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Yarn Impressions: Woolfinch Studio Wool Ramie


While there is great variety in sock yarns on the market these days, most of them have some basic features is in common. For instance, they are normally a fingering weight blend of superwash wool and nylon. 

In that sense, Woolfinch Studio's Wool Ramie is rather unusual. For one thing, it is sport weight, so slightly heavier than typical sock yarns. But what really makes it different is the fibre content: 80% non-superwash wool, and 20% ramie. Since I did not know what 'ramie' was until I looked it up, I am guessing you might not either: It is a type of nettle!

While I had heard of nettle blend yarns before, I never imagined one could knit socks out of them. What on earth would that be like?

Well, having now designed 3 patterns for Woolfinch Studio using this intriguing yarn, I think I am sufficiently familiar with it to tell you! 

As soon as I began handling the Wool-Ramie, I noticed how different it was from other sock yarns I have worked with. Hand-winding it into a ball from the skein, it indeed felt more substantial. But also, the feel was different: starchier, for lack of a better word? If I had not known what the blend was and had to guess, I would think there was linen in it.

To be honest, as I began to knit with this yarn, that slightly crispy, linen-esque feel of it worried me. Would these socks be sufficiently stretchy? Would they hold their shape? 

My first design was the fairly basic Firefly pattern, with lots of stockinette, traditional heel construction, and ribbing at the cuff. And I gave the sample knit to my husband for 'aggressive testing.'

Now my husband is, at this point, a connoisseur of hand-knitted socks, as it were - having switched to wearing the ones I make for him almost exclusively from store-bought socks. And the first bit of feedback he gave me was this: he found the Wool Ramie socks 'more breathable.' I had not told him about the lack of nylon content or superwash treatment, but it seems he sensed it. 

But what about the stretchiness? Funny thing. The socks feel a bit stiffer than typical. But they actually seem to hold their shape better. Examining the socks after he took them off, wear after wear, I could see what he meant. The worn socks had a starched look to them. I had to try this myself!

The behaviour of that first pair of socks in the test wear phase made me think that this yarn might work nicely with lace. And so my second design with the Wool Ramie was Rochelle - a modern take on classic Old Shale lace. The sample knit for Rochelle was swiftly claimed by a customer, so I did not get to test wear these socks! But considering how quickly they flew off my needles and how nice and crisp the Old Shale repeats looked, I decided to try lace for the 3rd pattern as well.


I designed the Sleeping in the Garden socks as a toe-up pattern with short row heels and toes, and lace panels featuring horizontal trellises along the leg and instep. The slightly starchy nature of the Wool Ramie yarn really did make the lace super easy to knit, and as with Rochelle I was delighted with how quickly these socks materialised.

I finished the sample knit about a month ago and have been wearing them pretty regularly since. I am definitely a fan of the Wool Ramie, although I struggle how to describe it in a way that will come across as appealing! It is soft, but not fluffy or 'squishy.' Smooth, but not slippery-sleek. And when I use the words 'crisp' or 'starchy,' I'm afraid it will be interpreted negatively, but I mean it as a positive thing. While ramie hasn't the stretch of nylon, it is that touch of crispness that makes the socks hold their shape so amazingly well. The durability factor, so far, seems to be higher than will 100% wool or wool/nylon bend socks. There is no pilling, no felting at the heel, no thin spots developing... and I do wear my socks shoe-less as I walk on the hardwood floors, even though I say in my own Care instructions not to! 

To be sure, the Woolfinch Studio Wool Ramie is a different sock yarn. And I think we need more of that in the industry. Personally, I enjoyed designing and knitting with this yarn, and will certainly use it again. I would furthermore be interested in a fingering-weight version, which may become available soon. 

Whether you fancy dipping your toes into knitting with nettles, or are looking for sock yarn that is 100% natural, durable, and not superwash treated, Wool Ramie is worth a try.


Yarnfolk! Festival of Wool


A lifelong knitter who has never been to a yarn festival? Impossible, some would say! And yet we exist.

While I have been to lots of similar events in other industries (namely fountain pen shows and handmade bicycle shows), I guess - existing outside the virtual knitting community until very recently - fibre events never entered my radar. By the time that I did discover yarn festivals, my life circumstances included living in the northwest of Ireland and a hatred of long journeys, so I did not think I was likely to find myself at one any time soon. 

Enter Yarnfolk - the first Festival of Wool to be held in Northern Ireland, 'dedicated to all things fibre.' When I heard about it back in the spring, I could hardly believe it. Held in Whitehead, on the north coast between Larne and Belfast, it wasn’t exactly in my neck of the woods. But at least it didn’t involve flying or a half-day road trip. The months flew by, and before I knew it, I was stuffed into a car with 4 other excited ladies on a Sunday morning, Yarnfolk-bound. 

With its tree-shaded lanes, Victorian houses, old-style railway station, lovely cafes, and a yarn shop (Lighthouse Yarns!), Whitehead is a tiny but lively seaside town …although not usually quite as lively, I would venture to guess, as it was on this day. The narrow streets were packed with women, walking in a most peculiar manner that soon began to seem quite normal: It was a kind of mincing, distracted walk - with mouth half-open and neck craned back over the shoulder - that one does when examining the hand-knitted sweaters of passers-by, which (rather heroically, on this uncharacteristically warm August day), so many were wearing. I especially appreciated the colourful Icelandic yokes: Highly visible from a distance, they served as guides for which buildings to head to.

The event was held over four venues: three large community/church type halls, and a yarn shop. I don’t know how typical that is of other fibre festivals, but I thought the layout worked very well in this instance. The venues were all within a 3 minute walk from each other, and moving back and forth between them (as opposed to staying in one building all day) kept things lively and interesting, gave people a chance to be out in the fresh air on a nice sunny day, and overall created a dynamic atmosphere that made the festival feel as if it took over the entire town. 

While it wasn’t by any means crowded to the point that I could’t to move around comfortably, there were considerably more people at Yarnfolk than I expected! I did have to stand in a queue to get tickets. For the first couple of hours at least there were queues at most of the vendors' stalls. And many of the crafting workshops on offer (natural dyeing, beading, etc. - all of which you could book in advance) were sold out on arrival. Mind you, I am not saying any of that as a criticism, but to point out there was a tremendous amount of interest, which I think exceeded what anyone had anticipated. 

Yarnfolk Festival Yarn vendors

So what sorts of things were exhibited at Yarnfolk? I would say the majority of the vendors were indie yarn dyers. In fact, many if not most of the folks featured in my list of Ireland based dyers were there, and it was wonderful to meet them in person. Fine Fish, Green Elephant, Dye Candy, Dublin Dye, Ewe Momma, Townhouse Yarns, Bear in Sheep's Clothing, Giddy Aunt, Secret Stash, Irish Fairytale Yarn, and more... an amazing group, including a couple who made their way across the pond from England. 

There were also spinners, a few machine-knitters, weavers and felters, the natural dyer Colour & Cloth, a maker of crochet vegetables, as well as makers of project bags and various accessories and notions, and a few yarn shops. I am not going to go into what I bought and from whom, as for me that type of thing is private. Suffice it to say, I was spoilt for choice from the many talented craftspersons whose wares were on offer, and while my own aesthetic falls in line with some more than others, I appreciated and enjoyed all the exhibitors at Yarnfolk. It was also good to see them doing quite a brisk trade! Not wanting to interfere with a business transaction, I always waited to ask to take a snap until I wasn't in the way of customers, and most of the time that meant waiting quite a bit (again, a good thing)! I mention this, because there is often discussion as to whether knitters in Ireland are willing to spend money on indie yarns - and from what I saw today, obviously they are. 

As far as highlights of the show... For me, the main one would have to be the Ulster Guild of Weavers and Spinners. While I am not a spinner myself, I love knitting with handspun yarn and I enjoy watching spinners at work. Quite a few of the Guild members were in attendance, and they had a lovely long table set up with their homespun yarns and completed garments. Honestly, I would have journeyed to the festival for that alone and could have sat there and watched them and chatted with Emma of Woolly Mammoth Fibres all day.

I was also excited to meet S-Twist wool, which I have heard so much about over the past year. S-Twistis a new yarn company that offers sheep to skein, made-in-Ireland yarn in small batches, much of it hand spun and naturally dyed. They also offer carding and spinning services for anyone who wishes to turn local-to-them fleeces into ready-to-spin fibre or ready-to-knit yarn. Considering that such services were nearly impossible to come by even as recently as a year ago, S-Twist is a fantastic resource. 

Finally, it was good to see some of the writers and podcasters who were in circulation at Yarnfolk - and I was pleased to meet Cate of the Hawthorn Cottage Craft podcast, and Nadia of The Cottage Notebook. I was hesitant to approach them, but am glad I did!

It was funny actually, because a few folks have told me after the festival - virtually, that is - that they spotted me (thanks to my sweater, of course) and wanted to talk to me but did not know the etiquette. I was the same way, and in retrospect am kind of kicking myself for not just letting loose and fondling everyone's sweater! Fondle first, ask questions after - sure, sounds like a great way to make friends?

What else... There was a lot going on at Yarnfolk, but you can't write about everything, can you? But perhaps I should say a few words about logistics, amenities, that sort of thing?

Regarding transport: Although there is a train station in Whitehead, the train line it's on is only convenient if you are traveling directly from Belfast, so most people drove. Thankfully, the parking situation was fine. Whitehead is tiny you could park 'on the outskirts' and still be walking distance form the town centre. 

There was food and drink available at the festival, with a pop-up cafe set up in the main hall, as well as several cafes  in the town a very short walk from the venues. Toilets were plentiful. There were also several rest areas where you could sit and knit quietly and take a break from the crowds. 

As far as growing pains - the main and quite funny one is that the town's central cashpoint went out of service half way through the festival (overwhelmed by all the yarn-related withdrawals, no doubt!) so at some point those who came late (or blew their initial budget) were running about with no spending money. In fact, there was another cash point, inside a convenience shop, but not everyone knew that of course. The only other thing I can think of, is that I found the online booking system for the festival confusing and glitchy, and I know others did too - unable to buy tickets and sign up for workshops in advance. Overall though, for a brand new festival which I imagine took a great deal of time and effort to organise, Yarnfolk 2017 went off shockingly smoothly. I have not yet asked the organisers how many attended, but I would bet it is more than they expected. And everyone looked happy.  

And on that note, I would like to thank the Yarnfolk organisers, the vendors, all the attendees, and the lovely people of Whitehead, for the wonderful fibre-filled day and the friendly atmosphere. Many thanks also to Lisa of Row by Roe for driving a whole rowdy gaggle of us over and back. Will there be a Yarnfolk 2018? I sincerely hope so, and intend to be there!







Steeking: My First Attempt (and Perhaps a Cautionary Tale)


Since my return to knitting as an adult, I have made a few cardigans - maybe a half dozen? - all of them knitted seamlessly, but 'open' - in the flat on a long circular needle. To be perfectly honest, I had no complaints about this method. While I do prefer to knit pullovers and dresses in the round, this is mainly because I dislike assembly and prefer for my garments not to have seams - not because I dislike knitting back and forth, if that makes sense. I also do not have the aversion to purling the way some knitters do, so purling every alternative row when knitting stockinette in the flat is not a problem for me. Considering all of that, in hindsight, steeking for me was a solution in search of a problem! But sometimes, you know - you see a technique and it just looks so cool that you want to explore it.

In case some of you reading this have not heard of it before, steeking is a cardigan construction technique, Scandinavian and/or Scottish in origin. Instead of knitting a cardigan open, you knit it in the round, as if it were a pullover. You then cut it along the centre front vertically, and pick up stitches for the button band along the newly created edges.  It's a method that makes the most sense when you are knitting a sweater with stranded colourwork - which is easier to execute in the round than in the flat. Some lace and cable patterns can similarly benefit. However, it seems that a good portion of knitters simply prefer steeking as their go-to method of cardigan construction even if there isn't any colourwork, lace, or cables to contend with - the reasoning being that it is faster/easier/pleasanter to knit in the round, and afterward steek, a cardigan, than to knit it open. After reading lots of this type of feedback, it occurred to me that I too might be such a knitter. And so I decided to steek - starting with a simple cardigan design I was working on, with a circular Old Shale lace yoke. It's a stitch pattern that can be knitted in the flat without issue, but admittedly it was easier in the round.  

There are several approaches to steeking out there. After studying all the ones I could find I decided to go with the one described by Kate Davis and Ysolda Teague, which involves re-inforicng the steeked edges with slip stitch crochet before cutting. After reading about this method and looking at the diagrams, it all made complete sense to me. And so unlike many, who report being terrified to try steeking, I approached it pretty calmly and casually. 

I knitted the sweater top down, with 5 steek stitches in the centre (interrupting the lace pattern in the yoke and hem). For the crochet reinforcement I used sock yarn in a complimentary, but distinguishable colour to the sweater yarn, then slipped stitched in straight columns according to the diagram in the Ysolda post linked above. Doing this part was fun, although it did take forever as my cardigan is on the long side - maybe a half hour for each edge?   

Then, once the crochet reinforcements were in place, I took a pair of embroidery scissors and snipped right through the middle steek stitch - in between the crochet columns.  

At this stage, everything looked fine and I was well pleased with the result. So I proceeded to fold the left steeked edge back and picked up stitches for the button band.

Here again, all was going smoothly. And it was only when I had knitted a few rows of the button band that I noticed bits of frayed yarn were starting to pop out of the crochet reinforcements - which was definitely not supposed to happen, as far as I understood! 

You will forgive me, but I did not snap pictures at this point - I was too busy panicking and trying not to throw up/ faint. After dropping my knitting and pacing the room for a few minutes, I was finally able to get my hands to stop shaking and think clearly. I do not know why stitches were coming out of the crochet chain. But they were. And it was obvious that I needed to immediately re-reinforce the steeks to stop them unraveling - which I did, with a darning needle and the same sock yarn I used for the crochet reinforcements, using blanket stitch. 

The result isn't exactly pretty. But at least the edges are secured now to my satisfaction, and they have not frayed any further even after I hand-washed the sweater and laid it out to block.

After the cardigan dries, I will cover these 'scars' with grossgrain ribbon and hopefully the end result will look presentable. Unfortunately, even if things look gorgeously tidy, I am not happy with the bulk that has been added here. There are now very tangible seams along the button bands and this is at odds with the rest of the garment being perfectly seamless.  

Also? As someone prone to messing with her garments after wearing them for some time, it is driving me nuts to realise that I will not be able to alter this cardigan, now that it has been steeked and the button band added after. Another reason I am better suited to seamless knitting!... 

In summary: My first attempt at steeking did not go as well as I had hoped. I did manage to rescue the garment, but in retrospect I wish I had just knitted it open. While I agree that steeking is the logical choice when working with stranded colourwork and certain cable and lace motifs, there was no need for me to knit this particular cardigan in the round other than as an experiment. And well I guess this serves as a reminder that not all experiments have favorable outcomes!

All that being said, I do plan to steek again in future, if the nature of the garment calls for it. I will do more research next time to try and understand what went wrong for me here, and hopefully will have a smoother experience. Likewise, I do not mean to discourage others from giving steeking a try. By all means, give it a go - just be aware that things may not work out perfectly, and perhaps have a backup plan if you experience fraying the way I did. Learning after all, is about trial and error, and it is often these types of incidents that end up being valuable - or at least memorable! - learning experiences. 


Olann agus Caorigh


Have you ever heard tell of the Wool and Sheep project quilt, commemorating the Gweedore Sheep War of 1856?

No? Well, sadly (because it is truly a thing of beauty!) neither have I, until today. And before you wave me away, allow me to assure you that the both the object itself and the event it depicts are real, rather than figments of Flann O'Brian's imagination

Funny enough it was only a few days earlier, on a very-rainy-day visit to the Dunlewy Heritage Centre, that I learned of the Sheep War itself - from the lovely Martina, the resident weaver-spinner. It is difficult to find a detailed historical description of this online. But from what I understand, it happened like this:

Several landlords in Gweedore imported herds of Scottish Blackface sheep (from Scotland), and confiscated land occupied by locals for the purpose of grazing them. Predictably, this upset the local residents, and so when sheep began to go missing they were blamed and police were brought into the area - tightening control over the region.

The conflict came to a climax when one of the landlords was raided by a group of local men. Shortly after this, they managed to find a way to allow residents back onto the land and at the same time graze the sheep. And it was only generations later, I am told, that excavation work uncovered sheeps' remains buried beside the house where the Head Shepherd used to live... suggesting that he was killing the sheep himself - although whether this was done in order to frame the locals, or out of some form of serial-sheep-killing pathology, we may never know. 


But in any case: To commemorate all of this, folks gathered at the Donegal County Museum in Letterkenny, and collaborated to make this spectacular quilt.

Titled Olann agus Caorigh (Wool and Sheep), the quilt took several months and 150 hours to create, and is now on display at the Museum - where I wandered in serendipitously earlier in the day, attracted by their Thatched Cottage exhibit.The quilt, though, ended up being the highlight of the museum by far. 

The detail in the renderings of the cottages, the hillside, the people, the sheep, and the whole Gweedorian ambiance - complete with distant view of Errigal - is just stunning. The layering of textures and the selection of colours, are quite striking. And although I am no quilting expert, the sewing looks skillfully done. In all honesty, I could have stood there and stared at this quilt forever, and it was only my husband's hunger that eventually removed me from the building.

So, my sincere appreciation to the group of individuals who made this quilt and to the agencies that made the project possible. And I only wish that more information was provided regarding the materials and processes used to make the quilt. Is the fabric Donegal tweed, for instance?  Were the participants instructed in the craft of quilt making or were they experienced quilters? Will more quilts be made to commemorate other events in Donegal history? Will the quilt travel and be exhibited elsewhere?

It's a project that deserves more publicity, and I am sure other fibre-enthusiasts would appreciate seeing it.




How to Move Stitches to Scrap Yarn Without a Tapestry Needle 


A couple of days ago I was working on a sweater, sitting in a lovely lush grassy spot on top of a hill some miles from my house. And just as I got to the exciting part of separating the sleeves (it's a top-down sweater in the round), I managed to drop my tapestry needle. The needle was one of those aluminium ones, anodized a nice shade of green. So you probably see where this is going. Green needle, green grass… After a frustrated search I finally came to terms with the fact I would likely never see it again! Which is a shame, but at least I was still able to move the sleeve stitches onto scrap yarn, using my knitting needles. And in case this is not a method familiar to everyone, I thought it might be useful to share it.

To be clear, this is a slower and less efficient process than simply threading the scrap yarn through your live stitches with a tapestry needle. But in case you are stuck, here is how:

Start by arranging the scrap yarn in your hand as if you are going to knit with it, with the short end of the scrap yarn being where where the working yarn would normally flow from. Then Ktog as many stitches you can comfortably manage (the picture shows k3tog, but you can do K2tog, K5tog, whatever).

Now, with your working needle, pull at the the knitted stitch you have just created until the short end of the scrap yarn pops out. 

And - voilà! The stitches are now threaded onto the scrap yarn. 

Obviously, the more stitches you can Ktog at a time, the faster this will go. Just be careful not to take on so many as to drop stitches or make the process so awkward that it is actually slower than doing fewer at a time.

While not quite as efficient as simply threading the stitches onto scrap yarn, if you find yourself without a tapestry needle it's better than having to put your work aside just as you are getting to the exciting part!