In absentia

Good grief; I can’t believe it’s really been two weeks since I posted!  Yet again, I can assure you it’s not that I’ve got nothing to write about: quite the opposite!

Knit Nation was, as expected, beyond awesome, and a great weekend all round. It was also, however, really tiring, and once I got home, it seemed I had hardly any time to get turned round before I had to head out the door to Fibre East!  I stayed from Thursday evening until late Sunday afternoon, took two all-day classes and did my fair share of socialising and shopping, too.  I can’t possibly do Knit Nation any sort of justice in a fly-by, catchup style post, though, so I’ll have to do my best to write proper posts later…

Now, Fibre East was something I really, really had meant to post about in advance.  I mean, I’m supposed to be selling stuff, right? How is anyone going to know where to find my awesome yarns and patterns if I don’t get better at this ‘marketing’ malarkey?  Sigh.  For some reason, pimping my own wares and whatnots just doesn’t come easily to me; clearly I was brought up too well.

In any case, Fibre East was a wonderful and hectic weekend. I was working on the Twist Yarns stall.  Sophie is an absolutely lovely lady, and so much fun!  As an added bonus, she stocks my yarns!  Unfortunately, due to a camera malfunction, they’re not on her website right now, so you have to be at one of her in-person events to find them… Despite taking a camera and my mobile phone, I ended up with not one single photograph of the event. That, my friends, is how crazy-busy the whole thing was.

And how about my own projects, you might ask?  Well, since I last posted, I’ve:

  • Spun up three skeins (and a whole pile more singles) of the alpaca blend from my Tour de Fleece project;
  • Finished another Widdershins scarf, this time in Dance – it just needs blocking now;
  • Finished – finally! – my Nightingale stole. Apart from the blocking, that is!
  • …and started another sock, in Footsie-HT!

It looks to me like the craziness of the last couple of months is on the wane now – all the big events are over, for the time being, and I have just a couple of smaller ones lined up.  I managed to spend all day yesterday at the dye pots, and it was wonderful.  I’m really looking forwards to getting back into a comfortable, productive daily routine again.  All the gallivanting around I’ve been doing has been fun – but a little unsettling.

Preparing for the Tour, part 2: we blend!

My last Tour post talked about picking the wool for my blend.  The wool had already had a lengthy, if somewhat unconventional washing – but the alpaca got no such exalted treatment.  I think I said already that this is the seconds from what was probably a cria’s first shearing; this, like the blanket, is lovely and soft, but it is very, very short:

This is better than it could be: seconds are from the neck and legs of the animal, and often include a lot of stiff, straight, prickly guard hair.  This contains almost none of that, so it’s mostly the length that distinguishes it from the rest of the fibre.

I used my trusty Louet Junior drum carder to blend one part alpaca fibre with two parts picked wool.  I discovered quickly that the extremely short alpaca fibre cannot be fed into the drum carder in the usual way: it all becomes embedded in the licker in (the small drum), and none makes it onto the larger drum.  And at this point, I started to realise I was in this for the long haul…

If you have a fibre that cannot be carded ‘normally’, you introduce it into the blend by making a layered construction on the large drum.  After carding a layer of wool, I had to apply tufts of the alpaca onto the drum cloth:

And push it down onto the drum (or else it would just be lifted straight off onto the licker in, just like we were trying to avoid):

The pushing is accomplished by using the cleaning brush/burnishing tool, held so that the backs of the tines push between the tines of the main drum cloth.

A layer of wool; a layer of alpaca.  A layer of wool; a layer of alpaca.  A layer of wool.

The astute will notice that we haven’t actually blended anything yet.  We’ve got wool and alpaca in the same batt, sure, but they are not really mixed together.  Now that they’re in this sort of sandwich formation, with wool on all exposed faces, we can card it more normally.  The alpaca starts to mix in with the wool, slowly but surely:

After the fiasco that was my last big carding/blending project, I’m quite paranoid about getting the colour even throughout the batts.  I’m fine with localised variation – but I don’t want big sections that are noticeably different to the others.  To avoid this, I prepared the first and second pass batts in batches of three.  I weighed out enough wool and enough alpaca for three batts, and then subdivided that, still using the scales, for the first (sandwich-building) round.  Each of the batts in the batch was split into three, and the thirds mixed up, so the second pass batts contain a bit of each from the first pass:

This photo shows all the second pass batts, in their sets of three.  Next, I mixed up the rows, so that each row contained batts from three different batches, and no row contained batts from the same three batches as any other row.  (Why yes, I do tend to overthink these things!  Thankyou for noticing!).

Again, each batt was split into three, and mixed up with the others from its row.  The second pass batts are much more blended than the first pass ones, but distinctly stripy.  To help get rid of that, I pulled short sections from the batts and fed them into the carder edgewise.  That means the carding action will be perpendicular to the direction of the stripes, smudging them out, and producing a much more even blend – or at least that’s the theory.

And it works!  These batts are evenly blended enough to spin.  However, they do contain quite a lot of neps – short, nubby pieces of fibre.  You could just give in and consider these to be added interest, or pick them out as you come to them in the batt, but I’m spinning this long draw, which means that they actually get in the way of the twist as it flows through the nascent yarn.  You can still pick them out as you come to them – but for me, the spinning is smoother and much more fun if I don’t have to.  Also, the fibre seemed to flow better after a fourth (yes, a fourth!) trip through the carder – so back they went again, this time in the same direction as the previous pass.  Luckily for me, neps seem to ‘float’ to the surface of the fibre as you card, so I could pick them off as I went.

Now, can anyone tell me what there is in that that took me a week and a half to finish?!

(Joking.  That was a lot of work).

Preparing for the Tour, part 1: introducing the picker

So, I mentioned that the fibre blending for my Tour de Fleece was a bit of an adventure.  The wool, once cleaned of the pond scum (Thank you, Geodyne!) looked like this:

The palest grey, and pretty clean.  (OK, maybe there’s a bit of pond still visible on the right there.  Don’t worry; it soon falls off).  The prolonged soak and re-wash had left it somewhat compacted.  Not felted, but not loose and airy, either, so there was no way it was going to go through the drum carder in that state.  I decided it was due a trip through the picker – a device that seems to be pretty much unheard of on this side of the pond.  That’s the picker that it’s sitting on, in that photo up there.  Inside, it looks like this:

Scary medieval torture device, anyone?  The underside of the sliding lid has a similar arrangement of nails, and when moved up and down the box, it pulls fibre from the ‘in’ end to the ‘out’ end, across the nail beds, opening it up as it goes. As well as teasing (not ripping!) the fibre apart, a lot of ‘crud’ drops out – hence the detritus that has gathered on the bottom of the box between the nails.  Bye bye pond scum!

I don’t think I’d recommend this for a tender fleece, or for fime fibres, but it’s remarkably good at opening up compacted locks.  After a couple of trips through the picker, it looks like this:

This is much more ready for the drum carder  than the previous stuff.  It’s not as effective as flicking open locks, but it’s a lot faster – and in this case, the lock structure was pretty much lost sometime between shearing and washing. (And the washing didn’t help).  It’s kind of difficult to demonstrate the differences between before and after in the photographs, so let’s try a before-and-after, side-by-side shot, too:

See the difference so far? (before is on the left; after on the right).  The lock structure is still there, but the fibre is looser, more open.  If you put it on a lightbox, you’d be able to see through the ‘after’ stuff much more clearly than the ‘before’.

I said this was faster than flicking locks, and I meant it, but running several hundred grams through the picker still took an hour or two.  Like pretty much every piece of fibre prep equipment ever, you don’t wan’t to try and process too much at any one time: overload it, and it will be hard work, and a lot less effective.  And don’t think you’re going to be ripping your way through the stuff you felted with some ill-considered washing or dyeing choices, either: this is not a way to rescue a fleece from serious damage.

Next time?  We should be ready for the actual blending!

(For the curious: my wool picker is a Lil’ Dynamo.  I bought it a year or so ago, and this is the first time I’ve put it to any serious use.  I selected this model firstly because we have dogs, and the box design looks so much safer than the cradle types.  Secondly, the price is very reasonable, making it a feasible purchase for folks in the UK.)

Knit Nation beckons

Knit Nation!!  Who else is going?!

I’m so excited about this event this year.  It was brilliant last year, but several logistical problems (waiting too long to book my accommodation and ending up nowhere near the others; having to drag my spinning wheel down to London (and across it) by train; not allowing enough time to decompress and enjoy the moment) meant that it was also a frantic and fretful weekend.  I’m also really excited about the Knit Tea Salon that they’re introducing this year: a place to socialise, knit, chill out, eat cake and drink tea?!  Yes please!  I think that convenient and friendly cafe facilities were about the only big hole in last year’s arrangements, so this should be awesome.

I’ve been packing today, because I hate doing it.  I’m trying to get rid of my habit of waiting until almost-too-late before starting on certain kinds of tasks. (Packing.  Rewinding.  Labelling.)   The hope is that I will also manage to lose some of the associated stress and panic along the way.

Anyway!  I have packed clothes!  And running kit!  And toiletries!  I have been wise and not signed up for any classes that require homework, but I still need to pack the materials required for the two classes I will be attending:  Cookie A’s class on ‘Knitting off the Grid’ all day Friday, and Judith McCuin’s ‘Spinning for Shetland Lace’ all day Sunday.  Judith’s class assumes a spinning wheel, but after last year’s adventures with the wheel on the tube, I’m taking a selection of spindles.  Much more portable.  Cookie’s class just asks for some worsted weight yarn and 4.5mm knitting needles; I think I’ll take some of my recent experimental yarns bases to play with.

I’m leaving all day Saturday free of classes.  I want to be able to socialise and shop and *not* be completely exhausted by my mini-holiday.  With any luck, I’ll even fit some exercise in to my busy weekend!

Of course, the Tour de Fleece is still active, and if I’m not taking my wheel with me, I won’t be able to make any progress on the wool/alpaca blend.  So I think it’s an ideal opportunity to take my lovely Russian spindle – my other Tour goal, of course! – and see if I can put in some quality time with that.

And I’ll need some way to keep in touch with the online world, too, of course.  I just can’t wait!

Tour de Fleece, week one

Ahh: the Tour de France, where real men wear lycra and attempt incredible feats of endurance and stamina.  And the Tour de Fleece, where spinners do much the same, except with less lycra, more wool, and a distinctly lower requirement for high calorie intake.

This year, as well as I’ve challenged myself to do two things:

  • Spin up enough of a wool/alpaca blend to knit a sweater later in the year, and
  • Get to grips with my new Russian spindle (bought at Woolfest).

I have to admit that I haven’t gone near the Russian spindle since tidying up after my recent travelling sprees.  And, as it happened, I had no chance at all to do any of my own spinning on the first day of the tour – Saturday the 2nd – because I was demonstrating and teaching drop spinning at a friend’s come-and-craft birthday party.  Still, I consider spending several hours teaching spinning to new acolytes to be a good way to kick off the tour.

A bigger technical hitch was that I hadn’t actually finished carding the blended fibre for my sweater spinning.  I wanted to blend the seconds from the cocoa-coloured alpaca fleece with a grey wool that I, errrm, ‘washed’ mostly by putting it in cold water to soak ‘for a week’ sometime last year.  By this spring, it smelled pretty much like the bottom of a pond, and had green slime growing on the top.  However, the lanolin seemed to have mostly disappeared, so I finished washing it, and called it good.  It doesn’t smell bad any more; it reminds my of my dive kit, for some reason.  The quantities I had of each meant that I could produce a blend that’s roughly one-third alpaca.  This is what my sample batt looked like:

And here’s the two-ply yarn.  Very woollen, very lofty, very stretchy:

The blending has been an adventure.  Last weekend, I spent a day and a half on it, and got enough fully finished to keep me busy on the wheel this week.  This weekend, I’ve managed to finish the rest of the carding – thank goodness!  So, by the end of the first week of the tour, I have three very full bobbins of singles, plus a partial bobbin:

And a big box of batts – enough to keep me out of trouble for a wee while yet:

Kita is amazed

The Pizza Test

J and I made pizza for dinner the other night: garlic bread to start, followed by a tomato/mozzarella/capers pizza, and our go-to favourite: Blue and green pizza.  For those who haven’t had pizza at our house, Blue and green includes the following toppings:

  • a schmear of tomato sauce (not too much or the whole thing gets soggy);
  • A layer of sauteed greens (beet tops or spinach beet with onions- make sure to squeeze out excess liquid, or again: sogginess);
  • A scattering of blue cheese chunks (we usually use Roquefort or Gorgonzola; something creamy seems to work best);
  • A handful of walnut pieces, and, optionally
  • An egg cracked in the middle.

If you are lucky enough to have them, six quail eggs can be used instead; one for each slice.  Putting one large chicken’s egg in the middle makes for messy, if enjoyable serving.  For chicken’s eggs, I also recommend separating the egg, so the white goes on at the beginning of the cooking time, and the yolk just shortly before the end – unless you like your yolk cooked hard.  For the record, I am still utterly gobsmacked that J likes this pizza so much; he is a confirmed carnivore, and ‘hates greens’.  Oh well – no complaints from me!

But!  The point of this blog post is not to make you hungry or jealous.  It occurred to me that this meal might be a good baseline for our efforts to eat homegrown as much as possible.  I will try and revisit it yearly, and see how much of it we can call ‘homemade’ – or at least local.

The dough
This is a yeasted dough, made in my breadmaker.  The texture is a good one once cooked, but difficult to handle: loose and light.  We’re working on the skills for that. Ingredients are as follows:

  • Flour is purchased, but from a local company (Glebe Farm).  I don’t think we’ll be growing our own wheat any time soon, though I’d love to give it a try.
  • Olive Oil is purchased, and not even vaguely local.  I do have a small olive tree in a pot, but I think I’ll be retired by the time it yields an appreciable amount of oil.  (Besides: olives!  Yum!!)
  • Salt and Sugar are purchased, and likely to remain so!  Though I suppose honey might be used instead of the sugar, and we can certainly find local honey.
  • The leavening is yeast.  I’d like to work up a good sourdough version, but J is so far resistant to sourdough in all its forms.

The garlic bread

In addition to the dough, this includes:

  • The garlic is from our last year’s harvest.  It’s not at its best any more, but I’m delighted it has lasted this long!
  • We’ve augmented it with garlic scapes from this year’s garlic crop, sauteed very gently in butter.
  • The butter is purchased.  Again, I’d like to make at least some of my own butter, but I don’t see the point (apart from once or twice as a fun experiment) unless it provides a significant sustainability advantage.  This would most likely involve me buying or trading for very local milk, though in the fullness of time (i.e. years away!!) I think I’d like to try keeping goats.
  • Rosemary.  We do have rosemary in the garden, but this was some dried, purchased stuff that needs using up.


We score very low on this one, but with great potential to improve:

  • The tomatoes were tinned, and not ours.  It isn’t too big of a stretch to imagines that we might grow enough to make our own tomato sauce in future years, though I made a conscious decision not to grow any ‘matoes this year; we had a huge blight problem last year, so I thought I’d give the land a rest.
  • Mozzarella is purchased and not local; my thoughts on this are very similar to those for the butter, above.
  • Capers are also purchased.  This is something I would very much like to make for ourselves; pickled nasturtium seeds are supposed to be an excellent substitute.  The caper bush itself looks like it might do fairly well against a southern-facing wall or two in our garden – except it is frost sensitive, so maybe not.
  • A scattering of fresh basil leaves once the pizza is out of the oven.  Yes!  These come from our own windowsill.  Finally.

Green and blue

Probably the hardest to improve on, but still potential:

  • Tomatoes – as above
  • Greens and the accompanying onions came from our garden last year.  I sauteed loads of these and froze them in small portions for this very use last year.  I’m glad I did, as neither cabbage nor spinach (available in local groceries/supermarkets) would be the same.  I have no beets or kale in the ground so far this year, though, so I must try for an autumn/winter crop of at least one – or we’ll run out!
  • Blue cheese carries all my previous caveats for dairy products, plus the requirement for a specific culture (and more complex cheesemaking techniques).  I have questions about how sustainable it would truly be for me to make this myself, even if I did have my own milk.
  • Walnuts are purchased.  I’m pretty sure I should be able to gather some locally if I try – possibly even for free.  Must investigate this possibility.
  • Eggs are also purchased, but locally.  At least, usually.  A lot of people in the village put eggs out for sale, and I buy from them when I can.  Longer term, I’d like a few chooks of my own, though.  Or possibly even the aforementioned quail!

Overall score
Out of 18 ingredients, 5 are homegrown and 2 locally purchased.  I think that, with moderate effort, I could raise the score to 9 homegrown ingredients; longer term, I could probably add 4 or 5 more ingredients.  That leaves only a few that I don’t think it is reasonable to provide for myself: salt, olive oil, blue cheese…  What do you think I will score on this scale for next year?

And Kita says…

That all smells dreadful.  Would you like me to dispose of it for you?

Free pattern: Yarnscape’s Sock Recipe

Another free pattern! I’m releasing this now to celebrate Footsie being chosen as as this week’s Yarn of the Week over at Affinity Yarns!

This is my go-to recipe for basic, simple socks that fit well and stay up.  The pattern’s been almost done for months – since last year, I think?! – but the stumbling block, as ever, was photography.  Photographing your own feet is not the easiest thing in the world.

But Woody is always available to help.  I didn’t plan for him to be part of the photoshoot – but he had firm ideas of his own.

These are simple, work-a-day socks.  The cuffs are 1×1 ribbing; the leg and the top of the foot 3×1.  They use a short-row heel, and a ‘star’ toe.  I love the star toe; it’s very, very easy to work, looks pretty, fits like a dream, and doesn’t have to line up with the rest of the sock in any special way.

You can download my simple sock recipe from here – or add it to your Ravelry queue here.  Happy knitting!

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