Skirting Day

A while ago I was given a huge bag of raw alpaca fleece. So far I’d only processed a very small amount of it, which I spun and knitted to make baby socks and hat as a gift. Today I did the first stage of processing the rest. This is known as skirting. The fleece (known as a blanket when it comes to alpacas) is spread out on a mesh table and agitated to remove dust. Any stained fibre and pieces of vegetable matter (hay, pieces of grass, seeds etc) are removed as well as very short second cuts, (where the shearer has gone over a second time), which are too short to spin. The fibres are then sorted into the various grades, from the finest longest fibres on the animal’s back through to the shorter pieces on the neck and sides – well that’s what the professionals do. I can’t say I did such a thorough job!

I think the alpacas like to have a good roll about because the fibre is very dusty – everywhere in the conservatory where I do all my crafting was covered just from processing a tiny amount. Lesson learnt, I needed to sort through the rest outside! K has made me this little skirting table. It’s basically a wooden frame with chicken wire stretched over it – he’s added tape and some pipe insulation to stop the edges of the wire catching. This just rests on a couple of garden chairs.

It’s not quite big enough to spread a whole blanket out but it’s perfect for my purposes.

I’d been waiting for a sunny dry day without much wind. Alpaca is light as a feather and if I’d tried doing this in the gales we’ve had recently most of it would have ended up in the next county! As I tipped the fibre out on to the skirting table there were clouds of dust. I kept agitating the blanket to release as much of the dust as possible.

I picked out the larger pieces of vegetation – there wasn’t a great deal of it and some of the tinier fragments will come out of the fleece during the later stages of processing. You can see a couple of small pieces of leaf towards the bottom of the next photo.

I separated out the best long fibres, which are around 5 inches long, from the rest This is mostly around 2-3 inches long so still perfectly good to spin. Now most of the dust is out I can sort this more fully indoors and not need to rely on the weather. You can see the layer of dust left where I ran my finger across the green tape.

I’ve now got all the fibre in labelled plastic bags.

Buddy took great interest in what I was doing.

As you can see there was quite a lot of spillage, mostly the very short second cuts. He did offer to sweep the patio though!

I’ve been promised more fibre from Aero and Wispa, our friends’ alpacas (how lucky am I?). I think I’ll definitely wait until the Spring for my next skirting session. By then the birds visiting our garden during the nesting season could really make use of the bits of fibre that I drop!

Lockdown Crafts: Pressed Fern Pictures:

For yesterday’s Crafty Monday session I opened up the flower presses to see what I had. I’ve been pressing flowers since I was a kid, when my lovely grandfather made me a press. He even put my name on it. I also have a tiny flower press that’s ok for smaller items

I’ve made pictures and greetings cards in the past but nothing recently. Earlier in the year I came up with the idea of doing pressed fern pictures as they would look great with the curtains in my living room – the fabric has a fern design.

I picked and pressed a few different kinds of fern, mostly from the garden , but also some I’d found growing wild – I’m always careful only to pick what is growing in abundance. For the best results choose perfect specimens, free of insects and completely dry. Most leaves dry quite well. Flowers are more variable. Fragile petals are even more fragile when pressed and very full double flowers such as roses are too three-dimensional to preserve in this way: flat blooms work better. Brightly coloured flowers tend to keep their colour. White ones go brown. You don’t need a flower press – you can press flowers, leaves and ferns inside the pages of a book, preferably weighted under other books. Put the items between sheets of scrap paper to protect your book from pollen or other stains. Within a few weeks the plant material will have dried out and you can use it.

The presses revealed quite a selection. These cranesbills were a bit too fragile and pressing them had separated the petals from the flower centre.

The cosmos worked really well. The centres of these are quite thick so I cut holes out of the centre of several paper sheets to place over these to ensure that both the petals and centres were properly pressed.

I was really pleased with the way the ferns turned out. They have retained colour well through the pressing process.

I wanted to recycle the frames and mounts from some prints that I no longer use. I cut sheets of card to size and for each picture I positioned the fern frond until I was happy with the placement within the mount. In some cases I trimmed off the lower part of the fern to get a better fit.

Using a small paintbrush I applied clear PVA glue sparingly to the back of the frond and stuck the fern in place.

I allowed the glue to dry thoroughly before reframed the pictures. Framing always takes me ages. It is so annoying when you seal the picture inside only to find there’s a large speck of something stuck on the inside of the glass! I take the time to make sure everything is clear and free of dust before I close the tabs or tape on the back of the frame.

I’m happy with the way the pictures look. I haven’t decided exactly where to hang them yet but I will put them somewhere out of direct sunlight to help them retain their colour.

They work with the curtains too!

A Day at Druridge

Sunday was a lovely day, cold but sunny. We met daughter at the Country Park and walked through to Druridge Bay. The sunshine had brought a lot of stir crazy lockdowners out for a beach walk in the fresh air. Although there were a lot of people out, there was plenty of space for everyone’s walk, from near Ashington to the south……

…to Amble in the north

There were children building sandcastles and flying kites. We even saw this remote control truck.

At one point we noticed a large flock of gulls had gathered the shoreline, with a few more feeding in the shallows. We reckon that a large shoal of small fish had come in, possibly chased ashore by predators. There was no sign of dolphins. It could have been predatory fish like bass.

There were lots of dogs being walked. Buddy made friends with a handsome Rhodesian Ridgeback named Charlie and they played together for a while.

It was getting colder so we went back to Daughter’s house to warm ourselves up with hot chocolate. Buddy fell fast asleep on the rug, exhausted by his game with Charlie.

What a beautiful afternoon.

Thrunton Woods in November

Daughter, K and I took Buddy Dog for a walk in Thrunton Woods yesterday. Last time we were here it was full of Autumn colour and fungi, but the woods have much more of a feel of winter now, though are still very beautiful.

There are some patches of autumn colour on the occasional broadleaved tree than has retained a few leaves in a sheltered spot.

The mustard-yellow needles of larch add a splash of colour.

The bracken has taken on a pale russet shade.

The only flowering plant we saw was this solitary yellow hawk bit.

As leaves have fallen, the evergreens take centre stage. Thrunton is primarily a coniferous forest, but even among the conifers there are many shades of green as you can see here in this stand of young trees.

Among the evergreen shrubs is this Rhododendron ponticum. It is an absolute beauty in spring with exotic large lilac-purple flowers, but it is a thug of a plant! It is a non-native that was often introduced into parkland as dense cover for game, but it is so dense that it shades out native ground cover plants. It spreads rapidly by runners and native grazers and insects don’t eat it. Many years ago K and I were members of a conservation group that spent many a happy Sunday “Rhody Bashing” : removing these plants from neglected parts of a country park near where we lived at the time.

There is also quite a lot of gorse (locally known as whin) with its vicious spines.

Broom grows on the trail margins too, and some of the bushes have the remains of the seed pods still attached.

There is also an occasional holly bush, like this one hiding behind the gorse.

Closer to the ground is wild bilberry, which loves the acidic peaty soil here. They are delicious and make wonderful pies and crumbles, staining your tongue blue if you eat them. Bilberries were available in the shops when I was a child but I have not seen them available commercially for many years. We did try picking them once. The fruit are so tiny that after a couple of hours we only had a small saucerful so haven’t bothered since!

Also associated with the peat is this moss – there are some wonderful mosses in the woods

Although the bracken has gone, some ferns have retained their green fronds.

Buddy adores running about the woods. We saw several other walkers, dogs and cyclists too. The car parks were overflowing but this woodland is big enough to accommodate all the visitors easily without seeming at all crowded.

From the woodland edge we could see the farmland below and the Cheviot Hills in the distance.

It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Knit and Natter 20th November

Some great projects were in progress at the Zoom Knit and Natter Group on Friday. This colourful crochet blanket is now finished and the bold diagonals look great.

For a complete change, this group member is now moving on to pink patchwork hexagons.

Also completed this week are some Christmas Tree decorations.

The Christmas stocking and tree have now been decorated with sequins. You can never have too much glitter hanging on the Christmas tree!

We’ve seen our beginner knitter’s grey stocking stitch rectangle get longer and longer over the last few weeks. We talked about how that is now big enough to become a cosy cowl. She’s going to check out some You Tube videos before she casts off and sew the ends together.

Speaking of cowls, look at this colour work one, knitted in the round. Lovely isn’t it?

I’m working on a soft toy – can’t say much yet as it’s a gift.

Our newest member has been given some yarn and needles and has completed this lovely baby hat. She’s now on to another – they are to be donated to a hospital baby unit.

This Zoom group is an amalgamation of two knit and natter groups from Alnwick and Berwick run through GP surgery social prescribing. With hopeful news about COVID vaccines this week, we were speculating about the future. When we go back to our separate face-to-face groups and cafes reopen we could perhaps arrange a halfway meet. 2021 has so many possibilities.

Lockdown Crafts: Pheasant Feather Baubles

With Daughter taking Mondays off work (with annual leave allowance to use up by the end of the year), we’ve decided to use those days for a bit of craft activity. Welcome to Crafty Mondays! Unlike the wax melts we made last week, this week’s makes took me until Thursday to finish off. I’m pleased with the result though.

I have quite a collection of feathers, mainly pheasant. How I came to have these is another story.

Daughter had seen these Christmas tree decorations on Pinterest and had wanted to try making them for a while. The tops of the baubles are made with the ends of cartridge cases, so she’d asked some friends who shoot for some spent cartridges we could use. The brass part is attached to a plastic tube so I looked online and found a great way to separate the plastic from the metal – you pack the cartridges into a shallow box with the metal parts upwards, proud of the box, then rest an iron on top, turned to the highest heat setting. After a few minutes the metal heats up enough for the plastic to start to melt and the two components pull apart quite easily.

For our decorations we used polystyrene balls as a base. We painted these with acrylics first – the darker ones worked best. I wouldn’t use such a bright tan colour next time as it showed through the feathers. Impaling each ball in a toothpick was the best way to hold each one and these were stuck into a piece of polystyrene packaging to dry.

We only used the tip of each feather, snipping off 1-3cm pieces.Further down the feather the central vane is too thick and rigid to bend round the ball shape.

Starting at the lower end, with the smaller feather tips of similar colour, we glued these on in a circle, overlapping slightly with the tips meeting in the middle.

We continued gluing on the feathers (using a light coating of PVA glue, thinned slightly with a drop or two of water). Each circle of feathers overlapped the previous one, covering the cut feather ends.

At the top end the last circle of feathers was glued in place with the cut ends together, close to the toothpick.

Where there was too much of the base colour showing through, I simply touched this up with a black Sharpie. The feathers were then sealed in place with a thin coat of clear PVA glue.

Next we cut about 12 inches of gold thread, knotting the ends together to form a loop. The knot was then glued to the inside of the cartridge end with hot glue. Holding the thread to each side of the cartridge, hot glue was applied along the edge of the cartridge end. It was quickly positioned centrally over the cut feather ends and held firmly in place until the glue set.

The loop was then threaded through a gold-coloured bead which was secured to the top centre of the cartridge with another drop of hot glue.

We made seven baubles altogether in different sizes, a couple with the barred dark brown and cream hen pheasant feathers, and the rest with the rich chestnut, black and cream cock pheasant ones. The brass tops go well with them.

I just need the tree up now…maybe at the beginning of December!

My First Completed Handspun Project: Alpaca Socks and Hat for a New Baby

I’ve been skirting, washing, carding and spinning some of the gorgeous alpaca fibre that was given to me recently. When I took up spinning (I got an Electric Eel Wheel Nano e-spinner for my birthday) I thought it would be wonderful to be able to make something beginning with the raw fleece and taking it right through to the finished garment. With enough yarn spun and a dear friend’s new baby granddaughter to knit for. This was the perfect opportunity.

I started with the socks (Perfect Baby Socks by Hey Sister Yarn Co) The pattern gives a choice of designs, cable or rib: I chose the rib one. Knitted on DPNs I have to say these were fiddly to do and with all the complexities of turned heels and Kitchener stitch toe grafts, they probably took almost as long as adult socks to make, so I probably wouldn’t use this pattern again, but they do look so amazingly cute and feel so soft.

The hat was much simpler to make – the Maine Baby Hat, also from Ravelry. This is such a useful pattern. It gives the cast on stitch numbers for three sizes and several different yarn weights. My handspun alpaca is probably on average somewhere between DK and 4ply so I was able to find the right one. Then it was pretty straightforward to knit up on circular needles with a K1P1 ribbed band and the rest in stocking stitch, only moving on to DPNs for the last of the decreases.

I’ve also learnt a new cast on – the sock pattern recommended the German Twisted cast on to give a nice stretchy edge. I watched a couple of YouTube videos and soon got the hang of it. It really is very stretchy so I’ll be using this on all socks (or anything else that needs a stretchy edge) from now on.

My spinning still lacks consistency in that the thickness of the yarn is rather variable and this certainly shows up in the stocking stitch, Even after a very light press!

The socks and hat feel so soft and warm though – so the baby will be very snug and cosy in them. Daughter was delivering them today. Baby’s mum is a close friend of hers. I hope she likes them!

A Year of Blogging.

Last week was my first blogiversary. It’s interesting to look back and see how Stitches by the Sea has evolved over the last 12 months.

One of the reasons I started the blog was to keep up with my “every year learn a new skill” plan. This has included all sorts of things, from beat-boxing to playing the ukelele via needle felting, proggy mats and book editing. I’d reached November and was getting worried that I hadn’t fulfilled a new skill for 2019 when I got started. I was doing a lot of knitting at the time and there was always a story to each project: why I was doing it, where I bought the yarn and so on, so it started off being mainly about that, but I soon brought in other things, often about Northumberland. This is a beautiful part of the world steeped in history and teeming with wildlife, so I’d often write about local places of interest.

Bamburgh Castle – one of the many fascinating places on my doorstep.

A couple of regular features emerged early on. Knit and Natter Fridays included write ups on the two knitting groups I’m in. the other members have also kindly let me photograph and write about their projects. I also wrote a “Scone of the Week” post, writing about weekly trips to visit local cafes with my mother. The two of us became serious cheese scone critics as we assessed the texture, flavour and presentation of every one we tried.

One of our “Scones of the Week”

Of course all that changed in Spring 2020 when the Coronavirus Pandemic led to a national lockdown. For a while I lost my blogging mojo and really struggled to find things to write about – I wasn’t even doing much knitting. I did always feel better for being out in nature however and our daily dog walks around the village became a new focus. Taking the same route every day meant that I could really see the changing seasons. As the year went on I could see the lambs getting bigger, the crops in the fields growing and different wildflowers coming into bloom. This turned into a regular “Wildflower of the Week” post, which involved trying to take better photographs and doing a bit of research about the plants I wrote about. It really helped me hone my wildflower recognition skills.

Town Hall Clocks

The other main change is that my social life is now almost totally lived online. With friends, choir and knitting groups now meeting via Zoom. The quality of the photos is nowhere near as good when you use screenshots unfortunately, but that’s the way it has to be.

There have been some lovely and quite unexpected aspects of blogging too. I had forgotten just how much I actually enjoy writing. I did have to write reports and other stuff when I was working, but writing for pleasure is quite different, especially when you are writing about things you love. I’ve also really enjoyed becoming part of the blogging community. Although I do use various social media platforms, I find them increasingly toxic. I have found fellow bloggers however to be supportive, kind, and generous in their comments. The blog has kept me in touch with far-flung friends too. It’s always lovely to hear from them when they’ve read something of interest on the blog. I didn’t quite get to 100 followers in my first year: 96 people followers to date, so not far off. I’d like to thank everyone who has followed or read my blog, especially those that comment. I really appreciate it.

These days I don’t panic about missing a few days without writing – when I started I blogged every day without fail, but this is after all something I do for pleasure so I don’t put myself under that sort of pressure any more. If I don’t have something to write about I won’t do it. Looking forward I wonder how the blog will evolve over the next year!

P S: Today I reached 100 followers. That’s 2 milestones in one week!

Fenwicks Window

Newcastle’s long-established department store, Fenwicks, enchants visitors to Northumberland Street every Christmas with it’s dazzling window display. In a normal year there is a big build up as the store windows are covered up as the animatronic figures and elaborate sets are constructed, then crowds gather for a first look as the windows are unveiled. The windows bring a lot of people to the street and they herald the beginning of the Christmas shopping period in the city. Every day the crowds gather and slowly progress from window to window. Small children press their noses to the glass and stare as their favourite characters actually move!

Of course there couldn’t be anything like that this year….or could there? Well yes! No crowds of course, but thanks to technology, Fewwicks were able to livestream the countdown, the unveiling and a unique pressed-against-the window viewing of this year’s extravaganza. I watched it on Facebook and took some screenshots.

It began with some cheeky elves dancing to Christmas music in an upper floor window.

Then Father Christmas waved from the roof and led the countdown.

Three! Two! One!……the blackout curtains dropped to reveal this year’s window story: The Wind in the Willows at Christmas. It began with mole getting ready to leave his home to visit his friend, Ratty.

Outside Toad Hall, Mr Toad has crashed his new red car.

The friends warn him to be more careful but he dashes off, on skis, far too fast as usual, crashing into Santa. Toad steals the sack full of presents.

Mole and Ratty enlist the help of wise old Badger to capture Toad, who is escaping on the train. They have a plan….and a net!

They catch Toad and rescue Santa and all the presents. They help deliver them to all the children that Christmas Eve.

With the job done, they all sit down to a magnificent Christmas feast.

The Fenwicks Window is a tradition that has lasted almost 50 years. In recent years the theme has been a little bit more commercial, with links to a popular children’s book and lots of linked merchandise on sale in the store. We’ve had “The Snowman” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” most recently. it doesn’t make the whole thing less magical.

A year or two ago, with all eyes on the windows, Greggs bakery found the perfect solution to remind people that they were there across the street. They changed the shop sign to a mirror image, so it could be read in the reflection!

The video of the this year’s Fenwick’s Window can still be seen on Facebook, with 821,000 views so far – the comments were all very positive and in some cases people were quite emotional. It certainly made me smile.

Knit and Natter 13th November

We had another fun session at Friday’s Knit & Natter on Zoom. Some newly completed projects were on show, including Santa’s washing line (above) – It’s brilliant – down to the Y-fronts!

With that finished this clever knitter is now concentrating on Christmas tree decorations.

The maker of this stunning Fair Isle Headhand kindly modelled her work for us.

Her original plan was to make it even warmer by adding a fleece fabric lining , but the double layer of knitting is proving to be quite warm enough. She’s had some requests to make more of these and was working on one in a lovely teal colour with the design in black.

The crochet baby blanket is coming on well, in a beautiful variegated yarn in soft pastel lemon, lilac and white.

I’ve was working on baby items too, but I’ll share that in a separate blogpost once the baby and her mum receive them.

Our new knitter’s work is still getting longer and neater.

There was an elephant in the Zoom Room too, or at least its feet!

When he’s complete, he will look like this.

The pink toenails are crocheted (like the rest of him) then sewn in place). He’s going to be amazing!

We were also joined by Evie the cockapoo. She’s adorable, though is not showing any interest in leaning how to knit or crochet just yet!

Have you been involved in any online knitting activity recently?