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To me, a lace shawl is not a finished object until it is fully blocked.

I know why some people do not like blocking — it’s a bit tedious. And on a big shawl, I have been known to crawl around the floor blocking for over an hour only to stand up with what seems like a permanent crouch (lesson here: as with anything else — move around/stretch every 20 minutes or so!!)….so contrary to popular belief, blocking is not one of my favorite activities.

But, as my friend Trish says, “Blocking is magic”. It is, I think, the single most transforming thing you can do to a knitted lace garment. The nasty spaghetti that comes off your needles suddenly transforms into a lacy, gossamer, beautiful thing.

Would you rather put this around your shoulders:

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Or this?

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It’s the same shawl, Red Rock Canyon by Romi Hill (knit out of Old Maiden Aunt Merino/Silk 4ply).

IMG_3298I’m not a blocking expert by any stretch of the imagination, but over the years, I have literally blocked hundreds of things. So, here are some thoughts (and opinions) about how I block a lace garment, using a sample shawl, shown here in the pre-blocked state (you cannot see the lace motif very well, the edges are not straight…)

Step One: Weave in ends, but do not cut the tails of ends. This is probably pretty obvious, but if the goal with blocking is stretching the heck out of it, then the ends that you’ve carefully hidden will likely pop out. (The ends will be trimmed after blocking).

Step Two: Soak the garment in wool wash (I like Soak, Kookaburra and Eucalan and have used all. If I had to pick one, I would pick Soak because the other two products have lanolin in them and I knit shawls out of 100% silk too) for 15-30 minutes. Why wool wash? Because your hands have been all over your lace shawl, and the shawl is dirty. Why 15-30 minutes? Because that allows the fibers to be completely saturated and become as malleable as possible. I have, by accident, left an item soaking overnight, without any apparent damage — but I really try not to do this!

Assemble your materials at this point: Blocking boards, covered bed, wires, pins, thread, measuring tape, spray bottle…whatever you are going to use.

Step Three: Gently squeeze the water out of the garment, and roll it up in a towel like a burrito. (At this point, if this were a sweater, I would stick the burrito and put it through a spin cycle. With a lace garment though, I do not — only because it dries fast enough without.)

Now the fun can begin.

First, a little about the surface to block on. It needs to be a flat surface that you can stick pins into. I have foam blocking boards which fit like puzzle pieces. I do recommend these if you plan on knitting many lace shawls because they are convenient, but it is not necessary. I am very curious about the roll-up blocking mat with a grid surface on it because I think it may make achieving exact measurements easier, but I have not yet tried one out. I have enough open surface and enough of the boards to block a relatively large garment in my apartment, but I know many people who have blocked on their beds. I have also supplemented edges which have eked out of the blocking surface with dog beds and rolled towels. And, for large square and circular shawls, I’ve made a square donut with a lone block in the center to secure the center of the shawl.

Once the blocking surface has been identified and pets shooed away (my dogs know that yarn and fiber are for humans and not for dogs — “leave it” is a very essential command in their repertoire as you can imagine having to walk through streets of NYC), the actual garment manipulation can begin!

IMG_3314Step Four: I like to start by laying out the piece in the approximate shape on the blocking surface first, to make sure that I have a plan of action (and that I’ve laid out enough foam blocks to accommodate the shawl). This example is pretty easy because it’s a triangular shawl — but even with a triangular shawl, you want to make sure that you know what dimension the shawl should be…i.e., the depth of the shawl vs. the width of the shawl. The sample here should block out to exactly half a square, which means that I should block the depth of the shawl at half the width of the shawl.

Step Five: Secure the “main” straight edges, if any. I like using blocking wires for squaring off any edge that should be straight on a shawl. This cuts down on the measuring, and makes holding a straight line easier. I have many different kinds of wires, from flexible wires to extra long wires, to extra thin wires, but the set I use the most are the cheapest, sturdiest set of wires that are about the diameter of the cable on a knitting needle. In the case of a triangular shawl, the “main” edge would be the top edge of the shawl. For a square, it would be the diagonals or the edges (I usually pick an edge to start from). And, of course, for a circular or a crescent shawl, there isn’t one.

IMG_3316The trick with using blocking wires is to make sure that it is threaded evenly and often through the edge of the garment. I generally weave through every stitch, because I put a tremendous amount of pull (I don’t say I block like a thug for no reason) on the garment and I want that force to be distributed evenly throughout a straight edge.

 

IMG_3317Secure the wire (and not the garment) onto the blocking board. I usually put the pins in at an angle away from the direction that you will be pulling on the shawl. I love using U-pins for this.

 

 

You can achieve a similar effect by threading a smooth thread (like crochet thread) through the stitches and pulling it very taught across the straight edge. I used to do this before getting wires, and if I ever knit a king bed sized lace thing, I can see myself using thread again — it works!

Now, if you don’t have wires and just have pins, I would pin the garment as straight as possible, and use a straight edge in the final stages of blocking (not yet though, you’ll be moving these pins around at least once.)

Step Six: Work on the edges of the shawl. Many people use blocking wires through the points of the shawl, but I actually like the flexibility of using pins

IMG_3319First, I pull out the center point. I’m pulling the shawl taught, but not really hard (yet).

 

 

 

IMG_3322Then, I pull out the point on either side about half way from the top edge of the shawl to the point. I like to pin out several points equally on the left and the right of the center line first to get balance on the shawl.

Next, I pin out one side,

then the other.

All this I do with just eye and feel. The lace pattern should be very evident now, and now, you can start REALLY blocking.

Step Seven: Channel your inner thug. Adjust all the pins, pulling the shawl as taught as it will go in all directions.

IMG_3324When it feels like the shawl cannot be pulled any tighter — and this will be evidenced by either pins starting to pull out or the blocking board starting to curl off the ground — take out the tape measure and make sure things are pretty even. Then, make sure all the pins are secure, and if the blocking board is curling, weigh them down.. and let dry.

 

 

IMG_3325Sometimes, particularly with lace weight yarn, the shawl will almost dry during this process. A spray bottle filled with water is handy to wet down the garment if this happens. (Happens to me all the time with large shawls).

 

 

 

IMG_3326Let dry completely. When you unpin and take the wire out, it’s likely that the shawl will rebound a bit.

 

 

 

Trim the woven in ends, and voila!

 

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Strategies for different shapes: It would be impossible to cover all shapes, but there are some things I like to do with certain shapes.

  • Circular shawls. Once the first series of pinning is completed, I like to have a length of string or yarn that is secured at the center of the shawl, and use it as a guide to make sure each point that is pinned out is equidistant from the center. I used to put the metal loop at the end of my tape measure though the central T-pin, but I find that a piece of string is a lot easier to manage.
  • Crescent shawls. Usually, if you pull the points out hard enough, the spine of the shawl does not need much stretching/pinning. This is the shape that I probably do the most free-form blocking on, and depending on how the edges of the shawl is knit.

I hope this helps!

 

I was recently asked whether I had ever finished the sweater I was knitting out of Cambridge’s fleece.

I thought I had posted these photos! The Kingscot cardigan is finished!

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Here it is, on a “photo shoot” with the ewe herself. I love this photo not only because it’s kind of cool that I’m holding the sheep that gave me the beautiful fleece, but because of the onlookers in the background. Makes me laugh every time!

I saw Cambridge recently, and she is very busy growing my next fleece. You can already see, I think from above, but it’s looking a bit lighter in color. She is just CRANKING out the fleece, after a bit of a tough start I’m guessing because of the harsh winter, and I would not be surprised if her fleece was close to 10 pounds. (…of platinum to grey and GORGEOUS. Can’t wait.)

Yes, hawk-eyed friends, that IS a double pointed needle holding the cardigan shut.

Since then, I purchased some buttons made out of deer antler (as an homage to Lucy’s Great Adventure).

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The sweater is softer than I imagined it could ever be — Cambridge’s fleece has been a big surprise on that front, I must say — and it almost looks shiny because the fibers are so lustrous.

I still have another big batch of her fleece left, which was just washed recently —

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— and I am contemplating what I should be making with this fiber. I’m wondering if I can engineer a zipped vest with pockets that will take the place of the felted merino vest that I wear all the time to walk my dogs….to the drawing board….

I am, most decidedly, a lover of the color grey. Almost every article of clothing, yarn, fiber — the first thing I reach for is grey.

And in the ocean of grey, there is another color that makes a pretty frequent appearance in my wardrobe. (No, not black — that’s just another shade of grey.) I love orange. I think it’s such a happy color.

And, it goes well with grey. Of course.

I must be missing an element of happy recently, because I’ve finished two projects in my happy color.

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First, Carpino, by Carol Feller. It is a sweater from the Wool People 6 collection — the collection that I had a bit of a preview of, at Knitter’s Review Retreat last November. Of course, I promptly fell in love with every single piece of that collection, in a way that I never would have had I seen it in only in print, as beautiful as the Wool People Look Books are.

This little sweater is very flirty and a little bit retro. It has an i-cord edged ballet neckline, 3/4 length sleeves which are fitted. The front is a fun bubble like lace pattern (which is very easy to memorize).

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I knit this sweater in a singles yarn. I knew even before I cast on, in my brain somewhere, that this is probably not the greatest strategy for a long lasting, well wearing sweater. But I did it anyway. Why? Because it was the perfect color, Del Rey from Neighborhood Fiber company.

I have already worn the sweater a couple of times…so far so good. As long as some naughty canine that I live with does not hook her little paws into the lace in front of the sweater!

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Have you ever had a “O.M.G. I have to spin this/knit it right now” moment? Of course you have. The second project was one of those things. I purchased a beautiful commercially processed Shetland top from the UK at the Feederbrook Farm booth at Maryland Sheep & Wool. It is charcoal grey (surprise!) in a way only nature can produce, I knew exactly how I wanted to spin it, and as I was spinning the fiber — I knew exactly what I wanted to make with it.

I spun the fiber woolen, from the fold. I wanted lofty, squishy, and light in weight…a shetland version of LOFT.

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The urge was so great that as soon as I plied a skein and the twist was set, I wound the skein and cast on — while the rest of the yarn necessary to complete the project was still sitting on the wheel.

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Then, for contrast, I wanted a bit of….Orange! And I looked in my Pigeonroof Studios non-Superwash grab bag that I had in my stash…and voila. A few little bits of rusts, oranges and yellows. I wasn’t sure what the fiber content was (I think it is Polwarth/silk but I’m really not sure.), but I only needed a bit over 100 yards so I was sure it was going to work.

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The shawl that this yarn was destine to be? Kelpie, by Jared Flood (Who else?).  It’s a take on the Classic Shetland Hap Shawl, a bit citified. My gauge was bigger than the stated gauge of the pattern, so I knew this would be a large shawl.

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It is large, 74″ across with a 37″ drop. I didn’t think the shawl would grow to quite this size, but it is soft, light, very squishy, and the orange in the feather and fan border makes me smile.

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I am looking forward to wearing this often. (It sort of matches the sweater too!)

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I think I’ve gotten the Orange out of my system for now! Better go find some grey yarn.

I used to not be the biggest fan of knitting swatches.

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It seemed like an extraneous step. Since the items that truly need a good gauge match is a sweater, I had always started sweaters with the sleeve, using it to make sure that my stitch and row counts would not produce a garment that was too big or too small.

I was also convinced that a gauge swatch “lied”. The tension on my knitting, while it does not vary wildly, do change due to mood, what’s on TV, weather, anything. From that viewpoint, a swatch was not very useful. While there were many who sang the praises of a large (8″x 8″) piece of a test fabric in order to overcome the variability in your knitting due to environmental factors, I was not convinced.

I still think all of these things.

And I think much of what I disliked about swatches was rooted in the “you must” part of the “You must knit a swatch” part of the sentence.

I started changing my mind a few years ago about knitting swatches. I’m not sure what the actual turning point was. I think I was trying to decide between two different yarns for a project, and they varied wildly in fiber content both from each other and from the suggested yarn in the pattern. This was the first time I knit a swatch to get a feel for what the knitted fabric would be like, rather than a test to see whether I needed to alter a pattern.

I think that thinking about knitting a swatch as part of the creative process was really helpful. It wasn’t a waste of time, but a part of the project itself. Somehow, this changed the status of a swatch as a “must do” to a “want to do”.

And then, while bopping around on the Internet, I saw this photo. (It’s Jared Flood, of course.) THAT’s a SWATCH???? It is beautiful, isn’t it? Of course, the cynic in me says that the piece was knit for a photo, but I think not. If you do a search for “swatch” on that blog, you will see many many examples of these “swatches”. They are each beautiful — knitted beautifully, blocked perfectly, and clearly used to look at the textures, the fabric, the color — and very much part of the design process.

And then, of course, there’s The Swatch Queen of the World, and what she thinks about these knitted pieces of fabric. Clara Parkes tests yarns for all of us, knitting swatch after swatch, “wearing” these swatches, and road testing yarn after yarn.

If that wasn’t enough, I started spinning. I cannot tell what a yarn is like in the skein. I have to knit it at different gauges, block it, hang out with it, before I know exactly how the yarn is going to act in a garment. It appears I am well on my way to joining the swatch brigade.

So, here I am, and as I am hosting a bit of a Knit-Along with a couple of my friends, to impart some swatching “tricks” that I have picked up along the way.

1. Knit a swatch that’s big enough but not too big. For me, this is a fabric that is somewhere in the vicinity of 4″x 4″ or slightly bigger. i like to make it big enough so that if I feel up to it, I can sew up a few edges and make a little pouch out of it. It’s nice for gifts or housing reading glasses. 4″x4″ also makes a pretty nice sized coaster.

2. Border the swatch in garter stitch (from Jared Flood’s photos). It will keep the fabric from rolling, and it makes me feel good that the swatch looks less like a swatch and more like a little object on its own.

3. Either make purl bumps or pair yarn-overs and k2tog for as many stitches as the size of your needle. (from Elizabeth Zimmerman) This way, we don’t forget what size needles we used on the swatch.

4. Block the swatch. There are some yarns (cormo, Brooklyntweed yarns, super wash merino) that drastically change on the introduction of some water and drying time. It really is well worth it to block your swatch (soak it, squeeze it dry, pin it to dry)  to see what the fabric will end up looking like. There are people who recommend that you weight the swatch to see whether the fabric will have memory in a garment…I’ve not done this, mostly because I have already learned the lesson about knitting a sweater out of 100% alpaca (as in, don’t do it unless you mean to have a dress).

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5. Measure the gauge by counting whole stitches on your swatch, measuring it, and doing math to get to the right unit of measurement to compare your gauge to the stated gauge of the pattern (from Amy Herzog). What was that? Amy has you outlining a piece of your swatch (the area you are counting) with a contrasting piece of yarn, which I have found very useful. Then, all you have to do is measure the dimensions of the area, translate it to what the # of stitches or row/4″ would be.

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So, in the above swatch, I’ve marked off an area that is 21 stitches wide and 27 rows in height. The width of the rectangle marked in yellow is 9.8 cm and the height is 7.5 cm (equivalent to 3.86 inches and 2.95 inches, respectively). This gauge would be equivalent to 21.7 stitches (21/3.86 x 4) and 36.6 rows in a 4″ square.

The stated gauge for the garment that I want to knit is 24 stitches x 37 rows. At 22 stitches and 37 rows to the same size, I have a few decisions to make. Do I like the fabric of the swatch? To me, I would not mind the fabric being a bit denser. If I liked the fabric, then I would adjust the pattern to fit the fabric (by knitting a different size, or adjusting the pattern to exact measurements, taking into consideration that I have a border of a lace pattern that needs to fit within a certain multiples of stitches.).

Will I knit another swatch? Probably not. I will start the garment with the sleeves though, so if I’m still more than a stitch off gauge, it won’t be too painful to rip out.

Happy knitting!

 

 

 

I love natural colored wool yarn. But once in a while, I like not-so-naturally-occurring-on-sheep colors as well.

I have been “stalking” a sweater, Ravello by Isabell Kraemer, since it was published in August of last year. It’s striped, which I love, has a boat neck, which I find flattering, and the sweater looks nice and casual and cool. (Probably 100% due to the styling, but what can I say? I am gullible.)

I have been wearing my stripy sweater that I knit last year to death this spring. It’s Breton by Jared Flood, knit in Sweet Fiber Yarns Cormo, which was a limited run yarn. The cormo is light in weight, it is perfectly warm but not hot, and I have washed and re-washed (gently in wool wash) without too much effect on the sweater. (I have had to re-seam the arms a couple of times and have now re-seamed the arms on with sock yarn — the woolen spun cormo just isn’t strong enough for all the activity that this sweater is getting, I’m afraid.)

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I wanted to make another cormo striped sweater. I had the natural white and natural dark grey cormo in woolen spun fingering from Elsawool. Ideally, I think I would have knit the sweater in white and 2 shades of the natural grey. But how about color? What if I introduced a color in this sweater?

I decided that color was exactly what I wanted. And I wanted….RED.

I have dabbled in dyeing my own yarn periodically with food-safe dyes (Kool-aid and food coloring). I felt strange — a mix of trepidation and even a bit of guilt — for taking one of my favorite fibers, in its pristine creamy white, and introducing color from an artificial drink to it. But dye the yarn I did.

There are many resources on the Internet (Knitty article here, a palette of colors and formulae here). All the articles use 1 packet of unsweetened Kool-aid for every 1oz of fiber. Some suggest using a water and vinegar solution and some say that the citric acid present already in Kool-aid is enough for the color to set.

I presoaked the yarn in a vinegar solution, and I also added vinegar in the water bath….because I have, in the past, tinkered with the color on the fly using food dye. (The creamy cormo yarn is beautiful, isn’t it? Looks like the perfect Somen soaking in my sink.)

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The concoction for my precious cormo yarn was mostly Bing Cherry Kool-aid (which is a deeper red), with some Cherry Kool-aid (which is the color of the jug that comes crashing out of walls in commercials for Hawaiian Punch) to brighten the red a little, and a little bit of Americolor super red (the dye that’s in my cupboard for red velvet cake, a bit more brick than the kiddie red of the Kool-aid). The food coloring I added once the yarn was already in the dye bath, because in the past this has produced a bit of that “kettle dyed” effect.

I love watching the dye bath go clear as the color is transferred to the yarn. Here’s the concoction that sort of looks like some sort of a sick spaghetti!

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And here is the result.

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I will be using it along with the natural dark grey and the cream for the stripes.

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It sort of looks like Neapolitan ice cream, doesn’t it?

I recently finished my first shawl of the year.

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I’m not exactly sure what is happening so far in 2014 (I think it’s called the spinning wheel), but I am surprised that it took me so long to cast on a shawl. I think I had forgotten that I love to knit lace, how just arranging well planned holes and twisted stitches transforms yarn into something so amazing. And how the spaghetti that comes off the knitting needles just metamorphosizes into glory once it is blocked.

For me, there is nothing that flies off the needles faster than a well designed shawl.

So, when I cast on Jared Flood’s Sempervivum shawl in a wondrous grey yarn from Hedgehog Fibres, a score of an experimental shade that was in the dyer’s personal stash, I could not put the needles down.

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And, as a bonus, this shawl is knit from the bottom up, which means that, the most stitches you’ll have on the needles is at cast on!

I am always careful about using variegated yarns on lace, as not to detract from the lace motif. However, I think this yarn worked out pretty well. No striping, no pooling… just hints of blues, greens, rusts in a wash of grey.

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I have been wearing this shawl nonstop. And yes, I’ve cast on another shawl!

I love wearing socks that are knit out of handspun yarn.

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(These are a pair knit out of Pigeonroof Studio merino/nylon in “Mystere”, n-plied.)

This creates a little bit of an issue — I have to spin the yarn, and then I have to knit the socks. And, as someone who is very hard on socks (for some reason, within the last month or so I have basically walked out of multiple pairs of hand knit socks — we are not talking small holes here, these are just heels that completely gave out!), the thought of walking through a pair of handspun, hand knit socks is very tough.

Yes, of course I can be vigilant about darning my socks…. and I think I will, once I learn how. (Note to self: Research different methods of sock darning.)

I decided to see if I can make a sock yarn that would withstand my tough wear. I had some Coopworth fiber from Shepherd’s Hey Farm (Hannah), and I had some Polwarth fiber from Blue Moon Fiber Arts. What if I ply 2 singles spun out of the polwarth with 1 single of the coopworth? Would the single ply of the long wool fiber make an other wise soft yarn stronger? Would it make the overall yarn very “wooly” or would the polwarth make the yarn softer?

I spun both fibers with more twist than I would normally spin these fibers with. I also plied with pretty high twist — to balance the yarn and because I thought this would make for a harder-wearing yarn. This was a little bit tricky, because the polwarth and coopworth were spun with different amounts of twist…but the resulting yarn ended up being balanced, and I thought, looked pretty.

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The grey is the coopworth, undyed, and the blues to yellow is the BMFA polwarth. I was excited to see how this yarn would knit up. And I had just the pattern for it. Cookie A. Sock Club‘s February 2014 pattern called Possibly Maybe.

I skeined the yarn and set off on knitting the socks.

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I cranked away. I had 330 yards of this yarn, and since most of my socks were 300-320 yards… I thought that I had spun enough yarn.

However….

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Oops!

So.. the solution here? I had a few people weigh in. “NEON PINK”!!! Someone said. (I almost did it, too!) “Try to match one of the colors so it will not be so noticeable.” “It won’t show because you can keep your foot in your shoe…”

I decided, since I had a little bit of the polwarth singles left over, that I would ply that with something (unfortunately, I was out of the coopworth fiber!) to make the Toe Yarn.

Luckily, in the fall, I had spun some Wensleydale that had been dyed navy blue. the single was a little bit thicker than the ply of the Coopworth, but I thought that since Wensleydale is a long wool breed, that this would be close enough for the socks.

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The yarn felt similar, but clearly, it was a lot more blue-dominant than the original yarn.

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…But, the socks are done. The yarn, knit up, feels like wool hiking socks. I think that is what I will be using them for. Let the wearing phase of the experimentation begin! I will report back.

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