I am not supposed to be knitting. My fingers, hands and arms remind me of this dreary fact in the middle of the night, every night, and have done so for months, by waking me with either their acute numbness or their excruciating painfulness. Or, even more delightfully, both. /sarcasm

Despite doctor’s orders, I have (slowly) been knitting. I am in the midst of two — that’s right, I said two — pairs of socks, both designed by Cookie A and therefore full of twists and turns and complications. So, so not easy on my hands. I currently am averaging a couple of rounds a week on one of those pair. Needless to say, they will not be finished any time soon.

Color Affection

Color Affection (photo is a Ravelry link)

Additionally, I recently finished the shawl in the photo above. The final few, interminable rows of that had me in tears more than once. My own fault really. In adding more short rows than the pattern called for, I added many more stitches. I decided for my mental health’s sake not to count how many I bound off in the end. Over the course of two days.

One slightly unseasonably cool day last week made me realize that Pippa the dog will need winter clothing soon. (Have you met Pippa? She came into our lives this past March. I am told by those close to me that this was my idea. Which I do not remember having. Anyway, she has immeasurably enriched our lives.) At just 12 lbs with tags and collar, Pippa is a slender, short-haired wisp of a thing. Last fall I knit a sweater of sorts for Carmen the dog. And that cool day last week, again despite doctor’s orders, it occurred to me that I might need to knit another for Pippa before the snow flies. So I did what any reasonable, capable knitter (I may not be either one at this point) would do, and I dove into the tower of plastic bins in which I keep all the yarns in the world, and searched for suitable wool to knit a sweater for a slip of a dog. If you are a knitter, you know what happened next.

How to explain to the non-knitter? The tower of plastic bins holding all the yarn in the world (ok, all the yarn in my world) is like the rabbit-hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are exotic, weird, and wonderful things in there. Distraction upon distraction, interesting tale upon interesting tale, trail through the woods upon trail … You get the idea.

Rosella Flash

Fibreworks Hand Dyed Yarns, The Colours of Australia Rosella Flash

There I found this lovely and wild skein of fingering weight yarn, a gift sent years ago by an Australian friend, and thought “Wow! Why have I never made anything with this?” And so spent a little while winding it into a ball, admiring its ridiculous Crayola-box vividness, looking for a suitable pattern — all completely unrelated to the tiny problem that sent me stash-diving in the first place as it is completely unsuitable for a dog’s warm woolen sweater.

I settled on a pattern for the yarn, but it is to be a gift, if not for this coming Christmas, then Christmas 2015. Or 2016. After I have learned to knit with my feet. Pippa’s hand-knit sweater may have to wait a bit longer.

Posted in Extracurricular, Knitting, Unfinished things | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Woad betide, part the first

July was an odd month for various reasons.

  • I was away at the monastery for a few days of deep silence with six hours of quiet train travel to and from bookending my stay there
  • We three learned (gradually) not to be surprised when we walked on our new kitchen floor, a June ordeal and acquisition
  • Carmen the dog showed her age in the rather abrupt onset of back pain requiring an emergency vet visit
  • And, on or about the first of July, Bruce began peeing in an old soup stockpot.

Rest assured, I will not be making soup with that particular pot ever again.

He was helping me prepare a woad fermentation vat (also known as a urine or sig vat) by donating urine, and by the time I returned from the monastery on the 11th, the stockpot was full enough to set aside in the basement whilst its contents grew stale.

Shortly after that task was completed, a string of rainy days allowed me to collect enough rainwater for the extraction stage of our little woad journey. Woad extraction requires soft water, and our rainwater was soft. Off the charts soft.

collecting rainwater

collecting rainwater

rainwater soft

rainwater soft

Early in the day on Saturday the 19th of July, I harvested the slim collection of woad plants left growing under our backyard dogwood. Pippa the dog, who began gracing our family with her exuberant presence in late March of this year, has been carving a bit of a path into the woad bed, and has effectively thinned the crop just by dashing straight into it every time she flies out the back door. –sigh– She is a handful, that dog, Pip. In all the best possible ways.



No worries though. There were enough leaves to fill my smaller stockpot. I cut the plants near their base, then shredded the gathered leaves by hand. They are not tough so that was an easy task, and a task filled with promise as my fingers were lightly stained with blue before I was done.



Once done, I took the pot inside, put it on the stove, brought the rainwater/shredded leaves mix just shy of boiling, and then kept it at about 175F on the stove for 10 minutes. While the leaves were steeping, I filled our kitchen sink with water and ice, and when 10 minutes were up, I plunged the whole pot into the ice-bath and stirred the contents as I watched the thermometer plummet. Within four minutes the temperature was a healthy 130F and the mix was ready to strain out the leaves.



I took the pot outside, poured its contents into a colander over a bucket, and squeezed as much moisture out of the leaves as I could before discarding them. Then I poured the liquid back into the pot and waited for it to cool a little further, to about 120F or less, before proceeding to the next step.

While the liquid cooled, I prepared a mixture of soda ash and boiling water — about 3 teaspoons of soda ash mixed in a mug-sized container of the hot water. Once the soda ash dissolved and the mixture had cooled down a bit, I added it to the pot of woad liquid. Then, using a handheld electric mixer, I whisked the pot’s contents for about 10 minutes, watching as the froth turned from brownish-green to blue then back to green. So far so good!





A pH test told me the mix was about as alkaline as it could be. And here is where, maybe, things took a wrong turn.



You see, the instructions I was following (primarily — I did use a few other sources to confirm what I was reading) are for making a powder of the dyestuff and, had I followed them to the letter, this is the point at which I would, perhaps should, have employed the use of a series of glass jars, sedimentation, a glass pipette, and a whole lot of patience. I used none of those, and instead poured the contents of this pot directly into the stockpot full of stale urine, popped a lid on the mix and secured it with a short bungee cord.

foul-smelling concoction (aka sig vat)

foul-smelling concoction (aka sig vat)

The fermentation vat (which is what that stale urine-filled stockpot is) needs to hover between 95 and 109F. It can be cooler than that, but that will slow the action just like yeast in bread dough. Too much heat will kill the action — again, just like yeast in bread dough. It being summer here, and all, and our back patio often feeling slightly too warm for comfort, I assumed setting the vat on the stones there would keep it warm enough without getting too hot. And then? Then we had a string of cool and rainy summer days.

But I kept hope alive and, after returning from a short stint in Boston, I checked the vat and found little change in the color of the liquid. However, there was evidence that all the right things were occurring: a coppery scum had begun to collect on the surface. And so — prematurely, I freely admit — I popped a bunch of roving into the pot after soaking it in water collected from our dehumidifier. Recognizing that the vat might not be warm enough, I put the whole thing into a plastic garbage can we keep on the north side of our house to collect yard waste. The can, when the lid is snapped on tight, is a little bit of a hot house, but not too hot as it is more often in the shade than not. I left the pot there overnight and checked the roving in the morning by lifting it slowly out.

improvised hothouse

improvised hothouse

Nothing. Well, a definite stale pee hue, but no blue. So I put the roving back in, closed everything up and left it for four days. Still nothing, or next to nothing. You be the judge.

first attempt

first attempt

I took the wretched smelling roving out, rinsed it carefully a few times in cool water, hung it out to dry and returned the vat to my improvised hot house/yard waste bin. A couple of days later: better-looking vat contents with clear-ish green liquid and a more-pronounced coppery bloom on the surface led me to try again with another bit of roving. This time we went to Philadelphia for a couple of nights before I removed the wool. And another disappointment.

second attempt

second attempt

I will be spinning both bits of roving before trying them again in order to spare them from felting. And I may have to replenish the vat by processing a whole other batch of woad leaves. Which might just work as in the interim the woad has self-seeded and produced a small crop.

My knowledge of chemistry is not great, but what I think I have gleaned from various sources is that the indigotin/indoxyl must be extracted from the woad leaves, hence the steeping, quick-cooling, alkalinity, and mixing. Indigotin is the molecule that makes fiber blue, and it is extracted in an alkaline solution that must be aerated. The dye however will not attach to fiber without being converted into leuco-indigo through fermentation, the process which strips the molecule of oxygen (thank you, bacteria), and changes it to “white indigo.” Which is why, when you lift the fibre from the vat, your stomach might drop a bit at the awful color until it transforms before your eyes as it connects with oxygen again and turns blue. Or so I hear tell. I have yet to witness it except in the tiniest of teasing glimmers.

so tantalizing

so tantalizing

we may need to grow more woad

we may need to grow more woad

A night or two after I skipped the whole sedimentation part of this production, I woke up from a dead sleep and thought, well. This method (if it is one — I still had my doubts) I have chosen could take a whole lot longer if it works at all, because along with all the indigotin, I just dumped a pot-load of H2O into the vat of pee. That’s a whole lot of extra oxygen to digest. If indeed it works that way. I spent most of my spare time over the next few days searching the internet for a hint that someone, anyone had trod this particular path I’d chosen, and was reassured somewhat by a few accounts.

I do regret not paying closer attention to my studies in high school chemistry. Not that Mr. Theophanis ever talked about dyeing with woad. I will try again. People did this for hundreds of years without benefit of thermometers, swimming pool test kits, and stoves, freezers or Rubbermaid garbage bins. Right?

All you could ever hope to know about woad here: http://www.woad.org.uk/
With a bit more added on here: http://localcolordyes.com/blog/

Posted in Crazy talk, Extracurricular, On the fly (aka from a mobile device), Unfinished things | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cease and desist

Jack D. Rabbit
Sometime visitor to my backyard
Upstate New York

Re: Cease and Desist Harassment

Dear Jack D. Rabbit,

I am writing to you this letter to document a period of harassment I have received from you beginning 31 May 2014. Your behavior is causing me emotional distress and threatening my garden with great physical discomfort.

It has come to my attention that you are incrementally devouring an ornamental leafy plant, thereby threatening its life and that of the plants in proximity to it. This will not stand. Your campaign of wanton intimidation and callous disregard for the welfare of my garden is shameful and cannot continue unchecked.

On behalf of my carrots, beets, tomatoes, lettuces, beans and basil, on my own behalf, and on behalf of what is left of the bedraggled ornamental leafy plant, I demand that you cease and desist from this behavior immediately, or as soon as possible within 7 days of receipt of this letter. If action to cease and desist is not taken by you within the given time frame, I will take further action against you. This action will include releasing the hounds on a more frequent basis than that which you have previously enjoyed. Furthermore, said hounds may be subjected to Wagnerian influence just before their release. I suggest that you find another garden to munch on immediately. In short, shove off.

Thank you.

Patti Blaine

Enclosures: Photo of mangled plant, photos of aforementioned vegetables, mildly threatening video

Posted in Extracurricular | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Getting schooled.

I have had a Pentax K-r for a little over two years (I wrote about it once here). Because I have a little more time on my hands these days, at some point this past January I finally decided to hunt for a class on how to understand the ins and outs of a DSLR.

I found a class at the Genesee Arts Center’s Community Darkroom. I noted when the next round of classes started, laid some heavy hints on my husband, Bruce, and for my 55th birthday, he paid for the class tuition as a gift.

I want to say right up front that it is a very good class. On the first day the instructor showed me how to change the aperture settings and blew open all sorts of neuro-paths and avenues for me. And each class has been like that; I learn or hear something that solves a problem, answers a question or makes a connection that I have been unable to solve, answer or make on my own via trial-and-error or using the manuals that came with the camera and lens.

There are seven students in the class. I am one of two with a Pentax, and apparently, I am the one with the cheapest camera body. The instructor doubts that it’s an SLR (it is). He doesn’t think it has a mirror in it (it does). He says there are work-arounds for its deficiencies and that it can do nearly everything that we will be discussing in class, so not to worry. Thus far, however, no deficiencies have arisen.

Well. Except the one. And that would be me.

Our most recent class was a field trip to the Lilac Festival at Highland Park. We were to take photos using different aperture and shutter speed settings, different metering modes, and using various “rules of thumb” (sunny 16, cloudy 11, etc.) and our palms as light meters, adjusting white balance where necessary. And I did. All of the above. For two and a half hours. I took 99 photos.

Our instructor asked that we use the software that came with our cameras to transfer the photos to our computers, and send him our best results and/or problematic photos with questions via email. In the past, I have made that transfer with Picasa or Windows Explorer, but the Pentax platform allows me to see more information about the photos, or so I was told, and I do not doubt that, so I used the Pentax platform to make the transfer.

Unfortunately, I am an idiot. More accurately, I did something idiotic, I know not what, but I was in a hurry and I did not transfer any photos. Instead I deleted them all. And some of them were good! I just know they were. Some would have raised questions and concerns I need answers to. Others would have just made me look like a natural-born photographer and might have elevated the status of my lowly Pentax K-r in the eyes of my instructor. But no. They are gone. All gone.

Which left me with a conundrum. How to make up for 2½ hours of lost work in the space of a busy week? With iffy weather? Our field trip day was sun and clouds, threatening rain and mugginess — a variable weather day that tested our technical prowess at aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. I had no hope of duplicating that set of conditions in the wildly fluctuating weather patterns of this season.

An aside: Did you all where you are skip spring and go right from a bitter winter to summer? Because that seems to be what has happened here. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.

So yesterday morning Bruce and I got up early and took the dogs for a walk in Highland Park. It rained. There was no sun and so no sunny 16. I managed to duplicate a few shots, but many of the flowers that had been fresh on Tuesday were done in by that day’s unseasonable heat, and there was far less light. I took the camera out again yesterday afternoon for that daily dog-walk to capture a few images in the sunlight we had between storms. I managed to transfer all of them (184 this time) to the computer without losing one, and then humbled myself and sent the instructor some images and an apologetic email. And that will have to do. Because someone has to clean up all the gobs of fuzz and the dust bunnies from the felt sewing. And I think that someone is probably me.

Posted in Connections, Extracurricular | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

How does your garden grow?

How about a little joy?

We have had such a long, bitter winter. But there are sugar snap peas and carrots coming up slowly in the backyard. Our front yard is full of tiny maple trees, outnumbering blades of grass, or so it seems. There are tulips and violets and forget-me-nots in bloom. And this past week some of our winter and early spring work blossomed too.

Fresh after taking the SAT, Kate is in the midst of AP exams. She had one in chemistry last Monday, and another (known as APLang, at least in these parts) on Friday. The latter had several essay questions, and she wrote in pencil for about three hours steady, dragging the heel of her left hand through the strokes of grey. Saturday morning, on our way to the post office to renew three passports (two expired, one about to – it has been a complicated season), she complained of an aching left arm even as she was bent over her AP US History study guide, gearing up for another long exam this coming Wednesday. The timing of what was to come next that day could not have been worse. Oh well. We do what we can and what we must. And when Kate has work ready to perform, she performs. Even in the midst of APs. She spent the afternoon away from home, participating in an organ rehearsal, a student recital, and a studio recital. More on the second two below.

I have been working on appliquéing large backdrops out of felt for a friend. These will be used at a local India cultural center in a pantomime which she choreographs and directs, and in which she performs. The three large pieces are 6’ x 6’ and the four narrow ones are 1’ x 6’. They came together slowly as I worked through how to begin them in my head for a week or a month. Time stood still there for a while – as evidenced by my lack of posting here, clearly.

First, three giant 12-spoked wheels of red, green, blue and orange. Then, contrasting petals of red or blue depending on their background. Those two steps were time-consuming, but not all-consuming. Then, the yellow bit near the tip of each petal. And something happened while I was stitching those on.

After making a decision, the periods of execution were long stretches of time for cogitation, thinking and dreaming about what might come next. Sewing 36 large petals to a 6’ square, wrestling each prickly, pinned beast through the narrow sewing machine space … let’s just say they forced me to be present, and to feel that I was attached – pinned, even – to each panel’s transformation from solid green to layers of color. One thing I dreamed of, as sharp pinpoints left marks and drew blood on my hands and forearms, was how it might be to work with a narrower piece of felt. And I cut out more of the yellow bits.

I had a week’s hiatus during Kate’s spring break. She and I traveled to five colleges and universities in five days, and the sewing machine and mound of felt stayed at home. My sketchbook and a sheaf of images-for-inspiration my friend lent me came with us, and one night in my pajamas while sitting on a hotel bed, I drew the repeating, reversing vine that I would cut out of light green when we returned. Another night I drew the center part of each of the large wheels-turning-into-flowers, and envisioned how I might ruche up one edge of wide silver ribbon to mimic shisheh.

Once home again, the work of finishing became all-consuming, and I quickly cut and sewed the felt for the vines and the centers. Or as quickly as one can cut and sew 24 sinuous vine segments. While sewing those, I realized that the narrow panels would need a bit more … something, and after experimenting with circles of paper, I cut out and sewed on 96 circles. Which led to more contemplation time at the sewing machine. And more circles. 360, to be exact. Counting the three in the very center of each large panel, that’s 459 circles. Yesterday at about 8 p.m., I sewed on the last of them. Done!

Watching these unfold and flower in my hands has been … thrilling? healing? painful? I cannot sum up which. To borrow from Ellen Bass (thank you, Robyn!): I began them in “an obesity of grief,” and it is nigh unto miraculous to me that they are done on time and that they are beautiful, even joyous. I am still wading hip-deep in grief by intervals most days, but still. Look what came out of me during it. Because of it? Despite it? I cannot begin to imagine. I am, however, looking forward to seeing them onstage.

Speaking of stages, I love listening to this piano, and the pianist. From the student recital:

And this from the later in the day studio recital. Not my favorite piano at Eastman, but one of my favorite bits of Chopin:

Posted in Connections, Extracurricular, Finished things | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

We always think there’ll be more time

Well, I do. I don’t really know about you. But I assume, incorrectly most often, that I will see a friend again, have a chance to express my love more adequately, catch up on what’s going on in her life. And I let time slip by, and I don’t.

I lost a dear one yesterday. Suddenly and unexpectedly and … but these things happen, and I should have known better.

My house is full of little reminders of her. There’s a photo of her on a NYC bus with her youngest son on my desk. I’m sitting, right now, next to a box half-full of alpaca yarn she sent me after a recent trip to Ecuador. In our living room, the other half of that yarn is on needles for two sleeves and the body of a cardigan. There are reminders of her in my kitchen, in the room where Kate plays the piano, in the little box of earrings I keep on a dresser, and even in the basement where I’ve stored a bunch of the boxes and packing materials she gave me and used to help me pack up our breakables in our Queens apartment when I really really really could not face leaving NYC and her behind. She is not the only person to have so permeated our lives, but she is one of the very best.

I am so grateful that she sent me the yarn. There had been a long lull in our conversations and correspondence. You see? I thought we had more time. That gift out of the blue caused me to write her a letter of gratitude. I hope she saw it before she left us.

She made me a better person. More brave, more confident, more generous, more realistic and yet more hopeful. Do you feel the vacuum she’s left in the world? It’s all I can feel at the moment and, I suspect, for a very long time to come.

Posted in Connections, Unfinished things, Woolly thoughts | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

And then there were none.

I deliberately saved the “stained glass” Christmas cookie recipe for last, primarily because it was clear by late summer that I would probably be winding up this bit of insanity by the end of 2013, and I thought it might be fun to have cookies that are clearly Christmas cookies in December rather than in August or May. Another reason? Hard candy. We are not big fans of hard candy here. We enjoy having all of our teeth in relatively healthy condition, and frankly, just the thought of making cookies using dark brown sugar and light corn syrup, and then adding crystalline panes of color via broken bits of hard candy made my teeth hurt. I really didn’t think we would like them at all. Also, I thought these cookies would be hard. Hard as in difficult, complicated, and time-consuming to make. So I kept putting this recipe off, and it wound up being last.

This past Sunday afternoon, Bruce and I unwrapped a pound of hard candy, sorting the four colors (red, orange, yellow and green) into four different plastic bags. I carried the bags to the basement, putting them on a towel on the workbench and smacked each sphere with a hammer, breaking them into chunks whilst trying not to crush them into a powder that would melt to an opaque pane with too little color. I won’t lie. I found that activity a bit cathartic.

Then I mixed the cookie batter, lined cookie sheets with aluminum foil, rolled out the dough and played with my cookie cutters. The dough has to be about 1/4 of an inch thick, so rolling it out wasn’t too difficult. The bridges between the panes of “glass” had to be at least 1/4 of an inch wide, so the unbaked cookie shapes were easy to transfer to the cookie sheets without them breaking apart. Turns out this task was more play than work. Add to that filling the spaces with colorful broken candy bits and then painting on the egg white, and well. It was fun!

Brushed with egg white for an overall shine, these glistening confections are essentially sugar cookies. They are buttery, rich with vanilla and delicious. The gimmick of the candy panes is not overpowering, unless of course you dislike smiling. Because they will make you smile. They are fun and sweet in a sentimental way more than a knock-your-socks-off sugary way. If you cannot stomach the thought of eating them, you can bore a hole in each and thread them with ribbon for hanging on a tree or in your window. Cookies that can double as suncatchers and ornaments! I thought I would be throwing away the leftover crushed candy bits but no. I think I will have to make these again. Although maybe not this year. How long does hard candy keep?

And that’s that. The end of Sharon Tyler Herbst’s The Joy of Cookies. I have not put the book away, however. I left it open on the kitchen counter-top book-stand at the double fudge brownie page. There are mocha and double chocolate chunk variations I think we will have to try. In 2014. At our leisure.

Posted in On the fly (aka from a mobile device), The Joy of Cookies | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments