Sunday, August 2, 2015

Wild and Woolly: Journey to Cornwall

Clotted cream from Cornish dairies is one convincing reason to visit Cornwall.  

For several weeks before my recent trip to England, I had a niggling sense that my notion to rent a car was, perhaps, not wise.  Despite my gut feelings, however, ultimately, I was enticed by the prospect of the freedom a car could afford and stuck to my initial plans.   

After saying good-bye to our friends in Oxfordshire, my husband and I headed westward in a Ford Focus rental. I was initially optimistic, as the major motorway we took wasn't too difficult to navigate.  But I soon learned that driving in England is not just an exercise in paying attention.  It tests a deeply ingrained understanding of movement and space.  Driving also requires some magical knowledge of how roundabouts function—a fact I learned in a terrifying way when I decided to take a detour from the motorway to view Exeter Cathedral.  A roundabout there provided so many confusing stimuli that I had to just give in to the chaos, weaving around the circle, stopping abruptly in the middle, and generally being a menace to other drivers.  

Like some doomed couple on Reality TV Marriage Boot Camp, my husband and I failed this trial (one much more difficult than those presented on the TV show), although I think Dennis was a little too frightened and well aware of my position of control (or lack thereof) as driver to verbally unleash all of his pent-up anxiety and aim it toward me.  After much tense time spent in city traffic, we made it out of Exeter and were soon on winding country lanes that provided roughly four inches of clearance between cars going opposite directions—in the sections where more than one car could actually squeeze through stone walls, hedges, and vines.  Facing whizzing cars and trucks in the center of the road triggered a startle reflex in me, similar to the one I experience when, white-knuckled and hanging onto the door handle, I am in the car while one of my teen-aged sons drives. 

On English country roads, it was nearly impossible to avoid hugging the left side, so much so that Dennis was ashen-faced, in horror of having his door—and perhaps his head—taken off by a tree or rock wall.  At one point a speeding “lorry” came around a curve and, reflexively, I yanked the wheel to the left, to be met by a series of loud crashes of rock against metal.  Dennis shouted, “Keep driving!” and I did, thankful that I’d taken out extra insurance on the vehicle.  There was no room to pull over anyway!

We made it to Moretonhampstead, a charming country village and were serendipitously within site of The White Hart Inn, where we had reservations for the night, when a clunking noise told us that we couldn’t delay pulling over any longer.  Miraculously, the body of the car was unscathed, but the left rear tire was virtually shredded.  I don’t know how we’d made it as far as we did. 

Europcar sent out a service person, with a charming local accent, who quickly put the temporary spare on the car and told me that I had to take the car to a service station for a new tire. 

“Do I have to do it today?” I implored.  It was already late in the afternoon, and I didn’t think I had the strength or the sanity to drive again, and my husband’s vision wasn’t up to the task. 

The man said I could undertake the task the next day, so we checked into the inn, for some much needed rest.  There in the dining room, my husband and I  were able to eat a hearty and delicious meal, rounded off by sticky toffee pudding (my new favorite dessert), sustenance for the next day’s challenge.  I needed energy, as when I’d been researching our trip, I’d located a web site for a yarn shop that isn’t far from Moretonhampstead.  Terrifying driving required or not, the siren song of a yarn shop was too enticing.

This is a charming lane leading out of Moretonhampstead.  

Of course, reaching the shop meant losing our way in Dartmoor National Park.  Like something out of Lord of the Rings, with mist, ferns, rocky outcrops, sheep, and wild ponies, Dartmoor, albeit a bit eerie, was a delight to our senses.  With no GPS signal, we saw quite a bit of it, too, as, after driving aimlessly, we stopped at an isolated bed and breakfast for directions and learned that we had to turn around and head back seven-or-eight miles before turning off to wend our way through tiny villages to reach our destination, the yarn shop in Bovey Tracey, a village not far from Newton Abbot, where we had to go to have the tire replaced.      

Dartmoor provided lots of moving obstacles to navigate.

When I finally parked the car in Bovey Tracey, an elderly man working at the visitor’s center informed me that Spinayarn was only a short walk away.  So I left my husband to regain his composure and begin to breath normally again and headed for this well-stocked shop.  I bought some Bluefaced Leicester Aran by West Yorkshire Spinners to use to make a friend a pair of mittens.   And I also found a whisper-soft skein of lace-weight mohair-and-wool yarn by Touch, a New Zealand company.

Ultimately, my husband and I made our way to the tire place without incident.  While waiting, we met an animated man seated next to us.  He had a heavy Cornish accent, but claimed to have worked around the world for MI6.  He freely shared his political opinions—a bit of a heated rant about rich, corrupt politicians—but also gave us excellent directions for getting out of Newton Abbot and gave me a pep talk when I expressed my hesitation about making a right turn across four lanes of traffic to exit the shop parking lot.  He was correct when he told me that people were polite and would let me go.

After a very long day, my husband and I arrived in Saint Austell and found our inn (another White Hart).  While online sites talk up Saint Austell as a tourist destination, it is more of nineteenth century industrial city, built on china mining, a place that is graceful in its way but also, I imagine, a bit more faded around the edges than some of its tourist-destination neighbors.   One motivation for my choosing Saint Austell is the fact that my great-great grandfather hailed from the area and was christened in the church there in 1829.  Our inn sat adjacent to the church, which was locked each time we attempted to enter it, but we did enjoy its pealing bells marking the time.  We also appreciated our quirky hotel, with its lobby smelling of ale and its evening entertainment—a singer and a guitarist—who performed American tunes.   

The next day we braved the roads again—but even though there is so much stunning scenery to see around the Cornwall coast, my hesitation to drive much made me limit our sightseeing to a town just a few miles away—Mevagissey, a fishing village and tourist destination.  From there, we took a small ferry to Fowey, another fishing village where I had a crab sandwich for lunch.  We had one day soaking up the atmosphere, as we were heading to London on the train the next day.   The following morning, a Sunday, we checked out early, and the empty roads to Truro made for almost pleasant driving.  But, amenable driving conditions notwithstanding, my husband and I did feel as if the albatross around our neck had been removed when I dropped the keys into the after-hours box at the rental place. 

The White Hart Inn in Saint Austell displays lush flowers that grow so well in the Cornwall climate.    

We stopped at a tea shop in a garden on our way into Saint Austell.  

The fishing village of Mevagissey afforded us a brief glimpse of Cornwall's coastline.  

Our stay in Cornwall was cut short due to driving mishaps, and the long way there was fraught with tension.  But, we would have missed charming Moretonhampstead, the amazing yarn shop, and mystical Dartmoor, and other off-the-beaten-path stops had I given into my initial and however well-founded reservations about driving in the UK. 

Home and tired from my trip, I sat still and was able to knit these mittens in two days.  The color here looks different than the picture (above) I took of the skein of Bluefaced Leicester.   

The flaps on top allow the wearer to use her fingers, when necessary.  

Monday, July 27, 2015

Oxford Idyll (with Tea and Sympathy)

Last fall, my husband and I were graciously asked by my friend and fellow blogger Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse to spend a week with her and her family in a bucolic village in Oxfordshire, England.  Oxfordshire is a place with winding lanes, thatched-roof cottages fringed by hollyhocks, medieval churches, and patchwork fields dotted with contented cows.  While my husband and I were undergoing struggles on the home front at the time of this invitation, we had hoped that by the actual time of our journey, some of the strains would have abated. 

This country church in Oxfordshire can be reached on foot, by wending through verdant fields.  

But, when we finally drove to the airport, we were tightly wound and exhausted.  Aside from ongoing strains, including a serious medical condition that had arisen in my husband over the past school year, we were worn out from orchestrating plans to get away, an activity that was akin to coordinating a complex military operation:  arranging for my reluctant fifteen-year-old son to fly by himself to New York State to stay with a family friend, obtaining care for my ailing 90-year-old mother-in-law, finding a student to drop by the house to water plants and to check on the cat and rabbit, and seeking out a responsible adult to touch base with my eighteen-year-old son (who would be staying in our home but whose behavior made us call into question his ability to feed himself, let alone provide sustenance and water for small animals).  Finding someone to handle this formidable task was not easy, but we eventually asked a priest who had previously served as a military paratrooper—as we figured it would take someone with his faith, courage, and vigor to tackle dealing with our headstrong teenager. 

This is the entrance to a church in Mrs. T's village.  

Cooler temperatures (around 68-70 degrees when I visited) make for shorter
growing seasons but much bigger plants.

We also organized care for our two dogs, creatures we felt would be better off at my sister- and brother-in-law’s farm in the country.  Since they (our relatives) spend most of their time in the mountains, we also had to contact their pet sitter to coordinate details.  My husband also had to meet with lawyers regarding two disparate situations that needed to be dealt with before our departure.  During these weeks of planning, record-breaking temperatures topped 100, a fact that added to the heaviness of our tasks and the weight of our spirits.  At the time, going on this whole enterprise seemed more and more a dubious proposition.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that we actually headed for the airport, especially when, after 25 years of legal tussles and delays, a road crew and heavy equipment showed up three days before our trip to begin demolishing my mother-in-law’s beloved blueberry patch and pecan orchard.  A new bypass is set to traverse the rural property where she has lived for over 65 years, and it will run very close to her house, taking away her driveway and her peace of mind.  Aside from stepping outside, cane in hand, to shriek at the workers--an action she took immediately--how would she react?  There seemed to be so many variables which could prove problematic while we were away.  And then there was the fact that in the course of a horribly taxing school year—one where I’d taken on a demanding new job and my husband had resigned from a part-time position due to mounting family stress and responsibilities—my husband's and my interactions had seemed largely to consist of acting like business rivals begrudgingly coordinating a deal as we touched base regarding domestic and family details.  Would we have anything to say to one another on this voyage?

Mrs. T's homemade scones served with homemade jam and clotted cream are a wonderful part of visiting her home.   

And then the airline had changed our plans—we’d originally had one layover, but now we had two, and ultimately had to deal with three delayed flights and four airports teeming with people in a hurry.  But after many hours (but somehow  no time for lunch), we took our seats on a nighttime flight to England.  The pilot informed us that the plane was not full—incredibly there were 16 crew members and 112 passengers on a huge jet!  The fact that we were starving made for an airplane meal that pleased our palates as much as any gourmet repast, and I savored  the added indulgence of viewing the new Shaun the Sheep Movie while dining.  I next put on my complimentary socks and eye mask, covered myself with two blankets, spread out over four seats with armrests raised, and was able to actually get some sleep. 

My romantic nature makes me imagine the generations who have passed through this churchyard gate.

Thatched cottages are very real but are expensive to maintain (and to insure).


 The bantam rooster Vladimir adds to the charming
 atmosphere of Mrs. T's garden.

The following week in Oxfordshire was even more relaxed and restful—providing much needed balm to my husband’s and my troubled spirits and allowing us to interact as companionable human beings.  And, of course, our week--of being fed Mrs. T’s wonderful homemade meals, enjoying pleasant and erudite company, resting in an English garden, walking in the countryside, and sightseeing--involved a trip to a yarn shop and my obtaining materials for a future project that is thoroughly English, and, therefore, an apt souvenir of my week in Oxfordshire.  I was saddened when we left our friends, as I knew that it would be some time before we saw them again, and I also had a dread certainty that the renewing and peaceful part of our trip was over . . . .

On our second day in England, we spent a restful time, punting on the Thames.  Mrs. T's son and husband did the work.  

Mrs. T. also planned a crafting activity.  She and I made espadrilles, using soles available from The Makery in Bath or John Lewis in London.  (I also think Amazon in the UK sells these, but I couldn't find them for sale in the US.)  We bought our fabric at Darn It and Stitch in Oxford.

The finished product is surprisingly comfortable.  You can go to Mrs. T's blog to see great pictures
of the espadrille process and photos of her finished product, espadrilles with ribbon ties.

We made a day trip to Basilton Park, a country house where many films have been shot, including Pride and Prejudice (the Keira Knightley version) and the last Christmas episode of Downton Abbey.


I loved playing Lizzie Bennet and walking through the damp fields.  Wished
I'd had a Regency dress to wear.  (I really am becoming more and more eccentric!)

Aware of my Jane Austen obsession, Mrs. T. and her husband planned a pilgrimage to Bath.  We saw the Royal
Crescent and the Roman baths and also made a trip to the Makery, where I bought some pretty buttons and trimmings.

Mrs. T. arranged for a special trip into Oxford, as she knows that no holiday for me is complete without a trip to a yarn shop!  

I purchased a variety of Jamieson and Smith Shetland yarn at Oxford Yarn Store to make a sweater from Kate Davies' book, shown below.  

Davies is both a scholar and a designer, so her well-researched book makes for interesting reading.  

I diligently knit and blocked a swatch for the Foxglove sweater when I returned home,
and my gauge seems just right.

Next post:  Wild and Woolly Weekend in Cornwall (Getting There is Half the Fun!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Product-Process Duality

Franklin Habit, Stephanie McFee, and other members of the knitterati have tackled the process-product conundrum.  In their blogs, they ponder the question:  Do I knit to create items I desire or do I engage in this activity because of the pleasure of the process itself?  Habit seems to fall into the process camp.  He actually likes to swatch.    McFee, on the other hand, seems to fit into both classifications.  When I contemplated my own knitting motivation, I looked up the meaning of process and found the following at  "a series of actions that produce something or lead to a particular result."  The word process is, therefore, inextricably linked to product, so the fact that I, too, seem to fall into both classifications as a knitter makes perfect sense to me.  

When choosing a project, I am often focused on the end product—the pretty garment that beckons to me from my knitting magazines and books.  (I love Ravelry but have so many knitting magazine subscriptions and an ever-expanding library of knitting books that my guilt at financial excesses restrains me from downloading online patterns that aren't free.  I also love the combined design elements—fonts, overall page design, photo styling, etc. of knitting books or magazines and am, like a child engulfed in the fantasy world of a storybook, often literally drawn into the scenes presented in them.)  I am particularly susceptible to garments shot in romantic settings—a lacy shawl or Fair Isle sweater photographed in the English countryside or by a rocky seashore is a surefire hook.  

But, by the same token, when I see a pretty item that is created with a technique that is complex or new to me, I am eager to knit it, not only because I covet the item (and shamelessly anticipate receiving future compliments on my latest sweater or accessory) but also because I am intrigued by the challenge completing it presents and the learning process I will undergo as I explore video tutorials or reference books to assist me in the knitting process. 

Sometimes, too, context can influence what type of knitter I am.  When it is February, during the dismal and dreary point when the school year seems interminable and spring break feels eons away, knitting becomes more about the process.  In the morning, when I am weary of months of driving to work in the dark,  I lament having to put down my meditative morning knitting and often find myself knitting for far too long with a mere ten minutes remaining to get dressed before heading out the door.  And in the afternoon, on the drive home, I long for the couch and my needles.  While I do always have a finished item in mind, ultimately, during these times, I value the knitting process itself as essential to my stress relief.  The rhythm of the needles with their quieting influence calls to me when I am harried.

This Sanibel Lace Shawl (made using Santorini Yarn) is the perfect piece for relaxed, process
 knitting, but, as this was intended for a Mother's Day gift, I was product oriented as I made it.  
Unfortunately, my mad rush to create a finished product resulted in 
a huge mistake, one that forced me to frog half of this and re-knit it.  But the  cast-off and 
blocked shawl ultimately made  its way to my mother in Arizona--almost on time.  

This Santorini yarn by Classic Elite is suited for a simple pattern, as it is varied and interesting
with its alternating colors and textures.  

However, through a conscious process, over the last couple of years or so I have worked to not become too much of a process knitter, with infinite bags of unfinished projects stashed away. Getting caught up in the fun of the process to the point where I have many ongoing projects disturbs me a bit—so much so that I would rather frog a garment and neatly put the yarn away rather than let an unfinished item linger.  I think UFOs are subtly annoying reminders of some of my less-than-desirable traits:  impulsivity, fiscal irresponsibility, poor time management, grandiose goal setting, a propensity to create clutter, etc.   So I have attempted to limit my knitting to working on one or two projects during the same expanses of time—one difficult and thought-provoking--for mornings with coffee; the other almost mindless--for social knitting or TV time.  

Now that it is summer break, and I am more relaxed, I have been even more product focused.  With more time each day to knit, I have loved seeing my projects take shape in a matter of weeks, instead of the typical month or two spent on one item during the school year.  I began the Enchantment Shawl after school had ended in mid-June and had it completed well before month’s end.  I loved the variety of techniques included in crafting this garment, so the process of knitting it was both engaging and challenging.  But, as I worked, I couldn’t help but focus on the end product, on how this pretty wrap would hug my shoulders, displaying its design elements and hand-painted Gershubie yarn by local fiber artist Heather Brunner.  (The hot pink is Cascade Heritage Sock yarn.)

The process of knitting the Enchantment Shawl is engrossing.  The design includes lace, cables, dropped stitches, color-work, picked up stitches, bobbles, etc. 

For the last week, I have frantically worked to complete Louisa Harding's Pasha sweater, a project I began knitting early in June, in order to have it ready to pack for my upcoming trip to England.  Last Sunday night, I picked up stitches around the neckline, joined the shoulders, and seamed the sleeves.  On Monday morning, I sewed on the sleeves and did a final blocking.  This process of meeting a deadline was actually enjoyable (as a teacher I appreciate the structure of deadlines), although maybe its now time to slow down to simply experience the "Zen" of knitting some new projects.  

One of these projects is found in Laura Nelkin's Knockout Knits, the "Quadro Shrug," a lace shawl that converts into a shrug when the sides are cleverly buttoned up. The instructions include a complicated chart for lace medallions that make up this garment. This item, with its unusual construction and intricate chart, is just the thing to keep me on my toes, engaged in the process. It's time for me to work slowly, research a bit, and enjoy the experience.  But I know, too, that for some odd reason my practical, product side seems to have a life of its own, seeking to have its voice heard.  It will urge me on: "Get this done before month's end.  You need August to cast on something to wear to school this coming semester.  Maybe that thigh-length Sage Fair Isle tunic by Mary Jane Mucklestone, the one with the chart that looks like hieroglyphics."  I'm sure I can find great Shetland yarn in England to use to work this up before fall is over.     

Sewing opens up a whole other product-process discussion.  I bought this fabric months ago but finally set a deadline and finished this bag a few days ago.  

The pattern is from Butterick (number 5658).  The instructions did not call for lining the bag with batting, but I
used batting as well as interfacing to strengthen and give body to my new knitting bag.    

Last Friday I went blueberry picking at my mother-in-law's place in the country.  I always start
out anticipating the relaxing process of being in the country, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere,
 but I usually end up product oriented:  sweating and itchy, hurrying to fill up my bucket
(or buckets), so that I can return to the air-conditioned house.  

This year's harvest is particularly bittersweet, as a new highway is set to run through the blueberry patch.  Large
machines and marked stakes have already encroached on the property.