Old tricks for new dogs

Published on Thursday February 21st, 2008

Everyone who wasn’t at Madrona has surely read about it by now, and any report from me would be less than complete anyway: I went for full-day classes on Saturday and Sunday, but didn’t spend the night at the hotel and missed rubbing elbows with the galaxy of knitterati. But maybe you haven’t seen half an Orsa mitten yet?

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This was my Saturday class – Swedish Tvåandsstickning with the estimable Nancy Bush. Now, I have been Nancy’s fangirl since I first cut my teeth on socks. When I heard she was teaching at Madrona, I knew it didn’t matter a lick what she was teaching: I needed to be there. As one of my classmates said, Nancy could have offered a class on chopping mushrooms and we all would have come. In fact, there were no mushrooms in the course summary, and better yet, there were mittens. Anyone who’s been a reader here for long knows I have a well-developed mitten fetish.

Nancy is just as enlightened and patient and down-to-earth as you might imagine, and she is also taller. Picture a towering benevolent queen in sensible neutrals with pockets conveniently located for stowing balls of yarn, radiating a halo of knitterly wisdom through the yarnovers of her exquisite cobweb of an Estonian lace shawl. Add spectacles and an abundance of woolen-spun hair the color of her skirt. I didn’t bring my camera, so that will have to suffice.

She passed out skeins of z-plied yarn from Sweden, which she calls Mora. We spent the first portion of the class winding them by hand with the help of our tablemates, chatting and listening to the history of the Tvåandsstickning technique. (NB: there ought to be a dieresis over the second ‘a’ – I just can’t figure out to type it. But I’m feeling pretty proud of that ‘å’…. as much as I’m able to hear the subtleties, it’s pronounced tvo-ahnd-stik-ning.) This ancient way of knitting was nearly extinct until a very old mitten with an unusual construction was discovered in a slag heap. What’s so odd, you might say? It looks like a normal stockinet fabric except for some fancy raised stitches on the cuff, right? Check out the inside:

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The researchers interviewed some of the oldest knitters in the area, and they remembered seeing this sort of knitting done. You work from both ends of the ball at once, alternating stitches rather than holding them together (Tvåandsstickning translates as “two-end knitting”), and on every stitch you twist the next strand over the old one. If you’re adding a purl round accent, you bring the new strand under the old with every stitch. The decorative stitches are done with one strand in front, purling, and the other behind, knitting. It’s slow going and you have to pause and dangle after every round to untwist your yarn, and it’s essential to use a z-plied yarn rather than a typical s-plied, because the s-plied will twist more and more tightly and make horrible corkscrews. But it produces a very firm, durable fabric that’s entirely practical for a mitten, and I’ve found that practicing lets me establish a pretty good rhythm. And it’s such a pretty, dainty little mitten! I love it unreasonably.

Sunday was Intarsia with Lucy Neatby. I have long feared intarsia, and haven’t bothered to learn because reindeer jumpers make me shudder. So this was an opportunity to push myself in a direction I wouldn’t otherwise go under the tutelage of a master. Lucy is an encyclopedia of clever tricks applicable to any knitting, and I learned a lot of technical tidbits that will serve me well. I also learned to analyze colorwork charts and separate the good ones from the “evil, seductive rubbish,” that “H-shaped bobbins are the spawn of the devil,” and that “you just need to be belt and braces with cotton.” I learned all kinds of ways to cheat and use Swiss darning (duplicate stitch), crochet, and stranded knitting in combination to achieve complicated effects that would make you set your stash on fire and jump out a window if you tried to work them in intarsia. And lastly, I learned that I really am a stranded colorwork kind of girl. I love my Fair Isle and my Estonian socks and my Norwegian mittens and ski sweaters. It brings me joy to see their jolly little floats linking arms across the back of the work. I take pleasure in trapping them pretend, unpretend when they reach too far. I brought home a couple of striking semi-solid skeins of Socks That Rock mediumweight with every intention of plunging into an Armenian-knit hat as soon as may be. So don’t expect to see very much intarsia chez Blue Garter, but I’m glad to have improved myself in learning more about it.

And that’s my Madrona story. I could go on about how I barely restrained myself from bowing down before Stephanie and offering to fetch her coffee, and how I drove thirty minutes in the wrong direction trying to find the house of Mr. Garter’s cousins in Renton, but this post is getting pretty long. I met lovely knitters, I learned as much as I could stuff into my brain, and I can’t wait for next year!

Of puppies, waves, and mittens

Published on Friday January 11th, 2008

On a whim, we went to the coast yesterday. Mr. G’s parents have a little beach house south of Lincoln City, an unassuming and somewhat mildewy little pre-fab that shudders when the washer goes on spin cycle and will someday be demolished and replaced with a sturdy and charming cottage, but a beach house nonetheless, nicely nestled on an estuary teeming with grebes, buffleheads, herons, and gulls of every stripe. Mr. G was feeling knocked about after a presentation he felt he flubbed, and I had two days off in trade for working this weekend, so we packed up the dog and a change of underwear and off we went. We got a late start, but there was light enough when we arrived to cross the footbridge and tramp over the dune to see the wild waves.

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Our tough Texas pup found the ocean quite alarmingly vast, noisy, and wet. She treated us to an operatic account of her concerns, with brief intermissions to chase irresistible shreds of blowing foam. Not even a cuddle could convince her we weren’t all in mortal peril.
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(Look how big she’s grown!) Once the sea was out of sight, she was her happy inquisitive self again, and we had a quiet evening of knitting, working, and snoozing by a smoky fire that snorted at Mr. G’s boyscout smarts and required near constant stoking. I’ve been knitting this mitten:

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I had a hankering for some colorwork, so last Sunday I decided to cast on and reverse-engineer this mitten from a picture in this fabulous coffee-table book of Norwegian mittens that was floating around at the yarn shop last year. The book was – you guessed it – written entirely in Norwegian, which I cannot read. Not a problem, as the book is plum stuffed with thorough charts. But as luck would have it, I fell for the design on a pair for which there was no pattern. Here’s what I know about them: “Mannsvott fra Sør-Trøndelag, Trøndelag Folkemuseum, Sverresborg FTT 28549. Vottene er strikket av Bjørg Sliper fra Trondheim, til hennes svigerfar i 1946.” I’m guessing that means they’re men’s mittens from a place called Trøndelag (which I have no idea how to pronounce), and maybe the knitter was named Bjørg Sliper, and they were either knit or donated to the Folkemuseum in 1946. Maybe some of you readers can help me out here? Anyway, I was drawn to the beautiful sprigs of berries on the cuff, and to the semi-botanical design on the back of the mitten. (Terri Shea refers to those windmills of foliage as pine boughs in her excellent Selbuvotter; I don’t recognize the other elements, but I haven’t read the book cover-to-cover yet. The next pair of (equally beautiful) mittens on the page in the Norwegian book is from Selbu and uses the same berry sprigs.) And wait until you see the thumbs!

Yes, that’s a jar of Swedish cloudberry preserves modeling my mitten cuff – a cuff which was influenced by the advice of a certain Estonian, I might add – and the colors are non-traditional, and the yarn is woolen-spun Shetland, not a proper worsted Norwegian wool. This is not a strict recreation of an authentic mitten. A girl just needs a good pair of overmitts to wear to the dog park and a chance to indulge her mitten fetish, you know? But this girl also likes nerdy knitting history, so if you know anything about these patterns I’d love to hear it!

Bring on Christmas

Published on Friday December 21st, 2007

Drifting Pleats scarf: winging its way across the country.

Christmas in Tallinn stocking: blocking in the tub.

Two pairs of No-Frills Fingerless Mitts: one wrapped and delivered; one awaiting a little fix on a thumb. (Okay, by “little fix” I mean an acceptance that I really did run out of yarn five rounds shy on the last of the four mitts, and that the giftee won’t mind if I substitute a different but related color rather than buying another skein of Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Worsted, and that I know perfectly well that using a mismatched yarn is a better idea than clipping off all the extra inches on all the tails and trying to join them together in a yarn I can’t spit splice.) I’m pretty sure neither of those recipients is interested in knitting enough to read here, so I’ll risk a picture or three:

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(No-Frills Mitts from The Knitting Man(ual), fingerless iteration. LLSW colorway: Baltic Sea – one of my favorites. Prop Master: Mr. Garter. Black and white shot included for extra manliness.) I was only planning to make one pair, and even that was an eleventh-hour addition to the knitting roster when I realized it was my friend Linus’s birthday and he needed some cheering up to offset the sad demise of his ancient VW van and his motorbike in the same week. But they went so fast! And they’re so manly! They’re too big for Mr. G, but all the same he kept borrowing that first pair: a clear sign that a handknit is a winner.

Bias Garter Hat the Second: on the needles as of last night.

Tomtenish Zimmermann slippers: one to be unsewn and made slightly longer; the second requiring three episodes of The West Wing (I never get tired of watching the first three seasons and pining after the fake government of my dreams), or maybe the first disc of Pride and Prejudice.

Stealth husband knit, not to be named: drying in a most interesting manner involving a hammer and the dehumidifier in the stock room at Knit/Purl, the only place I could be sure he wouldn’t open a closet door and find it. And I had my doubts about doubled worsted really drying in a closet anyway.

Today my parents and their dog and my Christmas tree all drive down together from the island, my brother and his lady fly in from New York, and then the flurry of holiday visits and cooking and baking and singing and rumpusing begins in earnest. I’ve been downloading every cookie recipe recommended on every blog I read. I’ve plotted my early morning assault on the grocery store for supplies. I’ve swept up the carpet of wood splinters all over the house that used to be our firewood before the dog moved in. (The remaining kindling looks like it’s been worked over by drunken ineffectual beavers, but I figure it will burn as well as ever on Christmas Eve.) So for now, I’ll leave you with a short list of dorky Christmas facts about me, as long as you promise to reply in kind in the comments.

1. By the age of three, I could sing all the verses of the little-known carol “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” complete with Latin chorus. (I’m not sure I remember all of them today.)

2. I also know the French version of “O Holy Night.” And I’ll maintain that it’s more beautiful in French.

3. My family doesn’t believe in simply barber-poling the lights around the tree like everyone else. We prefer to spend forty-five minutes cantilevered off a stepladder, anally outlining prominent branches in a pleasing architectural manner. For this reason, we also prefer the quirky misshapen natural trees over the carefully molded bottle-brush varieties available commercially.

4. We didn’t leave cookies out for Santa. Because even fictional people ought to adhere to a nutritious diet of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. He usually got a couple of satsuma oranges. And he always took time to write a thank-you note.

5. It feels a lot more like Christmas Eve if we read aloud Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. My dad does it really well.

6. No presents are opened until everyone is equipped with a pad of paper and a writing implement with which to log their booty and the folks to be thanked for it.

7. We carefully fold up and reuse our wrapping paper. Seriously, some of the sturdier sheets in the useful sizes have probably served six or eight seasons, plus birthdays if they aren’t overtly holiday themed. Needless to say, we frown mightily upon the wanton use of Scotch tape. It was a matter of family awe and pride that my late grandfather could wrap a present with no tape at all, just precision folding and well-judged ribbon placement. Legendary skills, I’m telling you. He’d also make sure everyone was issued a thoroughly antiquated but perfectly maintained pocket knife to slit any unavoidable tape with minimal marring of the paper. There was also this doctrine about using the oils from the sides of your nose as the best possible conditioner for knife blades, but I digress (and di-gross). Anyway, I like to think that I come by my oddities honestly.

Okay, your turn. Show me the dorky holiday traditions and quirks. I know you’ve got ’em.

Month of sacrifices

Published on Sunday November 11th, 2007

November is a month fraught with superstitions. According to the 7th-century scholar Bede (and you know how I love my moldy oldy scholars), my ancient Anglo-Saxon ancestors called it blotmonath, the month of blood sacrifices to the gods. I suspect they were combining practicality with worship, storing up the meat they’d need to get through the winter while they made the necessary supplications to ensure that the gods would eventually see fit to restore light and warmth to the land. We dig ancient traditions steeped in mystery at the little school where I work, so we observed the ritual of rolling the Samhain oatcake to kick off the month the Friday before last. The Seniors light a fire outdoors, and the whole school gathers around it to explain about the oatcake to the littlest kids and to sing songs. The oatcake, baked by the Intermediates (with extra oats for maximum density), is about twelve inches in diameter and is marked on one side with an X and on the other with an O. By the time of the bonfire, even the newest Primaries know to chant, “X! X! X!,” for if the oatcake rolls down the hill and lands X-side up, a severe winter with plenty of snow days is predicted.

As it happened, the oatcake made a convincing fake in the X direction, then flopped over to reveal the O. And now I have reason to hope it’s correct, because I imagine I’ll be spending an unusual amount of time outside in the cold and dark this season. As is only appropriate in the Month of Sacrifices, we’re going to be rearranging our lives and habits chez Garter. (No, it’s not a baby. We like to swim against the tide around here.) A seven-week-old puppy is arriving on an airplane from Texas a week from Tuesday, and it’s going to live with us.

Mr. G’s twin sister, as you know if you’ve been a long-time reader here, hangs her hat in the middle of nowhere with only her husband and five hundred sheep and a handful of ranch dogs for company. There’s a fairly steady flow of puppies out of these dogs, pups that are in demand to work cattle and sheep on other ranches and find homes right away. But this time there’s a mild little gal who’d rather snuggle up for a nice petting than give a recalcitrant cow what-for, and Mr. G’s sister knows all too well what happens to dogs who don’t earn their keep in that country. She’s soft on this pup and she’s talked us into making a city slicker out of her. We were wary, not having an opportunity to meet the dog beforehand, and knowing that a Border Collie/Australian Shepherd mix is going to need lots of exercise and responsible training to be happy and well-mannered in our sheepless lifestyle. We spent two days weighing the decision. Now we can’t wait to meet her. But I’m really going to have to tidy up the Fibordello before she comes. Needles! Lone socks! Skeins of yarn! So many tempting targets for pointy little teeth! Mingus the Cat may never forgive me. And oh, those pre-dawn walks in the biting cold…. At least I have these to wear:

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Koolhaas Gauntlets, inspired by Jared’s beautiful hat in the Holiday Interweave Knits, knit with Debbie Bliss Donegal Luxury Tweed. I’m not hugely impressed by the Debbie Bliss line in general (puny yardage and suspect fiber content and all that), but she really got it right with the Luxury Tweed. I was smitten by this luscious aubergine color with its flecks of pine, persimmon, and lilac as soon as it waltzed into the store, and since I’d like to fend off chilblains this winter, I knew it was only a matter of time until I bought some to make some long fingerless mitts. I actually finished them in October after the second Boston trip, so they’ve already seen two weeks of heavy use and they’re holding up beautifully.

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If you’d like to copy them, obtain a copy of Jared’s chart for the travelling stitches, cast on forty sts on a #4 needle for the fingers-end rib, work six rounds, then switch up to a #7 and begin the chart. The thumb is pretty free form – mine came out a little different on each mitt because I wasn’t clever enough to take careful notes the first time – work it as you like it, decrease back to the 40 sts, and cruise on down until the gauntlets are as long as you want. Finish with a little more ribbing, pick up sts around the thumbhole and work a 1×1 rib to the desired length. Oh, and I went to a mirror-image stitch-crossing on the second glove for the sake of symmetry.

And now, for the love of Pete, tell me what dog-training books you recommend. I’m already running out for a copy of The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete, because that’s what we used with the dogs I had growing up, but further reading suggestions are more than welcome. And what would you name a scraggly wee grey mutt with black and white splotches and not much tail?