Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Finishing Touches

Here it is almost the first of January 2010. The sweater is complete, washed and hanging over the woodstove to dry. It's absorbing some of that good woodsmokey flavor.

My last post ended with the body complete. Next step was knitting the arms, which I did on my Brother bulky knitting machine. The machine has a punchcard for the pattern, and I worked out all the other details before starting. I was a little unsure about the arm length. Kina gave me a measurement, but was this from his armpit, or from the armpit of a loosely fitting sweater, or...? I forged ahead and knit up a 80 row arm. When I took it off and attached it to the sweater, it looked too short. I put it back on the machine and knit another 10 rows, knit another 2 inches of ribbing by hand, and sewed up all the seams. Now it was definitely too long. So I ripped out the ribbing, unraveled about 10 rows and reknit the ribbing. Now (fingers crossed) it's just right!

Next I knitted up the button band and collar. I made the collar nice and tall by knitting back and forth adding one stitch each time from the collar back to the bottom of the front. My mom donated 5 deer antler buttons from her collection.

Then I called Kina and asked him if he wanted pockets (I'd forgotten to ask before I started knitting). He said yes, which meant (gulp) I had to cut slits in the finished sweater front. I've read accounts on how to do this, but have never tried it. No time like the present.

I sewed some brightly colored yarn along the cutting line, stitched on each side of it with straight (sewing machine) stitch, then snipped between the stitched lines. I also zigzaged each cut edge just for extra security. Then I picked up 25 stitches along the cut edge (away from button band), hooked them on the knitting machine needles, knit 30 rows, and cast off, leaving a nice long tail of yarn. I did this on each side. Then I took the sweater up to the house where it was warm. To finish the pockets, I sewed (with yarn) the three sides of the square (described above) down to the inside of the sweater (the fourth side is open for the hand to get in). I picked up stitches along the other cut edge and knitted an inch or so of ribbing. Sewed the edges down and Voila.... Pockets!

Sorry I was so involved in the process, I forgot to take photos of the process. But here's a few photos of the finished sweater!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Sweater Continues

A few weeks have gone by. I decided to knit the body of the sweater by hand, and finish it on the knitting machine. Christmas is fast approaching. I warned Kina that I might not get it done in time. He said something like, "no worries".

My last post ended with the pot boiling on the stove filled with yarn and lichen. In the morning, when the brew had cooled, I pulled out the yarn and it was rather a slimy mess, but a beautiful color.

The best way to get the yarn clean is to whip it around your head like a lasso. The wet lichen flies off in all directions. It's a good idea to stand well clear windows, other people, etc (out in the field is best). I always end up with a fine spray stuck to my face, which may in the end be good for my complexion (is that a chin hair or a bit of 'old man's beard'?).

I did three dye pots with the two bags of lichen I gathered on my walks. As you can see, the shades vary from dark rusty brown to a light tan. Some of it turned out varigated (probably due to sloppy layering technique), but I rather like it... almost like handpainted.

Here's the four colors that will make up the sweater, and what it looked like a couple weeks ago. The dark brown is lichen dyed natural grey, and the tan is also natural grey lichen dyed with a weaker solution. The light grey is a white and natural brown mix, and the dark grey is natural from a greying black sheep.

It took me awhile to work my way up through the bird. This is a kingfisher that has gone punk. I think I will outline him in black, so he stands out more. The kingfisher is an energetic bird who has a strong sense of territory and eats a lot of seafood. I hope that when Kina wheres this sweater he won't be distracted by two kingfishers talking to each other across his button band!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Salish Sweater

While the wind howls around the rooftop this afternoon, I am dreaming up a warm and cozy Salish or Cowichan type sweater to knit as a christmas present for a special someone. I have long had this dream. I bought a book in the 1980s: Salish Indian Sweaters, A Pacific Northwest Tradition, by Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts. Over the years I have pored over this book (the pages are starting to fall out), I've used some of the graphed designs in lighter weight sweaters and hats (one of which recently traveled from Canada to Mexico along the great divide on a bicycle... yep, that's my son, Kina... who coincidentally is back in the Pacific Northwest. He's the one who put in a sweater request!) The sweater I'm planning to knit has the same birds that are on Kina's hat.

I carded up some white and dark grey wool together to make a 'salt and pepper' yarn for the main color. The border will be a natural dark grey/black, and the designs will be knit with a dark brown. In order to get this dark brown I needed to go for a walk with my dog, Claws.

We've had gales blowing the past few weeks, first from the south, then from the north. The happy result is lots of twigs and branches littering the roads and trails covered with lichens. I do not pick live lichens from the trees, but these that have blown down to my foot level are perfect for what I need. I gathered a grocery bag full on our three mile walk. I decided to dye some grey yarn that I have on hand, spun by my mother a few years ago. It is nice and thick, and the darkness of the grey will result in a rich dark brown (I hope) after cooking with lichens.

I dug out my canning kettle, which happens to be the largest pot I have, and filled it with water. Next I put in a layer of lichen, then the yarn, then another layer of lichen. I put my hot plate outside (lichen cooking makes for a strong earthy, not unpleasant, smell... better outdoors), put the pot on it, turned it on high, and let her cook. When the pot began to boil, I turned down the heat and let the brew simmer for an hour. I peaked at the yarn a few times, and gave it all a stir in the process.
The story continues ....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More on Wool Washing

Last summer I had a pile of fleeces to wash. I was having difficulty with getting dirt out of the tips of the locks. Fortunately I came across and article in Spin Off Magazine (something fairly recent, I didn't write down the date) entitled "On Washing Fleece" by Judith Mackenzie Mcguin. She mentioned an old fashioned way of washing fleece, which I'd never heard of before, and I learned a new word: Suint. This little substance is excreted by the sheep and sticks to the wool fibers. It is a natural detergent! When a sheep gets rained on, or wades through a river, the suint goes in to action and rids the sheep's coat of dirt. Judith goes on to describe a method of washing wool that was developed in New Zealand that makes use of suint as a cleanser. And from here I'll quote the article:

"This method i s best done outside and far from your neighbors; it does smell foul, but the smell washes right out of the wool. This method has the lowest environmental impact (minimal water use, no chemicals, and the wash water is good for gardens or compost boxes) of any method I've used. Its main drawbacks are that it smells terrible while you are using it, it takes time to get the process started, and while it works wonderfully on many types of fleeces, it doesn't completely scour out fleeces with high lanolin content. It also requires a soft water supply.
To set up the bath, take any dirty fleece, preferably something with a high grease weight and soak it in a big tub of water (garbage can works fine) for 5 to 7 days. Keep it warm - room temperature if possible. The wash water will start to ferment, it will smell bad and sometimes a slight white film will occur. Remove the fleece, rinse and give it a quick wash in hot, soapy water; rinse in clear water. Put the next fleece you want to wash directly in to the dirty water. Let it sit until the fleece, when rinsed, is clean - usually two days. Rinse well in cold water and dry.
This method works well for luster longwools like Lincoln and Romney or primitive breeds like Shetland, Icelandic and Finnsheep. I've also used it successfully with Down breeds like Dorset and Oxford Downs. It is a great prewash for high grease fleeces like Merino, Cormo and Rambouillet. Use the fermented water over and over; the more you use it, the better it gets. Don't worry that it looks dirty - use the water until, as they say in Montana, it is too thick to swim in and too thin to plow."

Okay, thank you Judith! In my usual manner with recipes, I changed the formula to fit my circumstances. I had 10 fleeces to wash, and the weather forecast hot and sunny for the next week. I dragged out an old rubbermaid garbage can and a 50 gallon plastic barrel and filled them both up with water from the tap (I think our water is soft, but am not sure). I proceeded to stuff all the fleeces in to these two containers, which was a moderately snug fit. Then I covered the barrels with a piece of plywood and went off and did other things for a full week while they 'cooked'.

The seventh day dawned clear and sunny. I built a roaring fire in the hot tub and in two hours I had 100 gallons of hot water ready to go. Sometime during the week I had stopped in at the grocery store and bought a large bottle of cheap (Suave?) coconut flavored shampoo. I got the wheelbarrow and a few 5 gallon buckets and started in on my wool washing day.

Yes, the brew was pretty smelly, but not worse than some things i have encountered. I lifted the masses of wool out of the first barrel and onto a large screen I'd set up on two stumps near the garden. Here the wool dripped while I carted buckets of the smelly water into the garden and dumped in on my rhubarb patch and other spots hungry for some nitrogen. When the barrel was empty, I rinsed it out and filled it with fresh water. Pressing the wool down on the screen removed most of the smelly water, and back in to the clean water barrel it all went. As it was soaking, I emptied the next barrel in the same manner. Then I lifted the fleece from the first barrel into the wheelbarrow, put the next batch of fleece into the (somewhat) fresh water, and carted batch #1 down to the hot tub. I went back and got the screen, which I set up on a couple or three overturned buckets on the lawn where I put the wool from the wheelbarrow and let it drip while I got the washing part set up. I bucketed hot water from the tub into my portable laundry sink (I would never go so far as washing wool directly in our hot tub!), squeezed in a handful of shampoo, squeezed out as much excess water from the fleece as I could, and plopped it into the sink. The water was about 90 degrees, not hot enough to worry about felting. I swished it around a bit until it looked clean, then gently lifted it back on to the screen where it could drip while I put the next batch in the sink.

Every two batches, I emptied the sink, filled with fresh water and rinsed.. then added shampoo and washed another two batches. I also carted the clean wool up the hill to the washing machine and spun it out every time I got a wheelbarrow full, then spread it out to dry on more screens set up on sawhorses around the yard. I did take photographs of this process, but unfortunately my computer crashed, taking all my photographs with it to its digital grave.

My wash day went on for a long while before I was done washing all 10 fleeces. I was pretty exhausted! However, I used only half the bottle of shampoo, and the fleeces came out white and fluffy, cleaner than I've ever gotten in the past. In the future I might revise my method as follows: Start with 5 five gallon buckets with lids (black if possible). Start soaking the fleeces all at once, wait a week, then wash one fleece per day! I'll keep you posted!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Wool Washing Day

This weekend the weather was sunny and warm. I had been contemplating the conundrum of washing wool, since we don't have a predictable supply of hot water. We have an on demand electric water heater, but once I happened to look at the meter box when it was operating, and I was astonished at how fast the meter wheel was spinning. Since then, I have been thinking of alternative ways to heat the large amounts of water that are required for washing the quantity of wool that I currently am shepherding.

My solution: the hot tub! Our wood fired hot tub holds mucho aqua and I can get it all hot with a pile of wood scraps and shavings from the shop. However, I wouldn't be very popular around here if I filled the actual hot tub with wool.. Instead I perched our portable utility sink next to the tub, and put a screen on the other side, then bucketed the hot water into the sink, washed a fleece while stoking the fire and keeping the tub water hot. I let the wool drip for awhile on the screen, then packed a bucket full of wool up to the washing machine and ran it through the spin cycle to extract the remaining water. It dried fast in the warm sun.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Little Studio that Could

When I was a child one of my favorite stories was The Little Engine that Could. I remember quite clearly the picture of the sweat pouring off the brow of the little engine as she struggled up the mountain pass chanting to herself, "I think I can, I think I can". Last winter I began to envision my own studio space, and that chant came to my mind. There's an old shed on our property, "I think I can make it habitable". I walled off a 10' square section, with scraps of plywood from our building projects, stuffed it with insulation salvaged from a house due for demolition. A nice opening window and door came from our pile of salvaged building supplies. I built shelves from extra lumber we had on hand, an old desk became a work table, and as my engine chugged to the top of the mountain, suddenly I had a comfortable space of my own. The spinning wheel that my dad made for me in 1974 now has a home and I am whirling the wheel in pure bliss whenever I get a spare minute.

Of course there's still more finishing to do, but who can concentrate on carpentry when there is wool to be processed??

Mom's Shearing Poem

My mom creates poems about her life. They come to her late at night, or in the early hours of the morning, blooming in to her creative mind and out in to the world.

April 16, 2009


Our festival begins this weekend,

The annual shearing of the sheep.

We spinners wait like vultures,

Eyeing what each of us can keep.

It is a time of gathering, flock and family,

All eager for the changes in store;

The sheep will frolic, light and clean,

The wool folk buried in new fleece galore.

Enticing in its beauty, the fleeces beckon us

Our fingers test its tensile strength,

Our eyes its sheen and crimp.

We users of this harvest must remember

What a gift it is to plunge hands in a fleece;

The shepherd works to keep the flock healthy and safe,

So we like spiders making webs, might carry into our separate corners,

This sacred fiber meal.

by Sally White

Shearing down on the Farm

Last week my Mom phoned and said, "We're shearing tomorrow, can you come down?" I've been looking forward to shearing day. It's a spring ritual, the greening grass, the flowering orchard, the sheep white in the fields, free of their heavy coats. I caught the early morning ferry, and endured 7 hours on the freeway zooming south in my little honda with no back seat, my aging black lab dog shadow, Claws, snoozing on a blanket, half in the trunk, half out.

Friday morning it rained. My brother and I had lured the sheep into the barn the night before and they were dry. The shearers arrived at noon towing their specialized 'shearing wagon'. It was a contraption that had seen many years of service over several generations of shearers. After getting all the sheep lined up, the three shearers went to work. The sheep went up the ramp into the trailer with their woolly coats on, and emerged sheared clean (that's where the term, 'fleeced' comes from!). The lambs got their woolly little behinds clipped. The rain stopped and the sun came out. Mom and I manned the skirting table and selected the finest fleeces to be packed away in boxes for our woolly endeavors for the coming year.

That afternoon and evening the farm resonated with baaing, as lambs tried to locate their mothers who sounded the same but looked entirely different. Perhaps like a young child who doesn't recognize his father after the beard goes away. But this is a body beard!!

I spent a lovely Saturday with Mom, and got some photos of her in her garden.

Claws and I drove home Sunday, the car smelled quite sheepy, with 23 fleeces squirreled away in the trunk and under Claws, who snoozed in cushy comfort. We also brought home some plants from Mom's flower garden, and happy spring memories.

Now I am in wool heaven. I will be washing, teasing, carding and spinning... and somewhere in there I will get my vegetable garden planted!!