Reed

Hello, and an extra warm welcome today! I sincerely hope that you are in good health and able to cope with life’s stresses in this strange and scary world we suddenly find ourselves in. And I also hope that you get all the support you need if you have health problems or are struggling with this new reality in any way.

I’ve been wondering what to do, here on my blog. I had planned to write about the area where I found the inspiration for a new knitting design, but it all felt rather futile under the circumstances. I could write about how the pandemic impacts everyday life here, in the Netherlands, instead. But how would that help?

After giving it some more thought, I’ve decided to stick to my original plan. I’m not a doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional. I can’t help anybody in that way. What I hope I can do, is offer some comfort, inspiration and cheer through my words, pictures and knitting. A breath of fresh air for everybody cooped up at home and something different for worried minds to focus on.

Would you like to join me on a short virtual tour of ‘our’ wetland?

We have the great good fortune to live close to two National Parks. To the North-East there’s a large area of woodland and heath. (For my regular readers: that’s where the flocks of sheep live.) And to the South-West there’s a wetland area.

This is, in fact, the largest lowland bog in Northwest Europe. It is ideal for cycling – there are miles of bicycle tracks and meandering narrow roads.

At this time of year, this open landscape can be rather bleak, with chilly winds. But one cloudy and windy day, about a fortnight ago, I braved the elements and took some photographs.

In summer the area is overrun by tourists from all over the world. Normally there would be some shivery visitors around taking selfies even in March, but now, with Covid-19 forcing them to stay at home, it is deserted.

The canoes and the soundless ‘whisperboats’ are waiting for busier times.

I could tell you about the picturesque villages, the crocheted curtains behind many windows, the various types of windmills, or the birds, flowers and butterflies, but I’m keeping all that for later. Today, I’ll focus on the landscape, and especially on reed.

Apart from lakes, canals and wet grasslands, there are extensive reedlands, often right behind the houses.

Mowing takes place in winter, and in March much of the reed has already been mown (right half of photo below). The rest will follow soon or is left as it is for the birds and other wildlife.

A statue in one of the villages shows a traditional reed worker taking a break.

Nowadays, the work is done with modern motor mowers. Then the reed is tied into bundles and stacked along a waterway…

… or in the corner of a field and covered with plastic sheeting…

… to be collected with a tractor and trailer or transported over water on a flat boat:

Not surprisingly, many houses around here have reed roofs. The oldest thatched houses are very small – tiny houses avant la lettre.

Most of these are now rented out as holiday cottages. On the outside they look exactly like they did 100 years ago, and they do still have an original bedstee (a bed inside a sort of cupboard), but otherwise they have all mod cons.

There are also some fairly modest new houses with reed roofs…

… as well as more luxurious ones:

Although I’m happy with our own house, and wouldn’t want to move at all, I always love looking at other people’s houses, especially if they’re as lovely as these.

I did say that I wouldn’t talk about birds today, but I just have to show you these storks I saw on a nest:

Many people around here provide storks with nesting places in the form of wagon wheels placed on high poles, or on a dead tree as here.

Just as I was heading home, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. Standing in the nippy wind, looking out over the shimmering water surface, with a couple of graylag geese in the foreground, a cormorant primping its feathers a little further away, and the sound of other water birds in the distance… a moment of bliss.

One of the inhabitants of this reedland (not in this photo) formed the inspiration for my new knitting pattern. I’m busy finishing everything and hope to tell you more about it soon. For now, take care and stay well!

Oh, and if you’d like to read more about this National Park, do visit the official website.

A New Visitor to our Garden

It was on a Saturday morning while I was vacuuming the living room that I saw him, the main character of this story – a sparrowhawk. He (we think it’s a young male) was sitting on the fence close to the house. I’d seen him several times before recently, but always in a flash.

This morning, he gave me all the time in the world to get my camera and take pictures. Many pictures. Before I show you some of them, here’s the ‘scene of the crime’:

Looking through our living room window you can see an evergreen shrub, behind the hyacinths. It plays an important part in this story. To the left of it there’s a rain meter, to the left of that a tepee filled with sunflower seeds, and further to the left (not on the photo) there’s a bird table.

That’s where it all happened.

And here are some of the other characters in the story – a large and noisy family of house sparrows:

The sparrows love the sunflower seeds in the tepee, the seeds and grains we put out on the bird table and the peanuts in another feeder. They have lived in our garden for years, but it is only now that the sparrowhawk seems to have discovered them.

A sparrowhawk isn’t called sparrowhawk for nothing. It doesn’t care for sunflower seeds or grains. And peanuts? Blech! Their favourite food is… sparrow!

As soon as the sparrowhawk flies over the garden, the sparrows and other garden birds are gone. They hide in the beech hedge or in the evergreen shrub in front of the living room window. The garden seems deserted.

For the sparrowhawk, it takes a while to sink in. Where are they? Normally there are lots of sparrows on this bird feeder:

He looks down. No, no sparrow in sight.

Then he seems to hear something in the evergreen shrub. Aha, there they are. He looks at it from the rain meter. No, he can’t get at them from there.

Then he tries a different approach. Sitting on the grass he looks up. Hmmmm…

He walks around the shrub and looks and looks. But there’s no way he can get at the sparrows.

Finally he perches on top of the shrub, waiting patiently for the sparrows to come out of their hiding place.

Beautiful bird, isn’t he?

The sparrows wisely stay where they are. But suddenly, whoosh, the sparrow hawk grabs another hapless little bird from the honeysuckle against the fence. It went so fast that I could hardly see it, let alone photograph it.

Wow, what an amazing bird.

Apart from the birds, there isn’t much to see in the garden at this time of the year. The only other thing that catches the eye is the witch hazel we planted last autumn.

I’m very grateful for its cheerful yellow flowers.

Everything else is brown and grey, with a little bit of green here and there. If I want more colour, I have to look for it elsewhere. Fortunately there’s always yarn! (More about what I did with it soon.) 

I can only show you static photos of the sparrowhawk here, but there’s an amazing 3-minute BBC video of a sparrowhawk if you’d like to see it in flight.

Happy 2020!

Hello again! 2020 has well and truly started. Maybe it is ‘officially’ too late for New Year’s wishes, but, really, can it ever be too late for good wishes? So, I wish you a very happy, healthy and fulfilling New Year!

In my last blog post of 2019, I asked myself some questions. I would have liked to start this year with some answers, but I haven’t organized my thoughts enough for that. And I am not ready to write about the things I have been knitting either, so I thought I’d ease into the New Year with an impression of our visit to the Dutch Open Air Museum during the Christmas Holiday (focusing on knitting and other fibre-related things, of course).

Houses, farms and other buildings from different periods and from all over the country have been moved to the museum over the past 108 (!) years. The first building we entered was this blue farmhouse from the east of the Netherlands:

The museum’s theme at this time of year was ‘Winter Jobs’. When there wasn’t a lot of work to do outside in winter, people did all kinds of other jobs. In this particular farmhouse the focus was on spinning (wool and flax) and knitting. There was a display of flax in different stages…

…from unspun fibres in different qualities to woven linen, from coarse and brown (right) to very fine and bleached (left).

One of the volunteers, dressed in period costume, was spinning flax on a traditional spinning wheel.

She showed us how long flax fibres are – much longer than any wool fibres.

Before flax can be spun and woven into linen cloth, it goes through many stages. The last stage before spinning is hackling. With a hackle like this one…

… the short fibres are removed from the long ones.

All this preparation before flax can even be spun! And then hours and hours of spinning and weaving. No wonder a woman’s linen cupboard was her pride and joy.

I could have spent an entire afternoon in this farmhouse alone, and if the museum wasn’t so far from where we live, I’d love to work here as a volunteer. But there was more to see, so on we went.

We saw several iconic Dutch windmills, of course, like the thatched one at the top of this post, used for pumping water, in order to drain wet low-lying areas, and this wood-sawing mill:

One of the parts of the museum I remember best from when I visited here as a child is this collection of green wooden houses from the Northwest of the country.

We were not the only ones who had this great idea of visiting the museum. In fact, it was one of the busiest days of the year.

I was dismayed when I saw the crowds at the entrance, but the park is so big that it could easily absorb us all.

The weaving shed was closed, but I peeked in through the window…

… and later bought two of the weavers’ lovely checked tea towels in the shop. This is one of them with some of the wafers I always bake on New Year’s Eve:

They are called ‘knieperties’ and are very thin, slightly sweet and have a hint of cinnamon.

Uh-oh, this is becoming quite a long blog post. I intended to make them shorter this year, but somehow there is always so much to tell. I hope you have a few minutes more.

Let’s hurry on to the cottage dedicated to knitting in World War I. On one wall there was a display of newspaper cuttings with articles urging women and girls to knit for our soldiers.

They were asked to knit scarves, mittens, socks (preferably dark grey) and balaclavas. The photograph on the left shows a group of soldiers wearing knitted balaclavas. And here is one in progress:

At the end of the afternoon we walked back to the blue farmhouse. The volunteer who sat there spinning earlier, was now knitting. She was knitting a sock in exactly the same way my mother and grandmother did and how I was taught to knit them.

Nowadays, I use a set of five short lightweight sock needles, with the stitches distributed over four and knitting with the fifth. But here you can see how it used to be done. Only four needles (long steel ones) are used, with the stitches on three needles and the knitting done with the fourth.

At this time of the day it was much quieter in the farmhouse and the volunteer had time for a nice chat about spinning and knitting. (It’s always so nice to chat with kindred spirits!)

She also showed me something I had never seen in action before – a knitting sheath. It’s a wooden stick with a hole in it, tucked into the knitter’s waistband. It was rather dark inside the house, so I hope you can see it:

The knitting sheath supports the working needle, carries the weight of the knitting, protects the knitter’s clothes from the sharp needle point and speeds up the knitting. Very interesting. I’d like to try that someday.

Well, that’s all for today. I hope to be back with a post about my own knitting soon.

For more information about the Dutch Open Air Museum, please visit their website. There is much, much more to see than I’ve shown you here.

Pre-Christmas Mulling, Baking and Making

Hello! It’s good to see you here. I hope your life is not too frantic in the run-up to Christmas.

There’s quite a bit of pre-holiday preparation going on here. And some knitting, too. And some mulling, not just of wine, but also in the sense of pondering. But before I get to that, I’d like to take you on a mini-trip to the castle in the picture at the top of this post – Middachten Castle. It’s a private property that only opens on special occasions. The Christmas opening is one of these occasions and we visited it last weekend.

Although the castle has medieval roots, the current building dates from the 17th Century. There’s a moat all around it and a bridge leading to the front door. Or, rather doors. The two glossy dark green doors were decorated with beautiful wreaths flanked by other greenery.

Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it that the Christmas trees and flower arrangements were amazing. There was at least one Christmas tree in every room and the decorations were themed to the rooms. There were bunches of cigars in the tree in the smoking room, orchids sprouting from books and Christmas ornaments made from printed pages in the library and so on.

There was a Christmas market outside and in the outbuildings…

… but looking through my photographs, I see that I was more drawn to the quiet corners…

… and architectural elements.

We ended our lovely visit with a shared bowl of barbecued mushrooms and tiny potatoes and some piping hot mulled wine.

Our preparations here, at our own modest abode, are far less elaborate than those at the castle, I’m glad to say.

Taking the Christmas tree decorations out of their box is always a special moment. I put on some music first, to get into the mood. This time it was A Christmas Together, starring John Denver and the Muppets, with The Christmas Wish as one of my favourites. It always really moves me when Kermit sings in his funny voice:

I don’t know if you believe in Christmas,
or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree.
But if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
for you to come and celebrate with me.

Well, back to decorating, here’s one of my oldest ornaments:

With a little more time on my hands than in the past few years, I also did some baking. I looked up an old recipe for Basler Leckerlis, a kind of gingerbread from Switzerland made with honey, candied and fresh citrus peel, ground almonds, spices and Kirsch liqueur.

After baking, the leckerlis are iced with a mixture of icing sugar and more Kirsch. The heavenly warm, spicy aroma alone is worth the effort. Here they are cooling on a wire rack.

A while ago, someone said that my blog exudes a feeling of contentment – that I must be a very contented person. Scrolling through the blog posts I’ve written in the past year, I can see why people might get that impression. But contented is far from how I feel. I do feel grateful. But also worried.

With everything that’s going on in the world around us, I sometimes feel like pulling up the drawbridge, closing the shutters, and withdrawing into my castle, figuratively speaking. But then again, I don’t think that is the answer to anything.

While I’m knitting, I’m mulling over better answers. Pondering on how to make this world a better place. And on the place of knitting, and blogging about knitting, in it. So far, I’ve mainly come up with question marks. Where am I going with my knitting and my blog? Should I be going anywhere with my knitting and my blog? Shouldn’t I be doing something more important or useful? Should I go into politics? Answer to the last one: No, I’d be totally useless as a politician. I’ll ponder on the rest for a little longer.

Meanwhile, I just keep knitting.

I’m knitting a pair of fingerless mittens for a gift. They have a lovely little cable with tiny nupps (an Estonian term for delicate bobbles).

I can show them here because the recipient already knows that I’m making them. She chose the yarn and the pattern herself, in fact.

I’m also still knitting the blue cardigan I’ve been working on for quite a while. I had almost finished the second sleeve when I realized that I wouldn’t have enough yarn for the neck band and the pocket tops. Pinning the parts together to find out what could be done, I saw that the sleeves were on the long side and unravelled them to a few centimetres below the sleeve cap (not much fun with this sticky yarn, I can tell you). The one on the left is now re-knit, and I’ll soon be able to finish the rest.

When I’m stuck on a knitting project, like with the sleeves above, I get out what I call my in-between-projects-project – a large stole.

I add a few rows or even an entire stripe to it when I have no inspiration for other things. But now I’m stuck on that too, because I’m not entirely happy with the last two colours I’ve added. I think I may rip them out and substitute them for different colours, but I’m not sure yet.

In between all this knitting and baking, I also made some beeswax candles. I’ll come back to those when I’ve experimented more and can find the time to write up a post about them.

These at least literally make life a little lighter.

And finally, I’m knitting some swatches for a new design idea I have. If it works out the way I envision it, I’ll show you more sometime in the New Year.

Well, this is my last blog post for 2019. I’m taking some time off to eat, drink and be merry first. And then some time to knit, read, take naps and go for walks, so it may be a while before I’m back.

I wish you a lovely Christmas and hope to see you here again in 2020!

Perfect Knitting Weather, but…

Hello again! Welcome to a white and snowy world!

It started to snow at three o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. Exactly at the predicted time. We live in a very well-organized country. A code yellow warning was issued by the meteorological service. Train timetables were adjusted long before the first snowflake fell.

So the snow wasn’t a lovely surprise. But lovely nevertheless. We don’t get snow all that often, and although it usually isn’t more than just a few centimeters, I always find it exciting and exhilarating. I just have to share some of all that white loveliness with you.

With my camera in hand, I stepped out the back door, where our pots with herbs are. The most fragile ones are safely under glass, the others will hopefully survive.

I walked round the house for a look at our bird feeders. If you look closely, you can see that this great tit has a sunflower seed in its beak. Great and blue tits and sparrows fly on and off, picking up one seed at a time, eating it in a quiet and safe spot on a branch, and then coming back for more.

First, I took a stroll through our village and noticed this little tree, snug in its stripy knit coat:

Then I walked down the road outside the village, past a stack of wood waiting to be picked up.

And finally I came to the wood at the end of the road.

It looks like a very quiet place, but I was definitely not the only one enjoying it. There were lots of people around, with or without dogs, children, sledges and even skis.

How I love this weather! The snow, the pale light, the cold. Perfect knitting weather, but…

… my knitting more or less seems to have come to a standstill. There isn’t much knitting going on at all. I really don’t know why. Am I suffering from a winter depression? No, I don’t think so. I love winter and I’m feeling perfectly all right otherwise.

Waiting for inspiration I’ve been knitting some socks.

At first I said to myself, it’s only natural after all the gift knitting. Just take your time. Relax a little. Knit another pair of socks. Some ideas will come to you, just wait and see. But now I’ve almost finished three pairs of socks.

There’s just the toe of the third pair to finish and the ends to weave in. Apart from that, I’m struggling to get the pockets of a nearly finished cardigan right. And that’s it. There’s nothing else on my needles.

High time to actively go hunting for inspiration and something to knit. Something interesting. Something a little more challenging than socks. High time to dive into my yarn stash and leaf through some books in my knitting library. I’ll let you know when I find something.

Meanwhile I’m thinking of all of you travelling to and from work by car or by train in this weather. I hope that the roads are not too slippery and the trains are on time. And I hope that you can also enjoy the snow a little.

Most of all I’m thinking of my knitting friend Monique, who gets onto her bicycle every day to deliver the mail whatever the weather. I really admire her for that. And I also admire her for her knitting. Monique knits and designs some of the finest and most beautiful lace you’ll ever see. If you’re into lace knitting, you must take a look at her website. She has just published the second issue of her free digital magazine ‘Fine Shetland Lace’. (Scroll down a little and you’ll see a download link.)

Reading through the magazine, I came across an inspirational quote that seems like a fitting end to this blog post. It’s from Irish lace knitter and designer Aisling M. Doonan:

Sometimes… you have to sit down and begin for the ideas to come.

Festive I-Cord and Winter Tea

For us, Christmas is not about presents. Our big gift-giving moment is on December 5th, the feast of Saint Nicholas. For us, this time of the year is about celebrating togetherness, darkness and light, and good food. And for me, it is also a time to reflect, rest, read and knit.

Still, there is always someone who could do with a small present – a host, someone who has moved house, or ‘just’ a dear friend. For such occasions I have made some warming Winter Tea, with orange zest and spices. I’ve written the recipe down and included it further on in this blog post.

Making the tea is really nice, cutting and drying the zingy orange zest, crushing the spices, and mixing the fragrant blend. But what is even nicer, is knitting the cords to decorate the jars. It would be much quicker to use string, raffia or ribbon, of course. But knitting this cord is so much fun and brings a quirky, personal touch.

I-cord

This type of knitted cord is usually called I-cord. Why? Something to do with iPhones and iPads perhaps? No, as it turns out, the ‘I’ stands for ‘idiot’. This cord is so easy to knit that every idiot can make it. I-cord was made famous by the innovative knitting teacher Elizabeth Zimmermann, and can be used in many different ways – along the edges of knitted fabrics or separately, like I used it here.

For a cord like this you’ll need some scraps of fingering-weight (sock) yarn in two colours and two double-pointed knitting needles (I used 2.5 mm).

Knitting the I-cord:

  1. Cast on 1 stitch
  2. Knit into the front, the back and the front of the stitch (= 3 stitches)
  3. DO NOT TURN! Move the needle from your right to your left hand and slide the stitches to the right tip of the needle.
  4. Knit the 3 stitches, pulling the yarn firmly (but not too tight) at the first stitch.

Repeat steps 3 and 4 to the desired length. (I knit to about 70 cm/28 inches).

To cast off slip the first stitch, knit the next two stitches together, pass the slipped stitch over this stitch, cut the thread and pull it through the last stitch. Weave in ends.

For the cord on the left in the photo above I knit 2 rows red and 2 rows natural white. For the cord on the right I alternated 3 rows natural white with 1 row red.

And then I played some more with the yarn:

It’s amazing what you can do with just 3 stitches and 2 colours of yarn. The hardest thing about I-cord is keeping an even tension. Don’t worry too much about that, though. Nobody will notice. As you can see from the photo above, my tension is not all that even. But do you notice that looking at the I-cords on the jars? Not really.

Winter Tea Recipe

You’ll need:

  • Dried zest of 1 orange (see below)
  • 100 grs black tea (e.g. Ceylon)
  • 8 cloves
  • 1-2 cinnamon sticks (depending on size)
  • 15 cardamom pods
  • 10 black pepper corns
  • 2 teaspoons dried ginger

To dry the orange zest, preheat the oven to 100 °C / 210° F / 90 °C fan. Peel the orange thinly using a potato peeler. Cut the zest into tiny strips. Spread the strips of zest out on a baking tray and place in the oven for about 1 hour, until completely dried out and brittle. Leave to cool.

Break the cinnamon sticks into pieces. Crush the spices (not the orange zest!) using a pestle and mortar. Use some force, but not too much. The spices should still be recognizable and not pounded to a powder.

Mix the spices with the tea and the dried orange zest and fill into jars. (This quantity is enough to fill two 240 ml jars.)

Make a nice gift tag and fasten it with your I-cord.

The tea is even better served with a slice of fresh orange.

Last but not least

Remember to take some time to make yourself a cup of tea, sit down, sip and relax.

I wish you a very happy and peaceful holiday season and look forward to seeing you again (in real life or here) in the New Year!

Weihnachtsmarkt

The first weekend of December we drove up to Germany for a change of scene. Our destination, the city of Münster, is not all that far away from where we live, really. It is the same distance as from our place to, say, The Hague. But it is an entirely different world. The same Euro, but different houses, a different landscape (hills!), different food and a different language.

Apart from visiting the Christmas Market, I had planned to visit a yarn shop and report back to you here with some inspirational photos and stories. I’d found the shop on the internet and looked the address up on the map. But… I forgot to go there!

How could I forget to visit a yarn shop? What was wrong with me?!?

The only explanation I have is that I was overwhelmed with all the sights, sounds and smells of the Weihnachtsmarkt. So that was my blog idea out the window. What to do now?

I could try to give you an impression of our day. Maybe you’d like a virtual mini-holiday abroad. And maybe then you’d understand why I forgot about the yarn shop. Would you like that? Come along then.

The Weihnachtsmarkt in Münster actually is not one Christmas Market, but five smaller ones, in different locations around the historic city centre. The booths are tiny wooden houses, some painted green, some painted blue, and some left untreated in natural wood. Many of them have lovely decorations along their gables and on their roofs. These life-size wooden deer were on the roof of one of them:

The warm smells of food and drink greeted us as soon as we set foot on the first market. First of all there’s glühwein, of course, with its wonderful spicy and fruity aroma, and similar drinks like Punch, Grog and Feuerzangenbowle, with or without alcohol. There is the smell of roasted chestnuts. The piney smell from the literally hundreds of Christmas trees placed all around the markets. And the smell of salmon roasting over a wood fire.

There are lots of delicious things to eat on the Weihnachtsmarkt. One of the things I like best is Reibekuchen, grated potato cakes, served with apple sauce. But this time we chose sautéed mushrooms in a creamy sauce and Rauberfleish, a sort of mix between goulash and chili con carne, for lunch. And we couldn’t resist the famous German Kuchen, of course. I was too busy enjoying the taste of spicy plums covered by a layer of crumbles to take photos. But I did take a picture of some of amazing loaves of sourdough bread.

They were absolutely huge. We estimated that they must weigh over three kilos each!

There’s music all around, too. Christmas music coming from the shops. Music from street musicians, some very talented, some not so much. And around noon, walking along a river from one market to the next, we heard church bells ringing, a deep and sonorous sound.

The booths sell all kinds of lovely stuff, from Christmas decorations, to jewellery, wooden toys, beautiful hand-carved wooden figures and home accessories.

There are stacks and stacks of hand-made soaps, some fresh, summery and flower-scented, and others spicy and fruity.

And candles, of course. Candles in all shapes, sizes and colours. My favourites are natural beeswax ones, with their beautiful golden glow and subtly sweet honey scent.

There’s some knitwear, too, albeit machine-knit. Socks, shawls, scarves and hats. And lots of wrist warmers. The ones in the photo below are made from alpaca. They looked a bit stiff and scratchy, but were in fact extremely soft. Gorgeous colours and patterns – I would really like to knit some like these someday.

So many lovely things, so much to see.

So, what did I buy? Ehm… nothing. Overwhelm at work again, I think. But I really needed some presents, so at the very end of the day, I rushed back to one of the booths selling teas and tisanes and bought some delicious fruity & spicy teas. Mission accomplished.

Now, almost two weeks later, writing this and looking at the pictures, I think: What a wonderful day. And at the same time I am still shaking my head and muttering: How on earth could I forget to visit a yarn shop?