Dame Hilary, in the Library, with the Knitting Needles

In the United States of America there is a network of Presidential libraries and a library has been established for every president since Herbert Hoover, each located in their home state. In the UK we don’t have such a network, so there is only a single Prime Ministerial library: Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden in Wales.

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Gladstone’s Library

Being the only Prime Ministerial library is not the only thing that makes this place unusual, it is also the largest (some sources say only) residential library in the country. It’s a place that has fascinated me ever since I first heard of it and so, when I saw that Knit for Peace were running a short knitting holiday there, I couldn’t resist.

Last Saturday, therefore, saw me arriving at this amazing building, ready to enjoy meeting other knitters in some impressive surroundings. Outside, there are gardens and an area of woodland, but it is the building that is really impressive, both outside:

and inside

The books are mainly history and theology, so no light reading, but they are accessible on the shelves and you can even sign them out if you are staying and take them back to your room to read. However, I wasn’t really there to read, I was there to knit, socialise and visit some woolly places… which is just what we did.

Upon arrival, we congregated in the sitting room, where I was surprised to be introduced to the founder of the Charities Advisory Trust (the parent organisation of Knit for Peace) Dame Hillary Blume. Two other members of staff also attended the weekend as well as a number of their regular volunteers, meaning that I got to hear lots about their work, from who curates the wool collections for the monthly raffle (which I won last autumn)to the compilation of the Good Gifts Catalogue and what day of the week they have cake in the office.

Each day we went out and about, visiting local wool producers/ retailers, making trips to Abakhan, Black Sheep Wools, The Lost Sheep Company and the Chester Wool Company/Fibrespates, returning to the library to knit and chat. To be honest there was rather more chatting than knitting, and indeed so much chatting that at least two of us (me being one) had to frog some of our work because we made mistakes whilst getting distracted by the conversations!

So, the weekend was a great success – money was raised for the charity, lovely places were visited, knitting was knitted, crochet was crocheted, conversations were had and I made a hat from some of my raffle winnings (it will be returned to Knit for Peace, who will find it a good home).

Making, but not excessively

By Patricia Collins

Dorothy was 89 when I asked her how she spent the long dark evenings of winter. “Jigsaws’ was her answer. “Do you knit?” “I love knitting, but I’ve no one left to knit for”.  Her family of children and grandchildren were grown up and fending for themselves and her great-grandchildren had reached the age when they would not be seen in hand made clothes. Now there’s a topic for discussion!

Dot’s rather plaintive cry was something that I could relate to though in s slightly different way. I love making things, sewing in particular, but I’ve reached the stage where I have everything I need – sufficient clothes, accessories, curtains, aprons and the rest.  From now on my sewing life could easily be confined to repairs and the making of an occasional pot holder.  Any more would be surplus, excess.  But I still love sewing and have a box of material just waiting to be used.  How do we make stuff without making more stuff?

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Dot, at her knitting group, models a fleece hat!

There was a simple solution for Dot. A few of us started to meet regularly in our village tea shop and exchange news about local projects needing hand knitted items. Now well into her 90s, Dot is keeping the local premature baby unit in exquisite tiny clothes. Others in the knitting group have produced hedgehogs for the local rescue, blankets for homeless people, warm bed socks to welcome refugees to the county.

There was a solution for me too and a chance to get back to that stash of fabrics and enjoy my sewing again. Shoe bags for the women’s rescue, incubator quilts for the hospital, Little Dresses for Africa and my easy favourite Morsbags for the food bank. There are projects galore on the web wanting and needing our sewing skills.  We can make more without making excess. Any favourite sites anyone?

Knit, Purl, Save the World

The other day I was browsing the local library and came across this bookIMGP5890so I couldn’t resist taking it out to peruse thoroughly at home. I love the idea of the book:

A sustainable approach to knitting and crochet that benefits the planet AND your creativity

The book takes a pattern-by-pattern approach, using a different “eco-friendly” fibre for each – alpaca, soysilk, locally produced cashmere, camel, bamboo, jute and so on. Some of the pros, cons and eco-credentials of each fibre are discussed and some of the patterns use scrap yarn or yarn made from recycled/repurposed materials. There’s also a two-page spread entitled Community Awareness: Global Efforts to Live, Create, Employ, and Sustain Via Yarn Crafts which describes projects in various countries that use knitting, crochet or fibre production as the basis for community development and economic independence.

But I’m sorry to say that I was a little disappointed with it overall. The organisation means that the patterns rather than the fibres take centre-stage and there is no handy way to browse the types of yarns and compare their characteristics and credentials. I’m rather saddened that the research that the authors clearly did to find out about the yarns they use was not presented in a more accessible and thorough way. Space is dedicated to basic knitting and crochet techniques, which are easy to find in a multitude of books, rather than to the really interesting, unique stuff. I don’t need another book of patterns, but I would have loved a book comprehensively discussing the merits (environmental and otherwise) of different yarns and fibres, so I’m glad I got it out of the library rather than bought it.

Ah well, I guess that I’ll just have to write the book I want myself. I’ll add it to the list.

Knit, Purl, Save the World by Vickie Howell and Adrienne Armstrong, ISBN 0715336347

Stripes without seams

This year, as well as focusing on some UFOs (like the now completed Bavarian crochet blanket) I am trying out some new techniques with the intention of making several items from start to finish. As someone who does not really enjoy sewing, the idea of knitting in the round and thus avoiding seams is very appealing. That combined with the (new to me) techniques of knitting a garment from the top down has resulted in a most enjoyable project: Poison Oak, knitted with Cambrian Mountains (slate) and Little Grey Sheep (moonlighting) wools. After the knitting was completed, there were just a few ends to work in and then it was done, but in need of blocking, especially around the bottom edge:

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a bit rough around the edges!

So, it has been soaked in Eucalan, gently spun and is now pinned out and drying gently to ensure that it finishes up the right shape, with a nice neat point at the front.

 

This has been a remarkably enjoyable project for me and will certainly not be the last top-down garment that I knit… in fact Breathing Space is already lined up to start, right after I’ve made a bit more progress on the sofa cover (yes, that’s one of the UFOs I’m currently working on).

 

Bamboo – the not-so-natural fibre

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different breeds provide wool  with different characteristics

As you will have noticed, I am a fan of working with natural fibres – my preference being sheep’s wool (because we produce lots of it in the UK), but I’m not averse to other types too, including the fleece/hair from other animals such as goats and alpaca. There are some circumstances where something like cotton is much more appropriate… when making Knitted Knockers, for example, but most of my knitting, crochet and felt-making is done using wool.

You may have noticed, however, that when talking about working with non-wool natural fibres I don’t tend to mention bamboo or soya “silk” or a number of other fibres that are derived from natural materials. This is because bamboo etc are members of a class of fibres that, whilst not made from petrochemicals, like acrylic, are “manmade” – the rayons.

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a bamboo yarn sample

Rayon is a manmade fibre, but created with polymers from natural sources (often cellulose from plants, but sometimes another source of polymer, such as protein in milk – yes, milk) rather than petrochemicals. For example, viscose is a sort of rayon made from wood pulp; Tencel is a sort of viscose made from eucalyptus wood (usually found as fabric rather than yarn); bamboo yarn or bamboo silk is a sort of rayon (unless it is referred to as bamboo linen, in which case it’s retted and spun from the natural fibres like flax).

There are all sorts of environmental and health issues associated with the chemical processes required to create these products (with the exception of Tencel® and other Lyocells, which are produced in closed loop systems that avoid chemical pollution). Rayon fibres are biodegradable; indeed, they break down at approximately the same rate as cotton, if not a bit quicker. However, it’s important to understand that the processes used to make bamboo and other similar yarns are chemical and similar in some ways to the production of plastic yarns, but with a very different polymer source. It is often difficult to find details of the processes used to create these purportedly “natural” fibres, although it’s easy to find misleading claims about their environmental and health credentials.

Generally the rayon yarns are soft and silky, with little give in them.

Different fibres have different characteristics, and it’s a case of choosing the right one for the job. I would always recommend handling yarn before you buy, which generally means supporting a local yarn shop… adding an extra dimension to your ethical choices as regards your knitting and crochet.

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buy your yarn somewhere like this – support the local economy, get expert advice and feel and see the yarn before you buy

 

Upside down

Human beings are creatures of habit. We can get set in our ways, always following the same pattern and not considering other possibilities. And this, I realised, was how I had been with my knitting. For the past 40 years I’ve started at the bottom and worked up… because that’s how you knit… isn’t it? And then Jude at Red Apple Yarn introduced me to the idea of starting at the top and working down. She was knitting a pattern called Breathing Space and it looked lovely; I’ve bought a copy of it to make myself with some Eden Cottage Yarns ‘Milburn’:

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my next new project

But first I decided to have a go at Poison Oak (not the most promising name, I have to say) with a combination of Cambrian Wool (in Slate) and Little Grey Sheep Stein Fine wool (in Moonlighting). I love the fact that you start at the top and that it’s knitted in the round, so there will be very little finishing required. I’ve just started work on the first sleeve. The wool is gorgeous and the fit is great… what’s not to love?

In addition, both these patterns are for asymmetric sweaters, which I think are great for those of us who have real body shapes. Again, this is an approach I’ve never considered before. It’s good to climb out of my knitting rut.

So have you tried any new ways of doing anything recently?

Within or without?

Where does happiness come from?

Do you make your own or does it arrive as a gift from others?

These days I’m a relatively happy person. But then I’m lucky – a roof over my head, a partner to share life’s ups and downs, enough food on the table and no financial worries. It’s a good start and it means I don’t wake up every day fretting about the practicalities of life. But after that, I think it’s probably more about attitude than anything else. We all know that waking up feeling cross or sad or scared (for whatever reason) sets the tone for the whole day, whilst starting out feeling positive generally results in a much better day.

So, with my positive hat on (ooh – perhaps I should make one), here are some (simple)things that have made me happy recently…

Gosh, I realize now that my ‘happy’ certainly originates close to home: eggs from our hens and things made from them (ice cream and French toast), a spot of mending, some (British wool) knitting and a jar of honey from some friends’ bees. The preserved fruit that went with the French toast came from further afield, but I did bottle it myself… only the maple syrup was not a product (at least in part) of my own work.

Clearly what makes me happy is domesticity. How about you?

 

 

 

Toasty toes

Finally, they are finished…

It has been a bit of a labour of love, including frogging most of the foot of the second one when I realised that I had miscounted my decreases. I won’t be rushing to make another pair from this rather challenging pattern, but they were most welcome today, when I spent the day in a rather chilly place… more about that tomorrow…

 

 

From snow to snails

This has been a glum weekend. We were supposed to be away celebrating a birthday, but we couldn’t get out of Wales…

Usually I would be only too happy to stay at home, but missing spending time with my family, having posh afternoon tea, eating at a lovely brasserie and going to the theatre has put an enormous damper on my mood. Often I cheer myself up with creative activities, but it’s been hard this weekend. I have forced myself to start a new knitting project and to return to yet another long-abandoned crochet project, but progress has been slow and my mood has been low. It’s certainly not been helped by the weather improving, such that two days later, there would be no problem travelling.

Anyway, I have a pair of Nordic socks underway The pattern is Starry Night Socks and I’ve only modified it a little bit! I’m mostly using the wool I bought in Norway a couple of years ago, half of which was used for another pair of socks.

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warm socks now it’s warming up again

The ‘old’ project is a cardigan that I wanted to wear for a wedding 18 months ago! The wedding came and went and the cardigan was not finished. Then I discovered that the pattern was very poor and didn’t properly describe how to align the little flower motifs in the border – there being a point where the flowers up the front simply didn’t line up with the flowers up the back (they are off-set by a third of a flower and it would only get worse when you add the next row and the final third row):

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this is where I stalled – any additional flower would be in the wrong place in relation to one of the existing rows (both correctly placed according to the pattern)

I contacted the designer to get advice and she was unhelpful, basically telling me just to fiddle around with the flower motifs until they fit. I was so fed up that I put it to one side and didn’t pick it up again until a few days ago. By this stage I had decided not to follow the pattern (what there was of it) and instead to do my own thing. Since I was already glum, I started by removing the row of flowers up the front and weaving in all 248 ends that remained, then I added a simple border along the fronts and back of the neck that would be easy to attach other things to. Once these tasks were done, I felt a little better about the project.

As you can see, I left the row of flowers up the centre of the back, but I don’t plan to repeat them for the borders. So, it was a case of playing about with what I actually wanted. Initially I thought about paisley motifs and combining these with some free-form crochet, but then I had an idea: snails! Why not make it a snail of happiness cardigan? I’ve only just started, but I think this sort of thing might make a splendid border:

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a cluster of snails

I can join them as I go and shape the border easily… and it will be both unique and very personal.

So, the weekend is drawing to a close and although I’ve wasted lots of time being sad, I’ve also made some things and I’m feeling happy about a project that, until now, was something of a millstone. I hope you have been having a happier time than me.

 

Crochet, frog, repeat

Sometimes you make something and everything goes smoothly… the instructions contain no mistakes, the materials are cooperative, it ends up looking exactly how you want it to and you’ve enjoyed the whole process. And then sometimes that’s not the case.

I had some lovely New Lanark aran yarn in “Blackberry” that Mr Snail bought for me a couple of years ago. I had fallen out of love with the crochet pattern that it was originally intended for and I couldn’t find one that was exactly what I wanted. So, I bought a pattern that I was sure I could adapt. It was knitted rather than crochet, but that was ok – I’m happy to do either. I made the sleeves full-length rather than 3/4 and that worked well. Rather than adapting the wide, low-cut neck, I decided to in-fill with crochet once it was knitted. And that was where my problems started…

First I crocheted in a little triangle so it wasn’t as low-cut, but on inspection I discovered that it wasn’t quite centred, and in fact I’d made the triangle slightly too wide at the top, so it distorted the neck shape… so I frogged it. Then I decided to start slightly differently, so I edged it first, but it was saggy… so I frogged it. Then I edged it with some decreases and that was better, so I tried the triangular insert, and some more edging, but when I tried it on it still gaped and seemed very low… so I frogged it. Then I switched to a smaller hook and edged it and made a triangle using a different stitch pattern (which got partly frogged as I went) and then I realised I’d miscounted stitches down one side of the front edging, so it was uneven… so I frogged it.

Finally I got out my notebook and wrote down how many stitches I needed to work in each of the five sections. Then I counted as I worked and recounted once the first row was done. Then I put in a second row and counted again. Then I made the triangular insert based on all that I had learned from my previous attempts, which included using stitch markers to ensure that the two sides matched exactly. Then I crocheted another row and then I tried it on. It seemed to be ok, so I finished off with a crab-stitch edging.

It’s worked and I’m happy with it (it really is the colour in the first four pictures not the last one), but my word it has taken hours and hours and hours. Once all the ends are woven in, that will be another completed item made from my stash. I’m planning to spend time on something less challenging now before I return to the stripy cardigan that I abandoned months ago because of some technical issues with the pattern. Have you been struggling with any challenging makes recently?

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