Another reason to knit local

Published on Wednesday September 9th, 2009

I haven’t written a lot about the Cocoon-Stitch Half-Circle Shawl, but I’ve been steadily working away at it this summer. The pattern is written line by line, with no chart, so it requires a good stretch of uninterrupted knitting time and a well-placed Post-It note to make progress. I took it for train knitting when we went up to Seattle in August to see a Mariners game, and then I had a nice quiet evening of knitting with my friend Leigh to bring it close to the end. I actually almost finished the pattern on the Seattle trip, but I had quite a bit of the glorious Toots Le Blanc merino/angora yarn leftover and didn’t want to waste a yard, so while Leigh was regaling me with stories of her trip to Ireland as we drank lemonade and ate Irish bourbon chocolates on a sticky summer night, I worked back through the pattern to find a point where the increases would align so I could add another couple of cocoon rows. (I had to go all the way back to Row 78, in case you decide to do the same, to match up the peculiar scheme of increases. I worked Rows 78-89 over again before I knit the edging.) Two ridges of garter edging seemed a bit skimpy, and I still had yarn left. I thought I might as well add some nupps before the cast off, since they’re so adorable, and since my Addi Lace needles make me want to show off with nonchalant p7tog maneuvers.


And I still had some yarn left.


I started the bind-off during our book club meeting as we discussed Reading Lolita in Tehran (which we agreed was a disappointment, but did make us want to read or re-read the classic novels Nafisi mentions). I wasn’t too far in when I realized I was in trouble. Yes, I was running out of yarn. This has become a bit of a theme for me this year… I don’t know whether I’ve gotten over-confident or what. I already knew there wasn’t a lot in the stash that might blend well enough with the Toots Le Blanc to get me through the second half of the bind-off. I looked anyway the next morning, when I had some light to really compare colors. Nope, nothing really close enough to do justice to such an elegant little piece of knitting. But Toots Le Blanc is run out of Hillsboro, OR, just over the West Hills. Maybe I could beseech them to clip me just a few yards of Fawn merino/angora? I wrote them an e-mail.

The following day I had two messages back, one from each of the owners, saying that they did often have mill ends and would check right away. In no time I had confirmation from Michele that she had a few spare yards of Fawn and could pop them in the mail to me or hand them off in person on her return from a business trip. So we arranged to meet in a Starbucks parking lot. She pulled up with her minivan stuffed to the gills with bags of beautiful piebald Jacob fleece, and we quickly skeined off enough of the merino/angora for me to finish my little shawl.


So I was able to finish comfortably, and now I’ve popped the luscious little thing into a Eucalan bath so it can bloom to full bunnycrack goodness. (I won’t block it very aggressively, as I’m quite fond of the three-dimensional character of the cocoons.) Just one more reason to seek out a great little local company, folks! Toots Le Blanc really went the extra mile for me, and I couldn’t be more in love with their product. I’d love to have the budget for enough of the merino/angora for one of the big shawls in Nancy Bush’s Estonian lace book, but for the time being I’ll hope to try Toots’s Blue-Face Leicester/Pygora laceweight, which could yield a small shawl for $30. So go forth and knit local—you never know when it’s going to save your bacon!

Columbia beret

Published on Monday December 22nd, 2008

New version of the pattern added 19 February 2010.

By popular request (and my own long-delayed intention), the Columbia pattern has been modified to include a medium size that will fit smaller heads or those who like a real beret rather than a beret/snood. I’ve also corrected the instructions for setting up the stitches to knit the ties on top. Get the new version here:

Columbia Beret 1.2

The wool I used is a soft 2-ply Columbia wool from Oregon’s Imperial Stock Ranch; you could substitute any worsted weight wool, but a fuzzy woolen-spun will give you a cohesive, warm fabric. The slouchy beret is worked on needles slightly smaller than recommended for extra structure and a felt-like hand. Lines of yarnover eyelets swirl decoratively up to a knit-on garter-stitch topper. The Columbia wool will full quite readily if you wish to tailor the fit after knitting.

Wensleydale Examined, Part II

Published on Monday September 22nd, 2008

Before and after:

I wish I came out of the bath looking and feeling so much improved! Look how even and cohesive the heavier Zwool-spun Wensleydales are:

And the twisty Romney looks much better, doesn’t it? Here’s the Cinderella yarn:

The grey Wensleydale sport from Zwool that was so scritchy and twine-ish when I knit with it feels fabulous now. It still might not be quite next-to-the-skin soft, but it would be great for a sweater that didn’t snug the neck too closely. Lois said she was washing a bunch of it up, which would make the knitting really pleasurable, too. But here’s My Preciousss:

The Stonehedge-spun yarns really didn’t need to get any lovelier, and I’d already decided that if they didn’t either disintegrate or shoot laser beams at me when wet, I was ordering a whole mess of the dark one for a sweater. Sure enough, no melting and no death rays. They bloom. They purr. They wink suggestively. I wrote Lois to make sure she had nine skeins for me. She sent me an affirmative, and invitation to visit the sheep if I find myself in the neighborhood (which is near Corvallis), and this picture:

How could I resist? I wrote Lois a thank-you note and check and walked them to the post office with a glow of good feeling. This yarn isn’t cheap: I’m paying $144 for a 38″ sweater (with a big shawl collar, mind you – I could have chosen a simpler design that would use less yarn if I were really stretching to make the purchase). But it shouldn’t be – I consider the price very fair. It’s coming from carefully tended sheep of a rare breed on a small farm that’s someone’s livelihood; the wool is beautifully and knowledgeably spun by a little mill that’s another U.S. family-owned business. Knowing its origins and knitting it myself, I’ll treasure it far more than a garment I’d pay $144 for in a store.

My first experience seeking out a local wool provider couldn’t have been more pleasant. It’s been lovely to communicate with generous Lois, who’s included some extra yarn at no cost to make sure I won’t run out. I’ve happily agreed to send her pictures of the finished sweater for her website. Those of you attending Oregon Flock & Fiber should look for the Bellwether Wool Company booth so you can check out the Wensleydale and their wool blends for yourself. Tell Lois and Linda I sent you.

Wensleydale Examined, Part I

Published on Monday September 15th, 2008

I did it: I swatched every last inch of yarn on Lois Olund’s sampler card. It was Saturday; I needed a break from ten hours of throwing down (and mostly taking it on the chin as only a self-taught novice can) with InDesign to get the school’s next journal issue to print by noon tomorrow. And anyway, it doesn’t take long to knit nine yards of yarn. I got out a variety of needles and cast on.

I decided to work from bulky to fine, so I began with the 3-ply bulky Wensleydale spun by Zeilinger’s Wool. I put six stitches on my US #10.5’s. The 3-ply is an honest wool. Not soft, but beautifully balanced and pleasingly plump. If you were planning, say, a late-November moose hunt, this is what you’d want for your sweater. For the rest of us, a pair of thick, workaday mittens would be just the ticket.

When the 3-ply ran out, I brought in its little brother, the 2-ply bulky from Zwool, and traded my #10.5’s for #8’s. The stitches aren’t as plump, obviously, and it felt rough and twiny as I was knitting it, but at this firm gauge (it could take a US #9 needle), it made a nice, cohesive fabric that was softer than I would have guessed, and should improve after a bath. Again, I thought mittens and a hat, and maybe a hard-wearing outerwear sweater for crisp fall days.

Since I was proceeding by weight, next up was the Romney 2-ply by Zwool. As soon as I uncoiled it from the sample card, I imagined I’d like it. It’s more tightly spun and had a pleasing, balanced springiness just draped across my hands. But can you tell in the photo above how uneven the stitches look? Because of the high twist, the right and left “legs” of each stitch look markedly different. I like the feel of the fabric, but it’s got this earthy texture that you’d have to embrace. We’ll see if a soak helps even it out.

The next yarn — now we’re up to the white strip — was a Wensleydale-Cotswold-Coopworth blend, again spun by Zwool as a 2-ply sport/light bulky. Again, a US #9 might have been a better bet, but I went along with my #8’s to see what would happen. I could have picked this yarn out from the bunch blindfolded: it has a distinctive feel that I might describe as dry-slick. I imagine this is due to the blend of three long-stapled wools and the tight spinning: the yarn has very little halo, so there aren’t a lot of ends left free. You’d get nice stitch definition and it ought to be great for cabled projects.

The first of the Stonehedge-spun Wensleydales came next: the whites blend together in these photos but if you look closely you can see the change. Oh, the bliss of the 2-ply sport sliding across my fingers! The fiber preparation and spinning is so different between the two companies you’d never know you were knitting with the same wool. Stonehedge’s yarns are silky, soft, and lustrous. They won’t wear as hard, but the knitting is like gliding across a frozen pond in a pine forest shrouded by falling snow, and the fabric begs for next-to-the-skin wear. The longwool is almost like kid mohair in its sheen and sleek feel, which are most apparent in the natural white color. This yarn reminded me of Brooks Farm Duet, a kid mohair-wool blend I used for my Hourglass sweater. The 8’s were a bit large for it, but I wanted to see how it would drape and bloom at the loose gauge.

I changed to US #7’s when I brought in the natural brown-black version of the same yarn, and then I was really in heaven. The fabric is soft and cohesive. There’s enough heathering to provide a lot of visual depth, and the gentle luster of the Wensleydale gives it a gloss as well. This is the one I fell for: I’ll almost certainly order up enough to make Lisa Lloyd’s Amanda cardigan, because the thought of that gorgeous shawl color snugged around my neck is compelling even on an 80-degree late-summer day, and the beautiful heathering will perfectly complement the quiet texture of the checkered stitch pattern.

It was hard to come to the end of the chocolate Stonehedge-spun 2-ply sport and switch to Zwool’s interpretation of the same weight. I liked the pretty gray heather, but this was the twiniest, roughest feeling wool of them all. Again, it makes quite a nice fabric, and I suspect this could be the ugly duckling that surprises me after I wash my swatch strip, but the knitting wasn’t very pleasurable in comparison to the experience I’d just had.

But lucky me: next up was a 2-ply DK by Stonehedge. It’s quite a light DK, so I went down to US #3’s. They were metal needles this time, so I really had the skating sensation – a little too much so. I’d probably stick with wood for this yarn for a little more grab. But oh, how it flows through the fingers! Delicious.

The last wool was the Green Mountain Spinnery DK. My little coil of it looked thin and a little weedy compared to the other yarns on the card, although I favor the natural black color. I worked this on my #3’s as well, and I was impressed by the pleasing balance of the plies and the even fabric they produced: I know this is hard to achieve with a 2-ply yarn. Those Green Mountain folk know their stuff. This would make a beautiful lightweight sweater – I’d probably stick with plain stockinet, because there’s a lot of heathering and some frizzy ends that would tend to obscure any patterning. I’m also not sure I’d want it right up against my skin at the neck, so I’d imagine something with a boat neck or a large-enough V-neck that a shirt underneath could protect me from the scritchies.

Now it’s off to the bath to see what alchemy some warm water and a little Eucalan can work. Stay tuned for the results in Part II!