Sweaters and Socks

A love letter to 11+ inches of brownish gray, fingering-weight stockinette sweater knitting on size 3 needles.

I am about 8 inches through 11+ inches of brownish gray, fingering weight stockinette sweater knitting on size 3 needles. That’s going to make an exciting blog post, right? Oh, but it is.

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My fingers are deeply in love with Wisconsin Woolen Spun yarn from Barrett Wool Co. Deeply. That the wool is grown in the midwest and spun in Wisconsin – thus supporting both American farmers and a domestic wool industry – is a nice bonus. The yarn itself is pure joy. Squishy, buoyant, elastic, and a gorgeous natural color. But it’s also strong. I have another woolen spun yarn in my collection that breaks when I look at it funny. I spent a lot of money on a small skein of Rambouillet that I’ll probably never work with because, in the course of winding it, it broke four times before I gave up. This made me a little nervous when I started my sweater, but the Wisconsin Woolen Spun hasn’t once even threatened to break – even when I tug a little hard on the yarn as I’m working.

It’s all just a dream. The pattern is Branches and Buds Pullover by Carrie Bostick Hoge. It’s knit from the top down in one piece and has just a little colorwork around the yoke. The kit I purchased from Barrett Wool Co included the cutest clothespin with scraps of yarn that will be used to make the “buds” when my knitting is complete.

I’m using stitch markers to track my progress, and I think that’s helping a lot in keeping me motivated. I attach a colorful stitch marker every two inches down the side of the sweater. There is a simple joy in celebrating my mini accomplishments in this way and the tangible reminder of my progress is motivating.

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When I’m taking a break from 11+ inches of brownish gray, fingering-weight stockinette sweater knitting on size 3 needles, I’ve been working on socks for Bill and me. Bill’s standard wacky foot socks were finished this week. The yarn is Desert Vista Dyeworks in the colorway Big Damn Heroes.

For me, I’m working my way through Cookie A’s book Knit. Sock. Love., and am nearly done with the second pattern, Mona. The lace is a nice contrast to ribbing or stockinette. I got the yarn at Rhinebeck a few years ago and am always happy to find semi-solid 100% wool sock yarn. It can be hard to find, but if you have any recommendations of dyers you love, please let me know!

Knitting for Sanity

But, whenever I feel overwhelmed, I know that I can sit down for a few minutes, or a few hours, and return to the routine of knitting.

There are so many times when knitting has made my life more comfortable – handspun socks hugging my feet, or a double layer of shawls keeping my face warm when I work in the barn…the sweater customized to fit just how I like it.

Mostly, though, knitting has kept me comfortable by giving me a productive way to chill out. I take small projects with me whenever I go out and know that “waiting” will be a task expected of me – appointments, restaurants, Bill wandering through the hardware store pondering shelves and shelves and aisles and aisle of pipe fittings.

Knitting has been a key part of my sanity for the last few weeks, especially. I am comfortable with routine and predictability. Spontaneity tends to make me anxious. My library, for example, is only a few miles from my house, but I need at least three days of lead time before I’m comfortable planning a trip. To return books. It takes me three days to get ready to drive five minutes – in a totally straight line – and jump out of the car to plop books through a slot in a door. An event which involves actually interacting with people requires at least of week of mental psych up.

The last four weeks have been anything but routine. We’ve experienced disruption on top of disruption. Some were permanent (my husband was laid off as part of a merger at work – we’ve had nearly two years to plan for the possibility, so we’re ok), and some were temporary (I got the flu! And this extreme cold weather, which changes the farm routine significantly – and broke our pipes…and our furnace). But, whenever I feel overwhelmed, I know that I can sit down for a few minutes, or a few hours, and return to the routine of knitting.

Except when I had the flu. That was four days of sleeping and whining with a small amount of banana eating.

The repetitive motion of knitting is very calming for my brain and my body. The feel of wool soothes my soul. Beautiful yarn colors and lacy stitch patterns delight my eyes. And most importantly, knitting is a show of optimism for the future. Adding a few rounds to a sock, or finishing a sleeve on a sweater is a profession of faith that sometime soon, this knitted item will be used – hopefully during a happy time. I may be struggling with two weeks of single degree temperatures, but a lacy sock means that summer will come and there will be a time when 18 layers of clothing are not required. Perhaps, at this moment, I have the unwashed hair, and body odor of someone who hasn’t crawled off the couch in a week, but knitting on a sweater proves that I know some day I will be germ-free, take a shower, brush my hair, and (with at least seven days’ notice) leave the house to meet up with friends.

The last few weeks of 2017 were disruptive, worrying, and difficult. Knitting helped me remember that the trying events were temporary, and helped me stay sane(ish) as we were getting past them.

I’ve got delightful projects to share with you soon! In the meantime, please enjoy some scenes from the farm, which is firmly in the grip of winter.

Wool Noir, Chapter 2

Opportunistic troublemakers that would literally pull the hay right from the mouth of a young lamb, the whole lot of ‘em.

Are you ready for the second chapter of Wool Noir? (The first part of the story can be found here.)

The fiber for this shipment was a set of mini batts in three colors. Each color had both a dark and light mini – one was mostly black and the other mostly the color. I hope to spin mine soon, but I’ve been dithering about the overwhelming possibilities! I think I’ve decided on a two ply with the yarn transitioning from dark to light.

One bobbin will be: dark, light, light
One bobbin will be: dark, dark, light

I think this will transition the yarn from mostly black on one end, to mostly color, in a smoothish way? We’ll see.

The second part of the mystery is below. Do you have theories on the crime? Club members should be receiving the third shipment, and the solution to the mystery, as I type…so it won’t be too long before I can reveal it to you all. Until then, I hope you enjoy the story!

(Signups are currently open for Waves of Wool – the next batt club – which will run from January through March. I’ve assisted a few generous family members in purchasing the club as gifts, and am excited to be “in” on their secret! Signups are open until December 30 and all the details are available in the Etsy listing.)

Chapter Two 

This doesn’t make sense.

A lot of things weren’t making sense. Cora finished measuring a gap in the fence and put her tape measure back into her project bag.

She’d spent the past four days following multiple threads trying to identify the corn thief. With a flock of 47 sheep and goats and over 200 chickens on the farm, all of whom were contributing their two cents, she heard a lot of crazy, ranging from “Aliens!” all the way to “There never was any! The corn is a lie!” Many of the animals wanted to blame Tailpipe, just because he was incredibly annoying, crowing at inappropriate times, and randomly flying into their faces – a terrifying blur of black and white feathers that disrupted peaceful afternoon naps. He had never been forgiven for the time he scratched a lamb with his spurs, and the animosity against him was high. It is simply not possible though, that unsteady Tailpipe could’ve made off with that much grain.

Tailpipe in turn (and most of the other chickens), were holding a grudge against Martha, the matriarchal ewe. It didn’t take much detective work for Cora to find out this was because Martha had a tendency to stray from her flock and lick up the chickens’ corn at feed time. If she’s willing to steal some of their corn, she must be willing to steal ALL of their corn. The suspicion was not unreasonable, but Martha was with the flock when the theft occurred. Every other sheep backed up her alibi, and indeed, many of the chickens grudgingly did as well.

After sorting through the noise, Cora really started focusing on two theories: 1) Woodland critters had found or created a gap in the pasture fence, and exploited it to gain access to the barn, and thus the prized corn. 2) The goats. Yeah… the goats. If guilt could be determined by polling the sheep, the goats would’ve been locked up. Opportunistic troublemakers that would literally pull the hay right from the mouth of a young lamb, the whole lot of ‘em. Especially maligned was the cute little black and white one named Pickles. Pickles had a reputation for getting into places she shouldn’t be. Consensus said Pickles would’ve had no trouble at all getting into the corn storage area. Furthermore Pickles had no alibi, and wasn’t talking. In fact, the whole herd of goats were suspiciously keeping their mouths shut.

Both of these theories had merit. But now Cora needed to rule one out. In favor of the woodland critter theory – here before her, there was a damaged gap in the fence, with traces of raccoon fur clinging to the fence wire. Not only that, but there were kernels of corn on the ground. It seemed as though Cora had found the thieves’ escape route. But even this didn’t fully make sense, though it took close inspection to see why. After taking measurements and wiggling the wire, it became clear to Cora that a strong animal pushed through the fence, popping staples and allowing it to hang freely, but that animal was inside the pasture when they did the damage. Any animal that knew about the gap would be able to leave the pasture, but no animals on the outside would be able to get in…at least without help. This gap was dangerous – it needed to be repaired quickly. If a lamb or kid made it through the fence they’d be exposed to coyotes, foxes, and all the other dangers of the wildlands. Cora made noise to draw the attention of the farmer, who was nearby planting apple trees. As the farmer approached, Cora nudged the loose fence to show the damage.

“Oh my! I have to fix that,” said the farmer, who then proceeded to make repairs. When finished with her work, she thanked Cora for pointing it out, grumbled about having to also replant apple trees, and headed back to the orchard.

With that done, Cora reached into her project bag for her magnifying glass and began methodically investigating the area near the fence gap. She was going to need hard evidence to identify the perpetrator. When, after 20 minutes of searching, she found some black and white fibers, she knew she finally had what she needed.

To be continued…

 

Happy Birthday Goats!

What time did that baby pop out? Set the timer!

Two years ago this week, mammals were born under our supervision for the first time ever. We’d hatched a bunch of chickens, but mammal birth is completely different. (Can you tell I have a BS in Biology?) It’s hard to believe it has only been two years since we stumbled through our first kidding, as we’ve learned so much – and cleaned so much goo off newborn lambs and kids – since then.

The spring before the goat kids were born, we had attended one day of “lambing school” at a nearby ag school. I had my hand (and arm) all up in intimate parts of a ewe who was having trouble delivering a lamb, but that included three old, experienced vets standing over my shoulder, and I didn’t know that ewe at all.

Two years ago, in the middle of the night, I woke up for the 5th time and called up our barn camera on my cell phone (oh! technology!!). My sweet, skinny, not very thrifty goat Kaylee was squatting and clearly in labor.

Or, she was peeing? How would I know? I’d never done this before.

Bill and I climbed out of bed and into warm farmy overalls and barn jackets and set out into the cold. The corner of the barn where Kaylee was (at this point) clearly giving birth was actually snuggly and warm with a thick layer of clean straw that I would have curled up on and taken a nap – it being the middle of the night – if I weren’t so terrified.

Terrified because it was the middle of the night and the vet was snuggled in his bed and not in his office just half a mile down the road, and terrified because mammal birth is really quite dramatic.

Fortunately, Kaylee is one of the toughest goats I know, and she knew what she was doing. Her first baby – a boy with a white tipped tail – was born without issue within 5 minutes of our arrival. Kaylee then delivered two more kids, licked them clean and stood patiently while they tried to nurse.

The general rule in lambing and kidding is that you’d like the newborn to be up on their feet and nursing within one hour. Since this rule is about the only concrete thing I know about delivering lambs and kids, I’m always on top of it. What time did that baby pop out? Set the timer!

Bunny, the first born, and Katya (who was born last and came out like a rocket), were up and standing and poking around for some milk. Watching baby animals stand and try to nurse right after they are born should be amazing. Like, they were inside another animal 25 minutes ago. They just came out into the cold December night. And now they are standing? What?!? How amazing.

It’s not like that for me. I’m watching the clock and watching them nose around under their mother’s front legs looking for an udder on the wrong side of the goat. Gah! Dumb baby thing that’s only been breathing on your own for half an hour – why is this so hard?? That’s a knee! Not a nipple! Stop chewing on the straw! Stop falling over!!

It takes a ton of restraint for me to not micromanage the situation. I know, in my brains, that the babies need time to bond and learn, and it’s best for them, as well as the does and ewes for me to stay out of the way. I know I shouldn’t intervene. It still drives me nutty. Fortunately, Bill is the calmest dude on earth, and I enjoy holding his hand, and the straw really can be quite snuggly.

After about 45 minutes of the waiting and watching, it became obvious that the middle kid wasn’t going to stand on her own and nurse. She was shivering and could barely lift her head, let alone her body. That fantastic technology that let me look at the barn from my bed, and helped me keep time from birth to nursing, also helped me figure out what to do with a “chilled” kid. It involved a trip to the house tucked inside Bill’s coat, and a long soak in hot water in our bathroom sink.

Lambs and kids are basically skin and bones when they are born and need to nurse quickly in order to maintain their body temperature. That rule about an hour helps make sure they don’t get so cold that they can’t physically stand and nurse. The middle kid was born so weak that she would never had stood on her own. If we hadn’t been there for her birth, she would have died quickly of hypothermia.

When we first got her into the house (it was our first time for a goat in the house), and into the hot sinkbath, we had to hold her head above the water, and she wasn’t showing many signs of life. After about an hour, she started kicking and being ornery. We dried her off with a towel, stuck her back inside Bill’s coat, and took her back to the barn. We helped her nurse, watched everyone settle in for a bit, and stumbled up to our own beds. I would have slept in the straw, but Bill still had to go to work later that morning, and I wanted him to get some real sleep before he did.

Later, I sneaked quietly out of bed and back to the barn. I was expecting the chilled kid to be weak and lethargic (or worse), but she was standing and alert. We’ve had to repeat this process twice with lambs over the past two years, and I’m always amazed at how little milk they need to get going.

After we were feeling confident that the baby goat was doing alright, Bill suggested that we name her Pandora because she helped us find hope where it didn’t seem like there would be any.

The three kids are all grown now – Pandora even had a kid of her own this spring. They sleep together in a big pile, just as they did when they were small enough to fit under the feeders. They are a potent reminder of how far we’ve come as farmers and how resilient life can be.

 

 

 

Dying Wool with Black Walnuts

If you have goats who are willing to help, don’t let them.

There has been a lot of walnut dying happening here lately…and walnuts are not just for brown! Dying wool (or cotton, or silk) with walnuts is an excellent intro to natural dying. The process is very flexible and the results are reliably gorgeous. I’m going to describe the process I use, as well as modifications you can make.

First, gather a bunch of walnuts. If you  have a 5 gallon Menards bucket, use that – especially if it is dirty. If you have goats who are willing to help, don’t let them. Mostly, they will be wondering if they can eat the things in your dirty bucket and they’ll tip the bucket over trying to find out. They will do this a stupefying number of times, no matter how firmly you try to explain that the inedible contents of the dirty bucket are exactly the same as they were two minutes ago, when they last knocked it over.

Walnuts will be found in many conditions, including unblemished fully green husks, bruised husks, and dried cracked mummy husks. All of these can be thrown into a pot of water – as is – and will make a lovely dye. Cold water. Warm water. Soak for an hour. Soak for a week. Throw your yarn in with the walnuts, or strain the dyebath before putting in your yarn. Whatever! It will all work.

I have visions of cracking the nut inside the husk and obtaining the walnut halves inside. This is madness because the shells are unbelievably hard. We did research to find the one tool that will crack them and still haven’t been brave enough to try. There are stories of Native Americans using rocks to crack the husks and the idea impresses me without end. But, I am an optimist (and apparently a squirrel), so I enjoy collecting the nuts with visions of winter evenings cracking shells by the fire. This requires relieving the nut of its husk.

I do this with a pickup truck.

Once the nuts are smashed it is easy to separate the husk from the nut. Oh! Do this bit with gloves. Unless you want your hands to be stained brown for the next month. Your call. I’m not judging.

Some of the husks – especially the ones with brown spots – will be home to little white worms in various stages of development. I don’t get squeamish easily, but I’m not fond of the worms. If you have chickens helping you with this process, it is now their turn to scratch around in the broken husks and eat up the worms. Mostly, they will just scatter your walnuts over a large area with their scratching, and they will only eat a few of the worms. I scrape the worms out of the husks (or abandon the ones that are too infested for my sensibilities), but other dyers just throw them in the pot stating that the worms become part of the dye.

Ok. That’s enough about worms.

At this point, I tossed all the husks into bags and plopped them into a freezer. You can use the husks to make a dyebath now, freeze them like I did, or set them somewhere to dry for later use. I’ve never used dried husks, but I am told they are not quite as potent as fresh. I have noticed no difference between using fresh husks or frozen ones.

To make a dyebath, I put the husks into a pillowcase which is in my dye pot, cover with water and simmer for an hour. I let the bath cool overnight and dye the next day. The pillowcase helps keep debris, like dirt and little husk flakes, contained. If you don’t have a pillowcase or bag you are willing to sacrifice, you could pour your dyebath through a strainer, or just not care that there will be little flecks of nature in your yarn.

I don’t measure any part of this, but if you want to experiment or get more repeatable results, you could measure the total weight of your husks. Often, in natural dying, the recommendation is 1:1 dye material to the weight of what you’re dying. So, a pound of wool would require a pound of walnut husks (or goldenrod stems, or whatever). But, varying the strength of your natural dye, or the amount of time your yarn sits in your dye, will often result in a variety of colors.

The first mini in this photo is undyed. The next three colors were obtained by varying the strength and timing in the dye bath. If you are looking to dye a very light brown, I recommend doing it after you’ve dyed darker colors. Let the first few yarns soak up most of the dye, and then dye your lighter colors. That lightest skein actually stayed in the dyepot the longest, but was dyed after the other two. Walnut dye is very potent and clings to wool quickly. When I’ve tried to get a light color in a strong dyebath, even a quick dip of 10 seconds has resulted in a rich medium brown.

An important thing to note is that walnut dye will never exhaust. When using acid dyes, a general rule is that you let the wool sit in the dye bath until all the color is absorbed and the bath is clear. That won’t ever happen with walnut (or many natural dyes). So, when your wool is submerged, it will look darker than it really is. To see what your yarn actually looks like, pull a bit out of the bath and squeeze the water out. It will be noticeably lighter, and when it dries, it will be a little lighter still.

You don’t need any mordant with walnut dyes. I’ve noticed no difference between using unmordanted wool, and wool mordanted with alum. Iron, however, causes a delightful change in hue. Iron is typically used as a post-dye modifier, meaning you dye your wool and then dip it in an iron bath to change the color. Iron usually darkens whatever you’ve dyed. The last mini in the photo above was dipped in iron. I made a warm water bath with 12 grams of iron for 1 pound of wool. I purchased iron mordant from The Woolery (it is quite inexpensive), but you can also throw some rusty metal into a pot to make your iron bath – though this is less precise.

The color change is nearly instant, but I simmered the wool for a half hour (180F). After I finished with the darker colors, I made a charming gray with the exhaust of both the walnut dyebath and the iron modifier bath. I dunked a few wet skeins of wool into the used dyebath for just a few minutes. I squeezed out the water and plopped them into the iron exhaust (now cold), for about 20 seconds. Isn’t this a fabulous gray?

Walnut dying is a ton of fun with so many color possibilities! I have a bunch of husks in the freezer for winter experimentation, so there may be more soon! I did a test batch of self-striping sock yarn, but I’m a little concerned about how walnut dye holds up against potentially sweaty feet… Any experience with that? I’m going to knit a little swatch to wear in my store-bought socks for a day and see what happens. More soon!!

Wool Noir, Chapter 1

“I’ve been in charge of this flock a long time, because I follow certain rules. One of the most important rules is ‘Save the Drama for the Llama’.”

Wool Noir is my second batt club, and it features dark, brooding colorways with an accompanying barnyard mystery.

(I have to pause here to say that spellcheck doesn’t recognize the word “noir,” and would prefer I change it to “Nair,” which is ludicrous.)

There are so many things that I’m enjoying about hosting a club. Generally, I only make 3 or 4 batts of a single colorway, so it has been a lot of fun – and a lot of math! – working out a process for large batches. Plus, it’s always quite satisfying to see a big pile of uniform batts waiting in orderly rows to be sent to their new homes.

IMGP2221I also enjoy packing each mailer with fiber, goodies, and a note. It feels like sending care packages to treasured spinners across the continent.

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My most favorite part of the club, however, is that my husband Bill writes a little story for each shipment. Very early in our relationship, Bill shared a short story with me that he had written for our college art “magazine” (aka 4 sheets of paper stapled together – our tiny college is primarily a science school). I loved it, and his creative writing helped me see another side of the mostly rational, not-very-emotive guy I was dating. The story involved a Being of Grain Alcohol that was waiting to have lunch with his cousin, who I think was a comet. Like, none of it makes sense in my brain nearly 20 years later, but at the time, it was a profound awakening, and admiring Bill’s writing remains one of my favorite memories of our early relationship.

Periodically over the last two decades, I remind Bill of this story and try to enchant him into writing again. He’ll politely give the idea a bit of thought, but that’s as far as it goes. He shares a few ideas but never puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. His other concerns – usually overdue farm or house work – end up taking priority.

When he offered to write for the batt clubs, I eagerly encouraged the plan. For the first batt club, focused on unicorns, Bill wrote a short story in rhyming verse, that easily fit on the back of the batt tags. He dreamed up a sweet, adventurous, shrewd unicorn lamb named Cora, who had sparkling wool and could fly.

He also complained, monthly, that the back of the batt tag was too small a canvas, and could he please have more space next time.

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For Wool Noir, I removed the restrictions and encouraged him to write as much as he’d like. The story is fully his, and he has been drawing inspiration from our own farm. I love talking over his ideas and brainstorms. Reading his draft usually makes me giggle and always brings tears to my eyes. Bill is such a logical person, so focused on pragmatic concerns, and I really appreciate the chance to set aside conversations about solar panels, hay prices, and potato varieties, for the opportunity to discuss the talking roosters and flying sheep that live inside his head.

I hope club members enjoy the stories that accompany the fiber shipments, but to be honest, it’s for totally selfish reasons that they are included. Not only am I able to demand that Bill write me a story, but I get to set a deadline for him to do it. It’s pretty fantastic.

Below is the first part of the Wool Noir mystery. I’ll post parts two and three after club members have received them. If you have theories about solving the crime, I hope you’ll share them with us below!

Chapter One: An Imposing Shadow

The last beams of the day’s sunlight were still tickling the treetops as Cora descended upon the unruly mob.  The red and gold rays of illumination had been holding their own against diminishing flashes from a departing thunderstorm. But now, the nighttime with its comforting darkness was arriving quickly, chasing the light away, revealing the first twinkling stars overhead.

It was immediately clear that a great discord had overcome the flock– enough so that none of them noticed Cora, the world’s only lamb unicorn detective (not something that you see every day) until she joined their circle. Accusations and recriminations spiraled about like a vortex of autumn leaves. Cora spied a single ewe that seemed to be trying to remain above the fray. She approached, showed her credentials as a private investigator, and offered her services.

“What’s your fee?” This ewe, Martha, was the oldest ewe on the farm. She looked it, too. Cora thought that her eyes betrayed a weariness, possibly from leading her flock for many years. Standing in the door to the barn, she was casting a long and imposing shadow. Weariness aside, Cora could tell that this was not a ewe to mess with.

“I get paid in feed,” was the response from Detective Cora. “My rate is 2 pounds of corn per day. Plus expenses.”

Martha smirked as she explained the problem with this: “Well then, you’re of no use. You see – that’s our problem. All of our corn has been stolen.”

“If you want my help, I’m sure we can work something out.” Cora offered, and Martha nodded in acceptance, adding with a welcoming note “There’s some hay in the feeder in stall two. Alfalfa. Good stuff. The rest of the flock isn’t eating any of it because they’re all worked up over the missing corn. And while half goats are arguing with the flock, the other half are MIA, having been accused of thievery. Go have a nosh as an advance, then come back when you’ve had your fill. I’ll tell you all about what happened. We could use an outside eye to figure it out.”

Cora returned the nod with a thankful shake of her own but had just one question before going to collect her advance. “Everyone on the farm seems worked up about this except you. How are you able to stay so calm?”

All signs of weariness faded as Martha considered her answer, replacing it with a surprising playfulness. “I’ve been in charge of this flock a long time, because I follow certain rules. One of the most important rules is ‘Save the Drama for the Llama’.”

Nodding as if she understood what this meant, Cora made her way into the barn to find her proffered hay.  As she was taking her first bite and reflecting on Martha’s comment, she heard a commotion in the next stall. A young rooster – looking insane without half of his barred feathers – managed to fly over the stall landing on Cora’s nose and scratching it with his spur.

“Ouch – watch it buddy!” yelled Cora, with more than a little frustration. The rooster introduced himself as Tailpipe, and apologized.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to hurt or scare you. It’s hard to fly during my molt. Listen – I overheard you talking to the big crazy one about the corn heist-“

“-Martha?”

“Yeah, Martha. Don’t trust her. I know what happened to the corn… she took it. She took it all…”

To be continued…