Socking it to Sochi

Even to someone who lives in a self-imposed news blackout it hasn’t escaped notice that serious concerns have been raised about the wisdom of holding the 2014 winter olympic in a town in Russia, and no wonder, with Russia’s record on LBGT rights as appalling as it is.

I wasn’t thinking about this, or indeed anything much beyond the beauty of her hand-dyed knitting yarns when I landed on the Old Maiden Aunt Yarns (OMA) site this morning. Where, I wondered, had all these yarns been all my life? Why, I asked myself, had I never taken note of them before?

Not only are the yarns just awesome (and the website is very impressive too, to this newbie) but the lovely personality of the dyer-in-chief, Lilith, comes across clearly in her blog. It was there that I read her post to russia, with love which deals with her dilemma over participating in Olympic knitting-related activities (the “Ravellenic Games”) on the knitting site Ravelry. She says:

as a member of the LGBT community, i’ve experienced discrimination and hatred firsthand, and try my best to actively work for equality. and as a queer business owner, i feel like my business & associated activities should also reflect my personal and political beliefs. i thought long & hard about even bringing this up, as i definitely don’t want to discourage anyone from participating in the Ravellenics, or ruin the experience for you. it’s always so much fun, and i’m really happy that my customers want to participate and compete for Team OMA!! but i also felt that by not saying anything, i was rather letting myself down.

so, here’s what i’d like to propose for Team OMA – for every team member who successfully completes their Team OMA Ravellenic Games project, i’ll personally donate a minimum of £5 to Stonewall UK, an organisation who works towards LGBT equality both within the UK and internationally. i may end up being able to donate even more per person, depending on how many/few of you complete your projects!!

i’ve also created “nothing to hide” (kermit the frog fans should recognise the reference!), a rainbow-hued sock yarn that i’ll be dyeing from now until the official start of the Games in february.

What a superb way of tackling the dilemma. A skein of the wool, nothing to hide, is winging its way here already (I hope).

Whether I get into the whole “knit a complete object during the course of the Olympics” again remains to be seen. In 2012 I joined in for the first time and made a cardigan which I enjoyed very much and wear frequently. It also, tangentially, meant I saw the opening ceremony which I would otherwise have deliberately missed and found it to be rather inspiring.

The uncertainty hasn’t stopped me from looking at possible patterns, though. I’m inclining towards the aptly named Victor (from the recent book Op-Art Socks by Stephanie Van Der Linden) with the spirals (which, with a stretch of the imagination might resemble the Olympic rings) in a deep shiny black.

What is certain is this won’t be my last acquisition of Old Maiden Aunt Yarn.

Steek! Steeeeeeeeeek!

Yes, I did it. With the help of Kate Davies’ brilliant steeking tutorial. Used a single ply (but very strong because of the nylon content) sock yarn and a 4.5mm hook to crochet the reinforcements. It was slightly difficult to locate the “leg” of the centre stitch because it was purled rather than knitted but once found it was easy to get into the rhythm of what to do.

Here is the double line of reinforcement from the back. Very neat!

OMG – cutting knitting. Palpitations. This flies in the face of nature and every rule of, well, everything.

Or maybe not! The colour in that picture is a bit weird but the steek is thoroughly awesome. A whole vista of cardigans without purling opens up before me.

Next up – button bands.

Sagas and knitting

So it turns out that knitting and sagas have been going together like, er, two things that go really well together, for a very long time. During the long winter of long nights one person would read (or recite from memory) while the rest of the family would get on with useful stuff – like knitting!

This illustration and the text below are from the Biographical Sketch of Jónas Halagrimsson:

During the long months of winter darkness, the time between lighting the lamps in the evening and going to bed was known as kvöldvaka (“evening waking”). During this time the members of the farm household would gather in the commons room (baðstofa) and devote themselves to various indoor tasks, many of them connected with the wool industry. Ebenezer Henderson, who probably observed scenes like this during his residence in Iceland over the winter of 1814-15, writes:

A winter evening in an Icelandic family presents a scene in the highest degree interesting and pleasing. Between three and four o’clock the lamp is hung up in the badstofa, or principal apartment, which answers the double purpose of a bed-chamber and sitting-room, and all the members of the family take their station, with their work in their hands, on their respective beds, all of which face each other. The master and mistress, together with the children, or other relations, occupy the beds at the inner end of the room; the rest are filled by the servants.

The work is no sooner begun, than one of the family, selected on purpose, advances to a seat near the lamp, and commences the evening lecture [i.e., reading], which generally consists of some old saga, or such other histories as are to be obtained on the island. . . . The reader is frequently interrupted, either by the head, or some of the more intelligent members of the family, who make remarks on various parts of the story, and propose questions, with a view to exercise the ingenuity of the children and servants. In some houses the sagas are repeated by such as have got them by heart; and instances are not uncommon of itinerating historians, who gain a livelihood during the winter, by staying at different farms till they have exhausted their stock of literary knowledge.

In the illustration reproduced above, a man who has just entered from outside chats with a woman who sits on her bed knitting. In the background (in the baðstofuhús, the private apartment panelled off at one end of the baðstofa), a woman dandles a baby. To her right an older man is engaged in fulling (i.e., squeezing, compressing, and thus thickening) the wool of a mitten or sock. To his right a boy reads out loud from a book in order to entertain the others.

It’s true. Who needs the television or radio or even, although this might have to be whispered, the internet, if you have a saga-reader, a bed, some knitting and a saga. Unless of course the saga is being read over the internet in which case that does become necessary.

I rather imagine that blogging will be pictorial progress (assuming there is any) for a time.

Icelandic knitting saga

It would be overstating it to say that I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland, but the desire certainly dates from the time I knitted my first Icelandic jumper. This was back in about 1980 when I discovered a shop in Camden Town which sold Álafosslopi wool and patterns. Immediately smitten, the pattern and yarn for a blue version of jumper by Astrid Ellingson were acquired and soon knitted up.

lopi pamphlet 52

I wore that jumper for nearly a decade (but I like to think with more style and panache than the models on the cover) and then, in about 1989, handed it on to a friend whose need – in an unheated house on the Yorkshire moors in winter – was greater than mine. I knitted another version more recently intended for a son but have ended up commandeering it for myself. This isn’t in the astonishingly light and lofty lopi but an English plied chunky yarn.

lopi jumper 2

More recently still I have been loving Beth‘s posts about her trip to Iceland last year and, to bring us right up to date, I’ve been knitting along to various Icelandic sagas.

And now… a competition on Ravelry with the first prize of… a knitting tour in Iceland! The challenge – to complete a pattern by designer Hélène Magnússon starting at the beginning of the Olympics opening ceremony (9pm London time on Friday 27 July) and finishing by midnight on the last day of the games, a mere 17 days later.

Now it just so happens that I’ve long, and I mean loooong hankered after one of Hélène’s designs which I saw her wearing back in September 2010 at I Knit London. I was so smitten I asked to take a picture of it:

iknit london sept 2010

It was the as-yet-unpublished cardigan now known as Brynja, an updated take on traditional Icelandic patterns and style. I was still ummming (think of the heat, think of the amount of knitting to be done in such a short time) when quite by chance I came across the recommended yarn, létt-lopi, on offer at a UK outlet.

For the Icelandic (knitting) saga

So the die is cast. Preparations are underway (an actual tension swatch! gathering of materials!) and the challenge has been taken up.


It had to be, really, given that it’s based on the hanging honeycombs of Apis dorsata laboriosa, the Himalayan honey bee. The pattern, Apis Dorsata shawl, beautifully charted for either a scarf size (as above) in 4ply or larger shawl in aran, is free from Knitty 37 (Deep Fall 2011).

The process as well as the finished product were both so pleasing I might have to make another. Or a shawl. Or both. Or maybe a large blanket version for the bed. Aaaaaah. Knitting and bees, how I do love you.

Old friend

Still twinkling

I love all the clichéd metaphors involving knitting, time, relationships. This old friend, modelled by the daughter of an old friend, reappeared this weekend.

We (the human as opposed to knitted old friend and I) remembered that it had been made before either of us had children, making it nearly 20 years old. Our fallibility was demonstrated by the discovery that the publication in which the pattern appeared was only published in 1997. A mere 15 years old, then.

Still twinkling

In order to avoid darning in the numerous ends generated by the intarsia technique, a particularly difficult operation with chenille yarn, I knotted them all off, left the ends training and backed the knitting with a rather wonderful mackerel-marked piece of velvet.

Its owner tells me she has worn it on an almost daily basis and it frequently gets put through the washing machine. I was impressed by the durability of the materials and somewhat surprised by the robustness of the knitting.

The main purpose of the mother-daughter trip from France was knitting. Yarn and needles were purchased for the learner and the art was passed on to a new generation.


Sock needles were purchased for the improver and heel-turning explored.


A short visit, but very very sweet.

Care instructions for your anatomically correct knitted heart

Warm (40 C) wash cycle, minimum machine action. The regular contraction of the organ itself will provide sufficient flow of water. Have the temperature any warmer, however, and the contraction will be irregular, stronger and may even lead to shrinkage. Excessive machine action and/or contractions may cause felting of the arteries leading to loss of flexibility and possible heart attack.

Warm iron. Anaemia may cause rapid heart rate, it’s best to keep levels topped up.

Do not bleach. Paleness is one of the first signs of ill health and can indicate frostbite and anaemia among other things. Should loss of colour occur administer warm iron (see above).

Dry cleanable in all solvents. Other, of course, than hydrocarbons. Best stick to water.

Do not tumble dry. The irregular motion may trigger cardiac dysrhythmia which could result in cardiac arrest.

Remember to maintain pristine dental hygiene. There is a direct correlation between the health of the mouth and that of the heart. Floss regularly with a lace weight thread spun from the fleece of a sheep with a long staple. Blue-faced Leicester or Wensleydale would be ideal.

Regular exercise is also important to maintain your heart in optimum condition. Spinning classes are particularly recommended. Remember to vary the speed of the wheel to ensure you have a full aerobic workout.

Should you be unable to locate appropriate floss, remove some of the contents of your heart and take to your spinning class. With practice a lace weight will result.

With the correct care your anatomically correct knitted heart will give you years of trouble-free service.

Hollywood knitters

Came across the pictures below, and the blog post on which they reside with many others, while looking for something else entirely. Such a joyful collection. And, apart from the Jane Powell picture, they all look absolutely convincingly really knitting. Although perhaps they’re clever publicity shots. One or other of these two Bergman shots is my favourite, I just can’t work out which, this:

or this:

The beauty of intimacy

 The beauty of intimacy is a self-evident truth for knitters as it is for anyone who is making everyday objects by hand and who uses them.

From A Knitter’s Manifesto by Brenda Dayne and Dr Felicity Ford (available for download on iTunes, amongst other outlets).

This shiny bag of awesomeness came through the letterbox (and fortunately escaped ritual killing by the dog) as an utterly disproportionately huge thank-you for something entirely enjoyable.

Back in May I went along to the Prick Your Finger yarn shop / art gallery to take part in Felicity Ford’s KNITSONIC residency, part of the result of which can be heard here.

Avid knitter and former radio journalist (that would be me) given the chance to take part in an exploration of any and all sonic aspects of WOOL and knitting… just try to stop me! In fact despite losing my money and travel card at the beginning of the journey I still made my way across London having persuaded a passing charity collector to give me funds.

shiny packet of awesomeness, reverse, snow day

So enthusiastic was I that I practically had to be removed with crowbar having monopolised the mic with endless tales of this and that, the other, and skein-winding. Also stitch-counting. All of which was patiently recorded.

popshield, needles, cans

It was a total blast, and there was cake. Not long after Felicity asked if she could use the audio of stitch-counting in another project. Sure thing, I said, what fun, and thought little more of it, until this wonderful pack of pleasure arrived.


Not only a hand-printed copy of the CD itself but also all sorts of ancillary “ephemera” related to various of the tracks, all also hand-made by the artists.

flake disc button

There is something unique and transformative about wool. I have, I know, tended to conflate wool and the use to which I most frequently put it, knitting, which can undeniably be undertaken using any single fibre be it made of animal, vegetable or mineral.

But wool is the ur thread. It’s heartening to see the passion and creativity it evokes at all stages of its production and use. Fascinating to delve into the history, science and culture. Inspiring to hope what current trends may represent for the future of manufacture and consumption. But above all there’s the warmth and generosity.

Thank you, team Wovember, for a wild and woolly month!

Counting sheep

Sadly I can’t, I presume, reproduce in its entirety the delightful and serendipitous poem Counting Sheep by Linda Pastan which is today’s poem at Poetry Daily. However I strongly recommend heading that way to read it. Here is an excerpt:

At a thousand fifty
I notice a ram
pushing up against
a soft and curly female,
and for a moment
I’m distracted by errant
images of sex.
It is difficult
to keep so many sheep
in line for counting—
they are not a parade
but more like a roiling
sea of whitecaps…

Counting and sheep go together like, er, probably like a shepherd and a sheepdog (dogs were the first animal species to be domesticated by humans, sheep the second). There are special words for counting sheep which derive from the language spoken in Britain in the Iron Age. Which is cool. In base 20. Which is cool. And with a sub-base 5 element. Which is cool. And three cools make freaking awesome. And the fact that you can use the system to count up to 399 using only two hands makes it mind-blowing.

Like most Celtic numbering systems, they tend to be vigesimal (based on the number twenty), but they usually lack words to describe quantities larger than twenty; though this is not a limitation of either modernised decimal Celtic counting systems or the older ones. To count a large number of sheep, a shepherd would repeatedly count to twenty, placing a mark on the ground, or move his hand to another mark on his crook, or drop a pebble into his pocket to represent each score (e.g. 5 score sheep = 100 sheep).

It is also worth noting the number theory behind the scheme. Although decimal up to 10, in most dialects the scheme then changes to counting in(sub-)base 5. It is possible to carry out limited arithmetic in base 5 on numbers up to 30 (decimal) using your fingers as a rudimentary abacus. It is pure speculation, but there may be a connection between the two facts, and the shepherds of England may have carried out limited accounting on their fingers.

In particular, the names of the numbers fit a pattern in which the index finger and forefinger each represent 0 when retracted, 1 when bent, and 2 when straight, while the other three fingers each represent 5 when extended. The rhyming transitions occur with the straightening of a finger, and the pattern repeats at intervals of 5. Thus, with two hands, a person can count up to 399. In the similar but simpler system, discernible in Roman numerals, in which the thumb is 5 and the other fingers 1 each, a person can only count up to 99 on two hands. The Yan Tan Tethera system was thus advantageous until writing made the limitation of two hands less important.

Another reason for the use of base five is suggested by the design of the shepherds crook which has grooves, nobbles, nicks or other impressions on it which enable the shepherd to note the number of fives counted on the other hand. Using base five counting in this way allows the shepherd to total as many sheep as the markings on the crook will allow, each mark representing five sheep.

But why waste an excellent counting system on just one use. It was employed by stitch-counting knitters too, as recently as 1863:

Notes and queries September 12 1863

So which of the small selection given on Wikipedia of the more than 100 variants of the system shall I reproduce here? Since there are strong family ties to Kirkby Lonsdale, it is the Kirkby Lonsdale variant, divided into fives for ease of reading:

Yaan, tyaan, taed’ere, mead’ere, mimp;
Haites, saites, hoves, daoves, dik;
Yaan’edik, tyaan’edik, tead’eredik, mead’eredik, boon;
Yaan’eboon, tyaan’eboon, tead’ereboon, mead’ereboon, buom’fit.

I remember going to see Harrison Birtwistle‘s opera Yan Tan Tethera and being very excited by recognising Michael Nyman in the audience. Oh heady days. In fact the main reason I wanted to see/hear it was because the libretto was by one of my heroes, Tony Harrion. He, unfortunately, was not in the audience (that I saw).

Needless to say Language Hat has a post on the counting systems. Be sure to read the comments too. His is prompted by poet Basil Bunting. Unfortunately all I can find of poet James Crowden’s radio programme about counting sheep is this rather perfunctory summary. If anyone ever comes across the now-unobtainable audio I’d love to hear it.


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