Little Joys

I always seem to get to those lucky conjunctions too late.  Being in the right place at the right time is one of the little joys of life, and of being a fiber enthusiast.

We have all seen the Facebook posts “Look what I found at my local Goodwill!” And there is the picture of the $6.000 loom they took home for $25.  Or the Instagram post “My kind neighbor just gifted me with fiber!” and the image of 10 lbs of luscious spin-worthy fiber just waiting to be loved.  Even though I am very happy with my looms, my wheels, and my level of acquisition in both fiber and yarn – there is still that little stab of “Drat. Why wasn’t I in the right place at the right time?”

Recently I have had  a confluence of my own little joys in the fiber world, and I wanted to share.  They are not excessive or unusual, but to me they are little joys of fiber and I am so very pleased!!

Blinding Joy

My mum and I don’t spend a great deal of time going to yard sales.  We have more than enough STUFF as it is! But occasionally one catches our eye and we venture in.  At a recent one we had pottered around and found a few tiny things each and were headed to the pay station when I suddenly saw some old blinds, sort of hidden off to the side.

I investigated and was thrilled.  They were the old fashioned wooden kind of blinds, about 4 foot long and perfect for placing between layers of warp on my large loom.  I asked the owner and she was clearly surprised, “Oh, you don’t want those I don’t have the hanger parts and one of them doesn’t even work.”  I said I was really going to tear them apart for the wooden slats anyway, and she shrugged and offered both to me for $1. SCORE!  There are about 80 of them, so I won’t ever have to worry about getting new ones! JOY!

Little Joys on the Edge

I have a great friend who lives in England.  We get together about once every three or four years and have grand adventures.  One of the great joys of her life is shopping, which I have to say, is not one of mine.  She can spend hours in a Walmart, Old Navy, or Eddie Bauer.  I get antsy after about 10 minutes.  In order to make sure we BOTH have fun, one of the adventures we often plan are antique stores.  We both enjoy them and can spend time together, shopping, without me wanting to hurt someone!

During her last trip we were in one of those antique malls that has dozens of small booths all owned by different people.  In the last booth, of the last shop I found some joy.  Knitting on the Edge, a lovely book by Nicky Epstein that I had always wanted!  It was a bit water damaged, but totally readable and at a criminal charge of 25 cents I took it with great happiness!  Knitting books are one of those things that I often tell myself I don’t need, and to be honest don’t use very often. But when you do need one, there is nothing more inspiring and more joyful than a book full of pictures of knitting!

Niddy Noddy Luck

Then just last week a ranger at Booker T. Washington National Monument‘s Fall Harvest Festival messaged me through FB and asked me if I could identify this item in the pictures. I explained that it was a niddy noddy. A tool used by spinners and knitters to create skeins.

I check my phone later to see if she needed more info and a lot had happened in my absence.  The ranger had said that the woman was looking for a good home for the niddy noddy.  It had belonged to her mother, and she though it was handmade by her grandfather.  My ranger friend had spoken to another friend who was in the area.  She had agreed to stop by and pick it up, and deliver it to me when she saw me at the Ferrum Festival. Wow!  Such super people!!  It’s beautiful, the wood is silky smooth and the color is lovely.

I may not always feel like it, or appreciate it but I really am in the right place, at the right time, MOST of the time. And I appreciate the little joys that happen along the way.


No one does it alone.

I once read a book called Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell) that gives his theory that no one succeeds by going it alone.  No one does it on their own. Even great or famous people who accomplish a lot or do great things in their lives are only able to do so because they met the RIGHT person, at the RIGHT time, in the RIGHT place. These people are great or famous because of a set of circumstances that happened to fit together completely right, not because they are smarter, stronger, wiser or better than the rest of us. (I thought it was a fascinating book!)

It really works with knitting. I am a perfect example: why did I end up a knitter (not a great or famous knitter, but a Knitter just the same)?


The people were RIGHT: I am a knitter because my Mum knits.

MumShe crocheted a lot when we were kids, but prefered knitting, so it was always around when I was growing up. I could have had a Mum who hooked rugs, or painted, but I had a knitting mother which obviously made a difference.

I used to babysit for some lovely little girls, and their Mum owned a yarn shop. The shop, Martha Hall Looms and Yarns, was part of their beautiful and old sea captain’s home in
Yarmouth, Maine. Once the little girls were in bed I could creep into the shop and smell the yarn. Back when I was a kid yarn had a lot more lanolin in it that we get in yarn now, and the smell was lovely.  I remember how large and intimidating I thought the looms were, and how you must have to be VERY smart to operate one of those. (That opinion hasn’t changed!!)

I wasn’t a particularly popular kid in school, so I had a lot of free time and spent most of it either with my Mum or at the yarn shop. On weekends, or when there was a sale, Martha Hall often had me help in the shop – and by help, I mean carry huge bags of yarn and sweaters out to customer’s waiting cars.  The cars always seemed big and black, driven by men in suits and the women always seemed to wear lots of perfume and jewelry.  So even when I wasn’t knitting, being around people who knit and who thought knitting was an important skill made a big impression on me.

I learned to spin because my parent’s took a trip and left me and my little brothers with a babysitter.  Looking back now she seems ridiculously young. She showed up with a backpack and a dulcimer.  She taught us all to play it (I think she had more luck with my brothers, it made very little impression on me.) but I remember when she pulled a spindle and some fiber out of her backpack. Like Mary Poppins, she had whole worlds in that backpack!  I was fascinated watching her MAKE yarn! Make yarn? Didn’t yarn come from a store?  She was obviously pretty creative because she grabbed a pencil and an apple from the table and made me my own spindle and taught me how to spin.  My spindle didn’t last long, and the ability to practice spinning left when she did – but the idea and feel of it in my hand lingered.  It was many years before I was able to spin again, but I doubt I would have tried if she hadn’t been my babysitter when I was so young.

None of the people my age knit as an adolescent (that I knew about) so it was like having a secret ninja skill. I might not get invited to parties, or get to hang out with the “cool” kids, but I didn’t have to buy my sweaters, I could make my own – in whatever shape, color or texture I wanted! I enjoyed that secret.

Really, the list of people are endless who play a part in making us who we are, but most of the important ones when I was growing up, were fiber people


The place was RIGHT: I spend my adolescence in Maine, where it’s cold.

MarthaHallStore.jpgMy town had a LYS where famous people came to teach classes (Elizabeth Zimmerman, for example) so the fact that people could be respected for being excellent knitters was an early revelation for me. I remember my mother going to some of the classes – and my mother NEVER went to classes, she was a stay-at-home mother without a driver’s license, so for her to go somewhere without my Dad was a big deal.

Our LYS owner paid me for babysitting for her girls, but she also paid me to work in the shop sometimes, and to knit sweaters for sale in the shop while I was in  junior high and high school.  I could never had afforded the high quality yarn used for the shop sweaters, and as a shop owner she had access to an amazing array of patterns.

This was pre-internet (I just dated myself, didn’t I?) so the only way to get patterns back then was to buy them in a wool shop or make your own.  Since money was pretty scant for “frivolous” things like patterns, I soon learned that I could imitate a pattern, or a sweater I saw on a kid at school, and make my own improvements as I went along.

Being in a place that allowed me to knit many, many different sweaters of different styles and with different wools gave me a huge amount of experience at a fairly young age.  I would have been unlikely to have enough experience to create my own patterns if I had not knit so many sweaters, and so many different kinds of sweaters.  It was also, sadly, an education in how some people will take advantage of your skills and your youth.  When I think of the beautiful sweaters I knit for a pittance that she then sold for hundreds of dollars it makes me sad. But it makes me proud as well, and I learned more about knitting and the business of knitter THERE than I could have learned at almost any other place, I think.


The time was RIGHT: Hand knitted sweaters were very “cool” when I was young.

Growing up with a mother from another country is always interesting. One of the more interesting things about being a small child with a “foreign” mother (even though she has been a citizen since I was small, that accent just won’t quit!) was that going to Grandma’s house wasn’t just a sled ride through the woods.

One of the fairly few times we went to visit Granny in England it just happened to be at sheep shearing time. What an amazing opportunity to learn about wool and the people and creatures that produce wool!  I remember so much about that trip! The shearers from New Zealand and all the interesting new words I learned from them.  The smell of the freshly shorn wool. The looks on the sheep’s faces as they jumped to freedom and weighed…nothing!  I have always been grateful that we went at shearing time!

It’s odd to me, thinking back, that owning and wearing hand knit sweaters was very fashionable when I was a kid, but actually doing the knitting itself was dorky and socially unacceptable to my peer group.

People at that time would pay a lot of money for a hand knit sweater from Maine. City people on holiday often stopped by the shop to purchase gifts for friends and relatives and paid what I thought were ridiculously high prices.

As a child I didn’t value them as HAND knit, because I had never purchased a sweater.  My Mum had always made our clothes and knitted our sweaters, and as I got older I had always made my own.  I couldn’t quite understand why everyone else wasn’t doing the same thing.  The value of hand knit sweaters from Maine came in handy when it came time to pay for college,  and made that little adventure possible.

I always spoke to my professors on the first day of class and told them that I had to knit during class in order to make the sweaters that made the money to PAY for the class.  I didn’t want them to think I was being rude. Most laughed and said that if I thought I could pass their class without taking notes then it was fine with them.  The only class I remember taking notes in was Biology, no knitting in that class! The rest were OK, I was an English major so I didn’t find it that difficult to not take a huge amount of notes.

What about you?

How did you become a knitter or a spinner or weaver? Think back on all the machinations of fate and time that allowed you to be interested in, learn about, and then excel at that skill.

I am always a little amused, and faintly sad when someone boasts to me that they learned to knit “from a book” or “all by myself.” What a missed opportunity!

How very sad that the time/place/people were not right for them to learn to knit from someone wonderful, in a place that appreciated their knitting, and at a time when it was considered a worthy thing to do with their time and talent.

Was there one person in your past that made it possible, or a group?  Was the location what made it happen or was it the timing of the learning?  There are so many small decisions and tiny happenstances that come through our lives that make things possible or impossible.

Take some time to think on how you came to be a spinner or how you learned to knit and stop a moment to give thanks for the people, places, and times that allowed it to blossom in your life.

Making a Swatch: a Guide

The topic is making a swatch.  I have already talked about my idea of the three types of swatchers.  I also think there are three ways to swatch.  The right way, the wrong way, and my way. (Obviously there are more, but this is how I see it.)

The RIGHT way

If you do your research you will find that the avowed and generally accepted “correct” way to swatch is to cast on and knit a square that is four inches wide, by four inches tall.  It should be in the pattern stitch called for and have at least a four stitch(row) garter stitch border.  It should be done in the yarn you are planning to use for the project in question, and it should be done with the needles called for.  This swatch should be completed, cast off, and the ends woven in.  The swatch should then be washed, blocked, and dried.

Exhausted yet? I sure am.  This can take up to two days!  I know of a real life person who does exactly that – EVERY STEP – when she swatches.  She is a very methodical person.  She also keeps each swatch in a series of notebooks, so that if a pattern ever calls for that yarn with that sized needle she won’t have to redo the swatch. Sigh.

This is the “correct” way to do it, people. If this appeals to you – go for it.

The WRONG way

Is there a wrong way to swatch?  If the RIGHT way to swatch really turned you on then, believe me, any you might feel that any other way to swatch is not efficient or complete and therefore wrong.  But let’s think this through for just a moment.  What is the purpose of a swatch?

The correct name will help, it’s really called a gauge swatch.  Gauge is defined as the number of stitches you get per inch with a particular size of needle and a particular yarn.  The gauge is what defines the number of stitches needed to get the size garment that you are looking for.  This is pretty important, but gauge is so much more than that.

Gauge also defines the drape of the fabric you are planning to create – the size of needle in relationship to the type of yarn and the weight of yarn will greatly affect the drape of the material.  Sometimes even one needle size can be the difference between stiff and flowing, between comfortable and sagging, between tight and just right.

I will tell you a secret.  When I make myself a pair of socks I rarely make a swatch.  Why?  Because in my lifetime I have made hundreds of pairs of socks.  They were made with different patterns, different pattern stitches, different yarns, different needles, different moods, different situations, different sized feet!  Sock yarn varies a little, more than you might think but after all those socks I am very familiar with the differences.  I am comfortable making changes on the fly, and in the end if I have to start again, I am not really fussed, socks are SMALL.  I have also knit about that many sweaters for myself and others.  You know what? I ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS knit a swatch for a sweater.

Gauge will also allow you to substitute a different yarn from the one recommended in the pattern and, while it doesn’t ENSURE the same fabric, fit, and look as the original, it gets you a lot closer than just “eyeballing” the yarn and winging it.  So that is your answer: the wrong way to swatch is to NOT swatch.  Unless you have made a bazillion (or hundreds, see above) of something of roughly the same size, with roughly the same needle size, with roughly the same yarn, then you need to swatch to see and understand all the minute changes that needle/yarn/and you can create in the fabric you will create in your garment.

The bottom line is that swatching is worth the effort. OK. But TWO DAYS of effort? Really?

My Way

DISCLAIMER: Let me reiterate, this is how I myself do a gauge swatch.  This doesn’t make it better or worse, it makes it mine.  Every long term knitter probably does it a little differently – if you have your own method GREAT, if you don’t have a method and you are doing some research on options then this page is for you.

In a nutshell, this is what I do to swatch for a sweater, a shawl, a scarf or anything that I haven’t already made with that yarn and that needle:

  1. I cast on enough stitches to make a piece of knitting a bit MORE than one inch wide.
  2. I almost always do it on circular needles because when I measure having the swatch on the needles can distort it, but so can having to off the needle altogether, so I like to move it down the needle to the cable, I think this makes the measuring more accurate.
  3. I work in the stockinette stitch for a bit more than an inch (somewhere between 1.5 and 2 inches is plenty in my book). (WARNING: if the pattern tells you to get gauge “in pattern” then you must knit your swatch in the pattern stitch.  This WILL make a difference!!) Some people do their gauge in garter stitch.  I don’t think it matters much on the stitch count, but I like to get a good idea of what the fabric will flow like, and garter is a bit stiff sometime, so that’s why I stick with stockinette.
  4. I do NOT cast off. I don’t intend to keep the swatch, so I figure why waste the yarn? I move the stitches to the cable part of the needle and lay it all down on a flat surface (a book, a coffee table, my knee…).
  5. I lay the measuring tape on the swatch snug up against the cable so I can see how many stitches fit between the two lines that measure an inch, using the middle of the swatch. (Don’t measure the inch from one edge of the swatch, do it from the middle. Also don’t measure the inch from the end of the measuring tape, use an inch further in the tape.)
  6. I place one line of the inch I am using to measure (it doesn’t matter WHICH inch, just pick on toward the middle of your swatch) between two stitches.  Then holding everything still I count how many stitches there are between that first line and the next one that measures a full inch.
  7. I write that down. (Yeah, I know, you probably won’t have to do that, but I am old and easily distracted, and I have found through experience that holding numbers in my head is not a skill I currently have a firm grip on, so I write it down. Don’t judge, we all get older.)
  8. I pick up the swatch and play with it a bit (stretch it, squish it, fondle it) nothing really intense just a bit of loving appreciation for all it’s doing for me. (HINT: this is a great time to see if I like the feel of the fabric, the flow, the drape, the size of the holes…)
  9. Then I repeat steps 5-8.

I might repeat those steps 2 or three times until I am really confident that repeating it won’t get me a different number.  Then I have my gauge.

If I am not happy with the feel of the fabric or the way it drapes I will do a second swatch with another size needle, but more on that later.

But wait, we aren’t done!

Now you know how I do it, step by step, but there is a lot more to it than that.  There are any number of things that you need to keep in mind, consider, and work around when you make a swatch.  Don’t get excited yet… there is more, stay tuned!


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