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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A new toy!

When it comes to shopping, I'm a bit of an SAS shopper - get in, get it, get out.  I don't usually feel the need to spend hours window-shopping, although I do make an exception when it comes to yarn - and also the Lakeland shop.  

I've been buying gadgets from Lakeland for many years.  Their catalogue is one of the ones that I will actually spend time looking at before it hits the recycle bin, and I do like spending time in their shops looking at the gadgets that have taken my eye in the catalogue in "real life".  So when small daughter, my husband's cousin and I went to Liverpool last Friday, I made sure that I steered us towards the Lakeland shop.  I had some vouchers to spend (a Christmas gift, believe it or not!) and although I could have spent them on something useful for the house, I had spotted something in the catalogue that I wanted to take a closer look at. Something useful, certainly, but something for me.  It felt very frivolous to be choosing something that I didn't necessarily need but did think that I wanted - but isn't that the joy of vouchers?    

This is what I found:



It's a silicone bread maker.  

I don't need another bread maker.  I've got my Dad's which works very well for our Soup Night loaf.  I've got my cake baker tin which cooks my sourdough loaves in the Aga.  But I do like making bread and I'm a bit of a sucker for gadgets which help the process along and I was very taken by the look of this - although a little voice in my head told me that this was surely just a gimmick which looked great in theory but would never really work.  

I picked it up, and put it down again.  I looked at the display loaf and poked at it, wondering if it was real bread or not.  I ummed and ahhed and said that I should probably buy Something More Sensible.  Cousin Carol said that I should most definitely not, because vouchers aren't always meant for buying Sensible things.  She picked up the bread maker and put in my basket.

Dear Reader, I handed over my vouchers and brought it home.

And this is what I did next.  I followed the recipe in the little book to make no-knead bread.  Oh, I love no-knead bread so much - it appeals to the lazy side of me perfectly!  You weigh your ingredients directly in the bread maker, mix them up with a spoon and ta-dah ...


... your bread is all ready to be left to prove.  All you have to do is close the flap, cover the whole thing with a tea towel and leave it for six to eight hours (I left mine overnight).


The next morning, the dough had risen and I put the bread maker straight into the oven to cook. No bowls or sticky hands to wash.  Oh yes, this is my kind of bread!  

The loaf that came out was a rather strange shape - like a torpedo or a boat, perhaps.  Not your usual loaf shape at all.


Cousin Carol and I examined the loaf.  It certainly smelled good, and despite the unusual shape it looked pretty bread-like.  

"We'd better wait until it cools down before we cut it," we said.  

We waited.  For two whole minutes, and then we cut the loaf.  The texture was perfect and once I'd turned it over so that the flat bottom sat firmly on the chopping board, it was also super-easy to slice.

"We'd better let it cool down before we try eating it," we said.


The butter melts so much better on straight-from-the-oven bread, don't you find?  

I was quite amazed.  Far from the bread maker being a gimmick which didn't work at all, this loaf was one of the nicest non-sourdough loaves that I had made for a while.  And best of all - it tasted fabulous!


In the interests of research, we had to try a couple of slices.  No scientist ever does just one experiment, do they?  And then we had to toast some to see what that was like.  And then we had to toast some more to try it thickly spread with marmalade.  The result of our experiment was that it makes very good toast, and it's even better with marmalade.  We started to run out of bread to do any more testing.


"We'd better make sure we save some for lunch," I said.  

My husband helped himself to the final crust.  

I'm very glad now that I didn't spend my vouchers on Something More Sensible instead.  I've made several loaves since that first one and each of them has turned out as well as that one did.  I'm going to try out the other recipes in the little book, and I'm going to see how my sourdough loaf cooks in the silicone mould.

Isn't it great when a purchase turns out to be so much better than you expected?  It's almost enough to tempt me to go shopping more often!




Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sockalong - tension squares

It's our third pre-Sockalong post ... the start date is getting closer!

Hello to everyone who's already said they're joining in, and if you're finding these posts for the first time, it's not too late.  The Sockalong starts on Sunday 3 May so you've got time to have a look at the pattern, choose some yarn and make sure you've got some needles.

Today, we're going to look at how to create a tension or gauge square (also known as a swatch). No, don't sigh, it's important that you know about it even if you choose not to do one.  I must confess that I'm not the world's greatest at doing tension squares for myself but I've learned that with a new yarn it's worth taking the time to check my knitting - or I find myself doing a lot of frogging!

Let's start by taking another look at the ball band on the yarn.  This the yarn I'm going to be using which I talked about the other day.  You can see the symbols panel with the washing instructions and the gauge information quite clearly. 


If we take a closer look again then you can see that in the red oval is the recommended needle size - 2.5mm - and underneath that the number of rows and stitches the manufacturer says you should get knitting on 2.5mm needles.  Based on a 10 x 10cm (4 x 4 inches) square, you should get 30 stitches (M) and 42 rows (R).


If you know that you will get that number of stitches and rows without checking, then that's fine and you can put your feet up until the next post.  However, if you've never knitted with the yarn before or you're not quite sure, then it's always best to check.  Knitting in the round gives you a different tension to knitting on straight needles so it's worth taking the time to see exactly what gauge you're knitting to.  Additionally, you can use the number of stitches in your swatch to help you work out how many stitches you will need to cast on for your sock.

I'm going to show you the swatching method used by Elizabeth Zimmerman which makes shorter work of the gauge swatch than having to cast on enough stitches to knit a whole sock.  In this example, I'm going to cast on 35 stitches to give me a margin at each side of my swatch (remember the ball band says I should be getting 30 stitches to 10 cm?).  This will make it easier when I come to measure the stitches.  

First things first, you need to cast on, and it's always best to use the needles with which you're going to be knitting your sock then you know exactly how your knitting will work out.  For this example, I'm going to show you how to knit the square using DPNs but the process is the same whichever needle you use.  There are no hard and fast rules about casting on for socks; you can pretty much use whichever cast-on you like and you might find that you change your mind from sock to sock depending on the pattern you use.  My preference is the cable cast-on and I'll show you how to do it in case you've not come across it before, but it really doesn't matter as long as you cast on the right number of stitches.  

1  Make a loop and slip it over your left needle.  Put your right needle into the loop knitwise.


2  Put the yarn over the needle and pull it through as if you were creating a knit stitch, but instead of sliding it off the needle, put it over the end of the left needle to create a second stitch.


3  Put your right needle between the two stitches and pull the yarn through …


4  … putting the new stitch onto the left hand needle again


5  Continue until you have the number of stitches you require, remembering not to pull the stitches too tight on your needle.


When it comes to your sock, you'll need to take a view of how tightly you cast on - this might be dependent on the cast-on method you choose.  I cast on with a size bigger needle and others cast on over two needles to make sure that you don't pull the stitches too tight.

Once I've cast on the right number of stitches for my swatch, I work two rows of garter stitch (knit both rows).  This helps to stop the end of my work rolling up too much.


Next row: knit across all the stitches, but instead of turning the work and purling back across the row, leave a long length of yarn, go back to the beginning of the row and knit the row again.  This gives the same effect as knitting in the round as you don’t have a purl row.


It looks a bit messy on the back but it does the job!


Once you have worked the size of square that you need, you can measure your work.  It's quite acceptable to work less than the required 10cm as long as you do the maths to work out the number of stitches per cm to get the number you should be working to.  If the number of stitches in your tension square match those on the ball band, then you’re knitting with the right size needles.  If you’ve got more stitches, try going up one size to a bigger needle and if you’ve got less, try going down one size to a smaller needle.  If you're not able to change your needle size, another alternative is to cast on more stitches so that you get the right diameter for your foot;  you will need to increase the pattern we're using by 4 stitches each time.


Some people like to keep their tension squares and collect them to make into blankets, but I never do.  Once I know the information I need, I just unravel it and wind it back onto the ball ready to use for my socks.

That's all there is to it - it's not hard, is it?  My problem is that I'm usually too impatient to get started to want to knit a tension square but experience has taught me that being too impatient to get started often leads to having to start more than once!

Finally before we finish today, let me show you how I use the gauge information to work out the sizing for my socks.  If you search the internet, there are plenty of methods for working out the number of stitches you will need, some of them based on foot width and others on calf or ankle size.  The method I have always used until now is one I learned from Sue Morgan of Viridian Yarns not long after I started knitting socks, and it works well for my basic 4ply sock pattern.

Measure your foot around the widest part (usually the ball of your foot).  Multiply this number by 2.8 and then choose the closest multiple of 4.  The pattern for the socks we are going to knit can be increased or decreased by multiples of 4 stitches to get the best fit.

For example, my feet are 22cm around the ball, multiplied by 2.8 this makes 61.6 so I cast on 60 sts.  (22 x 2.8 = 61.6)  I could choose to use 64 stitches if I wanted a slightly looser sock, but I like my socks to be snug and tighter socks are generally more hardwearing, so I choose to use the lower multiple.

Unfortunately, I recently came unstuck with this method when I was knitting socks for big daughter.  Her foot circumference is the same as mine so I duly cast on 60 stitches and knitted the socks - only to find that although they fitted me perfectly, they were too tight for her as her foot is wider than mine at the ankle.  I searched around for some more methods and came up with this one which uses the number of stitches from your gauge swatch and would have been more accurate for big daughter's feet:

Multiply the width of your foot (in inches) by the number of stitches per inch.  In this case, it would be 8 (foot measurement) x 8 (stitches per inch) = 64

The nice thing about hand-knits is that you can try your socks on at every stage to make sure they are going to fit perfectly.  What's your experience with working out the number of stitches for a sock?  Some of them can be terribly complicated, but if you've got a tried and trusted simple method then please do share!


Next week, we'll talk about accessories and then the countdown really begins!  Don't forget to ask any questions - it's helpful for everybody if you've thought of something that I've not mentioned. Thanks again to everybody who's going to join in whether you've commented or not; it's great to think that lots of pairs of socks are going to be ongoing at the same time!