Self-stitched September: Day 23

Today I finally wore this grey wool skirt, which is refashioned. Now, clearly instead of blogging about what I wear I should be searching ‘photography’ in the library catalogue, because I can only achieve two main looks in my picture taking lately. Super dark, or super light. In this case I think the super light photos actually do more justice to the clothes, although they obliterate part of me.

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Let me tell you the story of this. A while ago, I was strategizing about the Perfect Winter Grey Skirt.

In this case, I was daydreaming about a cozy skirt with an elastic waist. Yup – elastic, just wondering if it would be possible to do without looking frumpy. I was inspired by a dress I have which, although it has a rather fancy fine herringbone texture, is actually a heavy knit fabric, meaning it looks smart but is so very comfortable. But knits of that type are often polyester, which isn’t my favourite. I began wondering about the possibilities of wool. But, in the end, not having worked with it enough, I was unsure about trying to order any fabric online and unsure if I could even find what I was imagining.

Then, one day, I was snooping around our local charity shop. I spied a skirt that looked like wool, and checked the label to see that it was. Moreover it was from Hobbs. (Pause to drool.) It was too big for me, and it had an asymmetrical water-fall drape down the front, but the shape and fabric were really beautiful. I believe it’s boiled wool, which is originally a knitted fabric which is then felted in hot water, making the fibres bond together so the resulting fabric is thick and felted, but with some residual give from the original knitted structure.

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I decided to chance it, paid a few pounds for it, and took it home to alter. I did three main alterations:

  • Cut off the top, which was elasticated, and then skinnied up the side seams to make it fit my waist.
  • Re-attached the cut-off top as a waistband.
  • Pulled out the front seam, where the drapery bit was attached, cut off the drape, and re-sewed the seam as a plain seam.

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Above you can see the seam down the front where the drape used to be. It’s not centred – the triangle yoke at the top is asymmetrical and the seam goes straight down from there.

There is no zipper or anything – it’s so stretchy it just pulls on. Which of course means it is also stretchy enough to accommodate some enchiladas and nachos for dinner, or some lazy slumping on the sofa. Success!

This is probably an inverse example of something I mentioned before – a smart style in casual fabric. Here, I would say that boiled wool was a smart fabric, but in the form of a comfy elastic-waisted skirt it’s essentially a casual style, though it might not look it from a distance.

Finally, I want to say a word on behalf of wool. I think it gets a bad rap – I certainly used to think of it as 1) scratchy and 2) dry clean only and hence a hassle. But the scratchiness is really a factor of the quality and type of wool – at least have an open mind. And most wool clothes don’t need to be worn next to your skin anyway. Additionally, as for the dry-clean factor, I never bother. In my experience a gentle hand wash in lukewarm water, with a drop of dish detergent, and some gentle rolling up in a towel, works fine. I never launder wool every time I wear it – maybe once a year, or twice if it’s a sweater. Obviously I don’t have small children getting me dirty every day, but for my life right now, I have no problem with the occasional hand washing. Finally, wool is naturally fire-retardant and slightly water-resistant (it keeps sheep dry, after all), and dries quite fast.

Self-stitched September: Days 12 and 13

Woah! Did I not post since last Monday?

Well, here we have the first two days of this week. It was a little cooler and I eagerly pulled out two new knitted items.

Monday I got away with wearing my new cardigan – knitted by me!

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It’s actually the third time around for this yarn. You might feel it’s vaguely familiar from having seen it in this version, which already was its second time around. I did wear that previous cardigan a few times in the spring, but felt that the sleeves particularly didn’t fit very well, which was partly the pattern and partly that the yarn is very heavy and hence hangs heavily, accentuating baggy sleeves. At the time, I was mainly trying to convince myself that I could knit something wearable, and I wasn’t confident enough to alter a pattern.

This time, I decided to re-knit the yarn into another cardigan, but this one I designed myself. And it has its flaws, but I do love certain things about it, and I figured re-using old yarn was a good way to practice with designing for the first time.

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Continuing the knitwear theme, here is Tuesday’s outfit.

IMG_2169It’s my scarf! It wasn’t particularly cold that day, more just cool enough to get away with wearing it. And I may now say that this is a prize-winning scarf. Over the weekend we were at the Town Show, which for my American readers is something like a small-scale county fair. I decided to enter this scarf in the knitting category of the ‘domestic’ competition, and it won third place! There was even a cash prize. It was £1. Still makes me laugh. It’s not about the money, you know, but rather the immense renown.

Self-stitched September: Day 8

Hello again! I took a break over the weekend and wore store-bought clothes (remember, my challenge was for 5 days a week). But I’m back on the wagon with a self-stitched dress.

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This is made from navy jersey knit, a fabric kindly given to me by a sewing friend at church who was clearing out for a move. I got the idea for this when Colette Patterns released a dress pattern called Moneta, which is very similar to this dress. At the time I was also thinking about working up a good basic tee pattern, and so thought this dress would be a good outlet for trying out that idea, since the top part is basically a modified tee shirt.

There’s something a little nostalgic about this design, too. When my sister and I were little, we had what we called ‘play dresses’, which my mom had made. The top part was one of our old tee shirts, cut off, with the skirt made from the midsection of one of my dad’s old tee shirts. Because they were made from cast-offs, it didn’t matter if they got messed up from playing.

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Naturally, because this dress is really a glorified tee shirt, it’s very comfortable. It passes the ‘would you travel in it?’ test – not of course if you would categorically never wear a dress to travel, but if you would, still not every dress is up to it. I think this one also dresses up quite nicely with a belt and scarf or cardigan.

Because I made this from free fabric, I was constrained by yardage and thus didn’t quite get the skirt shape I would have wanted. Were I to do it again I would adjust that. The inside waist seam is also rather poorly sewn…but I’m happy enough for now.

Taking photos today was quite a challenge. I’m not a great photographer anyway, but the sun! It didn’t lend itself well to photos that enabled studying of a garment; mostly photos of haloed, legless jubilation:

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Self-stitched September: Day 5

I’ll confess, I’m struggling a bit to know what to wear these days. Last weekend I was so proactive as to pack away a few of my summer clothes, pulled out a few lightweight sweaters, and I’ve been scrimping my pennies all year to splash out on a pair of ankle boots that I hoped would solve all my autumn footwear dilemmas. But August lulled me into anticipation with cold and now September betrays me with muggy warmth. Meanwhile most of my self-stitched clothes are suited either to very warm days or to cooler weather, not in between. I had even made notes about all the clothes I was planning to wear in anticipation of blogging for Self-stitched September, so I’m also feeling like I had so many things to say about all the clothes I’m still not wearing! While very few prepared thoughts about the ones I am.

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That said, do I get double points for wearing two handmade items today? Both the top and the sweater! Don’t mind the slippers. I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear and I wasn’t leaving the house right away anyhow.

This blouse is one I made from a self-drafted pattern back in the early summer. I actually never took a picture, but it was similar in style to the Mathilde Blouse by Tilly (whom you might have seen on the first Sewing Bee), although mine was less blousy. But in fact I think it should have been more blousy, because it was a little uncomfortable to move in: tight in the armpits, sleeves weren’t long enough, overall length was midriff-risking. The armpit issue was my biggest peeve, so I recently just took the sleeves off and finished the armholes to make a sleeveless version. That doesn’t fix the length issue, but it makes it more comfortable, and lets me salvage my hard work putting all those buttons down the back.

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Besides which, I really do like the yoke and little gathers in the front.

And, bonus! I knitted the cardigan. The pattern is called Miette, and was free. The yarn is super old: I believe it belongs to my pre-university knitting attempts, at which point it was a boxy cardigan with rolling edges that wouldn’t lie flat. I finally unravelled it this spring and put it to this better purpose. Although it looks chunky, it’s surprisingly not-warm (a cotton acrylic blend), so I’ve worn it all summer. I even think it looks kind of tatty, because the acrylic/cotton blend tends to frizz and pill and it’s lost some colour from age, but of the things I’ve knitted it’s Mike’s favourite.

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Self-Stitched September: Days 2 and 3

Here you go! My first Self-Stitched September outfit post. These are the outfits from the 2nd and 3rd of the month, which I’m grouping together because they involve the same skirt.

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This skirt is from a pattern from 1975, which I picked up for 50p at a vintage stall a year ago. It turns out it’s just my size, and it really does have a lovely shape – full at the hem but slim through the hips, meaning you can wear it with sweaters without worrying about the frumpy bulk factor. I love the pattern cover, those breezy ladies with impossibly long legs! And although the pattern styling in the drawings is obviously dated, I don’t really think the skirt shape itself is.

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I couldn’t resist making a change to the pattern, and adding pockets across the hip, lined with some leftover floral cotton.

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This skirt makes use of one of my favourite clothing strategies: a slightly smart, tailored style made from a casual fabric, in this case a medium-wash denim. I love tailored styles, fabrics like wool, or simply the interest of details like buttons, pockets, and clever seams which you often don’t get on properly casual garments, but the clothes with these features can often look formal or fussy unless you work in a really professional job. For many years now I’ve had various jobs where I felt I needed to dress up a step from jeans, but much more casually than a pinstripe pencil skirt, and I think this combination of a slightly smart shape in a casual fabric is very versatile for that type of everyday wear. If anyone says derisively, ‘Hey you, why are you so formally dressed in this semi-casual office setting?’ you can say, ‘What! This is just a denim skirt!’ And if they say, ‘Hey you, why are you wearing denim in this office environment?’ you have the devastating retort: ‘On the contrary, this is a tailored skirt: look at the single welt pockets.’ See, an answer for every sartorial attack.

Incidentally, if there are any sewists reading this, I got the fabric from Dragonfly Fabrics. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s beautiful fabric – substantial but with drape – and their service was excellent and their shipping fast and reasonable.

Self-stitched September

A few years ago, before I really entered the blog scene, there was a blog challenge called Self-Stitched September. A group of sewing bloggers signed up to participate by wearing at least one handmade garment every day in the month of September. Wow! I want to get in on that party! Wait…it was years ago, you mean it’s over? Well, this is true of me and anything trendy. I even miss the trends in the world of home sewing – surely that’s at least a special skill?

In any case, I’m also skilful at going it alone, so:

For the month of September in 2014, I will wear at least one handmade or altered garment for at least five days of the week.

My goal is to photograph each outfit and blog about at least some of them.

Why?

So what’s the point of this exercise, aside from being fun?

1. It helps in taking a practical view of homemade clothing. One pitfall of home sewing is that it’s really easy to make somewhat impractical garments. Your closet is full of summer dresses while you actually wear jeans most of the time. Being ‘forced’ to wear your homemade garments is a good way of honestly assessing whether they work in your wardrobe, and identifying what you really need to be making in the future if you want to make things you’ll wear often. I’m hoping that this will also lead to learning new skills associated with more practical clothes, like making a basic tee.

2. Much like projects involving a limited or capsule wardrobe, like the one on this blog, it fosters creativity and possibly better decision-making. Having fewer options in anything really does change the way you think and make decisions. Many people find that being limited in what they can wear actually spurs them to be more creative, enjoy their wardrobe more, and think more clearly about what they acquire. I’m curious to see whether being forced to wear a few homemade things over and over will have a similar effect.

3. It’s also an opportunity to talk about clothing, which is something that really interests me. I don’t often mention to people that I love clothes; and I choose those words specifically, rather than saying I love fashion. I enjoy clothing as a form of art: I like to compose outfits like I would compose a painting, playing with proportions, seeing what the eye does in response to certain shapes, the effects of colours. And, ever since I was little, I’ve seen clothes as evocative, full of associations and memories, historical allusions. My mom can tell you I had strong opinions about what I wore from a very young age, and this was a result not of practicality or comfort (some of my choices were decidedly impractical) but out of a desire to express some vision or narrative. I think I viewed getting dressed as a form of dressing up, getting ready for some great adventure. While, later, I realised that clothing could also be a way of trying to blend in, feel good, or redeem a bad day. So let’s see how these topics present themselves over the next month.Pink dress

 

The Great Tee Shirt Measuring

One problem with sewing is that often the easiest projects aren’t the ones you wear most often. There’s actually a widely-accepted term for this in the sewing blog community: you sew too much frosting and not enough cake. In other words, you focus all your efforts on making the kinds of clothes that are special, oddball, or extravagant and don’t spend time on practical garments.

I think there are reasons for this, but skipping over that, I’ll just say that I recently decided to master the skill of sewing a type of garment that definitely represents cake in my wardrobe: a basic tee shirt. I wear these nearly all year long, except on the hottest summer days, and a plain cotton tee is something I typically wear almost every day in the winter under sweaters. The reason I haven’t made these in the past is that the stretchy fabric can be harder to find, difficult to work with, and less forgiving of mistakes in sewing. The lack of a good pattern also hampered me.

But look! I did it!

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This tee is made from a charity shop tee shirt, which I bought because it’s a cotton/Modal blend, one of my favourite fabrics but not something I often find. It was a larger size than my own, perfect for this project because I could cut it down, according to my own pattern, and re-sew it.

The other component to this project was that I decided to take the opportunity to fine-tune a pattern for the perfect tee. Actually, of the tee shirts I own, it’s only about one a year that really fits all my requirements for fit. I think I’m very picky about clothes. Rather than fitting a pattern by trial and error, I decided to get all quantitative and measure a variety of tees I already owned, both the ones I liked and the ones I didn’t. I took all kinds of measurements, such as length, shoulder width, width at bust, width at waist, armhole depth…

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Some trends emerged, for example an ideal armhole depth that was consistent across all my favourite tees. I then compared these measurements to a basic pattern I had, which I made from an old tee shirt which I cut up when it wore out. This proved exactly what I needed to get this pattern fitting correctly. Having the exact measurements from ‘perfect’ instances, I transferred these measurements to my pattern and adjusted it accordingly. I also raided the 2-for-£1 bin of old clothes at a charity shop for some grungy tees I could use to make samples and test the fit. I decided that, for 50p, being assured of the right fit was worth it.

This turquoise top is imperfect mainly in length, because I was limited by the length of charity shop tee. Ideally it would be longer, but it’s okay. The really delightful thing was that I finished this project in an afternoon. I’m not really a fast sewer, but I can foresee that if I get the technique down on this type of project, I really could churn out a new top in an afternoon or evening, which is quite satisfying and economical.

I’m trying to learn to look comfortable in photos. Somehow I assume a ramrod posture when I know I’m posing for a picture – either that, or I curl up like a slinky creeper. Here’s where Mike was trying to make me relax by saying, ‘Pretend you’re sightseeing at the Houses of Parliament’ and pointing. So I looked over the fence to where he was pointing.

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Writing Lessons from My Younger Self

I’ve recently been doing a little creative writing… In fact this was always my first love, but during my postgraduate degree days I’ve channeled that interest into academic writing, which is not as dissimilar as you might think.

In revisiting the long trail of half-written fiction from my past, I’ve seen how much my writing has changed over the years. I started impulsively writing a novel at the age of twelve, coinciding with learning to touch-type (a revolutionary skill), and during my teens I cranked out a slew of fantasy and historical novels that were variously shallow, melodramatic, and improbable. They were filled with immortal prose:

The afternoon sun was warm, wispy clouds drifted lazily across the blue sky, and cardinals swooped and played  together.

This, the opening sentence to my first novel. What a grabber! In fact these words came to my mind the other day as I was walking outside, in weather aptly described here, though minus the cardinals. Do cardinals actually swoop and play together in real life?

I think my writing got better over the years. However, I also drifted towards a different set of problems. When I look at my later jottings of story ideas, I’m always surprised that a concept which seemed huge and magnificent to me at the time is really nothing but a loose set of atmospheres and ideas, almost bereft of plot or character. One might say it was maturity and thoughtfulness gone too far.

In fact, my younger self, pounding unselfconsciously away at the family computer, knew two things that I feel are worth revisiting, and are actually good basic advice for writing.

1. Write regularly, whether you feel like it or not

You know what I did when I was a teenager? It sounds so preposterous now. I decided that I would spend an hour a day writing, whether or not I wanted to. And I do remember some days, when the plot wasn’t going well, sitting and waiting for the clock to run out, looking forward to the end, suffering under this entirely self-imposed schedule! Of course it’s funny, because how many fourteen-year-olds impose that kind of structure on themselves to achieve goals entirely of their own making? I took myself way too seriously. But at the same time, not only is that exactly the writing advice you hear everywhere – set a time, write regularly – but I adopted that plan precisely because, in my naiveté, I did take myself quite seriously. It didn’t seem unrealistic to me to assume that I could have been a brilliant novelist by the age of eighteen if I only plugged away. While that makes me smile ruefully now, I do think that level of seriousness and optimism is exactly the way to succeed at a self-imposed goal. The seriousness goes hand in hand with the gritty discipline: I imposed a schedule because I took my writing so seriously; and conversely, it’s sticking to that kind of structure that makes any craft a serious one. If you stick to it, you will take yourself seriously, and very likely other people will as well.

2. In good fiction, stuff happens

Now, hmmm, I’m thinking whether there are exceptions to this. I’m tempted to blacken the names of some of the twentieth-century writers that make me want to bash my head against the table. But let’s leave aside any possible nuances of debate over the terms ‘happen’ and ‘good fiction’, and simply say – in the case of a book that I want to read for enjoyment, one that I will pay 40p to reserve at the library, one that I will eagerly save to start only after leaving the house for a holiday, one that will make me sorry when it’s over – in that kind of book, stuff always happens.

I mention this because my older self became esoteric, trying to capture auras and atmospheres and ideas in my writing; whereas my younger self would introduce a plague and famine and kill two people within the course of a chapter. I certainly didn’t have a handle on the art of suspense. But in a way, big stuff happening is better raw material, ripe for elaboration, than a vague notion. Even in the novels that are profound and thoughtful, and even in those that are slowly paced, things do happen: people decide, betray, sacrifice, discover, adventure, deceive, try, and fail. Also die. This focus on stuff happening is what makes my first few novels, although head-bashing in their own way in their bathos and abruptness, at least vaguely interesting in a plot summary. At least, if you asked me what happened in The Last of the Unicorns (oh yes, that was the title!), I could tell you, and although you’d laugh, in the narrating and responding we’d have the bare bones of a good storytelling experience. So, to my older self, I say: make stuff happen.

In Praise of Slow: A Book Review

Remember that I mentioned the slow food movement with reference to sourdough bread? It’s one of those things that I’d never heard of until recently, but once I heard it the first time suddenly it was cropping up everywhere.

Hence, I read this book, which is about slow everything – the Slow movement, to be precise. The main point of In Praise of Slow is not, as you might wonder, simply to claim that doing everything slowly is a great idea. Rather, it suggests that Western culture in recent decades has tended to default to a fast speed in everything, and challenges this unreflective approach to time. The author, Carl Honoré suggests that we should sit back and reconsider whether some aspects of our lives might benefit from a slower tempo, and argues that even areas which must remain fast and efficient can still benefit from the slowness of other activities.

Honoré covers different facets of the Slow movement – slow food, slow exercise, slow leisure activities, slow education (homeschooling for the win!), slow cities, even slow sex – with that personal investigative style you often find in these documentary-type books. Throughout, in different activities and realms of life, what recurs across slow practice is an emphasis on a rhythm of thoughtfulness, meditation, savouring, doing few things well instead of many things poorly, giving time to good things, and seeking a purposeful balance. Honore argues that these approaches yield better mental and physical health, and often benefits outside ourselves in the quality of our work or the nutrition of our food.

Now, you should know that I was already prepared to be convinced by the argument of this book, simply because it’s something I’ve already thought about. ‘Slowness’ is also something I tend to practice anyway, since I already enjoy slow leisure like knitting (which gets a mention in the book), and what I find most restful is a day with spaciousness in it – a long time for a few things.

However, I did also come to the book with a certain caution, because from my perspective there’s a possible pitfall in Slow practice. Namely, it can become almost a form of experience-worship, a way of crafting a life full of ideal experiences, and glorifying the experience of experience as the goal of everything. I see this as a pitfall simply because I don’t believe this is the goal of everything, and as a Christian I worship God rather than any part of my own life or experience. Nor, in Christian terms, is it always a good thing to make experience itself better; or, rather, that shouldn’t be the end goal of our most important activities.

Having said that, though, as a Christian there are a multitude of reasons why I think that slowing down is a good thing, in all the areas the book covers.

For one thing, with this on my mind, I kept noticing how often rest, sleep, and meditation crop up in the Bible.

Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. (Ps. 4:4)

The emphasis in the Psalms is often that we can rest because God has everything in hand. There are also the Old Testament rules about letting land lie fallow in regular rotation and animals rest as well as people – which seem to me (aside from any symbolic significance) exactly like the small-scale farming and permaculture recommended by Slow Food.

It is also often the case that our most busy, frantic undertakings are, upon examination, a result less of necessity than of pride or insecurity. One huge importance of taking a Sabbath rest is that it forces us to practice humility, releasing control by ceasing to work for a day. I think a similar self-examination, and a similar relinquishing of control, is fostered by slowness.

At the end of the day, this book has prompted me to examine the pace at which I undertake certain activities and ask whether I’m going too fast, why, and whether I could fruitfully slow down – as well as to observe the consequences of both approaches. Often, I find that my moves towards ‘efficiency’ turn out to be the opposite – either they end up wasting time, or if not that, they at least make me frustrated and frantic. Doing multiple things at once, resulting in fractured attention. Saving up small tasks (like dishes or ironing) into a big batch to tackle with maximum efficiency – which ends up being overwhelming and stress-inducing, more so than simply doing little things as they arise, though this is arguably less efficient. Or, simply, insisting that every moment be full and productive, instead of welcoming little gaps of time, breathing spaces, empty space. And I can tell you that in all these everyday activities, when I stop and say, ‘Do this slowly,’ I feel more peaceful, less anxious, and tend to enjoy things more.

The Slow Food movement is probably the first and most iconic of the movements Honoré examines, and it also furnishes the most apt metaphor for the fruits of slow practice. One member of the Slow Food movement is quoted in the book:

‘McDonald’s [or other fast endeavours] is not genuine food; it fills you up without sustaining you.’

That, I think, is the contrast that is most helpful to examine and meditate upon – the difference between what fills, and what sustains.

 

Estonian Lace Scarf

I finished a recent knitting project: a scarf. It’s blazing hot right now, so hot that I completed the last of the knitting with my hands directly in front of the fan (it’s impossible to knit with sweaty hands), so this will probably not get an inaugural wearing until cooler weather.

IMG_1707This was made from one skein of yarn, which I bought in York on the day of my PhD viva as a celebratory purchase. It’s definitely the nicest and most expensive yarn I’ve ever worked with, a merino/silk blend locally hand-dyed. And ooh! It was worth every penny. Like most knitters, I learned to knit with inexpensive acrylic yarn from the craft store, but since branching out into good wools I see what I was missing. This wool also has a smell, which I didn’t notice while I was knitting, but when I tried the finished product around my neck, I realised that it has a sweet, sheepy, haybale scent.

I did try my hand at designing a lace pattern to knit with this, but decided I just don’t have enough experience yet to design a knitting pattern except by random trial and error, so I decided on a hybrid approach, taking stitch patterns from a book but planning the layout myself. Both designs are Estonian, from a book called Knitted Lace of Estonia, the two ends comprised of a lace edging pattern and the main part a design called ‘ligonbery’. So I feel that the overall result is unique, even if the actual stitch patterns aren’t my own.

IMG_1712This project was also my travelling project for our recent holiday. Now that knitting is licit on planes again (it wasn’t for a while after 9/11), I like to travel with a new project. And I felt the pale green-blue, with its variegated shades, and the undulating lines of the lace pattern perfectly reflected the colour of the sea in the shallows.

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