A couple of years ago I decided to make a special gift for Ben, not for his birthday or Christmas or any other reason apart from the fact that he is here and I adore him. What more reason do I need? I wanted something that would challenge me to try new spinning and knitting skills and would result in a gift that was unique, personal and above all to be loved and played with. I’ve never understood the point of toys that sit on shelves. After some deliberation, I settled on a traditional-style teddy bear made from Manx Loaghton wool. The Manx Loaghton is an ancient British sheep, a rare breed nowadays, and I had been given a beautiful shearling fleece for my birthday. This was the first time I had ever tackled a raw fleece straight from the sheep’s back and it was a pretty steep and smelly learning curve. However, fleece dealt with and spun, a teddy took shape; bit of an odd looking creature, really, but I was pleased with it and the photos of Ben treating it to a tea party and ride on his trike made it all worth while.
So to Annie. No deliberation needed here, she is passionate about horses so that was an obvious theme. However, given how many thousands of knitted toy patterns are available I was a bit surprised at how few of them are for horses, at least of any decent size. I had begun to think I would need to modify a unicorn (no shortage of them for some reason) when I found the ‘Hobby Horse for Little Knights’ pattern by Aurelie Colas. Perfect! Even better, the pattern was designed to be worked in British wool breeds: here was a lady after my own heart.
I decided to go for a dapple grey as it would be an interesting dyeing activity, using a mix of Shetland (very apt, I thought) and English 56s wool. The Shetland went into the dye pot with a sprinkle of grey powder and was left to its own devices in the hope of dyeing unevenly to give shade variations. That plan worked well.
I blended equal quantities of the dyed Shetland and undyed English 56s to create rolags, then set to spinning a chunky yarn.
This was a bit tricky. When I first learned to spin on a drop spindle and again on a wheel, the yarn I produced was all chunky . . . well, super chunky . . . no, let’s be honest, it was rope. My talented spinning friend Daphne assured me that there would come a day I wished I could spin like that again, and she was right. Having spent months spinning very fine sock yarn, chunky just seemed to evade me. In the first skein I overcompensated and ended up with a yarn too thick for the pattern, but I did have a role for it and thankfully the next attempts were better.
I decided to try a new skill here. First, I wound the single yarn off the bobbin into a centre pull ball using a knitting needle to form the core.
Then I attached both ends of the yarn to the bobbin leader and plied from the ball.
This is a great method for plying; winding the ball takes a surprisingly long time but the plying is fast and easy and the beauty is every single bit of yarn is used – no odds and ends left on a bobbin. Yarn done, time to get knitting . . . and so to the next challenge.
Circular needles. Mmm, I’ve used them a fair bit and they are handy tools. I particularly like using them for bobble hats and berets and of course there’s no seaming, which is always a bonus in my book. The problem I had here is that my 5mm circular needle is 100cm long, far bigger than the diameter of the horse’s neck and head, which meant that once and for all, I needed to crack the ‘magic loop’ method. This is actually a very simple method, I’d just never bothered to spend the few minutes it took to grasp it properly. Part of the problem is that I have control issues with circular needles; the metal ends are fine but all that bendy nylon in between seems to have a mind of its own, it’s like wrestling eels which is not conducive to relaxed knitting. I wasn’t convinced this was going to work and cast on in a somewhat negative frame of mind. Just look at that plastic eel trying to exert control from the start.
Oh well, that was easy, then. Good old ‘magic loop!’ I have to admit I’m a bit of a convert; in fact, I’ve since invested in a 2.25mm circular needle to have a go at knitting socks this way, rather than over the usual four double-pointed needles I use. Speaking of socks, it soon became clear that what I was knitting here wasn’t so much a horse’s head as a giant sock; now this was familiar territory and the job was soon done.
The only extra bit of knitting was a couple of ears. Given my commitment to doing things properly, I used mattress stitch to sew them up; I know this is a far superior method of seaming than backstitch but I’m usually too lazy to bother, I hate sewing up so much I just want to get it over and done with as soon as possible. In future, I’m going to use mattress stitch far more.
I also took the time to use grafting to attach the ears to the head; this is basically creating an extra row of ‘knitted’ stitches so that the join is invisible and seamless and looks far more professional than bodging with slip stitches.
I didn’t have enough toy stuffing so decided to improvise with strips of wadding left over from quilting projects. It’s more substantial than toy stuffing which I felt would be a benefit here anyway as I suspected this may be one well-ridden horse!
On the original pattern, the eyes are embroidered in black wool but I just happened to have some safety eyes in my sewing basket so used those instead. Head stuffed and seamed, it was time for the mane. Here I used that super super chunky first skein of wool, pulling loops through with a crochet hook, a bit like making a rag rug.
Ta da! One horse’s head.
The next part of the pattern involved carpentry tools and materials so I handed over to Roger and let him sort out a pole and cross piece.
The beauty of this pattern is that although the head is firmly attached to the pole, it is possible to remove it if necessary for washing – what a great design.
On the original pattern the harness is worked in dark brown (moorit) Shetland which obviously looks like leather but I share Annie’s love of colour and I didn’t think she would mind me indulging in a bit of whimsy at this point. Remember that Perendale from my first dyeing experiment? I knew I’d find a job for it somewhere and who says a horse can’t have a bluey-yellowy–green harness? It was a tad complicated; I am no horsewoman and have never put a bridle on a horse in my life but I am now an expert in brow bands and throat lashes (albeit knitted ones) and it is totally removable. I just hope Annie will have a better idea of how to fit it back on the horse then me.
The final touch (back to Roger) – a pair of wheels to ensure this horse can scoot along.
Then all that remained to be done was organise equine transport from Spain to Wales and find a loving new home for ‘Horse’ – now known as Missy!