Saturday, December 16, 2006

Knit Two, Purl -- Well, One, Actually

While ds was home for Thanksgiving, we asked him for his Christmas list. Now, this is the same kid whose dearest wish, at age two, was "butter bears" -- a particular kind of cookie, and that was all he wanted for Christmas! He's always been that kind of minimalist. And this year is no exception. What he wants, more than anything, is a pair of hand-knit socks.

It has been years since I made socks. I haven't forgotten how, but the thing about socks is, once you make one, you have to make another one. Two isn't optional. So sock-knitting gets really old, really fast, and I've been buying socks for at least 15 years. (I do buy good-quality socks.) But what mom can resist the heartfelt plea of her offspring, especially one whose usual Christmas list consists of, "I have everything I want"? I got out the needles, and went shopping for Ragg wool, a particularly thick and warm wool that makes wonderful socks.

Obviously, I had left it too late in the season, and all that was left was a sock wool, dress-weight, made of half wool and half -- are you ready for this? -- bamboo. How do you make yarn out of a tree?!?!?! And I cast on 84 stitches, having measured the circumference of the leg in question (12") and the length from heel to the ball of the foot (8" -- the ball of the foot is where you start the toe decrease).

One of the really real down sides of hand-knit socks, and Ragg socks in particular, is that you have to rib the whole dratted leg. With dress socks, you can liven it up a bit, and I have three books of the most wonderful German socks with clocks and cables and little windowpane-style decorations to make the heart beat faster (and the work more interesting); but Ragg socks are work socks, and made with marled wool, so there's only one option: ribbing. Ribbing does have the advantage of elasticizing the garment, particularly desirable in socks, but the question is, what kind of ribbing is most elastic?

Elizabeth Zimmermann, the late knitting guru, thought that the ultimate in elasticity was knit 2, purl 2. Her daughter, Meg Swansen, maintained that knit 1 purl 1 was more elastic, and that was also my experience, till I once had to cast on an odd number of stitches and found that the only way to rib it effectively was -- knit 2, purl 1. Now, that is elastic. The single purl stitch pulls the two knitted stitches in so tightly that you wouldn't know there was a stitch in between them, yet the garment itself is not tight; it has a wonderful give. These days, I do all my ribbing in knit 2, purl 1; the other thing I like about it is its trinitarian aspect. When even your clothes have the Trinity as their foundation, the rest of you is more inclined that way, too.

So! 84 stitches, cast onto four double-pointed needles of 21 stitches each, ribbed in knit 2, purl 1. (You knit with a fifth needle -- this is German-style knitting, and that fifth needle gives you a truly circular shape, as opposed to the English/American knitting off a triangle of three needles with a fourth.) I spent an entire week trying to make that dratted bamboo yarn work, before putting it down and telling myself, "I'll get to it Eventually." My jaw would clench every time I picked it up to knit.

Chris telephoned last night, and I had to tell him that he probably wasn't going to get his socks in time for Christmas. The disappointment in his voice was so painful that after I hung up, I decided I had to try again. Then it dawned on me: The whole trouble was that bamboo yarn. I don't know why, but it just doesn't feel right in my fingers. So I ripped out the whole inch I'd succeeded in gritting my way through, scavenged in my wool box for some other sock yarn, and had my second brain wave: Put the two together. Came back out, combined the stupid bamboo yarn with some honest sheep's-wool yarn, and cast the 84 stitches back on.

I already have an inch and a half. He probably still won't get his socks in time for Christmas, but at that rate, there's at least a possibility he'll take them home with him when he goes back again after spending his Christmas break at home. Feels good!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Christmas Meme

Cribbed from Mimi's blog:

1. Egg nog or hot chocolate? It'd be eggnog, if we weren't fasting and all the store eggnog (which is pasteurized) is gone by Christmas Day.

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree? Oh, they get wrapped, of course!

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white? We've had both. Currently it's colored lights. The first time I saw white lights was in Germany in 1968, and I thought they were so boring. Now I really like them.

4. Do you hang mistletoe? No.

5. When do you put your decorations up? The day before St. Nicholas, December 5 -- that way, he knows ours is a Christmas house and he can visit it. ;-) We leave them up till "Russian Christmas," as we used to call January 7 in New York.

6. What is your favorite holiday dish (excluding dessert)? Babka. You can have it both Christmas and Easter.

7. Favorite holiday memory as a child: Probably the year I turned 15, my first ever Midnight Mass, and my first ever glass of wine. I was sitting on the sofa admiring the Christmas tree through a mildly alcoholic haze when my mother gasped and said, "Oh, I forgot all about your birthday!" And I said, "Oh! Yeah! I did too!" (It's December 24.)

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? My mother told me on my 7th birthday. She said she was afraid I'd hear about it at school.

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve? Didn't used to as a kid, but now we do.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas tree? With a variety of Christmas ornaments, colored lights, and "garlic" (garland). I like the white garland best, because if you get just the right kind, it really looks like snow.

11. Snow! Love it or dread it? Both, actually. I love the way it looks on the trees, especially the wet, "floompy" snow. But I hate shovelling it!

12. Can you ice skate? No, and I wish I could!

13. Do you remember your favorite gift? Probably my piano. It's as old as my son.

14. What's the most important thing about the holidays for you? The birth of our Lord, of course.

15. What is your favorite holiday dessert? German stollen! Buttery, nutty, smothered in powdered sugar -- sheer heaven.

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition? My stepfather is Polish, and on Christmas Eve, we all break a piece of oplatki, a thin wafer like a Catholic Communion wafer. Each person gets a piece, and then you share it with everyone around the table and wish each other a blessed Christmas. You never eat your own oplatek, but it's supposed to be gone by the time you leave the house.

17. What tops your tree? An angel, who invariable lurches to one side or the other. We've decided she's on a permanent bender.

18. Which do you prefer, giving or receiving? Giving, actually. I can never wait to see people's faces as they open their gifts.

19. What is your favorite Christmas song? Nothing that anyone would recognize who wasn't Orthodox! It's "Today the Virgin gives birth in a cave." There's something about "He Whom the heavens cannot contain is contained in a womb" that blows my mind every year. But if I have to give a more commonly known Christmas carol, it'd be "Carol of the Bells," hands down.

20. Candy canes: We never have them, but I like the idea of them.

21. Favorite Christmas movie? "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol" -- Alastair Sim version only -- are tied for first place.

22. What do you leave for Santa? We've never done that. As a kid, I'd never heard of it.