Spinning A Good Yarn

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With November comes cool weather and all things warm and woolly! Among everything I love to do, knitting is high on my list. I’ve been teaching knitting and crochet classes for over a decade, and always have several projects going at any given time. I love everything about knitting: the anticipation of starting a new project, the way the needles sound together, the portability, the different items that can be made and the delicious yarn! A good yarn and its texture can make all the difference in a project.

As a child, at my aunt’s house, I would always wander into her front room where she had a large antique spinning wheel displayed. I’d never dare touch – (it was a thing of fairy tales!) but admired with awe!  I still think spinning wheels are stunning, but never really knew exactly how they create the intoxicating yarns that call out to us knitters until recently- when I was treated to “Spinning Wheel 101” by a very talented spinner and alpaca farmer.

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How many times have you said, “When I retire someday I want to live on a farm”? June and Henry Bissonnette are living that dream in Connecticut, having converted the property their home sits on into a beautiful farm where they live with their six alpacas, four cats, and a parrot. Henry, a fellow Master Gardener, and his wife June were not always alpaca farmers.

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In 2004, June was two years away from retirement when they went camping with relatives at Lake Champlain. Terrible weather forced them to cancel outdoor plans, so they went to a craft show at the Saratoga Racetrack. There they saw an Alpaca and Llama agility competition. June had never seen alpacas before and thought they were the cutest animals she’d ever seen. It was love at first sight, and June knew right then and there that she wanted to raise them someday.

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After that, June and Henry could not forget alpacas. June was a Senior Risk Analyst for GE Capital at the time, so for the next two years, the couple visited an alpaca farm in Ballston Spa, New York, and subscribed to Alpaca Magazine. The couple took free time to clear their property of brush, to plant pastures, put up fencing and gather supplies needed to be a working alpaca farm. In the fall of 2006, Lavender Creek Farm was born.

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Some of the alpaca's winning ribbons

Some of the alpaca’s winning ribbons

Henry and June started with three alpacas and currently have six that call Lavender Creek Farm home. They didn’t plan on that number, but have had babies born on their farm and adopted from friends who were downsizing.

Audrey enjoyed our visit, and loved feeding treats.

Audrey enjoyed our visit, and loved feeding treats.

What makes alpaca wool so special (and pricier in stores than other fibers) is that alpaca wool has fine “scales”. Scales hold fiber together. Alpaca has fewer scales than wool, so it has more of a feeling like fine cashmere. The final product of alpaca is a hollow fiber, lighter than wool, that is stain resistant and hypoallergenic. The firmness of a fiber is the micron count. The micron count of wool-bearing animals ranges from 21 – 30 microns. Cashmere has 12 microns, while alpacas having a count of 12 – 30. Juniper and Darcy, younger animals on the farm, have counts in the low 20’s, while Siobahn, an older alpaca has a count of around 30.

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June's spun alpaca yarn is  all natural, with no dyes

June’s spun alpaca yarn is all natural, with no dyes

To process their animals’ wool, they shear the “blanket” across the back. This is known as “firsts”, which is the best, finest and most uniform of fiber. It is then sent to a local mill for washing and carding and finally made into roving.  “Seconds” are made into rug yarn using alpaca-wrapped wool cord blended with wool to help shorter fibers hold together.

Seconds to be picked and spun

Seconds to be picked and spun

Rug yarn

Rug yarn

30 Pounds of roving to be spun being checked out by the "inspectors"

30 Pounds of roving to be spun being checked out by the “inspectors” – Photo courtesy of June Bissonnette

Now a talented spinner who knits, crochets and weaves, at first, June could crochet but did not know how to spin or knit. She called a local spinner who gave her a lesson. June ordered her first spinning wheel and has now been spinning for ten years.

Some of June's weaving

Some of June’s weaving

When you walk through the front door of their beautiful home, visitors notice two things: the couple’s adorable, pure-bred adopted Snowshoe Siamese kitties, and a big, stunning, wooden antique spinning wheel, known as a “Michel Cadorette”. Made in the 19th century by the well-known Canadian spinning wheel maker, this model is a single treadle. Spinning wheels were prolific in Canada in the 1800’s because all materials were spun in cottage industries. This model has tiny bobbins and spins fast, producing a very fine yarn.

The very beautiful Michel Cadorette antique spinning wheel

The very beautiful Michel Cadorette antique spinning wheel

Modern spinning wheels are not as large. Still beautiful, they take up much less room. June’s first wheel was an Ashford “Kiwi”, made in New Zealand. This is a good “starter” wheel. June says it “takes practice, practice, practice” to get the hang of spinning a good yarn. “You can take 100 lessons, but the way you really learn to spin is you practice.” The hardest thing to learn is consistency. Lumpy yarn becomes like “boucle”. The “Kiwi” is a basic wheel style called a “castle” because of the direction of the wheel. It takes up less space and is a double treadle.

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Treadling at a high speed results in a fine yarn, low speeds create thicker yarn.

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Thickness is also affected by how fast you treadle and how fast you “draft”, or feed the fiber into the wheel, and also by how much you draft. “Ratio” of a spinning wheel refers to how fast you can spin. First, you “spin” in one direction, next you “ply” it in another. A “lazy kate” is used to hold multiple bobbins while the yarn on them is wound off, twisting the fiber together so it becomes “2 ply”; it keeps spools or bobbins in place while spinning the yarn off of them. A “knotter” is used after the spool is full, making yarn into a skein.

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June's Lazy Kate sits with  various bobbins that go with her "Rose" spinning wheel.

June’s Lazy Kate sits with various bobbins that go with her “Rose” spinning wheel.

An antique knotter now used for display.

An antique skein winder now used as a display

June’s main spinning wheel is also made in New Zealand. Called a “Majacraft Rose”, it folds up and features 27 different ratio settings.

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June says spinning is relaxing, and after ten years can watch television and spin, as she spins now by “feel”. I find knitting to be relaxing, too. I always say it is “my yoga”. (I can’t do yoga. I can’t stop thinking of things like my grocery list, and I have never been that flexible no matter how hard I try. Last time I tried, I lost my balance and fell through drywall). So I knit. Now, when I hold that soft, hand-spun sumptuous ball of color, I will have a new appreciation for how it came to be.

 

Until Next Time…Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

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It’s Just “Sew” Vintage, Part II

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It was thrilling hearing how many people are vintage sewing machine enthusiasts! Thank you, everyone, who reached out! I’m excited to pass on more tips on vintage sewing machines, share how I’ve re-purposed vintage patterns, and announce the winner of the “September ‘Sew Cute’ Giveaway”!

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It’s Just “Sew” Vintage! (And a September Goodie Giveaway)

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I love sewing. Recently, my sewing machine broke, and replacement parts are unavailable. What’s a farmgirl to do? Find something built to last…something vintage! Be warned, as this summer I discovered it’s easy to become smitten (obsessed?) with antique sewing machines!

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Summer Transitioning

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I hope this post finds you all enjoying some blissful, relaxing summer time. It’s been a good summer here, although it’s fleeting fast! For us, it’s been a summer of transition, and August will bring more changes with back to school, fading summer gardens, and soon, transitioning seasons. Grab a glass of somethin’ cold and relax as I share some tips to make summer transitioning smooth sailing and full of “Hygge”.

(“Hygge” is a Danish word that’s hard to translate, but you know it when you feel it. To me, it’s happiness, coziness, contentment … a place or moment where you want to linger.)  Continue reading

Farmgirl Roadtrip: Head with me to Washington, DC!

 

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Hope you all had a wonderful Fourth of July! It’s always been a favorite holiday for me, though we usually spend the day low-key, cooking out and just being together as a family (it’s a “bonus” day off for my husband). July 4th always brings back happy memories, and I love the cheery red-white-and-blue patriotic decor which graces my home the entire summer. Did you know that every July 4th since 1912 Danes in Rebild, Denmark celebrate American Independence Day with a huge celebration? Former President Nixon and Walt Disney are among the famous who have given speeches there. Closer to home, take a roadtrip to our nation’s capital city: Washington DC. I got to experience the city again this past April, when I was chosen as a chaperone for my daughter’s eighth grade field trip to Washington DC and Arlington, VA.

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A Thimble’s Worth of Advice

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Some of the best things in life are also the smallest! A hopeless collector, I adore thimbles! I’ve picked thimbles up as inexpensive souvenirs and at flea markets. However, I had no idea that one day a chance meeting at a tag sale and a cigar box of thimbles would lead to a surprise and a life lesson!

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Chalkboard Paint,101

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“French country”, “shabby chic”, “vintage” – my kitchen has a theme with two favorite things: chickens and cherries. I adore the bright, happy red of cherry-themed items. Much of the decor is antique and vintage, but it was a chalkboard with hand-painted cherries that I ordered from a charming catalog over a decade ago that made me smitten with a cherry-themed decor. As a kid in the seventies, we had a bright red rotary phone on the wall in the kitchen; next to it was a chalkboard. Mom would write phone messages on it, and the family grocery list. (Remember the Brady Bunch? Catch re-runs and take a peek at Carol Brady’s kitchen…there’s a blackboard in her kitchen, too). Through the years, my little cherries chalkboard has been the place we scrawl quick notes, to-do lists, doodles, and of course, the family grocery list. However, after over a decade of use, it no longer was writable. The surface wore out, and chalk no longer would make a mark. Before letting my cute little board go, I wondered if there was a way to bring its writing surface back to life. Could it be revived? Hence, my new love affair with Chalkboard Paint.

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Indoor Gardening, 101

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If you’re like me, you can’t wait to get outside and get the garden growin’! Unfortunately, it will be a few more weeks in my area before we can really get gardening outside. That’s okay – we can garden indoors!

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Long Distance Tea

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Mothers have a special bond with their daughters. My mother and I have been no exception. When I was little, my dad was a traveling salesman. Mom was a stay-at-home mom, a “homemaker” as she was called back then.

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This Cover Has A Story: An Artist and Her Quilts

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Quilts are so are beautiful, a way to showcase an incredible talent. While I do sew, I haven’t mastered true quilting skills yet. The closest I’ve come so far are a few small quilted table runners. I’m in awe of anyone who can craft quilts, but was truly amazed after seeing the inspiring work of one very passionate quilter. Her pieces aren’t just cozy covers – they are pieces of art with stories to tell.

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I first met Stefanie Palermo Lagana at a local art festival, where I admired her stunning quilts so worthy of admiration, just like paintings. Stefanie, who studied art in college and is a former art director for Mademoiselle magazine, was a weaver when she moved from New York City to the Connecticut suburbs over twenty years ago.

One of Stefanie's woven creations.

One of Stefanie’s woven creations.

Realizing that weaving wasn’t a portable hobby, she decided to try quilting. Looking to also meet new people (she had small children at home and a husband who traveled), Stefanie signed up for a quilting class through her local Parks and Recreation. She quickly became friends with her classmates. Soon the ladies were a weekly Thursday “quilting bee”. After their children were in bed, the group would get together on Thursday nights to quilt, often until the wee hours. “We all learned from each other”, Stefanie says.

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Stefanie has an eye for color and loves fabrics. She especially loves working with “watercolor” fabrics. Her favorite quilt, “Nantucket Quilt”, is a beautiful example; a stunning all-handmade work of art. “This one I’d never sell,” Stefanie says.

Stefanie's personal favorite, "Nantucket Quilt".

Stefanie’s personal favorite, “Nantucket Quilt”.

This particular one took my breath away. Stefanie says it is special because she created it during a stressful time in her life.

This particular one is so beautiful, it took my breath away. Stefanie says it’s special because she created it during a stressful time in her life.

Stefanie's special quilt for Newtown. There are twenty six stars in honor of Sandy Hook Elementary.

Stefanie’s special quilt for Newtown. There are twenty six stars in honor of Sandy Hook Elementary.

Stefanie’s very first quilt was a “sampler” quilt. From there, she decided to try doing a “Fairy Tale” quilt. Her first example was a Cinderella quilt- not her own pattern design, but she found great enjoyment in the embellishing process.

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IMG_6397“Cinderella” is all hand quilted, with metallic thread and fabric that looks like hair, and  “diamond” buttons for the carriage wheels. The quilt, once in her daughter’s room, now graces the wall of her sweet little granddaughter’s room.

From there, Stefanie was inspired to create her own patterns, and the rest is history. For her son, she made a Jack-N-The-Beanstalk quilt, which hangs floor to ceiling. The details on this piece are breathtaking. Using the “Trapunto” style (“stuffed” fabric to create a 3D effect) and embellishments like beads and fancy buttons, a  fairy tale story unfolds as soon as the eye hits the colorful images crafted from fabric and thread.

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Each quilt has a story or special meaning on the back.

Each quilt has a story or special meaning on the back.

When her son was older, before he left for college, Stefanie created a t-shirt quilt using t-shirts from all aspects of his life, from age eight to eighteen years (a tricky process, since the shirts ranged in so many varying sizes) “It was a mathematical nightmare”, she laughs. The result is a beautiful, personal keepsake.

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The backing of her son's t-shirt quilt is a perfect nod to the teenage years.

The backing of her son’s t-shirt quilt is a perfect nod to the teenage years.

Stefanie’s quilts have been displayed in schools, and she likes getting kids involved. One quilt very dear to Stefanie’s heart is the “Character Counts” quilt, made with her daughter’s second grade class.

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Students were divided into groups, and each group was given a character trait – respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, and trustworthiness. The children picked their fabrics, drew pictures, and took photos illustrating the trait. The process taught the children many things- from using a new art medium, to math, measuring and critical thinking, as well as working in a group and the elements of how to be a good person. At the end of the year, the teacher gave Stefanie the quilt as a keepsake (Stefanie in turn made the teacher a smaller version).

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The children acted out the character trait and then took photos of the action for the quilt. This is Stefanie's daughter when she was little.

The children acted out the character trait and took photos of the action for the quilt. This is Stefanie’s daughter when she was little.

 

Stefanie's quilt for her late father is very dear to her heart.

Stefanie’s quilt for her late father is very dear to her heart.

Stefanie creates heirloom keepsakes. Pillows are a great way to display old photos.

Stefanie creates heirloom keepsakes. Pillows are a great way to display cherished family photos.

Stefanie is so talented. i thought this framed piece on the wall was a painting, but it is actually made from fabric!

Stefanie is so talented. I thought this framed piece on the wall was a painting, but it is actually made from fabric with wax release.

Quilting as “Acolorsplash Designs” Stefanie’s work has includes commissioned quilts, photo quilts, beach scenes, and t-shirt quilts. Each quilt has a special story or meaning on the back, as well as her signature butterfly hidden on the front of each one. The time and detail involved in each piece is jaw-dropping. All her letters are hand cut, and much of the work is all hand-appliqued. Stefanie’s truly passionate about her art. “I could sew all day long,” she laughs. She finds inspiration everywhere, from her hometown and in everyday life.

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Stefanie’s advice for other quilters, or those that want to quilt? “No fear. Fear blocks you from so many things you want to do. Just do it.”  

Until Next Time… Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

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