Tuesday, July 17, 2007

at long last

This scarf doesn't just have a story. It has a saga!!

First, the details:
Yarn: burgundy cashmere laceweight, from Nandia cashmere
Needles: bamboo, size 5 circular
Pattern: 3 repeats of feather and fan lace, with 5 stitches of garter stitch on each side, and 5 rows of garter stitch at each end.

Now, the story:
I purchased this yarn in the winter of 2002/2003, which was a very cold and lonely winter for me. I reckoned that lace would get me the most knitting hours for my money (foreshadowing here: I didn't know the half of it!), and it was a pleasure to have something so soft, ethereally light, and richly colored.

But it turned out to be a bit of a pain to knit! As a novice lace knitter, each mistake took forever to spot and fix. And the slow progress was discouraging. After about two months of slowly working on it, I frustratedly put it down.

I picked it up two years later, when I was tagging along on Mountain Man's field work in South Africa. I had a great deal of down time on that trip, sitting under a tree or on a river bank while Mountain Man and his colleagues dug soil pits and collected rock samples. The scarf seemed like a perfect small project to tuck into my daypack.

I spent many, many hours on that scarf. And yet it hardly seemed to grow and was rather mind numbing to boot. It was only half finished by the end of that trip, when I put it down for another two years.

That scarf mocked me from the knitting basket, becoming a veritable symbol of my inability to knit lace at a reasonable rate. In time, I did knit other lace things. And so it was that I felt confident enough to pick it up when I went to a conference last month.

And this time, it whizzed right by!! I finished the scarf in only a fraction of the time that it had taken me to knit the first half. I did notice one anomaly though: over time, my gauge steadily increased, such that the lace section that was 8.75 inches wide in 2003 was 10.25 inches wide in 2007. Being the nerdy graduate student that I am, I decided to track a number of other variables that could possibly explain this trend.

Could it be that I knit more tightly when I was more angst-ridden (recall, I was happily traveling in 2005 and 2007)? Do I loosen up with increasing temperature, or as I become more desperate to see the project finished? Or is it that as I became more comfortable and experienced with knitting, I didn't cling so tightly to the needles? Anyways, with only 3 data points and much interaction between variables, it's impossible to tell. But it's clear that this is a matter for serious investigation!

local color!

I'm trying to capture this place, these green hills and gardens, before I make the great move to the southwest. I've been describing the landscape in my journal. I've been searching galleries for the right painting. And I've been experimenting with local, natural dyes to take some of these colors with me.

Clockwise from right: (1) cochineal with ammonia dip (2) cochineal on silk noil with ammonia dip (3) cochineal on silk noil (4) cochineal on washed silk/wool (5) cochineal on unwashed silk/wool (6) cochineal (7) cochineal and marigolds (8) cochineal and marigolds on silk/wool (9) cochineal and marigolds on silk noil (10) chamomile (11) rhubarb leaves (12) rudbeckia flowers (13) rudbeckia flowers on silk noil (14) rudbeckia leaves (15) sweet fern (16) mullein leaves (17) St. Johnswort flowers, exhaust (18) St. Johnswort flowers, first bath (19) red wine with ammonia dip (20) red wine. Unless otherwise noted, all samples are merino wool. All are alum mordanted.

I'm by no means a purist -- you'll notice some exotic dyestuffs in here too. I'm playing with cochineal, in preparation for a silk/wool tunic for my mom. And when one local flower (marsh mallow) yielded only dullness, I replaced that dyebath with some displeasing cabernet sauvignon.

But the greatest interest for me comes from the local yellows. And in a few weeks, some of those yellows will be joined by blues and greens! I've been growing some japanese indigo by seed and am eager to try a first harvest. Some is in the garden and some is in this nice big pot, which sits on a pedestal covering our well.

(It's getting dark, too dark for a proper picture, but I thought I'd try anyways. Funny how the cat and dog always come around to investigate what I'm doing!!)

Anyways, if you're interested in more information about this dyeing, please let me know. I figure that most readers won't be interested in the fiddly details and recipes. But the cochineal, wine, and some of the local yellows (marigolds and chamomile) are readily available most anywhere and reasonably easy to dye with - and it makes for splendid experimentation!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

about face

In which I reverse course on everything I said in the last post....

I'm back to the hemp. Started a plain, stockinette tank on a circular needle and decided it isn't so bad after all. Stitches are a bit labored, but not too painful, I found, if I don't try anything complicated. It's not much to look at just yet, so I decided to photograph it in front of the 'Irish Eyes' Rudbeckias. They're the most riotous things going in my garden at the moment. And look who came out to check it out!

This leads to a quick tangent on rural life --- it's been an intense day, animalwise. It's the first gorgeously sunny day after five days of thunderstorms, and all the creatures are positively bustling with energy. My pets have been hunting up a storm, trying to look tough after all those nights of shivering about the thunder. The kitty caught a bird and a chipmunk. And I found the dog walking around with a baby turkey in her mouth (I did manage to rescue the little thing, which was peeping like mad as a I walked it back into the forest but ran off at a healthy pace when I let it go!).

Anyways, back to the knitting. The reason I've returned to the hemp is that I got soured on the sock. I knit the leg, gleefully patting myself on the back for my creativity. I turned the heel on three needles, just fine. I started back on double knitting for the foot, got halfway down, thought it looked awfully wide without the full-round ribbing, and realized I couldn't try it on when the stupid thing was closed at the end on one needle. Irritated me to no end. And because I'm such a dilletante, I thought I'd start something new (hemp) rather than work out the problems with the sock.

Anyways, I should have more to show in the next few days. Mountain Man has left for two weeks of mountainous field work, so it's just the yarn and the critters to keep me company!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

new things in the works

I'm experimenting with two new yarns these days. First up: hemp yarn (Lana allhemp6, "deep river") to make a cool summer top. I'd come up with a concept a few days before my conference trip, ordered the yarn from the fabulous girls at KPixie, and swatched up a storm:

My response to this yarn? Eh. Hemp -- even when sold for handknitting - makes for stiff, slow knitting. More abrasive than I'd expected. Clunky with lace, sloppy with cables (I thought the stiffness of the yarn might make the cables pop, but that was not the case).

Now, all is not lost. The color is rich and gorgeous. I'm sure the garment will soften when washed. And the texture of the yarn means that even stockinette stitch will have a little interest. But the downsides were enough to make me rethink my design ideas and put the project aside for a bit.

What I picked up, instead, was some excellent Austermann Step sock yarn that I'd won in Macoco's blog contest. The yarn is treated with aloe vera and jojoba oil, which makes for very soft sock knitting indeed (what a pleasure after that hemp!).

This timing of this yarn's arrival could not have been more perfect. After knitting Hob, which introduced me to double knitting, I was eager to experiment with trying to knit socks that way. I've tried all the usual ways of knitting socks -- double pointed needles, magic loop, two circulars -- but they all annoy me in some way. DP's are difficult to pack and travel with. Magic loop requires too much adjustment. Two circs means too many needle ends are hanging about. With double knitting, all the knitting can be back and forth on two dps.

I'll describe the technique in more depth at some point, but the basic intuition is that the stitches from each side of the sock are alternated on the needle, and with each pass you knit the stitches facing you and slip the stitches (with yarn in front) on the other side. So, for 2x2 ribbing, this looks like {knit 1, bring yarn to front, slip 2, bring yarn to back} twice and {purl 1, slip 1} twice.

It's pretty slow, but it's fun to be experimenting this way. And it's WAY easier for travelling (in my opinion) than having a tangle of DP needles. I'll keep all of you updated on the progress!

And in a last, but important, note, I want to direct you towards a new blog that a friend and fellow grad student has started: PhD Procrastinating. He's off in Belfast doing dissertation research, and the blog has a highly entertaining record of his misadventures. And maybe if enough people visit his blog from here, he'll be nice enough to bring me back some Irish lace yarn : )