckline pattern.

Second of all, the writers point out that two-colour “ski sweaters” are actually a fairly late addition to traditional Norwegian knitting, having become prominent only at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems that, in much the same way that we consider fair-isle knitting “old-fashioned”, despite the fact that it really only became popular in the 1920s and 30s, Norwegian sweaters might be more the result of marketing than of tradition, and the motifs, colours and patterns are actually more complex.

Thirdly, it seems that the authors designed the book to display not only the variety of the knitted items that are found in the Vesterheim collection, but also to appeal to knitters at a range of skill levels, and to be a tool for everyone to learn new techniques. Beyond the creativity and math necessary to place two-colour patterns on a sweater, I actually don’t find the techniques of Norwegian sweaters to be particularly interesting, and I would have been disappointed to buy a book that consisted primarily of numerous colour charts that could be applied to the standard formula for these sweaters, which can be summarized easily as 1. knit a tube 2. knit two more tubes for sleeves 3. Cut the first tube, attach a tube, repeat 4. Knit another small tube for a neckband. So I am quite pleased that the authors decided instead to devote space to techniques like needle felting, creating various kinds of braid for straps and decoration, and to creating items in a variety of shapes, gauges and levels of complexity.

I am of two minds about the authors’ decisions about the use of space in the book, however. They include several recipes in sidebars, for example. I’m unlikely to try these specialties, many of them baked goods that require the use of special pans and equipment, and while I like reading recipes for interest’s sake, I feel the space could have been better used to include larger photos, both of historical scenes and of the final knitted garments. The charts, in contrast to the photos, are as big as they could make them, although I expect I will have to do some creative photocopying for some of the more intricate charts.

Reading this book, I was reminded a little too much of the economics of producing a full-colour, illustrated hardcover book: it’s tough to figure out how much space to devote to written instructions, versus photos, versus charts, versus contextual information, and to know how to create a knitting book that is both useful and affordable, especially when costs have to take technical editing and test-knitting into account. I find this aspect of knitting publishing particularly interesting, since I assume that publishers are aware that they are competing with the booming market in downloadable PDF patterns, which can be resized and reprinted by users without any extra expenditure on the part of the publisher, who is now often the designer herself.** So, I sympathize, and I’m willing to be forgiving as I squint at a few photos. I still think the book is a great value and an important collection of historical information, which I don’t think I have the expertise to critique. I’m sure it will make many readers more interested in the Vesterheim Museum and in the Norwegian immigrant experience more generally, and it’s lovely to have the chance to reflect on the experience of these immigrants and knitters with a real book in my hand, rather than staring at a computer screen. A more unfortunate flaw, however, is the fact that the patterns in this book were published with quite a few errors: errata are available here. I have read that newer printings of the book have been corrected, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for errors in charts and instructions as I go along.

When I was considering buying this book, rather than simply getting it out of the library, I had to remind myself that the money you spend on a knitting book covers many hours and hours of enjoyment: there’s the first few hours, looking over your new purchase, preferably with hot drink in hand, the minutes here and there you spend double-checking patterns and planning, and then the many hours, with the book at hand, knitting the lovely things it contains. So, in other words, don’t be cheap – buy nice knitting books! Especially at your local independent bookstore! The same authors have recently published Swedish Handknits: a Collection of Heirloom Designs, with designs inspired by items in the collection of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With Kari Cornell, they have also collaborated on two other collections: Knitting Socks from Around the World and Knitting Socks and Mittens from Around the World. All three books are now definitely going on hold at the library!

* Yes, unemployment has its perks.
** It occurs to me that many of the same problems of size, formatting, expense and usability come into play when thinking about books about maps, and I’ve been mulling over similar digital vs. print questions as I prepare to write a review of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Watch this space!

Home again, home again

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(thanks, Willy St. Co-op Facebook feed, for this cartoon)

3 things that are making me happy these days (besides the summer produce taking over my fridge) . . .

1. Returning to my home library, and the “place hold” button
After a fairly monogamous summer vacation, reading-wise, of devouring A Suitable Boy, I had lots of fun picking out my reading matter for the rest of August, using that ever-so-satisfying (and economical too!) “place hold” button. On hold, or already borrowed right now, are

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Ruby Programming for the Absolute Beginner, Jerry Lee Ford
Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Head First Excel, by Michael Milton
“Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Are You My Mother, by Alison Bechdel
Head First PHP and MySQL
Canada, by Richard Ford
Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs

(I’ve linked these to WorldCat so you can see if they are your local library – just enter your location at the top of the results list to find the copies nearest you)

2. Friends working on cool projects
A friend of mine just made me aware of an interesting project she’s working on: Marine Lives . The project team will be transcribing 17th century documents about life at sea from the High Court of Admiralty in the UK, which tell us, among other things, just what to do with a drunken sailor. I find this type of project really interesting: it appeals to both the “treasure hunter aspect” of my intellectual interests and to my desire to engage in certain kinds of more repetitive work. Transcribing, like making bibliographies, or coding html pages, or even taking notes, casts me into a satisfying trance-like state of focused relaxation, much like knitting does. If you want to know more about these kind of projects, I recommend this article on Galazy Zoo and the New Dawn of Citizen Science, which appeared in The Observer earlier this year.

Pssst, Marine Lives is looking for volunteers to start training next week for 50 hours of transcribing documents and learning about 17th century seafaring! Anyone interested in history can do it, from Grade 12 students on up!

3. Speaking of trance-like knitting

I’m also excited to be making some plans for knitting for the fall, as, if you can’t tell from my reading list, I’ve got quite a bit of free time and I can’t spend all of it learning new computer skills and cooking Chinese food! In addition to knitting several pairs of baby booties for the offspring of friends and family (these ones? or these ones?), I think I might jump on the short-row stripes bandwagon and attempt a Stripe Study Shawl, using some lovely red and cream yarn my parents brought me back from Copenhagen (oooh la la!), or, I’ll try and get better at doing cables and make a Sagano Shawl using some firecracker-coloured sock yarn I got recently in a swap.

(PS, do my non-knitting readers find, like my husband, that when I talk about knitting all you hear is the sound that the adults made in the Peanuts cartoons?)

Big book, Big knitting, Big Olympics

I am in a rut, a very enjoyable rut. I’m about two-thirds of the way through A Suitable Boy, which, according to Wikipedia at least, is one of the longest books ever published in one volume in the English language. It is very very long, and very very good. I wish I had read it more slowly so that I could have more time with this wonderful book!

And my knitting, well, I can’t say that I wish my current project were taking longer, but I am certainly enjoying it as well. It’s a variation of Natalie Selles’ pattern, Reunion Cowl, a big huge cowl made of very fine lace weight yarn. I would estimate that it has at least 100,000 stitches in it, and it’s not even done yet! But the fabric made by this yarn (Fleece Artist Bluefaced Leicester 2/8 is very very soft, and the colour (a variegated sort of icy blue), makes it fascinating to knit, as I just want to see how the next inch will look. That being said, I am really looking forward to having it finished. I can’t deny that I am looking forward, just a little, to crisp fall weather, and wearing my new gray fall coat, topped off with this cowl. I’m knitting it in plain stocking stitch, without the rows of eyelets shown in the pattern.

And what better thing to do when knitting a giant blue cowl than watching the Olympics! I am enjoying a surfeit of swimming, gymnastics, rowing, whitewater canoeing, and more!