Saturday, April 30, 2011

Eastern Market

Eastern Market - Shed 2

I have been looking forward to the Saturday market at the Eastern Market for months now. I remember that the first time we went was one of the last weeks before they shut down for the winter, but I didn't remember when they started up again. I thought it would be sometime in the spring, but I couldn't figure it out because I couldn't find the information on the website anymore. The Saturday market is special because that's when the local farmers, bakers, cooks and artisans bring their produce into the city (or to the market from other parts of the city), and they set up their tables in the six "sheds" in an area that stretches over several blocks.

On Thursday, at my knitting group, another lady told me that there is a huge annual flower show at the market every year before Mother's Day. Today, I looked up the date because I thought the flower show might be this week. It turns out that the show is the weekend after Mother's Day this year, but it got me thinking that something might be happening at the market. I still couldn't find the information about the beginning and the end of the season dates. I decided to simply go down there and see if it was open yet. I knew that even if it wasn't, several of the surrounding wholesalers also sell retail, and I could at least pick up some good deals on meat at one of the butchers, and local cheeses etc. at R. Hirt Jr. As it turns out, the Saturday market is now year-round!

Eastern Market - inside Shed 2

The image at the beginning of the post is of Shed 2, the oldest shed, and the image above is of the "interior" of this open-air, cruciform structure. Most of the vendors here sell produce, though you will find a little coffee shop and patisserie, plus bakers and people selling cured meats, sausages and cheeses. Even though most of the produce vendors are selling stuff from out of state at this time of year, I still managed to pick up some Michigan root vegetables, shallots, and asparagus.

Inside Shed 3 at Eastern Market

Shed 3, above, is similarly shaped, but newer and glassed in. Like Shed 2, this shed is primarily filled with produce vendors. Some vendors that sell produce later in the season were selling herb starts and gorgeous house plants. I contemplated a huge jade plant for $7. There was also a vendor selling local, organic flour of several different types along with their breads and dried beans.

Shed 4 at Eastern Market

Shed 4, above, Shed 5, and Shed 6 are all filled with plants. I purchased an iris in bloom today (for $5), and oogled the fabulous orchid selection that one vendor had in Shed 5. There were several people selling pots of blooming tulips and Easter lilies for $1 each. I was drawn to the ranunculus and heuchera.

Shops at Eastern Market

As I mentioned before, the market sheds are surrounded by wholesale and retail places that both tend to sell to the public, at least on Saturdays. I got myself two pounds of chicken and a pound of beef for my remaining $5. I also went into Savvy Chic, which sells all sorts of neat stuff, and the proprietor is so nice. I was really excited about the insulated bags she sells that would make really cute lunch bags or -- even better -- little coolers to allow you to buy your meat at the market and keep wandering around without worrying about it going bad. I didn't get one just then, so it was back home for me!

Time to work on that dress again.

The Royal Wedding

Prince William and Catherine Middleton
(photo via The British Monarchy photostream)

I had conflicting feelings about watching Wills and Kate's wedding today. A very large part of me felt that the hoopla was strange. The thing that really threw me was weeks ago when I first saw Craft magazine posts about items one could make to commemorate the wedding. It seems so strange to me that people would make or even buy things to remember a wedding of people they don't even know. It is even more strange to me since I went to school with the guy, if only briefly. My semester abroad at the University of St. Andrews was also his first semester there. I'm only a year older than him, though, because he took a gap year before starting uni. I have only crossed paths with him, never met him. The people I knew who knew him said that he was nice, and in many ways he just wanted to be a normal guy. You could tell that he wanted to just blend in -- he often wore a baseball cap to obscure his face and make himself less recognizable. Of course, no one else wore one, so that didn't work so well. He also liked ceilidh dances, which is a big point in his favor. In the end, I guess I had months to get used to the idea that he was just another guy at school with me. I suppose I went to school with Kate as well, but I don't believe I ever met her or knew anything about her. On the other hand, there are a number of ways I could have met her and I just don't remember her. She certainly wasn't in my group of friends. At any rate, I wouldn't normally be concerned about the wedding of a friend-of-a-friend or a classmate I don't know, so it seems strange to follow theirs. Perhaps I felt like I was being a voyer in the life of someone I knew just wanted to be left alone.

On the other hand, I was curious. I follow street fashion blogs, sewing blogs, and crafting blogs, so why should I avoid this one wedding like the plague? It isn't as though there was any way that this could be a private affair for William and Kate, regardless of whether I was watching. I am certain that this has been a major lesson throughout his life: that he can never be normal. This was a special occasion, and they were both preparing for the public nature of it. My curiosity was especially piqued by a recent post on The Sew Weekly showcasing several royal wedding dresses from the last century. Via that post, I also saw a video of Royal Wedding dresses currently on display at Kensington Palace and Queen Elizabeth's coronation gown. I still think the media hype calling Kate's wedding dress the "dress of the century" was a bit overblown; a century is a very long time. Really, at the very least, what about in twenty or thirty years when their eldest marries? Still, it's expected to have a big impact on fashion, and why shouldn't I look at it? I did watch the wedding as I worked on sewing myself a ball gown that I hope to wear to the Scottish Country Dance ball in Ann Arbor on the 14th. Somehow, it seemed appropriate to me to be sewing while watching.

The dress, of course, was stunning. The uniforms were striking. I felt so sorry for both of them, though, because the only people who could stand up there with them were their family members, no friends. When I saw that each of them only really had their siblings, it really underlined for me how isolating it is to be royalty.

(image from Burda Style)

On a lighter note, the dress was truly beautiful. When it comes to royal dresses, it most resembled Grace Kelly's dress, as seen in the Sew Weekly post, though the shape and certainly the neckline may be closer to Princess Margaret's dress. I was especially interested in some of the detailed information about construction on the official wedding website. Carrickmacross lacemakers at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace appliquéd rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock motifs hand cut from English Cluny lace and French Chantilly lace onto the skirt, underskirt, shoes, veil, and most especially the bodice and sleeves of the dress. If you look closely at the photo above, you will see the intricate and precise placement of the motifs. This excellent craftsmanship is particularly interesting to me after learning a little about traditions of English lace making from The Edwardian Farm. Devonshire lace takes about one hour to make per square inch. Apparently, in the Edwardian era, lace was the jewelry of the time, with corresponding prices. Just imagine the cost of such a piece in man hours! Of course, appliqué is faster, and I believe the lace sources were machine made, but I am certain that hundreds of hours went in to Kate's ensemble, not to mention her sister's dress and the little girls' dresses. William's collar and cuffs were also created by the Royal School of Needlework.

(image from LA Times)

Another thing I especially enjoyed reading about was the tiara. Of course, during and after the ceremony, it was clear that they are very happy with each other and they care about each other very much. They have waited a while to get married, and I am certain that it was important to William to be careful about it. Their connection was very clear from the looks they shared. However, there was a question about what the queen thought of Kate, the fact that the couple had already shared a flat, etc. To me, the official wedding website's passage about the tiara spoke volumes about the Queen's approval:

The veil is held in place by a Cartier ‘halo’ tiara, lent to Miss Middleton by The Queen. The ‘halo’ tiara was made by Cartier in 1936 and was purchased by The Duke of York (later King George VI) for his Duchess (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother) three weeks before he succeeded his brother as King. The tiara was presented to Princess Elizabeth (now The Queen) by her mother on the occasion of her 18th birthday.

This tiara would have been personally special to the Queen, and wearing it into Westminster Abbey was as though she was wearing the Queen's blessing. Or at least, so it seems to me. At any rate, I do hope that the rest of the royal family continues to get along well with her, and that things are happy for the both of them, and they get a little peace and quiet now that the festivities are over. After all, how could I wish less for a friend-of-a-friend?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cocktail Wednesdays: The Trafalgar

The Trafalgar

Tonight, it was between the Sling, which sounded incredibly unexciting thanks to the origin story of the Cocktail, and something a bit more unusual. We decided to try the Trafalgar, which is a 12 Bottle Bar original, not a traditional cocktail. It really stood out because of the float of red wine on top.

The drink is an homage to Admiral Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, where the innovative English naval tactics and the superior seamanship of their crews allowed them to best a combined French and Spanish navy of many more ships. The drink has rum, cognac, and orange liqueur, representing each of the three nationalities.

The Trafalgar

1.5 oz Rum
1.5 oz Cognac
0.5 oz Orange Liqueur
0.5 oz Lime Juice
0.5 oz Simple Syrup
0.5 oz Red Wine (Shiraz recommended, we used Merlot because we had it on hand)

Combine all ingredients but wine in a mixing glass.
Shake with ice and strain into a coupe glass.
Float red wine on top.
Garnish with lime wheel.

We didn't have any simple syrup this evening, so we took the opportunity to make some. It is quite easy, and very similar to making runny honey. It's really just equal parts sugar and water heated until the sugar dissolves and remains in suspension.

Simple Syrup

1 cup Sugar
1 cup Water

In a small saucepan combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Allow to cool.

Given that we only have champagne flutes, not coupes, and that I broke our cocktail glasses, we were forced to serve this one in a wine glass. Floating the wine was more difficult because of this, but Scott ended up successfully using the tested method of creating a double layer drink, like a Black and Tan -- pouring over a spoon. The effect is a nice reference to a "drop of Nelson's blood", though I suppose the rum serves that purpose as well. Just take a look at that lovely layer of red.

The Trafalgar

I also skipped the lime wedge, since the lime I had on hand was, shall we say, past its prime. It was juiced over our asparagus for dinner, but the rind was far too tough for cutting slices.

The verdict: A nice drink. I agree with the characterization of this as being like a tart sangria in taste. It does, of course, pack more of a wallop. The orange liquor, Grand Marinier in this case, provides the fruitiness, while the brandy and the wine bring in the grape base.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An attempt at a light fixture

Tuesday, I set about installing a new lamp shade in the dining room. Do you remember my inspiration photo for our living and dining room?

Right, well, I recovered a drum shade and attempted to replace our stained glass shade with it, so that our dining room might look more like my inspiration room, and less like a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant. Finally, on Tuesday, after painstakingly removing the light fixture from the ceiling and taking it apart, which required un-threading the wires from the top, I found out that the shade would not work.

Dining room drum shade fail

As you can see, the supportive ring at the center of the shade is so thick that the threaded tube on the fixture barely clears the top. Unfortunately, this threaded tube is where the chain that supports the fixture from the ceiling attaches. I couldn't even get the fitting on the end of the chain to catch. In other words, there was no way to securely suspend it from the ceiling. So much for the DIY version of the drum shade.

After re-affixing the chandelier in the dining room ceiling, I felt pretty bummed out. I had done a good amount of work, and I had certainly given my triceps a test as I held that fixture up while working with a screwdriver, but I had nothing to show for it.

**Ding, dong.**

Enter the flower delivery guy.

Spring flowers

My parents sent me a bouquet of spring flowers. It brightened my day right up. Thanks guys!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Scandinavian sweater

Scandinavian cardigan

This sweater that I mentioned yesterday, the cardigan that I am working on, is rewarding in many ways, and in other ways it is quite frustrating. I have been planning to make this since the first or second year after I learned to knit. I remember buying the seven balls of alpaca blend yarn on sale and imagining it as a zip-front, mock turtleneck cardigan with a band of scandinavian-style colorwork in black near the bustline. There was no pattern for this cardign, just a distinct picture in my mind. Of course, at the time, I was totally intimidated by the idea of knitting a whole sweater or trying fairisle, not to mention designing a sweater, and I wasn't savvy enough at the time to buy any of the same stuff in black. Later, I bought some black merino in another sale bin at another shop, hoping it would work for the planned cardigan. All of this yarn sat in my yarn basket for years, waiting. Five or six years later, in 2008, I knitted my first sweater. The next year, I took a class and used Barbara Walker's top-down knitting formula, but doing a certain amount of designing myself, especially when it came to the fit in the torso. In January of this year, I finished my first fair-isle pattern. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I started the cardigan I had been planning.

First, I started with the cardigan formula in Barbara Walker's book, Knitting from the Top. I worked consistently down to the point at the edge of the shoulder, but I may have gotten my measurements confused when I calculated if the increase should stay at the same rate for the sleeves and the body after that. I decided to knit abutting bands in garter stitch for a zipper front, even though I now know that installing zippers in knits is trickier than when sewing garments. I will add some kind of collar when the rest of the cardigan is complete.

I played with several different colorwork designs, paying careful attention to the final height of each, and how many repeats each would produce, so that I would end up with a flattering result. I decided to place the band of pattern just under my armpits, and I carefully adjusted the number of stitches so that it would provide complete repeats. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake, and I fear that the sleeves are too big, as there is excess fabric at the armpit. On the other hand, this is supposed to be something that I will wear as a layer over other things, so I don't want to make it tight. I am also unsure if the fit in this area will change once I add the body, so I have decided to complete the colorwork area on the body before continuing with the sleeves.

Before I started knitting with the black, I had to check if the two yarns would work together, or if I should buy new black yarn. The black seems to be the same size when I use the twist the strands together test, but it is labeled as a different weight of yarn, and of course it has a different fiber content. I decided it would probably be fine, and I went ahead. The tension on the fairisle area is very different from the rest of the sweater. It is much stiffer. I am not sure if this is simply the result of having two layers of yarn, if it is poor tensioning on my part while knitting fairisle, or if a yarn weight or fiber content discrepancy is to blame. I don't know if this is the cause of the poor fitting I am seeing at the armpits. Whatever the case may be, the black was certainly miserable to work with on the sleeves. The main reason for this was that horrible four -letter word that strikes fear into the heart of every knitter: moth. Every few feet, the ball I was working with had been partially chewed through. Maybe it wasn't moths, maybe it was something that had rubbed the yarn in some way, I don't know, but I did have to cut it every few feet and start a new piece to prevent weak spots. In the photo above, you can see many of the ends I will have to weave in dangling from the sleeve pictured. Now, some of you wil say I could spit-splice this yarn, but I have not had much success getting it to work well for me with yarns with a higher number of plies. So weaving in the ends it is.

I do believe that only one ball of the black was afflicted in this way. I started the body with the other ball, and I have yet to encounter a weak spot. If I have to redo the sleeves due to fit issues when I have tried it on with the body complete, and if I have enough yarn left in the good ball, I will certainly knit it with the un-damaged yarn. I'm not giving up. After all, I am finally using my oldest yarn for a project I have wanted for many years, still there are a lot of ends to weave. Whatever the case, the remaining black yarn will be going in the trash bin.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Knitting and Spun BFL

Handspun BFL - Snickers

For an update on the things I have been making, I finished spinning 8oz of Blue Faced Leicester wool last week. This wool comes from a sheep named Snickers, who was raised between here and Lansing. This wool will be knitted into a scarf for Scott to match the hat I made him with some of my first handspun.

Crazy monkeys

I finished a pair of socks - the toe-up, no purl version of Cookie A.'s Monkeys, using yarn that I won at my first visit to Neighborhood Knits in Dearborn.

Scandinavian cardigan

I am currently knitting and designing a cardigan using Barbara Walker's top down raglan recipe and colorwork patterns from Sheila McGregor's book, Traditional Scandinavian Knitting.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cocktail Wednesdays: THE Cocktail

The Cocktail

This week's mix drink was in many ways the one that started it all, The Cocktail. I believe I first heard about The Cocktail or Cock Tail from a Four Pounds Flour, the blog of a food historian that I follow. It was also mentioned by our tour guide at the Buffalo Trace distillery. Finally, reading about it on the 12 Bottle Bar made me decide that trying it would be a really good thing to try in order to give a little more structure to our efforts, helping us make sense of the new things we try.

THE Cocktail:

1 lump Brown Sugar
2 dashes Bitters
1 tsp Water
2 oz Spirit

Citrus Peel garnish.
A lump or two of Ice is optional.

Place the sugar cube in the bottom of double glass. Dash the bitters over the sugar and let them absorb. Add the teaspoon of water. Muddle this all together until the sugar is as dissolved as possible. Add the spirit (we used the whiskey we had on hand, but cognac is also recommended). Stir.

Before the invention of The Cocktail, the only mixed drinks were punches or slings. The basic theory behind the recipe for punch is: 1 part sour, 2 parts sweet, 3 parts strong, and 4 parts weak. The sling is kind of like a single serving punch, minus the sour, and stronger. Even though the sling is stronger, it still has half as much water as spirit. The Cocktail cuts down on the water considerably, and it adds the essential ingredients of the bitters. Bitters was the cure-all of its day, just the sort of thing that snake-oil salesmen were hawking. Like the Gin and Tonic, The Cocktail was put together as an enjoyable, alcoholic way to take your medicine. They never realized just how enjoyable it would make the drinks, but the rest is history. After that, other mixed drinks developed

According to the guide at Buffalo Trace, the Cocktail was named after the jigger used to mix it; before it was used for mixing drinks, it was used for measuring eggs, and its original name reflected that, giving its moniker to the drink.

The verdict: The Cocktail is good, and has an interesting complexity. We tried it both with and without ice. I understand why this caught on, especially in the early 1800s, when the quality of American spirits in many places would have benefitted by being part of a mixed drink. The Old Fashioned is a very similar drink, and it is probably an attempt to get a bartender to mix a Cocktail once the work cocktail came to mean generic mixed drink, just like Kleenex, Xerox, or Band-aid. The Cocktail is better than The Old Fashioned, though. I am all for championing the return of the original Cocktail.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Winter is Coming

This is the first time in a long while that I wish I actually received a television signal. The Game of Thrones series starts tonight on HBO, and if the previews are anything to be trusted, it is going to be good. George R.R. Martin, the author of The Song of Ice and Fire series that the show is based on, is actually involved in the production of the show, as a Co-Executive producer. Their cast includes Sean Bean as Ned Stark. The sets and effects in the clips look totally realistic and appropriate. All of these are good signs to me, since I love the books. I guess I had best pick up the last book, even if I know reading it will mean I pay no attention to anything else until I'm done.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Crepe Sew Along: The Finished Product

Crepe Dress

Here it is! I finally got some photos to share of my finished Crepe dress. They aren't the most glamorous photos, and the day is grey, but you can see how well the dress fits, at least.

Crepe Dress

Crepe Dress

I got lots of compliments on it today.

Cocktail Wednesdays: Substitutions

I am sure that you have noticed that I have not been anything resembling punctual with my post about this week's cocktail tasting. A lot of things got shaken up this week, and not just in a cocktail shaker. None of our friends could make it to our house on Wednesday, and one of the main reasons was they guys' desire to watch the Red Wings' Stanley Cup playoff game, and our lack of television reception. So, we ended up heading over to a friend's house. He was game to provide a new drink to try, so the venue was the first substitution.

The Penal Colony

The only issue was that he didn't actually have the ingredients for the drinks that he had the recipes for. First, he wanted to try the Colony Cocktail, which I posted about earlier. Unlike us at the time we tried it, though, he did have Maraschino. Unfortunately, he didn't have grapefruit juice. What he did have was pineapple juice. Instead of finding a recipe which he had the ingredients for, he decided to make the switch. After the first sip, we started calling it "The Penal Colony." While I'm sure it was in truth better than prison wine, it was not a successful mix. It tasted like herbal pineapple. The herbal taste was not pleasant as in The Last Word, it was grating, and somewhat pine-y.

Sweet Irish Blackthorn

The next attempt was the Blackthorn, the idea of which we found rather appealing. Blackthorn is the bush or small tree on which sloes grow in the hedgerows of England and Ireland. Obviously, sloes are used to make sloe gin, which I have been wanting to try since hearing Brenda Dayne talk about it on Cast On, and seeing Ruth Goodman make sloe gin on The Edwardian Farm. The recipe he had did not involve sloe gin, but rather was a combination of Irish whiskey, dry vermouth, absinthe, and perhaps bitters. This recipe appears to be sometimes called The Irish Blackthorn, to differentiate it from those recipes that do contain sloe gin. The plant is also traditionally used to make shillelaghs, so it is definitely native to Ireland, and culturally significant. Now, it turned out that the bottle of dry vermouth at our house is actually our friend's bottle, which he brought over for a party, and so he did not have a bottle there. Oops. Our friend substituted sweet vermouth, and we called it "The Sweet Blackthorn". I find now that 12 Bottle Bar's recipe for The Blackthorne Cocktail actually includes sweet vermouth, but I do not know what proportions our friend used (hence my lack of clarity over the inclusion of bitters). I do know that he decreased the ratio of vermouth to whiskey. Given what 12 Bottle Bar says about Gary Regan's Blackthorne and the Savoy Cocktail Book's Blackthorn, I imagine that our friend's original recipe was the one in the Savoy book, or similar. Interestingly, he made a choice out of necessity and personal preference that made it more like the version that the guys at 12 Bottle Bar prefer! Flavor wise, the largest components of the drink we tried were the vermouth and the absinthe. Personally, I could imagine -- not having tasted sloes or sloe gin, but knowing that the blackthorn is in the prune family -- that the drink may resemble sloes in flavor. The combination of the licorice taste of the absinthe and the infused grapes of the sweet vermouth made for a flavor that could well be related to a prune, even if we did still have a bit too much vermouth. We lost the flavor of the whiskey entirely, though, which was surprising. I am curious about trying the Gary Regan recipe, as well as some sloe gin, to see if a little tweaking would bring it into the realm of a good drink, rather than a not-entirely-objectionable one.

Oh, for those of you who are not aware, I should mention that absinthe became legal again in the U.S. in 2007. Studies have been done about the safe limits of thujone, the compound blamed for the green fairy's original demise. Ironically, the concentration of thujone is twice as high in sage as in average pre-ban absinthe, and today's absinthe is capped at much lower levels. Perhaps more importantly, so is its alcohol content, which was once as high as 74% ABV.

Finally, not on Wednesday, but today, I had to try 12 Bottle Bar's April 15th offering, the Income Tax Cocktail. I even squeezed some fresh juice from the orange that's been drying out waiting for just such an occasion. That's their image above.

The Income Tax Cocktail:

1.5 oz Leopold’s Gin
0.75 oz Dry Vermouth
0.75 oz Sweet Vermouth
0.50 oz Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass.
Stir with ice and strain into a coupe.
Garnish with an orange twist.

I didn't garnish it with a twist, given that my orange was really too dried up to do so, and I wasn't paying attention and accidentally shook it rather than stirring. The verdict: I thought it was an entirely enjoyable drink. The orange juice and the bitters balanced out and blended the gin and the vermouth. Not being much of a fan of either gin or vermouth, I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps a little more attentiveness on my part and a little more frequent use of oranges will take this one up a notch in the future.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Beginnings of spring

Saturday, Scott and I attended a Scottish Country Dance workshop at Hillsdale College, way out in Hillsdale, Michigan. It was warm enough for me to wear my Crepe dress, with knee-high socks and a light coat. Unfortunately, due to traffic delays, we were unable to take photos of the dress at the college as we were hoping. The dance workshop went well, though. A sizable group of raw beginners attended, and our friends taught them both the basics and some trickier dances on the Ann Arbor ball program. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and Scott had the novel experience of being looked at as an experienced dancer for the first time.

Sunday was much warmer -- a 50ºF high on Saturday, 43ºF low that night, the 82ºF on Sunday. Being used to the temperatures in the 30's and 40's, low 80's felt sweltering; especially in our living room, where the air was stagnant. We went to the hardware store and bought cedar fence pickets to make raised beds as instructed by Alaskan wood wonder woman Ana White. Well, we didn't use her exact plans, but the use of fence pickets was a stroke of genius. This way, we got rot-resistant cedar, no worries about toxic chemicals from pressure treated lumber, and saved ourselves hundreds of dollars over what we would have spent on the boards.

New Cedar Bed

We packed forty 6' pickets and some garden stakes in my car, then went to lunch before heading home and constructing the first planter. For lunch, we decided to try a local restaurant that we had never been to before. We want to make checking out these local places a new tradition, just like our Wednesday night cocktails has worked out to be. It was the same day when we decided to do them, but we hadn't tried any new places until yesterday. We stopped at a place on Michigan Avenue called iBurger, which turned out to be much nicer than I expected when I saw the name. The patties were organic, halal beef. My burger was topped with beef bacon (a first for me), BBQ sauce, homemade fried onions, an heirloom tomato slice, shredded lettuce and a specially made bun. The fries were clearly homemade as well and tasty enough not to need ketchup or malt vinegar. Super tasty and huge. Neither of us could finish our meals.

Once we returned home, Scott built the first raised bed, above, which we placed inside the veggie garden enclosure with the four he built last year. This one will be a good spot for a number of additional things I want to plant. The rest of the boards will make a bed that stretches from the cherry tree to the raspberry bush in an L shape. A lower tier will encompass the two existing plants and the center will be further raised for a tiered strawberry bed. Scott is still working out the exact design of this bed for fabrication. I am excited about this particular part of our project not only for the strawberries, but also because while working it out, we hit on some design ideas for our back yard. Neither of us is particularly interested in having a large lawn, but I wasn't sure what to do with it, especially with the offset placement of the cherry tree and the raspberry bush. Now I have a starting point. We are already planning to use this bed to create a "room" area for a table. Now the next challenge is dealing with the brush/compost pile and the area overshadowed by our huge maple.

The other thing that I am excited about, garden wise, is what I saw as I raked the dead leaves and stems from our front garden bed.

Hostas Sprouting

There are hostas peeking their heads out of the ground.

Day Lilies Sprouting

Day lilies are sprouting as well.

Crocuses are blooming in out neighbor's yard. Spring is finally arriving, after what seems like ages. I am used to getting crocuses around my birthday, in January, after all. It's about time.

And in case you're wondering, the temperature has been steadily dropping since yesterday's high. It looks like it will bottom out around 41ºF tonight, then up into the 50's tomorrow. We've had our windows open ever since we got home yesterday afternoon.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tartan Day - The Declaration of Arbroath

I'm a bit late here, because I only just realized that I just missed the significant date, but I want to share with you something I was talking about last night. April 6th is Tartan Day, which is held in commemoration of the Declaration of Arbroath, which was signed on that day in 1320. The Declaration of Arbroath is in many ways the Scottish equivalent of the American Declaration of Independence. It is in fact a declaration of independence from the English, and it is a very nationalistic document -- one of the fist for the nation of Scotland. It also is one of if not the first document to assert that sovereignty comes from the people, rather than as a divine right. Some of the passages are particularly stirring.

for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Read the entire translation here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cocktail Wednesdays: The Last Word

The Last Word Cocktail

In the last week, a friend told us of a cocktail considered to be a local special, as it was born at the Detroit Athletic Club. Of course we had to try it.

(Once again, I forgot to get a photo before we began drinking. I hope you enjoy these "during" shots.)

The Last Word:

3/4 oz Gin
3/4 oz Lime juice
3/4 oz Green Chartreuse
3/4 oz Maraschino liqueur

Shake well over ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and serve.

The Chartreuse is an interesting thing, an herb infusion created by Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse since 1605.

We also bought real maraschino liqueur, which we did not have before. I was under the impression that maraschino cherries were packed in maraschino liqueur, but later learned that since 1939, cherries packed in other things -- usually sugar and almond oil -- have no longer been required to be labeled "imitation" maraschinos, and that's pretty much what you find today. Once we learned this, we went to Merchant's and picked up a bottle of the real deal. Luxardo Maraschino is distilled from marasca sour cherries and aged in ash barrels. We'll have to revisit that Colony Cocktail now that we have the real stuff, not just cherry infused syrup.

The Last Word Cocktail

Neither of us have tried the Chartreuse or the maraschino by itself yet, and I am pretty sure that none of our three guests had either. This does make it somewhat more difficult to pick out which notes came from which ingredient, but we all had a certain notion of what the general idea would be. Before tasting the drink, I was wondering why the Wikipedia article on The Last Word says that Chartreuse is the primary alcohol by volume when there are equal parts of each ingredient, but upon tasting, it became clear that the Chartreuse was in the driver's seat. Also, in retrospect, looking at the bottles while writing this post, I realize that the Chartreuse is 55% ABV, while the gin is 47% ABV, and the maraschino is 32% ABV. That Chartreuse is no pansy liqueur; it's full blown spirit! The primary alcohol by volume in this drink is the Chartreuse. It's 16 proof higher than the gin!

The verdict: I find that the primary flavor is herbal, with the lime taking the second place and giving it a citrus note as well. The citrus note wasn't really lime flavored, it was more blended with some of the other flavors, and added a tartness. I did not notice the cherry, though the maraschino may have contributed a layer of sweetness. While I am sure that the gin lent some of its flavor to the drink, it blended into the Chartreuse's alpine herbals, and I was unable to find where the gin started. I did not feel that the drink had the particular pine flavor that I associate with gin. An herbal drink may sound terrible, but I found this to be very pleasant. The flavor was delicate, and the tangy sweetness of the citrus enhanced the flavor. This drink was very different from all of the other drinks we have tried so far, and different from any of the old standbys that I have had as well. It is a very enjoyable drink to sip on, but deceptively strong, especially if you are expecting the Chartreuse and the maraschino to have lower alcohol contents.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jehova's Witnesses

Those of you who know me personally, which is almost all of you at this point, probably know that I enjoy discussing religion and philosophy. After all, I found the latter so interesting that I got a degree in it. Both of these are tied up in the nature of the world and reality, and how one should act within that context. I strongly believe that searching for truth on that front is important, because it has ramifications on how one should act and conduct one's life in general.

When the Jehova's Witnesses come to my door, they don't really get right into trying to convince me to be one of them. They start with specific topics of conversation. I didn't mind them starting a conversation about the nature of prayer. It's an intriguing thing to think about. It is especially interesting to me to contrast the Christian mindset they were presenting, where you ask God for what you want and God will end your suffering, with the Buddhist mindset where the desire of things that you do not or cannot possess is the true source of suffering.

The second time I talked to them, they stated that the reason they believed in the Bible was that the Bible is the oldest religious text. They didn't just mean the Pentateuch or Torah, either -- I could have understood if they thought the first five books were the oldest, since the Bible itself says they are older -- they meant the whole, complete Bible. I couldn't help laughing at that, and despite the fact that we talked about the differences between the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox versions, they still asserted it. I talked about the age of the Vedas and other texts, and they told me to come back with research, and we would talk about it. I told them to research the age of the Bible before we talked again. I pulled out a stack of books and bookmarked information about the age of different religious texts still in use today, ready for our next conversation. Of course, all it would have taken was a little thought about the fact that the Romans were worshiping different gods -- complete with mythic texts -- before the birth of Jesus and during the events of the New Testament. Once you realize that, it's easy to realize that it's not the age of the tradition that makes it valid or not.

Of course, pouring over the books to find the exact information about the age of different religions and different versions of the Bible took me hours, and totally derailed me from my plans for the day.

Eventually, I put these books away because they did not return for months. Today, they appeared, wanting to talk about peace and governmental upheaval going on throughout the world -- mostly meaning the Arab Spring, though also referring to the Ivory Coast, and current American governmental failings. They also wanted to talk about the Kingdom of God, and how that would solve all of these problems. Basically, they were saying that human government is inevitably flawed (ok, point) and what we need -- and what will inevitably come -- is God's rule. I asked them exactly what they meant by the rulership of God. I said that I could only understand this in one of two ways: 1) An "end-times"/apocalyptic scenario, in which God directly interacts with humans; or 2) a religious government, in which a religious leader who knows the will of God rules. Not that I ever got the chance of mentioning it, but the latter reminds me of the Ayatollahs in Iran. They clearly believed that a religious leader shouldn't be the governmental leader, and we talked about the Bible verse about returning that which is Caesar's to Caesar, which is not only about taxation, but also about secular government. They also seemed to believe that they were not talking about an end-times, post-rapture scenario. However, they refused to even attempt to describe how such a system could possibly work. Interestingly, they used the garden of Eden before the fall as an example of the Kingdom of God and the sort of paradise on earth that the human race is supposed to create, even though that didn't turn out so well. They just kept falling back on verses saying that it would happen, and that it would be peaceful (though there was something in there about something being crushed), and that it should happen soon. The idea was for all of us to help make it happen. Yet they still would not talk about what it would mean, logistically, to have the world ruled by the Kingdom of God, and they eventually fell back on the old standby, "God understands it all, and we're too small and stupid to get it." Why? "Because the Bible says so."

For me, and for anyone else who doesn't already believe what they're saying, this is a cop-out. This is where their argument becomes completely invalid. If you answer doesn't make sense, then you need to look for another answer, not give up because your answer might not fit with your holy text. I don't mind if you try to find a way for your logical answer and your holy text to work together, if they seem at odds in the beginning, but twisting and ignoring the evidence to follow a certain understanding of your holy text is really just blindness.

I told them that I have read the Bible several times, I have studied religion, and I have a degree in philosophy. I am not going to believe what they say simply because they quote a Bible verse at me. The fact that the Bible says it is the word of God and the fact that a number of people believe it to be the word of God are not enough evidence to make me believe that it is the word of God. Of course, we had discussed this the last time, when they brought up the age of the Bible as evidence of its divine origin. They didn't do that this time, though. This time, they tried to use the existence of some facts in the Bible to prove its divinity.

First, they tried to confuse the relationship of philosophy to reality with religion's relationship to reality. They implied that philosophy ignores the facts. Really, in philosophy, if the theory doesn't match the logic and the evidence, then the theory is considered invalid. In religion, if the evidence doesn't match the divine text, then the evidence is considered invalid, or at least misleading.

Interestingly, the fact that they used to demonstrate that the Bible is full of facts is that each animal produces its own kind. Why, yes it does, and biology texts explain much more thoroughly the genetic reasons that this happens, why traits are inheritable, etc. Those biology texts contain this fact, too. That doesn't mean they are the word of God. Nobody claims that biology texts are the word of God. Then, somehow, the very next thing they tried to do, in response to my claim that the same basic information is in biology texts, was that they tried to use this same piece of text to try to convince me to believe in Creationism over Evolution. Now, I have no problem with people believing that time, the world, and everything in it was created by a divine creator. The evidence is that every living thing grows and develops according to its genetic code, but if you want to say that the genetic code is the way it is because God created the world such that it would be that way, then fine. That works. It is totally, logically a possibility that stuff in the world works the way it does because some entity created it to be that way. It makes sense for the word of God -- given to people who had the technology level of the time, thousands of years ago -- to talk about these things obliquely, as in a parable. However, insisting that it happened differently because it must have happened the exact way that their religious text says, well, that completely invalidates the whole conversation, which was originally an attempt to prove the validity of their religious text because it has "facts" in it!

Then, they attempted to use the fact that a mule can't reproduce as proof against evolution, whereas it is proof for the existence of speciation, and evidence against their Bible verse that says like will produce like. I tried to talk about mutation and speciation. When I asked them about like producing like, they said things like the sterility of mules was man's fault. Ignoring the fact that horses and donkeys can mate on their own, I talked about cross-pollination being a completely natural thing, and talked about how plants can pick up genes from other species. I talked about the evidence of evolution that we have from things with a short generation time, such as bacteria and insects such as the peppered moth in England. Then they tried to talk about butterfly metamorphosis as if it were butterfly evolution. Clearly confused. I tried to explain it to them, and we went round in this circle of talking about how speciation is an evolutionary mechanism, versus them thinking that it somehow supported the "like produces like" verse. Basically, they were hoping that I would have too low a level of understanding of evolution to be able to explain it, and if I didn't understand it, I would accept their answer as simpler. When I tried to start explaining it, they wouldn't listen and went back to trying to respond using the things they said before that hadn't made sense the first time. We went round and round, that is, until I told them that the conversation was completely frustrating because they weren't listening, and that I wasn't going to talk to them any more.

But, of course, my whole afternoon was once again thrown off by my personal irritation at having a conversation in which the other party wasn't really listening or thinking, or even making sure that their fifth sentence didn't completely contradict their first sentence; they were just repeating what someone else had told them. It was intellectual pain and frustration that was almost like physical pain, and impossible for me to ignore. I love to have real conversations about intellectually challenging things, but the things these people were saying lack all credibility! They come to my door, acting like they want to have a conversation, saying that they aren't interested in converting me, but they don't listen, and they don't engage themselves mentally. So frustrating. And now I've let it get to me so much that I've barely done anything on my to-do list. That's why I have to vent to you, lovely readers; so I can move on.

Ball, Skein, Hank

Recently, on Ravelry, someone mentioned that they hadn't really needed a swift and a ball winder before because she usually bought her yarn in balls or skeins. Then she said that her sister had given her some yarn that she had to wind because the sister didn't really know about knitting. This totally threw me for a loop. In my experience, the things that are called skeins need winding, and most luxury yarns come in that form, so someone who really did know about knitting would be the one most likely to buy the yarn in that form. Then, there was a debate about whether the word "skein" was interchangeable with "ball" or with "hank".

Of course, I felt like I needed to do some research. Here are my conclusions.

The meaning of the word "ball" is fairly straightforward. A ball is yarn wound up, ready to be knit.

The most obvious shape looks like this:

Varigated Lace

Some people seem to be unaware, but these spherical balls of yarn can be center pull balls. There are many tutorials about how to make center pull balls of yarn, but it comes down to making sure that you don't lose the end of the yarn in the middle of the ball you are winding. The most traditional way to make a center pull ball is to use a nostepinne, though using two fingers may be an older technique.

There are some sub-categories of ball that aren't entirely spherical:

A "cake" is what you end up with after using most ball winders. It is round, but flat on the top and bottom. In some circles, when you wind a ball on a ball winder, you "muffin up" your cake of yarn. In fact, most ball winders are essentially mechanical nostepinne, and what you end up with from a nostepinne is usually a cake. It looks like this:

Alpaca with a Twist

According to some, balls like the following are called "mushroom puffs", though I had never heard the term before:

Cotton BamBoo

These may collapse, but I think that's more the result of the fiber content than the shape. When knitting with wool or another feltable animal fiber, you can pull from the center of the ball, but with plant fibers and silk, you should pull from the outside, because otherwise the ball will collapse because nothing is holding it up.

Some people have no problem calling this ovoid shape a "ball":


But, then they rebel when faced with something more log-shaped like this:

Lamb's Pride Worsted

"It can't possibly be a ball," they think, "It's not remotely spherical. It must be a skein."

Now, if I was in a yarn shop, I would not batt an eye if you called this a skein. However, if you then told me that the following was not a skein, I would be totally confused:

mountain colors

You see, I do sometimes use the word "skein" to refer to a generic unit of yarn. However, if you asked me the shape of a skein, I would say that a skein starts out looking like this:

Finished handspun - Firefly Fibers

Then, it gets twisted up for storage, and it looks like this:

Vancouver waves handspun

I would say that the log-shaped thing above is a ball, because it is wound up, ready for knitting. Some people would say that since a skein is something else, that those twisted loops above are "hanks", not "skeins."

That really struck me as wrong, and it's what made me look things up. I had no problem with these being called hanks (though I tend to think of hanks as larger), but in my experience, they were definitely also called skeins. All of the instructions I have read for different types of hand-dying refer to these loops as skeins. As a spinner, saying that these are not skeins particularly bothered me. That is because there are several pieces of equipement that spinners use for making skeins. One is a niddy noddy:

(This one's an Ashford from Dharma Trading)

The other is a skein winder (or the similar clock reel or weasel, which measures the yarn as well):

(This one's from Louet)

Clearly, when you use a skein winder, you end up with a loop of yarn, not a thing of any shape that is ready for knitting, unless you're being lazy and want to end up with a huge tangle of yarn.

I also looked at the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1 a coil or skein of wool, hair, or other material:
a thick hank of her blonde hair
2 a measurement of the length per unit mass of cloth or yarn, which varies according to the type being measured. For example it is equal to 840 yards for cotton yarn and 560 yards for worsted.
3 Sailing a ring for securing a staysail to the stay.

Middle English: from Old Norse hǫnk; compare with Swedish hank 'string' and Danish hank 'handle'

1 a length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted.
an element that forms part of a complex or complicated whole:
he weaves together the skeins of philosophy, ecology, folklore, and history
2 a flock of wild geese or swans in flight , typically in a V-shaped formation.

Middle English: shortening of Old French escaigne, of unknown origin

Clearly, the difference between a hank and a skein is that a hank may apply to any material, and when it does apply to yarn, it is a specific measurement. Also, the origin is different, so different people brought different terms into the language to mean essentially the same thing.

Why, then do some people use the word "skein" to specifically refer to these log-shaped balls? Why is this such an accepted use that it appears in books that are supposed to be teaching beginners the correct terms? Apparently, the major craft store retailers started calling those log-shaped balls "skeins", and confusion has reigned ever since.

Personally, I think it's fine that the word "skein" is often used to mean "unit of packaged yarn". These units aren't a specific weight or yardage, as in "I will need seven skeins of Alpacana Tweed to complete a pullover, but only two skeins of Alpaca with a Twist, because the Alpaca with a Twist comes in a skein with more yardage." This sentence makes complete sense, even though the Alpaca with a Twist comes as loops of yarn, and the Alpacana Tweed comes in ovoid center-pull balls. The sentence "I will need to wind the skeins of Alpaca with a Twist into balls before I can begin knitting with them," also makes sense with the more narrow definition of skein, as seen in the OED. These are the ways that I would recommend using the word "skein", though it is fine to avoid the former. I do think that generic use is why those log-shaped balls started to be called skeins.

Also, as long as we're talking about the narrow definition of the word "skein", there are two reasons that yarn is sold in skeins rather than in balls, ready for knitting.

1. Hand-dyed yarn is usually dyed in skeins in order to achieve the desired effect. Selling the yarn as a skein reduces the dyer's work on each skein, and therefor keeps the price lower.

2. Storing yarn under tension, as in a ball, for long periods can affect the twist. So, don't wind your skeins into balls until you're ready to work with them.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Knitting and Spinning

Rip Tide Shawlette

Here is my latest finished project, the Rip Tide Shawlette, designed by me and made with yarn spun by me.

Rip Tide Shawlette

Here's what the back looks like if it is worn spread out. I'm not 100% pleased with the pattern, but with some tweaking, I suppose I could publish it. I haven't seen anything out there that has the same feel that I was going for, with asymmetrical crashing waves.

I guess at this point, I have also designed a shawl, a hat and a pair of baby booties, and I suppose you could even count a sweater that I did some unusual shaping on, so I could start publishing my patterns, even if they were free.

Handspun Romney Singles

I also recently finished spinning the Romney wool that has been on my wheel for a while.

Handspun Romney

Here's the finished product, though the color in the photograph is a bit off.