Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Grandmothers of Knit and Purl

Both my grandmothers were born in January. As last week's brittle cold gave way to a thaw, I found myself walking and thinking of them. When I was growing up, they seemed quite different from each other. Grama-Grama Helen was born in Omaha in the early nineteen hundreds. She was definitely a city girl who loved costume jewelry and pretty clothing. Prior to being married, she and my Grandfather danced at Peony Park ballroom, went to movies, and ate at an old Chinese restaurant in downtown Omaha. Not so far away at the same time, Grandma Catherine was born on a farm in southeast Nebraska. Although she never talked about her courtship, I imagine it occurred at church and in her home. Both women lived through the World Wars and the Depression. Grandma Catherine and her husband lost a farm and moved to town. She was widowed in 1943. Grama Helen and her husband squeezed out a living in their small town when my grandfather accepted half-time wages for a full time job.  

Now I see similarities between the two women. Grama Helen attended the Methodist Church while Grandma Catherine was part of a supportive Mennonite community. Although two churches were different, both women had a strong faith. They both enjoyed music, baking, and cooking. Grama Helen made sweet orange rolls while Grandma Catherine baked hearty rye bread and a hard roll called semmel. They both sewed and did needlework. Grama Helen was an excellent seamstress and knitter. She taught me to knit. Grandma Catherine crocheted and did some sewing. Catherine liked to embroider and both women needlepointed. Helen went to Omaha to buy needlepoint supplies while Catherine ordered her from the Lee Wards Catalog. Sometimes Catherine would use a magnifying glass to count stitches in a magazine picture so she could make a project without ordering a kit or pattern. When she ran out of embroidery floss for a project she substituted another color. As I photographed this finished Winter Sky Textured Shawl, the wrong side flipped over and reminded me of my grandmothers, grandmothers of knit and purl.  On this January day,  the two women seem like two sides of the same fabric.

As my sore shoulder begins to heal, I am moving more and knitting less. I suggest any knitter pay attention to body mechanics before discomfort turns into pain. As I wrote in a previous post, knitting socks on two circular needles is better because I can rest my hands in my lap and keep my elbows supported and at a 90 degree angle. Metal needles with a reasonable number of stitches put less tension on my neck and shoulder. Recently, I happened to buy a pair of new Knitter's Pride Nova Patina circular needles that feel very comfortable to me.

Shawls that don't require pushing lots of close fitting stitches are best for now. Last week, I cast on a raspberry pink shawl which reminded me of Grama-Grama. To say that she loved pink is an understatement and a story for another blog post. Grandma Catherine was more conservative in her dress and favored navy blue and grays. Although I prefer blue of any shade, I also wear pinks and reds. Both remind me of my dear Grandmothers of Knit and Purl.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Once Upon a Quilt

Once upon the 1980's, I made each of my children a Christmas Quilt. These were not small wallhangings but quilts for their twin beds. Both of the quilts were hand pieced and hand quilted. How I hand quilted bed sized quilts with two young children is a bit of a mystery. At the time, I enjoyed quilting as much as I now enjoy knitting. I finished Kate's quilt in 1986 and Aaron's quilt a few years later. Kate's quilt is made of alternating blocks of Christmas motifs and those cut from a cranberry red print. Many of the Christmas motifs came from a coloring book and others from assorted quilt magazines. As I recall, we chose some of them together. I embroidered, pieced, and appliqu├ęd figures from the nativity, a Santa, a reindeer, a candy cane and more. Each year, we got out the quilts after Thanksgiving and put them on the beds. Then both of our children grew up and the quilts, wrapped in clean sheets, were stored in the linen closet.

Last December, Kate and family were visiting. I got out her Christmas quilt. She and her oldest little guy wrapped up in the quilt. I sent it home with them. Now the quilt spends December and most of January on E's bed. His favorite block is the one with a jingle bell at the end of the long hat atop an elf mailing a letter to Santa. After Christmas last year, I walked into their home and E. came running toward me with the jingle bell. He handed me the bell and remarked, "It is all my fault." I assured him, the bell coming off was nothing to worry about and quickly sewed it back on.

This year the quilt came out again. Kate, being a thoughtful mother and daughter, explained how Grammy sewed the quilt with fabric and thread. E. loves to look at the quilt and find the jingle bell, the fuzzy sheep, the candy cane with a ribbon, the star, and more. As Kate asked me this year, "Did you ever think that when you made this quilt, that thirty years later there would be a little boy who would get so much joy from it?" The answer to her question is, "No I wasn't thinking about grandchildren." I did hope my children would look forward to getting out Christmas quilts through the years and I think that despite, their sometimes harried mother, they did.

This quilt story hasn't come to an end because E. has a younger brother who is fourteen months old. E. also thinks the Christmas quilt belongs on his bed. So I have begun again. I haven't done much quilting in the last few years but I still have my supplies. Thank goodness I saved the coloring book and most of the patterns. In the quilting archive, I located a set of red and green quilt blocks made but never sewed together. Now they will be a Christmas Quilt for M. After I finish the motifs, I will machine piece the quilt top, add borders, and have the quilt machine quilted by a local woman. If I tried to hand quilt it, M. might have children of his own before the quilt is finished. Five blocks are stacked in a basket with quite a few more to go. Once upon a new Christmas quilt, . . . The End.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Year: Old Stories and New Skills

Life is quiet as we wind up the holidays and I settle into the peace of January. The local forecast for sleet and snow ushers in evenings of reading, knitting, and hot tea. Some time in December, I decided to reread a few of my favorite books. This week I finished "One of Ours" by Willa Cather. During this second reading, I noticed things, I had forgotten or missed. "One of Ours" is not an action packed, fast moving novel. Instead the story unfolds slowly in Cather's lyric descriptions of the characters and the place, both Nebraska and France. She skillfully ties the settings together with ideas that include native cottonwood trees and wildflowers. Toward the end of the novel, Claude, the main character comes to a realization he has always known, that is, the things in life that are important are not material goods like linen and china  but "the ground and hope . . . the feeling matters." She also writes a beautifully understated relationship between Claude and another soldier, a musician who plays the violin. I find myself thinking about the novel a week later.  

I received some books for Christmas including a short volume of the early poetry by Joyce Sutphen, the poet laureate of Minnesota, and Wendall Barry's "Collected and New Sabbath Poems." Both poets write about rural settings. Although I am just beginning to read Barry's book, I love his idea of everyday as holy. At least, that is how I understand his Sabbath poems. My daughter-in-law gave me a used copy of poetry by Emily Dickinson as well as "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. The Dickens' book is a wonderful hardback book with lovely old-fashioned illustrations. I last read that story in ninth grade English so I'm wondering what I might discover when I read it for a second time.

Since I have a sore right neck, shoulder, and arm, I decided to learn how to knit socks on two circular needles. An article on body mechanics and positioning for knitters suggested knitting with elbows supported by a pillow while resting the project in the lap. All of this means the knitter's arms are positioned to work at a 90 degree angle. For me, circular needles are more conducive to this position than double pointed needles. The method, with fewer transitions between needles (two instead of three or four) means less tugging and pulling of yarn to avoid the "ladders" that can occur when knitting with double pointed needles. Even though I've been knitting at a more relaxed and slower rate, the socks grow more quickly with the circular needles. A good friend encouraged me to try this method and I am glad I did. I also received some good advice when I purchased new needles from The Yarn Shop, one of my local yarn shops. The pattern, "A Nice Ribbed Sock" by Glenna C.  is one I have used many times. The yarn is Opal, Sweet and Spicy 2 in Cake Pops color way. There is nothing like bright and cheerful colors for January knitting.

I hope you have time to read a good book or knit some socks. Take good care of the arms, wrists, and shoulders though. Happy New Year.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Handmade Books from Mom's Carbon Copy Trick

My brothers, sister, and I went to college in the days before personal computers and cell phones. Tablets were made of paper. When I wanted to call my parents, I went down to the lobby of the dorm and put coins into a pay telephone in order to call collect and reverse the charges. In those days, hand written letters were a special treat. Mom wrote weekly. Since I was the oldest, I was the first to trundle off to college. As my sister and brothers left home, Mom put carbon paper between paper so she could type and send the same letter to all of us. She referred to this as her "carbon copy trick." Often these letters began with a poem she had composed. She wrote in rhyme about ordinary and funny things that happened to her. One of my favorite poems is the tale of how she accidentally locked herself into the dog kennel over the noon hour, climbed onto the top of the dog house, and jumped out with nary a bruise or broken bone. As my sister-in-law said, "that could have gone so wrong," but it didn't.

My sister and I saved quite a few of the poems so I decided to transcribe them and make them into a book for my siblings and their children. I enjoyed arranging and formatting her poems into book pages. My printer prints only one-sided pages so I transcribed the poems and then copied them into landscape orientation. I printed those pages and used old-fashioned cut and paste to arrange them in booklet order. Next I printed the pages on resume paper and folded them into two signatures. I used some variation of a pamphlet stitch to sew the signatures together and then attached them to a cover with a variation of the three hole pamphlet stitch. I improvised with stitching so don't ask me exactly how I did it. As my grandmother would say, I stitched "by hook and by crook."

I experimented with the cover which I wanted to look like an envelope. I used art paper designed for charcoals and pastels and tore a booklet sized strip. First I folded up the bottom of the strip lengthwise to make a pocket. Then I folded that strip twice to simulate an envelope. I folded one side flap into a triangle and made a slit for the point. I tucked informal photos of Mom with the recipient into the pocket and tied a ribbon around the entire booklet. Then I made eleven copies, one for each sibling as well as my children, nieces, and nephew.

Like anything crafted by hand, the booklets are not perfect. I found a few typographical errors before I handed them out. However Mom would not have cared. I loved rereading and working with her poems. She had a great sense of humor, especially about herself. Whether she was whipping cream for the infamous orange torte or walking her black lab in the snow, she enjoyed life. Her personality shines through the poems and I wanted my family to have copies. I handed them out to most of my family last weekend. We enjoyed soup, semmel (a German Mennonite hard roll, recipe from my Dad's family), conversation, family stories, and laughter. Life is good.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Toward a Kind and Gentle Holiday Season

Once again the temperature has dropped, the days are shorter, and the birch outside my window has dropped all leaves. A downy woodpecker has come and gone from the suet feeder this morning. After our Thanksgiving company headed for home, I visited with a few friends, dropped off a library book, and took a walk on a balmy November Day. As the wind blew out the last day of November, I made a cup of tea and sat down without my knitting. Recently, I knit myself into an aching shoulder and upper arm. Long hours of sitting in one position to knit gift hats, mittens, slippers, washcloths, and socks made for a sore right arm. This injury is very silly on my part. After a five day hiatus from knitting and reading about good body mechanics, I am determined to heal. This ache is my cue to turn toward a gentler holiday season.

On Thanksgiving Friday, my family gathered at the table for soup and bread. I also made a lousy pie. Now I think the search and fuss for the perfect pie crust recipe is a reminder to serve fresh fruit or simple cookies for dessert. I enjoy making cookies so I will be baking a few carefully selected recipes. One of our traditions is to join hands and sing the Johnny Appleseed Grace.  Mom loved to sing and so we teach three grandsons how to sing grace. My four year old grandson, now knows the words and sings along with the rest of us. That moment, with joined hands, enthusiastic voices, and warm soup was the best of Thanksgiving.

Decor, like dessert does not have to be fussy. Yesterday I spent an hour arranging the nativity set and a Christmas wallhanging my sister made for me. I bought an evergreen wreath for the front door. I don't enjoy fancy decorating so I decided not to do it. I got out a few nonbreakable, non precious ornaments for the Christmas tree. Two of my grandsons are coming later this afternoon to trim the tree.  

My gentle holiday season calls for some solitude. I intend to make a cup of hot tea mid-afternoon and actually taste the herbs and tea while it is warm. I plan to sit in the sun in the old maple rocker and watch the finches and chickadees flick seed from the feeder. I may also read some beautifully written poetry and prose. Poets Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Ted Kooser, Linda Hasselstrom, and Twyla Hansen, the current Nebraska Poet, are among my favorites. Terry Tempest Williams is another writer whose work is worth rereading.

Best wishes for a kind and gentle Holiday.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Local Color

All the colors of autumn make me think about the multiple meanings of the word "color." As a noun, color is defined as "a phenomenon of light or visual perception that enables one to differentiate otherwise identical objects." As a transitive verb, the word color may be used to give meaning, as in "the story has plenty of local color." The word originates from the Middle English, colour, that comes from Latin. The American Heritage College Dictionary gives the Latin origin as "kel" from "kelos" (color and hue) and means that which covers. "Kelos" is related to "occulere" or the occult and means to cover over. So this is my vocabulary lesson for today. 

As a knitter, I am drawn to yarn by both texture and color. I often choose yarn colors related to the season. Late winter/early spring I knit some yellow socks, a yellow cowl and matching mitts. When I ordered the sock yarn, I meant to trade the monochromatic landscape of winter for something warm and bright.

The pale yellow yarn in this cowl was left over from a sweater knit fifteen years ago. The color reminded me of the soft yellow daffodils in my yard. During the summer I knit two shawls in shades of lavender and two pairs of socks from two different greens. Lately I have red yarns on my needles.  I knit a pair of slipper socks for my Texas grandson. He requested socks and red is his favorite color. I knit another gift, a Biscuit Cowl from bright red colored yarn. In between the slippers and socks, I worked on a Tea Leaves Cardigan from a deep cherry/garnet red.

When I knit socks or shawls, I don't worry about colors in the yarn pooling. To me, a pool of color across an ankle or in a thumb is the charm of a hand knitted garment. Sweaters from tonal yarns are a different story. I'd rather not have a blob of color across my torso or in an armpit. This cardigan is knit from a tonal Madelinetosh Merino DK. Shortly after casting on the neck edge, I opened the skeins and looked at them in daylight. Three of the skeins were quite similar, while the fourth was a little darker and the fifth was considerably lighter than the others. I knit the yoke in one of the three similar skeins. As I knit down the body of the sweater, I changed skeins in order to blend in the lightest colored skein.
I didn't alternate every two or three rows because I didn't want to create stripes. I used the darkest skein for the bottom 1.5 inches of body and sleeves while leaving enough of the three similar skeins to knit the garter stitch borders and button bands. All of this left quite a few ends to weave into the finished sweater but that doesn't bother me. I rather enjoy the tidying up chores that finish a garment.

I plan to weave in ends and sew on buttons this afternoon while sitting on the deck in the golden light of October. Mother Nature is doing a magnificent job of pooling colors this autumn. While walking I've enjoyed the crimson and orange-red maples as well as ash trees that are yellow at the bottom with tops tinged a golden brown that turns toward a deep eggplant. The yellow locust trees lining one street look like fringe on a shawl. Yesterday, I was so enamored with the colors, I almost tripped on a raised edge of sidewalk. I am soaking up all the pools of glorious color in order to welcome the gray-blue hush of winter.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Slipping into September

Once again September and Autumn are slipping into Nebraska. The basement shelf is full of canned tomatoes for use in winter soups and casseroles. Yesterday I clipped a tray full of seed heads from the zinnias at the end of their glorious bloom. After they dry, I will store them in a paper bag in the shed for next year's garden. This week I hope to get to a local apple orchard to pick some fresh apples.

The changing season reminds me of a book I read to my children when they were youngsters. "Over and Over" by Charlotte Zolotow was published in 1957 and illustrated by Garth Williams. In this quiet story, a little girl celebrates a holiday or notices a seasonal change and asks her mother, "What comes next?" At the end of the book, she celebrates her birthday, wishing for all of it to happen again.  The story ends with these lines, "And of course, over and over, year after year, it did."

September is a birthday month in my family. My grandfather and I were both born early in September. Four years ago, my first grandson was born mid September. This year we had two small birthday dinners, one for the four year old and one for me.  E. chose firetrucks as his theme so his Mom made him a firetruck cake. I tied red, yellow, and orange balloons to his chair and we set the table with firetruck napkins and cups. Perhaps remembering his monster truck party from last year and looking forward to his firetruck party this year, he decided I should have a "yoga" birthday party. He and his Mom drizzled frosting stick figures in yoga poses on cupcakes. Everyone chose their favorite yoga pose for dessert and we all wore yoga pants. I kept the menus simple so we could enjoy the time together. The balloons and the firetruck cake were a big hit. Sharing a birthday month with my Grandson and Grandfather make me think of the little girl in the book, looking forward to the change of season.

Autumn is my favorite season. I love the chilly mornings and warm afternoons. I look forward to soup in the kettle, knitting in the evening, and warm apple crisp. Later this morning I am going to try a new recipe for pumpkin scones. These first quiet days of autumn are very good.