Thursday, December 30, 2010

Water watching: frozen edition

OK, I'm not a big fan of cold weather. I've lived most of my life in Wisconsin and show no signs of getting used to cold weather—in fact, quite the contrary.  Last week, however, I had an excellent winter experience and I was even outdoors when it happened. For a very brief time, the lake was frozen enough to be safe and there was not yet snow on it.
The ice was incredibly smooth and the clearest lake ice I've ever seen. We put on our ice skates and special skate covers that Mr. Rududu designed to keep our feet warm. (They really work.)
I loved the reflections but the most wondrous thing was down below us—something I'd never seen before. We were skating where the water is quite shallow, less than a yard/meter. The ice and water were so clear we could see the sand on the bottom. Anywhere there was an object on the lake bottom, such as a rock, there was a 3D "ghost" of bubbles in the same shape above it in the ice. Here are the bubbles over a cement block.
Here are the bubbles a sunken wooden object made up of boards.
 I have no idea why this happened, but it was lovely to look at. (If anyone has an idea, please let me know!) Now it's covered up by snow. I'm so glad I went out to see this.
  Update: I contacted the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin (the people who study lakes) and they sent me the following explanation which I think is fascinating.
Even materials sunken in the water hold gases within the material--especially with something porous like a cinder block.  As the water cools, the object cools and contracts, and the gases are forced out through the material.  The first bubbles are caught under the top layer of ice, then as the ice freezes downward, the next bubbles are frozen underneath the first, etc., creating a layered effect.  Of course, the longer something is submerged, the less gas it holds, however, even the rocks that have been in the lake for years still have gas within them.  This year's freeze conditions resulted in some really clear ice, making the bubble/freeze effect even more defined.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The world-wide panettone movement

One of my holiday traditions is baking panettone, a type of Italian holiday bread eaten for both Christmas and New Year. It's a bread that is very popular in South America as well as Italy.
It's laden with butter and eggs in what is called an enriched dough. The ending "one" implies that this bread is big or special. You can buy panettone in fancy packages, but I'm suspicious of any bread that claims it can be eaten months after it is baked. Scary. Making homemade panettone is a bit of production because the dough must rest in the refrigerator overnight but it's well worth the effort. Like most bread, the hands-on time isn't long. (And if you have a heavy duty stand mixer, you hardly have to do any actual work.) If you make homemade panettone you don't have to eat mysterious red and green fruit pieces but whatever dried fruit you like. I pick two kinds from candied papaya, candied ginger, currants, raisins, dried cherries or cranberries. I've used walnuts, macadamias, pine nuts and pecans. I only use 2 kinds of fruit and some nuts, so the flavors don't get too confused.
   I make about 8 loaves a year and it's a gift that always seems to be appreciated. I've even given it to Italians and had them rave about it. I guess they were homesick. Of course, I have to do quality control every year to make sure I haven't lost my touch. Usually we do quality control on two loaves. Just to be sure.
Note on the mold. Panettone is traditionally made in a tall mold. Mine appeared unordered in a shipment of kitchen goods, as if to let me know that my destiny was to make panettone. I've been fulfilling that destiny for over 25 years. You can now buy one-time-use paper molds—or you can shape the dough into rolls. I've done that and it's delicious. Then I like to call them panettini.
  What's your favorite holiday baking project?

2 T yeast
1/4 C warm water
1T sugar
Mix and let bubble. Add 1/3 C flour. Let rise until double.

2 1/2 C flour (bread or all-purpose)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 C sugar
3 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 T + 1 tsp water
3/4 C softened butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 tsp vanilla
grated lemon peel from one lemon or 1/4 tsp lemon extract or 1/4 tsp almond extract

Combine these ingredients with the ball of yeasted dough. Knead 10-15 min. Add more flour as needed, usually about 1 cup. (Your goal is to add a minimum amount of flour so the dough isn't dry.) Then add 1 cup total of dried fruit and chopped nuts. The best way to incorporate the fruit and nuts is to flatten the dough, spread on a layer of the fruit and nuts and then fold the dough several times. Let rise until double. (Enriched doughs often are very slow to rise. Be patient.) Punch down and refrigerate overnight, covered.
Punch down and place in buttered mold. Let rise until double. To speed up the action of this cold dough, I put the pan in a very warm place: on top of some potholders sitting on the radiator until it gets warm and starts rising. Bake 400 for 10 min. and 350 for 30-40 min.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Knitting toys

Not all my toys are things that I knit. Some are toys that are themselves knitting. This windup bear has been trying to progress on her scarf for quite some time.
This knitting fox is a carved toy from Russia. When the ball underneath moves around, the fox moves its paws to knit its sock.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I continued my experiments with doubleknitting with a scarf featuring circles and dots. I'm still fascinated by the reversibility of doubleknitting and the freedom it allows in designs.
Making circles is harder than making squares and rectangles like I did in my first doubleknit scarf. After doing a couple of circles following charts, I moved on to improvising as I went along as to the placement, size and shape of my circles. Some came out rounder than others, but I like to think this approach gave the scarf design a fresh feeling. It certainly made it more fun to knit. (Knowing exactly what I will be doing until the end of a project makes me feel a bit like a worker bee. Isn't it more exciting to not know exactly where you are going?)
I was bothered by some irregularities and especially an extra dot that made one of the circles look like the letter Q so I embroidered around many of the circles with a simple chain stitch. I concentrated on the more misshapen ones and did it until it stopped being fun; I decided not to embroider around every single circle.
I'm wondering: do you enjoy an air of uncertainty when knitting or do you prefer to know exactly what you are aiming at?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A crowd of totoros

After seeing the brilliant Miyazki animation My Neighbor Totoro, I felt a need to make some forest spirits of my own. This holiday season I made some more to send to two very special little girls, along with a copy of the DVD. Before they go off on their big adventure, I took a group photo of them with our resident totoros.
Notes for how to make a totoro are on my Ravelry project page.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rududu has been busy making origami totoros. The model he used by designed by Robin Glynn. Here are some totoros who seem to be waiting for the cat bus.We believe the white one is about to become invisible.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Give away/holiday colors

To help me get in the holiday mood, I'm doing a modest give away. Details are at the end of this post. When it's cold and white outside, it makes me appreciate bright colors, even the classic red and green. This is my treasured Christmas stocking that my mom's cousin knit for me over a half century ago. My favorite gifts were the silly little things my mom put into this and the orange in the toe that tasted better than all other oranges.
Flowers in winter are so welcome.
My holiday decorating is quite simple; it takes about 10 minutes. One thing I do is put these temari ornaments out in a bowl. They're a traditional Japanese craft that I wish I knew how to do.
Give away details: Leave a comment by midnight December 15 and I will randomly select someone to get our limited edition handmade holiday card. Its photo features Mr. Rududu's origami in a small still life. It's a very secular image and I hope, quite cheering. I'm willing to mail it anywhere in the world. Please don't be shy! (And make sure you let me know how I can get in touch with you if you are selected.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Please don't call them cute

Listen, when you're an incredibly strong performing mouse, you don't want to be called cute. That's for sissy mice, mice in tutus maybe.  Yet almost everyone who sees Mr. Rududu's two latest additions to our Cirque de Souris, the Silnymys Brothers,  insists on cooing over them. Have some sensitivity for how these guys feel, please!
First we have the Strong Mouse. Look at those bulging thighs and biceps!
Next there is his brother, the Escapologist. He has to be strong to rip out of the rope tying his hands and to escape from his ball and chain.
Incidentally, although Mr. Rududu has taken over knitting mice for our circus, I still get to do the embroidery. I suggested that embroidering eyes to be covered up with a blindfold was a lot of work for something no one would see. But of course, I didn't know that the Escapologist was planning to peek!
As a technical note on eyes, moving them just a millimeter one way or the other can really change the whole personality of a mouse. So I preview them by inserting pins with round black heads on them and moving them around until the mouse looks just right. I know it's a little gruesome. So is Mr. Rududu's specialty: inserting the wire armature or "bones" in the mice after they are all assembled. It helps them stand up, but I just can't bear to watch it being done.
This circus of mice is designed by the brilliant Alan Dart. See our other mice on Ravelry.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mix and match

I don't have a lot of matching knitted things. I'm afraid I sometimes wear a Fair Isle tam in blues with purple Norwegian mittens and a scarf that has nothing to do with either of them. Is it an eclectic look or a short attention span? (It might just be desperation to stay warm in winter as we know it in Wisconsin.) I'm always eager to go onto the next design idea or yarn and I guess I have a very low tolerance for boredom.
  Recently I resolved to have a few things that match. Well, not exactly the same, but at least so they have something in common. Hence, I knit a blue scarf that (more or less) goes with my favorite blue and black hat.
I knit a gray hat that (more or less) goes with my pumpkin and gray squares scarf. They both have gray in them and they both have rectangles as a design feature. The hat pattern is here.

But do my mittens match? They do have gray in them. And yes, friends from warmer places, this is what I wear in November before the really cold weather hits.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My fleet of UFOs

Something once came over me and I made a big push to finish up all my knitting UFOs (UnFinished Objects). I even ripped out a partially completed vest I didn't enjoy knitting which had been sitting  for over a decade and used the yarn to make something else.
   I've often had a project in limbo for years. I often design my own projects and sometimes get to a place where I don't know what to do. (This wouldn't happen so much if I had a plan for the entire project in mind when I start, but I think I'll have some brilliant idea for sleeves once I get to them. And then don't, at least for a while, have any idea whatsoever.)
So once I diligently finished all my projects and only had one underway, did I bask in the glow of being a responsible adult? No. I didn't like it at all.
Then I realized each knitter has an optimum number of projects underway.  Too few and you might not have any knitting that is mindless enough to do while watching TV or you might have only mindless knitting that doesn't really excite you.
Too many UFOs and one's life feels out of control. So I've decided my optimum number of projects is six. Since I currently only have five, perhaps it's time to cast something on. What's your optimum number of projects?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some (very small) knitting content

I love animated movies and just found this incredible YouTube video by Aardman Animations of Wallace and Gromit fame. Knitting often appears in Aardman films. (Wallace invented the Knit-O-Matic in A Close Shave.)  What sets this animation apart is its character's incredibly tiny size. The character is only 9mm tall. (That's less than 3/8" for us non-metric people.)

If you like the animation, also watch the "Making of Dot" video. It's amazing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Playing with yarn: autumn colors

It seems autumn always goes past much too quickly.  They don't call it fall for nothing.
One day the hills are clothed in glorious colors and the next day most trees are bare and the predominant color is gray.
  Then it's time, perhaps, to extend autumn by heating up some apple cider and playing with your colors. I find moving my balls around is a great way to explore color ideas. If your stash isn't up to this you can cut out pictures from magazines or catalogs and play with them. Then buy your yarn. (What a concept.)
 Don't forget to add some sunny sky! This is a good idea if you think you don't look good in reds, oranges or brown but do like blue. Or you could add white for those big fluffy clouds.
I'm thinking of making a tam with these colors, using lots of blue. And here's a project I knit long ago that uses some fall colors. (A little purple also snuck in, as it will.)  A small knit purse is a nice project for testing colors if you don't feel like making a hat or mittens.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fear not the steek

One of my Unfinished Objects (UFOs) has become airborne again. One reason I put it aside is that before I could continue, I had to take my scissors to it. Cutting into something I've spent months knitting still makes me nervous even though I've done it quite a few times. However, I no longer hyperventilate (much).
 A steek is a vertical set of stitches that are inserted in stranded knitting as a place to cut later. Since my Mayan Dreams sweater is to be a cardigan with sleeves, I had a steek the entire length of the front and steeks on each side beginning at the underarm.
 The advantage of a steek is that one can knit around and around, always looking at the right side of the pattern. Doing a complicated two-color pattern back and forth would be mentally challenging as the pattern is difficult to see on the purl side.  (Interestingly enough, most Peruvian stranded work is done from the purl side so they probably would think I do it the hard way working from the knit side.)
  Many people sew along each side of the steek with a sewing machine before they cut it. Some add a crochet chain before they cut to stabilize the edge. But since I am very lazy, I do no preparation. This works for both Shetland yarn or the Kauni yarn I am using for this sweater because these yarns are so sticky they don't want to unravel. I proved this to myself by cutting a swatch and pulling at the edges. It's also the method recommended by Alice Starmore. By the way, I am so pleased that Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting has been reissued by Dover. It's the best book I've seen for both techniques and inspiration for Fair Isle knitting. Considering that I paid $24.95 in 1988 and the list price is again $24.95, it's quite a bargain.
I always make my steeks in alternating colors. That is, one stitch of color A, one stitch of color B, and so on, repeated until I have 8 or 10 stitches. Having these narrow columns of color makes it much easier to see where to cut. Once I have measured many times to make sure my armhole is the right depth, I cut. I am very careful that I am only cutting one layer of the sweater by holding some fingers under the top layer. In the picture, I'm using embroidery scissors but you can use any sharp scissors.
In the above picture I have paused to admire my neat cutting. After I cut the steeks I grafted the shoulders and picked up stitches around one of the arm holes. I pick up every row for 3 rows and then skip a row.  (Most people have stitches that are slightly shorter than they are wide.)
Now I am knitting down on the first sleeve. Later I will trim my steeks to be two stitches wide and sew  them with stitches on the inside that make Xs over the raw edge. This is an example on my Obsession sweater, also knit in Kauni. I've worn it a lot and washed it a couple of times with no problems with raveling.
  Using steeks is a technique well worth learning if you want to do Fair Isle or other stranded knitting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Touring the yarn

Our little Wednesday afternoon knitting group made a field trip to the beautiful hilly area near Madison that was missed by the last glacier. We visited 3 fiber shops and 2 places for food and came away very satisfied.
  First stop was the Sow's Ear in Verona. It seems to be the most popular yarn store in Madison even though it's not actually in Madison. A big plus is that it has coffee and food; it claims to be the first place in the Midwest to combine a yarn store with a coffee shop.  It's a brilliant concept. I hadn't eaten there before other than grabbing a smoothie after a bike ride. (In a striking coincidence, many of our bike rides start and end near the Sow's Ear.) We enjoyed our lunch and then did a little yarn shopping. I did a little stash enhancement, buying some yarn for a double knitting project I have in mind. For me, the key thing about my stash is having lots of colors in a few specific weights of yarn. I'm afraid I've started a collection of DK alpaca and add to it whenever I see a color I like.
  We continued on to Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill, a few miles outside of Mount Horeb. We had an appointment with Anne, one of the owners, for a tour of the mill.  Anne answered all our questions as she explained taking the raw wool through the entire yarn production process including dyeing it.
 The mill is full of enormous machines covered with fuzz.
Anne said that there are only 5 mills of this size in the entire country. Blackberry Ridge is having an open house with tours on November 20 and 21; check it out if you are in the area. It's a working mill so if you want to go at a time other than during an open house, just call ahead to make arrangements. Here's a picture of some of their yarn display. I enjoyed buying some yarn right where it was spun.
   By now we were feeling a little faint from fondling all that fiber so we stopped at Sjolinds Chocolate House on Main Street in Mount Horeb. Many of our bike rides end up at Sjolinds because of their excellent coffee and bakery treats. They also sell a vast assortment of chocolate bars from all over the world.
   Just a few doors away is a fairly new yarn store The Cat and Crow. We met and chatted with the two owners, Mo and Rebecca, who are both very welcoming. They have a nice selection of yarn, including lots of llama in natural colors. I scored some Rowen 2 ply jumper yarn in their stash exchange basket. You can take in yarn with ball bands and get a store credit for it or you can buy something from a basket for a very reasonable $2.50 a ball. Isn't that a great idea?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Travel knitting

I probably spend more time deciding what knitting to take on a trip than picking out my clothes. On our most recent trip, I took along some double knitting and made a scarf. It was a great choice for a travel project.
Travel knitting should be compact, but involve enough knitting to last for the whole trip. For this scarf I used exactly two 50 gram balls of Indiecita Baby Alpaca yarn. I chose a US 3 (3.25mm) circular needle—circular so it couldn't fall out and under the airline seat and in bamboo to decrease the chance of anyone thinking it was a terrorist weapon. I finished about half the scarf while I was away for 2 weeks.
Travel knitting should be challenging enough to be interesting yet easy enough to do just about anywhere even in less than perfect light. My challenge came from never having successfully done double knitting before. There is nothing like sitting in a plane for hours to focus one's mind on the only knitting available.  Squares and rectangles are much easier to double knit than elaborate designs that require you to read a pattern; I added fun by making up the pattern as I went along.  I prefer projects that let me make lots of decisions along the way.
 I love that the scarf is reversible and it drapes well. It's about 5" X 56" (13cm X 142cm). I'm now working on a scarf with dots which is slightly more challenging. (By the way, I also discovered that for beginners at double knitting, it's good to have quite a bit of contrast between the two colors to help one keep track of the pattern.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Words can't describe well the beautiful glowing colors of trees in a Wisconsin autumn.
The light seems to come from within the maples.
The smell of fallen leaves takes me to childhood memories of jumping in big leaf piles or kicking them along as I walked to school. 
Soon the brilliant explosion of colors is over and trees begin their winter sleep.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Water watching: Roman edition

Water seems more abundant in Rome than in most large cities. There are many wonderful fountains besides the enormous Trevi fountain. I liked the Seahorse fountain commissioned in 1791 by Prince Marcantonio Borghese when he renovated the Borghese gardens. Fountains like this combine two of my loves: art and flowing water.
There are many small fountains throughout the city and amazingly for the thirsty tourist, the simple ones provide drinkable water.
Rome has a tradition of good water delivery starting in ancient times. The ancient Romans built many aquaducts to provide water to a city that reached a million inhabitants. There were many public baths; the Baths of Caracalla were the largest and by one estimate could accomodate up to 6000 people at one time.
  Any water watching enthusiast visiting Rome should try to make the day trip to Villa d'Este in Tivoli.
 It's a very easy trip that only costs a few euros. Take the B line of the subway to the Ponte Mammolo station. There, buy tickets to Tivoli on the regional Cotral bus. (You might as well buy one ticket to go and one for the return trip. This will save you from having to buy a ticket at the bar in Tivoli. Just validate one in the bus's machine and keep the other one for the return trip.)
 Villa d'Este, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in the Renaissance by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este after he tried and failed to become pope. Water is everywhere; the cardinal really got carried away. The fountains are all fed by gravity; no pumps are used. Part of the water comes from a river that is partially diverted and some of it comes from a spring.
In one part of the garden there is long row of fountains and each of the many heads that spout water seems to be different.
 Villa d'Este is  often called a fantasy garden. It would certainly be my fantasy of where I would like to stroll whenever I wanted or what I could listen to from my bedroom.