Friday, 29 July 2016

simply 'sublime' - a yarn review

I'm sure you will recall, as I mention it enough (!), that last month I had a wonderful trip out to Sirdar*, part of winning the Online Knitter of the Year competition (incidentally, keep your eyes peeled on Knit Now in the coming months, the 2016 competition will be opening soon!). 

*side note - did you see that my report on the day was published in Issue 63 of Knit Now? Thanks for the opportunity Kate! :) 

When I first learned that a trip to Sirdar was one of the grand prizes I was over the moon; not only was I desperately interested in going behind the scenes of a wool supplier, but Sirdar was a name and brand that I knew and loved. I've knitted plenty of projects in the past using their lines, including the semi-recently finished Sophie Cardigan, and last year's Aran Garter Stitch Cardigan. So when they got in touch with me before the visit, I quiet happily discussed the opportunity to review some yarns for myself and for my lovely readers!

I was sent yarn from 3 different lines*, and I chose the yarn to knit 2 versions of a Space Invaders' Hat of my own design. There will be a post next week on the finished hats themselves, and not long after there will be a PDF pattern available for you to buy so you can knit your own! Watch this space. 

Both hats were knit with 4.5mm needles - the recommended size for the wool is 4mm, but I have very tight tension. 

Sublime - Extra Fine Merino Wool DK
(yarn details)

Something I didn't know before my visit to Sirdar was that they supply the luxury brand of yarns Sublime. I had heard of Sublime, and had ogled over patterns in the past, but hadn't made that connection (hey, with under 4 and half years of knitting experience under my belt, there is still plenty to learn, eh?).

I worked with 3 absolutely gorgeous colours; Tigerlily (pale orange), Palm (pale green) and Spruce (rich, medium blue). Don't the names alone inspire your imagination and creativity? Bold and consistent throughout the whole skein, they compliment each other really well and stand out both in blocks on their own, and when knitted in the fair isle pattern.

Before I started knitting, and after admiring the colours, I squished and felt and investigated the yarn. It felt soft and light, which was a great combination while knitting in the *brief* English summer we experienced a couple of weeks ago. But also strong and warm - there's nothing worse than poorly spun wool that pulls apart as you work with it, but this ain't one of them.

the explosion of colour in the pom pom is one of my favourite aspects about the finished hat
The wool itself is 100% merino wool from Italy. I can't express enough how beautifully soft and smooth it is; while working with it, the yarn didn't split on me once (and, with my usual tight tension in knitting, I'm always impressed when this doesn't happen) and it was really easy to knit with on my favoured bamboo circular needles

I think the stitch definition is really clear and impressive which I do put down to the wool. With a detailed hat such as this, it helps to be able to see every stitch stand out. 

I don't usually knit with luxury yarn, instead favouring acrylics, but this is a brand I will certainly invest in more with future projects. The finished hat is soft and warm, and has enough stretch to fit comfortably on my head but it doesn't feel like it will lose it's shape. Throw in the fact that it's machine washable and I really can't fault it. 

Sirdar - Harrap Tweed DK and Sirdar - Country Style DK
(yarn details - Harrap Tweed)
(yarn details - Country Style)

My thoughts when requesting some samples from the classic Sirdar range, as well as the luxury brand, is that I don't usually knit with merino wool. If I was to knit a hat as a gift, I would tend towards the more traditional wool, or wool blend as I prefer (I like my things to be machine washable!). You can't go wrong with a tweed woolly hat either, and so Harrap Tweed was the way to go. In order to have the pattern stand out well against the 'busier' base, the simple bold colours from the Country Style range were ideal. 

From Harrap Tweed I knitted with shade 100 Simpson, a classic grey and white mix with the odd fleck of red that, when knitted, formed the perfect base for the version of the hat that I had in mind. From Country Style, White and Cherry were the orders for the day and, again, I was impressed with the brightness and consistency of the colours throughout the skein. 

They didn't disappoint. The wool was really enjoyable to work with on the bamboo needles, with the finished knitting feeling textured and fibrous. It was very easy to keep my tension nice and even over the colour work, meaning that the red Space Invaders 'pop' really nicely against the tweed background! I like that, with the tweed, the finished knitting isn't as close as with the merino wool, which means that although the hat will be warm, it's also breathable and comfortable to wear. 

The finished hat is warm and cosy, and Ben is very excited to get to wear this once winter swings round again. It also has a timeless look which means this hat (should) remain a favourite in Ben's wardrobe. And as the Harrap Tweed is a blend of wool, nylon, acrylic and viscose, it is again machine washable and more comfortable to knit with than 100% wool! Bonus. 

I would happily recommend all of the yarns in this post, and in particular the Sublime Merino wool, which I am very excited to work with again and to try more of the fabulous colours on offer! 

Which of these hats do you prefer? Have you knit with either of these yarns before?

*These yarns were kindly sent to me by Sirdar to review for the blog. I requested the lines and colours that I was interested in reviewing. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

star wars celebration europe 2016

waiting in line to enter the convention centre on Saturday morning
finishing touches on Saturday morning!
Well, the day finally came - Ben and I attended Star Wars Celebration in London on Saturday 16 July and we had a fantastic day! I bought our tickets almost a year ago now, and spent the last couple of months frantically working on our costumes, but it all came together in the end (just! See the picture of me sewing my costume on the morning in the hotel room, while off camera Ben was finishing his lightsaber) and we had a splendid day and I am on such a downer that it's all over now.

Ok, not too much of a downer, because in 5 days its Manchester Comic Con WOO HOO - see a sneaky peek at one of my costumes on Instagram. AND next month Ben and I are moving in together! Grand news that I am sure I will keep you posted on as we start the new adventure.

The Celebration itself actually lasted 3 days, and this was our first convention that we didn't attend all the days (previous comic cons we have had weekend passes, and this year will be no different). This was because at the time of buying the tickets we just weren't able to afford the weekend - it's an expensive weekend I tell you - but I definitely wish we could have done all 3 days. Next time (please, Star Wars Celebration, come back again!!) we will do the whole weekend no matter what.

You may have seen on the news that exciting announcements and guests were in attendance at this celebration - and indeed, they were! On Friday and Sunday .... do you see my pain? No matter - we go to these things for the atmosphere anyway, and I am sure (hope with all my heart) I can see John Boyega on stage another time...

Another error I felt we made was to not take our usual digital camera. Because we had to travel so much we stuck to our phones this time, and coupled with trying to fit everything in one day, I'm not as pleased with pictures as I would like. Alas, a lesson learned, and the day itself was brilliant which is what's important!! Hopefully you will forgive my images this time - will improve in the future, promise! :)

And so, on to the Celebration itself.

First things first - costumes. We noticed on the day that there really was a poor showing of cosplayers! I was frantically making sure Ben's costume adhered to as many rules of Star Wars costumes that I could tolerate, so that we wouldn't be laughed out of the convention. I didn't need to worry, we were some of the few people who dressed up (though this did mean lots of people took our pictures, which I was rather pleased about) and, I hope you agree, Ben looked AMAZING! He put my costume to shame, but I don't mind because - after all - I was the one who made his entirely from scratch. The whole process of making his costume, and for it to turn out so well, has really buoyed me up and I honestly think this is the end of us buying costumes, and instead (as stressful as I may find it) I will take the time to make them from now on.

I believe this particularly when, nearing the completion of Ben's sith costume, I realised my store bought one was pretty pants! So I made some adjustments.

Hopefully you will think I look pretty cool too. Here I am as Rey of course. The fit of my costume ending up being quite poor, because I only had time to adjust the existing one that didn't look so good. However I am keen to dress up as Rey again and will make the whole thing from scratch and even better - and will spend more time practising my hair! I'm most proud of my staff, which was another handmade item from scratch piece; a combination of a PVC tube, craft foam, string, and so much tape, glue and spray paint! One lady stopped me in line for coffee to ask where I bought it from, and I proudly said I had made it *smug*. If you want to make one as well, I used this blog post as a basis for inspiration, but pictures from the film help the most. 

Now, although there weren't a lot of cosplayers there, some of the costumes that we did see were absolutely brilliant! We didn't manage to get pictures of everyone, but we did see your usual Cantina band members, many a Boba and Jango Fett, and even some Joker/Jedi crossovers! My favourites have to be Queen Amidala (Episode 1 - ignore the haters, I do love that film) and her hand maids above. But the one that really steals the biscuit has to be Pikachu Boba Fett!! She looked amazing and I did a sequel when I saw her - I love Fett-crossovers! These Disney mash ups are my favourite.

A Star Wars convention wouldn't be complete without droids, props and some excellent costumes! This was just a selection of what we saw and found over the course of the day. In one room they had an exhibition of the costumes that will feature in Rougue One (I can't wait for this film!), along with character descriptions and information on what the costumes are made from. This was particularly interesting, now that I've decided to make more costumes. 

here I am meeting Karen Hallion!!
Some of you may know Karen Hallion's art - she is one of the artists that designs one of a kind, special pieces exclusive to each Star Wars Celebration. We knew ahead of time that it was unlikley we would get a chance to see any of the big stars or panels at the show, but when I learned Karen would be there I was over the moon! She is a US based artist and I love all of her work (check out her Facebook page for more!) and assumed I would never get to meet her as, although she does loads of cons, they are in the states. We bee-lined over to the artists' section on Saturday morning and I introduced myself and got a picture. I treated myself to the print for this celebration and she was lovely to speak to - the highlight of the day, for me at least!

There were plenty of stalls of goodies for us to peruse. We were very well behaved at this convention and only bought a few things that we really wanted. As well as the celebration art print, Ben bought an official celebration t-shirt, we both got a HUGE Star Wars bag (for dirty washing, in our house eep eep) and a mystery box, which included a BB-8 POP! figure, and more! Jolly good haul. 

I'll end here with these exceptional Lego sculptures - not much more needs to be said, they are pure awesome! I had an inkling that perhaps Star Wars Lego kits could be bought ... but we relented!

It was an absolutely exceptional day, and we had a wonderful weekend in London, eating too much and catching Pokemon in between. Here is looking forward to comic con this weekend, where more pictures are sure to be shared!


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

a new writing adventure

I know, I know - you've been waiting with baited breath since this post and last week's exciting news, in which I teased that I had more news to share with you, about another writing adventure that I am embarking on. After a couple of months of (haphazard) preparation, I am delighted to share this with you now!

I've always been interested in writing fiction, though my attempts in the past have been very unstructured, and I would give up a project very quickly. After the success and joy that I have been having with the geeky knitter, I thought to myself 'it worked for knitting, why can't it work for writing too?'

So, let me introduce you to my new blog - Letters to Fiction

Don't worry; this isn't going to replace this blog, but will instead act as a side project, perhaps preparing me to attempt to take part in National Novel Writing Month in November (NaNoWriMo). I just want to do so many things, but this has for a long time been right up there, and a blog seems the logical way to start the adventure. 

Letters to Fiction is reasonably self-explanatory. Each post will be a letter I write to a fictional character. He or she will most likely come from a book, but they may also come from film, TV, games, or anywhere you can think of that you come across fiction. There is no particular structure to the letter, other than I want to know more about the character, or tell them how they made me feel. Sometimes they will write a response to me, other times they won't. You can read more about what the blog is about here

It should be fun! The first letter is up and ready for you to read - written to Matilda

You can follow the blog on Bloglovin' (link also on the blog) and I've popped a button on the sidebar, should you ever wish to have a read in the future, but don't feel like following just yet. It's a bit of a way down the page, but it's there :)

So, let me know what you think! And don't hesitate to let me know if there is someone you would be interested in seeing a letter written to.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

I'm a columnist!

forgive the awesome filtered selfie - can you spot the Moogle Christmas decoration in the background?
Beady eyed readers will have seen in the last yarn along post that I mentioned I had a couple pieces of exciting news to share with you. The beadier-eyed (that's right, isn't it?) readers will have spotted the new button on the sidebar, just there. 

Well the culmination of these clues is that I now write a regular column in Inside Magazines, called Diary of a geeky knitter!

First things first; full disclosure, I do work for Inside Magazines, and have been doing so for 3 years in September. I started off as Administration Assistant, and although this is still my title it's safe to admit that I do a bit more than admin, including managing deliveries and editing 3 issues of the magazines whilst one of the editors was away. 

I have done some writing for the magazines in the past, and we have before brushed upon the idea that I could write regularly. However Inside Magazines is a free, A5 community driven publication (one that you get posted through the letterbox) and my interests in knitting didn't seem to quite 'fit' in with local community news. The longer I've been here though, and the more that Claire and Garth (the co-editors of the magazines) have seen my writing and come to know me, they suggested this idea again, to see if I could make something work in the magazine. Something that I simultaneously enjoy working on, while using the page to support my blog - which they know is my largest passion and driving force behind pretty much everything I want to achieve in the future - and also introducing a new element into our publication. 

This time I knew I could write something regularly and of interest (I hope) for knitters and non-knitters alike. Not only that, but I wanted to write a column; moving into editing and editorial is something I am really passionate about, and if it can be knitting related all the better!

And with that, the first instalment of the article was printed in our July/August magazines - out for delivery now! If you don't live in one of our catchment areas don't worry - you can read my page here, simply flick through the magazine for a couple of pages and you will spot me :) The magazines are bi-monthly, but we do publish something every month, so I may aim to write monthly rather than every 2 months. 

I really appreciate the opportunity to do this and I can't wait to work on the next article already. I've already had some really great feedback about the page and just hope that more people will enjoy it. 

Stay tuned for one more announcement, coming soon!

Friday, 1 July 2016

my exceptional day out at Sirdar

(I've included pretty much everything I learnt throughout the day here, simply because I can't say enough how wonderful the day was and I want to share every part with you! If you don't have time to read everything, do have a look through the pictures and scroll to the bottom for a TL:DR; summary!)

Instagram followers, and regular readers of the blog (hello to all, old and new!), will know that last week I went for a trip to the Sirdar headquarters in West Yorkshire, on the day of the EU Referendum - but we aren't going to talk about that ...

INSTEAD lets talk about what an AMAZING day I had! Truly, the day was wonderful, exceptional, interesting, the people were a delight, the place was full of information and stories - and of course, yarn, patterns, and a knitting room for crying out loud. As we were taken around I tried my best to take some notes on my phone for this post, and I managed to get a lot down. But this is really a gushing, picture driven reflection of the wonderful day that was had.

This trip was part of the prize for winning Online Knitter of the Year with Knit Now

Myself and other competition winners met with Kate from Knit Now, and Ruth from Practical Publishing, at Sirdar's headquarters in Wakefield at around 10am to start the day with chats, biscuits and coffee (is there any other way to start a day?). We were greeted by the managing director, marketing assistants and executives, and sales director who told us a little bit about the company, before we started the morning tour of the facilities. Everyone was give name badges, but I must apologise profusely to the Sirdar team - I remember barely any names!

Be sure to visit Sirdar's page about the company, if you would like to learn a little bit more about their history.

Sirdar has been established on that site for 126 years, and employs a full time staff of 131. They no longer manufacture the wool on site, but they only stopped the manufacturing process a few years ago, following the trend of other British wool companies, and to account for a fall in profit. Even though they don't manufacture it in Britain anymore, they go through stringent and regular quality control procedures and checks to make sure the quality of the brand matches its long history. One example is the close relationship they share with a factory in Turkey which supplies 70% (I believe) the yarn they distribute; they send out employees every 5 weeks to the factory, to spend a week there making sure everything is up to scratch! The factory even uses the same machines that used to be housed in Sirdar, right in Wakefield. Similar visits occur, though less frequently, to factories in Italy and China. 

We were taken to visit the warehouse in which they store the bulk of their wool. There are 6000 storage points in the large warehouse, which was impressive to look at to say the least! The smell of the warehouse reminded me vividly of the storeroom at Toys R Us, where I worked for a time over one Christmas in college. As we gazed at the tall, narrow corridors of wooden crates, we were told that each box can hold around 100 balls of wool at a time, so we were likely standing in a room of over half a million packs* of wool. I've never heard 20+ women collectively gasp with pleasure at the same time before - at this point I knew I was in excellent company. 

After the main warehouse came the 'picking' warehouse - the midway point for orders to be filled, between the huge warehouse that is totally computer recorded, and distribution. Multiple orders are filled in this room, by employees who walk round and literally pick up what they need to fill their sheet. As this room isn't recorded by computers, wool is stored in a snaking pattern around the room, ordered by quality (low to high) to make everything easier to locate. Sirdar supplies to retaliers all across the country, large and small. They don't use wholesalers, and they do also distribute all around the world too! In the last 18 months a warehouse and supplier was set up in the US, so good news for American readers. When supplying around the world, they mainly serve English speaking countries, purely to save on pattern translation.

All orders are also packaged, labelled, and processed on site. A specially designed, bespoke wrapping machine collates orders together and wraps them in large plastic bags for shipping, with built-in scales to weight the orders. It was all so much more fun to watch than I anticipated! Orders to be delivered are picked up around 1pm and 5pm each day, and aim to reach the stores that ordered them within 2 days. 

Ah patterns patterns patterns - what use would all this scrumptious wool be without patterns! After the warehouses, we were shown the, surprisingly small, printers that allow Sirdar to print 2 and 4 page leaflets (patterns) in house. The designs are made upstairs, and the PDF files put together, and whizzed down happily to these machines that can churn them out I can tell you. The smaller pattern leaflets are printed in house on small runs of a few hundred, so that if there is a mistake it doesn't cost too much to re-do. Larger booklets are printed at a printing company. 

It was very clear that a great deal of though was constantly given to balancing the cost of doing something, with making sure a high standard of quality was continually met, as being such a well established brand they have an image to maintain. In my humble opinion, this really shone through throughout the whole day. 

You still with me? Good - because now comes the AWESOME part of the day. 

The Knitting Room. 

Oh, yes. 

I do remember the name of the head of design - Julie! She was lovely. She took us up to the design room where the magic happens; and even though everything they were working on was confidential, we were allowed to freely wander round the room and speak with designers, knitters, seamstresses, everyone. 

Each year the team at Sirdar produce upwards of 500 designs (!) and although they work to the 2 main design and fashion periods, Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer, they are constantly at work, releasing new designs all year round in order to break the work down into smaller, more manageable chunks. They aim to release 8 new things every 4 weeks. 3 designers do the bulk of the design work, and some designs are bought, but the main magic all happens in the knitting room (and crochet too!). There are 9 in-house pattern writers, and people working from home as well.

And even though they are knitting for a living, it was clear that they didn't tire of the creative process and still love to knit! We were told that often, they will be knitting something for work and then over lunch would pull out a personal knitting project to work on: bliss.

The design team are involved in the whole process, from choosing the yarns that Sirdar will supply, to printing the patterns. The sales team/reps have a lot of input into the process as well as they are the feet on the ground, as it were, and know what people want. And also what people like/don't like about how patterns are presented. Sirdar uses a fashion forecasting service to help determine what yarns and styles will be popular, and just general research takes place as well. 

The design process starts at the yarn, and various tests and swatches are worked up to see what will look best. Although everything doesn't work, nothing gets thrown away as they learn a lot every time through the processes, and the process of elimination in particular. For example, some yarns need very little pattern intricacy (such as bulky yarns and patterned yarns) where others might call for cables. Once the samples are in place, a sketch is drawn to decide what to make with the yarn - these are very rough and dozens are put together to see what works. 

I made a lot more notes on the design processes, such as the roles the various employees have in the knitting room, the tech editors roles, and the sheer number of maths checking that goes on with every pattern! Needless to say at this point though, I've written quite a lot - and a gold star to everyone who has stuck with me so far! I really hope you are finding this as interesting as I did on the day! Just a few more bits and then I will let you get back to your day :)

Sirdar have a LARGE photography budget, and Julie couldn't stress enough how important this was - which any knitting designer and blogger can appreciate. Photo shoots are often done abroad, simply to guarantee better and longer light (which is why you see models in woolly jumpers at the beach! I always thought that was a little odd...). Some products and yarns are photographed in the studio, where a 'clean look' is more preferable, such as for baby clothes and the Sublime yarn range. These locations also help to separate the identities of the different yarns. 

Sirdar have a dedicated pattern help line, which in modern days now deals mostly in email (so help-site/zine/vine might better?) however they do recieve telephone calls from time to time. This is another example of the great care and pride that they take in the products that they supply, and Julie really summed it up for me in a conversation we had just before lunch; that although Sirdar isn't a family company, it feels like family, and some people have been working there upwards of 40 years.

In the same room, the archives were housed, and we were allowed to flick through the files that help a copy of, I believe, every pattern that Sirdar has released! I do love a vintage, knitted photo shoot. Designers will use historical patterns to help influence modern designs, and as well as the lovely pictures it was fascinating to discuss how body shapes have just changed over the years (was there a time when women have waists THAT small?).

PHEW!! After a lovely buffet lunch, we were taken to the showroom which, as you can see, was just a paradise of knitted goodness and colours. We could view the new lines and patterns made up for potential buyers in a lovely room that doubled up as a conference room. Kate gave us a talk on how a knitting magazine is brought together, and our certificates were handed out for winning the competition. After an hour or so in that room, we were taken out for a final coffee and knitting-themed cupcake, and handed a goody bag filled with, of course, some patterns and sample yarn (EEP) I can't wait to get stuck into these. 

All in all, a terrific day, and I could say EVEN more on this - but you've been patient enough. If you have any questions or want to know anymore, why not leave me a comment below and I will help if I can :) 

TL:DR; I had an amazing day out a Sirdar, I learnt a lot behind the wool industry and design process. My dream is to work in a designated 'Knitting Room' and I came away with some awesome goodies. 

*correction - an earlier version of this post stated that the warehouse housed over half a million balls of wool, whereas it it actually packs; even BETTER

This post is written to the best of my knowledge and memory of the day. All thoughts and opinions are my own!