Photo of the month: November 2014

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An unusual one for me, but bear with me! I was really taken with this plane, along with many of the other exhibits, on a recent trip to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford near Cambridge. This is the Lockheed SR-71, an American spy plane nicknamed the Blackbird. No plane has ever flown higher or faster, and yet it was built in the 1960s! One of the things that struck me at Duxford, which gives a really good overview of aviation history, was how quickly things developed from precarious gliders and airships at the turn of the 20th century to amazing mean machines like this, capable of flying at three times the speed of sound. But development then levelled off, and many craft that were cutting edge 30 or 40 years ago are still the record-holders today. It’s an interesting reminder that progress doesn’t always follow the trajectory you expect.

I’m really pleased with the photo; I think it captures the key characteristics of the Blackbird – simplicity and menace – perfectly.

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In progress

 

P1010551I have a new knitting project on the needles! It’s my version of the Your Victory sweater, a much written about pattern originally from 1945, which can now be found in the V&A museum archive.

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I say it’s my version because along with deviating from the patriotic colour scheme I’m also creating my own shape. Fabulous though the short-bodied, hour-glass styling of the original is, I simply don’t have the 40s pin-up curves curves to carry it off! So I’ll be making it longer and less fitted at the waist.

P1010560The striking chevron stitch is incredibly easy and relaxing to do; every wrong side row is purl, and every right side row has a simple nine-stitch repeat which quickly becomes obvious as you work. And given that it’s worked in 4ply it seems to grow surprisingly quickly.

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After much deliberation (and some trial and error!) the yarn I finally chose was Blacker Swan, an exquisitely soft merino from the Falkland Islands. I’d been struggling to pick a palette of three colours until one morning I saw the perfect combination, on – would you believe – the livery of a lorry I drove past! The muted shades of this yarn were an excellent match for those colours, with a hint of black in each that pulls them all together. It feels luxurious and I can’t wait to wear the finished item.

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Budapest

Every year in October a particular best friend of mine organises a trip in honour of his birthday, and invites everyone he knows to join him. The destinations are always interesting European cities, and I’ve been lucky enough to take part in almost all of these trips, which have included Riga, Berlin, Krakow, Vilnius, Paris and Kiev. This year our exciting annual foray took us to Budapest.

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This is the second time I’ve been to Budapest. The first was in 1997, a mere six years after Soviet occupation ended, and it was quite a different place. Welcoming restaurants were thin on the ground, whereas nowadays, of course, there are endless interesting places to eat and drink, with tables set out invitingly on pavements and something for every taste. I also recall Trabants – those boxy, utilitarian cars unique to the Eastern bloc – being everywhere in 1997, and I must admit to having been a little obsessed with them back then. Made of a similar substance to bakelite, they came in a range of funky colours – yellow, pale blue, lime green – like retro cookware. Their design was unchanged in 30 years, looking uncannily like a child’s drawing of a car, and seemed to perfectly embody the strange otherness of Soviet-Era Eastern Europe.

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Nowadays Trabants are a rare sight, and the only place you’re likely to see one is a museum. We visited one such place, called Memento Park on the outskirts of the city, which is effectively a graveyard for communist monuments and statues. Having uprooted these gigantic unwanted tributes to heroic workers or figures like Lenin and Marx from around Hungary, rather than melt them down or smash them up, it was decided to preserve them as relics of cultural interest. All except for the giant 25 metre statue of Stalin that stood in the centre of Budapest, which was sawn off at the knees during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, leaving just the boots. A replica of this somewhat comical effigy stands at the entrance to the park.

P1010467Designed to be imposing and hammer home the message of Soviet supremacy, these ugly, overbearing monuments must’ve looked so out of place in elegant, ornamental Budapest, with its Art Nouveau buildings and splendid cafes. No wonder the communist experiment never caught on! Fortunately, some of the historic coffee houses that characterised the pre-Iron Curtain city still survive, and we made a point of stopping in at one or two.

P1010411The New York Cafe describes itself as ‘the most beautiful cafe in the world’, and to be honest they do have a point! Although it looks grand, you don’t have to be posh or privileged to go there – prices are quite reasonable and the clientele is very mixed. One of my companions had read that in the days when journalists frequented here a writer would file his copy by passing it to his editor who would be sitting at another table, and the editor would pass him his payment. It sounds to me like an excellent way of working, and I could happily make this place my office and drink their delicious hazelnut coffee all day.

We also visited cafe Muvesz, which boasts cosy decor and delicious cakes. If you’re looking for something a little more intimate then this one fits the bill.

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The weather, although mild for October, was particularly wet, so not being one for umbrellas I fended off the rain quite happily with my Aislinn hat. However, the reason I never bother with umbrellas is because I always lose them, and unfortunately I managed to do the same thing with Aislinn! Stuffing her under my arm whilst looking round an absorbing museum (the sobering House of Terror) clearly wasn’t the best plan. But happily, thanks to the lovely, non-English-speaking staff who responded straight away to the universal sign language for ‘hat’, Aislinn and I were reunited.

Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’ll be enjoying homemade Hungarian goulash and raising a glass to that turning point in history, when tyranny crumbled away and Eastern Europe was able to start rediscovering itself.  Kedves egeszsegere!*

* Cheers in Hungarian! 

 

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When is a cushion not a cushion?

 

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That’s right, when it’s a scarf! You may remember back in May I set myself the challenge of creating a cushion to add some colour to our plain sofa. I carefully selected six colours of Rowan Felted Tweed DK, attempted to create a pleasing Fair Isle pattern, failed in this task as there wasn’t enough contrast between the colours, so instead came up with a design of intarsia diamonds.

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You may wonder why nothing more was heard of this cushion. Well, having finished my simple design of diamonds on the front and stripes on the back, all knitted in one piece, I cast it off ready to insert a cushion pad and sew up – and realised that I just didn’t like it. My carefully chosen colours just weren’t right for the room – instead of the muted, painterly effect I’d expected the result was dull and mushy. For a cushion it wasn’t a good look. However, whilst musing over what to do lest all my hard work and beautiful yarn go to waste I must’ve idly wrapped the piece around my neck, as I suddenly realised it could actually make an acceptable scarf. All I needed to do was pick up stitches on one of the ends and carry on knitting until it was long enough.

IMG_0916Four-row stripes seemed an easy, attractive pattern. I decided on a pleasing length that when the scarf was worn would give one set of stripes down one side, one set down the other and the diamonds around the neck. Ideally it would’ve been nice to have had more diamonds but I simply couldn’t face any more intarsia! Once I’d cast off I folded the whole thing over, closed the seam with mattress stitch along the length, stitched up the ends and viola!

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For something that’s been pretty much a complete disaster from the start I’m actually quite pleased with this result. It’s the great thing about knitting; almost everything can be salvaged one way or another. And if not you can always turn it into a yarnbomb!

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Photo of the month: October 2014

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I’ve decided, at the end of each month, to post a recent favourite photo, so here is the first in the series. It was taken on a crisp autumn morning in the cloisters of Norwich cathedral, where, after staying with friends the night before, we took an aimless walk. I love how the diffused sunshine brings out the warmth and beauty of the stone, and that everyone in the picture is perfectly positioned and visible – quite by chance! Not long afterwards we visited an excellent local pub, The Fat Cat, where I enjoyed a brew named, appropriately, Hair Of The Dog.

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A hat and some history

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I’ve recently finished knitting Rachel Coopey’s Bedale, and very pleased I am with it, too. There’s something so fresh about its graphic, two-colour Fair Isle and elongated crown (it’s by far the slouchiest hat I’ve ever made!) Admittedly it took a little blocking to create the right shape: unblocked it was long and thin and looked disturbingly like a chefs toque when I first put it on, but a quick dunk in a hat bath relaxed the stitches nicely. I love the way it fits.

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Unfortunately, as this angle shows, I did make a schoolgirl error and – even worse – failed to go back and correct it! The shame! As you can see, my first repeat of the diamond motif looks far less crisp that the following ones. When knitting Fair Isle you should always strand your colours in the same relative position, and the strand that sits below will be the dominant shade on the finished motif. A moment’s careful thought would’ve told me that here the ecru shade needs to be dominant for the diamond motif to pop, but I blithely started off with the green shade stranded underneath. I quickly realised my mistake, but instead of frogging back I simply switched the strands and carried on, hoping it wouldn’t show too much. Who was I kidding!

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As my knitting tapered towards the tip of the crown I was very impressed with how those spokes of cream emerged, cleverly disguising the decreases. But my pompom hides another embarrassing error! When, a few rows from the end, I needed to transfer my stitches from a circular needle onto dpns, and having discovered that I didn’t have the right size, why did I think it wouldn’t hurt to use needles a size smaller? Of course, the punishment for this impatience was an elf-like point that looked silly, but luckily the pompom disguises it beautifully.

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Bedale comes from Toasty, Rachel Coopey’s most recent collection of patterns, all knitted in the sumptuous yarn above – baa ram ewe’s Titus. As well as being wonderful to knit with – a soft, plushy 4ply that mingles 50% wensleydale longwool, 20% bluefaced leicester and 30% UK alpaca – it’s a yarn with a story behind it. Produced in Yorkshire, Titus is a fitting tribute to its philanthropist, mill-owning namesake, Sir Titus Salt, who was not only one of the earliest champions of alpaca fibres in the UK, but who in 1851 built the elegant worker’s village of Saltaire, on the outskirts of Bradford. Rescued from the slums, his workforce enjoyed the benefits of bathhouses, parks, and superior housing, with running water, gas, and an outside toilet for every home. The mills have long ceased spinning, but Saltaire is a fantastic place to visit, as I was lucky enough to discover last month.

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It’s a treat to wander up and down the neat rows of delightful stone cottages, now privately owned but preserved from development, and imagine them filled with nineteenth-century millworkers and their families. I wonder what they thought of their extraordinary good fortune; lifted out of the slums and away from England’s most polluted town, where only 30% of their children reached the age of 15, and brought to live in a beauty spot with a hospital, a library and an Italianate church. No doubt they felt blessed, but human nature being what it is I wonder if some secretly resented their benefactor’s control on their lives. A strict Methodist, Titus insisted that everyone attended chapel on Sundays, and spent their leisure time improving themselves and refraining from gambling and drinking. I love that Saltaire’s wine bar is cheekily named ‘Don’t Tell Titus’!

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But the main reason to visit Saltaire is Salt’s Mill. Once Europe’s biggest textile mill, its cavernous halls are now filled with art and artefacts. There are books, homewares, antiques and even bikes for sale, and its galleries boast the world’s largest permanent collection of David Hockney paintings. There are also some very tempting cafes that I’m yet to try out – the portions looked enormous! An exhibition explains more about Sir Titus and West Yorkshire’s historic wool industry, which is fascinating. And if you want to buy some Titus yarn from its place of origin, simply travel 10 miles down the road to baa ram ewe’s gorgeous yarn shop in Headingly near Leeds.

My Bedale hat is ravelled here.

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Record breakers

If you follow me on Twitter then you may have noticed some excited live-tweeting yesterday. I was involved with no less than an official Guinness World Record attempt!

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I joined members of dedicated yarnbombing group the Craft Club at Little Havens Hospice in Thundersley as they attempted to assemble the largest ever number of individual crochet sculptures. Appeals for contributions had been going on for months, with the previous record of 4061 the figure to beat. The theme was Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree, and it proved the perfect inspiration. Crochet groups worldwide got involved and as the deadline drew near the Craft Club girls received sackfuls of fantastical creations.

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There were mushrooms…

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…hedgehogs…

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…snails…

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…rabbits…

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…owls (of course)…

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…a lot of bunting…

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…and a truly staggering number of flowers (this is just a selection).

As one of two official judges, my role was to verify the number of items in the record attempt by counting them. Yes, that’s right, all of them! Fortunately the Craft Club members’ impeccable organisation meant that everything was grouped according to type and set out in neat rows of ten, which made our task much easier.

Bv0A0VRIIAEiswiHere we are counting the acorns. Having agreed on the total for each group of items we signed the official document and moved on to the next group. The running total grew and grew…

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I can hardly believe it myself, but after taking this picture I would go on to press my clicker a further ten thousand and thirty times! Yes, that’s right, the record wasn’t just broken, it was well and truly smashed. The final display featured a whopping 13,338 items!

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And here they all are. According to the Guinness world record rules, the complete set of items had to be laid out for a full five minutes and filmed for verification, as was every part of our judging. It’s not official yet, but a great deal of care was taken to meet all the requested criteria, so confirmation from Guinness should be just a formality. Let’s hope so!

The final stage is for the yarnbomb to be taken into the garden of Little Havens Hospice and be assembled into a finished scene, which is happening as I type. I can’t wait to see it in all its glory, and I’ll be sure to share it here with you as soon as I can, so watch this space! Thanks to my pal Jane aka Knitting Image for arranging for me to be involved with such a great event.

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