May Miscellany

In May…

…all birds their eggs do lay, or so an old Dutch saying goes. But that’s not the only nice thing about the month of May. It’s also the month the vendors at our nearest Farmer’s Market put up their stalls again after their winter break. Visiting this market is a real treat.

The singer who is always there with her guitar, welcomes us with Dolly Parton’s ‘Play a song for me, Apple Jack, Apple Jack’, and other old favourites. The music creates a great atmosphere around the twenty or so stalls.

We always buy a punnet of strawberries. These are so much tastier than the ones from the supermarket. And sometimes we buy some delicious handmade goat’s cheese, too.

New to the market this year is a lady with felt objects, like hats and scarves, as well as handspun yarns. I wouldn’t immediately know what to do with her riotously colourful skeins, as I usually choose quieter yarns (maybe combine them with a matching solid colour?), but they’re a joy to look at.

I love chatting with other crafters about the things they make, about what moves and inspires them, the techniques they use, and so on. So I asked the new lady about the ‘fleece’ hanging at the back of her stall. I’ve seen fleeces like this before, felted onto a woollen background, but always made from the wool of just one sheep.

This crafter, however, combined wool from different sheep breeds to create the fleece in the photo below. She mentioned at least six breeds. (But I don’t remember a single one. Sorry, my brain was also having some time off.) It shows beautifully how greatly sheep’s wool can vary.

Apart from the colours, ranging from white through grey and russet to almost black, the structure of the wool varies too. There are some long straight locks, some fluffy, wavy bits of wool, and some very tight curls.

Birds

Now on to those birds laying their eggs in May. Our nest boxes are often used by blue and great tits (picture below), but I’m not sure who is using which nest box this year. We don’t want to disturb the birds, so we don’t open the boxes to look what’s inside. I’ll just have to spend more time in the garden watching flight movements.

In our beech hedge there’s a blackbird’s nest – or perhaps even two. And just above our bedroom window there are two house martin’s nests. These were first occupied by squatters – two families of cheeky sparrows, whose chicks have already fledged. I’ve seen the parents feeding small pieces of peanut from our feeder to their young.

After the sparrow chicks fledged, the house martins returned from the south. They set about cleaning out and repairing their nests straightaway. I can’t look inside to see whether there are any eggs in them, but I’m pretty sure both nests are back in use.

And the winner is…

I started the month of May with a blog post about a gift of yarn from a friend. In it, I asked for your help in choosing between two patterns I had in mind, called ‘Stripe Study’ and ‘Stay Soft’. I have now counted the votes, and Stay Soft came out on top. It got an overwhelming majority of the votes: 70% for Stay Soft against 30% for Stripe Study.

Now you may think, ‘Huh, but there was only one person who left a comment, voting for Stay Soft! How did you arrive at these percentages?’ Well, many people seem to be hesitant about leaving a comment on a blog. I quite understand. I often read blogs without commenting, too. That’s absolutely fine. What I got instead were phone calls, emails and face-to-face reactions.

So, Stay Soft it is going to be. I’ve already made a start.

A funny thing that struck me, was that most knitters voted for Stay Soft, while most non-knitters voted for Stripe Study. Why would that be? We talked about this in the knitting group I belong to, and one of the members said: ‘It looks like non-knitters focus more on the end product, and knitters more on the knitting process.’ Isn’t that an interesting thought?

Thank you to all of you who helped me decide.

Knitting at the Sugar Factory

Last Friday I took the 8 o’clock train to Groningen, to visit the Northern edition of the Knitting and Crochet Days. I’d planned to add a few centimeters to my take-along project, a scarf in 4 shades of green, or perhaps even finish it. But after knitting less than a row, I discovered that I’d dropped a stitch quite a few rows down. I hadn’t brought a crochet needle to fix it, and as this particular yarn (Rowan’s ‘Kid Silk Haze’) is notoriously difficult to unravel, there was nothing for it but to stuff my knitting back into its bag.

Oh well, just looking out the window at the familiar landscape rushing by was very nice too. Along the route I met up with a friend, and together we arrived at the Old Sugar Factory, where the fair was held.

Sugar production is an important industry in Groningen, a city surrounded by large fields of sugar beets. I still remember the sweet and musty smell wafting through the air from September to January from the time I studied here. What you see on the photo above is only part of the original building – the rest of the factory has been demolished.

The rough edge of a partly demolished wall frames the window of the trendy in-house café, where my friend and I sat drinking endless mugs of tea.

For me, this edition of the Knitting and Crochet Days was very much a social thing, with lots of familiar faces from the North of the Netherlands, the region where I grew up.

Queuing for our tickets, we hugged our first knitting friend. The next familiar face was the cousin I am forever grateful to for teaching me my very first knitting stitches. And then there was a knitter whose blog about her knitting, walks with her dog and life in general I’ve been following for over ten years. And after that…

No, that’s quite enough socialising. Let’s get back to what we’re here for – knitting materials and inspiration. The fair as a whole was rather underwhelming, to be frank. But, focusing on the positives, some stall holders had outdone themselves with beautiful displays of yarns and knitting projects.

Here’s an impression (click on images to enlarge):

My favourite of all was Atelier Lindelicht, with its rainbow of hand-dyed colours:

The owner, Marianne, lives in a neighbouring village. She started out as a designer of felt ornaments, but now also dyes yarns in very small batches. (Sadly for those of you living further away, she only sells her yarns at fairs and markets.) What I like about her yarns is the quality of the materials and the depth of her beautiful jewel-like colours.

My eyes are drawn especially to her blues, pinks and purples (see the picture at the top of this post, too).

This time I didn’t buy any of her lovely skeins, though, as there are several in my stash waiting to be knit up. In fact I didn’t buy any yarn at all at this fair.

What I did buy was a set of interchangeable circular knitting needles:

I already have one exactly like it at home, so why buy another one? Well, I use some of these needles almost every day, and sometimes need more than one of the same size at the same time.

The set (Twist Red Lace small) contains 7 pairs of 13 cm long needle tips ranging in size from 2.75 to 5.0 mm, as well as three cables in different lengths. There are also 2 end stoppers (the white rectangular things), 2 keys (for fastening the tips to the cables) and a cable connector, 12 stitch markers in 2 different sizes, and a needle gauge (the white ruler).

It’s quite an investment, but I know that I’ll enjoy using it for years to come.

Before we knew it, it was time to go home. One last picture of some of the inevitable graffiti on the factory building:

The bicycle parked against it, gives an idea of the size of this work of art.

To be honest, I felt slightly out of my comfort zone in this industrial setting. I didn’t name my website for the blackbird (Turdus merula in Latin) for nothing. We (the blackbird and I) are birds of woodlands, gardens and other green spaces. I tried very hard to approach this days’ urban surroundings with an open mind. And my mind could really appreciate the raw aesthetics, but my heart… not so much.

My heart said: Ah, so happy to be back in my natural habitat!


Note: This post isn’t sponsored in any way. I just write about things I like because I like them.

A Lovely Surprise

Last November, I found a parcel in our letterbox. It wasn’t my Birthday. I wasn’t expecting any parcels. Had I ordered something that I’d forgotten about? I didn’t think so.

I hurried inside to open it, and I couldn’t help laughing out loud when I saw the contents. It was the red bag in the photo at the top of this post, but even better. It was covered in colourful tape: yellow tape measure tape and cheerful flowery tape. I should have taken a photo straight away, but didn’t think of it at the time. I was too curious what was inside.

I ripped the tape off and found this:

Three beautiful skeins of soft, squishy yarn (and a postcard). A present from a dear friend I’ve known for over 40 years, to thank me for a shawl I’d knit for her. Totally unnecessary, of course, because knitting that shawl was such a pleasure, but what a lovely surprise!

My friend wrote that she’d been to Amsterdam for work, and had taken the time in between two meetings to visit one of my favourite yarn shops to buy some yarn for me. Wasn’t that a wonderfully thoughtful thing to do? She is not a knitter herself. She must have learnt to knit as a child (we all did), but I’ve never seen her knitting.

So how does a non-knitter choose from all those beautiful yarns on display? On the postcard she wrote: ‘For me the shop was a jumble of yarns and wool, but I just had to choose these three autumn colours.’ She may not be a knitter, but she is an art-lover with a good eye for colour.

She chose three skeins of Isager ‘Alpaca 2’, a 50/50 blend of alpaca and wool. It’s a yarn I’ve never knit with, but have been wanting to.

And look how carefully the postcard that she sent was chosen to match the colours of the yarn:

The combination is a thing of beauty in itself. The yarn has been lying around for a while. First in a basket, just to be admired and petted, and later wound onto balls. I don’t know if you can see the colours properly on your screen, so I’ll try to describe them.

There’s a mustardy yellow, a warm marmalade orange, and a blueish or greenish (depending on the light) dark grey. It looks like part of the fibre was from a grey or brown animal, which makes the colours muted and slightly heathered.

Really autumnal, woodland colours. It’s springtime now, but I’m not going to wait for autumn to come around again. I want to make something with this yarn now. But what?

A shawl, I think. Something modern and geometrical. It’s 150 grams altogether, so it won’t be huge, but it should make a good-sized one if I choose the right shape.

What would be a good pattern for this yarn?

Ravelry

The best place to look for an answer is Ravelry, so that’s where I went. Most of you will be familiar with it, but for those of you who aren’t: Ravelry is a online knitting and crochet community, with currently around 8 million members. It is a great place to meet knitters from all walks of life and all over the world. It is also a database with tons of patterns to choose from. This is the log-in screen:

Entering search criteria for project category and approximate yarn weight I got about 24.000 options to choose from. I refined my search criteria some more, some more again, and then some more, and finally got a manageable number of choices.

One of the patterns that came up was Earth and Sky (Ravelry link) by Stephen West, co-owner of the shop where the yarn was bought. It is a great design, and very suitable for 3 colours.

But then I scrolled on and came across Finnish designer Veera Välimäki and thought: Yes, of course! Veera is famous for her geometrical designs. Several of her shawl patterns fit the bill, and I finally whittled them down to two: ‘Stripe Study’ and ‘Stay Soft’.

Stripe Study

Stripe Study is an asymmetrical triangle knit from the top down, with the stripes closer together at one end than at the other. A great pattern, but… Stripe Study is designed for 2 colours. The challenge is: how to divide my 3 colours over the shawl to get a pleasing effect and use all of them up as much as possible?

Stay soft

Stay Soft is a shallow, slightly curvy triangle designed specifically for 3 colours. It is knit in 2 sections from one point to the other, with the top section in colours 1 and 2, and a wide border in colour 3. This is a great pattern too, but… My colours have much more contrast than the ones in the example. Would they still form a pleasing whole, or would the contrast be too strong?

I couldn’t find a better picture of Stay Soft, so I’ve taken photos of the diagrams of both shawls to show their constructions more clearly (click on images to enlarge):

Which one is it going to be? I don’t know – there’s something to be said for both. What do you think? Stripe Study, with its bold, straight lines, or Stay Soft, with its softer, curvy shape? Will you help me choose?

Finishing Granite

Finishing – weaving in ends, sewing seams – is my least favourite part of knitting. I’d rather start something new. So, while some people have skeletons in their cupboards, I have UFO’s (UnFinished Objects). Like a sweater with one sleeve, cardigans with just the buttons or pockets to sew on, a colourful scarf with a thousand ends to weave in, that sort of thing. Most UFO’s become FO’s in the end, but for some it takes a long, long time.

Now I’d like to mend my ways. I didn’t want to leave our daughter waiting for her new Granite cardigan for ages, so as soon as I finished knitting all of the pieces, I blocked them. Usually I don’t do this with garments, but only with lace shawls and other things that need opening up.

I gave the pieces a good soak, spun them lightly in the spin-dryer, and laid them out flat on my blocking mats – with blocking wires along the longest sides – and pinned them into place. I didn’t stretch them hard at all (as I would a lace shawl) but just to the size indicated in the schematics.

The pattern (Granite from Kim Hargreaves’ book Grey) said ‘Press all pieces with a warm iron over a damp cloth’. I gave it a try, but it soon became clear that that wasn’t going to work. As I wrote in another post, the combination of yarn and stitch pattern made the knitted fabric bunch up terribly. I could stretch it out in every direction, but it sprang back as soon as I let go.

I took some pictures of the knitted fabric before and after blocking, to show what the blocking did:

The fabric underwent a transformation. Dry it was elastic and springy. Wet it was limp (I have no other word to describe it). I tried to block the pieces very carefully to correspond with the sizes in the diagrams. Widthwise this was no problem, but lengthwise it was. They were much longer! The back and fronts were longer, the sleeves were longer, the armholes were wider. Yikes! Well, there was nothing I could do about it at this stage.

While the pieces were drying, I went looking for buttons. Now that is a part of the finishing process that I do like! I visited a great little haberdashery shop, with an impressive wall of buttons:

I zoomed in on the blue-green section and found several buttons that looked suitable. I spread the cardigan front out on the counter and placed some on the button band.

Now which one to choose?

The top button: too blingy
The second button: hmmm, maybe
The third button: too small
The fourth button: too dull
The fifth button: yes, I think this is perfect!

And then the two shop ladies (both several decades younger than me) had their say: It’s for your daughter, isn’t it? I wouldn’t choose the fifth button – that’s the granny option. (Ouch!) Take the second one. Much better!

Taking another look, I knew they were right. So, the second button from the top it was. Thanks for your help girls!

When they were dry, I didn’t sew the pieces together. I just pinned them, because I expected I’d have to rip them back and shorten them. But magically the cardigan fit!

The sleeves were the right length and the armholes were just right. The body was slightly longer than planned, but that was fine.

Now I could set about sewing everything together. How could I make that unpleasant task more pleasant? Well, I collected everything I needed in a basket, put on a nice bit of music, lighted a scented candle and treated myself to a special cup of tea.

I also promised myself that I didn’t have to do it all in one sitting. Half an hour here, 45 minutes there, and before I knew it, it was finished.

During a lightning visit from our daughter, we did a quick photo shoot:

I joined most of the seams with an ordinary back stitch (on the wrong side), but for the band at the back of the neck I used a mattress stitch on the right side of the fabric. That way I was better able to see what I was doing, and got a flatter seam. I’m very happy with how this worked out:

Taking beautiful photographs is a skill/art I need to practice a lot more. As you can see in this post alone, the colour of the yarn looks different all the time. In reality it is a medium dark teal (blue-green). The yarn I used is Rowan ‘Super Fine Merino 4-ply’:

As the name suggests, the yarn consists of 4 plies. Each one of these plies consists of 2 plies again, as you can see in the picture on the right. This construction makes the yarn very elastic, which caused some of the troubles I experienced.

I wouldn’t recommend this yarn to a beginning knitter, because it is very hard to get the measurements of the knit right, and also because it is easy to stick one’s needle into the yarn and miss one or more of the plies while knitting.

But all in all I’m really, really happy with it. After washing and blocking, the fabric is beautifully soft and smooth, with a subtle gleam, and a wonderful drape.

Here’s one last photo, which shows up the pretty decreases along the neckline very well.

Thank you for reading. I know I’ve gone rather more into technical detail than I’ve done so far. I hope it was interesting nevertheless. If you’re a Ravelry member and would like even more details (yarn quantities, needle sizes etc.) you can find them here on the project page.

Now on to something new!

April Allsorts

It almost hurts the eyes, doesn’t it? That blue, blue sky with those bright white flowers of the June berry. I was taking a spin on my bicycle when I took this photograph. Something was bothering me, and I thought a bit of exercise and fresh air might help clear my mind. The air was certainly fresh, not to say icy. I was glad I was wearing my woollen gloves. But what a glorious afternoon!

There were lots of lambs in the fields:

You’d expect the air to be filled with the sound of bleating, but it wasn’t. The sheep and their lambs were quietly dozing or grazing – or following their grazing mums around – and watching each other.

We all know that ewes and their lambs can recognize each other’s voices. But we don’t know (or at least I don’t) if they have other ways of communicating. One ewe and her lamb, lying with their heads close together, made me wonder about that. Do they communicate with other sounds besides bleating? They don’t seem to have many different facial expressions. But what about eye contact? Or perhaps they communicate in ways that we humans have no idea of.

What a wonderful bicycle ride! It was no more than 45 minutes, but I’d seen so many lovely things. And although I hadn’t consciously been trying to solve the problem bothering me, just cycling along had solved it for me – I knew what I had to do when I got home.

Apart from some cold and bright days like these, April has given us all sorts of weather. We even had an afternoon of snow and hailstorms! I don’t know if you can see it on your screen, but the leaves of these dwarf lilies in our garden are filled with hailstones.

Last Sunday, the day after these wintry showers, was a little more spring-like. Not as warm yet as it is now, but really nice weather for a woodland stroll.

I was wearing my new socks. Maybe you remember them from a previous post – the ones with the wide stripes:

I tried to get the stripes matching on both socks. I’ve tried to do that before, with varying success. In theory, it should work if you find a clear place in the stripe pattern, note down where you are starting on the first sock, and start at the same place in the stripe sequence on the second sock.

The emphasis here lies on ‘in theory’, because sometimes there is a knot in the yarn (*#@!), or the stripe pattern suddenly skips a section for no clear reason (*#@!!!). This time it worked, though:

I give lots of socks away, being fortunate enough to have friends and relatives who want to wear them. But I’m keeping these.

The yarn I used is Regia 4-ply in a colourway called ‘Nissedal’. This stripe pattern was designed by Arne and Carlos, the sympathetic Norwegian guys (or is one of them Swedish?) who gained world fame with their knitted julekuler (Christmas baubles). They’ve designed lots of other knits since then and have a YouTube channel with some 60.000 subscribers. I must admit that I’ve never watched any of their videos myself, but that’s not Arne and Carlos’ fault. It’s just that I’m not much of a video watcher in general.

One of their latest ventures is a collection of cushion patterns for yarn brand Rowan, which is presented in Rowan’s latest Spring/Summer Magazine (number 65):

Some cushions have geometrical designs, others have intarsia flower patterns, and all of them have ‘Scandinavian knitting design’ printed all over, don’t you think?

Word of Warning: Don’t buy this magazine just for the cushions, because the patterns are not included. I don’t regret buying it, as it is filled with lovely spring and summer knits, including four designs for garments and accessories by Arne and Carlos. Everything is beautifully photographed, the patterns for all the other items are included, and I love leafing through it for inspiration. But the cushion patterns need to be bought and downloaded separately from the Rowan website.

I’ve almost come to the end of what I wanted to show and tell you today. There’s just one more thing. I’ve finished knitting Granite, the cardigan for our daughter. I struggled with the right way to measure the stretchy knitted fabric, and was worried that I’d get it wrong. So I didn’t sew the pieces together yet, but just pinned them.

During our visit on Sunday she tried it on and…

… it fits! Yay! Can you see the pins sticking out at the armhole? Now there’s just the ends to weave in, the seams to join and the buttons to sew on.

Well, that’s all for now. I wish you a lovely weekend. And if the weather is as spring-like in your part of the world as it is here, I hope you have plenty of time to enjoy it.

Yarn Review: Manos ‘Fino’

Do you know that feeling – you see a yarn and immediately fall in love?

Nowadays I try to be sensible and only buy yarn with a specific project in mind. But it still happens to me every now and then that I see a yarn that is so beautiful I just have to take it home with me, even though I have no idea what I’m going to do with it.

‘Fino’ from Manos del Uruguay is one of those yarns. The tiny ball in the yarn bowl in an earlier post already gave you a glimpse of it.

Mini-skeins

The yarn I’m showing you in this blog post is a set of mini-skeins in a colourway called ‘Flora’:

Before I start describing the yarn, I need to tell you that these mini-skeins are exactly the same yarn as the full skeins of Manos ‘Fino’. A set of five 20 gram mini-skeins has the same yardage and the same weight as one 100 gram skein. And all of the colours in the mini-skein sets are also available as full skeins.

The yarn

Some Manos yarns are still spun by hand. Fino isn’t, but it is hand-dyed, and that shows. I realize that may sound negative, but that’s not what I mean at all. On the contrary. The hand-dyeing process yields beautiful colours, as you can see below:

From top to bottom the colours are: 433 Folly, 404 Watered Silk, 408 Crystal Goblet, 407 Velvet Pincushion and 423 Tincture.

Folly, Watered Silk, Crystal Goblet… it looks like they’ve found their colour inspiration at some 18th or 19th century mansion, doesn’t it?

None of the colours are completely solid. Some of them are semi-solids, with lighter and darker shades of the same colour, like the darkest green (Tincture). Others are more variegated, with a combination of different hues. For instance, overall the second colour from the top (Watered Silk) looks pale turquoise. But looking more closely at the yarn knit up in a swatch…

… you can see that there is pale turquoise and even paler turquoise in it, but also some purplish grey, steel blue and mauve. All in all, this gives a lively (but not too busy) effect.

Fino is a light fingering-weight blend of silk and wool with a subtle sheen. It is a single-ply yarn. This means that it consists of just one strand of yarn, unlike most yarns, which have several plies twisted together. I’ve taken a close-up, so that you can see what this looks like:

The yarn is not entirely even – it has slightly thicker and thinner bits. I think this adds to its charm on the whole. There were one or two blobs of silk in my yarn that were too thick to my taste, but I was able to remove them very carefully without damaging the thread.

I always like to know where a yarn I’m using comes from. What the story behind it is. So I did some research and discovered that Manos yarns have a very interesting story to tell.

Fair Trade

What I found out is that Manos del Uruguay (Hands of Uruguay) is a not-for-profit organization, comprising 12 individual cooperatives, owned by the women who work there. The cooperatives are all located in rural areas of the country and their products are certified by the World Fair Trade Organization.

There’s much more to tell, but the artisans can tell their own story much better than I ever could. In honour of their fiftieth anniversary they’ve made a 6-minute video that gives a great impression of their work. Don’t you just love those long, long lines with skeins of dyed yarn, drying on the air outside?

The knitting experience

So what is it like to knit with this yarn? Absolutely lovely, in my humble opinion. I’ve knit some small swatches, one in each colour:

I have a little more experience knitting with this yarn than just these small swatches, as I’m also working on another project in Fino, an easy-to-knit accessory that I hope to tell you more about later this spring. I first used the blues and greens shown here, and I’m making another version in a totally different (but equally beautiful) colourway now.

The yarn knits up to a fairly even fabric. Very fine, or more open and drapey depending on the needle size used. The yarn is so beautiful that just plain stocking stitch would be a good choice, but I think it will work equally well in a cable or lace pattern. Because it is so soft, it is perfect for accessories worn close to the skin, like shawls, cowls or hats. I don’t think it will stand up to frequent (machine) washing, so I wouldn’t recommend it for baby knits.

Some bleeding is common in hand-dyed yarns. But when I soaked the items I knit in a non-rinse wool detergent these colours didn’t bleed at all.

Yarn facts

  • Name: Fino
  • Manufacturer: Manos del Uruguay
  • Skein weight: 100 g (mini-skein sets 5×20 g)
  • Length: 450 m (490 yds)
  • Recommended needle size: 3-3.75 mm (US 3-5)
  • Recommended tension/gauge: 24-28 sts to 10 cm (4 in)
  • Composition: 70% wool; 30% silk
  • Made in: Uruguay
  • Available in: 40 shades
  • I used: Mini-skein set ‘Flora’
  • I paid: € 29.70 for a set (February 2019)

Yarn shop

In fact, I didn’t buy this yarn in a shop, but at a big annual needle crafts fair, where I spent a wonderful day with a friend who loves knitting just as much as I do. The yarn seller does have a shop – De Roopoorte, near Ghent in Belgium – but I haven’t been there, so I can’t tell you about it. What I can tell you is that Evelyne, the owner, has a good eye for beautiful yarns and interesting pattern books. And she stayed calm and friendly all day long, patiently giving people advice about yarns and patterns, no matter how big the crowds milling around her stand got.  

Silly but honest

You may (or may not) have noticed that I sometimes add notes to my blog posts saying something like ‘This post is not sponsored in any way’. I feel a bit silly adding these notes. I mean, who’d want to sponsor me?

The reason I’m adding these notes is that I want to make it clear that nobody is paying me to say nice things about their yarn, shop, designs, books etcetera. When I say nice things about something or somebody, it’s because I really mean them. This also applies to this post. Honesty and integrity are important values to me. So even though it feels rather silly, I’ll keep adding these notes from time to time.

Fun

I’ve had such fun playing with this yarn – winding the small skeins into balls, knitting those tiny swatches, taking lots of photos. I hope it’s been fun to look at and read, too. Thank you for spending some time here.

The Shepherds of Balloo

On Sunday morning we decided on a whim to pay the shepherds of Balloo a visit. It was a lovely day for a walk and I hoped we would see some newborn lambs.

When we arrived, the doors of the sheep fold were open. We could see that it was empty and the sheep were out, which was only to be expected in the middle of the day.

In 2011, the old fold was destroyed by a terrible fire. Fortunately, enough money could be raised to rebuild, and there is a new, very light and airy fold now.

Looking inside we could see the fresh, golden straw on the floor and the wooden feeders filled with hay. In cold and wet weather the ‘windows’ can be closed with a kind of roller blinds.

The area where these sheep roam is not very big, so we should be able to find them. The wind was a bit nippy, but otherwise it was a lovely dry and bright day. The start of our walk took us along a cycle track:

Very soon we turned right, onto a sandy path and the heath. Although spring has arrived in our garden, the landscape here still looked bare and wintry.

I haven’t discovered how to share the sounds and smells of our walks with you here other than catching them in words, so that’s what I’ll try to do. Well, I don’t know about the smells, but for a soundtrack to this walk think of the soughing of the wind and the song of skylarks, climbing higher and higher into the sky. Nothing else. No cars, no planes, no traffic noise at all.

We didn’t have to walk very far before we spotted the flock of sheep in the distance:

Walking on, we lost sight of them for a while. Why? Well, in my pictures the landscape looks flat, while it is in fact slightly undulating. But soon enough, climbing a hillock, we suddenly saw them again. And sitting in a sheltered spot, leaning against his rucksack, was one of the two shepherds who own this flock, keeping an eye on his sheep.

And he was not alone. His two sheep dogs were with him. One of them is a border collie, like many other shepherds in this area have. And the other one is an Australian Kelpie. Meet Woods:

Oh, what a lazy dog! Just lying around enjoying the sunshine instead of minding the flock. Or is he? Look at his ears – they are not resting at all, but on the alert all the time. And as soon as they register something he sits up:

The shepherd told us that Woods is a dog with a natural instinct for herding. A really reliable dog. ‘If we get back to the fold at the end of an afternoon and Woods keeps looking back, you can bet your boots that there’s a stray lamb left behind,’ he said.

Talking about lambs – where are they? Well, as it turns out we were a bit early in the year. There were only six lambs as yet. They were hidden among the adult sheep, but I was able to take a snapshot of two of them. Can you see them?

These sheep are again of the Drenthe Heath sheep breed, about which I wrote in A Chat with a Shepherd. And here, too, their main job is nature conservation.

The shepherds of Balloo have the biggest flock in this part of the country, with over 400 sheep before the lambing season. As is usual for Drenthe Heath sheep, their colours range from (almost) white to black, with other colour variations in between.

What interests me, of course, is what happens with the wool. In the Middle Ages wool was an economic factor to be reckoned with, and the wool trade brought great riches to parts of Europe. But we live in different times.

At my knitting group, last week, I was shocked to hear that another shepherd with Drenthe Heath sheep receives literally nothing at all for his fleeces! His fleeces are shipped to China, as some kind of waste product, to be used in the carpeting industry.

At Balloo things are looking better, I’m glad to say. Along one wall of the fold I saw stacks and stacks of plastic bags filled with fleeces.

Fleeces in all of the colours Drenthe Heath sheep come in are offered for sale. Each bag has a label describing the specific properties of that particular fleece. I read things like: ‘Ideal for felting’, ‘Good quality for spinning’, ‘Fleece with especially long locks’, etcetera.

An entire fleece would be  too much for me, at the moment, but fortunately I was able to buy a smaller quantity of wool. I am looking forward to trying out how it feels in my hands and how it spins up. I need to finish spinning and plying some other wool on my bobbins first, but when I have something to show, I’ll definitely let you know.

More information

There are two websites dedicated to the Balloo sheep. I don’t quite understand why. One seems to be the shepherds’ own website, and has information about the flock and the wool studio (more about that some other time). The other website provides similar information about the flock, as well as a description of the landscape.

Simple Knits

Right now, life around us looks a bit like relay race. As soon as one person recovers from the flu the next one takes over the baton, and starts coughing and feeling headachy. And then the next one. For those of you who are reading this with watery eyes and a box of tissues close to hand: I wish you a speedy recovery!

I’m more or less back to normal, so I thought I’d give you the knitting update that I promised last week. It’s all about simple knits right now, nothing spectacular (is knitting ever spectacular?). I’m glad that I have several things in this category on my needles.

Granite

First of all there is ‘Granite’, the cardigan that I’m making for our daughter. Although I don’t feel like I’m spending huge amounts of time knitting, it is progressing much faster than I’d expected. I’d hoped to have it finished before the autumn, but if it goes on like this, she may even be able to wear it later this spring. The back, both fronts and one sleeve are done. There’s just one more sleeve to knit.

The combination of yarn and stitch pattern make for a really, really elastic fabric. As a consequence all of the pieces look very long and narrow. I mean, look at this sleeve:

Does it look like something that is going to fit? Not really. I trust that it’s going to be all right in the end, because I have knit my swatches and have complete faith in the designer, but still…

Measuring problems

Measuring the length of the pieces is quite hard, as they stretch enormously in every direction. I’ve measured the first sleeve again and again, and the tape measure indicates a different length every time.

I’ve also counted the number of rows I knit and compared them to my swatch. For the sleeve, for instance, I need to knit 40 centimeters from cuff to start of sleeve cap. In theory that is four times the number of rows of my 10 cm swatch. But in reality that looks way shorter than it should be, and that’s what my tape measure tells me too.

Well, I’ve done my best and hope that back and front, and especially the sleeves are going to be the right length.

Button bands

The button bands are knit onto the cardigan and have tiny, one stitch button holes:

I usually buy the buttons first and then adapt the button holes to them. But because I was unable to go out, I’m doing it the other way round this time. I’m knitting the buttonholes as indicated in the pattern and hope that I’ll be able to find matching buttons.

(While I was taking these pictures, there were some heavy rain showers, with sunny spells in between. The sun suddenly came out when I took the buttonhole picture, which is why it looks such a different colour. On my screen, the picture of the sleeve is truest to the actual yarn colour.)

Socks

The second project on my needles is a pair of socks. Not terribly exciting, but always nice to do. Usually I don’t mind if the two socks end up slightly different. I think it’s no problem at all in the pair below that I knit a while ago. As you can see, the sock on the right has a darker cuff and toe, and a bright pink heel, while the colours are distributed differently in the sock on the left. But overall, the effect is similar:

But the pair I’m knitting now has very prominent stripes:

In this case I do want both socks to be alike. Nowadays some of these yarns have a special starter thread that helps create two identical socks, but my yarn doesn’t. So what I’ve done is I’ve chosen a clearly recognizable part in the stripe pattern (the narrow blue stripe bordering the part with the turquoise in the middle) and started with that. I hope I can replicate that on the second sock.

Take-along project

I have a confession to make. My scarf in four colours of mohair and silk was meant to be my take-along project. The idea was that I would knit the memories of places I’d been to into it. But I’ve cheated and also knit a bit at home. I wasn’t going anywhere for weeks on end, and I just couldn’t keep my hands off it.

Apart from that, it has accompanied me on an outing with our daughter, a visit to friends in the south of the country and to my knitting group on Wednesday, where I added in the next colour, the bright turquoise on the right (I took the photo beforehand).

In this scarf, two colours are knit together in every ‘block’. This means that the scarf as a whole will be less bright than the yarn on the ball, and that the colours blend nicely together from one block to the next.

Swatches

And last but not least, I’ve been knitting some swatches in an absolutely BEAU-TI-FUL yarn.

This fairly thin yarn is soft, has a slight gleam and comes in a range of lovely colours. I hope to tell you more about it soon.

Lemons and Literature

Thank you so much for all your well-wishes, both online and off! They have done me a power of good.

In the grand scheme of things, a bout of the flu is nothing, of course. But in my personal life it’s been rather disruptive, and I haven’t always been the most patient of patients. I’m on the mend now, I’m glad to say, and feeling a little better every day.

When life gives you lemons…

… make lemonade. Or so the saying goes. I feel ambivalent about the philosophy behind this. On the one hand it sounds nice and positive. But on the other, I would never, ever say this to somebody who is seriously ill or otherwise going through a difficult time. I side with Ursula Le Guin, who says:

Positive thinking is great. It works best when based on a realistic assessment and acceptance of the actual situation. Positive thinking founded on denial may not be so great.

(from: No Time to Spare, p.12)

In the case of flu, though, I do think it’s a good thing to do something positive with those lemons. Only instead of lemonade, I’d rather make tea. Our good friend Richard sent me his recipe for Lemon and Ginger Tea and has kindly given me permission to pass it on here.

Richard’s
Lemon and Ginger Tea

Ingredients

  • 1 litre of water
  • 25-30 grams of ginger
  • 2 bags of herbal tea*
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • honey or stevia** to taste

* Richard likes to use a detox blend, but says that any other (organic) herbal tea is fine. I used a blend of lime flower, chamomile and rosehip.

** The stevia powder available in most supermarkets is a mixture of stevia and sorbitol. Pure stevia is available from health food shops in liquid form.

Method

  • Bring the water to the boil
  • Peel and thinly slice the ginger and add to the boiling water
  • Leave to cool to about 80°C and add the teabags
  • Remove the teabags after about 5 minutes
  • Leave the tea to cool further to lukewarm
  • Sieve out the ginger and add the lemon juice
  • Sweeten with honey or stevia if you like

Drink straight away or keep refrigerated for up to 2 days.

This tea can be reheated gently (do not boil again or you’ll lose the goodness from the lemon), but is also delicious as iced tea in summer.

Tip: add some slices of orange and/or a clove for an extra warming winter tea.

Enjoy!

Tea label wisdom

Apart from the tea itself, the labels attached to the bags have also been nudging me in the right direction, with gems of wisdom like ‘This life is a gift’ (Absolutely, and I really appreciate it), ‘Kindness is the essence of life’ (All right, I’ll try not to be too grumpy), and ‘Create the sequence of goodness, consequences will be always good’ (Uhm, I need to meditate on that one for a bit, but I’m sure it will lead to something good).

Books

Books have been a great comfort to me during the past few weeks. I’ve been reading a lot, mainly re-reading books I’ve read before.

I’ve given this blogpost the title ‘Lemons and Literature’ because of the attractive alliteration. Whether everything I’ve been reading falls into the category Literature with a capital L is debatable, but I don’t think that matters all that much. Among my reading matter, was the book by Ursula Le Guin from which I quoted above.

No Time to Spare

Le Guin, who died last year, was a prolific writer. Apart from many novels, she wrote essays, short stories and poetry. She also published a new English translation of the Tao Te Ching. And she started blogging at the age of 80! No Time to Spare: Thinking About what Matters (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) is a compilation of some of her blog posts.

These are gems of wisdom in a different category entirely from the tea labels. Witty, warm-hearted and wise, Le Guin writes about subjects ranging from ageing to cats, literature and life in general. A book to savour in small chunks.

Tip for Book Lovers

No Time to Spare was a gift from my dear friend Pien, a fellow book lover and a book artist. Pien makes her own paper, in which she often includes plant fibers, like gingko, hemp or stinging nettle. She writes her own texts, prints them onto her hand-made paper and then binds her books by hand. Do take a look at her website Waterleaf Paper and Words if you’re a book lover too. All images on her website can be enlarged by clicking on them.

KnitLit

The book you may have noticed on my bedside table in my previous (very short) post, was KnitLit: Sweaters and their Stories… and Other Writing about Knitting. The title says it all: this is a collection of essays and stories about knitting, yarn, wool and other fibres, disastrous and successful projects and much more.

Some of the pieces are humorous, some moving, and some thought provoking. Most of them are no more than 3-4 pages long, and some only half a page, like ‘Silent Knit’, about the sound of wooden knitting needles versus that of plastic ones. Does anyone really want to read anything as nerdy as that? Well, I do. And apparently lots of others do too, as there’s also a KnitLit Too and KnitLit the Third.

Knitting

I have given my needles a couple of weeks’ rest, but I’m back to knitting now and hope to give you an update next week.