30 August 2007

Review: Gossamer Webs and Richard Rutt

(you thought I'd never really get around to posting this after promising it for so long, didn't you?)

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Actually, first I just wanted to say to those of you who are reading on Bloglines or some other reader to totally go check out the comments on the last post. The discussion of the terms "flax" and "linen" continues, and there's lots of cool new information there. You guys rock! Also, goodies from Beth came in the mail today, and I spent the whole day dyeing with kool-aid. Details to come! Also possibly that video of the sheepdogs from the fiber festival, since blogger has conveniently just added a button for inserting videos. That'll have to wait till I have wireless access for the upload, though. Onward!

Okay, I'm finally ready to give you a full review of the wonderful Gossamer Webs: the History and Techniques of Orenburg Lace Shawls by Galina Khmeleva and Carol R. Noble (available from your usual sources or from Galina herself at Skaska Designs). I'll also explain what's in the companion book, The Gossamer Webs Design Collection and then go into a rant about Richard Rutt's A History of Handknitting (Interweave Press, 1987).

Wait - what? an unrelated book from 1987? Yeah, I know - trust me, they're connected, I'll get to it.

First, Galina's book. As you know if you've been reading this blog, I just took lessons with Galina Khmeleva on Orenburg lace spinning and knitting, but I got the first book, Gossamer Webs, before taking the lessons. I bought the Design Collection book after taking the lessons, and I'll explain why below.

Those of you who have been reading will also know that I've been getting more picky about knitting books of late, and that the ones I really feel are worth investing my money in these days are books that provide not just patterns and pretty pictures (both of which I use largely for inspiration, as I follow patterns straight from books fairly rarely), but books that provide solid, detailed, well-researched information that isn't available elsewhere (i.e., for free on the internet). That is to say that I'm no longer content with generalized run-downs of basic principles, and I'm completely out of patience with the sort of book that is 1/3 how-to-knit and 2/3 very unoriginal patterns in expensive yarns. I've given you some examples before of the kind of knitting book I want and love (Big Girl Knits, No Sheep for You, Victorian Lace Today, etc), and I'm happy to see that the knitting book market does seem to be shifting in this direction as the huge numbers of people who started or re-started knitting have acquired a vast range of new skills very quickly with the help of the internet. All good stuff, which makes me so excited sometimes that I tie myself up in knots of excitement and joy.

Gossamer Webs, though not at all a new book (1998!), is a perfect example - perhaps even the apotheosis - of what I now look for in a knitting book.

(Oh, I know, I'm totally a sucker for anything historical and anything Russian and anything about knitting, and this is a book about historical Russian knitting. But really, I'm about to explain why it's a really great book for other people, too.)

First, Galina really did her research. She is a native-born Russian whose career has always been in textiles, and who has been researching Orenburg lace knitting, specifically, since before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (and the subsequent closing of the Orenburg lace cooperative in 1995). She has spent a considerable time in Orenburg, getting to know the knitters and earning their trust. In the years since then she has painstakingly interpreted, recorded and disseminated the techniques that have been taught orally in Orenburg for centuries, so that they will never be entirely lost even if the original Orenburg lace tradition is unable to continue (though at the moment the knitters are still hanging on, with the help of those like Galina who bring attention to their work and, to the small degree that is possible, bring the authentic Orenburg shawls to Western buyers, as Galina does when she travels for teaching and fiber festivals).

Gossamer Webs is an extraordinarily comprehensive book, admirably covering the historical, social and economic aspects of the Orenburg lace tradition as well as the technical details of spinning and knitting the shawls while sharing throughout a palpable sense of who these knitters were and are.

In order, the chapters cover:

  • a brief overview of the history of the Orenburg region - this will easily and comfortably orient readers who don't have any previous background on Russia;

  • a history of the Orenburg shawls in particular, with a somewhat mythical account of where they began (because nobody knows) and a very well-documented and fascinating narrative of their popularity in the Victorian period (one shawl hangs in the Victoria & Albert museum) and the ups and downs of the industry after the 1917 revolution;

  • profiles of muligenerational current Orenburg knitters, whose stories themselves serve as a history of their region in the - shall we say "eventful" - 20th century, as well as of the evolving tradition of the shawls, including the circumstances in which they were and are created;

  • a translation of an excerpt from a Russian-language book on the shawls which offers a lively account of how shawls are sold by the knitters in the Orenburg market;

  • a brief account of Galina and Carol Noble's own "shawl-buying party" in Orenburg;

  • a chapter on the goats and their special down (it's not cashmere because Orenburg didn't join the cashmere association -- it's goat down of a quality equal to or better than "cashmere," depending of course on the goat and how it's been processed);

  • a chapter on spinning, on unique Russian spindles (this might be enough information for a very experienced spindle spinner to replicate it, but the rest of us really need to take the lessons);

  • a chapter on shawl design explaining the traditional motifs and structures and how they are manipulated by individual knitters;

  • instructions for a swatch shawl that teaches basic construction (again, there's enough info here for an experienced lace knitter to make a beautiful Orenburg-style shawl, but if your ambition is to make it just the way they make them there, including the same grafting and corner techniques, etc, you should take Galina's classes);

  • a stitch and border dictionary (Orenburg shawls are designed as permutations of a small set of basic motifs, so this is a dictionary of those motifs, which you could re-arrange in infinitely varied patterns in your own shawls);

  • instructions and charts for one large medallion shawl (it's very big);

  • and finally some reference material, including sources for recommended alternative fibers available to Western spinners and knitters, a bibliography, and two pages of photos showing an imaginative variety of ways to wear the shawls.

In short, it's meaty, comprehensive, unique, and inspiring. Here are a few things that get me particularly excited about it:

  • I love hearing about the knitters, in detail and often in their own words. These are not superficial, "oh, I've been knitting for 50 years and I love it" kinds of profiles, but rather really gripping stories about women of different ages, ethnicities, different levels of education, different careers and different life experiences who all share a lifetime of Orenburg lace knitting, and the profiles taken together offer a substantive, if open-ended, discussion of what that shared tradition means, to the knitters and to their community.

  • The knitting is presented in context: not only is there history here, but we also learn about the goats, and how they are tended, and how their fleeces are processed (by the whole family), and how the women first spin the yarn they need, and then how the finished shawls are blocked, worn, used, and marketed, both within the Soviet-era cooperative and through what was once a black market and is now an open and unregulated market (with the advantages and disadvantages of the change fully covered in all their ambiguity).

  • I love these pictures:

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    If a girl of this age can do all this so confidently, surely I can too?

  • As a book about a particular regional tradition, it's important to me that the region in question is not simplified, sentimentalized, idealized, or demonized - as western "popular" works on non-western regions sometimes are. This book takes its subject seriously, covers it in depth and without prejudice (more on this below). Since I've been studying Russian language, literature and history (going on 15 years now) and living in Russia (a total of about 2.5 years now, and I'm off for another year in a few weeks) my family and friends are often puzzled by my very mixed feelings about Russia. Western accounts of Things Russian are often either very rosy (i.e., rhapsodizing about the culture and art while closing all eyes to the more complex economic and social context) or very, very demonizing (i.e., it's an Evil Empire, or more recently a third-world backwater, and everything there must be shoddy, or shady, or both, etc). The thing is, it's a complicated place, and it's history is complicated and it's hard to talk about any of it fairly in a western context because what little information Americans have about Russia is limited, at best, and totally wrong at worst. Of course, this can be said about any place, and there are certainly countries with even more frought histories (and presents). But because of the Cold War and the capitalism-communism clash of ideologies, Americans and Russians in particular sometimes have more than the usual difficulty in seeing each other clearly.

    I very rarely see an English-language, popular, non-scholarly work of any kind or any length about Russia that does not make me want to puke, strangle the author, or at the very least shake my fist pointlessly and spew bad language.

    Galina's book, however, does a simply stunning job of letting the ambiguities be ambiguities without sacrificing clarity for an audience that has not been to Russia and that has gotten its information hitherto from pretty poor sources. Of course, you might expect this from a book written by a Russian who has lived a long time in the U.S., but it's more rare than you might expect - the emigre experience carries its own baggage, and it's just plain not easy to maintain any kind of balanced perspective while being clear at the same time.

    So, in other words, this book doesn't pander to a Western audience by making us feel all warm and fuzzy and cleverer than some backward peoples who let their traditions almost die for lack of political sense ('cause god knows Americans are full of sound political sense...r i g h t...? er, sorry). It also doesn't pander to Russian sensibilities or nationalism by inflating the Orenburg tradition to make it the greatest, most innovative and complex lace tradition ever (again, see below), or by pretending that the Soviet-era lace cooperative (and modernity in general!) didn't play a significant role in bringing on changes that were ultimately destructive to the lace tradition and to the knitters. In reality, the book shows through its historical narrative and the profiles of the knitters how the 20th century, with its official state-run cooperative, brought with it social and economic security for knitters during difficult times and a means of reinvigorating lace design (i.e., one knitter who worked for the cooperative invented a system of charting to help teach other knitters and to streamline the knitting of more shawls) even while, at the same time, the same cooperative brought on other steamlining methods that reduced the quality of the fiber and robbed the knitters of important means of control over their livelihoods. Even more stark, though, is the change brought on by the collapse of the Soviet government and the mis-managed transition to quasi-"capitalism" in the 1990s - in reality, it's a free market run by robber barons in which the little people like Orenburg knitters are left with unprecedented freedom to knit as they like, sell where they like...but no security, no access to most markets, and increasingly expensive raw materials, leaving them prey to unscrupulous middlemen with an interest in quick profits for low-quality goods.

    This tells us a great deal about much more than Orenburg lace knitting, and in my humble opinion as an academic historian of the region and an occasional American traveler in Russia, it's a masterful book.

Okay, now for a quick break I'll tell you about the companion book before going into rant mode:

Theoretically, Gossamer Webs contains everything an experienced knitter and spinner would need to know to create an authentic shawl on their own. Between the swatch, the stitch dictionary and the one sample pattern, I thought at first that I could do this (although, strangely, I wasn't anxious to start right away). Then I got really lucky, and had the opportunity to take Galina's classes. The classes gave me the confidence to know that I could, indeed, make an Orenburg shawl of my own (though perhaps not from handspun just yet), and all the skills I needed to make it the way it's done in Orenburg down to the smallest detail. However, seeing as how I don't really enjoy frustration and confusion that much, I ultimately decided to also invest in the Design Collection book as well. This book re-prints the swatch instructions and the stitch and border dictionary that are in the main book, but also has detailed, text-and-chart instructions for three finished shawl designs: a triangle, a palatine rectangular 'scarf' (stole, really), and a medallion square of the same type, but different design, than the one in the Gossamer Webs book. Sure, I could probably come up with a pretty combination of the motifs from the stitch dictionary on my own, and I could probably work them into the triangle shape with some effort (I thought at first that I wanted a rectangle not a triangle, but then I learned how big these suckers are), and I could probably more or less maintain concentration while knitting both the border pattern and the interior pattern along with the new techniques for shaping corners and edges and everything...but then I could also probably be a brain surgeon if I really tried hard enough. But since I faint at the sight of blood and have no hand-eye coordination, it would really be better for everyone if I didn't, ya know? I feel that way about designing my own Orenburg, too. I think I'm going to make a couple from instructions first, then start playing with designing. So I bought the design collection, so I can follow the charts for a basic, traditional triangle pattern and have the written instructions to fall back on when I forget the details of what I learned in class about how to deal with corners and how to join the border on the long side. So...I wouldn't say that either the classes or the Design Collection are essential, if you're experienced and confident and intrepid. But your loved ones might really appreciate it if you did indulge in just a little extra information to fall back on.

Okay, now what does all this have to do with Richard Rutt's classic book, A History of Handknitting?

Rutt's book is to date the only one that attempts a comprehensive history of handknitting, and it is indeed an useful compendium of the technical historical details known at the time it was written. For that, I really do appreciate it very much. If nothing else, there's a great deal there to serve as a starting point for other writers who, I hope, will someday synthesize the huge amount of material on ethnic knitting traditions that has been compiled in the last couple of decades together with emerging social histories of textiles and other information to someday write a true comprehensive history of handknitting. However, Rutt's book, with the exception of only a few pages, is actually only a history of British knitting, and possibly just of Shetland knitting - its attempts to treat other traditions are appallingly inadequate and sometimes downright offensive (for some reason such sections almost always conclude in an unfavorable comparison to the Shetland tradition with which the author was clearly much more familiar than any other).

I know that publishers usually choose titles, and they usually push to make books as general as possible in order to garner a wider audience. So I don't entirely blame Rutt. But there's also a rather long history of what I call "British armchair historians." It's not that I have anything against amateur historians. There's no reason a person can't train themselves in the habits, methods, sources and literature required to write reliable, rigorous history. Having myself taken the traditional route of the PhD program, I can and have ranted at length about how many important skills formal training doesn't give you. So, when I toss off the term "British armchair historians" I'm not talking about amateur historians - I know of several good amateur historians who I rank among the best historians generally, British and not. Rather, I made up that term to describe a particular type of historian (with or without a degree), who is recognizable according to the following characteristics:

  1. They write history for popular consumption, but instead of interpreting this kind of writing (as I would) as requiring the same accuracy and rigor as academic writing but greater clarity, larger context, and better style, they instead interpret popular history as being free of the constraints of accuracy, fairness, respect for intellectual property, and sometimes rationality while being rather inconsistent as regards clarity and style.

  2. While sometimes telling a good story, they usually dispense with an explicit argument. This may sound like a point in their favor at first, because arguments are usually set out so clumsily in academic prose. But they don't need to be clumsy, and the truth is that a story without an argument is a story without a word as to what the story means. This may be okay. What is not okay is that in practice there's almost always something in there - even if it's between the lines - as to what the story means, and if it's not explicit, it's implicit. An implicit argument is insidious, because it affects the way the author presents the story without telling you how and to what degree. A particular perspective has been employed in selecting which parts to tell and how, but the reader has no idea what the assumptions were. The reader is being told to believe a tale that is purported to be "real" without having any sense of what the tale is based on or what was left out.

  3. They are unduly prone to think of England as the center of the universe and the rest of the world as a series of quaint little backwaters either ripe for the plucking, in need of civilizing (i.e., Anglicizing), or both. I assume this is a legacy of the Empire, but it's disgusting. (And yes, I know the English are not the only ones to take on this attitude by a long shot - I live in NYC after all! But even New Yorkers, when they write a history of NYC, call it "a history of NYC," not "a history of the world")

The implication of my term, then, is not that the historian in question is an amateur, but that the historian, metaphorically speaking, never leaves his or her comfortable armchair.

Sadly, Richard Rutt is a classic example of a British armchair historian, most especially as regards the third characteristic.

But here's my particular beef, which brings me to the connection with Gossamer Webs. Rutt's book contains a little over two columns of one page of text on knitting in Russia, which makes it one of the most extensive sources on the subject available in English. Some of this text is useful, but you should be aware that the author's unwarranted assumption that knitting probably did not "flourish" in Russia before Catherine the Great's "Volga German" immigrants brought it with them in the eighteenth century is simply false, and actually rather offensive, too (obviously, he doesn't think people as barbarian (read: Eastern [cf. Edward Said on Orientalism {ooh, flashback to freshman lit, sorry}]) as Russians could possibly come up with knitting without some help from a few nice Germans. Oh, lord preserve me from the British. (Except when I'm in an anglophilic mood - I do love my Jane Austen!)

Later research into knitting traditions around the world has firmly established that handknitting has a long, complex, and fascinating parallel history nearly everywhere on the planet, and Russia was not excluded.

Rutt mentions the tradition of shawl-knitting from the Orenburg province of Russia, adding little other than that such shawls feature "uncomplicated patterns." For those who have not yet been privileged to see a traditional Orenburg shawl in person, I recommend that you take a look at Galina's book next time you see it in a store or the library, and then think about what Rutt said (and mind you, he must have been able to see an original shawl in the Victoria and Albert museum). Here's my theory as to what made him say this (never mind that the statement is utterly gratuitous and could simply have been left out if he just didn't know anything). Having read Rutt and Victorian Lace Today and various other works on lace from an Anglo-American perspective, I know that historians trace a development in English - usually Shetland - lace knitting from patterns with only unidirectional decreases to those with matched decreases. Now, one of the very first things historical training is meant to teach you is to watch out for the word "development." Before the professionalization of history and many other changes in 20th-century scholarship, people (mostly privileged, white, Anglo-American people, but also a lot of others) tended to see "development" as a movement upwards and onwards, from something less 'good' to something more 'good,' rather than as simply movement...along...but not particularly directional. So, an armchair historian of this school who knows the history of Shetland lace and knows how to identify the age of a shawl design by whether it has unidirectional decreases (older) or matched descreases (newer), might look at a shawl from another part of the world and, seeing only unidirectional decreases, that armchair historian might conclude that the shawl in question is of a type less developed, and therefore less 'complicated', than shawls that feature matched decreases.

Does this sound like shoddy logic to you? Like laziness? Like not ever leaving your mental armchair?

How about this instead:

Anglo-American lace is marvelously complicated because the matched decreases, not to mention other techniques, like 3-into1 and 3-into-2 decreases, stockinette versus garter backgrounds and other variations culled from many foreign influences, make it possible to do just about anything a designer could wish. It's particularly lovely for mirror-image small motifs and is very easily (not to say necessarily) adapted to charting.

Orenburg lace is superficially simple in that it's always done on a garter ground, the borders are always edged with 5-hole teeth, and the decreases are unidirectional. Designs are almost always permutations of only about 10 basic elements, themselves made up exclusively of YO and k2tog. However, just as knitting itself is the act of infinitely varying only two basic stitches (or one stitch and its reverse) the mathematical simplicity of Orenburg lace principles forms the groundwork for infinite variation. Because there are only YOs and k2togs you can count by holes rather than stitches and rows. Because there are only 10 easily memorizable basic elements, you can (with experience) design on the fly, almost painting in lace as you move up a shawl, improvising combinations and recombinations of elements, because you are thinking, knitting and counting in elements rather than in stitches and rows. Because the elements are so simple, just like the knit and purl stitches themselves, you can combine them into any kind of pattern: representational, geometric, organic, etc. Because all borders are reducible to the mathematically perfect 5 holes (with the 5th hole of one tooth as the first hole of the next), the knitter can vary the width and complexity of the border design adjoining the teeth to an infinite degree, on the fly, without affecting the structure of the shawl or the method of turning corners.

Oh, and because Orenburg is so bloody cold, Orenburg goat down is among the warmest and softest fiber in the world.

And because Russia has long been a much poorer country than, say, England, traditional Orenburg techniques and tools are marvels of efficiency.

Sure, Shetland lace knitting is amazing. I can't wait to do more of it.

But it ain't all there is in the world, folks.

The following is a short bibliography of good books on knitting history. It's not at all complete - these are just the ones I've actually read. Most of them I own and love well.

  1. International Knitting History

    The best and most up-to-date supplement to Richard Rutt's work are the many books published in that last two decades on various ethnic knitting traditions. Each offers a different perspective on the history of handknitting that, though particular to a given region in each case, when taken together constitute a substantive narrative of how handknitting and its particular techniques have evolved around the globe (I know there are many others not mentioned here like Arctic Lace and the works of Nancy Bush, but I haven't added them because I haven't had a chance to look at them yet. There's also the wonderful Victorian Lace Today, which, though covering roughly the same ground with less detail than the Rutt book as far as historical information goes, is a much better book on every level, not even including the incredibly gorgeous patterns!).

    • Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, Knitting in the Old Way: Designs and Techniques from Ethnic Sweaters, Nomad Press, 2005.

    • Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, Ethnic Socks & Stockings: A Compendium of Eastern Design & Technique, XRX Books, 1995.

    • Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, Salish Indian Sweaters: A Pacific Northwest Tradition, Dos Tejedoras, 1991.

    • Lizbeth Upitis, Latvian Mittens: Traditional Designs & Techniques, Schoolhouse Press, 1997.

    • Galina Khmeleva and Carol R. Noble, Gossamer Webs: The History and Techniques of Orenburg Lace Shawls, Interweave Press, 1998.

    • Annemor Sundbø, Everyday Knitting: Treasures from a Ragpile, Torridals Tweed, 2001.

    • Ingrid Gottfridsson, The Mitten Book (also published as The Swedish Mitten Book: Traditional Patterns from Gotland), Lark Books, 1992.

    • Henriette Van Der Klift-Tellegen, Knitting from the Netherlands, Traditional Dutch Fishermen's Sweaters, Lark Books, 1985.

    • Beth Brown-Reinsel, Knitting Ganseys, Interweave Press, 1993.

  2. Knitting in America

    • Anne L Macdonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, Ballantine Books,1988.

      This is an engaging history written by a professional historian with scholarly rigor and intentions (yet without sacrificing readability). It places handknitting within the tapestry of American social history in the nineteenth century, focusing on how and why Americans have chosen to knit or have used their knitting for charitable and other purposes, rather than on techniques or technical history. It provides wonderful historical context for the upsurge in knitting we are seeing today.

    • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, Vintage, 2001.

    • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

    • Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South, Pantheon Books, 1982.

    • Jane Carson, Plantation Housekeeping in Colonial Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg, 1975.

    • Jane C. Nylander, Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

      These books are all scholarly works that contain knitting content only in passing, usually in the context of arguments about women's work and the place of textiles and needlecrafts in early American economics and society. You may have to search a bit to find the knitting content, but all of these books are rich in references, if only oblique ones, to fiber crafts of many kinds and do an excellent job of analyzing how colonial and early American life were deeply interwoven (pun intended!) with all the fiber arts.

I can ply!

Are you sensing a pattern here?

Yes, indeedy, practice makes perfect, or nearly so. Look at this!

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This could actually be some really rather nice sock yarn! That I made all by myself (and with the help, advice, and instruction of friends!)

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I realized after blocking the two hanks of the grey Hampshire/mohair, with which I learned to draft, that I was plying much too loosely. I was trying to ply the way Galina taught us, but (a) I was doing it with much thicker singles and overloading the plying spindle and (b) the cool Orenburg way of plying requires rather more coordination and control than I presently have. So this next time around I instead left the singles in two wound balls, then plied them onto the turnip spindle slowly, checking how twisted each arm-length was before winding it onto the spindle (checking it by holding it loosely and seeing what it did when left to its own devices - nothing so anal as counting twists per inch or anything). Having noticed with the two grey hanks that I had spun and finished first that my overspun singles seemed alright in the finished yarn and that those hanks had seemed much more loosely plied after finishing than before, I deliberately continued to overspin a bit and this time also slightly over-plied these new hanks (of red alpaca/mixed wool - when hanging loosely, they twisted back on themselves just a wee little bit). Then I panicked and ran to Beth to see if I was crazy and whether this had been a bad idea - she reassured me that indeed you lose about 30% of the twist from the singles when you ply, and a bit of the twist from the plying when you finish the yarn. Yay! You always know you're getting somewhere when learning a new skill when you can accurately identify what's going on. This made me feel about 10 times more confident than I'd been moments before reading Beth's email. Phew.

And so the yarn is lovely, and I'm so, so psyched! Now to try the last and final chunk of mixed grab bag roving, and then tackle the merino top Beth gave me. If I can make the latter into a semi-respectable and knittable yarn, I'm going to declare myself Much More Coordinated Than I Thought. And maybe even A Spinner in the Making.

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Someday, I want to spin and knit a whole gansey like the Yarn Harlot (thank god Hubbster is not nearly so huge as her Joe, though).

Meanwhile, I had to draw ya'll's attention to a fascinating discussion from the comments on my previous post. I mentioned that it's totally weird of the English language to call flax flax, then change its name to linen after it's spun, while in Russian they sensibly call it the same thing no matter what form it's in - "lyon." Specs, expert in Old English and Norse literature, stepped in on the etymology of "linen":

"I know it shows up in Old English and is probably from an old German(ic) word, but beyond that I'm stuck. Although it is curious -- to me, anyway, it's probably completely wrong-- that the word for "rope, cable, or line" is "line" (pronounced lin-ay). Could be that "linen" comes from that?

Anyway, I couldn't help looking up some other OE words about linen and found some really cool sounding ones:

linenhraegl: linen cloth
linhaewen: flax-colored
linwyrt: flax
linland: "land in flax" (what the heck does that mean?)

(1) I'm TOTALLY using the word "linwyrt" instead of flax from now on: sensible, and entertaining! That's how language should be.

(2) Is "linland" a field full of flax linwyrt? I have no idea, but it reminds me of something kinda cool and kinda sad: when we were driving around random backwater corners of central Russia three years ago, looking for the villages formerly owned by the subjects of my dissertation, we saw many, many fields covered in flax linwyrt. That region had been a major textile center since the 18th century, and flax linwyrt. was by far the biggest crop (there were also a lot of sheep), but since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, what little agriculture was still going on out there has ceased. There are very few young people left in villages at all, since most went to cities for education and work, and there's little to no living to be had off Russian textiles in that region since the textile factories of Ivanovo have all closed to be replaced by garish and horrible shopping malls selling imported goods at inflated prices (even though there's wonderful linen goods to be had in Russia even now (from other regions) and there used to be much, much more - sob!). Anyway, so there's still flax linwyrt. growing in the fields linlands here and there...but nobody's doing anything with it. The fields linlands are abandoned.

(3) Erika, aka historicstitcher, aka an expert on historical textiles, added this note:

old ropes, cables, and lines, at least those used on sailing vessels, were all made from tow, the shorter, rougher flax fibers not used for clothing. Could be that the words derived congruently, coming from the same source, but used differently?

So, it seems, the word linen may have come from some Germanic root and be associated with ropes, lines, hence thread, yarn and cloth. Perhaps it just meant rope/line, but because this was made from flax, the words became associated. Interestingly, the Russian word lyon sounds close enough to maybe derive from the same root, or possibly be a later borrowing from a German(ic) word (Russian has significant borrowings from German, Dutch, French as well as Central Asian languages). So the real question seems to be...where the heck does the word "flax" come from?

You know how English has different words for an animal (e.g., cow) and the food that comes from that animal (beef)? And how usually the coarser word is Germanic(ku, kuh - or is that Norwegian?), while the almost euphemistic word we use when we don't want to think about the animal we're eating is Franco-Latin ("boeuf")? I was always taught that this was because of the waves of influence from different languages, with German(ic) coming first, and therefore being retained in the simpler words. So what if the linen/flax thing is analagous? Except wouldn't it make more sense for flax to be the German word and linen a Franco/Latin thing?

I dunno, but if Specs were to do some more playing with the OED and wherever else she's looking these things up, that'd be cool. (hint, hint)

And I'll leave you with a pic of this beauteous beach towel made from linenhraegl that I bought in Moscow - it's perfect for lying on the beach because it wicks away moisture and stays cool in the sun!

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PS - Beth - I need to see that book!!! Greet - thanks for mentioning it!!

27 August 2007

I Can Draft!

(and for once I'm not talking about revising anything, least of all the diss, thank god)

Since my last post, I have been to my first fiber festival ever, and I learned how to draft with my new supported spindle. I haven't gotten much progress made on my WIPs, but I can only take so much excitement at one time!

First, the Allegan Fiber Festival. I first heard about this last year, when I just missed it, even though it takes place every year just a half-hour drive from my dear mother's home and even though she knew about it (but didn't mention it, not imagining that I was that into livestock and not realizing there might be anything else there). Soon after that devastating moment of realization almost one year ago, I discovered Beth's blog, because she posted about having been to the Allegan festival, and all the lovely things she bought there.

She reacted well to my jealous rampage in her comments, and we've been friends ever since. And now, just one year later, I've been to the festival myself, with Beth, and I brought home my own goody bag(s) full of - among other things - fiber to spin, which I never thought I'd ever be bringing home since I didn't think I'd ever be able to spin it.

(BTW, yes, now I'm lusting after a spinning wheel. I thought the one advantage to not being able to spin was that I wouldn't have to long sighingly for spinning wheels, but so much for that...)

The festival was much bigger than I expected (of course, I haven't seen Rhinebeck or Maryland). Lots of vendors (over 100 according to the directory), lots of sheepies and goats and alpacas and bunnies.

Hubbster and I ran into Galina's booth right away, and not long after converged there with Beth and one of her spinning students, Becky (in the photo below, I'm on the left in desperate need of a haircut, Becky's in the middle, Beth's on the right. Husbands and children are hovering off-camera, trying not to be embarrassed by the weird knit bloggers and their strange habits).

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Beth helped me pick out yarn to make Galina's Orenburg-style shawl, Lily of the Valley (from Knitters, Summer '04). Beth has already made a prize-winning version, and I'm going to use the same yarn, an angora/silk blend.

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The shawl is for my Grandma, and it's got to be done by her birthday in May. Hmm!

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Beth also brought me some goodies I'd asked for from her shop - my first Addi Lace needle (I hope not to be the last - it's great!) enough pink Jaggerspun Zephyr for an Orenburg shawl for myself (which I'm going to do first, so I can work out the kinks; it's already started).

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Also some tweedy-pink Jaggerspun 100% wool fingering weight, which I had thought was also Zephyr but wasn't. It's awfully pretty, though, isn't it? I'm thinking I have way too many shawls in the hopper and should use this to make some Nancy Bush socks I've been thinking about.

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Then we proceeded to explore...Beth introduced me to some of the fleeces she bought (still being carried around by the animals that produced them). Here she is picking out still another fleece:

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And we had lots of fun petting adorable sheep and goats with Beth's even more adorable kids, Ryan and Maggie. Here's me and Ryan and a goat exactly Ryan's age (and same height, too!):

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(Whenever Ryan wants to show you something, he grabs your hand and says, "Come here, I need you." Is there anything cuter than that?)

Here are some of our other new friends (you'll have to ask Beth to know what they all are - all I can tell is that they're cute and their fleeces are lovely to pet, which is enough for me):

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Throughout most of our wanderings, Hubbster was following me around, reading his detective novel and holding onto my sleeve so as not to get lost and accidentally end up going home with some other knitter:

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However, he admitted later that he actually really enjoyed himself. He loved touching and smelling all the undyed fleeces and admiring the beautifully carved spinning wheels, looms, combs, etc. Most of all he liked the animals, and especially the sheepdogs, whom he watched demonstrating their prowess with the sheep while I was off in a barn making purchases (I'd post a little video of the dogs if I knew how to do that kind of thing).

He was equally amused by all the other husbands, most of whom looked as awkward and out of place as I would at an airshow. I made a point of calling his attention to several males who were spinning or learning to spin, and he admitted that this was very cool, though not necessarily as "masculine" as could be desired. (Someday, I'm going to spin flax, and let him beat the raw flax for me [see below]; this has been pronounced a suitable activity).

I was most amazed by the Briar Rose booth - so much gloriousness in one small space! There was beautiful fiber everywhere, of course, and lots of beautiful examples of masterly hand-dyeing, but I thought the Briar Rose stuff really stood out. Beth pointed out that people tend to think Briar Rose is based in Wales because it's a sponsor of Cast-On, but actually the founder is here in Michigan.

One of the most special things for me about the festival was the lady demonstrating flax spinning. I'm uncommonly interested in this process due to having spent the last several years of my life studying the 19th-century diary of a Russian gentrywoman who spent a great deal of her time spinning (mostly flax, some wool), supervising serf weavers who made the flax into cloth, and knitting (it's not clear whether she ever knit the flax, or just wool). She left out, of course, all the details that she took for granted like what kinds of tools she used, what garments she made (other than stockings and sometimes scarves). Mostly she wrote "I spun all evening" or "I knitted a stocking." But often she wrote "the women beat the flax" or "the women scraped the flax," and sometimes "So-and-so warped 3 spools; more than yesterday!" I didn't know the process involved in preparing flax for spinning, and had quite a bit of trouble translating terms from Russian to English when neither I nor the dictionaries and various people I consulted on the Russian terms really understood the process.

Now, most of the terms have suddenly been made clear, and very real, to me:

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(the tough outer part of the flax stalk is beaten, then scraped off with a blunt wooden knife, so the inner stringy part can be combed for spinning)
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And of course after it's been spun its name changes to 'linen' in English, god knows why (it's called "lyon" in both forms in Russian)

All this thanks to Virginia Handy of Flax Craft. I love that someone out there is keeping these skills alive. And yes, I'm totally going to look for spinning wheels, and flax, as well as wool when I'm in Russia!

At this point we'd seen just about everything, and eaten our elephant ears, and said goodbye to Beth and her family, and it was time to get back home for dinner with mom.

But wait. Could I leave without buying more?

Of course I had to buy more. I'm learning to spin - I need fiber!

I lucked out, and on one last quick run through the vendor stalls found some really pretty grab-bags of very inexpensive mixed wools, perfect for playing with (from Orchard Hill Fleece Farm). I got three chunks of roving, one labeled Hampshire and mohair, another red alpaca / mixed wool, and the third cream alpaca / black border leichester / white mohair.

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Um, and then, just on my way out, I was seized by this:

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It's merino, it was only $6, and can't wait to play with those colors.

Oh, and I begged Beth to send me undyed silk hankies, so I can play with kool-aid dying and spin more hankies, since up to that point that was my favorite thing to spin.

But things have changed.

As soon as I got home from the festival I got out my turnip spindle and tried to spin the Hampshire/mohair roving from my grab bag. I was going along just like I did with the merino top that Beth gave me, which was working pretty well as you saw, and then all of a sudden the tension of my arm holding out the yarn as the twist was going in accidently drafted the fiber out into a really nice, smooth, nearly perfect single. I couldn't believe my eyes. It did it all by itself! This blend just seems to want to be spun into just that size yarn, and it will do it almost no matter how hard I try to screw it up. Now that I've been playing with it awhile, I can even get it to draft properly with my left hand before I let the twist get into it (though I still can't possibly get both hands on the fiber without stopping and holding the spindle against my leg; if I lift up my right hand while it's spinning the spindle immediately drops sideways and the fiber breaks)

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The main thing is, I think I finally get the concept of drafting. That is, I still don't have very good control, but I can see and feel how it's supposed to happen. It felt like a light-bulb turning on, really!

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The first hank of Hampshire/mohair is on the right above, the second, last, and much-improved hank is on the left. I'm going to try to apply these newfound skills to the other grab-bag fiber now before going back to the beautiful merino top, as now I've become more ambitious and am hoping to make a reasonably decent usable sock yarn from the merino!

Meanwhile, I've started some legwarmers which I forgot to photograph, and a quick little scarf in broken rib out of the silk yarn Beth gave me, which my mom has laid claim to because it's her color. I have to admit it looks much better against her skin than mine, so I will give it to her (see, Beth, I'm not a totally selfish knitter!)

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09 August 2007

I Can Spin!


I spent last weekend taking lessons on Orenburg Lace spinning and knitting from Galina Khmeleva herself, while also partying with my knit-sibs, Beth and Erika.

Wow. Take a deep breath, and let that sink in. It doesn't get much cooler than that, does it? Okay, it does, let me add some details:

-I slept all night in a spinning shop. Surrounded by luxurious fibers. Surrounded, also, by Galina's enormous and breathtaking collection of real Orenburg shawls and all the materials to make them. I was sleeping in the same room with qiviut!!! Never mind the buffalo, the cashgora, the organic cotton, the Briar Rose, the silks and wools and flaxes (oops, the flax got left at Beth's house for some reason relating to our organizational skills being way behind Erika's). You get the idea.

-Beth gave me and Erika goody bags for no earthly reason other than that Beth is the world's greatest person EVER. Goody bags included merino top that I didn't believe I would ever know how to spin when I opened it but that I am now spinning, as well as Debbie Bliss Pure Silk:

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And sleeping goggles (see Beth's post for what those are) and luxury tea and...a true embarrassment of riches (except I'm not at all embarrassed. Just grateful). Beth knows how to spoil a girl. Abundantly, and repeatedly.

-Beth also has extremely adorable offspring, and a remarkably compliant husband who doesn't even blink when she brings home giggly girls who want to make her sleep in the shop and eat 16 bars of chocolate. And her children are remarkably unembarrassed and polite when total strangers accost them and tell them they know them well from their mom's blog....

These are my self-inflicted photos of us giggling over Beth's bloglines the first night:

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For some reason I really like the blurry one.

Let me tell you about Beth. Beth is extraordinarily generous, serenely laid-back, and oodles of fun. I would describe her as deeply silly, and those are terms that I do not throw around easily or deprecatingly. It's a special, wonderful art to be deeply silly and an adult at the same time, and all the people I love best are deeply silly. Of course, Beth and I already knew we had a sense of humor in common (how could we not when we have TMBG in common?), not to mention fiberlust, but now we think we were triplets separated at birth. Triplets, you ask? Oh, I know neither Beth nor I are known for our mastery of maths, but you see Erika makes three. Let me tell you about Erika. Erika is my age, but somehow has lived several whole, eventful lifetimes while I was sitting around doing I know not what - you might ask her about the modeling, or about deconstructing chemical weapons, but personally I'm most amazed by her past as a professional seamstress of historical costumes, and her incredible body of knowledge about historical clothing. Holy crap, and her degree is in geology! Besides, Erika and I spent the weekend having bizarre "what - you too??" moments every time we discovered another quirk we had in common. Positively spooky.

I've been reading both their blogs for a while now - have you? You should! Also, help me pressure Erika to write her book, and Beth to write her article and her book. It doesn't matter that you don't know yet what they'll be about - trust me, you'll want them.

-During the spinning lesson fiber and spindle flew in many directions. This part was expected. What was not expected was that I also ended up with yarn.

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This is my first yarn (it's plied with commercial-spun silk, and made up of bits of pygora, cashgora, stretch merino, buffalo, and a teeny little tidbit of qiviut).

Oh shuddup.

I tried a drop spindle several times at home and nothing but curse words and a few extra dents in the floor were the result. This time, I got recognizable yarn. I was prepped ahead of time with a little pre-lesson at Beth's house, when I got to watch both Erika and Beth spinning on their wheels (I'd never seen wheel-spinning in action before and hadn't really gotten how it works at all). Then Erika heroically let me mess up a section of what was otherwise gorgeous yarn by letting me spin a little in the middle of her work. Once I figured out that I was doing everything with the wrong hand, it started to get a lot easier.

Then there was 6 hours of instruction in traditional Russian Orenburg spinning with Galina. Erika and Beth have pictures (but really, I only have bad posture, bad hair and a weird nose when I'm concentrating. I swear). Galina is a genius, and tells a great story, and is a brilliant, ruthlessly honest teacher. Can I tell you how much I LOVE the supported spindle??? It changes everything. My biggest problem was drafting and letting go of the spindle without letting the fiber break and the spindle drop to the floor. With the spindle supported in a little bowl, it doesn't have to drop at all, and the fiber breaks much less often. Huge improvement right there. Also, all you have to do to make it twist is give the top a little flick. When I tried rolling a drop spindle along my thigh then dropping it, I got a wildly flailing spindle and then a gouged floor for my trouble. The Russian spindle spins evenly and almost effortlessly, like a little dervish (this is partly an art in choosing the most balanced spindle, at which Erika excels, and luckily she's a generous girl) . Now, Erika is such a generous girl that she wrote on her blog that I was "getting the hang" of drafting. Ha! Actually, I failed miserably at it during the class and am continuing to fail miserably (but, yes guys, I am continuing to try every once in a while). However, Galina started us on pencil roving, which worked beautifully right from the start, so upon applying to Erika as to whether I couldn't just "make pencil roving" and then spin it without drafting, she told me sure, but to call it "pre-drafting." Poof: my life changed in the blink of an eye. I can spin now. :-)

The spinning class was followed by a meet-n-greet with Galina and her very sweet husband, George. Erika and Beth and I were privileged to hang out with them through all of this, chatting casually with one of our personal heroes, not to mention pawing through her shawl, fiber and yarn collections while "helping" to display them. How incredibly cool is that?

It would be pretty hard to top that. But we managed: first, by deciding to spend the night on the floor of Beth's shop. Someone (was it Obsidian Kitten?) said that Beth's shop is like a fiber festival that's going on all the time, and that's exactly the right description. Can you imagine spending the night in the middle of Rhinebeck? That's how cool this was. No - cooler, because Beth and Erika were there. We practiced our spinning some more that evening while gossiping and eating ice cream. Beth unwisely told me which of her ceramic, hand-made supported spindles was the best spinner and, yes folks, I had to have it:

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Behold, my turnip. That's the merino top Beth gave me on it. I'm thinking of knitting the singles into some fuzzy feet, which I'll dye with kool-aid while felting (as per Erika's suggestion). While I was doing this, Beth was expertly combing and spinning some delicious cashmere into laceweight, while Erika was moving by leaps and bounds from our experiments with buffalo in class to a perfect laceweight buffalo single on the Russian spindle by the end of that night. Ask her to show you her pretty new acorn spindle too, though. (Don't worry - we didn't completely clean Beth's shop out of her best spindles. Not for lack of trying. )

We conked out pretty early, though, despite the ice cream, because it had been a very full day and we knew we had 6 more hours of lace knitting ahead of us bright and early the next day.

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"Bright and early...."

In a separate, long-promised post I'm going to tell you all about why Galina's book on Orenburg lace is so incredible, and I'm going to rant about how Richard Rutt's book doesn't get anything right, but for now just a few peeks at what we were up to:

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This is our first swatch, playing with some basic elements of Orenburg lace design. I needed to go down a couple needle sizes from what you see here. Galina gave us Jaggerspun Zephyr to play with - this was my first exposure, and I'm hooked. Lovely stuff. I also played with the new Addi lace needles, and am hooked on those as well.

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Here's the next swatch, where we learned the traditional border basics, plus really nifty corner construction and a mind-bendingly awesome grafting technique.

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I just finished this swatch last night, and am so please with it, and so anxious to start a full-size triangular shawl with some tweedy-pink Zephyr that Beth's going to bring me. Yummy, yummy, yummy.

How about some more pictures?

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Here's Galina teaching lace, and me listening raptly.

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Here's Galina signing my copies of her books. In Russian! And no, it's not you, that does appear to be a little bit of Ott-Lite [tm] coming out of my nose.

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Here's Beth, Erika, and me standing behind Galina the Great (she calls herself "Galina the Terrible" but that's accurate only in the sense that "terrible" was originally used to describe the old tsars - meaning great, powerful, and awe-inspiring!)

So, um, yeah, we did kind of leave Beth's shop with more loot than we'd necessarily intended to pick up...

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Can you say, "Briar Rose"??? wine-red alpaca laceweight no less....??? I'm thinking Print o' the Wave, maybe?

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Shetland laceweight...I'm sorely tempted by the pattern Erika used in her alpaca shawl.....

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This is my first try at spinning silk. So far it's delightful, and actually easier than the wool. I'm using the leftover bits of dyed silk hankies that Beth gave us to play with the night we slept over at the shop. I've been wanting to play with silk hankies ever since Amy Singer first did it, but trust me, it's even more fun than it looks. Want. Some. More. And they're not even very expensive! I'm officially a silk addict now. The hankies are so easy to turn into something string-shaped that they warm my little pre-drafting soul, and the silk sticks to itself much more than I thought it would. So easy!

Oh, and before I leave my wireless connection for who knows how long again, some catch-up pictures from earlier:

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One Wildflower Sock done. It's a bit tight around the ankle, and I had to do a tubular BO because everything else made it too tight to get around my heel. Lovely once it's on, though!

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These are the felted slippers from Knit2Together, using Knit Picks' Wool of the Andes.
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And these are some post-blocking shots of the invisibility shawl. Apologies for modeling it over shorts and a tank top; we completely forgot to take pictures on Release Party Night when I was all dressed up with a cute, fluffy black skirt and black top. You'll just have to take my word for it that it looked good.

Oh - and speaking of Russian mystery yarn (which the Invisibility Shawl was made out of). One of my mystery yarns (not that one) was labeled "Orenburg Down" but seemed very greasy, smelled more sheepy than goaty, and was generally too cheap to have been real. Galina inspected it and declared it real but sub-par Orenburg down. Made from the leftover and damaged bits that remain after collecting the good stuff, it's what they make the cheap, fake-Orenburg shawls out of for the tourist market.* Galina said that they use tons of emulsifier to make it spinnable, but that once you wash that out it should be soft and nice and suitable for mittens or socks, though not shawls. Interesting!

*NB to those who read Piecework magazine: remember that crazy "article" that made the cover of the last issue about somebody who bought an $11 shawl on a night train in Russia? (a) that person bought a fake, crappy shawl like thousands of other tourists do every day because they don't know better, (b) that was not enough substance for any kind of article, never mind the cover, (c) contrary to what that article seems to want the reader to believe, Russia is not a barbaric, ignorant country ripe for the plucking by bargain-hunting Western tourists, (d) you can't get a real Orenburg for anything below three digits, (e) the difference between real and fake is ginormous - if you can catch one of Galina's classes or find her at a fiber festival she can show you and let you touch and, (f) the number of hours that go into the spinning and knitting of a real Orenburg would make it a steal at 10 times the prices they're sold for, and (g) just because most Russians are poor doesn't mean it's okay to cheat them (nor that they don't know when they're being cheated, nor that they don't do good work with good materials, etc). Not that any of you would do that, but sometimes it's really hard to know what the deal is when there's so little information available, and I hate to see a major magazine like Piecework disseminating BS.

So as not to end on an icky note, here are a couple more pictures to show you how we've been spending our time while not wrestling with dialup or gallivanting across the state for knitting lessons:

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This is Hubbster, kayaking on Willard Pond in NH (in answer to queries - I'm not from there, I'm from Michigan originally, but my dad moved to the Hancock area a few years ago).

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And this is my mom's cocker-poo, whom we love dearly. Awww.

Next up: The Allegan Fiber Festival on the 18th. I'm going to meet Beth there, and possibly Erika, and Galina will be there too. If you're also coming, be sure to accost me and say hi!