Monday, May 31, 2010

Sheep and Wool and Yarn - Oh My!

This is Hope, a really lovely shetland sheep that, along with her very polite and poised young 4-H owner, I had the pleasure of meeting this weekend at the Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Festival. And, let me just say, if you had told me ten years ago I would ever attend such an event, let alone find myself fawning over a SHEEP, I would have been appalled at the very idea. I would have thought it was a terribly old-lady sort of thing to do.

As I've discovered though, middle age has this way of sneaking up on you, so on Saturday I donned my hot pink Keds and piled into my friend Heather's car for a trek across the state to see some sheep and buy some yarn. And a grand time was had, although let me just say: those venturing to the western part of the state should really visit your local ATM first, because they are few and far between out there. I learned a little about sheep, including the fact that there are many different breeds, and that some of them can be the size of a pony. I also learned that trying to not step in sheep poo at a sheep festival is just a lost cause; I was glad I left the flip-flops at home. And I was beyond impressed with the 4-H kids, all of whom seemed to be so smart and responsible and took such wonderful care of their animals. Mostly, though, I was overwhelmed with all that these animals give us. I don't mean to get maudlin, but really: between their milk and their hair, not to mention their general cuteness, these animals give us so much that it's hard to believe there isn't some grand plan in place.

But you are here for the yarn, and let me just say: there was a lot of it! My favorite thing about this festival was the number of small yarn producers, many of whom use locally-produced wool and natural dyes and turn out impossibly wonderful products. Here's what came home with me:

1. Sock yarn from Sliver Moon Farm. Normally I'm not a big fan of green yarn, but for some strange reason this colorway grabbed my attention right off the bat. It's called "It's For Me", and as I was paying the lady exclaimed, "That's Lori's yarn! She dyed that!" I laughed and said, "My name is Lori", and she replied, "Well, I guess that yarn really is for you then!" Like I said, there's some grand plan afoot.

2. Sylvan Spirit yarn from Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont. What's not to love about this company!? They are a worker-owned cooperative, use locally sourced materials, and they were also incredibly nice. This particular yarn is a blend of wool and Tencel, which is a cellulose fiber made from wool pulp. It's similar to bamboo, but gives the yarn a silk-like pearly sheen, plus as the guy at the booth pointed out, in Vermont wood pulp is a more sustainable commodity than bamboo. I was glad I grabbed these when I did; as I was paying several women swooped in and started oooh'ing and ahh'ing over it:

3. Finally, a merino/silk blend from the Biltmore Wool Barn in Brewster, MA (I'm not finding a website for them). I had a really hard time choosing a colorway - there were so many fabulous ones! This photo doesn't do the deep teals and blues much justice - but trust me, it's really, really beautiful.

Besides the sheep and yarn, there were so many beautiful artisans selling things like felted wool scarves, sweaters, rugs, and soaps (Sleepy Moon soaps were my favorite of the day). An impressive 12-year old showed me how she spins, and another older woman gave us a tutorial on making wool rugs. The most startling thing for me though was that, as someone who tends to the solitary and, when pressed, tends to spend time with people who don't understand why anyone would spend good money on string, it was beyond weird (in a good way!) to be surrounded by so many other people who "got it". I had just said to Heather, "God, I just want to go home and MAKE stuff now!" when a few minutes later a stranger turned to us and said exactly the same thing. Ah, kindred spirits.

Ice cream and a brief walk around the fabulous Northampton downtown at dusk was a great ending to the day. Plans for Rhinebeck in the fall are afoot...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Once upon a time, one of my (now ex) boyfriends wondered why on earth I was cutting up perfectly good fabric, just to sew it up again. Completely bewildered that someone would question the concept of patchwork, I spluttered out a treatise on whole-cloth quilts, resulting in a completely blank stare from the boyfriend. In retrospect, that exchange should have been a huge tip-off that relationship was going nowhere.

I have many hobbies, but I must say that sewing patchwork has to be my favorite pastime. I love that moment when, after finally deciding on what to do with a lovely stack of fabric, I turn on music and sit down to start cutting. Next, I head to the sewing machine and chain piece for a bit, and then there’s a quick stop at the iron. Sometimes there’s a trim with the rotary cutter and ruler before I’m back at the machine, sometimes not. Soon, things start to take shape! While the gratification isn’t immediate, it’s a lot faster than when I knit: I can spend two hours sewing and finish off a bunch of squares. I can spend the same amount of time knitting and have two inches to show for my work. But more than that, when I’m sewing I get into this…well, zone, if you will. Totally absorbed, so much so that I often forget to eat (which for me is saying something). Alone with my music and fabric for an afternoon, I am completely blissed out. Even the occasional curse-like-a-sailor moment when the sewing machine stops cooperating doesn’t seem to darken my mood.

So after finishing the hand quilting on the yellow monster, I rewarded myself with a couple of patchwork sessions. First, I whipped up a small crib quilt top using a 40-square charm pack I bought at one of my local fabric stores (this particular one is from a Westminster Fabrics collection). I am here to tell all the marketing people at fabric companies: keep those charm packs coming, because I am indeed a sucker for them. For one thing, charm packs are a cheap and quick way to try out a fabric line, and I wind up using fabrics that I would never choose on my own. They are also good to mix in with leftover patchwork from my own stash, or even to use up stash for borders and backing. In this case, however, after piecingthe squares I marched right back to the fabric store and found one of the charm prints for the border, along with a bit of some fairly shocking solid pink. It’s an experiment, for sure, but I think it works. I added a white folded border that, with the surrounding pastels, kind of tones it down a bit.

Next, I started a new baby quilt. I am a huge fan of Anna Maria Horner’s blog (I am a sucker for pretty people with pretty children who make pretty things) and have been eyeing her fabrics for a very long time. I was REALLY excited to make this quilt, but about halfway through I realized that I had chosen the wrong pattern for the fabric. On the one hand, using a larger scale print for small squares is interesting, because each square becomes unique as only a part of the design is captured. However, in this case, the brown print didn’t give me quite enough of the graphic contrast I thought it would.

I finished the top anyway, and while it’s not entirely my cup of tea it turned out better than I thought it would…a little Victorian, maybe? I want to make another one using a 9-patch square instead of a 20-patch; I think that would do better justice to the fabric.

And, of course, my faithful companion Wilbert was right there with me:

Wilbert and I are heading into our last month together; my sister and her family return home at the end of June and he gets to go back to live in a big house filled with children. I’m glad for him because I really think he gets lonely while I’m gone all day at work. I’m also glad for me because it means I will no longer be woken up at 5 am to watch him eat, or have to clean cat hair out of the tub every time I want to take a bath, or remember to not sit on the couch while wearing black pants. Mostly, though, I’m kind of sad, as it’s nice to come home to something that is happy to see me – if only because he can’t feed himself or dole out his own catnip. Plus, I’ve had him for 2 years now so even though he’s not technically my cat, he sort of feels like my cat -- I’m sure those of you with pets will understand! But assuming all goes well - he adjusts to his old surroundings and my nephew's allergies don't flare up - I'll head over to the animal shelter and find a new kitty. Possibly one without hair.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Brief Detour: Louis and Serena

Every day my commuter train passes by a small pond that, for at least the past two springs, has been home to two swans that come to nest in the reeds. Their first appearance took me by surprise; I honestly didn’t know there were wild swans in New England, and I am used to seeing only captive swans in zoos and parks. Apparently, though, these swans (in all likelihood mute swans) were granted federal protection several years ago and have begun breeding inland. They are considered an invasive species by some, as they are non-native, and they are also apparently quite territorial and can not only displace other (native) birds, but destroy vegetation in the ecosystem.

Learning this made me sad, because it’s hard to imagine how anything so lovely could actually be a pest. I have to confess that, like many people, I feel a certain amount of romanticism about swans, not the least of which because they often mate for life and are doting parents. Anyone who ever read “Trumpet of the Swan” by E.B. White can probably relate; the story of Louis’s father stealing the trumpet, and then Louis trying to win over Serena undoes me every time I read it. This was one of my favorite books as a child, loved even more than Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. In tribute to E.B., I mentally christened the pond swans Louis and Serena the Second. (What can I say, it’s a really long train ride.)

A few months ago Louis and Serena returned from their winter vacation. For about a month now, on both my morning and evening commutes, I’ve caught glimpses of one of them sitting on the nest while the other was out on the water; for quite some time I wondered if the swan tending the eggs had moved at all overnight (apparently swans share incubating duty, so I can’t assume it was Serena). Sitting on those eggs all that time seemed like such a pure act of faith to me, not to mention dogged determination --especially on those days that it was raining so hard it hurt. I know any biologist would tell me it is simply propagation of the species, but it’s still kind of inspiring nonetheless.

This week the birds disappeared; I couldn’t see them anywhere, the nest was empty and there was no sight of them on the pond. I was worried something had happened and they had left, or worse, become something’s dinner. Finally, this morning, I saw both on the water with what looked like three fluffy gray cygnets gliding along between them. Woo-hoo! Triumph! I wanted to cheer, but settled for a quiet chuckle to myself.

This post deserves photos, but the train travels too fast to be able to take a decent picture, and I cannot figure out how to get to the pond from the road. Plus, let me tell you: these birds are BIG and I’m not sure getting too close is such a great idea. However, Google Images to the rescue: I cribbed this one posted here, because it’s pretty much what I saw this morning.

Photo Credit: Emily Eaton, Shrewsbury MA / Bird Watchers Digest

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Scenes from a Sunday Morning

Three years, three states, and five homes later, I was gunning for the finish line this morning, complete with my faithful companion/hair shedder by my side:

And finally, after much french vanilla coffee, a croissant dabbed with Nutella, and many, many repeats of Courtyard Hounds (excellent!), voila:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Return of the String

Alas, despite the best of intentions I got nothing done last week. I am *almost* finished with my yellow quilt, though, so that’s something. As I suspected, it needed a heavily-quilted border and it took a bit of strategizing before I was able to find a quilt stencil design that would work. I’m hoping to wrap it up this weekend.

In the meantime, I started a new knitting project. I took a day trip to NYC last Thursday via Amtrak (my new favorite mode of transportation!). I knew that I would want/need a portable knitting project to pass the time, so I grabbed some Noro sock yarn from my stash, a set of dpn’s, and the book “Favorite Socks” from Interweave. I decided to try the “Waving Lace Socks” pattern featured on the cover, despite the fact that I had different yarn than what was recommended as well as different size needles. As it turned out, it was a happy accident – given the occasionally chunky nature of the Noro, a smaller needle would have resulted in a very tight sock. I’m still on the fence about the stripy nature of the yarn vs. the pattern – perhaps not the best combination, but I’m proceeding anyway. Also, I did sort of screw up the first pattern repeat, but I’m being lazy and not fixing it. I am not one to let perfection get in the way of a new pair of socks!

A word (well, several words) about this yarn: In the past, Noro has not been my friend. I suffered through knitting my striped Noro scarf and a set of mittens, grumpily picking out twigs and leaves from the yarn as I went along. I also discovered half-way through the skeins that the yarn had been joined and knotted, interrupting the color scheme flow and annoying me to no end. However, I am happy to report that I’m finding the sock yarn much better – thus far no vegetable matter and no weird color interruptions. It still feels a bit like knitting with hay, but I know that after a wash the yarn will bloom and be much softer. And I really do love the colors – it looked like just a skein of purple and green, but I’m finding lovely blues, grays, and a bit of black buried in the middle. I also love how the yarn is chunkier in spots, giving the fabric a bit of texture here and there. I'm very interested to see how the sock yarn wears over time; my Noro scarf has held up quite well, but the mittens I made just barely made it through the winter!

Monday, May 3, 2010

In The Home Stretch

A much-needed week off from work, in which I have grand plans to Finish Something, and then later this week a trek to visit the new Purl. First on the finish list is this quilt, which I started piecing three years ago while I was still living up in Maine. I've blogged about this before - I decided to hand quilt each triangle, and while I love the results, it took FOREVER. So, I am very eager to finish this - I just have the outer border to do and then I can bind it. It's destined to hang on my living room wall until I finish quilting another project (in other words, the next three years). I'm not sure about how to quilt the outside border, though. I'm tempted to keep it simple so I can finish it, but the rest of the quilt is so heavily quilted I'm afraid that it will look weird if I don't finish the border with a bang.

A note about hand quilting: Anna Maria Horner has a great explanation/tutorial of hand quilting here, and it's essentially how I roll, except I use a hard plastic embroidery hoop and definitely strive for tiny, even stitches (as opposed to larger, more folk-y stitching). Personally, I need a pretty tight surface to work on, and this hoop does the trick. I think if you look carefully at the photo below you can see some of the quilt stitching. I generally use 100% cotton quilting thread, but frankly I care more about the color, and have been know to use any thread that I have that matches.

I use a thimble given to me by my grandmother, who was an avid quilter, except she believed in tying quilts rather than quilting. In fact, she gave me the thimble because she never used it, and I've used it exclusively since I started quilting ~15 years ago. Frankly, it's nothing short of a miracle I haven't lost it, given all of my moving (Maine, Massachusetts, Memphis, Maine, NYC, Massachusetts). I've tied a few quilts myself, most recently with the purple quilts I made my nieces, and it certainly is quicker, but I much prefer heavy quilting. I would really love to learn how to machine quilt, but despite having a decent sewing machine with all the necessary accoutrements, I cannot get the hang of it.

Finally, I give you reason #1 I don't buy flowers very often:

If it's not obvious, he's eating the iris leaves. Stinker. (I know, many plants are toxic to cats, but I've been keeping an eye on him and he seems just fine.) The flowers are now high on a bathroom shelf, and the cat is sitting on the floor contemplating how to jump straight up 5 feet. Luckily it's a narrow bathroom and he can't back up quiiiite enough to make it. Believe me, he's tried.