Winter Break for Adults

Photo of a handknit cowl, in progress

You know how you have a break coming up and you get all excited because you’re going to have ALL THIS TIME?  If you’re a maker, like me, maybe you plan out a project or thirteen.  Go buy supplies.  Talk about it with friends.  Print out patterns and choose your project bags. Sharpen your pencils.

While you’re talking with your friends, you also make plans to have brunch and play a board game.  Or go see a movie.  Or go for a winter hike because it’s unseasonably warm.  And there are the day trips to see the extended family in various configurations.  And you have to clean your house before your family comes over for dinner that one night.  And then your family comes over and you drink too much and put music on the that party can with the light show and wake up sated with familial love and your house is trashed again.

Photo of handknit socks and cowl in progress

Suddenly Winter Break is almost over.  You’ve only knit four rows on one project and cast on another.  You pulled out all the scrapbooking supplies, but never got started.  You think longingly of your sewing machine and the leggings you were going to sew yourself. That plan to try crewel is going to have to wait.

You wonder if anyone else notices that you’re almost out of milk (which you don’t drink, but the other three humans do, and the dog if she can get away with it). The pile of dirty laundry is epic and suspiciously contains things you know a certain smaller person didn’t wear recently. And why are there hair ties, paper clips, candy wrappers, and pieces of the wreath on the floor, mixing with the dog hair?  Don’t the other humans know the magical vacuuming robot will DIE if it hoovers up those things?  And if it dies, then you might too? And then who will buy the milk and wash the underwear??

That’s when it happens.  You realize for the umpteenth time that “break” is not a vacation.  It is a break from routine.  And while maybe you need a day off here and there, a full two weeks of no routine is a special kind of hell for the person who works from home.

You love your children, but you can’t wait for them to go back to school.  (Not to mention your loving spouse, who is so much fun to have lunch with when it’s not leftovers in the kitchen full of things that need to be fixed and cleaned.) No one is excited about going back to the morning routine, especially in the depths of winter, but it is the gamut we work-from-home types must run to have our space to ourselves.

One day, about two weeks from now, you’ll kiss the wind-roughened cheeks of your children goodbye and watch them rustle off to school. You walk inside your home (your office, your sacred place), your mind on fire with projects.  Break is over and you have your space and your time back.  What will you make first?

The Gray Got to Me

Last year I started these socks:

The cuff of gray wool socks knit out of Paton's Kroy on double pointed needles

It was July.  It was my birthday, in fact.  I thought I was safe from the curse of knitting a gray project in winter.

Alas, I was overcommitted on projects and my work on these progressed very slowly.

Before I knew it, it was winter.  Have I complained enough about the long, cold, snowy winter of 2013-14?  Yeah, somewhere around the fifth snow day following the Winter Vacation of Vomit, I threw these socks in the bottom of a project bag, faintly promising myself I would come back to them when they stopped reminding me of sadness.

So I picked them back up again this summer, in August, and I knew I had to get them done QUICK because the long range forecasts for the upcoming winter are bad for Michigan.  You can read that as:

  1. I need some wool socks before the snow flies, and;
  2. I can’t be knitting anything gray when the snow flies.

I had the first, half-knit sock done in a week and the whole shebang done by the time school started.

But I did a thing to make them happy grey socks.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love Patons, but I am reexamining my relationship with neutrals.)  I took some leftover sock yarn from my Jaywalkers — knit in Conjoined Creations Flat Feet — and added in some brightly colored toes.  Yey!  Color = happiness!

Handknit gray wool socks

 

What do you think?

Next time I’ll do stripes.  I have more grey, white, and black Patons — and lots of colorful fingering weight yarns — and I have learned my lesson.

Okay, So the Gift Knitting Wasn’t All Roses

I didn’t tell you the entire story of my holiday gift knitting in the last post.

My parents and siblings decided this year to scrap the round robin of individual gifts in favor of the secret santa system — which wasn’t even secret, not that any of us heathens cared.  So you can imagine my relief when evil-me went from trying to talk good-me into making a whole bunch of stuff — starting, oh, mid-November — to sane-me realizing I could still crank out a gift knit because I only had to make ONE.

I got my brother’s name.  Noah is awesome, fashionable, self-reflective, sensitive.  In other words: a great recipient of handknits.

Noah!

I started off making Noah Purl Soho’s Shawl Collar Cowl in Malabrigo Chunky — Lettuce on the outside, Natural (white) on the inside.  The yarn came from my stash, the project was working up quickly.  At Thanksgiving, I asked Noah’s fiancée Abby what kind of handknit he would like and she said “a cowl” and told me how he tried to buy one on Etsy and it was too long and girlish.  I felt like a champ!  The Shawl Collar Cowl is so chic and manly and I was going to solve Noah’s problem.  And he was going to look smashing in that lettuce green, if I do say so.

my beautiful failure

How does the saying go?  If it’s too good to be true… Well, perfection was far from achieved: I ran out of yarn.  Although I had researched what yarn would be a good substitute and looked up the needle size, I never checked how much yarn I needed.  Why, I cannot say.  This is not my first time at the rodeo.  (This is not the first time I have made this mistake, either, arg!)

Worse yet, this college town has gone, in five years, from having three yarn stores to having half a yarn store.  The remaining half store is downtown, where no one who doesn’t work downtown wants to go.  But go I went — and on the Saturday before Christmas no less.  I knew it was a long shot, that I might have to start over in a new color rather than just alternate between dye lots, but at least this place specializes in Malabrigo.  I still had hope that this project would be saved.

(There’s that foreshadowing of doom again, eh?)

I do believe I gasped out loud when I walked in to this very small shop.  Admittedly I had not been there in a year or more and I knew the owner had been scaling back the yarn portion of her business (she also sells clothing and jewelry). Eyes as wide as saucers, I gaped like a fish for a moment before finally choking out the question, “Where’s all the yarn?” to the owner.  The shelves and walls set aside for yarn were nearly empty — altogether there was only an armful of yarn in that shop.  The needle wall was almost empty.  My stomach sank to the floor as I realized: I have more yarn in my house than this shop now carries.

You might be tempted to conclude that there was a run on her small stock as people grabbed all the yarntastic gifts, but no.  The owner patiently explained that Malabrigo, the small cooperative, cannot keep up with the demand of her customers, so people are putting themselves on a waitlist and when it comes in, she calls.  A month later and I am still aghast at this… solution?  I am sure I don’t know all of what is going on in her store, but isn’t this the kind of thing that a dozen online businesses are doing, only faster?  And charging less?  And if you can’t keep yarn on the shelf, but still have empty shelves, why wouldn’t you carry another brand?  This used to be the place to go for Reynolds brand yarns, as well, including Lopi.  I didn’t see that at all.

At this point I could have gone to the big box store and gotten something else so I could forge ahead, but I decided to cash in my chips and cast on a pair of socks.  There was now no way I could finish in time and I used a precious skein of Trekking XXL that I had been saving for myself, but it seemed that some kind of sacrifice was demanded by nature in order to make this vicious cycle of WTF end.

socks of brotherly love

Noah was gracious about opening up part of a gift that wasn’t finish and I know he looks forward to these extra special  socks.  I’m still not done with Noah’s holiday socks because I  tried to pull off some other knitting miracle for my husband’s January birthday.  But first, I have one more gift knit to tell you about.  And this one is truly epic (the knitting, not the story).  Here’s a preview:

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Seed starting, maple sugaring, and hope for the end of the season of slush

We tapped out maple tree a week ago.

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It cost us $4 for the tap; the jar and spare wire were found around the house.  Talk about Yankee frugality!  I have done a bit of reading and talked to people who do this more seriously and I know my one little tap is not going to give me much, no matter how much sap this tree pumps out.  In the first four days we collected about 2 gallons, boiled it down to 1/2 quart of complexly flavored, delicious sweet water — it needs to be cooked down further but I have to collect more sap first.  Since Thursday, I’ve collected another 2+ gallons and it’s time for another boil.  It took some 10 hours of hard boiling last time, oy.  If you’ve ever been to a real, outdoor maple syrup-making event, you know how very small scale my venture is.  Nonetheless, we are having fun!

We are considering a second or third tap.  An experienced maple sugarer assures me that more taps is fine and the sugaring season in Michigan will last for at least another month (nights below freezing, days above freezing).

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I’ll share more of what I’ve learned as we progress with the collection and boiling over the next month.  My best source of info — enough to get going and not so much that you’ll be stalled — comes from this University of Maine agricultural extension pamphlet.

While I am new to maple sugaring, I am old hand at seed starting.  This is my favorite part of gardening and a great relief from winter!

I began by disinfecting all my pots and trays in bleach water solution in the bath tub (I decided against sharing that grotesque picture!).  I didn’t measure anything – just filled the tub with enough hot water to submerge the trays and dumped in a large glug of bleach (1 cup or less), swirled the bleach into the water and made sure it didn’t have that slimy feeling you get with too much bleach and let the dunking begin.  I did not clean the containers, mind you, just disinfected them.  I have a large collection of pots and trays and — life’s too short.  Mind you, this is the first time in all my years of gardening that I have bothered with disinfecting and that’s because I got these supplies from another gardener.  I’ve never had fungal problems with my seed starting so I never feel the need to disinfect.

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Air dry is best when disinfecting, but I rinsed my first set so I could get going right away.  The kids and I filled the first tray of 18 pots with a commercial soil-less seed starting mixture that we had around the house from some other project.

We planted — about 4 seeds per 3″ pot:

  • Tomatillos (2012) — they are rather carefree in form and easy easy easy; we are going to roast them and make salsa
  • Black Plum tomatoes (2010) — black tomatoes have a nice smokey flavor
  • Oxheart Pink tomatoes (2010) — I am searching for an elusive orange oxheart I grew many years ago and this was the closest I could find last time I ordered online
  • Tiger-like tomatoes (2009) — the earliest maturing variety I’ve ever grown, and they’re cute
  • San Marzano Lampadina plum tomato (2010) — The year I had a newborn and every other gardener got late blight on their tomatoes, these plants pumped out tomatoes under some serious neglect
  • Nicholson’s Yellow Cherry (2007) — The only cherry tomato in my stash, but I also prefer yellow tomatoes for their lower acid content
  • Ground cherry (2009) — a garden curiosity!  The grow in a husk like a tomatillo and taste a bit like pineapple.  They also like to wander all over the garden so I am replanting them this year.  My mother-in-law, who comes from farming stock, told me that this old-fashioned fruit will flourish in a wild patch once it finds the right spot; and that it makes great pie.
  • mini sweet peppers (2012) — seed saving adventure from the grocery store.  I struggle to get sweet peppers to set fruit and to have those fruit mature so I hope a mini variety will help make those problems easier.  And the kids love sweet peppers (and hate tomatoes).
  • Early Jalapeno (2007) — I find hot peppers easier to grow than sweet peppers.  And jalepenos are a crucial ingredient in my homemade refried black beans.
  • Ancho hot pepper (2010) — It’s not always easy to find a good variety of hot peppers where I live so why not grow my own and preserve them!
  • Cayenne pepper (2010) — They’re beautiful and useful in sparing amounts
  • Garden sage (2008) — I need more of this good stuff to tuck around the vegetable garden.  It attracts pollinators and repels pests.
  • Hyssop (2007) — Attracts bees and butterflies
  • Cumin (2008) — I love this spice and cannot resist trying to grow it, again!

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Yes I am using “old” seed and yes, I plant sparingly.  It works for me.  If germination rates are too low to be useful, I will know in the next 10 days and can replant with new seed, skip it for this year, or buy a plant at the nursery.  I know the paper towel germination check trick, but I cannot be bothered to do it because I have SO MANY packages of seeds.  How many, you’re wondering?  My spreadsheet shows around 230.  Some are being tossed today as things I refuse to ever grow again (shasta daisy, wormwood), or failed experiments (gerber daisy), or used up (Nicholson’s Yellow Cherry).  I hope to whittle this number down significantly this year and have many new plants growing in the garden instead.

Today is the new moon and we are trying out some biodynamic gardening methods this year.  The new moon is a good time to plant seeds because it promotes root growth (think tidal pulls, not magic).  Although Jeavons’s tome, How to Grow More Vegetables… is a great source of biodynamic gardening information, for an easy beginning I recommend the seed starting tool at Almanac.com, which gives best planting dates for several popular vegetables, including moon-favorable dates.  That link is set to Detroit, MI; put in your city or zip code to get the dates for your part of the US (sorry Canada!  And everybody else in the world!) .

Once my seeds are planted, they go on a wire shelf in front of the south-east facing window in my dining room.  It is the perfect plant nursery.  Plenty of sunlight and warmth and air movement (I do use domes until seedlings emerge to make them a littler warmer and moister) without the expense of grow lights or heat mats.  Yes, it makes my husband a little crazy to have this in my dining room but not so much that he wants to invest in a mini greenhouse.  Yet.

How are you breaking out of winter’s doldrums?  Having any dreams of green things?

Vegetal Dreams

To the uninitiated, this would seem an odd time to talk about the garden, but for those with the itch, this is our hidden season.  The one full of seed catalogs and vegetal dreams and grandiose plans.

First of all: this balmy “winter” made it possible for me to finish bagging my 58th through 65th bags of leaves in mid-December, long after the yard waste truck stopped trundling through on trash day.  (I dumped them on the sleeping vegetable garden.  The worms will thank me later.)  The unseasonably warm weather makes me think I should get a jump on the spring cleaning.  For example, herding the pots of probably-dead plants tucked throughout the garden, terminally waiting to be planted.  Or picking toys out of the sandbox.  The ones that haven’t filled with water, frozen, and burst, that is.  Those can stay and provide some color to our brown winter.

Second of all: I received my first SERIOUS garden tool as a gift from my husband this year: Felco hand pruners.  This is the kind of tool you wipe clean after every use and even oil and sharpen occasionally.  I got a cool leather sheath for it and even a tiny tool that is supposed to help take it apart (it’s rather wee; I am in doubt).  Monster thistle, you watch out!  Now I’m cooking with gas!

Speaking of gas, my husband got a flame-thrower thingy from a friend who understands his manly need to torch offending vegetation.  Why bend over and pull a weed when one can simply push a button…?  No I am not sneering.  My inner villan is rubbing her hands together with glee!

Thirdly: I renewed my Mother Earth News subscription today.  I freakin’ love that magazine.  When I discovered it several years ago, I was floored.  Here it was, the magazine of my people!  I didn’t realize so many other people thought like me — all DIY and loving the planet and homesteading and more liberal than the liberals — and I live in a college town.

Just goes to show… we aren’t alone.  Ever.  We aren’t even all that unique (having kids made this really clear).  If you have a thought, someone somewhere is thinking the same thing.  And we haven’t even touched on the multiverse.

It is amazing to realize how many friends are out there that you haven’t met yet.