Friday, 26 February 2016

Hand Spinning Camel and Qiviut

The postman brought more parcels this week.  One for me and one for my companion, Elinor Gotland.  Both of us had been harbouring great expectations.  Mine concerned the Travelling Goodie Box, I've been following its progress on the UK Spinners Forum on Ravelry and knew it was due to arrive at my house.  Brilliant idea, a box the maximum size for small parcel postage, filled with fibre-type delights by the genius who dreamed up the original concept, is now being sent round a group of signed up participants.  Each of us is allowed to take out as much fibre as we like, replacing it with stuff of similar quantity and value from our own stash, before posting the box to the next spinner on the list.  By the time it gets back to the original spinner, the fibre inside will be completely different.

Presently, while there is all sorts of stuff in there, I mustn't spoil the surprise for those further down the list. Suffice to say, these luxury fibres proved irrestible.  From the top centre, I took from the box a bag of washed locks of Cotswold (a pricey fleece I have hesitated to buy), sari silk, which should make any dull batt of wool much more exciting, then camel tops and qiviut, finishing with some richly coloured silk.  
Elinor was equally absorbed by her new book.  When I emptied the Travelling Box across the kitchen table, she got in huff about me taking up all the space when some people were trying to read and flounced off to the sitting room.  I followed some time later with a peace offering.
"What's it about, then, this book?"
"Put my tea down over there.  I don't want cup rings on the pages."
I stooped to read the title.
"'The Argonautica'?  Oh, I know, that's the one about Jason, sailing off after the Golden Fleece.  Why is there a clock on the front?"
"It takes time to savour the 1863 edition, translated by Coleridge." Elinor pushed her specs back up her nose and gave me a superior look. 
"Ooooo, fancy - how ever did you get hold of that?"
"I had an original copy printed off by a specialist company, Beaut.  Took a while, but it's bound to be worth the wait.  See, they've even included the page with the Cornell University Library stamp."
"Marvellous.  I might just sit in here with you, do a bit of spinning."
"If you must.  Just keep your fluff off the sofa and no greasy fingers on my book."

Qiviut.  I'd not heard the word, but I must remember it for our next game of scrabble.  Examining my sample taken from the Travelling Box, the fibres were incredibly light to handle and consisted of the finest, dark hairs amongst a short stapled, grey and brown down, so soft I could barely feel it between my fingers.
Reading up online, the word is pronounced kee vee ut and refers to the undercoat of the musk ox.  I have met ordinary oxen and can only speculate how people manage to shear their vests off.  No wonder qiviut is hard to get hold of and costs a fortune.  Various websites declared it to be eight times warmer than wool and finer than cashmere, but gave no practical information on how to get the spinning right.  Elinor and I sat for some hours in silent concentration .

To my delight, qiviut is a dream to spin laceweight.  I guess the longer hairs help hold it together.  Fluffing out a pinch of fibre in my hand and pedalling the spinning wheel madly on the 15:1 ratio, after a little practice, I could draft out from the cloud an inch at a time and spin a single that didn't fall apart the way my fine wool singles tend to do.  Two plied and washed, I got 30m yarn out of four grammes, which must be a personal best. While surprisingly tough to break, the haze that blooms about the central thread makes qiviut exceptionally lush to the touch.
"Will you give over patting and stroking and sniffing that wool, Beaut?"
"Would you like a feel, Elinor?"
"I would not."
"Your loss.  How are you getting on with the book?"
"In the classic style, the story begins with the gathering of the Argonauts, telling of their illustrious parentage and mighty deeds.  I'll admit, so far, it is a little short on narrative drag."
"More tea?"
"Don't mind if I do."

Camels do not bring to my mind smoochy comfort.  I once spent a week travelling across the Thar desert and my recollections include an arse too painful to sit down at all, the first evening.  As a camel of strong character, Kunza took no crap from me and while she had my respect and gratitude, cuddles were never part of our relationship. Though I'm pretty sure the thick, hairy saddle blankets we slept under to keep the sandstorms out were made of camel fibre, I've racked my brains and found no memories of supersoft fluff. Having a look at pictures on Wikipedia, I realised Kunza was just not that kind of camel. The silky undercoat we spin is taken from Bactrians, when they moult.

The Travelling Box held a substantial bag of combed camel tops, golden brown gossamer-like fibres only a couple of centimetres long. Drafting them out in strips, I treadled away at spinning fingering weight two ply yarn in worsted style, after an epic fail at carding tiny rolags to spin longdraw.

Once I had the skeins washed, fulled and dried, Elinor did agree to go and have a squeeze of my luxury yarns. When I went to find out what she thought, it looked like she was enjoying my Golden Fleece more than the one in her book.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Dyeing Wool with Dried Double Maroon Hollyhocks

The colours that come out of a sequence of afterbaths when dyeing with fresh double maroon hollyhock flowers remind me of the sea.  Previously, trying to preserve spare flowers by freezing them seemed to kill off the blues, leaving only greens and greys.  After dyeing the skeins in this photo with fresh flowers, while my plants carried on blossoming last summer, I laid the spent petals on a tea towel to let them
dessicate before being put in a paper bag.  In January, with a design in mind to weave a wave, I put my last couple of hundred grams of scoured Speckled Face Beulah fleece in the bath to mordant with alum for 24 hours, while my stock of 50 shrivelled hollyhocks soaked in plain water. Next day, the fluid had turned deep maroon, much like the original colour of the flowers.

The flowers had half an hour at a very gentle simmer, as boiling destroys the blue pigments, just like freezing.  For such fragile molecules, once you have them fixed onto wool, I have found the colours surprisingly light and wash fast. Sieving petals out and slopping them into a net bag to stay in the dye bath, I added about 50g of wet, alum mordanted fleece for an hour's simmer and an overnight soak.  The wool turned a familiar blue, though not as deep a colour as fresh flowers have offered.
Repeating the process with four more portions of 50g fleece showed that drying the double maroon hollyhocks had preserved a muted version of their original colourway, better than frozen ones did.  Combing condensed the shades - this is flash photography, not quite true to the real appearance, but you can see how the blue tones change, rather than just getting paler.  
Spun worsted and Navajo plied, hopefully, you can just about see colour changes in each strand of yarn on the niddy noddy.  Making mixtures of fleece shades on the hand carders and spinning rolags into chunky two ply gave the adjacent, irregular, puffier yarn a more uniform colour .  I have been building another driftwood triloom.  Since reading a comment made about the last one, ideas have been washing around my mind about harps and harpies, wondering, did those lethal sirens sing intending to lure ships onto the rocks or was their song an end in itself? Winding my yarns around the pegs, the colour changes were too subtle to give the sea weave any unwanted tartan effect and the heavier, loftier yarn seemed a better base to needlefelt into.  So, the final yarn 
construction went three rolags of each shade in turn, spun longdraw and Navajo plied.  
To add emphasis where the sea weave wrapped round the nails on the plank symbolising shipwreck, I dissolved soda ash to make an alkaline solution and painted it onto the wool.  Bit of a potch to get the dry fibres to soak it up from the brush, still, the resulting green colour shift exploited this dye's pH sensitivity.

My harpist or harpy was constructed same way as the small fairies, except using a whole batt of drumcarded fleece for a long full skirt.  A florists's wire running down from the head meant it could be held in a Fibonacci curve; carded, Down-type Beulah fleece did needlefelt onto the woven yarn with all the volume and texture that merino tops lack, yet my efforts dyeing blues from maroon hollyhocks lacked the weight of the sea I had imagined.  Standing back to see the final effect, I had to acknowledge these soft colours from dried flowers do lack the definition I had from dyeing with fresh material.

"Perhaps the pale green you chose to decorate this sitting room has sapped their strength. Didn't like to say at the time, but this green never was a cheery choice."
Sod it.  I got out the roller and painted the back wall white.  It took three coats.  
Once I had hung the loom up again, my companion, Elinor Gotland, eyed it critically.
"Fair play, the room is less gloomy, bit of a shame your harpist still looks like a triangle of mist."
I scraped flakes of white emulsion off my nails.
"Mist might be dangerous enough at sea, but nebulous risk is not my idea of what harpies are about.  How can I give her the inexorable power of a big breaker?"

Asking a Gotland sheep for advice got me a predictable answer. Grey Gotland locks dyed with woad did add lustre, body and depth of blue.  Hooray for a considerable stash of past experimentally dyed fleece and even more hooray that I have got organised enough to find stuff.  
"Loving the fish, Beaut."  
I knew my companion would appreciate a little drama.

"Now she's a 'Belle Dame sans Merci', isn't she, Elinor?"
"Aye, doing her own thing without consideration for others.  Don't you go getting ideas, Beaut, that's no way for a middle aged woman to live."
"Ha, you're just worried you might have to start making your own cups of tea.  This could be the end of your days as Belle de Laine Sans Souci." 

Friday, 12 February 2016

How to Knit Socks that Fit - Book Review

"Ooh, look Elinor, Storey Publishing have sent me another book to review."
Having hurried to see what the postman had brought, my companion now turned on her hoof and sauntered back to the kitchen.
"What's this one about, then?  A Wool Liker's Guide to the Galaxy?"
"Good title, I'd read that."  I finished pulling off the cardboard wrapper.  "No. This book is much more down to earth and just what I need. 'How to Knit Socks that Fit.' by Donna Druchunas."
"Somebody at Storey must have seen that last pair you made."
"Were you expecting a parcel?"
"Oh, nothing as special as a 'Book for Self-Reliance."

Ignoring Elinor's sarcasm, I settled down to read. This book really had arrived at the right moment.  I totally agreed with the first paragraph, comfort is the top reason to knit your own socks, only jibbing at bit at the bottom of page one where it says 'Socks are also a lot fun to make.'  With a lifetime total of knitting four pairs of cuff down socks, I have always needed long recovery intervals, exhausted by the battle against second sock syndrome.  
Presently, warm, cosy socks are high on the practical priority list and two balls of Speckled Face Beulah wool, handspun somewhere round aran weight, yardage unknown and one dyed with dried yarrow, were already earmarked for a pair of boot socks. 
Before starting to knit, there is much to enjoy; with notes on history and the origins of sock techniques, this book has an enthusiastic voice and a comprehensive yet concise approach that speaks of a thoroughly informed author.  First, she discusses yarn weights, the qualities of natural and synthetic fibres and even the importance of twist and spin, all of which would have been a revelation to me before I started spinning yarn myself. The next chapter is all about choosing and using needles, with line drawings to show how they work - fascinating, I never imagined using two circular needles on one sock. Chapter Three covers measuring feet, accounting for negative ease and doing knitting maths.  Sadly, it seems there is no shortcut to knitting a tension gauge, gritting your teeth and working out the necessary stitch count.
Racing through the overviews of cuff down and toe up sock anatomy, I reached the basic toe up pattern instructions.   Thanks to the book, I reckoned I now understood how to keep socks perfectly equal by knitting two at once and that working from the toe up, the leg sections could simply become as long or short as my supply of yarn allowed. Working from both ends of each of my centre pull balls, there would be no need to weigh or measure and divide the yarn in advance.   Taking up the challenge to knit socks that fit, I did measure my feet and fill in the table in the book, very grateful that the UK went metric while I was still in school and imagining those poor Americans, trying to work out 10% of eight and three quarter inches to adjust for stretchiness.  Once again, I jostled with Elinor Gotland racing down the stairs to meet the postman, delivering me a second pair of 3.5mm needles and a new long circular cord, to replace the one the dog ate.

Minding the craft shop on a Sunday afternoon, with wind and rain battering the coast, barely any customers came to disturb my attempts to learn provisional cast on and knit a short row toe.  A deficiency particular to paperbacks rapidly became apparent - the book flapped shut and I lost my place every time Elinor got up to stretch her legs. A ring binding would suit hands free reading much better. 

Working the short row toe, Row 2 begins with a yarnover, for which instructions are not listed in the index, though frustratingly, they are mentioned on the following page under the heading Short Rows, with diagrams showing them at the end of a short row rather than the beginning. Puzzling over a miswritten sentence in Row 3, my confidence in the book had fallen considerably by the time I could squish my duck shaped foot into the first completed toe.  

Down to my own cack handedness, using two circular needles did not go well.
"Look out, Beaut, all those stitches are going to end up on the same needle again."
"Aaaargh, curses, sit down Elinor!"  The book fell shut and my companion gave a snort as she read the back cover.
"Not quite 'Foolproof' after all, is it, Beaut?  You didn't need to buy those extra needles, but on the bright side, you're doing ok having
the two socks on one long cord.   I could fancy a pair myself."
Unlikely as it sounds, the short row heel is knitted exactly the same way as the short row toe.  Sat by the fire, instead of perched on a chair in a draughty shop, knitting the heels was as easy as kiss your hand.  Looking at the stitch library in Chapter 10, I even ventured a strip of wide lace rib running up from the ankle.  The instructions were perfectly clear and this feat of daring went without a hitch.  Once the dyed wool ran out, I used up every scrap of the white making a ribbed cuff, delighted to have both socks finished off simultaneously.  So pleased that I launched straight in to spinning up a batt of icelandic sheepswool into chunky yarn to try one of the

alternative styles of toe, best suited to a slipper - the moccasin. No problem there either, so Steve got the thick, croc liner socks he has been angling for. 
This small book really does teach sound principles for making socks from any weight of yarn, it's absolutely ideal for handspinners wondering how to use a couple of random skeins from their stash. There are a good few more toes and heels to try, nine other stitch 
patterns and plenty more techniques. The book comes out in the UK in March 2016 priced at £5.99.
Just imagining how many different socks it has the potential to lead you to, I'd consider this much better value than a stack of individual patterns. 

And do they fit?  
Considerably better than socks I've knitted in the past.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Making Flower Fairies from Wool

"O what can ail thee, business woman, 
Sole Trader, palely loitering?
Looking for fairies, are you?"
I stopped staring at all the brown ferns on the rockery and snapped out of my reverie.
"Well, you know that red one I put in Crafts by the Sea, ready for Valentine's Day?  The first person to spare it a glance said to her daughter, 'Ooooh, look at the pin on that voodoo doll!'"
"Perceptive woman.  Fairies are not cute.  Hang on, I'll get you the poem."
My companion came back out to the garden with Palgrave's Golden Treasury, open at Keats'  'La Belle Dame sans Merci'
"A Fairy Affaire - 'Ah, woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill's side.'
Love 'em and leave 'em, Beaut.  That's fairies for you."
I turned the page and read to the end.
"Mmm, I see.  Fairy lovers get 'honey wild and manna-dew', but when the party's over, they find they've been seriously shafted."
"Right.  There's not much use in anguish moist and fever-dew in this waterlogged garden.  The sedge is wither'd from the lake and it's time you put the kettle on."

Drinking tea in the kitchen, I was still racking my brains for a better Valentine Fairy product. Needlefelting wool fairies from roving was a small commercial success last Christmas and having got the knack of putting them together, I must admit, I really enjoy making them.
 "I was thinking more along the lines of Cicely May Barker and 'Flower Fairies of the Wayside.'  Pretty creatures anyone would love to find hiding among the primrose and the ivy."
Elinor looked at me sideways.
"Well, I wouldn't want them running in and out of my house."
Deciding that fairies and flowers were the key to romance, with only a few sodden crocuses huddling on the lawn, I found these paper flower making instructions online.  They don't say much about how to attach a stem, so I experimented a bit. If you make a little bend in the florist's wire, twist a pinch of wool roving round it to form a centre for the flower, then poke it down through the middle 
before squeezing in the hot glue, that
works nicely. It's the first time I've used a glue gun and the stuff is rock hard when it sets.  I made the Christmas Fairies with a pipe cleaner running down from the head into the body, Flower Fairies can be made just the same way only using a long florist's wire.  Drill some holes in a piece of wood off the wood pile with a 2mm drill bit and the flowers and a fairy can all be firmly arranged as a table centre or ornament.
"No-one would mistake this pink fairy for a voodoo doll now, would they, Elinor?"
"Hmm, I still think you're on dangerous ground, Beaut."
"Oh, surely not, with all these flowers."
Elinor sucked her teeth.
"As an advert for an amour, it might work, but this is no Valentine enticement to settle in for cosy evenings in front of the telly, 2.4 kids and a labrador.  Fairies are powerful and free and nobody's friend but their own."
"Well, I just hope the shoppers in Crafts by the Sea don't see it your way."
"I hope they are careful what they wish for and don't end up like that knight-at-arms, haggard and so woe-begone. Getting their heart's desire rarely does people any good and fairies know that. They live wild and can't bear to be trapped.  You won't find them looking in the Lonely Hearts column."
"I expect they've got up to speed with IT by now.  It's all internet dating, these days."
"Fairies wouldn't bother, they don't want likes on facebook, or even anyone to admire their knitting."
"You reckon?  Come and see what I found at the bottom of the garden."