Epistrophy

Well, it is time to introduce you to the first yoke from my new collection. Meet Epistrophy.

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Epistrophy is the title of a Be Bop “standard” composed and popularised by Thelonius Monk in 1942. The tune is characterised by its repetition and modification of a single, imitative phrase (or epistrophe). If you’d like to hear the tune, press play.

(Monk with Charlie Rouse, Butch Warren, and Frankie Dunlop)

Like Monk’s tune, as this yoke progresses, the diced pattern imitates, repeats and modifies a single motif.

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The result is a yoke with a graphic monochrome necklace. Shaping is integrated uninterrupted into the colourwork, and the yoke is designed to sit across the top of the shoulders.

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Epistrophy is worked in the round from the bottom up, and then steeked open. . .

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The steek edges are trimmed, and covered by a ribbon facing . . .

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. . . and the cardigan fastens with buttons and buttonholes that are worked into the rib.

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The yarn I’ve used is Toft Ulysses DK – a wonderful British wool – that comes in two muted shades of grey (silver and steel).

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The yarn is wonderfully soft and springy and knits up to create a beautifully even fabric. The finished yoke has quite a luxurious feel, but the yarn is such that it will also last and wear well.

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I loved the whole process of designing and knitting this yoke (much of which was accompanied by the tunes of Thelonius Monk), and its one of the garments that I have found myself unable not to wear. My samples are often used for trunk shows etc so I’m not really supposed to wear them, but I confess I did pop Epistrophy on to take my driving test a couple of weeks ago. Do you think it might have helped me to pass?epistrophy21

These pictures were taken just round the corner from where I live, by the bonnie banks and braes of Loch Lomond.
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Every pattern in the new book has been photographed in a different location – I wanted to give each garment a distinct style and feel, and knew that I needed a cloudy evening to photograph this design.

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If you’d like to know further details about the yarn quantities, gauge and sizing for this pattern, do nip over to the Epistrophy pattern page on Ravelry. I have set up the Yokes source on Ravelry too, and will be revealing and adding more patterns as the days go on.

More to come!

Toft giveaway

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The YOKE I am currently designing is made with this – Toft Ulysses DK – a deliciously smooshy, cushy, springy, woolly sort of wool. It is my new favourite yarn: a completely British wool, grown and spun here from a blend of several different breed-specific fibres (including BFL and Shetland). I could knit with it all day (indeed I’ve spent the past two days doing just that).

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This is the silver DK and I’m enjoying working with it tremendously.

As well as supplying me with this superlatively tasty yarn for my current YOKE, my friends at Toft have also given me two pairs of giveaway tickets for an exclusive party they are holding on July 25th to celebrate the launch of Edward’s Menagerie – the inventive collection of crocheted beasties that Toft’s creative director, Kerry, designed for her son, Edward.

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The party will be held at Toft’s picturesque HQ in Dunchurch, Warwickshire. As well as the human attendees, 200 alpacas will be there, and the party will also involve crochet workshops, Toft goody bags, and cake as well as general book-launching celebrations.

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The animals in Edward’s menagerie have great names — Douglas (the highland cow), Siegfried (the monkey), Angharad (the donkey) – so all you have to do to win a pair of tickets to the party is to tell me your favourite ever animal name. (Living with a cat named Jesus, I’m looking forward to your responses). Please bear in mind that the prize is for the party tickets only – you’ll have to get yourself over to Dunchurch on July 25th – and this may exclude many overseas readers from entering. I’ll announce the winners here on Thursday, 10th July.

Ístex

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This is Álafoss — foss being Icelandic for waterfall. Álafoss is situated on the river Varmá in the small town of Mosfellsbær, a short bus ride from Reykjavik. In 1896, an enterprising farmer imported some machinery, and harnessed the power of Álafoss to operate it. From that day to this, Icelandic wool has always been processed in Mosfellsbær.

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Ístex is an abbreviated form of Íslenskur Textiliðnaður (Icelandic Textile Industry). Ístex was formed in 1995 when the old Álafoss company was threatened, like so many other yarn-producing businesses at that time, with bankruptcy. The business was bought out by five employees, together with a group of sheep farmers, and the company now thrives under this associative structure (during our visit, we ran into one of the company directors, who still plays a very hands-on role in the mill’s daily operations). Ístex employs 50 people and is responsible for the purchasing and processing of 80% of Iceland’s annual wool clip directly from the nation’s farmers. I was very struck by the similarities with Shetland: my friends at Jamieson and Smith purchase around the same percentage of Shetland’s annual clip, and like Ístex, they also ensure that crofters are able to get a return on their wool whatever its quality. Both companies use the lower grades for products such as carpeting and insulation, so that nothing is wasted, while the finer grades are retained to be processed into hand-knitting yarns. Ístex sort and scour their wool in Blönduós, and all other processes are carried out vertically at Mosfellsbær – which is now the only yarn-producing mill in Iceland.

Under the guidance of Hulda Hákonardóttir, we were able to see many different stages of yarn production.

Dyeing . . .

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and blending.

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The Scotch feed at the top right of this photo . . .

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. . . processes the roving to tape condensers, where sliver is then processed into unspun forms, such as plötulopi, which will be familiar to many knitters.

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Other yarns, such as Álafoss lopi, Lett Lopi, and Einband, are then spun-up here . . .

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. . . before being hanked, coned, or balled. While many of the processes and some of the machines at Ístex were familiar to me from other mill visits, I have never before seen a yarn-baller in action. Cones were transformed into neat packs of yarn with fascinating efficiency.

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The end result. Yum.

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We learned a lot about Icelandic wool and its unique properties from Hulda, who also kindly showed us many of the different wool products that Ístex has developed over the past 19 years, from beautiful traditional blankets to contemporary neon yarns. And it has to be said that the tales you hear of Lopi being everywhere in Iceland are completely true: yarn really is available to buy in supermarkets, hardware stores, clothing shops, garages. You would certainly never be short of yarn for a project in Iceland. I was very struck by the number of people who said to us on our trip that “everyone is knitting”– a fact borne out by the fascinating statistic that Iceland has proportionately more Ravelry members than any other nation (1 in 10). Though we saw a handful of familiar imported yarns in one shop, its very clear that Iceland’s knitters are, by and large, knitting with Lopi: with the wonderful dual-coated light and airy fleeces that are grown by the nation’s resourceful and hardy sheep; that are shorn and sold by Iceland’s farmers; then sorted, scoured, dyed, and spun by Ístex in the mill at Mosfellsbær. I personally find this kind of readable continuity from sheep to sweater very inspiring.

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Thankyou for a very enjoyable tour of the Ístex mill, Hulda!

by demand

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The First Footing sock kits sold out much more quickly than expected yesterday – I spent several days packing up kits and felt confident I’d made plenty available… Anyway, because I’ve received numerous requests to publish the pattern individually, I’ve decided to do so, so that you can, if you wish, knit it up right away.

For the time being I won’t be releasing the Toatie Hottie pattern as a separate digital download – this is simply because the pattern is specifically designed to fit a certain size and shape of small hot-water bottle (having seen several from different suppliers, these differ more than you might imagine), so the pattern only makes sense if you have a particular kind of bottle in your possession . . . but there have also been requests for me to adapt the pattern for different sizes of bottle: I will explore this possibility in January, and if it works out, release a multi-sized separate pattern accordingly.

I’ve also had queries about the yarn I used to knit the First Footing socks – Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage. This lovely worsted-spun yarn is really very different from the woollen-spun Shetland yarns many of you will have encountered. While woollen-spun yarns are carded, airy, and snap easily when pulled, worsted-spun yarns are combed, making the fibres smoother and stronger. There’s less air in a worsted-spun yarn, and it does not snap when pulled. Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage is a top-quality worsted spun Shetland: soft, durable, and wonderfully smooth on the feet as well as in the hands. It has specifically been developed to be comparable to the strong, fine “wursit” yarns that were originally used to knit Fair Isle garments (see this post for discussion of one such garment). I think it makes an ideal yarn for a luxurious pair of socks: the only issue being that the yarn is not superwash, and your socks should be washed by hand.

So You’ll now find the First Footing / Ceilidh Oidhche Challain pattern on Ravelry (digital) or MagCloud (print plus digital).

The shop will be updated again with more stock next Sunday (15th) around 12 noon GMT. I’ll have more First Footing kits, and more Toatie Hotties, but this will be the last update before the festive season.

Right, I’m off to pack up your orders! See you soon x

three sweaters

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I thought I’d show you my three new sweaters! First up is this lovely Fairisle yoke (bought for £16 on eBay).

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This is a garment of a kind that is still being made in Shetland, and that you can find in Lerwick today in shops like The Spider’s Web. I think its a lovely example. The body has been knitted by machine, and the yoke inserted afterward by hand.

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The blending of the colours on the yoke is beautiful, and the hand-finishing is exemplary, particularly around the steeked opening for the back neck.

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The garment is in great condition and shows no signs of wear at all. I fully intend to wear it!

Next up is a sweater that – shock horror – I just knitted for myself.

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This garment is knitted in some wonderful yarn that I hand-dyed myself at a workshop at Lilith‘s studio four years ago – Bowmont Braf 4 ply. Words cannot express how much I love this yarn – it is springy and sheepy and robust . . . it has a deeply matt, slightly felted appearance, but retains a bouncy hand. Dyed up on it, colours appear soft and muted, as if already worn for a long time. Plus, the yardage is incredible. What’s not to like? Well, only the fact that its long-discontinued. (If anyone knows of a supplier of bowmont fibre please do let me know!). Lilith was very taken with the yarn as well, and our dyeing workshop was the beginning of our collaboration on the Fugue design, which she dyed up as a kit in her glorious Dreich and Lon Dubh colourways. Coincidentally, I know that Lilith is currently knitting an Ursula with her secret Bowmont Braf stash, and I can’t wait to see it.

Anyway, back to the knitting.

As a designer, I think its important to get one’s head around different garment-construction methods – I learned to design yoked sweaters by knitting yoked sweaters – and though I’m familiar with many different top-down sleeve constructions, I’d never tried Susie Myers’ contiguous method, which (essentially) allows you to produce a seamless, top-down, set-in sleeve without the need for picking up stitches around the armscye (which is my usual method). I read the contiguous ‘recipe’, browsed the contiguous threads on Ravelry, purchased a couple of Ankestrik‘s excellent patterns for informed reading, and decided to attempt the method by knitting a sleeve which was a combination of saddle and set-in. The idea was to familiarise myself with the contiguous method’s basic principles, while turning my precious stash of Bowmont Braf into a simple, loose fitting sweater that I could enjoy wearing everyday.

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I’m happy with the sleeve shaping . . .

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. . .and indeed with the sweater (though this photograph, snatched between rain showers probably doesn’t suggest it). As my stash of Bowmont Braf was limited, I weighed the remaining yarn and divided it in two before starting the sleeves. This is a pottering-about, dog-walking sweater that makes good use of my lovely Bowmont Braf, and has taught me a bit about a different way of constructing a sleeve top-down! I really like it.

Finally, this amazing find came into my possession for a mere £1.04 via eBay.

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It’s a beautiful hand-knit vintage Fairisle gansey in natural Shetland-sheep shades. From the way the yarn is spun, I’d say it was probably knitted post-war. The eBay listing described the garment as having been purchased many years ago in an ‘exclusive Edinburgh boutique’. I would speculate that this ’boutique’ was a shop that once stood in Morningside, whose owner sourced garments directly from Shetland knitters, and who has donated several items to the Shetland Museum. This is a really well-made sweater.

Like many such garments I’ve seen, inside the ends have simply been knotted and left to felt

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The gansey has clearly been worn a lot, but is still in great condition. The only area that needs repair is this one cuff.

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And as Mel said to me when taking these photos yesterday, “it fits like it was made for you.”

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I’ll take good care of it.

Foula Wool

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Just in case you hadn’t noticed, it is Shetland Wool Week! I’m very sad not to be there in person this year, but I’ve kept up the tradition I started three years ago of designing a hat in woolly celebration! In 2011, it was Sheep Heid (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Supreme) ; in 2012 it was the Sixareen Kep (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage) and in 2013 it’s . . . well, you’ll have to wait till the end of the week to find out. I can tell you, though, that this year’s hat uses Foula Wool, a lovely DK (or sport) weight Shetland yarn produced in seven tasty natural shades. Foula Wool is grown by Magnus and Justyna Holburn on the island of Foula, and I was able to catch up with Magnus earlier this week to hear more about their fantastic woolly venture.

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(The island of Foula).

Where is Foula?
Foula (pronounced “foo-laa”) is the most isolated of the Shetland Islands which themselves are the most northerly outpost of the UK. Cut off from the main island group by a formidable sea crossing, Foula lies out to the west of Shetland, approximately 20 miles offshore. The striking silhouette is hard to miss but also equally hard to get to.


Can you tell me a little about Foula sheep? What makes them so different?

Once all sheep in Shetland would have been like the Foula sheep, they are the unmodernised strain of the native Shetland sheep breed. Raised in isolation on our remote island for generations without the external influence of crossbreeding or the flock book they are simply Shetland sheep as nature intended them to be. This strong natural heritage embodies the Foula sheep with their unmistakable character and appearance.

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And do you feel that the distinctive landscape of Foula matches and suits the character of your sheep?
Absolutely so. Foula is a wild and rugged landscape with its own unique natural untamed charm and the sheep are as much a part of this as the dramatic scenery itself. In fact it would be fair to say that the Foula sheep actually are a part of the island landscape and without them the hills would look decidedly empty and forlorn. We are really hoping that some of this natural character will find its way into our yarn and onto the knitting needles of the people who choose to work with it.

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Coloured sheep were once declining in Shetland (and elsewhere) generally. What is now being done to retain and encourage diversity of fleece colour? Is the situation improving?

Foula has always been an important genetic resource for anyone who is looking for coloured Shetland sheep. By and large the crofters on the island have tended to take it upon themselves to ensure that this diversity of natural fleece colour continues. The system is subject to individual preferences and the sustainability of each persons flock. What we are trying to introduce with Foula Wool is something that will help improve a sheep flock’s sustainability whilst also seeking out the natural balance of fleece colours by virtue of what the market is asking for. This in turn is going to depend on the knitters out there making their own choices to knit with these natural wool colours.

The case in point would be our current stock of black yarn. There is a tendency not to keep a lot of black sheep as they are seen as being genetically dominant. Crofters worry about ending up with too many black sheep, so we then actually end up with hardly any at all. Black yarn sells well, so we have now almost sold out of what we had spun. We then put the word out that we are looking for more black fleeces and people then start to keep back more black lambs. Which is exactly what has happened this year.

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I know that pure white is actually the least common fleece colour for a Foula sheep, but are there certain fleece shades, or combinations of shades, that are particularly prized? Do you have a favorite natural shade?

My father had a personal preference for dark grey sheep as he felt that their numbers were getting low and he liked their fine wool. He started to keep back dark grey rams from the mothers with the best wool, some of these sheep were really fantastic and they looked almost blue. I grew up working with these animals so I do like to make sure that I have a few in my own flock. I am also very keen on the mioget yarn, which we spin from the white/fawn flekit fleeces. This blend of different coloured fibers ends up with a lovely warm honey like tone that I think is very appealing.

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(Mioget)

Foula Wool is a relatively new venture. Can you tell us a little about how you came to develop a yarn for hand-knitters?

It was a combination of a desire to help support our native island sheep and the traditional crofting culture that surrounds them along with finding a solution about what to do with all the wool from our own sheep flock. We decided to send off some samples to a spinning mill and then waited eagerly to see what we would get back, whatever it was it had to be better than just burning the fleeces. When we got those first hanks of Foula Wool back we were really thrilled, it was a much better yarn than we had dared hope for.

I think we knew very quickly that this was going to be a yarn for hand knitters. These were the people who would be able to appreciate all the care and effort that goes into creating something. We also knew the yarn would have to remain undyed as the natural colours were already there and they just simply looked great. We opted for a DK weight for our first production run as it seemed to be a gap in the Shetland Wool market. We thought it would be nice for folk to have something that knitted up quickly but still offered all the colour work options they had come to expect from a traditional Shetland knitting yarn. The feedback we started getting from people in the knitting world all helped to confirm that Foula Wool was going to be a yarn for hand knitters.

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(Light Grey Foula Wool)

Developing a yarn directly from the sheep can be tricky for small producers. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of the process?

The most challenging thing so far was the initial step to accept that it was going to be possible and that we would give it a go. You have to commit a lot of time and effort to something like this. Certainly running any business from such a remote location throws up challenges, not least when your going to have wait a whole year for your sheep to grow more wool if something doesn’t work out. However these are just problems that you will have to find solutions for, the same way you find solutions for any of life’s other problems. Making the decision that you want to go out and pin your wool colours to the mast that’s the hard part.

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(Grey Foula Wool)

Are you or Justyna knitters yourself? Do you enjoy working with your wool?

We love working with the wool and Justyna is well-bitten by the knitting bug! I find it really rewarding to hear back from people who buy our yarn as it has started to make some sense out of the decision I made years ago when I inherited my own sheep from my father, that I would do my best to keep them going.

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Finally, what’s your favourite hand-knitted garment?

The first thing ever knitted from our Foula Wool, a jumper that Justyna knitted for our eldest son, it doesn’t fit him anymore but his younger brother wears it now. I am always impressed by the natural qualities of pure wool, whether is on the back of a sheep or a little lad out helping his dad with the lambing, you just can’t beat it.

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Thanks so much, Magnus!

If there was ever anything that made me want to own my own small starter flock, it is Magnus’s lovely photographs of his sheep (all of which are reproduced courtesy of Foula Wool). In closing, I have to mention that it was in fact Magnus’s favourite Mioget shade that, when I first got my hands on some Foula Wool, immediately gave me the idea for my new hat design. More of that shortly. In the meantime, you can find out more about Foula Wool here, or meet Magnus for yourself at the Shetland Wool Week Maker’s Mart at Lerwick town hall on Saturday.

Paper Dolls anew

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When I first published this design a few years ago, I used a lovely British yarn that is sadly no longer available — Bowmont Braf 4ply. Many knitters prefer to make their sweaters in the same yarn as the pattern sample, and I often receive queries from folk enquiring about the yarn I used for my original Paper Dolls. I am always sad to tell them that it is no longer readily commercially available (almost as much for me as them — how I loved that Bowmont Braf . . . though I might have a secret stash of it somewhere . . .)*

So when, a few weeks ago, my friends at baa ram ewe got in touch to see if I’d be interested in using the new shades of Titus for a new Paper Dolls sample, I immediately said yes. Have you seen the palette? It is totally gorgeous.

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This sample is knit using White Rose for the main colour, with Parkin, Chevin, and Eccup for the contrasts. I decided that I wanted to work with three contrasts because I just couldn’t decide between these tasty shades, and they all seem to work so well together . . . though you could easily just use two.

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(ah, Bruce, always trying to get in the shot)

As well as changing the yarn recommendation, I’ve made a few alterations to the pattern. It is now nicely formatted as an eight-page booklet or ebook, which includes the (complementary) pattern for the Dollheid tam (so if you have previously purchased the Paper Dolls pattern on Ravelry, you’ll receive the Dollheid pattern as a free update). There are a few other improvements too, including clearer charts, a detailed sizing table, and a lovely hand-drawn schematic produced for me by Felix . . .

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. . . who also helped out with photography.

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I am very much enamoured of my beautiful new Paper Dolls, though sadly I shan’t get to wear it, as it will shortly be travelling to TNNA with baa ram ewe. If you see it there, please pet it for me.

The new Paper Dolls booklet is available now in a digital edition on Ravelry, or in print from my MagCloud store . . .

. . .and the print edition is also available to retailers for trade orders.

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*I purchased a few kilos a couple of years ago from Lee. If you are interested in the unique hand of Bowmont fleece, the lovely people at Devon Fine Fibres breed Bowmont Sheep and make beautiful things from the ultrafine wool they produce.

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