Monday, August 27, 2007

ramblings and contest

Time has been slipping through my fingers. My mind is ablaze with the craziness of moving – we’re down to our last week in Vermont now – and I just haven’t been able to settle down enough to post. Accordingly, this post will jump around, but stay with me, because there’s a contest at the end!

The first thing I wanted to post about has to do with mountains and mountain art. Last week, Mountain Man and I celebrated our first anniversary by taking a lovely and strenuous hike up to Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire.

We arrived home from the hike, late in the evening, to find a gorgeous print of the very same ridge waiting on our coffee table. It was my mom’s anniversary gift to us, which she’d fortuitously bought without knowing that we’d be hiking there. It’s by a local artist, Matt Brown, who makes spectacular Japanese-style woodblock prints. Here’s his prints of the ridge (left) and the Lakes of the Clouds trail (right). They really capture the magic and mysticism of this landscape, and I’m so happy to be taking them to Arizona with us.

On the knitting front, I whipped off two tiny projects: a headband and a felted camera case. Both were satisfying because they were quick and used up yarn leftover bits of yarn.

For the headband, I used light worsted alpaca/wool and number 5 needles. I cast on 3 stitches, knit in I-cord for about 8 inches, increased to 5 stitches (k1, m1, k1, m1, k1), knit in garter stitch long enough to wrap from ear to ear, decreased back to 3 stitches (SSK, k1, k2tog), and knit another 8 inches. I tied a square knot at the nape of my neck.

For the double-knit camera case, I used Manos de Uruguay wool and number 6 needles. I cast on 24 stitches. For the main body, every row is just {k1, bring yarn to the front, slip 1, bring yarn to back} across. At the end of the row, turn your work, and do the same row across. It makes a cylinder, 3” wide, closed at the bottom. After 4.5” inches, I divided the work onto two needles, half for the front and half for the back. I cast off all the front stitches (plus one extra stitch on each end from the back needle), leaving me 10 stitches on the back to make a flap. I knit straight for a few rows, then decreased it sharply to a point, with a small buttonhole (K2tog, yo) somewhere in the middle. I sewed in the ends and plunged it into a sink of hot water and shampoo to felt it. And I added one button to the front.

And now the contest. I had two motivations: First, I packed up all my yarn and was truly disturbed by the mass of it all. I thought a contest would be a fun way to give some beloved but unlikely-to-be-knit-anytime-soon yarn to a good home. This soft and shockingly vermillion laceweight wool (from handpaintedyarn, aka the Malabrigo folks) will be the prize:

Second, for the content of the contest, I’m inspired by trying to plan our drive out west (probably up through Canada and down the spine of the Rockies). I’d love to hear YOUR road trip stories. How do you stay entertained on a long drive? What kind of projects do you like to bring along? Where was your favorite destination? How do you plan it – or not?! Leave a story in the comments, and I’ll pick a winner next Wednesday – September 5 – right before we move.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Not the blues I expected

This post is about indigo dyeing gone wrong. It's also about figuring out how to treat disappointments as "learning experiences," even when it's not clear at the time what you should learn. Get ready for an extensive post!

I've been carefully, lovingly tending a little pot of Japanese Indigo plants this summer. So it was with great excitement that I prepared for my indigo dyeing this weekend! Several days ahead of time, I dyed up yarn samples local yellows -- chamomile, goldenrod, marigold, rudbeckia, and sweetfern -- so that I could overdye them with indigo to get greens.

On the morning for indigo dyeing, I plucked enough leaves to fill a large mason jar, lightly packed. This came to about 40 g by weight -- not much, but it was only a small initial experiment, and I only planned to dye about 20 g of yarn.

Trying to follow the directions from Rita Buchanan's "A Dyer's Garden," I filled the mason jar with water, placed it my larger dyepot as a double boiler, and slowly brought it up to 160 F. I let it simmer at temperature for another hour and a half, and then the leaves steeped for another hour. The leftmost photo shows it while steeping - you can see that the dye liquor was a dark brown, with not so much as a hint of blue.

I strained out the leaves, added half a teaspoon of baking soda, and began to pour the liquid between two jars to oxidize the indigo pigment. Supposedly, the liquid should change color and become a dark blue. When that didn't happen, I added a bit more baking soda, and then a bit more again. The color never seemed to change. The middle picture above shows the dye liquor when I finally gave up on the pouring.

The next step was to add a reducing agent. I added about half a tablespoon of RIT dye remover, and let the jar sit in hot water (110 F) for about ten minutes. This time it did indeed change color -- not to the pale yellow that I expected, but to a light yellowy green. I added more dye remover to try to get it lighter, then let it sit for another twenty minutes. This is shown on the far right, above.

I added seven merino wool samples - six different yellows and one undyed, all previously soaked in warm water. They sat in the indigo dyebath for about half an hour, and then I started to remove them, squeeze them out, and hang them to dry. This is the first one, which was undyed. It's a light yellow coming out of the jar:

And in another minute, it had turned to a turquoise color. This photo below really doesn't show it well. I gave it half an hour to fully oxidize and turn blue, and then I thought I'd darken it with a second dip.

This is when the dyeing experiment took a turn for the worse. To my grave disappointment, the second dip removed more dye than it deposited on the yarn, leaving the yarn even lighter than the first dip. Even worse, when I gave the samples a very mild wash and vinegar dip the following day (according to Jim Liles' directions in "The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing"), almost all the remaining indigo color was removed. The lovely mossy greens reverted to putrid yellows, while the pure indigo sample has barely a hint of color left. Here's the lot, with the yellows on the right, the "greens" on the left, and the "blue" in the middle:

I can't tell you which yarn is from which dyes, because in a fit of anger, I ripped them all off the drying line and threw them away. But this is where the concept of trying to salvage the learning experiences comes in. I retrieved them, let them fully dry, and will sometime try to figure out what is what. And I went back to the books to try to figure out what the heck happened with my indigo.

I think that I found one answer in Jim Liles' extensive section on different indigo vats (note: his recipes use indigo powder rather than fresh indigo leaves). He says that if the vat is too alkaline and has excess reducing agents, then the fiber cannot adequately absorb the indigo. On subsequent dips, the already-deposited indigo will be stripped. Remember how I kept adding baking soda and dye remover when I wasn't seeing the color changes I'd expected? Seems to fit.

But it still doesn't solve the mystery of why the indigo that did adhere to the fiber was rinsed out the next day. Could there have been enough reducing agent left in the unwashed yarn, so that when I dipped it in water, it made another reducing solution?? But if there was that much left on the yarn, then why did I get any blue (i.e. oxidized indigo) at all? Furthermore, what about all the other things on Buchanan's list of what can go wrong: picking the leaves too early or too late, heating the water too slow, too fast, or too high, etc? And what was up with the strange colors of the dye liquor?

This is the problem with learning experiences: when there are so many things that could be responsible for the bad outcome, it's hard to know what to learn.

This issue has been on my mind because I'm trying to deal with another unfortunate outcome: I'm withdrawing from my PhD program. It's mostly a relief, since I've never felt happy or competent in it. But there are deep undertones of sadness and loss, too, since I walk away with nothing to show (no masters degree even) for three exhausting years of my life. So I'm trying to figure out what kind of learning experience I can salvage from it. Would love to hear any thoughts that you have about this kind of process...

For now, I'm seeing one clear upshot -- I'll probably get in a lot more knitting in the next few months!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

hemp happiness

My hemp tank top got its high profile premier during blueberry picking this weekend...

Yarn: Lana Hemp, allhemp 6, "deep river" 2.5 hanks
Needles: #6 24" circular from Knitpicks
Pattern: I winged this one. I started with some sketches and vague ideas -- waist shaping, cables at the sternum, separating out to straps -- but nearly everything was knit several times until I got it right.

Despite copious swatching, I had to cast on and knit a few inches no fewer than three times -- first 148 stitches, then 132, then 124. My waist shaping was a bit off. I kept changing my mind and re-knit the center cable at least 4 times. It took me 5 tries to get the proportions right for the bust decreases. And the obscene amount of curling at the bottom (I swear, my swatch didn't show this!) meant that I had to add 5 rounds of crochet to make it lay flat. But, but! I persevered and am very pleased with the results.

The back is very simple -- I did a few inches of knitting with twisted stitches to reducing the width, stretch and roll of the fabric. The cabled straps are knit from the front and will be simply grafted to the back (they're merely pinned for now so that I can give them a final fit after they stretch). I meant to add a few rows of crochet to the back as well as to the bottom, but my crochet hook was lost between some floorboards.

Anyways, since I didn't carefully record what I did, I'm afraid I don't have many useful pattern notes to share with you. But I can make a few comments on the yarn, which truly put me on an emotional roller coaster:
First impression, in hank: I'm in love! gorgeous color and much softer than expected
During initial swatching, on bamboo needles: good lord, this stuff is a b*tch to knit with
After switching to metal and a larger gauge: hmm ... maybe it's not so bad after all
As I did the third take of the cast on: actually i'm going to scream. this yarn has a cursed drape and a weird bias.
Once I figured things out well enough: hemp happiness!

Thursday, August 02, 2007


My mind has been very distractable of late, flitting from task to task when I need it to be productive and focused. I have no fewer than ten projects in my rotation, which means that none of them actually see progress (which is also why they don't show up on the blog). Then for days at a time, I'll go off on an obsession with my natural dyeing, covering the counters with mason jars of marigolds, sweet fern, black-eyed susans. I just barely held off a recent urge to order a drop-spindle. And let's not even get into the rest of my life!

(pause and look at some daylilies)

In the past week, I tried to exert some control over this maddening non-linearity. All my knitterly attentions were devoted to one project and one project only: my hemp tank top. With each mistake or challenge - and there have been many, since this is unforgiving yarn and I'm making up the pattern as I go - I just frogged and re-knit rather than abandoning the project for a spell.

(how about a doggie in the mid-morning sun?)

You might expect that this resulted in tremendous advances on the project. That's only partly true (I'm satisfied with my progress, although all the adjustments and re-knitting of offending portions mean that it's not finished yet). But that's okay, since clamping down on my distractibility was only partly about productivity. The other thing it's about is mental quiet. And I did find that by focusing on one project, rather than wildly rotating through a dozen of them, knitting became a calming presence instead of another source of frenetic energy.

I've never been a one-project gal before, and I hardly expect this one week to thoroughly tame my ways. But it was a good reminder of the beauty of focusing, and my brain feels nicely calmed down.