Monday, February 28, 2011

Unexpected delight

Some of you who've been reading a while know that slowly, over the years, I've been putting together a genealogy for my kids. I've always been fascinated with stories about my family's background, and as part of collecting those stories, I've been trying to collect old family photos, too. Just for fun, I've been scanning some of them and posting them on Facebook so that my cousins can see them.

Last week I was scanning this photo -- my mom's wedding portrait.

(Isn't it awesome?)

As I took the photo out of its frame, I was surprised to find another photograph hiding behind it. I should explain that growing up, we did not have a lot of pre-1972 photographs in our house. (In 1972, Hurricane Agnes caused a massive flood in my hometown. My parents' house was covered by 30+ feet of muddy flood water and nearly everything in the house was either ruined or washed away -- including mementos, photographs and other keepsakes.) This particular photograph came from my grandmother's house -- she lived in a different part of town, on higher ground, and her house was never flooded. After my grandmother moved into a nursing home years ago, my mom and aunt divided up the photographs that my grandmother had. My mom gave it to me.

Anyway, as I said, I was carefully removing the photo from its frame when I realized that there was a second photograph underneath. When I took a good look at the photo that was hiding under the wedding portrait, I totally cracked up. It's this:

That is my mom as a girl. As best as we can tell, she's about eleven or twelve or so in the photo. She remembers her mom putting the bow in her hair ("My mother always loved putting bows in our hair") and she thinks the sleeves were a pink angora-type sweater. I had never seen this photo before and until I showed it to my mom, wasn't even sure whether it was my mom or my aunt in it. I guess my grandmother must have needed a photo frame when she got a copy of my mom's wedding photo, and just popped it in this one over the one that was there.

Where it remained for over fifty years (!) until I found it last week.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

For those of you wondering

what a "spenorah" looks like, this is the one we made.

From my maternal grandmother's sewing basket, which I inherited, came wooden thread spools. She had rewound some kind of awful thick stuff around them (not sure if it was thick thread or some kind of weird embroidery floss) but I kept the spools and they are perfect candle holders. We glued them onto two blocks leftover from the building block days, and spraypainted it all gold.

In other news, just updated the BBF website with more Silk Sock -- 50% silk, 50% superwash merino, 100% luscious!

Night Owl (has deep green and purple tones, very subtle)

Green Day



Carrot Juice (even brighter in real life, Jen H!)

Monday, February 21, 2011

It's that time of year again

Once again, it's time to celebrate Speranza'a. For those of you new to the blog, here's the original explanation that I wrote a few years ago:

A couple of years ago, my kids got a Sesame Street DVD called Elmo's Happy Holidays. It's very cute, and covers Christmas, Hannukah, Eid and Kwanza'a, explaining the basic idea behind the holidays and showing real kids and their families celebrating them. My kids have watched this DVD over and over (and over). Somehow they got the idea that we should create and celebrate our own family holiday. Since their last name, like my husband's, is "Speranza," the obscure festival of Speranza'a was born.

Each winter, when the days are gray and cold and it seems like spring will never come, it is time for Speranza'a. (Technically speaking, it begins on the first Monday after Valentine's Day.) Each person in the family gets their own day. Monday is Tom's, mine is Tuesday, and so on, and the sixth and final day is for Charcoal [-- and any guests fortunate enough to be invited.] The person whose day it is gets to pick what we are having for dinner. Candles are lit and the person whose day it is gets to make a wish and blow out the candles. After dinner, we dance in the living room.

We are still working out some of the finer details; for example, someday I will have to take the kids to one of those paint-your-own pottery places so we can make special candleholders (a spenorah?). We still need to work on the Six Principles of Speranza'a: so far we've got the Principles of Irony, Gluttony and Magnetism, but I think they need tweaking.

But all silliness aside, it is sweet and surprising to see how much this family tradition means to my kids. They've been talking about it for weeks. They talk about what they are going to pick for their dinner (Elvis picked turkey breast; N. is opting for shells in tomato sauce; G. will probably ask for bacon and popcorn) and they are thrilled when it's their turn to make a wish and blow out the candles. From the parents' perspective, it is heartwarming to feel like we are making some special memories with our kids. I have little daydreams about them coming over when they are grownups, still celebrating this made-up holiday with us as we all grow older.

So from my family to yours, we wish you a happy Speranza'a!

This weekend's project: making a spenorah (a Speranza'a candleholder). Pix when the spray-paint dries.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

No-Bull Book Review: Knitting Knee-Highs by Barb Brown

I feel about Barb Brown's new book the way I feel about the child of a dear friend: having known about the joyous event from the beginning, and having watched my friend give so much of herself during the process, I feel all sorts of excited and proud and happy to see the full-grown fruits of her labor. You see, Barb and I talked a lot about the publishing world, writing proposals, how to try to sell them and so on. She'd told me about her concept for a book and I thought it was great. I watched with a lot of excitement as a publisher offered her a contract, and I was thrilled to supply some Black Bunny Fibers yarn for use in two of the sample patterns. So accept the above as full disclosure. I mean, how cool is it that I am mentioned in the dedication of the book?!?

Friendship aside, though, it's a great pleasure to review Knitting Knee-Highs: Sock Styles from Classic to Contemporary (Krause 2011; MSRP $22.99; available via the link for $12.54 as of the time of this writing; Kindle version available here for $9.99) because it's a damn good book. Let's take a closer look.

Birdwalk socks (knit in BBF!)

One of the first questions some may have when browsing through the book is "why knee-highs?" Brown addresses this question in the Introduction to the book:

Many people look at a pair of hand-knit knee-highs and, while they love the look of them and would dearly like to own a pair, are frightened off by the amount of knitting that seems to be required. However, there really isn't a lot more knitting involved in a pair of knee-highs than there is in a pair of socks. The leg on a pair of knee-highs is only around thirteen inches. That is a difference of just four to six inches. If you were knitting the sleeve of a sweater, you'd barely be started! For a little bit of extra knitting you get an awful lot of satisfaction.

Brown then goes on to address the fit issue (by providing a formula and tips for custom fitting, Brown takes a lot of the angst out of fit) and the wear issue (she explains how to reknit the foot of the sock should holes develop). She then points out how the longer length of knee-highs provides a larger canvas for beautiful, show-stopping stitchwork.

Celeigh's socks

The next section is devoted to some technical information that will greatly aid the knitter of knee-highs, especially the first-time knitter of knee-highs. Brown recommends starting with a plain pair of striped knee-highs, using the formula she provides; at the end of the pair, the knitter not only has a nice pair of knee-highs, but also has a custom pattern that she can track via the stripes. Next up is Brown's Knee-High Formula, where she shows how to take a few measurements and calculate the number of stitches and where to make increases and decreases. She follows this with a page of tips and tricks for custom fitting, then discusses how to convert knee-high patterns to other sock styles (including an inset box on the importance of swatching).

Next up are the patterns -- twenty patterns featuring a variety of techniques including stranded colorwork

Both Sides Now socks


Maid Marion socks

and textured stitchwork.

Counterpane socks

Brown took her inspiration from all sorts of ethnic and folk knitting traditions, as well as her life-long experience as a knitter (I especially love how Brown pays homage to the various knitters who taught her over the years). If you're looking for a breakdown, you'll find eleven patterns that use stranded colorwork (and the beauty and intricacy of these patterns just knocks me out!); about four that use eyelets or lace stitch patterns; four which I've classified as textural stitch patterns; and one which is a mix of techniques. Socks are sized small-to-medium; large; and extra-large, with finished foot circumference in the range of 8 or so inches through 9 to 10 inches. The book is paperback, with approximately 128 pages, full-color.

Bonnie Bird socks (knit in BBF!)

My favorites? Hard to pick a few, although the Bonnie Birds and Birdwalk socks have a special place in my heart because they are the ones knit in BBF yarn. I also love the chocolate and aqua Eric's Path socks

Eric's Path socks

the intricate Mary Wilson's Gift socks;

Mary Wilson's Gift socks

and the Dance Little Jeans, which combine colorwork and texture to great effect.

Dance Little Jean socks

Knitting Knee-Highs has all the amenities you'd expect, including charts (some color, some b&w depending on the sock), lots of clear photos, beautifully taken by Ric Deliantoni, both close-up and giving the full view; and what I think is outstanding (and a helluva lot of work), each sock is shown in more than one variation. You get a knee-high pattern for each, but also a variation on the pattern (a mid-calf sock or a legwarmer or anklets done in the same basic stitch pattern). Not only do you get to see the sock in different heights, you also get to see it knit in different colorways and yarns -- very helpful if you're envisioning using a different set of colors or just to inspire you in your own color choice. Remember the Maid Marion socks, shown above in the off-white, knee-high version? Here are the crew sock version:

and a cuffed anklet version. Pretty awesome, no?

Summing up, then, you will get a great deal of knitting pleasure from investing in Barb Brown's Knitting Knee-Highs. You get 20 gorgeous patterns for knee-highs, plus 20+ variations adapting those patterns to different sock styles. Best of all, each pattern is a masterpiece of construction and design, using beautiful stranded stitchwork, texture and lace. It's exciting to see a book that was clearly written by someone with a knitter's soul, and which isn't dumbed-down for fear of scaring away purchasers. And that the author is my friend is just icing on the cake.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't forget...

This is what my week consisted of:

1 dermatologist appointment for the teenager
2 piano lessons
3 dentist appointments
1 third-grade field trip chaperoning
1 cello lesson
2 deadlines
1 basketball practice
1 broken cello string to get fixed
1 Valentine's Day party snack to drop off
1 sinus infection

So when I say I'm ready for the weekend, I really mean it.

Before I toddle off, though, just a quick reminder to click on this link, to join my spiffy new Black Bunny newsletter email list.* Remember, I'll be randomly selecting a name from the list on Monday to receive a free skein of BBF yarn! So don't delay.

And have a terrific weekend.

*The form has only one mandatory field: your email address. You can add your name if you wish, but it's optional. I won't sell or give your email address to anyone.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

No-Bull Book Review: Silk Road Socks, by Hunter Hammersen

It's a great month for sock knitters. In addition to Barb Brown's new sock book (which will be my next book review), indie publisher Cooperative Press released Silk Road Socks by Hunter Hammersen ($26.95 via the link above, or purchase a digital or e-reader version here for $16.95). Silk Road Socks features 14 sock patterns inspired by Oriental rugs -- and when you think about the rich colors and intricate designs of these rugs, well, there's a heck of a lot of inspiration to be found there.

Hammersen begins with an introduction, explaining why she made the connection between oriental rugs and hand-knit socks:

They actually have rather a lot in common. They are made from similar materials, have long histories, and are intended to keep their users warm and comfortable. They are both testaments to patience and skill. Socks take thousands of tiny stitches and rugs take tens of thousands of tiny knots to complete. More importantly, both are utilitarian objects that people have chosen to make more beautiful.

Hammersen sketches the history of the Silk Road, a trading route that extended from China to Turkey. She then takes a thorough look at the history of rugs in this region, including methods of construction and dyeing. I liked the use of historical paintings in this section to give more historical flavor. The last introductory section covers basic instructions: how to read the directions, using the charts, resizing the socks, gauge, and ways to adjust the patterns to custom-fit your feet.

Serab Socks

The remainder of the book is dedicated to the patterns: a total of 14. (Don't be perturbed that there aren't more patterns included; these are complex patterns with lots of intricate stitchwork. Undoubtedly they took longer to design, knit and edit as a result.) Each pattern is named after a geographic location or tribe found along the Silk Road.

Nain Socks

The introduction to the pattern explains the significance of the name, along with the kinds of rugs attributed to this area or tribe (and a hand-drawn illustration evocative of the type of rugs).

Afshari Socks

My favorites? The Serab, with the lace motif at cuff and toe, the beautiful swirls of the Nain and Joshagan socks, the assymetric Senneh socks, and the Usak socks,with a decorative cuff followed by a stylized floral design on the foot.

Joshagan Socks

Patterns include charts (these are all textured stitch patterns, rather than colorwork, so the black-and-white charts work just nicely), and several photos, including close-ups, of each sock. These are not line-by-line, holding-your-hand sort of patterns; they are designed for the sock knitter who knows what she's doing and rely heavily on the charts rather than written-out directions. The sock patterns come in one size only, due to their complexity and the length of various charts and stitch repeats, but tips are given in the introductory section for modifying fit. The socks are mainly knit in sockweight yarn with some in sport/DK weight, and most are mid-calf height.

Usak Socks

We've heard a lot about the brave new world of alternative publishing, and it's exciting to see a quality book with interesting and intricate patterns come from a small indie publishing company (Cooperative Press, the brainchild of Shannon Okey). Hammersen is a very talented designer with some fascinating patterns for the intermediate-to-advanced sock knitter, and I like the way the book draws its inspiration from a textile tradition not directly related to knitting. The historical overview in the beginning of the book is interesting and the sock designs are beautiful. For the passionate sock knitter or indeed any knitter looking for some knockout textured designs, Silk Road Socks is certainly worth a look. And it will also be fun to see what future projects come from the talented needles of Hunter Hammersen.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I can't believe I forgot to mention that Shannon Okey's coming to Philly tomorrow, too. Now you've got two reasons to stop by Loop/Spool this weekend. Details here. It's times like these when I am positive that my children ate my brain. (Okey-dokey?)

Fabriclovers & quilters

I have to confess to an increasing fascination with modern fabrics and quilting. I blame this entirely on my pal Liza, who is an extremely talented quilter/designer/author (not to mention quilting collaborator with the great Kaffe Fassett). Liza has a quilt pattern in the new Quilt Magazine and I had the good luck to see it in person last weekend.

Sunny Side Up Quilt (April/May 2011 Quilt Magazine)

The colors are so vibrant that the photos in the magazine can't really do it justice. I'm asking Mr. Go-Knit-In-Your-Hat for a kit for this quilt for my birthday present....(available on Liza's website, link above -- got that, Tom?).

Habitat (I think it's the Pastoral colorway)

I also saw that designer (and Philly resident) Jay McCarroll has a new line of fabric out called Habitat. I really liked Jay's previous fabrics, so I was very pleased to see that Spool in Philly is carrying it. In fact, Spool is having a Habitat Party with Jay tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 12th, from 2 to 5 p.m. Details here. (Unfortunately Saturdays can be tough for me due to kid activities, so I won't be able to make it but I'm hoping to get my hands on some of the fabric soon.) One of my "six degrees of separation" claims to fame is that my dear aunt Carol (for whom I was named) used to be Jay's mailman. (Well, sort of. I should say "mail-woman" because my aunt is not my uncle, and she was actually the postmistress of the local post office in the rural part of Pennsylvania where Jay grew up as opposed to his letter carrier.) So if you're in the neighborhood, stop by the party.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

You need this book

Nothing makes me happier than seeing talented people make good. GKIYH pal Barb Brown is going to vault into the knitting stratosphere with her brand-new book which is available NOW at Knitting Knee-Highs: Sock Styles from Classic to Contemporary:

I've known Barb for a while (on-line only, alas, although we do have high hopes for meeting in real life someday) and she's an amazing friend, as well as a fabulous knitter. So I am proud to recommend to you this beautiful book, full of gorgeous patterns. (FYI: The patterns are also adjustable to be regular-length socks if you don't like knee-highs.)

I am especially excited to reveal that not one, but two of the gorgeous stranded patterns in the book are knit in Black Bunny Fibers yarn:

Are they not exquisite?

I am eagerly waiting for my copy to arrive, and when I does, you'll get the full book review treatment. Congratulations to Barb!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Overheard in my house

Me: [grumble grumble grumble]

Husband: What are you doing?

Me: [muffled voice coming from closet] Looking for some yarn.

Husband: Hah. Well (gesturing everywhere around him to yarn in baskets, on tables, covering nearly every surface) I can see why you're having trouble.

Me: Not helpful.

Husband: Is there any in that basket? [pointing to basket full of sock yarn]

Me: No, that's sock yarn. I'm looking for something bulkier.

Husband: What about this? [holds up leftover ball of Rowan Big Wool] This is bulky.

Me: But it's not NORO.

Husband: Oh.

Me: You know, the one with all the colors? that stripes?

Husband: There's a whole bin of colored yarn over here.

Me: No, that's not it either. I'm looking for a specific ball of Noro. I know I have a leftover ball of Big Kureyon somewhere and I need it to swatch with.

Husband: Can't you just use something else?

Me: [loud sigh]

It can be tough for someone who isn't totally immersed in yarn to understand that not all yarn is fungible. If I'm looking for a really thick yarn that has tweedy tufts and changes color every fifty yards, then a really skinny sock yarn in a solid color just won't do it. If I am trying to swatch for a call for submissions for a summer magazine issue, then swatching in a mohair/angora/alpaca blend is going to look silly. If I am thinking about playing around with some colorwork, then I need solid yarns in a relatively lightweight gauge, not barberpole-marled roving with a black thread binder.

So please don't get all "We live in a yarn museum with every fiber known to humandkind, so how can you not find any yarn?" on me, honey, because all yarn isn't made alike and I NEED BULKY WEIGHT AND WORSTED ISN"T THICK ENOUGH, SELF-STRIPING BUT IN LONG COLORWAYS NOT SHORT REPEATS, PREFERABLY IN BRIGHT COLORWAYS NOT MUTED ONES, IDEALLY BY NORO, YARN.

Got it?

Now help me move those 15 bins of yarn so I can see what's in the back of the closet, 'kay?

Monday, February 07, 2011

No-Bull Book Review: Wild Color by Jenny Dean

In the past twenty years or so, interest in dyeing yarn has skyrocketed. And at the same time, environmental concerns have led more and more dyers to think about using natural substances instead of man-made chemicals to dye their textiles. Way back in 1999, Jenny Dean wrote a book called Wild Color, a very useful and thorough handbook for those interested in using dyes derived from plants.

Things have changed a lot in the years since that book was published, and so Dean's publisher decided it was time for a revised second edition. Although not a knitting book, the topic of dyeing is so closely intertwined with yarn that it makes sense for a knitting blog to take a look at the new and improved Wild Color, Revised and Updated Edition: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes (Watson-Guptill 2010).

Wild Color is a paperback, approximately 144 pages long, and it's full to bursting with swatches and photographs of the plants and other ingredients used to make the dyes. It also contains photographs showing the equipment used for dyeing, textiles dyed with natural dyes, and yarn. (As noted above, this is a dyeing guide, and not a knitting book, so there are no knitting patterns or knitting techniques covered in it.)

The book begins with a lengthy introduction, then the remainder is divided into two sections: "Dyeing Techniques" walks the reader through the process of gathering the ingredients, making the dyebaths and specific techniques for dyeing, while"The Dye Plants" is a visual index to the plants and other substances that are used as sources for the dyes.

Dean's introductory material is really an historical overview. Dean notes that the use of man-made dyestuffs is a relatively recent development, beginning in the mid-19th century. For thousands of years before that, humans used plants and other substances found in nature as the source of their dyes. Dean goes on to discuss how techniques of dyeing developed, and then divides natural dyes into three categories. "Substantive" dyes are those which bond by themselves to fiber and do not need a mordant to fix them permanently to the fiber. "Vat dyes" also do not need the assistance of a mordant to attach to the fiber, but they are tricky because the dyestuffs aren't soluble in water. They depend on a process like oxidization to develop their full color and become permanent. The third category of dyes are called "adjective dyes," because they need a mordant in order to get the full effect of the color and for the color to be fixed permanently to the fiber. Dean next discusses some non-plant based dyes, including a purple dye that comes from a kind of shellfish; dyes derived from insects, like cochineal; and then covers plant-derived dyes, organizing them by color. She finishes by discussing methods of applying dye, such as block printing and ikat techniques. There are photographs of various historical textiles interspersed in the text.

Would-be dyers will want to jump right into the "Dyeing Techniques" section. In this section, Dean gives an overview of how to use natural dyes on cloth and fiber. She reviews the necessary equipment; discusses the composition of the fibers and textiles that will be dyed; tells how to prepare the fibers, test the pH value of the water, and use mordants*; she discusses several methods of applying the dye; covers special types of dye, like indigo and woad; and discusses colorfastness. She also includes tips on how to modify dye colors (along with a chart); a chart showing the best dyeing methods for specific natural dyes; and ideas for recording one's dyeing results.

The heart of the book for the fiberista who wishes to use natural dyes, however, is the second section. Beginning with Acacia catechu (a plant called cutch) and finishing with Urtica dioica (nettle), she covers over 60 plants and trees that can be used as sources of dye. Some are common garden plants (like the daffodil or dahlia) and trees (oak, birch), and some are food plants (blackberry, elderberry), while others are what some call weeds (dandelions). Each one-page entry includes a photograph of the plant to aid in identification; color swatches showing approximate shades that can be obtained (and where necessary, there are different swatches for different part of the plant, so that if the leaves give one color and the bark gives another, two sets of swatches are included); growing tips; and hints on how to dye with it.

The book ends with a bibliography and index.

This book review is a bit shorter and different from my usual ones, because Wild Color isn't a knitting pattern book or even a knitting book at all. What it is, however, is a very thorough guide to growing and using natural sources, mainly plants, to dye textiles. It's a wonderful resource full of information for the dyer wishing to try plant-based dyes, and I think it's even an interesting read for gardeners and/or herbalists who are interested in the uses of various common plants and trees. Kudos to Dean for providing dyers with a thorough look at the most frequently-used plants for dyeing, along with helpful instructions to get the dyer started.

*Dean discusses the use of aluminum (some aluminum-containing substances are known as "alum," copper, and iron (chemical mordants) as well as staghorn sumac leaves, oak galls and rhubarb leaves (plant-derived mordants).

Friday, February 04, 2011


In an effort to serve you better, I am switching my Black Bunny Fibers update list from the old, outgrown Yahoo group I was using to a regular e-newsletter format. This way I"ll be able to send notices when my website is updated with more luscious BBF yarn and patterns -- and the emails will have room for photos and even some content. I know that people sometimes hesitate to sign up for things because of spam, so I'm trying to keep this as worry-free as possible for you. If you click on this link, you will get a form with only one mandatory field: your email address. You can add your name if you wish, but it's optional. I won't sell or give your email address to anyone. It's that simple. And in order to incent you to do the clicking, I'm going to randomly select a name from the newsletter mailing list and give that lucky person a free skein of BBF yarn.

So go here and sign up for the BBF e-newsletter. I'll draw the lucky winner on February 21st, so you've got until then to do it to be eligible for the giveaway. Thank you!

Update: Just fixed and checked the link and it's working as of 9:52 a.m. Sorry!