Sunday, May 23, 2010

Heavenly Hearthfire

Let's be honest: knitting projects are NOT all created equal. Some are frankly more compelling than others. And every once in a while, a special one comes along that exercises a unique fascination and takes the creative process to a whole new level.

That's what the Hearthfire Shawl was like for me, from the very first moment that I saw this limited holiday edition colorway of the Fiesta yarn called Gracie's Lace in December of last year. Forgive me, Dear Reader, if these pictures of the skein seem overused and all-too-familiar. I just can't seem to get enough of them!

On one level, it was all about the *colors* — fuchsia, blue-violet, cypress green, russet brown — each of them deep and rich enough to drown in on its own, and the whole ensemble brought together in a harmonious and cozy seasonal blend aptly named "Cranberry Crush." The description on the Earthfaire website (where, incidentally, they have several of the regular Gracie's Lace colorways in stock at the moment) said something about mulled cider that really stuck in my mind. I am very much a cool colors, white-metal jewelry sort of girl, and generally avoid warm shades in my personal wardrobe. Earth tones tend to crawl off me. But with the pink and purple to offset the cinnamon, this colorway quickly became the exception that proves the rule.

When the package from the yarn store arrived, unexpectedly fast as I recall, I ripped it open eagerly and paused only long enough to snatch one or two photos of the unwound hank before winding it up to see what it would look like. And then, of course, a week later I had the unforgettable epiphany of matching the yarn with the silver-lined dark topaz AB beads, which magically reflected ALL the colors in what was already a heady mixture, to make the whole thing sparkle and sing. Scintillating!!

Yet amid all the chromatic rapture, let us not neglect the *texture* of this sensuous beauty. Gracie's Lace is truly a feast for the touch as well as the eyes, with 70% resilient, springy merino, 15% luscious, shiny silk, and 15% buttery soft, self-indulgent cashmere. It was an incredibly smooth, cushy knit, the kind where I found myself torn between wanting to work fast and make progress toward completion and wanting to slow down and savor the experience of holding the knitting in my hands and running the yarn through my fingers. Fortunately, even after blocking (which can sometimes attenuate the fabric and change its tactile character), it still has an incredibly soft, luxurious feel.

And of course the other crucial element in all of this, was the *consummate artistry* of Sivia Harding's Harbour Lights shawl design. Originally inspired by the nautical images of a lighthouse and lapping waves, this triangle shawl with its bold radiating panels and unusually deep, flowing edge pattern lent itself perfectly to the home-for-the-holidays, festive cooking and candlelight/fireside warmth and fellowship evoked by the Cranberry Crush. So the Hearthfire concept emerged from a rich and harmonious fusion of colors, textures, and lace patterns.

It was, quite simply, a *WOW* experience for me from start to finish. The edging became a surprisingly large task, even with just 24 points around the outside of the triangle, because of its depth and intricacy. It took over a month to complete. When the shawl was done at last, I honestly missed being able to work on it anymore!! That is probably why I kept taking so many pictures of the finished object, literally dozens of them. I had enjoyed the whole process so thoroughly that I wanted to capture it and hold onto it somehow. Nor could I let it go here in the "blogosphere" without one final attempt to put some of my inspiration into words.

But enough rhapsodies... Without further ado, here is a gallery of the completed Hearthfire Shawl, both during and after blocking. You can tell the difference, when in doubt, because of my blocking cloth with its unmistakable (and amazingly helpful!!) grid peeking through from behind the lace. As always, click on any of these images to get a closer look. I strongly encourage it, because this is truly a fun piece to look at. It will reward your attention, I promise. :-)

I should note that since completing this shawl about a month ago, I have actually worn it several times. It is a delightful cover-up for a woman on-the-go and especially effective over Basic Black, which offsets the colors beautifully and lets them shine.

And this story has an Epilogue... Working in lace-weight yarn with a design that was written for fingering-weight, I paid close attention to the measurements and did several extra pattern repeats on the body of the shawl so that it would come out to be the right size. There were also some careful calculations for the edging, and when I realized what a substantial portion of the time, effort, and yarn had to be kept in reserve for that final phase of the project, I kept weighing the remainder of the skein after each pattern repeat of the body, because above all things I did NOT want to run out of yarn within sight of the finish. As a result, when all was said and done, I actually had 8 g of the precious fiber left over, which was just enough that I could not let it to go to waste. I had some extra beads too. So with a bit of tinkering, and thanks at least in part to the fact that I have been gifted (?) with small hands, I was able to make a set of beaded wristwarmers to match the shawl. I used the Estonian Lace Wristwarmers pattern by noted designer Evelyn Clark (available as a free Ravelry download). Click on any of these images likewise for a closer look if it pleases you.

It took some special care to ensure that the bind-off would be loose and elastic enough to get these on and off with ease, but they fit nicely and add a surprising amount of warmth for all their diminutive size and delicate appearance.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Guernseys Get Going!!

I must apologize to my loyal readers for another unseemly hiatus. I honestly did not intend for it to happen, but Spring is an especially busy season in academia, trying to wrap things up before graduation both in class and administratively, and at the end of a long day with not much time to spare, I have to admit that I would far rather relax with my knitting for a little while than crank up the blogging and imaging software. So here I find myself again with a rather alarming backlog of WIPs and finished projects, all crying out to be documented before it gets to be too late. Sigh. Just call me Sisyphus, OK? ;-)

But perhaps we can start with something relatively straightforward. I am extremely excited to report that the His & Hers project that began last summer, which I christened The Great Guernsey Adventure, has seen some genuine progress in recent weeks. I have been on a "yarn diet" since March 1st, with no new purchases allowed, in an attempt to focus on works in progress. It also helps that my Spring Term class on Roman gladiators has involved watching all the great Hollywood blockbuster films inspired by the Roman arena: Kirk Douglas for 3 1/2 hours last Monday, Russell Crowe for 2 1/2 hours on Thursday, and Charlton Heston for nearly 4 hours this coming Monday. All that epic drama offers a fabulous opportunity for knitting along.

So for starters I was finally able to finish the collar for my husband's Stornoway, which has been pending since the end of January. Those who have been following this project from the beginning will remember that I modified the original neckline by bringing the yoke pattern up a bit further and making a proper crew-neck rather than a mock turtle style. After picking up stitches around the neck (including front, back, and shoulder straps), I worked in k2p2 ribbing for 2 1/2", then folded the edge to the inside and carefully sewed it down. Here is what the finished collar looks like (as always, click for a closer look).

As a side note, with all the live stitches off the needles and only the sleeves still missing, it was possible for the intended recipient to try on his sweater for the first time. Not that I was really very nervous about it, having taken careful measurements beforehand and monitored my gauge throughout, but it still came as a relief to see that IT REALLY FITS!! Even without blocking...

I can hardly believe that it's just a matter of finishing the sleeves now. Reaching that milestone really fired me up to keep going and see this thing through to the end. But no sooner did I begin picking up stitches around the first armhole than I realized that the job would require a 24" circular needle, at least to start out. And for some reason my collection lacks the precise combination of needle size and cable length for this purpose, despite my best efforts to ensure that I had laid in all the necessary hardware in advance. I guess I just didn't quite foresee how wide the armhole would be. It will be easy enough to place an order with KnitPicks, but not until June 1st. That is my self-imposed deadline for knitting-related purchases (the "yarn diet" mentioned above). Which means that I had to suspend work on Stornoway for a little while.

I did not like to lay it aside, especially just when I had begun to move forward again after so long a pause. But the silver lining was that this meant I could turn my attention instead to my own Eriskay, which got off to a later start than his sweater still needs a LOT more work.

Wait a minute... Looking back over previous entries, I just realized that I never posted *anything* at all about actually launching Eriskay. Wow. That just goes to show what can happen when you fall behind and try to catch up, but then don't quite manage to fill in all the gaps. Alright, so I'd better be sure to tell the whole story now and not to leave out any of the important bits.

The first big hurdle was to figure out exactly how to do the Channel Island cast-on *left-handed*. I found several right-handed tutorials, both in print and on-line, and got some terrific help in addition from a fellow Southpaw on Ravelry, who had written down detailed lefty instructions at a workshop with no less an authority on all things guernsey than Beth Brown Reinsel herself. So after an inevitable but thankfully brief period of rather dizzying dyslexic confusion (left? right? up? down? clockwise? counterclockwise?), I was able to sort out the technique and then put it to good use, casting on 320 stitches for the bottom ribbing. Here's how it looked with the first few rounds complete. See the string of bumps along the bottom edge? That's the signature look of the Channel Island cast-on, which is uniquely well suited for k1p1 ribbing. Be sure to notice my little black bunny stitch marker (courtesy of WeeOnes), and of course feel free to click on the image for a closer look.

According to my project page on Ravelry, that was November 29th. Then came 2 3/4" of k1p1 ribbing around the circle of 320 stitches with 2.0 mm (US size 0) needles. Yikes!! I won't try to disguise the fact that this became quite a test of endurance. I found that I could not work on it for very long at a time without having my hands get tired and/or start to ache in odd places. So every so often I would knit a round or two and then put it away, and come back to it again later. Yet even though I knew that I was whittling away at the challenge and that the ribbing was expanding ever so slowly, nevertheless MONTHS went by without the goal getting any appreciably nearer.

Indeed only just this past week, with Stornoway unexpectedly on hold and all that raw, un-harnessed "guernsey energy" running through my veins, did I actually manage to (a) finish the @#^$!! ribbing and (b) start the body pattern. One difference between these His & Hers designs is that while Stornoway uses the same series of patterns throughout in a basically vertical or columnar arrangement set off by alternating cables, Eriskay has a simple, repetitive body pattern up to the armholes, which is then topped by an intricate paneled yoke including both cables and some feminine lacy touches.

The transition from the ribbing to the body pattern, which also involved moving up incrementally to a 2.25 mm (US size 1) circular needle, was like NIGHT and DAY in terms of ease, efficiency, and speed of progress. The process of working the ribbing lasted almost *6 months*, whereas I have now completed 35 rows of the body pattern in less than a week. I am utterly overjoyed with the results. Feel free, as always, to click on any of these photos and examine them more closely. But if you do so, I beg you to ignore the pale cat hairs. They just go with the territory around here. Hehehe.

This is of course the same traditional 5-ply guernsey yarn from Frangipani in the UK that I am also using for his Stornoway, although the gauge is slightly smaller (a difference of 0.25 mm in the needle circumference or one US size). It makes an amazing knitted fabric, sturdy and yet pliable, and with incredible stitch definition. The colorway is called "Damson," and I find it rich and deeply satisfying to gaze at. It reminds me of the evocative "wine-dark sea" from Homeric poetry, and I know that it will fit right into my winter wardrobe, because that is already heavily weighted toward the burgundy/plum end of the spectrum.

So that's how the guernseys are going, slowly but surely. Coming up next: a gallery of finished lace...