Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mrs. Micawber Knits a Sock, Part 3 ~ the Exciting (and Extremely Long) Conclusion

Welcome back to our sock-knitting saga, in which Mrs. M tackles her very first hand-knitted sock, following the excellent (if sometimes vague) formula set out by Elizabeth Zimmermann in the classic Knitting Without Tears
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Last week we left our heroine, flushed with triumph over an unexpectedly smooth heel-turning, gamely stitching away at the foot of her sock (and slightly dreading the Kitchener to come)....

The sock-knitting experiment has been successful thus far (despite a certain inconsistency of tension). Will the toe be our heroine's undoing? Will grafting prove an insurmountable stumbling-block? These are the thoughts that haunt her waking hours - but Mrs. M presses on.

After briefly dithering over when to stop knitting the foot and start shaping the toe (EZ gives no clues about this - it's a case of by guess or by golly), our heroine decides to begin decreasing when the sock is about an inch shy of covering her foot.

In the sock-gospel according to EZ (sub-heading: "Shape for Toe"), the knitter is instructed to divide the stitches over 3 needles; half of them, for the front, on one needle (to be designated Needle #2), and the other half split between two other needles (to be designated #1 and #3.). Are your eyes glazing yet?

Half a mo - what does "front" mean? (Brief interval of quiet reflection.) Mrs. M concludes (rightly, as it turns out) that "front" equates to "top of the foot" - and divides her stitches accordingly.

This places the round-end marker and working yarn rather inconveniently in the middle of Needle #3, while the toe decreases are set to begin on Needle #1. Is this a problem? (Knitters are invited to comment.) Nothing for it but to stitch across until we reach Needle #1 ... and now for the toe-shaping. Knit to within 3 stitches of the end, k2tog, k1. So far so good; on to Needle #2.

K1, SSK.... A panic-stricken moment ensues in which Mrs. M a) forgets how to SSK; b) ruffles madly back through the book to find the instructions; c) discovers that all her previous SSKs have been incorrectly done. (Gnashing of teeth and striking of forehead.)

Our heroine pulls herself together and calls to mind the Galloping Horse Rule (learnt at quilting group in the dim and distant past, to be recited whenever a mistake is discovered): If You Can't See It From the Back of a Galloping Horse, It Doesn't Matter.

Daunted but resolute, she takes a firm grasp of her courage (also the needles and yarn) and soldiers on to the end of Needle #2 (k2tog, k1). Then across to Needle #3: K1, SSK. (Get it right this time, Mrs. M!). Knit to end. Whew!

Looks okay to me....

An easy round of plain knitting follows, then repeat the decrease round. Plain round, decrease round, plain round, decrease round, until there are 20 stitches left. And once again (dang it), the round has ended in an inconvenient place - smack in the middle of the sole:

Our heroine knits across to the end, wondering uneasily if these extra stitches will somehow cause a lopsided toe, but knowing she has no choice. Grafting simply cannot commence from the middle of the sock; it must start at one side.

Grafting? Yes - the dreadful hour has come....

But perhaps not so dreadful after all. For Mrs. M remembers that she holds a secret weapon: a sacred grafting mantra culled years ago from the pages of TechKnitter's* excellent blog, jotted on a bit of paper and carefully stored in the needle case against just such a moment as this, when the ghost of Kitchener looms o'er a hapless project, raising spectral visions of dropped and twisted stitches in a cramped, puckery seam - a sacred grafting mantra, I say, which, when chanted and followed, will allow the timorous knitter to graft her work with the knitting needles, on the knitting needles.

The precious relic, which contains not only the mantra, but a helpful diagram illustrating needle position (and a mystical string-bean-like shape hovering to the right), is retrieved from the needle case and set reverently on our heroine's lap.

The sock stitches are divided once again, onto two needles this time. A moment is spent in quiet contemplation of the relic, then, with a deep breath, Mrs. M cuts the yarn (being careful to leave a longish tail). Reminding herself that the tail must be pulled all the way through on every stitch, she begins to chant softly: "Purl the front and push OFF; knit the front and leave ON. Knit the back and push OFF; purl the back and leave ON."

After a breathless minute or three, in which nothing at all seems to be happening, a glorious sight appears: half a grafted toe! The mantra is working. (Thank you, TechKnitter!)

Almost before she knows it, our heroine is pulling the yarn through the final stitch - and a brand-new sock has been brought safely into the world.

Just look at that grafted toe....

Mrs. M rushes into the next room to show Mr. M what she has produced, and is slightly disappointed, though not at all surprised, to find that he takes it very calmly (so like a man).

And what, after all, is there to be excited about? The world is full of socks. Socks are knitted every day. But to Mrs. M, this one is special. Never before has it made an appearance on the stage of life; it is unique in the history of the planet. And despite its failure of perfect symmetry - its uneven tension and bumpy decreases and faintly concave toe - our heroine loves it, and wouldn't trade it for anything. (Except perhaps a Ferrari ... if it came fully insured.)

And so the curtain slowly drops on our woolly little drama. Laying her new sock lovingly in its basket, our heroine takes up her needles once more and begins to cast on the next....

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*TechKnitter's blog, TechKnitting, is a wonderful compendium of knitting tips and techniques. A knitter with the mind of a structural engineer, she writes excellent tutorials which explain not only the how of a stitch but also the why. (And she happens to live in Wisconsin.)  :)

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Snowy Sunday

11:45 am - Snow is falling outside, dancing and blowing under a leaden sky, and triggering in me a strange perfectly reasonable desire for yarn and tea. In a few hours I'll be suiting up to take a walk in the whirling whiteness, but for now I can sit tight and remain a spectator of winter. Time to put the kettle on....

2:00 pm - The snow has turned suddenly heavy, with miniature clumps the size of quarters falling thick and fast. Freezing rain is forecast for later; I'd better go while the going's good.

The temperature is a very mild 20 - positively balmy compared with a few days ago. In 5 minutes I'm out the door and into the falling snow. The thyme which grows next to the doorstep is still, amazingly, green (albeit a very dark green):

Do its volatile oils somehow keep it going where other plants have given up for the year? Before spring comes it will dry up completely, but how has it survived in the frozen ground and the extreme temps of the past week?

Today's destination is the park, which I haven't visited for quite a while. On the way is this outbuilding covered with vines like bobbed hair:

Snow has a power to transform the everyday into something magical. This plain brown staircase becomes a line of snowy rooftops when I tilt my head (and the camera):

Goldenrod sprays are coated with white:

It's hard to tell where the fuzzy blossoms leave off and the snow begins.

The snow's texture is gradually changing from fluffy to firm; tiny pellets strike my jacket and collect on my hat brim. A pine cone, half-buried in the snow, begins to sparkle with ice.

I like the mottled pattern on the bottom of its scales:

The park's inner pond is edged with all sorts of lovely dried flowers. Some tall and stately...

...some rather exotic-looking...

...and some daintily lacy.

A tree trunk wears snow like an icy saddle:

On the far side of the park, the lower branches of certain pines are an amazing rust-colour against the grey-green needles. They look almost as though they've lost a layer of bark:

Beneath them the shoreline curves away into the snow-blurred distance.

Another of the striking pines. These branches remind me of a spiral staircase (and make me think of the Swiss Family Robinson's treehouse):

Freezing rain is now falling thick and fast, and rattling on the leaves of a nearby oak....

(How's that for making you feel warm and cozy and glad to be indoors?)

My jacket is damp with melting ice; time to finish my circuit of the park and head for home. No more photos! (Well, perhaps just a few....)

A park bench beaded with ice pellets looking for all the world like pearl sugar:

A cheerfully painted birdhouse on the side of an oak:

And one more snow-crusted park bench:

The once-soft snow is now granular and crunchy, and the temperature is rising. If the weathermen are correct, by Tuesday it will be in the 40s (and raining, darn it). We're in for a foggy, slippery few days before the temps drop back down.

Almost February. Soon winter's back will be broken, and we'll be halfway to spring. (Usually by now I'm growing impatient for warmer weather, but this year I'm in no particular hurry.)

Are you enjoying winter, or do you long for spring to come?

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Construction Tips for the Ghost Cone Scarf

Today I had the rare experience of opening a crochet magazine to follow my own pattern; to work from instructions that I myself had written many months ago. But the instructions in the magazine were not exactly as I had written them; they were better.

So here's to technical editors everywhere, and especially to the ones at Interweave, who condensed my overly-wordy pattern into an elegant half-page of essentials. Their careful pruning and terminology tweaks taught me several things I needed to know about pattern-writing.

Thank you, Interweave tech editors, for all your hard work behind the scenes.

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I'm really excited about the enthusiastic response to the Ghost Cone Scarf. Many beautiful versions have already popped up on its Ravelry project page, and I've received several requests for a tutorial to demonstrate how the scarf is put together. In response, here are a few short videos which I hope will answer some common questions about this pattern.

1. Forming the Arch

2. Taming the Twist

3. Joining the Columns

Note re joining the columns: You may of course join them as often as you wish during the scarf construction - the pattern recommends every third arch, but you could do it at every arch, every other arch, or farther apart. (Forgot to say this in the video.)

If you have any other questions about the pattern, please don't hesitate to e-mail, or contact me in Ravelry, and I'll be happy to answer them if I can.

Again, thanks for viewing, and happy crocheting!

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P.S. If you're interested in seeing some design precursors to the Ghost Cone Scarf, check out the Bean Blossom Scarf and the Curly Maple Scarflet.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mrs. M Knits a Sock, Part 2: The Turning of the Heel

...about which there is really very little to say; it was accomplished quietly and without even a modicum of swearing (or sweating)...

This is a German heel, recommended by Elizabeth Zimmermann for novice sock-knitters such as I (after completing several of which, we may graduate to the more conventional Conventional Heel, "which actually wears better").

The German heel was, as she promised, very simple: a series of short rows worked from the middle of the square heel flap, with decreases at each end that bite into the garter stitch edges and form the curve of the heel. (Easier done than expressed.) What a relief - turning the heel was the aspect of sock-knitting which most filled me with dread.

Next came the ankle-shaping. Though I love EZ's minimalist style, I found the instructions here a bit vague. She says merely: "Work on down the foot, decreasing away the surplus stitches at each ankle until you have the number of stitches you started with." The concept is easily grasped; I started with 36 stitches and now have 44, and need to get back down to 36. But where do I make the decreases? "At each ankle". Where's that?

My best guess was to place the decreases on either side of the ribbing stitches which continue down from the cuff. This seemed to work pretty well (except for one rogue decrease that sticks out a mile - did I slant it the wrong way?):

I could drop stitches back to that point and try to fix it, but I won't. It shall remain as a humility mark, and a proof of my comparatively tepid feelings for knitting (if this were a crochet project I'd frog back and do the whole thing over with scarcely a murmur).

Now I am merrily on my way down the foot, which seems to be growing more slowly than the cuff did:

Tension is still a problem, as you can see. (I begin to understand the expression "knit-pick".). But the waters of blocking will, I hope, wash away at least some of those stitch-y sins.

Soon I'll be working the toe decreases, then savouring the final and dubious delights of Kitchener stitch. (Then it will be time to start all over on the second sock.)

Until next time....

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P.S. A question for the knitters out there: Which cast-on do you prefer for top-down socks?

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cold and Warm

On the cold side, here is the battered old thermometer on the side of the garage, at 8:30 this morning:

-10º F. Yep, that's cold. (It climbed to 3 this afternoon, but now it's back down to 0.)

On the warm side, here is part of a sock.... (Wait - there should be trumpets and confetti - or at least an exclamation point. Part of a SOCK!)

Knitted by yours truly (!) according to the formula set out by Elizabeth Zimmermann in her iconic work Knitting Without Tears: Determine gauge; cast on enough stitches to fit around the ankle (must be divisible by 4 - the number of stitches, not the ankle), and work 2x2 rib to desired length.

The yarn is Cascade 220 wool from my stash, worsted weight as befits these first hesitant steps in hosiery-knitting (akin to the giant crayons we give toddlers when they are learning to colour). I'm cheating a bit with the needles, using two Size 5 and two Size 6 tips from my Denise Interchangeable kit. (I gave away my normal dpns to a niece years ago, and am unwilling to drive to another town to buy a proper set - from which you may infer that we live in a Knitting Desert, miles from any life-giving yarn and craft oases.) Working with two sizes of needles renders the tension less than perfect, but that's why we block things, right?

This afternoon I completed the first heel flap according to EZ (take half the stitches and knit in stockinette until you have a square, slipping the first stitch and purling the last, and knitting the first and last 4 stitches of every row).

Tomorrow, the Turning of the Heel (thunder and lightning, organ playing a minor chord).

Be sure to tune in for the next exciting installment of...

"Mrs. Micawber Knits a Sock"

(happy theme music)

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What are you working on? :)

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Monday, January 21, 2013

A Short Cold Walk

The winter weather rollercoaster continues. After a (relatively) balmy Friday and Saturday, with temps stretching into the high 30s (F), Arctic winds came roaring through the state last night, gusting to over 40 miles per hour and driving the mercury downwards.

It's about 10º as I set out today, hatted and hooded and gloved and mittened and booted, wearing my warmest long underwear under snow pants and fleece shirt and jacket - all for a short afternoon walk. (It's such a chore to get dressed for outdoors at this time of year.) The wind is behind me at the start of my walk, so I'm deceived at first into thinking the afternoon milder than it is.

Over my head, the moon shivers and hugs herself in a cold blue sky dotted with clouds...

...while cattails stay warm in their fuzzy jackets at the edge of the marshy lake-around-the corner.

Just after I snap the cattail photo, I see an actual cat - with tail - go running across the ice. It's got a visibly thick fur coat, but how does it keep its paws warm? (And what is it looking for?)

As I work my way across the fields, clouds roll in to provide a dramatic grey backdrop for this favourite line of trees:

At the pond behind the high school, river birches too are wearing multiple layers (much more stylish than mine):

Splinters like the towers of a tiny ruined city stand up from a weathered tree trunk:

Another favourite tree under the winter sky:

At my feet a leaf lies spread-eagled in the snow, wondering what it did to deserve such a chilly fate.

Gratuitous shot of my custom thumbless mitten (cut and sewn from a felted thrift-store sweater and perfect for blocking the wind):

Speaking of the wind, my path has now turned into it, and it's COLD - making my eyes water and highlighting the air gaps between my hood and my cheeks. Good thing today's walk is a short one.

Just next to the path, a fence wire is clasped in a small tree's inexorable embrace:

(Which will win this slow struggle of years? My money's on the tree. It's growing and adaptable, while the wire can only bend so far and must eventually snap.)

At the other side of the field, I get my first shadow shot in weeks. (Marigold, this is for you.)

And the wind isn't getting any warmer. Just one more photo of the marshy lake as I pass it on my way home:

The ice looks blotchy, and rather sullen, as though it wishes winter would make up its mind and give up this tedious freeze-thaw cycle. No chance of a thaw in the next week at least - we're heading into several days of near- and below-zero temps with wind chills of -15º to -25º F.

Years ago, when we announced our decision to move to Wisconsin from Southern California, the response of friends and family was inevitably the same: "Don't you know it gets cold there in the winter?" Yes, we knew. And we moved here anyway. We tell ourselves that cold weather builds character - and it does make a change from heat and humidity. :)

Here's to a warm and safe week ahead. What's the weather like where you live?

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Friday, January 18, 2013


Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we try to wind a 400-meter hank of fingering yarn - from both ends at once - into a double-strand ball.

(What in the world was I thinking?)

Detangling yarn, rather like housework, is highly conducive to introspection (and the occasional muttered imprecation). As I work the yarn over and under and in and out of itself, I ponder the significance of my actions. What does this silly attempt say about me? ("Misguided optimism" and "the triumph of hope over experience" are two phrases that come to mind.)

Am I a foolish optimist? Perhaps - at least where my own actions are concerned. I always think that projects and tasks will take less time than they do - which explains why I'm usually a few minutes late. Every year, as Christmas draws near, I take on too many projects at once, in the happy assumption that I can easily finish them all before the big day. (Do I finish them all? Usually - to the great detriment of sleep and regular meals and Mr. M's comfort.)

Is this optimism, or self-delusion? (Or simply a lack of organisation?)

And which is better: to think that a thing is possible - which some might call dreaming - then try it, only to experience failure? Or to assume the worst, and never try at all?

It would take more of a philosopher than I am to answer this question. Besides, I've got yarn to untangle.

At least it's part silk, which makes it nice and slippery. :)

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Are you a risk-taker with yarn (or other aspects of life)? Or do you prefer to play it safe?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Raspberries & Roses

Yesterday's breakfast table was bright with most un-January-like colour and flavour.


...atop a coffee cake spiked with lime zest and drizzled with intensely lime glaze. Tart and refreshing on a 20º morning, and perfect with eggs and a cup of...

...roses? Well, tea - but what is that lovely thing peeking out from behind the plate?

Only a gift from a dear bloggy friend. Only the most beautiful mug ever made (in England!). Staffordshire Heritage, in case you were wondering. Perfect for tea, and a most elegant vehicle for hot chocolate.

Thank you again, dear bloggy friend.

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Raspberry-Lime Coffee Cake for Two*

In bowl, combine:
1 cup flour (I used half whole-wheat, half unbleached)
2-4 Tbsp brown sugar (we used 2 - cake was barely sweet)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
Pinch of nutmeg or mace
Zest of 1/4 - 1/2 lime

3/8 cup milk or milk substitute (coconut milk beverage for us)
2 Tbsp oil (I used extra-virgin olive)
1 egg**

Mix well. Spread into oiled and floured baking pan, 8x8" or 8-9" round. Sprinkle generously with fresh or frozen raspberries, then with a tablespoon or two of raw sugar (granulated sugar may be substituted). Bake at 375º about 20 minutes or until done. Cool slightly in pan.

1 tsp. butter, melted
Zest of 1/4 - 1/2 lime
1 tsp. fresh lime juice (more if needed)
Confectioner's sugar - stir in enough to make a thick paste, and pipe or drizzle onto cake. If glaze is too thick for drizzling, add more lime juice.

Note: I like to make a very thick glaze and pipe it onto the coffee cake, using a square of heavy plastic with a tiny hole cut in the middle. The plastic, which came from a bag that once held flour, can be washed and re-used and is less cumbersome than a piping bag.

*Recipe doubles well to fit in a 9x13" pan.
**For even better texture, separate egg and beat the white. Add yolk with other liquid ingredients to dry mixture and blend, then fold in egg white.

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