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?