A Trip to London, and Souvenir Knitting

Today is my 11th wedding anniversary. We aren’t able to travel anywhere or do any of things we’d normally choose to celebrate, like checking out a new coffee shop or visiting an old house, so I’ve been thinking back on our trip to London last year. It was our first overseas trip together, and one we’d been looking forward to taking for several years.

We stayed at The Blackbird in Earl’s Court, an ale-and-pie house and boutique hotel run by a 175-year-old pub company. The room was gorgeous and comfortable, the staff was wonderfully accommodating of our need to stash our luggage before check-in, and our stay included a full English breakfast each morning.

The view from our window

The Blackbird is also a short walk to the Earl’s Court tube station, and a longer but no less pleasant walk to Shaukat, famed home of affordable Liberty London prints. I treated myself to two three-meter cuts of Tana lawn in coordinating colorways to make matching button-up shirts for me and Justin. I’m waiting for cooler weather to embark on the process of fitting shirts before I cut into this precious meterage.

As enthusiastic museum-goers, we were spoilt for choice, but I ruled that the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum were our must-sees for this visit. I’d had my heart set on seeing the Elgin Marbles since I’d first read Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and I was not disappointed—in fact, I was not at all prepared for the scale of the stonework, despite knowing full well these carvings adorned the pediments and other high places of the Parthenon and were intended to be seen from dozens of feet away at minimum.

I acknowledge that my ability to witness and enjoy the (more aptly named) Parthenon Marbles with relative ease, in an English-speaking country with customs and cultural expectations not dissimilar from my own, is a privilege predicated on an unresolved, and to a certain degree unacknowledged, crime. I wholeheartedly believe the Marbles are the rightful legal, historical, and cultural property of Greece and its people, and that they should be returned to Greece to be reunited with the remaining marbles.

I admit that my discomfort about the British Museum’s continued possession of the Marbles was outweighed by my desire to experience art of exceptional significance, to stand where Keats once stood and to maybe feel what he felt looking at them. Seeing the Marbles has reinforced for me in a more tangible way that they ought to be returned, and I can at least say that we opted not to financially support the British Museum while we visited. Was I wrong? Perhaps. I can only say that I’m trying my best, and I hope one day to view the Marbles again when they’ve been restored to their rightful home.

Right, enough of that—on to less weighty things!

We splurged on two stage shows while we were there: Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre…

…and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos from the latter show, and I can’t tell you how much I wish I did, because it was wild. The aesthetic was a mash-up of Mexican-inspired pinatas and early 90s neon streetwear. The cast was visibly diverse, the pop culture asides were hilarious, and my new favorite stage gag of all time is watching a man throw down an inflatable mattress as a form of protest, and then later looking on as a woman who feels spurned by him kicks open the pressure valve, causing him to sink to the floor as the mattress slowly, sadly deflates. Pure gold.

Other highlights for us included:

Taking in the view from the London Eye

Walking through Westminster Abbey (though we could only snap photos of the exterior) and pausing at the memorial stones of C.S. Lewis, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, the Brontë sisters, Lord Tennyson, and my beloved Romantic poets Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Clare, among many others.

Touring the Tower of London and traversing Tower Bridge

Stopping outside St. Paul’s Cathedral to honor another of my favorite poets, John Donne

Spending several hours at Strawberry Hill House, home of Horace Walpole, the father of Gothic literature and arguably the first person to use Gothic architectural elements in a private dwelling (in a manner later dubbed neo-Gothic)

I could probably devote another entire post to the all of the excellent food we ate during our five-day trip, but I’ve indulged in enough non-craft content already. Instead, let’s chat about a little hobby tourism!

In addition to Shaukat, we visited Liberty London, which I was surprised and delighted to find is also a Rowan Yarns flagship store. I ended up passing on both fabric yardage and yarn there, but did pick up a fine cotton floral bandana/handkerchief.

But for a proper fabric and yarn crawl—planned using these handy maps from The Fold Line—we headed out to Islington. We slipped into Sew Over It shortly before they closed, securing a couple of their house patterns, a peachy dotted chiffon for a future blouse, a mug, and some chocolate bars. Then we went to Ray Stitch, where I dithered over fabric, talked myself out of buying more patterns, and settled on a tiny cache of buttons and enamel pins.

Our last stop was Loop, and we were warned when we came in the door that they were also closing soon. I had just enough time to do a lap of their first and second floors before the lovely, long-suffering shop folk put the screws to me to make a decision. I hadn’t come with a particular plan in mind, but I was determined to leave with something of uniquely U.K. provenance.

After scanning a few labels and hefting a few yarns, I chose this teal-y blue Hayton 4ply from Eden Cottage Yarns. It’s a merino cashmere nylon blend with a semi-solid appearance, slightly fuzzy halo, and next-to-skin softness.

It turned out to be an excellent match for the Luna Viridis pattern from Hilary Smith Callis. I’d previously purchased the pattern to use up a skein of Cascade Heritage Silk reclaimed from a failed scarf, but the smooth, solid-colored yarn didn’t wow me. The Hayton, however, is just right.

If I needed further proof that it was a perfect match, the pattern is named for the moon, and the yarn’s colorway is “Tide.”

I made one deliberate change to the pattern, lengthening it to use all but a few yards of the yarn, and one accidental change, which was to misread which motif was supposed to be used as a spacer between larger pattern sections. If you’re curious, you can read more about that in my notes on Ravelry.

After my experience knitting Magical Realism, I was dubious of another in-the-round circular shawl construction. But this one begins like a triangular shawl before being joined in the round, and I found it a pleasure to knit. In fact, I think I might like to make more like this one, since I enjoy one-skein projects but don’t love having to fuss with loose ends that come free. (In my experience, not all bandana-style scarves come unwrapped, but if they come undone once, they’ll keep coming undone every 15 minutes for the rest of the day.)

Indulging in hobby tourism is one of the things I love about traveling with Justin, although I’m ashamed to admit I have souvenir skeins from earlier trips that are languishing in my stash, waiting for the right project. I suppose if I can’t visit any new yarn stores, I might just have to “revisit” yarn stores of days past via those patient skeins.

Magical Realism

On the opposite end of the spectrum from my Pumpkin Pie sweater is this monster, which did not so much inspire introspection into the nature of craft as it did provoke spates of cursing and self-condemnation.

The pattern in question is Casapinka’s Magical Thinking, the Local Yarn Shawl of 2019. As in 2018, I found it difficult to resist the lure of a “free” pattern in support of my beloved LYS Warm ‘n Fuzzy. I’ve put “free” in quotation marks because you receive a download code for the shawl only when you purchase suitable yarn for the project on Local Yarn Store Day (the last Saturday in April).

That’s where the trouble began.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t begrudge my LYS one cent of the money I’ve paid for yarn, needles, notions, or knitting swag over the years. But I have no shortage of sock yarn shawls already, and within the framework of having no particular need for another sock yarn shawl, I definitely spent more money than I should have. Whereas my 2018 Local Yarn Shawl required two skeins of fingering weight, this year’s offering demanded three—three! As you might imagine, these hand-dyed beauties—a semi-solid, a tonal, and a speckle—came with a premium price tag. I do very much love the colors, though, both individually and together. That’s how they get you.

Everything would have been peachy if all I’d needed to do was assuage a bit of guilt for indulging in luxury yarn (a trivial inconvenience for the veteran knitter). At some point, no doubt around the time I had an armload of yarns I was auditioning for my next neck accessory, it dawned on me that I had, in fact, been suckered into yet another striped project. (If you’re wondering why three out of the four links lead to apparently solid-colored knits, it’s because I had to alternate skeins to manage dye lots/color transitions, which works the same as knitting contrasting color stripes).

“It’s fine,” I told myself. “It’s knit in the round. I can carry the unused yarn inside the work.”

This is…not really the case. There are a handful of places where you can carry the yarn, true, but it’s not possible to carry all three yarns all the way through from beginning to end. My sense of betrayal and disappointment (mostly with myself, to be clear) when I realized there were actually going to be a lot of ends to weave in did not contribute to an auspicious start to the knitting portion of this endeavor.

The pattern instructions were, quite frankly, not my favorite. For starters, there seems to be no consistent logic to when the first stitch of the round is slipped. It’s supposed to prevent a jog in the stripes, but slipping the first stitch isn’t indicated for every color change, nor is it omitted when the color stays the same. There’s probably some esoteric bit of stripe-knitting theory I’ve failed to grasp here, and that’s hardly the designer’s fault. Regardless, I struggled with the transition between the end of one round and the beginning of the next looking like a gappy, jagged mess the whole time I was knitting, even with the slipped stitches.

Then, there’s the explanation of the increase rounds. In theory economical but in presentation inelegant, the increase rounds caused more than a few minutes of puzzling on my end. “Do them as you do the first increase round” it says in bold, and “Note that increase rounds are defined in bold, above” it says, but then doesn’t specify whether it means the first increase round in each section (nope) or in the whole piece (yep, it’s this one). The stitch instructions for this foundational increase round are not themselves bolded for convenience, which is baffling when you consider they’re referenced throughout the remaining 6 pages of the pattern.

Eventually the entire thing became so big and unwieldy that not even novel changes in the texture held my interest; eventually “one more round” was not the breathless whisper of anticipation but the ragged mantra of someone who just wants the thing to end.

And, wonder of wonders, it finally did. The issues I had with the beginning of round transition disappeared with blocking, and, as is so often the case, the memory of my agitation during the making-up has dulled with time. I may not have loved a single minute of the process, but I’m pretty fond of the finished product—fond enough that I wore this exact outfit for my birthday party, back on a bitterly cold night in November. (I was supposed to wear a dress I’d made myself, but that’s a story for another day…)

Making Gingerbread

Although these photos look more or less seasonable—heavy coat, thick scarf, let’s just ignore those exposed ankles—they were taken on the last cold day of spring in 2019. In fact, by the time we were finished shooting, I was starting to get a little steamy under all that wool.

If you think roughly nine months between cast off and debut is a long time, you’ll be positively boggled to know that this pattern, Gateway by Glenna C., is the oldest surviving entry in my Ravelry favorites. Ravelry very helpfully notes that I added it on March 24, 2012, meaning it had been marinating in the back of my brain for almost 7 years by the time I finally committed yarn and needles to it.

It would be rather convenient if I could chalk up that long wait to the difficulty of the pattern or the cost of the yarn, but the lace is easy to read and Quince & Co.’s 100% wool Lark is quite economically priced.

This was my first time knitting with a Quince & Co. yarn, which is another head-scratcher, since it was the first small-scale (at the time, anyway) yarn company I learned about as I was starting to branch out beyond craft store offerings and widely available commercial brands like Cascade and Berroco. While Lark isn’t as snuggly as a superwash merino, it’s smooth and plump and not at all unpleasant to knit with. (I’ve got nearly 1,000 yards of it under my fingers to prove it.)

The color, Gingerbread, continues my simmering love affair with dark orange and orange-y brown yarns (Andraste, Oxidation, More of a Bourbon Girl, and an as-yet-unblogged sweater). What can I say—I’m enchanted by the idea of having knits in the same color family as my hair. I’m a simple creature like that. (In every other way, however…)

If you’re interested in the rest of the specs, you can find them on my Ravelry project page.

On the subject of seasonally appropriate and thematically related things, I made gingerbread from scratch yesterday and it is amazing.

Firstly, it’s proper gingerbread, not ginger cookie of the sort used to make gingerbread folk or gingerbread houses—though to be very clear, I also love soft gingerbread cookies and crisp gingersnaps. A lot.

Secondly, it’s dark and molasses-y and not overly sweet, with the added benefit of filling the house with the sweet and spicy smell of gingery delight for the hour-long bake time. I’ve already had it as both dessert and breakfast, and there’s at least half a pan left to enjoy before the festive season is over. I highly recommend it.

On that note, I’m off to soak up a little more holiday cheer before I have return to my usual routine. Merry Christmas all!

More of a Bourbon Girl

Caitlyn is sitting on a stone ledge around a fountain. She is wearing her Henslowe shawl wrapped around her neck like a bandana.

Caitlyn is holding up her Henslowe shawl to show it has a wingspan of about 4 feet and a depth of about 1 foot.

A close-up of Caitlyn holding the Henslowe shawl to show the shape is a shallow, rounded triangle

This is the Henslowe shawl by Beth Kling. The yarn is a delicious fingering-weight merino single from Neighborhood Fiber Co. called Rustic Fingering. The color is Ramblewood, a warm reddish-purplish brown semi-solid. If my notes are any indication, there’s very little to say about knitting up the pattern: it’s neatly written and easy to follow, with helpful designer’s notes sprinkled throughout and a clear construction diagram. No head-scratchers here, just a soothing knit from beginning to end that yields plush garter stitch and an interesting lace.

Of course, I’m not sure my notes ought to regarded as an authority, since they completely neglect to mention when I started or finished my Henslowe. (Fortunately, I seemed to have had the presence of mind to create a Ravelry project at the outset.)

Why do I (usually) remember to write down the date I start a knitting project, but never the date I finish? It hasn’t been that hard to train myself to print off a new pattern and jot the date in the upper right corner of the first page. Is it so much harder to bind off the last stitch, breathe a sigh of relief, and then pause to scribble a second date under the first before putting everything away?

I mean, I guess I don’t consider a knit really finished until the ends have been woven in and it’s been blocked (unless it’s a hat; I don’t bother to block those), so I’d have to wait until that’s done for it to count. But if I can take the time to painstakingly set all those pins in place, then pluck them out again, how much longer would it take to pull out the pattern again? Especially since I’m going to have to pull out the pattern again anyway to transcribe my on-the-fly hard copy notes in Ravelry.

If I can set aside the time to pick an outfit, do my hair and makeup, shoot photos, transfer said photos from camera to computer for editing, and write a blog post, then why oh why can’t I write down a mere six digits (four if I’m feeling truly lazy)?

Sure, calendar days aren’t a great proxy for time commitment: I don’t knit every day, and even on days when I do knit, I seldom knit for the same amount of time. And that doesn’t begin to touch the amount of time spent eyeing a project up and down, admitting something’s wrong, succumbing to weeping and/or gnashing of teeth, tinking, and re-knitting.

In truth, tracking the dates is barely helpful to me, and useless to anyone else—so why do I even care?

The best answer I can come up with is that I like seeing the ebb and flow of this hobby. I like knowing how many things I knit in a year. I like being able to see when I’ve focused on a single project and when I’ve juggled two or even three projects (as was the case here; I knit this shawl from start to finish in the middle of knitting a cardigan). I don’t need to have something to knit all of time, but I definitely get restless and cranky if I go too long without a project. “Why do I feel out of sorts when nothing is really wrong?” has on more than one occasion proved easy to diagnose by checking the finish date on my most recent project.

Filling out every field in Ravelry also satisfies my inner completionist. And what knitting project is complete without an  overwrought explanation for its made-up and irrelevant name? The pattern moniker, Henslowe, and the color of the yarn reminded me of Hennessy, a cognac. I do enjoy cognac in cooking, but I’m not one to drink it straight—when it comes to liquor, well, I’m more of a bourbon girl.

Positive Peer Pressure

Caitlyn holds up a shawl made with Freia Handpaints yarn to show the full wingspan and different lace patterns

Caitlyn stands with one hand on a brick wall and her lace shawl wrapped around her neck like a bandana

Caitlyn sits on the steps of a public building with her shawl wrapped around her neck like a bandana

Caitlyn sits on the steps of a public building and peers playfully from behind her bandana shawl

Peer pressure: the catalyst of lying, cheating, stealing, drinking, smoking, and who-knows-how-many other societal woes. As a topic and a scapegoat, it was a perennial favorite in D.A.R.E. Seemingly all of the world’s vices would, someday, be offered up to us innocent lambs in the guise of friendship, and it was our solemn duty as good citizens to stand our ground and say, “no, thank you, I don’t need that to be cool.” We dutifully role-played each of the tactics, in escalating degrees of righteousness, for declining these tantalizing but ultimately life-destroying activities.

Peer pressure got a bad rap. What about using peer pressure for good? There was precious little talk about how peer pressure is also a lever for positive action. You can call it motivation, or a good influence, or tough love, but let’s be clear: it’s still peer pressure.

Take this shawl, for instance. The pattern is the Local Yarn Shawl from designer Casapinka. It was designed and released to commemorate the inaugural Local Yarn Store Day on April 21, 2018. I don’t particularly follow new pattern releases in the knitting world, and I’m not usually tempted by flash sales, special events, and the like. I will occasionally download free patterns when they’re offered, but I don’t go out of my way for them.

But as it happened, my own local yarn store Warm ‘n Fuzzy was one of the participating vendors. It doesn’t take much to bring me into the store, and the promise of a small discount on yarn purchased to create the pattern was as good a reason as any to at least drop by and see what was new.

While I liked the look of both of the sample shawls shown in the pattern and knew that Warm ‘n Fuzzy would have a delectable array of speckled and tonal yarns to suit the larger design, I kept coming back to the blue gradient. It wasn’t really a mystery to me why: every time I went into the store, I’d eye the Ombré Gradients by Freia Handpaints. I’d seen them used to great effect in yoked sweaters, but as I wasn’t ready to tackle large-scale stranded colorwork yet, and the yarns are on the pricier side anyway, I’d always sigh admiringly over them and then move on to something more “practical.”

On LYS Day, there was a great bustle of people in the tiny store, and energy was high. Despite the crowd, I shopped as was my wont: I went immediately to the Freia, which I loved and which absolutely met my needs; then I proceeded to examine, heft, and pet every other fingering-weight yarn on display, because there might be something more suitable, something better than the thing I wanted most; then I drifted back to the Freia collection to dither a little longer, as though there were a real choice to be made.

Eventually Justin took me by the shoulders and said, more or less, “We’ve taken up space long enough; either we buy this yarn or we leave.” (He has a real knack for getting to the point.)

If it had been a sleepy Sunday afternoon, if we had been the only people in the shop, if I hadn’t gotten a cheerful email saying “come out and support your local business!” I might have put the yarn down and walked away. But I wanted the Freia, and I wanted to show Warm ‘n Fuzzy the love they deserve on a day dedicated to everything great about small (and often woman-owned) craft businesses.

Did I spend more money than I intended, more than I’ve ever spent on a shawl? Yes I did. Was I happy with my purchase? Also yes, very much so.

Of course, since I had something else on the needles at the time (though I’ll be blowed if I have any idea what), I didn’t immediately dive into knitting. In fact, I very nearly forgot I had either the pattern or the yarn until I was casting about for something to knit five months later. I had been seeing more sampler-like shawls popping up on Ravelry—ones that used bands of different lace or textural stitches—and got a hankering to knit one.

After scrolling through several pages of designs and finding nothing that particularly scratched the itch I had, Justin very sagely interrupted to ask whether I might have something in my Favorites already, and to suggest that I ought to work on knitting the things I already liked instead of searching high and low for new things to fall in love with. More positive peer pressure at work.

Once I rediscovered the pattern and the yarn, everything was smooth sailing. In the ongoing cosmic irony of my knitting life, I needed two balls of the Freia to have enough yarn for the small shawl which meant—you guessed it!—alternating skeins as though for stripes. Two balls was a manageable level of hassle, however, and the end result was well worth the minor inconvenience. You can find the (few) technical details on my Ravelry project page.

On a less thrilling, more workaday note, the top I’m wearing in these photos is also handmade. The pattern is the SBCC Tonic 2, the (free) long-sleeve version of their popular t-shirt (also free). The fabric is a mystery blend with a high spandex content; it (appropriately) came from Spandex World in the New York City Garment District. I picked up this fabric and another navy-and-white stripe there, along with a small collection of other fabrics from other stores, during a day-long fabric shop tour we planned as part of our 9th anniversary vacation.

Caitlyn is smiling as she stands with her thumbs hooked through her belt loops and shows off the long-sleeve striped t-shirt she made

Key differences between the Tonic 2 and the original Tonic tee are the higher crew neckline, longer length, and less-slim-fitting waist and hip. I’ve found I prefer the higher neck, and the longer length meant I didn’t need to add any length like I did to my Tonic tees—in fact, I could probably stand to shave off an inch, to perfectly nail the proportion I like. While think the slightly looser waist is probably a good call in such a thin, clinging knit, I don’t love the relaxed hip: it lacks the negative ease to anchor the top the way I feel it should. Fortunately, it should be easy enough to go back and serge a little excess from the side seams, tapering to nothing at the waist.

Caitlyn is standing with her back and one foot against a brick wall, arms crossed but smiling as she shows off the long-sleeve striped t-shirt she made

The armhole on the Tonic 2 is ever so slightly more scooped than the Tonic. The sleeves feel a little weird to me, like the seam isn’t quite in the right place. I can’t tell if it’s because I might have accidentally set the sleeves in backwards, because the bicep is a little too snug, or because I’m being a princess who wants perfection in handmade clothes. Whatever it is, it isn’t bad enough to stop me from wearing it.

Caitlyn is wearing a long-sleeve striped t-shirt she made, sitting on the steps of a public building, and laughing at something off-camera

I also made a short sleeve version of this top, using all of the Tonic 2 pieces but chopping off the sleeves at the Tonic length. I didn’t bother with pictures, though, because yawn. But I’ve worn both tops a ton in both business casual and casual outfits!

I even eked out a pair of underwear using Zoe’s free Pants/Undies/Knickers pattern, but they’re too small. I can’t decide whether I want to size up or find another pattern; I have a couple in my stash I could try before diving into a search online.

Caitlyn is wearing a long-sleeve striped t-shirt she made, sitting on the steps of a public building, and smiling with her eyes closed as though thinking of a secret