Archive for the ‘Beyond glass (if such a thing is possible)’ Category

Gradient-spun yoked sweater 1Anyone who knows me on Ravelry even a little bit well, probably knows that I have a fondness (well, more of a passion) for transforming variegated spinning fiber into a continuous color progression or gradient, and then, if possible, knitting a sweater from it.

This isn’t nearly as complicated as it looks, or sounds: it just takes a little planning and preparation before you start actually spinning your yarn.

The sweater shown to the left here is actually a bit of a cheat – I forgot to plan the sweater, and only planned the gradient. I paid the price, as I had to knit the both sleeves and the body simultaneously, breaking and rejoining yarn all the while, in order to get the progression to travel evenly up the entire garment. Normally, that can be managed rather more elegantly, as we’ll see later.

Anyway, let’s use this sweater (because I just finished it, and I am super-proud of it and think it’s about six kinds of awesome) to show off the process of making the gradient yarn.

I started off with three bumps of fiber (12 oz) from two of my favorite dyers – Southern Cross Fibre and Hello Yarn. The colorways were the HY/SCF collaboration Lazy Eel, on Falkland, and HY Bristling, on Shetland (I had two lots of this). This what they looked like to begin with:


First, I pulled the fiber apart into into color sections, and then I made fauxlags, using a dowel and the technique David (of SCF) documents here, although he uses a rolling pin. My dowel is a lot smaller – only about an inch in circumference – but I find it easier to handle. If you want to play with this for yourself, I don’t believe there is any right or wrong – all you are doing is finding an easy way of tearing off a staple length at a time and wrapping it loosely around itself – so just experiment and see what works for you.  There’s no need to make a fetish of having the “right” tool.



Full disclosure: I am a lazy long-draw-ish type of spinner, and I like an airy woolen two-ply for sweaters, and spinning from faulags gives me that, so it suits me very well, in addition to providing nice little bite-size chunks of color I can manipulate easily.


You don’t need to make fauxlags, however.

The yarn I am spinning at the moment is Polwarth, and I want a smoother, more worsted spin, so all I did was pull my fiber into chunks. The sections of darker/ lighter/ a.n.other color on the edges of each strip will produce some subtle variegation through your yarn.



If you just want a gradient yarn, all you need to do now is arrange your fauxlags in the order that pleases you, and if you are making singles, or navajo-plying, you’re good to go.


If you want a traditional plied yarn, there’s one more step before you start spinning: you will have to divide your fiber into equal piles corresponding to the number of plies you want in your finished yarn.  This is pretty easy, and there is unlikely to be much difference in the amount of fiber in each pile, especially if, like me, you use smallish fauxlags, or shortish strips of fiber. (If I’m doing a two-ply yarn, I simply divide each strip in two. Voilà! There’s never more than a few yards difference between the bobbins at the end of the day.)


And there you go. You should now have gradient yarn. All that’s left is to pick a pattern, pick a needle and knit. Enjoy. Admire.


But wait, I want to knit a gradient sweater

No problem. This just requires a little more fiber organization before you spin. I’m going to assume here that you are happy to let the pretty yarn do the talking, and knit a plain, simple raglan or yoked sweater. Anything else will require more calculation, but for a plain sweater, of standard length, you can make some rough-and-ready assumptions based on Elizabeth Zimmermann’s percentage system.

Here’s a project constructed on this principle. First, the fiber – again, a mix of Hello Yarn and Southern Cross Fibre (this time on Bluefaced Leicester).

IMG_0082_medium2 IMG_0081_medium2

This was turned into a nice tray of fauxlags, arranged by color.


I assume I will need approximately one third of the total fiber for the sleeves, and one quarter for the yoke. So, 2/12 for each sleeve, 5/12 for the body up to the armpits, and 3/12 for the yoke. It’s important to remember that ALL of the yoke color comes AFTER (or BEFORE) the sleeves (depending on whether you are knitting bottom-up or top-down), so the yoke section is an an unbroken quarter of your total, at one end of your progression. You don’t need to separate this part other than for your plies.

If I am working with fauxlags (which is the easiest option, in terms of dividing the fiber evenly) I lay out my remaining fiber (three quarters of the total), and just divvy it up – two here on the one side, then five in the middle, then two more on the other side, then another two-five-two, and so on, until it’s all shared out. If you find it easier than taking 25% off before you start, in every round of divvying you can take three off the (top) end for the yoke at this stage.  I like to lay the whole thing out on the floor as I go, keeping the progression so I can look at it as I work, and swap things around if I think they need it. Remember to make any adjustments at this stage, if, say, you don’t want to use the entire progression of colors on your sleeves. Then, I decide how many plies I want. OK: I lied about that. I have always decided that two is a good number. It gives me a yarn I like, and doesn’t make my head go too splodey when I do the final part. Because, yeah, you’ve probably guessed by now: I divide each of my sections – each sleeve – the body – the yoke – according to my total plies. For my two-ply sweater, I now have 8 piles of fauxlags (two for each sleeve, two for the body, two for the yoke). Granted, they are small enough piles, but it’s still quite a bit to keep track of.

Behold the master-stroke. Kebabs.

Sleeve "kebabs"

I call these “kebabs”, but I actually use straight needles in the small sizes. (When I started knitting, before I even knew about circular needles, I ordered a cheap set of bamboo straights off eBay. This turns out to be almost the only thing I use them for.) I run each progression onto a needle (or three), so I know what order to spin the fauxlags in for each ply and each section. Shown here are the “sleeve kebabs” for the BFL sweater.

Note. I only do this if I’m feeling super finickety about the color progression. If it’s more  organic, I simply put each section into its own bag, and pull bits out and spin them at random (or for a two-ply yarn, I often spin “pseudo-fractally” – one ply random, and the other ply dark to light). In that case, the only important thing is to mark your bags and not get sloppy, or you will (if you’re like me) start off convinced that you know what’s where, and end up, well… finding out that you, er, don’t. Do yourself a favor: label the bags.

So, sooner than you know it, you should have four yarns:


This was not exactly divided as per the technique described, so the sleeve skeins are clear to see, but don’t follow the full progression of colors along the body, and the “yoke skein” (the gold to blue) is larger than it would be if divided in accordance with the instructions, incorporating as it does about half of the body section. I ended up not using the dark blue on the outside of the last skein at all.

It honestly isn’t anything like as fiddly as it sounds, and it has some benefits. I find I enjoy reducing a big, potentially intimidating, sweater spin to a series of discrete – and much less scary – units. Another really nice thing is that you also get clear and early feedback from your yarn about whether you have enough, or too little, or too much. You can chop out sections of yarn if you want, or spin up something extra if you need to. Knowing your yarn proportions acts as an early-warning system, alerting you to trouble. Having the yarn divided up appropriately even has the bonus of making it a more travel-friendly project (I carry a sleeve around instead of a sock, and no more yarn than I need. I take more pleasure out of that little economy than I should perhaps admit.)


So, give it a go, and if you do, I’d love to know. Good luck, and happy spinning. (And any questions, just ask.)

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The nit-picking MOT test, that every British vehicle has to pass annually, once it hits the ripe old age of three. Don’t get me wrong: I always knew a roadworthiness test was a sensible thing, but quite what people will drive if they are allowed to get away with it is a frightening revelation. I mean, I don’t like being behind something belching toxic black smoke, but that’s nothing compared to wondering if the vehicle in front of (or behind) you has, say, working brakes. This is a hilly city, and a lot of the traffic lights don’t work, so one way or another, you really do find yourself thinking about that. Especially when you look in your rear-view mirror and see…


Oh, and yes, before anyone asks – it turns out that I miss working traffic lights as well. Quite a lot, actually.

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It’s been coming for a while – about a year, in fact – but now it is reality. Voilà – I find myself transported to the Southern Hemisphere. 6,000 miles from my wet and wooly Wales, in the African sunshine of suburban Johannesburg, in fact.

In short, the Beloved got a great career opportunity, the kind you don’t turn down, unless you are very foolhardy, and probably also the recipient of a trust fund or lottery win large enough to shield you from the consequences of even your most ludicrously irresponsible life choices. As we are not in such an enviable position, when he he got offered his current job, we hesitated for about twenty seconds, and then he took it, packed a suitcase, and left, while the rest of us limped along in Cardiff for another ten damp and miserable months before finally stumbling out, at the very end of July (like so many little white grubs), blinking in the shockingly bright sunshine of O. R. Tambo International Airport.

So here we sit, on the verge of a new adventure. I can’t say I’m not ambivalent, but, in truth, I think these will be interesting times (as the Chinese curse has it). Even the plants in the garden are interesting. See:


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So, yes, a whole new year. And no posts for months. Mostly, because if every post is novella-length, it’s hard to find the time to sit down and write one (and also hard to justify taking that time). But maybe I should just check in a bit more often, with not quite so many words, and perhaps a few more pictures? All the more so, given that what I’ve been doing is fairly photogenic. I have changed my spinning wheel (and acquired a second one) and done a lot of spinning in the months since I left this poor blog for dead. (There may be a correlation here, of course, because spinning is both distracting, and often feels somewhat more productive than throwing lots – and lots, and lots – of words into the gigantic Black Hole of the Internet).

But oh my, handspun yarn is attractive stuff. Even not-very-good handspun.

So, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll introduce the wheels today, and then jump back into a bit more posting from next week. First, my very lovely Majacraft Suzie Pro, Thompson: Thompson

How he came to be called Thompson is both very simple, and something of a mystery. Hs predecessor never had a name, but it was clear from the outset that this wheel – this beautiful thoroughbred – was going to be needing one. We batted names around for a few days, and each suggestion was too arch, or too abstruse, or just too plain wrong. And then, the Middle Child suddenly said, “Why, that’s Thompson!” and it was so random, and so perfect, and so clearly correct that I went with it. I also, very resolutely didn’t ask where the name had come to her from (the answer could only be a disappointment). Anyway, he and I have been getting along famously ever since, and I’ve been gradually purchasing all the bells and whistles (and extra bobbins) a wheel could possibly want (OK, not quite. The ideal number of bobbins is probably infinite. But we have a lot. And they’re big.)

And here – briefly – is the other wheel, a pretty little Haldane Shetland. This was spotted in a charity shop by a friend of mine, who kindly alerted me to it and I immediately rushed over and bought it. A very small amount of TLC was needed (and provided, handily, and generously by the dazzlingly competent husband of a friend who volunteered him for the job), but now that too is up and running sweetly. I wanted a wheel I could transport and demo with, and let other people have a go on, and not be precious about, and this is perfect. Unlike Thompson, it’s lightweight, and easy to transport, all the more so with the (in)famous Haldane “design feature” of falling-off legs.

Haldane Shetland

Next time, maybe, a round-up of some of the pretty handspun handknits. But not today, because my New Year’s Blog resolution is little and often rather than sparse and overwhelming.

Back soon…

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I like to think of myself as a person not unduly swayed by advertising. I’ve always been pretty good at tuning out jingles and conscientiously forgetting slogans, and timeslipped television is a blessing to me because yes, I am the kind of person who records a live show to watch with just enough lag to fast-forward through the ads. If I have to watch something live, I am quick to hit the mute button and studiously look away from the screen. I don’t want to give that stuff space in my brain if I can help it – it’s crowded enough in there already,

But sometimes, when I go shopping, I will admit to breaking down and buying something entirely for the label. Almost invariably, it’s something I want to share with the Beloved, and yes, I can tell a garbled story of “it was so silly! It said …” but proof is better, and the actual item – undeserving of purchase as it may have been – is funnier. The ludicrousness of Extract of Cashmere toilet paper had to be seen (experienced?) to be believed. So, for a small cost, I trundle home with the occasional oddity, idiocy, or curiosity. I think of it as equivalent to a cat delicately depositing a mouse at the feet of an honored giftee°.

In recent weeks I’ve brought home a couple of ‘mice’. The first is a classic mouse – idiocy of eye-watering greatness:

In fairness, it’s quite good shampoo. For hair. I might even buy it again. But it’s not that amazing, and I’m still thinking of suing them, in view of my confidence being stubbornly unimproved.

The next mouse is more in the oddity category. It’s this coffee tin, which I’ve been perplexed by for a while now:

What are they trying to say with this? My theory is that along with the sustainability and small producer buzzwords, it seems to be trying to attract the middle-aged, middle-class ex-pinko-liberal market share by drawing more than one might reasonably expect on the iconography of protest and revolution. What else is that Spanish ¡ doing, if not cueing up a bit of ¡No pasaran! glamor?  And the hands? I had to look a few times before I noticed the coffee grains flowing through the fists of the noble worker… Could they possibly be trying to stir up some associations in the pre-frontal cortex of the aforementioned ageing lefties, or am I to believe that they designed this button-pushing canister entirely by accident? So, ¡Viva la revolucion! and meanwhile, wake up and smell the coffee.

Note:  the coffee is also good, and – for once – appropriately ground for our stovetop machine. I might even buy this again too.

The third mouse was brought home merely because I found it beautiful. Sometimes that happens. (Also, I was curious, but that was pure bonus.)

This is something called black vinegar. I got it in the Korean/Japanese shop I occasionally go into for sushi supplies (and, almost invariably, come out of with a dose of unidentifiable randomness, just like this). It is pungent, aromatic, and, luckily, delicious when used sparingly in salad dressings.

So, that’s three out of three for serendipity. Maybe I should buy things for the label more often?

° When presented with an actual mouse, by an actual cat, I find it hard to know what the correct response should be. Mine, which involves a dustpan and brush and the swiftest possible removal, seems somehow churlish: I know I do not like it when the Beloved fails to show sufficient appreciation of the ‘mice’ I bring him.

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The biggest thing that’s been happening around here lately has been a serious spate of button-making.

Back in the summer, when I was knitting a handspun cardigan, I found myself – perhaps inevitably – at a loss for the right buttons. So, unsurprisingly for those who know me, I decided I should maybe just make some. I grabbed a scrap of copper, a saw, and an otherwise-completely-wrong-but-at-least-roughly-the-right-size button to draw round, and set to work. Quite some considerable time later, after a festival of sawing, cursing, filing, and the soldering-on of a shank, I had three bonny homebrew buttons that I thought were exactly right. I deliberately left them darkened and blackened from firescale (because I’m a weirdo, and I love firescale):

That’s not the best picture of either the cardi or the buttons, but you see how they play nicely together.

Anyway, it set me off, and I started turning out more and more buttons. I bartered a set for handcards:

Then I decided that the buttons on my Oranje were far too heavy, and hey! I could make a set that both suited better, and were lighter (because these copper babies are feather light):

Apropos of this. Oranje is quite probably the most fun you can have with your clothes. It was an absolute blast to knit: I learned several new things (like Vikkel braids and two-handed colorwork – especially helpful in the ‘eep! three-color’ rows), and now I have a really show-stopping, stunning sweater, with guaranteed ‘bragging rights’ and – lookit – go-faster stripes! I wanted to knit one from the moment I saw the pattern, and I was panting with excitement in an unseemly manner as I neared the end of knitting it (in under a month, which tells you the true scale of the obsession). If you haven’t knit yours yet – and there aren’t that many out there, so you quite possibly haven’t – go forth and knit it now. Now! (And then go to my Etsy shop and buy some buttons for it.)

And then I made more buttons. I made a range of different sizes:

and color finishes:

Being me, they quickly morphed into ever crazier variants. Now there are ones with silver over them, textured ones, and even (and I’m amazed it took as long as it did to come up with this), … even square ones:

















And yes, of course there are more up my sleeve. Plus, if anyone has suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Roadtesting with the Oranje has proved them to be satisfyingly wash-proof, and tumble-dryer friendly (allowing for a certain amount of clanging and clattering). Some are listed in the Etsy shop; others can be produced to order – just contact me if you want any.

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So, what happened to the summer?

I’d quite like to know too, actually.

Firstly, there was rain, cold, damp, more rain, more chill, and a little drizzle on the side. Sunshine, there was…, well, very little. We had the coldest (though not quite the wettest) summer for 18 years in fact. It got tedious, very fast. And continued to be tedious, for a long time. I finally gave up, and put away my summer clothes, the majority of them unworn. As in, not even once, all season. To give an indication, it was rarely even warm enough to wear my wool t-shirt with just-above-the-elbow-length sleeves. Yeah, really. And I wore my sandals at most once every two or three weeks, so my wool socks didn’t get a seasonal break, either. Is that good news, or bad? Wales: land of happy handknits.

Secondly, there was KnitNation, and the fiendish Finnish mitten class. Fun, and not so fiendish after all – remind me to tell you about it. There was attendant showing-off of a fabulously brag-worthy colorwork cardi (steeks! Vikkel braids!), and a subsequent non-colorfastness tragedy I haven’t fully recovered from.

There was a week in Portugal, to provide us with enough vitamin D to survive another year of grey and grim (and surely, shouldn’t we be getting this on the National Health at this point?); various business-y forays to exotic parts by the Beloved (who still hasn’t learned that all would be so much better if he returned with WOOL) and juggling of damp, cooped-up kids by the base-camp party…

And yet, at the end of the ‘summer’ there was one great surprise. Despite the poor weather, and signal absence of sunshine: a benediction of plums in the neighbor’s garden (I was cat- and plum-tree sitting, and have jam and plum brandy to prove it), and, from the organic farmer at the farmers’ market, a glut of the best cherry, and heirloom tomatoes I’ve ever tasted.  We’ve had a 3kg tray every week for a month, and aren’t anywhere near sick of them yet. In fact, every week, we chow through them faster than the week before. I actually had to come over all sneaky and rationing to save a few last ones to roast this evening, because – ye gods – very slowly roasted tomatoes turn out to be wonderful beyond measure and I can’t believe I never knew that before.

They, at least, have been perfect, and look – it even says so on the box.

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I absolutely love catching a glimpse of the brain in action, sneaking up on it actually doing one of those things we take for granted most of the time. Thinking, joking, jumping to conclusions, making connections…

A couple of weeks ago I caught it taking a short-cut. I was reading about the German E-coli outbreak in the online edition of the Guardian, and my eye glanced at the right-hand column which shows the most-read stories of the 24-hour period. I could have sworn I saw an article entitled “deadly tomatoes hit Massachusetts”.

Hurrying over to read the story, I found mere ordinary tornadoes. Which would probably have occurred to me first, had I not been softened up by fatal fruit and veg on the other side of the screen. Oddly, I just checked, and I’m still reading ‘tomatoes’ for ‘tornadoes’ when I do a Google search on that story.

So to today. This morning I read on the BBC site about a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh that has now been identified as probably in fact a painting of his brother Theo. Here they both are:

My brain went on processing the images, clearly, long after I’d moved on to other tasks. Later in the day, I decided to catch up with what was happening at Wimbledon, and I have to say, I was pretty surprised to see Vincent sitting in the crowd.

Or maybe it was Theo. The jury’s out. The outfit definitely looks like Vincent’s, but the coloring is more Theo, and I’m not sure about the ear…

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Strange as it seems, even to myself, a few years ago, I did no crafting at all. None. I couldn’t knit; I didn’t bash metal; I didn’t know one end of a spinning wheel from the other, and I wouldn’t have known my lino from my litho if it bit me.This, after a childhood and adolescence spent almost entirely amidst craft materials. As a child, I stole the soap from the bathroom to carve into some kind of printing block in the middle of the night with my penknife. I spent my pocket-money in the hardware store on fuse wire, to bend and sculpt. I plagued my mother for months to save onion skins to use as a dyestuff (giving up when I realized that a) an entire toy-chest full wasn’t enough to dye so much as a t-shirt, and b) I had no idea how to access any kind of mordant in those pre-internet days). I calligraphed and illuminated my way through my teenage years, occasionally dabbled as a student in watercolor and acrylic (increasingly embarrassed, this was pretty much as covert as the soap-carving phase), and then… I gave up. I went into ‘making’-latency for about fifteen years. How ever could I have imagined I was me?

I guess, mostly, I was busy elsewhere. I was very much a word person during that phase of my life, and struggling to maintain equilibrium in a foreign-language environment (yes, I spoke the language in question – I even earned my living translating from it), but it drained my creativity to live, essentially, alienated from myself.

Also, I was making several other things. Like this.

Don’t you just love the cute father/daughter nose?

Anyway, that one is six today. Quite the competent young miss, off to school in the mornings, full of the joys of being six. Full of hope. Full of potential. With all the doors of life still open.

Look: I was making great stuff back then, now I think about it.

And here’s one I made today: this is drypoint, printed on the pasta machine press.

Happy birthday, my sweet.

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Having enjoyed the annual wonder of the bluebell woods again, with this year’s display being particularly impressive (is ‘spectacular’ too histrionic a term for such an understated miracle?), and despite having taken approximately a million photographs (or, at least, enough to fill my camera’s memory card, which I believe is a first, in a fairly futile attempt to capture the ‘far-as-the-eye-can-see’ quality of the scene), I had originally decided not to share (mostly out of deference to Sylvia, who is quite possibly still experiencing icy blasts, sub-zero temperatures, and horizontal snow, and partly because I did share a couple of years ago).

Then I read, on someone else’s blog, that 90% of the world’s bluebells are to be found in British woods, and relented. I have no idea if that information is accurate, and no real notion of how I would research its authenticity, so it is presented to you – with a health warning – in rather the way my old therapist used to preface anything dubious she wished to say (but from which she also wished to distance herself), with the formula, “as my old therapist, who was a Very Old Frenchwoman, used to say to me…”. My own therapist was a charming American in Paris:  imagine the New Yorker made flesh. I went to her in grief, after my mother died, and stayed to be nursed through the final illness of my marriage. I stopped going when our session had morphed into a series of unsustainbly expensive chats over tea. Several years later I met the Beloved, and he introduced me to the New Yorker, which I recognised immediately as V-. made ink.

But back to the bluebells. I don’t know if 90% of them are in our native woods, but certainly, they are worth celebrating, and photographing, and sharing as widely as possible, and all the more so if most of the world is missing out.

Anyway, we grasped the moment, seized the day like champions, and indulged in some general-purpose cavorting and frolicking. Some tree-clambering was attempted by some members of the party (with attendant rescuing occasionally required by other, taller members of the party), and remarkably few bluebells were harmed in the process.


Also, we had the woods entirely to ourselves and while I’m sorry more people weren’t out enjoying them, I was also moved, and grateful for our luck. We had been blessed, in our modern, busy world, with a brief, quiet miracle of timeless – and entirely unpurchasable – perfection.

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