Sunday, January 30, 2005
Now the Sweater is Really Finished!

Here's a closeup of the neckline. It's still a little hard to see...sorry. Two leather buttons close the henley-style button placket.  Posted by Hello

I reknit the sleeve cuffs to make them fit better, and I gave the sweater a good steaming. Now it fits great and looks crisp. After taking the picture, I folded up the sweater and placed it in Randy's closet. That's a sure sign the sweater is officially complete. Ain't Randy a cutie? Posted by Hello
Thursday, January 27, 2005
Yet Another Book Report
It must be winter, 'cause I'm actually reading the books on my nightstand! How the Irish Shaved Civilization introduced me to the writing of Thomas Cahill and his "The Hinges of HIstory" series. The series is about the genisis of Western thought, and four of the seven books planned for the series have been completed. The second book of the series if The Gift of the Jews, a book I found surprising.

Cahill asserts that the Western notion of democracy begins with the ancient Hebrews, not the ancient Greeks. He also makes the case that the Western notions of individuality, justice, and freedom are a result of the revolutionary changes brought about by a hard-scrabble band of travellers.

We are the undeserving recipients of this history of the Jews, this long, excessive, miraculous developmento f ethical monotheism without which our ideas of equity and personalism are unlikely ever to have come into being and surely would have never matured in the way they have.

Like the first book of the series, Cahill analizes early texts of the ancient people and places the ideas expressed in these texts into a broader social and historical context. Cahill's genius is to synthesize and summarize a large body of research into one very enjoyable read. Did I just call this guy a genius? He seems pretty darn smart, and his books make history interesting. The other books in the series are definately on my reading list.
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
My reading this winter has occupied two of my competing interests: knitting and gardening. Both interests strike me as similar in a lot of ways. There's a kind of wish for self-sufficiency in both hobbies. A desire to see a process through from the basic beginnings to the final product. And I admit my dual interests have a romantic edge, a day-dreamy fascination with the knowledge of the past.

Exploring a new hobby gives someone who enjoys reading a whole new set of books and writers to get to know better--this is part of the excitement of taking on a new passion. As a knitter, I've always loved the writing of Elizabeth Zimmerman. From her first book Knitting Wtihout Tears her writing rekindled an interest in traditional knitting in this country, and she inspired generations of knitters to trust their instincts and.... gasp.... throw out their slavish devotion to kntting patterns. Elizabeth's writing is brimming with good sense and wit. Through her how-to books she generously sprinkles in stories about her life and family. She is skeptical of the knitting "experts" of the day, and single-handedly produced a range of technical innovations. In a world of fast-changing fashion trends, her knitting patterns remain as popular as ever, years after their publication.

Recently I've run into a garden writer that shares Elizabeth's spirit. Ruth Stout's How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back strikes me as a writer with the same good sense and humor. Not only is the title in the same vein, but the no-nonsence approach is very familiar. Ruth shares the same autobiographical bent in her book, and she has no faith in gardening authorities. In fact she exhibits great zeal in proving the experts wrong. Ruth Stout's method for gardening, the method that brought her renowned and many garden visitors, was the idea to stop plowing up the vegetable plot each spring and mulching heavily with straw to suppress weeds. Well into her 80s, she shared this message in articles and radio talks. Here are a few quotes where she explains the genesis of her idea:

All through my life I had every now and then invented--no, that isn't the right word--pulled out of the air, rather, a new and sometimes startling idea which I was sure would be of benefit to mankind. The pattern which ran through them was simplification of living, and perhpas that was why none of them took.

Ruth Stout certainly has gusto. Here's another one:

So now on this perfect morning I stood there in the garden, longing to put in some seeds. I wandered over to the asparagus bed and said to it affectionately: "Bless your heart, you don't have to wait for anyone to plow you. You merely--"

I stopped short as a thought struck me like a blow. One never plows asparagus and it gets along fine. Except for new sod, why plow anything, ever?

Why plow? Why turn the soil upside down? Why plow?


Trusting her instinct is the hallmark of Ruth Stout's writing, and it's something amply on display in Zimmermann's writing, too. Here's a quote with a similar theme from Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac.

Once upon a time there was an old woman who loved to knit. She lived with her Old Man in the middle of the woods in a curious one-room schoolhouse which was rather untidy, and full of wool.

Every so often as she sat kntting by the warm iron stove or under the dappled shade of the black birch, as the season might dictate, she would call out to her husband:

"Darling, I have unvented something," and would then go on to fill his patient ears with enthusiastic but highly unintelligible and esoteric gabble about knitting.

Ruth Stout's books are still quoted in gardening books today. The yarn business and knitting camp that Elizabeth Zimmermann started still attracts new customers. Both women are the product of the same WWII generation, and their verve and pluck continue to garner adminiration. It's interesting that both engaged in what would traditionally be discounted as "women's work." Instead of downgrading their talents and passions, they invested their work with pride.

Ruth and Elizabeth are my role models.
Monday, January 24, 2005

Randy's Sweater!! Posted by Hello
Sunday, January 23, 2005

Finally Finished

I couldn't bare to post again until I finished Randy's sweater. Yesterday, after a mammoth, all-day knitting fest, I finished the last seam. Thanks to an all-day snow storm, staying inside and knitting for several hours straight turned out to be time well spent.

It's all done--almost. Just a few last touches to get Randy's sweater checked off my To-Do list. First, the sleeves are about three inches too long. Somehow, my hand-knit sleeves always come out long. Sigh. I'm not sure why. So tonight, I'll unravel a few inches and finish them up--yet again.

Second, we need buttons for the henley-style neckline. You may recall I originally envisioned a shawl collar for this sweater. After several tries, the hand-knit shawl collar eludes my knitting abilities. This is the second sweater where I had to abandon a shawl collar for Plan B. On Randy's sweater, Plan B turned out to be a solid choice. I'm going to look for a couple of leather-covered buttons at the fabric store tomorrow.

Third, the sweater needs some blocking. While overall I'm pleased with the set-in sleeves--I think they give the sweater a crisp look--there is a bit of puckering along the sleeve line in the back. I'm hoping a good bath and a bit of steam from my steam iron will relax the fabric and give it a tidy look.

Trying on the sweater for the first time this morning, Randy seemed genuinely pleased with the finished product. The sweater looks a lot like the other store-bought versions in his closet, which I hope means that he'll pull this one out of the closet from time to time. I like to imagine this sweater as a portable hug--and I think Randy appreciates that sentiment.
Sunday, January 09, 2005

Knitting Update

The pieces of the puzzle are coming together... Posted by Hello

Finally, I have something to report on Randy's sweater, which is moving along at about a snail's pace. I'm blocking the front and the back so I can sew the shoulder seams together and then begin knitting the collar. Last night, Randy let me hold up the front piece to see how it fits him, and I think we're right on target here. He gasped when he saw the scooped neckline, so I reminded him we'll be filling it in with a shawl collar, so the sweater will look appropriately masculine and he can wear it around his buddies without undo teasing.

At this point, I should be finished knitting all of the sweater pieces, but alas, last night I decided there was no hope for one sleeve, and I frogged it all the way back to the cuff. How one sleeve got out of sync with the other is still a mystery to me. I took notes while knitting the first sleeve, and when I was knitting the second sleeve I periodically compared the two. Yet the second sleeve ended up not only longer than the first--but wider too. Drat and double drat! This time around I'll take careful measures every couple of rows. At least I can report the knitting fire is burning again, and even though I've said this before, with a little effort I may be able to wrap up this sweater this week.


You lite up my life... Posted by Hello

Can modern technology keep peace in a marriage? One electronic gadget has lowered a little crankiness around my house. Whenever we sat down to watch a movie, Randy and I had the same... let's say "discussion." Lights on or lights off? I preferred the lights on, of course, so I can knit my way through the movie. A weekend movie-a-thon is always worth about two hours of solid knitting time. Randy preferred the TV room to be movie-theater dark. I complained about the eye strain of trying to knit in deep shadows, he complained about the glare on the TV screen from a room full of lights. Back and forth, lights on and lights off, and so on.

Our new Ott Lite has quieted the waters. Ott Lites are supposed to be a more natural-colored light, closer to sunlight than typical florescence bulbs. With the floor lamp, I can knit my heart's content in my favorite knitting chair with the light directed right at my lap. Randy can have near-movie-theater darkness, because the Ott Light doesn't create a glare on the screen. One less cranky moment is definitely worth the price tag.

The Ott Lites advertised in the knitting mags are always listed at outrageous prices. I found both table and floor Ott Lites at an office supply store at less than half the cost of those advertized for knitters. As far as I can tell, the bulb used in the office supply model is the same as the craft models. I've knit with it for a couple of nights now, and it is tons easier to count tiny stitches in navy blue yarn with this handy light over my shoulder.

Friendly Neighborhood Yarn Winder Posted by Hello

In other knitting-related purchases, I also broke down and bought a yarn winder. For those readers who wonder what the heck this could be used for, it's simple really. Lots of yarn from the smaller yarn companies come wound into skeins. A skein is a large loop of yarn, and it needs to be wound into a ball in order to be used. For the smaller yarn companies, selling yarn in skeins is one less manufacturing step, which helps keep the cost down. I usually enjoy buying skeins because winding the yarn into balls can be kinda fun, in a homey sort of way. It's also a good way to experiment with yarn from small-time vendors.

Usually, I've wound the yarn into balls by hand, but the Victorian 2-Ply I used to make Randy's sweater has taken all the joy out of this step. The yarn is fun to knit, it makes a nice looking fabric, and because it is a thinner yarn, it won't be so overwhelmingly warm to wear. But the yarn came wound in the most impossibly tangled skeins, it took me an average of two hours to wind each skein into a ball. There is no joy in this, let me tell you. I thought the yarn winder might make this process move along a little easier, but it still took over an hour for each skein, even with Randy's help and the mechanical aid. I've wound enough to finish the sweater, but I have a skein and a half left over that are just impossibly tangled. I'm considering throwing the leftovers into the compost pile--I hear wool makes a great mulch. Note to self: this is the absolute last time we ever buy this yarn!
Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Wonderful Wallaby

PrairieTide sisters, pick up your knitting needles! I've gotten a good number of comments about the Wonderful Wallaby sweater I made for our nephew Juddah, and I definately think this is a sweater everyone can make. What do you say we have a Wonderful Wallaby Knitalong at our family reunion this summer? Between now and the reunion, you can look for the needed materials and practice your knitting skills. This pattern is so easy, we'll be able to make a lot of progress during the reunion, so you'll be well on your way to a completed sweater by the time the reunion ends.

The sweater was made using the classic Cottage Creations pattern, and it is a snap. It is not much more difficult to knit than a cap, especially in the toddler size. Cottage Creations pattens are known for being easy to understand, plus all of their sweaters are knit "in the round", which means you can finish the sweater without having to stitch up a bunch of seams. The Wallaby is a sweater version of the ever-popular "hoodie" sweatshirt. It has a pocket in the front, just like kangaroos have (ergo the pattern name), and it has a comfy hood. The sweater pattern is sized for kids or adults, so hey, if you're so inclined, you can make one for the entire family.

To make Juddah's sweater, I used a pair of size 8 circular knitting needles that are connected by a 16 inch plastic cord. This is the best size of knitting needle to make an small, toddler-sized sweater. Circular needles come with different length plastic connecting cords. My size 8, 16 inch circular needles get lots of use. They are just the right size to make a lot of hand knit hats and scarves. Because the connecting cord is only 16 inches long, the needles are very compact and travel well. When I was knitting the Wallaby sweater, I could tuck the entire project into a corner my book bag and carry it everywhere. Finding size 8, 16 inch circular knitting needles can be a bit tricky. Walmart doesn't carry this size! If you have a hard time finding this size needle, just let me know and I'll track some down for you.

The smallest-sized Wallaby sweater calls for three large balls of worsted weight yarn. As a knitter, I always prefer knitting with wool, but since this is a sweater for kids, you'll want to choose a yarn that can be thrown in the washing machine. There are lots of good wool-blends out there, and I heartily recommend a wool blend over 100% rayon yarn. Brands like Wool Ease are available at lots of craft stores, including Walmart.

So between now and then, PrairieTide sisters, practice your knitting! This pattern does not require a lot of fancy knitting skills, so if you can knit and purl, you'll have the "mad skills" the sweater needs. Kknit yourself a scarf, or try a simple hat pattern. Type "knitting pattern" into your favorite internet browser, and you'll have an oodle of patterns to choose from. Then this summer, we can Wonderful Wallaby together.
Sunday, January 02, 2005

Winter sunset picture taken from the back porch. Notice that column of pink light. Nifty! Posted by Hello

Last of the Holiday Reading Marathon

With the winter holiday nearing the end, I feel a bit like Cinderella. There are lots of last-minute tasks I meant to finish during the break, and today's the day to get them all done. At the beginning of the vacation, I promised myself I'd start the New Year on the upswing by polishing my dress shoes and ironing my work clothes. As of yet, neither task has been touched. There are a few more holiday cards I'd like to send out, and I should really send a couple of e-mails to old friends. What's more, in the fridge I've got all the fixings for one more holiday pie. This task will probably get tackled before the ironing...

While there's a stack of books on the kitchen table I'd like to browse through before the end of today, I did finish reading one book that was a gripping holiday page-turner. The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan promises to give a "plant's eye view of the world." It certainly gave me a lot to think about. The basic thesis of the book is that we tend to think we're in charge in the garden and on the farm, but maybe the plants are more clever than we give them credit. By offering fruit or flowers that please us, plants ensure we keep planting them. Pleasing the gardener is just one more plant survival strategy.

Building on this idea, Pollan explores four plants in detail--apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. The chapter on the apple was the most fascinating to me. Pollan points out that apples produce seeds that are super varied genetically. This means that if you were to plant the seeds inside an apple core, the resulting trees would be totally different than their parents. The standard apple orchards of today are created through grafting--not seeds. Early US immigrants tried to bring over apple tree stock from the old world, but the plants did not fair so well during the ocean voyage. So the early settlers had to plant apple seeds to grow the fruit. As a result of the wild genetic variation in the seeds, new US apple varieties were developed ideally suited to the growing conditions here. Pollan explains this process more poetically:

In effect, the apple, like the settlers themselves, had to forsake its former domestic life and return to the wild before it could be reborn as an American--as Newtown Pippins and Baldwins, Golden Russets and Jonathans. This is what the seeds on John Chapman's boat were doing. (It may also be what Chapman was doing.) By reverting to wild ways--to sexual reproduction, that is, and going to seed--the apple was able to reach down into its vast store of genes, accumulated over the course of its travels through Asian and Europe, and discover the precise combinations of traits required to survive in the New World. ... Thanks to the species' inherent prodigality, coupled with the work of individuals like John Chapman, in a remarkably short period of time the New World had its own apples, adapted to the soil and climate and day length of North America, apples that were as distinct from the old European stock as the Americans themselves.

What follows is a fascinating depiction of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman), and the Great Apple Rush, a period in the 1800s when every farmer was on the hunt for the next hot apple variety in their own orchard. Pollan describes the foothills in Kazastan where apples of startling diversity grow wild, and he visits a USDA land lap that is part apple orchard and part genetic library, where orchardists grow two of most of the apple varieties ever grown in this country. The book gave me a new appreciation for the humble apple. I had no idea apples came in such a range of sizes, textures, and tastes. If my gardening skills improve, I may try my hand at growing a tree or two, myself.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Blackberry Winter

I've heard that it's a Japanese tradition to spend New Year's Eve cleaning the house from top to bottom. Today, on the first day of 2005, Randy and I got bit by the Organization Bug. He spent the morning reorganizing his closet, and I put away all the holiday decorations. Wrapping up the red and green bobbles in tissue paper and packing them back into their cartons felt very refreshing. Maybe it's something of a ritual, the shedding of the holiday clutter in the New Year. With all the lights and knick knacks back in the basement, things feel a little less crowded in the house.

This first day of the year, our brief reprieve from winter weather seems to be over. I ventured outside for a walk, but was driven back towards the warmth by slushy, cold rain. Along the way, I did manage to find a discarded Christmas tree, and after getting permission from the former owner, I dragged it back to my yard. If the rain stops, I'm planning on cutting up the limbs to cover one of my garden beds. Back in the fall, I cleaned out a bed with the goal of planting blueberry shrubs there in the spring. With the pine boughs, I'm hoping for to accomplish two things--lower the acidity in the soil to better suit blueberries, and protect the bare soil for the blasting winter winds we've been having lately.

With gardening on my mind on this drizzly winter day, my latest garden book has been a really enjoyable read. Ladybugs, Tiger Lilies & Wallflowers: A Gardener's Book of Words by Robert Hendrickson shares word origins and lore from the garden. I've always liked dictionaries and word books, and this one is great fun because so many garden words have fascinating histories. "Apple" for instance, is one of the oldest English words, and the word apple has been applied to lots of different fruits and vegetables. For instance, pomegranates were called "apples of Carthage", tomatoes were called "love apples", and potatoes were called "apples of the earth." Over the years, it's been an all-inclusive fruit name. Here are a couple of word histories I thought were nifty.

Caterpillar. A caterpillar is a chatepelose, a "hairy cat," in Old French, and it is from this world that we originally got our word for the "wyrm among fruite," as the Old English called the creature. But the meaning and spelling of caterpillar were strengthened and changed by two Old English words. "To pill" meant "to strip or plunder," as in "pillage," which came to be associated with the little worm stripping the bark off of trees, and a glutton was a "cater," which the creature most certainly is. Thus the caterpillar became a "greedy pillager" as well as a "hairy cat," both good descriptions of its mien and manner.

Blackberries. In England blackberries, named for their color, of course, are the most common fruit growing in the wild and proverbially came to represent what is plentiful because they outyield all other bramble fruits: One plant can yield up to five gallons of berries. "Plentiful as blackberries" comes to us from Shakespeare, though what he actually wrote was "If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason for compulsion, I" (King Henry IV, Part I). The English call a cold early May when blackberries are in bloom a "blackberry winter," and in American a "blackberry summer" is a period of fine weather in late September of early October.

This fall, when I was cleaning up our bit of woods, I found a few brambles that might just be blackberries. I'm going to keep my eye on them this year to see if they fruit. Personally, I've never heard of the term "blackberry summer", but I like it and I may have take it up. It will be the latest thing in these parts.


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