In my hands

In the evenings, when I’m tired of chopping and mixing and spooning hot food into jars, I’ve been knitting, instead. And so, in a week, this little cardigan has almost been completed. It’s Ilse’s, of course – the one she chose the wool for at the fair. The one she’s been asking me when I’m going to start. And now her eyes are as big as saucers as I let her try the top-down garment on for size, and she can see that it is almost there.

It is a simple little knit, with a clever pattern to form the rippling rows around the shoulders. The neck and hem and button bands are finished in childish garter stitch: the first stitch I ever learned, which lies flat and wiggly all at once. Only the sleeves remain, and the buttons to sew on, and ends to be woven in. I’ve knitted a lot this week, because it has been such a sad week, and I knit when I am sad. I’ve dropped a lot of tears on this little woolly number. And because of the way the things I make remind me of the times I made them in, this cardigan will always remind me of my grandad, and when he died.

If last year was all about pattern, this winter is all about texture. Ben’s cables were the start of it, and now the rise and fall of these sweet waves. I bought some sock yarn at the fair and want to try three different pairs, one homely, one botanical and one Parisian. That’ll take me up to Christmas, I should think. I’ll have something to bring to each of Mrs Thistlebear’s parties between now and then, and make new friends over. And between parties, with my hands busy, my mind can wander freely to wherever and whenever it wants to go.

When sad, some people walk. Some talk. Some sit and gaze out of the window. Myself, I like to knit. It’s a good thing to have in your hands, wool. It’s soft, and warm, and strong. And later, when you look down at what you’ve spent the evening making, you realise that all the things you couldn’t say are in your hands, instead.

Goodness

 

It seems almost silly to be knitting with such a colour when October sunlight saturates the world. Outside are verdant lawns, wanton berries, roses which throb pinkly in the dawn and evening light. Inside, I am knitting with the colour of summer: the sea washed out by overhead sunlight, the faded greens of favourite cotton frocks. And oh, goodness, how I love it. The time for plums and teals and ruby reds is fast approaching, but not here yet. I’m happy knitting with the ocean, on sticks of driftwood beige.

While this jumper looks like summer, it feels like bed on a winter’s morning: plump and soft and comfortingly warm. I’m not sure I’ve ever knitted with anything quite this thick, or on needles wide as tree trunks. After months and months of 2 ply it felt a little wrong, but only until I looked down to realise that I’d knitted the whole of the back of Ben’s jumper in two short sessions. Then it felt just right: fast and compelling, keeping pace with this sudden onslaught of autumn. I’m cabling the front already, and watching the pattern emerge. He’ll have this jumper in a couple of weeks, all of a sudden, having waited all last year. Ah, well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Once done, it’ll be on with Ilse’s, in seasonal royal plum blue, paving the way to Christmas. Then, after the feasting, I’ll rip out my old white aran and make it over in a way that’ll feel just right for January. Frugal. Austere. Necessary and good. I’ve decided to join Mrs Thistlebear’s winter project parties, this year, and take along a new project at the start of every month, which leaves room for Ilse’s quilt as well as those two raw fleeces, bits of which are already twisting their way onto my wheel.

Truth be told, I’m not all that happy about the arrival of autumn, but little bits of goodness are cheering me along. Sitting by the fire and knitting. Holding onto the colours of August for a short while longer. Dashing through a jumper to warm my patient boy. Simple things, but kind. Thank goodness for wool, and knitting, and boys who ask for jumpers in subtle summer hues.

Wool in the house

Oh, how lovely it is to have wool in the house again. After the fair my basket is full, and another season’s knitting can begin. There’s not a moment’s hesitation over patterns or sizes or gauge: all that was worked out a while ago, and all that remains is to decide which project to begin with.

Last year’s fair was all about fairisle. I thought it was just me, but I’m sure there was less of it this time around. There were still pockets of it, including a stall with the sweetest little bunny jumper that I might just have to make for Ilse, even though she’s getting a cardigan too. There were lots of tiny baby knits, so small that I couldn’t quite remember my own children being that size, and adult ones in undyed shades of greys and browns and duns. In fact, it was the undyed yarns that Mother and I liked best, and we walked from stall to stall just looking and admiring. One sold nothing but natural white wool, and standing there there seemed no need for any other colour, until I turned around and saw the rainbow displays behind me.

However, it is Ben and Ilse’s turn to have new knits this year, and so I shopped with their choices in mind. Ilse, who had come with us, chose a royal blue-purple aran for her cardigan, and some painted wooden buttons to match, whereas I picked out a sea-green blue for my boy who suits pastels so well. John has no need for a new knit, and I’ve decided to rip out a cream aran sweater of mine and reknit it in a brand new pattern. Three jumpers is about right for a winter’s knitting, and I am eager to get started.

There was another colour that came home with me, despite all my expectations. Ada brought my spinning wheel over last week, all serviced and ready to work, and I needed to dive in. There are two Jacob’s fleeces waiting to be washed and carded and spun: enough to keep me spinning for a long while, I expect. But I wanted something simpler to get going with: something clean and combed and ready. I walked past stall after stall of roving in white and black and every shade that sheep are in between, meaning to come back and make my choice. And then, chatting to a spinner, I fell for her roving in the most glorious peacock blues. She gave me much encouragement and so as soon as we were home and the chicken was in the oven, I sat down at my wheel for the very first time and tried to spin. It’s very wonky, of course, this yarn that I’m producing, but such a gorgeous colour that I know I’ll overlook the thick bits and the bits with too much twist. I got a little better as I went on, and had another go today, trying to remember what I was taught in my lesson a month ago. Pull forward with the left hand, not back with the right. Move the yarn along the hooks to spread it along the bobbin. And, most importantly of all, stick to a pedal an inch.

I have no idea what I’m going to make from the yarn that this becomes. It might even lie in my basket until the spring, when the little knits begin again. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m spinning, and having fun, and have even put the first bit of raw fleece to soak. Soon it’ll be ready for carding, and by the time I finish with the peacock roving I’ll have little rolags of Jacob’s fleece to make into a yarn of sorts. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll have spun an even enough wool to knit my own fairisle jumper in the whites and caramels and chocolate browns of these lovely sheep. Right now, I’m just enjoying having a house full of wool again.

Twirling

There was a brief period, a few days ago, when there was absolutely no wool to knit with in this house. Ben’s socks were cast off and the basket was empty. The little knits were over and the autumn knits – the big ones for the children – are only half dreamed up. Patterns are chosen, but the wool hasn’t been – and most likely won’t be until we go to the fair again in September. That funny time between the end of one project and the start of another is sometimes so exciting. At other times, like last week, it makes for restless hands. It’s not as if I have nothing to do. There’s an old jumper which needs unravelling and reknitting just a little shorter. But that’s just not as enticing as something novel, something different, something fresh.

Fortunately, Ida had something new planned for me. A while ago, when we went over to Skipton to visit her for her birthday, she had asked me whether I might be interested in a spinning wheel. The answer was a foregone conclusion, and little bits and pieces have been coming my way over the past few weeks. A pair of carders. A drop spindle. The promise of a fleece. And then, via Mother, a package from Auntie Flo full of Irish tweed roving.

I always seem to end up trying new things when my children have their friends round. Heavens knows what they make of it: Fliss’ mother walking around the house with her arms stretched high above her head and a slightly uncontrollable spindle twirling down below. It was all a bit frustrating, at first, but then suddenly it stopped being roving wound around a stick and became something akin to wool. Whisper thin in places, definitely the wrong side of chunky in others, but knittable. It grew more even as I went on – and I did go on, all evening, until I’d spun the whole lot – so that whatever I end up making will be quite different from end to end. Those little flecks of colour didn’t really, on the whole, get spun into the yarn. But I rather like them, and am inexperienced enough to hope that they disguise some of the wobbles as well as adding to their number.

By the end of the following day the product was finished – washed, bashed and wound into a very artisan looking ball of wool. I have no idea what to make with it. The lavender on the landing suggests knitted pouches to present the sachets in. Autumn, just peeping over the horizon, is putting in a vote for woolly corsages. We’ll see. I’m not in a hurry anymore, and the restlessness has gone. There’s a ball of wool in my basket, so I can start knitting again whenever I feel the urge. Just now, though, I really want to keep getting better at making wool. And as spinning seems too grand a word for for my total lack of skill, I think I’ll call it twirling.

Garden notes: Scorcher

On my way downstairs this morning I found a neatly folded pile of blankets on the landing floor, just outside the linen cupboard. I stepped over them, knowing just why they were there and having no good ideas about where they might be moved to. You see, for much of the year the cupboard stands quite empty, its cosy innards strewn across our beds. It begins to fill in spring, when the eiderdowns are rolled and squeezed onto its shelves. Then come the blankets, and the odd quilt, and I can normally find a way to make it fit. But in a good summer the very last layers come off, leaving only sheets and a breeze from an open window – and this, for the moment, is a good summer.

The air is hot. The earth is hot. Even the soft green grass is warm to the touch. The potatoes, which we began to dig a week or so ago, are keeling over, yellow. Unwatered plants don’t wilt, but crisp. I picked the first tomato yesterday and nibbled it as I opened the greenhouse vents. In the space of a week, the broccoli has doubled in size. I forgot to cut the courgettes and have a harvest of marrows to contend with. The garden is full of butterflies, trying to get through the netting to my cabbages’ swelling hearts.

I keep finding myself in the veg patch, trowel in hand, wanting to begin a job. I pull a few weeds before retreating to the shade. I have young lettuces to plant out, and watering to do, and try to fit those jobs into the cool of the early morning. But for most of the day it is simply too hot to interfere with the plants. Water them and they’ll burn, the droplets magnifying the already strong rays of the sun. Transplanted seedlings will shrivel and die. It is too hot for salad or fennel seeds. Yet the garden is where I long to be.

As happens so often in life, one problem solves another. A blanket on the lawn, in the dappled shade of a tree, is the perfect spot to enjoy this weather from. A book, a little bit of knitting, a notebook full of summer plans. Sat here I can cool down enough to have another cup of tea, despite the fact that, yet again, it looks set to be a scorcher.

Warm head, snug hands, calm heart

There are rhythms all around us, so familiar that we barely notice them. Our heartbeats, our individual strides. The rise and fall of our chests at rest. Those tunes which play in the back of our minds, as though we had a wireless tucked away in there and couldn’t turn it off. Much of the time we simply tune it out. But then something sends the blood pounding through our veins. Ugly thoughts whip themselves into a frenzy, and our pulse lifts the internal music to an uncomfortable tempo. Fear begets fear, unless we intervene.

The best way to do this is to reset those rhythms. To slow things down, to take control once more. You can’t panic when you are walking at a comfortable pace. You can’t be tense if you push your shoulders down.

It seems that worries come in batches, feeding on each other. Some are legitimate: an unwell friend, the rise of xenophobia. Others are self inflicted: musical performances which set the stomach churning at the very thought. I’ve been for lots of walks, these past few weeks, read lots of comic novels. I’ve been for many cycle rides and felt better every time. Most of all, though, it is the basket of little knits I reach for. Knit one, purl one, focus on those cables. A hat, some mitts, a pair of woolly socks. It is almost all knit up now: all the wool left over from last year’s projects, plus a ball or three passed on from Ada. The scraps are eked out with care, so that the only tension is over whether there’ll be just enough to make it down the wrist. I love these little knits, where each completed object is a bonus, and squirrel them away for gloomy autumn mornings when a new hat or some fresh red mittens can chase away impending winter blues. Leaves are formed with yarn overs and slip-two-knit-one-passes, yellow gauntlets with endless stitches marching round and round on double pointed needles. They soothe my heart twice over: once in the making and then again in the rediscovery, next autumn, when even I feel as though someone else must have tucked these little bits of warmth away for us to find.

Calm is good, I know. This recent spurt of knitting tells me how much I need its tranquil influence. And yet. There are worries I have brought upon myself. Little ambitions, self-inflicted aims. When this performance is done, I know there will be something else, because I will set it. Just now I crave the calm that knitting brings, but I wouldn’t want it all the time. Because the other side of fear is thrill. Anxiety is just excitement, viewed from the wrong angle. Dread is anticipation, backwards. Failure: the flip side of success. It’s all about that moment, standing up in front of others, and yet it isn’t, really. It’s the preparation, the hours of practice, the setting oneself a task that one might not actually achieve. I need the thrill every bit as much as the calm. And well, if nothing else I’m getting lots of knitting done with all this nervous tension. Lots of knitting, and lots of practice, and neither is a bad thing in my book.

Squares

They are curiously compelling, these little squares. I had intended to make a few each summer, using up odds and ends of aran until one day I might have enough to make a blanket. It was a plan for dealing with the sort of balls that aren’t big enough to be worth casting on with. And as the pile of such balls grew smaller they went from pesky to precious. I found myself divvying them up with care: these ones for the centres, those bigger scraps for outer rounds, so that each square would still change colour with each row.

This is a portable craft – more so than knitting. A hook and a ball of wool can be slipped into a handbag, or a knapsack’s outer pocket, or a basket for the beach. By the time we came home from Filey I could have made them in my sleep: three triples, one chain, three triples, one chain, until you get to the corner and do everything twice. Once home, Fliss asked me to show her how it was done, and for a day or two she commandeered my hook and a half-ball of double knitting, until her surprise for Ilse’s birthday was complete, and wrapped carefully in tissue in her highest drawer.

Before I knew it, the aran was gone and there were no more squares to be crocheted. It was back to the leftover 2 ply for a pair of fingerless gloves with leaves growing up the wrists: fiddly and comparatively slow. Sometimes it is fun to make something you have to think about, but sometimes it is the repetitive twist and pull that we long for at the end of a busy day. So a second blanket was begun, simply a giant double knitting granny square to which colours will be added whenever there is wool left over, or a child’s pullover outgrown and frogged.

Because, really, it is when our hands are busy that our minds are free to wander. Perhaps I should have been thinking of more important things: of politics or literature or the people I know and love. Perhaps, another time, I will. Just now, though, I found myself content to plan a blanket or two. I’m quite looking forward to a bit more crotchet, once the last little knits are done. It’s a soothing shape, a square: predictable and easy. It doesn’t matter where you start from, or where you have to pause. I might keep them all small, or pick a single shade to link them all together. Other colours will be added as new jumpers are knit up, but the steady brown and cream will be the same. I’m not after a wild old time, just at the moment. The school year is coming to an end, there’s a riot in the garden, there are bigger projects underway. All in all, this was a good time for these squares, and I may not wait until next year to make some more.

Lovely ladies

There was a changing of the guard this week, with the arrival of six new hens from a local farm. We set their boxes in the vacated hen house, having moved the older girls into the tractor for a few weeks, and they were out and exploring their ladders and perches in no time. I think they like their new home: in the morning we found an egg apiece in the nest boxes. Then in the tractor we found Ilse’s hen, dead, having quite literally dropped off the perch in the night. There were a few tears, as befits the passing of an old pet: the last of our original trio of hens. But we’d known it was coming: she stayed close to home and ruffled her feathers into a cosy eiderdown even in the sun. Ben had built her a step to help her in and out of the house, and she had special permission to sleep in the nest box at night. Seeing this, I’d added an extra to my original order of five new birds, anticipating the need to replace her. Of course she didn’t know that, and of course she was just a hen, but she was a lovely, gentle, inquisitive old lady, and her timing felt quite dignified, somehow.

We motored over to the Dales later that day, to have lunch with John’s mother, Ida, and walk up onto the moorland. I like it best in the autumn, when the tops are purple with swathes of flowering heather, but this time the fresh green growth only hinted at such beauty. The ewes were up there with their lambs, already grown sturdy and strong. The sheep were beginning to shed their fleeces, leaving handfuls of rough wool lying here and there, and as she picked some up my mother in law told me about a woman in the village, blind with age, wanting to pass her spinning wheel and knowhow on to someone new. What a lovely gift to give. It made me think about the all those millions of acts, big and small, that people do for one another. And as we talked we dropped down into a little valley full of wild garlic and forget me nots, where the bees were out gathering pollen with their sisters.

Even though there was no purple on the moor, we’d bought a little with us in celebration of Ida’s birthday. A bunch of lilacs from our massive shrub in York, further along than those in the chilly Dales. Mauve cards from the children, made by shaving coloured pencil leads over paper and gently brushing the pigments across the page. A violet peg bag, made long ago with floral sprigs and polka dots and satin ribbon – and Ida in mind. Little gifts, gathered together with care.

In turn she sent us home full of roast dinner and sticky toffee pudding, with a jar of her excellent marmalade, a stack of Good Housekeepings and a few balls of wool to transfer to the growing pile of little knits. And on the way I got started on a granny square, crocheting the way Mrs Roberts had taught me just a couple of weeks earlier. Home again, I found a postcard on the doormat from Mrs Eve, and then there were the hens, new and old, to check on. We made a quick supper of the pork pies Ida had wrapped up for us, with lettuce from the garden and a bit of bread and butter, feeling glad for a day without any cooking, before shooing the little ones off to bed. An easy evening, at the end of a delightful day. Really, it’s no wonder I couldn’t help but think that there are a lot of lovely ladies in my life.

All over

There are many ways to greet the rain, but my favourite is with a cup of tea, a spot of knitting and a day spent resolutely in. Why try to carry on with springtime plans when you could revel in a little cosiness instead? As it turns out, a day or so of rain was just what I needed to finish off the cardigan which had been languishing in my knitting basket for some weeks, with just one buttonhole band to make. A drama on the wireless, a blanket on my lap and, in next to no time, it was done.

I have been very glad of it, over the past few days. Finished and blocked, it was ready just in time for a chilly weekend, and goodness knows I wanted nothing more than a new woolly to ring the changes this late in the season. An old red one, long since consigned to house wear only, can now be thrown in at the end of the hot white wash – a quick bit of felting will deal with the holes, and I can make it into a hot water bottle cover, ready to be loved all over again.

I think this may be my favourite of all the knits I’ve made myself, but apparently I say that every time. Still, it is pretty perfect, for me. Made of Shetland 2-ply, it has a fineness about it that I love, but the stranding makes it two layers thick and deliciously warm. I know I’ll love its hopeful green in winter as well as in spring, and the gay yellows and blues bring it to life. It’s bright, but also earthy, with a hardy woollen steadfastness I adore. This is a knit for a busy person, one who needs to be warm in the garden in midwinter and won’t have time to change before cycling into town. The sort of knit I can wear on a campsite. It’s a knit for me, designed by me, ready to meet my every need. The sort of knit everyone should have.

Woven into it are the memories of rather more months than I had intended. Of casting on not once nor twice but three times before making it work. Of filling long winter evenings with a little colour and pattern and industry. Of passing a storm in a bothy, and watching the children fish from a pebbled beach. Of all the long months between Christmas and now, May, when the garden is in bloom and I probably won’t need it much until the nights draw in once more. There are bluebells in this jumper, yes, but also fireside logs and Christmas stars. Knitted over two seasons, this jumper was made to be worn in three or four.

While I was ribbing knit one, purl one with the back of my mind, the front of my mind was otherwise engaged. Because of course with the end of one knit comes the start of another – or several, in this case. We are officially in the season of little knits, and by my side, where I could eye up the contents, was my wool basket. It’s a long time since I filled it at the autumn fair, and only a few odd balls remain. This year I think there might be a few little crochets, as well as little knits. Perhaps the start of a granny blanket, to use up scraps over several years. I can think of a girl who’d like a foxgloves hat to match her big sister’s cardigan, and I’m sure I can come up with a pattern. I’d like to make some mittens with leaves and vines running up the back – or perhaps just some fingerless gauntlets to wear around the house. This is the best sort of play: before decisions are taken and anything is possible. And I find my thoughts heading outside again too, after those blissful days of sun, to quilting in the garden. I’ve a quilt to make for Fliss, and I’d like to do it all by hand, making the most of the bright long days.

There are so many things to dream up, so many things to make. Perhaps I should be sad when I come to the end of a long and familiar project, but I’m not. That jumper might be all over, but the making isn’t. On with the next project, and the next and the next. It’s never all over, really.

Knots

Ever since my aunt sent me my very first snood, I’ve been wanting to learn how to crochet. I borrowed a book from the library and pored over it for hours, hook in hand, but couldn’t work it out. Other people were encouraging: it’s easier than knitting, they told me. You only have to learn four stitches. I’m surprised you can’t do it already.

I was sure I could do it, if I could only get started. I crocheted the cut steek of Fliss’ foxgloves, pulling slip stitches through the edge of the knitted fabric, making it secure. With something there to connect to, it was simple. But starting from scratch, with a length of cotton before me, seemed impossible.

So Mrs Roberts and I hatched a plan some months ago: an afternoon in a cafe, for tea and cake and a skills swap. I would teach her to knit intarsia. She would teach me to crochet.

I think it is a mark of how lovely a time we were having that we suddenly noticed the diners coming in for their evening meals. Our lunch dishes had long since been cleared, afternoon tea had been taken. Waitresses had stopped by our little table to see what we were making, and add their own tips to the mix. Mrs Roberts had written out a pattern for me, unintelligible at first and entirely comprehensible by the end. With her encouragement I made a flower, and once we were onto double and triple crochet it all made sense. She showed me how to vary stitches on the scarf she was making, before pulling the yarn free again, rolling it up and stuffing it back into its little pouch. Her attitude was so can-do, so why-not that I caught it. I think I could make anything now, with crochet.

Of course she needed very little help to get started with her fairisle, knitting together a stunning medley of creams and purples. She has plans for a jumper for autumn, and I can’t wait to see it. Watching other people make things is very nearly as much fun as making them yourself. In fact, the next day, I showed Fliss how to crochet and she whipped up a set of matching bracelets to share with all her friends. It was fun to watch her pick it up so quickly. That was easy, she said. Because it is. And I’m so glad I’ve learned to do it at long last. It was a good afternoon, for Mrs Roberts and I: both productive and purposeful.

Better still, though, was what was happening while our hands and eyes were busy. A long talk, without thought of chores or deadlines. Sharing anecdotes and hopes, long stories and their meanings. Being able to focus on just the two of us, without interruption or complaint. We tied a lot of knots, that afternoon, but the best of all was the one which pulled us closer. Continue reading “Knots”