Autumn is almost here and I’m holding the door wide open to usher it in.
This morning felt like autumn.
Mist shrouded the trees, the air smelt different and a gossamer of dew laden spiders’ webs hung from the gates and plants. Who can not be mesmerised by the beauty of the spiders’ webs and a little humbled by the intricate designs of the fine silk, which even the most talented lacemaker could never replicate?
Brilliant sunshine soon burnt off the mist and caught the rosehips as they stretch for the sky.
Lower down in the hedge, hawthorn berries jostle with deep purple blackberries and blue hued sloes. Wild pears and crab apples litter the ground just asking for someone to line them up along the footpath and call it ‘art’.
Much as I love summer, I’m ready for autumn, especially, warm sunny autumn days like this, rather than the torrential downpour that turned a Sunday afternoon stroll into a run for home.
Late summer is beguiling and wistful. The days are sunny (mostly) and reasonably long but the high summer heat and dust of harvest are over. The landscape has a fabulously wild and unkempt air as parched grasses and weeds grow knee high, seeds scattering in the wind and the stubble fields are roughly tickled, no longer a swathe of regimented wheat plants. Slowly, the first signs of autumn are tentatively creeping in as the berries in the hedgerows belatedly turn colour and the first tiny conkers fall to the ground.
And crocodiles broken branches float in the pond.
Over the summer, I’ve been dyeing with plants and now it’s time to start planning what to knit with all the yarn. A few years ago, I became very frustrated with natural dyeing as everything seemed to be a different shade of beige, which is not my favourite colour. This year, I’ve managed to get a few more colours using nettles, walnut husks, blackthorn twigs, knapweed, rhurbarb leaves, oak galls, avocado stones and alchemilla mollis as well as some solar dyeing with hollyhock flowers (beautiful greens but I’m not sure the colour will last). I have vague thoughts of knitting a fair isle jumper or tank top – heavily influenced by stumbling upon an episode of All Creatures Great and Small in which half the cast seemed to be wearing such items. If I start now, then maybe it will be finished in time for cold winter days. Though possibly not this winter.
Every year, late summer brings a desire to lay down supplies for autumn and winter. I usually find it ridiculous that I have this hard-wired drive to stock the pantry and freezer when abundant supplies are a click or short distance away. But then last year happened and in lockdown, a well-stocked pantry suddenly seemed rather appealing. So, there will be a few jars of Raspberry Jam and Apple Chutney. Maybe some Blackberry & Apple compote in the freezer and some Hedgerow Gin. Not too much, because (finally) my brain has absorbed the fact that there are only two of us in the house now but enough to make me think I’m well prepared. Just in case. Even though jam and chutney could hardly be termed Essential. I think we can agree that Gin has a place on the Essentials list.
The barley and wheat harvest is underway, albeit in fits and starts. A spell of prolonged sunshine would be good, but the weather forecast doesn’t look too promising, much like the harvest yields and quality. Heigh Ho! Such is farming.
An intermittent service may be resumed here. Partly, because it’s harvest and I’ve posted a photo every harvest since 2011 here or on the original farm blog and it seems strange not to do the same again this year and partly because a few blogs have reappeared recently, which have provided a little spark of inspiration.
The last day of 2020 and I’m pressing the Pause button. Rewinding through 2020 wouldn’t take long. Mostly, the year has been a bit boring with few high points (a bit like walking through the Fens) and learning to live by an ever changing list of rules.
Fast forwarding through 2021 to plan anything would be folly when there’s every chance it won’t happen as expected. There’ll be a time when we can, but not just yet.
So, I’m pausing and enjoying the last day of 2020 with a walk through the frosted countryside.
Setting time aside to finish darning in the loose ends of a gansey for a small person (cutting steeks was a mistake).
Catching a glimpse of Captain Flash in the undergrowth.
Later there may be a celebratory drink. Or two.
Next year, who knows. Maybe I’ll just hit Play and plod on until we can do things as we’ve always done them. Or maybe I should press the Reset button. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt in 2020, it’s to be adaptable and embrace change. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was glad to ditch some of the normal December traditions. Who says they have to be resurrected?
I flit from one enthusiasm to another and my bookshelf charts my crazes for various crafts from long abandoned papier mache and wirework, a brief dalliance with natural dyeing and book binding, an erratic flirtation with calligraphy and printing, through to an enduring love of knitting. Not surprisingly, I have veered from colourful Fair Isle and Icelandic to plain and simple, from tiny baby clothes to enormous blankets with a detour via felted bags and knitting a scarf with two bird perches. And now, ganseys.
In January, when Ruth was planning her printmaking courses for 2020, we did a trial run of her Printing in Progress class, where students choose a topic or theme to explore and so trigger printmaking projects or other creative pursuits. As it turned out, all the printmaking courses were cancelled in 2020, but I ended up with a notebook filled with ideas.
I chose the theme “Stitch” and printed with samples of knitted plastic bags, wire of different gauges, various yarns and strings. Some prints were more successful than others but oneidea was developed to make a Woolly Sheep screenprint and the printed fabric came in very useful for making face masks, even if they did look a bit odd.
The most unexpected outcome was an enthusiasm for knitting ganseys, the traditional hand-knitted jumpers fishermen wore in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from the Hebrides down the east coast of Scotland and England to East Anglia and in Cornwall. It started when I was trying to find different stitch patterns to knit the samples to print with and got completely sidetracked. As so often happens.
The construction of a gansey is very simple as they’re knitted in the round up to the armpits, then the front and back are worked separately until they’re joined together by a shoulder strap. The arms are knitted by picking up the stitches from the body and knitting down to the cuffs. The glory of the gansey is the complex motif patterning, created by knit and purl stitches and cables.
The first gansey I tackled was based on Cordova from “Knitting Ganseys” by Beth Brown-Reinsel. In retrospect, this wasn’t the easiest pattern to start with as it has vertical bands of seven motifs, each with a stitch chart of different lengths so that on one chart I was knitting Row 2 and on another chart Row 28! Too confusing. I had several false starts and unravelled the work a few times as I knitted. Part way through, I used a spreadsheet to make a chart pattern that covered the full width, instead of using the individual charts in the book, which made life a lot easier. The gansey is still riddled with mistakes in the motif patterning where I lost my way, including a whole section missed out on the arms but it’s for me and it’s not a smart “going out” piece of clothing. I don’t think anyone is going to examine it and notice the mistakes.
I simplified the second gansey by using the same pattern motif across the whole width so that it was easier to knit. It also made a useful scarecrow while it was blocked on the jumper board and left it to dry in the garden. There followed a quick-knit gansey for a teddy bear that’s been so loved and worn away that the only way to stop his arm dropping off was to knit a skin tight (should that be fur tight?) gansey, slip it on and sew up the seams so it couldn’t be removed.
By now, my enthusiasm for knitting ganseys was in full flow. The first two were knitted on an old circular needle I bought decades ago to knit a gansey that was abandoned before I even reached the arm gussets. Ah, those heady days of my early twenties when a full and lively social life left little time for quietly knitting in the evening. The needles were badly bent and the cord had an annoying kink so I decided to invest in a new set of needles. I’d read about the old gansey knitters using double pointed needles with a knitting belt (a horse hair stuffed leather pad on a belt that the right hand needle is pushed into to keep it anchored as you knit) and it dawned on me that there had been one of these in my father-in-law’s collection of vintage machinery and domestic objects. I have no idea why he had a knitting belt, but his collection was very eclectic, so it wasn’t surprising. Fortuitously, I’d kept it back when we’d cleared out the sheds as I’d thought it Might Be Useful One Day even though I had no idea what it was. Hallelujah! That day had come. Even more amazing, I knew where the belt was and hoiked it out.
I ordered my next batch of yarn and added a set of stainless steel, 40cm long 2.25mm knitting needles. The yarn and needles duly arrived and fearsome weapons they were: pleasantly weighty, sharp and very long. I strapped on the belt and pushed the needle into one of the holes in the belt. It barely went in. I pushed harder and it went through the pad and out the other side. Into my side. Perhaps sitting in a shed hadn’t done the leather any good. After a few attempts, I worked it out and found a comfortable position. It was a revelation! It makes knitting so much easier. Without having to hold the right hand needle, it’s easy to cast the yarn around the needle with minimal hand movements and the weight of the knitting is supported by the needle pushed into the belt. Best of all, instead of sitting hunched over a circular needle, I sit upright and (if I were so minded) could even walk around while I knit. I’m converted.
The gansey was knitted in record time with a simple motif design of seed stitch, ridges and furrows for my farmer with a W at the waist above a ribbed welt (to keep out the draught). Ganseys are the ideal work jumper with their diamond underarm gusset that gives freedom of movement, the cuffs that can be reknitted when they start to fray by unravelling and picking up the stitches as they’re knitted from shoulder to wrist and a gansey is dense enough to protect the wearer from the wind. Unfortunately, I had to use a different dye lot for the sleeves (because I had some yarn left over from the last gansey and was too mean to buy more) but the colour mismatch only shows in a certain light and it’s only a work jumper.
The next gansey is already being planned; a project for the cold, dark evenings in January. This time, I shall knit the whole thing in the round with steeks instead of knitting the front and back separately. Something to look forward to in 2021.