Sunday, July 31, 2011

12 in 11: July

My 12 in 11 project is looking a bit shaky.

First, there were the hand-beaded slippers I bought in Malaka while on my holidays.

Embroidered shoes

Aren't they lovely? The beads are hand-sewn to crescents of fabric that then become the toes of the shoes. Most of them are high-heeled and in smaller sizes, so I counted myself fortunate to find some large-enough flat slippers. They fall into the category of 'I have no idea when I'll wear them but I can't resist beautiful traditional crafts'.

Then just a couple of days ago a friend led me astray by telling me that my favourite designer was having a sale. This shop almost never has sales so this was just too much to resist. So I have a new charcoal long grey t-shirt with very long sleeves, and some drapey black pants in fine wool (yes, finally, fine black wool pants). These are from the season before last and were a fraction of their original price.

That makes a total of ten clothing items I've bought so far for 2011. Not good - but I do like my new clothes.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Architectural details

I've had fun knitting this hat.

Zumthor 1
Zumthor 2

The designer of the pattern named it 'Zumthor' for the architect whose clean geometric designs won him the Pritzker prize for Architecture in 2009. Like Zumthor's constructions, this hat is all neat and squared off. I've knitted it in Brooklyntweed's Shelter yarn in a rich tawny colour called 'Nest'. Altogether, most satisfactory.

As I was preparing to start knitting I was very puzzled that some of the photos in the pattern showed the hat in reverse stocking stitch while the pattern clearly instructed me to knit it in stocking stitch. I read and reread the instructions only to discover belatedly that I'd somehow missed the word 'reversible' in the introduction to the pattern. What a great discovery. Two versions of the hat after knitting it only once.

Zumthor reverse

Thank you to 1funkyknitwit for the photos, taken at a most pleasant afternoon of knitting with some SSK regulars.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

It's all about the yarn

brown scarf 1

My latest knitting project is all about the yarn. I was fortunate enough to have a skein - 111 metres - of 1funkyknitwit's unique corespun yarn. The core seems to be a rich browny natural fleece that has then been spun with all sorts of seemingly random bits of wool and silk and fleece and sparkly stuff. I've described these bits as seemingly random because when you look at the outcome you realise that this mixture and balance could only have been achieved by someone with the unerring eye for colour and tonalities that 1funkyknitwit possesses.

brown scarf 2

I knew I wanted to use this yarn to produce a wearable outcome and so I decided to make a scarf. I wear scarves all the time. I like the yarn so much that I didn't want it gradually moving to the bottom of my (very large) pile of scarves because it was too hard to wear and so wanted something I could just throw on rather than something I had to 'style'. I was also sensible enough to realise that I needed a very simple stitch pattern to highlight the yarn. The process of achieving the final outcome reinforced for me all the reasons I'm not a knitwear designer. I actually knitted this four times. First, I had in mind a kind of rhomboid shape so there would be asymmetrical tails to the scarf but, when it was finished it was just too hard to wear in any way that looked natural. Then I decided to broadly copy a scarf 1funkyknitwit had made and knitted a rectangle in moss stitch. But somehow I misjudged the proportions of the length and width and it just didn't work. Then I tried a Baktus in garter stitch, but the designer of this pattern is right - it works best in fine yarns and somehow my finished product looked skimpy. Finally, after much trawling through Ravelry I found Jane Richmond's free pattern for her Mustard Scarf, and this is the final outcome. It's a simple pattern of a row of knit two together, then a yarnover, followed by a row of plain knitting.

brown scarf 3

I've finished the scarf with an old button I bought from Peppergreen Antiques in Berrima when I was, most fittingly, accompanied by 1funkyknitwit. I hope my knitting has done justice to her yarn.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Personal Sock Club... Fail!

Sometimes it's good to have knitting goals and timelines. In 2009 and 2010 I devised my personal sock club, where each two months or so I rediscovered some sock yarn I already possessed and knitted it up into socks. Across those two years I completed more than a dozen pairs of socks - usually within or just beyond the time limit I'd set myself. This year's sock club has had a variation - a group of people voted upon and chose the patterns for the year. Even though they weren't patterns I would normally choose, I managed the first two pairs of socks for the year. But the third pair of socks - Leyburn - completely defeated me.


They were my first ever pair of toe-up socks, and my second ever short-row heel - and I hadn't enjoyed the first one. I'd decided at the beginning of the year I'd knit each of the patterns chosen and that I'd knit each of them exactly as written, hoping I might learn some new techniques and nudge myself out of my rather unadventurous approach to sock knitting.

However, the Leyburns proved to be a bit of a challenge. They've made me ask myself what is reasonable to expect from a free knitting pattern. If you buy a pattern you expect it to be at least accurate and clear. If it is also well presented and easy to follow you consider it praiseworthy. I'm not sure if you can have the same expectations for free patterns. I can imagine some adventurous knitter trying out their new ideas for a sock (or a scarf or a cardigan, etc), having it admired by friends or acquaintances, and being urged to 'just make a note of what you've done so we can have a go at it'. And then the pattern gets noted on Ravelry or other internet sites and used by others.

Then some of the others - me, in this particular case - have problems with the pattern... it's not detailed enough, it's not clear why I have to do things in a particular way, or it tells me to 'use your favourite short-row heel' when this is the first time I've knitted a toe-up short-row heel and I don't know enough to have a 'favourite'. With the benefit of hindsight, this was clearly a mismatching of pattern and knitter.

Added to which, this is the knitting I took on holidays with me. At the very time when I needed knitting that was unproblematic and could be picked up and put down easily, I was searching the internet for examples of short-row heels and trying to work out how to incorporate them into the overall pattern (I think this took three attempts and three unravellings). With hindsight, clearly a mismatching of project and location.

So, I don't want to blame the pattern-writer. It was a free pattern, which I think is an invitation to knit at your own risk. I should have been much more careful to prepare myself for the challenges of the pattern and should have realised these socks weren't a good holiday project. But even so, I did not enjoy knitting them. I've abandoned them for the moment. I will have no socks finished for the May-June project for sock club. I have to declare a 'Fail'.

So I've moved on to the next pattern chosen by the group for the sock club - Nancy Bush's Fox Faces.

Fox faces

I've heaved a huge sigh of relief. Nancy Bush - a guarantee of a clearly written pattern. Top-down - my preference. Dutch heels - love them. Round toes - yippee. I'm not using the yarn I drew randomly for this project as it seemed a bit short of the yardage required, so am substituting yarn that was a prize from MissFee's blog anniversary - Angel Yarn in Denim Mix colour. It seems as if one departure from the rules I set for myself has licensed me to make others.

I'll report in on progress at the end of August when they're - hopefully - done.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Belatedly, 12 in 11: June

With my holiday disrupting my everyday life I forgot to report on my 12 in 11 progress for June. So belatedly, here's the update.

I like to think I'm not seduced by brands and brand names. It's a kind of reverse snobbery. But I think I should face up to the fact that sometimes I'm just an old-fashioned snob about some brands. I needed a handbag for my holiday. I wanted something light, neutral enough go with any of my clothes, that was big enough to hold all the necessities of day-to-day travelling life (wallet, sunglasses, foldable hat, guide book) but not so big that I'd be tempted to fill it with other less necessary stuff. So I went shopping and decided I just had to buy a Mandarina Duck handbag.

MD Handbag

I think this must be the fifth or sixth Mandarina Duck bag I've had in my life and I've loved every one of them. They're not at all flashy, but I enjoy their quiet, functional Italian design. Fortunately, with the increase in the value of the Australian dollar, they seem to have come down in price, and this combined with a 25% reduction at my favourite handbag and travel shop meant that the price wasn't too guilt-inducing. And did you notice it's grey?

My other purchase in June was some very old-fashioned delicate filigree silver earrings I bought from the silver workshop in Kota Bharu.

Silver earrings

They're in the traditional hibiscus shape - the national flower of Malaysia. They're not at all the kind of earrings I usually wear, but I just can't resist something that preserves local traditions. But I don't have to count these, do I? You, my dear readers, have previously agreed that earrings don't count.

One additional item for June - a total of 7 items so far for the year. Quite restrained.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Malaysia: five best things...

I'm now home and feel a need to capture some of my final impressions of my time in Malaysia, so I'm revisiting what I did for my Paris trip early last year and risking a list of the five best things - or at least, the things that gave me most pleasure.

1 The first is a bit complicated - it's Malaysia's cultural diversity. I feel that if you were going to create a nation state, the Malaysian model would be one of the riskiest you could choose. The state is made up of people with distinctly different cultural, religious and language backgrounds, where the differences have been fostered and cherished for generations. No effort is made to integrate the groups - in fact, intermarriage is often explicitly discouraged - and there's positive discrimination in favour of Malays and Islam, but nevertheless everyone is expected to buy into the notion of '1 Malaysia', and to a large extent, everyone does. Nowhere is this diversity more immediately obvious than in the number and range of religious edifices.

Kuala Kangsar Ubudiah MosqueKuala Kangsar Mosque interiorKuala Kangsar Mosque interior 2
[The exquisite Ubudiah Mosque in the royal town of Kuala Kangsar where we were allowed (as modestly clad women) even into the central domed prayer hall]

Penang St George's Church
[The elegant 1817 St George's Church in Georgetown, Penang - supposedly the first Anglican church built in Southeast Asia.]

Penang Sri Mariamann Temple
[The 1883 Sri Mariamann Hindu Temple in Georgetown, Penang, proudly maintained by its generations old Indian community]

Ipoh Perak Tong TempleIpoh Perak Tong Temple 2
[Buddhist Chinese Perak Tong Temple near Ipoh - built into an immense limestone cave]

Goddess of Mercy TemplePenang Goddess of Mercy roofPenang Chinese operaPenang sleeping man
[The early nineteenth century Taoist/Confucian Goddess of Mercy Temple in Georgetown, Penang. This is my favourite. I call it the Temple of Chaos. It's full of people all the time, burning incense, burning candles, burning "pretend' paper money. Smoke and bowing everywhere in every direction. For no apparent reason there was a stage in the temple forecourt and a performance of Chinese opera. People sitting, chatting, eating, sleeping. Chaos]

2 The natural world. Anybody who knows me knows that I'm not a great fan of 'nature'. I'm usually much happier in the built environment that I am in the natural one. But Malaysia's natural world is so much larger than life - so bright, colourful and exuberant. I've already posted about the wonderful wild life of Sarawak and Sabah - so definitely worth the visit - but even in a big city such as Kuala Lumpur there are wonderful parks and gardens. We particularly loved the butterfly park in KL with the sheer delight of being surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of fluttering butterflies:

KL black butterflyKL butterfly on hibiscus

and, at the risk of boring you with yet more photographs of orchids, we were overwhelmed by the profusion and colour and variety of the plantings in the KL orchid garden:

KL orchids 2KL orchids 1

3 The food. You quickly learn that in Malaysia, almost everything will taste wonderful. It may astound you with its chilli sharpness, but it will have a very fresh, complex flavour. Lots of ginger, lots of lemon grass, coconut milk, a coriander-like herb and everything so fresh. There are, of course a few exceptions to the tasting wonderful rule - durian and jackfruit whose decadent tropical taste I can't bear, and fish paste which I happen to like, but which can be overpowering in larger quantities. There were lots of different presentations of laksa with local variations as we travelled around, and my favourite comfort food Hainanese Chicken Rice. We had afternoon tea at a grand hotel and discovered it came with a particular Malaysian twist - finger sandwiches and petit fours, accompanied by satay, samosas and chicken pies:

Laksamelaka afternoon tea

And of course there was the kek. Lots of kek. The keks ranged from the Nyonya specialities of cakes made from glutinous rice and palm sugar, through wonderful pastries and such things as very good banana kek, to the most astounding kek lapis we found in Kuching - extraordinary constructions of fine layers of kek to form almost op-art patterns.

Nonya SpecialitiesSarawak kek

4 The architecture. I knew I would be attracted by the traditional wooden architecture of Malay houses - whether it is the simplicity of kampung (village) houses or the intricate grandeur of such structures as the early twentieth century Istana Kenangan (now a museum) at Kuala Kangsar - completely constructed without nails.

Melaka House Kampung MortenKuala Kangsar Istana Kenangan

I also knew I'd see some wonderful colonial architecture such as the 1917 Railway Administration Building in Kuala Lumpur and the Town Hall in now-neglected but once-grand Ipoh

KL Railway admin buildingIpoh Town Hall

and the shophouses and grand Chinese merchant houses of Penang.

Penang shophousesPenang Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

What I hadn't expected was to be bowled over by some of the modern architecture. The much-famed Petronas twin towers are much more beautiful than I had anticipated. Even though structurally they're built from concrete, the external cladding glitters metallicly. They're reminiscent of the modernity of New York's Chrysler Building. We were fortunate to have them as part of the view from our hotel window in KL where at night they looked like two glittering upended chandeliers.

KL Petronas Towers 1KL Petronas Towers 2

Just as beautiful though not so immediately impressive is the elegant Dayabumi complex that integrates Islamic design elements with modern skyscraper architecture.

Dayabumi building, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

And then there was the building whose interior really stole my heart - the Museum of Islamic Arts Malaysia. This is one of the most wonderful museums I've ever visited. Precious and beautiful displays of pottery, textiles, furniture and objects from Islamic countries around the world, along with finely hand-written and decorated, centuries old religious books and scrolls. It's rare to see so many exquisite things grouped together so well and displayed in such a fitting space. Definitely worth a visit.

KL Islamic MuseumKL Girls in museum

5 The taxi-drivers. I expect like most travellers, I'm very suspicious of taxi-drivers when I travel, but in this case I've decided that taxi-drivers are one of the unacknowledged treasures of Malaysian tourism. Given the limited time we had in each city we visited, and sometimes the fact that there was no readily accessible alternative, we used taxis quite a bit on our trip. Even though meters were rarely used, we didn't have a single case where the fare quoted by the driver was more than marginally different from what our guidebooks or hotel had suggested or, if meters were used, where the metered and unmetered fares were different. But as well as their trust-worthiness, the taxi-drivers were an invaluable source of advice and information - often they became either formal or informal guides for bits and pieces of our sight-seeing.

We discovered that Malaysia has a compulsory retirement age of 55, so that a number of our drivers were retired civil servants or business employees who wanted to continue to work, and (we speculated) whose wives did not want them around the house. They were always knowledgeable about what to see or do, often willing to comment on or explain aspects of Malaysian society, and generally a very good source of information about the region.

So that's my list . Except for the very very hot and humid weather it was an excellent holiday. Malaysia is simultaneously fascinating and yet safe and easy for travellers. English is widely spoken, the food is safe as well as interesting and sophisticated, and you can even drink the water (well, I did, safely, at least). But we did set rather a cracking pace - or alternatively we're beginning to feel our age. Maybe we needed a few more 'quiet days'.

Terimah kasih, Malaysia

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A long-held travel ambition

I've long had an ambition to visit Melaka (or Malacca as it was spelt when I was at school) on the southwest coast of Malaysia. There's something very romantic about the cities in Southeast Asia that were ports and settlements for European travellers and traders over the last five centuries or so - such as Macau, Manila, Goa, Cochin. They've been very cosmopolitan settlements for generation upon generation. I managed through sheer good luck to visit Macau in the 1970s before its harbour became the victim of landfill to settle more people, when Portuguese was still heard in the streets and the Portuguese buildings, though crumbling, were used for their original purposes rather than as museums. I think I've left it too late to visit Melaka - though I keep telling myself that's not a very sensible way to think. Towns and cities inevitably change and develop; they're dynamic and need to change to meet people's needs and desires. However, the enthusiastic capitalism that's so obvious in Malaysia does endanger the preservation of historic sites in cities such as Melaka.

Nevertheless, I'm pleased, finally, to have made this visit. Melaka has such a rich history - layer upon layer of culture, language and influence. Originally settled by a fugitive Sumatran prince in the late fourteenth century, in the early fifteenth century it came under the protection of Chinese eunuch Admiral Cheng Ho who opened trade with China.

Melaka Admiral Cheng Ho 1405
[The statue of Admiral Cheng Ho in grounds of the 1795 Chinese temple, Sam Po Kong. Of course, if you rub his tummy it brings good luck]

The Portuguese were attracted by tales of Melaka's trade and riches and invaded and ruled the area in the early sixteenth century, only to be defeated by the Dutch in 1641.

Melaka St Paul's
[The ruins of St Paul's Church - originally built by the Portuguese in 1521 as 'Our Lady of the Annunciation'. When the Dutch took Melaka they renamed the church St Paul's and it became a protestant church]

The Dutch occupied Melaka for the next 180 years or so, but with the decline in the fortunes of the Dutch East India Company, in 1824 Melaka was ceded to the British, though by then Melaka's importance as a trade centre had given way to Singapore and Penang and the city faded to relative obscurity.

Except for a few historic buildings,

Melaka Christ Church
[Christ Church built by the Dutch between 1741 and 1753 fron bricks brought from Holland. The church has an elegantly austere interior and beautiful original pews that we were strictly instructed not to photograph]

Melaka Interior 8 Heeren Street
[Faithful restoration of an eighteenth century Dutch house. Many 'restorations' are much less faithful, though often more colourful]

modern day Melaka bears little direct trace of this rich cosmopolitan past - though it's still a culturally and ethnically rich melting pot. There is vibrant evidence of the city's rich Peranakan (Straits Chinese) population as well as the Baba Nyonya (mixed Chinese and Malay) traditions.

Melaka Baba and Nyonya Museum
[Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum - a grand Peranakan house from 1896 with its original furniture and fittings and displays of costumes from the early twentieth century]

And of course there is the Malay majority.

Melaka Kampung Morten
[A Malay-style house in Kampung Morten - a settlement built by the riverside in the 1920s to house poorer families. Nowadays, by agreement between the state and the residents, the Kampung is preserved as a 'living museum']

As in so much of the rest of Malaysia the different groups live differently, side by side, in apparent harmony, under the rubric of 'One Malaysia'.

Melaka has become a tourist town - an easy day trip from nearby Singapore, a destination for groups from Hong Kong on short holidays, and stop-off for a few errant European travellers. And all the things that happen with tourist developments have happened - golf courses, new shopping malls, international hotels and backpacker guest houses, tarting up the historical buildings, opening pedestrian streets to stalls selling cheap trinkets and souvenirs, and having public performances of the dances and music associated with the city's history.

Melaka dancers
melaka drummers

But one wonderful tourist development has been dredging the Melaka River that flows through the town, building walkways along about 9 kilometers of its edge, and having cheap small ferries regularly plying its length. When the day is hot a boat ride makes a welcome way to see something of the town.

Melaka, Malaysia

But as I wrote earlier, I'm please to have made this visit. Coming from a country where European settlement is so recent I find it a bit humbling to be reminded of the diverse and rich settlement histories of our near neighbours. Even though little remains of its past grandeur Malaka does still evoke its romantic settlement history.