Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Anniversary Pi News!

I cast on Sunday morning (January 22) while waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, and the powers that be cooperated beautifully all day! I'm now on the 5th row of the 288-stitch section and on 30+ inch rosewood cable needles. A picture of progress to date is below:

Details: I finally decided to just do the Pi, incorporating patterns from Sharon's book Heirloom Knitting (http://www.heirloom-knitting.co.uk/). I had the book handy, and the other patterns from the EZasPi Shetland lace workshop were downstairs on the computer, and I didn't want to wake anyone to get them (a sleepover was in progress for my son and a couple of his friends), and I really liked the idea of doing alternating rose and leaf patterns...what can I say? I’ve been eyeing these patterns for awhile now, and this was just too good an opportunity to play!

Cast on was simple - 9 stitches into a knitted tube of worsted-weight cotton on size 3 Brittany glove needles. That tube makes keeping track of the limited number of cast-on stitches easy for me, and taking the tail back through with a tapestry needle after I’ve completed a few rows is easy. At this point I stopped, drank the coffee and ate some breakfast – the cast-on and first 2 rows still looked good on re-inspection. I kept going.

Yarn is natural-colored gray handspun baby alpaca and bombyx coffee-dyed silk, and I noticed on Saturday that it’s practically the same color and almost exactly the same grist as the KnitPicks Alpaca Cloud in the soft gray color. I like the feel of mine better, though (I went with 70 % alpaca and 30 % silk by weight). I’ve spun up about 1200 yards of 2-ply, and hopefully that will be enough (although I think I’ve got most of another 4 ounces of the alpaca and silk blended).

I did stockinette stitch to the 36-stitch section, then began the Little Leaf Lace with a 4-stitch repeat. Only 6 rows are required at this point, so I did a row of knit stitches after the increase row, 9 repeats of the 4-stitch, 4-row pattern, and another row of knit stitches before the next row of increases.

At the next, 72-stitch section, I continued the little leaf lace, with 2 knitted rounds, 2 vertical pattern repeats, and another 2 rows of knit stitches adding up to the 12 rows needed before the next set of increases.

After the 144-stitch increases (24 rows) I changed over to the simple rose pattern, doing only one pattern repeat between knitted increase rows. Very plain with lots of stockinette, and the offset rose pattern provides a pretty contrast and a bit of structure after the very lacy leaf-pattern repeats.

I increased for the 288-stitch, 48-row section late in the afternoon, and continued working 3 rounds of knit stitches before shifting to the Leaf Lace. Plans are to work 3 ½ repeats of the leaf lace (an 8-stitch repeat of 12 rounds) around, ending again with 3 rounds of knit stitches before the next set of increases.

I plan to use the Rose Diamond Lace for the final 576-stitch, 96-row section. It’s a 20-stitch repeat, so I’ll increase 4 additional, evenly-spaced stitches in the first knitted round to accommodate the extra stitches, and do 4 plain knit rows before and after the planned four 22-row pattern repeats.

Gauge to this point on size 4 needles is 3 stitches and 4 rows per inch. This should give a diameter after the 96-row section of 96 inches and a circumference of 301.5 inches, more or less. Since I’m a mere 60 inches tall, this should be more than enough – I may even stop after 3 Rose Diamond Lace repeats. In fact, as I type I’m becoming fairly sure that I will do so – 96 inches doubled is 48 inches sans edging, and I don’t want to drag my beautiful shawl through the mud!

I’m still working on an edging. I may ‘make up’ an edging of simple stockinette points or scallops that include the rose in the widest area, or I may use a Double Scallop Shell edging. Even the Doris edging would pick up the diamond shape from the Rose Diamond Lace, although it would be a departure from the leaf and rose motif. I’ve got quite a ways to go before I get there, so I don’t need to decide right now.

I received two baby shower invitations yesterday, so unfortunately I’ll be sidetracked for a week or so making gifts for them. My shawl will wait patiently, however, until I can get back to it!

Mobii, or how I made a silk purse from a sow’s ear

I’ve been playing with Mobius scarves recently. I’ve made 3 so far, gave 2 away before getting pictures, but held onto the latest and best-suited to my wardrobe. A picture is below:

It’s quite short, being a scant 188 stitches at a gauge of 5 stitches per inch. But I wanted something to hug my neck nicely under my coat, or top a mock-turtleneck knit top, and it fits perfectly for that. So what’s the rest of the story? Well…

I used handspun Blue Faced Leicester that I had originally dyed in light tones of primary colors – red, yellow, blue and green – using Wilton food color. I only had 8 ounces to begin with; as I recall this particular top came as packing material for a drop spindle I bought from Copper Moose awhile back (great spindle, by the way). Lovely stuff that I packed away for the perfect project. I originally thought that the perfect project was as the color component in a pair of Fair Isle gloves, but got sidetracked into Mobius scarves. There might be enough of the original colors to finish up the gloves…

Yes, Virginia, I know the colors above are shades of red. There’s a story behind that, too. I started knitting this scarf from the original colors, edged it with a simple lace, changing colors every so often, and it was really pretty, and would go well with almost any outfit I wear. In order to finish it up, I washed the scarf. Then I discovered that the red and green food dyes were bleeding horribly. Aha! I thought – I’ll just put the wet scarf into the microwave with a bit of water and vinegar and re-set the dyes. That should work. Unfortunately, what happened in the microwave wasn’t pretty. The red set, but the green ran all over everything and shifted the color value of the entire scarf toward ‘very sad.’ It was pretty enough, but would no longer blend with much, if any, of my wardrobe of light clear colors and neutrals. “I really liked this scarf, too,” I mourned, as I hung it up to dry overnight, wondering if I’d ever wear it.

Next evening the scarf was dry. The colors, however, were still quite muted and sad. I liked the pattern of knit and purl variations, loved the lace edging, but hated the colors. Well, I’d tried over-dyeing once. Could I do it again, but in a color that would actually blend with my wardrobe? I started clicking through the color wheel in my mind. I don’t wear much that would go with green; any shade of yellow I could get is out except as an accent away from my face. Blue…the green would go aqua, the yellow green, the red purple and the blue bluer. But I only have one pair of pants and a single top that I could wear with that combination. No socks that would match it. Keep going. Red…red would work. The green would go brown, the yellow shift toward a red-orange, the blue go to purple and the red intensify. It would go with most of my wardrobe. And what do I have to lose?

So I ran a bowl of hot, slightly soapy water and vinegar solution and set the scarf to soak. Good news - there was no further bleeding to skew my dye results. While the scarf soaked I found a nice deep red in my trusty Wilton paste cake dyes (Christmas red, if you want to know). I added a couple of dabs of bright blue to shift the color away from orange-red, then poured over boiling water and added a bit of vinegar. Looked perfect. I removed the scarf from its soaking, placed it in a microwaveable bowl and poured over the color solution – 4 cups of liquid. I then covered the bowl and cooked everything on high power for 6 minutes. At that point it was boiling. I reduced power to 50% and cooked again for 12 minutes to finish exhausting and setting the color. After the microwave dinged, I left the bowl inside for a couple of hours while I took care of the usual evening tasks. About bedtime I went back and pulled the bowl from the microwave. It was nicely cooled down, dye was completely exhausted. I rinsed the scarf and hung it over a vent to dry. Next morning I looked it over. Beautiful! The colors had done exactly what I thought they would, and I was going to wear this today!

I did wear it that day, and it garnered numerous compliments. I’ve worn it twice since, and every time had the fun of confounding one or another engineer. They know what it is – a mobius – but have no clue how I might have made it. Only one electrical engineer has come close to guessing. The geotechnical, environmental, cryogenic and process engineers haven’t come anywhere near figuring it out. I love confounding these folks!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A New Year’s Rant and Some Spinning Wheel Thoughts

“I’m not a fancy spinner, but I only use two whorls – slow and fast!”

The discussion was about the range of ratios a new spinner might want to use on a wheel. I had given a thoughtfully-reasoned response regarding possible uses for the ratios of the wheel she was considering, along with a recommendation that she might want to look at wheels that offered more alternatives. This comment felt like a personal attack from a most unexpected source - another spinner!

My initial response was to fire off a volley of my own, but luckily I cooled off and erased it before posting. So far I haven’t responded at all, and don’t intend to do so on that forum. Rude spinners are luckily few and far between, but to my mind rudeness should never be encouraged by attention! Then I started thinking about the remark, and those thoughts are what I’d most like to share here.

First, let’s make it very clear – I’m not a ‘fancy’ or ‘expert’ spinner. I’m not a ‘professional’ spinner, nor a particularly ‘precisionist’ spinner. I’ve learned enough about spinning, both from study and from experiment, to usually be able to figure out why yarns and fibers combine in a certain fashion, and if I can’t figure it out alone I check my reference books and/or post a query to the fiber lists.

I have gotten to know the possibilities and limitations of my tools in the same way that any other craftsman does. I’m constantly exploring the fascinating possibilities of various fibers, both alone and in combination. I consider myself a ‘mindful’ spinner in much the same way that I’m a ‘mindful’ knitter, tatter, crocheter and weaver. As I’ve said before, my great-grandmothers were spinners – they’d have loved the variety of fibers and textures available now! Their idea of a new fiber was a new breed of sheep's fleece!

I don’t have a vast storehouse of practical experience about every known fiber – although I'm pretty good with several specific fibers. There are so many spinning fibers available these days that we don’t need to completely explore all the possibilities of a single type of fiber – besides, it’s too much fun to try the next one out there! I’m as susceptible to this sort of browsing as any other spinner. I have learned a great deal about spinning certain types of yarn, however, mostly because I’ve wanted to produce specific yarns for a frequently-repeated purpose.

One example is sock yarn; I’ve become something of an expert sock-yarn spinner simply because I’ve been spinning yarns for socks for several years now. If you spin and knit enough yards for a specific sort of project you learn what works best for that general project. If your desire is to make a wardrobe of handspun socks that you can wear for several years, you learn how to spin yarns that will give that sort of wear.

Another example is gossamer ‘thread’ for lace knitting – I love lace, love knitting, and have learned to spin different fibers very fine in order to feed that ‘addiction.’ I’ve learned which wools and wool blends I prefer for shawls, how to reel and throw silk, how best to spin and ply silk and fine wool singles for various lace projects, and that I don’t particularly care for using singles yarns in my own shawls. More importantly, I can repeat my results when I need a specific yarn. Mindful spinners do keep at least rudimentary records.

I’m currently exploring the possibilities of singles wool as weaving yarn, and learning that much of the conventional wisdom is absolutely correct – but that you can push the envelope, too. I love silk, medium-fine and fine wools, and various exotics, so my spinning has concentrated on those fibers. They can behave quite differently in a woven fabric than in a knitted or crocheted one.

You learn by a combination of research and experience. If you don’t learn anything from your explorations, you waste time and perfectly good fiber re-learning things. If you prefer to simply sit and spin whatever fiber in whatever fashion, holding it for a possible later use or just to pet occasionally, that’s fine. It’s your time, your fiber, and ultimately, your money. But please don’t be snide because my choice is different! There is plenty of room in the spinning world for both of us, and we can both do what makes us happy.

Now for an elaboration on what I originally posted to that list. Modern spinning wheels are generally designed to be suitable for a fairly wide range of fibers simply because that’s what modern spinners want. But some wheels are better than others at some things. That’s why we look at things like ratios, and I was happy to see that sort of relatively sophisticated question from a fairly new spinner. It shows that another ‘mindful’ spinner is on the way!

Anyone who has been spinning for awhile knows that some wheels are better suited than others to certain types of spinning. The ‘best’ wheel for spinning cotton is almost certainly a well-tuned charka. I don’t usually use a charka for spinning cotton, because I don’t have a well-tuned one handy (I built my own, and while it works, it takes a lot of tinkering) and do have a high-speed accelerating head for my Majacraft. So I use my Rose to spin cotton, cashmere and other fine, short fibers.

Saxony- or Canadian- or Norwegian-style wheels with large drive wheels are best for serious production spinners because a single push of the treadle gives the most efficient return for your effort. Great wheels can spin large amounts of woolen singles wonderfully well. That’s exactly why I tend to use my Symphony when I want to produce lofty woolen-spun yarns in large amounts fairly quickly. Can I use my Rose or Ashford Traveller to do the same thing? Yes, but not as easily or as quickly. It’s akin to using a pocketknife to cut down a tree – you can do it, but why bother when a good sharp saw is only a few steps away?

So why do I advise a new spinner who has up until now only knitted worsted-weight sweaters to look at wheels that have the capability of spinning gossamer-weight yarns and fine, short fibers? Because people change. A wool sweater knitter sometimes decides to knit a fine lace shawl for a new grandbaby or bride, or a rustic cotton sweater for a family member who lives in the Florida Keys. The new knitting needles for this project are fairly inexpensive (if they’re necessary). A new spinning wheel, however, is a more serious investment. Why not give a bit of forethought to the choice in the beginning?

I can hear you saying it now, “But you can spin cotton or cashmere yarn at an 11:1 ratio!” Of course you can. I’ve done it. But it’s much easier and faster to do it at a 20:1 or even 32:1 ratio. If you’re going to spend upwards of $300 U.S. on a spinning wheel, why not get one that will allow you to do that IF YOU CHOOSE? That’s called contingency planning, and it’s just garden-variety common sense.

Think about other times you plan for contingencies. You need toilet tissue in the upstairs bath today. You can choose to buy only one roll, or you can plan ahead, knowing that the downstairs and guest baths will need toilet tissue later in the week. Why return to the store for a single roll three times, when you can do it all in one trip? Ditto groceries. Why purchase flour for only that day’s cookies when you know that you’ll need it again for pancakes later in the week?

Both of those are rather simplistic, but they’re still valid examples of contingency planning. That sort of thinking should apply to our fiber tools as well as our kitchen and pantry shelves. Spinning wheels should be general-purpose machines. Spindles are specific-purpose tools; a light spindle for a fine yarn, a supported spindle for short, slick fibers, heavier spindles for plying or coarser fibers is the accepted wisdom for good reason. But wheels for hobbyist (not production) spinners are different to my mind. They should, with minimal tinkering by the spinner, be able to produce an acceptable version of any type of yarn. It’s that phrase “with minimal tinkering by the spinner” that gives a hole large enough to drive a great-wheel through. What one spinner considers ‘minimal’ another considers ‘way too much trouble’. That’s why one spinner likes a Babe while another considers a Schacht the only way to go.

The following is directed to any spinners who’ve ended up here hoping for advice on choosing a wheel. You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it over and over again. You should only choose a wheel in person. Drive for three hours each way to attend a spinning guild meeting or visit a store where you can try out different wheels. It’s worth it in the long run. A scary example – I have several spinning friends who bought Schacht castle wheels awhile back. Lovely things, wonderfully adaptable for many different yarn types, portable, don’t take up a lot of room but a nice big drive wheel. I was in the market for a wheel, and asked if I could spin on theirs for a few minutes during a meeting. I tried three different Schachts that day, and had the same problem on all of them – I’d spin for a few minutes and then have a back spasm. Lovely yarn, wonderfully responsive action, but the wheel doesn’t fit my body!

If you absolutely cannot find a wheel to try out (you live in rural Africa or the Aleutian Islands), the next best thing is to ask some blunt questions on the spinning lists. Most of us are glad to help out a beginner – sometimes overwhelmingly so. Make a spreadsheet of your answers that lists the spinner name and email address, wheel recommendation, ratios available, orifice height, etc. Check the list archives and find old posts with information on specific wheels. Get online again and look at pictures and specs on the various wheels – Google is wonderful! Then winnow out the wheels you don’t like for any reason – the reason doesn’t really matter; it's your money and your taste so no justification is required.

Next head back to the list and ask specific questions about your top two or three choices. If spinner A___ raves about the fine yarns she can spin on her (fill in the blank) and you love fine yarns, email her directly. Ask her politely for details about her build and spinning habits. If you’re four feet ten inches tall, fine-boned and thin, while she’s six feet tall, big-boned and fluffy, go back to the list and ask for more help. Find somebody articulate who is about your size and shape, and then find out exactly why they prefer their (fill in the blank) wheel. NOW you have some information on which to base a choice.

Can you make a mistake with this method and buy a wheel that doesn’t fit your body? Of course you can. That’s why you should, if humanly possible, try out wheels in person. We are all individuals, with different bodies, medical problems, spinning styles and ergonomic needs. What works for one five-foot tall fluffy spinner doesn’t work for all five-foot tall fluffy spinners (yes, I’m five-foot nothing and fluffy, in case you hadn’t guessed already).

I’ll hush now. Hopefully I’ve given somebody something to think about, even if it’s only how silly I am.

Here’s wishing you a wonderful 2006, full of fiber fun and family and friends!