How yarn used to be made

Life on the (1860's) farm

Life on the (1860’s) farm

On our family vacation last week, we spent a fantastic day together at Upper Canada Village, in Eastern Ontario.  While my son is a little young to grasp much history, he loved the farm animals, train ride, and especially milking a cow (ok, he “helped” me milk a cow, but still!).

I was able to take in some history, when I wasn’t chasing him around the Confederation era farm.  As a knitter, it was the wool factory that really captured my attention.  I didn’t associate Upper Canada in the mid-nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution, nor do I tend to think of yarn as a factory made commodity, but the woolen factory certainly proved me wrong. The Asselstine Woolen Factory was originally built in 1828.  Between 1828 and the 1930’s, it employed mostly women who carded, spun and wove sheep’s wool into roving, yarn and blankets.  The water powered factory has been restored to working order, using almost exclusively technology from the 1860’s.

The wool, outside the factory, waiting to be carded

The wool, outside the factory, waiting to be carded

Carding machines, where the wool is turned into a thin soft fleecy tape

Carding machines, where the wool is turned into a thin soft fleecy tape




The water turbine, which still powers the factory

The water turbine, which still powers the factory

Large machines carded the wool and spun it into 1-ply for weaving. Some of the 1-ply was then doubled, tripled or quadrupled for knitters to purchase at general stores.  A recreated sign reminded factory workers that while fashionable, hoops and crinolines are unsuitable for work around the large powerful machines.

Today water still runs through the turbines, and the huge nineteenth century machines still turn the wool into 1-ply for weaving into blankets and 2-ply for purchase in the Village Store.  I bought a few skeins of the wool in black and soft pink.  It’s much thicker than the 2-ply you would buy at most yarn stores, and is much closer to worsted weight.  I can’t wait to turn it into some classic mitts to remind everyone of our family vacation – any thoughts on a pattern?



This year’s first Christmas present

Lots of blue: my blue lemonade cardigan, the picnic cedar table my dad made for us, and some flowers from my mother-in-laws garden

Lots of blue: my blue lemonade cardigan, the cedar picnic table my dad made for us, and some flowers from my in-laws garden

I know what you’re thinking, but after trying to finish 7 pairs of socks in as many weeks last year, I’ve decided to space this year’s presents out a little bit.  I just finished blocking this Vodka Lemonade cardigan in Cascade Ultra Pima for my mother-in-law.  She loves bright saturated colours, and spends her winters in Florida, so this light cotton cardie seemed like a great idea (hopefully she thinks so too!). I love Thea Coleman’s designs, this one has just enough lace to be unique, without sacrificing wearability.  So lovely!

The clever lace motif and seed stitch border at the bottom of the cardiga

The clever lace motif and seed stitch border at the bottom of the cardiga

While the fraught relationship between a woman and her partner’s mother has become a tired cliche, it definitely doesn’t apply here. I am lucky to have such a strong and caring woman in my family. I’ve been pretty blessed in the role model department, and she’s one that I’m grateful for everyday (and it’s not just for the free babysitting – I swear).

The pattern was a pleasure to knit, and the recipient a pleasure to knit for. I’ll make sure to include a picture of it on in my holiday round-up this winter.


Opening what was closed: my weekend of yoga

My friend and her much more confident arm balances

My friend and her much more confident (than me) arm balances

I just got back from a yoga retreat this weekend, and I feel like I’m just beginning to appreciate everything I took home with me.  On our last morning, our instructor suggested that one of the take homes they wanted to leave us with was “opening what was closed.” Which I think perfectly summarizes for me the weekend’s most important lesson.

Yoga on the dock

Yoga on the dock

In the car, on our way home, my friend and I discussed the weekend’s highlights, of which there were many. I asked myself what was the most significant thing I would be taking home from this weekend; was it finding a comfortable seat for meditation? The stretches of lakeside quiet time? Time spent catching up with a good friend? A refined downward dog and some solid arm balances and inversions? The inspiring conversations with a diverse group of successful women (and a even couple men)? A new appreciation for vegan food and paleo-baking? Any and all of those experiences were well worth the time, and effort, but it is the subtle change in my approach to daily life that I hope sticks with me long after the pressures and demands of home close back in.

One night in yoga nidra, I think that I was finally able to let go of some of the baggage the recent years have piled on. Which begs the question, what will I let take its place? All weekend, I worked on being present, strong and patient; three qualities I’d like to carry around with me instead.

Knitting after morning meditation

Knitting and coffee after morning meditation

I tend to express love by doing: doing laundry, scheduling playdates, swimming lessons and dinner parties, knitting socks, cleaning the house, organizing family photos, buying tricycles, shoes and groceries.  Certainly, all of those things are important, but they can distract from the most important way to express love: by being with the people you love.  If you let them, they can crowd out the spontaneous kitchen dance parties, long phone conversations with distant friends and family, quiet chats on the front porch, and noisy afternoons at the park. That is the biggest take away from my weekend of yoga by the lake: to be present with those I love. At first, I felt a little guilty about taking this time from myself, and leaving my husband and son to cope together at home, but now I think that I may be able to give them more, because I went. And now comes the hard part, keeping those lakeside lessons with me all year.

A pair of watermelons

My niece in the second Watermelon sweater (size 12 months)

My niece in the second Watermelon sweater (size 12 months) – look at those teeth!

I was completely charmed when I first spotted this pattern. So much so that I briefly considered making four, for my youngest nieces.  Fortunately, I realized even the best pattern  gets tedious, and scaled back my plans to just two baby cardigans, one for each of my infant nieces.  I wish I had a picture of the cherubic little cousins together their cardigans, but the second wasn’t finished in time for a family get together this weekend.  That would have been the best way to do the sweaters justice.

The second cardigan has one small modification, but otherwise followed the pattern exactly.  I thought the pink section was a little small on my first sweater, so the top sweater has an extra 5 rows of pink (with the eyelet row occuring 5 rows early too). I think it changes the impression quite a bit; on the original (below) the pink seems like a collar detail or embellishment, but on the second it looks more like a wedge of watermelon across the yoke.

The first Watermelon sweater (size 9 months) in Cascade Ultra Pima

The first Watermelon sweater (size 9 months) in Cascade Ultra Pima

The end results, like any well-written infant patterns, are adorable, but I think these sweaters proved to be a little less than the sum of their parts.  The pattern is written for Manos Cotton Stria, which has been discontinued, so I had to find a different yarn.  I quickly settled on Cascade Ultra Pima, which worked perfectly for my cap sleeve lattice top.  It’s soft, washable cotton and comes in a wide variety of colours.  While both the yarn and the pattern are fabulous on their own, I’m not sure they’re a great pair – the pink is a little too saturated to convey watermelon, and the sweaters are just a little floppier than I’d like.  However, despite any small disatisfactions, I do think their owners make these sweaters pretty cute!

My favourite knitting books

Now that we’ve got a little more space, my knitting books and patterns have a space all of their own.  While the paper patterns need some love (they’re currently just shoved haphazardly into a binder), I love seeing my books organized and accessible.  Which got me thinking about my favourite knitting books.  Not all books are created equal, there are some I regret buying, and others whose cracked spines bear witness to how much I love them (and how useful they are).  So here’s a round-up of my favourite titles (so far!)

My knitting reference shelf

My knitting reference shelf

Mitered mittens in Noro Taiyo 11

Mitered mittens in Noro Taiyo 11

Favourite classic: Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitter’s Almanac.  There is a reason that Zimmerman’s name is synonymous with knitting for many people.  This book is full of fantastic patterns (mitered mittens and baby sweater on two needles are two of my all time favourite patterns!). But what seperated the Almanac from her other titles is that it’s a great read on its own.  Zimmerman shares her thoughts and life as a knitter. Her directions are by her own admission “pithy,” but for me that just highlights the history of knitting as something shared (often orally) through families and amongst a community.  A must read for any enthusiastic knitters.

Favourite sock books: I’m going to cheat here and name two Wendy Johnson’s Socks From the  Toe-Up and Cookie A’s Socks From the

Gusset heel toe up socks (from Wendy Johnson's book)

Gusset heel toe up socks (from Wendy Johnson’s book)

Toe-Up was one of the first books I bought. It is a fantastic beginners book – she explains every necessary technique clearly and concisely, and there are enough variations to keep any knitter busy for years. I still return to this book when I want something to knit in the car or while travelling (the type of project you can knit without consulting the pattern very frequently.)  I have knit nine of the 23 patterns in this book, several of them many times, and I keep coming back.

Monkey socks from (pattern also available free on knitty)

Monkey socks from (pattern also available free on knitty)

When I started to outgrow Toe-Up, I began looking around for a more challenging toe-up book, since by that point I was convinced that toe-up was the only way to do it.  When the owner of my LYS suggested, I was skeptical, since all the patterns are cuffdown. However, one look at this beautiful book changed my mind.  Gorgeous enough to be a coffee table book, is a book that inspires ardent admiration.  There are regular knit-alongs for this book on ravelry, and a surprising number of people have conquered all 19 patterns, including the cabled knee highs (there are 2!) and intricate diagonals.  I see knitting through this book in the way that many view reading all of War & Peace (which I have done!) or running the Boston Marathon (which my knees will never agree to!). It’s a big project requiring patience, perserverance and time (hopefully one day I’ll have enough of all three).  I have made my way through HederaWedgeMonkey, and Mona, and they are so beautiful; it’s no surprise that so many people love this book.

My youngest niece and her Project Linus blankie

My niece and her Project Linus blankie

Favourite beginner book: Betty Christiansen’s Knitting for Peace. This was actually my first knitting book, and it’s one I highly reccommend for beginners ready to branch out from their first hats, scarves and mitts.  The book contains great, simple projects for blankets, shawls, hats, toys, sweaters and socks.  The basic patterns don’t require special or expensive yarn to look good, so it’s also great if you’re still at the stage where you’re reluctant to drop significant money on yarn, or your hometown doesn’t offer more than the selection at Michael’s and Wal-Mart.  It’s full of information on how to use your knitting to make the world a better place. Inspirational, simple, useful.

Narragansett sweater by Thea Coleman. I can’t wait to make this!

Favourite imaginary book: Thea Coleman’s Baby Cocktails.  Ok, this one doesn’t exist (yet?), but it should, my ravelry queue is filled with her patterns, and Vodka Lemonade is on my needles now.  Her directions are clear, concise and accurate.  Each design shows a clear attention to how they will fit on a woman’s body, and each pattern has a wider variety of sizes than you are likely to find at the mall (I’m guessing sizes 0-20).  I love that her patterns are simple and plain enough to be wearable and fashionable.  Each one has simple embellishments or details that make it special and different, without making it fussy or dowdy. Somebody in publishing please offer this woman a book deal!


I’d love to know what books you think are missing from my shelf – What are your must-own pattern books?

3 surprisingly simple sweater solutions

Recently, I’ve been knitting more sweaters, and as with all knitting projects, sweaters can present a few irriating little problems.  Fortunately, there are some brilliant knitters working on solving these problems.  These three really simple techniques are among my favourite recent discoveries:

A hoodie for my son - you can see the underarm marker and  faux seam (in garter stitch) in the centre

A hoodie for my son – you can see the underarm marker and faux seam (in garter stitch) in the centre

1. The faux seam. (from Ann Budd’s Top Down Sweaters)  I love knitting sweaters in one piece. You avoid so much hassle, since there is no seaming and usually less purling.  In general, I think sweaters constructed using this method look much neater and are easier for beginners.  However, seams can stabalize a garment and keep it from twisting and torquing.   Fortunately, Ann Budd included this little tip in the introduction of her reference book on top down sweaters: construct a fake seam under the arms by using a different stitch pattern for a single stitch under the arm.  For example, slip a stitch or purl a stitch every second round to create a slip-stitch or garter stitch faux seam, as you can see photographed here.

The underarm gap on yellow scrap yarn: a bottom-up lifesaver!

The underarm gap on yellow scrap yarn: a bottom-up lifesaver!

2. The bottom up gap. (from Alana Dakos’ Watermelon pattern) Many knitters will complain about bottom up sweaters, because of one major irritation: how difficult it is to knit the first few rounds after joining the sleeves.  When knitting a bottom up sweater, you knit the torso, and sleeves seperately, and then join the sleeves to the torso on a single circular needle.  The added stitches make the first few rounds tight and frustrating.  Fortunately, when I encountered the directions for joining the sleeves on the watermelon cardigan this week, I actually gasped. How had I never encountered this before? Why doesn’t every bottom up sweater pattern contain this direction? The simple solution: Set about 20% of the arm stitches on scrap yarn. Put a corresponding number of underarm stitches on scrap yarn.  This creates a little gap at the underarm and makes knitting the first few rounds so much easier.  The gaps are easily closed at finishing time, using kitchener stitch. Brilliant.

3. The flat cardigan edge. (from Thea Coleman’s Vodka Lemonade pattern)  Most cardigans call for a button band or zipper that flattens and squares off the vertical edges of the sweater.  However, when a simple cardigan calls only for a single button loop, like the Watermelon cardigan, or is meant to be worn open, like the Vodka Lemonade cardigan, the edge can look unfinished.  Fortunately, this pattern has a simple solution for a beautiful squared edge.  While it requires a little bit of attention, it’s well worth the work: the first and last stitches of each row are slipped on one row, and knit through the back loop on the other.  As you can see, it does a spectacular job making the edges of the cardigan neat and tidy.

A nice flat edge, no blocking or finishing required

A nice flat edge, no blocking or finishing required (Vodka Lemonade in Cascade Ultra Pima)

I took at finishing class! (and finished something)

A few weeks ago, I took a finishing class at a not-so-local yarn store.  I am self taught for most finishing skills (seams, picking up stitches, weaving in ends). Since, I’m pretty good at following youtube videos and making things look tidy, I never knew what I didn’t know.  It took a suggestion from knittingsarah, to send me to the internet to find a yarn store offering a finishing class. It turns out there was a lot that I was doing wrong(ish).  It was really instructive to sit down with a real expert and correct all of my bad habits.  After a few hours with some swatches, I was ready and willing to tackle some seaming.

My cap sleeve lattice top in Cascade Ultra Pima

My cap sleeve lattice top in Cascade Ultra Pima

I was drawn to the Cap Sleeve Lattice Top from the moment I saw it, but had originally planned to knit it in the round, and then graft the shoulders together using kitchener stitch. If you scroll down from the pattern post, you will find lots of discussion on this in the comment section. However, after the class, it seemed like a great, unintimidating place to practice my new skills.  So I knit it flat and then folded it and used mattress stitch along the gray sections, just as the pattern calls for. I could not be happier with the results! It was a little time consuming, but I’m finally finishing garments up to my standards.

I’m smitten with both the pattern and the yarn (Cascade Ultra Pima) – they’re a perfect fit.  If only the top was a perfect fit for me.  I have a long torso, and thought I adjusted the length enough to accomodate, but it still hits a little above my hip.  I cast on the medium (I’m about a size 6), and so this fits in a loose, effortless way that I think is appropriate for a casual summer top. If I make this again as an all season layering piece, I will use the same yarn, but definitely make it longer and smaller. What colours would you use for an all season layering lattice?