30 December 2011

Washing machines really do eat socks

The washer has been acting weird for the last few days – insisting that it has too many suds, and trying over and over and over again to drain the water from the drum.

After yet another load of laundry got stuck in a seemingly endless cycle, I decided to do some troubleshooting. A quick Google search suggested that the problem was most likely a clog somewhere in the drain line, and gave hints as to how to find the drain and clear it.

With the help of the Reluctant Farmer, we got the washer tipped on it’s side and the drain hose removed. Nothing much in there, just a bit of lint. Then we attacked the other end of the drain hose and lo and behold … a sock was stuck in the drain pump.

Really, a sock.

Now I have no idea how a sock can get through those little drain holes on the sides of the washer drum and manage to get itself stuck in the drain, but we now have proof: washing machines really do eat socks.

25 December 2011

Did you get an eReader for Christmas?

Looking for something to read with that new gadget of yours?

Well, let me help you!

The story of our first year or so at Apple Jack Creek – including the adventures of installing a massive crossbeam on the house in the dark, living in a shed with no heat and no plumbing, and doing electrical work when you’re really not trained for that sort of thing – is available for free right here.

Also, my friend Risa Bear has a book titled Viewing Jasper Mountain, which has just been published in electronic format by Apple Jack Creek Books. Risa is a fascinating individual: she lives on one acre in Oregon, has chickens who live in an actual chicken moat around the big garden, cooks on a wood stove as often as she can, and writes about her life. If you like reading about real people genuinely living “the good life”, you’ll enjoy her book. It’s available here – and until January 12, you can use the coupon code NY49T to get it at half price, so just $1.50. Take some time to browse the Smashwords site – there’s a lot of interesting self-published works there, some of them free, none of them very expensive.

Oh, and if you didn’t get an eReader and want to read the stories anyway … go right ahead. You can download the text as PDF, or you can get a (free) copy of Adobe Digital Editions or the Kindle reader to work on your computer.

For free books, see if your local library has electronic books available for signout. Ours does – just log in to your library website and look for electronic books. They may have audiobooks, too, which are wonderful to listen to while you are doing other things (like, say, knitting!).

If you enjoy audiobooks, consider an Audible membership – when I had the long commute every day, I listened to audiobooks while driving and the monthly subscription is a really good deal. An excellent combination with your iPod or smartphone!

Books are great.

24 December 2011

Christmas Memories

Christmas is the time of the year, for me, that is filled with the most memories.
When we were small, we spent every holiday season at my grandparent’s house in southern Ontario. Grandma and Apple Jack were the kind of grandparents you’d read about in a story book, the kind any kid would be happy to have. Grandma would laugh at your funny tricks and let you eat the sugar cubes and give you coffee in a china cup from Nassau, with lots of milk and sugar. Apple Jack had a huge leather rocking chair in front of the wood stove and he loved to sit there with a grandkid on each of the wide, flat chair arms, helping us feed the fire, using the bellows to make the coals glow, or heating toast for bedtime snack with the big long fork. At breakfast there was always Apple Jack’s home made black currant jelly on the table, served with a special spoon that had a notch in the handle so you could hang it on the rim of the jar and not get your fingers sticky. The morning was filled with the smells of bacon and coffee. Dinner was at the great big dining table set with the good dishes, there were nuts piled in the footed dish painted with sepia pine cones, and there was always ribbon candy in a bowl on the side table. The tree was frosted with the special fake snow made from soap flakes, the ornaments (which were already ancient when I was a child) glittered in the light from the tree, the stockings were laid out on the couches and chairs. There was real snow banked up on the window ledges, we had cousins to play with, an attic to explore, and, more than likely, Laurence Welk’s Christmas special would, at some point, fill the living room with music.
I know that the holiday travel was hard on my parents, I know that in the mysterious world of grownups there was always some tension … but from my viewpoint, Christmas at Grandma and Apple Jack’s house was all I could ever have wanted. After we arrived, once the grownups settled down to talk, my sister and I would walk through the house, touching all the familiar objects that never shifted between one visit and the next. That inevitable stability, that certainty of familiar comfort was, I suppose, a way of touching our roots, of feeling our history. I am still comforted by the old things: on difficult days, I drink tea from a china cup that was my Grandmother’s.
I miss my grandparents very much. I would love to have seen Grandma hold my infant son and make him laugh, to have watched Apple Jack hoist my boy into the air with that same grin, that look of complete, unfettered joy I know so well. My grandparents opened their hearts to us grandchildren, and we could feel it. They loved us with absolute abandon … and the memory of that love is a gift greater than any that I have ever unwrapped beneath a gorgeous, glittering, snowy tree.
Christmas is my time to remember – not just my grandparents and the many traditions of theirs that we still keep, but all of my past, all of my story. I never want one of those perfect, colour-coordinated Christmas trees with all the ornaments following some kind of theme, I want no matched sets of commercial sameness. As I unwrap each ornament and hang it on a branch, I remember: there is the little angel with Jessica’s name written in gold on the banner she carries and here is the wreath made with flowers from her funeral, there is the shell we got when we took that trip to Hawaii with my parents, here is the glass ball from my sister that’s decorated with images of happy children from all over the world, here is the tiny hockey stick that my parents gave to The Boy the year his team went to the city championships, and oh my, here is the really ugly blue fabric ball I made when I was little, studded with sparkling beads and trailing a ratty red tassel… let’s put it towards the back.
My story is there on the tree, and I remember. We tell the tales to each other as we decorate, so that the stories are passed to the children, too.
Yes, I always cry at Christmas time, for a little while. My sparkling tears are the gift I give to those who now live on only in my heart.  Like melted snowdrops the tears fall from my cheeks and glitter for one final moment … then they dissolve away as the light from the star atop the tree glows and I am filled with the sure knowledge that love, the gift of this season, is here, surrounding us, enfolding us, carrying us from the past, into the present, into the future.

20 December 2011

Winter Festivals

Dear People Celebrating the Festival of Lights just now:

Happy Hannukah to you and yours!


Dear People Celebrating Winter Solstice tomorrow:

Hooray for the return of the light!


Dear People Celebrating the birth of the Christ Child:

Merry Christmas!


Dear World:

No matter what our faith may be, I think we can all - especially this time of year, this far north - celebrate the miracle of Light in the darkness. Spring will, indeed, come ‘round again, the days will, indeed, get lighter, there is, always, hope of redemption, hope of new beginnings.

May there be peace and light for us all.

A hopeful believer

05 December 2011


I intend to publish Just Keep Knitting as an electronic book at the same time it comes out in print, so I’ve been doing some research into the best way to convert a text document intended for paper into pixels that will work on a variety of reading devices.

I have found a workable solution in Smashwords: this allows me to upload the book once and have it available pretty much everywhere (the Amazon store is bringing Smashwords content online this month, and they already distribute to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and the Apple store).

However, the book’s not ready for the big time yet, and I needed to do a test run, so I took the blog postings from the first year or so of our adventures at Apple Jack Creek and consolidated them into an eBook. An evening’s work doing copy and paste and cleanup, and voila, there’s a book!

If you have an eReader of some kind and would like to indulge in some nostalgia looking back on the crazy early days of our life out here, you can download a copy of the book here … and it’s free!

If you run into any technical issues, please let me know: this is a test run to see if I’ve figured out the necessary rules for formatting and so on. I did have to do several uploads before I was satisfied with the basic look of things, but as I do not have an eReader of my own (well, besides the iPod touch which I do use on occasion) I must content myself with testing in simulated environments. There are a lot of pictures, so it’s not ideal for a small screen, but I’m curious to know what you think, if you do have a look.

And if you stumbled across the book on Smashwords and have subsequently found your way here to the blog … well then, welcome! Do say hello, I’d love to meet you.

04 December 2011

Dear Kitty:

I am sorry to have been remiss in teaching fire safety to you.

When an ember from the fireplace lands on your fur, you must not run. You need to STOP, DROP and ROLL. When you run, the ember just lights up more and if you keep running, it will not just singe your fur and cause the house to smell awful but it will get to your skin and that will hurt!

Good for you for letting us catch you and douse the ember with water. Thanks for not scratching us while we helped, too.

We promise to move you from your nice warm spot by the wood stove next time we add a fresh log, just to be safe … honestly, embers don’t fall out very often … but if this should ever happen again, could you PLEASE just follow the basic plan?


We care about you.


Your People

(one of whom happens to be a firefighter - and if he saw you running through the house with your fur on fire, he’d probably douse you with the extinguisher … so be glad he wasn’t home and you only got put in the sink!)

02 December 2011


So I got the Christmas things for the Small People finished off today: they are too little to read the blog, so I can tell you about what they will be receiving.

Princess Girl will get this top-down “recipe raglan” sweater: there’s a set of calculations you can do that tell you how many stitches to cast on for the neckline and where to do the increases and for how long and you just keep on working your way down and the thing turns into a sweater. It’s quite amazing, actually, and was a great way to knit this as I had just *barely* enough yarn, so I was able to use up all the pink, then knit the green for the bottom of the sleeves (which are 3/4 length and bell out into little ruffles just below the elbow) and continue with the body of the sweater (which has a flare at the bottom,it’s not just hanging oddly) until I had only enough green left to do the button band and collar. The yarn was actually a Christmas gift to me last year, from The Reluctant Farmer. He suspects that qualifies this sweater as regifting, but I’m thinking that in this case the gift is in the labour and design, not the yarn.


Her brother will be receiving this Dead Fish Hat, modeled here by The Boy who generously offered his head for test fitting.


I made one like this for another small person I know, and while it was here awaiting delivery The Smaller Boy (who used to be called Dinosaur Boy but that just doesn’t seem the right name for him anymore) kept trying it on and admiring it. So, The Smaller Boy shall have one of his very own.

With those knitting tasks out of the way, I need to go back to book project knitting. Except, you see, when I woke up at 5 am (due to the howling 90 km/h wind, which has finally died down) I was attacked by another shawl design idea. Attacked, I tell you, it simply would not leave me alone.

I think I know who to blame, too.


This beautiful, very shiny, very bright green (it’s actually a lot brighter than the photo would suggest) bamboo yarn arrived in my mailbox yesterday. I won a contest at Flannelberry Fibre and this gorgeous, shiny stuff was part of the prize – along with a bottle of Soak wool wash and some tea! (Flannelberry has another contest on just now, if you have used any of the yarns she carries – Lorna’s Laces, Malabrigo, Noro, Sirdar, Fleece Artist and more - she’s offering prizes for submitting reviews, and as you can see, she sends out good prizes!)

Anyway, as I lay there in bed listening to the wind rattle the windows and make the wind turbines hum, I thought about a lovely green spring shawl made out of this bamboo. I expect I will knit this stuff up into an Aeolian shawl, actually, but I had shawl design on my mind and it simply wouldn’t let me go.

So, after making a batch of jam-filled biscuits, finishing up the aforementioned Christmas gifts, and before going back to the projects I really need to be working on, I started designing a shawl.


You see, this ball of nice green wool was lying there right on top of the sedimentary layers that form spontaneously in the fibre room. Very much like the green of the bamboo, but already wound up and perfect for testing out a design idea. And the circular needles were right here beside me, and my daytimer (which has a section for knitting pattern notes). Before I knew it, I had the beginnings of an almost-circular shawl. I think I’ve even figured out how to continue the design through the rest of the shawl body – a very simple curving series of yarn overs that suggest movement and the cycles of life. Very spring-like and hopeful. Well, it is in my mind … we’ll see what it looks like once it is actually knit up.

I did manage to put it down after I had enough done to get the general idea of the thing, and I’m once again working on the Lighthouse shawl. This is slow going as each round is now 576 stitches. It takes a very long time to knit 576 stitches. Still, I’ve got to add at least another five more centimeters to the radial measurement before it’ll be big enough to start the border, so … yeah. I’d best find that audio book and get back at it.

Just keep knitting… and knitting… and knitting…

01 December 2011

Seed to Blossom

I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear
Of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living to open me,
To make me less afraid,
More accessible
To loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
To live
So that which came to me as seed
Goes to the next as blossom.
And that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

- Dawna Markova

with thanks to Philip Carr-Gomm

30 November 2011

Squid Pie

We have found a new quick and easy meal at our house: we call it ‘Squid Pie’ because The Boy can’t read my hand writing and thought that’s what I had written when I scribbled the ingredients I needed on my grocery list… the word was actually Bisquick, but I’ll admit that it was pretty badly scribbled.

No squid are harmed in the making of this pie, trust me. We use the title to encompass any number of variations on the Impossibly Easy Pie recipes the Bisquick people have on their website. In short, you put various ingredients in a greased pie dish or square glass pan (I usually grate up a potato or two, maybe a carrot, add a few tomato slices and some peppers and onions, then cover with grated cheese and cooked and seasoned ground meat if we have it) then cover all that with Bisquick mixed up with eggs and milk (of course you can make your own Bisquick mix, but one of the stores I frequent has it in bulk so I just buy that). If you aren’t feeding picky small people, sprinkle a generous shot of spices over the potatoes before you cook it or it can be a little bland.

As it cooks, the stuff kinda separates and you get veggies (and meat if you added it) covered with a sorta-omelette-sorta-biscuit topping (depending on how many eggs you use, you can make it more biscuit-y or more egg-y). It’s a great way to use up leftovers and it’s quick and simple enough to manage even when you’re worn out. Particularly delicious with lots of cheese. (Then again, what isn’t  particularly delicious with lots of cheese?)

Since we, of course, have a regular supply of eggs and we got a lot of potatoes and onions from the garden this year, we have the core ingredients on hand and just wing it to make it work with whatever else we have in the fridge at the moment.

A great meal for a blustery day!

25 November 2011

Hearts Ease: completed

About a week and a half of dedicated knitting and the Hearts Ease shawl is finished (I completed it a few days ago, actually, but haven’t had a chance to post about it until now).


It still needs to be blocked so that the lace borders lie flat, but I wore it one day already and I can’t believe how very warm and comfortable it is. The weather was warm for this time of year and I wore the shawl over a long sleeved t-shirt and was comfortable even outdoors (though of course I had a warm coat with me and my coveralls are in the back of the truck - smart people don’t risk being without adequate clothing in winter).

I have a lot of knitting to do: all of the projects for the book have to be knit before they can be photographed and the book can’t go to print without the pictures. Somehow I hadn’t quite thought that through until recently, so I am spending a lot  of time with needles in hand just now – there are three projects still to finish.

Back to knitting!

13 November 2011

Exhausted and wide awake

It is very strange to be completely exhausted and at the same time full of an odd, formless sort of energy.

I find myself driven to work on too many projects, I start something, walk away and come back an hour later realizing I had completely forgotten what I started. I can’t get myself to bed at night or to sleep once I get there … but at the same time, I am worn out and weary. I have multiple books on the go and can’t concentrate on any of them. I hesitate to even count the number of knitting projects I have on the needles.

It’s the effects of adreanalin poisoning, I suppose. It will pass, it’s all part of the journey.

I think I’ll knit. It’s productive, uses up some of the energy, but allows my body to rest.

10 November 2011


Thanks in large part to the company of an excellent audio book there has been substantantial knitting progress. I listened to The Secret Scripture, a wonderful novel by Sebastian Barry, and it was read by a woman with the most beautiful Irish accent that often reminded me of the familiar Newfoundland accent that I miss so much.

Anyway, with the company of a good book in my ears I was able to make substantial progress on the Hearts Ease shawl: I got the complicated turn at the point figured out and the entire border knit the same day I cast on, which was pretty impressive, and I’m working my way up the body of the shawl now. I have the plain garter stitch done and have switched to some beautiful blue yarn that my sister brought from England for the coloured stripe. I like how it looks so far:


Time to find another story, I think.


All these books were waiting for me at the ‘take it or leave it’ spot at the dump today:


Do you think it’s a sign?

08 November 2011

Hearts ease

Looking at the targeted release date for the book, it occurs to me that I had better get working on the finishing touches for the knitting patterns that are to be included with each chapter.

Which, of course, means that the knitting projects should be ready for finishing touches … which some of them are not. In fact, there’s one chapter that is waiting for a new project design: I changed my mind about what to include there, and thus created the need for a brand new shawl pattern. Which doesn’t yet exist.

I recently made a Danish tie-shawl using a pattern that a very clever lady figured out based on a shawl she found in a museum. It’s wonderful: it wraps right around your chest and ties in the back, keeping the tails of the shawl safely out of the way (I call it a kitchen-safe shawl, since you don’t have to worry about the ends dragging in the soup or getting singed by the fire). The crossover in front really warms your body, too, it’s like having a vest on, but with the comfort and variability of a shawl.

Knitting this style of shawl is also great fun, because you knit the long border first. It’s a narrow strip of fabric, very simple lace, and it goes quickly because it isn’t very many stitches, meaning you really feel like you’re getting somewhere fast (and, indeed you are). There’s a little bit of tricky work at the corner, then more edging, then you change gears completely and work the centre in mostly garter stitch. Just as you start to get bored of garter stitch, it’s time to knit the top border and before you know it, you are finished.

Of course, in order to be finished, one must begin. And so today’s job is to get the border pattern figured out, charted, and knit, including the tricky bit at the corner.


I have a ways to go. I’d better get back at it!

04 November 2011


Well, the final verdict from the insurance company arrived today: the ‘experts’ there (who have never seen me, just the reports from my GP and my counsellor and some documentation that I submitted along with the appeal) are not convinced that I am unable to work at my job, and so there will be no income replacement, no disability coverage.

There are all kinds of public service announcements that ask us all to be understanding of mental health challenges, to be compassionate towards people who are dealing with mental health problems, to encourage everyone to get help if it is needed … but insurance companies don’t make money paying out on claims, so I suppose they don’t listen to those kinds of announcements. All the other people I’ve had to deal with seem to have paid attention though, and for that I am grateful. It makes a difference when folks see your pain and say nice things like, “you take care of yourself.”

Thus it is that I join the ranks of millions of others who have learned the hard way that insurance is there to provide peace of mind - as long as you don’t actually need it.

Ah well.

I submitted my initial request for disability in June, right after my employment insurance benefits ran out, and it has taken nine months to get to this final verdict. “Thanks so much for continuing to pay your premiums all this time, but we will not be paying you anything at all. Hope you got your teeth cleaned while you could.”

By this stage of the game, we really just needed to know one way or the other, and so it is good to at least have an answer, even if it’s not the optimal answer from a financial point of view. I am certainly very grateful to The Reluctant Farmer for being willing to work as hard as he does to ensure that we have everything we need.

When the phone call arrived from the insurance company, I happened to be in town, so I drove over to  my office in order to tell my manager in person that I will not be returning. I realized a few months ago that I will not be well enough to do that kind of work again for a very long time, if ever. PTSD is an anxiety disorder characterized by constantly being on the watch, scanning for trouble, and jumping into high gear as soon as anything dangerous is spotted. This is a highly adaptable set of behaviours when you are in a dangerous situation – if something bad can happen at any time, you need to always be ready to react as quickly and decisively as possible. However, when you’re just living an ordinary life, this is really not a helpful approach. It makes you jumpy, testy, quick to anger, quick to explode. I spent years allowing these skills to settle themselves firmly in my mind and body, and learning different skills is a long, slow road. I’m having some success, definitely – I don’t startle as badly as I did anymore, I am more able to control my reactions to upsetting experiences, but I am still really fragile and I still have a long way to go. I do have complete faith that I will get there one of these days, but in the meantime, it is essential for my recovery that I avoid practicing those less-adaptive skills, as the more I use them the harder they are to unlearn. And I’ve used them for a lot of years already.

The peculiar thing is that the work that I was doing (software quality assurance, plus technical documentation, analysis and design) actually relied rather heavily on my ability to constantly be on the watch for trouble, to immediately notice things that were out of place or out of the ordinary and to react quickly and decisively whenever something set my spidey sense to tingling. Unfortunately, that just meant I had daily opportunities to practice the very skills that I am now attempting to unlearn. The world is safe, I am not in danger, and I do not need to jump into full defensive mode every time something startles me or seems somehow ‘wrong’. Thus, I need to not do the kind of work I was doing – not until I am completely healed and can manage to avoid slipping fully back into the old habits.

So it is that an era has come to an end, and I am leaving information technology for the foreseeable future. I really enjoyed working with my team. We did good work. I was with the company for over six years, which is, in fact, a personal record. I said often that I could not have continued working in the field as long as I did anywhere else, and I still feel that way: I have nothing but gratitude towards my team. If I am ever in the position to look at doing this kind of work again, they would be my employer of choice.

However, it’s time for a new beginning. I don’t know what kind of work I will be able to do in the near or distant future – in the near future, I am still not well enough to tackle full time employment, but I’ll be there eventually, so it’s time to start pondering the available options. I don’t think that ‘full time author’ actually pays the bills, at least not for mere mortals such as myself who aren’t writing about young wizards or courtroom drama, so I suppose it’s time to break out the old “what do you want to be when you grow up” books and see what they can suggest.

In the meantime, more rest, more writing, more tea. I have faith that the universe will unfold as it should.

And yes, that’s a Star Trek reference. I’ve been a geek for a long time: just because I’m not working in IT anymore doesn’t mean I have to give up my geekiness!

03 November 2011

If at first you don’t succeed…

.. at least knitting makes it easy to try, try again.


That tiny bit of knitting has taken days to accomplish. First, it was worked in a pattern I just now discovered is not available for use in the book, so that got frogged since the design is a scarf pattern that goes with one of the chapters in Just Keep Knitting. For the next attempt, I graphed out this really interesting gradual increase from a pointed beginning … and after multiple attempts to get that to look right, including three different sets of needles and four complete do-overs, I gave up on the approach entirely and went with a straight cast on and an integral lace border. That, at least, looked a lot better. Next was to start knitting the chart. One and a half repeats of that made it abundantly clear that the whole thing would look a lot better if the pattern started at the narrow end of the diamond and the yarnovers were on the other side of the decreases. Frog it back to the lace border and try again.

Now, with a straight cast on, an easy integral lace border and one full repeat of the chart worked, I am almost ready to say we might have a workable design here. Give me a few more repeats to be sure, but I think this might be the winner.

There’s a life lesson in here, I suspect. Continuing to pour your efforts into doing more of the same isn’t going to give you different results, any more than knitting more repeats of an unworkable pattern is going to transform into something lovely if you just work at it long enough. But, if you go ahead and say “ARGH!”, pull out the unworkable stuff and start over with a different approach, you’ve at least got a chance. It might take a few tries, but at least this way there is hope for a different – and quite possibly better – outcome!

Time to knit some more repeats and see if this actually is a better outcome…

28 October 2011

Just Keep Knitting

If you follow this blog, you may have read Listen, posted in March of 2011. That was the beginning of my writing journey: I discovered that by telling the story of what had happened in my life, not just in my journal but posted out in the wide world where other people could read it, I felt better.

A lot better.

Not long afterwards, the outline for an entire book appeared in my head more or less out of the blue: all the chapters, the content, the shape of the tale. I know an important message when I hear one … so, I started writing.

I’ve been dealing with delayed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since the early months of 2011. The anxiety, sleeplessness, and ongoing chest pains are the legacy of the chaos that took over my life when my first husband’s brain tumour took hold and turned him into a stranger with a familiar face. During and after his illness I had so much on my plate that I just kept on pushing through life: oh, I acknowledged that things were difficult and I did what I could to deal with the pain and loss and grief, but there wasn’t a lot of room in my life for that kind of work. I had a child to raise, bills to pay, a life to rebuild. The old troubles were tucked away in the hopes that time would heal the wounds without any further input from me.

Well, time alone didn’t do it, and in the past several months I have done a lot of work facing the old hurts and finding my way along the difficult road to forgiveness and healing. This book is the result of that work.

It is my hope that the story of my past, combined with the reflections on forgiveness, faith and fibre (knitting is indeed a healing art) will shine a light of hope so that perhaps, someday, there might be just enough light for someone else to find a way out of the dark.

Just Keep Knitting is expected to be available in early 2012—if you’d like to be notified of the official book release, just send us a note through the link on this page (or from here, if you prefer).

Until the books come out … just keep knitting!

18 October 2011

Prayers from a Healing Heart

You made me just the way I am, God, and You know me, and You love me anyway. You forgive me when I make mistakes, even when I have a hard time forgiving myself. You stand beside me when I am scared and hurting, even though sometimes I don't realize you are there. When I am afraid, when the old memories come back and I can’t breathe, when I can’t sleep at night because my chest is still aching, please help me to be compassionate towards my own feelings. Help me to sit with the old fear and the old pain, to tell the hurting part of me “I hear you, I know, it was scary back then, but it’s over now, and it is safe.”


God, please help me to forgive myself for being human and imperfect and in need - it's so hard. Jesus said "love your neighbour as yourself" and we need to hear that in both directions. If you would extend kindness to your neighbour but refuse the same kindness to yourself, well, you're still not getting it, right? There are a lot of things I’d do for a neighbour that I feel silly doing for myself. When I get like that, please remind me that you expect me to treat all of your creation well ... myself included.

09 October 2011

Too much applesauce

I made a lot of applesauce this year.

Lots of it was from the free crabapples we were given, and more was from the cheap apples I found at the store.

I discovered this awesome recipe for Applesauce Pie, and decided to give it a try. It works! It’s great!

It’s also easy. Make a pie crust. In a bowl, mix one cup of sweetened applesauce (I need to add a bit of sugar at pie-making time to most of my canned sauce to make it sweet enough) with one cup of milk and two eggs. Add a dash of salt, some nutmeg and some cinnamon and then pour the mix into the pie shell. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes then at 350 until the centre is firm. I sprinkled cinnamon and sugar over the surface of the finished pie when it was done and served it with whipping cream (because it is Thanksgiving and so of course I had to buy whipping cream for the pies).

I have a lot of fruit sauces – crabapples plain, apples plain, apples and crabapples both with peaches, apples with plums, apples with cherries. I am pretty positive they’ll all work well in this recipe (perhaps with the spices modified), as pie or as tarts for school lunches and snacks for those of us who spend our days at home.

I think the chocolate apple mousse has real possibilities here, too. Mmm, decadent. And if I decided to chocolify one of my existing sauces before making the pie, I’d just need to add some cocoa when I sweeten the sauce before adding to the other ingredients. Hmmmm … I sense some lovely tarts in my future!

What to do with all that jam

I made a lot of jam this year. Jelly, too, and applesauce – both plain and with other fruits mixed in.

There are only so many pieces of toast, waffles, and sandwiches in one’s life … what to do with all this jam and sauce?

The Reluctant Farmer and I were camping last week, enjoying the last fishing trip of the year. Sitting around the campfire, we decided to pull out the Pie Iron and make some post-supper snacks: biscuit dough wrapped around some leftover pie filling (store-bought stuff, used to decorate a birthday cake awhile back) and the chocolate apple mousse made lovely delicious baked treats. I thought hmm … is there a way to do this in the oven?

Sure enough, there is.

Make biscuit dough the way you usually do (when camping, I cheated and used Bisquick, but at home I just toss a cup or so of flour into a bowl, add a splash each of baking soda, baking powder and salt, maybe some sugar, then cut in about a quarter cup of lard and add enough of the kefir that I keep fermenting in the fridge to make it into dough – of course any form of soured milk would work in place of the kefir, but hey, this is one of the reasons I keep the stuff). Roll out on a floured board and cut circles with a big cup – I used a beer mug, but a large drinking glass would work. One of those itty bitty juice cups like you find in a hotel room will be too small.

Place one dough circle on the silicone mat you’ve laid onto a cookie sheet, and in the centre of the dough place a dollop of jam, chocolate apple mousse, apple sauce, mixed fruit sauce, pie filling, or whatever sweet yummy fairly thick substance you have at hand. Cover with another dough circle and smush the edges together with a fork dipped in flour so that you have a sealed round dough pocket. You can sprinkle something interesting on the top (cinnamon and sugar if that’ll go with your filling, plain icing sugar, coloured sugar crystals) or just bake at 350 until the biscuit part looks golden and baked (probably around 15 minutes).

Voila – you have created round sweet lovely treats that can safely go into a school lunch (no peanut butter, easy to fit into a little Tupperware in the lunch bag) or be devoured by the nearest teenager for a snack (yep, The Boy loves these things).

And since I put up new shelves tonight and transferred jam from boxes to shelves … I think I will be making a lot of these. The boys who live here said that was no problem.

11 September 2011

More productivity in the kitchen

Today was spent in the kitchen again.

I had more apples, and planned to make them into sauce … until I spied a recipe for Chocolate Apple Mousse in the new Preserving book that my friend gave to me the other day.

Chocolate? Fruit? Canned? Together? Oh, yeah, we’re totally gonna try this out!

The process is easy and the result is fabulous.


Just make applesauce (I slice the apples – cores, peels and all – into a crock pot, then run them through the food mill once they have softened) with some lemon zest and lemon juice added to the cooking apples. Mill the resulting fruit finely into a canning pot in which you’ve combined cocoa, sugar, a pinch of salt and a dash of vanilla. Stir, cook over a low boil for 15 minutes, and can in jelly jars the usual way.

The book suggests using the sauce on gingerbread, in crepes, or as a sauce on other kinds of desserts. I put some in a milkshake tonight that turned out quite respectably, so I think this stuff has a lot of possibilities.

In fact, I liked it so much that when I pulled the peaches out of the fridge for processing (might as well deal with them while the canner is already hot), I made another batch … just with peaches instead of apples.

Easy, delicious, decadent, and made with seasonal ingredients. Well, sugar and cocoa aren’t really seasonal, but you get the idea.

I also grated up a bunch of the carrots I had picked up at the greenhouse and put those in the dehydrator. That will ensure that we always have carrots for winter soups and so on … I have a few in the garden still, but we didn’t get as many this year as I had hoped. Next year, they are going in early under the cold frame!

Supper was curried soup – more carrots, sliced and put into the crock pot with red lentils and yellow peas, a dash of the dried garden greens we use in just about everything (dehydrated carrot and beet tops run through the blender to make an all-purpose seasoning mix), some curry, cumin and garam masala. Let it simmer in the crock pot for a couple of hours while doing the last batch of chocolate sauce, then ran it through the food mill (which got quite a workout today) into a serving dish with a pinch of salt stirred in for flavour. Made a quick batch of sourdough biscuits with the kefir I always have going in the fridge, set out some pickles from last fall, and voila – dinner.

I am, once again, nearly out of canning jars – I have used up just about everything I have, even though I bought more as they’re on sale this time of year. I’ll keep an eye out for more produce on sale and possibly put up a few more jars of something, but we’re probably about done with canning for the year. Dehydrating will continue though – it’s more energy efficient and the resulting items don’t take as much storage space as jars of canned stuff, plus it’s a good way to preserve leftover bits and pieces. I’m pondering some meal plans that will let me use dehydrated veggies in the slow cooker or pot-on-the-woodstove – it’s always nice to know that you can make a whole meal out of just the things in the pantry.

Especially when you live at the end of a long gravel road that sometimes doesn’t get plowed for three days in the winter. :)

10 September 2011

The Fruits of our Labour

A friend of mine wanted to try making pickles: some dills and some bread and butter pickles, enough to have some to eat and some to give away. The plan was that she’d pick up the seasoning, vinegar and jars and I’d stop at the greenhouse on the way into town to pick up bags of cucumbers. As I was packing up my canning gear and going through the last minute requirements I remembered something … she has a flat top stove. You can’t use a regular water bath canner on one of those stoves – you can crack the glass. What to do?

We solved two problems at once by purchasing a single burner electric element: it sits on a table outside and not only did we have the kind of burner we needed, but we had the added bonus of all that excess warmth not heating up the kitchen! This was a good thing, as the temperatures here have been very, very warm (for us, I know that the Texans would think we were wimps for thinking that 28 degrees is really hot, but we’re just not adapted to temperatures like these).

Here’s a picture of the pickles we made – we ended up with about 2 and a half dozen jars of pickles as well as several jars of applesauce, some plain and some mixed fruit – apples, plums, apricots and peaches all blended together.


We made the applesauce the easy way: wash the apples and other fruit, slice everything into chunks and put it in the crock pots for a few hours. The crock pots don’t seem to heat the kitchen like stove top cooking does, and they work nicely in the background while you do other things. We sliced cucumbers and made brine while the apples cooked down, and by the time the fruit had turned to mush we were done with pickles and ready to start putting sauce into jars. The handy dandy food mill made quick work of pureeing the sauce and separating out skins and seeds (treats for the chickens), and a bath in the canner means the stuff is now shelf-stable. Yum.

DSCF7636While I was at the greenhouse getting cucumbers, I picked up a flat of lovely tomatoes to cook down into sauce. Those went through the slow cooker and the food mill just like the applesauce – the resulting tomato sauce is very watery as I didn’t bother cooking it down to thicken it. We use a lot of tomatoes in our winter cooking and the extra broth won’t be a problem in most of the dishes, so it’ll be fine the way it is. Fourteen dollars’ worth of tomatoes made 3.25 litres of canned crushed tomatoes – probably more expensive than store bought canned tomatoes but they were not transported a zillion miles and they weren’t harvested by ill-treated migrant workers, and that is worth a buck or two at least. Hopefully next year my own tomatoes will do better – I have a few tiny green ones out there in the garden, but not much hope of a harvest at this point in the year.

Today’s adventure was all about free fruit. Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton matches fruit growers who have fruit they aren’t going to use with volunteer fruit pickers who will harvest and share the produce (a lot of the picked fruit ends up at local charities as well, when that’s possible). I happened to be headed into town anyway, so when a last minute request for an extra picker to help harvest apples and crabapples popped up, I volunteered. When I arrived, the Fruit Captain was already there working on the crabapple tree – the apple trees had only a few apples, and everything was at the point of being almost too ripe. There was, however, a little plum tree in the corner so I tackled that job. The tree was surrounded by rough shale landscaping rocks which made my ladder a bit wobbly and they had a tendency to poke holes in the skins of fruit that hit the ground, but I’d noticed an ambulance parked outside a house up the street and figured that if I fell, at least help was nearby, and the fruit was gonna be used right away anyhow, so a few punctures to the plums wouldn’t be too bad.

I didn’t fall, the plums came off the tree easily, and a good three litres of very juicy plums were the result of my work. The Fruit Captain offered me some of the crabapples, but I’ve really had my fill of those for the year … so I took half of the plums and a few apples and was quite content. I did the rest of my errands and came home to fire up the canning gear.

The plums and apples from today’s pick went into a pot on the stove, as I already had the rest of the tomatoes simmering in the crock pot. A quick boil and the fruit was turned to a mush that went through the food mill andDSCF7635 back into the pan with plenty of sugar to boil for a little while longer. The resulting thick syrup was poured into jars and canned in the water bath – I could’ve made jam by adding some pectin, but I think it’ll be a lovely addition to muffins and baking just as it is, and we really do have a lot of jam already. I’m thinking a banana muffin recipe with a jar of sauce instead of the 2 mashed bananas (and a lot less sugar since the sauce is already sweetened). I’m also thinking about granola bars, cookies, and ice cream syrup. Yum.

DSCF7640I was able to use the canner outside, too … and boy oh boy I can’t believe I didn’t figure this out sooner. The little single burner element was on sale at Canadian Tire this week and I’d say it’s paid for itself in comfort already! If you’re tired of sweating over a hot stove, do consider one of these – or use your Coleman stove, or your gas barbecue if it has a side burner, or one of those propane turkey roaster things. I like using an electric burner, since at least some of my power comes from the sun thus it’s at least partially renewable energy – though heating elements use a lot of juice. If I had a woodstove outside like my friend down the road has, then maybe I’d use that for canning  … but in the meantime, this is a workable solution.

Canning is a very energy intensive way of preserving food and I don’t use it for many things – I’ve dehydrated some tomatoes this year as well, and plan to adapt my cooking over the winter to try and use those more often than the canned tomatoes, but it’s a learning curve I’m just beginning and I want to make the transition slowly so as not to starve anyone. I did pick up a bag of peaches today as they were on sale, and I’ll make more jam and syrup from those –  and that means more canning. But some of the peaches will probably go in the dehydrator for snacks and dried fruit bits to put in cookies and pies over the winter. I saw a bag of mixed peppers on sale today too so those are destined for the dehydrator in the next few days – I probably have almost enough peppers dried to see me through the winter now. Maybe not quite enough green … I use a lot of those.

The way I see it, each thing you can do for yourself is one way you can save spending money at the the store. Yeah, I didn’t grow the peaches or the plums or the apples or the peppers … but I can buy them now while they are in season and cheap (or get some of it for free just by volunteering to do the work of picking the fruit), and process the seasonal foods to preserve that goodness for the cold days of winter when the local greenhouses aren’t growing peppers or peaches, when I have to pay for them to be shipped halfway across the world if I want them out of season.

What I’m doing here isn’t self-sufficiency by any stretch of the imagination .. but it is at least a step closer towards local eating, and I’m happy to be doing that.

30 August 2011


The season is beginning to turn towards fall: the evenings are cooler, the hay is being baled in the fields, and the geese occasionally appear overhead, contemplating the journey south.

The garden didn’t do as well as I had hoped, but the efforts to eliminate the quackgrass have been more successful than I dared to believe. Oh, there’s still lots of the stuff around the edges, but the central planted garden beds are reasonably weed-free.  I now know why people like to plant in rows instead of the intensive square foot method: when you have a large garden and a lot of weeds to deal with, the rows mean you can just walk through the garden, hoe in hand, and scritch up anything that is growing where you didn’t plant anything. Of course, this works better if the dog doesn’t get into the garden and dig a cool spot in the dirt before your seeds get started – thanks to Mackenzie, I have a few plants growing in odd places as the seeds got tossed several feet to one side when he dug up his napping place in the spring. Still, my long-handled half-moon hoe has seen good use since the initial clearing with my mattock. I think next year, I’ll try the same approach: dig up the stubborn roots with the mattock, rake everything smooth, plant in rows, keep the space between the rows cleared with the hoe, and slice out anything too close to the plants with the hori-hori knife.

Next year, I’ll also be planting earlier. In fact, I hope to experiment with some fall seeding under cover: if I clear out some space in one of the beds this fall and put the row cover in place, I should be able to put out some cold-hardly seeds after the winter chill sets in. When spring comes, they’ll ‘sprout when ready’. I had some plants that survived the winter with no cover or anything – some feverfew, onions, and a few other herbs, so if they made it on their own, they might do well with a bit of help.

I’ll also get a bed ready for early spring planting: if Kevin Kossowan can do this in his city back yard, I think it’s worth a try out here too!

In the meantime, I’ll keep checking the corn (we have a few cobs growing out there), the squash (I see some spaghetti squash and what I think are pumpkins … I didn’t mark which thing I planted where and all the squash plants look alike to me), and the tomatoes (there’s a few tiny little tomatoes on the vines, I have no idea if anything will get big enough to use before the frosts come but we can hope).

In fact, I should probably go out there now, wander the rows with the hoe in my hand, and see what I can see.

08 August 2011

Crabapple Jelly

Every so often, I search through the Kijiji ‘free stuff’ ads, just to see what’s out there. After all, you never know when someone might be giving away something you really need, or be looking for something you want to get rid of.
Last week, I saw a post from a city dweller who had a crabapple tree that was full of ripe fruit they were not going to be able to use. If we’d come pick them, we could take all we wanted! Well, free fruit sounded good to me, and the house was located not too far into the city making it a reasonable distance to drive. The Boy and I packed up some containers, a stepladder and our water bottle and headed into town.
The tree was indeed laden with apples, branches sagging towards the ground under the weight of fruit. Fortunately the tree had a lovely climbable shape, so The Boy headed up into the branches and picked from up there while I climbed the stepladder and took what I could reach from below. In the end, we had approximately three laundry baskets full of crabapples – and there were still plenty of apples left on the tree.
photo 2
I’ve spent the last four days preserving this generous gift: I scavenged the house (and my mother’s basement) for jars then purchased four dozen more, plus three 10 kg bags of sugar and several boxes of pectin. Supplies at the ready, and with my mother’s generous assistance, we made over fifty jars of jelly, applesauce, and canned juice. The juice that remained when we ran out of jars is now fermenting in the crock pot (who knows, it might make a decent fruit wine, and it’s worth a try).
It was a lot of work, but it’s the kind of work that paces itself quite nicely, so you can easily sit down and rest in between stages if you need to. I kept the computer on the kitchen table and looked up recipes, checked email, and played Scrabble with The Reluctant Farmer (who is working out of town for two weeks) as I worked. The jelly making process itself isn’t complicated, and the various tasks seem to naturally flow together, making an assembly line that can be run by one person, but goes faster with two.
Here’s what it looks like: put your canning jars in the dishwasher for sterilization. While it’s running, wash and load some apples into the big stock pot and set it to simmer. While that’s simmering, take the juice from the previous jelly bag extraction and start a batch of jelly (measure and heat the juice with pectin, lemon juice and sugar, then bring it to a fast boil). When the jelly is done and poured into jars, still steaming from the dishwasher, you can remove the stock pot from the stove and let it sit on the floor while you get the jars into the canner. While the canner boils, empty the crock pot of juice, then mash the fruit in the stock pot and pour it into the jelly bag to get more juice (I normally use my Lee Valley jelly bag setup, but for quantities this huge, I took one of The Reluctant Farmer’s t-shirts, sewed the hem shut, and put a stick through the armholes to hang it from two chair backs so it could drain into the pickle crock). Wash some more apples and reload the stock pot, then start the next batch of jelly. You can probably make two or three batches of jelly from one stock pot’s worth of juice, so take your turn in Scrabble while the canner boils. When the juice has all dripped out of the fruit pulp, dump the contents of the t-shirt juice bag into a bucket and take it out to the chickens.
Repeat as needed until crabapples are gone. :)
We now have over fifty jars of preserves: some large Gem jars of canned juice (which can be used to stretch other fruits into larger batches of jam or jelly, or used in a punch); some apple sauce (crabapples make sauce the same way regular apples do, and I found a recipe for applesauce pie that I want to try); several jars of syrup (The Boy and I both like oatmeal for breakfast, and a dollop of fruit syrup mixed in makes it perfect); and, of course, an awful lot of jelly. We have plain crabapple jelly, as you’d expect, ideal for glazing pork or fruit flans, mixing into porridge or baking, or eating on toast. We also added chopped apricots or peaches to several batches of jelly, which produces a really interesting result: the fruit more or less disintegrates during the cooking and the fine pulp distributes itself throughout the jelly, adding both flavour and texture.
Of course, it would take us years to eat through this much jelly and sauce and syrup ourselves … but it’ll keep for years if need be, as it’s all been processed with full sugar and a hot water bath. Besides, it makes a wonderful gift - just about everyone enjoys a jar of home made jelly. I’m also hoping to make some trades: if you’ve got too much of whatever fruits or pickles or jams you put up this year and want to swap for crabapple, let me know, then we can both have variety in our pantries!

18 July 2011

My garden is a sermon

As I work in the garden, I am repeatedly struck by the thought that there is a sermon somewhere in the dirt and weeds and vegetables.

17 Do not let your heart envy sinners,
   but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.
18 There is surely a future hope for you,
   and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs 23

Do not let your heart envy sinners – in the garden, I suppose the sinners are the ones with picture-perfect, weed-free gardens bought at the price of industrial agriculture’s cancer-causing chemicals. In truth, I don’t envy those gardeners – they have sold their souls (and our children’s future) for pretty gardens. A few weeds or bugs aren’t the end of the world, and really, we’d all be better off if we spent some time on our knees in the garden, separating the weeds from the vegetables. Yeah, I'll admit that I’d love a garden like the ones at the English castles but really … I’m fortunate to have so much land, and the time to work it. Even if it’s never as pretty as Prince Charlie’s lovely gardens, I’ll still enjoy the potatoes and carrots.

There is surely a future hope for you – yep, gardeners always hope. Next year, we say, next year, the quack grass will be under control, I’ll get the seedlings in a bit earlier under cover, more of the tomato plants will survive. And really, each year has been a little better than the last. Learning to garden in each place takes time and practice – no two garden plots are the same. What worked in my city backyard doesn’t work in my country garden, and it’s taking me awhile to learn what will work out here. That’s okay – I am learning it, and that’s the important thing. Next year will be better. :)

It’s true that my garden isn’t any kind of prize winning space – although, all things considered, it really has come a long way. When I started this spring, the entire plot was filled with runaway quack grass, and now, at the midpoint of our growing season, there are some potatoes, several carrots, a few rows of beets, a few tomato plants and one pepper plant that looks like it might actually make it. There’s a sunflower coming up along the edge, and two morning glories … the grape vines survived the winter and being munched by sheep … the compact cranberry bushes that I thought dead have new leaves and are grateful for the breathing room my regular weeding has provided. Some of the pea plants came up. There are six or eight corn plants growing. The lettuce is nearly big enough to eat, and there are four squash plants of some kind or other (I can’t remember what I planted) that have big leaves, even if there are no blossoms yet. There is hope of a harvest, even if it is smaller than I had dreamed.

The garden is full of lessons. like the lesson of the mulch and the quack grass, which is one I am given to contemplate almost every time I’m out there.

Digging up quack grass roots, I have discovered that the areas where I tried to mulch the stuff into submission with straw and newspaper developed the thickest mats of roots. You can’t cover this stuff up and expect it to go away – the grass just winds it’s way through the mulch, forming new roots as it goes, creating an even more solid mass of weeds that’s twice as much work to remove. In the areas where the stuff was dug out at the beginning and the new shoots were pulled more or less as they appeared, the soil is nearly clear of runners and roots, and keeping it weeded is a much simpler matter. Where it was left to hide under layers of straw, it takes some serious muscle to haul up the tangled mess of roots and nodules, and a day or two of inattention is all it takes for green shoots to reappear in those places.

This lesson, of course, strikes home. A bunch of really unpleasant stuff happened to me, back in my Other Life. I never tried to pretend it hadn’t occurred … I always admitted that these events had happened, that it had hurt, and that it was really a rough time. But once I admitted it, I did only the bare minimum to deal with it: I mulched my troubles, hoping that under the weight of day to day life and the passage of time, the roots of the pain would die out and I’d be left with a clean inner landscape.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. You need to dig it all out at the start - look at those ugly white roots, shake the dirt off of them and toss them out of your garden so they don’t take root again. If you mulch your troubles, when the green shoots of those old troubles finally poke through, you discover that you have no choice: you have to dig up the whole thing, including the additional mess of roots and tangles that grew while it was all under cover and you weren’t paying attention. It’s way more work than if you’d just taken care of it at the start, but you know, we all do the best we can, and sometimes, a season or two of mulch is the best response we can muster at the time. The mulch didn’t help the actual problem – in fact, the problem got bigger while it was buried – but in the meantime, the garden wasn’t entirely unproductive. Yes, there were a few more weeds in the vegetables than if I’d taken the time to get it all cleared out at the start, but honestly, I didn’t have the time or resources to get it all cleared and a few weeds were the price I had to pay for just getting on with growing things.

By mulching my troubles I was able to get on with life for a few years. In the end, of course, it caught up with me, and I am sad to look back on my life and see how these buried troubles poked their heads up and caused me to behave badly without actually realizing what was going on. At the same time, I know that I did what I had to do to get from one day to the next, and I know that as soon as I realized the extent of the problem, I stopped mulching and started weeding in earnest. Now I’m digging up all the old roots of hurt and pain and fear and anger, knocking the dirt off, and tossing them out of the garden. I’ll always have to watch for those little green shoots, but if I can take the time now to really get things cleared out, then I’ll have a better harvest next year, and the year after that.

There’s always hope.

30 June 2011

Fibre Week 2011

I am fortunate to live within reasonably easy driving distance of Olds, Alberta and to have a supportive family who cheerfully send me off to spend several days each summer at Fibre Week. There, I can be surrounded by beautiful fibre, meet interesting people who share my love of wool and wheels, visit friends I don’t see often enough, and attend classes that expand my knowledge and improve my skills.

This year, the first class I took was titled “Coils With a Twist: Beehives and Seashells”, by Caroline Sommerfeld. We made funky art yarn in bright colours: randomly spaced bumps shaped like beehives or seashells, depending on your technique (and your perception), strung between lengths of thinner yarn. Caroline is a fabulous teacher – happy to share her knowledge with the students, encouraging of all your efforts (“it’s art yarn! you can’t DO it wrong!”), and cheerfully dismissive of ‘conventional wisdom’ when it doesn’t apply. The dyed rovings have colour repeats that are too close together? Well, okay, so they won’t work well if you spin them up for a knitted item … but they are perfect for seashells and beehives, where short colour repeats give you really interesting effects. The yarn isn’t perfectly even? Well, go look at your local yarn store and find the most expensive wool yarn in there … chances are that it’s been made with a really funky construction technique involving uneven singles put together to produce textured yarn. See? You made the expensive stuff! Cool.

By paying attention to the things that matter (the finished yarn needs to hang together and not fall apart, and the little bumpy bits need to be tight enough that they don’t pill and fuzz) while otherwise throwing caution to the wind, we were able to create sturdy, mostly-balanced (or completely balanced, depending on a few variables) colourful, fascinating yarn.

I knit mine up into a headband.

The next two days were spent in a class titled “Designing Your Own Yarn”, by Dora Mushka. Dora is an Olds-certified Master Spinner who created this class to help those spinners not pursuing the master spinner levels (or not pursuing them at the moment) to build on the skills they have and learn to create different styles of yarn. Our class was provided with the most amazing array of colourful fibres and we experimented for two whole days, discovering what happens if you spin different colours together without blending them on carders first, then what happens if you do card them; played with dyed and blended batts and rovings and discovered the different results you can get when you spin them in different ways; used thick and thin yarns to create texture; and (my favourite of all), added bits of ‘yarn shrapnel’ to our fibre and made “garneted yarn” and “wild yarn”. Our garneted yarn started as a lovely soft grey batt, over which we sprinkled handfuls of cut up yarn bits of various colours, carded it all, then spun and plied the usual way. The resulting yarn was a lovely grey with specks of colour throughout – an effect that varies from subtle to stunningly bright, depending how generous you were when adding yarn bits! We also used shredded sari silk (plus more bits of coloured yarn) to make “totally overboard and bright” yarn, which was a lot of fun. By the end of the second day, our classroom looked like a bunch of kindergarten students had thrown a party in there – bits of coloured wool were all over the floor and skeins of bright and beautiful yarn were draped over every table.

The best part of the class was the fun and excitement of experimentation. As I so rarely work with coloured fibre I found the experience especially thrilling … my instructor and my classmates were generously tolerant of my frequent outbursts of “ooooh! it turns green!” or “whoa, coooooooooool … ” I am definitely going to be dyeing more batts and rovings, just because the process of spinning from multicoloured fibre is so much fun. I mean, yes, spinning is always fun, but when you get to watch the transformation of “lump of weirdly coloured stuff” into “beautifully patterned yarn that I couldn’t possibly have predicted based on the look of the batt” … well, that’s just too much fun to pass up.

Really organized students take index cards and attach little samples of each thing they made with a label explaining how it was done. I’m  never going to be that organized, and I’d probably lose the cards before I got home anyway. What I did was knit up a sampler scarf out of all the neat stuff we made in class – the completed one in the picture is the “What I learned in Design Your Yarns class” scarf, and the one on the needles is the coils & beehives headband pictured previously. From the yarn itself I can tell which technique I used, and our instructor kindly provided a handout with explanations of how, precisely, to do each thing we tried, so I can reference that if I end up being vague on the details later on.

Here’s another yarn photo – all of this is stuff I made in class:

Left to right we’ve got some beautiful stuff made from a blended batt that included silk (so very soft), the garneted yarn (subtle rather than wild), a cabled yarn (two 2-ply yarns plied together – it ends up looking like lucet cord, and is very strong), and some more seashell-and-beehive yarn.

Of course, just being here at Fibre Week you see all sorts of neat things. The level 4 instructor makes spinning wheels and assorted spinning tools as well as teaching – and he made this spinning chair. Enlarge the picture so you can see the carving in it … it’s stunning.

Coming here is a wonderful experience, and I am truly grateful that my family makes this possible for me every year. I’ve improved my skills and been able to visit with friends (I stay with my good friend Flannelberry who lives too far to visit easily, and we really enjoy having this week to hang out!).

I also discovered that I have an inner magpie longing for expression through colour and sparkle.

Who knew?

It’s been a blast, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. If you are a fibre artist and there’s an event like this near you, do yourself a favour and go for a visit. I was really  nervous the first time I came here – what if everyone else is really amazing and talented and I’m this useless rookie who can’t keep up? what if I get lost? what if my wheel isn’t the right kind? What I discovered was that everyone is here to learn – even the experts – and everyone is willing to share their ideas. I am glad I took the risk that first year, I’ve learned so much and met so many great people. Try it, you’ll be glad you did!

22 June 2011

Still here

I’m still here – and thank you so very much to those who pinged me to ask if I was all right and to check on me after so long without a blog post. You make me feel so special, truly, you do. Thanks. :)

This whole recovery thing is very challenging: I still have chest pain, though nowhere near as bad as it was to start, and I either have a lot of energy (but don’t know what to do with it) or I’m suddenly very worn out. It’s an odd place to be for someone who has spent most of her life being very driven, always going from one thing to the next, refusing to take a break until “all the work was done”. Clearly that wasn’t a healthy way to live and now I’m going to have to figure out what a reasonable pace looks like. So far, I’m still floundering, but I’m floundering more slowly, so maybe that counts as progress.

Regardless, the world continues it’s circuit around the sun with no attention paid to the status of my mental health. The pasture grass is growing: we had a lot of hay this past year, so we were able to keep the sheep off the pastures a little longer in the spring and let the grass get a good head start (which, after two years of drought, was needed). They’re now out there happily mowing the knee-high grass, and identifying all the weak spots in the fences that we haven’t yet patched.

The garden is off to a slow start – the battle against the quackgrass continues, and I’m making headway but it takes a lot of persistent tilling and weeding. I did get the tomatoes transplanted outside and they lived comfortably under the hooped row cover The Boy made for a week – a week of steady rain. At least they didn’t bake to death in the heat, there wasn’t any heat. The peppers are still inside, but we have a few sunny days forecast, so they will go out shortly. Maybe tomorrow.

The corn is poking it’s head up, but the beans are still sulking underground. The cranberry bushes that I uncovered when removing the last traces of quack grass from that corner of the garden seem to be doing quite well – maybe if I can keep them clear, they’ll actually give us berries in a few years! The grape vines have new leaves as well, as do the raspberries, and that’s all very encouraging.

My big focus the last few weeks has been getting ready to go to Olds for Fibre Week: I’ll be taking classes Sunday through Tuesday, but staying the entire week. I figure I’ll probably pace myself better if I stay for the entire time rather than try to fit all the fun into a few packed days, and since I travel in the motorhome, I have a comfortable, peaceful place to rest. Last year I had one day between my classes and I spent the day working on a new sock pattern: it was like a self-directed workshop and I really enjoyed it. I may do that kind of thing again … I’ll certainly be taking a lot of raw materials with me, just in case I am overcome with the need to start another project.

In the meantime, I have been knitting a lot: I finished a large lace shawl (the Midnight Stole), which was made in black bamboo/silk for a friend’s wedding. I did the whole thing in seven weeks, which felt like a lot of time when I cast on, but the pattern was much more complicated than I anticipated and as a result I was much slower at knitting than I usually am. Still, I made the deadline and the shawl will be at the wedding this weekend. Yay! The recipient is very special to me, and I am honoured to have been able to make something that suits her so very well for such a wonderful occasion. I’ve got a few other projects on the go as well (don’t I always?) and I’ve been spinning up the fleeces that have been hanging in my fibre room for much, much too long. I needed to give my wheels a test run before Fibre Week, which was the initial incentive to spin, but I’m finding it really enjoyable just now, so I think I’ll be doing more of it. I am dyeing the resulting yarns as I spin, so I just keep the crock pot going and add a skein when I’m done, trying different things to see what I can do for colour variations and so on. I discovered a fun trick the other day: skein up the yarn, then twist it into a long snake (like you would if you were going to store it) and tie it in an overhand knot after it’s twisted. Put it in the dyepot just like that: no tangles, for one thing, and you get really neat tie-dye effects on the finished yarn! I’m thinking this could be a fun trick for overdyeing: do it once with a light colour, reskein it, and do it again with a darker colour. That could be interesting!

So, stay tuned for more wooly updates – the next week or so is likely to be heavy on spinning content!

19 May 2011

Tea on a hot day

It’s been getting quite warm in the daytime – though at night it still drops to freezing – and so I’ve been making sun-tea.

I tried to grow a few things for tea last year but most didn’t take, so I put two decaf tea bags from the store into a glass milk bottle along with a few pinches of dried chocolate mint, which did grow nicely in the garden last summer and which I dehydrated in the fall. Placed in a sunny window or outside on the deck during the day, the water heats and the flavours blend … strain it and put it in the fridge and voila, you have a lovely refreshing beverage for the next warm afternoon.


14 May 2011

Quack grass is not a weed…

… it is a force of nature, in the same category as rivers and wind. It will grow through anything – clay, soil, landscape fabric, your carrots and potatoes. I’m convinced the stuff would grow through concrete given half a chance.

This year is the year that I finally take on the quack grass in the garden. You see, up until last summer, I thought I was dealing with some form of “sod” out there – you know, just grass of one kind or another (or more likely, several kinds mixed together – this is old pasture land after all). The conventional wisdom when gardening over sod is “dig it up, turn it over, put more dirt on top, mulch around it, and it’ll just compost down into the soil and you’ll have a lovely garden in no time!”

This does not apply when the grass in question is quack grass.

Quack grass forms long (and I mean long, we’re talking metres long) roots with nodules on them that run along under the soil and pop up new shoots every so often. You know you are dealing with quack grass when, upon pulling out a sheaf of the stuff, you also get a handful of dirt trailing stringy, tough, long white roots that are a good two millimetres around with periodic little bumps on them. If you see that … give up any ideas you may have had about mulching, turning sod, raised beds, and landscape fabric. You need a whole different strategy.

First of all: you have to clear the space. All of it. You can’t have grass walkways between your beds – that just gives the quack grass a source of nutrition for the roots that will reach from the walkway into your garden bed and crowd out your vegetables. You need to clear the entire garden area and at least a 1 metre border all around – two is better. If you can do this in late fall, that’s great, early spring works too. Start by tilling it all up: rake out any big chunks of roots and nodules and toss them outside the garden, then let the turned earth and roots dry out in the sun and wind for a week or two … then do it again. The idea is to kill off the new plants as they get settled in, cutting them off from their source of energy before they get a chance to feed the roots and start again. Eventually, you’ll have brown dirt with just a few quack grass plants popping up every so often. Pull them out when you see them, or slice them off with a hoe – the objective is to starve the root system by removing any green leaves as soon as they appear. This will be your ongoing job … if you let it take hold, before you know it the entire garden will be overrun and you’ll be back at it again.

Don’t despair if you get a little behind though … I noticed that the areas that had never truly been cleared were far worse to dig out than the areas that were clear last summer, but had gotten over grown by fall. Stay ahead of it as much as you can, knowing that the longer you keep the entire area clear, the more likely you are to truly eradicate the stuff completely.

I’ve given up on raised beds in my garden and am going with raised rows instead: when the weeds come up along the edges of the raised beds, you can’t easily attack them with your weeding tool as the wood of the raised bed gets in the way, so the weeds take root and then you’ve lost that part of the battle. With raised rows, the edges of the rows just gradually fall into the paths between the beds – you can dig weeds out of the paths as well as the beds with the same ease, and walking on the paths compacts them and defines them in contrast to the raised piles of soil that form the beds themselves.

My research tells me that the most important thing with quack grass is to keep that clear perimeter: if you can keep one metre around your garden clear of the stuff, then it won’t poke up between your garden plants, and you can harvest carrots that don’t have stringy quack grass nodules growing through them like some kind of alien tentacle. I’m going to try growing potatoes in the perimeter: since you have to hill up the ground over the potatoes during the growing season, you’re weeding as you do that anyway – and apparently they can outcompete quack grass to some extent anyway. I’m sure I’ll have a few tubers with weird tentacles grown through them, but I can live with that.

So far, I’ve completed most of the tilling: about 800 of the 900 square feet of my garden has been cleared and is presently drying out in the sun and wind. Landscape fabric was the worst mistake I made: it didn’t work, as the roots of the quack grass had just grown right through it, and removing it was hard work as the soil on top was so heavy that lifting the fabric just caused it to tear and hacking through it with the mattock just resulted in tangles of fabric and roots. Ugh. I won’t make that mistake again. When there’s quack grass near your garden, you want a free hand to get down into the dirt and pull the stuff out – landscape fabric and raised bed borders just get in the way.

It does feel good to see so much clear brown dirt out there. With my new arched row covers that The Boy made me for Christmas, I can probably even plant a few cold tolerant things this week!

Once I get the garden cleared and re-fenced, I’m seriously considering housing some geese in a moat around the outer edge. They eat grass shoots, I hear…

11 May 2011

Aubertin, the tiny spinning wheel

Through the amazing Ravelry network, I am now honoured to be the caretaker/owner of Aubertin, a very small little wheel from France.

Here’s Aubertin at the start of his journey, in a backyard in France:

There is a LOT of shellac on this wheel. It took a lot of scrubbing with methyl hydrate to uncover the wood beneath – which is beautiful – and in the end, I gave up and left quite a bit of the shellac still there, as I was tired of scrubbing.

There were quite a few small repairs needed, which I knew when I got the wheel – the lady in France who found the wheel and shipped it here had my tiny budget in mind as she searched, and we both knew that with the bargain basement budget I had, repairs were going to be part of the project. That’s not a problem for me, I think they are part of the fun!

The mother of all was nailed in place, for starters, which would make tension adjustment impossible… and the nails were embedded right into the wood. Fortunately I was able to slip a hacksaw blade in the gap between the supports and the mother of all and cut it free, which was interesting. There were quite a few cracks and one large break that had to be glued and clamped to stabilize things, and another large break that needed wired together for better bracing and support. All that was fairly straightforward, though, and with a generous coat of tung oil after hours and hours of scrubbing off ancient shellac, the wheel is beautiful.

The little cup is for water – not for drinking, but for dipping your fingers in. This wheel would’ve been used to spin flax, and you need to wet your fingers periodically when spinning flax to smooth it down, so flax wheels often have a cup or a little dish to hold water. The tiny white nubbins on the wheel and decorating the ends of various sticky-outy-bits appear to be ivory – I’ll have to look closer, but when one of them popped out today,  the underside looked a whole lot like a tooth that’s fallen out, so I am leaning towards ivory rather than bone or antler, though any of those materials would be common.

And, despite the very rusty and wobbly flyer hooks, I was able to spin too! Super exciting. It treadles way more easily than I would have expected, and although it is a fragile little thing, it definitely was built to work. It’s not as odd as you might think having the orifice down so low – the angle of entry of fibre into the orifice of the wheel doesn’t really make much difference for most spinning (big bulky art yarns might be an exception), though modern wheels almost always have the orifice up near the level of your hands.

I used a blue drive band because blue seemed like a good French colour – I imagined an artistic gentleman walking to the cafĂ© on the corner for his morning croissant and lattĂ©, wearing a blue beret. You can see the  stamp of the maker’s name on the back bar – it says Aubertin, which is where the wheel gets it’s name. I have no idea who Aubertin was, or how old this wheel might be … I’ll see if I can find anything out. (Oh yeah, ignore my toes in that picture too … I didn’t notice they were in there until after I posted the image!)

The wheel is really, really, really tiny – tinier than you’d expect even from the pictures. Here is a group shot, just for perspective:

Before you ask, no, not all of those wheels are mine … although more of them are than I would’ve thought  possible a year ago. The great wheel is Grandma Shirley, then there’s Jacqueline the CPW sitting between another CPW and an upright castle wheel that are both being delivered to their new owners in a month or so, the little LIthuanian wheel, which lives here, and the Czech Republic wheel that is looking for a new home. That’s a lot of wheels, eh? Wow.

My next adventure will be to complete the refinishing of Grandma Shirley the great wheel: the verathane is mostly off but I need to sand it clean then finish with a coat of tung oil. I now have a minor’s head (no, it has nothing to do with the cranium of a very young kid nor one who digs coal for a living) and am anxious to learn the great wheel spinning dance.

07 May 2011

Another graduate of the Home for Wayward Wheels, ready to go out into the world!

One of the Czech Republic/Sudetenland (1930's era or thereabouts) lateral treadle wheels is now ready to go to a new home!

The wheel originally looked like this, when I rescued her from a garage attic:

This wheel is bobbin-lead, flyer-brake, and you sit at it side-on. You can treadle with either foot, left or right, though treadling with the right tends to keep your body offset nicely so that the yarn heads into the orifice cleanly. It's really nice to be able to see the yarn winding onto the bobbin as you spin, and the angle of entry to the orifice doesn't seem to do anything strange to the yarn.

An interesting feature of this wheel is the original sliding hook flyer. It required a bit of fiddling to figure out the best way to thread it - the way I have it pictured here seems to work well. Even cooler, Kromski bobbins fit on this wheel, meaning you don't have a one-bobbin problem! (although it only comes with one for starters, you can easily acquire more). The bobbins do need buffering to prevent chatter: I've included removeable plastic sleeves for the flyer rod that work quite nicely, and since they are removeable, you can switch the flyer end for end if you want to use the smaller whorl. If you intend to do that often, one of the stretchy drive bands would probably be a good idea - currently, the wheel has a wrapped cotton band in place.

Here's the wheel as a whole:

There's a 'sweet spot' for your foot: heel in the little circle, and treadle just on the down stroke. The wheel itself has awesome momentum, so do watch out for continued spin when you stop. I would suggest this wheel is ideal for spinning low twist yarns, or for someone who drafts fairly slowly and wants time to see what they are doing. Then again, I use a CPW most of the time, so my sense of 'normal drafting speed' is a little bit warped. :) Despite the weight, I think it'd be an excellent wheel for taking places because it's so sturdy - you wouldn't worry at all about it being damaged, and the flyer comes off easily so you could pop that in your spinning bag, haul the wheel to where you're going, and then sit down and spin. Okay, you aren't likely to want to take it on a plane or lug it too far across a parking lot, but for your average spin-in-public thing, it'd be very cool. Especially 'cause it's so unusual!

There are worm holes, but no worms (one advantage of being stored in a garage attic through several cold winters!). The verathane has been removed (ugh), and there are traces of green paint/preservative that refused to come off - I believe it is stuff that was used to prevent the worms from doing more damage. Several coats of Danish oil have been used to bring the wood back to life - the last coats were Watco Dark Walnut, but for future maintenance, plain tung oil or whatever wood oil (Woodbeams, Howards Feed ‘n’ Wax) that you normally use would be healthy. Of course if you have Watco in the house, a coat every so often will bring out the shine, but it's not necessary.

Asking $325 for this wheel: pickup anywhere in the Edmonton(ish) area is easy, as is delivery to Olds Fibre Week, or Calgary. I'll be happy to pack and ship - this wheel's quite sturdy, and I think it would probably survive a trip on the Greyhound/Canda Post without incident (well packaged, of course). If you want to estimate shipping, go to CanadaPost.ca and use a weight of say, 20 lbs, and dimensions of 22x18x36 - to southern Ontario, for instance (I happen to remember my Grandma's old postal code!), the postage is about $80. The wheel itself weighs about 15 lbs, and is approximately 20x16x34", so round up for packing materials etc.

Happy to answer any questions, as always!