comfort knitting

P1200988The relentless cold has driven me back to my needles. I think I’ve had a scarf of some description wrapped around my neck since the middle of October. I’m a bit sick of it now; fed up with both the cold and my scarves. Time for something new: a cowl, in the same yarn I used for this, and which I think will go with almost everything I own.

I found the pattern at Loisaida Nest, and I followed it with one slight modification: I cast on an 82 stitches rather than 72 and then, once I’d finished the first ball of yarn, I decreased by ten stitches, knitting two together at random within the second round of the new ball of wool. Oh, and I used 6mm needles as I couldn’t find my 5.5mm.

NB I really enjoy Ileana’s blog, Loisaida Nest, for many reasons, but particularly for her photos, such as these which were taken at her local open air pool last summer.

knitting and nanowrimo

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So, Nanowrimo is over. And, sad to say, I not only failed to make the official finishing line, but I also collapsed long before I reached my own finishing line (25,000 words).

I was on track for a full eight days during which I managed to hammer out 12,000 words. But then my mini-Nano was derailed by a deadline which was suddenly brought forward from January to November. Work, of the paid variety, always has to come first. And fortunately it was a nice feature to write – it’s about two very interesting people and it will be accompanied by some lovely photographs taken by my friend James.

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Although the writing didn’t go entirely to plan I did get a lot of knitting done. I find that simple knitting – of the hats, fingerless mittens and socks variety – is very conducive to the sort of free-form thinking that creative writing requires. Round and round I knit, and round and round my thoughts go. I always have a notebook to hand and ideas pop into my mind effortlessly; so different from the paralysis I experience when staring at a blank screen.

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It works with articles too. There is always a point when whatever I am writing about becomes far more complicated than it needs to be. A cup of coffee and a bit of knitting, and the tangle I am in with my writing has miraculously unravelled.

The hats, from top to bottom are Snawheid by Kate Davies (pom pom yet to be attached), Julia’s Cabled Headband by Paulina Chin and finally my first, and not entirely successful, attempt at making a hat without a pattern. I also managed to make several pairs of fingerless mittens using this excellent pattern by Leslie Friend, though I am now keen to have a go at two other fingerless, wrist-warmery, stash-busting patterns, both of which I’ve had sitting on my desk for months now: Susie’s Reading Mitts by Susie Rogers and Runrig Muffatees by Annie Cholewa, aka Knitsofacto, who is currently running a very lovely knitting-related giveaway.

more mucklestone mitts

I made these fingerless mittens way back in January when Mary Jane Mucklestone released the pattern as a New Year’s gift to her readers. They were my second pair, and my second attempt at Fair Isle. Bea claimed them as hers the minute they were finished, and has worn them so much since then that, beyond a hasty pic taken for my Ravelry page, I haven’t really had a chance to photograph them properly. But last week I found them on the kitchen table, and although they look a bit ragged here and there, I decided to photograph them before the inevitable happens and she loses them at school.

Back in January I promised Matilda and Martha that they would both get a pair of mitts too. It’s nearly April, and they are still waiting. This is partly because, in my excitement at having mastered (I use the term in its most elastic sense) Fair Isle, I decided to make a jumper with a Fair isle design around the hem for Martha – no photo as yet, because she can’t remember where she last took it off (aarrgghhh!).

Anyway, having long been daunted by the technical side of Fair Isle knitting, it was Mary Jane’s pattern that prompted me to have a go, and her wonderful book, 200 Fair Isle Motifs, completely demystified the process for me. She has knitted swatches of every one of these motifs and provided charts for her swatches as well as charts for alternative colour combinations. The book leads the reader from the simplest to the most complex pattern, explaining how they might be used in combination along the way.

So more Mucklestone Mitts are on my to do list for the Easter Holidays, though the thought of starting a pair of mittens, even fingerless ones, in the middle of the mini-heatwave we’re currently enjoying seems slightly mad. But then again it’ll probably be freezing by this time next week.

But right now, sunshine, children and the garden are calling me, so the knitting can wait.

quick knits

This morning my neighbour took the girls to school for me, in fact she’s done this a couple of times this week, and the difference it makes having an extra half hour or so first thing is quite remarkable. I seem to be able to achieve a day’s-worth of domestic drudge during that time, and it actually feels as though the length of my day has increased by far more than thirty minutes. Could it be something to do with the space-time continuum, I wonder? I enjoyed watching artist and critic, Matt Collings, struggling with the space-time continuum a couple of weeks ago on BBC 4′s Beautiful Equations, and it occurred to me that on the mornings when I don’t have to do the school run I certainly move around the house faster than I usually do. Obviously I’m not moving at the speed of light, but as I rush about that awful Benny Hill music always comes on in my head, and I imagine that I must be at least slightly blurred.

Anyway, superhuman or not, I am managing to get a lot done – clutter has been cleared, both literally and figuratively, and the elastic state of time in our house has also allowed a little knitting to creep into the day, alongside the reading breaks. I’ve made two nice little scarfy things for the girls – not too long and easily tucked into the neck of a coat – which were quick and fun, although both need buttons to complete them. Far more exciting, however, are these fingerless mittens, designed by Mary Jane Mucklestone (free to download from her blog), which are zipping along nicely even though I have never knitted Fair Isle before. I think these are probably the ideal beginner’s project, and I am hoping that I’ll have them finished in time for the weekend, when apparently the cold weather is set to kick in, and I’ve got lots of fiddly jobs to do in the garden.

pool-side knitting

For the first two weeks of the holiday the girls go to swim school every day. We have established a little routine: they swim round and round with varying degrees of enthusiasm, whilst I sit on a hot and humid balcony watching their progress. And as they swim, I knit. Round and round. One sock down, No. 2 is on the needles. And as with my plant labels, I’ve managed to lose the yarn details – ball band filed in the bin probably.

finished

School is over for this year. And what a relief it is to have a six week break from my life as a human sheep dog: herding reluctant children up the hill to school each morning, and herding grumpy ones back down again at the end of the day.

Today, the first day of the holidays, still involved herding children though, but this time two dogs were doing all the leg work. My friend Nicky and I took our children and dogs geocaching. We ambled along at a leisurely pace in the light drizzle that characterises the British summer, whilst the children walked twice the distance, skittering back and forth between us and the dogs. Armed with an iPhone and accompanied by our team of enthusiastic helpers we began to feel the first stirrings of happy nerdiness. We felt that the purchase of many-pocketed anoraks might only be days away – ones with special places for keeping maps visible but dry.

By following various clues and coordinates we found a mosaic -

and a pet cemetery -

But no “camouflaged box the size of three 35mm film cases.” Three hours later the helpers started to mutiny. Cries of “mum this is getting quite boring now”, and “are we ever going home?” rang through the air. All thoughts of Gortex anoraks were quickly forgotten and our quest abandoned in favour of digging up treasure of another sort down at the allotment.

The joy of turning over a clod of earth to reveal a pale gold potato never diminishes; today it was enhanced by our earlier failure. The potato bed is empty now, though there are no doubt a few spuds lodging there still – the children may be energetic potato diggers, but they are not very systematic.

So school is finished, the potato bed is finished, and last night two nice knitting projects were finished as well, though both still need a little finishing, which is what I’ll do now.

Both hat and spotty bag are from Jane Brocket’s book The Gentle Art of Knitting, which has kept me happily occupied during recent revision avoidance, passport office loitering and other moments when the merry-go-round that is the end of term has slowed for a moment or two.

And just a final thought on geocaching: though our first geocache was an abject failure, it was good fun, totally free and kept everyone entertained for several hours. Nicky and I have vowed to do it again, but with a compass and a slightly better understanding of what the various bits of orienteering lingo actually mean.

creative ways with revision

Whilst I know knitting* could never count as RHS revision (even though I was knitting flowers and leaves), I did watch five episodes of Gardener’s World back-to-back on i-player at the same time. I then managed half an episode of Timothy Walker’s brilliant botany series, Botany: A Blooming History, happy in the knowledge that it was definitely revision. The i-player, however, didn’t agree and cut out. No amount of re-booting, plug agitating or swearing could get it to restart. I’ll try again tonight and see if I can get through episode two as well, which is all about photosynthesis. None of this is directly relevant to the exams I am sitting next week, but it’s botany and it’s fascinating, and better than going mad with frustration at my inability to concentrate on the finer details of planting plans for hanging baskets.

My alternative approach to my revision also included a wonderful afternoon down at the allotment. A sorry looking potato plant was accidentally lifted by a keen novice weeder (Joe) and treasure was found lurking in the soil below. In the end we decided to take out a second plant at the same end of the potato bed to make space for the runner beans. Although hidden in forests of weeds – my books have made me neglectful – the garlic is doing surprisingly well, and certainly looked better once it had come into focus again after a good half an hour’s weeding. The same was true of courgettes and sprouts. I sowed some beetroot seed, aware that I was not really doing any of this by the book, but rather in the way that I’ve done it in the past, which is by eye, and plenty of fudging.

And this sideways approach to revising continues this afternoon. Once I’ve drawn up a plan of planting times, latin names and rotations, I will head out to what must be the craziest garden centre in the world (to be written about soon), to buy some plants from the Hairy Pot company (ditto). I’ll also pick up an old tin bath that I spotted in a junk shop, and get to work on combing the plants and bath whilst memorising plant names.

* This tea cosy is from Jane Brocket’s “Gentle Art of Knitting”, the flowers and leaves are from an Usborne children’s knitting book, “How To Knit”.

jess quinn

Quirky, disturbing, beautiful, strange, exquisite – take your pick – it’s hard to settle on the one adjective that best describes Jess Quinn’s work. Impossible too, to categorise; are her creations toys or sculptures, fine art or craft? Or all of the above?

Having trained as a painter, studying fine art at Glasgow, Jess returned to Bristol with only the vaguest idea of where her work might lead. Her career took a familiar turn at this point, stalling after the birth of her first child. But she channelled her creativity into drawing, knitting and sewing, primarily for her growing family.

I first met Jess five years ago, around the time when she was thinking about going into business selling bespoke children’s knitwear. Her children’s hats were the envy of the playground – fabulous creations including a crown complete with knitted cabouchons and ermine, and a monster hat writhing with tentacles.

But as any knitter knows, it’s hard to make the cost of labour and materials add up when the highstreet is awash with £10 tams in myriad colours. Added to which, Jess knits intuitively, sculpturally, feeling her way with the yarn, rather than working up a pattern. Each creation was worked afresh, so making a living through selling the patterns was never really an option. “Besides,” she explains, “knitting these things didn’t really allow me to go where I wanted to with my work.”

Two years ago, the painful separation from her partner of many years proved an unlikely catalyst for a change of direction in her work. She started drawing in earnest and this unleashed a curious cavalcade of dancers, clowns, acrobats and circus performers. These drawings, although works of art in their own right, are the jumping off points for her sculptures, as is her huge collection of textiles. “Materials suggest certain characters, and I like discovering what will happen with each individual piece. They are like storybook characters, I suppose.”

Each creation is brought to life over the course of many weeks. “I find that I become completely lost in the pleasure of the process,” she says, “I work on each piece as though it were a painting, and they simply grow.” Sometimes, she admits, she’s not entirely sure where and when to stop. Like Paula Rego, whose work is certainly an influence, there is always a strong sense of narrative to her creations, and this is something that she is keen to explore further by setting her characters in stage-sets, boxes and glass domes.

But Jess is aware that her work falls into uncharted territory, and to that end she has started to develop a few slightly more commercial strands to her work such as stationery, fabric designs and jewellery, all of which feature her fantastical characters. She has recently re-stocked her Etsy shop, and to celebrate its relaunch she is running a giveaway which you can enter by visiting her blog. Leave a comment by Friday 3rd June and you could win a brooch like the ones below. The brooches are made with hand-stitched felt, each one with a unique combination of colours, stitching and in some cases, ribbon. She calls them her Small Art collection, and it’s true, each brooch is a tiny work of art.

a hat, a cuff and a mystery message

At last! A child agreed to model my slouchy grey hat. The pattern is from Jane Brocket’s lovely new book, The Gentle Art of Knitting, and despite their reluctance in front of the camera, all three girls are very taken with it, and have placed orders. I made only two small modifications because our heads are small in this family (bears with very little brain and all that). I cast on with smaller needles for the ribbing, and omitted the final repeat before shaping the crown.

Yesterday, whilst on our morning walk, Sybil and I stumbled upon this rather charming railing cuff. Someone somewhere has a very nice stash, which they are kindly sharing with the neighbourhood. There are more wonderful creations over at Gai’s blog, all in South Bristol, I think.

And finally, the mystery message. The girls and I came across the message above, at 8.30 this morning. At first I thought we were looking at the traces of a date gone wrong: someone had arrived late, or someone had failed so show. But it rained last night, and the message, had it been written then, would have been washed away. It was fresh. It occurred to me that if I walked fast enough I could get the girls to school and be back in time to see the writer return at 9.30. A bit creepy, I know, but this little chalk message was very intriguing. How was it that the message-writer had a piece of chalk to hand – a pen, I can understand, or a pencil, but chalk? Also, does it say, “Check your phone and I will come again at 9.30. let me know,” or “check your phone and let me know, I will come again at 9.30″ The latter I think, but does it make any difference?

This occupied our thoughts all the way to school. Who was the writer? A child maybe? Or a teacher? Teachers use chalk we reasoned, they might carry it with them. Though we then agreed that teachers don’t really use chalk any more. I didn’t make the 9.30 deadline, and this afternoon the message had gone, washed away by the rain.

P.S. I wrote and posted this very late last night, so it should really have yesterday’s date on it, so where I say “this morning”, it’s not actually today that I’m referring to, if you see what I mean. I only say this because, this morning, today, the 24th, I noticed that the message was in fact still there. It seems that the blue of the chalk was invisible against the wet pavement – all of which discounts my theory about it having been freshly written yesterday morning. I’ll stop now as this is all getting far too confusing. 

the gentle art of knitting

I’ve been feeling a bit lost on the knitting-front recently. Despite many afternoons spent trawling through the patterns on Ravelry, I haven’t found anything that I really want to make. But it would seem that knitting patterns are rather like buses: you wait for ages and ages, losing heart and then, just as you are about to give up, suddenly three or four rumble into view (or at least that’s how it was with both the 37 and the 137).

On Friday morning, when I was up to my elbows in mud, Jane Brocket’s latest book, The Gentle Art of Knitting, arrived and suddenly I had at least five things I wanted to make, one of which is already on the needles. Other projects now in my queue include a lovely slouchy jumper, a really pretty little bag (Matilda’s birthday is looming), a group of tea cosies (possible presents for relatives and friends), and a squishy cable blanket. There is also a fun bunting pattern which I think the girls might like to have a go at – they can just about knit, but need constant assistance.

As with Jane Brocket’s book on quilting, each project starts with a short essay on the way the idea evolved followed by notes on yarns, colour choices and the ways in which the pattern might be adapted. And these musings on yarn, design and the pleasure of the craft itself are what give the book a freshness and charm that sets it apart from many other knitting books (and I have quite a collection). Each pattern comes with a variation: five scarves in double moss stitch that, should you wish, can be sewn together to create a fabulous patchwork blanket; a basic hat pattern that can be worked a couple of ways and a tea cosy that can also be knitted up as a hat.

But what I like most about the book is its emphasis on simple, pleasurable knitting – things you can make without going cross-eyed trying to keep up with a You Tube knitting clip that goes too fast and fries your brain. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the challenge of following a chart, or learning a new technique, I do, hence my familiarity with You Tube’s knitting clips, but there are many evenings when I just want to make something small and sweet, and to reduce my guilt-inducing moth-attracting stash. More often than not, on those occasions, I find that the only patterns I have require either more yarn, different yarn or further swatching (Gah! how I hate swatching). Not so now that I have my copy of The Gentle Art of Knitting.