Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Be thankful

Sometimes things just turn up when you don't expect them, just when you need that little fillip to get you through the week.

And just as I was in danger of sliding down the slippery slope of January gloom, my guardian robin popped by to nod hello, there was a knock at the door and the postman greeted me at the side gate with an armful of parcels.

Needless to say, two were for The General who is generally the recipient of a stream of widgets and gadgets and thingummy jigs for one of his tippy-tappy electronic boxes. And who am I to grumble, for he is the IT department for my little cottage, and I am most exceedingly grateful to him for his competence and expertise.

But joy of joys, one brown paper parcel was for me, and it brought a smile to my face, and a spring in my step, as I had quite forsworn the guilty pleasures of parcels in the post, and little yarny, stitchy presents to myself in the light of our reformed circumstances.

Would you not have been excited to rip off the brown paper and find these most fulsomely Cathish contents? And I have dearest Bekimarie to thank for such a parcel of fun! Beki has started the New Year with a swing, and has challenged herself to do all sorts of amazing and wonderful things in order that 2010 can be a year of achievement for her - and nineteen days into the new year she is crossing things off the list in quick succession. Do go and congratulate her (just click on her name above) on her industry and initiative, for I am sure that she puts the rest of us to shame - me in particular with my basket of nearly-finished items which grows by the day in an incomprehensibly Topsy-like fashion. (Not to mention the cupboard of things yet to be started.)

My Cath Kidston Home Ideas Journal is going to be a very stylish, and I think kind, way of constructing a decorating and maintenance to-do list for the Head Chef when he shortly has time on his hands whilst I am busy putting the world to rights. I have had a bit of a thing about ring binders and stationery ever since I was an even smaller person than I am now, and this has so much space for lists (and more stickers!) and little Cathish coloured wallets to put things in, and squared paper and lined paper, and room audits - I feel quite overcome with the potential of it all. The Head Chef is going to be so busy putting all those ideas of mine into practice.

And I have some red spotty Cath tissues to match my red spotty executive briefcase (which I forgot to bring home from work today), and I can take my fairy cakes to work in red spotty cake cases, and be the envy of the workforce. Cheery redness, indeed!

I have hung my very stylish heart up in my B&B sitting room (won't you come and stay, and admire it?), and I might even let them have a sniff of my Be Thankful candle, but I think perhaps it would be a good thing for me to leave it in the packaging and put it by my computer, in case I ever forget to be thankful for all the blessings I have.

And last but not least Beki sent me one of her lovely pincushions (if you would like one, you can find them in her shop here), and it was all enclosed in a little bag of birdy fabric - the special things in my life are always heralded by robins. So, Beki, I am so thankful for your generosity, and love the beautiful things you have sent me to brighten a grey and drear and bone-chilling day - a cornucopia of Cathness and redness to warm me to the core.

Blessings seem to be flowing my way at the moment - several kind people have given me awards and tags and all things nice, which I will get on to very shortly.

And one last little blessing - I was sitting looking out of my window at the robin sitting on the wheelbarrow, a little robin who is sure to visit whenever I need cheering up. Robins are, of course, messengers from heaven, as are angels. A very good and wise friend of mine, who knows about these things, told me once that if you are in need of help, don't turn away that stranger at your door, because he will be the stranger answering your prayers.

So I smiled at the robin, and surveyed the garden and the orchard, and wondered how we were ever going to be able to manage it all, and knock it into some sort of shape, or even make a living out of our precious land. And then the phone rang, and an angel spoke. Now you may jest (especially if you are a General), but the caller was a stranger wanting to learn about permaculture from us, in return for his labour on our smallholding. I think perhaps my prayers have been answered.

So thank you Beki, thank you angels and robins; and I hope you, dear readers, have something in your life to be thankful for, too.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Simply knitting round and round

I have had so many people express the opinion to me that knitting in the round is too complicated for them that I feel impelled to prove the opposite. If I, an inexpert knitter, uncoordinated and clumsy, can knit round and round, then I promise you can do so, too.

So I hope the pictures below will be of assistance to you - they are born out of my own incompetence and distressing experience. I am not sure they can really be dignified with the name of knitting in the round tutorial, more advice on knitting with double-pointed needles if you really think you can't possibly attempt it (from one who knows how you feel).

The first time I tried to knit in the round I could not work out how to join it together at all (please don't laugh), and the first socks I tried were cast on at least four times, and caused me great personal grief.

All you need to be able to do in order to knit some simple handwarmers is to be able to cast on, and cast off, and do knit stitch (you don't even have to purl!) - because when knitting stocking stitch in the round, every row is a knit row.

If you don't knit already, I would suggest you first start with a simple scarf in garter stitch in a non-fancy yarn, and once you can do that you are ready to take on double-pointed needles, which are not nearly as scary as they look.

Leslie at A Friend to Knit With posted a pattern for fingerless gloves inspired by the Toast catalogue, which she called Toast and Toasty: Toast is a simple tube, and Toasty has a separate thumb, so if you are a complete beginner start with Toast, but anyone who has knitted before will find Toasty easy enough. Click on the link above to find her pattern.

I have adapted the pattern slightly to take account of the yarn I wanted to use, which was Duchess in Dove, from the Skein Queen. This is a DK alpaca/merino yarn, and beautifully soft and cosy on the hands - a joy to knit with.

I used 3.75mm double-pointed bamboo needles to avoid aching hands (more of this later) - I would normally use 4mm for DK yarn, but wanted a tighter knit for warmth, and to counteract the tendency of gloves to go a bit baggy with use, and cast on 39 stitches to produce a glove to fit an adult medium-sized hand. If you use a number which can be divided by three, you can have the same amount of stitches on each needle, which I find makes things easier.

So I used a thumb (or long tail) cast on - I cast on 39 stitches just onto one needle as normal, then slid them along, 13 from each end onto another two needles. In the picture above you can see the end of the long tail on the left, and the ball end of the yarn on the right.

It is important not to twist the stitches at this stage, but if you look carefully at the cast on stitches, each side of the work looks quite different - when you arrange the needles into a triangle, check that the yarn at the corners looks straight, and that the line of yarn underneath the stitches looks the same all the way round.

We still have the ball end of the yarn on the right, and the leftover piece of the long tail on the left - this will be for sewing in at the end to fasten off, but it also acts as a useful end of round marker, and saves using stitch markers, which can be a bit fiddly. (One round means that you have knitted round all three needles once, and have got back to the long tail marker again.)

Now, what puzzled me for ages was how you joined the stitches into a round. The important thing to remember is that your fourth empty needle is always the one you are knitting onto. When you get to the end of knitting along each needle, you find you have an another empty needle in your hand, and that is the one you use to knit along the next section.

So below, we are going to join the three needles into a circle, or rather triangle, and knit the first row. Remember, always knit onto an empty needle - that is what the fourth one is for.

Now we are going to start knitting! Remember to check that the bottom edge of the knitting looks the same all the way round, and with the ball end of the yarn on the right (if you are right-handed, reverse direction for left-handers), take the fourth empty needle and put it through the first cast-on stitch knitwise - just like normal knitting.

Now we bring the yarn round, under the needles and over the empty needle - just as if you were knitting normally on two needles without the one underneath. This is what joins the knitting into a circle, and joins the first and last cast-on stitches together.

When you knit this first stitch, pull it up really tightly - in fact, always pull the first stitch on any needle really tight - this will prevent you from having a ladder of loose stitches at the joins.

Below I have put another picture of knitting the first stitch on the needle -  here I have just moved the empty fourth needle inwards so you can really see how the yarn comes from the back of the just knitted section and under the empty needle, which has been inserted knitwise into the next needle to be knitted off.

So once you have knitted to the end of a needle, you can forget about it, and act as if you were just knitting on two needles like you always do.


 The first round is always the most awkward and fiddly to do - so don't feel put off if you seem all fingers and thumbs - once you have knitted a few rounds and the tube has started forming it will all seem much easier.


The picture above shows what the knitting will look like in the middle of your first round. Notice how all the bottom edges look the same, the ball end of the yarn is coming from the right, and that empty fourth needle is now half full.

Remember that to make stocking stitch on double-pointed needles, every row is a knit row.

Here is the same first round again - you can see the long tail marking the end, and the working yarn on the right.

Funnily enough, and I have never really worked out why, the tube seems to start coming out of the top, then after a few rows, it comes out of the bottom of your triangle of needles - so don't panic if it seems to be coming towards you at first - you are not knitting upside down!

And the picture above shows what I mean - you can see the bottom loopy end towards you and the inside reverse stocking stitch. At this point I have knitted a round or two - you can see that I am part way round because of the position of the working yarn at the top in relation to the long tail marker at the bottom. The empty needle on the right is about to knit into the top left stitch (at the top end of the top left needle).


And here you have it! About four rounds done, and it is beginning to look like the real thing.

If you are a beginner, you can just stick with this version (Toast) and knit until your handwarmer is the length you prefer - remember that the base and top will roll in as they are not ribbed, so allow 1-2cm  (1/2-1in) extra at each end - then cast off as normal, and you only have the two yarn ends to darn in. No sewing up - bliss!

But if you are more a little more experienced or adventurous (and it really isn't very difficult), then you can go for the Toasty version which has a separate thumb. I have a few pictures of knitting the thumb opening to help you negotiate Leslie's pattern if you are new to this sort of thing.

I changed the measurements to suit my hands, but the beauty of this pattern is that you can adjust the length to suit you, without any complicated maths. So I knitted 16.5cm/6.5in before beginning the thumb.

Here you can see how I have knitted 4 stitches along the needle, put 5 stitches for the thumb on a safety pin (very useful for holding small amounts of stitches), and that leaves 4 stitches left on the needle (total 13, which is a third of the original 39 cast on).

Sorry for the slightly fuzzy close-up but here you can see where I have started casting on 5 stitches to replace the ones on the pin. Just loop the working yarn round the needle as shown - bring it forwards, back over and down through the gap and pull tight.

So here we have the 5 new stitches cast on to replace the held ones - all made by looping the yarn round the needle as I did in the picture before.

You then just knit as normal to the end of the needle and carry on until your glove is the length required - mine was 24cm/9.5in in total, so after the thumb I knitted for another 7.5cm/3in. After the rolled edges, this gave a glove length of 20cm/8in, but of course you could make yours longer or shorter as required.

After casting off the top you go back to knit the thumb, in just the same way - you put your held 5 stitches on one needle (at the bottom) and I then picked up another 10 (5 on each needle) to make the thumb. I knitted the thumb for 5cm/2in before casting off.

So that's it - remember you must immediately cast on your second glove, otherwise the first will be forever solitary.

And once you have knitted the first pair, you can try some variations - I knitted Princess Bunchy a pair in Skein Queen Little Desire yarn in Lagoon, which you can see in the top picture. For these I cast on 36 stitches (hold and recast on 4 stitches for the thumb, then pick up another 8 to make 12 thumb stitches), and knitted the gloves shorter to the measurements of her hand.

I have also made a stripy pair in cream and slate Cashmerino from Debbie Bliss (4 rounds grey, 6 rounds cream). These have garter stitch ribbed edges - this is 6 rows of purl stitch to begin and end, and at the thumb top. (Please avert your eyes from the end not sewn in and just visible under the glove - I promise I will do it tomorrow.)

So if anybody is still with me after that, I think you deserve a cup of tea and a bit piece of cake. So you go and do that, and I will just wish for a cup that cheers.

But before I go I just wanted to pass on some advice about knitting and aching or arthritic joints. Contrary to received opinion, knitting will not cause arthritis and can even help exercise your joints (see the Arthritis Care advice here), but knitting with metal needles can put a strain on the joints and make your hands ache because they don't absorb the forces exerted in the same way that bamboo does, so your hand takes the strain.

Non-specialist medics often tend to ascribe aching thumb joints in people over 35 to incipient arthritis, and too much knitting or sewing - the same happened to me, but luckily enough I saw a rheumatologist and physiotherapist who knew better.

If you have problems with your hands, get yourself to a specialist hand therapist - every hospital physio department should have one, but many GPs don't know that they exist, so you might have to do a little work to find one. I was given some simple strengthening exercises and a neoprene splint (a sort of handwarmer-shaped glove) to wear to support my hand when knitting (all on the NHS) and even though I am physically challenged in various ways, I now knit more than ever, and no longer have a painful joint.

I also always use bamboo needles - I would highly recommend them, and if you are having problems with painful hands, it might be worth seeing a hand therapist to see if they can help.

And now I will get down from my soapbox and go and knit some more handwarmers. Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Cheery redness, or, how to be an executive

I was very flattered by all the lovely comments on my last post about my sock knitting, and quite amazed by the reaction to my chilblains. Like Tif, once upon a time I tried some tablets to help (I think they might have been niacin, or was it nicotinamide?), but the effect was quite frightening - my face turned as red as a tomato (or a Cath Kidston handbag), and I tingled all over - quite bizarrely disturbing, I promise you. But enough of my circulatory difficulties, and I really don't want you to be impressed by my knitting, as I am not at all an expert. And to that end, in an effort to remove the mystique surrounding knitting in the round (which is really very easy, even for an uncoordinated, spatially-challenged little person like me) I will be presenting you with a tutorial very shortly.

But today I think my theme is gratitude, although we shall see how it turns out. As I told you, I am now a high-flying executive, and luckily my dear mamma turned up trumps at Christmas and provided me with the necessary accoutrements with which to venture out into the big wide world of commerce.

So I now have two nice red CK bags to match my face. The handbag is roomy enough to encompass all sorts of executive baggage, and no longer do I spill the contents of my overflowing bag over the floor, although it is so temptingly huge that it does make me overload it to the extent that my arm is now some inches longer than it was before Christmas.

And look at that lovely spotty briefcase - dress to impress, that's me. Unfortunately for my image, rather than important documents, it usually contains eggs and bacon to sell, and my lentil soup for lunch - but even executives have lunch nowadays (lunch is for wimps being so eighties), and, of course, my knitting, just in case I have a spare moment in the office. And cake - I usually take cake to work, as I find it very fortifying in times of stress. Very importantly, these bags are wipe clean so that they can safely reside in the footwell of the Landy and be scrubbed down afterwards (Jennifer, you will understand where I am coming from on this one).

I even have a very charming wallet for my executive diary, made specially to my requirements by Indigo Blue, and the Seaside Landlady gave me a Cath Kidston sticker book, so I can put stickers on my files, just like I did when I was at school, as well as a tin for paper clips, which makes me feel very important.

And talking of dressing up, I have been decidedly overdressed today, although, as I have been working at home, the overdressing is mainly to prevent frostbite.

My Cath Kidston vests have been put to good use in the chilly weather, being long enough to tuck into my tights (which I wear under jeans) - the effect around the waistline being rather fetching, as you might imagine. And then there is a T-shirt on top, and a dress on top of that, and a cardigan, and my pumpkin scarf (the pumpkins having metamorphosed into soup), and not forgetting my Big Green Gathering gigantic cardigan of many colours. Oh, and because I am so trendy, one of those black and white shawls as worn by teenagers and freedom fighters.

In short, I have become one of those shapeless bundles of rags as found on the streets of Victorian social problem novels, which at crucial points in the plot suddenly come to life  and resolve themselves into a miserable form of humanity with an arm reaching out in a pitiful manner - all the better to highlight some iniquitous issue in society, or to provide an opportunity for a rescue of the most sentimental kind, probably involving gruel, or some warming soup.

So be careful if you come to visit me in my cottage, and look carefully before you sit down on that pile of blankets on the sofa. It is probably me wrapped up warm and taking a break from sailing the Spanish Main in the company of dastardly privateers, which is what I have been doing today.

My filing cabinet is witness to my industry - wicker is so much more comforting than steel drawers, is it not? I can almost pretend that I am sorting laundry, rather than paperwork.

But back to gratitude (somehow I knew I would veer off course today, it is the effect of consorting with all those nautical men). Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to receive these goodies from Serenata at The Balancing Kiwi.

These were the loveliest presents to receive, and Serenata is so clever at making things I feel quite humbled.

The beautiful make-up bag is at this moment reposing in my bathroom, next to the cement mixer, and the scented pot mat is reserved for very privileged B&B guests, whilst the pink crochet cloth sits in my bedroom in what Tif would call a 'vignette'. I don't actually have a forsaken soul to go with it, but I can live in hope that one will find its way to my door one day.

Princess Bunchy, as is her wont, commandeered the little Christmas stocking and Father Christmas very kindly filled it with biscuits for a Naughty Dog. So thank you, Serenata, very, very much for all of your kindness and generosity.

I also owe a very big thank you to Ros at Rosa-Munda for sending me one of her wonderful hearts - you will find a picture here, which is much better than mine. And, in fact, I love this heart so much, I have not put it away with the Christmas decorations, but have it hanging in my office in all its cheery redness.

And that is all that I have time for today - I must admit I was very lucky in my gifts this Christmas, especially in the ones which induced hysterical laughter, like the earrings which the Head Chef bought for somebody quite unlike me who is very chic and wears taupe and black, and has cream sofas and polished floors (it was all right, we were able to change them), or the very expensive pink carbolic soap in retro packaging, the scent of which kills all known germs dead and was bought for me by my darling Ploughboy, who was under the impression that he was buying me something sweetly luxurious (it is all right, it has come in very handy for washing his hands after he has been cleaning out the chicken run).

But now I must fit in my 20 minutes of making and creating under the watchful eye of Marmalade Rose, so any more tales must wait for another day.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Sock knitting in the snow

We are living in such a strange and muffled world at the moment that for two days running I have not been awake before eight o'clock in the morning: our little lane is pretty quiet at the best of times, but we do get the occasional car early in the morning, and can sometimes hear the trains in the distance - and birds singing or the wind in the trees, or the distant bark of a fox.

But not only has the snow slowed us all down, but it seems to wrap the sounds of the natural world in a thick white blanket, too.

And so polar is the temperature in the scullery that the dogs are allowed to sleep in the kitchen, and suddenly we are no longer woken by the Black Dog's piercingly insistent bark at some horribly early hour.

Yet it can't be the cold that wakes her because she barks in just the same way in the summer, except an hour earlier. Yes, so clever are Scotties that they take pity on humans after the clocks change in the autumn. Perhaps she just prefers having the run of the house at night.

Much as I have determined that this blog should be a happy place, I do write with a virtual tear in my eye this morning, having sent off the Ploughboy and the Head Chef in the Landy to battle their way out of the arctic wastes of the sunny south-east. The Ploughboy is inordinately keen to find his way back to the halls of academe, in spite of my diagnosis of associated malnutrition, unhealthy hours and alcoholic excess as the cause of his head cold, and he has set off, tractor calendar packed, with the briefest of backward glances at his naughty dog, who is now curled up under my desk, possibly overcome with grief.

And so I walked the hounds alone this morning, wading through the snow at a much slower pace without my not-so-little friend striding out alongside me and keeping me up to the mark, whilst discussing things agricultural.

But we have had a lot of fun together in the holidays: as you will see from the photo we have been exploring the furthest reaches of the orchard in a rather intrepid way. No wonder the dog looks mystified. What matter is a blizzard when you are wearing two pairs of socks and a pair of tights inside your wellies? Not to mention the reject hat knitted at great expenditure of time and effort by a certain person which then became an object of derision amongst potential recipients. I have found it very useful recently and have worn it in a very meaningful way. So vindicated do I now feel, that I think I might knit myself one that actually fits rather than one sized for a large-headed yeti.

And who needs the expense of a skiing holiday when you can slide down a snowy hill on a plastic sack?

It has been quite wonderful to see teenagers retrieving a childhood joie-de-vivre - and getting the chance to play in the snow, which has happened all too rarely in their mild-wintered childhoods.

Well, you might have guessed I was not directly involved in this, being too much of a bag of bones liable to fall apart at the slightest nudge, but the Head Chef has derived much satisfaction from the fact that he bought Princess Bunchy a plastic toboggan for Christmas, which could have been a little disappointing as there seemed little chance of snow so close to southern coastal climes. He, also, is now feeling very vindicated by the fact that these items are apparently changing hands on Ebay for five times the price he paid. (How will the people buying them get them delivered before the snow disappears?)

I, however, have been possessed by a sort of sock mania, probably engendered by the reappearance of my childhood chilblain.

I had to explain to Princess Bunchy what a chilblain is, and in consequence subject her to a disquisition on the miseries of education in the sixties and seventies when schools did not entertain namby-pamby ideas of keeping children warm, happy and comfortable whilst attempting to drill an education into their little skulls, often in an atmosphere of fear and awe.

My chilblain itches frantically at the memory of those concrete and bare wood floors, the credibility gap between the top of your socks and the bottom of your skirt, and the lukewarm radiators which were only capable of faintly warming the hands of the more physically assertive members of the class who would always bag the not-so-hot seats next to them.

So my current penchant for knitting socks probably has its source deep in my damaged psyche. And such is the mania that I have completed two pairs and am on to a third, all since the turn of the year. Although I have to admit that the completed pairs were both knitted in aran-weight wool, which knits up pleasingly quickly, possibly fuelling my mania further.  (And I do hope you appreciate the contortions I underwent in order to bring you photos of these socks in situ.)

I also have the most wonderful book, suitable for the sock novice, by Ann Budd called Getting Started Knitting Socks. This has easy-to-follow instructions for simple socks in a range of sizes and yarn weights, as well as some interesting variations for the more advanced knitter. The photographs are hugely informative, and it is made really clear how the patterns are working, so that you can go on to produce socks using any sort of yarn and needle size that you care to choose.

The lilac socks were knitted in Rowan Yarns Classic Cashsoft Aran on 4.5mm needles, in the adult small size pattern for worsted yarn (5sts per in tension) - these are plenty big enough for my size 5 feet (and fat ankles), using two balls of lilac, and a part ball of blue for trim (each ball is 87m/95 yards). I bought three of each colour in a sale, and so will therefore have enough yarn for the opposite colourway.

The grey socks were knitted in Rico Design Creative Poems Aran on 5mm needles, to the same pattern - these used only two 50g/100m balls - I had also bought three balls of this in the sale, so will probably make some handwarmers with the last ball.

And because the Head Chef and Princess Bunchy very kindly gave me one of Hen's beautiful notebooks for Christmas, one of my New Year's resolutions is to keep a knitting record book, so that I can make a note of details such as needle size, stitches cast on, yarn used, etc, when I experiment with my knitting. And then I can share them with you.

The third pair in process is in Colinette Jitterbug on 2.5mm needles, and very many more stitches - so I think these little cosy toes will be a little longer in the making. And they are a bit more squinty to knit in the evenings, but the colour is most vividly wonderful - possibly quite manic.

So if you are feeling chilly, knit yourself a pair of socks to warm the cockles of your heart, and if you want to get really overheated find a hill and toboggan down it. I think I will stick to the socks - and remember, the more pairs you knit, the more pairs you can wear at once.


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