Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Middlemarch

I really like reading. For most of my years, if I started a book I finished it. This strategy did me a great deal of good. One summer when I was a kid, I went to the public library every week and I picked books off the shelf at random. I read each and every one of those books from beginning to end. Some were exciting, some were stupid, some were weird. It was an interesting summer.

I held firm to my beginning-to-end approach until I picked up Middlemarch by George Eliot. This was maybe 20 years ago. This novel is supposed to be a classic. A classic bore, as far as I’m concerned. I tried four times to get past chapter one with no luck. I finally – finally – gave myself permission to not finish the book. An important turning point in my life. Really.

From then on, whenever I feel the need to surrender and accept defeat, I think of Middlemarch. Just as Napoleon had is Waterloo, I had my Middlemarch.

Now for some knitting. I have started many many knitting projects that for whatever reason I decided not to finish. I never really felt defeated by these false starts. It was usually a matter of taste or time. But over a year ago I started a pair of socks from some yarn that I was especially attracted to: black and teal, with very long color changes and nice gradation from one color to the other. The yarn, “ZauberballSock Yarn” by Schoppel Wolle, is 75% wool, 25% nylon. It is a “singles” yarn, not plied. And it is rather thinner than many sock yarns.  

My wardrobe could really use a pair of teal and black socks. I swatched. I preferred the fabric that resulted from the size 0 needles better than from the size 1 needles. I knew my aging eyes would not be happy with the black sections of the sock, so I decided on a relatively simple rib pattern for the sock. I had to wear my strongest reading glasses and work under the very best light. But it was still not easy. The black stitches were hard to see; the singles nature of the yarn made it very easy to split stitches; and dropped stitches seemed to disappear instantly. I dreaded the idea of having to unknit and reknit any section – something I expect and plan to do on nearly any knitting project.

In one of my project notebooks I wrote the following entry: “Jan 8, 2013. I started that sock on Nov 27 and finished it today. What a torment.”

At a workshop I taught later in January 2013, I was describing my less-than-enthusiastic attitude about knitting this sock. I really wanted the finished project, but I dreaded the actual knitting. How could I let a measly pair of socks defeat me??!! After all, I am an accomplished knitter. I’ve knitted dozens and dozens of pairs of socks. I love knitting socks. But I just wasn’t sure I could bring myself to knit the second sock.

Katy R., a young woman at the workshop was listening to me complain. She looked at me with her young eyes and a mildly annoyed look of disgust on her face and she said, “Oh, just do it!”

I was mortified. I decided then that I would not let a pair of socks defeat me. I would not surrender. I would just do it!

With determination, I started the second sock. I knitted the cuff. I knitted the leg. Then other fiber projects required my attention so the second sock languished. I mentioned in January 2014 that one of my fiber resolutions was to finish this sock.

But while I was flying to Alaska and knitting a different pair of socks, I had an epiphany. I simply have too many wonderful and fun fiber projects ahead of me to waste my time on a dreaded fiber project. In flight, I surrendered and accepted defeat: My Middlemarch. I planned to throw away the finished sock, the half finished second sock, and the remainder of the yarn. Just chuck it! A few days ago I told my friend Marty F. of my plan. She suggested that I give her the yarn instead of throwing it away. So, that’s what I did yesterday. Here’s a picture of what now belongs to Marty:

Oh, I finished the pair of socks that I started on my trip to Alaska. A lovely light heathered grey sock yarn, Schoeller Stahl “Fortissima Socka” yarn, 75% superwash wool, 25% nylon. I made some modifications to the pattern, “Gentleman’s Sock with Lozenge Pattern”, in Nancy Bush’s book, Knitting Vintage Socks. A fun knit and a pleasing pair of socks.

I will continue to enjoy my sock knitting. I will accept technical challenges. But I will not accept dread.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Third Annual Dog Sitting Fiber Retreat

Dick and Jill are in Guatemala. Jill will be returning in 2 ½ weeks. Meanwhile, I am house sitting, dog sitting, and cat sitting for them. This is the third year that I’ve stayed at their place while they vacation due south.

I love their place. It’s out in the country, very quiet. And this year very snowy. See?

I’ve been taking advantage of the snow by strapping on my snow shoes and heading out into the fields and forest, with Mari the dog following (sometimes leading). Daily snow shoe trips. What could be more wonderful?

I walk Mari three times a day, including the snow shoeing. We usually walk north along Hulbert Road and cross Stanley Creek. It is a very small creek, but delightfully northern and mysterious.

Dick and Jill do not have TV service so I am missing the Olympics (bummer), but they do have a DVD player so I am able to watch movies. I watched an interesting German film last night, The Lives of Others, set in East Berlin before the wall fell. It involves the Stasi’s spying on East German citizens. I recommend it.

A couple nights ago, I watched Prisoners, a recent DVD release with Hugh Jackman. It started out rather formulaic, but did not end that way. Jake Gyllenhaal was also in it. He was very good.

What else to do with my time? What to do….I know! I’ll work on some fiber projects! Yeah! That’s the ticket! Of course I made a list of fibery activities for this three week get-away:

Knit a pair of socks. I’ve already picked out the yarn and swatched for gauge. I’m thinking of modifying a Nancy Bush pattern, but haven’t committed to it yet.

Finish the Curvy Corner Shawl. Just a tiny bit of grafting left to do and weaving in ends. Then I can block it.

Weave a watch band on my little inkle loom. I selected 3 colors of linen yarn. I may only use 2 of them. And I’ll stick to a plain weave pattern for this. I’d like to warp the loom tomorrow.

Finish unraveling my qiviut tunic. Done! I discovered a weird thing about the tunic’s construction. The first panel I unraveled was knitted from bottom to top, so I started the unraveling at the top and worked my way down. When I tried the same strategy on the second panel, it didn’t work! So I examined the piece rather more carefully and discovered that this second panel had been knitted in the opposite direction. So I had to unravel from the bottom up! I’m having trouble understanding the rationale for the two different directions of knitting; it wouldn’t make them symmetrical. I wish I’d examined the piece closely before I started the deconstruction. Anyway, I wound the yarn into balls as I unraveled. Then I wound each ball into a skein. Today, I soaked the yarns in warm water with a bit of Eucalan. They are now hanging to dry. I’ve got a lot of fabulous qiviut knitting in my future! Here’s a picture of the skeined yarn, before washing.

Repair a sweater. I was asked by another township library volunteer to mend a hole in a classic Irish-made aran style sweater that he’d found in a second hand store. I agreed to take on the challenge. I’ve got a booklet about knit repair that I’ll use as a guide. And I bought a skein of yarn that is a reasonable – but not perfect – match to the sweater’s tweed style yarn. My plan is to practice first by knitting a swatch then cutting a hole in it then following the directions for a seamless repair. Tonight I plan to graph out the cable pattern that is part of the damage.

Spin some dog hair. A friend of my housemate asked if I’d be interested in spinning some of her dog’s hair and then knitting a scarf. I was leery. After we discussed all the costs involved and possible multiple steps, I tentatively agreed. She brought over 4 paper grocery bags filled with the undercoat of her Malamute, “Maxie”. I gently washed one bag of the fur with warm water and Eucalan. A very gentle wash. Susie, the dog’s owner, is sensitive to fragrances, but she approved of the eucalyptus smell (which I personally love). I’m going to try to spin some of it as is, and I’m going to try to blend some with merino wool on my drum carder. We’ll see…..

That’s it. Snow, snow shoeing, dog walking, movies, spinning, knitting, weaving. A perfect February.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Alaska: Workshops and Windshields

I got to teach my workshops in a marvelous space: a conference room in the ConocoPhillips building in Anchorage. Karen Williams works for them and she was able to arrange for the use of this space. Here’s a picture of some of the spinners during Sunday’s workshop:

I must say that the Anchorage Weavers and Spinners Guild is a swell group of folks. Among workshop participants, there was a wonderful range of spinning “ages”: from a month to multiple decades of spinning experience. Enthusiasm, generosity, friendliness, and sharing were in abundance in this group.

I got several requests for information regarding sources of the fibers that I brought along with me. I thought I’d provide that list here too:

Cormo combed top: Riverwinds Farm 

CVM (California Variegated Mutant) combed top: Fiddle Knoll Farm 

Coopworth carded roving: Hidden Valley Farm & Woolen Mill 

Corriedale/silk roving: Handspun by Sefania 

Handpainted targhee combed top: Abstract Fiber 

Did I miss anything?

I have to share a funny Anchorage-specific story. When I arrived in Anchorage, I was picked up at the airport by Karen. She drove me to Sandra’s house. I noticed that Karen’s windshield had a crack in it. I was polite enough not to mention it. The next day, when Sandra took me to the Musk Ox Farm, I noticed that she, too, had a crack in her car’s windshield. I said not a word. I was trying really hard not to generalize about Alaskans based on a sample size of 2.

A few days later, Sandra and I were comparing winter road strategies for our respective locales. I mentioned the use of sand and salt here in NW Michigan. She pointed out that in her area of Alaska they use pea gravel, and then she said, “That’s why so many people have cracked windshields.” Well then! We chuckled about this for a bit while I was privately feeling justified in my urge to generalize. On the last day of workshops, for some reason the windshield issue came up in my mind. I whispered to Sandra, “Is it ok if I ask the group about windshields?” She said, “Sure!” So, I mentioned my notice of the windshield issue and asked the group, “How many of you have a cracked windshield?” I was expecting maybe one or two folks would raise their hands. My eyes practically popped out of my head when more than half the folks there rasied their hands. I’m still chuckling about it.

I flew out of Anchorage very late on Monday night. So, I had a chance to see a bit more of Anchorage before my flight. Sandra was teaching a class that day, so another guild member, Carrie Ziecina, toured me around. We tried to visit the Anchorage Art Museum  , but it happened to be closed on Mondays. As we drove by the Far North Yarn Co. yarn shop, Carrie asked if I’d like to stop. Sure! But, I told her, “I have promised myself not to buy any more sock yarn until I knit up more socks from the ample stash that I already have.” So, what did I buy? That’s right: sock yarn – a lovely Rowan yarn of merino wool, kid mohair, nylon and silk. I do not feel guilty. Not one bit.

I rounded out my trip to Anchorage with a delicious salmon dinner at Simon & Seafort’s Saloon & Grill. Mmmm.

One more thing: Sandra Cook, who housed me during my stay, is a talented potter in addition to her fabulous fiber work. She works mostly with slab clay. As she showed me around her studio, I was taken by a “brick” she’d made using a rhubarb leaf to create the texture. I had to have it. We made a trade. I got the rhubarb brick and I offered to send her a box of dried cherries. I put the cherries in the mail on Monday. I hope she likes them. I sure love my rhubarb brick.

My flight home was marked by a couple hour delay in Anchorage – which gave me some time to knit – but all other connections were on time. I left a wet and warm Anchorage to arrive in a very cold and snowy Michigan. While I was gone, nearly 2 feet of snow had been added to the already loaded landscape. I got several days of shoveling workout from that.

And it’s snowing now.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Alaska: Matanuska and Museums

Palmer, Alaska was the center of the New Deal endeavor, the Matanuska Colony Project. In 1935, the federal government persuaded over 200 families from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to move to the Matanuska Valley to farm. In a very short time, a colony was established. Some of the Project buildings still exist in Palmer, and I was lucky to have Sandra to show me some of them. I was smitten with the tiny houses. I really, really want one. Sandra also showed me a new track of Colony-inspired houses that were equally adorable.

After our visit to the Musk Ox Farm, Sandra took me to the Palmer Historical Society Museum. It’s a small museum, but I really loved the chronological display of the development of Palmer, with artifacts and photos from the Colony beginnings.

I bought a couple goofy Alaska postcards.

So, that was Thursday. My workshop on Friday didn’t start until 5:30pm, so we had a good chunk of the day to explore Anchorage. I had a couple museums/galleries on my list of things to see, and Sandra obliged me.

I was intrigued to find out that Anchorage has exhibits in the most surprising places. Sandra first took me to the Alaska Native MedicalCenter. That’s right: a medical center, with primary care and hospital services. And with many exquisite displays of native Alaskan art throughout the hallways. Each display case held masterfully crafted works: basketry, beading, sculpture, clothing. I would happily visit again.

 And, there was a most amazing craft shop at ANMC. This shop is all volunteer run, with strictly native Alaska art. When I walked in, a gentleman at the counter asked, “May I help you?” I responded, “I want one of everything!” Before I left the shop, I did purchase two items: a small ivory and baleen container, and a pair of ivory and baleen earrings. I typically don’t (can’t afford to) spend money on such extravagances, but I was in Alaska. How often am I going to be in Alaska?

Our next stop was at a bank. Yes, a bank. There is a fabulous Alaska Heritage Museum at a Wells Fargo bank. This museum is free. And there are wonderful displays with nice descriptions explaining the history of events, craft techniques, tools. I was intrigued by a berry-gathering tool: it had fork-like prongs along side a large spoon shaped container, made of wood. It looked perfect for gathering blueberries.

We also made a stop at the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-Operative. This small store sells items made from qiviut, all hand knitted by native Alaskan women from various far flung locations in Alaska. They don’t sell fiber or yarn, just finished items. Lovely finished items.

After our tours, Sandra and I rested at a local bookstore so I could gather my thoughts before the evening’s workshop. That evening, I taught Spinning With Silk Hankies. The guild has some wonderful folks in it. I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to them, although I’ll admit that by the end of class, it was dizzyingly late for me (8:30pm Anchorage time, but 12:30am Lake Ann time).

I’ll share more about the guild and its members next time.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Alaska: Musk Ox and More

What a fantastic adventure! There is so much I want to share that I’ve had a hard time deciding how to write about it. So, I’ve decided on the tried-and-true chronological narrative.

My flight to Anchorage involved two layovers: in Detroit and in Minneapolis. All my flights were delayed, but I managed to arrive in Anchorage only a couple hours later than expected (about 11pm Alaska Standard Time, or 3am Eastern Standard Time). On the leg from Minneapolis to Anchorage there were members of the Northern Michigan University hockey team. It’s been a long time since I last was in the company of athletes. Wow! They were, um, physically impressive. (I don’t know if they won their game, but I hope they did.)

I managed to make some progress on my travel knitting (a pair of socks), and I got about half way through the book I brought with me: The Master Butchers Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich. A good read.

I was met at the Anchorage airport by Karen Williams. She is the woman responsible for getting me this gig. I met her a few years ago at Rhinebeck. And I saw her again last fall at SOAR. A very nice woman. She drove me to Palmer, AK, which is about 1 hour north of Anchorage. That’s where Sandra Cook lives. And that’s who I stayed with for the next five days.

It was very late when we got to Sandra’s. She was gracious enough to let me go immediately to bed. Her guest bedroom has a very comfortable bed. I slept for over 12 hours, I think. Anyway, I slept well and comfortably. A few days later, Sandra let me know that the comforter on that bed is stuffed with silk. Sleeping under silk. What a luxury!

When I awoke, it was still dark. The sky was beginning to lighten, but it was far from sunrise. Regardless, I was able to make out the mountains nearby which had been obscured by complete darkness when I first arrived. The guest bedroom window provides a terrific view of Pioneer Peak.

Palmer, Alaska is in what everyone refers to as “The Valley”, the Matanuska Valley (rather like folks in Los Angeles referring to the San Fernando Valley as “The Valley”). It is a very flat area, which makes the nearby mountains look very in-your-face big. Pioneer Peak is about 8 miles from Sandra’s house, and it rises to over 6000 feet. Impressive, don’t you think?

I had scheduled a couple of days to be a tourist, and Sandra was kind enough to take me to a few tourist destinations. Our first stop was the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. Although they are not officially open during the winter, they were kind enough to give us a tour. The young woman who toured us around, Ashley, was incredibly knowledgeable. She answered our dozens of questions with fabulous detail. This farm is dedicated to the domestication of musk ox, and to the production of qiviut, the amazing undercoat fiber of this animal. The domestication process involves getting the animals comfortable with human contact (so that the qiviut can be brushed off without incident). Several of the musk ox walked up to the fence to get a close look at us, and to let us get a close look at them. The youngsters are especially cute, cute cute!

Musk ox typically give birth in the spring, but the farm got a surprise baby last September. Here’s a picture of that babe with its mom:

You can't quite tell how cute the baby is, so here’s a copy of a postcard I got.

And here’s another picture I took of a musk ox with the mountains in the distance.

You might notice that there was very little snow on the ground. Right. While temperatures in Lake Ann, Michigan were kissing 0degF, temps in Anchorage and the valley were well above freezing. Highs in the 40s and 50s every day I was there. Most of the snow had melted. And I can tell you every single Alaskan I met was spittin’ mad about the warm weather and lack of snow. They take winter seriously!

At the Musk Ox Farm, there was a lot of ice on the ground. Karen had smartly provided Sandra and me with pairs of “yaktrax”-like cleats to put on our boots. How smart!

The Musk Ox Farm did have a bit of raw qiviut for sale. Raw, as in unwashed and not dehaired. I decided not to get any. Now, of course, I could kick myself.

But one of the reasons I did not buy any fiber is that I have a tunic knitted of 100% qiviut yarn. My mother had given it to me several years ago. I’ve never been crazy about the tunic shape/structure, so this lovely piece of Alaskan lace has languished in storage. I’d been thinking about unraveling the tunic and using the yarn for something else. Well, this trip got me going. When I got home, I pulled that tunic out of storage and started taking it apart.

And I feel good about it. Even though I did not get this qiviut yarn while on this trip, it will always be associated in my mind with my Adventures in Alaska.

On the way back to Sandra's house after our Musk Ox visit, Sandra pulled off the road to let me take pictures of the Knik Glacier. I'd never seen a glacier before. It's the small blue smudge way in the distance in the middle of this picture:

There was more to the day, but I'll put that in the next blog entry.