Monday, September 19, 2011

Adventures at the Wool Festival

I took a day off from the computer yesterday to go with Diane, my good friend and spinning mentor, to the California Wool and Fiber Festival at the Mendocino County Fair.

Now this is not a Wool Festival on the scale of Maryland Sheep and Wool or Rhinebeck. CWFF is held in Boonville, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere the Anderson Valley. There are less than two dozen vendor booths in one building at an old-timey county fair. The sheepy goodness competes with the apple show, classic car show and a rodeo, not to mention Sadie the Balloon Lady and Kellie Karl the hypnotist.

But we, of course, were there for the fiber. We arrived just in time for the Sheep Dog Trials. I’ve never owned a dog willing to focus on much beyond his next meal, so sheep dogs just amaze me. Baxter thinks they are the doggie version of control freaks, and probably wouldn’t be much fun at the dog park.

Dog at work

In the fiber building, there was a demonstration of turning bunnies into yarn. A man was plucking English Angora Rabbits, while another was spinning the freshly plucked fiber. The surprise was how compliant the bunnies were. Loads of people were milling around, the plucking man’s patter was being broadcast over a loudspeaker while his hands flew and there was a vacuum system running in an attempt to contain the clouds of fiber. Yet the bunnies were motionless. Diane called this “placid”; the word that came to my mind was “sedated”. How is it that these rabbits don’t flip out with all the hullabaloo? Is it some strange trick of the bunny whisperer? Incredible.

Bunny on valium

Of course, I bought fiber. I was in search of naturally colored fiber, with a preference for grays over brown tones. I also hoped to find some California Variegated Mutant (CVM). And Diane and I had talking about looking for a fleece to share.

In Carolina Homespun’s booth, I came across a 50/50 blend of alpaca and Rambouillet in this lovely charcoal color. It’s a little neppy, but oh so soft.

I was also seduced by this pearl gray blend of Merino, silk and yak. I’ll spin it fine and use it to make something luxurious to snuggle into.

And yes, we did buy a fleece. I forgot to take a photo – I’m having trouble acquiring the habit of taking photos as I go. But we found a 7 ½ pound colored ewe fleece. We only had to carry it about 50 feet to the booth for Morro Fleece Works, who will do the processing. In 90 days or so we should get a box of pin-drafted wool top, ready to spin.

Here is the best part. The tag on the fleece said it was from Patti Sexton. A Google search when I got home told me that she raises CVM/Romeldale! Better yet, Patti’s family’s flock gave rise to the very first CVM lamb in 1968, when she was just a child. I’m just tickled that the fleece we bought is tied to the origins of this variety. I can hardly wait to see how it looks all washed and ready to go.

A spinning update: the BFL I showed a couple of weeks ago has become this – about 740 yards of DK weight. The color makes me very happy.

Miss Bab's BFL in Blue Ridge

A knitting update: I decided that I needed a plan to be sure I make progress on my handspun sweater, without letting it take time away from deadline knitting. Here is the plan: I can work on the sweater during 49er games only. I thought I was going to miss out yesterday, because of the trip to the wool festival, but I got home at the end of the 3rd quarter. Then Dallas kicked a last minute field goal, sending the game into overtime. More knitting time! Sadly, the 49ers lost in overtime. Happily, I got a few more rows done. It’s nice to have a silver lining.

Homspun sweater in progress

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering September 11th

On the way to the kitchen to start the coffee, I turned on the TV to catch the early morning news. When I looked back at the TV again, I wondered why they were showing some stupid disaster movie instead of the Today Show. Checked the channel. Checked the clock. Then sank to the floor as I realized that the image of the World Trade Center in flames was not some stupid disaster movie.

I had worked in that building. Two years before, I had quit my job with Aon Corporation to open a yarn store. Aon had offices on the upper floors of 2 World Trade Center, the south tower. I had been assigned to projects in the New York office, and had spent many days on the 105th floor. My former employer lost 176 employees that day. Colleagues and acquaintances, allies and adversaries. Friends.

By the time I had tracked down those people close to me who might have been there, it was time to wake my son for school. He was 10 at the time. How to tell him? Because, of course, he had visited Mommy at work in New York. He had ridden the fast elevator that made his ears pop, and had looked out the window at the Statue of Liberty so small in the harbor far below.

I couldn’t think of any real reason to keep him home from school, or me home from work that day.

Other than the fact that my illusions of permanence and safety had been shattered.

I went through the day in a daze. When my son came to the shop after school that day, he said that the kids just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that lots of kids had sent their parents to work that morning, and the parents were not coming home.

Here in California, it is easy to act as if it never happened. New York and Washington and Pennsylvania are a long way away. Of course, the impact on us as a nation - politically, economically, militarily – is huge. But on a personal level, other than a bit of inconvenience at the airport, nothing much has changed.

I am, by nature, a cheerful and optimistic person. I’m not inclined to pick at scabs or wallow in bad feelings. I’ve tried (mostly in vain) to avoid the television coverage of this 10th anniversary. But when I saw this video posted on the Mason-Dixon Knitting blog yesterday, I couldn’t stop the tears.

So today I will be gentle with myself. I will call my son and remind him that I love him. I will remember that tomorrow can never be taken for granted.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Crane Creek

How many mornings have you stood in front of your closet and thought, “What I really need is…”? This is the story of Crane Creek, a jacket design that was born of just that thought, and was published in the Fall 2011 issue of Twist Collective.

I have a dog. Baxter is an 8 year old Lab/Beagle mix who loves nothing more than our daily walk to the local Starbucks. Every morning, rain or shine, Baxter and I go to Starbucks for our morning infusion (non-fat Raspberry Mocha for me, water in an oatmeal cup for him), and a little social interaction.

Since I work at home, this is often the only time I leave the house in the course of the day. If I never left the house, the temptation to spend the day in sweatpants and a t-shirt would be nearly irresistible. But the morning walk to Starbucks requires that I actually put on real clothes and shoes and a bra. We do, after all, have standards. I try to land on the right side of the fine line between casual and schlumpy.

It’s often foggy and chilly in the morning here in Northern California. Our morning walk often requires a top layer over my standard jeans and a shirt. I need a sweater that I can pull on on my way out the door. A sweater that I can throw in the back seat of the car in case it gets cool later. A sweater that functions like a hoody, but has a bit more style.

Crane Creek was designed as that sweater. First, it is a button front cardigan, because this style is endlessly versatile. With a pullover, I feel like I need to build the outfit around the sweater. A cardigan is happy to fit in anywhere.

Here is my original sketch.

Second, it has a shawl collar. I love a good shawl collar – it’s cozy and polished, without being fussy. After making a lot of shawl collars that didn’t lie quite right, I’ve finally figured out the perfect shaping. I’m happy for any opportunity to put this knowledge to use.

Third, it has pockets. Pockets are essential, because I don’t want to carry a handbag on the morning walk, but I must carry my Starbucks card and dog cookies and poop bags.

I chose a combination of stitch patterns that are simple to knit, but create an interesting surface texture. I added a bit of waist shaping, fitted shoulders and set-in sleeves to keep the fit sharp.

I had told Kate I wanted to make this sweater in a “sturdy, wooly” yarn. While I love a good soft merino as much as the next girl, this sweater was intended to be an everyday, low maintenance piece. I wanted a wool that would hold up to hard wear without pilling or stretching out of shape. When Kate suggested Green Mountain Spinnery’s Maine Organic, I was thrilled. This yarn fit all my requirements, with the added benefit of being sustainable. In addition, the heathery gray natural color doesn’t show dirt or dog hair.

Sweater photos by James Brittain, courtesy of Twist Collective.

So what’s with the name? Crane Creek is a park in the hills just east of the town where I live. Baxter and I love to go there at the end of a long day to walk and breathe and listen to the birds.

The grasses are dry this time of year – in the early spring, this view is a carpet of wildflowers.

The most romantic spot for a picnic.

The creek is nearly dry in early September.

An ancient California Live Oak veiled in moss.

My walking buddy.

Crane Creek turned out just as I hoped it would. Now I just need to make time to make one for myself.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.

-Laurence J. Peter

As a tech editor for magazines, yarn companies and independent designers, I’ve worked on over 200 knitting patterns in the past year. These patterns were for all sorts of projects, from many different designers. No two patterns are the same.

As a designer, I’ve created about 2 dozen knitting patterns for magazines and yarn companies so far in 2011. With any luck, I’ll deliver 8-10 more projects before the year is done. These range from sweaters to socks, lampshades to shawls.

How is it possible to make each project new? How can each design be special and unique? How do I make sure my own designs are not simply a regurgitation of someone else’s idea?

It’s an on going dilemma. I believe we are influenced by everything that surrounds us. Each image and experience becomes fodder for the creative machine. Every time I look through a magazine, browse in a shop, look at people on the street, watch a movie or read a blog post, I’m absorbing information about style, trends, color, pattern, silhouette and construction.

I’ve talked to designers who actively avoid looking at other people’s work. They don’t look at knitting magazines or books because they don’t want to have to wonder if a new idea is really their own.

Since tech editing is how I pay my bills, this really isn’t an option for me. I look at other designers’ work every day. I notice interesting stitch patterns and cool techniques, and I appreciate the way they are used. Not only do I look at pictures and instructions, I often have the actual sample at hand, so I can examine the details up close. There is no avoiding the influence of other people’s work for me.

Knitting is essentially a simple process. Most designs are combinations of old, familiar stitch patterns in classic garment shapes. With a few notable exceptions, there is little in knitting that is truly innovative or original. We all stand on the shoulders of the writers and designers who have come before, adapting and tweaking and modifying their work until it becomes something new and different.

I’m grateful that the work I do allows me to see and to celebrate the work of other designers. Editing allows me to crawl inside their heads for a while, and see how they did what they did. It informs my own design work, broadening the range of techniques and methods I use.

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

- C. S. Lewis

On the knitting front, I did give in and begin a sweater using my handspun, though this was hardly a smooth process. I started and ripped out 3 times before finding the combination of yarn and stitch pattern that felt right.

The silk and merino I originally planned to use with the Cormo just didn’t work. The Cormo is happy on a size 7 needle, which made the silk/merino feel cramped and stiff. I dug around and found some nearly black Romney-cross 2-ply that I spun last year. This yarn was a good gauge match for the Cormo and I knit happily away until I could no longer deny the fact that the stark color contrast wasn’t making me happy. Back to the stash. I came up with some BFL 2-ply in a blend of natural brown and white called “humbug”. It is the perfect intermediary between the creamy white Cormo and the almost black Romney.

See the special Cooperative Press Sock Summit bag peeking out from behind?

After all that experimentation, I’ve not made much progress on the actual sweater, but the lower border is done. Isn’t it pretty? The lack of progress doesn’t bother me a bit. I’ve had the pleasure of knitting with my handspun, and I’ve learned that the 3-ply Cormo can take a lot of ripping out without any ill effects.

The handspun sweater is now living in a bag while I work with the yarn that, as expected, arrived this week. A couple of spring tops and an afghan, all due by October 1, are underway.

Currently on my spinning wheel, the lovely BFL from Miss Babs at the top of this post. After the white Cormo, I’m taking great pleasure in the deep rich color of this fiber.

Kollage Yarns Luscious, Milky Whey, and Riveting Worsted. How lucky am I? Pretty darn lucky.