Saturday, May 3, 2014

It Does Madder

My miserable madder
(Rubia tinctorum)
Last year I didn’t garden at all. There was a bat mitzvah in the house, and I don’t know… things got away from me. It made me fussy, but I didn’t do anything about it because by the time I came out of my personal fog, the weeds were so enormous that it seemed overwhelming and pointless to try. And it was a drought year.

It’s still a drought year. Worse, even. But there’s no bat mitzvah this year… and I can’t bear the thought of leaving the garden fallow for two years in a row. Besides, every garden center employee I’ve ever talked to (not that they have a vested interest in this or anything) has said not to do that.

I don’t want an enormous water bill. I don’t want a garden full of weeds. If I pull the weeds but don’t plant, it’s windy enough here that I will lose some soil - soil I’ve worked hard to amend. My solution is to plant far fewer vegetables and far more ornamentals. What vegetables I do plant - I will limit the ones that want to sink a lot of water into fruiting bodies.

Weld (Reseda luteola)
And this year, I have decided to sow a bit of a specialty garden. Dye plants. (I had so many choices for bad dye-related puns for this entry title that I went into a bit of a slack-jawed overload-stupor trying to pick just one.) Like ornamentals, dye plants are generally not putting their energy (and water) into roots or fruits. Some of the dye plants I chose are classics: woad, weld, madder, indigo. Others are a bit off the beaten track: white sage, zinnias, hollyhock nigra, coreopsis. I picked up a book on native natural dye plants that focuses mainly on the western US - Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes. It’s a good book, but sometimes it can lead you astray. Anyone who suggests you plant pokeweed ought to be slapped silly. The book also talks about many plants that grow profusely in the wild near my house. If I really get into this I might collect some California sagebrush, for example.

I mail ordered the classic dye plants. You can’t find them locally. Unfortunately they came right before Passover and I host both seders, so the little plants languished in their seed pots too long. They look pretty miserable, but I think most of them ought to live. But you know me by now, I’m not going to shuck and jive - you’ve got their ugly mugshots to look at right here with no doctoring. I’m considering ordering more if these don’t make it.

My woeful woad (Isatis tinctoria)
Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is considered invasive, so I put it in a large pot. Madder is the source of pigment for alizarin crimson - a pigment name that ought to be familiar to anyone with any art experience. Woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a member of the brassica family (yes, cabbages and broccoli) and is also sometimes considered invasive, but I took the risk and put it in the ground. Feel free to place bets on whether or not I’m going to regret that. Weld makes a bright yellow dye and has a lovely fragrance to their flowers. Woad makes blue. Woad dyed over weld produces Lincoln green - the color of Robin Hood’s cloak. All of these dyes - madder, weld and woad - have been used for thousands of years to dye cloth and fiber.

Sugar snap pea seedlings
The vegetables I’m growing are much fewer in variety and in number than years past. I’ve planted some pickling cukes because I can’t help but want to make pickles again. And I’ve planted sugar snap peas because… well, I do love them. And they’re nitrogen fixers! I was amazed to find dino kale growing well in the neglected garden already, buried under weeds. I decided that if they could survive a year’s worth of neglect and no water, they’d be a good choice for this dry dry year. I picked up another 4” pot with seedlings from a local community garden sale to augment the survivors. Along the way I also picked up a 4” pot with spinach seedlings - but there are so many seedlings in the pot they may take up a whole bed by themselves. I’m going to plant them in one of the shadier beds I think. Strawberries also seem to have survived my neglect, so I am letting the ones that bullied through last year linger on and I’m augmenting them with a six-pack of plants. Finally I did set seeds for red leaf lettuce, mostly because it was a freebie seed pack, but also because my garden has been overrun with some similar sort of lettuce for the last 4 years - I figured if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Dyer's Knot, a.k.a. indigo
(Indigofera tinctoria). White sage
(Salvia apiana) is in the background
and can also be used as a dye.
The rest of the garden will be ornamentals, some of which can be used for dyes. I planted cosmos because I have a soft spot for them - they were one of the first seeds I grew as a first-time home owner. I’ve always loved hollyhocks and also gardened with them from the start. It turns out that black hollyhocks also make a decent fabric/wool dye. Zinnias also make a dye, and they are so cheery I figured I’d enjoy having them for that reason alone. Likewise with coreopsis.

The marigolds I’m planting are really interesting. One is the Nema-gone variety. I decided to plant this pretty extensively because I have a feeling that I’ve got root knot nematodes. They’re common in sandy soil along the coast. The other is an heirloom variety called Sweet Licorice and the leaves are edible and used as seasoning… they can replace anise or tarragon.

Speaking of herbs, I’m starting thyme, tansy and oregano from seed. I’ve got thyme in the garden already but I do love it so I am planting more. Tansy is an herb I haven’t grown, but it can be used as a dye as well as for tea, so I thought I’d give it a try given this year’s theme. And oregano - ugh it is such a pain. I’ve found in the past that you really need to grow up a bazillion seedlings, let them get to a pretty robust stage and then vet them for flavor. So many oregano plants turn out to be rather wimpy in the taste department. After sorting through a boatload of plants I often only find one or two really worth keeping. I haven’t been up to the task, but this year since I’m not planting much in the vegetable department I figured I could give this some space in the garden.

Finally, I’ve got to replace the blueberry plant that died if I want to have blueberries at all. One plant won’t set berries. Problem is, I don’t remember what variety I bought - you need two different varieties to get berries. I will sift through my notes again. I can’t believe I took such copious notes but didn’t record THAT. Total bozo move. Sigh.

Anyway, it feels good to be out in the garden again. I may be doing a hack job, but I’ve found that for me, what matters is just that I’m doing it, regardless of how well.

All hail to survivalist kale!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Edgar, my Lendrum Rook

Over the weekend I bought myself a Lendrum Rook. Boy, that rolls off the tongue like it’s no big deal. But it turns out, it kind of is, if you’re into the odd nooks and crannies of spinning history, that is.

Edgar Allen Rook
It’s a small castle wheel. Or if you’re picky about nomenclature, it might be more accurate to call it an upright wheel, because some people define castle wheels more strictly, limiting the term to those wheels that have the drive wheel above the flyer. But Gordon Lendrum didn’t follow that stricter definition, because rook of course means the castle in chess, hence the name. But rook also can refer to the European raven. My rook is now an American, and therefore is much more likely to be a crow… an Edgar Allen Crow as my children are fond of calling them. Hence my name for the wheel. It turns out that only about 40 of these wheels were made.

It is an unusual wheel because it is Irish tension, but the tensioning device is atypical. In Irish tension the drive wheel is connected directly to the bobbin. The flyer has a brake on it. What is unusual about this wheel is that the brake is not a band or a fishing line… it is the wood post itself that holds the orifice end of the flyer. Tension is adjusted by tightening or loosening a screw that clamps or releases the wood around the flyer. (See second photo below for a close-up.)

Once I made my purchase, I of course got on ravelry, my most reliable source of information on fiber arts. I got a great deal of conflicting advice on the proper care and keeping of this wheel. I was encouraged to call Gordon Lendrum directly. I just got off the phone, and he was very charming and helped clear up the confusion. I am posting the questions I asked and the answers I got below. I’d love to find other Rook owners… and I’d also like to have this out on the web in case someone stumbles across one of the other 39 Rooks out there and wants to know proper care and keeping.
  1. What should be lubricated, if anything? And if so, with what? What should be lubricated: treadle bars, back bushing and bobbin shaft as needed. Anything slippery will do. Oil is fine. Silicone lubricant is also fine. What should NOT be lubricated: the sealed hub bearing and the flyer clamp area. The latter requires friction as a tensioning device.
  2. What is the wood surface prepared with, and how should it be treated? It is a nitrocellulose lacquer - solvent based. It is typical for furniture of this time period and can be treated as you would fine furniture. A little wax and polish will make it look like new.
  3. Are bobbins currently available for this wheel? This wheel’s particular bobbins are not available, however it is entirely possible that other Lendrum bobbins will work. It’s been so long since he made these, he wasn’t sure. He suggested I try a regular Lendrum bobbin to see… of course that means I’m giving up one drive ratio (the faster one) if I do this. He also thought that 3D printing a bobbin would be a fun and potentially useful work-around.
  4. It came with a poly drive band. Is that the best option for this wheel? Yes. In fact, it’s the only option. There is no other way to tension the drive band.
  5. Where there really only 40 of these made? And when? Yes. It’s true! There may have been as many as 60 but 40 is the number I’ve seen written many times, and his words were "40... maybe as many as 60." He said they just didn’t sell well. He didn’t know how to market them. I wonder if that would change now with the advent of Ravelry and a broader customer base? It’s an adorable wheel, and works beautifully after being carted about the continent for nearly 30 years. Anyway, he wasn’t exactly sure of the year he made them, but he was pretty sure it was around 1986.
It was a lovely conversation. He was delighted to know that one of these had made its way as far as the west coast. I’m glad I contacted him.
Close-up of flyer tensioning system

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Let's Glow to the Opera Part 1

I could use a laugh. In truth, most people could, no matter their circumstance.

My troubles are not large - not by any stretch. And I’m grateful for that. But I own without reserve that things sometimes get me down, whether it’s justified or not.

When I remember to do it, I try and think about how ridiculous my self-pity is until I giggle. I’ve been known to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and make sad faces until I laugh. It reminds me of the time when I was pregnant during the holiday season where a particular vacuum cleaner company came out with the most absurdly sentimental commercial. I’d see that commercial and my uterus would make the rest of me burst out in tears. And after the commercial was over I would hiccup and do a 180 right into hysterical laughter... because nothing was funnier to me than a pregnant lady crying over a vacuum cleaner commercial... especially a pregnant lady who positively loathed vacuuming. I had a sheepdog then. He was sensible. He would leave the room in manifest disgust. Now I have a sub-standard poodle who is even dorkier than I am. I miss the canine disparagement.

But anyway, I digress (of course). Sometimes I can’t squeeze out a giggle. So I usually resort to googling damnyouautocorrect. That usually does the trick.

It sure would be nice to contribute to the laughter pool. You know, the arsenal of laughs people could have when they need one - the laughs that aren’t at other people’s expense. It’s a bit self-serving, of course. But it’s the sort of selfishness that isn’t off-putting if others get a laugh out of it, too. Someday I will get around to making that Sunbonnet Kama-Sue-tra Quilt out of reproduction prints (see what I did there? bet you wish you didn’t), and I will put it up on the website. But don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, I have developed an obsession with spinning yarn. And here is where I am going to crib from a post I made on a private group elsewhere on the web: is my deep (not dark, in fact, quite the opposite) fiber arts secret: 
The primary reason I wanted to learn to spin was so I could make my own glow-in-the-dark fingering weight yarn out of Halloween spiderweb, and then knit a shawl that I would of course title, "Let's Glow to the Opera"... and then of course, I would wear it to the opera. 
On November 1st, I may have bought something like 10 bags on clearance. 
Lest you worry, this is extremely unlikely to happen. Because while my husband is a devoted fan of opera, my spinning and even glow in the dark yarn, he does not find the combination of all three nearly as amusing as I do.

It turns out that while my husband may not relish the idea, quite a few others are enamored of it. And so, in the name of making my contribution to bettering the world in a way that is in keeping with my soul, I am going to set out to do this. And when I have made this shawl, I will use it myself and then loan it to people I know who have a compelling need to wear an elegant glow-in-the-dark lace shawl to a special event. Because I really do think it’s funny to risk getting kicked out of a venue because you are too luminous.

And if there is any left over glow-in-the-dark yarn, I am going to use it to knit subversive messages into my scarves and mittens with white-with-glowinthedarkwhite intarsia or fair isle.

And because it is in keeping with my soul, I must set out upon this ludicrous venture in pursuit of a laugh in the most methodical well-planned approach I can muster. Therefore, I am writing up a task list. I’m going to need to spin woolen, because I don’t have the equipment or expertise to make hand-combed top using the glow-in-the-dark fiber. I have a blending board which is excellent for making rolags. With this in mind, here is my list:
  • I’m going for a 2-ply (good for openwork) fingering weight yarn. Anything heavier is not “opera quality” IMO. Thus I will need to learn how to spin a consistent single thin enough to accomplish this. I’m pretty much there with worsted spinning, but have a ways to go with woolen from rolags.
  • I need to make sure that the spiderweb I bought is the ‘good stuff’. Evidently there are two types of spiderweb, sticky and not sticky. This is a case where sticky is not good. I do have a back-up plan. It’s more expensive, though.
  • I need to figure out the right thing to blend with the glow-in-the-dark (henceforth GITD) fiber. I’m leaning toward superwash merino because by all accounts that is a good staple length for spinning woolen from rolags. And it might be fun to spike it with a little glittery fiber like icicle or firestar. But I haven’t actually done any of this, so I need to do some test runs. I could also consider alpaca.
  • I need to decide if this is going to be undyed fiber or a color. There are advantages to both. Undyed white or ecru fiber means it looks totally solid and perhaps dressier when the lights are on. Also, variations in the amount of GITD fiber present won’t significantly affect the overall color of the resulting yarn. Dyed means that I can instantly detect the ratio of GITD fiber to regular fiber on the blending board and perhaps minimize variations.
  • I need to figure out the right ratio of GITD to other fiber. Good glow vs. good spin and knitting handling.
  • I need to pick out a pattern to use. Or decide upon a stand-alone lace pattern to make into a stole/shawl. This is actually a big question - crescent shaped? rectangular? I can’t abide the traditional right-triangle shawl... so that’s off the table. But anyway, this choice affects yardage requirements.
  • I should probably test knit the shawl with regular yarn first.
  • And of course, I need to document my process. Who knows? The whole prayer shawl thing took off like a house afire. Perhaps there will be another demented spinner out there who thinks there ought to be a giggle shawl ministry, too. If I can help a fellow lunatic out, I kinda feel morally obligated to do so.
I am a fairly new spinner, so if there are any experienced spinners reading this... pointers are very welcome.

I’m feeling the pressure. There are people who need a laugh right now. So as soon as I’m done with my projects for the Iknitarod (I’m a sucker for fiber events with amusing names) I am going to take this on.

Ready. Set. Glow.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Learning Long Draw

For me, massively multiplayer gaming is a personal red flag. (I bet you thought this was about spinning. Well it is. Just be patient.) To a large degree, my interest in it correlates to my stress level. While not inherently toxic on it’s own, I am usually drawn to gaming at times in my life when I am least likely to show moderation. It has taken the place that reading used to occupy, because gaming is immersive in a different way - one that demands attention actively, unlike the passive call of a book. My schedule is so chaotic that only those things that clamor get attention, so when my psyche calls out for a time-out, I gravitate toward the time outs that call back. That selection criteria does not lend itself toward optimizing my stress relief, and in fact, can make for a “two steps forward one step back” situation when the game adds stressors of its own to my life. It’s taken me years to gain that self-awareness, and I’m grateful for the more honest perspective I own currently.

And so it was that I found myself gaming again last summer. I was casual, but in retrospect, my trajectory was moving away from casual, as it usually is when the going gets tough. Fate intervened. I encountered another much older player who, based on a short conversation, summed up my appearance in the game.

“You’re wasting your time, here,” he said. “You don’t belong here - you have better things to be doing. Go! This is a game for people with time on their hands and nothing left to do. But you? You! You don’t need this bullshit. And that’s all it is. A way to while away the hours... the hours that are painful in old age.”

Not everyone who plays that game is old, of course. Probably most aren’t, actually. But he’s right. It’s a game for people with lots of free time and not much else to do in the real world. I don’t qualify on either count. I’m a working artist. I have a family. I have social commitments. I have a long reading list to tackle, a long movie list to tackle. I have hobbies that I enjoy immensely. Yes, I have stress and need to deal with that. But, almost anything would be a better use of my time than clicking at pixels. It may be harder to escape using other methods, but healthier, too.

I knew he was right. There was no point in arguing. I had no honorable defense. So I quit out of the game, bought some trashy novels and I learned to spin.

I started by learning to drop spindle. When all is said and done after much trial and error, my two most favorite high whorl spindles are the Trindles and the Kunderts. I have yet to make my peace with low whorl. I’m sure it’s a great technique, but I have other things I’d rather do.

Then I learned short forward draw on a single drive wheel. I bought well loved used Ashford Traditional - probably one of the best ways to get into wheel spinning in the US is to find a used Ashford Traditional - they’re common enough to not command a great deal of $$ on the used market, and they’re common because they’re a great workhorse of a wheel. Parts are still readily available and inexpensive as parts go. And for a first wheel - honestly, I don’t think it matters single drive or double drive. There’s enough debate on that topic that is split fairly close to down the middle about what is better for a first wheel... and that to me is evidence enough that it really doesn’t matter. All that matters for a first wheel is that 1) it is in working condition, 2) parts are readily available, 3) it doesn’t cost the buyer so much that they are afraid of buying it and using it (and that price point is different for different people). So basically, cheap and easy to maintain - everything else is gravy. You use that 1st wheel until you know what you are doing, and then either you are so in love with it that it becomes your forever wheel, or you put it back on the used wheel market and you buy your “dream wheel”. So just get a wheel, first-time buyers. Don’t worry about if it’s The Wheel. You will learn as you go and adjust your tool kit later. But I digress.

I spun, and the stressors kept coming. So I learned support spindling. My hands down favorite support spindle maker is Mirkwood Arts - their Fellowship of the Ring series of spindles are gorgeous and without compare, despite not having a needle sharp tip at either end. Long, fast spinners with perfect balance and beautiful to look at, too. I have Gandalf with a tanzanite tip, and Aragorn with an olivine AB tip. Both are well loved and well clad in fiber.

And the stressors keep coming. So I decided to learn long draw.

Long draw is weird. No bones about it. Fiber ought to be... well, fiber-y. But there comes a point in the long draw process where fiber isn’t fiber-y... it’s like... putty? taffy? chewing gum? No, none of those. Because none of those go from being uber stretchy and malleable to being a taut piece of string just by tugging. But that’s what happens in long draw. Sciteacher on ravelry pointed me toward the two minute mark in this video to demonstrate that putty phenomenon, and it is an outstanding video to watch overall.

Long draw differs from short forward draw in some fundamental ways. The cardinal rule of short forward draw is Never Let Twist Invade the Fiber Supply. You use two hands. One to pinch off and keep the twist out of the ‘drafting zone’ and the other to do the drafting and then to pinch off higher up to protect your fiber supply from twist invasion.

It’s a great technique! People who are all disparaging about short forward draw are just being silly. It has its uses - it’s very good for a worsted technique, and worsted spun yarn definitely has its place in the world. With it’s compact, parallel fibers, worsted yarn takes incredible abuse and is ideal for hard wearing items that will see lots of abrasion - socks and mittens come to mind. It has great drape and stitch definition to show off your lacework or textured patterns. It’s useful!

That said, woolen spun yarn is also useful. With its fibers going in every which way, nothing can beat woolen spun for warmth and “sproinginess”. A hat, scarf or vest out of woolen spun yarn is very warm and light. And if you want to make a little fiber go a long way, woolen is the technique you want. Inch for inch, there’s more airspace in woolen spun yarn vs. worsted spun, so that makes your precious ounces of fiber go farther. And long draw is usually used to make a woolen spun yarn. It isn’t nearly as strong as worsted spun yarn, but you can help improve the wear of woolen spun yarn by partially fulling (felting for the non-technical) the yarn after its completed but before you knit it up.

There is a cardinal rule for short draw, and there is a cardinal rule for long draw. The cardinal rule of long draw technique is Let the Twist Do All the Work. And that’s where it gets weird. I wanted to write this down as I’m just coming in to the knowledge of the process, because I can already tell that there’s is a muscle memory thing that is itching to take over from the analytical mind. And I want to capture the “A ha!” of the A ha! Moment... before my memory fades and I can’t explain this any more.

There are a number of ways to spin long draw, but I’ll just talk about the one I am currently using as an example. I am spinning from rolags or punis. They’re little logs of fiber like this:

The fiber is perpendicular to the axis of the log, coiling around in concentric rings. You draft from one of the ends. This means that fibers are not grabbed from their tips the way they are when using combed top. They’re grabbed from any number of places along their length. And this means that pretty much every single fiber is folded at some point along its length. Perhaps it may even be folded twice or three times, if the staple length is long enough. This gives you the loft inherent in woolen spun - the folded fiber likes to try and unfold, pushing against its neighbors, spreading itself out a little bit and letting in airspace.

When you first start learning, you are just trying to keep the fiber from falling apart. It took me awhile to realize that as a beginner, I still needed to use my other hand... not to hold back twist, but rather to keep the wheel from trying to take up onto the bobbin before there was enough twist on the fiber. So pay attention to that last sentence... you need to stop the wool from being taken up onto the bobbin before it’s ready, but unlike short draw, YOU NEED TO LET THE TWIST GET BY THIS FIRST GRIP, because that’s what’s missing. A light hold... maybe even just a single crooked finger - that’s all that is needed. Part of the reason some long draw enthusiasts get all snitty about short draw technique is that it can be really difficult to unlearn that Must Keep Twist Out grip of short draw. It’s important to overcome that hurdle.

So then, there’s the drafting. Having now tried both techniques, I will come right out and say that in long draw you are truly drafting as you go, whereas in short draw, it is more like pre-drafting on the spot right at the wheel. I know, I know. That’s a very fine distinction. Especially since it probably isn’t even technically correct. But I’ll try and explain what I mean. In short draw, you pinch off the fibers near the orifice to try and keep everything upstream of that (toward your other hand) twist free. Then with your drafting hand, you pull against the tension provided by the orifice hand to yank out a bunch of fiber that you intend to become the next bit of yarn. You pull back far enough to get the thickness you want, and with that upstream (fiber holding) hand, you then pinch off, closing the twist gate as it were. When you release your orifice hand, the twist travels through this small batch of fiber, and it becomes strong. You then let your upstream hand travel toward the orifice so that that bit of new yarn winds on the bobbin. You bring your orifice hand in right in front of your “upstream hand” and pinch off, and the process begins again. So basically, each time you repeat this process, drafting is separated out from spinning.

And that is why short draw is a really great technique to learn for beginners. Each step is separate. “Park and draft” - where you stop treadling sometimes so that you don’t have to use hands and feet together at the same time - is super easy with short draw. A beginner can treadle to add twist. Stop treadling. Draft out that short bit for the next section of yarn. Let the twist through. Start treadling again to let the yarn wind on the bobbin, treadle a little extra to build up twist, stop treadling. Rinse and repeat. There is no need for multitasking feet and hands together. And as the movements become more familiar, there is less starting and stopping. Before you know it and sometimes without realizing it, your feet are continuing to treadle, you get into a rhythm and it’s all one fluid backwards and forwards motion.

You get pretty competent. It really rots to have to go back to square one. And this is why many people never bother to learn long draw. Because long draw works in an entirely different way, and uses totally different mechanisms to draft out fiber and ensure evenness.

So. How does long draw compare? Well, you stop micromanaging your fiber, basically. You let the twist do the grabbing and even the thinning and evening out. (Fiber prep is important in allowing this to happen. It’s a whole lot easier to let only a little twist into your fiber source if your fibers are NOT parallel with tips aimed at the orifice.) Here’s how it works.

You need to hold your fiber loosely, because you will be letting a wee bit of twist into the fiber source. You know how if you let twist into your short draw fiber source, it locks up the fiber and you feel like you can’t pull out anything to draft? Well, in long draw, you use this grabbiness of twist instead of your fingers to draw out a little fiber at a time. Because your fibers are not oriented longwise (you are using rolags and not combed top let’s say), twist doesn’t travel up the line as quickly. You let a bit of twist enter, and you pull back... keeping just ahead of the rest of the twist. It’s kind of like when you are being taught to skate and the skating instructor is in front of you, holding your hands, skating backwards and you are either being dragged along by them or they’re having to move just a little bit ahead of you to keep you from crashing into them... that’s the relationship between twist (you) and fiber source (skating instructor). In tandem, one keeping just in front of the other... avoiding a disaster seemingly by sheer good luck and maybe divine intervention (but really because the skating instructor is in control, just like the hand holding the fiber is in control).

Too little twist (which from an informal discussion on ravelry seems to be the more common problem for beginners, which makes sense coming from a short draw technique) and the fiber whips away from the yarn and you’re digging your wispy weakly spun end off the bobbin and through the orifice to try again - maddening!

Too much twist and big ol’ honkin’ chunks of fiber blobs off into what should be your yarn. “Art Yarn” is all well and good - but it should be a choice, not a necessity.

But lets get back to that blob, because the blob is something you can work with, actually. Not all of the drafting for long draw needs to happen at the fiber source. If you tugged at both ends of the blob, it would pull apart, allowing more twist into it. Twist is coming from the direction of the orifice. So it’s important to not cut off that source of twist with a death grip (to quote LongDrawJames of ravelry and Youtube fame). But it can be helpful to keep the twist from going upstream further, thereby causing another blob to pull out. So pinch off a little bit more upstream and only hold the section downstream hard enough to pull against, and tug. Stop treadling if you have to. Lo and behold! The blob thins out against the tugging and twist. And weirdly, it looks and feels like putty when doing this at speed. So even if what comes off your fiber source is blobby, you can even it out quite nicely before you wind it on to the bobbin, and that is actually a major component of long draw, even when “experts” are doing it.

Make up your own song about it if you must. Sing “Let it blob, let it blob, let it blob.” Just even it out before you let it wind on. Seek out what I am calling the “Putty Effect”. It’s where you want to go with long draw. Putty is the sweet spot with long draw. Because ultimately, if you want to get fast at this, you want most of the putty effect to happen when you initially pull back with your fiber source hand. That’s the goal. But it’s not where you should aim to start.

And there’s a precise amount of pull you need, and tensioning against itself that you need, in order to get this putty effect. You are not going to learn this precise tension from a point of knowing nothing, so YOU CANNOT EXPECT TO LEARN LONG DRAW WITHOUT BLOBS. I hope I said that loudly and clearly enough. Blobs are part of the long draw learning process. Which is why seeing someone like LongDrawJames with his enviable spinning technique isn’t as helpful to a newbie as you would think it would be. Because that dude already knows his name and he is showing you goal, not start of learning curve. That said, watch it anyway. Because it is goal, he’s very talented and clear spoken, and he seems like a nice guy.

And as for me and my long draw technique, I will not bamboozle you. I am not pretty to watch. It is still cumbersome for me, even though I can now explain it all. Do not think that because I have written this that I have overcome all long draw hurdles. Perhaps you can take some comfort in that.

And yet, it’s not so frustrating that I want to throw a tantrum. I’ve gotten to the point that it does beat clicking pixels. And I am grateful for the gaming grandfather figure who chased me off the pixelated lawn. He was right. I have better things to do.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Quadranoia. Or… Fiber, it's good for you!

Quadranoia = Paranoia X 2. It’s a word my now husband and I coined nearly 30 years ago. (We met as babies. Yes, yes we did.) At the time it was referring to the phenomenon of parents showing up right at the moment we were canoodling, or saying something totally disparaging about them to each other, or whatever. But now, it just describes my heightened sense of anxiety… because in mid-life I am finding that the word paranoia doesn’t do it justice.

I feel like I live in a cancer cluster. In the class grade below one of my kids, 3 parents have cancer, and the little yaks go to a small school. A fourth parent died from her cancer about a month ago. My dear friend’s daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer a few years back. Another friend was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer a year and a half ago. A very close friend died the day before Thanksgiving of gastric cancer. His niece-in-law was diagnosed with some form of childhood leukemia the very next day. And you know what? This is just a partial list.

My personal circle of friends is by no means an epidemiological study. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering about why I know so many people who have dealt with cancer. The Bay Area prides itself (often in the most obnoxious ways imaginable) for healthy living options. And Marin County is a known breast cancer epicenter. Is it because the northern part of the bay is a drainage basin for the central valley and wine country? The central valley is one of the most intensively farmed areas in the west - perhaps the most. There is a great deal of agricultural run-off. Is our water supply affected by this?

I worry about my cancer risk. I worry about my kids’ cancer risks. I worry about my husband’s cancer risk. But, worrying about cancer is like being afraid of flying. The odds are actually very much in your favor, and as long as you take reasonable precautions (e.g. don’t fly in a small plane with a drunk pilot/eat healthy, exercise and don’t smoke) there is no logical reason to be particularly fearful. And yet so many bright, rational people are afraid. Why? Cancer, like being a passenger in an airplane, involves a total loss of control. We all love personal accountability and cause and effect… but plane crashes and cancer diagnoses and prognoses veer wildly into ‘wrong place, wrong time’ territory… the sort of territory where you are helpless to affect outcome no matter how ‘good’ you’ve been. So now you know why I started off this post with the word Quadranoia.

Random strikes of misfortune are a part of life - in fact, a much lesser part of life for someone living in an affluent war-free area with access to clean water and basic resources, etc. And I think mid-life is an apprenticeship in learning how to deal with this randomness with open eyes and a steady hand.

I don’t choose those two metaphors lightly: open eyes and a steady hand. I think most people are biased toward one or the other. Some people keep a steady hand with relative ease… and they do this by closing their eyes. Other people see clearly, and are unsteady as a result. I tend toward the latter category. But having been me my whole life, I’m used to it, and more comfortable with it than I would be with hiding my head in the sand. (But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to see the merits of being able to shut out the bad news for awhile. I wish I were better at it!)

So I’ve acquired a number of “hand steadiers” over the years. Some are healthier than others. Fiber, it turns out, is healthy for me.

Knitting, crocheting and weaving are arts. But for my own work, they are not Art. And in my case, that is a good thing. I am an artist, and when I am creating something in printmaking or ceramics there is always a chance I will submit it for review into a juried show. As a result, there is a critical process I employ when thinking about those works that I use to refine and hopefully elevate them. I still take joy in the creation - a great deal of joy! But there is also an intellectual rigor born of being the daughter of an abstract expressionist. I grew up in a home where it was de rigeur to throw one’s emotional crap at a canvas and call it art. I grew to despise the emperor’s-new-clothes and self-indulgence that often passed for art in the late 20th century and as a result I almost always insist that my finished pieces work on multiple levels, including a craftsmanship/draftsmanship level.

But since I don’t fancy myself a fiber artist, I am relieved of that constraint when it comes to knitting, spinning, crocheting or weaving. I can sling emotional crap with the best of ‘em… no filters, no editing, no thinking. But… there’s something about the fiber arts process that I find transformative.These are simple processes (compared to let’s say, printing a lithograph or mixing and firing a glaze) that are akin to transformative mathematical processes. Spinning is transforming the amorphous void (a pile of wool) into the one-dimension… a line. Knitting/crocheting/weaving is transforming the one-dimension (a line) into the two dimension (a plane of fabric) or occasionally a 3 dimensional object (although often there is a 3rd fiber art involved in going from 2 dimensions to 3 - sewing). I am wired such that I find gratifying any activity that is anti-entropy. Nothing could be more anti-entropy than taking wool from the back of a sheep, turning it into yarn, and then turning that yarn into a wearable garment. It is the anti-plane crash. The anti-cancer. It is taking chaos and unpredictability and turning it into order. Warm, loving, snuggly made-with-my-hands-for-you order. It is a “relish your good opportunities and be grateful for what you have” kind of anti-entropy without being preachy and irritating.

The mechanics of spinning… even the mechanics of knitting or crochet… they’re fairly simple. Children learn these things. With the exception of complicated lace projects these activities require only a moderate amount of attention. In fact, if I pick the right project, I can think of two things at a time. And these days, I’m all about picking the right project. I can’t stay intensely worried while spinning. I can’t stay furious while knitting. Why? Because if I am spinning or knitting, enough of my attention is drawn in by the process that I can only devote half my thinking to whatever it is that is bothering me. And by giving my worries half-power, I naturally economize on emotional energy. My soul requires that I think about whatever it is that bothers me - I am an Open Eyes person. But the kind of thinking I do on the cancer/plane crash topics when knitting or spinning is much healthier than when I devote my whole mind to the topic.

In fact, this blog post is the byproduct of several months spent learning to spin. The yarn I’ve created will be a hoot to knit with, I’m sure. But the real benefit to spinning? It’s these 1,235 words.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

You spin some, you lose some

I reorganized the garage and studio over the summer. Amongst the boxes, I discovered this:

My mom bought it for me over a decade ago in Pennsyvlania. Ravelry didn’t exist then, and I had no idea if she’d been fleeced or hit antique store gold. In case it was the latter, I did my best to protect the equipment and it has traveled with my belongings ever since, carefully stowed away. In the interim, 3 kids and a career change happened. I haven’t had the time to think about it… and with no thoughts going in its general direction, the wheel was forgotten. And there I found it, in the same condition I received it. But now… there’s ravelry! Off I went to post to the spinning boards.

I got an answer back almost immediately. Looked promising. Probably German, Dutch or Pennsylvania Dutch. Was there a mark on the table? Yes there was - underneath it is stamped in large letters: JS with a rounded box around it. All the necessary parts were there, including the all important bobbin and flyer. Could probably use a good oiling and cleaning, and oh, you’ve got it assembled all wrong. Someone who knows what they’re doing ought to look at it to see if there are any functional problems, but there’s a decent chance I have a wheel that can spin fiber, and if it is Pennsylvania Dutch (most likely) it is probably from before the Civil War. (I have since taken it to see someone who knows what they’re doing. It is definitely something that can be brought into usable condition, but I need to bring it in to a professional shop to see if it’s the sort of thing I should learn wheel spinning on. That’ll have to wait until after the holidays.)

This got my rusty cogs a-turnin’. A year or two before my mother showed up in the house with a wheel, I got it into my head that I would enjoy learning to spin. At that time in my life, I did not wish to acquire another expensive hobby, so I opted for one of those “Learn to Spin” kits that you can find in yarn shops and online. There were no really good internet resources for learning to spin … in those days the internet was still wearing Pull-Ups. So I sent away for and received a drop spindle, a fluffy pile of wool and a book.

I tried. I really did. And the wool cut my hands it was so rough. And I couldn’t get anything finer spun than DK. And it took forever, because the spindle didn’t spin for more than a few rotations even if I rolled it off my thigh, like they said to do. And I felt like a moron. And I said, “To hell with this. I can feel like a moron in a 100 different ways more pleasurable than this.” And the wool and the drop spindle and the book all went in a plastic drawer in the garage.

I found the drawer. I dug out the drop spindle and wool. I reacquainted myself. And after several days of trying, I found that the wool was so rough it cut my hands (and I am not allergic at all). And I found that the spindle wouldn’t spin nicely no matter what I tried. And I found that I could not spin anything smaller than DK without the yarn breaking. I could get relatively consistent yarn, but nothing with any grace to it and it was incredibly laborious. But I spun anyway. Just to see if it would get better. It didn’t.

I am now old enough to know that for certain kinds of problems (like this one), it is not sensible to assume that everything is my fault, especially given that I generally don’t have hand-eye coordination issues. In those intervening years the internet had put its big girl pants on, and it was time for me to spank it and get some answers as to why this wasn’t going well.

I looked at forums on ravelry. I looked at Abby Franquemont’s videos. And I saw that yes, I had naturally stumbled into doing “park and draft” like she had suggested. And I saw that my technique looked fairly on par. And I saw that when she was making tutorials for beginners she was not working with wool full of grass bits and twigs, and that her wool was all combed in one direction. (I have no doubt that she can spin wool that has grass bits and twigs and is combed every which way and she will still produce the Rolls Royce of yarns with it. Because she has legitimately earned her reputation as a fiber goddess. I am just saying that she does not seem to recommend that approach to beginners.)

So, I decided to start over. I read through old posts on good quality spindles that were reasonably priced and excellent for beginners. I decided to switch from low whorl to high whorl. And I read through old posts on what types of fibers are easy starts for beginners. And I made two purchases:

I waited (im)patiently for my packages to arrive. And when they did, I spun with the new fiber on the new spindle. I made a careful effort to not change my technique one jot. And this is the result:

Well, that, plus an embarrassingly gushy letter to Stephen Kundert telling him that he is a spindle-making god and I am but a mere a grateful grubby peon.

Having had this experience, I decided to write it down. I have learned over the years that the early part of the learning curve for anything contains gems of wisdom that get lost when you become overly familiar with the topic.

  • Corriedale is a great beginner fiber. However, it has a 4" staple. That means in order to pull it apart lengthwise (draft), your hands ought to be between 3 - 4" apart. Not 2" like I was trying. Had I started with combed top, I would've been able to visually identify this phenomenon. But because I was working with wool that wasn't all combed in the same direction I had a hard time seeing what the actual fiber length was. TL:DR – type of fiber prep matters, especially for beginners.
  • Spindle quality matters. I started out on a clunky heavy spindle that doesn't spin very quickly or long. The resulting yarn was consistent but I could not vary the thickness at all below a certain point. And that certain point was DK-weight. The moment I switched to a Kundert I was spinning a fingering weight single. With about 20 minutes practice I could spin a laceweight single. But it's still possible to spin sportweight on the Kundert, and I bet even heavier. Also, the Kundert spins and spins and spins – you can just feel that it's centered. That feeling is utterly lacking in the thick dowel and donut spindle I got in the kit.
  • What they say about spending time with other people who spin - TRUTH. I spent 10 minutes spinning on Deborah Bennett’s Ashford traditional under her guidance and was able to translate the information she gave me to start suspended spinning on the drop spindle later that same day. “Smooth the yarn back a bit as your move your hands along.” Golden words.
  • That said, if you are by yourself and learning… remember your own personal learning arc. It still applies. Yes, practice 15 minutes a day and don’t get frustrated - it is great advice. Learning to spin takes time. But OTOH, if you are not progressing as fast as you would for learning other similar tasks, you may be having an equipment or materials problem. Testing out that possibility does not require breaking the bank, either. Nobody says you need to learn on a Bosworth or a Golding. But if you’re using a big clunky kit spindle and having trouble, the problem may not be you.

If I think of other newbie lessons I’ve learned, I’ll append them to this list.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Nothin' but net... and nematodes

Last weekend I pulled up a radish to see how it was doing. I was also a little suspicious that there might be root maggots since I had read that the beneficial nematodes will only overwinter if there are enough nasties to keep them there in large numbers, and I hadn’t planted anything over the winter for the nasties to make miserable. There wasn’t the overwhelming infestation of last year, but there were three or four little horrid maggots, so I knew I had to call upon my favorite microscopic superheroes. I had seen that Sloat Gardens was carrying them this year, so I squeezed in a turbo-shopping episode there Tuesday, and got them in the ground today. No matter how many times I wash my hands after doing that they still feel wormy.

Today I also went out into the garden and removed the netting from most of the Russian Mammoth sunflowers. Two out of 7 are still rather small so I’ll keep them protected from birds a little while longer. And I reused some of that netting on the strawberries. I had to cut more to cover the blueberries. It’s such a waste of effort to go to the trouble to grow all those berries only to have the birds eat them. In a world of Round-Up, gopher traps and insecticide it seems odd that such a diaphanous barrier works so well.

As with the last time I used netting, it got frustrating. At one point I had most of the netting package draped over my head and cascading to the ground around me like some sort of funereal wedding veil. I had time to think while I untangled. I kept coming back to a conversation I had yesterday in a waiting room. A fellow waiter needed change for parking and two of us scrounged about in our bags for spare quarters. I gave her what I had, but it wasn’t enough. Then blithely I mentioned a new app that allows you to pay for parking by phone - I had intended to offer to just pay the parking that way since it only amounted to a dollar or so. The other woman who had contributed coins snapped, “Well, that doesn’t really solve the problem, does it?! Apps are for people who can afford smart-phones, and anyone who can afford a smart-phone can probably afford the ticket. It’s just another example of lives being made easier for those who can already afford it while those who ‘have not’ get no perks.”

It was pretty clear her ire wasn’t directed at me. She was just generally frustrated, and I understood that and took no offense. And there is a great deal of truth in what she said. On the other hand, I’m not such an idealist that I will eschew paying my parking meter rather than take part in an elitist app-using incident.

My hands snagged again and again in the mesh. I growled in frustration, and then the two trains of thought intersected. Good food is big business. And providing yourself with healthy non-poisoned produce is a rich man’s game. Organic produce is expensive. The time to cook the produce yourself represents time you are not working to make money - another cost. Want to grow your own? Land costs money. Time costs money... a LOT of money. And there’s a learning curve. Your first few years are likely involve a lot of failure. And you need supplies that cost money... from trellising to fertilizer. And pest control - especially organic pest control - costs money.

Genetically modified crap in a box that you just microwave... crap that is treated with hormones, insecticide, fungicide and herbicides ...that crap is a WHOLE lot cheaper. And on top of it all, you have to be somewhat well educated to know it’s crap, because the packaging sure is pretty, it looks good and it smells like what you’re used to. A lot of talented marketing man-hours go into those boxes of crap, and carrots, onions and kale just don’t have the same advertising budget. Education costs money, and a truly good education that makes you really think? Well, there may be a lot of universities out there, but that kind of education doesn’t grow on trees. There’s education, and then there’s education. And that second more luscious type of education is only for the very lucky or the very privileged.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. But when I stand out there in my garden on the hill I am very thankful... and a little uneasy.