Friday, September 30, 2016

In Praise of Good Boots and Wool Socks

I am a hiking wimp when it comes to my feet. If I expect to hike more than a couple of miles, I wear boots. Not just any boots, but real old-fashioned leather hiking boots with Vibram soles. When I purchased my current pair a couple of years ago the salesman kept asking if I was sure I wanted this particular pair of boots and insisted on showing me a number of light weight pairs, mostly with some sort of woven fabric top. I dismissed them all, and I'm glad of it. Yes, these boots are heavier than newer types of boots, but they have many advantages that easily make up for the weight.

Vibram soles protect my feet from all the rocks on the trail and offer really good traction for boulder-hopping, even when wet. The hard toes of the boots, rather than my own toes, take the beating when I inevitably, and surprisingly frequently, hit my toes on rocks. The leather uppers keep water and dust out. I've noticed on boots with woven uppers that dust eventually sifts through. Ugh! I hate the feeling of dirt in between my toes!

Here is what my Asolo's looked like before my first hike, all nice and shiny.

Here is what they look like after a year and a half worth of hikes, including a number this past summer on dry and dusty trails in Grand Teton National Park.

I pair them with wool socks, which is absolutely critical to the health and comfort of my feet. For shorter hikes I sometimes wear socks of my own making, such as these orange ones, which I posted about here back in 2012 .

Tuscany socks, pattern by Melissa Morgan-Oakes

For longer hikes I swear by Smartwool socks, which have a finer gauge than anything I could knit myself. I have tried other brands of wool socks, but only Smartwool keeps my feet blister-free on fifteen plus mile hikes. Definitely worth the extra expense.

If you've never been to Grand Teton National Park, I highly recommend a visit. It was unusual this year due to forest fires (mostly caused by lightning strikes) which made the air smoky at times, depending on how the wind was blowing. Here is a photo of one of the early season fires east of Jackson Hole.

The Sleeping Indian, the moon, and smoke at sunset

And here is view of the Teton range on a particularly smoky evening.

Smoky sunset in Grand Teton National Park

In spite of the fires, we enjoyed some spectacular hikes. One day we made a loop from the top of the tram down to Marion Lake, to the Teton Crest Trail and over Fox Creek Pass, and eventually down Death Canyon to the Lawrence Rockefeller Preserve. I love the gentle slopes on the west side of the range and the expansive views of the high peaks to the north.

Along the Teton Crest Trail

For a shorter hike we went to Taggert Lake. With the Grand looming up in the background, it is a popular destination for swimmers and picnickers on hot summer days.

Taggert Lake

If you're looking for a greater challenge and a place to get away from other hikers, you can head up Hanging Canyon to Ramshead Lake and Lake of the Crags. Though the trail is not marked on official park maps and is not maintained by the park service, it is well-developed, albeit steep in places, and easily followed. Interested hikers can find directions here. The appropriately named Rock of Ages dominates the west end of the canyon, giving it a cathedral-like quality.

Lake of the Crags on a smoky afternoon

To get back to the knitting theme, here is a lace tank that I recently completed using a pattern by Mari Tobita from the Spring/Summer 2016 edition of VogueKnitting. I couldn't find the cashmere/linen blend called for so chose hand-dyed Euroflax Sportweight Linen Layers by Prism Yarn. It's been a great piece to wear in the still-warm September days here in Texas.

Lace tank

I'll be back soon with images from several quilting projects that I've been working on lately.

Friday, August 5, 2016


Mine is a family of bibliophiles. We return from most of our travels with at least one addition to our library, which now numbers over 2,100 volumes. One can travel vicariously by perusing books in our library, noting from the inscriptions where and when each was purchased, and often finding tucked in the pages some little travel momento, a boarding pass, a museum entrance ticket, or a cafe napkin, that once served as a bookmark.

Shops specializing in used books are particular favorites. You never know what you will find amid the labyrinths of teetering colorfully packed shelves. When visiting our daughters at school we've stopped in at Federal Street Books in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and always come away with treasures for our own library shelves.

Inside Federal Street Books, Greenfield, Massachusetts

I imagine it was from a shop very much like this one - albeit via a Google search - that I acquired my own copy of "The Cookie Tree," a book illustrated by my Uncle Blake and which I remembered so fondly from my childhood. You may recall from previous posts that I used the cookie tree image as inspiration for the appliqued center of a quilt.

Only after I'd put all the pieces together did I realize that the scrappy borders reminded me of the narrow aisles and crammed shelves at Federal Street Books. And like used books being passed from one owner to the next, many of the pieces in this quilt have been passed along from previous owners. It seemed natural to name this quilt "The Cookie Tree and Federal Street Books."

"The Cookie Tree and Federal Street Books" (machine pieces and quilted, 57"x77")

The book theme also makes this a perfect gift for my daughter, who has loved books from the time she was an infant. One of her first words was "book," though funnily enough she used it to refer to milk. Maybe she just thought that milk and books were similar because they both provided her with sustenance. Though I don't expect the quilt to provide sustenance, I do hope it will keep her warm at night and brighten the grey winter days she will soon face in Ithaca, New York.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Escape From the Texas Heat

When Austin's daily low temperature is eighty degrees and the high temperature reaches nearly one hundred every afternoon, it is a good idea to retreat to someplace much cooler, even if for just a weekend. Although it's a rather long trip from Austin, Calgary and the Canadian Rockies offered us a welcome respite for a couple days last month.

Arriving in Calgary on Friday just as the sun was setting, we had only a glimpse of the mountains to the west of town. Eager for our first hike of the summer, we set out early on Saturday morning for the hour and half drive up the Trans Canada Highway to Lake Louise in the midst of Banff National Park. It's a dramatic drive past seemingly endless stretches of deep-green forests with massive cliffs looming beyond.

We hiked along the shore of Lake Louise - it really is that color turquoise.

Lake Louise

At the head of the lake, where silt from the glaciers forms a delta, the color is even more intense.

We continued beyond the lake on the relatively gentle trail towards the Plain of Six Glaciers.

We stopped outside the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House to have our lunch,

Plain of the Six Glaciers Tea House

then continued on to the lookout to get closer views of the glaciers.

On the way down we heard a distant rumbling: it was an avalanche on the other side of the valley.

Rather than backtrack all the way to Lake Louise, we took the Highline trail to the diminutive, but scenic, Lake Agnes. The trail zig zags down a very steep slope!

Lake Agnes

Along the way we were treated to a nice snow storm.

Fortunately, we were prepared with rain coats and fleeces. I even had wool gloves!

Still, we welcomed the chance to stop at the Lake Agnes Tea House for a pot of hot tea and a plate of fresh tea biscuits.

On the way down we had this misty view of the Beehive.

Sunday dawned brighter and warmer,  perfect for a walking tour of Calgary. I especially enjoyed strolling along the Bow River, which runs along the north side of downtown, and crossing the dedicated pedestrian bridges.

At this time of year the gardens are in full bloom.

and make the many downtown plazas very pleasant.

It was a bit of a shock coming back to triple digit temperatures in Austin. I dealt with it by staying inside in the air-conditioning as much as possible. That's how I finally finished this exploding star quilt. 

I have to confess that I found parts of this quilt difficult. I strip pieced the star, using many pins to ensure the points lined up nicely and handled the the fabric carefully to avoid the distortion to which its many bias edges made it susceptible. In spite of these precautions, the inset white pieces between the points of the star were hard to make lie flat. 

And then there were the randomly placed broken pieces. I sewed white borders around each one to make blocks, sewed the blocks into strips, then added the strips to complete the top. It seemed like a good idea, but again I had trouble making it all lie flat. I made a few tucks to flatten it out a bit and then, running out of patience, loaded it onto the long arm and hoped for the best. Amazing! It turned out flat! Perhaps that has to do with the high density quilting, especially of the background. I alternated wavy lines and squiggles, all radiating from the center to accentuate the sense of movement.

I think it also helped that I used two layers of batting, originally chosen to ensure that the geese print on a vibrant blue ground (organic cotton by Cloud 9) that my daughter chose for the backing didn't show through to the front. It's quite a heavy quilt, but will be perfect for her to use during cold New England winters.

Although I had moments when I thought I had a disaster on my hands, I'm glad I soldiered on to finish this quilt. I think it's a very fun piece. The front is lively and the silly geese on the back can't help but make me smile.

I have to thank Susan Rubino and Chris Wenz at Over the Top Quilting Studio for their help in building my confidence and skills on the long arm machine. I have taken several classes at their well-outfitted studio and also benefited from their kind encouragement and excellent advice. If you are in central Texas and interested in using a long arm machine for quilting, I highly recommend you visit them. 

Thanks also to the folks at The Cloth Pocket, Austin's best little quilt shop, for carrying such a great selection of beautiful fabric, including all the solids for the quilt top and the geese backing fabric.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Further Adventures in China

My last post highlighted the countryside of the Yangshuo region of China. This one will focus on the urban areas: the town of Yangshuo and China's capital city Beijing.

On maps of China Yangshuo looks tiny. By Chinese standards it is tiny. In actuality it is a good size city of several hundred thousand people. Located amidst China's famous karst mountains,

it has become a popular destination for Chinese and international tourists. No surprise then to find the usual kind of tourist amenities: restaurants and shops, tour guides and taxis, hotels and hostels. To visit the town of Yangshuo, we walked from our guest house, The Giggling Tree,

off the main road, past an old village,

over a small pass and into the busy streets to have a look. Most of the tourist activity is along West Street

and the smaller streets that intersect it.

I found several shops with interesting textiles. This one specializes in woven items,

while another one carried traditional garments and textiles, some antique and and some newly made. I couldn't resist this indigo batik table runner, which is long enough for my dining room table.

I also purchased some notebooks and cards

I don't see any Mao quotes. It's a blank book!

at a nice little stationery shop.

Mostly, it was fun just to take in the lively street scenes

 and colorful displays.

At the end of my trip I spent an afternoon at the Forbidden City, in the very heart of Beijing. For over 500 years it served as the Chinese imperial palace. Now it is a museum and I am guessing the most visited site in Beijing. It is an imposing place: 180 acres with palatial buildings,

enormous courtyards,

 colorful gardens,

and massive statuary.

Instead of jostling with the crowds trying to peer inside the most important halls, or palaces, I focused my attention on the beautiful details to be found elsewhere. I particularly liked the striking orange-yellow tile roofs. From a distance the exuberant color stands out, as does the subtle variation in their shapes.

Up close you can see that each is adorned with a different set of figures. The more figures, the more important the structure.

The walls exhibit similar far-near differences. From afar it appears that all the walls are brick red, but if you look closely, in places you can see pieces of vibrant polychrome plaster work

and hidden gems like this terra cotta flower built into a brick wall.

You also have to get up close to the marble stairs and railings to see their true beauty. It seems that every bit is embellished with decorative carving. These waves and flowers make me think of quilting designs.

Given my interest in needlework, I naturally think of translating Forbidden City designs into quilts and embroideries. Clearly some others translated it into the very modern Beijing airport where massive halls have overhanging roofs held up by rows of red columns, just like palaces of the Forbidden City.

Beijing Airport

Prior to my flight I enjoyed wandering around the bright and spacious terminal

and inspecting a few shops. I even found one that carried a small selection of fabric and quickly snapped up these traditional homespuns from the Jiangnan region, southwest of where I visited.

Jiangnan homespun fabric

I am adding them to the indigo fabrics I have been collecting for a quilt.

I have been making good progress on my current quilting projects in the past several weeks so I just may let myself start a new one before the summer is out. Come back soon to see the ones I have recently finished!