Friday 31 October 2014

A month in knitting: October 2014

All done!  
 Baby blankets
In an attempt to use up some stash yarn I've been making some tiny baby blankets (20 inches/50 cm square) for Norfolk and Norwich Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (N&N NICU), and this month have cast off one Attic 24 neat ripple in white and yellow stripes. It's so cheery, and the ripples are really easy once you've memorised the pattern. An excellent tv/nursing project.

I've also finished a Shadow Box Throw in yellow, again for N&N NICU. Working it made me hungry as the colour so closely matches potato waffles. I love the texture of this one, and that it's made from one colour means very few ends to darn in!

Granny's Favourite
An old school-friend had a baby girl at the start of September, and as I enjoyed knitting my daughter's merino Granny's Favourite so much, I decided I would knit one for her too. Not quite so luxurious, it's knitted in James C. Brett Top Value DK, but it is machine washable, and cleared a little space in the cupboard. The shade of purple is one of my favourites, and knitting clothes for children under a year is speedy, so it was a very satisfying project.

Star-Crossed Slouchy Beret
I love this pattern, and this is the fourth I've knitted. It'll be a Christmas present for someone (I won't give any clues here, just in case she's reading), but was actually meant as a present for last year, oops. I found it in a cupboard when I was looking for something else, halfway through a round with no indication of where the round starts. No idea why I left it, I had fewer than ten rounds left. It's done now and I am as pleased with it as I was with the first three!

Pumpkin hat
A pumpkin hat for my daughter for autumn/Halloween. I've already blogged about it here.

Work(s) in progress  
Well, there's the wedding blanket (for more on that, see this post). It's making good progress, but work on it is restricted to when I'm at home as I'm a third of the way through and it's no longer portable!

Another Star Crossed Slouchy Beret. This one is purple and I'm pretty sure it's for me (although I know a lot of other worthy recipients who would love the colour, so that may change). I've actually finished it, but it needs blocking before I can cross it off the list.

A slouchy hat that I've been attempting to design for a bit. It's washed and blocked, but has stalled while I decide whether it needs a pom pom.

A third Granny's Favourite. It's in the same purple as the previous one, but in 12-18 months as a present for another friend; this pattern is definitely becoming a favourite!

A Christmas stocking for a friend's daughter. The stocking features lots of stranded colourwork and will certainly get its own blog post soon.

In out, shake it all about
In September I decided that it was time to knit down the stash a little as it was starting to take over, so am trying not to buy any more yarn until at least Christmas (not that I've managed!)...

  • 100 g Erica Knight for John Lewis DK, 100% wool; one ball in navy, one in cream. Nice and woolly, I'll be turning this into a cowl, hopefully in time for a friend's Christmas present, if not it'll have to be for her birthday in February
  • 1200 g Hayfield Bonus Aran to finish a blanket for a friend's wedding present, one ball each in Neon, Royal and Aran White
  • 100 g Sirdar Supersoft Aran in cream to use with some red I have in the cupboard for something festive
  • 400 g Drops Alaska for a Christmas stocking for a friend's daughter. More on that later!
  • 400 g Women's Institute aran in a lovely shade of turquoise - it's hopefully going to be turned into some hats for Christmas
  • Total in: 2200 g
  • Neat ripple: 150 g
  • Shadow box: 184 g
  • Granny's favourite: 74 g
  • Star-crossed slouchy beret: 62 g
  • Pumpkin hat: 36 g
  • Gifts from stash (cheating I know, but other people had more use for it than I do): 100 g James C. Brett Pure Merino in purple; 100 g Jawoll Magic
  • Total out: 706 g
Total: + 1494 g
Better get working on that blanket so the numbers look better next month!

Aims for November
  1. Finish the Christmas stocking
  2. Get beyond the two-thirds mark on the wedding blanket
  3. Knit 3 hats for presents 
  4. Knit solely from stash...

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Pretty pumpkin

For several weeks now I have been promising myself that I'll knit my daughter a pumpkin hat. The yarn had been earmarked (Debbie Bliss Rialto DK in Burnt Orange, with accents in Wendy Merino DK in Spice and Apple Green, all leftovers from other projects), but I hadn't managed to get further than casting on a tension square (literally, not a single stitch beyond the cast on).

So this week, with Halloween fast approaching and autumn zooming by, I decided to knuckle down and get on with it. As I was running out of time I decided to risk skipping the tension square bit; recently I have always knitted (and washed, that's the time-consuming bit) a tension square - a couple of Christmases ago I went from being a loose knitter to being a super-loose knitter overnight and ended up with some hats that were ridiculously large for their recipients, so I definitely regard it as a risk, but my tension has been pretty stable over the past few months, so casting on with 2.75 mm needles (see, super-loose!) didn't seem too risky.

I cast on my standard number of stitches for a baby size hat in DK and worked a few rounds of 2x2 rib. I then realised I had forgotten to drop down a needle size for the ribbing, so pulled it out and started again. Why does that always happen when you want the project to be quick?

So on to attempt two. I used the right needles for the ribbing (hooray! Although I did manage to mislay the needle envelope; two days later I still can't find it...). Then moved on to the wide ribs for the main part of the hat. I worked a few rows, then realised that my positioning of the purl stitch in the ribbing was going to upset the crown decreases, oops. Rather than change the decreases for the crown (doable, but potentially untidy - my k2togs are much neater than my ssks), I was good and pulled back to the ribbing.

Attempt three worked and I finished the basic hat, crowning it with a brown 'stalk'. Then onto the fun bits, the tendrils and leaf. The tendrils are artistic license as apparently they're not there when pumpkins are harvested, but they're cute, so I kept them. I've knitted leaves for apple and strawberry hats before, but they're not really big enough for a pumpkin, and they're not wide enough either. So I decided to do some knitted doodles to get the right leaf shape.

Knitting doodles is my favourite way to design small things. Essentially I cast on on do what I think I should, usually based on a quick sketch, taking copious quantities of notes and see how what I come up with matches what I wanted. I then modify the pattern a bit from the notes and knit again until it looks right. As you can see from the pictures I knit my 'notes' as a string, not cutting the joining yarn between tests - this means I can reuse the yarn without creating lots of extra ends to darn in!

It took a couple of attempts to come up with a leaf shape I liked, so I then wrote the final pattern down from my disjointed iterations (referring back to the final test leaf before I unravelled it, with a few modifications for things I didn't like in the 'draft') and cast on the final leaf. A period of uninterrupted knitting later and I had a leaf. I think it looks pretty good.

On Wednesday morning I stitched all the bits together and darned in all the ends, then checked that it fitted (phew, it did, a big snug, but superwash wool grows on washing, so the final hat will be perfect), then washed and blocked it. It's still a bit soggy, but here it is. I'm really looking forward to seeing my daughter wear it!

P.S. No baking this week. We're rather busy with other things, but I'm sure I'll tell you about those another time...

Friday 17 October 2014

Can't Catch Me!

I'm currently taking a bit of a hiatus from design work while my daughter is small, but there are still a couple of things I designed before she arrived that are still to be released. I've been designing for about two years now, and have had several designs published in Knit Now magazine, but I still find it ridiculously exciting to see my new designs in print. So I was delighted on Monday when the latest issue (issue 40, on sale from Thursday 16th October 2014) fell through the letterbox and I spotted my Can't Catch Me! children's jumper within its pages.

Image copyright Practical Publishing

Can't Catch Me! is one of my favourite types of knit: a children's picture jumper. I used to knit them for my sister when I was a teenager (I find all the colour changes keep my attention and stop me getting bored, and the child-size scale makes the project pretty speedy to knit), and am loving their current revival. Can't Catch Me! is a festive jumper, inspired by a toy I bought my son for Christmas last year. The gingerbread man is actually a bath toy, but my son takes him to bed frequently, and I find him adorable; he definitely didn't get put away once Christmas was over!

I really enjoyed designing and knitting this one, even if I did feel a little silly doing Christmas knitting in May. I made life a little easier for myself by knitting just the ginger bit of the gingerbread man into the jumper, then added the buttons, bow tie and eyes at the end using Swiss darning (duplicate stitch), which saved a few ends being darned in. The yarn it's knitted in (Wendy Merino DK) feels nice and wooly to knit with, then softens up beautifully when washed. It is machine washable, with care (I made the mistake of washing one piece at 40 °C on a standard cycle and it did shed a bit), and the colours have very subtle colour variation within them. I'll definitely be using the yarn again.

The sample is still with Knit Now (they keep them until the rights for the pattern return to me) so it won't be worn this Christmas, but hopefully it should fit my daughter in a few years time. She'll be wearing it even if the current trend for picture jumpers has passed. What kid doesn't look cute in a picture jumper?!

Thursday 16 October 2014

Impromptu bake day

I hadn't intended baking yesterday, until I managed to drop a box of eggs. Oops.

Three of the nine were broken, so we had an impromptu bake day. I grabbed the ever reliable Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook and leafed through it until I found a recipe that required three eggs and that we had all the ingredients for in the house: Buttermilk Pound Cake. I've made it once, possibly twice, before, and the ingredients are simple: eggs, flour, sugar, butter, baking powder and vanilla extract. And buttermilk. I wouldn't normally have buttermilk in the fridge, but had over-bought for my raspberry and white chocolate muffins, and had a spare, unopened, in-date pot in the fridge, so it was an obvious choice.

The method was straightforward, essentially cream the butter and sugar, then whisk in the flour and buttermilk. I own two small loaf tins and one larger one; as I had a spare packet of chocolate chips in the cupboard I decided to bake two smaller cakes: one plain and one with chocolate chips.

Unfortunately, on cooking, all the chocolate chips sank to the bottom, but the cake itself is really good - moist, with a nicely crispy crumb. We had some for pudding last night with ice cream, and I'm looking forward to sharing the rest with friends this afternoon.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Blankets, blankets, BLANKETS!

I like blankets to much the same level that Benny in The Lego Movie likes spaceships. I LOVE them. And this is no secret. Blankets are an excellent solution to many problems: too cold, wrap up in a blanket; too hot, make a tent for shade; feeling poorly, snuggling up on the sofa wrapped in a blanket may not have official medicinal qualities, but it will make you feel better; feeling far from home, just looking at the blankets my mum has made for us over the years makes me remember that we are loved, even if our families don’t live round the corner.

In my family blankets are important. My mum has always knitted blankets, made up of her 6 inch tension squares that build up in piles until they are eventually stitched together and edged with a long garter stitch ‘worm’, usually in the recipients colour of choice. When we were small and other families used duvets, we stuck with our blankets. There were always spares in the cupboard, and we were never cold. Many of my fondest memories of childhood revolve around blankets: rainy days indoors hiding under the dining table, which had been draped in a blanket to make a tent; outdoor dens made of a clothes horse, a blanket or two and many clothes pegs, a welcome shelter from the sun. Even though I’ve been knitting since I was seven, I still have blankets knitted by my mum. We have two double sized blankets on our bed (it saves arguments), one of which was a joint project between my mum and me; I had started it, and wanted a crazy paving blanket, so had just set about knitting squares and rectangles in whatever yarn and pattern took my fancy. There are chunky squares, aran weight squares, cables, moss stitch, ribbing… No two blocks are the same. Of course when it came to sewing it up it wouldn’t fit together at all. It turns out ‘random’ requires planning. My mum salvaged it, knitting little bits to fit in the strange shaped gaps. I think it drove her crazy; it ended up trapezoidal in shape, but is excellent for wrapping oneself up in and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

So when the first of my close friends got married, I decided that the perfect gift would be a blanket. I’d recently learnt to crochet, so decided on a fairly classic hexagon blanket. Each hexagon was a different colour, but they were all DK weight (the previous blanket experience had taught me something) and I was immensely proud of the final blanket. Since then I have made many more wedding blankets. Not for every wedding; weddings seem to cluster, and there’s no way I could make more than two a year. But there have been several, mostly crocheted as I find knitting something that large a little intimidating. 

In the twelve month period in which we got married we attended three other weddings. One fell at the end of the summer during which I’d been waiting to start a new job, so the couple received a brightly coloured patchwork blanket made up of double crochet (UK) squares in two sizes. They still use it now, it appears in the background of several of their photos, so definitely isn’t just for show. Making a blanket for their new baby this summer was an honour (it’s the blanket used as the background for this blog); this couple are very knitworthy! Early the following year, I gave my friends in Cambridge a second hexagon blanket, which they proceeded to use as a throw on their sofa.

In 2013 we attended four weddings (see, I said they cluster). My friends in the North West received a ripple blanket for the first wedding anniversary – I had intended for it to be finished in time for their wedding, but a busy period at work scuppered that! For the other summer wedding couple I knitted an entirely cream aran weight blanket made up of squares featuring textured hearts and a moss stitch border, along with their wedding date knitted into one of the squares. Many of the squares were knitted on flights between the UK and US (plastic children’s needles are fine, apparently), and I was very relieved when it was finally done, even if it was a couple of months late (I am forgiven, the bride loved it, especially as the personalisation meant her mother couldn’t adopt it).

The other two couples last year didn’t get blankets. I made the cake for one couple, and the other couple live in Florida, where blankets aren’t quite so necessary (I did knit them matching cup cosies though, I couldn’t not knit them anything). I can’t actually work miracles!

This year there’s only one wedding, which means plenty of time to make a blanket, right? Well maybe. I had a baby in the summer, so had avoided starting anything big, just in case I found myself unable to craft after the baby’s arrival. But I’ve figured out how to knit and crochet whilst nursing, so this weekend I started crocheting them a blanket. Their wedding invites are pearlescent cream, with snowflakes in turquoise, blue and purple. I considered crocheting another ripple blanket, but they do require some concentration, which isn’t the easiest once the blanket gets big, so decided against it. Then last week I saw a lovely blanket on Stylecraft’s facebook page, so did a shout out to see if I could find out what the pattern was (I can’t reverse engineer crochet, I’m definitely at a follow-the-pattern level of skill), and fortunately the person who’d made it saw my post and let me know that the pattern was Beatrice by Little Doolally. So I bought the pattern and then deliberated about which yarn to use. 

As the wedding is in December I wanted to use aran weight yarn so it’ll be finished on time, but couldn’t find anything online that matched the invite colours well. Then I remembered that I had a few balls of aran in the cupboard, so had a look at them and came up with three darker tones of the snowflake colours, and a lot of cream. I did a test swatch and loved it. Admittedly I didn’t have enough in stash to make the whole blanket (it’ll be 2 metres across), but after a few calculations I worked out that I’d only need to buy three balls (the purple is the limiting factor, it might be that I have to finish a repeat or two early, but it’s not worth buying another 400 g when I only need another 36 g; I’ll have to wait and see). So now I’m frantically crocheting (well, waiting actually, I’ve done five repeats and now need to wait for the three extra balls to arrive), but will hopefully be finished in time. Just this once.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Bake Off final and a bundt cake

A few years ago my husband bought me an aluminium bundt tin for my birthday. It is in the shape of a castle and is fab. We've used it several times for birthday cakes, and while I love using the tin, we've always struggled to get the cooked cake out without the details crumbling off, or a chunk just getting stuck (particularly when I made a giant crème caramel in the tin; the 'schlop' noise it made when it broke while I tried to pop it out was amazing, but not quite the desired effect. I don't think the tin is intended as a serving dish!). We've improved things by perfecting our tin greasing - half an hour with some butter and a pastry dish, then dusting with flour. But when we were watching European cakes week we had a moment of realisation: a bundt tin should be used to make a bundt cake, not a Victoria sponge. It seems so obvious now I say it, but it had never occurred to us until then!

So this week, in honour of Bake Off final, I'm trying something new and making a bundt cake. A chocolate orange pandoro to be precise. I had a quick look at the ingredient list before heading out yesterday morning, noting that we had everything in house apart from chocolate (if it's in the house it gets eaten), eggs (we had a few, but not the 10 required) and an orange, and duly added them to the shopping list.

Having successfully acquired the requisite ingredients, I headed home after lunch and at 2.15 actually read through the recipe. At which point I got a bit of a surprise. Apparently this bundt cake has three proving steps, each of which last 2 hours, plus an hour and a half proving in the tin. So seven and a half hours of proving time! 7 1/2 hours!!! And that's without any mixing or kneading or baking. I'm not used to this very time consuming cooking- chocolate cake is ready to eat in an hour (if you don't mind getting slightly warm fingers whilst eating). I was committed by this point though, so got started.

Step one was easy: make the starter, it took mere seconds (I almost screwed it up though - I've always assumed those sachets of yeast contained one teaspoon, no idea why, they clearly say 7 g on the back, and dried yeast is not terribly dense. But three sachets did seem like a lot, so I checked. And actually one sachet contains about three teaspoons. One sachet seems much more reasonable.). And was then left for about two hours (I had intended scrimping on the proving time, but the children needed attention at the same time as the cake and they won).

Step two wasn't terribly difficult either: add a few more ingredients and knead for 10 minutes. Kneading is easier when you don't have a baby in a carrier on your chest, but I count such hindrances as an occupational hazard of parenthood. Then back into the bowl for another two hours of proving (again no scrimping, it was tea time by this point so everyone needed feeding).

Step three, again pretty easy: stir in some more ingredients, chop some chocolate, stir that in too, then knead for another 10 minutes. No baby attached to chest this time, so much easier. Then leave to prove for another two hours, during which I put the children to bed, even though this meant missing watching Bake Off live (to avoid spoilers I switched off the wifi on my phone, shut the laptop and left the phone in another room for a few hours!).

Step four: transfer the mixture to the tin. I was good and prepared the tin properly, using a pastry brush to coat the inside with melted butter and then dusting with flour, I can't remember the last time I prepared a tin properly, but part of this exercise was getting the cake out of the tin with all the detailing, so it made sense to give it the best chance. I then pushed the mixture from the bowl to the tin and stretched it out to fill the tin before covering it again and leaving it to rise for another hour and a half, during which time I caught up on the final...

...From day one I had said that Richard was my favourite, along with Martha and Norman (so self-assured it was funny, he really added humour), but that I thought Nancy would win (based on nothing in particular, she's never done anything spectacular, but hasn't really done anything badly either). I was so disappointed with Richard, he was clearly just having a bad week. And after the second round and the tart au citron disasters from Luis and Richard, Nancy was clear favourite; that the technical was seemingly so simple was an excellent idea, it really showed any weaknesses. I would have done very badly at it, while I can make a Victoria sponge, scones require a recipe and I've never made a tart au citron. All their show-stoppers looked amazing, but the challenge itself was a bit odd - everything seemed a bit disjointed - I'd much rather have one of the elements served to me at a time! Based on the final Nancy was definitely a worthy winner, but I think all three finalists were excellent, and would have been happy whoever won.

I've really enjoyed this series, it's been the best so far, and I really feel that substance won over style, which was needed after last year. It's encouraged me to try baking some things outside my comfort zone - I would never have attempted a prinsesstarta if I hadn't seen it on the programme. And I'm looking forward to the next series, even though I have to wait nine months for it...

After Bake Off I returned to the kitchen and a well risen dough that had filled the tin nicely. Later than planned (11 pm) the cake went in the oven, and delicious smells started to fill the house.After 40 minutes I went to take the cake out of the oven to find that it was now massive, and a little dark on top. But when released from the tin (it came out so easily, much better than when the tin was used with a sponge cake) it looked magnificent (edit: the back right turret clearly didn't fill properly, more poking required next time!). And there was virtually no residue left in the tin. Result!

Tasting had to wait until the morning. And the verdict? Actually a little underwhelming for so much effort. It's tasty, but a little dry, and the outside is a bit over-baked. It'll taste better with a cup of coffee, or maybe spread with butter or nutella. I won't be in a hurry to make it again, but will look out other slightly less time-consuming bundt recipes so we can use the tin again.

Monday 6 October 2014

UK Wool Week

This week (6–12 October 2014) is UK Wool Week, The Campaign for Wool’s event showcasing British wool in fashion and interiors. So what do I think about wool?

I was brought up firmly in the ‘acrylics are best camp’. I believed wool to be itchy (not helped by a jumper from my gran, which was beautiful with its cottage garden intarsia on the front, but so itchy I couldn’t wear it!). But things have changed. In the past year I have had the privilege of doing some design work for Knit Now magazine, and, as they have a commitment for all their designs to feature yarns that contain 50% natural materials, I have been sent some wonderful yarns to knit samples from, many of them British. My particular favourite is West Yorkshire Spinners Bluefaced Leicester Aran, which I made my Fluffy White Clouds blanket from. It is possibly the softest yarn I have ever worked with, and once it’s been washed it becomes even softer, definitely a yarn I would recommend. I have great respect for West Yorkshire Spinners and their philosophy that yarn should be local and costs should be kept low to make real wool affordable to everyone; obviously their yarns are the real selling point though, and even though I don’t knit socks (two the same? I struggle with the convention that jumpers should have two sleeves!) the colours of their sock yarns could definitely tempt me.

Image copyright Practical Publishing, 2014

I do still believe that sometimes acrylics are best, or easiest at least – as I have a new baby, I am aware that reading the washing instructions is beyond even the best launderer when they’re running on not enough sleep, so I generally make baby blankets for non-knitting friends from machine washable acrylics, and do the same for toddler clothes which get a lot of wear and tear. But I did make my baby a merino wool hat, as it is so soft against her skin, breathable so she doesn’t overheat and it is machine washable, with care (not that I took quite enough care when washing it when she was four days old; it did get a little felted, but fortunately didn’t shrink, and she still wears it and it still gets a lot of compliments, in spite of the odd fluffy bit). Last week I also finished a cardigan for her (Granny’s Favourite by Georgie Hallam, great pattern; I’ve already knitted started a second), again in merino, and it is simply wonderful, and I’m now functioning on enough sleep, so fingers crossed it should stay that way!

So what will I be doing for British Wool Week? Well, I still have a few balls of that Bluefaced Leicester Aran in the cupboard, and Tin Can Knit’s Antler has been calling my name for some time now, so I might just cast on one of those. And in baby size I should be able to whip on up in no time; remember, babies definitely need luxurious knits, after all, it’s all about the pleasure of the knitting.

Bread and muffins

On Friday we were having friends for lunch: two of my son’s friends, their mums and a nine-month old. They’re friends we see frequently, and we love getting together to chat and to let the boys play. Our friendship started from a baby massage class when our boys were only 4 months old and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. As we were having lunch, I thought I’d brave bread making, which I haven’t done for a while. While I love the smell of freshly baked bread, and there is nothing better than eating bread straight from the oven when it is, strictly-speaking, too warm to handle, I’m not patient enough to make it, and am very good at forgetting that I’ve got it proving somewhere, only for it to escape the tin and go everywhere!

Making bread is actually pretty easy. I followed the recipe on the back of the flour bag, so I didn’t even have to go and hunt through the recipe book collection for an appropriate recipe, and the ingredients didn’t require a special shopping trip as they’re things we have in the house anyway.
Step one is to blend all the ingredients, resulting in a somewhat sticky dough that gets stuck to everything (my son loves this bit, he calls mixing by hand ‘hand whisking’). The dough then has to be kneaded, which is very therapeutic, and it’s very satisfying feeling the texture of the dough change from sticky mess to smooth elastic.

Then you get to leave it and get on with something else for a bit (mostly trying to get all the dough off the work surfaces…) while the yeast does its work and the dough proves. The dough is then squidged into shape, placed in the tin and left to prove for a second time before going into a very hot oven.

30 minutes later, there you have it. Hot, freshly baked bread. We were pretty impatient to eat it, so I sliced it straight from the oven (a bad idea if you want neat slices of bread and it’s not terribly structurally sound before it’s cooled), then we got on with the arduous task of eating it. Delicious! As you can see, we made pretty short work of it – within half an hour all that was left was a pile of crumbs.

Bread wasn’t the only bake we managed on Friday. We also cooked some raspberry and white chocolate muffins. I’m always a little unsure about baking muffins as I’ve made very rubbery attempts several times (apparently this is caused by over-beating the mixture, even though I’m always convinced that I’ve been very gentle with it). I adapted the blueberry muffin recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook (my go-to cake book, their chocolate cupcake recipe is now my default chocolate cake, it’s so light and moist), substituting the blueberries for 250 g of raspberries and 100 g of white chocolate chunks (I just chopped up a cheap bar of white chocolate rather than buying white chocolate chunks, much cheaper). The recipe calls for buttermilk, which gave the batter a rather yoghurty smell, but the final product was good, and eaten fresh there was no hint of rubberyness (they were a little rubbery the following morning though, so I guess this is a recipe that has been baked, then eaten as soon as possible). Perfect with a post-baking cup of coffee once the washing up has been done.