April hasn’t been a cruel month…

Centuries ago Chaucer called April “the cruelest month”.  Especially this April, with its special family time, has been wonderful rather than cruel, although I suspect that tomorrow’s newspaper will report that we broke a record for the most consecutive days of measureable precipitation.  There could be worse things than having grey, rainy days, even though when I looked out of our condo yesterday afternoon, this is what I saw:

Yes, it was somewhat unreal—but lovely, wouldn’t you say?  Shades of grey, white and blue. I remember moving from the midwest to Olympia, WA., many years ago and being struck by how the natives counted the grey, rainy days as long as they continued.  Then when the sun came out and we had blue skies in spring, they’d say, “well, I know this won’t last long.”  I guess I never forget that it could be ice and snow as an alternative.  Also, for more than 25 years now I’ve been struck with just how beautiful the grey skies can be—-how many different grey tones there are with their own beauty!

But when spring and blue skies come to the Northwest, I feel such joy at the beginning of another cycle of new life.  I started this new knitting project on a recent family outing near Seattle, despite the fact that I still have a few unfinished objects waiting to be dealt with:

This is the fifth Truly Tasha’s Shawl I’ve made, a relaxing, social knit—as well as a wonderful shawl to cuddle up with at home or when traveling.  The pattern is available free on Nancy Bush’s website: http://www.woolywest.com (click on “Knitsters’ Notebook.”) I suspect there have been thousands of these made. Over the next week I worked on Tasha in free moments.  These moments included times with my Tuesday knitting group which decided to do a shawl knitalong.  This is different from everyone knitting the same shawl at the same time. I’ll take pictures to share (and provide yarn and needle information) when the projects are completed.

This Truly Tasha’s Shawl is special in that I’m knitting it from 2-ply merino that was dyed and handspun by a Seattle knitting friend of mine, Sandy Soreng. This is the third I’ve made from her yarn. The simplicity of the garter stitch allows the beauty of this yarn to stand on its own.  I made two shawls, one for a friend and one for my daughter, from the same 2-ply merino yarn in teal:Knitting this shawl (and other similar garter stitch projects) is almost as good as doing yoga, and the shawl quickly grew and grew.until the triangular body of the shawl was completed and ready to have the lace edging applied—which is another pleasurable knit once you get into the rhythmn of it:

So0n I laid it out on my “Cheap-O” blocking boards (2-  2′ x 4′ pieces of foam insulation purchased for less than $3 each at Home Depot a few years ago):I blocked out the shawl with rustproof t-pins. The slightly ruffly top edge rolls over like a shawl collar, making a graceful simple shawl.  Thanks again, five-fold, at least, Nancy!!

They seemed happy with the finished shawl.  This photo was taken in the atrium of the Vancouver Marketplace which features many art work from the Boulevard Art Gallery.

The sculpture is made from New Zealand limestone.  It’s a lovely piece, appropriate both for indoor and outdoor display.  I can testify, however, that NZ limestone is not as smooth as glass, granite or marble.  I had to almost peel the shawl off (no damage was done, thankfully), but I would advise anyone thinking about photographing a baby mohair, angora, merino & silk laceweight yarn piece, to think twice before putting it on such a piece!!  Still, no damage done, and the shawl is lovely in its simplicity.

The teal Tasha is with my daughtger on the California/Arizona leg of her book tour. As she left, she admired the new one in “lupin” (one of her favorite colors) when it was still on the needles .  I predict that when I next see her, she’ll want to trade the teal for the lupin, and that’ll be fine! I may just get another started with some of my remaining Sandi Spins yarn.  After all, if that plastic container is empty (and it’s getting down there!), I would have an excuse for buying more this fall!

A proud mother’s dream

Since I moved to the Northwest in 1984, Powell’s Bookstore on Burnside in Portland has been a favorite place where I could lose myself for hours.  This Monday night life again became surreal, and I lived out a long held dream by attending a book reading there.  The difference from other book readings was that this time my daughter Rebecca Skloot was the featured writer. After ten long years of work there she was—reading from her NYT bestselling nonfiction book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

A perfect audience packed the house and  included seemingly random people from various times and places in our lives:  Becka’s father and his wife, my husband Terry,  numerous other relatives including our wonderful DIL Renee, good friends who’d been old neighbors, good friends who were current neighbors, friends of family, family of friends, knitting and spinning buddies, Metropolitan Learning Center teachers (who apparently had to see it to believe it–and who also were very proud), Becka’s high school friends, people I’d worked with in four different places between 1976 and 1997, a high school English class from Tillamook, OR,  the local literary crowd and even an old friend (my children’s dear Aunt Jean) who adopted Becka’s first cat when she was in 4th grade (after it became apparent I was highly allergic to many cats, including Sophia, who lived to be 20). Becka so loved Sophia; to this day, I remain grateful that she chose me over the cat! You never know. I was in second row center at the Powell’s reading, trying to relax and focus on the reading by knitting special socks for Jane Pauley! And believe it or not, the reading was done against a backdrop of  handmade quilts by artist Natalie Chanin (author of Alabama Studio Style), scheduled to be at Powell’s the following night. It was all perfect!

At the beginning of the reading, Becka’s very proud father, Floyd, read words he’d written to honor and introduce her.  A Q & A session followed the reading and after that a book signing. Nicholette Hoyer, owner of Stitchcraft in Vancouver, was among those who waited in the long line.

Here is Becka after the book signing with my good friend and current neighbor Cathy and some of Portland’s famous Voodoo donuts.  The mysterious donut appearance was a nice touch–especially since Cathy is a professional pastry chef herself!

Notably absent that evening was Grandpa Bob, my father James Robert Lee, to whose loving memory her book is dedicated. She says: he “treasured books more than anyone I’ve known.” I left feeling flooded with gratitude for everyone and everything in the universe who supported Becka during these past ten years. I am proud of how she acknowledged and thanked the large community of family and friends who were there for her. Grandpa Bob would have been very proud.

I attended another reading on Tuesday at the Oregon Health Sciences University. Again she read from the book, told the story of Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cells and then signed many books:

And to connect this all back to knitters, in addition to being a writer and teacher, Becka is a knitter and animal lover. A story on the  AARP website details how she quickly she took to knitting a few years ago and how it helps center her during this stressful time. The Portland time is just a brief stopover on her months-long book tour. She’s on her way next to Seattle for several readings and then back for another brief visit this weekend before heading south to Eugene and eventually on to California and Arizona.  When I asked if there was anything special she’d like to do in the time she and I have blocked out to be together between now and her heading south, you guessed it!  She said, “let’s go to a yarn shop!!” Atta girl!! Keep things balanced!  I ‘m  doubly proud of her!

Dealing with another UFO

In my last blog I didn’t pledge to “finish” every project I’d ever begun.  Life is full of choices, and knitting should be, too.

Making choices is about deciding what really matters—honing in on the essentials and leaving the rest. When I was an undergraduate English major, I wanted to read every book and learn about everything that remotely interested me.  I had an insatiable appetite for learning. Sometime between then and now, I came to the sobering realization that there would be books I longed to read and experiences I wanted to have that, because of the limitations surrounding any single life, I’d need to forego entirely.  It’s about choosing how to spend time.

Knitting is no different than reading or any of the other human “wants.” I will admire more yarns and patterns than I can ever knit, and I will imagine more designs than I will ever commit to paper. So, this weekend, while on a wonderful knitting weekend in Manzanita on the Oregon coast, I chose to reduce my UFOs by one.  (Note:  Never fear. There aren’t many more, so don’t worry that staying with me on this thread will be the knitting equivalent of the camp song, “100 bottles of beer in the wall, 100 bottles of beer, if one of those bottles should happen to fall, 99 bottles of beer in the wall…” Thankfully, I’ve been working on this for a while and don’t have many UFOs squirreled away. Just a couple more!

I started a lace shawl months ago, loved the Misti Alpaca lace weight yarn, admired the pattern, but never really loved this project once I’d begun it.  The pattern repeat was difficult memorize and even to see, the yarn and the pattern weren’t great together and it wasn’t even very much fun to knit. As with a book I’m not loving,  I’d given it a chance but wouldn’t be finishing it–and there was a time when every book I started had to be finished. I call this difference “progress!”

Unraveling the project and carefully winding the lovely yarn back into the ball so that it could be used another day felt good.  The Oregon coast weather, like that of the rest of the Northwest, doesn’t come with a guarantee. However, this three-day weekend was perfect:  sunny, blue skies, happy people walking on the beach with dogs, yarn shops, friends to knit and laugh with, chocolate and good food.  I had fun finding the right place to bid farewell to this UFO:The fish (it’s the back of a bench with a sense of humor) was happy to help out, posing with the rewound yarn held carefully in her mouth.She seemed to smile, reflecting my own feelings at letting this project go and setting the yarn aside for another day — to use or give away to someone to make something beautiful.  It was a good trade:  happy possibilities instead of a project that was weighing me down!

Completion is a very splendid thing

As soon as I sent the blog yesterday, pledging to complete two nearly-finished Evelyn Clark patterns, I went into a busy beaver routine.  It didn’t take long to finish the “Wildflower Lace Scarf.”  I’d run out of yarn only inches from the end and the edging is “do-as-you-go,” rather than applied at the end.  So, it wasn’t long before I had that baby finished and blocking.   When it was dry enough (although I usually like to leave things blocked out at least overnight), I unpinned it, shook it out and took this photo of it on top of a dark blue t-shirt I had planned to wear during the “Today Show” filming week but didn’t (who knows why?).

I like the way the Transitions yarn works in this type of scarf and made it a bit larger than the pattern specified.

Because I was on a self-imposed deadline, I was rabidly (you saw it correctly; I meant “rabidly” not “rapidly”) finishing the applied lace edging to the “Manzanita Lace Shawl” as the first scarf was drying on the blocking boards.  By the time I unpinned “Wildflower,” “Manzanita” had soaked in no-rinse wool wash and was ready to pin down and block out:

Shawl being blocked on 3- 4x2 pieces of foam insulation

My blocking system is simple and cheap.  I purchased four pieces of foam insulation several years ago at Home Depot (maybe something like $3 each now?) and use three of them to block a large triangle shawl such as “Manzanita.”  I use blocking wires, t-pins and a measuring tape—the latter really gets a work-out because I want to be sure that I’m not blocking it into a strange, asymmetrical shape. Since the electronic cottage, aka our condo, isn’t the largest place in the world, we shipped my beloved round oak table with 5 leaves and many chairs (that I had grown up with) to my daughter in Pittsburgh a few years ago.  In its place we purchased an inexpensive  36″ x 36″ cherry (veneer) table that has 15″ extensions on each end, making a wonderful 66″ long x 36″ wide blocking surface, I mean dining table. It extends often to be a blocking table and infrequently when we host holiday or other meals with more guests than the two of us plus two dogs.  We purchased it at one of those wonderful places—Scan Design, or Dania or Scandia–and it works fine in its multi-purpose role.

First thing this morning, after helping my husband shepherd our elderly dogs outside before feeding them–always a good idea, I quickly removed the t-pins and blocking wires, held up the blocked shawl and breathed a sigh of satisfaction.  I love the shawl, although I’ll probably do with it what I do with 95% of what I knit—give it away to a special person. This afternoon I met friends at a bagel place that generously allows knitters to use a very large, unoccupied space behind a door you have to get very detailed directions to find.  The first time I went there, I missed it altogether.  Linda,  a knitting buddy, modeled “Manzanita” for all of you to see on a real person:I don’t get a kick-back from Evelyn Clark on this pattern (although maybe I should…), but tell my knitting students/ buddies that it’s a great place to begin knitting lace.  Once you get into the swing of the pattern, it becomes clear how most of the pattern rows are either knit or purl rows and occasionally (maybe every 11 rows?) there’s a yarn over, K2tog row–easy to remember with minimal notes.

Yes, this was a very splendid (and cleansing) thing.  And now I move onto another of few remaining UFOs:  some basic leg warmers requested by my niece Darla in Illinois. I leave tomorrow for a weekend knitting retreat with my local guild–the Fort Vancouver Knitting Guild.  The legwarmers will be perfect to work on while we visit!  I’m not promising I’ll have a picture of them posted  by Saturday night because I don’t know whether I’ll have a good internet connection or not.

I’ll face the remaining UFOs when I return.  After all, one of them has been aging for a little more than 10 years and another for something like 8 years–what’s the rush?  Maybe as I’m hiking this weekend inspiration will come to me about how to deal with those two very old UFOs! I’ll show them to you when I get back. It’ll be such a relief to finally come clean about them.

Meltdown in the electronic cottage.

Yes, there’s been a lot of that happening here in our condo after 5+ years. Things have been going belly-up with mystifying regularity.  Remembering words from a Robert Frost poem, “the best way out is always through,” I’ve been working through this, eager to finish so I can get back to my knitting and projects that are calling loudly to be completed.

First to go was the heat pump fan installed in the ceiling.  Things are often not as simple as they first appear.  When it was all over, the final bill included a new fan and the cost of cutting away and replacing a portion of the ceiling (because the pump had initially been installed incorrectly).  Could there actually be a law in nature that prevents costly items from breaking down during warranty periods?

The next to bite the dirt was my all-in-one printer which suddenly produced grinding noises when it should have been printing.  Alas, it was 2-1/2 years old, close to ancient in the world of electronics. After replacing it with a newer, simpler, cheaper model (who needs a fax, anyway?), I experienced a feeling of sweet victory after losing a big one with the heat pump. Shortly thereafter the over-the-oven microwave weighed in with symptoms suspiciously similar to the printer.  And if you’re like me, you, too, wonder if all of the recent earthquakes aren’t somehow related?  Only a few days after the printer was replaced, the microwave began producing noise instead of heat.  The magnetron (think old tv picture tube) was shot, as well as a control panel, which triggered some serious microwave consumer research.  It’s amazing how much information I sifted through trying to make the right microwave decision. A week later, I’m again able to re-heat coffee, defrost breakfast blueberries, make popcorn, enjoy fresh asparagus. and heat up leftovers. It’s not lost on me that I could be in the same situation if I’d limited my information gathering to a few hours…

To celebrate getting back to my real life, my knitting life (or maybe as a cleansing ritual?), I am dealing with my UFOs.  Thankfully, my unfinished projects are few in number.  You may have noticed that I didn’t say I’d finish them—-just deal with them.  It’s a clean slate I’m after! Or maybe this is my version of spring cleaning. Yesterday I finished my son’s late Christmas socks. He likes 4″ ribbing and long legs . These measure 10 inches from cast-on to the beginning of the heel flap.  A lacy-topped version of this pattern (“Rhythm”) appears in the new edition of my book “Knit Socks!” which will be available from Storey Press in September.

Next to be completed are two very close-to-being-finished lace projects.  The first is “Manzanita,” a triangle shawl pattern by Evelyn Clark.  I had just started applying the lace edging when I put this down in July. This is the third time I’ve made this pattern from Fleece Artist Suri Blue yarn. The pattern is easy enough for relaxing social knitting. Note: the color is more yellow-green than the yellow that shows up here on my monitor.

The second is “Wildflower Lace Scarf,” also by Evelyn Clark and knit from Gypsy Girl Creations “Transitions,” yarn in “viola bouquet” color. The hand-dyed colors move from an intense sapphire blue at one end of the skein morphing into a brassy gold and then to a buttery natural at the other end.  It’d be fun to use both ends of a 50 gram skein to makeslip stitch patterned gloves or socks.  I was on a roll knitting this side-to-side garter stitch scarf over the course of a few days in early March when I confirmed (a few inches from the end) that I needed to order more yarn to finish it.

If I keep on track, I should be able to finish both projects tonight or tomorrow.  It’s good to be back tending to my knitting!

It’s never too late for holiday gifts

I grew up in a last-minute family.  Because church didn’t start until 11 am, my mother rarely left the house before 10:50 am, even when she was the choir director, because “we live so close–it just takes a minute to get there.”  When friends and relatives were invited over for dinner or for a weekend visit, cleaning up the house began in earnest only when one of us stationed at a window saw THE CAR coming down the street toward

Betsy, Dick & Baby David

our house and sounded the alarm.  Before children, my mother had taught Home Ec and had an idea about what houses should look like when company came.  I participated in the last minute frenzy to stuff newspapers under the couch, put piles of things down on the basement steps, and gather up random things that didn’t belong where they were and hide them in drawers.

It was years later that I really understood all this.  My mother enjoyed entertaining and doing for others.  She loved to cook and bake favorite dishes, especially elaborate desserts. However, she didn’t participate much in mundane activities required to keep things organized.  She

Mom playing piano

preferred playing the piano, embroidering towels, crocheting edges for delicate linen handkerchiefs, trying out yet one more new souffle recipe, making candles, quilting a gift for a new baby and even mending socks and worn-out clothes.

It wouldn’t have been Christmas Eve at our house if Mother hadn’t been up until almost morning with the sewing machine humming.  Occasionally the doll clothes or special gifts didn’t get finished, and we unwrapped packages from “Mrs. Santa Claus” that contained partially completed projects and a note asking that we give the whole box back to our mother so that she could get it back to Mrs. Santa Claus.  She’d usually had some problem between Thanksgiving and Christmas that set her back a bit.

We were conditioned to receiving these sorts of messages and grew up understanding about how difficult it was for Mrs. Santa Claus to do everything.  After all, wasn’t she a woman, and isn’t a woman’s work never done?  I bet you think I’m going to seque into telling you about how I was, therefore, so conditioned from an early age to this sort of thing that not getting all the gifts made before the holidays is not really a character defect…..It was, rather, learned behavior.

Well, surprise, surprise.  I loved my parents but did not love being late, although for years I followed their same script.  Then somewhere between late childhood and now I realized that I could start making (that is, knitting) my gifts way ahead of time, like even in January.  And I learned that there was no law forbidding the gradual making of holiday gifts, spreading them out through the entire year, up to the holiday itself.  The last minute rush was not mandatory or necessarily desirable.  And so I had tried to live my life this way—especially when I got it back after leaving healthcare to knit seriously full time.

This isn’t to suggest that neither of my children ever opened a wrapped gift box to find either needles, yarn and a pattern or a partially completed item.  It did happen several times, but it wasn’t my regular practice and plan.

So, it is with some chagrin that I am now working to finish my son’s holiday stockings.  They were in the queue and cast on so that they could have been completed in time.  However, the whole plan went awry on Thanksgiving Day.  We had just enjoyed a wonderful turkey dinner and were all sitting around on comfortable living room furniture in an L-tryptophan-induced blissful state (or whatever comes from enjoying lots of turkey).  Imagine my horror to see, when my son put his feet up on an ottoman, gaping holes in the bottoms of both his socks—-and yes, they were (like most of his others) ones that had been made for him by his mother!

He looked very chagrinned when I said something subtle like, “OMIGOD, the bottoms of your socks are gone!”  After all, he’d only worn them about 7 years.  Smart son that he is, he quickly said, “these are my favorite socks, I’ve worn them every week since you made them for me and I didn’t want to part with them,” which is what I think he thought would have happened had he told me about this obvious problem sooner.  Well, was my heart warmed by his love of these socks that I had made with mee own lyttle hands?  It told him that I’d fix them and have them back to him before Christmas.  He was so moved at my offer that he went into his bedroom and presented me with another “favorite” pair that looked like they had been worn in the Chicago Marathon in lieu of running shoes.  I felt even more choked up about his also having so lovingly saved these socks and said that I’d fix them right up, too, before the holidays.

What was I thinking of???  He is over 6 feet and his feet are not small—plus he has a small mountain of socks that I’ve knit over the years which I’ve occasionally seen when visiting after a BIG LAUNDRY–the reason for which I’ve never inquired.  I dug through my leftover yarn and stash and found some matching yarn to make two new feet for one pair—-it took a while, but they looked fine.  An untrained eye (not any of yours, however) would not have been able to distinguish the new feet from the old heels and legs. Whew. On to pair #2 which was unfortunately made from discontinued yarn, and I had none leftover in the large sock leftovers basket that I stuff under a settee in my living room.  Ravelry to the rescue!!  I actually found two skeins of the yarn in the stash of a very wonderful Canadian woman who agreed to sell them to me and even to mail them right away to my brother’s house in Illinois where I headed for my mother’s memorial service.

I don’t mean this to be disrespectful and actually believe my mother would have been strongly approving of my doing this while visiting with the relatives, while pausing a few minutes from helping my brothers with various details afterwards and on the return trip home.  She was the embodiment of practicality and also so loved things handmade.

The holidays came about two weeks later, and I presented my son with a holiday check and two old pairs of socks with four new feet.  He seemed pleased.  All my other gifts were completed on time, including these

Mom's Mitts

fingerless mitts I made for my mother that I never got to give to her.  Still it bothered me that I hadn’t finished the new holiday socks I intended to make for my son.  So, after all the dust from the AARP tv segment chapter cleared away, I began knitting them and knitting them…a few days ago, here’s

Late holiday 2009 socks

what they looked like.  I worked each one on two circular needles, sequentially, the ribbing on one, the ribbing on the other, the leg on one, the leg on the other….They are bigger than they look:  10″ from cast on to beginning of heel flap.

Right now I’m working on the gusset decreases on the second sock and estimate that by tomorrow night, if I keep pushing, I’ll have the pair finished….and, therefore, be able to close the Holiday 2009 chapter.  Who says knitters aren’t a wee bit compulsive???  I could have just waited to give these to him for some other special event, but they are his holiday 2009 socks and he will have them before this weekend!

A nice sock yardage surprise

Since the last blog, I taught a 6-hour beginning sock workshop and completed the final review of the manuscript for the revised “Knit Socks!”  I’m glad the book is finished and very pleased with it. Before it’s published in September 2010, I’ll preview a pattern or two.

The brightly striped socks I’ve been knitting on and off (mainly off) for a few weeks somehow got finished.  My husband Terry is smiling in anticipation of their being added to his handknit sock collection. He was very supportive of all the comings and goings of the tv crew and took the disruptions in stride. He was called upon to do a number of  above and beyond things, such as walking our dogs in their sweaters (with him in his winter coat) on a warm day.  He’s more than earned the socks, but I’m not sure how I will repay the dogs as they don’t seem to be angling for another set of matching sweaters.

Here are the socks on the owner’s feet, and as you can see, they fit.  I’ve had lots of practice making socks for Terry, so it would have been a bad surprise if they hadn’t. I cast 72 stitches onto size US 1 needles, made a plain stockinette stitch leg with the distance from the cast on to the beginning of the heel flap being 8 inches. The heel flap is 2-3/4″ long, and the length of the finished foot is 11 inches.

This Kristin Nicholas’ designed sock yarn has great yardage; the label states 459 yards (420 meters) in a 100 gram ball.  I try to remember to weigh and record the weight of the ball before beginning any sock, as well as weighing thefinished socks and any leftovers  afterwards. I then record (in my little black book) how many yards I used to make the socks.  As you can see, the 100 gram Nashua sock yarn skein that I had was very generous, weighing 105 grams (which means that there were 23 extra yards of yarn), for a total of 482 yards.  For most women’s socks this wouldn’t matter, because a pair is easily knit from a 100 gram ball with some left over.However, if I weigh what should be a 100 gram skein only to find out it’s 96 grams, I’m very careful about how large the socks are going to be.  Or I may tentatively plan to make the toes and/or heels a different color if I’m making socks for a man or woman with larger feet.

While Nashua’s yardage was overly generous this time, this isn’t the case with all yarns and probably isn’t with all balls of that yarn either. So, I will continue weighing rather than assuming because what you see isn’t always what you get with yarn.