Tag Archives: Photography

I went to a wool festival and all I got was a ton of photos and four pounds of raw fleece

So I have a couple new favorite things: my new 50mm lens, and wool festivals.


A couple friends and I went to the Casari Ranch wool festival last weekend. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it was on the ranch itself, so it’d have ranch-type stuff happening and not just fiber-type stuff. Not that I mind fiber stuff, it’s just much easier to find in craft-happy Oakland than things involving actual sheep. So a couple friends and I piled into the car and headed three hours north to Point Arena.

Dancer the bummer, who was so tame she’d run to the fence so you could pet her.


Like every sheep farm probably is, it was liberally decorated with sheep skulls.

This is decor I can relate to.

We got to peer at the machinery for the wool mill, handle lots of raw fleece from different breeds and at different stages of prep, and get a feel for how to skirt and grade fleeces. I loved that part. Nothing helps you understand fiber terms like pulling on a lock of wool with a break in it and watching it dissipate into a cottony cloud, or holding a wad of lanolin-greasy wool still warm from the sheep, or watching second cuts fall like dandelion fluff through the skirting table. In the vendor area, I got to sift through whole raw fleeces and wool in every state from fleece to garments, getting a little more of the tactile knowledge you can’t get from googling. I even had a moment when I was handling a marked-down Corriedale-cross fleece and worrying that I might be missing a bargain if I didn’t buy it when it dawned on me that Oh, I can’t separate the locks at all over here, I think … I think the tips are pretty badly felted, and put it back.

Personally, what really drew me in was the shearing and its combination of force and finesse. As someone who’s always had office jobs I know it’s way too easy to romanticize hard physical work, but after years and years of pushing pixels for a living, it’s easy to get pulled in by tasks that have real, tangible results. (My favorite parts of learning to weld were testing seams by tossing a just-finished piece onto the cement for with a huge, resounding clang to see if the weld held, and bending pieces of metal by wailing on them with a hammer.) Some days it feels like my job could be easily replaced with spell check and a computer, something that’ll never happen with shearing.




As for wool, well … I brought enough cash that I could buy a decent fleece, not that I’m that great yet at knowing what “decent” is. I’ve done some spinning with a drop spindle, but I’m still a raw novice. (That didn’t stop me from getting a spinning wheel recently, which is still in pieces as I slowly sand and refinish it.) I figured, if I’m gonna do something, why not do it in the over-the-top, sink-yourself-into-it-until-you-know-how-to-do-it way I inherited from my mom? Besides, it’s shearing season! That’s how I talked myself into my first fleece, a Jacob that’s been slouching in a chair at my kitchen table like a slightly smelly dinner guest until I have time to wash it.

All I knew before going to Casari was I wanted something that was different from a Jacob, and that it probably shouldn’t be merino, since it’ll probably be awhile before I can handle such a short staple length. I gingerly dug through bags, teased apart locks, listened for the ping of sound wool as I tugged on it, happily exclaimed over the texture of what turned out to be wool skirting that the vendor told me was really only fit for felting, worried, waited, and anxiously eyed shoppers who’d arrived earlier as they carted away fleeces of their own.

And then, of course, came home with four pounds of raw merino, which I parked in the kitchen, in the other fleece’s lap. Together in the chair, they make a pile that comes up to my shoulder when I sit at the table next to them.

I’d say I’m off to a good start.

The lighthouse at Point Arena, which we visited after the wool festival.

Note to self

Dear self:

If you publish a pattern for gloves, mittens or fingerless mitts, if your main pattern photo includes mittened, gloved or mitted hands doing the following:

  • Stiffly resting against a tree
  • Stiffly resting tangent to a model’s eerily vacant face, like she’s about to nuzzle a penguin flipper
  • Stacked on top of each other like something out of a 1950s article on decorum
  • Delicately assaulting a flower or foliage (Remember, when you’re destroying shrubbery: Pinkies out!)
  • Hugging the model like she (it’s always a she, isn’t it?) was photographed mid-sob
  • Floating against an irrelevant background with stiff zombie claws
  • Cradling each other
  • Cradling a small decorative gourd
  • Cradling a mug of tea or latte
  • Cradling a fucking apple

… go punch yourself in the mouth.

The tossing-leaves thing: Don’t. Cute, but overdone.

(Also note: I’m not picking on a particular pattern; since I tend to study clothing photography way too closely, I actually did this list from memory. But a quick glance through new Ravelry patterns yields all of the above except the last one, which — whoop, never mind. Just found an apple.)

And before you say anything, ask yourself: Have you ever gingerly cupped a (tea rose / boxwood / star jasmine / piece of readily available hedge) with just the pads of your fingertips like it’s ten hours into a trip and you’ve just discovered how utterly beautiful and interconnected everything is and that the whole universe is contained in that simple, perfect thing? Were you wearing fingerless gloves? No? See? EVERYTHING IS LIES.

Now reach out that cradle that bad boy like your life depended on it.
Now reach out and cradle that bad boy like your life depends on it.

Night owl

I live in an apartment by myself now. I have room for both of my army surplus six-foot steel worktables (one is in the living room!) and when I turn on all the lights at 1 a.m. to take pictures of yarn, I don’t have to explain it to anyone but my pets.

Noro Retro in color Ruby
Lookit all that red!
More Noro.


Learn to love the one you’re with

Let me just say, I loved my ex’s camera. He had a Canon Digital Rebel, and it was the first prosumer camera I ever touched.

Now, with the ex gone and me not quote ready to drop a couple grand for a camera of my own, I’ve got a Nikon Coolpix 5700. It’s slow. It focuses slowly, it takes about a week and a half to write a RAW file, and it just … well, it’s no pro camera.

First rows of a Koolhaas hatI spent half an hour last night taking pictures of the 12 rows of my latest knitting project, curling around it to shoot it from ground level, lying alongside it, crouching over it, endlessly composing and framing, taking the same shot over and over again to see if I could narrow the depth of field to enclose just the tip of a needle or a single stitch — completely losing myself in a way that I am learning is actually not normal for most people. Eh, to each his own.

But I’m very slowly learning that it’s not a bad camera, either. Once I got over the fact that it’s not the one I was used to, I learned to appreciate its beautiful lens, its knack for capturing deep colors, and compact size. No more accidentally whacking the lens on things! No more crazy carpal-related hand tremors caused by lugging around a giant chunk of plastic and glass!

Also, the macro settings? They make US7 needles look like telephone poles.

Designer driver

I’m looking the pattern my brioche-stitch hat for Bella Knitting, and can I just say EEEEE! I feel so official!

And at our meeting on Wednesday, Laura asked me to come up with a summery brioche-stitch shell. I’d already been plotting one in my head anyway, so I’d just like to say EEEEEE! A commission! I feel like a designer!

I have an odd history with design. If you look at the Knitter’s Geek Code on my “About” page, you’ll spot this:


It basically means “Strong interest in design; hope to make money at it/go pro.” I hesitated when I put it into my Geek Code because it seemed like such a dopey fantasy. Yeah, yeah, everyone wants to be a designer — except for me. I have been preaching about how stupid it is since I was very, very small.

Except I was a total liar. I flat-out refused to play with Barbie, but there was one toy I stole constantly from my sisters: the fashion kit. There was this little plastic plate with a relief outline of Barbie on it, and you’d put a piece of paper over it, scrape your pencil over it and get an outline of a Barbie. You could swap in different plates with different clothes to create new looks, but I’d always pick the plainest clothes so I could draw my own fashions. I loved it and would never, ever admit it.

I have sketchbooks full of scribbles about clothes I wanted to make — kind of a crazy mash-up of 1960s Mod, Motown, and Op Art with 18th- and 19th-century men’s fashion. (Yes, the movie Velvet Goldmine makes me squeal with delight. The clothes! The music! Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Myers with no clothes on!) Miniskirts, jewel tones, military tailoring, long coats, go-go boots and high-contrast floral and geometric prints make me swoon. (Sarah and I got to nerd about about clothes the other day — bliss!)

And you know what? There just isn’t too much of that running around in the fashion world, and even less in the knitting arena. But my take is, if you don’t like your world, change it. If you don’t know how, then learn.

I’m nearing the end of the third hank of Cash Iroha on the Stitch Diva bodice. Everything’s going great, the Cash Iroha feels like amazing (once I pick the occasional little jagged bits out of it) and I am going stir crazy. I want to make my own damn sweater! The only reason I’m slogging through other people’s patterns is so I can learn about construction, and then I’m off. I figure one more top-down sweater, maybe with saddle shoulders (man I love those) and then a couple with set-in sleeves, and then I am gonna take over the damn world.

Oh, and I have to make a Tubey, because it is adorable and looks like a quick knit. It’s also styled like the vintage clothes I love. I am a sucker for a good neckline, and Tubey is it!

I’ve also shelled out seven bucks for the Stitch Diva Sahara pattern. I noticed it had set-in sleeves that are picked up around the armhole and shaped with short rows, and I am intrigued. I have a pile of unbelievably sexy, slippery, glossy Egyptian cotton that I bought to make a skirt drawstring before I realized I wouldn’t be caught dead in hippie gear. I’ve been picking it up and turning it over every couple of months, wondering what it should become instead, and I think this is it.

Stitch Diva: SaharaSahara, modeled by a pod person on Venus

Just one thing: I love the pattern (cleavage central!), but the photos creep me out. They Photoshop their photos to the point where the models no longer look human. There’s this trick in photo editing where you can gently blur a person’s skin while you leave the eyes nice and sharp. When it’s done with subtlety, it gives the skin a nice, smooth, even tone without looking blatantly soft-focus. When it’s done badly, as it is with a whole lot of production photography, the models look like poreless, rubbery pod people. Plus the colors are totally out of whack! The models look like they’re standing on a different planet with a sulfur sky and lakes of roiling acid. I get that the one photo here is supposed to look like it was shot at sunset, but what color is the sun — green?!

I’ve been eyeballing this pattern ever since it came out a few months ago, but it never occurred to me to buy it until I saw a snapshot of it on a regular person. I’m all about photography and digital retouching, but it’s a little hard trying to visualize yourself in a knit pattern when you can’t stop thinking about how the model looks like she’s too busy receiving messages from space to notice her human costume is starting to melt off.

The verdict: gorgeous pattern, beautiful model, totally readable and well-organized pattern, and post-production that would look right at home being mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000. But the part that really counts is this: I can’t wait to knit it!

Hey patternmeisters: Need photos?

Sample photosMy photos rock, of course.

I was looking at some of the photos on free pattern sites recently and was — well, unimpressed. There are a lot of photos that just don’t look so hot: overexposed, underexposed or just plain unflattering. I get why — most of the people taking the pictures are knitters, not photographers, and either take the photos themselves anyway or bully a friend or spouse into snapping a photo.

Myself? I need to fill out my photo portfolio, and could definitely use more practice working with models, especially people who don’t think of themselves as models.

So I’m putting this out there: if you’re a San Francisco Bay Area resident and you need great-looking photos for a free knit or crochet pattern, drop me a line at arletterocks (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll see if we can set up a photo shoot. Don’t be scared! Your original knitting is worth the attention.

It’s an offer that won’t go on forever, since school and work have me busy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but let’s see what we can do.

Hello, dolly

Bella hatKids’ hat from Bella Knitting, and my first time shooting photos of dolls.

My mom turned her compulsive habit of buying dolls into a cottage industry: she rescues dolls from thrift stores, cleans them up, repairs them and sells them at a serious profit. She’s really good at it, but not because she’s an expert at repair. It’s the photography.

Not the quality of the photography, mind you. Her photos are sometimes blurry because she’s too impatient to use the tripod I gave her. You can see dust bunnies and dog hair sticking to the fabric backdrops, and the lighting is usually an alien greenish-white from the fluorescent lights in the kitchen. Every time I’m at my parents’ house she spends ten minutes showing me all the blurry, awkwardly cropped photos she’s been taking for her auctions, and I cringe a little.

But I don’t have a lot of room to criticize: those photos work. My mom rakes in money because she knows how to bring those dolls to life. She poses them on tiny furniture, with little teddy bears under one arm, or “talking” to other dolls. She gives the creepy little mannequins their own personalities, and eBay bidders go crazy.

I thought about this a lot when I was shooting pictures of two kids’ hats for Bella. I had borrowed two dolls from my mom to use as models. I had way better lighting and a way better camera than her, but Mom when it comes to shooting dolls, my mom has me beat.

When my mom shoots dolls, she has infinite patience. She will tweak clothes until they’re just right, angle hands so they look that much more expressive, tilt dolls’ heads for just the right flirty or quizzical look. Not me. The dolls were floppy, unexpressive, and prone to falling down just as I released the shutter. Within just a few minutes I was cursing at them, shaking them violently and telling them I would never work with them again. I never, ever played with dolls as a kid, so I don’t see why I’d have gotten any better at it in the last 20 years.

Anyway, I did get some good photos, and hats look great. But I get the sneaky feeling that if my mom had been behind the camera, the photos would be blurry, awkward, and way more magical than mine.

Do not trust a smile this cheerful

Bella silk peek-a-book scarfLili models the silk peek-a-boo scarf from Bella Knitting. Observant readers of the Bella Blog will notice the scarf is tied in an Ivy knot.

Photos of knitting count as knitting content, right?

That’s been my big knitting thing this week: taking photos for Bella Knitting. My friend Lili was my model, and the photos turned out great. The part that cracks me up when I go through the photos from the shoot is how perky Lili looks. We’ve been best friends for ten years, and in all that time I’ve known her as fiery, opinionated, raunchy and hilarious, but all the photos for this shoot came out so dang wholesome. We’re talking a Sears photo department level of charming.

In pattern-related news, I’m still working on the two-color brioche hat and scarf set, and the thing is finally near done. The pattern design process was pretty typical for me: I usually spend a day working out the difficult major premise (in this case knitting two-color brioche with two colors at the same time, one in each hand) and spend a month on the details. I’ve been trying to work out a way to decrease brioche stitch neatly, easily and in pattern, and it’s freakin’ killing me. I checked out the Interweave Knits issue with the big brioche article but their method looked even more complicated and silly than the one I had brewing in my head, so I resigned myself to spending weeks knitting and re-knitting the top of the hat until I had something I loved instead of tolerated.

I’ve ripped out the same two inches of fabric for two weeks so many times that I no longer even flinch at the prospect of taking 64 stitches and their associated yarnovers off the needles, ripping back and capturing all those stitches again. The perseverance is paying off, though: by the time I’m done, the decreases at the top will be just as beautiful as the rest of the hat. By my guess, it’ll be at least another couple of weeks before I get the pattern out: what with school, working at the paper and some freelance gigs on the side, I barely have time to sleep, let alone knit.

Brioche stitch hat in progressBrioche stitch in progress. Touching this thing feels like being hugged by a winning lottery ticket covered in kitten fur and clouds.

Finished: Dead kitty double-knit hat

Dead kitty hat
Reversible double-knit hat with my Dead Kitty design
Started December 10, 2006, finished December 23, 2006. Blogged a week later because I wanted to get decent photos of it.

Dead Kitty hat
Lili models the Dead Kitty hat next to my dead ruminant wall. As soon as she walked in the door, I made her put on a hat and get her face up next to my skulls while I snapped photos. What an awesome friend.

Pattern: Mine
Yarn: Caron “Simply Soft,” 100 percent acrylic
Needles: US #7
Dimensions: Errr … head-sized.

Pattern notes: Well, the good things first: A super fast knit — all that stockinette goes so fast, compared to my last project, a scarf in brioche stitch. It was also incredibly easy, since I cranked it out in a couple days using one of the generic hat patterns I carry around in my head, slightly modified to accommodate the double knitting. And it’s reversible!

Bad things next: Jesus, was I drunk when I put the join dead front and center? It’s all I can see when I look at the thing. And the yarn! Eee. I’m so happy to be done with this acrylic. And is there any way to make double knitting look OK on a hat? I think maybe a tighter gauge would suit it better, so the design doesn’t get lost when the hat is stretched over the wearer’s head. Also, all that stockinette (All stockinette! It’s all you can see, inside and out!) is not so forgiving of the occasional odd-sized stitch — they stand out like crazy. Should get better once it’s washed, though.

Would I knit it again? I have to. My model, Lili, wants a hat to match the Dead Kitty scarf I’ve promised her.

Dead kitty hatYay for skulls!

Trip report: West Valley Alpacas

Dec. 2, 2006: Four knitters set out on a day trip to Esparto, Calif., in scenic Yolo County! Our destination: West Valley Alpacas, a working alpaca ranch, for their annual holiday sale.

Alpacas have goofy hair
Alpacas ho! Seriously, alpacas have the best hair you’ve ever seen.

I first found West Valley Alpacas through their booth at the giant mega fiber-arts convention Stitches West a couple years ago (next one’s in February at the Santa Clara Convention Center, yo!) and had wanted to engineer a field trip to the farm ever since. And this! This was the year! Many knitters and non-knitters alike expressed interest in the trip, but due to double-booking, lack of finances, apathy, disorganization or lack of publicity (I am not always the most organized trip planner), most folks backed out and only four of us made it. Sweet! This meant everyone could take one car and we could all head out together.

This is the alpaca version of a defensive huddle.

We met at Sarah’s, piled into the Mercedes I borrowed from my parents, armed ourselves with coffee and David Sedaris audiobooks, and hit the road. All did not go perfectly smoothly, though. Right around San Francisco, my buddy Sonya encountered the horrific stomach virus I brought back with me from my Thanksgiving vacation. As is typical of this particular plague, it struck with incredible speed: as she says it, just as she was thinking “Um, I think maybe I’m not gonna be OK,” the uncontrollable vomiting hit. We pulled over and cleaned up, and Sonya bravely insisted she wanted to stay with the road trip. “Alpacas or death,” we cried, and we chose alpacas!

The drive to Esparto takes about two hours. Once we turned off the freeway, we followed the directions from the West Valley Web site — all farm roads and directions like “Turn left on Road 25 (dark blue silos and a graveyard on the right-hand side)” and “Left up the driveway IMMEDIATELY before the little concrete bridge.” We bumped up a little unpaved driveway and saw fences, chickens, a gray barn and goofy, goat-sized animals with fluffy hair and sock-puppet necks! We’d found it!

Another alpaca
All I wanted to do was pat the alpacas’ fluffy heads. Seriously, look at this alpaca’s head: it’s like a fluffy sphere with ears and a nose poking out.

The place is like a pocket ranch. It’s tiny! The main building is amazing. The store part is a lean-to extension of an open-sided barn full of mysterious alpaca-ranching gear. The store itself is small, neat, and packed with alpaca yarn and spinning wheels. I definitely had a soft spot in my heart for the refreshments table that held little cookies and a Crock-Pot full of mulled apple juice. The cashier’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when we told her we’d driven up from Redwood City. I don’t know if alpaca ranches are used to the idea that fiber nerds with a love for goofy-looking animals will drive that far for a fluffy fix.

Sarah out-knit-nerded all of us at the spinnings wheels, trying out a sexy double-treadle wheel while I stared, fascinated. Watching a human being turn handfuls of fluffy animal hair into yarn is like watching a blacksmith at work: there’s this incredibly awareness that you are next to an ancient art that long ago helped people survive. Sarah must’ve been equally impressed: she got that same acquisitive glint in her eye that I’d see when she put away the new Jo Sharp yarns when we worked at the yarn store together. You guessed it: momma bought herself a spinning wheel.

Meet Coriander, the one on the leftShe also bought a bag of fiber from one of the alpacas! Just to make the whole experience even cuter, the bags aren’t labeled by color; they’re labeled with the name of the alpaca that provided the fiber. Sarah’s was from Coriander, which she thinks is the light gray one in this photo.

I opened one of the little bags of combed top (that’s washed, brushed fiber that’s ready for spinning) in a dark chocolate color and fell in love. Dude, patting combed alpaca top is like patting the fluffiest, most freshly washed and thoroughly brushed baby alpaca in the whole world. Amazing. I bought it, of course, and am already hitting up Sarah for my first spinning lessons.

After we poked around the store and stocked up on yarn, we got to take a tour of the alpaca pens. Ten or twelve of us were led into the alpaca pens and were given a quick rundown on alpaca etiquette. Even when alpacas are handled daily and relatively tame, like these were, they’re inconsistent and opinionated about how much they like people. You’re supposed to put your hands behind your back and move slowly to keep from freaking them out. I cruised up with Sarah’s Treo to take pictures (like an idiot, I’d forgotten a camera) and the alpacas decided they liked me. They also decided that they loved Tracy.

Tracy gets alpaca kisses
An alpaca sniffs Tracy, our alpaca charmer. Tracy got alpaca kisses; I got several alpacas nuzzling my armpits while I tried to take pictures.

The ranch staff told us that the female alpacas are the most chill. The castrated males were more stroppy, and were penned separately where they could rear up and spit at each other. We were told that alpacas hum when they’re stressed, and that alpaca humming can mean anything from “I’m unhappy” to “He has more food than I do” to “I don’t like this” to “He’s getting more attention than me.” When they’re really upset or mad, they huff air at each other as if they’re going to spit, and when they’re really upset, they eject chewed-up food from their stomachs and blow it at their opponents.

“Yup, they’ll vomit all over each other if they get really mad,” said one of the ranch staff as he showed off the breeding males.

Kneeling alpacaOne alpaca decided that today she liked people, so she flopped down in the middle of the little knot of visitors and let herself be petted. Her fur was plush and inches deep; pressing on her side felt like pressing down on a pillow. My whole hand could sink into her fur. Wow. I started to understand why alpaca yarn is so amazingly soft and lofty and squishy: it’s because alpacas themselves are soft and squishy!

By then, we were getting kinda crapped out. It had been a long day of driving, and Sonya was trying hard to be brave in the face of illness, but it was tough. She spent half the time lying in the car with the seat all the way back, feebly wishing aloud that she were dead. We took pity on her and headed back home, stopping for pasta on the way back and finally making it home a bit after dark.

I dropped Sonya off at her house, where she collapsed in bed. She told me later that when her manager wouldn’t cover for her at work the next day, she had to come in still seeping spores of the terrible death plague out her pores, so she carefully, deliberately licked all his office supplies. She made sure to lick both the caps and the barrels of the highlighters, since he’s the only one who uses them. My hero!

Conclusion: Alpacas are every bit as cute as you thought they were, and this spring, we’re going back for more! Sunday, May 6, 2007 is West Valley Alpaca’s next open house. They’ll have demonstrations of spinning and shearing, so if seeing a weird-looking animal strapped to a table and shaved is your kind of thing, make sure to save the date!