Saturday, September 29, 2007

Welcome to the Ranch!

On Wednesday of this week I attended, for the first time, a meeting of the Tucson Handweavers & Spinners Guild (TH&SG). Now I should confess right here - as I did to all the members attending as I introduced myself as a visitor - that I neither spin nor weave. So what the heck was I doing there?

Back in August, when I was having the month that I never want to repeat, in the middle of a particularly difficult day I ran into three great people in the unlikeliest place - the waiting room for ICU & CCU at Northwest Hospital. They are women that I have met before at Kiwi and at OPK meetings and workshops, and are all a pleasure to run into anywhere, but to sit and knit and chat with the three of them that afternoon was just a big, huge ray of sunshine in my day.

Now it turns out that they are also all three members of TH&SG. So we talked a lot about TH&SG as we sat and knitted, and that was when they told me about the fiber ranch. Now, I have to be honest with you, you could assemble a congregation of insurance salesmen, and I would still show up for the meeting if it meant that I also got to see the fiber ranch. Fortunately, no hard-sell experts were to be found on the actual day, but rather a large group of the warmest and most welcoming strangers & friends that I have encountered in the longest time.

For a non-spinner, non-weaver (tho they vow to change all that, but we shall see) the appeal of such a group is several-fold. As I said, these are darned nice people. And, they are darned creative people, too, with an enormous sense of humor. Just wait til I tell you about the study groups!

As with other guild meetings of my experience, the day started with the business end of things, and since they had not had a formal meeting all summer, there was a lot to talk about. For a stranger in their midst, I got a lot of information about how the guild operates and what they had to offer. Everyone who got up to speak was very comfortable in front of the group, and had their own fantastic way of presenting their information. This was how I learned that the TH&SG has an extensive library that some hard-working souls spent their summer cataloging and organizing. With 6 (count them, six) general categories. No one who was there will forget the number of categories! I learned of the passing of two members, and the obvious deep affection in which they continue to be held by their fellow guild members. There was talk of a sale of gifts from the family of one woman, to benefit the guild, and the establishment of a scholarship based on the gifts from the other woman's family. Upcoming events such as sales and shows were discussed. And there is a great community outreach program at Ochoa Elementary School, where they are helping lucky children to explore and have fun with fibers.

And then, there are the study groups. If the study group people will give me the leeway to paraphrase their group info handout I'd like to tell you a bit about the many groups this guild supports.

I've been talking with one member, Carolyn Webb, over the last year about the Felting Study Group that TH&SG holds. I have to confess that for various reasons I have yet to make it to one of the study group's meetings, but they sound really, really interesting. Every technique from nuno felting, needle felting, wet felting, knitted fulling, as well as felting artists & resources are discussed. My idea of great fun is anything that reminds me of the creative parts of kindergarten, and to me, the idea of getting elbow deep in water, suds and fiber and making art out of the process sounds too good to be true.

The next group that sounds really interesting to me is the Basketry Study Group. They will be constructing a variety of baskets using reeds, metals, cotton, paper, and found materials. I wish I had known about them in time to join them in making Nantucket baskets this summer, but there is bound to be lots of interesting techniques to learn and baskets to make.

My husband is really interested in the Dye Study Group. He has been wanting to learn to dye yarn for some time now, and would I be crazy enough to argue with that? This group will be learning about color and the dyeing of yarns, fabric, fleece and reeds.

There is also the Porrey Cross Weaver's Study Group, which will study selected topics in weaving. Their particular topic for the upcoming year will concentrate on the use of color. The Tapestry Study Group will focus on tapestry weaving structures used for both Navajo weaving and free-form tapestry weaving. The Marketing and Sales Study Group will explore marketing tactics and discuss possible sales venues. The Surface Design Study Group will study the embellishment of fabric to enhance the visual and/or tactile impact of the piece.

Last, but not least, is the Spinning Study Group, the people responsible for the handknit/crocheted/woven ranch you have been seeing here. This was their project for the past year, and my photos here can only show you the tip of the iceberg that is this detailed ranch. I would be hard pressed to name my favorite part, each element was so creatively imagined and fashioned, from the wanted poster on the back of the knitted barn to the rooster on top of it. The clothes laying by a log that were discarded by the skinny-dipping sheriff, who is now ogling the knitting Lady Godiva (wearing beaded pasties). The outhouse! With book, knitting and a tiny toilet roll, not to mention the half-mmon on the door. The cat on top of the ramamda that was made from yarn partly spun from cat hair, as the coyotes were made with yarn partly spun from dog hair. The knitted campfire, the clothes hanging on the line, the knitted wire fence holding in the knitted pigs!

I think you get the idea by now that this is a great group of people, who enjoy exploring the creative. Even if, like me, you are a non-spinner, non-weaver, I believe that there is a lot here to offer to anyone who wants to meet some new people and learn some interesting new crafts. Their next meeting will be held on Wednesday morning, the 24th of October at 9:30 a.m. in the Kiva Room at the Junior League. The address is 2099 E. River Rd.

CORRECTION- In my last post, I gave you some misinformation regarding the Gwen Bortner workshop sponsored by OPK and Kiwi Knitting. The Ten Textures classes previously described will be held on Friday, January 18th, and the Pocket Full of Color class will be held on Saturday, January 19th at Kiwi Knitting. Both are six-hour classes and are held from 9 a.m to 4 p.m., with time allowed for lunch.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Upcoming Special Events At Kiwi

My grandparents emigrated from the Ukraine just before (my grandfather) and during (my grandmother and uncle) the Bolshevik Revolution. To say that it was a difficult process for them would be making the greatest of understatements, but that is not where I mean to take you today. My grandfather died before I was born, but one thing he told my father over and over again was that knowledge is the only thing that no one can ever take away from you. I figure that given what the man experienced in his life, he knew what he was talking about.

One of the characteristics I have inherited from my Dad is an absorbing passion for knowledge about any subject that interests me. I remember time after time my Dad finding a new fascination and being compelled to learn everything there was to know about that particular thing. From golf to fly-fishing, ham radio, the clarinet and the saxophone, scuba diving, wood-working, photography, gun-smithing, engraving - you name it, the man can still tell you every detail on the subject til you think he is a walking encyclopedia.

For me those passions have been fewer and further between, but just as overwhelming. I worked in the salon industry for over 20 years - starting as a colorist, but the majority of those years as an aesthetician. Every time there was any opportunity to learn more about my profession, I was given the means and encouraged to do so. My employers sent me to places as far and near as Miami, Las Vegas, New York, Long Beach and London so that I might learn more techniques that I could then bring back to the salon and apply to my work - and to teach to co-workers, bringing everyone's skills and knowledge base up to the next level so that we could better serve our customers, and not coincidently, earn more for the business and for ourselves. It was just a given that if there was any chance to learn more about what you were doing, you took it.

But I found my real passion in the industry when I began to learn more about Aromatherapy and started incorporating it into my skin care practice. I was self-employed by then, and quickly saw that there was so much to learn on the subject - indications, applications, safety - that it was important to take a certification course in Aromatherapy in general. To expand my knowledge in the application of Aromatherapy in skin-care in particular I went to London for a course in that aspect of the subject. In less than a year I had met my husband Graham through the international Aromatherapy community, and we were married less than a year after that. We opened our own business that combined a shop with Aromatherapy products and my Aromatherapy/skin-care practice, and had massage therapists, manicurists, and alternative practitioners working with us. I wrote several articles on Aromatherapy and skin care for magazines, as well as articles on the safe practice of Aromatherapy. We organized and held annual Aromatherapy conferences in Tucson that brought in participants from all over the country and speakers from all over the world. And all this came to us because of a passion for learning everything I could learn about a subject that fascinated me.

Now that my health issues have made it necessary for us to give up our business and for me to make a career change, I have found a new passion in knitting. I love that it combines my two great requirements for a burning interest - creativity, and the opportunity to learn more and to challenge my brain with each new project. My Aromatherapy books have been sold or given away to make room for shelves and shelves of knitting books. Instead of a cabinet full of exotic Essential Oils, I have a cabinet full of yarn stash. When I choose a new project I try to choose something that will challenge me and make an opportunity for me to learn new techniques. I am having a GREAT time on Ravelry meeting knitters from all over the world, seeing their projects and talking about knitting. I belong to two Yahoo groups about knitting and have learned immense amounts of information from the members, as well as been able to pass on some of my own knowledge to others. Every time our local knitting guild - Old Pueblo Knitters - has a guest workshop, you will see my smiling face right there, learning everything I can. Even if the subject is something I think I know a lot about, I always, always learn something new and valuable to take home with me and apply to my own projects.

Now we are fortunate that Kiwi Knitting is helping to bring some great opportunities to Tucson for learning more about our craft through some very interesting workshops. In November Kiwi is sponsoring a workshop taught by Irene York. Irene is an amazing designer who works primarily with modular knitting techniques. If you have been in the shop recently you will have seen her modular bags as well as that breathtaking shell shawl on display. Irene spoke at an OPK meeting a few months back about her work as a designer, as well as her influences and learning path. It was a wonderful opportunity to see and pass around many of her beautiful designs. Irene has taught classes for The Knitting Guild of America and at many of the 'Stitches' events. Modular knitting is at once so visually complex and interesting, and so easy to work, that it has become one of my favorite design elements. Right now I am working on two different modular knitting projects, have just finished designing a third and am about to start a fourth.

On Friday, November 2nd, Irene is presenting 'A Mixed Bag'. This class will teach you to knit a unique bag while learning how to knit and join modular equilateral triangles and U-turn units. In this informative and inspirational class you will discover the unlimited possibilities in creative modular knitting. Yarn kits and patterns are provided in the class fees, and lunch is included. The class is from 10 am to 3 pm, and costs $75.

On Saturday, November 3rd, Irene will present 'Patchwork Shells'. Shells might look difficult, but in reality they are quite easy to master and fun to incorporate into garments and accessories. In this class, the knitter will work shells and half-shells and acquire techniques for joining shells without sewing. Yarn will be provided. The class is from 11 am - 2 pm, and costs $50. Be sure to sign up as soon as possible, as class space is limited to 15 participants at each session.

In January 2008, in cooperation with Old Pueblo Knitters, Kiwi will present a day with Gwen Bortner. To paraphrase the workshop info given to me by Elizabeth Wells, the Workshop Chairperson for OPK: Gwen Bortner is a Craft Yarn Council Certified Teacher and is accredited by the Professional Knitwear and Designers Guild in both teaching and design. She has been published in a variety of knitting magazines and is the lead designer for her business, Knitability, LLC. Gwen's passion is teaching and she enjoys every opportunity she has to share her love of knitting with others. Gwen is an extrovert and over the years she has developed her own signature style that includes high quality, detailed handouts and memorable explanations with the use of "knitting aerobics". Gwen's teaching philosophy can be summed up in the following quote, "As a teacher, I have learned more about knitting than I ever did as a designer. Students' questions lead me to think about the "why" part of knitting and if there is more than one "correct" answer. I provide very few absolutes in the classroom. Although I may have a preference, experience has shown that "my way" is rarely the only way and being inclusive is so much more inviting. My mantra is "knitting is fun" and if the class isn't fun, then I am not doing my job."

On January 17th, through Old Pueblo Knitters, Gwen will be presenting a 3-hour workshop entitled, 'Good Reading'. Learn what is on your needles. Students will review basic stitch construction, learn to determine where they are in a pattern, and experiment with converting finished stitch patterns into words. These are valuable skills for knitters of all experience levels. Class cost is $30. Contact Elizabeth Wells at 520-886-7630.

On January 18th, Gwen will present 'Pocket Full of Color', a six-hour workshop. Intarsia, Fair Isle, stranded, slipped stitches are some of the various color techniques. Gain a basic understanding and some hands-on experience with three types of color-work while creating a small pocket-style bag. Students will learn tricks for working with multiple colors, creating consistent fabric, and the basics to charting your own design. Cost is $60, and includes lunch. Contact Elizabeth Wells.

On January 19th, OPK and Kiwi Knitting will present a six-hour workshop with Gwen at Kiwi Knitting, called 'Ten Textures'. Learn a new technique every 30 minutes and walk out of class with a variety of textures that can be added to your knitting projects. Techniques will start with the basics and build progressively throughout the class. If you are tired of stockinette or love the look of textured fabrics, this is the class for you. Cost is $60, and includes lunch. Contact Elizabeth Wells.

Don't let these amazing opportunities to learn more about our craft pass you by. Not only can I promise you from personal experience that the day itself will be amazing, with good company, lots of laughs, tons of amazing information, and great food, but also the information that you will take away from these classes will bring your knitting up to a whole new level of skills. Yes, there will be students in the classes who are already very skilled knitters (here is a little secret for you - this is how they got to be very skilled knitters, by taking every chance to learn new things). And there will be just as many, if not more, in the class who are new to knitting and just want to improve their skills and learn something new. Everyone is friendly and willing to share tools and knowledge. You'll see me there!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Advice to New (And Some Not-So-New) Knitters

Okay, all you Cowardly Lions of the Knitting World! Repeat after me:
It's just needles and yarn, it's just needles and yarn, it's just needles and yarn... :-D

My second project after getting back into knitting after a 37 year hiatus was a pair of socks. My first was a sweater. And aside from the fact that I would never want to meet the gorilla who would have fitted into that sweater (I frogged and then donated the yarn to the knitting guild years later, I couldn't bear to look at it any longer), I learned a LOT from the experience!

For the socks I bought a sock kit with yarn and pattern, and a set of double-pointed needles from Morehouse Farm while on vacation back home, a copy of 'Mary Thomas' Knitting Book' from Barnes & Noble, and sat down and knitted myself some socks. I had never made socks before, I had never used dpns (or even seen them before that day), never done short rows or heel turns, but I sat on the bed at my sister's house that evening with the instructions on one side of me, Mary Thomas' book on the other, and dove in. And before I knew it I had a pair of socks. You see, I didn't know I was supposed to be intimidated by that project. Now I can knit a pair of worsted-weight socks in a day with my little 12" circular.

My point is not that I think that I am Lynda the Amazing Wonder Knitter, but to show that nothing bad happened to me from deciding to just dive in and try it. I didn't die, I didn't lose any limbs, my family members are all still alive and healthy. :-) Nuclear war did not ensue, no one starved to death, global warming was made no worse by my efforts. No one yelled at me or made fun of me. And if they had tried to make fun of me they would have been in deep trouble, because I had a fistful of sharp pointy sticks, and I knew how to use them!

I think that what makes a person become a great knitter is not inborn talent, because none of us is born with knitting needles in hand (luckily for our Moms!). It isn't Years of experience - though Depth of experience is a great thing. It is NOT BEING AFRAID to try something new. If it doesn't work - and we are all guaranteed to make mistakes - you just rip it out and try again. See? No harm done. And you have learned something very valuable from the process. You get double value from your yarn because you get to knit it twice. Good knitters have to be fearless, and have to give themselves permission to be beginners, to know nothing, to make mistakes and to try again.

I sat that evening at my sister's house and looked at those instructions for the heel flap, scratched my head and thought, Huh? Well, okay, I'll give it a try. Then I read the part for the heel turn and thought, WHAT? Well, if that's what they say, I'll do it and see what happens. See, the thing is, I already knew and accepted that I knew nothing. So every idea, every instruction, every concept was new to me. That was the whole point of taking on the project: I wanted to learn something new. And there was no one sitting beside me to tell me that socks are tricky to knit, that heel turns can go bad.

What makes a great knitter is being absolutely fearless about trying new things. And one of the many things that I love about knitting is that it is filled with little tricks that are so easy to learn, and have such cool results and make you feel like a genius when you are done. I still think that heel turns are little knitting miracles. That you can make knitted fabric go around corners! Wow! How cool is that??? Look at me! Look what I just did! And every new project teaches you something new.

When choosing a project to start next, I always like to look for something that will challenge me, a technique I haven't tried before, or one that I haven't perfected. By the end of the project I know how to do that technique pretty well. Those knitters you can think of that seem to know how to do everything? That is only because they had the courage to try something for the first time. When you come to me on Friday mornings for Knit Dr. so that I can help you out of a jam? That is only because I have already made those same mistakes myself, on my own projects, and had to fix them. I can promise you that probably no knitter's projects are without mistakes, but you never look at them and say, Geeze, would you look at that! You can see that she worked a purl instead of a knit in row 57, and had to ladder back and fix it. Or that she forgot a yarn-over on the fifth lace repeat, and had to do a Make 1 in the next row to compensate. Yet I can promise you that those fixes are in there.

So by all means, have doubts, ask questions, come in to Kiwi for help and support and classes, but like the commercials say, just do it. It'll work.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Got Gauge?

Nearly every knitting pattern you will ever look at will give you gauge or tension information that is vital to working your project successfully. This important information tells you the gauge that the designer achieved while working the pattern. If you want your project to fit and drape in the same way that the original does, then it is essential that you match your gauge to the designer's intended gauge for the project.

But how many times have I heard people say that they never do a gauge swatch? Time after time knitters tell me that 'I always knit to gauge', and therefore they don't bother with doing those pesky gauge swatches, they just dive into their project. Well, I've got bad news for you: 'Gauge' is not some Golden Standard that all designers must attain before they can start designing projects. Every knitter is different, therefore every designer's gauge is likely to be different from every other designer's gauge. I've seen patterns where the designer expects a gauge of 3 sts/in with DK weight yarn and size US 7 needles. Ponder that one for a bit. Three stitches in an inch is what you might expect to get with a chunky or a bulky yarn, not a yarn weight that is two to three sizes finer. I used up to a size US 13 needle and still was not able to achieve that gauge, and the fabric I was getting was very loose and holey, not at all what I wanted or what was pictured in the book, although the designer answered my questioning email with the indignant assurance that those numbers were indeed correct.

There is nothing more stressful than making an entire project and finding that it doesn't fit. I had the good fortune that my first sweater, when finished, would have been a bit loose for a gorilla on steroids. Ever since then, I have been careful to always work a gauge swatch on projects where fit is going to be essential to the success of the project.

If you have stopped into Kiwi and talked about gauge swatches, you have probably been shown these two swatches - worked by two different knitters, with the same yarn, same size needles, and same number of stitches.

Gives you pause, doesn't it?

Not only will gauge vary from knitter to knitter, your gauge may even differ from day to day and time of day to time of day. Maybe you are knitting after a very tough day at work filled with stress, and you are taking it out on your knitting. Perhaps you are knitting the next morning with a nice cup of tea at your elbow and the birds singing outside after a good night's sleep. I can promise you that your knitting is probably going to be tighter at night and looser that next morning. My gauge on the same project is tighter now than it was a year ago.

Given all this, maybe now you are thinking that it is important to do your gauge swatch before starting your project. Good for you! But do you know the proper way to work a gauge swatch? Uh-huh. The patterns don't explain that, do they? I'm going to pull the gauge information from a couple of online patterns, and we will work from there.

Example 1 - GAUGE
20 sts/28 rows = 4" in stockinette stitch

Now, if you are like most knitters, your first instinct is probably to cast on 20 sts on the size US 7 needles called for in the pattern, and knit for four inches. Then you'll leave it on the needles, and measure an inch somewhere in the middle and call it a day.

If, however, you are going to spend the time to work the entire project, and the money to buy good yarn, you might want to take the time to do the gauge properly. So, if the gauge is given (as it always is) for a 4" (10 cm.) swatch, you are going to want to cast on enough sts to get 6". In this case, that would be 30 sts. Twenty stitches divided by four inches as called for in the pattern gives us an estimated five stitches per inch. Six inches times five stitches per inch equals thirty stitches. Why do I want you to work a swatch that is 6" wide? Because you will probably have stitches that are either looser or tighter at the edges (beginning of the row) than they are in the middle when you start to relax into the row. So you want to be able to measure 4" in the very center of the swatch. Some people like to work their swatches with a garter stitch border, I don't because I feel that it throws your gauge off of true. I want the raw gauge.

Now, using a needle one size smaller than the pattern calls for, work the swatch in stockinette stitch for about 4 inches. Work one row in reverse stockinette, and then switch to a size larger needle - the one called for in the pattern - and work a further 4 inches. Work another row in reverse stockinette, and switch to a needle that is one size larger than the one called for in the pattern, and work for another 4 inches. In photography we call this 'bracketing', better known as covering your bottom. You want to work your swatch in these three different needles because if you are not able to magically hit the correct gauge with the needle called for in the pattern, you are covered for one needle size in either direction, and that usually covers all your needs. If by chance it doesn't, then you have a pretty good idea how far up or down you need to go in needle size in order to hit gauge. Too many stitches per inch? Your needle is too small, go larger and swatch again. Too few stitches per inch? Your needle is too large, and you need to go smaller. After completing your swatch, bind off, and get ready for the next stage, blocking.

Why block your swatch? Because at some point your are going to block/wash your sweater, and gauge can change a LOT after blocking. I've seen sweaters gain as much as a couple of inches in width after blocking. And you would be astounded by how much cotton can grow in length after blocking. Start by measuring gauge on the swatch before blocking. These numbers are important, write them down and save them somewhere, you are going to need them later. Take a ruler, and in the center of each area of the swatch, line the left edge of the ruler up with the edge of a column of stitches. Count the number of stitches over 4 inches, and write it down. Measure the number of rows over four inches by lining the long edge of your ruler along the side of a column of stitches, count the number or rows in your swatch, and write it down. I'm a lot more concerned with hitting stitch gauge than I am with hitting row gauge. If I can only have one or the other, I want to hit stitch gauge.

Now, grab the ball band for your yarn, and look at the washing instructions. That is what you are going to do to your swatch, either hand-wash or machine wash as required by the ball band info. If you are hand-washing, lay the swatch out smoothly on a doubled towel after washing and let it dry thoroughly before moving on. Once it is very dry (I like to leave mine over-night), measure all your gauge measurements for each section again. You might be surprised to see how much the gauge changes with blocking. Write all these measurements down next to the ones you took before blocking your swatch. Find the after-blocking gauge that matched the gauge called for in the pattern, and you are ready to start your project. Take time to measure your gauge on the project again from time to time as you work, matching it to the before-blocking gauge for the needle size you need to use to get gauge. If you can match that as you go along then you know it should match your after-blocking gauge once the project is finished and blocked.

Example 2 - GAUGE
28 sts/ 44 rows = 4 inches in lace pattern after blocking
This one takes just a bit more thinking as you have to work your gauge swatch as above, except in the lace pattern used in the pattern.

Now, the above instructions work great if you are working on a piece that is going to be knitted flat. But suppose your sweater is going to be knitted in the round, like a Fair Isle cardigan or pullover? Enter the ITR (in the round) gauge swatch...

Work the swatch with the info as given in the pattern and as above, except for this... You are going to work your swatch in the round. Why? Because very, very few knitters will get the same gauge on a stitch pattern knitted flat as they will get while knitting in the round. Most knitters have a slightly larger purl stitch than knit stitch, caused by the way that most of us wrap our purl stitches - they go the long way around the needle. This is why you get that gap after a cable, or your last knit stitch in a rib is big and funky. This can really throw off your gauge for a project knitted ITR if you don't do a proper gauge swatch, since knitting stockinette in the round is all rows of knit stitches, with no purls.

To knit a swatch for a project that will be knitted in the round, pull out two dpns (double-pointed needles) each in three sizes: one set a size smaller than called for in the pattern, one set the same size as called for, and one set in a size larger than is called for in the pattern. Cast on the appropriate number of stitches onto one needle, and knit one row. Slide the stitches all the way to the right on your needle, just as you do when working I-cord, leave a big loop of yarn in the back that will stretch across the back of your swatch without pulling it out of shape, and knit across the row again. Repeat.

Front of a gauge swatch for knitting ITR

Back of a gauge swatch for knitting ITR

Swatches can give you other useful information, too. I work them when designing patterns so that I know that the design I am working on is going to have a stitch pattern that I like, as well as to find the gauge that I am working in.

This swatch tells me that with the strand of linen I am adding to the fabric, it isn't going to have enough bounce or elasticity to correct the looser purls on my ribbing. So I work my last purl stitch of each part of the 5x5 ribbing by wrapping the stitch in the 'wrong' direction and knit it tbl on the next row, and find that corrects the ribbing for me by the time I get to the top of my swatch.

This swatch tells me that if I change the Fair Isle pattern in this sweater, then I am going to get a much tighter gauge than is called for in the pattern. But I like the weight and drape of the fabric, so I would rather reconfigure the pattern to suit my swatch, rather than change my gauge to suit the pattern.

This morning I started cleaning out my yarn cabinet and came across bags of swatches I have done for previous projects. It was fun to look at each one and remember the project it went with. Sometimes I ended up needing the yarn from my swatch in order to finish my project, sometimes I didn't. But each of those little squares of knitting equals a project that turned out the way I wanted it to, all because of taking the time to knit a gauge swatch first.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Swan Lake Stole, and Blocking Lace

Just about this time last week I finished my Mystery Stole, made in charcoal Zephyr lace yarn. About a week later than I had hoped, but still not so far behind that I was feeling too terribly guilty about all the other projects waiting in line. The official name for this pattern is Swan Lake, and it is based on the ballet of that name. I found the project very enjoyable, and it was interesting to work on something on complete faith - not having any idea what the outcome would be, but going with it anyway. For a control freak like myself, that was a big step, and also part of the fun. I love the finished shawl and look forward to using it as cooler weather descends upon us.

On Sunday morning I got everything I needed ready to block my stole. I should warn you: I am a BIG fan of blocking my finished pieces. I learned to sew at a very young age, and it was always emphasized to me that you have to constantly press your work as you sew if you want to have crisp, professional results. I made all my clothes for many years (and would still, if it wouldn't cut into precious knitting time) and always had the ironing board set up and the iron ready before I sat down at the sewing machine. The same idea applies to blocking your knitting. If you and I have ever had a conversation about making a gauge swatch, you know that I not only urge you to make a big swatch, I also tell you to wash and block your swatch before measuring for gauge. This is absolutely vital to success in a finished project. By the way, I also suggest that you measure for gauge before blocking and note those numbers down, so that you can see how much of a change occurs in your garment before and after blocking your work. I've seen many a finished piece grow a good bit after the blocking process, so in order to properly judge the fit of a finished piece, you have to block your swatch.

But blocking, you may think, isn't so important on projects where size is not an issue, such as scarves or shawls. Not so. Blocking always puts the finishing touch on a project, and is the difference between having it look hand-crafted, or look homemade. I always tell concerned first-time lace knitters not to worry about what their project looks like as they are knitting it, so long as they are accurately following the pattern. Lace, I always think, looks like a dog's dinner until after it is blocked. It looks like something you would reprimand the cat for doing. But take the time to block it and like the enchanted swans in Swan Lake, it transforms as if by magic into something of even greater beauty.

Blocking can be accomplished with as few or as many of the available blocking tools as you wish. But I have to tell you that the blocking wires I got last year for my birthday just changed my life. And that this year I have whispered into Santa's ear that I would love a blocking board. Next year it will probably be a woolly board, but we won't go there now...

You need a few basics for blocking lace-
- a flat surface to block on
- an absorbent material to put under the piece to be blocked
- a lot of pins
- a spray bottle with water
Much desired extras would include-
- blocking wires
- blocking board

There are also lace-blocking frames that allow you to string your project out between two parallel supports - kind of like the center of a snow-shoe - and then stand it up against a wall to dry. I imagine these would be wonderful to have, but I am not yet that dedicated to the idea of having one.

Flat Surface - I have heard many people say that they block their shawls either on the carpet or on a queen-sized or larger bed. I don't have spare floor space or a spare bed hanging around the house, but what I do have is a dining room table that has long served as a fabric-cutting table, a beading project table, and heaven knows what else that doesn't relate to food as often as it does to textiles and creativity.

Absorbent Layer - A couple of old bath towels will do here, I like to lay them out flat two layers deep. This way I can pin into them without scratching my table, and they absorb the moisture used in blocking.

Now for the blocking process. When blocking garments, I like to wash them according to the instructions on the ball-band before beginning to block. With lace, I don't wash them first, but start by pinning the piece out while it is still dry.

First I thread the wires through the long sides, and pin them carefully so that the selvedges are laying flat and smooth, and the parallel sides measure equidistant from each other at several points. This allows me to know that I am blocking my piece evenly. Don't spare the pins - the closer you pin, the more precise your blocking will be.

Next I thread wires through the work on any tricky areas - including points, and circles or semi-circles. The flexible wires are great for blocking out points on a curved edge, and getting them even without lots of painstaking pinning and measuring of each point.

If there are any strong design lines within the piece, I like to thread a blocking wire through them as well to make sure that they block into a nice, straight line.

Once I have everything thoroughly pinned out, I take my spray bottle and completely wet the knitting. Think of this as though you are setting hair - you have to wet the hair and put it into the form you want it to take, and then let it dry completely before you take it out of the forms. Same thing here, after all, we are working with animal hair. Once I have it all dampened, I gently pat it all flat with my hands, and then try to be very patient and let it dry in peace without me feeling it every time I go by (not successful there) and not taking it out of the blocking wires and pins before it has had time to really set well. I learned as a child that the sooner I went to bed on Christmas Eve, the sooner it seemed as though Santa came, instead of sitting up late waiting for him when he darned sure wasn't going to show up while I was still awake. Same principle applies here, I like to block things at the end of the day so that I can wake up the next morning and have my blocked piece all ready and waiting for me. Just a personal foible, but it may help you, too.

If you are thinking about starting your first lace project, know that we have several devoted lace-knitters at the shop who would LOVE to help you at every stage of your project. Just as I take great pleasure in turning normal people into knitters, I also love turning normal knitters into lace knitters. Lace knitting can open a whole new world to you, and if you already know how to work an SSK, a K2tog, a YO, and a double decrease, then you already know nearly everything you need to know in order to successfully knit lace. Try it, I promise you will become addicted.