Prairie knit companion

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As often as I can, I look around and marvel at my good fortune. It nestles around me everywhere in the dear family and friends that I have, the basic comforts of life that I try not to take for granted, and the fulfilling work that I have always had the pleasure to do.

Yesterday, the publication of the booklet pictured above reminded yet again of how lucky I am. Prairie Bliss (book 1) is a collection of gorgeous knitted and crocheted patterns by Austin-area designers, commissioned and published by Hill Country Weavers, an equally gorgeous yarn store that has been thriving here for more than 30 years. And I feel very lucky indeed to be a part of it.

With this and several previous design collections, HCW’s owner, Suzanne Middlebrooks, has savvily grabbed the age of internet craft by the horns. Rather than despair at the rise of online commerce, the store has positioned itself both as a physical respite from the internet’s intangibility (Google still can’t help you feel the yarn, I’m afraid) and as a destination for web-savvy customers.

Today’s knitters and crocheters are hungry for well-crafted, independent design that uses well-crafted, independent yarns. These collections go right to the heart of that hunger, using yarns like Brooklyn Tweed’s Shelter, MadelineTosh, Sweet Georgia, Habu, and the Fibre Company.

Suzanne has always asked us designers to take our inspiration from both the yarn and Austin’s unusually rich environment (physical and cultural). The photography for these collections (by the very talented Kennedy Berry and Meg Rice) reflects that same heady blend.

One of my favorite designs in the most recent book is the Enchanted Rock cardigan by Jennette Cross. If you haven’t come across Jennie’s finely crafted pieces yet, take a look. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of this brilliant designer, I can guarantee you.

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This is one of those garments that is just as beautiful and meticulously made when examined up close as it is when seen through the gauzy lens of great photography. Woman’s got serious talent of both the aesthetic and technical sort.

And then there are the designs that make me want to pick up the crochet hook again, particularly Ana Clerc‘s masterful Prairie Point Skirt. Ana is another one of those women with a brain firing on all 82 cylinders. Watch for some beautiful dye work from her soon, too.

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There are so many lovely things to choose from that it’s hard to control myself — you’ll just have to go take a look at all the lusciousness yourself — but I can’t resist showing you Kathy Bateman‘s beautiful knitted child’s dress, Little Honeysuckle, modeled by her insanely cute daughter. I’ve also examined this up close and talked with Kathy about its design and its another ingeniously constructed, fun-to-knit piece.

My own design in the collection, the Blue Sage Shrug, was originally published in a different form, and I love how the new photography and styling has fluffed some fresh air into the garment.

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As I say, feeling very lucky to be part of this talented crew. When I think about what inspires me most, it’s the artistry of my fellow designers.

Sheltered: Introducing Modern Tartan

c Meg Kelly 2010

Hello, all. I hope you are each encased in human and yarny love today. Here in Austin, it’s 55 degrees and pouring rain, but tomorrow we’re headed to Baltimore from a more traditional winter wonderland.

I got an extra Christmas present this year: today, Hill Country Weavers released its pattern line featuring Shelter yarn: and the men’s sweater pictured above is my contribution. Hill Country Weavers is the big local yarn store here in Austin, and is one of nine flagship stores carrying Shelter, the beautiful new yarn designed by Jared Flood, aka Brooklyn Tweed.

Jared, of course, has his own beautiful line of patterns for his yarn. A group of designers here in Austin decided to try our own hand at the yarn, seeing what it would do under an Austin influence, thanks to some prompting from HCW’s owner, Suzanne Middlebrooks. The whole pattern line is gorgeous — and gorgeously photographed.

c Meg Rice 2010

This men’s pullover, called Modern Tartan, looks complicated, but is actually quite simple to knit. Not just simple, but also fun, since you start at the top and knit down, leaving very little seaming. You do have to cut a little — that zippered neck there comes from a steek that you cut down from the collar. But do not fear the steek, dear knitter — especially when the steek is to be cut into such a lovely, sticky wool like this one. This yarn wants to hang onto itself like so much velcro.

There is another way that the yarn and design marry well together: Shelter is so lofty in its construction that the sweater stays quite light — a good feature for the average hot-blooded male.

Design-wise, the trickiest thing to figure out on this sweater was how to make the raglan increases play nicely with the stranded color work. I finally landed on an easy explanation for how to do the increases that I think makes the final product look much more polished.

c Meg Kelly 2010

If a men’s sweater in five different colors of Shelter is too spendy for you, there are certainly viable alternatives. The wool you use needs to be worsted-weight, pretty sheepy (no super-softy, drapey wools), and relatively light. Berroco’s Blackstone Tweed or – even cheaper – Shepherd’s Wool from Stonehedge Fiber Mill would be great alternate choices.

Really, most classic worsted-weight wools would work — like Cascade 220 (ooh, I’d love to see this in a bunch of their tweed colors) — but just be advised that those heavier wools would make a warmer sweater. Seriously warm and toasty might be just the sort of thing you’re looking for right now.

Merry Christmas, and warmest wishes to everyone, whether this is your holiday or no.

Can bombs be ephemeral?

Yarn bombing on a stop sign across the street
from my son’s elementary school.

If you knit and you live in my fair — if blazing hot — city of Austin, then you have no doubt seen these wonderful knit graffiti banners.

They are the work of Magda Sayeg, the genius who founded the group Knitta, Please in Houston. They’re the group that by all accounts began the now worldwide phenomenon of yarn bombing or yarn tagging, which is basically the art of leaving knitted or crocheted items somewhere out in public where they become some amalgam of public art, guerrilla graffiti, and anti-antimacassar. People have swathed trees in intricate lace, left knit-covered rocks on the Great Wall of China, and clothed a Smart Car in a sweater. It’s seriously good fun.

But as I drove down Lamar Boulevard yesterday, ready to warm myself in the glow of yarn-covered traffic signs, I was struck dumb. The knitted covers for the signs — they had done gone.

It felt so… wrong, and got me thinking about the ephemeral quality of those yarn bombs. They are tossed out there to the world as a ray of humor, beauty, and good cheer. And they can disappear like that. People sometimes take them, though that happens less often than you would think. More often, someone decides that the piece has outlived its usefulness, and it’s removed.

Like this lovely little piece made by two of my students and strategically placed on campus in the dead of night. My college has a very pretty but rather sterile campus. This lamp post cozy made a wonderful comment on what warmth and community really meant. It got a fair amount of attention.

And then it was time to put the Christmas decorations up. Down it came.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this bothers me. Many yarn bombers say that’s just the nature of the beast. These pieces are made to be ephemera. No harm in them being just that.

I suppose it’s that some of these pieces are ravishingly beautiful. And even the ones that aren’t typically bring some much-needed color to a bland urban landscape. Maybe I just wish more people appreciated what a giving act the yarn bomber makes.

Time for another poll!

Yarn harvest – personal edition

Recently, a new business called Yarn Harvest opened in Austin. They have a very cool business idea: unravel old sweaters that are made with quality wool, wash and repackage said wool, and resell. Voila, recycled yarn. (See a short video about them here.)

Under duress, I underwent my own yarn harvest experiment over the last two days. A year ago, I bought a discounted bag of luscious, cornflower-blue Elsebeth Lavold Silky Wool at Stitches South (a knitting convention). I decided to use it to make a sweater of my own design. Out of love and respect, I asked the yarn what it wanted to be.

The yarn lied to me. It said that it wanted to be a V-neck pullover with waist shaping and a lace panel up the front. It said it wanted a nice hem along the bottom and cuffs.

It even said, when I checked my gauge and my own measurements for the umpteenth time while knitting that sweater, that Everything Was Coming Out Fine.

The measurements were all correct. The design really did suit the yarn.

And it looked like utter cat barf on me. Why? Too big. Like wearing a giant silk-and-wool house dress. I don’t get it either.

What did I do in this crisis? The same thing I did when once I got a scathing review of an article that I had submitted to a history journal — I believe he used the word “incompetent” — I chucked the thing into the dark recesses of my closet and willed it to disappear. It’s amazing that I am considered mature enough to raise a child.

Then, for whatever reason, a few days ago I was possessed to spring into action. I unraveled the whole blasted thing. I wound the yarn back into hanks so that I could dunk them into a nice hot bath. After letting the yarn relax back into its natural state, I hung the suckers up to dry:

There they are, trying to look like virgin wool. Jerks.

As you may be able to discern, I feel a little singed by the experience, so I may just follow someone else’s pattern this time. I’m thinking about the Ogee Tunic by that genius Norah Gaughan. Norah, you would never lie to me. You will make this yarn behave.