Friday, June 24, 2011

Swans Island Stop on the Way Home: Like a Cherry on Top!

After we finish our week of totally relaxing, knitting non-stop, eating gourmet goodies, stretching and hiking and sleeping like little babies at night to the sound of the sea lapping at the shore... yes, after all that, after you think it can't get any better... well guess what?

Lisa has exciting news for you. On the drive back we're going to take a little detour and go to Swans Island. And just why are we doing that you ask? Because in a wool-centric world, Swans Island is the real-life equivalent of Fantasy Island.

The story of Swans Island is very cool and a little tricky. You can read lots of details at their website, but let me give you a little overview. A long time ago, a bunch of sheep were rowed out to Nash Island off the coast of Maine. With no brush or trees to offer the sheep shelter, they took to huddling together like big fluffy football players. Being out in the elements caused their fleeces to grow in super thick, super luxurious and super-rich in lanolin, all factors that make for exceptional wool.

John and Carolyn Grace, moved to another island, Swans Island, back in the 1990s to live off the land, so to speak. They started a weaving studio using local wool. They moved back to the mainland in 2003, but the company itself and the blankets they're famous for are still known as Swans Island.

Some of the wool comes from the Nash Island sheep. Once a year, in mid-June, shearers from Swans Island head over to shear these amazing Corriedales (that's a 19th century breed). This outrageously fabulous wool is then spun into organic merino. The naturally brown and black wool remains undyed. The white wool is dyed using natural plant dyes like Indigo and madder. The spun fiber is then used to make handwoven blankets which have been recognized internationally and awarded a Smithsonian Blue Ribbon for Craft.

The Graces and some partners who joined them, now work out of a farmhouse built in 1780. In addition to the famous blankets, they also sell yarn. So be sure to bring an empty suitcase (or two) on the Monhegan retreat, because our post-Monhegan trip to Swans Island is a major score-- the company's yarn is available at fewer than two dozen retailers around the country. And just imagine-- you can get it from the source.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ride a Painted Pony...

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have an internal jukebox that calls up-- unbidden-- songs that suit whatever situation I'm in. Today, I have that old Blood, Sweat & Tears song, Spinning Wheel, spinning through my head. This doesn't surprise me at all. See, I have signed up for private spinning classes which start in a couple of days.

When I mentioned to some friends these "private spinning classes," I got a very surprised look. Then I realized that's because they thought that I-- Queen of Whoopie Pie Consumption and Chair Sitting-- had actually hired a jock to come to my house and get my behind on one of those stationary bikes on which you pedal until your legs fall of. HAHAHA! Can you imagine?

No? Me, either.

Once we cleared up the misunderstanding, I explained to my friends that in my latest move to get off the grid, I am hoping to learn how to spin roving into yarn. (Maybe one day I'll learn how to spin straw into gold.) I don't have huge expectations for this class. If my drop spindle class was any indication of whether or not I'll succeed, let's just say I'll likely be buying my yarn for a long time to come.

And yet... the more years I get into this knitting thing, and the more fiber artists I meet, and the animals that provide the fleece, well the more I want to take it back to the very start. I want to meet the animals, buy their fleece, figure out how to get from hoof to cardigan, you know? I figure that if the spinning lesson does "take," then I will now be forced to add another two years to each sweater project. Maybe four years. That's okay. Because one of my favorite parts of this whole fiber fanaticism is learning new stuff.

As so often is the case, my latest knit-related activities call Monhegan Island to mind. I love how the only vehicles on the island are the handful of trucks owned by lobster-folk and hotels. I love how quiet and barely lit things are at night. I love how you have to stand near the highest tombstone in the cemetery to try to get a single bar of cell phone signal. I'll never be accused of being a Luddite, but I truly enjoy opportunities to at least get a whiff of the way things were. And these whiffs (along with the salty sea breeze) always do my heart such good. Along these lines, I have an appreciation -- one I'm growing-- for ye olde knitting days, and how one couldn't just pop over to the knit shop, one had to raise the sheep and goats, and shear and all the rest of that stuff.

Okay, stay tuned. I might post again right after my lesson to proclaim the wonders of store-bought yarn.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Baby It's Hot Outside!

This past Monday marked the return of my summer camps for kids down here in Austin. I offer six sessions in all, including Writing Camp, Arts & Crafts Camp and-- I know it's hard to believe-- Fashion Camp (for which I get lots of help from my young fashionista seamstress assistants). Every year when I announce registration time, I get a flutter of feedback from adults who say, "I wish I could come to camp."

To which I am likely to reply, "I GET to go to camp!"

I try not to sound smug or sassy about it. But when I start thinking about what a tradition the Knitting and Yoga Adventures Monhegan Island retreat has become for me it's hard-- nay, impossible-- to contain my excitement. When I was a little kid, I got to go to a week or two of Arts & Crafts Camp one year. It wasn't a sleepover camp, just a daily operation. For a few hours each day I could transform old bottles into vases, make potholders with those stretchy loops and, yes, play with yarn. That was a super formative experience for me and the memory of it even four decades later probably helps explain why I host my own camps for kids.

So this week I've been thinking a LOT about Monhegan Island. And more so given that the temperature down here has hit and/or cleared 100 degrees several times already. I hear that over on the East coast there's some pretty warm weather happening, too. My recommendation for dealing with this too-early-too-much heat? Remember that soon enough, WE GET TO GO TO KNITTING CAMP! Visualize yourself sitting in one of those big white chairs on the porch of Monhegan House as a slightly chilly breeze gently encourages you to snuggle into your hand knit sweater. Imagine yourself by the toasty fire in the evenings as we come together for a group knit. Think of those early morning hikes through the forest, stopping to take in all the marvelous Fairy Houses before heading out to the cliffs to look across the water dappled with sunlight diamonds.

Can you feel the fresh cool air? Are you getting excited for sleepover camp yet? I certainly am.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Top Down? Bottom Up? Got a Preference?

Before I get to today's question, here's a pre-question: How do you interpret the above picture? To me, it looks like my son and I have just released our first CD together (maybe it's called Son of a Knitter) and this is the cover art. Actually -- total shocker (not)-- my son has not yet invited me to perform music with him. But this photo is not just randomly selected. I picked it because it clearly demonstrates the fashion versatility of the sweater I'm wearing.

For example, this picture was taken on my most recent birthday. So the sweater works for big celebrations. I also use it as my kick-around in sweater, my errand running sweater, my hiking sweater... the list goes on. Yes, I do sometimes wear other sweaters I've knitted, and I continue to work on knitting still more sweaters to be worn in the future. But this sweater-- (made from Grinch Green (I made that color up) Manos de Uruguay) is the one in which I spend, by far, the most time.

I've put the sweater away for the summer but was thinking about it the other day when I received a Rowan newsletter. Inside, an article was taking on the debate: Top Down vs. Bottom Up? I think it was supposed to be tongue in cheek but I'm not positive. Do people really feel so ferociously dedicated to one technique or the other that they're willing to spend time arguing the superiority of their choice?

Most of the sweaters I've made have been bottom up-- true of the sweater I'm currently working on (the one that I'm working on size 6 needles, and have been working on for 17,000 months now, and that has me swearing I'll never work on needles smaller than 24 ever again). But that green sweater in the picture? (Aside: did you notice I'm also wearing my headlamp-- the one Eva made fun of the first time she saw it, but then immediately borrowed it?) That is a top down and it's the first top down I ever made. The process amazed and delighted me. I learned it in a class where the instructor was so patient and kind with me, and stood behind me much of the time (reaching in to help when I needed it) putting me in mind of jump instructors who strap themselves to the back of first time plane jumper-outters.

I've made a couple of other top downs since that first one, and the process delights me anew every time-- oh to knit without having to do tricky finishing! That said, I'm also cool with making bottom up sweaters, even if the seaming takes forever once the pieces are done.

What about y'all? Do you have a strong preference? Got any good patterns to recommend for top-down? Ever read the Barbara G. Walker book? (I've got it but haven't read it yet, though I know at least one knitter who swears by it.)