Wednesday, November 29, 2006


This afternoon has been a series of misadventures and mistakes, all of which added up to a really interesting learning experience and a few "Ah-ha!" moments. I've been spinning my own yarn for about five months or so. It's challenging, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately gratifying because I can look at the progress I've made since that first slubby, squiggly, overtwisted little hank of yarn on the drop spindle, and see a definite improvement.
After a while, I went on to the challenges of the dye pot. That passed with limited success, especially where the plants are concerned; I had a lot more luck with the KoolAid, but since I haven't actually used most of the plants I grew, I know I still have a lot to learn. It's a science, really, as well as an art.
Anyway, this afternoon, after reading and ooh-ing-and-ahh-ing over an article in this quarter's issue of Knitty (Dye Fingerprint), I decided to take a stab at hand-painting some of the yarn I've been spinning. Don't get me wrong, the creamy white yarn is really pretty on its own, but I wanted to at least give this hand-painting thing a try to see if it's all that and a side of beans. I went on to do a bit more reading, then checked my stash of KoolAid. Drat. Yellow, red, a rather sickly blue, one packet of purple, and three packets of pink. Mixing colors with KoolAid is difficult because some of the colors are so strong in their regular form: 1.5 packets of red plus five packets of yellow doesn't make orange. It makes... red with a hint of an orange undertone. Having discovered this, I mixed three different colors: purple, the sickly blue, and red. I spread a trash bag on the dining table, plopped the soaked hank of yarn on it, and went to work with the turkey baster.
Well... long story made short, the colors ran a lot more than I'd expected, giving me a mulberry yarn with patches of darker colors where there was more overlap between the different shades. I like it. Mom says it's "Striking". Since I know I'll never be able to reproduce it, I may just keep it and knit a scarf or something. Oh.. and if you dye fiber or yarn, the spin cycle in the washing machine is a truly wonderful thing if you manage to catch it before the rinse cycle starts. Since it gets rid of most of the water still trapped in the yarn, it helps cut the drying time.
The four ounces of white roving I pulled out of the bag went a different route. And now I've used all but the three packets of pink.. and since I hate pink, I probably won't use it except to drink later on in the year. Two different colors: red and red-orange. They look pretty much the same, and somehow they blend to make a peachy-coral that almost reminds me of mercuricomb. Strange. I soaked the wool, put it in a ceramic baking pan, and went to work with the turkey baster. I confess I had reservations about baking wool, but I thought the instructions I found on must have something to them if the site's owner hasn't burnt her house down by baking wool, let alone leaving it in a crock pot for three hours.
The process went something like this:
Soak wool for an hour in hot water.
Mix your dye and load the squirt bottles.
Squeeze most of the water out, but not all because the wool has to be damp.
Layer it in a non-metal baking pan and squirt dye in random patterns on each layer.
Bake in the oven at 350 for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it so the water doesn't boil away.
Remove baking pan and dump the wool in the sink to cool for a little while.
Once it's cool enough to touch without burning yourself, squeeze some of the remaining water from the wool.
Set the washing machine to the Hot/Cold, small load setting, run enough water in it to be able to immerse the wool.
Skip the agitation because you don't want your wool to felt, and go directly to the SPIN CYCLE! You can probably do this again if you're worried about the colors running and you're not worried about your water bill.
KoolAid doesn't actually need any help from the vinegar because it's already acidic, so chances are the colors shouldn't run if the dye is exhausted. I only did the dunk-spin thing once because the water I squeezed out of the wool was clear... Maybe I should have done it again, but it seemed fine because no dye was coming out in the washing machine.
Anyway, here are some pictures. Suggestions for names for both the mulberry and the peachy-mercuricomb are welcome if anyone feels so inclined. The red on the gray looks truly bizarre, but I assure you it's KoolAid, not the product of some peculiar activity involving goats and spaghetti. It'll look less bizarre (I hope!) when it's spun.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

And Bagel-bom

I've never really been much of a baker, but since last weekend I've been wanting to try my hand at making bagels. Our local PBS station has been rebroadcasting "Baking With Julia", and last weekend the focus of the show was how to make bagels from scratch; the only problem was that the website for the show doesn't have any recipes posted, so I sort of had to wing it. Thank the goddess for the invention that is the bread machine! And it has a DOUGH setting! Mahvelous! The resulting bagels were not the bread with a hole found at the grocery store, but neither were they the perfectly formed bagels you probably find at good bakeries. They were a little bit crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and had just the faintest hint of maple which complemented the sesame seeds I put on top. Yum. Okay. Now that I've tooted my own horn a bit, here's the recipe. If you have a bread machine, take advantage of the DOUGH setting to eliminate some of the labor; it's not really cheating... is it?

1.25 cups warm water
1 tbsp corn oil (or whatever vegetable oil you have on hand)
1 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1.5 tsp salt
3 cups unbleached bread flour
2.25 tsp yeast
cornmeal for the bottoms (will explain in a bit)
3 to 5 quarts boiling water
3 tbsp sugar (in the boiling water.. will explain in a bit)
1 egg white
sesame seeds (or poppy, or whatever you have on hand)
375 degree oven for 25 minutes on the middle rack

Set the machine to DOUGH, with either the 1.5 lb or 2 lb setting. Add liquid ingredients, sugar, and salt first; put the flour on top of the liquid and make a little well in the top of the pile for the yeast, then put the yeast. Start the machine and let it do all the kneading/rise cycle for you. It takes a little over an hour. I usually keep an eye on it in case I need to adjust things like adding a bit more water or more flour.
The dough will be a bit sticky after it finishes rising. Don't panic! It's supposed to be that way because its nature is to be a bit elastic. This would probably be a good place to turn on that pot of water with the 3 tbsp of sugar, and while you're at it, put a clean dish towel or something on a cookie sheet.Take the dough out and knead it with just a little bit of flour, then let it rest on a floured surface for about 15 minutes. Divide it into 9 sections (mine weren't all the same size, but who cares?) and begin tucking the corners under the bottom as if you were making dinner rolls. Poke a hole in the ball of dough with your finger and stretch the ring of dough until it looks almost ridiculously stretched, then put it on to rest on the cookie sheet -- it'll spring back a little because it's so elastic, so it'll look less scary and more like a bagel when it finishes relaxing. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees!
By now that pot of water should be boiling away. Drop one or two of the bagels into it; give them a minute on each side, then use a spatula or something to remove them to the towel to drain; repeat with all of the bagels. They'll still be a bit soft and might have some air bubbles come to the surface, but that's okay. Spread some corn meal on the baking surface and plop the poached bagels on it; this gives them a nice crust on the bottom while it's baking. Spray the cookie sheet with vegetable spray and put the bagels on it, corn meal side down. Okay.. if you don't want seedy bagels, you can stop here and bake the bagels on the middle oven rack at 375 degrees for 25 minutes.
If you DO want seedy bagels, take that egg white and use a pastry brush to paint the tops of the unbaked bagels. Sprinkle your seeds on top of the egg wash -- that keeps them from falling off -- and THEN bake them as described above.
Now.. why is there sugar in the water and what's the corn meal for? The sugar helps the outside of the bagel caramelize just a little bit as it's baking, making it turn just a little bit brown and making it a bit crunchy. The corn meal also helps keep the bagels from sticking to the baking sheet, even though you've sprayed it with vegetable stuff; it also provides a nice crunchy underside and texture for the bottom side of the bagel... no seeds there, remember?
Anyway.. after the bagels come out of the oven, let them sit for about half an hour or so before you dig in -- hot bread gives people... flatus... or so I've been told -- and then have your pals over for a bagel party.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


This weekend has been extremely productive as far as yarn goes, but I blush to say I haven't done much else since I finished the bulk of a recently placed order. Since I'm actually going to get some proper hand cards, I'm letting the alpaca sit in its bags until they arrive. I'm so spoiled now! The alpaca fiber is so soft even in its unwashed, uncarded, unpicked state that even that gorgeous blue corriedale wool seems coarse by comparison. It's a shame to use the dog brushes on it, which is why I'm putting it on the back burner until I get my cards.
In the meantime, I've been spinning some of Stacey's blue corriedale and the black (so-called gray) from the Sheep Shed. Brown Sheep Co. Yarn is extremely yummy to knit with; I've used their NatureSpun and some Lamb's Pride for several different projects, and I've enjoyed it very much. Now, imagine the wool that yarn is spun from.
The Sheep Shed studio sells what's called mill end wool. Basically wool where the dye didn't turn out right or there wasn't enough of it left over for them to spin without going to more expense or trouble than was economical. Earlier in the autumn, I ordered two pounds of wool from them: a pound of white and a pound of "gray". The white is.. well.. white and I've used some of it to dye. The gray is mostly black with strips of charcoal and lighter gray running through it at intervals. Doesn't matter what color it is.. it's just as yummy as the yarn Brown Sheep Co. makes! It spins up beautifully, and is a pleasure to work with. I'm still no expert at spinning, but I'm getting better for all the practice I've been getting lately. My yarn is also getting a bit more uniform in thickness, but I'm sure that's something which will even out the better at it I get.
Anyway, the gray was what I worked with yesterday. I plied some of it with the blue corriedale. There's enough to make SOMETHING with, but since I don't have a yarn meter, I couldn't say how much it is in yards, but I'd say it's probably a good four ounces or so. It needs a name, and I'm thinking either Nox or Nut (if you know anything about Egyptian mythology, this has NOTHING to do with what comes in a can and is crunchy) because of how the blue and dark gray/black work together. My other spinning project yesterday was to ply some of the gray with itself; it's mostly black and also very soft. That Brown Sheep wool is just.. yummy. I think I'll keep the black yarn for personal use, but the other stuff might just go off to be sold when we go to the Hillsboro Christmas show. I have yet to take pictures of anything but Demeter (the green/white yarn from my goldenrod experiment), which leaves the Rhubarb Crumble and a couple other things. And of course I still have much knitting to do for those felted bags. I'll never get them all finished by December 8th! I still haven't finished the first one yet, but I'm almost done. Just have the handles to do, and then I can start the second one. Pictures will be forthcoming, as usual.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Cumulus Clouds and Hellmart

Since I began spinning during the summer months I've worked my way through a pound of Hienz 57 wool which was conveniently carded and fluffed before it arrived at the door, and then I started working on the gorgeous blue Corriedale I bought at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival -- it's so beautifully prepared that it practically drafts and spins itself; Stacey Rothrock does amazing work. In addition, I've done a bit of dyeing, which resulted in some rather stuck-together-but-not-felted wool; this requires quite a bit of fiddling to get the fiber back into some semblence of order before I even get started spinning. Okay, it's worth it, especially because it helps with patience and allows me to get better acquainted with the fiber.
My trip to the alpaca farm last week was also a learning experience. After I got home I looked up "alpaca" on Wikipedia and read about their behavior, why they do the things they do, what makes them so unique, and about the differences between the two varieties. Being left with two enormous bags of fluffy fiber, I decided I needed to actually DO something with it so that it's not sitting in the living room; this meant I needed to take steps to learn how to card fiber.
Handcards seem to run between $45 and $60, depending on which company makes them and from whom you order them; I hoped to save a little money, so I bought a pair of dog brushes at Hellmart sometime in the summer -- this was mostly done for the benefit of the stuck-together-but-not-felted wool, but it also works just dandy for the alpaca fuzz. Dog brushes run about $4 per brush, but it turns out they're not ideal for the purpose I put them to. More about that in a bit.
Tonight after dinner, sometime in the middle of the first reel of "Spartacus" -- the old one with Kirk Douglas and Lawrence Olivier -- I decided to tackle carding the alpaca fluff. I wrestled, grumbled, stabbed myself on the sharp bristles, overloaded the brushes, said a few choice oaths, and finally got at least a slight handle on what I should be doing. Now, alpaca fuzz is amazingly soft even in its uncarded state; after a few strokes with the brush, it turns into something I can only describe as little fluffy bits of cloud. I'm still nowhere close to being good at this, but I can at least get some of the grass and bits of straw out of the fiber and get it straightened out.
If carding the stuff was difficult, spinning it was truly worth the effort. The little rolag-tufty-things are fairly short, which meant I had to pause and card more when I ran out of fiber to spin, but that was also worth it. Right now I'm working on some of the huacaya fiber; it's a very soft silvery gray when it ends up on the bobbin. I'm convinced it's too pretty to need dye, and I have no plans to ply it with any wool because it's lovely on its own. The yarn I've spun so far is just a single without a uniform thickness; that's something that comes with practice, and I've got plenty of time to practice, and plenty of fiber to practice with. The good thing about it is that mom gets to use some of the yarn I've made. Right now she's using the pokeberry yarn to crochet a hat. Sometime during the weekend I'll make sure to take a picture of what I'm doing, in case anyone cares to see.

There's just something about Hellmart. It's earned its name as far as I'm concerned. A few years ago, my mother had a near disaster with the pharmacy when the pharmacist couldn't read the prescription and didn't bother to call the doctor. Instead, he filled the prescription and gave mom a dose which was double what she should have been taking; when she suffered ill effects, she called the doctor to see if there had been a change in her dosage. The doctor said not, and mom realized that someone had made a mistake. She went back to the pharmacy and asked to speak to the pharmacist; when she confronted him about the mistake, he told her it's a courtesy for them to contact the doctor and that it wasn't his fault, and told her that it was her fault and her problem because she didn't read the label. That was Hellmart's first episode of naughtyness.
Episode Number 2: Mom bought a yard of fabric which should have cost $1 a yard because it was in the remnants bin. She got to the counter and paid for her purchases; she thought the total was awfully high, so I looked at the recepit when we got to the parking lot. They'd charged her $80 for that $1 yard of fabric. This was the pre-Christmas rush, so the store chalked it up to the clerk being under stress. Um.... So off to Customer Disservice we went, only to stand in line for another half an hour. The refund for the difference was issued and we left. When we got home, mom was puzzled because she found she had $200 in her wallet. Turned out they'd given her $100 too much, so back we trudged to return the extra money. Honesty is worth something... right?
Those are two of the worst episodes we've been through, and there are a handful of other unpleasant ones between that and what happened today. To make things a bit clearer, the Hellmart in question has a reputation for being rather troublesome; there are lots of stories about clerks and cashiers being slapped, shoved, thrown against shelving, and being otherwise manhandled by customers who are at thier ropes' ends because of the rudeness and bad behavior of the employees. Granted, not everyone who works there is as bad as that, but it seems like it's the exception for there to be a pleasant, well-mannered employee rather than it being the norm.
Our dog is getting old -- yes, this is going somewhere -- so we decided to get her a comfortable dog bed. Finding a bed to fit an elderly Great Dane is not an easy task, and as it turned out the largest size Hellmart carried was still too small for her, and it was also too hight, so she wasn't interested in using it. We bundled it back to the store, along with another item to be returned; the items were on two separate receipts, both of which I had in hand, and I'd even pointed out the locations of the items on said receipts in the hope of making the clerk's life a bit less hellish. Backfired!
I signed the return slip for the dog bed, and then the clerk began to process the other item, which was a piece of clothing... nothing complicated, right? She finished processing the return and gave me the refund; by this time, mom had gone off to look at something in the Eye Care Center, and I realized I hadn't been paying attention to whether the refund for the dog bed was tagging along with mom. I certainly didn't have it! I had the $12 and odd change from the piece of clothing, but I did not have the $29 and odd change from the dog bed. I asked the clerk if she'd given the refund for the dog bed to mom before she'd departed for the Eye Care Center, and the girl said she didn't remember, whereupon she sent for one of the red-vested automatons to come count her drawer because she was apparently incapable of doing it herself. Eventually three separate red-vested automatons were buzzing around, trying to get the drawer sorted out, trying to figure out why the girl needed her drawer counted, what happened to the return slip, and what had happened to the dog bed. I stood there fuming and knitting -- I was SO glad I thought to bring my knitting with me! -- while mom demanded to speak to someone with more authority. As it turned out, no such person ever materialized; after standing in line at Customer Disservice for almost forty minutes, and after three different red vests came to investigate, we got things sorted out. Mom's theory is that they persist in hiring people who aren't necessarily capable of handling such complicated tasks as dealing with two separate returns. We both agree that we felt bad for them because they get low pay for a high stress, difficult job; it's pretty much thankless.
So... tell me why we're forced to shop there? Why do we keep going back? Is there an affordable alternative? Maybe becoming self-sufficient?

Friday, October 6, 2006

Ball Winders

For a Friday, this has been an unusually productive day. For the past few days I've been sick, so the slightest activity results in total exhaustion; that limits my activities to reading trashy library books, watching PBS (okay.. I gave in and watched Dateline tonight just out of morbid curiosity), and sleeping, with breaks for personal hygiene and eating. And knitting, of course. Fortunately, I can lie under piles of blankets and watch television while I'm knitting -- or is that the other way around? -- and having a banana and some root beer.
I made the supreme sacrifice this afternoon and hauled myself to the post office. It's cold and rainy, so I don't at all feel like going out more than necessary, especially since the last time I went out and did a lot of stuff, I got sicker and had to spend the next day in bed... resting!
So, today, between naps, I went to collect all the mail that accumulates over a whole day and a half, most of it junk, of course. Can you imagine how much junk there is? It's disgusting. The good news is that I finally got my order from KnitPicks, for which I've been waiting with baited breath: mom's blue yarn, my ball winder (yay!), and some circular needles so I can start knitting those bags.
Ball winders are such lovely little inventions! They clamp onto most table edges and have a sturdy metal yarn guide to help keep the tension of whatever you're winding. Of course I just had to try it out, so I unwound the two skeins of Demeter and wound them back into cute, squat, plump little cakes of yarn, with pauses between rounds because of the occasional tangle. Now the only problem is storage.
I've got my 50 gal. tub of acrylic yarn that I'm slowly working through, and that's still mostly full -- and of course the other tub full of wool yarn and lavender scented mothballs. Mom hinted that I might offer the acrylic yarn to the people who are invited for the knitting/crafty get-together on Sunday with the suggestion that, while it's useful for quite a few things, the hospitals in the area, as well as some charitable organiations, take donations of hats for preemies, chemo patients, and burn victims. Since babies -- and preemies, especially! -- are so sensitive to any potential irritants, it's a better idea to make them things from acrylic or cotton, at least until they're a year old or so. Doesn't have to be anything fancy, but as long as it covers their heads; the hospitals would probably be thrilled to have them.
The other thing I did -- finally -- was to actually knit myself something using my own yarn. It's gratifying to finish a project, any project, but the feeling is somehow magnified by the knowledge that you've done it all yourself from beginning to end. Of course, I don't keep sheep, but spinning, dyeing, knitting, and felting was all me. I used the leftover Sea Foam yarn and plied it with a single of the blue corriedale; the problem was that there wasn't a whole lot of it because I'd used almost all the Sea Foam to make Demeter. I tried a scarf... nope, not enough. Unraveled it and started wristlets.. nope, not enough for tht, either. Too nice to use for a hotpad... a little bag, maybe? Yup. Just enough to make a small, square pouch with a little trapezoidal flap, with about 18 inches of yarn left over at the end. Picture of little bag forthcoming, but here are gratuitous pictures of penii to annoy the censors...

Tuesday, October 3, 2006


Sometimes creative curiosity leads one down all sorts of funny paths. I am now officially up to my eyeballs in yarn! Today when I arrived at the post office, my order from Yarn Country was waiting for me. Remember the yarn I ordered for the felted bags? There will be five of them in various autumnal colors, and I'm hoping to get $25 for each of them:
1. Lamb's Pride Worsted in Spice and Oatmeal (click on links to see the colors)
2. Cascade 220 Wool in Dark Plum and Claret
3. Cascade 220 Wool in Japanese Maple and Burnt Orange
4. Cascade 220 Wool in Mahogany and Mimosa
5. Cascade 220 Wool in Pumpkin Spice and Burnt Orange
Okay. Now that I've tooted my own horn about the bags I'm going to knit for the craft fair, I can move on to the yarn I'm spinning. After reading Rachael's blog and forum entries about her experiences with using pokeberries as a dyestuff, I decided to take a stab at it myself. We discussed the problem of her yarn turning brown, and I wondered if maybe there wasn't some substance that might help neutralize the tannins responsible for the browning as well as making the pokeberry more wash and/or lightfast. She suggested sodium carbonate, but warned that there might be problems with making the solution too basic, thus altering the pH so much that it the pokeberry juice would be rendered useless for dyeing.
What it boils down to is that I tested it using a bunch of plastic cups and solutions of varying strength to see what would happen and my findings are mostly invalidated because I didn't actually have litmus paper to test the pH.
1. The solutions in the test cups changed colors varying with the strength of the sodium carbonate solutions.
a. weakest solution produced a dark brownish-purple
b. the two middle solutions produced a really icky brown
c. the strongest solution produced a really, really weird shade of green.
2. After over an hour of soaking time, none of the blobs of wool actually took the dye, which suggests that some other substance might work better. Lye is likely to damage the fiber because it's so caustic, and I have a feeling it'll also make the pokeberry solution useless as a dye because of how much the pH will change.
For the wool I wanted to dye, I started by mixing alum and cream of tartar with hot water and pouring it into the pot with the pokeberry juice; that was the first color change -- from a sickly puce to a lovely burgundy -- but not the last. Next, I mixed up what I hoped was an extremely weak sodium carbonate solution -- 1/2 tsp sodium carbonate to 2 cups of hot water -- and poured that into the pot; where the solution came into direct contact with the wool, the fiber turned brown, which leads me to believe that the tannins experience an accelerated reaction rather than being neutralized. Not that I know much about chemistry, so that's really an uneducated guess.
Over time, the pokeberry solution changed from burgundy to an odd golden-orange-brown/bronze/copper/something in the middle that I'm having some difficulty coming up wit a name for -- I'm hoping to dredge up the name of some suitably obscure goddess relating to either fire or earth or something because of the color, but ten that depends on what, if anything, I decide to ply it with. Of course, the fact that I left the heat on under the pot and accidentally let it boil might also have something to do with it! Utterly the opposite of what I was aiming for... again. This time, however, I decided not to try to correct the color with help from the Gods of KoolAid. Sometime tomorrow I'll boil a little bit of wool to test for washfastness; I'll also see about putting some in a window to see if the color fades or changes again over time. The other thing that's left me scratching my head is what color would go with this strange copper if I decide to ply it with something. Green, maybe? Orange? Red? Maybe some plain white wool? Suggestions are definitely welcome here. I'll post a picture of the bronze yarn after I finish spinning the wool tomorrow.
Oh! I'm getting a ball winder! Yay! No more musical chairs!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bag It!

My knitting project list keeps growing by leaps and bounds! Not only have I still not knitted a single thing for myself -- except the cabled wrist warmers from -- but I'm now on a self-imposed deadline to finish half the projects I've got started.
1. Sam's blue striped socks. I've got one and a half socks finished. Still have the foot and toe to do on Sock Number 2.
2. Sam's corset. Not even started yet, but I have the needles, yarn, and pattern.
3. Mom's sweater. Got the book, yarn, and needles.
4. Sarah's baby blanket. I suspect that the baby has been born by now, and the blanket is less then 3/4 of the way finished.
5. The shawl. It's about 2/3 of the way finished and is probably the closest thing on the list to being completed.
6. THE BLASTED BAGS! I just ordered the yarn... at mom's urging. IN ALL AUTUMN COLORS, which by winter will probably look like florescent putrescence.
In early December there's a craft show. I decided that, should we decide to participate this year, I'd like to take something other than soap, lip balm, and hand lotion. Silly me. Am I really capable of knitting five of the French Market bags, felting them, and making them suitable for presentation to potential buyers at a craft show? I'd better be.
It's recently been suggested that, rather than continue to knit things for people, I suggest that perhaps it might be a good thing for them to learn how to do; for the most part, people who aren't crafty seem not to realize how much work is actually involved in knitting a pair of socks, let alone a sweater. They might appreciate the end result, but they never see you struggling with dropped stitches or laddered corners, or the neckline that turns out to be too small to go over your head and needs to be frogged and redone.
Well, I've taught mom the basics. She continues to struggle on a daily basis with the pattern for a two-needle watch cap: basic hat, knitted on two needles, ribbed brim and garter stitch body, some sewing involved. Easy? Maybe I flatter myself in thinking that once I've mastered the basics I can move on to more complicated things. I've knitted socks, right? And a sweater? So why is it so difficult to teach someone the basics and have them do the simplest of hats? Could it be that I'm just not a good teacher, or is she just aiming too high too soon? And don't even get me started on the "I don't have the patience" people. More like "I don't have the discipline", I suspect.
Since I've learned how to knit, I've learnt to enjoy the challenges presented by trying to figure out a new pattern. It's not tedious, whatever some people might think. Nor do men's appertinances drop off if they learn to knit. During the First and Second World Wars, soldiers knitted. Hell, the whole country knitted! Probably a goodly portion of the world in general was, at one time or another during the course of the wars, occupied by knitting scarves, socks, gloves, helmet liners, and who knows what else to keep the soldiers' extremities warm. Before that, knitting wasn't really gender specific to women, either. During the early development of knitting between the 14th and 16th centuries, and indeed until the 18th century, knitting was men's work; European knitting guilds were men-only... sorry, ladies. It wasn't until the 20th century that more women began to take an interest in it as a social activity, and then knitting started to become seen as something better left to the fairer sex.
And people claim not to have patience? Puh-leeze.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sea Foam Again

My first attempt at dyeing unspun wool somehow came out a bit better than I'd originally thought, and along the way I've learned quite a few strange things about how the process works. The color, which I first thought was pretty yucky, now looks less objectionable; the old "things will look better in the morning" did happen to be true this time. Wool is a sensitive fiber to work with because it reacts to temperature changes and can get very upset by sudden shocks like going from a nice warm dyepot to being rinsed under a faucet that isn't close to the same temperature; I was upset myself when I thought the roving was all felted. Nope. Turns out that wool compacts when it's being submerged in liquid and then has most of the liquid squeezed out, no matter how gently you squeeze; that's the nature of wool, according to someone who was kind enough to answer my frantic question on Fiberlings.
Now.. the things I've learned:
1. Hard water makes your wool feel all stiff no matter how fluffy it was before you dyed it.
1A. Rachael suggests giving the yarn spun from it a bath with hair conditioner, or possibly adding salt to the dye bath to help soften the water. I'll have to remember both of those next time I attempt to dye things.
2. A hair brush does NOT make a good substitute for hand cards! The little nubbly bristles are too far apart and too coarse to do an effective job of carding wool. I'll see if the finer bristled dog/cat brushes work at all; if not, I'll get lots of cat hair over the course of brushing the kitties. I wonder if it's spinnable?
3. KoolAid is not a sovereign remedy for icky colors.
4. No matter how careful you are with keeping temperatures constant when you're moving fiber between one bath and another, and rinsing, or how slowly and gently you stir, roving will compact because that's its nature. The appearance of being less fluffy after it dries is fixable if you choose to card it a second time (assuming it was carded before you dyed it and wasn't uncarded fleece to begin with).
5. You can never have too many bobbins.
6. Dyeing is unpredictable. Whether there's an element of surprise even for experienced dyers, I'm not sure, but I'm certainly getting results that are other than my original expectations. Not that I'm complaining... well.. not really..
7. Niddy-Noddies or skein winders are an absolute must unless you're athletic and like playing a different type of musical chairs.
I was exceedingly annoyed this afternoon that someone told me spinning yarn is tedious. My response was that I find it soothing, both in the rhythm of the wheel and the sound it makes while it's spinning and in the almost meditative repetition of drafting and treadling. Tedious? If you're like her and like to make a big splash by saying you've bought yarn from some expensive boutique just to make a splash, then people might find YOU tedious. There's something strangely satisfying in knitting something with wool yarn as opposed to acryllic yarns. That's not to say that all acryllic yarns are awful; there are some of which I'm quite fond. I just.. happen to like wool better now that I've come to know how pleasurable it is to work with. By the same token, making something with wool you've dyed and spun with your own hands -- and feet if you use a wheel -- is also very satisfying. Not the same as a cup of hot chocolate with a splash of Buttershots and a pinch of cinnamon, but... almost.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sea Foam

At this time of year, allergy sufferers begin to arm themselves against a new set of allergens like leaf mold and goldenrod. It's a common misconception that the latter has much to do with hay fever and sneezing fits; I certainly didn't suffer any paroxysms of sneezing this afternoon while I was out in the garden, and I'm pretty allergic to a lot of pollens and molds.
This dye thing is beginning to turn into a Frankenstein. I remember someone on DyeHappy mentioning goldenrod as a dye plant, and this afternoon I was stricken by the "Let's see what happens if we do this" disease. I hied myself out to one of the small flower beds and, armed with a basket and a pair of enormous scissors, did battle with clouds of gnats, mosquitos, and other annoying flying nuissances, and was rewarded for my efforts with five ounces of goldenrod blossoms, stems, and leaves. What better way to spend the afternoon than in the house, away from said flying pests, doing something interesting like fiddling with dye? Even Dr. Frankenstein had a few bugs to work out, and even a coffee strainer doesn't catch them all.
I've dyed yarn four times since I learned to spin my own, and in the process used henna, KoolAid, and beet leaves with varying degrees of success. This time around, I dug out my other two dye books and thought about how to approach this new challenge. My cast iron pot does, it appears, work as a mordant in that it changes the color of the dye bath... the results are usually rather unappealing, however, and I seem to always end up making an effort to correct these unappetizing colors by falling back on KoolAid.
The dye bath was easy enough to make: plant material, water, vinegar (optional), and for some unknown reason I was siezed by the impulse to put the rind of half a lemon in the pot as well. I let it simmer for an hour before I strained it, then poured the dye liquor into the cast iron pot. At that point it was a sort of medium yellow-green and not as yucky as the pictures I took show it to be. According to one of my books, the use of iron with goldenrod results in an intense avocado green, which I thought might be nice to try for. I let the mixture simmer for fifteen minutes in the iron pot and was dismayed to see that, rather than becoming avocado, it had turned to pea soup green. I strained the liquid a second time with the aid of a coffee filter in the sieve and let it cool while the wool was in the mordant bath.
Another problem is that I was dyeing unspun wool, not yarn. This means that you have to stir VERY carefully and very slowly to avoid agitating the wool and making it felt. You also have to be careful not to have any sudden temperature changes when you move the wool from one pot to another, or when you rinse it. Soaking and mordanting were fine, but I'm not sure I was careful enough when I put it in the dye pot and rinsed it later on. The color would also probably have been better if I'd just left it alone, but again, I was aiming for something other than what I got. Once again, prayers to the God of KoolAid were said and I added one -- ONE -- packet of some blue lemonade thing to the dye pot. When I poured it in, I hoped the dye would streak, making it sort of tie-dyed, which it kind of did. The color, alas, is now a sort of soft, streaked sea foam green. I could also probably have saved what was left in the dye bath for another attempt, but I wasn't thinking when I poured it out. And before I could take a picture of the dyed roving, the camera battery died. Here, however, are the rest of the pictures of this experiment. I'll try to get a picture of the sea foam wool tomorrow; things might also look better once the wool is dry.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Poke Berry Pie

I suppose I should be applying myself a bit more aggressively to the task of job hunting, especially considering the plans I've made for my future. There's nothing really wrong with bagging groceries or flipping burgers, but I've got an almighty college degree. I've never been so foolish as to assume that simply having a piece of paper makes me more suitable as an employee, but does it really make me that much of a threat? Obviously I didn't get the job at the craft store; while I'm not exactly heartbroken, I'm somewhat disappointed because it was an environment where I think I could have thrived and been able to contribute. Which means I'm basically back to square one. Anyone want to hire a recent graduate with a degree in history and a minor in Spanish literature? It's getting to be like Mel Blanc's train ticket agent asking if anyone wants to go to Kookamonga and then being so griefstricken that no one does, he shoots himself. Not that I'm that depressed about being jobless. There's just... nothing here that isn't mind-numbing, let alone that I'm qualified to do. I'm obviously neither a dentist nor a registered nurse, nor a physical therapist, any more than I'm a licensed paleobotanist. Okay.. the last is a stretch, but I'm still not one of those.
About the only positive from the lack of employment is that I have time to do things that are more satisfying than struggling and scrubbing floors for the Yankee Dollar, like spending time with important people (you know who you are!), knitting, spinning yarn, and dyeing projects. The freezer looks a little like a cross between a health food store and a mad florist because of all the bags of funny plants in it: marigolds, amaranth catkins, purple basil, coreopsis, and dahlias, as well as one enormous bag filled almost to bursting with pokeberries. The failure with the beet leaves notwithstanding, I hope to finish spinning the last of my white wool tomorrow or Wednesday, which should give the three pounds of roving I ordered (two pounds of white, one of gray) time to arrive, as well as giving the stock pot of pokeberries in vinegar and water time to finish doing whatever they're doing.
Last week I took a quick detour on the way home from the doctor's office and went driving along Luther Jones Road on a whim. At this time of year the roadside is dotted with berry-bearing plants of numerous kinds, including pokeberry; the berries are almost all ripe and a lovely dark purple. Since Rachael's series of posts concerning this very plant's use as a dyestuff, I wondered if I might take advantage of the fact that there's a bumpercrop of the stuff readily available -- and since she's already done a fair amount of research, I have something to go on. My detour cost me a barely visible dent in the car door when an unseen rock flew up and went DING! when I pulled off the road to go in search of ripe berries. Several passing motorists seemed astonished to see me tramping through the weeds and hopping over poison ivy at the edge of an orchard; this excursion netted me two ziplock sandwich bags of berries and some nice purple stains on my fingers. When I got home, I found out that there were enough plants growing in the yard to fill a large ziplock freezer bag with berries. Score! Into the freezer all three bags went.
The next day, I took the two smaller bags out of the freezer and plopped the frozen contents into my enormous stock pot. I think it's stainless steel, but I'm not sure.. it has a nice heavy lid and is big enough to make a six pound batch of soap with plenty of room to spare. I filled the pot about a third of the way with hot water and used the potato masher on the berries to try to break them up a little before I sloshed some vinegar into the mix. I didn't measure, but I think it must have been a good cup or so of vinegar. I could easily add more since I have two gallons stashed in the pantry for soap-making clean-up jobs. The pot has been sitting on the front step since Friday morning with its lid anchored by a cheerful, winged cast-iron pig named Francis Bacon. I figure that whatever heat the pot gets from sunlight during the day will probably help the berries break down a little more and release more pigment; as it is the solution is almost black, it's so dark. I'm hoping that by leaving the lid on, there's less chance that the tanins in the pigment (thanks, Rachael, for mentioning it) will begin to turn the juice brown. In a few days, or once I've got the new wool mordanted, I'll strain the mix and add some more water and vinegar so I can dye the roving. Rachael's recent posts indicate some browning of her early batches; maybe the addition of some KoolAid of either blue or dark red might help with the light-fastness? I'm not sure if I want to go that route, though. I've never dyed roving before, either, so this will be an interesting experience. My next project will more than likely involve either marigolds or some of the enormous amount of coreopsis I've been harvesting since early June; there are still lots of buds, but since the weather is getting colder, I'm not sure how much longer the plants will continue to bloom. Lots of dahlia buds, too, and all of them are dark purple, which means I'll get more pigment from them than the lighter blooms. I'm looking forward to that lovely burnt orange color!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Earlier in the year I planted seeds for Bull's Blood beets, as well as a lot of other dye plants like coreopsis and amaranth. These little guys are supposedly good for dye, but the roots are so tiny they're hardly worth harvesting to eat unless you plant a metric ton of them. About three weeks ago I went into the garden and pulled up several handfuls of beets specifically for the leaves, but at the time I wasn't really sure what I would do with them.
Most of what I've read on the Dye-Happy yahoo group and in the books I've got said beets will start out a lovely purplish-pinkish-reddish, but eventually this will fade to a brown in much the same way most berry dyes do. I wish I'd read Rachael's Dye-Happy post about boiling things before I got started this morning, because it would have kept me from getting brown liquid that looked like strong tea, rather than the purplish stuff I started with! That's exactly what I did, and I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with a reason for the color change. That was the one thing I didn't think of, but I'm glad she said something about it in her recent poke berry post.Whether Bull's Blood beets fade to brown under normal circumstances I shall never know -- at least not until next time I plant some more! I was very upset by my suddenly brown beet dye, so I threw in five packets of Black Cherry KoolAid (dissolved in two cups of hot water so it wouldn't streak). I've taken pictures at various points along the way, though I didn't take any of my little acrobatic/ballet pas de deux with two chairs and two of Clotho's bobbins -- that was an interesting experience! Skeinwinders must be wonderful inventions. Certainly much less fuss and fiddle involved, I'd think.
I feel a little guilty for cheating with the KoolAid, but I think the resulting mix of brown and red came out much nicer than either would have been on their own. Next time, hopefully I'll remember Rachel's sage advice on not boiling things because they turn brown!
Here are the pictures: (Dye-ary = diary... get it? hee!)

Thursday, September 7, 2006

4 Norns?

Recently I've been lamenting the lack of things in the mail that aren't for mom, which is silly because the end result is that the contents of the packages she's been getting are usually fibercraft books for me, mostly to do with knitting. My knitting to-do list is growing, so I've been frantically trying to finish up projects before more pop up like mushrooms, which is difficult in this humdity.
Last evening, while I was up to my elbows in making a chicken curry with vegetables and pad thai noodles, our fierce guard hound announced that some stranger was in the driveway, nay, at the very door. I went to investigate and trailed clouds of spices from the kitchen to the front door, and what should I find but a box with MY name on it; said box was almost my height, and quite wide. I was thrilled. At last! Something for ME!
I dragged the huge box into the house and indulged myself in the first part of unpacking it: I cut the tape and unfolded the flaps, only to be greeted by an enormous amount of evil styrofoam. And then I went back to the kitchen to finish cooking my curry. I had a pretty good idea of what was in the box, so I called my friend Sam, and then I called my mother -- yes, we live in the same house, but I don't think she heard my bellowing about the arrival -- to let them know the joyous news. I resolved not to unpack the box until after dinner, though all through the meal I kept casting longing glances in the direction of the ginormous box.
Finally, dinner was eaten and dishes washed, so I dove into the heaps of styrofoam to get at the contents of the box: my very own spinning wheel. As soon as the three rather large pieces came out of the box -- the person who sold it to me was kind enough to do most of the hard work for me, like assembling all the smallish pieces into three largish pieces -- I picked up the stray bits of evil styrofoam and went around hunting for a screw driver and a hammer.
Half an hour later, I hauled my assembled wheel upstairs and sat down to practice treadling. I got a strong impression that the wheel was definitely feminine. Some of the Kromski wheels look very masculine, I think, as do some of the Louet. This, however, was neither of those: she's an Ashford, thank you very much, and her name is Clotho the Fourth Norn. For those of you who read this who DON'T know what that means, I'll provide an explanation.
Most mythologies have a Fate figure of some kind; most of these are female and have three aspects. The Greek figure is female and has three aspects whose names are Clotho (She Who Spins), Lachesis (She Who Measures), and Atropos (She Who Cuts); from the names and job descriptions, it must have something to do with thread. Duh. They spin, measure, and cut the threads of life to determine lifespan and what path a person's fate will take through that lifespan. Similarly, the Norse figure is female and there are three of them -- sensing a pattern here? -- though in this case, all three are visible at any one time. They're the Norns who sit under Yggdrasil and spin the threads of fate. According to D'Aulaire's book of Norse myths, the Norns also get very upset when the end of the world is about occur; "Woe!" they cry, and cover their faces, and refuse to continue spinning.
Anyway, my first wheel is proving to be an interesting challenge. I've succeeded in figuring out the treadling and drafting -- it's completely different from a drop spindle -- but I'm not sure how to make the yarn feed onto the bobbin evenly. It all gets deposited at one end of the bobbin, which isn't at all what I'm aiming for. Soon, though! AND I've found a source of good, inexpensive wool -- $7.50 a pound, as opposed to the $11 and up from other places -- so it's unlikely that I'll run out of wool to spin anytime soon since I know where to get it.

Friday, August 4, 2006


Back in January I started knitting socks. After many trials and even more errors, I eventually got the basics figured out -- with lots of help, of course, from a couple of websites and a handful of books -- and stuck with it until I finished the most recent pair for Dad's belated birthday gift. Since I started learning how to knit socks I decided to put off doing battle with sweaters because they seemed horribly complicated, especially since most of the patterns in my books involved knitting separate pieces and sewing them together; besides, I was happy with the challenge presented by a pair of socks -- what in the world did "turn the heel" mean? and how the hell do I juggle four knitting needles to do this? -- and unready to tackle the task of knitting a sweater.
About a month ago I finally finished that last sock after about... four months? (see the Green Sock picture) and I decided I wanted to knit Stuart a sweater. After a bit of dithering about colors -- finally settled on darkish gray with a stripe of medium blue (so called "Country Blue" by the manufacturer -- I bought five skeins of acrylic yarn and went to work using a pattern I found on a knitting pattern directory website. The pattern, rather than being for separate pieces, was for a sweater knitted in the round on circular needles, and the only parts needing to be attached would be the sleeves.
It's pretty straightforward at first: knit the body as a tube, knit the sleeves as tapering tubes, and then get stuck on how to divide the body so the cabled panel I added falls in the middle and not on the side or in the back. After much fiddling with safety pins and a calculator, I got the sleeves attached at the proper places and grafted the inside edge of the sleeves to the bound-off edges at the sides of the body.. and then I knitted, and knitted some more.. and found out that my circular needles were too short to accomodate the body and the sleeves. Off to Ben Franklin's I went, and returned with a pair of nifty 36 inch circular needles... and then struggled with getting the sweater off the old needles and onto the new ones.
So far so good. Now what? The instructions had, by this point, become increasingly arcane. Like math or science, knitting has a jargon unique to the craft; this jargon is confusing to those not conversant with knitting, and occasionally confuses even those who are somewhat conversant with same. The raglan decreases were fine, but then the neckline got confusing. Turning a sock heel back and forth to create short rows and a curved heel cup? That's easy because you do exactly what the instructions on the pattern tell you to do -- and hope you don't make any mistakes in the meantime.
The neckline of the sweater involved a similar process: bind off a certain number of stitches, turn and knit or purl back across to the other side, bind off more stitches, turn and knit or purl back the other way, and so on and so forth until you get the right number of stitches. A number of e-mails in varying tones of desperation over what I term teething problems flew back and forth between the pattern's author and me, and finally -- FINALLY -- I thought I was close to finishing the sweater's neckline. Between e-mails, however, I found myself forced to unravel about two inches of sweater because I'd done too many raglan decreases. And while unravelling said two inches, I was also cooking curried chicken and rice in preparation for a small dinner gathering, and running betwen the kitchen and living room to make sure the unravelled edge of the sweater didn't find itself in the cat's capable paws...and being further unravelled.
Once the curry was done, I sat down and spent a laborious half hour picking up every single stitch with a teenie little crochet hook and putting it back on the circular needles so I could correct my error. Much scratching of the head, and scribbling on the pattern, and more scratching of the head, and some knitting.. and finally the guests arrived and I, still wearing my apron, answer the door, distribute lemonade, and trail yarn all over the house in the process. Fortnuately I didn't succeed in creating a gray acrylic spider web all over the dining room, but I think the cat came close to being mummified when she decided to roll around in the pile of loose yarn. Dinner went off without a hitch, guests stayed for key lime pie and coffee, and finally I get some down time. I left the sweater in the upstairs guest room and didn't do anything with it until later this afternoon.
Now, the blasted neckline has driven me nuts since I finished the raglan decreases. I've already unravelled it once, and this evening, I finished the upper part of the shoulders and discovered I'd made another error: too many stitches left after the raglan decreases and not enough stitches in the front to correct it, and I have no idea where I made the mistake. In a fit of stubbornness, I continued knitting until I had to pick up the bound off stitches at the top of the neckline... and found out that it was a harder task than I'd originally thought. It's easy on a sock because you slip stitches at the ends of the heel flap rows; this creates a chain of loose stitches that are easily picked up when it comes time to knit the foot. A sweater, though, has no slipped stitches to pick up -- this pattern doesn't, at least -- so I decided to pick up every other stitch and start working on the ribbing for the turtleneck. Several episodes of "Are You Being Served?" later I found myself binding off the top edge of the neck. Since the rest of the sweater fits me -- something of a tight squeeze, but I'm quite a bit chestier than Stuart is.. after all, I'm a girl! -- I figured I'd try it on and see how the neck fit. Horrors! The neck wouldn't go over my head! So more unravelling and picking up the loose stitches with the crochet hook and circular needles. What to do, what to do? It seems like I need twice the number of stitches I picked up before I started working on the turtleneck ribbing.
For the time being, the sweater will be resting -- as will I -- in a comfortable bed until tomorrow morning. I hope it sleeps well!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Spinning the wheels

Before I started knitting I never thought I'd become obsessed with fiber. When I made my New Year's resolution I thought knitting was a harmless -- barring the occasional poke from a misplaced knitting needle or safety pin-cum-stitch marker -- hobby that wasn't at all addictive. That was obviously before I wound up with a fifty gallon tub of acrylic yarn. And then I discovered the joys of wool yarn... and alpaca... and silk... and blends of the three. *gulp*
Acrylic yarn is fine. Really. Sure, it pills, but it's inexpensive and easy to find, and it's good for practicing before you get down to the nitty-gritty task of knitting a pair of socks or a hat. Wool, on the other hand, seems to be more difficult to find except for the folks who have websites selling it; there are only two shops within an hour's drive of where I live and one of them is no longer hospitable for reasons I won't go into. Suffice it to say that I choose not to do business there anymore. Anyway, I now also have a rather large amount of wool yarn that I'm working my way through in the form of numerous pairs of socks and a shawl, and a baby blanket for an acquaintance.
In my recent posting about the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, I mentioned that I'm now the proud parent of a drop spindle. While at the fair, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be fun to spin and dye my own yarn?"
After several fumbling attempts at spinning, and much laughter and humorous self-mockery, I found a lovely (small!) group of handspinners on Yahoo. Yahoo, it seems, has groups of people discussing literally every topic under the sun. This particular group is made up of spinners with varying degrees of expertise; some of them use both a wheel and drop spindle, some prefer the drop spindle, and so on. Upon joining the group, I peppered the members with questions like "How do I get the bloody thing started?" and once I got it started "How do I keep it from untwisting?"
It's much more complicated than it seems at first glance, but once you figure out the general idea, all it takes is patience and practice. A couple of listmembers e-mailed to point me toward a website that has video clips of people demonstrating the basics of spinning with a drop spindle (; they were kind enough to answer my questions anyway, and one even offered to meet and give me spinning lessons.
To date I have one small (very small) skein of cream-colored yarn that represents my first effort at spinning; I'm sort of keeping it as a trophy. This afternoon, though, I started spinning with some of Stacey's gunmetal blue roving; I've still got bugs to work out, like how to pull the fibers without breaking the line, and how to keep the spindle from unwinding while I'm getting the next bunch of fiber ready to start. Okay.. more bugs than I thought, but I'm slowly getting better at this. Someday, though, I also hope to get one of those beautiful Ashford spinning wheels, maybe one of the cute upright ones with a nice cherry finish. Ahh... pipe dreams. For now, anyway.
As far as the dyeing part of the project, three days ago I planted seeds in the newly constructed raised bed on the other side of the vegetable garden: coreopsis, bull's blood beet, purple basil, and amaranth. My indigo, woad, and safflower seeds have vanished, however, so no blue dye for me in the Fall! Some of the plants take about two weeks to germinate, and take a couple months to mature, so at the end of the season, I'll have yellow, purple, and reddish-rusty plants to work with. Which means I still have plenty of time to master the art of drop spindle spinning.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

MSWF 2006

It's an hour and a half drive through the country and down I-70 to a little place called West Friendship, which is between Frederick and Baltimore. Every year, this little town hosts a giant trade show-cum-county-fair called the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival; visitors and vendors come from as far away as California, and I wouldn't be surprised if some come from abroad to show their wares and to see the sights. And, wow, there's a lot to see: people selling spinning wheels, yarn, dyestuffs, handwoven fabric, garments and blankets made from handwoven fabric, knitting and crocheting supplies, looms, wool rovings for spinning, fleece and carding machines, and almost everything in between that has to do with sheep and wool. And then there were the weaving, knitting, and crocheting workshops and the lectures on Navajo weaving and on sheep as an integral part of Navajo life, and even an entire building set aside to exhibit Navajo work. That was pretty amazing and worth the trip all by itself! The colors and patterns are something that have to be seen rather than written about because they're so incredible.
And then there were the animals. There were people selling and showing sheep and angora bunnies, there was a pen where a fellow gave lectures on alpacas, and another pen where a pair of very haughty llamas stood and sneered at passersby. The alpacas are about half the size of the llamas and seemed to have sweeter natures than their larger cousins; the llamas were haughty and disdainful... and big. I had no idea they were so big before seeing one face to face. There were also six barns full of sheep of various breeds, including one that's about twice the size of any sheep I've ever seen, and something called Jacob sheep with two sets of horns. I'd never seen or heard of such a thing before, but they seemed fairly goodnatured, as did the merino rams I met. They were very sweet, the rams, and looked very wise and solemn. Of course a good many of them had just been sheared and were wearing little blankets to keep their coats from getting grubby, and there were some farmers who were busily giving their fleecey friends haircuts while people stopped to chat and ask if they could pet the sheep. The sheep took it all very well, I think, though several of them said, "Baaaaaah!" in a way that seemed to mean "Don't you have anything better to do than gawk at a nekkid sheep?! How humiliating!"
And yarn, Yarn, YARN! Yarn everywhere in hundreds of colors, textures, and fiberblends. Yarn dyed with cochineal beetles, yarn dyed with indigo, yarn made from banana fiber and soy fiber and recycled sari silk, yarn from Wales, yarn from Ireland, yarn twisted in skeins, yarn on cones, yarn knitted into socks, hats, and shawls, yarn felted into scarves and hats, yarn in bagged kits for sweaters and mittens, yarn being spun from wool rovings dyed in just as many colors. There wasn't a single thing in the whole place that wasn't beautiful, animals included. The range of textures alone was enough to intoxicate; the colors were beyond description. One of the vendors dyed her own yarn with plants: indigo, woad, madder, and so on. Some of her yarn was double-dyed, like osage orange (which yeilds yellow-green on its own) dipped again in indigo to make a variegated aqua.
Since I picked up knitting at the beginning of the year, I've begun to appreciate the work involved in fibercrafts, and I've become more interested in taking a stab at doing a bit of dyeing on my own. For my birthday, my mother got seeds for some dye plants -- indigo, woad, beets, safflower, and a couple others -- and I later got some books on how to use those plants in conjunction with mordants that change and fix the color. In mid-January I made my first forray into the world of dye, using KoolAid on merino wool yarn. That turned out well, though in the future I may use more KoolAid and be more careful with stirring it until all the powder dissolves so I get a more uniform color.
People who knew I planned to go to the Sheep and Wool Festival exhorted me not to spend too much money, and at the same time to buy good stuff. I'm pleased to say that I managed to do both and that I didn't give in to the temptation to buy a dozen of everything including angora bunnies. After going from one vendor to another in a daze caused by sensory overload, I stumbled across a stall run by a young woman from New Jersey. She was selling yarn, drop spindles, and enormous batches of dyed wool rovings for spinning; her prices were excellent, as were the items she offered for sale, and I told her I thought so. She was pleased at the compliments and told me that she felt that it was her responsibility to pass on the good deals she got while doing business with suppliers. After taking another good look at the wool, I chose a beautiful gunmetal blue -- the last one, I think she said, in that colorway -- and then asked her about the drop spindles.
I still don't know much about how they work, but as far as I know the oldest forms of spinning were done on similar drop spindles by ancient cultures. A spindle is, in essence, an oversized wooden top with a notch in the dowel to keep the yarn from sliding off; as the spindle falls, it spins and twists the fiber into yarn which, in turn, is wound around the spindle shaft. Apparently, if you don't want to go buy a spindle, you can make one with one of those AOL discs that frequently show up in the mail, a dowel with a pointy end, and a cup hook to hold the yarn; the heavier the spindle, the thicker gauge of yarn you can spin. There were several woodworkers who specialized in spindles made from exotic wood, and there were even some made with enamelled faces; I opted for a less expensive, less exotic, less complicated spindle. I'm a novice, so I thought it'd be best to start out slow and work my way up.
Mom discovered that one of the stalls nearby carried natural dyestuffs including cochineal beetles (dead and crushed to powder) and insisted on buying some because it's hard to come by. She also decided I needed some of the osage orange sawdust since we both really liked that yellow-green-celery color that comes from using Alum with it. And it turns out we have a box of red henna powder in the bathroom -- I'm not sure why or where it came from -- but it works as a dye for wool, apparently, and that's where it's going to go. And when I finally start those seeds, things will definitely get interesting.
Here's hoping there won't be a drought this year! If there is, I'll still be able to... dye happy. :-P Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival website.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Yarn Addicted

I never thought knitting would lead to an addiction, but now I wonder if there's some sort of twelve-step program to help sufferers of the strange phenomenon that is yarn addiction.
When I started knitting (again) in late December of last year, I accumulated enough acrylic yarn to fill a 50 gallon RubberMaid tub by visiting both Walmart and Michael's often enough to drool and dither over the gorgeous range of colors and textures arrayed before me on the shelves... and then picking skeins of yarn from the colors that appealed to me most. That was before I fell in love with natural fiber.
My first experience with natural fiber was with Peaches & Creme yarn from Walmart. It's stiff and fairly coarse, but the colors were pretty and I thought the price was fairly reasonable. However, after I completed what I thought would be an adult woman's size 8 sock, I was dismayed to find that I couldn't get the fruit of my labor over my heel! As a result, I have a bunch of balls of yarn that I have no plans to use for socks. The colors are lovely, but I've lost the receipt so I can't return it to the hell that is Walmart's Customer Disservice.
By the time my birthday rolled around, my knitting addiction was a full-fledged mania; my interest in natural fiber yarn, though, was just beginning to blossom. I went searched for local knitting supply shops, but the closest ones were -- I thought -- in Frederick and Winchester, neither of which I have any great desire to drive to; and then I found a listing for a shop in a small town about 16 miles away. I wrote down the directions provided by MapQuest and took off in pursuit of the most dangerous game known to knitters: the local yarn shop.
When I walked through the door, I went into sensory overload. So many textures ranging from the soft, fringed eyelash yarn to the bulky yarn used for felting, and two whole shelf units devoted to sock yarn, and another shelf unit with yarn made from soy and bamboo fiber. And the colors! Right as you walk through the front door, you're met with a piece of clothesline strung across a staircase and hung with hanks of hand-painted cotton yarn that literally glows with color. And did I mention that there's a cat in-house? I'll withhold her name since she's young and innocent and isn't likely to want obscene phonecalls; she's adorable: a fluffy calico who doesn't bat at the balls of yarn displayed on the antique sofa in one of the rooms, and who snoozes in a basket lined with one of the owner's felting projects. Both the owner and her cat (maybe that's the other way around since cats like to think they own humans) are very personable; the owner, Susan, is also extremely knowledgeable and helpful if you have questions.
That first visit, I tried to limit myself to a small number of things even though I knew I wanted a dozen of everything, cost be damned. Especially the gorgeous cashmere yarn by the window, and the hand-painted cotton yarn on the staircase! I left that day with two types of Lang Jawoll sock yarn (it comes with its own cute little spool of thread for reinforcing the heel and toe of the sock, and the thread is dyed to match the yarn), a ball of wool yarn made by the Brown Sheep Co. in a lovely medium green called Limestone, and some Sierra Quatro yarn. Subsequent trips also ended with the acquisition of more sock yarn, as well as more Sierra yarn in a different dyelot (see "Tanzanite Socks" under Completed Sock Projects).
Then, on Superbowl weekend, Susan held a sale. I went the day before and found some Brown Sheep Co. yarn -- sport weight this time -- in a sort of burnt orange color called French Clay. It was an unusual color, so I grabbed the last two -- the yarn was cleverly arranged for display in an antique baby pram -- and bought a couple more skeins of sock yarn. The French Clay yarn has since been knitted into a pair of socks for my father as a belated birthday gift (there's a picture posted under "Completed Sock Projects"). Most of the yarn I've gotten from Susan is housed in a plastic box to keep the moths out... just in case.
In March, during Spring Break, I went to Minnesota to visit my father and meet his companion. I'm not going to say very much about the trip, but St. Paul is much quieter than I was expecting, and the people were -- mostly -- much nicer than I expected. As part of the entertainment on the trip, Dad took me to the opera (fabulous production of Don Giovanni set at the turn of the century) and to Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre., as well as a 1950's style malt shop called Snuffy's. If you're ever in St. Paul, go to Snuffy's and have a milkshake. They're absolutely the best milkshakes in the entire western world. I'm not kidding! The hamburgers are about the size of a dinner plate and delicious.
He also took me to several yarn shops recommended by folks on the sock knitters' forum I'm on, and that was quite an experience. The first yarn shop was Three Kittens. I was a bit disappointed that there weren't actually kittens or cats on the premesis, but there was a huge amount of yarn, and that alone was worth it... even though there were no kittens! The shop stocked more mainstream yarns like Lang and Sierra, but had one whole wall devoted to kettle dyed yarn made by a company in Uraguay, and a whole display unit for Mountain Colors hand-painted yarn. There was so much stuff I had a hard time limiting myself, but I finally picked some alpaca-merino yarn in a pine green, and got some reinforcing thread in a much lighter hue to make a contrasting toe and heel... and I splurged and bought a hank of Mountain Colors hand-painted yarn in a colorway called Ruby River. It's variegated reds and the picture I took doesn't do it justice at all. In fact, no pictures I've seen do the yarn justice... even on Mountain Colors' own website!
The next stop on the yarn shop list was The Yarnery. It occupies half of what used to be a residential building; it was a little hard to spot until you were on top of it, and then you knew it was there by all the little bits of yarn that had drifted out the door and down the front steps. Again, there were too many options to choose from, but they had amazingly organized displays and the staff were vere friendly; no fewer than three employees came to check on me while I was looking around. I had to limit myself there, too, so I only bought some pure alpaca yarn.. just enough to make a pair of socks. It's hand-painted shades of turqoise and white, and it's so soft it's almost decadent.
The third and final stop on the tour of yarn shops was Borealis. Borealis, I think, was my favorite of the three, but it's really hard to say that because they were all so wonderful. Borealis was also very organized, and the staff were also very helpful and friendly. The yarn was displayed on shelves, hanging on the wall, on little bookshelf units arranged throughout the shop, and in bins and baskets. The colors were grouped more in the way the spectrum works: ranging from red to violet and beyond with tints and hues of every possible variation. I went a little nuts at Borealis and left with NatureSpun sport-weight wool in Bordeaux, Lana Grossa in a sort of variegated wine red, and two skeins of silk-wool blend in a beautiful sort of cross between turqoise and sky blue.
Fortunately, I didn't buy so much yarn that I ended up having to ship things home for lack of space in my luggage. Yarn is pretty squashy, though, so I didn't have any trouble stuffing it into my duffle bag. Since I got home, I've finished one pair of socks (the Tanzanite) and started two more (the Mallard and Blueberry), and I still have several a couple pairs to do for some friends. And I still haven't knitte a pair of socks for myself!
Once Spring is fully sprung, I'll have more to write about because I'm going to clear one of the raised beds and plant some dye plants: amaranth, safflower, indigo, woad, and beets, and possibly coreopsis and a few other things if I have space.
If Mr. Snowyfox has his way, I might move to New Zealand and raise sheep... and dye plants. If that happens, then there'll be no stopping me, or breaking this yarn addiction!

Oh..and, yes, I'm actually using the yarn I've accumulated. And I haven't bought any more since I came home from Minnesota. See? I'm being good! Sort of...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Old and New Year's Res

I've always been a somewhat crafty person. In my childhood, my godmother taught me how to do basic cross-stitch, my elderly neighbor taught me basic knitting, and my mother taught me basic crochet. I've also done a fair amount with cooking, and I've got five years of soap-making experience under my belt.
Last year I didn't make any New Year's resolutions because I usually end up not sticking with what I resolve to do, but at the end of the year, roughly a week before Yule, my trip to the library resulted in an explosion of craft activity (see previous blog entry on Madam Mao Librarian). Mom has a copy of a Reader's Digest Needle Craft book -- knitting, crochet, cross-stitch, needlepoint, and who knows what else -- that I'd also been working from to learn a bit more to round out my knowledge of the basics. The book's project patterns included socks, which I've since become fascinated with.
During the month of December I made a handful of scarves from yarn I got at Michael's and Walmart, and then began using the books I'd gotten from the library to learn how to do things like cables and different types of textures like seed stitch. Also during the month of December, I bought enough yarn to fill a 50 gallon Rubber Maid tub... and then some. Yes, I've been using it, but knitting is an addiction. I wonder if there's a twelve-step plan for addictions to buying and hoarding yarn.
Anyway, shortly before New Year, I started working on a simple hat -- a two-needle watchcap -- and found it to be not as daunting a task as I'd originally expected. This led to my decision to learn how to make SOCKS and sweaters in addition to the hats. One of my close friends liked the idea of the watchcap and asked me to make her one that will be highly visible at night since she has to walk home from work, so we settled on white with some lively yellow stripes. For some reason the hat reminds me of lemon meringue pie. After I finished her hat, I decided to move on to socks.
Socks, for anyone who's never knitted, look like a horrendous amount of work. Some people prefer to use circular needles while others prefer to juggle a set of four or five double-pointed-needles. The prospect of using anything other than two knitting needles seemed scary, but I broke down and bought a set of double-pointed needles because all the circular needles I've seen are 29 inches long... and no one I know has a 29 inch ankle. After assembling the materials -- including more acrylic yarn! -- , I googled sock patterns and, after much searching, found one that claimed to be "Basic".
The instructions for this supposedly basic sock contained such arcane language as "turning the heel" and "divide for heel flap", neither of which I understood, and since none of the library books in my care had anything to do with socks, I began to lose heart. The ribbed cuff and the leg of the sock went fine, but once I got to the heel flap, I was lost. The instructions said "Slip first stitch and purl to end of row. Row 2: slip, knit to end of row." I took this to mean slip the first stitch and knit to the end of the row, which ended up being wrong. I think I unravelled my heel three times before giving up and going in search of a sock-knitters' forum on Yahoo. I found one, and the people there have been very, very helpful and encouraging.
The second attempt at knitting a sock wasn't a total success, but it ended much better than my first attempt. I bought some cotton yarn at Walmart; this stuff is about the texture of cotton gardening twine, but is a little thicker and comes in lots of pretty colors. As it turns out, this cotton yarn has very little elasticity, which makes it less suitable for socks than I had hoped.
The yarn in question is called "Peppermint", and the sock was a bit of a struggle to knit because of the yarn's texture. It's a pretty sock, but it's quite small, making it impossible for an adult with size 8 feet to wear. My solution to this problem is to leave it as an individual, and use it as either a Valentine's gift or Yule gift by filling it with candy or something similar. I could probably make more of them for that very purpose, rather than use them as actual footwear.
Additionally, up to the point where I was knitting my friend's hat, I'd only been using acrylic yarn. For my birthday, mom ordered some un-dyed wool yarn from a site called the Wool Peddler, as well as some raw silk yarn. I used Black Cherry Kool Aid to dye the wool, which came out a soft coral with dark red patches where there was undissolved powder in the bottom of the pot. Next stop will be sweaters, hopefully...