Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crockpot Dyeing

I spent a good part of the summer figuring out ways to dye wool in my crockpot.   I know that the oven dyeing method that I have been using will allow me to dye more wool at once, so there is more efficiency in terms of scale, but it takes a great deal more space and it means that no one else can use the oven while I'm dyeing wool.  Because I need to schedule my dyeing around when other people want to use the oven, I am able to do it less frequently.  With the crockpot I can only do about 4 ounces of wool at a time, but the only space I'm using is the tiny footprint that the crockpot takes up on the counter.  I can dye much more frequently, so the result is a higher level of production.   It's one of those "slower by the hour, but faster by the week" things, like spindle spinning versus wheel spinning.
 

I documented a lot of these experiments on my Facebook page this summer. I figured it was time to get some of them written up into a more sensible format as blog posts.

In essence this is a form of low water immersion dyeing. The unpredictable results are one of the features of this dyeing method.  When I dye in trays I lay the tops out in neat rows and can apply the dye very precisely exactly where I want it. When I dye in the crockpot I need to be able to fit the wool in one layer at the bottom of the crockpot. To do this, I pack the top into the bottom of the crockpot by pleating it.

This acts as a natural resist and prevents the dye from reaching all the way down to the bottom or inside the folds in some places. I can control this effect to a degree by how much liquid is in the crockpot.


I choose colors that I know will create something reasonably attractive in the finished product, and instead of mixing all of the colors of dye together for one solid color I sprinkle them randomly over the surface of the wool so that individual colors stand out and combine in different ways. If I want more dye penetration and less white space, I add more water to the crockpot.


Yarn that is spun from tops dyed with this random crockpot dyeing method still have some variation in color, but the transitions between colors are much smoother and more gradual with little to no striping.

Individual spots of color that blend together as fibers in the yarn give the impression of a solid color due to optical blending while at the same time giving greater visual depth to the yarn.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Another (Wo)Man's Treasure!



My husband frequently picks up furniture and other interesting or useful items that people leave by the curb.  Sometimes we keep them, sometimes we don't.  He brought this one home the other day.  Thought it might be useful as an end table - said it could either be his or mine.  Then we opened it.

I guess this one's mine!



Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Homemade Chocolate Pudding Snacks

I'm not by any means a Real Food Purist.  While there are many "food-like-substances" that I will avoid if at all possible, there are few that Will Never Pass My Lips.  I do find, though, that I prefer cooking from scratch from basic ingredients over boxed meals, seasoning packets, and ready-to-eat prepared foods.  It's definitely healthier, it's frequently much cheaper, but for me the real benefit is that it's much more flexible.  I don't have to worry about whether I have a packet of "taco seasoning" in my cupboard if I suddenly decide I want tacos for dinner.  I sometimes miss the convenience of just being able to open a box and pull out single-serving portions of something, and so do some of the other less food-conscious members of my household.  Homemade versions of "store-bought" frequently take more time than I'm willing to spend for the amount of food I get out of it.  If I spend two hours of active time making something, I'd better get at least four meals out of it!


A couple of months ago I saw that Food in Jars had posted a glowing review of The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila (who blogs here).  I flipped through it at my local B&N and decided that it had enough good ideas to be worth spending money on.  A lot of the recipes are things that any good cook probably could have figured out, but there's something to be said for letting someone slightly more driven do the experimentation for you!  Add to that a bit of "Gee, I'd've thought it would be more complicated than that!"  and you've got a good reason to pick this book up.

I've made a few of the recipes now, and am starting to tweak some of them to my household's tastes and habits.  The chocolate pudding recipe gets used frequently.  Normally I wouldn't make a dessert on a regular basis, but this recipe came along shortly after I started putting chocolate pudding in my daughter's school lunches.  I know I could have used a classic custard-based chocolate pudding recipe from The Joy of Cooking, but frankly, this one is faster and easier, and most importantly for my ASD daughter, the flavor and texture are nearly identical to store-bought.  No surprise there, because they're essentially the same thing - milk thickened with cornstarch and flavored with chocolate.  I have found that a half-recipe of Alana's chocolate pudding fits perfectly into five 4oz canning jars!  On Sunday evening I spend a total of maybe 15-20 minutes and make five little snack-sized jars of chocolate pudding for a week's worth of lunches.  Time well spent!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Raised Bed Bullet Biting

Last year I finally came to the conclusion that for me, raised beds will be a necessity :(  Too many moles/voles in my yard, and nothing I've done so far has kept them out or trapped them.  Too much tunneling through the garden and damaging the roots of just-planted transplants, and I got tired of every single allium being dragged down into underground tunnels, leaving nothing but a tiny hole above ground.   My solution:  a raised bed with 1/4" hardware cloth stapled to the bottom!

I used 8'x12"x1 pine boards, so that I would have enough depth for root crops.  Other types of wood might last longer, but then I wouldn't have been able to afford to do this at all.  As it is, I can only put in one new raised bed a year.  I will eventually have to put them on the double-dug in-ground beds as well, otherwise I won't be able to rotate crops effectively.  So far it seems to be working really well!
This is the best lettuce I've ever grown, and the Swiss chard has actually gotten past 8" high!  I still have a bunch of room - I'm going to see how carrots and onions do.  I know it's late to be planting onions, but I don't need them to be storage onions - I can eat them at whatever size they are when the season ends.  Lucky for me, Comstock, Ferre in Wethersfield was purchased by Baker Creek last year, so I now have a great source of heirloom seeds not ten minutes away!  No shipping charges!  So just because I could, and because this is CT, I bought seeds for Wethersfield Red onions, and Southport Globe onions.  I figure if they were named after towns in CT they should grow well here!

In other good garden news, I had much better luck with my soil-block-started seedlings than I have in the past.  I added more soil and vermiculite to the mix, and I didn't try and start as many seeds at once this year.  I have half as many tomato plants, but they are all much healthier.  I also think it doesn't hurt that I acquired a population of Red Wigglers that were living in the bag of topsoil I added last year, and they've been happily living in my dirt bin all winter.  Not true vermicomposting, but every once in a while I add some scraps to the bin.  I don't have a stinky mass of dead worms, so they must be doing OK :)

I also discovered that some tiny potatoes I had bought last year at the farmer's market and forgotten about had started putting out roots - so on a whim I planted a few of them.  First time growing potatoes - we'll see how they do.  Some of them are purple!

What was originally my Herb Bed is now starting to become the Perennial Herb Bed.  The oregano and thyme are getting really big, the chocolate mint I got last year is spreading, and some of my spearmint is still alive (what kind of soil kills mint?!).  The lavender I got last year will also get bigger as it gets older, so I think I'm going to mostly keep this bed for the perennials, and start planting my annual herbs in with the other plants in the raised beds. 

Of the ten raspberry canes my SIL gave me last summer, five managed to survive the winter and are putting up new canes.  I only had one new cane last summer (all the others were fruiting canes), so I didn't expect to get many berries this year.  Next year should be much better!

Even better, a lone strawberry plant hitch-hiked in with the raspberry canes, and is now sending out runners!  In another year or so I may have strawberries!  I would have had some this year, but something ate through the stem holding all the blossoms :( 

Saving the best for last, I finally got a blueberry bush this year!  I will need more, considering the rate at which my daughter will eat blueberries, but this is a start!  I'm planning on building some sort of PVC frame to drape netting over, to keep birds and bugs out after the berries have formed.
Every year things get a little better, and I get a little more actual food out of my garden.  I just need to plant rhubarb and start an asparagus patch, and I should be set for perennials.  Now if it will just stop with this raining-all-week and sunny-on-the-weekends so I can get some garden work done while my daughter is at school!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

So what's the deal with this handspinning thing? Part 1: Wool

I recently had a conversation with my father about my new Etsy shop, AliCat Fiberarts, where I've started selling my handspun yarn and hand dyed wool for spinning.  He was wondering about the market for such products.  He wasn't being critical - just curious.  It was one of those conversations where I need to explain something to an "outsider" - in this case not only a non-spinner, but a non-fiber person!  I'm going to attempt it again here, drawing some parallels to food and gardening, as those topics have become more mainstream.

Welsh Hill Speckled Face Sheep:  Photo by Pete Birkinshaw
Once upon a time, when most people grew most of their own food, it mattered what type of tomato you were growing or what breed of chicken you raised.  It wasn't so much a matter of Good or Bad, more of Good for this purpose and Bad for that one.  With the advent of Industrial Agriculture (among other things) that idea had largely disappeared.  Now, with the current trend toward Farmer's Markets, home gardens, and heirloom varietals, these topics are in the news, so that many non-foodies know something about them, even if it's not a personal interest.

Karakul Sheep:  Photo by Patricia Longoria, zencrafting.blogspot.com.
What does this have to do with spinning?  The same idea that The Variety Matters also holds true for sheep and other fiber-bearing animals.  Just as there are hundreds of varieties of tomato, there are hundreds of breeds of sheep (and yes -to the already-spinners out there - I know there's a lot of stuff to spin besides wool, but I'm leaving that for another post!).  Unfortunately, the average yarn-user's knowledge and understanding of sheep breeds has followed the same path as the supermarket produce shopper.  Aside from the "brand recognition" of Merino and Shetland (both breeds of sheep), wool is wool, right? That itchy stuff that you have to wear a heavy turtleneck under?  Well - not really -no!

Lock from Merino fleece:  Photo by Lisa Dusseault
All sheep have wool, but different breeds have slightly different wool.  To vastly oversimplify things,  all sheeps' fleeces fall somewhere on a spectrum of fine to coarse, and short to long.  Fineness is based on the diameter of the fibers.  Length is the length of the fibers (usually one year's growth) - wool parlance for this is "staple length."  The finer a wool is, the softer it is.  Conversely, the coarser a wool is, the rougher and more prickly it feels, and it's this "prickle factor" that gives wool a reputation for being itchy.  Wool, from an industrial perspective, is a byproduct of the lamb industry.  With the exception of Merino and other specialty breeds, ranchers make their money off meat.  Most sheep need to be shorn annually for health reasons, and in most cases the shepherd sends all the wool to the local "wool pool" which will have fleeces from several breeds, all of varying quality, all mixed together.  This is where most generic "wool" for the textile industry comes from.  Naturally it's likely to be itchy!
Merino Ewe:  Photo by nzsheep



Merino is the Gold Standard in soft, fine wool.  Most people could wear Merino underwear and be perfectly comfortable and non-itchy.  At the other end of the spectrum there are breeds like Lincoln, which have long, coarse staples, and make excellent rug yarn - but you wouldn't want it in a turtleneck.  And here you see your tradeoff.  Merino is nice and soft and comfy - but you certainly wouldn't want to make a rug out of it.  The fine fibers that make it so soft don't stand up to that kind of wear.  You'd have holes in your rug in no time.  The nice sturdy fibers that wear like iron (the "rug wools") would be way too itchy for clothing.
Crimpy Wool:  Photo by Kara Brugman 2010

Wensleydale Sheep: Photo by Eadaoin Flynn
 Here's where we get back to the original subject.  Why spin your own yarn?  Because there are lots of sheep breeds that fall in different places all up and down this spectrum of fine-to-coarse.  Just like growing your own vegetables or sewing your own clothes, when you spin your own yarn you can tailor it to the end use in a way that's difficult to do with generic off-the-shelf wool.  Sure it's easy to find Merino yarn - that's one of the few breeds available by name.  But suppose you want to crochet a hearth rug or make potholders?  Pick a coarser longwool breed.  Knitted and felted clogs, slippers and handbags are also becoming popular - you can choose something in the middle that's not too prickly on your feet, but will still survive being walked on. Sure you can use Merino for socks - it'll be comfortable, but I hope you like darning! Pick something like Blue-faced Leicester, which is a longwool breed, but still very soft.  Once you start exploring the characteristics of different breeds it can be hard to stop!  You start giving the classic spinner's justification of "Yes I know I have ten fleeces in the closet, but I don't have that one yet!"  In the end it all becomes useful stuff.  The more we know and understand, the more useful and long-lasting our stuff will be!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Things to do in the dark

Being without power for extended periods of time means finding things you can do in poor light.  I can spin pretty well in the dark, and I don't usually have to look too hard at my knitting if it isn't something too complicated.  Unfortunately the knitting project I was working on when the power went out was these:

Not really something I could work on in the dark!  I managed to finish them the day after the power came back on.
I really needed something completely mindless, so I decided to knit swatches! I had two full-sized skeins and two samples in different colorways.  I decided a while ago that I wanted to post photos of knitted sample in my Fiberarts Etsy, because there's so often such a big difference in what a multicolored yarn looks like in the skein and how it knits up.  How many times have you had a multicolored yarn that you loved in the skein, but that you really just didn't like in the knitted object?  

The same thing happens in reverse all the time - you see some knitting with colors that you love, then see the yarn it was knitted with, and think "I would never have pictured this yarn coming out like that!"

Spinners experience this all the time.  See how bright and almost garish the different colors look in the unspun wool?  The colors become much less intense in the finished yarn because of the the blending that occurs during spinning.  Because of this blending, it can be hard to see from the yarn that it will create subtle stripes when it's knitted up.

The striping is more prominent in the first example because I used colors with strong contrast. In this second example the colors are much more closely related, both in hue and value.  Here, you don't get strong stripes so much as a subtle shading.

Of course, the final effect will always depend on the size of your knitting.  Smaller projects like socks will end up with much wider and more prominent stripes.  Sweaters and shawls will have narrower stripes - sometimes maybe only one row before the color changes enough to be noticeable!  Still, it's always nice to at least have a ballpark idea of what a yarn is going to do before you plan your project.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Well. That was unexpected.


An unusually early winter storm with a greater potential for power outages due to the number of trees with leaves still on them at this time of year.  OK - that makes sense.  Not once did a report anywhere indicate MASSIVE damage to trees and EXTENSIVE power outages!  We really were not prepared for this one.  Irene was just practice.


These photos are nothing.  Many of the trees I passed were much worse - every single "section" of branches snapped off at the top of the trunk, like you'd do with a bunch of broccoli.  The damage to trees from this storm was much more extensive than Irene, and the accompanying damage to power lines was also worse.  We lost power for five days after Irene.  This storm had us out for a week!  It was a very chilly week.



Ways this storm was worse:  Because I hadn't expected a power outage that lasted this long I had not planned my grocery shopping accordingly, and ended up with more spoiled food that I could not get to in time.  Also, the convenient neighbor with the generator who helped us out after Irene has moved, so I couldn't keep my freezer chest going.  I still have hope for the freezer chest - it was packed pretty full, and more than halfway through the week all the important things were still frozen solid.  If I open it up today and still find the normal crop of ice crystals on the sides, I think I'll be good.  Number one difference between this storm & Irene - temperature!  It's obviously much colder outside in October than in August.  I have gas heat, but the furnace has an electric pilot!

Ways I was lucky: None of the trees on or near our lot suffered extensive damage. We may not have had the furnace running, but the house never dropped below 60, even at night.  I suppose it's the advantage of a very small house.  A few extra blankets & sweatshirts, two pairs of handknit wool socks, and living in my winter hat all day - 63 degrees was actually not that uncomfortable by the time we got to the end of the week.  The human body will acclimate! We knew from Irene that we do not lose water, and our water heater does *not* have an electric pilot, so we continued to have running water and hot baths and showers.  We also have a gas stove, and although I could not use the oven, cooking meals and making coffee was not a problem.

The biggest way we were lucky:
Having had five days of practice just two months ago, Scarlett adapted to the "new normal" very quickly!  It took three days after Irene for her to stop asking for "TV on?"  This time it took one.  We got her a brand new package of markers, and she was pretty happy for most of the week.  We even got her to wear a hat for about a minute!
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