Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pastoral Poetry - from the language of flowers

Both my parents and H's parents are very green-fingered; they have beautiful gardens that are a joy to spend time in, and reflect the time and effort put into them by each. Whilst I enjoy being in a lovely garden, H and I have wondered whether the bug skipped a generation with each of us.

We love the garden to look nice and happily spend hours stretched out on the lawn/miniature hockey pitch each summer, starfish-snoozing on a quilt with books, sketchpads, knitting and long cool iced drinks within easy reach.

What we lack is the incentive to get out there every weekend, keeping things up to the minute and monitoring each and every bloom. We have moments of intense hard work where we have a massive tidy up and everything looks wonderfully neat with all the bulbs planted, or all the annuals spilling out of the beds, and then we sit back and enjoy it until it gets too messy to contemplate and we have a giant tidy up. Perhaps the phrase is 'garden teenagers'!

I've long held a theory that everyone is creative in some way, they just have to find what that way is. A couple of colleagues claim not to be creative at all, yet they both have an enviable sense of fashion style, and one in particular has the interior design creativity that would give her an easy alternative career if she got bored of our daily grind.

The thing is, I think the same might be true of growing things; you just need to find what it is that you love to grow, and I'm increasingly convinced that I have my answer:

January 111
Bulbs. The gardening equivalent of a supper that you just pop in the oven and set the timer. In this particular case, an Amaryllis. Pure and simple.

I love pouring through the catalogue and choosing new colours to try (sadly lacking both the pots and the finances to go with my instinct of one of each); potting up the bulbs carefully just as everything outside is settling down to a winter hibernation; and watching as the first hint of green starts to appear from the papery edges.
January 112

First the leaves and then the flower bud, slowly at first and then sprinting to the sky, before busting forth in a triumphant declaration of celebration. I know what varieties I planted, but didn't bother with any sort of labelling so it's a complete surprise to see what each unfurls.

January 114

Last year I'd planted my Double Dragon in time for Christmas; this year we planted a little later and this, the first of three, is here to herald the New Year.

Spring may be hiding under a thick and downy duvet of snow (including the extra few inches that arrived today - yippee), but there's no stopping this candy striped parade of new life.

January 116

The variety is called Dancing Queen and came from Peter Nyssen bulbs (who also supplied the Double Dragon and Apple Blossom from last year).

I'm off to watch for blooms on the other two now - I swear you can almost see them growing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lacking ingredients

No gingerbread ingredients to be found in the house - it appears my longing for gingerbread may have led me to start snacking on another of the Christmas tree ornaments:December 377
He doesn't look too pleased does he?

This is another new addition to the tree this year - a little less intensely beautiful than my ice-skates; but one of H's favourites none the less.

The inspiration and basic pattern came from Elsie Marley - I spotted it over Christmas and had to add a bit of brown felt to a shopping trip just for the pure comedy value.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wandering into the realms of fantasy

In my illusions I think I may have been born out of time. Really, secretly, I'm a 1950s housewife. Of course I'm not the reality of a 1950's housewife. I don't want to give up my nice efficient washing machine, my hot water boiler or my central heating, or to be treated as subservient and somehow inferior to men. I think I might miss the internet too. What I really want is to live in that Hollywood dreamworld where everything is pretty colours, and the chief object of my day is to make beautifully decorated cupcakes and wear pretty frilly aprons over my floral print dresses with those enormous skirts. Somehow it would always be sunny too.

And in the winters it would snow; deep, crisp and longlasting; and we wouldn't have to go to work and we would all wear handmade hats and mittens and drink hot chocolate and go sledging, and maybe the canals and lakes would freeze solid and we could go ice-yachting or skating to the North Pole (I was always an Arthur Ransome fan; Winter Holiday has a lot to answer for).

In the absence of (a) a time machine, and (b) the ability to jump into a film/picture a la Mary Poppins, I've been living my dreamworld with a little bit of sewing.

This is the second year that Alicia Paulson has designed a kit for a set of Christmas ornaments, and the first year that I've been reading her blog regularly enough to know about them. I haven't started on this year's kit yet, but last year's trio has kept me entertained all through the festive period, and were finished in time for the perfect snow to set them off.

It's the story of an Ice Skating Afternoon. Given that my afternoons spent ice skating were indoors, in Oxford, and usually in the summer when the heat got too much and we grew tired of punting or lazing around in Christchurch meadows by the river this is a stretch for my imagination. But exercise is nothing if not good for you.

Maybe we've just arrived in the Lakes, screwed our skates to our hiking boots and pushed off into a vast open frozen wasteland to carry on with our training for the Polar expedition, steadily building up that all important muscle memory with our daily routine on the ice, pausing only on the shoreline to boil a kettle over an open fire for cocoa and to share some slightly squished gingerbread, of the sort declared too sticky for grown ups, rescued from the bottom of a knapsack (where it rather suffered from being placed underneath the skates earlier in the day).

But would the lakeland me wear skates like this:
January 014

No, I think this is a different me, perhaps closer to home, setting out with a group of friends to see whether it's true that the pond has frozen hard enough for outdoor skating. Regardless of the cold, I'm wearing a wonderfully frou-frou red dress, with two bands of deep turquoise ribbon around the bottom of the skirt, thick woolly tights, thermal bloomers and my pom-pom ice-skates. My hat and mittens of course match my socks, and my hair would bounce and shine and would not in any way resemble the 'hat hair' that I've been sporting for the last few days.

We would fly along, twizzling and twirling all the way (in daydreams such as these it would be unpardonable to recollect that my skating is at best dubious, and usually ends up with me splatted on the rink, or desperately clutching at the barrier).

Rosy cheeked, we all pile back to the house for hot chocolate with whipped cream and little gold stars, and delicately iced ginger-bread men and ladies served from a tea tray with a pale blue cloth embroidered with silver stars and snowflakes.

Do you think my cups would look like this?

January 088

that's either a marshmallow or a blob of cream by the way - the snow is entirely optional.

My gingerbread girls might be pretty, but I couldn't eat them if they looked like this.
January 086

All three are technically tree decorations and did make it onto the tree (albeit briefly) before it came down at Epiphany, but they're just too special to go into the Christmas box already so I think they might have to spend the year in good company pinned to my inspiration board.

The kits were of limited supply, but if you missed out and you fancy spending some quiet afternoons with felt and sewing needles, conjuring up your own winter wonderland, you can still buy the pattern here.

As for me, well I've had a hot chocolate for today, I wonder whether I've got the ingredients for gingerbread men...

Saturday, January 09, 2010

All change please

It really shouldn't surprise me that I'm still writing 2009 in my date book. In my mind I'm somehow convinced that it's only really September. I've had a wonderful October, November and December, don't get me wrong, and this isn't entirely out of the ordinary, I once bought H a perfect birthday present in July, completely blanking out our birthday celebrations a few weeks earlier.

The thing is, I think I've worked out why.

Wool fumes. Or to be more precise, Wollmeisse fumes:
January 058

This is the start of Scadenza, the fourth installment of last year's Socktopus club, which arrived in, you guessed it, September. I swooned over the Wollmeisse, wrote an e-mail to a near and dear knitty friend to make her envious (I'm nice I am!), wound it into a satisfying little yarn cake; and sat it on the cake stand for three months.

There was Christmas knitting, there was Christmas, and then my needles were empty and the daily commute started to beckon and I popped it in the travelling bag with the needles and the patten and set too.

It's fair to say that this isn't a pattern that calls to me instantly. I'm not a great fan of toe-up socks for starters, purl in the round isn't my thing, and if it wasn't a sock club pattern I'd probably have passed over it. However, the whole point of the sock clubs for me is to encounter yarn and patterns that I would never meet in real life, or pass over on the shelf so I set to.

All was going well until I got past the heel turn and tried to make the staggered ripples match up. The pattern as written for the large of foot seemed to give me an extra band of purl stitches which I thought would break the rhythm, and any other alternative seemed to end up with the waves floating gently around one side of the sock, only to crash thunderously when it reached the full circle.

After I knit, and re-knit, and re-knit, and re-knit, and had a half hour discussion with H in which we both concluded that if it could be done we were missing something spectacularly obvious, he suggested consulting the internets.

And lo and behold, Ravelry answered. It isn't possible to make the staggered waves flow neatly around the sock. The 'dark' side of the sock, which makes no appearance on any of the pattern photos, has the clash that I could not avoid. People seem to have either accepted the clash or done something terribly clever involving re-charting and turning part of the pattern upside down.

I don't want my socks to have clashy bits on them so I've come up with a new plan which (one sock down) seems to look ok.
January 106

As you see, nothing horribly clashy on this side,
January 107

And this side looks pretty good too.

After the heel turn I continued the pattern straight until I got to row 8 on the front of the foot. Then I reversed the gusset pattern and knit that up the back of the foot. Where there was an increase on the gusset pattern going in the original direction, I tailed off the wiggly line by knitting a 1x1 purl cross (slip the knit stitch to the cable needle, hold at the back; purl the next stitch then purl the stitch off the cable needle - except that I don't bother with the cable needle).

Then when I got to the top of the sock, as the change into ribbing came around the front of the sock, I switched to ribbing all across the back at the same time as the last section of the front transferred.

From the back the leg looks like this:
January 110

And from the front the swirls continue uninterrupted.

The pattern is based on the tube lines in Rome I think - well you know the underground is always subject to last minute disruptions - why should the socks be any different.

Now all I have to do is knit the other one!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Christmas Knitting

There were Elephants (lots of them), there was a hat, there were mittens, and most of all there were socks. Some of them (H's) I've already shown you but there was a little bit of necessary delay in revealing the rest of the family's woolly bounty.

December 267

Is my picture of the socks which I made for my Dad. As he called me on Christmas day and started the conversation with "guess what colour socks I'm wearing?", you may deduce that he was not presented with a neatly wrapped ball of yarn and a promise. The truth dear friend is that I finished these socks a mere 5 minutes before we left for Devon to tuck them under the tree; and I spent that five minutes trying not to tie myself to the coffee table in sellotape and answering the question "are we going to Devon or are we knitting!"

Happily, my e-mail has supplied a photo from the man himself - socks in action:


The yarn is my handspun; 100g or so of Blue Faced Leicester, split into three equal bumps, spun and then plied together to make my most favourite sock yarn. The fibre came from Spindlefrog via Etsy, although I subsequently encountered her at Wonderwool Wales last April (and may have added to the yarn-to-be stash as a consequence). The colour is Neptune, and calls to me as the colour of sunshine, rippling across the sea. It's the simplest sort of vanilla sock over 68 stitches, firstly to let the yarn do the talking, and secondly to enable me to finish in time for Christmas.

I think they're rather special, and it seems that the wearer agrees.

Also under a Devonian Christmas tree could be found another squishy package, addressed to my lovely Mum. After her birthday socks (cream wool-silk Fiori de Zucca), she declared for lacy socks; and I'm always happy to oblige.

December 063
The yarn is Artists Palette Yarns Smootherino which again came from Wonderwool; I found it in the stash when looking for something appropriate for Mum and realised that whether I knew it or not at the time, this yarn came with her name on it. Soft sage, apricot and a hint of blue, all perfect colours.
November 156
I think that you can see the pattern a little more clearly in this progress shot (from the beach at Portobello in November); it is Esther by Stephanie van der Linden (designer of a good chunk of my Ravelry sock queue). To me it looked like flowers from Mum's garden, just what you need for the middle of winter.

The final pair of the parental socky triumverate, went north to my Mother-in-law, and as you can see, was finished in time for the pre-Christmas flurry of snow still to be firmly in place on my windscreen.
December 250
The yarn is Fresco-coloured Colinette Jitterbug (I'd love to see the frescos that they found that matched these socks!) and the pattern is from Cookie A's Sock Innovation (a book I want to knit my way through - three down so far).

I have absolutely no idea why they pool and swirl so very differently on the two feet. I can say that Beth loves them and thinks that they are her perfect colours.

Happily, she is now building quite a collection of socks, because if she walked through these ones we might have a bit of an issue.

December 248
Is the amount of yarn which I had left when I finished the second sock. Knitting on a knife edge.

Did you think you were getting away without a snow report today? Did you think that perhaps the crazy travel situation in the snow and ice had dinted my deep affection for a wintery white landscape? You did....? Oops!

I would like to make two submissions in my defence.

(1) I did not take the pictures which I am about to show you - I pinched them from my Dad.
(2) Snow, whilst exciting and wonderful when it lands in Warwickshire or Yorkshire is not entirely unknown in those regions. In my county of origin it last snowed heavily in 1963 (my father recalls having to walk home from the train station in the nearest town on his return from university). Although I have seen the odd flurry, and one rather convincing hailstorm one Easter, and on Dartmoor I have seen sledging and snowballs, I have never seen this:

That would be the sea off the south coast of Devon, the cliffs, and the beach.

The beach has snow on it!!! Possibly enough to make a very tiny snowman. This is a thing of great wonder and joy - I'm just a little envious that I'm not there to see it in real life.

Oh, and Dad .... snowy sandcastle - it has to be done!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The White Stuff

One of these days I'll actually write a blog post with some knitting content in it - and you'll all fall over with the shock of it. And by all, I mean of course my mother who will be the only person left reading this blog after I've wittered on about frozen precipitation ad infinitum.

Actually, just to make sure, would you like to see some knitting before I talk about snow? Of course not; snow it is.

For it has snowed in the Midlands. It started yesterday morning just after I got into the office; tiny pin-head dots of frozen ice, building to wonderful feathery flakes which drifted lazily down from the sky to create a wonderful velvety blanket of white over the city. H reported snow further south slightly later, and then phoned to tell me that his office was closing because they were all having problems getting in and out of the car park.

We hard-core peeps pressed on until the end of the working day; I consider I was remarkably restrained not to spend the entire day with my nose pressed to the window. Of course once it got dark we couldn't really see what was going on; we only knew it was still snowing because the lights from other buildings looked flickery; and it wasn't until we got outside that we could see how completely and beautifully the city was covered.

Warwickshire is similarly tucked up for winter at present (which is why our car couldn't make it back onto our rather steep driveway despite H's best efforts.

Today my very best attempts could have got me to the office but the driving was horrid and with more snow forecast for this afternoon I requested a work from home day and it's been pretty productive; no doubt greatly helped by a walk around the village at lunchtime, plunging through the shin-deep snow on the playing fields where we encountered this fellow

January 101

Rachel commented in the last snow report that she finds my complete obsession to be a little bewildering, and it's something I've been pondering for a while. Not so much my personal devotion to the white fluffy stuff; that stems from a series of childhood winters spent on the South Coast where the naturally mild weather and high salt content in the air makes snow a real rarity - basically I'm making up for lost time. Even the people who aren't quite so crazy about snow as me, mostly look forward to it, hope it will snow, and are happy to see it falling. I think it must be the transience of snow in England; it's set to stay below freezing for the week so we'll be mostly white and dirty grey slush for a little while, but that's unusal. In my mind snow is a fleeting glimmer of wintry glitter that often disappears as fast as it comes, returning the green normal before you really get to enjoy it. We don't often get lingering snow, a feeling of having seen nothing green in weeks, and piles of dirty slush to slip through - perhaps we have the right sort of snow after all.

January 102A

OK, I relent, enough snow talk, time for some yarn to warm the cockles of your heart, and some more of the Christmas knitting. Today's walk gave me a chance to photograph the last of H's knitted Christmas presents 'in the wild' so to speak;

January 095

the Cairn hat and mittens from Ysolda's Whimsical Little Knits volume 1.

January 098

Apparently mittens are for making snowballs and then trying to shoot them through the basketball hoop on the field!

It's another great pattern (can you tell I'm a bit of a fan) which responded rather well to my pattern abuse, swapping DK weight recommended yarn for Mission Falls 1824 (the brick) and Cashsoft Aran (the charcoal). I also added a couple of extra repeats to the wrist on each mitten to make them properly boy sized.

What more could you need when it's white outside.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Snow report: 2010

[Side note: if you live in North America, mainland Europe, or really anywhere where fluttery white falling from the sky is not uncommon, please don't scoff when I mention a mere dusting of flakes as full on snow. It's all we get round here - send sympathy and crushed ice-cubes]
From our Special Correspondent, newly returned from the great white north.

Happy New Year!! 2010 has kicked off to a great start - it looks like this:

January 059
And this:
January 060
(that's a different patch of snow, please note the slightly different glitteryness).

And this.
January 061

This is actually rather more special than the first two; as I opened the bedroom curtains this morning at H's parents' house in Yorkshire a tall grey heron stalked gracefully across the lawn and took off into the distance. These are his tracks.

Whilst this would explain the lack of fish in my in-laws back pond, and the rather self-satisfied air of the heron, I'll forgive him his meal for a sight like that.

H and I had decided that if the mountain wouldn't come to Mohammed, we should head north for the new year in search of snow, and so we went to my inlaws in Yorkshire, the only county I know where the Sunday lunch menu at the very nice hotel restaurant we frequented today runs starter, yorkshire pudding course, main course and dessert. It was all delicious.

It started to snow tiny hardened pellets of ice as we arrived on New Year's Eve, but as the calendars flicked over at midnight, the flakes must have begun to fall. We didn't really notice it until we were headed for bed; a soft powdery covering, just enough to blanket the front garden and the cars.

H insisted that we boot up and go out to play, which is why the car wishes all passers-by a cheery festive greeting - perhaps we felt someone in the neighbourhood is due some form of aural surgery:

January 004
And why I was outside in mittens and pyjamas at 1 o'clock in the morning.
January 005
Totally worth it though.

The sun shone in the morning though and our light dusting started to run away with the shadows across the back garden, and, despite the occasional and slightly mournful cheep of "snow!" from a member of the party who shall remain absolutely and completely anonymous and in no way resembles me at all, that seemed to be it.

Until Saturday.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the power of Christmas miracles and festive good deeds induces snowfall. When we had a blizzard one lunchtime at work the other week, the heavens opened mere seconds after we finished decorating a colleague's pod for her and replacing a very dead plant that she was trying to nurse back to life, with a very vibrant poinsettia which appeared to be sprouting pom-poms.

On Saturday we headed to evening church in heavy sleety rain, that splatted on the windscreen and made every effort to find its way down the back of your neck. When we came out it was into a whirl of white. It was wonderful (and the "snow!" started to alternate with "so pretty!").
January 024
H and I booted up properly this time and went for a little walk up to the top of the road and back. In that brief jaunt we put some serious effort into our yeti-impersonations, what do you think?
January 028
I was made to shake vigorously before I was let anywhere near the inside of the house!

The snow stopped falling as we ate supper and it was really no more than an inch deep at best if I'm honest, but the frost held it over til this morning and added that magical crunch and the dusting of pearliest glitter across the top.
January 067
It also helps the visual effect that the roads around my in-laws are of the DIY grit variety (box of grit at the end of the road), and that no-one felt like doing any gritting.
January 071

January 074
It started snowing again this afternoon as we sat eating our Yorkshire Pudding course, gazing out over white fields to a spectacular pink and purple sunset; the perfect end to a wonderful weekend.