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What Is St. Patrick's Day Like in Ireland?

LBHandknits

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Every year people ask, so I thought it might be interesting to share. What is St. Patrick’s Day like in Ireand? Are there parades? Does everyone wear green? Are there special traditions, rituals, or activities? As a non-Irish person living here, I will try to describe my experience.

And to start with, it is worth pointing out that Ireland is not culturally homogenous - so whether, and to what extent, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated will depend on what part of the country you are in. I was watching the Hawthorn Cottage Craft podcast the other day, and found it interesting when Kate commented that St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated abroad more than it is in Ireland. No doubt this is true where she lives. However, we are on the border of Donegal and Derry, and St. Patrick’s Day is huge here. Considering that my main ‘elsewhere in the world’ point of comparison is Boston, that is saying something! Having attended the famous parade in South Boston a handful of times, and likewise the big parade in Derry, I can say that the Derry parade definitely ‘wins’!

In our region at least, St. Patrick’s Day parades are also not limited to the larger cities and towns. Even the tiny local-to-me town of Falcarragh holds their own parade down the main street.

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I have noticed also that the atmosphere of the St. Patrick’s Day parades here, is different to what I remember from the US.

Granted it has been a while, but I remember the Boston parade having religious elements, and also being quite heavy on the marching bands. The big Derry parade here, in the years I have attended, has been entirely pagan. Pre-Christian mythological characters coming alive as giant floats, that sort of thing. There are also political elements, relating mainly to LBGT and environmental issues. But nothing religious as far as I recall, except when done for ironic effect.

The parades in the smaller towns on the Donegal side of the border do feature pipe bands, but not so much the parade in Derry (I am trying to describe all this without delving into the deeper historical context, as that would make this post unmanageably long!).

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As far as rituals, traditions, and general behaviour… Well, people definitely wear green. Those celebrating the religious aspect of the holiday wear shamrock sprigs on their lapels. These are sold as tiny potted plants in many local shops and I always enjoy seeing them this time of year.

As far as drunken rowdiness, which some have asked me about as well… Interestingly, I really have not experienced much of it in Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day festivities here are very child-friendly and family-oriented. So I suppose some people do drink, but it’s not about the drinking - in the way it tends to be in, say, American urban St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. It is a different vibe here, and it is definitely not a ‘let’s use this as an occasion to get drunk’ type of holiday.

When attending the parades and other festivities, it is popular for people to paint their faces and dress up. Mostly it is children who do this, but sometimes adults as well. People wear wreaths upon their heads, fairy wings clipped to the backs of their coats, various capes, fascinators in the style of leprechaun’s hats, that sort of thing. In that sense, St. Patrick’s Day here is not unlike Halloween - only without the dark, spooky elements. More than anything else, I suppose it feels like a festival to greet the coming of Spring.

Being neither Irish, nor Christian, I would have thought my own participation in St. Patrick’s Day would be limited to that of an observer. But the spirit of it does draw me in. And the secular nature of the celebrations - at least in my corner of Ireland - make me feel entirely included. I have been to the parades a few times, and enjoyed them pretty actively. And I do wear green every year (which I never, ever did before moving here!).

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Design-wise, my contribution to St. Patrick’s Day this year is Móinéar. I am normally terrible at timing patern releases to coincide with special occasions, but I’m trying! Alas, this lovely green sample does not live with me and so I won’t be wearing it this Sunday. But I will muster up something green and hand-knitted for the occasion if we go out.

More than anything, St. Patrick’s Day in our corner of Ireland makes me feel as if spring has arrived. The flowers are in bloom, the land sheds its heavy winter atmosphere, and we all come out to celebrate… naturally, in the freezing rain and bone-chilling wind! But that is what wool is for.

Seasonal Socks

LBHandknits

{ Basic Sock with Intergrated Heel , in tweed and merino/nylon}

{Basic Sock with Intergrated Heel, in tweed and merino/nylon}

Does anybody else have separate ‘sock wardrobes’ for summer and winter? As someone whose feet both freeze and overheat quite easily, I definitely do.

One thing I find with superwash sock yarn, is that it doesn’t actually keep me warm - which works to my advantage in hot weather. My summer socks are therefore fingering-weight, superwash, and often lacy. I wear the lace ones on especially warm and humid days, and they are great for ventilation. Yarn with some ramie or silk content can feel cool and refreshing as well.

In the colder months however, wearing socks made out of superwash yarn, or any fibre other than wool, feels as if I have no socks on at all. I need woolly-wool. At least sport weight. But ideally DK, or even Aran. In fact, from October through April my feet mostly live in heavy Donegal tweed. I currently have 3 pairs on rotation and they are the ones that tend to get worn, while finer socks only come out when I need to wear footwear into which the thicker ones won’t fit.

Of course there are also the crossover socks. Fingering-weight, non superwash yarns work well on cooler summer days and milder winter days. These stay in rotation year-round, and always remain in my sock drawer.

Keeping my socks seasonally separated has actually been quite nice. The ones currently in season live in my sock drawer, while the off-season socks get put away in a separate box. When the seasons change, the socks rotate, and it makes or a fun ritual. It also makes me appreciate the sheer variety of fibre content and yarn weight available to us knitters these days. I have not worn commercially made socks in over two years, and absolutely do not miss them.

Mind the Gauge. Ignore the Needle Size.

LBHandknits

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On occasion I talk to knitters who have laboured over a garment, only to be dismayed that it came out too big or too small, compared to what the measurements provided in the pattern led them to expect.

‘And did you get the correct stitch counts?’ I usually start by asking. To which the answer is ‘Oh yes! I followed the pattern exactly, and used the recommended needle size…’

‘Wait, wait. You did what?...’

I then explain about gauge and tension. And depending on the knitter’s background, what follows is either an epiphany, or suspicious disbelief. Because interestingly enough, I encounter two types of knitters who might simply start knitting from a pattern using the recommended needle size, without swatching. The first category is novices. The second is experienced knitters, whose knitting repertoire had previously consisted of a limited - and usually region-specific - selection of patterns, which all happened to recommend needle sizes consistent with the knitter’s own tension. This post is for the benefit of both of these types of knitters, as well as anybody else who might be confused about this aspect of a pattern.


It is customary for knitting patterns to list needle size recommendations. However, many handknits designers, myself included, are of the opinion that needle size figures should be omitted from patterns.

This is because needle size is ultimately irrelevant - a means to and end, if you will. The relevant and crucial information in the pattern is the gauge. And whatever needle size a knitter needs to use in order to meet that gauge, is the correct needle size for them.

For example, let’s say a sweater pattern states the following information:

Gauge: 20 stitches and 25 rows = 10cm x 10cm (4” x 4”)
Recommended Needle Size: 4mm

What this means is, that you must meet the gauge of 20 stitches per 10cm. And that you might be able to accomplish that on 4mm needles. But you might not! Which is why you need to swatch, and determine what size of needles you actually need in order to meet the stated gauge.

Misleading? A bit. And that is why in an ideal world, a knitting pattern would read something like this:

Gauge: 20 stitches and 25 rows = 10cm x 10cm (4” x 4”)
Recommended Needle Size: As needed to meet gauge

There are some intrepid designers who do exactly that. Kate Davies refuses to include needle size in her self-published patterns for this very reason. Alas, not all of us are as brave as she. And the fear of not including needle size recommendtions, is that we will be bombarded with pattern support inquiries from knitters who are accustomed to seeing this (mis)information in their patterns.

My personal compromise, is to include needle size recommendations, but with a caveat. So, my patterns are likely to read something like this:

Gauge: 20 stitches and 25 rows = 10cm x 10cm (4” x 4”)
Recommended Needle Size: 4mm or as needed to meet gauge

But whether that last phrase is italicised, highlighted, or embellished with dancing cat emoticons, it doesn’t always help. Once a knitter sees that handy needle size number, unless they already know about the importance of swatching, they might be tempted to grab a 4mm needle and get started. After all, why is the number there if they are meant to ignore it??

Indeed.

If the needle size recommendations are irrelevant, you might ask, where do they come from and what are the figures based on?

Good question. And as far as I understand it, they are based on the hypothetical knitter with so-called average tension (which, by the way, differs regionally - but that is an aside I won’t delve into just now!). But while averages are useful in the realm of statistics, they are not always helpful on a practical, personal level.

For example: Let’s say you read that the average height for a woman is 5’4”. This does not mean that, if you are a woman, your height is most likely 5’4”. Right? Your height could be anything at all compared to the average!

Similarly, let’s say that a knitter with statistically average tension meets a gauge of 20 stitches per 10cm with a 4mm needle. It does not follow that, if you are a knitter, you too will most likely meet that gauge with that needle size.

The only way to know how tall you are is to measure your own height.

The only way to know what size needle you need to meet gauge, is to swatch with your own hands.

And in that sense, a good way to think of the recommended needle size in a pattern is as a starting point. Start swatching with the recommended needle size. And if that doesn’t meet gauge, swatch next with a needle sized larger/smaller, depending on your initial swatch result, until finally you settle on a needle size that enables you to meet the gauge stated in the pattern. This is the correct needle size for you.

Csilla and the Shorn Project

LBHandknits

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Quick Links:
Shorn Yan & Kits [sold out!]
Csilla Cowl
Csilla Hat
Yarn Launch Podcast Episode

Some time last year, Melissa Littlefield of the Knitting the Stash podcast ran a designers interview series in which I took part. And one of the questions asked was, what role does yarn play in my design process. For instance, do I have a design in mind, then look for a yarn to make it happen, or do I start with the yarn? This is actually a question I get asked a lot, and my answer tends to surprise the person I’m having the conversation with. Most of my designs start with the yarn - not the other way around.

That is not to say that I don’t have heaps of ideas twirling around in my head. The problem is that I have too many ideas; their sheer volume and vagueness can be debilitating. With yarn in hand, the process immediately becomes more real. Here is the yarn. These are its characteristics. What does this yarn want to become? The physicality and immediacy of the yarn sparks my imagination in a way that is not just creative, but actionable.

When Melissa invited me to design an accessory for the Shorn project, I knew that once the yarn arrived it would tell me what it ‘wanted’ to be. And I was right! Because nothing in my previous experience of yarns could have prepared me for Shorn’s unique blend of qualities.

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It has long been a dream of Melissa’s to produce her own farm-to-skein yarn. And the Shorn project is that dream’s realisation.

Shorn is a small batch yarn made from the fleeces of sheep who live just down the road from Melissa’s house in Illinois, USA. The yarn is minimally processed and worsted spun by Stonehedge Fiber Mill in Michigan. It is left undyed, with a creamy natural colouring.

This description may set up expectations for a wool that feels distinctly ‘rustic’ (read: a bit rough). But the remarkable thing about Shorn is this: It is next-to-skin soft. A blend of 80% Cormo and 20% Corriedale, the yarn was specifically designed with this in mind. And it is this combination of silky-softness and chemical-free, minimally processed, sheepiness that makes it so unique to work with.

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In addition to being soft and springy, Shorn is also quite silky to the touch and gives off a subtle yet distinct sheen which takes on different qualities depending on the angle from which it is observed. Even as I wound the yarn from skein to ball (which I always do by hand), I noticed these characteristics. And once I began swatching and playing around with stitch combinations, I became quite entranced with them. How crisply defined the knits and purls stood against one another! How sculptural the cables looked! How glossy the lace! But which to choose, to capture this yarn’s spirit?

The idea to use smocking evolved as I kept feeling compelled to play with the yarn by wrapping it around my fingers. I liked the look of the various stitches, but I also liked the look of the yarn in its own right. Smocking offered a way to incorporate unworked strands into the pattern.

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And thus, the starlike motif of Csilla was born.

Pronounced ‘heela’, Csilla is a Hungarian feminine given name that means ‘starlike’ and she is exactly what the yarn ‘wanted.’

I love the way the pattern and the yarn interact. The knit stitches, the purl stitches, and the wraps, each showcase this yarn’s subtle sheen from different angles. And the squish effect of the smocking further accentuates the natural springiness of the yarn.

The ornate motif is both 
top-down and inside-out reversible, making this cowl quite versatile in wear. Suitable for adventurous knitters of all skill levels, Csilla is a single-skein project 
ideal for showcasing those very special yarns in a way that is artful and wearable. 

In addition to the Csilla Cowl, there is now also a matching Csilla Hat design. Both patterns are compatible with a variety of DK weight yarns.

With a meterage of 230m/ 100g, Shorn is a light-DK. It is available from Melissa in 100g skeins, as well as in kits with the Csilla cowl and hat patterns. The pricing is very reasonable for an indie yarn, and keep in mind this is a very limited edition - so while supplies last, etc.!

If you are interested in small batch, minimally processed, locally produced yarns from the USA, Shorn is certainly a very special one that you will not regret snapping up.

For more on the Shorn yarn launch, watch the latest episode of Knitting the Stash. I am delighted to be included in this project, and thank you in advance for supporting it!

Can You Train Yourself to Knit Tighter, or Looser?

LBHandknits

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It’s a question that sometimes comes up in conversations. We all knit with different tension. But for those of us who find ourselves on the extreme ends of the tight/loose knitter spectrum, is it possible to retrain our hands to knit closer to a happy medium?

The answer is definitely yes, and I know many knitters who have done this. In fact, I myself used to be a very loose knitter, and deliberately tightened my tension around 2 years ago - so that the needles I use on any given project now are about .5mm larger in diameter than they would have been then.

But as a prequel, let me first say that being either a loose or a tight knitter is not in of itself a problem and in most cases does not mean that you need to retrain yourself to knit differently. It only means that the needle diameter you choose for projects will be consistently smaller or larger than what is recommended in patterns.

So for instance, let’s say a sock pattern recommends 2.5mm needles, and this recommendation is aimed at the ‘average’ knitter meeting gauge. If you are a loose knitter, you will need to go down to 2.25mm or even 2.00mm needles to meet gauge. And if you are a tight knitter, you will need to go up to 2.75mm or even 3.00mm needles to meet gauge. Again, not a problem. After some time knitting you will likely know how your tension compares to the so-called average, and pre-emptively start swatching with a needle size that is either a bit smaller or larger than what is recommended in patterns.

Individual difference in tension becomes problematic, only if your knitting is so much looser, or tighter, than the typical average, that you cannot source needles small enough or large enough in diameter to meet gauge for the pattern. For tight knitters this can happen with bulky knits. For loose knitters, this mostly happens with fingering-weight socks - which was the case with me.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I had actually never knitted socks out of ‘sock yarn’ until abut two years ago. Before that, I made socks mainly out of rustic wools, which were either DK or sportweight. When I first tried fingering weight sock yarn, I was unable to meet gauge on even the smallest needles available to me. Of course I could go down in stitch count and knit at a looser gauge. But experimenting with that confirmed that it was a bad idea. Socks must be knitted densely to be durable. If I wanted to knit a sock at a 35st gauge, with the needles available to me, I needed to tighten up.

This took willful practice, and was more than a little frustrating. I used 2mm needles, stainless steel and not overly slick. I cast on a 64 stitch sock. And then, knitting at about a third of my usual speed, I made a concerted effort to tighten my tension when working each individual stitch. I do not know how to describe the physicality of this in any greater detail than that. But the comparison that comes to mind, is trying to write smaller than is natural for your handwriting. Imagine you are working with one of those workbooks you get either as a child when first practicing your handwriting, or as an adult if you have ever done a calligraphy workshop. You do not focus on the sentence or even on the word, you focus on each individual letter and take care to make it the correct size and form. In the same vein, I focused on working each individual stitch, pulling tight on the yarn. It took a while to make that first sock! But by the time I got half way through the leg, tightening my tension did become more natural and I was able to speed up a bit. By the time I finished the pair, it became automatic and I was able to knit socks at a 35st gauge on 2mm needles.

Of course, retraining myself to tighten my tension affected my overall knitting, meaning that my needle size went up across the board. If in the past I had used 3.5mm needles to meet a 20st gauge, I now meet that same gauge with 4mm needles. And so on.

Funny enough, I still knit a bit looser than the average knitter. But again, that does not matter as long as I am consistent, and am able to meet gauge with an available needle size - which, happily, is now the case.