22 February 2012

Spinning with Norman Kennedy

On Saturday I took a SEFAA-sponsored all-day spinning workshop with legend Norman Kennedy. If I remember correctly, Mr. Kennedy immigrated in the 1960s from Scotland. He learned many of the old ways of spinning, weaving, and knitting in his native Scotland. Over the course of his long life, he has traveled all over the world and learned first hand the fiber traditions of many different cultures. He speaks Gaelic, and sings the ancient songs beautifully. Talking to him -- and he is more than willing to tell tales through his beautiful accent -- is like talking to someone from 1880.

There are two important things I learned in his class. One is how to make a dang right good rolag, and the other is how to spin in the old way -- effectively (quality) and efficiently (fast).

I've mentioned before that I've been getting better at drafting backwards. In fact, I'm discovering that I really don't care for a forward worsted draft. It just isn't as pleasant to me. This isn't to say that forward drafting is bad, but rather that I enjoy backward drafting better -- sort of the way some people prefer tea over coffee. I did know that backward draw is usually considered a woolen way of spinning. I also knew that rolags are a woolen fiber preparation. But I had never made a proper rolag or spun it.
Beautiful rolags, ready to spin!
Rolags are basically fluffy fiber enchiladas made with hand cards. I've used hand cards some, and I've had several different people give me instruction on how to use them. I think the tricky part for most people is the little maneuver to transfer fiber from one card back to the other. I've carded enough to be able to do that easily. Here are some things I've learned along the way:
  • You don't need to pass cards from one hand to the other, or to change your grip on the cards.
  • You don't want too much fiber on the cards. Believe it or not, it will be faster to card less at a time, because you'll make fewer passes.
  • The right amount of fiber (for me, at least) will, when carded and about ready to be rolled off, cover the cards with a translucent sheer layer of fiber. If the fiber is thick and opaque even after lots of carding, you are trying to do too much at once.
  • Be sure the layer of fiber is loosely floating on the tips of the teeth of the left card before you try to roll the rolag.
  • Place your left hand palm upwards and use the pinky-edge of that hand to hold the fibers as you roll with the right card.
  • After rolling, lay the rolag on the left card and give it a final finishing roll with the right card. You'll be surprised at how nicely this finishes it and makes it stay rolled up.
Those last few points I learned from Mr. Kennedy. He said that a properly-prepared fiber was already half-spun. He was so right! I was amazed at how easily the fiber spun at the wheel. Mr. Kennedy also had us add a little baby oil to our wool after we picked it but before we carded it. The oil helps the wool draft better. But, he did tell us not to spin in the grease -- partly for the wool, but partly for health reasons. If you are spinning in the old way, wash your fleece, then give it back a little baby oil before you card and spin.

At the wheel, Mr. Kennedy spins very differently from what I've seen. I tend to spin with the new yarn coming directly from the wheel to my hands. I usually have my left palm facing up, and I control the fiber with my left index finger and thumb. My right hand holds the fiber supply. Mr. Kennedy had us spin with our palms down. He uses his pinky finger as a brake on the twist. I'm sure I'm not spinning exactly as he does, but here's what I'm doing based on what he showed me. The fiber supply is still in my right hand, and I can stop twist from running into the supply by pinching with my right thumb and index finger. But for my left hand, the yarn runs underneath and against my pinky and in between my left index finger and thumb. The left pinky is a twist brake, both because it rests on the forming yarn, but also because I bend the yarn around it. I draft the fiber at right angles across my lap. Then I lift my pinky and let the twist behind it run past my left hand and into the drafted fibers. It is surprisingly easy to spin a variety of yarn thicknesses at will using this technique. I also found I was drafting quickly enough to be able to use the wheel at a higher (and faster) ratio. And the rolag makes the backward drafting much easier.
I don't know if this will become my default technique or not. I'm very used to spinning with my palms up not down, so I really have to think about keeping my left hand in the proper position. I do know that I already had some woolen-spun alpaca on my mind, so learning to make good rolags was worth the price of the class. If you haven't tried backward draw, I highly recommend making a few proper rolags and then giving it a go.

11 February 2012

How to Trap Yarns

I've been trying to make of habit of shooting videos of some of the more unusual techniques I've used in my designs. Since Dahlia is now available, I wanted to be sure knitters aren't getting stuck.

For this video, I'm showing you how to trap threads as you pick up for the next course. This will prevent you from having to break your yarn between modules, and will save you a lot of weaving in of ends. Not only might you appreciate the time savings, but you'll also save on aggravation and have a nicer finish, because hiding ends in lace requires more care.

Two caveats in the video.
1. Near the beginning of the video, I said "double increase" when I meant "double decrease." If you have the pattern, you'll know what I meant.
2. I shot this video while working on the original shawl. The updated and improved version for The Unique Sheep has a different stitch count from the shawl in the video. So when I talk in the video about 1-15-1 as the pick-up rhythm, be aware that the pattern you have has a different number.

Enjoy having fewer ends to weave in.

10 February 2012

Dahlia Blooms

Some of you may remember a post from last summer, in which I showed off a shawl I knit for the Claudia Handpaint Contest. The shawl didn't win anything, but Claudia was kind enough to return it in time for the TKGA show in Greensboro, NC. So I wore the shawl there.

Laura and Kelly from The Unique Sheep saw the shawl and liked it. So it is now getting a second life! They've been a huge help in formatting and tech editing the pattern. And I am very grateful they had Heike Nocher to test knit the design, which she accomplished admirably and during the holiday season. The pattern is now available from The Unique Sheep. Thank you hardly begins to cover my appreciation at seeing one of my patterns out in the world. I know I will barely be able to contain my glee when I see it worn at one of the conventions.
I knew Laura and Kelly were totally awesome people back when I was president of Atlanta Knitting Guild. So many people helped over the course of the year -- it was the first year of STITCHES South -- and I wanted to be able to show some tangible appreciation. When I went to SAFF, I picked up business cards from the various hand-dyers, then wrote to them to see what they could do. Laura and Kelly dyed 36 assorted skeins of lace weight yarn. It was a delight to invite various guild members to pick a skein.

09 February 2012

Needle Tasting

During 2011 I was VP of Programs for North Georgia Knitting Guild. The position involved coming up with the monthly program. I got some ideas from the guild members, but I also got some ideas from myself. One of those ideas was a needle tasting.

There are lots and lots of different types of knitting needles available. Some of them, such as Clover, Susan Bates, or Knit Picks, are budget-friendly. Sometimes they are knitter-friendly, too, but other times not so much. There are also needles that are marketed as knitter-friendly but are not budget-friendly. And nowadays there are choices amongst straight, circular, double-pointed, and interchangeable as well as choices amongst round, square, or hexagonal shafts, and choices regarding material such as bamboo, nickle-plated, surgical stainless steel, brass, carbon fiber, plastic, glass, or various types of wood. How is a knitter ever supposed to choose?

For our October guild meeting, I wrote to several needle manufacturers and requested samples. Guild members also provided needles. And we repeated the needle tasting last weekend at the South Carolina Knit Inn. This was a great chance for knitters to test-drive needles before making a capital investment. Good tools are important, but it is also important to choose tools that are good for you.

I was very pleased that Karin Skacel was willing to send a sampling of Addi Clicks as well as fixed-length brass-finished Addi Lace needles. I think most knitters have been exposed to the glorious speed of the German-made Addi Turbo needle. A couple years ago, Skacel added the Addi Clicks as an option. They come in the regular Turbo tip as well as a nickle-plated Lace tip and the bamboo Natura tip. The Click sets have needles from sizes US 4 through 15. I already had a full run of Addi Turbo needles in my stash. With what Karin kindly sent, we were able to have our members test drive all the options. The clicks sets are lovely, but they do run around $150 a set -- not pocket change for most of us. It is nice to be able to decide for oneself which set is most appealing.

From top: Lace, Turbo, Natura
The cables are the same plastic cables you already know from regular Addi needles. The attachment is good -- a nice spring-click mechanism that is not going to unscrew or come loose accidentally.

At right is a picture of the tips of the various Addi Clicks needles. You can see that the Lace needles are more tapered and a little pointier than the regular Turbo needles. The bamboo Natura points are similar to the Turbo points. I usually prefer slick metal needles myself, but bamboo or wood is essential for certain slippery fibers, such as mercerized cotton, rayon, or silk.
Another alternative for interchangeable needles is the classic Denise needle set. These are made in the United States (Virginia). Barbara Kreuter sent a complete set (US sizes 5-15), plus extra cables, plus the rare size 17 needles, plus a crochet hook. While the sizes don't run super small, they do make needles all the way up to size 19 (15mm). Denise makes both interchangeable knitting needles and interchangeable crochet hooks. This is one of the few sources I can think of if you are interested in doing Tunisian crochet. Even if you are only knitting, the crochet hook can be useful for picking up stitches along a selvedge.

The plastic needles have a little more grip than metal. They are lighter in weight than metal, which may be nice if you sometimes experience hand-fatigue problems. The cords are thicker than most. The cords are also fairly short, allowing you to make a full range of sizes easily by combining. The set even includes end buttons. If you are someone who likes to have lots of projects in the works, you can simply park your knitting on the cables, swap the needles for end buttons, and move your needles from project to project. The join involves a quarter-twist, making Denise needles easy to change without needles coming loose unexpectedly. The two colors of cords are also perfect if you like to work small circles in the round on two circular needles. Because the yellow and blue are very different colors, it is easy to see which needle to use rather than mixing them up, which is a typical problem in working on two circular needles. Finally, Denise needles tend to be budget-friendly, running about $50 for a set.

shawl stick, straight needles, and dpns
The third vendor who sent samples is Pam from Indian Lake Artisans. These needles are made by hand in Michigan. I was particularly curious about them myself, as I'm fond of the Kollage square needles. Indian Lake Artisan needles are hexagonal-shaft needles -- a compromise between round and square. Each size is topped with a different north woods motif such as owls, turtles, or cabins. And the needles are available in cherry, walnut, or birch. The sizes for straight needles run from a US 6 to a 15. The double-pointed needles run from US 3 to 15. I must say I like the dpns very much, and I ordered sets in sizes 13 and 15. How many vendors do you know who make large-size dpns? I also ordered the cable needles. Shawl pin sticks are also available. These needles are a little expensive -- about $30 a set. But they are like handmade furniture. I find the hexagonal shape to be very pleasing. And they are almost certain to remind you of pencils and handwriting and those old school days.

North Georgia Knitting Guild does a retreat later in the year as well as a fundraising auction. So, these three groups of sample needles will probably be lurking around my house for a few months before they go to a permanent home. I've brought them at least once to knit night as well, as I encourage anyone who wants to test drive to experience these for themselves.

Many thanks to Skacel, Denise, and Indian Lake Artisans!

02 February 2012

Happy Groundhog Day!

Crocus blooming on 2 February 2012.
Or for those of you following the Wiccan calendar, Blessed Imbolc! We're approaching my favorite point in the year, which is the 1st of March. My least favorite point is probably 1 November, the day after Samhain. I don't like cold and I don't like dark, so I really don't like November, which is all about getting colder and darker. I'm not so fond of December, either, but at least there are Yuletide distractions.

It already feels as if we are at the beginning of March rather than the beginning of February. Today there are crocus blooming by my mailbox! Glee! I am a very poor gardener. I'm good with animals, but really not good with plants. Back in the autumn I bought some crocus bulbs for about $5 and spent an hour planting them. I figured that if nothing happened, it wasn't a big loss in either time or money. But it looks like something is happening.

I'm still behind here on the blog (and in my life -- don't let me get started on the state of my house). But I am making progress. And I've already produced a little handspun yarn in 2012. I decided one night in January that I really, really needed to spin something. I dumped out the spinning stash, dug through it, and picked out a little bag of short, hairy fibers. These came from Claire, who is a member of AKG who has been de-stashing. I bought a half-pound ball of silk sliver from her at SEFAA's garage sale last spring. At our next guild meeting, Claire gave me a few more oddments from her spinning stash. The white hair is fairly soft but not soft enough to be rabbit. And the staple length is about an inch, which makes me suspicious it isn't wool. Who would shear a sheep for a measly inch-long staple? In the dry state, it has no obvious identifying smell. (It does smell like an animal when wet.) I've shown it to a lot of different people in knitting, spinning, and weaving guilds. I'm pretty sure this is chiengora, or dog hair, probably Samoyed. Interestingly, my knitter's cats do not seem the least perturbed by this.

I tried to spin it on my Rose wheel, but even with the lace kit, I could not get my leader to pull in and wind onto the bobbin. So, I pulled out the tahkli from the cotton sampler kit purchased a couple years ago at The Mannings. The wooden base I used came from a mezzaluna that was a wedding gift. (Thank you Aunt Diana & Uncle Dave!) I probably couldn't have made this work if I hadn't taken the class on how to spin on a charkha or if I hadn't previously spun a woolen preparation by drafting backward. Spinners make a big deal about backward draw, but it isn't all that bad and, quite frankly, I think I like it better than forward draw. The trick is to discern the sweet spot. You put twist in the fiber and let the twist run up towards the supply in your hand. The trick is to let the twist run up far enough to catch and pull fiber out from the supply in your hand, without the twist running all the way up into the fiber and making a knotted mess. It is a lovely, elegant way to spin a very fine thread, as the twist itself seems to pull out just the right amount of fiber to keep your thread diameter even. If you learn how to spin on a spindle with the park and draft method, you should be well on your way to learning a backward drafting method. In spite of my success with a supported spindle, or perhaps because of it, I do intend to acquire Fleegle's book.

I'll also need Fleegle's book so I can learn how to ply on a supported spindle. In the meantime, I used my 1st generation 6 gram 100% wooden trindle to make a 2-ply lace yarn. I have about 12 grams of fiber and about 110 yards of length. This isn't enough for a full shawl, but it should be enough for a little lacy fashion scarf.