Do or Dye

‘Round about this time every winter my wandering creative eye starts to fixate on my spinning stash, as the cold and unpleasant weather of the Midwest drives me toward indoor activities that will relieve my mounting cabin fever. Besides spinning wool into crazy art yarns, I also hand dye wool rovings myself using professional acid dyes or experimenting with natural & botanical eco dyeing.

This year, my dye cabinet really needed to be worked through – I had POUNDS of wools stuffed in there waiting to be painted, and jars of dye I hadn’t even cracked open yet. On top of that whole situation, another imminent move (I’m a roving artist, myself – har har) meant that I really needed to downsize.

So in I dove, resolved to color all of the wool that I had laying around and produce a stash of things I could spin for years to come. 10-12 hours of labor and days of setting and drying time later, I had an extremely pretty and earthy toned woolen rainbow to cuddle.

My acid dye batch included some dyeable prespun merino yarn and a fistful of silky-soft baby Suri alpaca locks – lush!

But after that massive batch of acid dyeing, I decided I wasn’t done yet. I saved back about a half pound of wool because I had last summer’s reject elderberries sitting in my freezer, preserved with the intent to commit eco-dye.

In the past I’ve created my own botanical & food based natural dyes out of tea, coffee, turmeric, pokeberry, black walnut, and avocado – as well as trying out some commercial botanical dyes – and had mixed results. Usually it’s quite hard to get the homemade natural dyes strong enough to get good color and to mordant the fiber properly to get the color to stick. Still I get tempted because I’m a mad fiber scientist at heart!

The lightly toned roving in the picture above comes from commercially derived botanical dye liquids and represent the strongest colors I’ve ever gotten out of a natural dye.

In the late summer when we harvested 15-20 pounds of wild elderberries to make syrup and jelly, I discovered that while rinsing our little treasures the overripe and underripe berries tended to float to the top of the rinse water, making them easy to scoop out leaving the plump, juicy berries sunken at the bottom. I saved back all these rejects knowing at some point I’d try to dye with them, the perfect solution to not wasting pounds of harvest.

The dye process was quick, and I used this excellent post from Woollenflower to guide me. After a mordanting soak during which I boiled down my frozen berries, I drained the wool and put the dye berries through a cheesecloth sieve to separate off the liquid. The wool roving went into quart canning jars, each portioned with citric acid and elderberry juice, and I popped them into the canner to steam for about an hour. After the heat was applied, I let them cool overnight.

While most of the dye rinsed out, I’m still very happy with the gorgeous muted purples and pinks that appeared! Elderberry is particularly sensitive to pH levels, and I aimed to created a mottled effect with some alkaline color and some acidic color on the rovings – it’s hard to tell because none of my picture taking equipment captures these subtle tones in natural light, but I’m pleased with the result πŸ™‚

I don’t expect a ton of colorfastness from this batch, so I’ll probably reserve this wool for creating a wall hanging, as I did with some of my Avocado dyed wool – an indoor decoration is the perfect solution to delicately dyed natural fibers which tend to fade in sunlight or with multiple washings.

A dreamcatcher I made using peachy-pink natural avocado-dyed alpaca fiber, handspun by me. I also crocheted the happy li’l cado in the middle πŸ™‚

I can’t stop looking at this gorgeous woolen rainbow, which I’ve had strung along my photo backdrop curtain string for weeks at this point just because it’s too dang pretty all displayed together like that πŸ˜‰ But today I’ll pack it all away, now that my last stash of undyed wool is colored. I successfully cleaned out my to-dye-for wool stash, but now where do I put all the dyed wool??? Ha!

Almost all of my dyes, mordants, and dyeable wools come from Dharma Trading Co., a USA based tie-dye and fiber art supply company, and I highly recommend them for their products, free resources, and customer service!

-MF

Morale Fiber’s Field Guide to Crochet Gauge and Yarn Behavior

We’ve all been there.

Excitedly scoping a new pattern, picking through the stash for a suitable yarn for the project, dreaming up color schemes and envisioning your gloriously perfect new handmade thingamajig.

Except none of the yarns are the same weight as the pattern recommends. And you can’t find your 5.5 hook (check behind your ear). And your yarn fiber is wool, not bamboo. What to do?!

Gauge and Yarn Behavior for Crocheters

The number one question I get asked as a crochet pattern designer is “Can I use [X] yarn for this pattern? Do I need to change my hook?” And the answer to this question is always basically the same: Check your gauge!


Even if you have a passing familiarity with gauge, it’s about more than just how big your stitches are: multiple factors interact when it comes to how your crochet project is going to look & act with a certain yarn.

I’ve found from experience that it pays off to be familiar with those factors that influence how your crochet project is going to turn out: Gauge, Weight, Fiber, and Drape.

Crocheters who go forward unfamiliar with these influences may find themselves in another familiar, but less pleasant, place : halfway through a crochet garment that doesn’t fit and looks nothing like the sample pictures. An in-depth understanding of these Yarn Behaviors will help stop project mishaps before they ever start!

The following is a guide I’ve put together specifically for crocheters that deals with gauge and related yarn issues. I’ve tried to compile the major technical points of figuring out what yarns to use where, and draw heavily from my 20 years of mistakes…. But remember each crocheter is different and therefore every project is different. The absolute best way to master these aspects of fiber art is just to get a ton of experience at it. That being said, let’s get on with it!

What is Gauge and how do I check it?

We’ll start with gauge: what the heck is it already?

Gauge is the measurement of the size of your stitches with a specific hook and yarn. Another term used for gauge is “tension.” While gauge is not something you may have to deal with for hats or scarves very much, it becomes crucial when making garments like sweaters.

The most common question I get for my patterns is “Can I use (x) yarn for this project / Which hook size should I use?”

The answer to this questions is: Check your Gauge! Technically, you can make any pattern with any size hook and yarn if your gauge matches the gauge given in the pattern (there are other concerns but we’ll get to that later).

Follow these instructions to learn how to measure gauge for crochet projects!

Locating the Gauge Listing

First, look to the Materials & Notes section of your pattern which should be at the very beginning. The gauge or gauges for the project should be listed there. If there are multiple parts/yarns to the pattern you may encounter multiple gauge listings.

Above is an example from my Acanthus Top pattern, with the gauge listing circled in green
Here’s what an example of what the gauge might look like: “Gauge: 3 stitches and 3 rows = 1″ in hdc”

And here’s how that is interpreted:
“3 stitches” = the measurement, taken horizontally from a section of stitching, of how many stitches of the specified type fit within the given unit length (here in Inches)
“3 rows” = the measurement, taken vertically, of how many rows of stitching of the specified type fit within an inch or inches
“= 1 inch ” = the given unit length (commonly can be 1″, 2″, or 4″ although other measurements are possible)
“in hdc” = the specified stitch type for measuring the gauge

Sometimes for my circular crochet patterns, I give the project gauge as the measurement in diameter of the first few rounds – in this case the first small circle of the project counts as the swatch. The gauge portion of the pattern should specify how to measure if it does not use the traditional method.

Example of the first three rounds of the Lotus Mandala measured to check gauge – it’s correct!

Checking Crochet Gauge

Since every crocheter crochets differently – some looser, thinner, or tighter, or fatter – using the same size hook and yarn as the project calls for does not guarantee your gauge will be the same as the one listed for the project.

So now that the Gauge listing is broken down, how do we check it? To accurately check gauge and determine whether your tension is appropriate for the pattern, look again in the Pattern Materials & Notes section. The pattern will list a recommended yarn and hook size – you’ll need to start by using the recommended yarn, or at least a yarn in the same weight category, and the hook size listed in the materials section. With these materials, you are now ready to test your gauge by making a small sample piece of fabric called a swatch.

It’s very tempting to skip this part and move on to the project itself, which is not too dangerous for small projects like hats and scarves – but for things like large sweater coats, you better swatch out!

My Tunisian crochet sweater coat trifecta: The Shaman Coat, the Elf Coat, and the Priestess Coat

Testing Your Gauge: Swatching for Crocheters

1. Get the hook size and yarn recommended by the pattern gauge listing
Chain a length of 15-20 sts or long enough to accommodate whatever stitch or pattern being swatched (sometimes the pattern will give you direct instructions on how to make your gauge swatch). Some gauge guides say the swatch will be 4 inches, some recommend other lengths or stitch counts – your pattern may or may not specify. The main concern is the get a piece of fabric big enough that your hand becomes accustomed to the stitch design and starts to work regularly. This is also why the gauge reading is taken in the middle of the swatch, away from the top, bottom, or side edges – but we’ll get to that.

2. Begin to Swatch
The Gauge listing in the pattern should indicate what stitch or part of the pattern to use for a swatch sample. Here’s the sample Gauge from earlier:
Gauge: 3 stitches and 3 rows = 1″ in hdc
For this swatch, I would start with 20 ch stitches, then work 1 hdc in each chain stitch. Working in rows back and forth, I would create enough rows of stitching to make a solid square or rectangle piece. Seems like a lot of work, I know. But you can’t get a good gauge reading from a piece that’s only 5 stitches long!

3. Pin it Out
Once the swatch is complete, it’s time to measure. Before measuring, set out a soft surface (towel, cushion, or blocking mat) and use pins to uncurl your swatch out to it’s fullest size, evening the tension of the piece. Crochet stitching uncurls and loosens some after being worked, so if you measure your swatch without tensioning it first, you may get an inaccurate gauge reading.

While 4 sts / 1 inch doesn’t seem like that much of a difference from 3.5 stitches / 1 inch, small differences can really add up on larger projects. Get your gauge as close as possible to avoid mishaps later!

4. Measure it!
Get a gauge plate tool (the one pictured here is from my Addi Click knitting set, but they are sold individually by the hooks & needles in hobby stores) or a measuring tape / ruler and measure the stitches in the middle of the swatch. For our given gauge of 3 stitches and 3 rows = 1″, we should be able to measure 3 stitches horizontally at 1 inch, then 3 stitches vertically to equal 1 inch.

I did not achieve the correct gauge horizontally, because I have 4 stitches to the inch instead of 3.
But I got it right vertically!

Correcting Your Gauge

If your gauge is smaller (tighter), and you are getting more stitches and rows per inch (4 sts and 3 rows, for example, instead of 3 stitches and 3 rows. Which was what I got for the swatch pictured above) you will need to size your hook UP to create looser tension and bigger gauge to match the measurements of the project.

If your gauge is larger (looser) and you are getting fewer stitches per inch (2 stitches and 2 rows, for example) you will need to size your hook DOWN to create tighter tension and smaller gauge.

In the above picture, I have tensioned my swatch. And though I worked this swatch in the exact same yarn as the pattern recommends, using the same size hook, AND EVEN DESPITE THE FACT THAT I AM THE ONE THAT WROTE THAT GAUGE for that pattern, I still did not get it right. LOL! That’s gauge for you!

Sometimes you’ll end up with the correct amount of stitches horizontally, but not vertically (or the other way around). Messing around with your method can sometimes correct gauge errors that are just a little off. Try altering the tension of the yarn in your non-hook hand, or pulling up more yarn per stitch, to adjust errors in stitch height or make small horizontal adjustments. Additionally, different hook materials can affect your gauge – if you can’t achieve the right tension with a bamboo hook, try a metal one!

Besides switching your hook, it is also possible to change yarns to get a different gauge, although that happens less often – more commonly, people wish to use a certain yarn for a project and will switch hook size in order to obtain the correct gauge with the yarn they intend to use. However you go about it, adjust your ingredients according to whether you need a tighter or looser gauge.

And then yes, you’ll have to make another swatch and measure again πŸ™‚

But it’s better than having to undo entire large projects because of gauge errors!

After sizing up my hook by one step (3.75 mm instead of 3.50 mm) and tensioning, I made a swatch with the right gauge horizontally of 3 stitches to an inch. My vertical measurement stayed the same.

One thing I recommend is to keep a stack of past projects’ swatches with the aim of creating a blanket/quilt/other scrap project with them. Having a future use for them makes them more appealing to actually do – and who doesn’t want another project on top of their new project? Haha!

Changing & Taming Gauge:

Let’s say, for the sake of insanity, that you actually DO want to change the gauge of an entire sweater project – you have a hook and yarn combo that makes a different gauge than the project and you’re determined to use it anyway. How do you get a garment that still fits? You have three options:
1.Try to make a different size (if multiple sizes are offered)
2. Just try it anyway and totally wing it changing the pattern willy nilly to fit your size needs, accepting that the result might be utter failure with no recourse (my favorite method).
3. A Lot of Math.

So much math is involved in #3, in fact, that I can’t lay out a general plan here in this Field Guide, but if you would like to start learning how the mathematics of gauge goes into planning the size and design of a crochet pattern, check out some of my free pattern resources. I try to periodically design stuff that’s really open-ended, with the intent to lead others to customize and experiment with whatever they have available – here’s two I’d recommend!:
Basic Armwarmers Tutorial
Basic Bralette Tutorial

Finally, there ARE times when you don’t have to worry about checking gauge at all: when you don’t care if the project comes out exactly as big as the pattern specifies – blankets and home decor projects are good examples.
That’s the conclusion of the Gauge-specific portion of this Field Guide, but if you’re curious about the other important Yarn Behaviors, read on!

An oldie but a goodie : The Partial Shades T-Shirt Yarn Plant Hanger

Yarn Weight – Meet the Standards

Yarn weight is one of those things that seems like it should be simple. Especially in the United States, we’re used to seeing one of 8 little numbers on the yarn label which generally tells us what different yarns can work for the same project. For instance, if you have a crochet pattern that calls for a #4 weight category yarn, most people will go to the store and pick any yarn they like that has a #4 on it.

This yarn label has lots of info – the weight is shown on the little skein pictogram as “5” for #5, also called Bulky, weight yarn.

Except experienced crocheters know that not every yarn in the same weight category is going to act exactly the same. Take my favorite rogue #4 weight yarn – Lion Brand Shawl in a Ball – and compare to a regular cheapie #4 weight acrylic solid:

They look totally different. And you might guess that they work up pretty differently, too:

And that’s why yarn labels also contain some other important information besides the general numbered category (which doesn’t even exist on some non-US yarns): The length of the skein in yards/meters, the weight of the skein in ounces/grams, and the fiber content.

Yarn Density

The length/weight information tells something important about the yarn that the numbered categories don’t directly specify – how DENSE or heavy the yarn is. That’s how our favorite rogue manages to be a #4 weight yarn the same as this acrylic – because the Shawl in a Ball is denser, and so the yarn is as heavy per yard/meter as the bigger sized yarn. And since yarns are categorized by weight, the Shawl in a Ball has enough weight per length unit to get a #4 label even though it is thinner than our acrylic #4.

Wraps Per Inch

While the apparent thickness of the yarn strand usually stays similar throughout a single numbered yarn category – several of these bulky #5 yarns for example – there is another metric that can help determine if your yarn is right for your project, and that’s something called Wraps Per Inch (WPI).

Three yarns of different fibers and plies, all labeled #5 weight

WPI is measured by taking a small object (a ruler is choice, a pencil works great too) and wrapping a strand of yarn as neatly and evenly as possible around the object. The wraps are then measured to see how many wraps can fit within an inch of space – which gives a better idea of the thickness of the strand than the weight categories do.

Here’s a handy WPI and yarn weight chart from Ravelry!

You can totally test WPI yourself at home, which I have done a number of times to help determine what weight my recycled sweater yarn was.

Fiber Content

Different fibers have different structures and densities, and yes, fiber content will definitely affect your project – and for more reason than just how you wash it. Fiber densities effect grams per yard, so a thinner yarn made of heavier fiber may be in same weight category as fatter yarn with lighter fiber – and the different surface qualities will change the way your project looks and acts.

Microscopic view of different fibers, image not mine. I’ve had this image in my media for so long I don’t know the original source, sorry!

There are so many more fibers and fiber blends available today than there were even 10 years ago when I started getting serious about my funtime hobby. I could most definitely do a full post on just fiber alone (actually I’ve done several in the past) but I’ll try to keep it fairly brief for now!

Fibers come in several general categories: Animal or Protein fibers (wool, alpaca, yak, etc) Plant or Cellulose fibers (cotton, rayon, hemp etc), and Inorganic/Man-made fibers (polyester, acrylic, polyamide, ect).

Although it may not be the first thing you compare when substituting your yarns, fiber content does matter – especially if you need to know how the finished piece will behave over time. A heavier-fiber yarn (such as cotton) substituted in place of a lighter fiber yarn (such as acrylic) will result in a project that might be a lot heavier overall than the designer intended, causing problems such as stretching and warping.

The Lotus Duster, size Large


Conversely, a project that is designed to depend on the heaviness of the yarn for it’s overall look (such as the Lotus Duster, pictured above) might not be quite as flattering to wear in a yarn that is extremely light and does not exert the right amount of downward pressure on the garment. (I mean in my opinion it looks great no matter what but… πŸ˜‰ )

Not to mention wool, and whether or not your project will shrink and felt in the wash!

An ancient photo of half-felted wool that I messed up when dyeing – it did turn into a nice shawl, though!

In addition to weight, fiber also contributes to the traction or slipperiness of a stitch – extremely soft and slippery fibers like silk will not create a lot of friction or resistance when rubbing together, so any stitches made with silk yarn will settle and stretch out to the maximum that they can in a finished project – where a stiffer, rougher yarn like wool (especially if it’s lighter too) will not ‘spread’ so much.

Of course, in considering what yarn to use, where you’ll wear it makes a big difference too. Cotton, bamboo, and silk are wonderful fibers for delicate next-to-skin projects, like the halter top below made with bamboo/silk blend. I had to keep the tension tight for this project so that the stitches in the slippery soft fiber wouldn’t stretch out too much, resulting in wardrobe malfunctions πŸ˜‰

From my Basic Bikini Cup guide

Yarn Ply:

Ply refers to the structure of the fibers within the strand of yarn – a ply is one strand of raw fiber spun together, and a yarn may consist of many plies or only one. Yarns with several plies tend to be strong and can be easily pulled back out (frogged) from stitching. One ply yarns (like RH Unforgettable) provide a gorgeous stitch definition but are weaker and will pill/tangle more easily when unraveled.

These yarns from top to bottom are multi-ply (I don’t know how many exactly but more than 4), 2-ply (in the middle) and 1 ply (chenille yarn on bottom)

Ply, combined with fiber type, will affect the density and elasticity of the yarn too! When finding yarns that will easily create the same gauge as your intended project, it can be helpful to match the ply types of the yarn. For this reason some UK yarns will list the ply on the label (like we saw on the Ravelry standards chart).

Since ply isn’t talked about that much in crocheting, how about a for instance?

My Elf Coat uses DK (#3) weight wool as the recommended yarn. I searched high and low for a suitable DK weight yarn substitute available in US hobby stores (King Cole Riot is a UK brand yarn). The closest I could find was Red Heart Unforgettable, a worsted (#4 weight) yarn. As mentioned in the pattern, they do produce slightly different gauges with the same size hook, but RH Unforgettable works better as a substitute than other #4 yarns might because Unforgettable is a one ply yarn just like the DK weight yarn.

If you are very interested in the structure of yarn plies and the ways that different yarns are designed and constructed, you should check out my blog posts about spinning. There’s no better way to take your hobby to the next level than to learn to make your own yarn!

Drape:

Ah, drape. Drape is the creature of the night, the hidden amalgamation of all the yarn behaviors discussed above. How could I not love something as mysterious and dramatic as drape, which is how a piece of fabric hangs or flows over a surface?

The flow of the fabric depends first on how easily the stitches can move around within it – stitches with lots of space in between them may have better movement and can wrinkle and ruffle more when handled or hung – pieces with stitches very tightly packed and no space in between will be stiff and less flow-ey.

The Lotus Duster pattern uses thin, cotton yarn and a proportionally large hook to create stitches with tons of room to flow around
The Post Stitch Pixie Hat pattern uses thick yarn, a relatively small hook, and tightly packed post stitches to create a structured bonnet with almost no floweyness

Through the years I have found that people, whether they are beginner fiber artist or not, DO instinctively perceive drape even though it can be hard to define. When I read about how a crochet piece doesn’t match the project image, or when I see crocheters struggle to recreate a specific part of a pattern that just “doesn’t look right” even though the gauge and stitches are correct – that’s drape.

But it’s not just about the closeness of the stitching – you can get the correct gauge for a project and still not achieve a good drape.

If your yarn is not the same or similar fiber content, your drape can be off – remember talking about smoother yarns like silk stretching and settling more? That’s drape, too.

And yarn weight, in which some yarns are weirdly heavier or lighter per yard than others in the same category, due to fiber content? You guessed it! That affects drape too.

And you might have some suspicions about WPI – the amount of space a certain size yarn takes up when wrapped around an object (such as a crochet hook)… Whaddya know! Drape!

The Flower Child Pullover has a medium drape, the openwork mesh combines with sturdy #4 acrylic to create a sweater with both swing and structure

The good news is, drape can be tamed by being familiar with all the yarn qualities and behaviors we’ve been talking about in this post. If that lovely sweater you’ve got your eye on making calls for yarn that’s 50% bamboo and 50% cotton, now you’ll know that choosing a 100% acrylic yarn will change the way that project looks or maybe even fits. And you can either decide to look for a yarn that’s a closer match, or decide you don’t give a flip and will make it with whatever yarn you have on hand and drape be damned (an extremely valid standpoint IMO).

Which brings me to the final portion of this programme:

Wrapping it Up

You’re armed. You’re ready. You’ve got your massive, exuberantly curated folder of crochet patterns. You’ve got your yarn and your backup yarn and your secret backup yarn (it’s hidden in the trunk of the car). You’ve got your hooks (except for that damn 5.50 CHECK THE COUCH)…

And you’ve got all this information about how to best make material choices based on gauge, weight, fiber, WPI, ply… yikes! That’s a lot to consider now, and maybe it can be a bit overwhelming. After all, a lot of hobby crocheters make it their whole hobby careers not worrying about most of this.

And that’s perfectly fine. I wanted to create this Field Guide for other fiber artists who might have wondered the same things as me, and for those who just can’t get enough of weirdly specific fiber science (also me). The important part is to have the knowledge, so that you can make your own decisions. As a very famous and favorite quote of mine runs, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

If you’re a beginner crocheter who came here to learn about gauge and got sucked in, congratulations on making it this far! I can’t believe you’re still reading this! Anyway, dear beginners who need a starting point: just start with the gauge aspect of Yarn Behaviors, following the procedures for checking gauge by swatching. The rest of these considerations will be picked up and intuited over time πŸ™‚

After all, the majority of what I’m presenting here is information I’ve slowly gleaned through experience. Experience and a whole buttload of mistakes – because while none of us like to make mistakes, we simply can’t grow and learn without them. So whether or not you apply all the information in this post, I truly hope it’s helpful on YOUR fiber art journey, whatever you make of it.

And as always I am here if you have questions and I love to talk shop – if I don’t have answers, I can at least offer advice ❀

Thanks for visiting! See you on the next yarn safari…
-MF

Alpaca Handspun Wrap

Forgive me, fiber darlings, as the golden falling walnut leaves and the true approach of autumn sends me into paroxysms of nostalgia – you see, I’ve completed a very long personal fiber art project, and will not hesitate to use it as an excuse to wax sentimental πŸ˜‰

Translation: This is a long personal reflection post and a project with no patterns. πŸ˜‰

It was almost 4 years ago exactly that I decided to give my still new (to me) Ashford Traveler Double Drive spinning wheel a good workout by ordering several pounds (!!) of Alpaca fiber that I got on sale.

I had already been working with drop spindles at this point, but I was excited to take advantage of the larger, faster batches one could produce with the wheel. I dug into the first pound with vigor, producing a tight and even dark brown set of yarns… but like lots of large projects, the initial momentum got lost and it took me several years to finish spinning the rest of the fiber.

In the mean time I learned and experimented with lots of other things, and even added more alpaca fiber to the hoard, including a raw fleece gifted to me by a friend (not much of that one went into the final product – hand carding is a workout!!)

The fleeces followed me, like a little herd of alpacas themselves, though many phases of life in the past four years. I spun and played with them, dreamed with them. They reminded me all the time of the farms and ranches I worked at when I was younger and traveling the United States, work-trading as a farm hand at communes and eco-villages. Every fiber of them passed through my hands eventually, to twist together on the wheel or spindle – how many thoughts are in these fibers? How many dreams?

At once point I got exuberantly experimental about natural dyeing again (my first forays consisted of tea, coffee, turmeric, and a failed pokeberry batch way back in 2009-10 or so), so I started collecting the vegetable waste from my day job in the produce department and brewing up a big batch of avocado dye from the pits and skins. Raw material, collected and transmuted again. How many hands picked the fruit? How many dreams did they dream?

When I dive, I deep dive. I want to know the parts of a process like I know the breathing of my lungs, intrinsically, so that my fingers can read the dreams. To me, that is the way to respect – respect what, I don’t know. The energies it took to create everything around me? Maybe. It is gratitude, definitely.

When the fibers were carded and dyed and spun and plied and washed and dried, I took them to my fatter knitting needles: the 9.00 mm circulars from my interchangeable set. (I remember the super long knitted scarf from a decade ago, and how I tried to cram so many stitches of recycled cotton onto a cheap plastic yard sale needle and snapped it into oblivion, losing hundreds of tiny knit stitches to my cold-sweating terror…)

Good thing my tools have evolved with me.
I knit and knit and knit, practicing my speed-purling, practicing my yarn overs, dropping stitches and switching to garter occasionally. I never got the bug for delicate knit patterns, I like my knits huge and stupid and chunky and easy.

I knew it was going to be a big folded rectangle essentially, with two arm holes. Simple. A large serape-like shell could be worn over other winter layers, since not all of the yarn I used is next-to-skin soft – but holy heck is it warm! Alpaca fiber is also naturally water-resistant, enhancing this wrap’s qualities as outerwear.

I played up the textural aspects of this piece, letting my big dumb rectangle be the blank canvas for every nuanced lump in the fiber. It was handspun; it was messy, chunky, uneven, perfectly imperfect. I did not want it to look sleek, cosmopolitan, curated. It was my glorious mess. So I did what I learned to do best in the grueling hours of the windowless rooms in studio art at Indiana University – turn imperfections into advantages.

(Mostly) planned dropped stitches provided visual breaks vertically, and lines of garter stitches complemented and accented the color changes horizontally, creating a weathered and distressed texture that plays up the lumpy, bumpy, mismatched yarnscape. The large needles allowed plenty of looseness in the stitches to give the otherwise square shell garment a flattering bit of drape. The rough visual style belies the incredibly squishy loft of the bulky alpaca yarns.

I can’t believe I spun 100% of this garment – it is my first large project to be entirely handspun. Some parts are a little scratchy, I’ll admit, and it certainly needs a second wash (it’s fragrant in a strongly camelid sort of way at the moment) – but this piece will warm me now in a special way, because so much of my story is now shared with it.

I get really excited when I finish a piece that’s taken me years, to me they feel like a victory! Previously, the Stump had been my longest-held project (3 years), but now the Alpaca Wrap (4 years) is the record holder πŸ˜‰

And here’s my advice to every artist who may have had the tough moments, like me, that make dreams feel like impossibilities: Patience, patience, patience.

-MF

Alpacalypse Now

Guys, I’m really sorry about that pun. Sort of.

You see, last Saturday I turned in my final assignment for my Bachelor’s degree, so I’ve been bursting forth with renewed energy on all the ongoing craft projects laying around my home. And exuberant art energy requires puns.

DSC_1886.JPG

So that’s my segue into my post today, talking about one of the things I love to do when I have a little extra time – spinning! Well, it’s also just an excuse for shameless yarn porn.

DSC_1894.JPG

I’ve been spinning periodically, although I haven’t really made a blog post about it recently. I did a silly thing a while back and ordered a massive amount of beautiful alpaca fiber from Alpaca Direct. I resolved to spin it all, and wrote a whole post about it –Β  which, now that I look at that post, was over two years ago. Slow art for the win!

Because, I totally did spin it all! Yep, all of it. Some of it even made it into projects for my friends along the way. This is me, plying together the last bit of the natural white alpaca fiber, on my trusty wheel.

IMG_20181110_194408_799.jpg

Her name is Mystic.

I made it through the pound of natural white, the 12 oz of dark brown, and SOME of the 8 oz of lighter brown (from Valentina) that I purchased at a later date. I eventually gave up on spinning it all consistently, and went in for the fast and wacky approach for the last half of the natural white. I love the variation in textures I got!

DSC_1897.JPG

DSC_1899.JPG

DSC_1901.JPG

For the white yarn, some skeins were consistent, some were chunky, and some were singles. The dark brown (being the first batch I did) was pretty even, and the light brown is a bulky, fluffy affair.

DSC_1906.JPG

I am really loving these natural tones, which is a good thing because my beautiful friends sometimes give me secondhand fiber.Β  Last summer I was gifted a big bag of RAW alpaca fiber in a beautiful pecan brown color; the catch is, this fiber is really unprocessed.

DSC_1907.JPG

DSC_1911.JPG

Which is actually not a catch at all, since I finally had an excuse to purchase some carding equipment! Hand carders (still not enough resources to justify a drum carder πŸ˜› ) were acquired and now I am clumsily learning to use them.

DSC_1913.JPG

DSC_1915.JPG

I’m not great at it yet, especially since I have to keep switching to my left hand so that my right arm doesn’t end up noticeably more beefy – this activity is a WORKOUT. But as you can see, I’m producing a few silly looking rolags from the raw material so I can spin them, bit by bit, on the drop spindle.

DSC_0003.JPG

DSC_0005.JPG

Excuse my awkward fiber sausage

Its tempting to build a pile of rolags and then spin them all on the wheel for speed’s sake, but for now I am enjoying the process of drop spindling them, so that I can learn how the fibers act when they are hand carded like this. I’ve been favoring the spindle lately anyway, after a period of neglect. Its simplicity and portability is really attractive and valuable, even though wheel spinning is more efficient, so I’m glad I learned both.

DSC_0007.JPG

The real question is, what the hell am I going to make with 4 pounds of handspun alpaca fiber? Stay tuned, maybe I’ll know in another two years! πŸ˜‰

UPDATE 9/2020: It did, in fact, take me another two years.

20181110_214254.jpg

Here’s a picture of my moon lamp, for no reason other than its pretty!

-MF

Fiber Review: Polworth Tussah

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about spinning here, but not because there’s been a lack of spinning – most of it has been powering through giant piles of alpacaΒ because, after I finished the first batch I had ordered from Alpaca Direct, I ordered more πŸ˜›

alpacayarn1

I plan on coloring the copious amounts of natural white handspun with some liquid natural dye extracts at some point – but it’s been a busy busy summer. More on that later.

At any rate, the fiber I’m talking about today is the Polworth Tussah 60/40 blend that I dyed last year – the other half of the braid I worked with PLUS a big booty 6.75 oz braid of the same colourway are both available (separately) in my Etsy shop.

celtic1-3

The braid I split to spin half – “Celtic Teatime” Polwarth Tussah 60/40

Polwarth is a breed with wool that has a long staple length and a fine fiber around 23 microns. Combined with Tussah, or wild silk, which is also fine, soft, and lengthy in the staple department, what struck me about spinning this fiber was how EASY it was.

As I’ve mentioned before, the long staple length of 100% Tussah silk is balanced by how slippery the fiber is, making it easy to spin but also very easy to lose control of, resulting in lots of rejoining. The combination with Polwarth, which like all wools has more “traction”, totally solves this problem.

DSC_1831

The 2.25 oz skein set on a backdrop of way too much alpaca yarn

I opted to spin this fiber as a 1-ply thick & thin slubby style. Silk always makes dyes look just amazing, retaining vibrant color and sheen, so I wanted to keep the focus on the colors by not plying them against another strand and possibly muddying their appearance.

This was where the fibers’ shared virtues came in handy – I don’t think I had to rejoin that single ply once the entire length! Very handy, and since I was aiming for primitive looking, I spun it at top speeds. Done in under an hour – awesome.

DSC_1834

The silk gives this yarn strength and definition and the wool makes it pillowy soft with a slight fuzzy halo. I plan on using this yarn for another crazy pixie belt – prepare for cuteness!

DSC_1835

Here’s some of the elements of said pixie belt so far – both the mushroom pouch and the shamrock pouch also have handspun in them – you just can’t beat it for giving your projects a totally unique look.

-MF

Art Yarn Overload

Thanks to a pro tip from a fellow Instagram spinner, I bought a jumbo bobbin and flyer kit for my Ashford Traveler wheel a few months ago and I have been loving it! Rather than get a whole new wheel for spinning bulky yarns, the jumbo bobbin kit allows me to spin all kinds of yarns on my regular wheel without taking up extra space.

That doesn’t mean I have quit drooling over the Country Spinner or the Majacraft Aura, but it does mean I have been experimenting a lot with art yarns. My most recent foray was with some BFL that I dyed and corespun in a gradient.

FireMtn1

First, I had to split and fluff the roving (factory processing in addition to the dyeing process compacts the fibers – easily fixed by whipping the roving around a bit)..

FireMtn2

Then I separated my colors so that I could spin them into a loooooong, bright gradient.

FireMtn6.jpg

Corespinning, or spinning fiber onto a core of pre-spun commercial yarn or thread, is one of my favorite techniques, because the resulting yarn has the smoothness and color-centric-ness (word? I don’t think so) of one-ply yarns, but you can still achieve soft, cushy yarns without worrying about your fibers pulling apart easily. This one is called “Fire in the Mountain” and is available in my Etsy shop, along with a bunch of other art yarns I’ve been hoarding!

Fire In the Mountain was spun from roving dyed in my most recent dye batch a couple of weeks ago, in which these three Merino Bamboo blends also got some color:

The rovings are also for sale in the shop! Basically this post is just a glorified shop update. But I’m okay with that if you are. To compensate, here’s more pictures of yarn I spun (this time from my personal use stash):

The jumbo bobbin also helps with spinning regular sized yarns, as I can fill two bobbins to the brim with singles and then ply them together uninterrupted (like I did with that 4 oz of lovely emerald green pictured above). I think these two yarns are about to find a home in another Lotus Duster

Happy spinning!

-MF

 

 

Roving Color Bomb

There’s been a color explosion over at my Etsy Shop recently as I listed some beautiful rovings that I dyed over Spring Break – along with some other new summer goodies!

This was the largest dye session I’ve managed yet, and I’m happy to say that my process has come a long way since my first foray into fiber dyeing. Here’s a peek at the madness I unleashed on my poor kitchen! It all starts with coffee, of course.

DyeProcessCollage

And here’s the results!

I dyed 4 braids of that earthy multicolored green and brown; it’s a generic wool blend from Dharma Trading Co. – no wool breed listed, but it spins up super nicely. The other three or so braids became faux dreadlocks using a combination of spinning and felting.

I also split the “Mango Punch” colorway BFL braid into thirds and spun one of the thirds for quality control purposes and also because I couldn’t help but play with some of that luscious color after all that work! It spun really beautifully paired with a deep emerald BFL roving from my stash into a bright art yarn I call “Jungle Juice.”

The other 2/3rds of that braid is listed in my shop at a discount since it’s already split!

As much as I am enjoying classes, I’m antsy and anxious as hell for the freedom to keep dyeing and spinning and stitching without other obligations. But I need to buckle down and finish the semester.

Well, maybe just one more row.

-MF

I Sing a Song of Plastic Bag Yarn

DSCN4250

Out of all the materials I have ever crocheted with, I would have to say one of the most fun and rewarding is Plarn. For those of you who don’t know, “plarn” is the common terminology for “yarn” or cordage made from repurposed plastic grocery bags (plastic + yarn = plarn).

Despite the name, plarn actually contains no yarn and is made up entirely of strips from these grocery bags. Many countries have put initiatives in place to stop the enormous amount of plastic grocery bags from entering landfills and polluting the environment – but in America, we are mostly still woefully wasteful when it comes to these things.

That’s why it’s so satisfying to turn them into art instead! Β Also it’s like SOOOOOO FREEEEE.

Did I mention how durable this stuff is? You may not think that plarn would be strong, since grocery bags are relatively weak, but once you combine and stitch them, they are astonishingly durable. The first plastic bag yarn bag I ever made was in 2010, a nice simple drawstring mesh bag. For 6 years I have crammed my shower supplies and towels in that thing and dragged it from camping trips to festivals to cross-country journeysΒ and it’s still holding up. Mind you, I have not treated the poor thing gently at all. That’s how strong this stuff can be!

I won’t show you a picture of that bag, since it is pretty dingy after all that back woods hippie behavior, but I do have a few others to show. Here’s one from 2012…

Plarntree

I used tapestry crochet for the trunk on the flap of this messenger bag and then slip stitched the green plarn on the surface to make a swirling leaf design.

Plarntree2

If you’re friends are nice enough, they will save you special colored plastic bags and you can make something like this mandala messenger style bag out of colorful plarn!

There’s lots of different ways to make plastic bag yarn, so I’ve collected a few links to tutorials I find most helpful to narrow down the search:

This HubPage article by Moira Durano-Abesmo demonstrates both the double-strand and the single-strand method for creating plarn (I use the double strand method)…

…while this Hubpage article by the same author talks about ways to make plarn softer by spinning it or working it.

Look At What I Made has a great post about making plastic bag “thread” for use in smaller plastic bag projects. Also, she mentions that plastic bags in the UK are mostly biodegradable now and therefore not good for use in projects you want to last! Again, here in wasteful America this isn’t a consideration, but something to keep in mind for readers from other countries.

Another great video on making plarn and then spinning it can be found on Youtube in a video from Wind Rose Fiber Studio.

Of course, there’s a million billion awesome creative uses for this plastic bag yarn once you’ve made it. I tend to make bags (I call them Bag Bags), but one simple Pinterest search will overwhelm you with other ideas – like this awesome Hammock project from Too Many Hobbies, Too Little Time.

One thing I searched for but couldn’t find was a tutorial for the “whole bag method” that was taught to me by someone who used it to make recycled plastic rope. It’s stunningly simple AND you don’t have to worry about throwing away those pesky handles!

The theory is similar to the double strand method, only you use entire bags to make the loops instead of strips of a single bag. To start, you need some plastic bags (duh) and scissors.

DSCN4243

Take the scissors and cut down the side of the bag, from the bottom of the handle opening down to the seam at the bottom. Repeat for the other side.

DSCN4244

Grasp the bottom seam in one hand and the top handles in the other, and smoosh the entire bag into one big loop.

DSCN4245

Grab another bag and repeat, making other big loop.

DSCN4246

Overlay the loops and pull one back through itself, creating a knot.

Continue making whole bag loops and looping them together. The cordage that this makes is really thick and stronger than normal plarn, especially if you twist or braid whole strands of this stuff together into rope!

It’s so thick that I haven’t tried to crochet plarn (plope?) made from this method, although I am sure there are intrepid bulky crocheters or knitters out there that have done so or will do. What about you? Have you worked with plarn, and if so, what do you like to make with it?

-MF

 

Fiber Review: Targhee

Thanks to a combination of schoolwork and holiday traveling, I haven’t written very many substantial posts for the past few weeks, but I’ve been eagerly awaiting a chance to sit and write some fiber reviews.

A while back I became very interested in spinning Targhee wool: Targhee is a breed of sheep developed in the U.S in the 20th century, with Rambouillet, Corriedale, and Lincoln ancestors. I had spun a sample earlier in my spinning career and loved the cushy quality this wool has.

So of course I ordered more from Corgi Hill Farm. I split the roving into quarters and spun two batches of end-to-end 2-ply. (Each quarter of the split roving spun as a single length of ply, then each pair plied together… mostly. But we’ll get to that)

Targhee

Here’s what I learned:

First, I was WAAAAY off when I split one half of this roving into two strips. My bobbins came out so uneven that I had to do some frantic fiber rearranging in order to make the two batches come out with similar color progression once plied and stitched. That doesn’t have anything to do with the specific fiber, but it’s good advice – if color length and progression matters to you, weigh your roving fractions so you can pair the most similar weights together to get the most closely matching lengths of singles for plying.

The fiber itself was just as soft and squishy as I remember. With a 21-25 micron count, Targhee wool has the friction and grabby nature that makes pure wool rovings fun to spin, but the Targhee I worked with was exceptionally dense and springy. One might say marshmallow-esque.

Targheefrap2.jpg

In fact, it was so dense and marshmallowy that I had trouble spinning at first, even though I split and fluffed (i.e- jerked it around like a whip to make the factory-and-storage compacted fibers open up and loosen). I don’t always predraft, but predrafting was a must with this fiber.

Knitty, my primary source for amazing spinning advice, has a good article about treating roving before spinning.

Once I predrafted, spinning this yarn was pretty easy. Not as easy as Merino, but easy enough that I sat through a shameful amount of Vikings episodes continuously spinning. Like you seriously don’t want to know how many episodes I watched in one go while doing this. Don’t ask.

As I mentioned the first time I spun Targhee, much of the pillowy nature of this fiber is lost in a one-ply, so plying was had, on a drop spindle for my larger skein and on the wheel for my two smaller skeins. Once plied, the Targhee’s true nature was revealed to me – soft, warm, with enough resistance to shout “I’m Wool!” but also fine enough for hats, gloves, and other next-to-skin garments.

TargheeFrap1.jpg

I think this will be a lovely pair of woodland style armwarmers, my all-time favorite (so far) thing to make with handspun yarns!

~*Mf*~

 

Winter Updates!

I disappeared into an intense bout of spinning lately, trying out my new colorway with a fractal ply to test the harmony of the colors. It turned out GORGEOUS, and pictures will be shared as soon as I’m done setting the twist. The second run of the colorway, “Mango Punch” is officially available in my Etsy Shop, along with my second signature colorway, “Dyed Leather.”

Enough talk. Pictures now.

Mango Punch -Superfine Merino, 3.62 oz. I replaced the muted sage green of the first run of this colorway with a bright apple. I love both versions!

Dyed Leather – on Gray Gotland, 3.62 oz. The natural silver tone of this fiber took the dyes exactly as I was hoping they would, creating complexity and depth.

I also indulged in some doodling over Thanksgiving break, freehand with sharpies on a poster board. I do believe I will color it..

I guess you would call this a Zentangle, although I prefer less dense patterning in my mandalas.

And finally, I am stoked on my very first homebrewed batch of kombucha! I love this stuff, and I have wanted to brew some for years. I finally obtained a Mother, and now I am seeing the formation of the daughter! Woohoo!!!

Slowly, ever so slowly, I inch closer to my goal of being a weird, hippie art teacher who brews magic potions in the woods and wears sweaters made from her own goats. Because it’s important to have goals.

-MF