The Adventure of the Handspun Hat

I remember well the day that my husband and colleague, David Syme, and I became entangled in the events that follow, events which I have come to call “The Adventure of the Handspun Hat”.

It was a crisp autumn evening. We were sitting in our digs in Northern Ontario, Syme engrossed in a book on breeding terrarium animals and I in the vagaries of my spinning wheel. From time to time Syme would read aloud to me some obscure tidbit of herpetological lore, and enlighten me me with a conclusion reached therefrom by the brilliant deductive activities of his complex mind.

Rana esculenta,” he read to me on one occasion, “must be overwintered in a damp moss and leaf mixture at five degrees Celsius. They are, of course, not unlike our own Rana pipiens, or leopard frog.” He looked thoughtfully out the window at the sunset and remarked, “I need a hat.”

Observing my puzzlement, he chided me gently, “You know my methods, Creith. Most North American herptiles require a period of hibernation in order to mate successfully in the spring. Too low a temperature and they freeze and die, hence the requirement of the insulating moss and leaf mixture. Like them, my ears will freeze if not properly insulated through the winter, and damp moss and leaves do not stick well to the human head. Therefore, I need a hat.”

“Will a hat now guarantee that you mate successfully in the spring?” I inquired, but he
disdained to reply.

Upon consideration of my stock of fleece, I selected a fine, light brown Border Leicester, clean and open, requiring a minimum of preparation. Knowing my own tendency to ennui with repetitive projects, I fixed upon a plan of knitting a pattern in a second colour, for which a dark brown, commercially dyed Romney roving suggested itself. When I presented this proposal to Syme for approval, he was at work with his experiements in orchid germination.

“An excellent choice of materials, Creith,” he remarked, “as I would have expected of you. If you approve the insulative qualities, there is nothing with which I need concern myself.”

“But the pattern, Syme!” I expostulated, “the colour!”

“Piffle! Trifles, which have nothing to do with function. Although,” he remarked sotto voce, “I am fond of ravens.”

I turned to the consideration of structure. A three-ply yarn would take advantage of my tendency to spin rather fine, and increase the warmth of the finished product. I teased, carded and spun the light brown Leicester in the grease, but before I had washed the skein, in occurred to me to take the opportunity to conduct an experiment of my own on the weatherproof qualities of fleece in the grease. Syme, ever willing to advance the cause of knowledge, consented to be my guinea pig. I therefore washed the skein lightly in cold water to set the twist, removing the surface dirt without disturbing the lanolin.

The hat itself was quickly finished, with a wide band of knit two, purl two rib followed by a section of moss stitch and a double knit band of dark brown ravens, after which I returned to moss stitch before beginning my reductions.

It happened that as I finished the hat, we were visiting Nancy and David Pease. Nancy offered the use of her steamer in order to permit me to block the hat without further washing and possible loss of lanolin. She suggested the use of a pot as a form, and in a moment of temporary insanity, I blocked the top of the hat perfectly flat.

In spite of the rather mushroom-like aspect of the hat, Syme accepted it with gracious good humour.

“No doubt the extra air space will decrease the loss of heat in intemperate weather,” he remarked.

That was the winter that Syme took employment driving a cab at night in Sault Ste Marie, some 110 km from our abode. He resided through the week with his parents, who lived in the city, while I remained on the farm.

As his shift ended at three in the morning, it was his habit to walk back to the family home, deposit hat and gloves at the top of the landing stairs and retire quietly to bed. One morning his mother, picking up a pile of laundry she had temporarily left at the top of the stairs, inadvertently took the hat. She discovered it some time later, still damp, in the dryer.

Syme saw this as an opportunity for further, though unscheduled, experimentation. He stretched the still-damp hat over a bowl, allowing the ribbing to curl up inside, and left it to dry. To his interest, and his mother’s relief, the hat appeared to have shrunk not a whit. The surface was soft and fluffy, in contrast to its previous smooth and rather greasy aspect, but there was no evidence of felting. An unforeseen consequence, however, became apparent at three o’clock the following morning.

“Creith,” said Syme, returning to the farm on Saturday, “I need a new hat. The lanolin has been washed out of this one and the wind goes right through it. This confirms your speculation on weatherproofing, but it does nothing for the insulation of my ears.”

“A mixture of damp moss and leaves might work,” I suggested, “as it does for Rana esculenta. It would give me time to research the possibility of restoring lanolin to the fibres, and would probably also guarantee a successful mating in the spring.”

Syme received this suggestion so coldly that there was nothing for it but to make another hat. Fortunately I had just received another excellent Border Leicester cross fleece, in shades of grey and black, from the breeder of the light brown fleece. It was a mere day’s work to spin the grey and black yarns and to design another hat.

As I knitted the ribbed band, Syme’s interest in ancient writing forms, specifically the runes of the Vlkings, occurred to me. The angular construction of these primitive letters suits them admirably to knitted design. I also saw the opportunity to test the possibility of subconscious influences that might be exerted by ancient images casually perceived. With that in mind, I drafted a line of runes to be knitted under the ravens.

They said: Do Not Wash.

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I have a book out!

What has this got to do with knitting? Everything, really.

The book is “Shepherd in Residence”, and it’s available at Amazon and at Chapters.

It was spinning that got me into both knitting and sheep. I had to learn to knit to use up my handspun, and I ended up keeping sheep in part to feed the habit of spinning and knitting. “Shepherd in Residence” is a memoir about my time as a shepherd in Northern Ontario.

I’m getting my copies on Thursday, and I can hardly wait. The book launch is Saturday May 12th, at 7:00 pm at the Oddfellows’ Hall in Thessalon, under the auspices of Stories in the North. with bluegrass music by Tradition Continued, cash bar, and a free snack buffet prepared by the Rebekahs.

For anyone who can’t make it to the launch, or to Northern Ontario for an autographed copy, I have a special offer. For the month of April, I’ll mail anyone sending me proof of purchase and a self-addressed stamped envelope an autographed bookplate, designed just for “Shepherd”.

Or you can buy one directly from me – $17.95 + $5.00 shipping. You can send a cheque to

Elizabeth Creith
#4479 Hwy 129
Thessalon, Ontario
Canada P0R 1L0

or pay by Paypal to

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Useful tips

The other night I came across a little book in my library which had been put together in 1994 by the Huronia Spinners’ Guild. It’s called Fibre Fever Fix, and it’s full of little bits of advice from the ladies of the guild.

One particularly useful one is how to unshrink a shrunken wool garment. (Mary Grant contributed this bit of wisdom.) Keep it handy – you never know when someone is going to put a favourite sweater or hat into the washer.

Dissolve 3 oz of Epsom salts in enough water to cover the garment. Soak it overnight. In the morning, squeeze the water out gently and pull the garment back into shape. Let dry.

Mary recommends a Woollee Board or Woollee Horse (obligatory trademark thingies after each) if the garment needs it. You could also block it back into shape, as you would if it were freshly knitted. Use a blocking board, or a section of carpeted floor that doesn’t get a lot of traffic, or a mattress. Pin with bead-headed pins or T-pins, and pin thoroughly, with one every half-inch.

If you need to soften a wool sweater, fill a pan with hot tap water, put in a capful or so of fabric softener and add the sweater. Gently heat the water to 180 degrees on the stove. Remove from heat, let cool to the temperature of hot tap water. Rinse in water the same temperature, squeeze out and lay flat to dry. Block if necessary.

June Sorenson contributed this little bit of verse about burrs and chaff in your wool. She had handspun in mind, but I’ve picked enough little bits of chaff out of Briggs & Little yarn, too! Noils are little dense bits in the fibre that show up in carding. Carbonising is a chemical process that dissolves the vegetable matter in wool.

A burr is quite a common seed
That looks just like a centipede
When, in the combing, it uncoils
And spreads itself among your noils.
When you observe them first, no doubt,
You do your best to pick them out,
But in the end you’ll find it wiser
To send them to the carboniser.
For if they’re woven in a shirt,
Men scratch themselves until they hurt,
And if girls get them in their undies,
They mustn’t go to church on Sundays.
For when they’re kneeling down in prayer,
They shouldn’t scratch themselves and swear.

I miss the ladies of the guild – that was a fun guild, full of women interested in the qualities of different fleeces, the husbandry of fibre critters and the ins and outs of natural dyes. Going through Fibre Fever Fix again was a lovely memory. I hope you find these tidbits useful, or at least entertaining!

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What is this knitting thing, anyway?

Years ago I had a letter from my friend Liz Hood, who had come to me for lessons in spinning and knitting. Liz took to knitting like a duck to water, and began making funky Dr-Seuss-inspired hats and mittens. She knitted in lectures, where she noticed other women doing the same.

In her note she said that everyone but her was working from patterns. Liz knitted as I do, the old pick-up-the-needles-and-yarn-and-start method. Her observation was that everybody else seemed to think of knitting as a way of following a pattern, instead of a way of making the yarn take the shape you wanted.

She’d hit it right on the head, of course. Knitting – or sewing, or pottery, or origami, even writing – is a way of taking your material and getting it to give you the shape you want. There are two main ways I can think of to do this. One is to be able to visualize for yourself the shape you want, and the steps that will get you there. The other is to use a pattern, which is a diagram of someone else’s visualization.

According to this article, the first commercial knitting pattern was produced in 1817. That means that up until that point, patterns were passed around orally or in handwritten or knitted-sample form, or by the apprentice method, or were possibly kept as guild secrets. Yes, there were knitting guilds, and people who gave out the secrets of turning a heel, as I did a post or two ago, probably wound up floating down the Thames, looking rather hedgehoggy from all the needles used to stab them. (Just kidding – of course that would never happen. The needles were too expensive to leave in the body!)

This attitude that knitting is a way of getting the yarn to give you the shape you want is probably why I usually say knitting a shawl, or socks, or whatever, is easy. That’s because I’ve spent years as a visual artist, and I see what I want to produce fairly clearly in my head. Learning which reduction methods produce left-leaning or right-leaning stitches, for example, or which increase methods produce bars or holes or whatever, lets me decide what stitches to use to create the shapes and effects I want.

For a complex lace pattern, or for a new one, I like a written-down pattern. After I’ve knit the same pattern a few dozen times, I have it in my head and can work without the pattern. The same for socks or hats, or mittens and gloves, or whatever I decide to knit. The Faux Fox in the header of this blog was a pick-up-the-needles-and-yarn-and-start project. I began at the tail and worked my way up, using what I knew about how stitches and yarn behaved to shape the tail, body, legs and head. I figured it out as I went along.

That’s how I think about knitting, and every other art I’ve ever learned. Use the patterns until you figure out what you’re doing, then just use what you know about how the medium behaves to get the shape you want. Pretty simple, eh?

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We’ve gone all metaphorical here…

This month – and every month in 2012 – I’ll be a guest blogger at The Portable You. The first guest post went up on Valentine’s Day. I wasn’t responsible for the title – Jennifer Bulman, who’s the mind behind The Portable You, found it. Apparently sticking to one’s knitting is becoming a business concept, too.

When I was a kid (back when megafauna roamed the earth), to be told “stick to your knitting” meant that you needed to butt out of whatever you were nosing into. It was a rebuke, sometimes even an insult, implying that not only was this none of your business, but also that you knew nothing about it. “Mind your own business”, it meant, and not in a nice way.

From the title of the post, it now seems that “stick to your knitting” as “mind your own business” has taken a new slant. Instead of minding one’s own business being an invitation to butt out, it’s a reminder to pay attention to what you’re doing, to nurture it and focus on it.

Of course there is this to knitting: it may be inward, contemplative and focused in the process, but the aim of the process, the purpose of the exercise, is usually outward. The knitter is making something for someone, and in my experience most knitters are making something for someone else. That means that even while you’re being “inward”, you’re also being “outward”, keeping in mind the colour, size, pattern and eventual use of this knitting that you’re sticking to. I figure that’s good business sense, too.

Okay, we’re done being metaphorical now. In the next post we return you to your regularly scheduled pursuit, on the topic of what the hell is knitting, anyway?

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The joy of handspun

I had to learn to knit three times before it stuck, and the thing that made it stick was handspun yarn. I took up spinning in the mid-eighties, and as the handspun yarn began to pile up, I realized I’d have to learn how to use it. Knitting was the simplest thing to do – I don’t believe I’d bought my first loom yet – and so I re-learned knitting.

Let me just mention again my all-time favourite knitting book, Mildred Graves Ryan’s “Complete Encyclopedia of Stitchery”. It’s out of print, but available from used-book purveyors like Abebooks. Good, clear drawings, no abbreviations, and while I’ve only ever used it for knitting and embroidery,it also covers tatting, crochet, macrame and just about anything I think you’d want to do that qualifies as needlecraft.

Here is where I caution all knitters never, ever to knit with handspun. No, really. It’s so much better than commercial yarns that it takes some effort to get back to using commercial stuff. The reasons start with the sheep.

Sheep come in many different breeds, with many different qualities of coat, from the long, soft, downy Romney and Corriedale to the scrub-brush-textured Romanov. No, nobody raises Romanovs for their wool, but they’re an excellent meat sheep, as are Dorsets, Arcotts and other white woolly critters raised across Canada.

Shepherds who raise sheep for meat have to shear their sheep before sending them to market, because they are docked pounds for the weight of the fleece. (A fleece weighs from three to ten pounds, depending on the size and breed of sheep and the length and cleanliness of the fleece.) That fleece, if it isn’t dumped outright, is sent to woollen mills all over the country. A small mill might get 10,000 pounds of fleece in a single shipment. That fleece came from several thousand sheep, and it’s not all the same quality, or even the same breed. It all gets washed and spun together, and it can produce a perfectly serviceable and even attractive yarn, but it’s a pretty mixed-quality fibre.

Now consider handspun. The spinner selects a single fleece, from one sheep. She – it’s usually she, although I know a few men who spin, too – can divide the weathered back fleece from the softer and cleaner side fleece, from the fine fleece on the neck (often suitable for laceweight yarn) from the shorter, coarser belly fleece. She can sort it for length and texture, and she can prepare it by combing or carding, two different methods which bring out different yarn qualities.

Because a handspinner controls the weight and spin of the yarn, she can make a smooth, tightly-spun yarn or a lofty, soft one depending on the use she intends to put it to. I like to spin fine yarn to make shawls, but I’ve also spun thicker yarns for socks, mittens or hats.

This ability to control fleece, preparation and spin, and customize it for several different qualities of fibre within one fleece, makes handspun yarn superior – in my not-so-humble opinion – to anything you can buy from a mill. Of course, it’s also more expensive, in money if you’re buying it from a spinner, or in time if you make your own.

It’s worth it. It’s also addictive. Be warned.

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Completing the turn – Ta-da!

The gusset is the last part of turning the heel. Now that you’ve got the corner made, it’s time to pick up the side stitches on the heel flap and finish the foot. Start by putting all the stitches you didn’t use in making the heel onto one needle – it’s always helpful to have that extra needle when you have to fiddle with getting stitches switched around.

If you look at the heel flap, you’ll see that every time you slipped the first stitch (as you did on each row) you created a longer stitch on the end of the row. In the photo at right you can see (with my rather wobbly arrows) what the loops look like. It’ll be obvious how to pick them up.

There’ll be twelve of these loops on each side, (one for the beginning of each heelstitch or purl row you did) but you’ll probably see a gap at one end of the heel flap if you only pick up twelve. You can pick up a thirteenth loop – if it’s necessary, you’ll see where, trust me. Then divide the stitches at the sole of the heel, half on each needle.

When you’re done, half the original stitches will be on one needle, and the other two needles will hold the picked-up heel-flap loops and the sole of the heel. On my standard 48-stitch sock this is 64 stitches altogether. (I need to figure out a formula for this) Now it’s time to get back to the original number of stitches.

Knit one round plain. As you knit the stitches on the sides of the heel flap, you’ll see that some of them need to be turned to keep from leaving a gap in the knitting. If you don’t turn them, they leave an astonishingly large hole; notice how much of my finger you can see. One of the easiest ways to twist a stitch is to knit into the back of it, as in this picture. In this picture you can see that instead of putting my right-hand needle into the front of the loop, I’ve put it into the back. When you twist a stitch, the only thing you do differently is placing the needle. You don’t have to change how you loop the yarn.

Fudge factor

Because rounds usually start at the middle of the back of the sock, or the middle of the bottom, we’re going to fudge half a row. After that first row, knit until you’re at the middle of the heel. Honestly, nobody will notice, unless you’re a tad obsessive, as I am. If I can confess that and still tell you it’s okay, trust me, it’s okay.

The gusset

Knit the first needle until you get to the last three stitches. Then knit two stitches together, knit 1.
Knit across the top (the instep) of the sock.
Knit 1 stitch on the third needle, then slip the next two stitches. Don’t bring your yarn forward, but put your needle into each stitch as though you were going to purl it, then simply slide it onto the right-hand needle. Then put your left needle through the front of both stitches together and knit them together. This is called slip-slip-knit.

Knit the next round plain.

Repeat these two rounds. You’re reducing the sock by two stitches every other round, and making a tidy gusset on each side, where the top of the sock seems to fold down over the sole. If you decide to be adventurous, you can reverse the way you do the reductions, using slip-slip-knit on the first gusset, and knit-2-together on the second. This would make a gusset where the sole seems to be swallowing the top of the sock. Just a thought.

As soon as you get to 24 stitches on the top needle and 12 on each of the others (half the stitches on the top needle and one-quarter on each of the others), you can resume knitting plain until you need to reduce for the toe.

See? Not so bad, was it?

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