Saturday, March 31, 2007

Fun with duct tape

I wonder who will be deeply disappointed when Google offers them this? Best not to know.

Now, if I'd just thought to have a couple of empty wine bottles in the frame... but the recycling was collected that morning :-) They are seriously weird things, though. Much more humanoid in their imperfections than a dressmaker's dummy will ever be. Joanne asked whether the duct tape dummy can be amended? stretched/allowed to shrink? to match changes in the original; I'd guess not. They're flexible, but not in that way. The flexibility is one of the weirdnesses.

Lots of websites have illustrated instructions; here's one describing several different methods to make what looks far more professional than mine, here's the one that inspired my efforts, and here's a use for any you no longer need.

In short, you start by finding a couple of old t-shirts (one to wear, one to cut to add length and a neck) and buying some duct tape. Two large rolls (20m) are ample. I wasn't certain whether our local DIY builder's merchant's 'cloth tape' was the right stuff, so asked one of the counter staff if this (brandishing roll) was duct tape aka gaffer's tape. He said he didn't know those names, but it was the stuff that sticks to everything. I decided NOT to describe the intended use. Be sure you're wearing a bra that supports you as you wish to be remembered. If you don't need a bra, I HATE you. Start with strips that 'lift and separate' realistically, and some to define the under-bust neatly. Then just wrap, snugly but not too tight. We took care to have at least two layers of tape everywhere, and up to four on places that were likely to see some wear such as the bottom (you know, hem area) of the dummy.
I got done first and at this point neither of us could stop laughing. I just wish the other rolls had been black, too.
The wrapping took about 45 minutes. When finished, mark centre front, armscyes and centre back with indelible marker (M's suggestion), then cut up the back with sharp scissors taking care not to cut the bra strap. There's a strange sense of relief when you're released, but the support provided by the taping is quite pleasant. I didn't find it too hot in there, but it was a cold day.
I posted the other photo first so you KNOW the dummy is splayed open at the back. My hips are not that wide! Note that M also marked the finish point for the v-necks I should be wearing. Then I did hers, which is now named 'Jane'. Then I was asked to demonstrate how a spinning wheel works. M avows no desire to spin (and I believe her), but wanted to understand the mechanism, so after a brief explanation I left her with fibre and wheel and went to see what dinner was doing. End result: her first-ever handspun (yellow), which she plied with some of my first wheelspun (blue).

After dinner we sat around discussing knitting patterns. M is a costume maker working for film and TV, with a very strong sense of fashion and some strong likes/dislikes. It was a very interesting, thought-provoking discussion :-)
I brought out Barbara Albright's 'The Natural Knitter', which has been favourably reviewed on several blogs by people saying most of the patterns are eminently knittable (I want the Nora Gaughan' 'Architectural Rib' sweater. how can I resist the name, let alone the cables?), and 'Norsk Strikkedesign', which contains several patterns that make my fingers twitch almost uncontrollably as I imagine the fair isling. M commented that ganseys, jerseys, arans and fair isle are too 70s, too rectangular to be flattering to any normal person, and too heavy to be worn for anything except a brisk walk on a cold day. You know what? She's right. What I realised is that I DON'T CARE. I hadn't really thought this through, but I knit most stuff because I want to make it, in the same way that a sculptor wants to create a sculpture or a musician wants to make music. I want to knit cables and fair isle because I want a challenge, and because I think the end result is a work of art beautiful in itself. And I will wear the garment not because I think I look good in it, but because I think the garment is worth looking at in its own right as a work of art and I'm proud (oh, how I hope I am) of it. I must remember that I make this peculiar distinction between art and clothing-that-fits, and that I need/want both. And to bear it in mind when, as one does, I see someone wearing a hand-knit that does absolutely nothing (or even worse) for them as fashion or clothing.

We talked of the ways in which aran or fair isle patterning could be shaped for more attractive fittings and the problems therewith; I wish I'd thought to show her Rogue, in which the designer changes the flow of cables to provide waist shaping. The only patterns that she thought were both interesting and wearable, some even desirable, were in my copy of Jamieson's of Shetland 'Simply Shetland 3' which contains some intriguingly constructed elegant sweaters, jackets and capes as well as the more traditional fair isle.

Now we have our dummies we've decided to experiment with a hybrid fabric/knitting techinique. Over the next few weeks I'm going to knit some largish swatches in interesting yarns. Nothing too fine -- I haven't time -- but I have some lovely grass-green hemp 3-ply that could make an interesting loose tunic top/sweater in a fairly open mesh, as well as a giant pullover's-worth of ancient Rowan indigo cotton DK. I'll post the swatches to M, she'll wash them and compare the drape with bulk cheap stockinette. When she's reasonably confident she understands how the handknit will shrink and how it behaves as fabric, then she'll cut pattern pieces that I will in theory knit to shape. And post them to her to make up. We've both been carefully analysing the expensive designer clothes we love and can't afford to buy, and this is how the knitwear pieces have been constructed: carefully shaped machine-knit pieces sewn together into a garment. We'll start simple and see what happens :-)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ugly Yarn

Well, it is. It looks better in the photo than In Real Life; the reddish chair emphasizes the blues. I won't knit with it - the Freecycler can have it - but I've learned a lot during the 2-3 hours made flesh, er, yarn sitting beside me. At this stage, new to wheel-spinning, I much prefer the drop spindle. Even at a slow speed, feeding fibre evenly and regularly (for some values of 'even' and 'regular') to the wheel occupies so much of my attention that I haven't time to properly appreciate the fibre itself as it passes through my hands. The merino-silk on the spindle will not be moving to the wheel any time soon; I want to enjoy the nuances of colour and texture as I spin it. I'm sure that will change as experience improves my drafting. I notice that last night the experienced spinners, the 20-year-plus people, were not watching their fibre -- their hands dealt with it efficiently while their attention went to conversations and appreciation of other people's work. As opposed to the other side of the room surreptitously passing a copy of 'Naughty Needles' from hand to hand. I do feel that knitted underwear is a waste of time and luxury yarn for anyone other than beanpole models; don't the purl lumps leave unsightly blemishes on one's tender bits? And I don't need a giant owl-ish condom holder! (What would that say about the owner? the knitter?). Anyway, I have miles of blue and yellowish BFL roving left to teach my hands to feed the wheel. I will try Navajo plying to see whether eliminating the barber-pole effect makes much difference, while concentrating on thoughts of spinning something nicer when I deserve it. Speaking of which, he rang yesterday from the next stage of his voyage. Apparently he felt he needed some exercise in Salt Lake City, so walked to Black Sheep Wool (no website) despite (he said) knowing it was closed that day. He's taken pictures of the shop window for me. *sigh* In the next city my sister-in-law, hearing that I was learning to spin, insisted he join them at the farmers' market to visit the stall selling beautiful hand-dyed yarn and roving from local alpacas. He says he didn't know whether I'd want any, so didn't buy any. I'm hoping he's just pulling my leg...

There's knitting, too, but not enough to be worth documenting with photos just yet. I'm trying to reverse-engineer a garter lace design for a scarf made of my alpaca-silk singles. I knitted enough to realise that it's a delightfully soft yarn, but is blooming as it is worked, if bloom is the right term for individual alpaca and silk fibres working free of the twist. The halo obscures the flowing stitch pattern I'd earmarked for that rusty-steel grey, and the yarn thickness is a little too uneven for it. So... find a more open lacy stitch for the singles and make a note that plying should reduce the halo. I can see that it's possible to spend hours? days? working with a single batch of fibre, making it serve different purposes. Socks are proceeding. And I'm thinking about a summer top. It would be easier to make it fit if I could see it on me as an observer, walk around it and note details. Hence the cunning plan for tomorrow. There may be pictures.

Have another weird thing.
We've woken to extremely cold, extremely dense fog every morning so far this week. After scraping ice off the windscreen I drive to the gym through a dusky, cold, blue, very personal world, a travelling sphere of perception. I like this reminder that each of us lives in a world defined by our individual perception, by what we believe we see, feel, taste and hear. I enjoy considering the possibility that as I drive into the fog I encounter only what I expect to encounter, that my mind is pulling the road, the hedges and everything else into being to meet my expectations. I particularly like the conceit that if my will and mind were strong enough, I could drive into the fog and be... somewhere else. Would it be possible if I didn't know it were impossible?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Two Hours

Two hours Sunday morning:
Can you see the difference? I can't either. Except for 'A' which is where I removed the giant dandelion that's been mocking me all winter. 'B' is an olive tree that's survived outside for the last 10 years. Just barely; it would help if I remembered to water it occasionally. Even an olive tree needs some water when planted in a tub. 'C' is the path to our door, which is beautiful in an architectural way but extraordinarily ugly if viewed as a functional item. Something Will Be Done about this soon.

Two hours Sunday afternoon:
In a manner of speaking. I have to confess (because this is a place for honesty: the magnitude of my achievements is best appreciated by contrast with the depths of my stupidity) that two hours of Saturday afternoon were required as well. I had planned to spend that time spinning, getting to grips with the wheel, but I could NOT get the yarn to build up on the bobbin. The twist built until the yarn broke, but I just couldn't persuade the bobbin to rotate. Or so it seemed. I tried everything I could think of, finally rang P&M Woolcraft from whom I bought the wheel (very, very nice people) to explain the problem, adding that the fault was undoubtedly mine, but I'd be very grateful if someone could spare 5 minutes to show me what I was doing wrong. I raced over with the wheel, arriving at 1545 (they close at 1600) and yes, it did take only 5 minutes. For some reason I was expecting this wheel to 'pull' the way the Ashford Joy at Handweavers' did. That wheel almost ripped the forming yarn from my fingers. This one doesn't, I have to be more sensitive and feed the yarn to it gently. I practiced sensitivity and gratitude by buying 250g of bamboo roving and about the same again of tussah silk (
I'll be ready for it one day, I swear.), as well as the new Interweave 'Favourite Socks'. Must... knit... faster...

I was going to ply this lot tomorrow, but Alden Amos says it's best to wind newly spun singles onto another bobbin before plying, so I'll do a shuffle of yarn on bobbins tomorrow and then find out what it looks like plied. I'm fairly sure I'll dislike the stripiness, although I have thought of a yarn I should be able to make with these colours that could make socks. Even if BFL socks won't last very long! But I may have found a home for yarn I make that's of decent quality even if I hate the colours: a local Freecycler has just asked for yarn and any tools used in fibre arts. I've asked for more details.

Have another photo.
Nestled behind the bobbins is one of my cherished 'hose in hose' double primroses. These are reputedly Elizabethan in origin, hence the name. They're not entirely happy in this garden; I usually manage to keep three or four plants by dint of frequent, careful division and replanting. Meanwhile the common 'wild' primrose is marching along the borders smothering all before it in a mass of pale yellow flowers.

Another two hours today and you can see a difference in the garden: two inches of bark mulch covering the remains of my battles with the weeds. Oh, and my left knee is twingeing unhappily. Never mind, if I can't go to the gym I can always knit instead. Anyone else think getting up at 0515 to knit is a cunning plan?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Things that prove more difficult than I'd expected

1. Choosing gifts for people I don't know. By definition my stash is a store of yarn I like, I want to keep. I don't like all of it as much as I did when I bought it (I think there is something in the 'wool fumes' theory explaining impulse purchases), but nonetheless yarn in the hand is worth more than yarn that might materialise in the future. Gift-giving ties me in knots, I'm not sure why. I love giving gifts - I suspect that somewhere inside my head a lonely sub-teen is still trying to curry favour with possible friends - but I lack judgment. My exasperated husband tells me I frequently over-do it. If I've done so again, I apologise. But I still hope that at least one thing in the parcels made you unexpectedly happy. Don't eat all the chocolate at once!

2. Loneliness. Don't get me wrong, I like being alone. Until my third year at University I happily contemplated an entire life alone, full of solitary adventures. And then, completely unexpectedly, I was no longer alone, and I haven't been alone much for the last 28 years. Alone sometimes seems a highly desirable place to be, especially when faced with five foolish questions/demands in as many minutes. Now, equally unexpectedly, 'alone' has become 'lonely'. Despite Dyson's best efforts, this house is empty. The bed is mine, all mine, but a hot water bottle is just not the *same* as a person. I don't like this vulnerability. Three weeks will be the longest we've ever spent apart. There's a reason socks come in pairs, and this pair is being knit with more love than desperation.
Being a grown-up, I know the best cure is to keep busy, so the socks and I spent yesterday evening with the Tuesday Evening spinners. I took my wheel, hoping for that quiet happy place that spinners seem to inhabit, but instead the entire time passed in a blur of casting on for toe-up socks (on two circulars at the same time, started separately and fed onto one circular, on one circular to demonstrate 'magic loop'), knitting a few rows, then discarding what I'd done right to work out what someone else hadn't done quite so right. It was lively, it was good, and I need to knit like the wind to demonstrate heels on two socks on two circulars next week. This has come as a great surprise; I honestly expected to sit quietly learning at the feet of the masters rather than passing on what seems to be an unusual skill here.

Sunday was a great treat, a vaguely fibre-related geology expedition. Sometime during the Cretaceous period (65-135 million years ago), southern Britain was not only nearer the latitude of the Bahamas (an attractive thought, it's COLD today), there were volcanos in the vicinity. The precise location isn't known, but layers of volcanic ash tell us they were there. Over time the chemical composition of some of this ash altered to become Fuller's Earth the second link is a PDF with more technical info. Until recently there were open-cast mines near Woburn, Bedfordshire, but our expedition visited Aspley Heath to view the remains of much older mining activity.
The person is standing in one of many hollows scattered throughout this conifer plantation. Each hollow was once a bell-pit mine, a shaft sunk 60-70 feet straight down through sands and other sediments to reach the layer of Fuller's Earth. When the miners reached it, they cut down and out to all sides, creating a bell-shaped pit from which they removed Fuller's Earth until the pit collapsed or threatened to do so. I suspect a fair number of people died in these pits over the centuries.
Why? At the time these pits were active (from the late 19th century and earlier. The industry is documented in the area in 1536), it was needed to absorb oil and dirt from wool as woven cloth was 'fulled', slightly felted to thicken it. There's a good explanation here. Technically 'felt' and 'felting' involves matted fibres alone. When we 'felt' knitted goods, we're actually fulling them.

Today Fuller's Earth has many uses, including fine, lingering dust for theatrical 'explosions', in refining oils, papermaking, foundry casting, as drilling mud, and as an important constituent in cat litter. And what does this magic material look like?

It's about the same hardness as blackboard chalk. Very, very, very fine texture (think of the total surface area of all the miniscule particles - that's what makes it so absorbent). Strange feel on the teeth, not at all gritty, but more character than silt. Yes, I like to eat rocks. Is that weird? Am I winning yet?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

It's been a quiet weekend

in part due to intermittent internet access. Probably rock-solid while I was out. Also in part due to the cats and I having the house to ourselves. It's very quiet indeed, and I get to drive his car (Polo TDi) which I must confess is quieter (and nicer) than mine (ancient Polo 1.4). Don't tell my car I said that, or it will seek revenge. I must remember to do 'Six Weird Things' sometime. I want to prove I'm weirder (is that a word?) than the majority, which is in itself a bit strange.

*** Prizes! ***

First, my sincere apologies for not posting this earlier. Mrs J (Sue) and Alice have won birthday prizes... parcels on the way as soon as I know where to send them. I promise to include only nice stuff. Well, stuff I think is nice. Anyone not wanting chocolate should speak now or forever hold their peace.


His sock saga continues. I think I established that the colour of the Amalgator Socks is part of the problem. Persuading him to think about colour and then put his thoughts into words and speak them is a bit like extracting hen's teeth would be if I could find a toothed hen. Are all men like this? Fortunately I know he likes blue and he likes the feel of the first socks in Cherry Tree Hill yarn. This information was filed in the back of my mind when I went to the Tuesday evening spinning session in a village about 10 minutes away. There are spinners and knitters everywhere, just out of sight, and I never knew it. About half the 15 people there were spinning; the rest were knitting or crocheting. As the only person present who does two socks at once on two circulars, I've been asked to show this to the sock-knitters next session. I was tempted - still am tempted - to investigate the other two-socks-at-once technique, but that would be showing off. Wouldn't it? So his next socks, in CTH 'Green Mountain Madness' will serve to show how to tighten the cast-on *and* if I knit fast they could be a homecoming present. In return for the yarn he's bringing back for me :-)

But all this and spinning too means MY next socks are delayed. And that's hard, because I really like the way they look so far *sniff*
All soft and sproingy and amber. I like amber even more than treacle. I wonder, would a half-hour spent knitting my socks tonight really matter? I've got nearly three weeks to finish his. On the other hand, I could just try that sock-in-sock idea. Who knows, it might be even more effective than the two circulars. I owe it to myself to try it sometime...

Almost forgot: the pattern is Cookie A's 'Monkey' in Kirsty's 'Seat by the Fire' hand-dyed sock yarn. Incidentally, if you're in need of a cool and complex sock pattern, check these.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Go with the flow*

To celebrate the end of the Hateful Socks (news just in: one foot is too tight because he's got one foot bigger than the other, and he's decided he doesn't like heelflap heels, so I may end up with them in my drawer), I joyfully dug out my skeins of Kirsty's 'Seat by the Fire'. Visit her blog to see pictures of a puppy so sweet that she should carry a Government Health Warning. Thoughts of Monkey Socks in this yarn sustained me through the Hateful Socks; I'd tentatively named them 'Treacle Pudding'** because the yarn colours remind me of golden syrup as I pour it into the pudding basin.

The Monkey Socks pattern is written top-down. I cast on for toes as usual, planning simply to knit the chart backwards so the little reverse-stockinette aka purl triangles would point nicely down my legs, too. Halfway into the first pattern repeat I stopped to admire the pattern... and realised I couldn't. It wasn't right. I ripped the socks back to the start of the pattern (no fun with two socks on two circulars) and had sufficient intelligence (thank you, fairy godmother) to stop and think about WHY it hadn't been right before I started again. Too late to work it out from the now-vanished socks (but more intelligence would make life easier, thanks). The short story: the photo at top represents 2 hours last night, and another hour (from 0630 to 0730) this morning. I should have spent less time with pencil and paper, more time with yarn and needles working on this, er, design note, because knitting showed me, quite quickly, what had gone wrong. Knitting is directional: it flows off the needles and away, downhill, swirling around obstacles in a flurry of yarnovers... sorry, getting carried away there. But it is directional and clearly, for some patterns, the direction matters.

Below on the left is Monkey Sock as she should appear. Note the stockinette 'arrowheads' that point up-leg are composed of parallel lines of stitches, with a nice crisp edge as they flow down to meet (and eat, courtesy of K2tog and SSK) the purl stitches. Area 3 on the right (click for bigger) is what resulted when I simply knit the pattern in reverse (toe-up rather than top-down). Here the stockinette arrows are made of stitches flowing out towards the purl panels, ending in a mess the K2tog and SSK cannot tame. Worse, each stockinette decrease becomes a purl stitch, which makes the dead ends even more obvious. (Note that the design note was knitted from bottom to top; '3' was the last bit I knitted, after I decided to record this for future reference and/or posterity.)
Alright, I thought, I know how to make stockinette rivers flow: I've done it in lace. So I moved the decreases to the inner edges of the arrowhead, next to the yarnovers, to pull the river of stockinette in that direction. Then an increase into the crisp edge of the river made the purl stitches appear as if by magic. Perfect. Gah. That's two increases (YO and M1) and only one decrease, I need another decrease or I'll have too many stitches. In '1' I placed another decrease just inside the yarnovers and created a crisp edge, no good, too obtrusive, and anyway when I got to the final decrease where I should have had a double YO as the culmination of the YOs on each side, I had instead two live knit stitches needing a home. I tried a central YO with the knit stitches on each side feeding into the next set of stockinette. No. Messy. Try again.
'2' shows the additional decreases paired in the middle between the YOs. At the final decrease I ended up making YOs to either side of a central knit stitch which flows awkwardly into the next arrow. No. Try...

Wait a minute. Why am I doing this? Trying to force a decent, honest pattern to work backwards when it clearly doesn't want to? Why not go with the flow and knit it top-down, the way it wants to go?

So I am.

I'll draw for birthday prizes on Friday, after I take him to the airport.

Also, while I think of it: the green thing hanging off the swat, er, design note is a record of the needle size used. I rolled out a cylinder of FIMO modelling clay, cut it into discs, punched a hole in each, incised a variety of needle sizes into the discs, then fired them in the oven. People who make stitch markers from this stuff could undoubtedly make much better ones, much more quickly. Think Brighton Rock. This, not any other Brighton Rock. Google found lots.

* A friend gave me a button that read 'Only dead fish go with the flow', but I'm ignoring that for the purposes of this post.

** Basically this recipe, skipping the lemon zest in favour of more golden syrup in the basin. With lashings of golden syrup and cream poured over individual servings. Friday is Dessert Day!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A bad photo

of not very much knitting at all. The hateful socks are almost finished, with only an inch or so of ribbing remaining. Next will be socks for me (what a surprise) on the small needles. The next garment proper... ah, well. It was going to be this, in a different colourway; I've even got the samples. I have no idea whether that sweater would suit me, but I love the design on it. Then Eunny posted this sweater she's designed for Jamiesons. I've been wearing the Endpaper Mitts, smoothing them up my arms and thinking how nice it would be to have a sleeve or even an entire sweater that looked as intricately beautiful as the mitt. And I asked, and there will be a 39" bust size. I guess that's sorted.

A year ago I'd never have dreamed I'd be contemplating a knitting project like that. I didn't even know I'd be knitting socks, confidently devising my own patterns to fit my own feet (I confess those Amalgamator socks are a bit tight on him, but I'm going to block them on his feet. That'll teach him to over-estimate looseness). Spinning? No way, too complex. Ha. All these things have been achieved in large part because of 'the internet' and the many people I've met here.
Some are special, like Joanne, whose emailed advice on spinning encouraged me to learn this new skill. Most of the rest don't know me; I'm a lurker, laughing at their stories, inspired by pictures of their work and/or information about techniques. I've no idea how many people are lurking here, but I'm curious. So: post a comment, any comment, and I'll draw names for prizes. How many depends a bit on how many names there are and how much yarn I can bear to part with!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Sourdough Bread: Day Two (very, very long)

Day Two 0730. Note the air bubbles: this looks promising. Alas, I had to go out for an hour or so. When I returned (10am) I weighed out the remaining ingredients:
540g bread flour
260g bottled/spring water
1-2tsp table salt I use 1 heaped tsp, which gives a very mild bread. If you're accustomed to commercial loaves, try 2 tsp.

but don't add everything all at once to the incipient dough; hold back some flour and at least a third of the water. Have your dough scraper to hand: this is going to get very messy. If you're going to use a mixer you'll have to judge the results by eye from the pictures.

1020. Note the flour held back to flour the work surface, and the remaining water. This is a trick for working wet doughs by hand: to start, add only enough water to make a dough you can manage. As you knead and time passes, the gluten develops, the dough stiffens a bit, you can add the rest of the water gradually. You'll still be kneading chewing gum, but it'll be slightly stiffer chewing gum. I rather suspect you could throw this dough into the 'No Knead' bread recipe to rise at this stage, but I haven't tried it. I knead this by driving my hand from the wrist into the dough and pushing it away across the table, then scraping it back as I bring my hand/arm back. The power comes direct from the shoulder, and it's a good method for working wet doughs.

I rely on the dough scraper to bring the dough back together when it seems to be flowing away from me; I can't imagine manually working a dough like this without that scraper. At some point you may want to take a break from all this. When you do, prepare the container to hold the dough while it rises by pouring in 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil and smearing that thoroughly over the bottom and up the sides a bit.

1024. I've added some water, pooled into a hollow in the dough. I'll puddle this into the dough with my fingers before starting to knead again.
1040. See what I mean? The dough is like chewing gum, but even softer. With practice you'll find it easier to work this stuff and it makes really interesting bread.

1043. This looks bearable. Remember that gluten development continues (albeit more slowly) as the dough is left to rise. Sprinkle the last of the reserved flour (or a little from the bag if you need it) on the table and use the scraper and your hand to shape it into a soggy lump.
Leave it to rise (you did remember to prepare the container, didn't you?). Plan to come back in an hour or so exercise the dough with a 'stretch and fold'.
1224. Look, bubbles! It's rising nicely, and see how it's spread. The point of the 'stretch and fold' is to improve the dough structure by encouraging gluten development and trapping a bit of air. Handle the dough as gently as possible to retain as many of the gas bubbles as possible. NEVER punch or knead the dough. Now, sprinkle a little flour on the dough surface, then work your hands carefully down one side of the container. GENTLY lift that side of the dough a bit, pulling it away a bit, then folding it down onto the surface of the rest. Repeat for the other end and possibly the other sides.
1227. I overdid it a bit. If you look closely you may see a 'tear' in the smooth surface of the dough on the right. Leave this to rise again. In very cold weather I am able to repeat the 'stretch and fold' an hour or so later, but this dough is working too quickly for that.

1339. I have very carefully eased the dough out of the container and onto the floured work surface. Don't knead it! I've used the dough scraper to cut cleanly (no sawing back and forth, just straight down) and divide the dough into three pieces. The top one is being shaped: I've folded two sides gently into the middle, then folded one of the long sides over this and sealed it. Note that you can still see large air bubbles in the dough; I'm being very, very gentle indeed. Practice makes perfect in this as most other things. The best book I've found to describe the shaping techniques (and much more besides) is Reinhart's 'The Bread Baker's Apprentice'.
You can put these loaves into standard tins, but I prefer to bake them directly on a baking stone. The direct heat gives a better initial rise and I love the irregularities of the finished loaves. So. I take our large wooden tray and line it with a linen teatowel (use a smooth surface fabric to reduce sticking) large enough to drape over the sides of the tray and with length to spare. Flour it very thoroughly indeed -- always use high protein bread flour for this sort of thing, even if working with rye breads: it sticks less than others.

1340. Put the first loaf at one end of the tray, seam side up. Ruck up some well-floured towel as a divider between this and the next loaf. When in doubt, flour more. I've made some indentations with my finger to show that this is a relatively flabby loaf, but then it's a soft dough. Shape two more loaves and put them in similar hollows in the towel.

The tray is just a bit too long; the juice cartons make a useful false end. Drape a sheet of plastic (to prevent the surface drying out too much, although some drying helps the loaves hold their shape) and a cloth (to keep them warm) and leave to rise. If you leave them somewhere warm they'll rise faster than otherwise. I leave them at least a couple of hours. Turn the oven on at least an hour before you think you'll need it. I bake at 250C, which is a little more than 480F. If I could get more heat, I would: lean breads like these (no added fat, no sugar or egg, things that burn easily) do best at very high temperatures. If you've got a baking stone or are improvising with tiles, make sure it/they are in the oven from cold. You'll also need a shallow baking tray to hold boiling water on the bottom of the oven (not shown), and a plant mister or equivalent that has only ever held plain, clean drinking water.
1631. The loaves are reasonably well-risen. I could leave them another half-hour, but at this size they'll already almost fill the oven. I really should re-work the quantities to make c. 1.8kg of dough. Every time I make this, I think that...
Don't start this bit until the oven is ready with the baking stone (if you're using it) or a baking sheet hot on the bottom shelf of the oven. The oven should have been at temperature for at least 15 minutes. To the right you can see an aluminum baking sheet. I'll use this as a peel, to slide the loaves onto the hot baking stone in the oven. On top of that is a sheet of teflon cooking stuff. This or any other non-stick sheet makes life so much easier than flouring/semolina-ing a peel to which the bread sticks anyway. Especially when I have to pack the loaves tightly. On top of the stove, out of sight, is a shallow baking pan. The kettle is on and will shortly boil.

The next bit is tricky, and requires two hands so I have no photos; I'll describe it exactly as I do it. You might want to try a dry run when no one's watching. Put the juice cartons away. Clear the table of everything bar the teflon sheet. I brace the back edge of the tray (with no bread) against my waist to hold it up at an angle with the front edge (where the first loaf awaits) about 2/3 of the way across the teflon. You'll need both hands to gently ease the part of the floured towel with the first loaf on it up, almost out of the tray and then gently! slowly! move your hands under the loaf/towel and flip the loaf to land seam side down on the 1/3 of the teflon that awaits it. With experience and luck it will only deflate a little with the shock. Shuffle the next loaf up, back the tray a bit, repeat onto the next third of the teflon. And then the third loaf. You might have to ease the towel off the base of the loaves. It might even rip the base of the loaves (more flour next time), but don't worry: you're making rustic bread.

1634. The three loaves on the teflon sheet, which is sitting on the baking sheet/peel. That's not the seam showing; I've put an edge on my sharpest knife and scored the tops of the loaves, holding the knife at an angle to cut under the top of the loaf. This cut allows controlled expansion of the loaf as it rises in the oven (as opposed to a loaf exploding at some random point of weakness). Mist the loaves, taking care to ensure that the cut surfaces are wet.

Now. The next bit isn't tricky and should be done as quickly as possibly, BUT please be careful. Be especially wary of steam: hot steam can scald you very badly. Reinhart suggests putting a (non-meltable!) towel over the oven door as you do this bit, to prevent water cracking the glass.
Put the peel-equivalent with bread on teflon sheet near the oven, have the kettle of just-boiled water and your oven gloves nearby. Put the shallow baking pan on the bottom of the oven. Pull out the oven shelf. Slide the bread/teflon sheet off the peel and onto the baking stone. I often have to grab an oven glove and reposition the bread quickly, as one side or the other starts to fall off the stone. Push the oven shelf back. Put your oven gloves on. Pull the baking pan out just far enough that you can CAREFULLY pour about a cup of hot water into the pan; hold your face and hands away as dangerously hot steam will billow when you do this. That steam is needed to give the bread a nice crust: push the pan back into the oven as quickly as you safely can. Shut the oven door. Catch your breath; relax. Set the oven timer for 25 minutes.

1636. Several things. First, you can see my bake stone (a slab of kiln shelf cut to fit an oven shelf). Next, it's only been 2 minutes, but look at the rounded base of the loaves on the stone: they're cooking and rising rapidly. The cuts are already beginning to open, too. Note the sheen on the loaves, a sign that the oven is nicely moist. The moisture keeps the surface of the loaves flexible, allowing better oven spring, and a shiny crust is desirable. Keep it moist: every 3-4 minutes for the first 10 minutes, I open the oven door, quickly spray the side and back walls of the oven with water from the plant mister, then shut the door. After about 15 minutes the moisture is not longer needed.

After 25 minutes, if the loaves are browning (gold to medium brown) test the loaves, tapping for a hollow sound and checking to see the base is not burning. The long, slow fermentation consumes a lot of the sugars in the flour, which means these loaves will not easily bake dark brown; if they do, there may be burnt bits. I prefer mine like this:
1752. The loaves are cool enough to cut, just in time to have warm bread with dinner. All these images click for bigger, but it's probably a good idea to do that and look at the sliced surface. Can you see the glossy, translucent crumb and open, uneven structure characteristic of a bread made with wet dough? The sense of movement as the gas bubbles expand up away from the hot base of the loaf? I'm a bit annoyed, though. This turned out to be the *least* hole-y section of any loaf (holes are regarded as desirable here). Alas, all evidence of this has been eaten.

I hope this proves helpful. It's not the only way to bake bread like this; it works well for me, but you may find various changes suit your flour or your lifestyle.

Sourdough Bread: Day One

As promised to Jo. If you're not interested, come back tomorrow to help me celebrate the first anniversary of my first post.

I've given date and time from the timestamp of the photo, so it's accurate. Note that our kitchen is relatively cold, so your bread may rise much faster than mine: yeast works faster in warmth, which is one reason that 'bread likes to be big' as my baking instructor used to say. Large batches rise faster because of the warmth they generate.

Another note: Flour. I use a mix of flours for my breads. Roughly 50% is biodynamic stoneground *English* breadflour, which is low in protein by comparison with North American flours. This has many implications. Relatively low protein flours tend to develop richer, more complex flavours, something I like. But... they take up less water than high protein flours (the same weight of flour and water produces a sloppier dough), which makes them a little harder to work if you don't have a mixer. Protein content is directly related to gluten formation, so the dough can't hold gas as strongly: it doesn't rise as high as a high protein flour. See the trade-off? The remaining 50% is the best quality commercial bread flour I can buy, 'Gladiator' from Rank Hovis (32kg bags from a local wholesaler), to compensate a bit for the lack of protein. You can adjust your mix to yield the bread you like best. Be wary of wholemeal, though: the husks and other coarse bits act like pins, popping the gas bubbles in the dough. This is one reason so many wholemeal loaves are so... healthily... heavy. I'd use something like Dove's Farm 'Wessex' wholemeal flour, which has been milled much finer than the average -- or accept a loaf that doesn't rise so high. The flavour will be good, regardless of the height.

The total weight of the finished dough will be c. 2kg, to yield 3 largish loaves.
You'll need: 300g sourdough starter, ideally at 100% hydration; a total of 1040g (1.04kg) of bread flour; 670g bottled/spring water; 1-2tsp salt.

Day One (evening): 300g starter, 500g organic flour, 410g bottled water. Remember your starter is 50% flour, 50% water: if you've only got 250g starter, you only need add 25g more flour, 25g more water, and you've got the right total weight and the right proportion of flour to water in the dough. I'm aiming here for a hydration of 68% (bakers percentage). Briefly, the more water in the dough, the more weight has to be held by fewer gluten strands. Weaker strands give way, yielding bigger gas bubbles... up to a point. Beyond it, the gluten can't sustain the strain and you'll get a dough that doesn't rise at all well in most domestic ovens. Less water (the tendency of new bakers is to add flour to make a dough easy to handle) produces the opposite: a dense loaf. Ah, the bricks of my baking youth...

Day One, 1830. All the ingredients neatly laid out with my bread notebook, full of scribbled calculations for different weights of doughs of differing hydrations (some so wet they slithered off the oven shelf). The completed sponge (starter plus flour and water) is on the right, to show the texture.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sharing or gloating?

You decide.
The box was smaller than I'd expected for such a momentous purchase, and not at all heavy. Shipped on the day of my order by P & M Woolcraft. If I'd had a car I might have spent a morning collecting it in person, but the amount I might have spent on additional stuff while I was there doesn't bear thinking about.

A copy of the assembly instructions is the first thing to be seen. Seems sensible.

A handle, it's got a handle!!

A pocket, it's got a zip-up pocket!!
Clearly the suspense is affecting my mental processes. How about you?

Dyson waits for 500g of blue-faced leicester roving to make a move.
Some additional fibre seemed a good idea, given the speed with which a wheel eats the stuff. There were several hand-spun, hand-knitted BFL sweaters at the spinners' meeting; it's a great favourite despite pilling quite badly. Can't be helped, that's what soft yarns do.

Disappointed by the roving's unwillingness to play, he settles for licking some plastic. I wish he wouldn't do that. Look at the wheel! It's so compact, so neatly packed...

Another copy of the instructions was folded carefully under the wheel. They're scarcely needed, though. It's completely straightfoward. If you're interested, look carefully and you'll see that the bottom/side of the bag is hardboard. The rubber feet of the wheel fit neatly into holes in the board, to ensure the wheel is held securely as you tighten the straps that hold it against the board. The wheel also seems to be a model of elegant simplicity. Dyson is sulking because I've stopped him executing a riff on the drive band to demonstrate that the wheel is also a musical instrument.

Dyson is now in the box attacking something only he can see. How fortunate we are, to have such a noble, alert beast defending us from hazard. I must reward him with gooshy food...

But first I must get back to work. Bother!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

If you can tell ...

a happy cyclist* by the insects on its teeth, how do you identify a happy knitter?

FO: Eunny's Endpaper Mitts. In Jamieson & Smith Shetland 2-ply. Despite buying Montse Stanley I couldn't get the tubular cast-on to work for me, so I used my favourite long-tail cast-on instead. I was running low on gold (as one does), so skipped the set-up rows for the tubular cast-off and used the decrease cast-off immediately. End result? I really do like these, in fact I'm wearing them now. They're my first stranded-knitting ever, and I am happy with the two-yarns-in-left-hand method; I'd recommend anyone (especially continental knitters) give it a fair try. I tensioned the gold as usual on my little finger, but didn't run it under the second finger, just straight across and down over my index finger. The purple was tensioned on my ring finger and went under the second to run over my index finger. The gold tended to stay on the first joint (nearest my hand), the purple on the second.
When I make these again (that's a promise), I will modify the pattern to begin the thumb gusset later, with steeper increases -- the pattern as written starts the increases as my wrist shrinks to its narrowest I have very narrow wrists, so there's a mildly offensive loose bit just there. The rest fits perfectly, is warm and looks gloriously rich in colour. I just wish my stubby fingers and short fingernails lived up to the elegance of the mitts.

I think you can identify this happy knitter by its renewed determination to finish the hated Alligator Socks so he can wear them as a token of affection during his three weeks away. Three weeks! I can array the stash in all its glory across the floor and gloat for hours. I can watch DVDs he dislikes (must book some), eat scrambled eggs or baked beans on toast for dinner, have a long hot bath listening to the radio with a glass of wine and a book, sleep anywhere I like in the bed, ok, anywhere the cats allow me space. Yes, I will miss him. I really will.

p.s. The wheel should arrive tomorrow.

* 'Happy' may not be quite the right word. I haven't cycled happily for ages, not since my then cycling shoes (old trainers) got trapped in my toeclips when I came to an emergency stop. I stopped perfectly, after which my bike with me on it just fell sideways like some cartoon character. Thud. Nothing was damaged except my pride: this was a very public fall. So why have I just switched to cleats? Because I'm like that, that's why. Mad :-) Besides, I want the power!

Monday, March 05, 2007

I joined it.

That's the short story.

Slightly longer:
Imagine a hall that could hold perhaps 120-150 people. Thirty-odd (I didn't think to count, but it was at least 30) chairs are arranged in a huge ovoid around the walls. There's a fibre person in every chair. Most are in their late 40s or older, but there are several who are perhaps in their 20s.
There are knitters, there's a rug-hooker, there's a display of table-top weaving from tablets through inkle to rigid heddle (that's today's demonstration). But most are spinning on a wide variety of wheels; there are Lendrums, there are Louets, everywhere you look there's at least one Ashford 'Joy', there are traditional wheels with plain or ornately turned twiddles in every shade from gold to brown so dark it appears black. There's a club wheel and wool sitting ready for a learner. There's a steady buzz of conversation as chairs and people move together to form groups which over time disperse to become new groups. There is a beautiful alpaca roving in every natural shade being spun into a soft heathered yarn, lots of blue-faced leicester becoming yarn of almost every thickness. There is merino becoming laceweight on a wheel spinning so fast it seems to be flying and indeed that spinner had to wedge her previous wheel against a wall to stop it running away. There is alpaca fleece in the grease becoming almost laceweight next to fat brown rolags of something incredibly sheepy becoming a fat and characterful brown homespun. Every face has a look of pleasant concentration breaking frequently into beaming smiles as someone brings a tray of tea and biscuits through to a group of chairs.

Because I asked for an opinion of my yarn and had specific technical questions about spinning and knitting singles I was sent to Jean, who has been spinning for 35 years. My alpaca/silk singles were officially graded 'good and even'(!) and we discussed the knitting of singles. I was able to produce my sample of fabric knitted from energized singles to show someone who'd never thought of it how the twist sculpts the fabric, and describe how I've treated the yarn I'm working on to set the twist to reduce or prevent this movement. Somewhat nervously I pulled out my Bosworth and began spinning, aware that I was being watched, albeit kindly and with approval. And then... I was asked if I'd thought of acquiring a wheel. And I said I had, because while I was learning to love the ritual of the hand-spindle, I had been intrigued by my brief experience with a wheel and the notion of producing larger quantities of yarn more quickly, not to mention more accurate plying. Had I any particular wheels in mind? I tentatively advanced my arguments in favour of either a Louet or Lendrum, and said I had heard good things about the S95 'Victoria' but would wait until I'd had a chance to try one. "Would you like to try mine?" said someone who'd overheard me. So I did. I had trouble co-ordinating two feet and the wheel went too fast, so I used just one. The wheel was happy. It started rotating with a single push of the treadle, no need to rotate the wheel by hand. I was happy. Within a couple of minutes I was relaxed, sitting back in my chair and watching with absolute delight as my handful of wool became a lovely, even singles only slightly over-twisted for plying. Jean was pleased with me. I was pleased with me. I was pleased with the wheel. I've ordered one. I'm pleased with the entire universe, even if he's got my car today and I have to sort out the repairs to his because he's in meetings all day, and I'll be on my bike for the next week. It'll do me good.

There's a spinning group meets every Tuesday evening about 10 minutes from here. I never knew. I begin to wonder if there are spinners everywhere, meeting quietly in village halls or private houses to forget their cares and become pleased with the world. Even if it's only for an hour or two. Count them all, add the knitting groups, the weavers in back rooms or sunlit studios... all working to bring order out of chaos. From wool to yarn to garments. It's magic, real magic.

Friday, March 02, 2007

It's Friday, it's not fibre

It must be time for a landscape. Remember the photo of the barrows on a snow-covered hill? This is the view from the top of one of those barrows. Click for bigger. We're standing on the Middle Chalk at about 95m OD (Ordnance Datum, which is mean sea level at a location I can't recall), looking across a vale averaging c. 30m OD of clays (Lower Chalk, and Gault) to a ridge you can just see in the distance. It might not look much like the English landscape of your imagination, but then this is what Oliver Rackham calls 'planned countryside'. People probably began farming here about 5,000 years ago and has been cultivated more or less intensively ever since. I was going to apologise for not erasing the by-pass and its railway bridge (I've already removed 2 cars and a van that offended me. Be afraid, be very afraid) but in fact it's a useful landmark being so... obvious.

That thin dark line running almost horizontally across the field just 'above' the bridge is the hedge marking a parish boundary roughly following the line of fields laid out in the Iron Age, c. 2,500 years ago (this is known from cropmarks showing the ladder-like outlines of the fields). The remains of what may have been the village in which the farmers lived survive as cropmarks near a spring about 1km west of the pale blur above the green field above the bridge, the pale blur being the modern village in which I live. This village probably took its present form in Saxon times (after the Romans left in 410AD); it's even been suggested that a single powerful individual planned the layout of the roads and farms within the village. There are other ways in which our modern landscape is defined by history and geology. Can you see the pattern of alignment of fields? One set of boundaries is the line of that hedge, running away from the main road (a northwest-southeast alignment), while the others parallel the road in the foreground running (very roughly) northeast-southwest. This last is the line of the Chalk itself, which has been a landmark and a high, dry route for travellers since people first arrived here after the last Ice Age, 10,000 or more years ago. The road in the foreground and other tracks paralleling it in the distance were used in summer by people travelling from spring to spring, perhaps driving livestock to market. The roads and tracks out of sight behind us, high on the Chalk, were winter routes used when the clays on lower ground became intractable mud.

Now it's Saturday. He came home last night in his car with rubber from a truck tire welded to the passenger-side door after being sideswiped on the motorway (aka highway) by a Spanish truck driver. Fortunately the vehicles were travelling at the same speed. No one hurt, but it could have been so much worse.

If you look closely you might be able to distinguish shades of green in the fields, as well as bare soil. The ploughed fields are waiting for summer crops such as sugar beet and field beans. The brown/tan/green are fields left fallow possibly until the autumn, or they may be ploughed soon for a spring crop. The darker green is oilseed rape ('canola' in NAmerica; the derivation of the European name is given in the link). The chlorotic green is autumn-sown 'winter' wheat desperate for a nitrogen fix, not surprising after a couple of thousand years of intensive farming! Until quite recently the nitrogen shortage wouldn't have been so obvious, as the farmers applied nitram (ammonium nitrate fertiliser) during the winter so it was 'ready' for spring growth. This is no longer allowed, because this area is a Nitrate-Vulnerable Zone. Aquifers in the Chalk provide our drinking water. Any winter rain flushed the nitrate through the soil into the water table, polluting the aquifers. A few years ago the nitrate content approached the EU permitted maximum and our local water company actually had to pump out the aquifer(!), pumping water from local boreholes out of the Chalk into tankers to be discharged into a local river (probably even higher in nitrates due to agricultural run-off) and hope that rain would recharge the aquifer in time for summer demand. I was... gobsmacked might be an appropriate phrase. Most of the settlements in this area take their water from the Chalk; as a result, most village wells dried and were filled in during the 1960s and 70s, and the springs that supplied the Iron Age villagers flow only in the wettest years. There are a few large springs that still flow today, but they must have been much more impressive before water abstraction began.

There are more trees in that landscape than have grown for perhaps the last thousand years or more. Before the 19th-century Enclosure of the parish, there were few trees or hedges in the open fields. Firewood to heat houses or cook meals was a valuable commodity; the laws determining who is allowed to collect dead wood where still stand on the statute books. As the open fields were enclosed* thousands of miles of hedging were planted to mark the new boundaries. Today mixed farming is almost unknown in this area; tractors don't need hedges to stop them wandering, so the hedges are often mismanaged or left to grow up into lines of small trees, while shelter belts and other trees have been planted to improve the view or the prospects of the hunt. The dark line on the top of that distant ridge marks the only 'real' woodlands in this area, trees that may originally have survived because the heavy glacial clay soil on the ridge was unploughable until tractors appeared. But, as the woodland elsewhere was cleared to become arable fields, these remaining woods became incredibly valuable sources of wood and timber. One of those dark blurs is an ancient wood, perhaps a remnant of the forest that once covered much (but not all) of lowland England.

As I write this, I am reminded that every landscape has a story to tell. It's just a matter of learning the languages – geology, history, natural history – in which the story is written. England has been settled for so long by curious people with leisure to learn that it's easy to find books telling the story. I particularly enjoyed Fortey's The Hidden Landscape and the book by Rackham I mentioned earlier. I'm not familiar with similar books for anywhere else, but John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, a mammoth introduction to the geology of the US, is one of my favourite books. Together with a set of US maps it lives in our bathroom within arm's reach of the loo. My favourite bathroom reading.

And now it's time for fibre. There's a spinning group meeting today about 30 minutes from here; I've been invited to drop by and see what 30-odd spinners look like. 'Terrifying' is perhaps too strong a word, but I am after all accustomed to doing all my fibre-things sitting in solitary splendour. I do want to investigate wheels, though... he didn't flinch noticeably when I mentioned this last week :-)

* a few, now famous, still survive. Soham in Cambridgeshire, for example.