Friday, August 26, 2016

Still Stretching

It's been six months since I last posted here. I miss this space.

Random songs are warming the mood as the fire crackles in the hearth and Decadent Dad is whistling, just like his Pops, and enthusiastically chopping and grilling our Friday Night Special Night dinner. This institution started in 2000. Tonight we are looking forward to hot baked rolls filled with our own Chinese spiced beef sausage and a cabbage pickle à la Jamie, followed by chocolate Tumble cake, as in chocolate coated raisin and shortcake balls baked into a cake. We will watch a movie and I will knit. Of course there will also be coffee.

I am making a tea cosy for my art deco Susie Cooper teapot that I inherited from my grandmother. I am using a squishy cream-coloured yarn with streaks of yellow, red, green and blue, a mohair/wool/acrylic blend: Toledo by Elle in the Smarties colourway. It will be topped with cream coloured roses and green leaves. I am making it on a whim after joining the Miss Marple Knit-along that A Knitter's Life is hosting. I am binge watching the Joan Hickson series of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie murders while I work on the tea cosy.

Since learning to spin, my taste in yarn has become a bit more discerning but, being Elastic Mom, I can't bear waste and will  try to make the most of my pretty acrylic yarns. Earlier in the month I went stash-diving and put together a Leftovers Diagonal Scarf using a collection of scraps of purple wool that my sister gave me a few years ago. It feels good to turn these bitty pretties into something that is fun to wear. I really like how it turned out. I am sure that some of the wool was hand dyed mohair blend from Nurturing Fibres, there was also eyelash yarn, some recycled sari silk yarn, and the leftovers from the Granny Stripe Blanket that I made for my daughter when we first moved up to the farm. Now she lives faraway and it is her-Hug-From Mum blanket. It is so bright that my son told me it hurt his eyes. My goal is too try to use up my yarn stash before I buy more yarn.

I gave away quite a bit of my stash yarn when I started the Hope Knitters group with the three ladies who live in the staff village up the road. I wanted to give them a way of earning some money to supplement their husbands' meagre incomes. The ladies live in rudimentary houses with outside pit toilets and no running water in their homes, just cold water taps outside. Their lives are hard. They collect wood to warm their homes. They do have electricity, but their diet mostly consists of mieliemeel (maize porridge). Even though we are a little group and the knitting project is a simple concept, I believe that it will bring them hope.

The idea is to start with an incentive pack of yarn, knit or crochet an item, sell it and use the proceeds to buy another skein of yarn. Once they have done all that then they receive another donated incentive pack from me. Then they are free to spend the profits or save them and use any leftovers for personal projects. We have received some generous yarn donations from kind people from Cape Town to America. We happily take leftover yarn and scraps and I put them into 100g packs. Blantina, who works for me has enthusiastically joined the group, and we have occasional visits from a middle aged Basotho man, Ntate Tshupa, who used to crochet using a match as his crochet hook.

Mentoring these beautiful ladies has been exciting and heartbreaking. It is wonderful to see their progress and their delight in selling the items they make. Choosing their well earned packs of donated yarn brings them such joy as they anticipate their new projects. They are quick and keen to learn new stitches and patterns. We try to meet weekly. One lady brings along her two little girls who play with educational toys while their mama knits. When I first started I didn't realise how much my life would change. These ladies have captured a piece of my heart. It has been heartbreaking to see the effects of poverty on their homes along with enduring the brunt of alcoholism and domestic abuse. One of the ladies has left the group because she can't see beyond her personal pain. Then came tragedy of a car accident that killed the young husband of one of our ladies. We have taken a knock. 

Yesterday three of us sat under some gum trees with a view towards the mountains of Lesotho. We stitched and chatted. It was one of those infinite moments where nothing else mattered except that moment.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Elementary, My Dear Watson

Meet Dr Watson, the cutest alpaca cria (baby) in Cape Town. His affectionate nature has won many hearts of friends and family of my dad and Merle. Their indigenous garden on the mountainside is home to a few alpacas. They are not all as sweet and tame as Dr Watson. 

This is some of Dr Watson's third grade fibre from his first shearing. His blanket is a rose-grey colour, varying from pale grey to deep chocolate brown. 

I love my dad's studio. A few months ago I set out to spin some of Dr Watson's fibre on their lovely Ashford Traditional spinning wheel which is different to my wheel at home.

While I spun, my dad painted in oils that day and we listened to classical music. 

 Pickle, the parrot joined us and watched over the first oil painting ever painted by my son that day in the studio. Arran spent two inspiring days learning the skill of oil painting from his grandpa.

I sat in the corner spinning while my father and my son painted with classical music in the background, accompanied by a silent parrot. 

This is the wobbly beginning of learning to spin Dr Watson's fibre which is very different to Lucy's merino fibre. It is also the beginning of learning to use a different wheel. 

After a little practice it became easier to spin a more even single of Dr Watson's fibre. This darker portion of Dr Watson yarn is spun back on the farm on my own wheel. 

Dr Watson's singles were fairly thick, so I plied them into a two-strand yarn. The natural variation in his blanket gave a barber-pole effect to some of the yarn. 

This is the bouncy-soft double-plied skein of Dr Watson's yarn. 

I washed the skein to set the twist and hung it in the bathroom to dry. 

The skein is 82m long and 118g of luxurious bulky squishy soft alpaca yarn. 

The skein rolled into a beautiful big ball for knitting. I used a circular needle and knitted over a few evenings sitting in the lounge with my farm men. 

I found just the right pattern to knit up a beanie to make the most of the plushy warmth of the yarn. The pattern is the Gridiron Hat by Argyle Sheep on the knitting and crochet website, Ravelry. Thankfully the yarn was enough. All I have left is 12g. 

The beanie is warm and super soft and snug. I love the way the lighter fibre ended up on the brim. It is a satisfying thing to journey with fibre all the way from a snuggly greeting from Dr Watson to wearing a Dr Watson Beanie on my head. So my first journey from fibre to finished product was, surprisingly, not with Lucy Lamb's first fleece. I still have a long way to go preparing all of Lucy's fleece for spinning. It has been great fun to dabble in a bit of alpaca spinning in the meantime. 

Its much as I love it, it is not for me to keep. I wrapped it up and sent it to my dad to keep warm in the Cape winter; to remember me; to enjoy precious Dr Watson's fibre as a hat; to remember that day in his studio where three generations created art alongside a parrot; when Beethoven was playing; and we were happy. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lucy's First Fleece - Part 4

Since mastering the basics of spinning, and loving every moment, I have been experimenting with the inferior bits of my precious Lucy's fleece.

By the time I reach the best wool, I will hopefully have discovered the easiest way to wash the locks without felting them; pick out the vegetable matter without leaving tiny spiky bits to be spun into the yarn; comb or card the softest fibres and spin the loveliest type of wool.

I have spun 'in the grease' where the lanolin stays in, but so does the mud. I have washed the fleece so squeaky clean that it feels chalky to the touch. I have combed the fibres into the airiest puffs of lock which I have spun individually into a shinty smooth semi worsted yarn and I have carded clouds of rolags which spin into a fluffy woollen yarn... all this on one bobbin. 

Most importantly, my skill is slowly improving as I am spinning a little more evenly each time I try. 

Decadent Dad turned  two drop spindles on the lathe for spinning on the trot. The first, most beautiful one is rather heavy and rests on the floor while I spin 'park and draft' style, but the second is a dream to spin 'on the fly'. 

The unspinnable (is that a word) fleece is fun to play with. Two delightful little girls and I have made felt balls which we dyed with food colouring and then threaded into Rainbow Lucy Necklaces.

 It was a lovely opportunity for learning the names of colours in English and Sesotho, opposites like wet/dry, dark/light, rough/smooth and counting words in both languages.

I also experimented with home made mulberry dye.

The resultant pinky felt looks like carpet-underfelt. I haven't found a use for it yet but, in true Elastic Mom style, I will. 

An internet exploration led to my discovery of the craft of needle felting which has the potential to produce magnificent works of art. I managed to create a simple little flower with my sharp felting needles and some Waldorf-dyed fleece.

Now I am ready to start with the superior sections of Lucy's fleece. Last weekend I washed half of it. I am in no hurry. A little sorting here, combing there and spinning when I can and eventually I will have enough wool to knit into something lovely. I find the whole process relaxing and after all these years I understand the nursery rhyme my mother taught me as a child:

Cross Patch draw the latch
Sit by the fire and spin
Take a cup and drink it up
Then call the neighbours in

Friday, January 8, 2016

Lucy's First Fleece - Part 3

A little of Lucy's first fleece was washed and waiting to be spun. I teased out some locks and brushed them into fluffy clouds, called rolags, using my hand carders. The carders are flat brushes covered in bent pins. They separate the fibres in the locks of wool to enable them to be smoothly drafted into wool yarn during spinning. Using the carders took a little practice before I could produce rolags without clashing the pins together in a tooth-jarring, spine-grating way.

The spinning wheel was set up, oiled and ready to run. I had watched countless YouTube videos on the art of spinning. I had practiced winding a ball of cerise pink acrylic yarn onto and off the bobbin successfully. So I sat down at my spinning wheel one evening, palms a little sweaty, ready to begin the real thing. It took a few false starts to get the wool fibres to twist successfully  around a starter piece of yarn wrapped around the bobbin, but then I was off and away, pumping my feet vigorously and watching the fibres twist and wind away from my fingers and onto the bobbin.

Just as I was getting the feel for the process, the wheel ground to a halt and I had to use my right hand  which was supposed to be controlling the twist in the fibre to get it turning in a clockwise direction while my feet pedalled as rhythmically as I could manage. My uncoordinated hands fumbled the fibres a bit until they started spinning again and then the wheel stopped. After trying repeatedly to keep the wheel turning and the yarn forming, my hands moving in rhythm with my feet, I crossly noticed Decadent Dad laughing at me as he watched from the corner of his eye. Red faced and muttering under my breath, I snapped at him while the yarn snapped in my fingers. If this was spinning I hated it and I couldn't do it. It was difficult and tedious and frustrating. What a wasted birthday present and now I was overcommitted with this enormous fleece and all this expectation to do something creative with it!

Decadent Dad, in a moment of pity, investigated the spinning wheel and declared that he could help me, which he did. The following day he ground down the too-tight axle so that it would turn smoothly in its hub, re-oiled the wheel and so I was willing to try again. This time the spinning wheel behaved as the fluff of fleece in my left hand twisted through the fingers of my right hand and wound their way onto the bobbin, forming my first real length of single ply woollen yarn.

 I was ecstatic. The more I tried, the easier it became. I had managed to make the beginning of something looking like wool. It was thick in places and thin in other places, sometime overtwisted, but it was a beautiful continuous strand. This was starting to get exciting. My fickle feelings forgot the previous night's despondency.

I can spin.

Spinning is fun.

I have a whole fleece to spin.

Will I have enough wool to make something lovely?

Lucy is the best sheep in the world.

.... to be continued

Friday, December 4, 2015

Lucy's First Fleece - Part 2

I left Lucy's newly shorn fleece in its bag for a week or so while I gathered up courage to deal with it. I researched all the many ways of washing a raw fleece. Every web site that I visited had different advice for exactly how to clean the fleece. My initially simple flow chart had become rather convoluted and confusing by the time I closed my computer. 

The best advice of the lot was, "Enjoy the Process"
Unrolled, the fleece stretched across the table-tennis table in the sun room. Ideally a fleece should be skirted outdoors, but I needed to protect it from my dogs and the wind. 

It was enormous and a bit smelly. It smelled like sheep. A fleece is divided into different quality wool depending which part of the sheep it comes from. Obviously the worst fleece is closer to the legs and tail end of the sheep, while the longest, cleanest locks are around the shoulder area. 

 It was full of bits of black jacks, fine dried grass, mud, lanolin and even some sheep poop. 

I picked over a few locks of wool and left them soaking in a bucket for a week. All that happened was that the remaining black-jacks germinated. 

Overwhelmed, I directed my attention to my birthday-present Ashford Kiwi spinning wheel, still in pieces in its box. My son and husband enthusiastically joined me in Project Assembly. We spent an afternoon putting it together ... halfway. I decided to first wax the wood before it was set up. 

Then we left it for a week while I researched how to spin. I had already had two spinning lessons from the friend who sold me the wheel. The first lesson was fairly successful, but I was all thumbs for the second. Daunted by the idea of mastering my coordination, I turned my attention back to the dirty fleece. 

I gathered up some small sections of the dirtiest poor grade fleece and washed them as well as I could. It was inconsequential if I ruined it. I used hot soapy water and then clean warm water to rinse the locks. All the washing water went to the drought-stricken garden, so I only washed as much as I could fit into a bucket at a time. We all took turns carting buckets of water out to the rose bushes.

It is really easy to felt the locks of fleece together if you agitate them or change the temperature too quickly. So I was as gentle as possible. You can't spin felted wool. Once the washed fleece was dried it came up squeaky clean. I think, in my enthusiasm, I had scoured every last bit of lanolin out. Next time I wash fleece I will experiment with baby shampoo instead of dish washing detergent.

Look at the difference between dirty and clean fleece.
Even after washing, there are still black-jacks to be picked out, and a few stains.

I am working really slowly though the fleece. Picking out the vegetable matter is very time consuming, I unsuccessfully tried washing it out but it seems the only way to do it is the tedious way. If you happen to visit for a cup of tea, you may just find me picking tufts of wool while we chat. That's what comes from having a sheep who thinks she is a pig. 

Mooka and Huckleberry are quite content for me to take all the time in the world to wash the fleece piece by piece. 

... to be continued

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lucy's First Fleece - Part One

Last month's sheep shearing has spun me head over heels into a new world of neps and noils, niddy noddies, rolags, cards and combs. My mind is all in a twist over the creative possibilities now that I am the delighted owner of a fleece. A rather muddy, thorny fleece from our sheep-pig but a beautiful home-raised fleece nonetheless.

Lucy was a pathetic little baby lamb who spent many hours in my arms and under my jersey
Lucy as a newborn lamb next to the fire

Lucy was one of the dogs before she thought she was a pig

Hope looking on while Lucy gets a bottle
Lucy the Lamb has grown from a tiny desperate orphan into a friendly fat sheep who thinks she is a pig. She follows the pigs as they do what pigs do, grazing alongside them as they snout for tasty roots, lying chewing her cud in the mud as they wallow in it. She bosses them around too, not hesitating to butt Winifred out of the way if the sow happens to be lying in Lucy's path. Once she gave them both a jolly good butting when they were so naughty as to venture out the gate. She has been known to cheekily step off the wall down onto Houdini's back and then onto the lawn.

Lucy and the pigs feasting on damaged fruit

Lucy out walking on the farm with our friends and 5 dogs
Lucy is also the worst thief of the farmyard, regularly testing gates to see if she can sneak into the garden to steal blossoms off berry bushes and foliage from almond saplings.

Lucy on her way to Shearing

Lucy was not as charmed as I was at the prospect of her shearing. My men hoisted her unceremoniously into the back of my car and drove her to the next door farm where the shearers had set up to clip their way through an enormous flock. Lucy waited patiently for her turn.

With a dog collar around her neck she followed us obediently until suddenly she was flipped over onto her back and had to suffer the indignity of baring her belly to the woolly audience.

Once the shearing was over she gulped down mouthfuls of calming grass and then bleated her dismay all the way home. She soon settled down, tethered on the lawn, and grazed the until sunset as if nothing had changed in her world. Fearing a chill I dressed her in a large dog jacket and put her to bed for the night. By morning the jacket was off and Lucy was once again one of the pigs.

 As for me, I finally had my precious fleece. Lucy's first fleece. My daunting fleece. My intimidating fleece. I left it in its bag and went away for the weekend.

... to be continued