Archive for the ‘food and garden’ Category

fresh start

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

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look at the lustrous coat on this beautiful greyaface dartmoor ewe. one of the pleasures of being a knitter in our time is having access to a wider range of fiber quality than ever before. once you’ve knit with a unique yarn that’s fulfilling to hold in your hands and make stitches with, you know the feeling of wanting to take extra special care of it over the life of your garment or accessory.

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fresh, clean handknit fabric should feel airy, fluffy, and have a fibery halo that sparkles as it catches the light. if your wool soap leave the fabric dull and heavy looking, you might be interested in making your own. DIY wool soap is easy to make, difficult to screw up, and has the added bonus of costing far less than commercial preparations. it also allows you control what goes into the mix, great for those with allergies or a preference for vegan products.

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i made my first batch of wool soap and blogged about it eighteen months ago, when i found myself low on soap and strapped for time to order the large quantity i needed. i used the recipe that i saw most frequently around the internet, one that has withstood the test of time and is still a classic. it appears on many websites and you can make it in full dilution or as a concentrate; the recipe is easily divided or multiplied. (one reason you might want to make a concentrate is to extend the shelf life if you don’t go through wool wash all that quickly).

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this recipe combines grated soap or boxed soap flakes, water, and denatured alcohol (mentholated spirits) with some essential oil to scent and act as an insect deterrent.

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my results were good and the soap worked well; i could not have been happier with the washed fabric! and it was seriously less expensive than any commercial wool soap i had considered—important because we wash a LOT of woolens around here, especially when it’s time to wash all the shop samples.

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one reason my wool soap was so kind to the fabrics is almost accidental—i used an old bar of homemade olive oil soap to make my wool wash and olive oil (castile) soap is extra conditioning—just what’s needed for wool.

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i did find i wanted to change a couple of things the next time i made mine, though. first, i did not care for the smell of the denatured alcohol. while almost all of it dissipated after 24 hours of standing, i just wasn’t a fan of that smell; it didn’t sit right with me.

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also, because castile soap is so rich, it doesn’t suds much at all. i could live with that part, but i was curious to see if i could change it any—like a kid with bubble bath, i love me some nice rich lather to squish through my fabrics. a wonderful reader who makes solid soaps gave me some tips and some leads about where to look next for ideas in creating the liquid soap recipe i wanted.

since then i’ve done more reading and research and have found lots of great information about liquid soap (here, i would like to recommend tracy’s blog, oh, the things we’ll make; she demystifies liquid soap making in a practical way that is really easy to understand and follow). making a wool soap without any alcohol is totally doable—not only that, it can be very, very simple and still save tons of money. and if you are willing to spend just a wee bit more time (not work!), you can make LOTS of rich, conditioning liquid soap at a very low cost that will serve multiple purposes around your home.

the last time i washed and blocked a few things, i noticed that our soap supply was getting very low, so this past week i prepared for the new year by making a fresh batch using my newest information; i thought it would be fun to update you on my latest recipe, which begins with liquid castile soap instead of the grated soap. one thing i learned while researching is that if you start with liquid soap, you will not need the alcohol to keep your dilution emulsified.

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you can buy pure castile soap already diluted the full amount needed, and also in concentrated dilutions. i found this concentrated, semi-solid soap paste on sale last year at bramble berry, where you can also purchase a variety of other supplies. this two-pound jar will eventually make eight to ten pounds of soap; when i saw it i thought that this form would be easiest to store. it didn’t sound like it was difficult to dilute so i decided to try it.

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straight out of the jar, it has the consistency of dried-out jello—leathery and kind of waxy. this paste does not dissolve instantly, so if you decide to go this route, be aware that it takes up to a couple of days to dissolve the paste. which is what i didn’t quite realize when i bought it. but once i read a little bit about using it, i was relieved that all it requires is a bit more time.

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a couple of days before soap-making day, i warmed up enough water in a pot to make a two-to-one solution. i dropped spoonfuls of my castile paste in the warm water, placed the lid on, and then let it sit. since i had never done this before i was curious, so i went back every hour or so to give it a stir, watching it turn from hard paste to soft, then more like a gel, the lumps getting smaller and more spread out over the afternoon. by evening it was nearly dissolved and by the next morning, i had soapy syrup of even solution (no lumps). i let it sit an additional day because i hadn’t planned to use it so soon.

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another thing i learned in my research is that coconut oil soap has great cleaning power and is a good sudser. be sure to buy one that is made only with coconut oil, so that you know what you’re working with (water, KOH or lye, and citric acid are normal soap ingredients).

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if you combine liquid castile soap with liquid coconut soap, you have a great all-around soap for a variety of purposes. i decided i wanted to use them together for my wool soap and to try a hand soap as well.

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as a little “extra” for the wool soap, i dissolved about a tablespoon of lanolin in hot water, then diluted that with the water i planned to add.

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lanolin is very milky when it dissolves, but it will eventually clear. i left that to fully dissolve while i made the hand soap.

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a fully diluted soap has four parts water to one part solid soap or soap paste. my 2:1 solution (three quarts) was much more than i was going to need for this batch, so i portioned off a quart to store away for future use (see—my next batch is halfway done!). i still had two quarts left that could dilute up to four; i planned to fully dilute the portion i would use for hand soap and only half dilute the portion for the wool soap, to make that a little more concentrated.

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once your soap is liquid, the rest is easy. if you are starting with liquid soap, you can jump in here! i gathered all my ingredients (sorry i took out the alcohol and photographed it but didn’t use it).

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i suddenly realized i was still going to end up with a LOT of liquid soap, so i ran around digging up bottles to use. luckily, david had the foresight to keep the last few bottles of wool soap he’d emptied and i found his stash on a basement shelf.

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haha, scrubbing off the old labels took more time than making the soap!

the dilution is really a matter of taste. you can read more about this on the blog i mentioned above, but the author makes a good point—most people are pretty habitual about the amount of soap they use, whether it is concentrated or not. i tend to use a full pump of hand soap to wash my hands, so it does not need to be very concentrated. when i wash woolens, however, i tend to go with a “capful”, no matter how many i’m washing; i have to remind myself that a bigger load requires more. so in that case, a concentrate works best.

a fully diluted soap is a pretty thin liquid, but don’t be fooled that it won’t have cleaning power. cleaning power is not related to viscosity—think of how thin commercial household cleaners are. but if you enjoy a thicker liquid hand soap, you can achieve that by adding certain essential oils or a salt solution; the soap queen blog has a great tutorial for this.

i just realized that i’m making this seem really complicated by telling you all kinds of information that i learned, but really, making a liquid cool  or hand soap is really REALLY easy, i swear!

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after diluting one-third of my remaining castile fully, i added some coconut oil soap and i was done. a good proportion is 70/30 castile to coconut. since some essential oils fade over time and i like variety, i decided to add scent only to the amount i planned to use right away. the two bottles i was putting on the shelf remain unscented until further notice.

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i also tested the hand soap in a foaming dispenser and it gave me a nice thick, rich foam, not that kind that’s all air.

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next i finished mixing the wool soap concentrate, then tested to see if my dilution was to my liking and if using the coconut soap gave me the lather i wanted. i dissolved a teaspoon or so in a couple of gallons of water (my “capful”). SCORE! it’s nice.

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half an hour later, still pretty sudsy; i’m sold. i will test it on some fabric in the next couple of days, when my next project comes off the needles.

i went ahead and scented the wool soaps once i bottled them because we use those regularly and in winter, we use a good amount. also, we need to wash all those shop samples again, so we’re going to be going through a bottle or two pretty soon.

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the solution will be milky for a while until it settles—the more diluted or warm it is, the more clear it will become; concentrates can cloud up when stored in a cold area. i left the bottle sitting open for a couple of hours to cool and they all cleared nicely.

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a light layer of essential oil and suds was still floating on top, but a quick shake disperse that. and i bet if i look again it might even be gone by now.

to use your soap, just add a teaspoon or two to a basin of water for hand washing and maybe one-eighth of a cup (two tablespoons) to each machine load. it’s good to experiment with a few hand washables in a basin to start; if the water is sudsy and feels slightly slick, that’s enough soap. if it feels quite slimy, you’ve added too much. i also recommend using a splash of white vinegar in the rinse water to completely clean the fabric of residue (from soap, dirt, or minerals in hard water) and to balance the pH of your fabric.

all in all, for about $20, i ended up with five big 16-ounce bottles of wool soap and three 8-ounce bottles of hand soap PLUS enough castile dilution to make another batch of the same size. if i purchased a diluted castile soap, i’d get four bottles for about $30—still a big savings. the main thing for me is getting a conditioning formula that leaves my woolens soft, fluffy, and gleaming with life—plus, i can share it with friends. and don’t forget, i also still have half a container of castile paste left . . .

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i better get knitting to use up all that soap . . .

color, color everywhere

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

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did you have a good holiday weekend? ours was deliciously quiet and relaxing—just me and mister knitspot alone in our home for a couple of days while everyone else was off. perfect!

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my last post was kind of full, so i didn’t mention a craft project i did during the week before christmas—making a little something nice to add to gifts that we were sending out . . . lotion bars.

lotion bars are a solid form of hand and body cream that have a little more staying power, which i really need in winter; in fact, i use them nearly year-round now because in summer my hands work hard in the garden and kitchen. i rub the solid bar over my hands even after using other hand cream and i’m good for hours. they also work wonders for my nails.

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i made some last year too and was pleased, but have been thinking ever since about ways i wanted to improve the basic recipe i used then, so this was my chance. on monday last week i gathered up supplies and got started.

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first, i thought it would be prettier and smarter to add some inclusions in every bar to be able to identify the “flavor” of each, so i prepped my molds with rosemary leaves, lavender flowers, and orange zest. these will fall out as the bar is used, but they do look nice.

i also used a different mold so that i could package them easily and inexpensively (boxes to hold the other shapes i have are pretty pricey). these are tiny cupcake or candy molds that are about 1.5 inches in diameter. they come in a box of 36 that works well for a full batch of bars.

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while i was prepping the molds, the lotion ingredients were warming and melting in a water bath over a very low flame (double boiler also works well). you need to use containers that you won’t use for food purposes later, so a retired pan, some jars, or an old measuring cup are fine.

this year i changed the basic recipe i linked to above to make a softer,  more emollient bar. i reduced the wax to about one-fourth instead of one-third, then increased the oil and butter. i also added the vitamin E oil that is optional; i think that’s what makes it so good for nails.

you can use any butters or oils that are sold for this purpose. i used hemp and coconut oil along with mango, shea, and avocado butter for a rich bar. i did use some beeswax, but also candelilla wax, which gives them a nice slip and is vegan.

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once the ingredients were melted, i added essential oils for fragrance (i really love nice smelling hand stuff! but you don’t need to add anything; they will still smell good). here is another place where i changed what i did last year. i was more careful and built my scents up so that from one batch i made four different combinations.

i started with a simple combo of citrus and bergamot, poured a few of those, then added lavender, then rosemary, then the final addition was sandalwood, pine, vetiver, and clove for a woodsy mix that is my personal favorite (but doesn’t appeal to everyone, haha). by the way, any of these combinations are terrific for removing food odors from your hands if you work a lot in the kitchen.

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this size bar fits perfectly into a small solo “ketchup” cup—i love that! the container is sturdy enough to last the life of the bar; the lids snap on tightly so i think they will survive pretty well inside a purse, and afterward, it’s recyclable. plus—super cheap; love that even more, since i can put my resources into the best quality ingredients, instead of the containers.

i’m getting good feedback on these bars from the friends i’ve given them to; i want to make another batch for another round of gifts, but i’ll wait to get barb’s honest review tomorrow at knit night. she’ll tell me for sure if i need to change anything.

later this week, i’ll be making a batch of wool soap—also something i did last year with great results. i’m going to tweak that recipe a bit too and have already started working with some of the ingredients. more on that another day.

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red scarf fundraiser is moving along, thanks to all of you generous knitters who are responding with such kindness. we are sold out on festivus 3.0, but our supply of snow flies scarf/cowl patterns is infinite and we still have plenty of kit options in natural shades of kent DK. if you are curious about what they look like knitted up, please visit our red scarf KAL to see some finished samples in natural shades as well as red.

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i’m going to give you a peek at one beautiful example—this wrap that cherie knit in the white sand color of kent DK. it took about two and a half skeins; it makes a luxuriant scarf or a handy wrap that’s a good size to wear while working. i think it could be stunning with some long, knotted fringe on the ends, if you are so inclined (and a good way to use remainders).

i will get a total from doug on thursday and post that on friday. i think we’ve made some progress, but for sure we’re not to our goal yet—still a ways to go, but i have confidence we will do it!

if you still have a gift to give, consider making a donation in someone else’s name or gifting along the pattern to another knitter—we are also grateful for every mention of this effort on your other social media outlets, thank you SO, so much!

it wouldn’t be christmas without . . .

Sunday, December 25th, 2016

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and now knitters, it’s time for our annual christmas post; have you been naughty this year or nice?

oh, and BTW, our across-the-street neighbor has NO IDEA that i crashed her blog to blast this post, so don’t rat me out . . . you got that??

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me and the gang are prepared to lead you through a veritable land of christmas wonders; are you ready?

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obviously we have the “nice” category covered.

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and not just for those who worship; we’ve got all sorts of nice folks here.

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and then there are the boring people who live across the street—we got that covered too; some designer or other, i heard . . . i mean, i’m not a gossip mind you and each to his own and all, but would it really hurt to add a few colored light bulbs??

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on the other hand, it just makes our side of the street look all the more festive. c’mon—tell me this isn’t what you came looking for tonight. we got it goin’ ON, baby.

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now if you HAVE been good all year long, you can step right this way and follow my friends up the ladder.

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take your seat right up there on santa’s lap and whisper in his ear what you’d like to find under your tree tomorrow. better hurry though, he’s taking off in about fifteen minutes to start his trip.

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hint: if your tree looks like the one across the street (eye roll), you might just want to add a little pizzazz so that it catches santa’s eye.

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merry christmas all from harvard avenue to your house!

a week of treats—it’s party season

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

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there are some things you can do ahead of the holidays to reduce last minute rushing, it’s true, but in the case of a few goodies, fresh is WAY better.

like homemade nut brittle. it keeps for a while, but it’s best when very fresh.

almost every year i make nut brittles for holiday giving—they’re not everyone’s favorite, but we don’t know those people who snub them, apparently. because each year i make a LOT of nut brittle and each year i seem to run short and leave someone wanting.

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last sunday was the day—i ramped up with a batch of peanut brittle to get started, in case i’d lost my mojo. but nope—that batch came out great.

well, i DO have the dead-easiest, no fail recipe. i mean that—i just googled easy peanut brittle recipes and there isn’t one with as few ingredients or as easy a method as this one, which i ripped from a magazine in 1983. i can’t remember if it was in an ad or in a recipe article, but here it is:

1 cup peanuts, raw or lightly roasted, with or without salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter NOTE: this is the original amount but i always cut the butter in half with absolutely no fallout; in fact, the full amount makes it rather greasy IMHO
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (not in the original recipe but it adds just a bit of complexity)

First, prepare everything ahead so you can work fast when you need to: measure out all the ingredients, set out potholders where you can reach them, and line a baking sheet with parchment or silpat (foil will also work, but it needs to be greased).

Put all the ingredients in a skillet (for me, a stainless skillet works better than a nonstick one) and heat over medium high, stirring gently until mixture begins to turn clear and brown—a light tan is not what you’re going for, wait it out until you start to see a richer brown—5 to 6 minutes. Once that happens, you have to work fast—the mixture burns easily. AND IT’S VERY HOT; USE CAUTION AND DON’T LICK ANYTHING. Pour the hot mixture over the parchment and quickly spread it out as thinly as possible. Allow to cool and then break it up.

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that’s it! seriously, you could make some right now if you have the stuff in the house. then stand back and accept praises with as much dignity as you can muster with brittle crumbs all over your face.

this recipe is easily doubled (i always do), but i don’t recommend tripling it because it’s hard to work fast enough to spread that much brittle while it’s liquid.

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and it works well with other types of nuts too—even  mixed nuts. higher fat nuts do brown more, so it’s better to use UNroasted ones. i didn’t; i had roasted ones in the house and guess what? these batches ARE darker and the peanut brittle police still haven’t shown up (but they are disappearing just as fast as the golden batches).

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okay, now i’m just warning you—the pecan one is just to DIE for, so you might need to make two batches and hide one where only you can find it. just today i was thinking that maybe next year i would try some improvising with the pecan brittle. or maybe next week . . . i’ll keep you updated.

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anyway, four double batches total took me maybe an hour or so; i’m telling you—easy and fast. that made enough to fill around ten chinese food cartons—a generous amount.

if you’re going to make a LOT, be sure to keep your kitchen ventilated; in my old kitchen, cooking more than this amount on one day would cause the humidity to rise to the point where the brittle started getting wonky. just sayin’—you probably have a much nicer kitchen than my old one anyway, haha.

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once the brittles were done and taste tested, i made a big batch of these glazed pecans. if you think that brittle is good, well, these are crack. but i like to make both.

we had decided to gather for our office christmas party on wednesday evening, so i started preparations for that on monday. our gang is pretty easy-going, but i like to offer homemade food when people come over.

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we have a variety of dietary needs to consider, but the main concern is that the food be yummy, right? so i thought hard about what kind of cake to make. i’m getting the gluten free baking under control for myself, but i’m still pretty novice at vegan baking and i don’t have cause to do a lot of it. i have an old apple cake recipe that our family enjoys quite a lot and remembered that it did not call for dairy, only eggs. so i tried my hand at a gluten free, egg-free version.

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the result was not too shabby; on the outside, it looked pretty close to the original—a festive top, perfect for the holidays (though we never limited ourselves by calling it a christmas cake).

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and inside? while not quite as flavorful as the original, it wasn’t a flop either, and was enjoyed by all, more or less. i’m just happy that everyone at the table could eat a slice and no one was left out.

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once i had a cake squared away, all that was left to do on party day was make some gluten free dough and prepare the toppings (david purchased regular pizza shells for most of our guests).

this time, i tried the GF dough recipe from america’s test kitchen. of all the recipes i’ve tried, this one had the best rise, texture, chewiness, and crispiness—most like my favorite traditional doughs. it was also very easy to work with. it performs extremely well as a base for toppings, where most GF crusts fail.

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it does lack the depth of flavor that good pizzeria doughs develop from longer rising times and using a starter, but i think i can work on that. the texture and structure is harder to come by in a recipe so this one is a keeper for now.

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with an array of vegetable and cheese toppings (as well as homemade sauce), everyone put together their own dream pizza.

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yummilicious!

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lots of happy people around the table—lillian and her husband, erica, doug, and barb (of course!). it was a really nice evening; i am so happy to be part of this team and to be able to relax and celebrate with them at this time of year.

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today i relaxed for an extended morning with my knitting and enjoyed the feel of stone soup fingering yarn with my coffee. tomorrow, i plan to relax even more and have a whole day of knitting—probably on my birches cardigan, so i should have progress to share next time.

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happy holidays to you and yours—merry knitting everyone!