28 November 2011

Slow Spin

As you've probably guessed, I like to find projects that teach me something new. I had been reading and watching videos about spinning, and I decided to try making a cabled yarn. Cabled yarns are different from regular plied yarns in that they have an extra layer of twist.

Yarns start with singles. Some people will use a singles as it is, but for knitting, most people prefer to ply the singles. This is partly because a singles, by definition, can't be balanced. Unbalanced yarns can result in skewed knitting -- the stitches will push in one direction or the other, causing what should be a rectangular piece of knitting to instead appear as if it had been worked on a bias. A lot of times spinners who knit will create a two-ply yarn by plying a singles back upon itself. The singles are spun in one direction, but when plied together they are spun in the opposite direction. The two directions of twist balance to create a yarn that knits straight. Multiple singles can also be plied together to produce a three-ply, four-ply or more yarn.

In addition to balancing the yarn so that it doesn't skew the knitting, plied yarns behave in different ways. Most lace yarns are two-ply yarns because that structure will tend to push apart and open up. In lace knitting you want the holes to show. But if you are knitting plump, cushy cables in a warm sweater, a soft rounded multi-ply yarn is more likely to give you the fabric you desire.

A cabled yarn adds one more layer of twist.

For this particular yarn, I started with a three-color batt from Perfect Spot Farm. This batt was purchased a couple years ago at SAFF, but not by me. Betsy purchased it, but found that after a year, she hadn't spun it. So Betsy gave the batt to Jenna. I happened to be over at Jenna's house and admired the batt. Jenna took pity on my small spinning stash -- or maybe she just wanted to continue to corrupt me in the ways of spinning -- and kindly gave me the batt. I decided I wanted to try spinning a color-changing yarn that is also cabled.

I started by spinning four singles. I did this by ripping the batt across the color changes. I spun each singles from white to beige to brown to beige to white to beige to brown to beige and finally back to white. That gave me two complete cycles through the color sequence. It took me all summer to spin four bobbins of fine singles. Partly this is because when you spin fine you need more twist, and partly this is because I knew I would need extra twist for my planned yarn. And partly this is because I'm just not a good enough spinner yet to use the highest ratios on my wheel.

Next I made a pair of over spun two-ply yarns. I set up two bobbins and plied them together, being sure to add too much twist. I also watched carefully as the colors changed off the bobbins. I was not shy about breaking plies or rotating amongst the bobbins. If I spun all the white off one bobbin and was into the beige, I looked to see if the other bobbin was close or not. If not, I pulled off the spare white and set it aside. Sometimes I was able to incorporate those spare bits later.
For the final spin, I plied the two two-ply yarns together to create what is called a diamond cable. In this case, I had so much spin in the singles that you almost can't tell that this is a cabled yarn rather than a two-ply. One of my friends actually mistook it for a skein of Kauni. Although this was a major time commitment, the advantage is that I now have a very strong yarn. I'm not sure what I want to knit with it yet, but I have confidence that it will be long-wearing. And I am hopeful that the natural color gradient will be dramatic. And if I get really crazy, I might even be able to use it as a warp in my loom.

23 November 2011

Foolproof Mashed Potatoes

Okay, ya'all know this is a knitting blog. And those of you who know me know that I do not cook. I do not like to cook. I do like to eat -- especially other people's awesome cooking. But there's something about the impermanence of food art that I just can't get beyond.

Now, the fact that I do not cook means that if I figure out how to make something and it works, then anybody can make it. Furthermore, I do not own any fancy electric cook gear. No mixer, no blender. I do have a microwave oven. So most of what I do involves glass bowls, measuring cups, and basic utensils.

I do like mashed potatoes. In fact, I like carbohydrates in general. Potatoes are amongst my favorite comfort foods, probably because I lived off of them for six years of graduate school. They are inexpensive, filling, and they can be endlessly doctored with dairy fat. And I am in luck that at least some Thanksgiving meals require mashed potatoes. (Here in the South, sweet potatoes and yams are also popular.) This year, Cuddly Hubby and I will be home for the holiday; but in years where we are traveling and need to bring something, I'm happy to bring the mashed potatoes. I can make these and not embarrass myself.

Here's how I do it.

First off, you can make these potatoes a day ahead of time. None of this getting up before dawn nonsense. It's a holiday for crying out loud. If I am up and the sun isn't, by definition that's not a holiday.

Set your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leave a stick of butter out on the counter.

Wash the potatoes. (For today's example, I'm using about 5 pounds of medium-sized baking potatoes.)
Using a fork, prick the potato skins all over. Do not poke yourself.
When the oven is preheated, place the potatoes directly on the rack. I usually space them out across the rack and in two rows.

Let them bake for 50 to 60 minutes. (Go do something fun like knitting while you wait.)

At 50 minutes, take out one potato. The skin should be crisp. Place on a cutting board and slice it open longitudinally. Check the potato's meat. It should squish and flake easily with a fork. Spoon the meat out into a bowl or, better yet, a 13 x 9-inch glass casserole dish. It should spoon out easily. It should crush easily with the back of the spoon. If it doesn't, let the potatoes bake longer until they do! You shouldn't need any measurable arm strength to mash.

When the potatoes are done baking, cut each open and spoon the meat into a bowl or casserole dish. Yes, this is time-consuming. This method is foolproof but not necessarily fast. If you want a fancy presentation, retain the potato skins for later. You can spoon the finished mashed potatoes back into the skins for easy serving. Or you can just eat those nice crispy vitamin-saturated skins now. Or you can offer those nice crispy skins as bribe to someone else to spoon out all the potato meat. Or you can throw the skins out back in your compost heap.
mashed spuds with butter before half and half
As you spoon out the meat, add tablespoons of unsalted room-temperature butter to the fluffy pile of carbohydrate goodness. (I do not use margarine. I may not like to cook, but I do have standards.) Using a fork or masher, mash the potatoes and butter together. I used about 4 tablespoons (half a stick) of butter, but use up to a whole stick, as you like. Your goal is to coat all the carbohydrates with dairy fat.

Warm a pint of half and half. (Some people use cream, but I was already using butter earlier.) I zap the half and half for about 2 minutes in the microwave, but you can also warm it on the stove. Don't let it boil. You just don't want cold milk making the melted butter congeal. And if you are about to take the finished potatoes to the table, you don't want them to be cold already.
mashed spuds after half and half
Add some warm (one-quarter to one-half cup) half and half to the mashed spuds. Stir it in with a fork. Add more. Stir it in again. Repeat as needed. Use the half and half to turn the stiff potatoes into something creamier. I used all 2 cups and had creamy potatoes but stiff enough to build castles or the Devil's Tower on my plate. Then again, I know I'm going to use gravy tomorrow, so I want some body in the spuds. If you like creamier, smoother potatoes, then you'll need to buy the quart size of half and half. Just be patient and add half and half sparingly. You can always add more, but you can't take it out.

At this point, embellish as you like. You can stir in whatever seasonings you prefer. I sometimes make these with cheddar cheese and bacon crumbles. In that case, I'll melt the cheese in before I add the half and half.
spuds almost ready to wait in the refrigerator
If you are making the mashed potatoes for tomorrow, then put them in a glass casserole dish. (If you were really on the ball, you already prepared them in the dish instead of in a bowl.) I use a butter knife to smooth the surface. Cover with aluminum foil, let cool, and place in the refrigerator. You can pop the dish into a 325 to 350-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes when the bird is almost done. Or if you used a glass dish, the microwave is an option. I personally like to reheat in the oven. Those of you who remember tv dinners in foil trays can figure out why.

Wishing you and yours a filling and fabulous Thanksgiving!

09 November 2011

Wounded Lions

I hadn't bothered to post this little double-knit project earlier. Partly that's because I'm no longer sure which yarn it was, nor do I recall in which year it was made. I designed and knit it back in my Purly Gates days, and it uses both regular double knitting, and textured double knitting. You'll notice that the stripes at the top contain both knits and purls, while the stripes at the bottom are all knit. The cord is based on the Chinese crown knot braid from macramé. I even incorporated an open instead of closed edge at the top to facilitate display.

But I also just needed to fly my alma matters' colors tonight. The Cuddly Hubby had ESPN on as usual this morning and the endless loop of news coverage was upsetting. But it was worse tonight when NBC news led off their telecast with Penn State rather than the financial crisis in the European Union. That something so cruel and sickening could happen at a place I hold so dear is heart wrenching. I hold out hope for the victims to achieve whatever healing they need to make their lives as whole and fulfilling as possible. And I hold out hope for the judicial system to carefully uncover the whole truth, weigh the wrongdoings of each party involved, and mete out appropriate punishments.

The Penn State I know and love is better than this.

02 November 2011

Helical Knitting

As you all know by now, I'm pretty picky about whose patterns I knit. Yes, I want a satisfying finished object, but I usually also want to learn something. I look at a pattern and ask, "Is there anything new and interesting that is worth my time and the precious yarn in my stash?"
I thought I had worked out my teaching schedule for the remainder of 2011. Then Mariana sent out an e-mail to the shop teachers including a list of new class ideas for fall and winter. One of these was Double Heelix by Jeny Staiman from the First Fall 2011 issue of Knitty. As Jeny is already in my blog links list (Curious Knitter), I had already read about these and watched her video. And I've already been teaching Judy's Magic Cast On when I teach toe-up socks.

I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed the knitting. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I knocked out the project in about two weeks from cast-on to bind-off. First off, Jeny does some of the same twisted, maniacal stuff that I do. For example, she doesn't cast on at the end of the yarn, but rather, somewhere in the middle. Secondly, she and I agree that the Magic Cast On often works better if you cast on the lower stitch and then the upper stitch. (Accomplished sock knitter Woofgang Pug is also in agreement on this. Great minds in consensus.) The reason is that if you cast on upper then lower, when you rotate to start the first round you'll be knitting into the stitch you just cast on. If you do lower then upper, you'll end with an upper stitch, then rotate to knit into a lower stitch which was the next to last stitch cast on. Much better.

I am thinking it may be fun to try the helix flat in some other ways. Jeny has come up with an innovative increase using the Magic Cast On to create the heel shaping. In the heel there are two different colors going but four strands (two of each color) in what is called helix or helical knitting. Some people also call this barber pole knitting. If you worked on the Big Sock at STITCHES South 2010, then you've done helical knitting. TECHKnitter has a wonderful discussion here or you can dig out your back issue of Interweave Knits, Summer 2009, pp. 28-30.

The downside is that you have multiple strands going in the round. And you need one strand for each row of thickness you want in the stripes. So for example, if you wanted to knit a candy candy with a wide white stripe and a narrow red stripe, you might need one or two strands of red and maybe three or four or five strands of white. In this sock, you are knitting stripes that are two rows thick, so you use four strands (two of each color).

So why do this? The upside is that you don't get a jog at all. And if you are working in the round, as you are on a sock, you just knit around and around and around merrily.

Jeny mentions three different "flavors" of Double Heelix. They can all be viewed on her blog here or on the Ravelry page for Double Heelix.
  1. A 2x2 spiral heel with a plain foot and plain leg. You can make your pair identical or fraternal, as you like.
  2. A 2x2 spiral heel, then 1x1 striped foot and leg. In this case, Jeny also worked a plain instep and heel cuff, but you could just run 1x1 stripes through the whole sock.
  3. A 2x2 spiral heel, then 2x2 stripes on either the foot or leg. On Jeny's blog, she worked the spiral on only half the sock and worked the other half plain. On mine, I worked the entire socks, heel to foot to toe to leg to cuff in 2x2 stripes.
How you handle your yarn may vary based on which flavor you wish to knit. I should also mention that this is a great pattern if you have single orphaned 50g skeins of sock yarn. Many manufacturers now use 100g put-ups for socks, meaning you can knit a whole pair out of one skein. If you can find two different but complementary 50g skeins in the discount bin, you are set. In this case, I had two skeins of Shibui sock yarn in my stash. Jeny's examples also show what a great pattern this is for paring a loud hand-painted yarn with a plain yarn.

For all flavors, I recommend dividing your yarn. So if you have two skeins, divide them in half using whichever method you like (scale, swift, or something else). You now have four balls, two of each color. One pair will be the left sock and the other will be the right sock. So right away, you can put half the yarn back in your knitting bag.

If you are knitting flavor 1, follow Jeny's directions in the pattern. She has you pull about 15 feet of yarn off the balls, then cast on at that location. That will allow you to work the spiral heel. When those 15-foot tails run out, you'll be left with a single strand of each color. One becomes the foot and the other becomes the leg, as you like.

If you are knitting flavor 2, you may want to find the midpoint of your strands and cast on there. This will allow you to knit your spiral heel, and then end up with one strand of each color to go down the foot and up the leg. I think flavor 2 with the plain toe and cuff would be especially good if you are knitting for someone with large feet. You can use a 100g skein for the plain main color and a 50g skein for the contrast. When the contrast runs out, just keep going with the plain main color.

If you are knitting flavor 3, you will want to find not the mid-point but the one-quarter-point of the ball. In my case, this was about 22 to 24 yards and I made size small. If you are making a larger size, you might want to wind off just a little more than one-quarter. If you do this, you should be able to knit your spiral heel, then work 2x2 stripes down the foot all the way to the toe. If you've guessed well, you'll hit that sweet spot between having enough yarn to finish but not having too much waste. Now you can cut the yarn, find the midpoint of the remainder (what started as the three-quarter ball), join in so you have two strands of each color, and work 2x2 stripes up the leg.

A last note: a did depart from Jeny's directions for the toe. I followed her pattern and shaping for both the foot and the leg, working half of each round with one color and half of each round with the other. This sounds strange now, but when you make a helix, you'll soon discover this is very logical. And in this case, this logic grows out of the spiral heel itself. So I just followed the pattern, and when the toe decreases are worked every row, I just kept going until I had only 10 sts on each needle. I worked 1/2 a round (8 sts on one needle). Then I finished the round by grafting the remaining half-round, including grafting the decreases. This gave me a toe that matches my heel.

And I had a little good luck. I managed to start both heels at about the same place in the color repeat on the skein, and did the same thing on the legs. If you look closely, you'll see that there is some flashing in the variegated colorway, but that the flashing is very similar on both socks. So they are closer to being an identical pair rather than a fraternal pair.

For someone who isn't a sock knitter, I seem to be having too much fun with socks!