Of squash and twisted stitches

Published on Sunday November 1st, 2009

As I scheme and sketch towards this big design project I’ve mentioned, I’m thinking about favorite knitting techniques and visual effects I’d like to incorporate. There will be colorwork and cables, of course (possibly together!); a more recent addition to my toolbox is the twisted stitch knitting that originated in the Styrian Enns Valley. I’ve played with small twisted-stitch motifs before, most notably in the Twisted Tree pullover I designed for my dear friend’s nephew. (Leif has just become a big brother! Abbie will have to let me know if she thinks baby Maren needs a special design of her own.) Now I’m delighted to have added Schoolhouse Press’s new translation of Maria Erlbacher’s Twisted-Stitch Knitting, the seminal work on this particular tradition, to my library. I swoon for the beautiful stockings in particular. Alas, my calves are rather too scrawny to merit a special increase panel with beautiful twisting knotwork, but if I could ever convince my husband to wear a kilt (even a Utilikilt!), I do think some glorious twisted-stitch stockings would be in order.

Twisted stitches were the first thing I wanted to swatch with my 3-ply from Island Fibers. This yarn begs to be given some intricate stitchery, and it wants a fairly tight gauge or it tends to go sprawling all over the place. I knew this from having seen a swatch in plain rib at the Island Fibers studio, but I suspected that if those ribbed stitches were twisted they’d leap forward and command a three-dimensional space. Here’s my first little play-swatch.


The effect of those beautiful tight braids all over a garment is stunning, but I’m playing with the idea of using them minimally to achieve a quiet, elegant effect that owes as much to Japanese influences as to Austria. Stay tuned to see what comes of my experiments.

Yarn and stitchwork haven’t been the only domains in which I’ve been experimenting. We’re entering one of my favorite culinary seasons (okay, each one is my favorite when new seasonal delicacies become available). When the rains and chilling damp decend, I always want the cozy foods: velvety risottos, colorful roasted vegetables spiked with rosemary and thyme, steaming cornbread, and curried soups. Butternut squash and apple soup is a long-time favorite, and I’m ashamed to say butternuts were the only squash I liked for many years. They were certainly the best of what used to be available in the grocery store; acorns and spaghetti squash are the only other winter squashes I remember encountering in childhood, and I found them unpleasantly stringy, watery, pasty, or some combination of those attributes. In more recent years I’ve been drawn to the arresting display of varieties in the farmers’ markets—gorgeous red-orange or ghostly blue orbs; zebra-striped oblongs; deep green spinning-tops. But I let my ignorance of what on earth you’d DO with such a big, beautiful squash once you got it home stop me from trying them.

Last year’s winter CSA share changed my attitude, thank goodness. I discovered delicata: what could be easier than to lop this tender squash in half and bake it with butter, drizzle it with a little maple syrup and spoon it right out of the shell? It’s like butternut, but even sweeter. And the real challenge came one day in March when my share included a Chioggia heirloom. It must have weighed twenty pounds. My biggest knife was no match for its tough hide. A machete might possibly have made a dent; a table saw really would have been the carving implement of choice. I went to my cook books for advice. Fortunately, Farmer John told me I could stick the whole monster into the oven and wait for the heat to soften it into submission. I did, and then I sliced up segments to roast further. It was several hours before I had the entire squash roasted and spooned into plastic containers for freezing, but there was a break in the labor while we went next door to tuck some of it into pouches of homemade pasta for a ravioli dinner with the neighbors.

This past week I took out a container of frozen Chioggia squash and thawed it in a pot on the stove while I sauteed an array of peppers, the kernels from two ears of corn grown in the school gardens, and some frozen cubes of roasted garlic (my mother-in-law buys these for us and I’ve been letting them languish because we always have fresh garlic, but they’re very handy in soups) with paprika. I added the squash and some vegetable broth, and later some salt and pepper. The result was a thick, sweet, spicy soup, better yet with a dollop of sour cream stirred in and garnished with fresh parsley. The corn was a late-season survivor, very starchy and chewy. I don’t know whether it would have been good eating right off the cob, but in the soup, as my husband commented, it was almost like a chewy grain. We had the leftovers with roasted brussels sprouts from the farmers’ market last night.

So now that I’m not afraid of giant squash anymore, I went out and bought some more:


These are from Kruger Farm on Sauvie Island, just north of Portland. Their bins weren’t marked, but the one on the left is a Blue Hubbard and I think the one on the right might be a Rouge Vif d’Étampes. The Blue Hubbard is about the size of the hinder end of a large cat:


I loved this squash. I was able to cut it without pre-baking; it yielded up its seeds and pith with ease; and once I’d roasted the halves it produced a big pot of curried soup, a pie (yes, a pumpkin pie made with squash—you really can’t tell the difference), and the delicious love child of a pumpkin pie and a cheesecake. (Also thanks to a Farmer John recipe. This last went to school, where it was gobbled up by my colleagues.)


I highly recommend you try a giant squash of your own this autumn if you haven’t already. My husband didn’t think he liked squash and now he’s the first to dig in the freezer for the makings of another pot of soup.

Island style

Published on Tuesday October 13th, 2009

Fall has come—whump!—to the Northwest. The maples and walnuts are at their showiest and our big sweetgums (still with a stubborn cloak of summer green) are flinging their branches about in the easterlies that bring us our cold fronts. The rain is forecast to begin tonight and continue until… no one knows. My weather calendar shows nothing but drear droplets, on and on. We have knuckled under and turned on the heat, and the vent that is pleasantly blowing warmth up my trouser cuffs is also blowing cat hair into my glass of cider. Yes, the Knitting Weather has arrived again.

It is October, so I am knitting socks (for Socktoberfest, ye muggles, a knitter’s official license to knit as many socks as she pleases, not that she wouldn’t be knitting them anyway, which I suspect is thoroughly equivalent to the situation of the Germans and their merry beer-drinking). I am knitting extraordinarily glorious socks of Teeswater wool. I had to look up the Teeswater sheep, never having heard of it. I discovered that a Teeswater ewe was the founding mother of the Wensleydale breed, of which I have heard (and knit, with excellent results). That Teeswater mama passed on her lustrous locks, which are durable, sleek, and soft. These socks will have their own post soon, as will the Arch-Shaped/Lenore socks I just finished and mailed to Marika. Today I want to tell you instead about some schemes for the future.


These lovelies are precious cargo from my trip up to the islands. They come from Lopez Island sheep via Island Fibers studio, the work of two women with an enviable workshop nestled at the edge of the woods. A big garage is loaded with bags of fleece waiting to be washed and primped and sent away for spinning. They have a dyeworks where Debbie works her magic on the natural white and gray heathered wool, producing a luscious range of come-hither colors. Maxine gave us a tour of the weaving room, where Debbie was at work on a big rug, and introduced us to the end products you see above and all their beautiful cousins. The plump white fluffy one on top is a woolen-spun Rambouillet, light as a soufflé and soft as a mole’s armpit (my grandfather’s saying, which I must remember to use more often). The blue one is a sport-weight 2-ply, dyed on the natural gray of the sheep from local farmer Sally Bill’s flock. Maxine explained that this flock began as a Romney-Lincoln cross, but has since had visiting rams of many backgrounds, always with an eye to improving the fleece. She calls them Sally Bill sheep. The gray skein is Sally Bill wool blended with 30% alpaca; I can feel just a little more weight to it and suspect it will drape a tiny bit more. The rusty red skein is a worsted-spun 3-ply wool prepared at a mill in New Mexico. It looks ready to shout a stitch pattern from the rooftops and I can’t wait to give it a whirl.

In these little skeins are the kernels of a grand idea. Formulating a grand idea is something like poaching an egg; I know that once I break it into the simmering water the exterior will go all to a wispy mess if I don’t very intently spoon it back around the yolk, and it takes composure and deftness to bring it off. The yolk is this: a design collection for hand-knitting inspired by my home islands. The wispy mess? Just how many and which designs it’s feasible to include; the possibility of writing some vignettes (EZ would call them digressions), some personal geography; a timeline; tackling the book design myself. I know I’d like to feature local yarns, though probably not exclusively. Keeping the whole thing digital, at least for now, seems prudent, as does releasing the patterns for individual sale. A couple of patterns I haven’t released yet might be included (Mr. G’s new gansey, the Islander baby sweater), and I’ve got sketches for a number of others. I’m fairly sure that skein of Rambouillet wants to become a squooshy, cozy shawl-let; I’m excited to swatch the alpaca blend and the 3-ply as contenders for a long vest with twisted stitch motifs.

More to come… I’ll be working on some swatches in the coming weeks!

A glimpse

Published on Thursday September 24th, 2009


It fits. The sleeves are a bit narrow and will be revised before I offer this pattern, but it works for Mr. G. We will have a proper photo shoot this weekend if time and lighting allow, but this little hint shows off the bits I’m most proud of anyway. See the shoulder gussets that allow a comfortable fit around the neck without having to slope the back or front at the shoulders? This unusual feature is what attracted me to the sweater in this historical photograph from Gladys Thompson’s excellent Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans:

Runswick_fishermanTempting as it is, I probably won’t require my beloved to don a sou’wester
and smoke a pipe for the official photoshoot.

Nor am I certain my considerable attraction to him could sustain a gnarly neck beard,
so we won’t be going for that authentic touch, either.

I love this book for its treasury of sweater designs and careful attention to the differences from one little cove’s worth of knitters to the next, and also for its photographs of crusty old fisherman. This is only one of the fabulous portraits it offers, although Gladys writes that it’s her favorite. I couldn’t tell, though, what might happen at the back of that particular old sweater, so I had to devise a way to raise the neckline at the back, as you see above.

See, too, how the maple leaves are changing. A last gasp of summer came through in the guise of a blustery hot wind that littered the sidewalk with roughly four thousand treacherous gum nuts from the hundred-year-old trees in front of our house, so it’s officially raking season. I’d like to pretend there’s another month to go before we really reach leaf fall, but I fear for the neighbors’ ankles. Our sweet gums are fine handsome old trees, but they are more accomplished than any other tree at protracting the drop of their pretty, star-shaped leaves over many months and then continuing to bombard unsuspecting passers-by with their spiky seed pods even after the leaves are gone. This year I see they are celebrating their centennial by growing a number of large clusters of conjoined pods, like gum nut rat kings, which will prove especially uncomfortable if they drop on people’s heads. You may wish to wear an old-timey felt hat for protection if you’re strolling in the neighborhood… fair warning. Luckily, I own several. I may need to knit a few more.

Thank you all for the excellent resources on intarsia in the round that flooded the comments! Special appreciation to Rodger, who tipped me off to an excellent book that was already right under my nose. I took Priscilla Gibson-Roberts to bed (um, you know what I mean) that very night to read up. I have begun a swatchcap to practice my Invisible Join 1. (I tried Invisible Join 2 at first, but it quickly got the better of me and left my circular needle locked in a contorted figure 8. I am sure this is my fault and not Priscilla’s, but I was too tired to work out what I’d done wrong.) We’ll evaluate the results together in a couple of days.

I may have finished a sweater.

Published on Tuesday September 15th, 2009

No photos yet, because at this point it doesn’t look good enough on my husband. It is snug, and rather short in the torso. I may have grossly underestimated the circumference of my beloved’s manly chest.  And I should have heeded Elizabeth Zimmermann’s wisdom about short rows across the back above the hem. Last night I was all ready to make a decisive surgical snip and tear out a line of stitches so I could lengthen the torso and graft it back together again, but the look on Mr. G’s face stopped me cold. He was horrified that I was about to cut the knitting. I had explained the procedure to him upon our discovery that the sweater was looking a little short in the body, but apparently the reality didn’t sink in until he saw the jaws of sharp, cold steel poised above a solitary, innocent stitch.

“Are you sure? I feel like I’m going to cry!”

This was so plaintive that I found I just couldn’t do it. I put the scissors down. I put him back in the sweater. (Dang, that little bit of ribbing sure did draw the sleeves in snug!)

“Can’t we just block it?”

The man has been learning by osmosis! He’s actually picking this stuff up! And he might even be right. A good stiff blocking all over might just make it possible for us not to cut apart the sweater. (Although I might still add those short rows.) I agreed that I’d knit the neck band and then we’d block it and see where we stood.

Into the tub with you, purple sweater. Grow, grow!