Knitting For “That Time of Year”

As my daughter pulls out the proverbial stops, as it were, for Christmas, and though I’m a person who belongs to no religion and celebrates no religiously-themed holidays, I simply cannot disappoint my daughter and grandchildren by appearing on their doorstep in December as Mormor (Grandmother) Scrooge.

I refuse to join the hoards of crazed shoppers who mob shops as soon as Thanksgiving is over, but I will stay in the quiet of my own home, pick up my needles and dig through my yarn stash.  Thankfully, there’s only a few people I knit for at Christmas:  three related to me by blood and two by marriage.  And I start that knitting in the summer, which is why, in October, I have only one more holiday item to knit!

erase_ublysweaterAfter seeing this book, however, I realized I’ve become THE grandmother who gives her grandchildren a hand knit sweater and “something educational” – a book, globe, microscope, art sets and the like.  Oh dear.  (I hope I’m not one step away from putting a package of tube socks in their Christmas stockings.)

Now my grandson is a gentle soul and wears anything I knit him because it’s from ME (reminding me of me – a child in sunny Marin County, California, who wore all the ski sweaters lovingly knit by her  grandmother back in Sørlandet).  My granddaughter, however, is the kind of child who lets you know what she REALLY thinks of your gifts.

Case in point:  I recently sent the grandchildren some puzzles, and they Skyped me the day they received it.  Grandson O thanked me enthusiastically and told me he loved puzzles.  My Granddaughter F thanked me but leaned into the camera and whispered “but I don’t really like puzzles.”  :)

This explains why everything  and anything I knit for Granddaughter F is some bright (blinding) shade of pink.  As that’s her favorite color, it allows her to find something she can honestly say she likes about her hand knit gift, even if it’s only the color!

Are your children and grandchildren brutally honest about the hand knit items you give them?!

Posted in Knitting, Miscellany | 20 Comments

It’s Getting Toward “That Time of Year”

… or “Steeling Myself for Christmas!”

Raised by a fundamentalist Jehovah’s Witness, I turned my back on organized religion long ago.  To my surprise, though I raised my daughter without organized religion or any related holidays, she’s become the Martha Stewart of holidays.   In fact, her garage is lined with shelves groaning under the weight of storage boxes containing an array of decorations appropriate for various holidays.

erasexmasboxChristmas seems to have become her personal favorite, as suggested by the many boxes in the garage marked “Xmas.”  As soon as Thanksgiving is over, the Thanksgiving decorations are returned to their box, and she opens the Christmas boxes and transforms her house into what would be described as a winter wonderland.  In fact, I think my grandchildren start counting the days until Christmas as soon as the first autumn leaf falls to the sidewalk!

This, of course, impacts this non-holiday-observing woman:  I show up for a week or two visit around Christmas and am included in the festivities.  Yet I know no Christmas songs – in either Norwegian or English – and any Christmas “traditions” I know only from watching Christmas-theme movies or listening to holiday songs.  And no matter how many times I’m compelled to listen to Christmas songs, nary a line of lyric stays in my head.

What I can do, however, is cook.  So on holidays I pull out my grandmother’s handwritten recipe book from husmorskol (housewife school) and start baking for my daughter and her family.

erase_ironIt goes without saying that I ready my three Jøtul jerner (irons) to make those goodies my mormor (grandmother) made with me and, 20 years later, with her first greatgrandchild (my daughter).

The rectangular goro jern (the iron on the far left) is used to make thin, rich cookies decadent with cream, butter, a dash of cognac, some lemon zest, sugar, cardamom, flour, a dash of potato flour and an egg.

I make krumkake (with the iron on the far right), one of Norway’s oldest cookies, with a dough laden with butter, eggs, sugar, cardamom and flour (and a dash of water).

In the center is my old vafler jern (waffle iron) with which I will make the spruced up version of the traditional Norwegian waffles, rommevafler,  by adding sour cream.

Here’s my dilemma:  As we no longer live within easy driving distance of my daughter and her family, how do I bring the gjerner with me this year?  Driving south means two days driving and through high mountain roads in the snow.  Flying is easier but I’m not sure I could get my jerner past the TSA folk! (I haven’t gotten over their confiscation of a set of my knitting needles soon after 911!)

Any ideas?  :)

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Fibers, Part 3c: Cellulosic Fibers – LEAVES

Leaf fiber is just that: fibers from plant leaves.  Leaves are cut from the plant, and then the fiber is removed (cut, pulled, scrapped or split), from the leaf.  The commonly used leaf fibers come from abacá, sisal, henequen and piña.

erase_abacaplant Native to the Philippines and sometimes referred to as “Manilla hemp,” abacá (which is not a hemp), is related to the banana tree (pic).  It is a commercial crop grown in Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Philippines.  While originally used to make ropes, floor mats, erase_abaca_matstable linens (pic), and even clothes, shoes and handbags, “now most is pulped and used in a variety of specialized paper products including tea bags, filter paper and banknotes” (Wikipedia).

erase_pineapplePiña is obtained from leaves of the pineapple plant (pic).  While like abacá it is used to make household furnishings, unlike abacá its pale fibers are soft.

erase_pinaIts fiber preparation is laborious: “[T]he leaf has to be cut first from the plant. Then the fiber is pulled or split away from the leaf. Most leaf fibers are long and somewhat stiff. Each strand of the piña fiber is hand scraped and is knotted one by one to form a continuous filament to be handwoven and then made into a piña cloth” (Wikipedia).

Thankfully, weaving with piña was recently revived in the past 20 years in the Philippines.  The resultant fabric is sheer and a little stiff.  (It can also be combined with other fibers, such as silk.)  “Pineapple silk is considered the queen of Philippine fabrics and is considered the fabric of choice of the Philippine elite” erase_barongembroidery(Wikipedia).  In the Philippines, these fabrics are erase_barongembroidered and used for clothing, such as the Barong Tagalog (Tagalog dress) in the picture to the right worn by President Magsaysay and Vice-President Garcia at their inauguration in 1953.

erase_sisal erase_potterybarysisalYou may have seen rugs made from sisal (such as those sold by Pottery Barn) or sisal in wallpapers.  As explained by Natural Fibres, “After harvest, its leaves are cut and crushed in order to separate the pulp from the fibres.”  Sisal fiber is coarse and hard, “unsuitable for textiles or fabrics. But it is strong, durable and stretchable, does not absorb moisture easily, resists saltwater deterioration, and has a fine surface texture that accepts a wide range of dyes.”  Natural Fibres also notes that “it is used as reinforcement in plastic composite materials,” such as automobile components and furniture and that it has the promise of becoming a substitute for asbestos in brake pads!

While erase_henequenHenequen is, in this post, listed last, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, it is the third most important leaf fiber.  “The henequen plant is native to Mexico, where it has been a source of textile fibre since pre-Columbian times. It was introduced to Cuba in the 19th century, becoming the country’s chief fibre crop by the 1920s. The fibre is sometimes referred to as Yucatan, or Cuban, sisal.

erase_liquordehHenequen is in the  agave family and is used for brush bristles, rope and twine.  Like sisal, it is degraded by salt water, so if you’re a sailor navigating the oceans, you’d be well advised to not use henequen rope.  :)

Interestingly – and unlike the other leaf fibers discussed here, it is also used to make an alcoholic drink:  Mexico’s Licor del henequén.

This ends Part 3 on cellulosic fibers.  I am working on future posts that compare the qualities of the various fibers I’ve covered.  I hope readers are finding these posts if not useful at least informative!




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Fibers, Part 3b: Cellulosic Fibers – SEEDS

Three seeds are used in fiber production:

kapok1.  Kapok (from the Ceiba pentandra aka Java kapok tree aka silk cotton tree, pictured at the right), which is used primarily for fiberfill;

erase_coir2.  coir (obtained from the fibers between the outer shell and husk of a coconut), which is used primarily for making floormats, area rugs, doormats and brushes; and

3.  cotton.

erase_cottonOf these three, cotton has been and continues to be a very important seed fiber used by humans.   Cotton is a soft, fluffy seed fiber that comes from the boll (a seed pod).  Each boll has about 7-8 seeds in which the fibers grow.  When the boll is ready, it opens and the fibers spread out.  Cotton bushes are 3-6 feet/1-2 meters high.

Cotton has been grown for thousands of year; it was used by people in Mexico, Peru, India, Egypt and China long before it ever hit the shores of the New World.  The European colonists planted cotton soon after their arrival – at least the colonists in the southern part of what is now the U.S.

erase_slavesCotton requires a long growing season and temperate climate with good rainfall or irrigation.  Why?  Because cellulose won’t form in temperatures below 70F/21C, and cotton is almost pure cellulose!  Not surprisingly, cotton grew well in the rolling lands of the southern colonies, later states.  (The wealth of the antebellum South, in fact, rested on three labor intensive crops:  cotton, rice and indigo.)

erase_cottonginIn the U.S., cotton production was spurred on by Eli Whitney’s invention (patented in 1794) of the cotton gin, a mechanized process separating the cotton fiber from the boll.  The cotton gin also cemented slavery in the southern U.S., long after it ended in the northern U.S.

erase_cottonpickerFor a long time, cotton could only be picked (painfully and laboriously) by hand; John Rust’s mechanized cotton picker wouldn’t be patented until 1933.  In the southern U.S. that back-breaking work was done, for the most part, by African-American slaves.  Yet the Civil War didn’t stop abusive labor practices; poor African Americans and white Americans continued to pick cotton – to the modern day, in fact.  (I remember in the mid-1990s, an African-American student explained to me that his football scholarship was only a means to an end; he was determined to do well academically so he could succeed in business and take care of his mother.  His mother was a single woman who picked cotton in order to put food on the table.)

Okay, I’ve drifted off topic a bit.

Whether picked by hand or machine, the cotton goes to a cotton gin where the seeds are separated from the fibers.

  • The fibers – lint – are pressed into bales and ready to be sold to a spinning mill.
  • The seeds will be covered with very short fibers called linters.  These are then removed and can be used in producing rayon and acetate.
  • The seeds are crushed to obtain cottonseed oil.

Cotton fibers range from 1 to 2 micrometers (one thousandth of a millimeter or one 25-thousandth of an inch) in diameter.  Natural cotton is a creamy white though dulls with age and can be grey-ish if rained on right before it is harvest.  If you have cotton fiber with brown flecks, that cotton has been poorly ginned.  Those brown flecks are bits of organic matter (e.g., plant parts or even dirt) and, of course, decrease the quality (and thus price) of the cotton.

There are some natural-colored cotton.  According to Wikipedia,

Naturally pigmented green cotton derives its color from caffeic acid, a derivative of innamic acid, found in the suberin (wax) layer which is deposited in alternating layers with cellulose around the outside of the cotton fiber.  While green colored cotton comes from wax layers, brown and tan cottons derive their color from tannin vacuoles in the lumen of the fiber cells.

Long staple cotton fibers, sometimes identified as Pima, Superpima, long-staple or extra-long-staple, can be made into smoother and stronger fabric and are generally costlier than regular, ol’ cotton fiber.

Estimates for world production are about 25 million tonnes or 110 million bales annually.  While the U.S. is still the largest exporter of cotton, China is now the major producer (though most of it is used domestically).  The top 10 producers of cotton (in order from largest to smallest) are:  China, India, the U.S., Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Australia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Greece.  According to Wikipedia, 2.5% of the earth’s arable land is used for cotton production.

Interesting side note (from Wikipedia):  Cotton has been genetically modified for resistance to glyphosate a broad-spectrum herbicide discovered by Monsanto which also sells some of the Bt cotton seeds to farmers. There are also a number of other cotton seed companies selling GM cotton around the world.  … Cotton has gossypol, a toxin that makes it inedible. However, scientists have silenced the gene that produces the toxin, making it a potential food crop.

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Do You Really Want That Cup of Coffee?


Remembering all the students who came to my classes or office hours clutching large cups of coffee (a term I use loosely as any smell of coffee was overshadowed by the scents of chocolate and carmel and the drinks were frequently topped with inches of whipped cream and liberally drizzled chocolate syrup), I found this post very interesting!

Originally posted on Larry's Critique:

A friend of mine recently told me that she and her family were spending $60 per week at a coffee house. (It is a popular company, and I see no reason to actually comment on the company.  But let’s just say it rhymes with, ummm, car trucks.) That $60 per week equates to $8.57 per day (7 days per week) or $12 per day (if we assume they spent the money over five days per week). When someone tells me how much they are spending per day, I always extend the numbers out to a year. In this case if we assume a 52 week year, the expense grows to $3,120 per year. I was further told that my friend had been buying coffee in this manner for approximately 10 years.

This scenario provides a great financial planning exercise.

First, I would ask what are the “opportunity costs”

View original 541 more words

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Fibers, Part 3a: Cellulosic Fibers – BAST

I took a break from this series due to the summer heat, visitors and vacations.  Now that the weather is cooling … :)

Natural cellulosic fibers (also called cellulose fibers), come in three forms, one of which is bast.  Bast fibers include flax, ramie, hemp, jute and kenaf.

The plants that provide us bast fibers are usually tall, requiring stiff stalk fibers to stay up.  Bast fibers are collected from the inner bark (called phloem) that surrounds the stem.  A concoction of pectins, gums and waxes seal together the bast fibers.  Before being able to use the bast fibers, that concoction must be dissolved.

eraseDewRettingA bacterial process called retting is used to do that and is done in (1) fields (aka land or dew retting), (2) bonds or pools (3) tanks, or (4) with chemicals (e.g., sodium hydroxide aka caustic soda or lye).  The picture to the right is of flax undergoing dew retting from Sweden’s Ingeborrap Folk Museum.)


After the retting process (and washing and drying), is scutching.  This removes material from the fibers and separates the fibers from each other.  Once done by knives or swords (as demonstrated by the Ingeborrap Folk Museum), nowadays the eraseScutchingmachinestalks are put between metal rollers.  The scutching machine produces a thick roll of flax called a “lap” (pic from University of Leeds).

eraseOldscutchingmachineOf course, scutching machines go back a ways, as captured by the picture of “Brasier’s treble-patent Breaking and Scutching Machinery.”  The scutching machine was invented in 1797 by Neil Snodgrass of Johnstone (near Glasgow), Scotland but not patented. It was later improved (and patented) by William and Andrew Crighton of Manchester.

eraseHacklingNext, hackling removes short and irregular fibers and puts the fibers in a parallel layout.

New Hampshire Heritage and Traditional Arts demonstrates the process near one of the only known flax retting ponds in the state:

The flax retting pond is man made with the bottom lined with rocks so the flax could be laid out on the rocks, and then weighted down with clumps of sod to prevent the straw from floating to the surface. The natural microorganisms in the pond create the perfect environment for a retting process that can take 4-6 days- which is much quicker than the month it usually takes for dew retting out in a field.  



Long popular with fiber artists and crafters, linen is the fiber made from flax.  Archeologists, in fact, have found pieces of linen in prehistoric dwellings in Switzerland and as well as mummy cloths several thousand years old in Egypt.  Flax has always provided more than just fiber, however.  As noted by Libeco (a company that accounts for more than 60% of total Belgian linen production and sits between Bruges and the French border):

Always ecologically-correct, every part of the flax plant is at man’s service. The seeds provide oil for dyes, paint, cosmetics and floor coverings. When ground, they form a flour used in poultices. The fibers have been used as sutures. The by-products of linen production are processed into a pulp used for banknotes or fiberboard. However, flax is most renowned as the raw material for an extraordinary fabric.

eraseHempProcessingHemp is processed similarly.  It resembles flax but is not as fine as the better quality flax and thus was never popularly used for clothing.  Though not elastic or pliable, it is very strong and does not rot easily in water.   Thus, it was a great fiber to use for twine, ropes and cords.

erase_hempfieldFor those who wonder about the relationship between hemp and marijuana (and that’s a picture of a hemp field in France), hemp “is a commonly used term for high-growing varieties of the Cannabis plant and its products, which include fiber, oil, and seed. Hemp is refined into products such as hemp seed foods, hemp oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, and fuel.  Other variants of the herb Cannabis sativa are widely used as a drug, commonly known as marijuana.”  (Wikipedia)

erase_raimieRamie (aka grasscloth or reah) too has a history that goes back many thousands years.  comes from a plant is in the nettle family and needs hot, humid climates.  Its fibers are separated from the stalk by decortication while the plants are fresh (not dried out).  Though the ramie plant has white hairs on its underside, they do not sting!

As it is not a durable fiber, usually ramie is blended with other fibers.  It is similar to linen in absorbency and density but doesn’t dye as well as cotton.  Though it is resistant to insects, rotting and mildew (!), it is not a fiber you want to use to make linens:  Because it has a high molecular crystallinity it isn’t resilient or elastic.  Ramie is stiff and brittle and will break if folded repeatedly in the same place.

eraseJuterettingJute is one of the cheapest textile fibers you will find.  (Pic of retting jute from Wikipedia Commons.)  Its fibers, however, are short and brittle, so it is weak.  Mostly jute is used to make burlap bags for sugar and coffee, carpet backing, rope and twine.  To read more about jute, visit India’s Office of the Jute Commissioner.

erase_kenafLastly is kenaf.  Its leaves are edible but it, like jute, is used mostly for burlap bags, twines, ropes, paper and various industrial purposes.  And its plants grow high, as seen by the picture to the right.

Kenaf is cultivated in many countries, including the U.S. (though in the US mostly for animal bedding and feed).  Its fiber has many uses, including (but not limited to), for making wood, insulation,  soil-less potting mixes, packing material, and material that absorbs oil and liquids.  Ford and BMW, in fact, are making the material for the automobile bodies in part from kenaf.

erase_KenafSeedPodsIts seeds yield an edible vegetable oil that is high in omega polyunsaturated fatty acids, both necessary for normal growth and health and important for reducing cholesterol and heart disease.

And kenaf has pretty amazing seed pods! (pic source)


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Peace, Fiber Work & Health

For the last 10 years I have lived with a serious disease that is exacerbated by stress. Thus the calm and centered feeling I get from engaging in any fiber work – from knitting to weaving – has been crucial for me.  Part of coping – in addition to the medical establishment, exercise and nutrition, of course – has been (sadly) no longer reading literature from my academic field.  (I get both excited at staying current in my field and frustrated because I have no “outlet” for it: no graduate students to work with, no undergrads to spell bind, no clients to consult with, no books and articles to publish.)

That said, I read with semi-regularity (including Harvard Business Review, New York Times, The Guardian, Mother Jones and Slate) but nothing close like I did before I retired.  Thor subscribes to several journals that I read: Bloomberg’s, Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, The Economist, and Time (though the latter is, in my opinion, closer to People than serious journalism).

The most recent edition of Barron’s, however, got my ire up.  I have been annoyed since reading the cover store by Barron’s columnist Gene Epstein, “Job? No Thanks.”  Epstein suggests that the vast majority of people receiving unemployment benefits (UI) would rather collect UI than work.  That is an unfounded implication; UI benefits are limited in duration, small in amount, and not accompanied by health benefits.  (Not surprisingly, also left unsaid by Epstein is that UI amounts are subject to taxation, thus lowering an already small amount.)

eraseBarron'sEpstein also implies that the people who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments are cheats and frauds.  All one has to do is look at the cover of Barron’s 9/1/14 issue:  It pictures a smiling man wearing a bathrobe and slippers, carrying a mug walking down a large curved driveway from his large house toward his U.S. mail box.

The assumption of the viewer, of course, is that the man is about to open his mailbox and pull out his UI or SSDI check.

Epstein states that, “In 2013, the average payout per [SSDI] recipient was $1,146 per month.”  If you extend that out to a year, it would be $13,752.  It is highly doubtful that $13,752 would cover the tax bill, upkeep and landscaping on the house presented on Barron’s cover – never mind the food, insurance, tuition payments, childcare costs, clothes and utility expenses.

eraseBarron's2dYet on page 21 the same man is lounging in a nice hammock on a lush, green lawn.

Might there be fraud on the part of SSDI or UI recipients?  Of course; there is fraud everywhere – personal tax returns, corporate tax returns, government contracts, bank bailouts (etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum).  But Epstein’s unfounded implication is that the vast majority is committing some kind of fraud – an assumption I’d expect from first year undergraduates, not someone with a master’s in economics.

Further, the statistics Epstein used in the growth of the number of people receiving UI and SSDI are not given in context.  The changes wrought by the Great Recession were far beyond the responsibility of the average worker, many of whom were forced onto UI and SSDI rolls as a last alternative.   If you want to reduce the number of UI recipients and reduce the number of frauds in the SSDI rolls, basic economics instructs employers to offer higher salaries, benefits and provide adequate training, all of which are sorely lacking in this economy.

Six years after the Great Recession, pointing the finger at those least able to defend themselves is obscene and far beyond a respectable periodical.  It is reminiscent of “yellow journalism.”

Epstein’s article is yet another article that is red herring – a misdirection – designed to take public attention away from those in our society receiving the vast bulk of economic benefits over the last 30 years.  Instead, it puts the spotlight on the most vulnerable, ignoring two salient facts (thanks to Dave Gilson in “Survival of the Richest” for summarizing this info in Mother Jones; see also Emmanuel Saez, Ph.D., “Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States ):

  1. for every $1 earned by families in the bottom 90%, the families in
    the top 0.01% earn nearly $1,000;
  2. the grossly disparate change in income since 1980:
    (a)    – 24%  for the bottom 90%
    (b)  + 46%   for the top 1-10%
    (c) + 124%   for the top 1%
    (d) + 232%  for the top 0.1%
    (e) + 327%  for the top 0.01%

According to research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman (assistant professor at London School of Economics, currently a visiting professor at UC Berkeley), the current disparity in wealth in the U.S. is greater than what the U.S. saw in the 1920s:


If you are interested, I recommend viewing Saez and Zucman’s March 2014 presentation “The Distribution of US Wealth, Capital Income and Returns Since 1913.

eraseNYr1932Referring back to the picture of the cover of Barron’s, I think Barron’s had it backwards: The picture better portrays the 1% of wage earners in the US – not those receiving UI and SSDI. Before I go back to my knitting, here’s my last words on this topic.  Maybe Barron’s next cover could contain a picture similar to the November 19, 1932 cover of The New Yorker. 

Is what I am describing “class warfare?”  Hmmm … take a peek at what billionaire capitalist extraordinaire Warren E. Buffett said in a 2006 interview about taxation:

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

I suggest they’ve already won.  But here’s a question to consider:  How long will an ever growing number of laborers across the world continue to work for an ever shrinking group of wealthy families?

Enough of this.  Before I start quoting Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other, I have to close down my laptop, make a cup of herb tea, curl up on the couch and finish knitting the fingerless mittens (designed by KiwiYarnsKnits).

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