Sunday 12 March 2017

Sabbatical Part 3: Arriving in Reykjavík and Hot Rivers.

On the flight to Iceland I was giddy with excitement. I seriously began seeing things as I looked out of the window from the plane. Steely blue ocean waves became whale tails splashing out of the water, moody clouds hid mysterious ships which disappeared when I looked again and as we came over the coast line of Iceland I was blown away by the otherworldliness of the land. Huge mountains topped with white, deep crags and lines scored through black rock, the baron nothingness of the lava fields and it's extreme remoteness.

The bus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík took me through more of the desolate lava fields and it dawned on me that there were no trees on the landscape as far as the eye could see. This was such an alien concept to me and I'd never thought of a land without trees before. I imagined how bad the weather must get on the island and how there was almost no shelter from harsh winds, rain and snow. The words inhospitable came to mind, but then you hit the city and see the buildings clad in their corrugated iron armour, painted in bright colours, defying the weather and ready for anything.

On the first night we were booked into a lovely guest house called Sunna Guesthouse. When I arrived my roommate was not in and so I left her a note saying that I'd be back late and would try not to wake her. I dumped my huge bag and headed in to the town centre to have a look around. I saw the imposing Hallgrímskirkja church which is a very beautiful as well as being a useful land mark that you can see it from most parts of the city to orientate yourself. I walked down one of the main shopping streets and happened upon The Icelandic Handknitting association which is the only remaining knitting shop in Reykjavík. I later learned that similarly to London the rise in city rents is pricing out these important pillars of the community and the city's heritage. The shop was stuffed with hand knit sweaters of every size and colour. A small yarn section in the back of the shop was my first introduction to plutulopi, the signature unspun yarn of Iceland. The 'plates' of yarn were stacked up in a myriad of colours and a weighing scale sat by waiting to determine the cost of your yarn.

I happen to know someone who lives and works in Reykjavík and he and his boyfriend, both dressed in their handknit Lopi sweaters kindly met me for dinner and a drink. We ate excellent lobster soup and fish kebabs in a small cafe on the harbour. Then they took me for a little walk through the town where they showed me an elf rock. These are big boulders which folklore says that Elves live inside and therefore they should not be moved.  Houses are built around them, even today to preserve the elvish dwellings. The magical realism of this kind of thing kept cropping up throughout my trip and I swear I saw things move in my peripheral vision which could not be explained. Elves and trolls where everywhere.

The next morning I woke up to be greeted by my room mate. Thankfully she was also a member of the tour and so we instantly had common ground to explore, mostly knitting! After breakfast we congregated in the hallway of the guesthouse waiting for our tour bus and guide to arrive. As more and more of the group arrived we became animated; excited at the adventure to come. Among us there were two Americans, two Canadians, one Australian (hailing from New York) and six British, one of whom was the husband of one of the American ladies. And what a superb man he was to come on a knitting holiday with his wife and spend the week as the only man.

Our tour guide Hélène Magnússon eventually arrived as the sun was just getting up around 9.30am. She quickly informed us that the itinerary had changed and we would be exploring the hot pools today rather than the glacier. This meant that suit cases and backpacks were quickly flung open to find towels and swimming costumes shoved at the bottom before we got onto the bus. Finally we were off on our adventure.

As we had an hour's drive ahead of us people got out their knitting projects and we started to ask what each other were working on. I had chosen my knitting project for the trip based on ease, so that I wasn't too distracted and was still able to take everything in. Therefore I went for my tried and tested vanilla sock pattern. I knit them in The Wool Kitchen Sock yarn in the colourway Ground Control. The name seemed apt as I'd heard so much about the surface of Iceland being that of another planet/ moon/ something from a sci-fi movie and as we drove along looking out of the window with this yarn in my hands I knew I had made a good choice.

In Iceland there is one big ring road around the outer rim of the island which connects everything. From what I understand there is very little in the middle except mountains and ice. We were driving along the ring road when suddenly we slowed down and came off directly onto a lava field with no proper 'road' but a sort of path of crushed lava rock serving as a road. I now understood why the bus was so elevated by huge bouncy wheels, were were pretty much on a giant quad bike bouncing across moon rocks. The Knitting got put away at this point as someone was about to loose an eye.

When we reached our hike departure point we were handed a packed lunch and some crampons just in case we needed them, Crampons are little spiked bits of metal that you lash to your boots to help to get a grip on ice and snow. The air was crisp and I was glad of all my layers. But I suddenly realised that I'd totally forgotten a scarf! This was fine as I had enough layers to keep me warm, but I was disappointed at missing the opportunity to show off another hand knit.

It's hard to describe how I felt hiking through such an impressive landscape. It constantly reminded me of Scotland but without the heather, scrub land and trees. I was so trigger happy with the camera but looking back the photos don't do a scrap of justice to how everything looked to the naked eye. Throught the trip I could almost feel my heart swelling. I was filled up with joy, wonder and happiness at being in such a wonderful place and being so lucky to be there.

As we began to walk down the side of a steep hill we saw our first puffs of smoke rising out of the ground as if a dragon were resting there. Our fist sighting of bubbling mud and water was amazing. Everyone stopped to take a thousand pictures and I constantly said over and over in my head "look first, take it in and THEN take a photo. Don't look at this through a lens". The mantra was a good one but I still took a thousand pictures. The ground was pink and blue and purple and green and yellow, like an oil slick where the heat under the ground was ready to break the surface. Hélène warned us not to step on ground like this incase it were to give way to a pocket of steam or hot mud. The liquid mud was hot enough to melt the flesh off your hand if you were to touch it. Hélène became impatient to move on, she knew that this was small fry compared to what we would see later on.

There is to much to describe what we saw on the rest of our walk but waterfalls, steam rolling off the river, tiny puff of smoke popping out from under stones, huge bowls of mud on a rolling boil were everywhere. As we walked along a winding, steaming hot river Hélène stopped to test the water every now and again. Then she stopped and announced that this would be the place to take a dip and have lunch. We all looked at each other and then the surroundings. There was no changing place, no grassy knoll to hid behind. Hélène looked at us like were were crazy for just standing there and quickly whipped off her clothes, popped on her costume and hopped into the steaming river. We all took one look at each other, shrugged and got on with it. The British reserve was well and truly shattered!

The hot steaming water was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. As your body became acclimatised to the heat of the water the chill of the air didn't bother you. In fact there were pockets of water that were too hot if you sat for too long and so you moved about to find your perfect spot. As it was lunch time Hélène suggested we eat our lunch in the water. This made the experience even more surreal!

Getting out of our perfect natural bath was the tricky part. The grass on the bank side was icy and everyone did strange hopping dances trying to get dry, take their swimming costumes off withough completely exposing themselves, keep their clothes off the damp freezing grass and get dressed as quickly as possible. Your reward for completing this task was a hot drink of coffee or tea from Kristina, our mountain guide and cook for the week. She was a constant ray of Icelandic sunshine on us for the whole tour.

The remaining hike ahead of us too us through more extraordinary sights. I couldn't believe how full of happiness it was possible to feel when with a group of strangers in a foreign land. We ended up at large wooden sheep pen when Hélène demonstrated, using us as the sheep, how the farmers would gather the wild sheep back up at the start of every winter and sort them into the different pens indicating which farm they came from. She pretended to grab us by the horns and wrestle us to our gates. It was a lot of fun and a great way to end the hike.

Back on the bus the sun we were all exhausted but invigorated by the experience. Then Hélène declared that our next stop would be some yarn shops! I was completely overwhelmed by the idea of buying yarn at this moment in time. The first yarn shop was came to was Hannyrðabúðin in Selfoss, which had all the colours of the landscape laid out in plutulopi. Most of the group were in a frenzy of buying sweater quantities of the stuff but I just couldn't wrap my head around what I wanted to get and so hung back. I asked Hélène if we would be visiting more yarn shops and she advised me that the best was yet to come, so I felt secure in my decision not to splurge at the first sight of yarn.

The second shop we visited was exactly what I was looking for. Þingborg is a beautifully presented yarn shop in an old school house as well as a co-op who harvest, spin and dye their own yarn. Almost everything in there was hand picked, hand spun, hand made, natural shade or simply stuff I'd never seen before. This was my kind of place and I wasn't going to let it pass me by without purchasing my sweaters worth of yarn. I pointed to some undyed black plutulopi behind the counter. The lady took a look at me and weighed out the amount she estimated for my size of sweater, to be knit one with the plutulopi held double. What a skill! Then I added in a skein of hand spun and hand dyed lopi in My Little Pony type multi-colours. It spoke to me, ok! In my head theses two were to become the lopi sweater of my dreams.

We finally headed towards the place we were to call home for the next few days. It was now dark and the the crunch lava roads we went down seemed to get smaller and smaller. At one point we came to a road comically blocked with sheep but we eventually stopped at a wooden building with a turf roof and an excited puppy bounding around outside. I knew I was going to like it here.

Monday 26 December 2016

Sabbatical Part 2: The booking, packing and patterns

And so, to the most selfish part of my sabbatical. A whole week dedicated to myself and something I really wanted to do. When I first started thinking about what this might be I had Shetland in mind as I have longed to go to the Shetland Wool Week festival for the last few years. However, the timing of my sabbatical didn't work out with the festival dates and Shetland in November seemed like a pretty wet and windy option. I decided that going on an organised knitting tour would be best for me, mostly so that I didn't have to think too hard about what to do each day, but also so that I could meet other likeminded people. I really am a social person and don't much like spending long periods of time on my own - especially in a foreign country. After a bit of searching the most perfect trip came up: The Icelandic Knitter's Knitting on Ice. I took the plunge and booked it.

Planning for the trip was stressful for me. I'd never been anywhere like Iceland before and couldn't quite get my head around what I was supposed to wear each day to keep the weather out. The advice that 'there is no bad weather, only bad clothing' kept springing to mind. I didn't own any hiking clothing or equipment, but thankfully friends let me borrow key things like a super-warm coat and hiking boots, and then Sports Direct had everything else I needed to buy like a sleeping bag, waterproof trousers, base layers, hiking socks, etc., at a pretty reasonable price. Packing was then another nightmare with so many bulky warm items to fit into one bag. So I ended up borrowing a proper traveller's rucksack from my brother. Lugging that thing through London I felt like I was going on a real adventure.

For the trip I had knitted two jumpers and a hat. The first jumper was the Swirled Pentagon Pullover by Norah Gaughan. I found this in a book I bought for my Mum years ago. She has knit lots of projects from it but I always thought they weren't for me. But this one looked like just the kind of warm and cosy knit I needed in Iceland, especially with its thick roll neck. My first attempt at knitting it was a true disaster. The thing came out HUGE and looked a really strange shape. With a bit of help from my knit gurus I settled on knitting the small size, going down a needle size for the main part of the jumper and down another needle size for the pentagons. Once I had sewn it up I realised that I much preferred it without the roll neck and that I would probably wear it more after the trip, so omitted it. I really like the pentagon neckline construction and the colour of the yarn has received many compliments. If I were to knit it again I would add a lot more waist shaping and try to adapt it to be made in the round for ease of knitting.

The second jumper was a total panic knit. When the Swirled Pentagon Pullover was going so terribly wrong I completely lost my nerve and bought the pattern for Owls by Kate Davis and some New Lanark Chunky yarn to knit it with. My theory here was that if the first jumper wasn't ready in time this thick-and-quick knit would be. And I was right, it only took a few weeks to finish and both the yarn and pattern are absolute superstars. It fits me like a dream, it is warm in that temperature regulating way that wool is and it still looks great after many, many wears. This is unlike the previously mentioned Swirled Pentagon Pullover that was knit in Mondial Bio Lana which, although is much softer than the New Lanark, has pilled terribly and the jumper is looking very worn after only a month or two of wear.

The hat I made was a very last minute knit but has been the item that I have been most complimented on whilst wearing. The pattern is Cable Hat by Dora Stephensen which is a free pattern on Ravelry. The yarn is Third Vault Yarns Gytha Worsted in the colour way Bulbasaur. This was a gift from my friend Wendy at Yarnsub who saw the colour and thought of me. I seriously love the deep green shininess of it. To top it off I chose a Rico Faux Fur Pom Pom in a coral colour to really stand out. I also thought that this colour would be nice and visible should I fall down a crevasse on a mountain or glacier.

As you can see from my photos above I had THE BEST TIME. More on that in Part 3.

Sunday 11 December 2016

Sabbatical Part 1: The Magic

I am so fortunate to work for a company that values its employees and this year after five years of service I was able to take a month long sabbatical. This was such a great opportunity that I wanted to do it right. The majority of the people I work with don't have kids and so all of them instantly suggested I go traveling for a month to South America! Japan! Thailand! But I knew that I wouldn't feel right leaving the Mr. and Flo for a full month and so I planned as best I could to make the most of it, incorporating spending time with my family and myself.

As there is so much to tell you about during the whole month of adventures I had, I thought I'd break it down into its different parts so that it doesn't become a monster to read. Here's a very magical part one.

I began my sabbatical during the UK October school half term and decided to do the trip that I had always wanted to do with Flo; Disneyland Paris. I had visited the park once before when the Mr. had taken me for my 18th Birthday. Yes, we have been together that long. And so this was also a slightly romantic walk down memory lane to return, but this time with our excited six year old in tow.

The best part was that we didn't tell Flo that we were going. So in the dead of night we woke her up and told her to get dressed as we were "going on an adventure". I was expecting her to kick up a fuss and demand to know where we were headed, but surprisingly she went along with it without any bother. When we arrived at the Eurotunnel she asked if we were going to France, as we'd driven there earlier this year. We confirmed that we were, she seemed happy with this as the destination and asked no further questions. It wasn't until we got past Paris and began to see the signs for the Park that the Mr. and I decided to let her know what was going on. I pointed out the sign and asked her to read it. I asked her if she'd like to go to Disneyland and she replied yes. When I told her that this was where we were indeed going and that we'd be staying there for a few days she screamed with joy! Check out my Instagram for the video.

Knitting-wise I cast on a new project in the dark on the drive to the Eurotunnel. I was surprised by how well this actually worked out. I was working on a Secret Santa gift so I won't give away the pattern just yet. All you need to know was that it was worked in SweetGeorgia Yarns Tough Love Sock on 2.5mm needles. I thought this would make good car knitting and I got a large chunk of the project done on the drive to and from Paris. Once in the park I only managed to knit a few rows before bed and a few times in the queues for the character met and greets (man, they were long). But I was glad of having something productive to do rather than just standing there.

Needless to say we had a magical few days in the park and were truly exhausted at the end. The health app on my phone informed me that we did on average 18,000 steps each day. We met princesses, did all the rides, got character autographs, screamed, laughed, cried on occasion with either the overwhelming magic or the overwhelming tiredness and I loved every minute of it.  This was the perfect way to kick off the month; together with my family, doing something of pure childish pleasure and fun. The next instalment as you will see was a lot more personally indulgent!

Sunday 11 September 2016

Philomena's Elephant

Trips to the library used to be fraught when Flo was tiny. Books went flying off the shelves, screams and shouts would be had and I would sheepishly leave with her under my arm without taking out a single book. Now that Flo is much more able to go into a public place without causing mass destruction the library has become a much more fun and interesting place to be. We’re slowly getting to the point where I can actually look at some books myself! 

A few weeks back I managed to get away from the kids section for 2 minutes and grabbed the book Edward's Menagerie off the display shelf. I have a friend's baby to make something for and the projects looked like a nice challenge as well as a lovely gifts to give. The book is full of the cutest soft toy crochet patterns which are pretty easy to follow if you have a basic grasp of crochet, which I just about do. There are about 40 different animals to choose from, but I went with the Elephant as I had some left over John Arbon Knit By Numbers in a lovely grey colour and who doesn't love an elephant?

My basic crochet meant that this project demanded my full concentration and so I had to basically do it with my head down, no talking or watching TV for the whole project. Thankfully as crochet is pretty quick it only took a few silent sessions to complete the pieces with a further session to sew up and embellish with a tail and eyes. 

My friends baby was born and named Philomena shortly after I completed the little elephant. I can't say Philomena seemed pleased with the elephant as she could hardly focus on her own mother at the time of me giving it to her. But I'm sure in years to come it will be flung across her bedroom during a flight test, snuggled whilst watching films and be ridden on by Barbies. 

There was one small snag with this project, which was that I was having such a good time making the elephant I forgot that it was a library book and was fined £2 for a late return. Perhaps I should stick to letting Flo choose the books. I'd be more likely to renew them on time!

Sunday 24 July 2016

Emerald City

A finished object!!!

I won a competition last year with Pom Pom Mag and was sent the most gorgeous yarn; Kismet Fiber Works Refuge Fingering. I got to choose the colourway and couldn't resist the aptly named T-Rex.
Green is really my thing, especially being a ginger.

I decided to make the Hitofude cardigan by Hiroko Fukatsu and over the last few months it's been a pleasure to knit. The yarn is a mix of baby camel and silk which is so slinky-soft! Plus I could get lost in the deep emerald green for days. The repetitive lace pattern was easy to get on with and as it's knit all in one piece it was completely satisfying to watch grow, try on as I knit and have no sewing up to do!

I'm really happy with the finished article although the hot weather is prohibiting me from wearing it at the moment.
I managed to get Flo to take some photos of me wearing it in the garden the other day. This photo shoot was a lot of fun and she directed me about like a tiny, shouty David Bailey. She even demanded that I use her dog balloon as a prop. I of course obeyed. Look what magic occurred. Turner Prize here we come.


Friday 22 July 2016

A New York Min-knit

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to visit New York for my annual company training session. It's a busy few days of formal training with a few evenings of dinners and drinks together with the fun and intelligent people I have the pleasure of working with. On the last day I was lucky enough to have some time before my flight home to head to Brooklyn and track down the Brooklyn General Store. And, oh, how glad I was to have made it there.

The store was massive by UK standards with one side of the shop dedicated to yarn and the other to sewing. It was a peaceful space and despite the time pressure of a flight to think of I felt at ease browsing the packed shelves. However,  as the time pressure was in the back of my mind I didn't follow my usual tactic of considering my purchases carefully, checking Ravelry, looking for patterns to match the yarn or pondering over which skein I want more than another. This time I simply picked up a basket and starting piling up the yarns I really liked the look of. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't clearing the shelves directly into my basket; I was gauging which skein was talking to me, which ones I was really excited about and trying to find things that perhaps I'd never seen or heard of before.

I only had time for one pass down the yarn side of the shop and so once I got to the end I tipped out the basket onto the counter and took a quick stock check. To give you further context Brexit had just happened the night before which had saddened me to my very core. This yarn was very much being used to a plug a large hole in my national pride at that moment. It was my equivalent of eating a huge bar of chocolate after a break up. I emptied out my remaining dollars from my purse and bought the lot. In all honesty I don't feel a bit guilty about it. Seven types of yarn and a project bag acquired I headed back to the UK filled with yarny joy.

Sunday 19 June 2016

Northern Yarn

In the last few years the provenance of yarn has become so much more important to the knitting community. Where our yarn has been sourced, processed and dyed is as much a part of some people's yarn shopping as it is for their food shopping. I'm so proud to say that my friend Kate has just launched Northern Yarn which promotes no air miles, no plastic, just good honest wool from the Lancashire region.

I met Kate in 2010 when she moved into my Brother's old flat which was across the road from where I lived at the time in South Woodford. She was pregnant and I knew the move had been stressful so I went over to say hello and welcome her to the area. I also let her know that we had a local mum's knitting group and advised her to join in order to meet people. Before long we had Kate knitting away. She became a yarn lover and good friend to us all.

Fast forward to a few years later when Kate and her family decided to move back to their homeland of Lancashire. We were of course sad to see her go, but it marked a new chapter in Kate's life and this chapter had sheep roaming outside her window instead of the A406 road works buzzing in the background. These sheep that she saw daily inspired her to find local yarns to knit with. Surely there would be tons of local yarn with all this fluff walking about? But she found it hard to get her hards on what she was looking for and so started out on a mission to create a place where people could buy local wool and support farmers from Lancashire.

My favourites from her collection have to be the Teeswater wool which comes in mouthwatering colours. Kate knows the shepherds Freda & Darrell which shows just how local this wool is to her! Also the Lancashire Farm Wool in it's undyed creaminess is just gorgeous.

Take a look and if you're in the Lancashire area it's worth while tracking Kate down at the various markets she sets up stall at.