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Friday, 24 April 2015

TUTORIAL - Pontus Pencil Case

When I took one of the very first copies of Finishing Touch home last year, both my teenagers were immediately rather taken with the Pontus Pencil Case. They loved the chunky texture, contrasting zip and bright colours we'd made them in - easy to find in your school bag, apparently.

I promised them both a Pontus there and then - eager as always to furnish them with anything handknitted they will accept from me. I guess the idea of a teenager thinking that something is cool and desirable still somehow makes it so. I planned on one each in their Christmas stockings - filled with all sorts of edgy stationary, and personalised with a fun zip pull.

Planning was as far as I got, and as we headed into April, my son reminded me that he was still rather partial to the idea of a Pontus, especially with exams looming. I shuffled guiltily, gave a reluctant last look at the project currently on my needles and gave in. It wasn't long before I was delving into my stash of MillaMia Aran to see what I had.

Therein lay problem number 1. I needed a full ball of yarn to make the pencil case, and though I did have full balls they were all mentally allocated to larger projects. I found scraps left over from various other Christmas gift projects, and was rueing the fact that his favourite colours teal and ochre were only half balls, when I remembered the construction of the Pontus - knitted in 2 separate pieces - and had a lightning bolt moment. I would make it a pencil case of 2 halves!

The rest is history, apart from the emergence of problem number 2 when I realised that I had never actually sewn a zip into anything I'd knitted before . . . you'll see from the following pictures that the zip is in, and it works. Enough said.

The following tutorial is really an overview of the stages I went through in the making of the pencil case. If you haven't picked up stitches along a cast on edge before, the pictures will be useful. Likewise, picking up the 9 stitches along the side edge for the garter edging might offer some guidance.

1) Picking up stitches along the cast on edge (right side facing). I've used a cable cast on so it's easy to see where to insert the needle to pick up. Make sure you go through both 'legs' of the stitch for a neat seam.

2) Make sure to go into the same place as you pick up every time for a perfect seam. When picking up exactly the same number of stitches as the cast on be aware that the very first and last stitches sometimes get a bit lost.

3) Picking up stitches for the garter stitch border along the side edge. There are naturally occurring gaps between the stitches but you may sometimes have to pick up another stitch between the holes. Make sure you pick them up as evenly along the given edge as possible to avoid any obvious gaps or puckering. Again, be sure to pick up in the same gap in the row every time for perfect neatness.

4) Once you have your knitted piece finished, you will need to cut out the lining. Pin the flat piece (before you seam it) to the fabric and mark a 1/2" seam allowance all the way around with tailors chalk.

5) Now pin the bottom seams on both your knitted fabric and lining and stitch together. This forms the 3D shape.
6) Time for the zip! Pin and stitch in one side at a time, taking care not to stretch the knitted fabric. This can be a little tricky, but I found the most important thing here was to make sure my stitches were small and fairly close to the edge. Using the same colour cotton will make your small stitches almost invisible.
7) Pin the lining to the inside and the hand stitch in place. Remember that you will want all of the rough side of your seams to be hidden inside, so plan ahead for that.
8) Add the garter stitch loop as detailed in the Pontus pattern, or make something small and fun with scraps for added kid appeal! This cute chap is the Tiny Dinosaur from Teeny Tiny Mochimochi by Anna Hrachovec made with some left over Naturally Soft Merino sportweight in teal. I know my son is sixteen, but I say you're never too old for great knits, or cute dinosaurs!
(posted by Max)

Friday, 17 April 2015


If the weather has been miserable where you are this week, you may want to look away now. We don't often get the opportunity to boast about glorious sunshine in April here in the UK, but this week has seen temperatures warm enough for short sleeves and the emergence of some very pale legs! Of course, I shed my winter plumage with some reluctance as it means putting away the cosy sweaters and handknit socks that I've been wrapping myself happily in all winter long, but it also prompts a spell of cast-on-itis - particularly for great transitional pieces such as shawls.

The idea that shawls are the reserved for little old ladies, or seen only in popular television costume dramas has long been shut up in the outmoded closet thanks to some truly beautiful, contemporary designs by many of the top independent designers. That shawls make up almost half of the top 40 patterns on Ravelry's Hot Right Now board at the moment, gives you some idea of the popularity of a well designed shawl, and there are a number of reasons why they have emerged as the go-to item for a huge majority of knitters.

Like socks they are portable enough to throw into your bag and work on during an early morning train commute, or while waiting for the kids to come out of school. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be a showcase for some particularly precious yarn in a breathtaking colour. The long rows can be cathartic tv or knitnight knitting in the simplest garter stitch design, or provide an immensely satisfying lacework challenge on a quiet sunday morning. Attend any kind of knitting/yarn/fibre festival wearing your fabulous shawl and be immediately welcomed into the fellowship of like-minded knitters - many of whom are likely to stop you to admire your handiwork . . . well, who doesn't want to be part of such a prestigious club AND praised for their knitting prowess?? The shawl has so much to offer!

There are some stunning shawls to be found and knitted - in every imaginable weight and type of yarn. I have selected a few of my favourites here which call specifically for a sportweight yarn - an ideal weight for this time of year and perfect for using some of your Naturally Soft Merino.

Still featuring consistently on the Hot Right Now board and the perfect project for those who want to be brave with colour choices while enjoying the gentle, soothing rhythm of garter stitch is 'Drachenfels' by Melanie Berg. This is a large shawl which takes approx. 900m of yarn (7-8 balls of NSM) - the pattern costs around £4.36.

Inspired by the huge popularity of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is the 'Outlander Shawl' by Rachel Roden - a riot of travelling cables, lace and fabulous colour! Downloadable from Ravelry for £4.67, you could be watching the latest episode of Outlander while knitting your shawl . . . just a thought . . .
Want something in a single colour with a touch of geometric style? Then Parquet Tiles by Rose Beck is the shawl for you. Trying knitting in putty grey or forget-me-not for a soft neutral - the small size takes just 366m which is about 3 balls of NSM. Pattern costs £3.94 from Ravelry.

Easy garter stitch and a simple motif on the edge make Pipers Journey by Paula Emons-Fuessle (aka the Knitting Pipeline podcaster) the perfect choice for travel knitting. Taking just 3 balls of NSM this would look great in fuchsia or grass for a splash of spring colour. Pattern costs £3.43 from Ravelry.

Ready for something a little more challenging? The Ruxton Shawl by Dee O'Keefe has multiple pattern changes which create great texture over the triangular shape and is finished with a pretty picot edging. Requiring around 622m (approx. 5 balls of  NSM), this makes a substantial shawl which will keep you warm through the cold spring evenings. Pattern is approx. £4.12 from Ravelry. 

Elegant in its simplicity and the most attractive way to showcase a bold statement colour is The Big Blue shawl by Meg Gadsbey. The name suggests blue but I think this could look equally splendid in our Limited Edition teal or pumpkin NSM. Another small shawl that takes just 500m (approx. 4 balls of NSM), the pattern costs around £3.43 from Ravelry.

Finally, the only free pattern in my pattern pick is Kottarainen by Heidi Alander - a 2 coloured shawl that makes the most of contrasting stripes and a beautiful eyelet lace border. A subtle colour choice here could make for a very elegant summer cover-up - try some close neutrals in fawn and snow or petal and putty grey.

I haven't provided links to all the colours of Naturally Soft Merino in the text, but you can see all 20 colours in the image below. Have I convinced you that a shawl is the perfect spring/summer cover-up? And if so, which shawl, and which colour? Tempting isn't it??

(posted by Max)

Friday, 10 April 2015

INSPIRATION - Girls Dresses

Easter always feels like a significant time of change in my knitting diary. With so much talk about new birth, eggs, chicks and baby bunnies I can't help but think about putting aside my heavy blankets and sweaters and planning exciting new projects perfect for Spring.

That said, I don't count myself as a seasonal knitter at all. My only concession to the changing seasons in relation to my knitting is to return more solidly to my favoured yarn weights - 4 ply, sport and DK and to look for garments that will make ideal transitional garments for me and my family that will see us from a chilly spring right through to a mild Autumn.

This week the weather here in the UK has warmed considerably - in fact today, we have been promised 18 degrees C which is positively tropical for this time of year! Of course warmer weather means garments that are versatile and ideal for layering with other light pieces make the best choice.

For the little girls, I can't think of a better option than a knitted dress. A gentle A-line, with short sleeves will suit all body shapes and looks equally stylish teamed with a long sleeved tee, tights and boots for early spring, as it does with a pair of cute sandals and a pretty sun hat in the summer.

I've curated the MillaMia dresses from all of our collections here so you can see them all in one place. It was helpful to me to view them together - I notice that we have pretty much covered all bases! There are stocking stitch dresses that are very simple knits and make the most of a bright splash of bold colour, as well as cable and fairisle. And with the addition of a pretty ribbon the most practical dress is suddenly transformed into a dress fit for any party. Dress
Pernilla Dress from Bright Young Things in fuchsia, peacock and grass ranges from age 1-2 to 4-5 years Dress&sort=&type= Dress
The Filippa Dress is a labour of love in beautiful, tradition fairisle and the Lina makes practical look pretty too - both from Wonderland in sizes 1-2 to 5-6 years and 2-3 to 6-7 years respectively Cable Dress&sort=&type= Dress&sort=&type=
 Lisa Cable Dress is stylish and wearable and the Madeleine Dress gives plenty of scope to be brave and playful with your colour choices - both from Little Rascals in sizes 1-2 to 6-7 years and 2-3 to 6-7 years respectively Dress
The Nina Dress from Close Knit Gang is soft and comfortable in putty grey, and the contrasting ribbon makes it super pretty too

Lastly, the Carlota Dress in the top picture has been by far the most popular dress pattern we have ever published. Knitters tell me that the bold and unusual colour combinations together with simple shaping all in stocking stitch make it such an interesting and enjoyable knit. And what about the little girls wearing these lovingly handknit Carlota dresses? Well they just love a riot of colour that is simply a joy to wear.
(posted by Max)

Thursday, 2 April 2015

CULTURE - A Swedish Easter

If you are lucky enough to be invited to spend Easter with Swedish friends, be prepared for visual and gastronomic treats! Imagine a Smörgåsbord - with all its connotations of abundance and variety - delightfully laden with herring, eggs, spirits, snapps on a table simply decorated in the midst of a gathering of family and friends, and you will be close to realising a traditional Swedish Easter.

Along with the traditional pickled fish, there is often a creamy casserole of potato, onion and anchovy called Janssons Frestelse and in the month before Easter a delicious dessert called semlor - a cardamom spiced soft bun filled with almond paste and freshly whipped cream. The Swedes have a love of eggs all year round, but at Easter there are eggs of all shapes, sizes and types to be found! And if these aren't to be eaten, then beautifully painted, or dipped hard boiled eggs are used to decorate the birch branches found in many Swedish homes at Easter.

Birch twigs or påskris, serve as a reminder of the suffering of Christ, and were traditionally used by young people to lash each other on Good Friday, although they are now just used decoratively. Children love to hang pretty eggs and feathers on the birch twigs - eggs symbolic of rebirth, and the feathers signifying the end of Winter - although there are often small toy witches hanging too!

The Swedish Easter Witches are steeped in history and tradition, but much like Halloween have become more of a game or event that the children take part in. Girls happily dress up as witches, with oversized skirts, shawls, head scarves and aprons; faces painted with freckles and red cheeks and then go door to door with a copper kettle collecting treats. They may have drawn Easter cards to offer in exchange for chocolate or candy.

This tradition comes from an old belief that witches would fly to a fictitious German mountain called Blåkulla on the Thursday before Easter to party with the devil. People would light bonfires to scare the witches away as they flew back from their cavorting - something that is still marked today with fireworks in the days leading up to Easter Sunday. Until fairly recently it was still common to hide or lock away all tools such as brooms, shovels and sticks that could be used by witches to fly on, to prevent them from getting to Blåkulla. The tops of church towers were believed to be places where the witches would stop and rest on their journey to the mountain on Maundy Thursday, and as tradition tells it - the best place and time to look for a witch!

The birch twig tradition has inspired me to make my own Easter decoration, although I have used a twig 'tree' rather than birch twigs and crocheted some eggs to hang with a few pretty feathers too. I used small amounts of Naturally Soft Merino in Snow, Lilac Blossom, Petal, Daisy Yellow, Putty Grey, Seaside and Forget-me-not with snow as the main colour and the others just for the bottom half of each egg to make them look as though they have been dipped. I used a 3mm hook to give a nice firm fabric and the polystyrene egg 'inners' are 70mm - I bought mine from Hobbycraft at £1.25 for 3.

I am including the pattern for the crocheted eggs here, although I must first say it isn't a MillaMia pattern and has only been tested by me - so feel free to use it at your own risk!


Foundation Ring: Using colour A (snow), a 3mm hook and leaving a long tail approx. 30cms long, Ch 4 and join with a sl st to form a ring.
Round 1: Ch 2 (counts as 1 dc), 3 dc into ring (4dc).
Round 2: 2 dc into each dc to end (8 dc).
Round 3: *1 dc in next dc, 2 dc in next dc* 4 times (12 dc).
Round 4: *1 dc in next 2 dc, 2 dc in next dc* 4 times (16 dc).
Round 5: *1 dc in next 3 dc, 2 dc in next dc* 4 times (20 dc).
Round 6: *1 dc in next 4 dc, 2 dc in next dc* 4 times (24 dc).
Round 7: *1 dc in next 5 dc, 2 dc in next dc* 4 times (28 dc).
Round 8: *1 dc in next 6 dc, 2 dc in next dc* 4 times (32 dc).
Round 9: *1 dc in next 7 dc, 2 dc in next dc* 4 times (36 dc).
Rounds 10-15: 1 dc in each dc to end.

Change to colour B (contrast of your choice) and fit crochet over your polystyrene egg. You will now crochet the remainder with the 'egg' inside.

Round 16: *dc2tog, dc in next 16 dc* 2 times (34 dc).
Round 17: 1 dc in each dc to end.
Round 18: *dc2tog, dc in next 15 dc* 2 times (32 dc).
Round 19: 1 dc in each dc to end.
Round 20: *dc2tog, dc in next 6 dc* 4 times (28 dc).
Round 21: *dc2tog, dc in next 5 dc* 2 times (24 dc).
Round 22: *dc2tog, dc in next 4 dc* 2 times (20 dc).
Round 23: *dc2tog, dc in next 3 dc* 2 times (16 dc).
Round 24: *dc2tog, dc in next 2 dc* 2 times (12 dc).
Round 18: dc2tog to end.

Leave a long tail, thread needle and draw stitches up to close the small hole at the bottom of the egg.
Stitch in all ends.
Using the long cast on tail, ch 30 to create the hanging loop at the top of the egg. Secure to main body with a sl st and fasten end securely.

Lastly, you may want to give your home a little more Swedish flavour this Easter and so I have a pattern pick of the best witch patterns I could find on Ravelry! Of course, these will be just perfect for Halloween later in the year too . . .

'Witch' by Sarah Gasson costs just £1

'Jazzy the Good Witch' by Sayjai Thawornsupacharoen costs $4.99 / £3.45 approx.

 Glad påsk - Happy Easter!
(posted by Max)

Friday, 27 March 2015

TUTORIAL - Magic Loop

There are a couple of techniques that have revolutionised my knitting life. Regular readers will already be saying 'mattress stitch' quietly to themselves - which makes me giggle as you all know what a passionate advocate I am (to the point of obsession!) for utilising this incredible finishing technique wherever possible. But the other technique that I find myself turning to for all of my knitting in the round, is magic loop.

I was a doggedly determined DPN user for socks and sleeves for many years until I taught myself magic loop, and since mastering it I really haven't looked back. It has so many advantages in comparison to using double points.

To begin with, many knitters find loose 'ladders' appearing between needles when using double points. It's a common enough problem and one that can be resolved by keeping a good tight tension between those joins, but is an issue that virtually disappears when using magic loop. Of course magic loop reduces the amount of gaps between needles to just 2, and for me anyway, it's easier to manage the tension between the needles as they are closer together by virtue of the way you knit from one to the other.

Another advantage is that the quantity of stitches is really only limited by the length of the cable you use. As long as you have enough spare cable on either side for manoeuvrability, then you can even knit a sweater in the round using magic loop. At the other end of the spectrum, you can go right down to just a few stitches - 4! on your needles and still manage them fairly well. At this end it becomes a little tricky but it means that you can decrease right down to the very tip of a toe or the top of a hat without having to change to clunky DPN's.

I thought it would be useful to share this technique here in the form of a picture tutorial. It's the method I used for knitting the cute Easter Egg Hats last week, and as I mentioned can be used for knitting socks, sleeves, baby clothes, mittens, toys and even adult garments in the round. Remember you can convert flat pieces to knitting in the round for something like a sleeve - you will just need to subtract the stitches allowed for seaming - usually 1 at either side.

A couple of tips for using magic loop before the tutorial:
1) Make sure your circular needle is at the least 80cms. I find this is adequate for small items, but 100cms is often more 'comfortable'. You will adjust to the length that suits you best as you become more used to magic loop.
2) Invest in a circular needle that has a nice supple cable. Some cheaper circulars have stiff, plastic cables that will hinder your progress because they are just too inflexible. The circular I am using in the tutorial is from Signature Needle Arts which was a very thoughtful gift from a friend in the US (where they are made), but I find that Addi which are available much more widely in Europe are equally good. A simple Google search will show you where you can buy them locally.
3) Don't pinch the cable too hard when you are dividing your stitches on the initial row after casting on - you don't want a kink in your cable!

1) Cast on. An even number works best for equal division of stitches.

2) Find the middle of the stitches - in this instance I cast on 32 so I found the middle after stitch number 16. Slide the stitches down so that you can pull the cable through this 'gap' between the 2 equal numbers of stitches - this is the part where you don't want to pinch that cable too hard!

3) Slide 1 set of 16 stitches up to the end of one needle and the other set of 16 stitches up onto the other so that they are lying parallel and with your working yarn coming from the stitches on the back needle.

4) It is vital here - before you begin to actually knit the first round, that you ensure your stitches are not twisted in any way. I manage this by ensuring that the edge of stitches - the nice even bottom of the stitches is facing in towards the centre and I hold them firmly between my thumb and fingers so that they don't twist as I'm knitting. Some knitters recommend that you knit the last cast on stitch with the first to try and eradicate any gap on this first round. I have found that it doesn't really make much difference and so I just start to knit without trying to avoid the gap. On the second round however, I make sure I keep the first couple of stitches quite tight and this generally removes any excess yarn between the needles on the first round. You can of course use the cast on tail to tidy it up more at the end if you need to.

5) Using the 'back' needle to knit the stitches off of the 'front' needle, continue to the end of this first needle.

6) When you have reached the end of this first needle your needle in the left hand will now be 'free'. You now need to turn your work 180 degrees so that this free needle is at the front and the needle with all the stitches you have just knitted (along with the working yarn) is at the back - effectively swapping back needle for front and front for back.

7) To begin the next needle you will need to shuffle your stitches a little. Push the front needle through from the left (and pull the cable through) so that your stitches are up onto the needle ready to be knitted. Now pull the back needle through so that the stitches you have just knitted are sitting on the cable and the needle is free ready to knit from the front set. You will always use the back needle to knit the stitches onto, and your yarn always needs to come from the back needle.

8) This picture shows progress after the very first row. You can see that there is a long strand of yarn between the needles, but as I mentioned earlier, you will be able to tighten this up in the subsequent row. As a side note, these early rows can be a little tricky to manage, but trust me - once you have knitted a few rows, it gets a whole lot easier!

9) This picture shows my knitting mid row - with the cable loops or 'bunny ears' typical of the magic loop method. There is nothing much more to the technique than that - keep on in this way, knitting the stitches off of the front needle using the back one, turning your work, pulling the cable through and starting again. If your knitting looks like this - you've conquered Magic Loop!

(posted by Max)