Friday, March 28, 2008

Ami Alpaca?

What kind of name does this little beast get? Amigurumi Alpaca? Alpagarumi? Ami Alpaca? Amipacarumi? Amialgapacarumi?

He was fun to make and really boosts my confidence when it comes to crochet. He's a combination of several patterns that I found by two different authors. I used Tamoko Takamori's donkey pattern and Ana Paula Rimoli's hedgehog pattern to get all the pieces I needed. The proportions aren't the same as their patterns, but that's where I started. He's made out the odds and ends of my own handspun alpaca yarn, which seems appropriate.

Now he just needs a name...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ahhh, to be seamless...

Seamless--it's such a soothing word. I love the whole concept of seamlessness. The word itself is just heaven to hear and ssssssso fun to sssssssay. It sounds pastoral, peaceful, clean, efficient and calm.

I remember now why I have never really taken my book on knitted teddy bears seriously. It's the finishing work--sewing all those tiny, nondescript pieces together by hand, stuffing with just the right amount of fiber fill, embroidering faces on them afterwards. The knitting itself is a no brainer. Anyone who can follow directions can knit up the pieces, although I've never figured out exactly why pattern writers insist on knitters making two identical flat pieces to sew together afterwards, rather than just having the whole thing knit in the round. It seems so much easier to skip the whole sewing up phase and spend the time knitting happily along in one piece.

So, this collection of oddments is what resulted from following a pattern for a knitted bunny.

It doesn't look like much, except a whole lot of finishing work in order to make some sense of it all. I placed the eyes and sewed on the ears, only to find that the ears were uneven and the eyes looked slightly reptilian--a little unnerving on a disembodied and slightly overstuffed head. This was not the time to think of names for the poor creature.

The arms and legs went well enough until the directions said, "Sew head into place." That's it. No tips on how to stabilize the neck without over stuffing, so I over stuffed and sewed the head on, mostly just to keep those eyes from staring at me. The nose pointed resolutely to the ceiling and would not be put in any other position. Out came the seams for try #2. Unstuffing the head to an acceptably squishy state, I again sewed it on. It flopped back like one of Sweeney Todd's poor victims and bore a hideous lumpy seam, so out came the seams again for try #3. A little more stuffing and another attempt at repositioning, another attempt, and another, until finally, after six tries, the head is on and, bless me, that's where it's staying. A nice bow around the neck will hide the ropey scar it now bears as a testament to the futility of knitting tiny flat pattern pieces. I embroidered a pink smile on it's pathetic little face to hide the reality of the suffering it both inflicted and endured.

It doesn't look so bad now, but I'm not naming it. It's just too painful. My mind is working out how to knit the next one in the round with far fewer pieces to alleviate the pain and suffering. I'm thinking of applying to become the poster child for seamless knitting.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Signs of Spring and Treasure Hunting

All is brown and barren, the air is crisp and cold in the morning even when the sun is shining brightly, and sadly, there are no goat kids this year. But spring is coming anyway! I can tell! The first sign is that the ground has thawed enough for the dogs to dig up their treasures to share with one and all. Where they originally came from and how they remembered where they hid them for the winter is knowledge too deep and wide for me, particularly when I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that both of the dogs are terrified of living cows. I'm sure that this disposition comes from having been chased unceremoniously from the neighbor's pasture by a nasty longhorn with a new calf, who proceeded to patrol the fence line all summer. To my knowledge, neither has even come within 100 yards of a cow ever again. But I digress...

I just know that various parts of the bovine skeletal system lay bleached and white on the front yard this morning, in all of their shocking glory, with two very proud doggy treasure hunters showing them off. They look like quite the ruthless killers, bloody pirates, and masked bandits, particularly Sunny, who boasts of having bullied the cat out of his share of the booty.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Change of plan

Well..."the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry." At least I'm not alone in this.

My oh so carefully planned sweater already has experienced a set back. The pattern and gauge are fine, the knitting is going along very well, and I like the look of it very much, but there's a problem. The yarn that felt soft and lovely in the skein, knits up into a fabric that is scratchy against the skin. I was going to continue on as if nothing was wrong, but then I had to ask myself if I would actually wear a sweater that felt like that. With a resounding "No!" going through my mind, I'm ripping it out today. Thankfully, I didn't wait until I was half way up the body before deciding to change yarn.

I'm nearly sick as I think about it. All that handspun yarn, all the experimentation and planning...well, welcome to my world. Sometimes it seems like I spend more time ripping back than actually moving forward with a project. I have loads of black alpaca and some charcoal unspun Icelandic wool that would go together nicely if I change the gauge and some of the pattern elements, but I'm really saving that for another hooded jacket. Hmmmm.... Today looks like a day to search through my yarn inventory for about 2000 yards of...something...something plain that will show off the pattern stitches. I have lots of painted yarns, but I don't like to combine knit/purl stitch patterns with elaborate color because I think you lose the effect of both elements. Less is more, you know.

So what to do with the white handspun? I'm remembering how I already wrote about jumping on the bandwagon of making little crocheted toys and that's been fun--really fun. I suppose that I now have yards and yards of white handspun yarn that can be turned into little toys and dyed to my own taste. If I double the yarn and use a bigger hook, I can probably felt them as well. With the mohair in the yarn, the felted pieces will become furry and fuzzy. Just the thing for stuffed animal toys, so all is not lost. I also have a teddy bear book that I've never really taken seriously. Maybe there's a silver lining out there somewhere?

On a happier note, the rose gray jacket is ready to assemble. I'm going shopping this week for polar fleece with which to line it and for some really great buttons. I expect to have to spend as much as $2 per button to get what I want and I'll need eight of them. Ouch!

On an even happier note, the Easter snow storm has melted away already and it's looking a little more like spring. The first two yellow crocuses just poked their heads up, so there's hope for warmth and green that will end what feels to me like the longest winter on record. While I was walking yesterday, I noticed that the trees were just beginning to bud. The sea gulls were following the tractor through the field as the farmer was discing it up, so there must be insects and such stirring in the ground. All the signs of spring are there, but it has yet to spring!

With warmer weather comes major cleaning of livestock pens, a huge mucking out of the barns, irrigation, and shearing. There will have to be a large renovation effort to repair the damage that the freezing wind has done on several fronts during the winter--sagging wind breaks, loose boards here and there, posts broken off in the frozen ground, and such. I'm looking forward to it this year. Just to have winter say goodbye for a while will be worth it.

Well, off to rip! With the prospect of spring, ripping out that sweater doesn't seem so bad!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Breaking and Entering?

It was a raging winding day today. The news said gusts of up to 80 miles per hour, so I think that's what must have blown the door open while I was gone today. I drove up to the house after picking up the girls from piano to find the storm door standing wide open and the hinges bent and beyond repair.

As we entered the house, we were met by the large and welcoming smiles of two dogs and two cats, lounging in the living room like a happy family. Sunny, the greeter, met us at the door, and was shuffled dutifully outside without a complaint. Bloke also seemed genuinely happy to see us, until he realized that he was inviting us in the house, rather than the other way around. His face stood down to the "uh oh, I'm in trouble" pose and he dropped to the floor looking very sad. He trundled out, slow and sorry, indeed. The cats, completely unrepentant, were quickly tossed out and the search for damage began.

A quick survey of the house turned up only one box of breakfast cereal emptied and eaten. Surprisingly, no wet bathroom floors, no hair all over the furniture, no muddy paw prints, no cat paw prints in the butter dish, no trash rifled through, no blankets dragged to the floor, no rumpled beds, none of the usual signs of unauthorized invasion and accompanying frenzied search for treats and toilet drinking. It seems that the little buggers didn't even lay on the couch or beds.

They're sitting outside now looking hopefully in the windows. The consequences of getting in the house illegally are the same, whether they wreak havoc or not--they get tossed out on their collective ears. Sunny has started barking at the house and at Bloke. I wonder if he's regretting not taking liberties when he had the chance.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Amigurumi link

I just found out that the author of a very good book on amigurumi is a blogger. Here's her link just in case you want to check out Ana Paula Rimoli. Her little creations make us look like such pathetic losers, and I love her stuff!

Friday, March 14, 2008


Well, I've been tagged by A Bag of Olives and here are the rules:

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.
4. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

1. I'm a hermit at heart. My fondest daydream is about living in the era of the American pioneer with my nearest neighbor 20 miles away and me being completely self sufficient.

2. When I was in 2nd grade and it was my turn to make supper, I cooked enough macaroni and cheese to feed the Huns. Then I scorched the entire batch so badly it was inedible. My dad came in from working in the field to find me crying my eyes out because I just knew my mother would "kill" me when she got home from work. He took me out to find a shovel and together we buried the the whole lot--macaroni, pan and all--in a hole by the chicken house. He helped me scramble some eggs and make toast for supper and we never told my mom.

3. I still secretly dream of being a musician one day, knowing full well that I'd rather die than be the center of attention.

4. The telephone intimidates me and I hate to talk on it. I'd rather send letters, e-mail, or leave notes for people. I'm not really afraid of people in general, but talking on the telephone is so uncomfortable for me that I'd rather not even have one.

5. I don't like horses. I think I'm the only person in the world who doesn't, although I like and appreciate nearly ever other kind of animal. To be honest, I'm afraid of them because of their combination of size and keen intelligence.

6. I talk to myself all the time--out loud. Sometimes I don't realize that I'm saying things aloud and then get caught looking foolish in front of people. I'm not sorry, though, and I keep right on doing it.

7. I love organization--at least the thought of it. I can never really make it work for me for any length of time, but the idea is great. I've been the proud owner of 3 day planners in my lifetime, but don't ask me where they are or if I ever used them. Self discipline has never been my strength and routines drive me insane, but I really do just love the idea of being organized.

Sheesh! What a pathetic and fearful person I must be! Perhaps just my state of mind today or something.

The only people I know to tag are the ones that I read regularly, so I'm tagging:

Debra in France
Irish Eyes

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Anatomy and Evolution of a Sweater

I always thought that knitting a sweater was a little like a marriage commitment--interminably long with questionable results at the end of all that time. Don't get me wrong. I've been married for 24 years and I've also knitted many sweaters, but when I first started knitting in earnest, I focused on small projects because I could see the end clearly. Not so with sweaters. The human form is so varied and the complexities of fitting such a form and accommodating personal taste was so daunting that I just couldn't imagine knitting for that long and using all of that yarn, only to find that the final product didn't fit a living soul, nor appeal to any sensible being. Even after following a pattern faithfully to the end, I found that the sleeves were too short, the body rode up at the center or the bands at the hip or neck were too tight.

With that in mind, I began searching for solutions. To my great delight, I found such authors as Elizabeth Zimmermann
and Priscilla Gibson Roberts
who have guided me in not only knitting sweaters that fit, but in designing my own patterns rather than being a poor blind follower.

With that in mind, I've decided to begin posting the prenatal and birthing processes of a sweater. Whatever life it decides to pursue beyond it's final entrance into the world as a complete work is up to its owner, but the birthing and creation is my business.

My sweater began as hair on an animal's back--actually two animals. Dolly, my poor short sighted angora goat, and Justice, a very sexy alpaca beast, contributed ample supplies of white woolly stuff for me to use. Their fleeces were blended and processed into soft and creamy rovings that I've spent the last few months spinning in stop and start sessions. I have four skeins of approximately 400 yards and between 8-10 oz. each. I think it may take another two skeins to complete the sweater and I'll continue spinning, stop and start of course, as the sweater progresses.

The raw materials have been gathered and dealt with, and the charts below are the actual conception of the sweater itself. I've decided on an Aran style sweater. No color patterns for this one, but a plethora of knit and purl patterns that should hold my interest and keep me feeling challenged. It was so much fun to experiment with patterns and stitch counts. I made dozens of different drawings and finally settled on a central star with vertical patterns on either side. There will be simple cables that will run on either side of the center pattern as well as up the sleeves and on to the neck line via the shoulder straps. There will be full gussets under the arms and 2x2 ribbing at the cuffs, hip band and neck line.

Women purchase infinitely more sweaters than men, so this will be a woman's garment. It will be a women's size 10-12, which is an average/large woman's size. Chest size is 40", and sleeve length is 18" from underarm to wrist. These measurements should give the finished sweater enough roominess to be comfortable and practical.

The next step is to ball up the yarn and knit a gauge swatch so I'll know how many stitches to cast on.

My swatch measured 5 stitches to the inch measured over stocking stitch on #5 needles. The cables pulled in about 10-12% of the width. The chest measurement being 100%, multiply it times the gauge, so 40 x 5 = 200 + 20 (10%) extra for the cable pull = 220 total stitches for the body of the sweater, but I'll cast on the original 200 so the bottom band is doesn't flap in the breeze or ride up. Once the ribbing is finished, I'll increase to 210 stitches and then again when the patterns begin to 220.

All measurements are based on the 100% chest measurement of 40 in. or 200 stitches. The sleeves are cast on at the wrist at 20% of the chest and increased every 5th row to about 33%. I haven't decided how I'll work the sleeves yet but I'll play that by ear. So now it begins. I'll keep you up to date on the progress, but I tend to work on several projects at once, and the spring outside work is approaching.

I'm just getting to the end of the hooded jacket in rose gray alpaca and wool. I have half of a sleeve to finish and the hood to knit before I can assemble. Pictures very soon!!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jumping on the Bandwagon??

The latest craze in the knit/crochet world is amigurumi. In Japanese, it means small knitted or crocheted toys. I think it's a requirement for them to be cute and easy to make in order to be considered amigurumi.

I went looking on the internet to see what I could find, and do you know that there are thousands of sites that feature nothing but these cute little critters? I had no idea. There are even sites dedicated to "monster" amigurumi creations. Go figure...

It seemed silly to pass up the opportunity to make some toys while they're in vogue, so here are my first attempts at making these adorable little guys. I'm not very adept at crochet, so they weren't quite as easy at first as the websites say they are, but I got the hang of it pretty fast. My biggest problem is making the faces. Embroidery and cross stitch baffle me to no end, so while the actual toy only took a few hours to complete, it took me 2 days to get the face on so it didn't look horrifying--another learning experience and another huge learning curve.

I started with the free patterns on the Lion Brand website, but there are hundreds of free patterns out there. The first one I made is a lion--just in case you can't tell what it's supposed to be. He actually looks more like a pop tart than an animal, but the fuzzy head helps his looks tremendously. I had trouble keeping track of my rounds and counting, so he's got one leg shorter than the other and one arm that's too fat. Oh well, forge onwards and upwards.

The second one is a bunny and I really hope that it's self-evident. I did a better job of counting and keeping the stitches in order. I like this one much more and I'm encouraged to continue on, even though it looks a little like it's showing signs of male pattern baldness with the placement of the ears. My daughter Abby is making a ducky that's going to be great and I'm working on a blue androgynous and nonspecific animal guy. We'll see what happens...

So here we are jumping on the bandwagon, but hey, everybody's doin' it!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Quick Tutorial on Spinning Yarn and a Little Bit About the Game of Baseball...

Much has been written about spinning. It's an old craft that has come back into popularity in certain circles and it's been analyzed and picked apart by modern fiber artists until it seems somewhat mysterious and spiritual. Writers have expounded on the meditative qualities of spinning, the reflective attributes and the relaxing nature of the process. Others have turned out formulas for measuring twist, wraps per inch, grist and the like, making it a mathematical procedure and encouraging the spinner to measure their work at regular intervals to insure consistency. Still others have turned out entire books on the history, care and feeding of a spinning wheel and how to improve on the latest method of twisting hair into string.

But the fact remains that spinning, in all of its forms, is simply twisting fibers into string, a few strands at a time. Whether the work is done in a commercial mill on an enormous automated spinner, whether it's done on an electric or treadled spinning wheel in the home,

whether it's done on a hand spindle like the Indians and the Peruvians,

or whether it's done on something as simple as a whisk from the kitchen drawer (it's a little weird, but it can be done)

or a forked stick from the back yard, spinning is the craft of twist.

Managing the amount of fiber that's being twisted and the amount of twist being applied are the two things that occupy a spinner's mind and hands. More fiber being twisted at one time equals a thicker yarn and less equals a finer yarn. Simple. More twist applied equals a firmer and sturdier yarn and less equals a softer and more fragile yarn. Again, simple.

So what's the big deal? For spinners like me who rely on their sense of touch more than objective measurement, it isn't a big deal. For those who need absolute assurance of a consistent product, it can be quite involved and time consuming. I'll touch on the measuring when appropriate, but since it gives me a headache to think about it too much, it will be just a slight touch. Just like anything else, spinning can be analyzed and worked over to the point that it absolutely saps all the fun out of it and I surely don't want to do anything that isn't fun or interesting. Well, duh...

These are my favorite hand spindles.

I used them frequently in the past because my boys played a lot of baseball when they were younger and I could take one along with me. Baseball is the most boring game ever invented and my hand spindle kept my mind occupied during the three hour games and torturous weekend tournaments. The spindle is made of the top or bottom whorl and the shaft running through the center with a hook on the top to catch the yarn and keep it from flying off, and to keep the spindle from rolling under the bed. It is turned by hand and as it turns it twists the yarn. The spinner lets out more and more fiber to be twisted as the spindle turns and the spindle hangs by the spun yarn.

Eventually, the freshly spun yarn reaches the ground and the spinner has to stop and wind it around the shaft. The twisted yarn is stored on the shaft as the spinning progresses. I like to give my spindle an almighty spin by running the shaft up my leg like a top. It spins longer that way and I don't have to stop to keep turning it as I spin.

Going back to baseball, my spindle and I would stand on the top row of bleachers, looking very interested in seeing the entire baseball field. In reality, I was using the distance from the top of the bleachers to the ground to spin yards and yards of yarn without having to stop and wind on as often. I looked like the attentive and dedicated baseball mom, but I was just being an opportunist. Baseball is a lot like a TV soap opera--you can stop paying attention for hours and hours and then come back to it and pretty much pick up right where you left off without missing a beat. But I digress...

This is my spinning wheel.

If you turn a hand spindle on its side and think of it as the wheel, you can see how it translates to an actual spinning wheel.

The treadles at the bottom are operated by the feet in order to turn the wheel, which turns the bobbin, which spins the fibers.

OK with that? I think that's probably enough detail--the only thing more boring than technical descriptions about a low tech machine is Some wheels have a smoother or faster action than others but each one, regardless of brand or type will be as individual as the spinner. It just takes some practice and time to get used to the way the wheel feels when it's working.

Managing the amount of fibers that are spun at any one time starts with what's called drafting. This is simply pulling and thinning the prepared fibers apart lengthwise without breaking the continuous stream.

The roving in this picture started out as two rovings the same length, but the one on the bottom has been drafted and is ready to spin. It's at least 5 times its original length but hasn't been broken.

I prefer to predraft my fibers because it makes the spinning go faster and it exposes any imperfections (bumps, knots, bits of hay, and yes, sometimes poop...) in the processed roving--and there are always imperfections, regardless of how meticulously prepared.

Fiber has a tendency to want to stick to itself and other fibers--lint out of the clothes dryer, dog hair on the furniture--so we make good use of that tendency. The spinner attaches the drafted fiber to the leader string on the bobbin by just laying it up against it the leader and starting to twist. The fibers will stick to the leader, the leader will twist the fibers into itself, and you're off and running. The wheel, via a brake band, will apply some tension to the string and provide "take up" which will cause the yarn to wind itself around the bobbin. All the spinner has to do is slightly ease up on the counter tension and "push" the yarn towards the bobbin rather than pulling against the tension.

The movements for spinning are draft, slide back, hold, wind on. During the draft, it's important that there be no twist between the hands, which is called the drafting zone. Twist makes the loose fibers stable and you don't want them to be stable until you decide how thick you want the yarn to be. Once the twist enters the fibers, it will be nigh unto impossible to draft it any thinner, so keep the twist in front of the leading hand by pinching off the yarn and control the predrafted fiber supply loosely in the back hand. Fingers of the front hand pinching off the twist with the same pressure as pulling a sewing needle through fabric, back hand controlling the fiber loosely and gently like holding a baby bird in the whole hand, keeping it still without crushing it.

The slide is when you slide both hands back, while still holding the yarn with the leading hand and drafting with the following hand, to allow more fibers to be drafted and spun, thus working your way through the river of fiber you're spinning. This is done repeatedly until the proper amount of twist has been added and the twisted yarn is long enough to wind on.

The hold is allowing the wheel to add twist. The longer the hold, the tighter the twist, so this is where a good eye or keen sense of touch comes in handy. This is also where some spinners will actually measure the angle of twist to make sure it's consistent. (Egads, here comes my headache...) Overtwist is when the yarn is so twisted that it starts to double back on itself in ugly bumps. It happens to everyone and the way to fix it is to slide back and let the twist follow into newly drafted fiber. The twist will follow your fingers and when the overtwist is smoothed out, wind on. (We'll get to that.) I saw a brightly colored novelty yarn in a store one time that was nothing but overtwist and bumps. It was selling for a ridiculous price and I was empowered and encouraged to keep spinning!

Slightly release the counter tension on the yarn and move your hands towards the bobbin to allow the winding on. You don't have to do anything else in this step because the wheel does it for you.

Slide back and begin drafting again. It's best to work at least 2 feet from the wheel, rather than feeding on 2-3 inches at a time. The back and shoulders pay the price and the craft seems less attractive when hunched over the wheel, suffering over each and every inch that passes through your hands.

During all of this, the feet are treadling continuously and relentlessly, maintaining a constant speed and always in the same direction. Developing a rhythm helps move the work along and makes it less stressful. My first attempts at spinning were teeth grinding bouts of frustration,

but the rhythm came with practice and experience and the frustration flew away. Once you don't have to concentrate on your feet, your hands learn a lot faster and your whole body relaxes.

OK, that's really about it. It sounds complicated, but describing movements that become quite natural in a short amount of time always sounds more complicated than it is. So, spin up a couple of bobbins of yarn, both spun in the same direction. Don't worry about lumps, bumps, thin spots, knots, overtwist, or anything else. (Except, perhaps any poop--you must pick that out, really. It will be dry.) Just spin it up. If you have enough bobbins to spin more, spin that up too, until you're sick and tired of it or until you run out of fiber. Chances are good that the character of the yarn has gotten smoother, thinner and more consistent. Chances are good that you're looking for another batch of fiber to spin. Chances are good that you've started collecting the cotton out of aspirin bottles to spin. Chances are good that you've started wondering if you could learn to knit, weave, do macrame, or make rope (depending on what your yarn looks like).

But wait--it's not quite over. We still need to ply in order to balance the yarn and to use it without it twisting back on itself. There are many ways to make and use single ply yarns, but first yarns are usually plied.

To make a simple 2-ply yarn, get two plastic buckets and put one full bobbin in each, one on either side of your chair. Pull the singles yarn from each bobbin and attach the two strands together onto an empty bobbin on the spinning wheel. Treadle in the opposite direction as the strands were originally spun and the let the two strands twist around each other.

Slide back, pull more singles, feed on. Watch the plying twist and try to keep it even and consistent. Experiment with how much twist to put into the ply. Count the number of treadles, or measure the angle of twist if you must (remember geometry 101?). Use up all of the yarn on the two bobbins and keep on plying until it's all gone. If you want to measure the thickness of your yarn, take a ruler and begin wrapping the yarn around and around the ruler. Push it tightly together and measure how many wraps go around one inch. This is called wraps per inch, wpi, and as technical as I ever get on purpose. It's a measurement that will allow you to compare one yarn with another in terms of thickness and will allow you to mark your progress and preferences as you go along.

Skein it up by wrapping it around two chairs or use another ingenious device to help you do that. Done! There are infinite ways to tweak, add, adjust, change, or personalize the process, but that's it in a nutshell. I made a lead rope out of my first yarn because it was a ghastly shade of yellow, ungodly coarse wool from market sheep, the singles were thicker than my index finger and horribly uneven. It's a great rope and I'm still very proud and still think I'm quite smart for all that. It's nearly 8 years old and I think it's currently holding a gate shut, but there you have it...all yarn has a use!

These are some samples of handspun yarn.