Monday, September 5, 2016

The Beginning of Spring

I wrote this on Friday evening:

Today we harvested nettles. We wore gloves. My wool dying experiment with nettles in July was a dismal failure. The nettle bread, however, was brilliantly green. The nettles have been safely subdued with a steaming and now they are in the fridge. There is also a large bunch drying on the verandah. Even weeds can be wonderful. Now I am dreaming of nettles served simply with butter, salt, and pepper; nettle soup; nettle soap; and maybe even nettle pancakes. Oh, and how could I forget nettle tea?



The trick of being Elastic Mom is to stay on top of whatever is flourishing right now. Well, to try.

Someone else is flourishing since she has discovered the art of knitting. This afternoon I taught Mammei, one of the Hope Knitters, how to purl and make stocking stitch and rib. She wants to knit a hat. Her Cutie Pie has stolen my heart. I have known her since she was a premie in hospital being nurtured by kangaroo care. Her mother called me because they don't feed their patients properly in the government hospitals here and she was hungry. Cutie Pie grins every time she looks at me and waves goodbye whenever we part ways.

The pigs have run away again. Tomorrow morning I will find them snoring in their beds. We knew they had finished plowing up the chicken run when they made an exit hole under the fence. My son and the dogs went looking for them. All they found were jackals aggressively guarding a den, containing pups no doubt.

Our water was black today. We first noticed it when washing the white linen from my bed. I sent my black sheets up the hill to show the two men who were working on the pipes and neglected to warn us first. I wonder if it will make a difference next time they need to fix the pipes.



We have stopped lighting fires in the evenings. Spring has arrived, clothing the peach trees in pink, the apricot orchard in white and also our almond saplings in delicate touches of white. We made it the]rough winter without needing to light Esse the Faithful. My fingers are still recovering but the saving of R1000 a month for anthracite was worth it.


This morning I blew off the dust bunnies and unpacked the suitcase under my bed. It felt light and lovely to hang my summer dresses in the cupboard and toss my warm scarves into the suitcase instead. The rest of my winter clothes are staying put in case we have another cold snap. It seems unlikely in these dry, warm days. Once the excitement of the spring blossoms and daffodils wanes I realise that it really isn't my favourite season. Free State spring is a time of waiting for summer rain, a time of dusty winds and often a time of firefighting for my men. The vase of peach blossoms on the mantle is pretty though.


September also heralds the beginning of the busy birthday season. My philosophy is that gifts either cost money or time. I don't really have either in abundance at the moment, though I do try to enjoy some creative time in the evenings. Yesterday's birthday girl received a knitted hat, a beanie in the Elle Toledo Smarties colourway from my stash, with a big yellow pompom. I wrapped it in drawing paper, tied some yellow tulle (fairy wings from  when my daughter was small enough to wear such things) around it and made a card from a bird cut out of a box of tea. It looked just right for a 7-year old. The other half of the ball of yarn had been used for my  Miss Marple tea cosy. I am happy that I managed to use it up and all the gift cost me was my time.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Blessed Abundance

I am sitting on an old stone bench, facing the chicken run. It was built as a step for mounting horses. The warm air has a sweet spring fragrance. The chickens are industriously inspecting the upturned earth in their run after Winifred and the young pigs finished their day’s work of plowing it up for me. It is the golden hour, just before sunset, where everything is still except for the cheeping chicks, clucking hens and twitters of the white-browed sparrow weavers in the honey locust trees. Zizou, our Jack Russell Terrier, has just jumped up to join me. She is leaning against my back and staring across towards Lesotho over in the distance behind me. Next to me is a bucket filled with a lanky cauliflower and a generous picking of broad beans. The cauliflower is for tonight’s chicken soup, Jewish Penicillin, a Jamie favourite. I will substitute it for the broccoli in the recipe because that is what we have in the garden. The broad beans will be in tomorrow’s salad for the Quilt Club’s lunch I am hosting. 


Barbara Kingsolver, in her wonderful book Animal Vegetable Miracle, calls this time of year The Hungry Season. It is the time when winter is over along with the last of the stored autumn harvest, but the new spring crops haven’t grown enough to be harvested either. It has been a tough year where our summer harvest was not as good as usual and we also lost all our carefully frozen vegetables, yet we are doing pretty well for the hungry season. I always shop in the garden, pantry and freezer before making the trip to town to buy food.


Last night I picked a bucket of rainbow chard and some young Egyptian walking onions. I cooked them up with 2 slices of chopped leftover gammon and served them in toasted sandwiches with a little grated cheese. The Swiss chard is such a faithful friend. It has carried us through the winter frosts and drought. Once the weather warms up it will probably go to seed, but not before new seeds have grown up in another part of the veggie tunnel to replace the existing bed.


The broad beans are taller than ever and starting to produce what looks like a promising spring harvest. Along with some mange tout peas, we have plenty of greens for the table in the form of self seeded butter lettuce, nettles, rocket, oak leaf lettuce, cabbages, kale and then some young Chinese cabbage and mizuna. The Chinese cabbages have started going to seed in the warmer spring weather, so I will use them whole in stir-fries, flowers and all. As always, I will try to use all my harvest, even if it is not perfect. In the hope that our few cauliflowers would grow bigger, I left them too long so now they are past their best but still perfectly edible. I plan to use them to make Indian pakora with the chickpea flour that needs using in my pantry (It is best served with Chai tea on a rainy day.)


The spring sowing has begun. We have rows of tiny carrots and beetroot, and lots of  hopefulseeds trays for the tomatoes, peppers and brinjals. Last years garlic’s and leeks are looking great and the new onion seedlings are doing well. It’s a good start.


We have plenty of our own pasture-raised beef in the freezer now, which will hopefully last us for a long time. In the not too distant future, some organic free-range pork will join it. The pork is rather too free ranging at the moment: the naughty rascals keep disappearing leaving us searching all over, hence their being put to work in the chicken run this week.


Marigold and Matilda are leading their chicks to bed as the sun dips behind the hill. I will shut them all in securely, feed the dogs, close the curtains inside and then finish making dinner while I watch the last episode of Miss Marple. Decadent Dad is busy in his leather workshop. Our son is at his drawing board. They are each playing their own music selection while they work, so I will wear headphones to hear Miss Marple while I cook.

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