Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Safety and Handwork

Yes, a question has set me off again! But in a different vein from my usual rant. There has been quite a bit written about knitting and spinning and crochet and various repetitive stress disorders, and I don’t want to revisit that topic. But very little has been written about basic tool safety. Perhaps we just don’t think of our fiber tools as dangerous objects. The facts, however, say differently; safety should be addressed. Fiber tools are frequently sharp and/or pointed very hard objects.

I spend five days a week in an extremely safety-conscious workplace. So I’ve learned to be quite aware of safety in everything I do. As knitters and spinners we use potentially dangerous tools many times a day; so often that we cease to think of them as dangerous. But any safety engineer will tell you that it isn’t extraordinary circumstances that get people hurt – it’s the little repetitive everyday chores. So let’s take a look at our tools from a safety viewpoint, first spinning, then knitting.

First there are scissors. Remember your mother warning, “Don’t run with scissors in your hand!” There is a reason. Depending on what I’m doing, I may use either blunt- or sharp-pointed scissors with blades ranging from little more than an inch long to comparatively huge 9-inch dressmakers’ shears. The sharp points all have sleeves. Most of those sleeves are made from heavy vinyl or leather that has been cut to shape for each pair of scissors and closely stitched to prevent the points from working their way out. A few have hard plastic sleeves, but these tend to get lost – therefore they don’t do any good. The blunt points are stored with the blades closed. Think about your scissors. If you sit on them, or drop them onto your foot, could it mean a nasty puncture wound? Then secure them in a sleeve or case. The time lost in removing and replacing them is minimal.

I’m a spinner of primarily worsted yarns. So I have wool combs in two sizes. If you’ve never seen wool combs, you’ll be shocked by a description. Pictures of my particular combs are from


and from

As you can see, these are as dangerous as any set of chef’s knives. Tines range from the 3.5 inches of the mini-combs to the 6-plus inches of the Indigo Hound Viking combs. Each comb has two rows of these lethal steel spikes. I’ve been known to intimidate my daughter’s dates with these tools. How on earth can you use them safely?

First, break down what steps it will take to get the job done. In this case, you want to end up with clean, fluffy, well-aligned top, nested and ready to spin into fabulous worsted yarn. So the first step is to clean the well-skirted wool. Use a good detergent, plenty of really hot water, and several rinses – you don’t want sticky fleece! While the fleece is drying, shake it around a bit to get out as much vegetation as possible – sheep are messy eaters.

Then set up a work station. You’ll want plenty of elbow room on a steady table or workbench and a stool that’s a good height for working. Leave room so that you can get around all sides of the work table. Put a trash can on one side of the stool, and a basket for your roving nests on the other. Leave room for a pile of fleece – I put mine to the right side of the metal carriage bolt I use for clamping the stationary comb. My chosen diz is placed to the left. That bolt is fastened securely with a nut and wing-nut arrangement into a hole drilled in my workbench. I can take it loose fairly easily, but once fastened in place, it stays put. I use a second nut to fasten down the stationary comb securely. You don’t want those steel spikes sliding around!

The workbench itself is a fairly heavy, height-adjustable steel bench with a footprint of 36 x 24 inches and an inch-thick fiberboard top bolted to the steel frame. A pierced metal shelf about 18 inches below the top holds tools and provides additional stability. Rubber feet protect the wood floor in my studio from scratches and keep the bench from moving around. As I recall, this bench cost me about $25 at a local home supply warehouse. A bar stool with a short back provides the needed height for comfortable work seating.

Pile up the fleece in your designated tabletop space. Don’t try to do more than a few ounces at a time; store the remainder in a bag or box until you’re ready to comb it. Remove one comb from the holder (most combs come with a holder – if yours didn’t, make one in a similar fashion to the scissor holders described above. Use heavy upholstery fabric or leather.) Walk around the table and carefully fasten down the stationary comb from the back – don’t try to work over the tines! Make sure the comb is secure before you move on to the next step.

Seat yourself and check the position of the trash can and basket. They need to be within easy reach. Turn off the ringer on the telephone and make sure anyone else in the house is both well-occupied and aware that you shouldn’t be disturbed for anything less than arterial blood flow. This is probably a good time to mention that you should have another driving adult within calling distance – accidents do sometimes happen, and a big component of safety is preparedness. If you’re alone, fasten a cell phone or cordless phone to your body (I put mine at the small of my back).

Now let’s review this setup. Your stationary comb is securely fastened to your work surface. Your traveling comb is still in the holder. A trash can is on one side of your stool, a basket for the combed top is on the other. The fleece is on the right of the stationary comb, the diz on the left. A phone or person is handy, but not in the way. You’re ready to go!

Begin to lash on locks of fleece. This is one of the most dangerous parts of the process. I pick up a lock or a handful of clean fleece and ‘comb’ it onto the stationary comb, holding the lock at the end opposite the one I’m lashing onto the comb. This lets me avoid placing my hand or wrist over the top of the spikes. Never load the combs more than half-full, and I normally stop loading when the tines are about one-third covered. This normally yields a 7-10 gram (about 1/4 ounce) strip of top; plenty to deal with at one time.

Now carefully remove the traveling comb from its holder and begin combing the lashed locks from the stationary comb. Work the traveling comb from left to right and right to left in front of your body. Avoid combing down toward your knees or up toward your face! Keep movements easy, but controlled. When most of the fleece has transferred, it’s time to clean off the stationary comb. Carefully place the traveling comb, tines to the side, on a clear space next to your diz. Then, working from the front, lift the short and trashy remainders from the stationary comb and put them into the trash can. Check the stationary comb to be sure it hasn’t loosened.

Pick up the traveling comb and begin combing the fleece back onto the stationary comb. Keep the traveling comb tines pointing to the side, as before. When the fleece has been transferred back to the stationary comb, lay the traveling comb down with the tines still pointing to the side and carefully push off any short, trashy bits onto the work surface; move the comb and brush the bits into the trash. Shift the traveling comb to a point-down orientation on the table or a pad and evaluate the locks on the stationary comb. Are they sufficiently combed? If not, repeat the process. When everything is combed and clean, it’s time to pull the top from the stationary comb.

Carefully slip the traveling comb back into the holder and put it back onto its shelf. Pick up the diz and tease a bit of the fluffy mass from the stationary comb through the hole. Working carefully from the front of the comb, pull off your top, allowing it to fall into the basket to the side of your chair. Once you have all the top pulled off, there will be some residue remaining on the comb. Working from the bottom, push this up the comb and onto the work surface. Then brush it into the trash.

Continue in this manner until you’ve combed for a half-hour. You’ll have at least 4-6 ounces of top at this point, and that’s a good stopping place. If you work for much longer than that, your hands will tire and your concentration will begin to wander – it’s no longer safe to continue. Unfasten your stationary comb and put it away. Even if you’re absolutely sure you’ll be coming back in an hour or so to continue combing, put that lethal tool away. You could stumble, somebody could come to the door and wander into the workroom, your beloved cat (or child) could jump onto the table. Take the time to walk back behind the table, unfasten the nuts, remove the comb and replace it in the holder.

Now what about the handheld combs? You aren’t always at your home work space; there are public demonstrations, and times when you just need or want to comb a little bit of fiber right there at the wheel. The handheld combs fit these situations beautifully. They’re also just the thing for very fine fibers like angora and baby alpaca. Just because they’re shorter and the tines are spaced closer doesn’t make them any less dangerous to use, though. I’ve had some nasty puncture wounds from my mini-combs, usually received when I’ve been trying to work entirely in my lap. I’ve learned the hard way that working next to a table is much safer. Lashing on can be done holding one comb in your less-dominant hand with tines pointed away from you, and combing the fiber on with the dominant hand, much as you do on a stationary comb. Again, don’t fill the comb too full – one-quarter to one-third full is plenty. Put the remaining fiber down and pick up the other comb from the tabletop where it’s lying sideways on top of the case with the tines pointing away from you. That puts the handle right there ready to pick up. Comb carefully, being sure to point the tines away from your body. This gets tricky during demonstrations, and the safety of your audience is another reason to work behind a table. Work mindfully; keep your attention on what you’re doing!

When you’re ready to pull off your top, put the traveling comb back on the holder, lying on the side with tines pointed away. If you can clamp the comb holding your top to the table, so much the better. If not, work slowly and cautiously, holding the comb with teeth pointing away from your body in your less-dominant hand and slowly pulling the fiber off in a strip. I’ve never managed to use a diz successfully on the hand combs, since a diz requires two-handed operation. And holding the comb handle between your knees is far from steady; sooner or later you’ll puncture yourself!

Again, put the combs back into their case the instant you’re finished with them. Even if you have enough sense not to touch them, there’s no guarantee that all of the people and animals around you are equally sensible. Do you have a child or grandchild or neighbor’s child or kitten that likes to jump into your lap? Horrible picture…let’s not go there.

Yes, I’ve seen spinners spin directly from the comb, both mini- and full-size, holding the comb in their lap. It strikes me as an accident, complete with emergency room trip and tetanus booster, ready to happen. But if you don’t mind needles and have good insurance, it’s your decision.

What about hand cards (picture from Schacht website)? They shouldn’t be all that dangerous – they’re basically wire brushes, right? Think again. I got my only fiber-related trip to the emergency room to date from a set of cotton cards. I was using one to flick-card locks of wool. I had a heavy piece of leather on my lap and was working on it. I got up for some reason, came back and sat down at my wheel, picked up a lock and the card, and proceeded to put approximately 100 small puncture wounds of about an inch deep into my thigh just above the knee. I’d forgotten to put the leather on my lap! Of course, I was spinning grease fleece from a freshly-shorn sheep in a public demonstration held in a barn. I didn’t remember when I’d had my last tetanus booster and I was 150 miles from home on a weekend. “Ouch” doesn’t begin to cover it. The doctor was quite blunt; “If you’re going to be fooling around with farm products, keep your tetanus boosters up to date.”

Even when used as designed for carding fiber, you can skin up your hands badly with a set of cards by using them carelessly. Again, give yourself lots of elbow room in an armless chair or on a stool. Set a basket for rolags on one side and a trash can on the other, and put the cleaned fleece within easy reach. Don’t overload the first card, and be careful where you’ve placed the second – put the carding cloth side down unless it’s sitting on a table out of reach of anyone else! Work carefully and mindfully, and as in combing, take frequent breaks with the cards properly secured. A small flick-carder is a wonderful tool for cleaning cards, but it can also take off hide! Secure it just as you do your cards; in a heavy cloth or leather sleeve.

A spindle is a lovely thing, small and useful. The beautifully-turned wooden ones are some of my favorite tools. The metal support spindles are perfect for spinning cotton and other short fibers. Sitting on one you’ve left on a chair, however, isn’t a lovely experience for either you or the spindle. At the least, you’ll break the spindle – at worst, you’ll puncture your tender hide. Make putting tools away in a safe place an unbreakable habit.

Spinning wheels are pieces of machinery. No matter how primitive and pretty they are, they are high-speed machinery. Stick your hand between the spokes on the wheel or in the path of the flyer when treadling, and you’re going to know about it! When you aren’t spinning, secure the drive wheel and flyer. I thread a ribbon between the spokes of my wheel and tie it around the flyer; that way both pieces are fairly immobile. If you don’t have a drive wheel with spokes, just tie the flyer to the mother-of-all.

Since spinning wheels are machinery, they require regular maintenance. If you have a wheel with sealed bearings, that’s one less place you must oil. But the wheel will work more smoothly if you lubricate a few places. Check your owner’s manual. If you bought the wheel second-hand, try this: Lubricate (I use 30-weight motor oil) any place where one part fits into or over another and any place where metal touches wood. I oil my Kromski Symphony every half-hour when spinning, and my Majacraft Rose every hour or so. I also dust and polish both wheels regularly, and tighten any loose nuts or connections as needed. These steps are simple, but they help make spinning a pleasure instead of a chore.

Now the spinning is done and you’re ready to knit. What other dangerous pieces of equipment will you be using? Believe it or not, a swift can be a source of small injuries. You can catch fingers or clothing in the joints, resulting in a painful pinch. If you aren’t careful to keep extra fingers out of the way, you can pinch them when adjusting the swift size to your skein. And you don’t want to get too close to a rapidly-revolving swift – they can give a painful knock to careless fingers or hands.

Before you start to use a ball-winder, be sure the central portion on which the ball of yarn forms is well-seated. Having them fly off is at least a nuisance, and at worst a projectile of odd and unpredictable path.

And now I’ll get to knitting needles. The hazards depend to a large extent on the material from which the needles are made. Plastic or casein isn’t much of a problem unless the needles are stiffened with wire. They’ll bend or break before they cause more than an “Ouch!” Wire-stiffened needles could deliver a painful jab or puncture before they bend.

Bamboo and wooden needles can splinter or break. Those jagged ends can cause real pain. You don’t want to sit on them. Also, unless regularly inspected and polished both bamboo and wooden needles can develop splinters down their length. This is more of a problem with long single-point needles than with shorter lengths. But splinters are never fun, and if you’ve been knitting unwashed wool yarn you again should be sure your tetanus boosters are up to date.

Metal needles are a no-brainer – of course they can hurt! Most of the time they’ll bend, but not before you have quite a bit more than an “Ouch!” to remember the experience.

My children learned early that needles and pins are sharp. Usually through opening the door to my sewing closet despite a ‘child-proof’ lock and the knowledge that the area was off-limits to them. What we sometimes disregard is that all needles and pins are sharp, including tapestry and yarn needles with so-called rounded points. You can get hurt with these simple tools, so treat them with respect.

My last admonition is just as common-sense as those above. Your fiber tools are tools – not toys! Tools should be maintained and stored properly so that they will function properly during use. Storage containers aren’t nearly as expensive as a single trip to the emergency room. Time is never so short that you don’t have enough to put away your tools. If nothing else, you can drop them into a bag and run for the door. Please be safe instead of sorry – your fiber pursuits will be pleasurable, guilt- and pain-free pastimes!


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Felicia from sweetgeorgia said...

I bought a set of those Forsyth hand combs a few weeks ago and injure myself EVERY time I use them. I'm careful (I think), but just one moment of lost concentration ends up in bloody scratches! Those things are sharp!

Louisa said...

Hon', you need to get these blog posts published! I'm sure Interweave would be interested. This one in Spin-Off and the previous July 11 one in Piecework perhaps? I haven't read back any further yet. You write very well!

Pugknits said...

yeah, love your blog too and i'm learning from it.