Sunday, March 28, 2010

P.S. I simply couldn't resist.

I should really know when to quit after that last, epic blog post that took bloody FOREVER to type, but I wanted to give you all a sneak peak at my American Beauty shawl, now officially and undeniably a work-in-progress.

They say that the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. So this shawl starts out with a dainty little rectangle (19 stitches x 8 rows). The lace pattern is then worked outwards from here in a triangular shape, and soon the piece will be ready for transfer to a circular needle, and a date with destiny. More soon...

Aphorisms and Rose Lace, Just in Time for Spring

Aphorism #1: Spring Has Sprung!!

The annual signs of nature's renewal have been discernible everywhere recently: daffodils blooming in the front yard, birds enthusiastically singing in the trees, gentle rain falling instead of snow, and on clear days the sky once again turning that warm, cheery shade of blue that we have not seen in so long, etc. Miraculous and oh-so-very-welcome...

Every year at about this time, I imagine what it must have been like to live in the Stone Age, when the return of the sun could not be taken for granted. It must have seemed as though winter might seriously NEVER end, so that the growing daylight and warmth and budding plants in springtime were literally life-saving. I mean, we sometimes feel that way even now, despite everything that science has taught us about the continuing cycle of the seasons and how/why it occurs every year. No wonder so many ancient cultures celebrated a solstice festival of some kind!!

'Tis the season for new lace projects, at any rate... Among other things, I am now nearing the completion of my beloved Hearthfire Shawl, which has been such a source of JOY and INSPIRATION, bound up with all the cozy thoughts and spicy aromas from the holiday season. There will be more to say about that project in the not-too-distant future. I have some lovely photos to share. But meanwhile the question naturally arises of what I ought to do next in order to fill the gap, and while contemplating my stash lately, I have found my thoughts irresistibly taking on a certain rosy glow...

Aphorism #2: It is ALWAYS a Lady's Prerogative to Change Her Mind

Oooooh, look at this GORGEOUS object!! Readers who have been with me for a while may remember that it came into my life back in August of 2009. It is Whisper by Aurora, a buttery soft lace-weight 100% merino wool imported from Italy. The yarn is expertly hand-dyed, using a single hue at different degrees of saturation to produce a tonal effect. The color (aptly named "Roses") took my breath away the very first time I saw it, with shades ranging from a deep, rich fuchsia all the way to the palest imaginable pink. It reminds me of pristine English tea roses, bedewed and blinking in the morning sunshine.

The skein is a whopping 1250 m (= 1362 yards), so I have enough to create something truly special. Click on either image (right or above) to get a closer look.

I originally imagined with this yarn that I would knit a rectangular lace stole using the traditional rose-trellis pattern. Makes sense, right? I even joined a Yahoo Group called Yarnfeathers, because the Ravelry database told me about a suitable stole pattern in their members-only archive.

But then time passed. Other items in my queue took priority, and although I did print out the stole pattern and wind the yarn (in an unforgettable marathon session), for some reason I held off on any actual knitting. I created a project page on Ravelry with a picture of the wound skein and a link to the stole, but I never cast on. Every so often, in the intervening months, I would pull out the wound skein to admire it and mull over all the intriguing possibilities that it seemed to offer. Looking back, I guess I must not have been entirely sure that I had really found the right pattern yet, because I kept surreptitiously hunting about and examining various options.

Eventually, I had to face facts. This project wasn't going anywhere in a hurry. I had growing doubts about the stole idea, and at some point I deleted the project page on Ravelry and officially moved the yarn over into my stash while I continued to search for a pattern. At that point I was biding my time and waiting for the next inspiration to strike.

Then just last week I felt my inchoate thoughts start to gel all of a sudden. I realized that I definitely no longer want to knit a rose-colored stole, but a triangular shawl instead. The Hearthfire project has made me a convert. So I did an exhaustive search through the entire Ravelry database, looking specifically for intricate lace triangles.

In my experience, it can be frustrating to go pattern hunting when you have something very specific in mind, because so often you come away disappointed. Nobody "out there" seems to get it just right. This time again, as usual, many lovely things (and some not-so-lovely ones too, IMHO) were examined and duly rejected. In the process, I ran across several striking designs that I had not seen before, including this amazing variation on the peacock-feather motif that may very well be destined for my stash of Unique Sheep Eos in the Aurora Borealis colorway (shown paired with silver-lined capri blue magatama beads). But I tried to stay focused on the task at hand, and after several hours, I finally found EXACTLY what I was looking for.

The winner is American Beauty from BadCat Designs: a triangular lace shawl based on an elegant rosebud pattern that appears throughout, with a delicate edging and some magnificent larger floral motifs in strategic locations. Scroll down on the page linked above to see a photo gallery from the original KAL. Although the complete pattern is now available for purchase and easy download, it was originally published serially on the designer's blog. I took my time and read through the entries in some detail before making even a small investment, but in all honesty I had fallen head-over-heels in love with this shawl at the very first sight, just as I had done with the yarn back in August. I feel very VERY sure that we are looking at a match made in heaven.

Aphorism #3: NEVER Say Never...

Ironically, the pattern calls for 8/0 beads. Whence the irony? Pairing lace yarns with beads has obviously become a favorite pass-time around here, but I had specifically and rather emphatically NOT tried to do it with this particular yarn, because I was afraid that shiny objects might seriously detract from the colors of the wool, which look so spectacular in their unadorned state. But the American Beauty pattern forced me to think again and see if I might be able to find some suitable beads after all.

After taking a deep breath or two, I proceeded to look at a wide variety of bead options. But in the end it was just too hard to tell from the Internet whether any of them would actually work with the yarn when I got them here in person. So I sent an email to Ellen at Earthfaire, asking for advice. She is my go-to person for beads and had also sold me the yarn in the first place, so I knew that I could implicitly trust her recommendations. My email included the same two yarn photos that appear at the top of this blog post. But Ellen is a wise and careful woman. She did not want to make a final decision based solely on an image from a computer screen, any more than I did. So she offered to send me some bead samples instead.

It took several days for the postal service to do its handiwork, but a small padded envelope duly arrived in yesterday's mail, full of goodies. Ellen's current stock is happily replete with rose-tones. Reading from left to right (i.e. counter-clockwise), we have silver lined ruby AB, hot pink lined crystal AB, raspberry lined crystal AB, orchid lined crystal AB, pink lined crystal AB, white pearl ceylon (in a 6/0 size that I requested for the color, since the 8/0 are currently out of stock), and crystal AB. Click on the image (left) to see a larger version.

I knew in advance that some of these beads would not look good with yarn at all, but for "due diligence" to be observed it pays to see things in person. And indeed, when put to the test, the range of options quickly shrank from seven to four, because the raspberry and orchid are both clearly way too purple, and the hot pink has too much peach in it. Now here are pictures of the remaining four choices, each with the yarn. As always, click on any of them to take a closer look.

So there we are. Honestly, I could probably choose any one of them and not hate the results.

Taking them one at a time... I was especially pleased to see how well the silver lined ruby (upper left) matches the darker end of the spectrum in the yarn, because it was an outside chance at best and I do like the effect. But the rainbow highlights in the AB coating add flashes of gold and orange into the mix that I must say I find distracting, intensified as they are when viewed against a darker background. I keep imagining pale beads with this yarn anyway...

Among the pale choices, the white pearl ceylon (lower left) stands out just a tad too starkly for my taste, in addition to being currently unavailable in the smaller size. Ellen does have some 8/0 antique ivory pearl ceylon beads in stock, which have a soft "winter white" look that is still not quite as yellow as the regular ivory pearl ceylon. Intriguing. I have been tempted to order some for a while, and they would make a good addition to my stash, since I am bound to want them eventually, even if I don't use them right away now.

The crystal AB (lower right) look like tiny sparkling soap bubbles. They are an exquisite neutral and would go well with virtually any yarn, because their clear surface picks up and reflects whatever color you put next to it. See how they take on a pale pink glow in the photo above? My only reservation is that the effect is almost too subtle for the task at hand. When I add beads to a big piece of lace, I want them to make a bold statement, and I find these just a tad too self-effacing to stand up next to those exultant rose tones. It is a DELICATE balance that one aims to strike.

All of which points to the conclusion that I should probably go with the pink lined crystal (upper right). Oddly enough, they were my favorite option from the beginning, albeit by a narrow margin and subject to verification. Now that I have seen them in person, I am *thoroughly* convinced. The magic of this choice is that the beads match the yarn perfectly, as if they had been dyed with the very same brush. So they accentuate and highlight the colors of the wool rather than competing with them. These beads also have an ethereal, pearlescent quality to their centers, and yet they are not entirely opaque. So they bring together all the best qualities of the other choices (i.e. the color match of the ruby, the pearly glow of the ceylon, and the clarity of the crystal) without any of the drawbacks that I mentioned above. Each single bead will show up nicely on its own, and the effect will be as harmonious and balanced as anyone could wish.

So now the only thing left to decide now is how many beads I should purchase. The pattern as written calls for 35 g, i.e. a single container. But I am tempted to get two of them, because I am probably going to make some minor modifications to the pattern that are likely to require extra beads. While it is easy enough to order more as needed, I do not like to worry about possibly running out. The pattern also asks for 9 special heart-shaped beads that are meant to go in certain key spots on the shawl as an homage to Valentine's Day (hearts & roses). Not really my thing... I found at least one knitter on Ravelry who replaced the hearts with clusters of the 8/0 beads, which is a nice idea. Alternately, the pink-lined crystal is also available in the larger 6/0 size, and I could sprinkle in a few of those as embellishments without jeopardizing the color scheme in ANY way.

Aphorism #4: Always Finish What You've Started

Good advice, especially for a knitter with chronic start-itis (like me, hehe, just look at those progress bars!!). But since the only way to achieve completion is by knitting, rather than blogging, I think I will take a convenient exit. This post has already gone on long enough!! ;-)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Another Magic Moment on Ravelry


I just got a personal message on Ravelry from Madeline Langan (a.k.a. "KnittingDream"), the designer of the Bar Harbor Shell Bag, and I can't help wanting to share a bit of it here, even at the risk of tooting my own horn. It began as follows:

Your bag is the most beautiful Bar Harbor Shell Bag that I have seen! When I look at your bag I become mesmerized by your color combinations. It really does seem to glow!
That is high praise from an estimable source. It made my day!! :-)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ravelympics After-the-Fact, Part II: Stained Glass Felted Bag

[[ Special thanks once again go out to zzwhitejd, the Raveler who holds the Creative Commons license for this lovely official Ravelympics 2010 banner and was gracious enough to allow others like me to use it free of charge, with appropriate attribution, of course. ]]

OK, it's time now for the second installment of my retrospective on the 2010 Ravelympics, which will deal with the major project that took up the lion's share of my time during the games: the stained glass felted bag that I tagged for Team Indiana ("Go, Hoosiers!!"). The stained glass theme should sound very familiar to long-time readers of my blog. For indeed my preparations for this project began last summer. I have had the raw materials sitting around here for months. So once again I seized upon the Ravelympics as an excuse to make progress on something that had been waiting in the wings for quite a while.

The pattern is the Bar Harbor Shell Bag by Madeline Langan, the same designer whose similar felted beret I have now made twice (see here and here). The yarn was a combination of Noro Kureyon worsted in a variety of different colors for the fan-shaped stained glass panels and Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride Worsted (85% lambswool, 15% mohair) for the black borders in between.

My goal for the Ravelympics was not to complete the entire project, because I knew that it would require elaborate finishing (handles, inserts, lining, pockets, etc.) that I would by no means want to rush. So instead I limited my ambitions to knitting the body of the bag, in order to have it ready for felting by the close of the games.

Baby steps first, then... Because the Ravelympics rules stipulated that it was OK to prepare materials in advance, I took advantage of that convenient loophole to carve up the eight skeins of Noro Kureyon into their component colors (see right, and click for a closer view). Then I could sort through what I had, take stock, and eventually come up with a workable color-scheme. I actually put my yarn scissors to good use during the Super Bowl (less than one week before the Olympics)!!

The end result of this rather time-consuming dissection process was a substantial pile of quart-sized ziplock bags, each full of little "single-serving" yarn bundles in a particular color (see left, and click for a closer view). Once I had all the various skein fragments separated, I grouped together all the usable shades of red/pink, purple, blue, and green. Naturally, there were sub-groups as well: red-purple vs. blue-purple, royal blue vs. turquoise, blue-green vs. yellow-green, etc.

Certain browns and muddy colors went right into the "ick/leftovers" category (shown in the bottom portion of the photo, left). But the latter comprised only one or two half-empty bags, which should stand as a testament to my careful shopping beforehand. Many Noro colorways, to my eyes at least, contain a super-abundance of rancid greens and browns that I emphatically did NOT want for this project. So I looked far afield and drew upon three different suppliers to achieve the desired balance of component colors in the final mix.

From a knitting standpoint, the bag is worked from the top down. It is built out of interlaced rounds of fan-shapes (6 per round) that are fashioned individually, a bit à la entrelac. The original design calls for 9 rounds of full-sized fans before the decreases toward the center at the bottom of the bag, but for the sake of the finished proportions I chose to do only 8 full rounds, based on comments and photos from other Ravelry users. Within that framework, my goal was to devise a color-scheme that would make the color-transitions as smooth as possible throughout, following a simple progression from red to purple to blue to green and back again. So based on the quantities that I had to hand, the rounds went as follows: first pink/red, then reddish purples, medium purples, and blue-purples respectively, followed by royal blues and turquoises, then teals, medium greens, and yellow-greens, before the decreases, which shaded quickly back from green to blue to purple to pink and red once more at the center bottom. I carefully saved enough of each major color to do the bottom at the end, and was thrilled to see it all work out more or less exactly the way I had planned, with suprisingly little waste.

All of which sounds fairly straightforward, right? So why did this project end up absorbing so much more of my Ravelympics time than I had anticipated?!! The answer is simple: I had to weave in all the @#$^%&!! *ENDS*.

To get the full impact of this inexorable reality, it is is important to be crystal clear about the arithmetic. For this is one of those situations in life where the numbers simply do not lie.

The original design called for 2 colors per fan, but when I got to work on the top round, I quickly realized that I needed *5* colors per fan to make the kind of seamless transitions that I had in mind. So, with 5 colors per fan and 6 fans per round and 8 rounds of fans in the body of the bag, plus the 5 rounds of shrinking fans in the decrease section with anywhere from 2 to 4 colors each, not to mention the black border on each fan and all the scattered places where it took more than one piece of yarn to complete a particular segment, by my best estimate the bag as a whole contains a total of *800-900* ends, each of which had to be dealt with individually, by hand, using a crochet hook and yarn scissors to ensure that nothing would show. I knew that the felting process would eventually hold them in place, but they all had to get into place first, before the finished piece could ever go into the washing machine.

Note: the photo above looks drastic enough, but it shows only the ends from the last two tiny decrease rounds at the center bottom of the bag, consisting of a mere 2-3 colors per fan. In other words, this was just the tail-end of the process. To imagine the effect in EACH of the *8* full-size rounds, you must multiply what you see above by TWO OR MORE.

On average, then, I ended up spending as much time weaving in the ends as I did on the knitting itself. That is not an exaggeration. Even going into the project with my eyes wide open, as it were, I frankly underestimated just how long it would take. Fortunately, at least I knew enough from my experience with the stained glass berets to make a rule of weaving as I went. I waited until each round of fans was complete, just in case there might have to be some minor adjustments made to balance out the color scheme (e.g. if I ran out of a particular shade sooner than expected), but once I was sure that the knitting was finished, I carefully wove in all the ends from that round before starting in on the next one. If I had not adhered to the same practice on every round, I am quite sure that I would never have finished the project. *NEVER*...

This turned out to be a massive undertaking, especially within the time-limit of the Olympic games. But by disciplining myself from the beginning to work on one row of fans after another, and with a big sprint to the finish-line during the closing ceremonies to complete the bottom of the bag, I managed to bind off the final stitches literally *5 minutes* before the official deadline (i.e. 2:55 AM EST on Sunday, February 28th).

What an ENORMOUS relief...

So, without further ado, here is the photo gallery for the WIP. It starts with the array of multi-colored yarn segments that always went along with this project (although they changed hues as the knitting progressed), and then charts my gradual progress from the first round of 6 separate red/pink fans down toward the bottom of the bag, which suitably forms the final image. All of these photos were taken before felting. If you look closely at the second-to-last one (which shows the finished inside after ALL the ends had been woven in), you will be able to spot the black border across the top of the bag, which made a nice finishing touch. As always, click on any of these images to take a closer look.

A day or two after the closing ceremonies, after catching up on some sleep, I double-checked that the last few loose ends had been neatly tucked away and then ceremoniously carted off my handiwork to the washing machine for the felting process. The knitting went into a zippered mesh laundry bag to protect the machine from excess fiber. Then, following the instructions, I filled the drum part way with hot water, added a small amount of detergent, and used two pairs of old jeans to aid in the agitation. Then I stood over the machine to monitor the felting process very closely, also adding extra minutes to the wash cycle as it went along. In the end, it took about 22 minutes to achieve the desired results. I skipped the spin cycle to avoid creasing, gave the bag a quick rinse in cold water, and then stretched it out over a popcorn can to dry. This last little detail came straight out of the pattern instructions. I was lucky enough to have an old popcorn can left over from the 1980's (a Christmas gift from my aunt & uncle when I was in grade school). Once I had the bag stretched over the can (upside down, of course), it was fun to watch gravity at work: first all the water soaked down toward the bottom edge, and then it slowly evaporated. It took several days for the piece to dry thoroughly.

As I had hoped, the felting was just enough to blend the colors nicely without obscuring the texture of the knitting. This last pair of photos was taken during the drying process. The first one shows the sides of the bag and the second one just the bottom.

Simply stunning, no?? I can sit and stare for hours on end at those delightfully muted yet vibrant colors...

Gloating aside, I am very gratified with how well this project has turned out, because all my hard work paid off. It's great to see some tangible results finally, after sitting around for so long trying to imagine what it would eventually look like. I recently acquired some lovely lilac lining fabric (note the splendid alliteration!!) that will put a very stylish touch on the finished product, and now I am trying to decide exactly what to do about the handles (i-cord, as in the original? a flat strip of ribbing, felted or un-felted? leather??). So it is by no means all over yet, and I am taking my time now that the pressure is off.

As a footnote, this bag already has its own little fan-club. Someone on Ravelry was kind enough to include it among the notable FO's on the Ravelympics 2010 forum, so it has already gotten more than 2 dozen "faves". I feel very confident that this will end up becoming an heirloom and a favorite project for show and tell.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ravelympics After-the-Fact, Part I: Vancouver Frost & Snow

[[ Special thanks go out to zzwhitejd, the Raveler who holds the Creative Commons license for this lovely official Ravelympics 2010 banner and was gracious enough to allow others like me to use it free of charge, with appropriate attribution, of course. ]]

I realize that at this point any blog suddenly showing up with an Olympics motif, of all things, is going to seem more than "a day late and a dollar short." For by now the XXI Winter Games in Vancouver are old news, having come and gone weeks ago, along with their delightfully exuberant Ravelry counterpart. But meanwhile there has been a corresponding BIG GAP in my reportage as well, due to the fact that I was so busy participating in the Ravelympics that I had no time left over to document my activities as I went. I must therefore update this chronicle retroactively, and readers will simply have to bear with me.

True confessions: I am a hard-core Olympics junkie and have been all my life. Every time the games roll around, in other words, be it summer or winter, I basically put everything else on hold as long as the torch is lit, in order to devote myself as much as possible to watching the competition and reveling in the spirit of it all. For me, then, the Ravelympics held out the joyous prospect of evenings blissfully spent knitting in front of the TV and blogging about about my progress day-by-day.

I thought I would have plenty of time on my hands, because the final weekend of the games coincided with the start of winter break at the college. But then my chosen projects turned out to be more time-consuming than I had imagined, and realistically I could only keep up with two out of the three, i.e. watching, knitting, and/or blogging. So as the impending deadline loomed closer and closer (midnight PST = 3 AM EST, after the closing ceremonies on Sunday, February 28th), I just kept knitting, on the assumption that I could always blog about it later.

A whole *LOT* later, in point of fact. But now let's get down to business...

I took on three Ravelympics knitting projects and successfully completed them all within the allotted time-frame (woohoo!!), although the third one came right down to the wire, as we shall see in "Ravelympics After-the-Fact, Part II" (coming soon to a web-browser near you). I intend to deal with the first two here. These make a natural pairing, because they are both smaller projects by one of my favorite designers, Anne Hanson of KnitSpot. They had also both been in my queue for a while, so that the Ravelympics simply gave me an excuse.

First came the Hoarfrost cowl, which I tagged for "Team Little Needle Lovers (LNL)." I chose KnitPicks Bare, a natural, un-dyed fingering weight Peruvian Highland wool and christened this project Vancouver Frost, in keeping with the pattern name, the colorway, and the Olympics theme. It was a straightforward and very pleasurable knit, especially because the stitches fit perfectly on a 16" circular needle (3.25 mm = US size 3) for no-fuss handling. Here is a series of photos showing both the work in progress and the finished product, including one picture that my husband took afterward to show how the cowl looks when worn, nestled up cozily around the neck and throat.

The blend of lace and cable-work in the main snowflake pattern makes for a remarkable depth of texture in this pattern, and the delicate edging gives it the perfect finishing touch. I put on the cowl right away, as soon as it was done, and proceeded to wear it more or less continually for the rest of the Olympic games. It is snuggly and warm and yet unobtrusive and feminine at the same time. I have received quite a few compliments on it, both on Ravelry and in person.

Then came the Snow on Cedars Mitts, which I tagged for "Team Fingerless Glove Fanatics". I chose a KnitPicks yarn for this one too: Shadow Kettle-Dyed lace weight wool in a discontinued dark green colorway called "Wilderness" that I had acquired over the summer in connection with the Christmas 2010 project. I went down to 2.5 mm (US size 1+) dpn's in order to ensure a snug fit on my admittedly small hands. I also paired the yarn with some sparkly 8/0 silver-lined transparent teal beads and decided to go all-out for a glamorous end result that I dubbed Vancouver Snow, carrying on with the Ravelympics winter-weather theme from the cowl project. Each mitt required three sessions of approximately two hours: the first two for the trees, and the third to complete the upper portion and the thumb. Here are some pictures, including one of how these elegant mitts look on the hand.

I am thrilled to pieces with how these mitts turned out. They not only stylish and classy-looking but surprisingly warm as well. I followed the approach with the beads that I learned from Sivia Harding's Harbour Lights Shawl: using a crochet hook to add beads to the pattern stitches in a given round after they have been worked, so that the next row of plain knitting will hold them neatly in place. All that extra detailing made for a LOT of painstaking work, especially in the wrist section of each mitt (those TREES!!!), but it was entirely worth it. I think that the beads look just like glistening snowflakes and Christmas lights twinkling in the trees — and the designer agrees. She left me a wonderful compliment on Ravelry. :-)

By the way, check out the following statistics that "code-monkey" Casey compiled for the 2010 Ravelympics world-wide:

  • total # of projects tagged with "ravelympics2010": 24,284
  • total # of projects tagged with "ravelympics2010" and finished: 12,878
  • total # of Ravelers that finished: 6,296 (out of 9,538 participating)
  • total # of countries participating: 65
  • total # of people posting into a Finish Line: 5,186
  • total yardage used: 8,068,000 (yes…this is 8+ million!)
  • total yardage spun/dyed: 448,000

Pretty amazing, n'est-ce pas? :-)