Friday, August 15, 2008

Field Trip! Furnace Mountain Alpacas

When my friend Bobbi invited me along to an alpaca farm, I agreed. Why not, I thought, this is exactly why God made Zyrtec. Besides, this particular alpaca farmer was also a knitter and had started a fledgling alpaca yarn company. Oooo - yarn. Who cares if I'm allergic to alpaca - as long as I get to fondle some yarn!

So last week, we drove out to Lovettsville, Virginia - home of Furnace Mountain Alpacas to meet Sharon Babbin and her alpacas. Sharon describes herself as a recovering attorney turned alpaca farmer. When she decided to hightail it out of DC, she fled to the Virginia countryside, found a beautiful piece of property and built her house. Having been a horse person, she wanted some equine companionship but her husband was allergic to them. So she started looking at other species and settled on alpacas which were touted to be hypoallergenic. Always the intrepid knitter, I decided to test this out and left my allergy medications at home. Bring on the alpacas!

Sharon hugging Gabriel

Driving up the bucolic lane to a lovely house overlooking the valley, I was greeted at the door by Sharon's two dogs Gus and Hank. Sharon also has a cat named Meathead (who I was afraid to pet without my Zyrtec so I simply waved from afar). We had lunch, chatted and then went to meet the alpacas: two black males Gabriel and Magic and two pregnant females Chloe and Ciara. The critters were a little shy around new people but Sharon handled them gracefully and they soon eased up enough for us to approach them. Gabriel even hummed a bit although it sounded more like whining.

Alpacas purr/hum!

Taking the boys out for a walk

Seeing as how the girls were preggers, we left them alone. Chloe, however, was still quite inquisitive and kept giving us the eyeball.

But as soon as she realized that I was looking back, she gave me another view. Photogenic from every angle! How do you do it, Chloe?

These critters sure are soft. When Sharon has them sheared, she sends their fleece (along with others from fellow domestic alpacas) to a mill in Georgia. This is pure 100% hypoallergenic domestic alpaca. According to Sharon, this ensures that no other fibers are blended in which is sometimes the case with South American alpaca and may explain my prior problems with alpaca. And let me tell you, this yarn is heaven. Sharon leaves them all undyed letting the natural color of the fibers really shine. Some yarns are from a single animal but most are blended to give consistency to the yarns. Pictures do not do this yarn justice - this is truly something that needs to be felt.

Like butta...

This is the kind of yarn that coos and hums "Take me home, make me yours, I'm softer than the finest cashmere." Mmm. Before I knew it, I had taken a skein and rubbed it against my cheek. I was initially aghast at my breach of yarny etiquette (one does not rub one's facial oils onto someone else's yarn) but then I noticed no sneezing, no watery eyes, no runny nose. I put the yarn up to my face again and took a deep inhale. I'll just have to buy you, take you home and make you mine, I rationalized to myself. So I did.

Bobbi went a bit more crazy. Not only did she get yarn but also a braided alpaca bag and three woven rugs. All the fleece that doesn't meet Sharon's high quality standards for yarn gets made into bags and rugs. These are gorgeous items and I had to fondle them. Bobbi is quite the enabler - "you know you want one..." But I resisted. Besides, I was more than happy with my yarn.

Soon it was time to go. We said goodbye to the dogs.

Hank wanted his picture taken before we left.

Gus had better things to do.

Monday, August 11, 2008

No - not on the knitting!

Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks this yarn is soft. I turn my back for just one minute and Harry decides to get all comfy.

Harry, wouldn't you rather sit on something else? The Yarn Widower, perhaps?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

May Baby Dress

Pattern: Dress with Eyelets by Debbie Bliss from her book Baby Knits for Beginners
Date finished: May 30, 2008
Needles: US 6 to get the recommended gauge
Yarn: KnitPicks Cotlin in color Swan
I used approximately 6 balls (730 yards)
Modifications: see below

I was waiting for better pictures before posting this one but I'm afraid it may never happen as the intended recipient is a very busy 15 month old who will probably grow out of this garment before getting a chance to model it for me. Such is life.

For this dress, I knew I wanted to substitute the recommended wool/cotton blend for something more suitable for steamy DC summers. I had been playing around with Knit Picks Cotlin for another project and had even swatched and washed it to see about shrinkage. Since it had the added bonus of being machine washable, it seemed like a natural match for this pattern.

The Yarn: The Cotlin is aptly named as it is a blend of cotton and linen. Knit Picks is known for quality yarns at reasonable prices (only $2.49 a ball; the materials for this dress cost me about $15). The resulting fabric is soft and totally wearable. I suspected that machine washing would cause some shrinkage and I was right - mostly in length. Easy enough, I just knew that I had to add an inch to the skirt and bodice.

The Pattern: I know I usually complain about Miss Debbie Bliss, knitwear designer extraordinaire with her own line of yarn. But I'm still so drawn to her simple lines and clean aesthetics. That being said, her pattern writers and editors usually leave a lot to be desired. Her book Baby Knits for Beginners is not a great book in which to learn knitting techniques although she does have some nice illustrations. However, it is a good book for beginners armed with some basic knitting know-how and a good knitting manual. This pattern was reasonably well written and easy to follow.

My only modifications were to add an inch to the skirt (forgot to add an inch to the bodice) and to knit a fold-over hem instead of the recommended garter stitch hem.

Overall, I was very pleased with this little garment. It looked lovely on the hanger and hopefully would have looked lovely on a real live girl.

sigh. It's hard being an aunt.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sunny Yellow Shalom

Pattern: Shalom Cardigan by Megan McFarlane - free internet pattern available on Megan's blog
Date finished: July 22, 2008
Needles: US 11 to get recommended gauge
Yarn: The Fibre Company Savannah Bulky - approximately 7 skeins or 455 yards
Modifications: I added a second button just for the heck of it. I'm crazy that way.

I had been pondering this yarn at a local yarn shop for months now. I'm a sucker for interesting fiber combinations and Savannah is a blend of organic cotton, linen, soy and merino. Intrigued, I was however put off by its price tag. Each skimpy 65 yard skein retails for a whopping $16. Eep - too rich for my blood. So there it sat on the shelves, admired only from afar.

Isn't it a wonderful thing when patience is rewarded? Savannah went on sale. Half off sale. Now that's what I'm talking about. After a brief search, I came across this pattern and it just seemed perfect for this yarn. The pattern is by first-time designer Megan McFarlane who says she's a grad student in art conservation but is really Martha Stewart's heir apparent (the brilliant doyenne of domestic arts Martha, not the insider stock trading, bitchy ex-con Martha). The writing and directions are clear and unfussy. The photography is pleasing to the eye and the production of the pattern is very professional - you can download a pdf directly from her website. The cardigan itself was a joy to knit. Very quick too - love that about bulky yarns.

The only thing that I would do differently is to add fewer stitches under the armholes. It's just a wee bit gappy right now on my not very well endowed frame. Besides that I'm very pleased with this one. It will be great to throw on over a long sleeved tee in the fall.

As for the yarn, it is a very intriguing mix. It's soft like you would expect merino wool and organic cotton to be. And soy fiber tends to be pretty soft too - almost woolly. But the linen in this yarn shows up as individual strands of vegetation. You can even pull it out at some points. Oddly enough this makes it feel a bit scratchy on the skin. I would have left out the linen and just substituted more cotton into the blend.

Overall, it's a rustic looking 2 ply yarn - slubby in some places. The Fibre Company doesn't mark dye lots - just names of their colorways. This one is dubbed Marigold. However, if you look closely in the picture, you can see that the middle panel in the yoke is a different shade. That was definitely from a different dye lot. I didn't notice until I had joined the new skein and by some stroke of luck the skein ended with the panel. A design element? Sure...

I would definitely knit this cardigan again - it's quick, cute and relatively easy. Perfect for gift-knitting. But I don't think I would get this yarn again. It's a luxury yarn as reflected by its cost and I'm glad I got the chance to knit with it. But the cost and the short yardage leaves me looking elsewhere. My friend Gwen (aka Bugheart in the Blogosphere) knit her Shalom with Cascade Revolution - a smooth wool/nylon blend. It looked quite nice on her. Maybe I'll have to get me some Cascade.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I believe in...

Driving around town today, I started to make a mental list of things that I feel quite strongly about. This was prompted by the guy driving in front of me who flicked his cigarette butt out his window. I always have to suppress an urge to honk my horn in disgust and berate such poor feebleminded folk. Hellooooo, ashtray not just for coins, stoopid. Even former chain smokers like myself know that...

My list:

I believe in corporal punishment for litterbugs. And public flogging for aforementioned litterbutts. Bring back the pillory and stocks!

I believe that most songs are better sung in languages other than English. Case in point: 99 Luftballons. Exception: anything by Bruce Springsteen.

I believe that dogs are not necessarily smarter than us - just more spiritually advanced. Exception: that dumb dog on the first floor of my apartment buliding that barks at everything that moves.

I believe that certain words/phrases are sorely underused: please, thank you, and foosball being top on my list.

I believe that there is just too much crap in this world. And by crap I mean mass produced mountains of stuff. Maybe you feel the same way. And maybe you've heard of The Story of Stuff. We live in a disposable society. And while I appreciate affordable and not so-affordable things just as much as the next person, there's something to be said for a few well-crafted made-by-hand items. I believe that we would all be much more loathe to throw our stuff away if we made it ourselves. Or if someone made it for us. Anyway, I'm going to jump on the Buy Handmade bandwagon. For one year I'm going to either make or buy only handmade items to give as gifts. Knitted items for everyone!

Hope no one minds that their birthday gifts will be at least one month late.