Monday, December 22, 2008

winter wonder

Last week I hopped on jet plane heading east through the blue, blue sky

to return to a land of conifers and fresh snowfall,

a land of wintry beauty,

old Bean boots and Flexible Flyer sleds,

sledding mishaps

and snow angels

Ah, New England, how I love you.

Knitting post to come soon, but it's all hush-hush the week before Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Saguaro Post

Last weekend, we headed east out of Phoenix for a day of climbing in the Superstition Mountains. I had two goals, outside of climbing: first, to take an iconic Saguaro cactus photograph ...

and second, to photograph my newly-knit, Saguaro-inspired, rock-climbing legwarmers.

I think I did passably well, but both tasks were more challenging than expected. The sheer immensity of the cacti is difficult to capture. And saguaros are really wild and irregular!! Some shoot straight up into the sky for 30 feet, all spindly and phallic and waving in wind.

Others are veritable octopi, with an explosion of branches and nubbins.

I found an amazing fan shaped saguaro as tall as a 3-story building.

And another that was eerily humanoid.

They can be entracingly beautiful and perfect, with smooth jade skin that turns to gold at sunset.

Or they can be intruigingly warped, sagging from the weight of the branches

and wizened and blackened by fire.

Although I began looking for the perfect saguaro, I found my eye increasingly drawn to their variety and strangeness.

All the while, my mind kept returning to thoughts about beauty and the body, as brought up in recent articles about the late Bettie Page. Manohla Dargis articulated how, in our modern, explicit-but-airbrushed world, we've become "less alive to the beauty, the poetry, and the mysteries of the naked body." This line really resonated with me. What draws me into Page's photos is a woman's body in all its natural contours and textures. I'm seriously fascinated by getting to see a stomach and ribs.

Anyways, I'm kind of getting off topic, but somehow my mind was making a connection between Bettie Page and these saguaros that has to do with the unexpected beauty, poetry, and mystery of imperfection.

Oh, I almost forgot about the legwarmers:

My ankles and calves can get chilled when I'm rock climbing, as the harness kind of hikes up one's pants and leave the lower legs exposed. I whipped these up out of superwash wool that's been hibernating in my stash for almost a decade. Super quick and greatly appreciated by my cold ankles.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Saga of the Art Party

The time has come for me to tell the saga of the Holiday Art Party. It was a holiday gathering for Mountain Man's department with the added attraction of crafts and performances by the artistic types. It was a splendid idea. I was really looking forward to it. But it was such a tremendous amount of stress for me in the end.

Granted, there were some parts of the process that were pure bliss, like dyeing up the color samples. I started with a big hank of alum-mordanted wool yarn. I was constantly coming home with strange plants in my pockets and unusual herbs in my groceries. Wondrous aromas arose from the dyepot, and wondrous colors came out!

Mountain Man crafted this wooden rack for me, and it's so beautiful that I think I'm going to keep it on display in my office (albeit without the fir garland and crocheted ornaments). Here are some close-ups of the yarns:

L-R: fermented prickly pear, cochineal, cochineal exhaust, local cochineal, annatto, madder, madder exhaust, turmeric, creosote bush, onionskins

L-R: marigold, fermented eucalyptus, african sumac, desert broom, chamomile, myrtle, Mt. Lemmon marigold (a local desert plant), ivy, pomegranate, juniper

L-R: indigo over african sumac, african sumac with iron dip, indigo over cochineal, indigo, black rice, fresh hibiscus flowers, dried hibiscus flowers with ammonia dip, rosemary, oak galls and iron, pecan hulls, walnut hulls, coffee

I FINALLY got my indigo vat to ferment in time for this fair, so I had some beautiful colors to fill out the cool part of the spectrum of samples. However, I didn't dye any larger hanks of yarn blue or green. I was running late on time, tried to rush the dyeing, and over-oxygenated the indigo vat.

The yarn that I did dye for sale was in cochineal pinks, african sumac yellows, and creosote tan (not pictured -- that sold!). The base yarns are wool and alpaca from a variety of small farms.

It's a happy, sunny looking tray of yarns. But remember those rainy days over Thanksgiving? Thanks to the rain and the humid days that followed, the yarn didn't dry in time. I finished them off in a low oven the morning of the art party. And there was a tragedy: midway through the baking, I switched the oven to convect without realizing that it would switch the flames from the bottom to the top of the oven. One of the loveliest skeins got scorched, which had me bursting into tears just an hour or so before I needed to pack up and head to the party.

Anyways, here's a close-up of the tags, which (in contrast to the yarns themselves) were a success. I made them myself in a letterpress class. I started with a fern from our backyard, which I scanned and manipulated into a black and white image. I sent that image off to be made into a letterpress stamp, and then I hand-set the lettering with vintage type.

In addition to the dyed yarn, I spent an enormous amount of time planning and swatching for small finished items. It was an interesting process, because it was the first time that I was thinking about knitting in a production-oriented way. I enjoyed thinking about my hobby with a different part of my brain. But, I must say, it was more difficult than I'd expected to come up with items that were appropriate for this place.

I ended up with just two things. One was the star ornaments that you see in the first picture, which are crocheted out of organic wool from the Zen Sheep Farm (it was a bit scratchy to wear, but its fuzzy halo was perfect for these stars).

The other thing I made were knitted, naturally dyed, and hand-felted bangles out of a minimally-processed wool. I love to see all their colors in this bowl: pink, yellow, green, and blue in addition to the natural white, brown, and gray.

I've been wearing them three at a time, in various colors. Only one person bought any of these bangles, so I've got the whole range of them at my beck and call ....

In the end, it was quite a small display, and I don't think anyone would believe how much work went into creating it. Certainly I never would've imagined the stress involved in trying to get the fermentation vats to cooperate (eucalyptus and prickly pear worked, indigo kind of worked, and avocado peels and orchil lichen were duds), trying to get everything dried in time, singeing my yarn, searching the world over to borrow a ball winder, wasting all kinds of time trying to come up with original small patterns, and so forth. I was proud of my little display ....

and I was happy to share my craft with everyone. But, man, did it take a lot out of me!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Cave Creek & Chocolate Shawlette

To recover from Thanksgiving, Mountain Man and I went for an 8 mile hike along Cave Creek, which is about an hour and a half north of Phoenix. It's a beautiful and unusual spot because the creek -- which is hidden among the rugged, cactus-covered hills -- is an oasis of sycamore trees. Finally, a breath of real autumn, with bright foliage and the earthy aroma of wet leaves!

As it was a chilly, steely-skied, slightly rainy day, I was glad to have along my latest quick knit. It's yet another Storm Cloud, this time in Artesano Inca Cloud in 'milk chocolate.' It's a beautiful, super soft alpaca yarn with a soft drape that's perfect for this pattern.

You're probably getting tired of seeing these. But I'm definitely not tired of knitting them.

Or wearing them! If I were still in Vermont, I'd be switching my knitting attentions to warmer, denser garments. But here in Arizona, they're the perfect thing to stave off a slight chill.

With this one, I only did half the increases on Row 70. That way, I could extend it a little without getting that prissy ruffle. You can see on the bottom how it has just the hint of fullness. I think I'm going to do the rest this way too!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rain and wet wool

I woke up this morning to the sound of rain. We haven't had rain in Phoenix for months, so this was a blissful music to hear.

Only thing was, I had pounds of mordanted yarn and a dozen crocheted ornaments drying in the backyard!

I dashed out of bed, pulled in the yarn that wasn't yet dripping, and curled back up under the covers until it got light.

This rain, while rare and lovely, isn't particularly well timed. You see, I'm taking part in a small holiday art party this weekend. I'm not bringing much -- naturally dyed yarn, felted bangles, Christmas ornaments, maybe some hats or bags -- but it still feels like a lot of wet wool hanging about that needs to dry.

My nervousness about drying aside, I've really enjoyed putting together this collection of items. The dyeing has been a blast. I've probably worked up 40+ natural dye samples in the past two weeks, using everything from plants collected in my neighborhood (rosemary, hibiscus, juniper, eucalyptus) to the classic exotic dyes (cochineal, indigo, madder) to items from the grocery store (black rice, annatto, chamomile).

It has also been interesting for me to think about my craft in a different way, in more of a production mode. But I think I'll write more about that after the fair, when the process and my thoughts on it have gone full circle.

Anyways, enjoy the colors, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Colorful Collar at Devil's Canyon

Mountain Man and I headed into the depths of Devil's Canyon yesterday for a day of climbing. It was gorgeous, with these amazing spires spiking up into the bluest of Southwestern skies.

That's Mountain Man rappelling off of one of the climbs, to give you a sense of scale. It was such a dramatic landscape.

My attention was definitely tuning into color yesterday. Partly it was the natural colors: deep blue of the sky, bright green of desert broom, and yellow of turning willow leaves.

And partly it was the amazingly colorful climbing gear: turquoise harness, blue shoes, yellow slings, red carabiners. I loved this image of everything tumbling out of the backpack at the start of the day ...

The insanely colorful knitted thing in the front is what I really want to talk about in this post. It's a Woodland Collar in Noro Kureyon, color 139. This was really an adventure to knit; I'd won the yarn in a contest on Knitting Nonstop (thank you!), and I had no idea what color was going to emerge next.

I had my doubts about how well all these colors would work together. But, in a fortuitous surprise, it turns out to match the wool shirt and vest that I often wear for climbing and camping. Now I can be all matchy-matchy in the great outdoors!

Of course, there's a limit to how much of this coordination I can take. I had some of the Kureyon left over after the collar (the collar took about 1.5 balls, so I had 1.5 balls of yarn left). I decided to make a hat.

It cooled down enough in the early evening that I could wear the hat and collar while we hiked out. But, I must say, I won't do that again! I'm only smiling because I hadn't yet seen the photos of myself in color overload.

Anyways, onto more fun. I was trying to figure out how to pick the winners from my Woodland Collar pattern contest - names in a hat? random number generator? - and decided that in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'd send a pattern to everyone who entered the contest. It meant the world to me that you took the time to leave me such kind comments on it. Thank you.

I'll be getting in touch today with everyone who entered. If you don't hear from me today, it means I'm having trouble figuring out how to contact you, and you can help me out by sending me an email ( or Ravelry message (evergreenknits). Thanks again to everyone who played along!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Prickly Pear Dye Experiments

Prickly pear fruits yield the most gorgeous, luscious, magenta juice that you can imagine. Naturally, when I'd juiced a batch for jam-making, I wondered about dyeing with them!

The pigment in prickly pear is betalain, which is the same pigment that gives beets and bougainvillea their lovely, deep, purplish reds. Betalain turns out to be a rather unstable dye-source, as its sensitive to both light and heat.

But the juice color was too deep and seductive to pass up! And anyways, I thought prickly pears might still be a good candidate for dyeing, since you don't have to heat them to get juice.

I soaked alum-mordanted alpaca/wool yarn in straight juice overnight, and I got this enchantingly deep magenta yarn. The picture doesn't begin to capture the richness and saturation of the color. Truly one of the most beautiful colors I've ever gotten with my natural dyeing.

And then (sigh) I went and tested it for lightfastness. I started with samples of three naturally-dyed yarns -- (1) a light lilac from local cochineal on alum-mordanted yarn, (2) a medium magenta from prickly pear on unmordanted yarn, and (3) a dark magenta from prickly pear on alum-mordanted yarn -- and hung them, half-enclosed in cardboard, on a south-facing fence. There they got a three-weeks' dose of good, strong Arizona sun.

And here's the big reveal - such drama and disappointment! The prickly pear dye disappeared from the unmordanted yarn and faded to a dull peachy tone on the alum-mordanted yarn. Interestingly, the cochineal faded more than expected, too, although it's to be noted that I used strange little cochineal scraped from neighbors' cacti rather than cochineal that was specifically prepared for dyeing.

After this debacle, I found some terrific old books on Native American dyeing at a used bookstore. The prickly pear recipes in those books had the yarn fermenting in prickly pear juice for several days; perhaps it is worth trying this experiment again with that method. I think, though, that from now on I will enjoy my betalain in the bougainvillea....

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Woodland Collar (and a contest)

For quite some time I've been thinking about writing a series of patterns that are inspired by textures in nature and that highlight unusual and eco-friendly yarns.

This pattern -- the Woodland Collar -- is the first. The seeds of this project were planted nearly a year ago, and I'm happy to finally present it to the world.

It is inspired by the deeply etched textures of certain tree barks: oak, elm, white pine. I wanted to evoke those textures in a small garment, as if it were a strip of bark to wrap around oneself.

I tried to give the construction an organic feel, with deep vertical cables and a subtle flare at the base. Probably my favorite element is that it uses the gaps created by the cable crossings as buttonholes, so you can change the way it fits and drapes by buttoning at different places.

I spent a long time searching for a yarn that would make for an interesting riff on tree bark. The yarn that I finally chose is a handspun camel yarn from Mongolia. It is produced through The Snow Leopard Trust, which is an NGO that partners with communities in Central Asia to protect snow leopard habitat.

The yarn is soft, but it's definitely a rustic, handspun yarn with a few guard hairs scattered throughout. It was that rough edge that I thought would properly evoke tree bark.

I knit a second version using a beautiful blue-purple yarn from Nanney Kennedy's Seacolors Yarn. I fell in love with her philosophy and her yarn -- Maine wool, minimally processed, solar dyed -- when I visited her farm back in August. The Seacolors yarn has a lot of spring to it, and it makes for a livelier, snugger collar compared to the drapey camel version.

The pattern is a great way to try out single skeins (100g, of course) of worsted weight yarn. I'm knitting up a cool one in Noro Kureyon. And one of the women in my knitting group has made a gorgeous version in Malabrigo.

If you're interested, there are three ways to get this pattern. You can purchase and download it from Ravelry. You can email to buy it straight from me. Or you can try to win it by leaving me a comment on this post by 11/21/08 (next Friday). I'll draw a winner for every ten comments. And if you win and have already bought the pattern, I'll send you a refund and an extra little prize!!

Monday, November 03, 2008


Can you tell that I'm happy with my fresh-off-the-needles top?

Yay! Love it. It's a simple tube knit out of Rowan purelife organic cotton in a naturally-dyed gray, with ribbing at the top and bottom and straps of gray satin. Simple. Clean. Elemental.

You may recall that the original plan for this garment was considerably busier and cutsier. I planned to stripe the gray with a light pink and make straps out of a ribbon with gray and pink daisies. ICK. I think I was so taken with the coincidence of matching colors that I was blinded to the preciousness of it all.

What saved me from my own plan was the difficulty of making tidy stripes in this yarn. It's a very unforgiving yarn to knit with. Splitty. Dense. No give. No bloom. Matte texture where mistakes are readily apparent. All this means that it was very, very difficult to sew in the ends invisibly, even without dealing with color changes. So, in the end I kept it simple.