Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Starry, starry night..."

Sometimes inspiration strikes, and you have to take risks in order to see where it will lead. That's how it was with my Starry Night shawl. Note that I use the past tense. For the entire project has already come and gone without a word or even a single WIP photo posted here. I honestly thought I had blogged about it, but looking back it turns out that I documented it only on Ravelry. Eeep. It just goes to show what a wild ride this term has been, if I can conjure up *imaginary* blog posts!! So I guess this is going to have to be a single-page project gallery, from start to finish...

It all began with a fabulously luxurious yarn that is aptly named "Lust" (from Twisted Sisters, 70% kid mohair, 30% silk), magnificently hand-dyed to match Van Gogh's iconic painting "Starry Night" for the YarnMarket exclusive Impressionist Collection. Long-term readers of my blog will know all about my love for that collection from my earlier projects Paris Rain (based on a painting by Caillebotte) and Spring Bouquet (based on a Renoir). So I splurged with a bit of my Christmas money to buy two lusty skeins (see left): "Starry Night" in blue/green/gold and "Monet's Garden" in shades of red/fuchsia/violet. The latter is currently residing in my stash, but it is slated for its own adventure soon, so lovers of All Things Pink should definitely stay tuned...

I decided to work with the "Starry Night" first, but it posed a number of obvious challenges. Between its fuzzy texture and highly variegated colors, it needed the rare sort of lace pattern that could showcase it rather than competing with it and/or being totally obscured by it. I also wanted to use beads as a dramatic way of highlighting the connection to the artwork. In keeping with its artistic inspiration, this was meant to be less of a garment than a piece of jewelry...

So after a bit of searching around, I chose the popular Swallowtail Shawl from Evelyn Clark Designs. It is a relatively simple lace pattern, with a basic motif for the body of the shawl that is small and repetitive enough to let the colors do the talking, and a lovely edging originally designed for rows of nupps that was ideally suited to 6/0 beads instead. The "lily of the valley" motif actually reminded me of the famous swirls of clouds across the sky in Van Gogh's painting. I ordered 6/0 beads from Earthfaire in two different colors (blue and gold) to match the yarn: silver-lined cobalt AB and transparent light topaz AB. The following photos show the shawl at a very early stage (left) and the beads when they first arrived, about a week later (right). Note the emerging lace pattern in the background, as well as the depth and variety of the colors. As always, click on either image to take a closer look.

The body of the shawl took me nearly *two months* to complete, because it was such a repetitive pattern that I could not stand to work on it except in short bursts, so I just had to chip away at it, bit by bit, whenever I happened to be in the right mood. Along the way I felt reasonably confident that something beautiful was in store, but it was really hard to tell. I kept having doubts. But I would periodically stretch the fabric out over my knee to reassure myself that yes, this was what I had imagined. And the beads held tremendous promise. I was counting on them to make the whole project sing. Once I finally reached the point where I could switch to the border pattern and actually began adding those beads, the work suddenly picked up LOTS of speed. I actually finished the entire border section and the edging over a long weekend!! And that was despite having added an extra repeat of the border pattern in order to use up more of the yarn and display more beads.

This next series of pictures shows the WIP with beads (upper left), and the finished shawl right when it came off the needles, prior to blocking.

I loved how light and airy the fabric felt when it came off the needles. So much bounce in the yarn!! And then came the miracle of the blocking process, which took place rather fittingly on Easter Sunday. :-)

The beauty of lace never truly emerges until you block it, but this project took that truism to a whole new level for me. I soaked the fabric for a long time, to be sure the mohair fibers would be fully saturated, and then I pinned it out carefully with a good deal of stretch, although it probably could have withstood more. WOW. The vaguely triangular blue/gold blob that I had been laboring over for so many weeks suddenly transformed itself into an astonishingly lovely thing, fully 30" long at the center back and with a "wingspan" just shy of 60". Here is the final array of pictures, taken both during and after blocking.

What can I say? As I waited for the fabric to dry, I was overwhelmed just by the look and feel of the lace, and then, when I undid the pins and finally draped the shawl over my shoulders, I realized that it fits like a dream and, what's more, would STAY PUT when worn, even by an active person... WOW. This shawl is everything that I had imagined and hoped that it would be: warm, fuzzy, sparkly, artistically-inspired *jewelry*. I have worn it several times already. It looks fabulous over Basic Black, and I know in my heart that it will be a wardrobe staple for many years to come.

Starry, starry night.
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue.
Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain,
Weathered faces lined in pain,
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand...

Hearthfire Home Stretch!!

Wow, it's been a while here. Unintentionally, of course, but I've been crazy busy lately with classes and faculty stuff. Thankfully, the semester is winding down now. Final exams start on Monday. And on this lovely spring Saturday morning, I *finally* have a chance to sit down and type up a quick blog post with the BIG NEWS that I am almost done with a lace project — although come to think of it, there is at least one new finished project that needs a gallery too. Sheesh! I hate falling behind...

At any rate, here is the current status of my Hearthfire Shawl (a.k.a. Harbour Lights by Sivia Harding). Just 3 1/2 edging points to go!! I have been gradually chipping away at it for weeks, and with any luck I should finish it this weekend. This is going to be such a special piece: beads, colors, silk, cashmere, etc. I can't wait to wear it. Click for a closer look, as always.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Little Things in Life

Like anyone engaged in a particular craft or activity on-the-go, knitters typically have a collection of useful items that they carry around with them all the time: tools, accessories, gizmos, tchotchkes, call them what you like. We all devise our own ways of organizing these things and keeping them handy. Everyone who has been in the situation knows how frustrating it can be to hunt around urgently for the scissors, yarn needle, crochet hook, stitch marker, or whatever, and be unable to find it. We like to have everything right at our fingertips.

I recently completed two small projects that have both become lovely new additions to my knitting bag. They make me very happy, because each of them not only looks great but also meets a specific need. And the best part is that I designed them myself. It's always fun to see an idea come to fruition, especially when it actually WORKS and will not be left to rot on the dust-heap of history, as it were...

For years I kept my portable array of knitting tools in, of all things, a silver beaded evening purse (see left) that was given to me by a friend when her mother died and left her some things that she knew she would never use herself. It is just the right size, with a conveniently wide hinged opening, and the sheer frivolous luxury of an item like this always brings a smile to my face whenever I handle it. But it is fragile, I have to admit, and despite the TLC that I have tried to give it, wear and tear have taken a toll. Lately one or two strands of the beads actually worked loose. I was able to repair and/or conceal the damage, but I am awfully fond of this lovely little thing and do not want it to fall apart due to ill-use and/or neglect. Reluctantly, therefore, I was driven to the conclusion that it is now time to start using it only at home, where I can keep it safe, which means that I must find a substitute for my tools on the road.

So I reached for my handy stash of Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride worsted — those sweater leftovers sure can go a LONG WAY — to fashion a zippered pouch. I started in black with the magic cast-on method that is often used for toe-up socks, and then began working seamlessly in-the-round on two circular needles, gradually increasing in the first few rows to get the bottom curve just right. As soon as I could, I switched to one circular needle and a simple hexagonal mosaic pattern from Barbara Walker's Learn to Knit Afghan (as also seen on my felted folio). It is an especially fun pattern to knit because it uses slipped stitches to simulate the look of stranded knitting without ever having to work with more than one color at a time. I kept the black as a framework throughout but changed the color of the hexagons once per pattern repeat, following the same sequence of jewel tones that I had worked out to good effect for my Stained Glass beret. Stick with what works, right?

I wanted to end up with something ~6" square, but I deliberately made a much larger pouch (~ 8" wide x 10" tall), because I intended to felt the BEJESUS out of it, so that it would be sturdy enough to remain impervious to pointy objects such as scissors and crochet hooks. I knew from previous experience that the mosaic pattern tends to shrink more along the vertical axis than the horizontal. It took about 35-40 minutes in the washing machine hot cycle to produce the desired results, and another 4-5 days for the piece to dry thoroughly. The fabric is at least 1/4” thick!! I then had to wait for the right opportunity to sew in the zipper by hand, and voilĂ .

Here are some pictures taken at different stages in the process, including a before-and-after sequence to show just how much the fabric shrank during felting, as well as a closeup of the hand-sewn zipper and a current glimpse of the pouch, complete (and replete) with contents. Click on any one of them to get a closer look.

The pouch effortlessly holds all my knitting trinkets safe and secure in a neat little package, and the zipper works like a charm to make them instantly accessible at need. "Mischief managed!!"

The second piece is my answer to the problem of how to work with beads almost anywhere. I mean, those little buggers really get around, and unless you take conscientious steps to contain them, they will use every available means of escape. Friction helps. That's why a foam bead mat is essential. I have purchased them from Earthfaire in two different sizes (although they appear to be out of stock just at the moment): a large rectangular one (11" x 15") that I keep at home, and a pair of smaller ones (8" square) that I carry around with me.

At one point during the holidays, my husband bought me some of my favorite Ferrero Rocher chocolates in a clear plastic box, approximately 6" x 9". The candy vanished almost immediately, of course, and I soon put the box to use as a carrying case for my portable bead mat(s), tiny crochet hooks, containers of beads, etc. It worked beautifully for several months. I especially liked the way that the sides of the box helped to prevent spills when the tray is bumped or prodded while in use. But the plastic was brittle and after a while the edges of the box began to crack and split. I finally had to bow to the inevitable and throw it away, creating another big gaping hole in my tool-chest, as it were.

My husband has said that he may be able to fashion me a more permanent wooden box with a hinged lid, which would be a marvelous thing, if and when. But we would have to collaborate on the design, not to mention the time he must spend in his workshop to fabricate the thing, and meanwhile I needed something STAT. So I went to the drawing board on my own...

In the end, some of my more grandiose and complex ideas gave way to a very simple concept. I decided to make one of the small square bead mats into a portable bead-working kit. Fortunately, I happened to have some remnants of a brightly-colored batik fabric that I knew would do the trick. I cut out a rectangle big enough so that each edge could be folded over twice and fit over/around the bead mat, with an extra wide border on one side where elastic could be sewn to hold the two crochet hooks that I use with beads (1 mm for 6/0 beads and 0.5 mm for the 8/0 size). I carefully mitered the corners and sewed two seams around the mat 1/8" apart, to keep everything secure. Add a handy tie to the center back, and the whole thing can be rolled up neatly with the crochet hooks on the inside and tucked away for safe keeping when not in use.

The following series of photos shows both the front and the back of the piece when it is unfolded for use, as well as how it looks when everything is stowed away. Click on any of these images to see a larger view (especially the one on the upper left, for a closeup of the crochet hooks held in place by their elastic band).

I am happy to report that like its felted counterpart, this object is also highly functional as well as good-looking. I spent most of yesterday afternoon working on a beaded shawl with the new mat spread out beside me, and it worked really well. It sits on any flat surface and keeps the beads from bouncing all over the place. Obviously it's not nearly as deep (or presumably as secure) as a box, but the softer contours make it less vulnerable to bumping, and somehow the ridge of the folded fabric around the edge of the mat seems to form just enough of a psychological barrier, as it were, to prevent the worst sort of accidents. And it rolls up into a perfect little compact package. Mah-velous.