A Swatch

I have now knit up a swatch with the Jacob yarn I’ve made from Bloomers. I wound by hand the little skein of two-ply spun from the drum-carded batts, cast on 50 stitches using U.S. size 6 needles, and knit my swatch over the last several days.

The yarn is good to work with. Much of the pleasure comes from my having been involved in so much of the process, from scouring the wool, to flicking and carding, to spinning. And the yarn itself pleases me–with its pretty variations in color, a nice twist, and a robust yet soft feel. The swatch is wonderfully scrunchable. When I was just a few rows in, I realized what I wanted to knit with this yarn: a cardigan sweater vest.

I have a growing list of favorite patterns I’ve collected in my Ravelry notebook. Among those favorites are several sweater vests. I don’t currently own such a garment, and it seems like quite a useful item for a teacher’s wardrobe. I think the yarn I am making is either a sport or dk weight, so I’m looking at Carol Sunday’s Nancy’s Vest or Churchmouse Yarn’s Library Vest. Both have the simple classic look I’m after.

I like how my yarn speaks to me, how it tells me what to make with it. I’ve read that some spinners begin with a specific type of yarn and project in mind. I also know that there are many different spinning techniques: short forward draw, short backward draw, long draw, supported long draw, spinning from the fold. There’s woolen spun and worsted spun yarn. And there are different ways to ply, too. I look forward to advancing my skills and learning more of those techniques. But for now I’m still getting familiar with the experience of twisting fibers into string. I like the meditative practice: feet rhythmically pumping, fiber moving through my hands and fingers, wheel spinning round, and flyer…well it does fly, whirling around at speed. For now, I’ll make the yarn first and decide what it wants to be after I’ve knit a while with it.

I’ll knit more swatches with the yarn I’ve spun from Bloomers. I’m curious to see a fabric made with size 5 needles. I might like its density. I’ll also knit a swatch with the two-ply spun from rolags and with the three-ply yarn. Soon I’ll scour the rest of the raw Jacob fleece. It will take some time to flick, card, and spin it. But it won’t be long before I cast on a vest with yarn I’ve made by hand. I don’t care one whit how long it takes. This is my pleasure and not my work. Every step of the process teaches me more. No deadlines here. I let the project carry me.

 

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Transformations: Nordic Wind

These days, when I’m not knitting away on a honey cowl, I most often reach for another simple, comforting project, the Nordic Wind shawl.

This shawl began almost a year ago, when I bought a bag of fiber from the fabulous Gwen Erin Natural Fibers at the Autumn Fiber Festival in Ashland, Ohio. The Sheep Tones Combed Top Sampler contained two ounces each of Falkland, Blue Faced Leicester, White Shetland, and Fawn Shetland fiber. At the time, I was just learning about different sheep breeds and the wonderful variety of wool that can be produced from them.

Months passed with the fiber still neatly tucked in its bag. For most of that time I was learning to spin on a drop spindle. In May, however, I dove deeper into the world of spinning and purchased a spinning wheel. July rolled around, and I pulled out the bag from my (small but growing) stash of fiber.

Up until that point with my wheel, I had only spun fiber that had been dyed. This undyed top was so smooth in comparison to the stickiness of dyed fiber. It  flowed like liquid from my hands onto the flyer of my wheel. More than once my fingers forgot to close and let the fibers slide completely apart in my hands. The wool smelled clean, sheepy. I buried my nose in it every time I picked it up to spin.

As I spun a little every day, my spinning improved. I could see that this yarn I was making might actually be yarn. It was definitely handspun, with delightful irregularities, but it was more even, with less dramatic thick-and-thin variations than my first attempts.

How did the fibers differ from each other? The Falkland was a soft, clean white. The Blue-Faced Leicester was creamier, bouncy and soft with a little shine. The two colors of Shetland were springy, a little hardier, slightly less soft. I plied the yarns, then soaked them in warm water and snapped the skeins to finish them.

Blue-Faced Leicester

Shetland

Falkland

I began to think about what I might knit with this handspun yarn. After perusing many patterns on Ravelry, I decided that I wanted something simple, some kind of shawl or blanket. I wanted to wrap myself in the softness of the yarns. The Nordic Wind shawl fit my needs perfectly. I could just keep knitting until I used up my yarn, or until the shawl was as big as I wanted it to be.

I wound the balls by hand and cast on while I was in New Hampshire visiting my parents. I started with the creamy Blue-Faced Leicester and then added the Shetland. From the start, it was a pleasing knit. The increasing rows of stockinette show off the irregularities of the handspun perfectly. Since then the shawl has progressed slowly, which is just fine with me. I’m nearing the end of the Shetland yarn, getting ready to join in the Falkland. After that, well, I may want the shawl to keep growing. I’ve got some more undyed BFL in my stash that I might enlist for this project.

When I first started knitting, I marveled at how a simple string, a strand of yarn, could be knit into a garment, something useful and warm. The transformation seemed magical to me. Now this other transformation–from fiber to yarn–seems a more elemental form of magic. I can’t get enough of both of them.

 

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Bloomers

Last spring I traveled to the Lake Metroparks Farmpark in Kirtland, Ohio for their annual sheep shearing festival. I watched sheep dog demonstrations, wandered the beautiful grounds, and chatted with helpful spinners. I also came home with a four-pound Jacob fleece, purchased for $8.00 from the owner of Bloomers the sheep. Sadly, I’ve forgotten the name of the owner.

This was the third raw fleece I’ve acquired–and the most beautiful.

Unwashed

Washed

Bloomers has a good life, as evidenced by the variety of vegetable matter in her fur. I was so grateful to the fleece seller for pointing me in the direction of this fleece; although plentiful, the pieces of v.m. are large and pretty easy to pick out. Bloomers sports a range of beautiful browns, creams, and greys. Her fleece is soft with a lovely crimp, the staple four inches or so.

There’s something about a raw fleece: the springy wool that warms and insulates the sheep and then provides such wonderful material for making yarn. This is the stuff that sweaters and hats and mittens and socks come from. I love the waxy feel of the lanolin, the barnyard smell, the curls and crimps of the locks, the many color variations, the evidence of the lived life of the sheep.

I’m new to all this, and I’m learning about the different elements that come into play when working with fleece and designing a yarn from that fleece. I don’t yet set out with a specific type of yarn or garment in mind. I just process the fleece with the tools I have, spin it how it seems to want to be spun, and then ply it and see what I’ve got.

With Bloomers I started with a flick carder, opening up the locks. Then I used my hand carders to make rolags. That worked pretty well, but I started wondering about drum carders. Would a drum carder save me time? Would it change the character of the yarn? I knew about Praxis Fiber Workshop, a space for fiber artists with looms, wheels, and dying equipment. Checking online, I saw they also had drum carders.

I’ve now spent two delightful afternoons at Praxis, learning  to drum card and meeting a bunch of friendly, knowledgeable fiber artists, including a spunky 96-year-old weaver.  Before my first visit to Praxis, I watched a couple of helpful Youtube videos on drum carding. It’s not too tricky. Turning the drum slowly was good advice. The drum carder seems to align the fibers a little more than my hand carders do. The colors are more evenly blended as well. I love the big fluffy batts that come off of the carder.

Flicked Locks

A Batt Made on Drum Carder

I took my rolags and batts and spun some sample yarns: singles and two-ply, and even my first three-ply yarn. The yarn spun from the batts definitely has a softer feel to it, and the color variations are less dramatic. My next step will be to knit some swatches.

I don’t yet know what I’m going to make with my Jacob fleece from Bloomers. What I do know is that taking the wild fleece off a sheep’s back and turning it into a useful yarn is somehow magical to me, even now that I’ve done it myself.

 

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Purple

It is September, the beginning of another school year, and I am nearing the end of my biggest knitting project yet.

Although I learned to knit at college some thirty-five years ago, I consider my life as a knitter to have begun in December of 2013 when I relearned how to cast on and make a simple dishcloth. Since then I’ve knit my way through a rib knit scarf, a bunch of hats, a pair of mittens, a sweater, several pairs of socks, a couple of shawls, some slippers, a neck tie, and more. With each project, I’ve entered new territory: color work, the heel turn, cables, short rows, grafting.

Until this past January, I knit one project at a time. I worked on something until it was done. As I was finishing, I dreamed about and planned what I would knit next. And then I realized that I wanted to knit something for the girls in my advisor group to give them at the holidays in December of this, their final year of high school.

At my school, each teacher works with a group of about ten girls, starting when they are in ninth grade and seeing them through all four years of high school. My current group makes me happy each time we come together. They are funny, imaginative, talkative, interesting souls. It will be hard to let them go when they graduate in June. I want to give them something made by me, something that they can take with them, something that will last and that will keep them warm. I decided to knit each of them Antonia Shankland’s Honey Cowl.

Ravelry lists 23,680 Honey Cowl projects. I would be joining a long line of knitters who have worked their way through its rhythmic slip stitch pattern. I learned about the Honey Cowl from Mason-Dixon Knitting where Kay Gardiner frequently raves about it. I was especially drawn to her observation that she has given honey cowls to women of all ages, and the recipients actually wear the cowls. I have not given very many knitted gifts, but I am aware that recipients of knitted gifts are not always grateful, do not always cherish items that were made with care for them. The Honey Cowl, knitted in soft Madelinetosh Tosh DK, seemed just right for my group of girls. It is elegant and simple, functional in a variety of climates. Since purple is the color of this graduating class, I chose Begonia Leaf, a lovely color somewhere between raspberry and lavender. I ordered fifteen skeins—one and a half skeins per cowl. And then I ordered another two skeins so that I could knit a cowl for myself.

A big pile of gorgeous yarn arrived. On the first of January, I wound three skeins and cast on 200 stitches for the first of the cowls. I quickly fell in love with the pattern and its alternating rounds of knit and purl-slip stitches. The bottom edge curled adorably. The slight variations of color lent texture and interest. Yarn and pattern suited each other perfectly.

I did not learn new stitch techniques with this project. Instead, I learned to knit on a schedule, to deadline. I had plenty of time: eleven months to make eleven cowls. Two rows take me half an hour. I knit two rows nineteen or twenty times for each cowl. All I have to do is knit half an hour to an hour every day on the cowl. After a while, the rhythm of the project, like the rhythm of the stitches, becomes second nature.

I have had moments of boredom, sure, but mostly I have loved this large project. I have knit Honey Cowls through faculty meetings, through Netflix binges, through warm evenings on the front porch. I can now knit a Honey Cowl without thinking twice. I just cast on, and off I go. It’s like memorizing a poem; the pattern and the rhythms of the stitches have become a part of me.

In March the knitting community gave me a gift. Jen Arnall-Culliford began her Year of Techniques with the helical stripe. Kay Gardiner figured that there had to be a way to use this technique to eliminate the visible “seam” line that is created on the Honey Cowl. And then Jen tried it out, laying out the details on her Ravelry page. I was delighted! I tried the helical technique, it worked perfectly, and starting with cowl #5, there are no longer any visible lines in my honey cowls.

I now have several projects going, and I enjoy moving from one project to the next. If all I’d knitted this year had been honey cowls, I think I would have gone batty. Instead, almost without realizing it, I’ve made a lot more things than ever before.

With each month that passes, the pile of honey cowls grows, and the pile of yarn shrinks. Two days ago, on September second, I cast on my ninth honey cowl. My seniors have begun their final year. All too soon it will be over.

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