Friday, January 31, 2014

plying and cabling

I was using some commercial, 2-ply warp thread to cable up some gansey yarn.  It was so easy!! It made me forget everything I had said about using a tension box to ply. And, that is one argument for cable construction yarns - you are plying 2 or 3-ply yarns that are balanced and  are easy to work with.  On the other hand, plying balanced yarns means that they must be well blocked (again) with steam prior to knitting.

For straight plying high twist singles, I like a tension box device, and a plying comb.  Most most modern Lazy Kates are sold on the basis of attaching to the wheel so they are handy, or having an attractive design, or storing compactly, and they are not sold based on how well the Kate actually works.

Blocking high twist singles prior to plying is like ironing the fabric before a sewing project - it makes everything come out smoother and neater. Then, twist has to be calculated, measured, and inserted.  When the singles have been blocked, ply twist cannot be done by feel. And, if you are working fast, then the flow of the yarn over your hand will burn or cut your hand - hence the plying comb. To say that you always control the the tension of the plies with your bare hands is to say that you like to work slowly. There is  nothing wrong with enjoying the process, and there is nothing wrong with working fast enough to produce a useful amount of yarn in a reasonable amount of time.

The descent of knitting

For the last 3 or 4 years most of my knitting has been done on 2.38 mm (~ US#1)  needles.  Now, after much swatching and soul searching, I have moved onto 1.5  or 1.6 mm needles (~US# 000).  I note that all of my current knitting is being done on 1.63 mm gansey needles (knitting pins) and 1.98 mm swaving pricks (which produces a similar gauge for me.)

If I knit on the 1.6 mm  needles with gansey yarn, I get ~ 11 spi .  If I knit on the 2.38 mm needles I get ~8 spi with standard commercial gansey yarn. That means that the fabric knit on the finer needles is much denser and warmer -- despite being much thinner and lighter.  This goes beyond what I have been knitting.  Thus, we enter into the glory that is fabrics knit on "knitting pins".  Yes, now I am knitting sweaters on 14" long US 000 needles. Current knitting projects are a gansey for myself from 6-ply @ 1680 ypp and socks from 5-ply @ 1000 ypp. And, there is an order for a pair of fine gloves

(On a recent trip back East, TSA allowed a set of 6 x 1.6 mm x 25 cm lace needles in my carry-on baggage in a clear plastic tube without comment. Frankly, I think those needles are "pointy" and should not be used anywhere people sit close together.)

The other night at the dinner table, I was sitting across from a knitter with 60 years of experience.  She has daughters that knit, so the cumulative knitting experience of the family is more than 100 years.  She thought the (1.6 mm) needles that I was using were too flexible. I was using them for the gusset of a sock being swaved from commercial 5-ply gansey yarn. I like swaving on aircraft. It is fast, ergonomic, and the needles are blunt, compact, and do not roll away if dropped.

In these socks the ankle and foot are swaved and the heel gusset and toe are knit on the DPN, because swaving produces fast, easy tubes, and the DPN are easier for decreases. Thus, most of the sock is swaved, and I use DPN just for the gusset and the toe.

As the conversation continues, it turns out that the Senior Knitter had never knit a fabric as dense as what I was knitting, nor even, had she ever knit socks. (Her daughters knit socks, but not that tight.) And, she thought the sport weight yarn I was using was "awfully thin". (It was worsted spun so it has less volume than the synthetic yarns she uses).

This set me to thinking.  For knitting tight fabrics, I like the most flexible needle that will knit a fabric at the firmness that I desire.  The more flexible needle is easier on the hands.  The knitter across from me likes aluminum needles at that gauge.   I have  bins of such needles, but I packed the SS needles into the project bag because they were stiff enough, but easy on the hands.

Basically, she likes the flex of her aluminum knitting needles, and I can understand that.  However, I do not know which needles I want for a particular project until I have done a set of swatchs and compared the performance of all of the potential needles.  The winner of the recent comparisons was the hollow SS needles used with a Shetland knitting belt.  Tubular needles used with a knitting sheath do tend to crimp and collapse, and I have said this before, and likely will say it again. Tubular needles tend to be more fragile.  If I was a serious knitter, I would always use the solid spring steel needles because I know they are more durable.  I have no confidence that these tubular needles will endure to knit more than a few ganseys.

No, I do not "just know from experience" which needle is better because I do not do the same project over and over. I try to make each project better, faster, and cheaper.  I do not have a stack of the same objects differing only by color. However, with 60 years of knitting, she knew just from experience that those needles were too flexible. I have moved from the spring-steel lace needles to the hollow stainless steel needles because they produce a similar fabric, and the more flexible needles are lighter and less likely to fall out of loose fabrics.

If I were a serious knitter, I would only knit with the solid spring-steel needles because they endure, and that is a virtue for the serious knitter.  I doubt if any of the the tubular SS needles would endure to knit more than a few ganseys.  Those blankets are more loosely knit, the tubular SS needles will easily knit hundreds or even thousands of such objects.  However frankly if I was knitting so loosely, I would just use bamboo needles.

But I digress. "Knitting pins", produce a qualitatively different fabric.  It is a lot of work, but the results are impressive. No amount of "tight knitting" with bigger needles will produce the same results.  At one time there was a whole industry built on such knitting with very fine needles.  They did not do it for fun, they did it because it produces a wonderful fabric.  Try it.

Confucius say, "Only one who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible."

Friday, January 17, 2014


The setup I used to spin the loom stuff gave a "ratio" of ~20:1. I treadle at a little over 100 strokes per minute, resulting in a bobbin speed between 2,000 and 2,400 rpm. At that speed it took ~200 hours to spin the loom stuff or 3 hours/ weekday for 3 months.

At a ratio of 10:1 the bobbin speed would have been only just over 1,000 rpm and it would have taken me 3/hr /evening for 6 months. At a ratio of 5:1 it would have taken a year of weeknights to spin the stuff - and it is just hard to plan a project that long.

Spinning fast makes more projects plausible.  It makes more, and finer plies feasible.

The weaving stuff has grist of about 2,800 ypp, and thus ~ 5 tpi. For a finer single needing more twist, I  use a higher ratio. Now the wheel is set for spinning 5,600 ypp/ 9  tpi singles with a ratio closer to 30:1.  I use a similar ratio to spin fines that want 23 tpi. That comes to less than 200 yards per hour production, which is ok for worsted but not really fast enough for woolen.

If I go much above that range of ratios, I start getting drive band slippage. And once a drive band starts slipping, it slips a lot. Once a drive band starts slipping, the nature of the friction between the drive band and the whorl it is slipping against changes. Dynamic friction is different than static friction.

Drive band slippage and actual speed is more important than the "ratio".

Monday, January 13, 2014

Not available today

By 1910, American fishermen and sailors had been using frame knit sweaters for more than 200 years.  The British hand knit garments were fractional warmer and more durable, but the frame knit sweaters were cost effective and very functional.

I really do not care whether the sweaters used by Shackelton were hand knit or frame knit, they were very warm. What drives me crazy is that we have forgotten how to make such sweaters.  It drives me crazy that we have forgotten that such sweaters can exist.

I love those garments for outdoor work and play, but the only way I can get them is  to make them myself.  When I was a forestry student, I could still get military surplus (frame knit) woolens made at the end of WWI, but never used.  Nothing that tightly knit that is commercially available today.

Most modern hand knit wear is loosely  knit. Most modern frame knit is loosely knit.  What am I to do when I want to sleep in the snow or sail in the wind?  I knit it myself in the tradition of British knitters knitting for folks like Cabot, Cook, and the generations of British sailors and fisherman  that came before and after Cabot and Cook.  I could modify a knitting frame to knit that tightly, but it is not worth the effort for the few that I need for myself.

Hand knit wool is low tech, sustainable, and very functional.  Most modern knitters have forgotten hand knit wool can be warm.  Not, I mean really warm.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Gansey ven·ti·la·tion

Ganseys evolved on board wooden sailing ships. There, everything was wet, or at least damp.

To be useful, ganseys had to provide extraordinary ventilation, and keep the men dry in a world of wet.

The very first thing I noticed about my first real gansey was the way it ventilated. It's first test was downhill skiing. I put it on at the car, and it was warm in the blast of freezing air draining off the mountain. Then, it was a long walk up hill, and we paused as others adjusted their layers because they were sweating, but my gansey just vented to keep me cool.  At the base, they layered up again, but as I cooled, the gansey stopped venting and I was warm.

At lunch, I was first in the beer line as they took their layers off.  After lunch, I was first in the lift line as they layer up again.

It was at that point that the great advantage of a real gansey hit me - a sailor could sleep in his gansey, and tumble out to shorten sail or repair storm damage needing to stop and find other layers of clothing in a dark and storm tossed ship. A good gansey would keep him alive while he worked a few hours in the rigging - even in a storm. Then, in the warmth below decks it vented in ways I had never thought about.

To make it work, the fabric had to be knit very tightly.  Knitting so tightly took special tools, such as a knitting sheath or knitting stick.  Before I put the sweater on, I expected the warmth, I did not expect the lamentation. The ventilation was an  epiphany.

I had knit sweaters. I had worn sweaters.  I did not understand how different the fabric knit with a knitting sheath could be.

Knitting sheath knit sweaters have to be experienced to be believed. They are outside of anything you consider possible. They are out there in that realm of things like "bananas frozen in liquid nitrogen that will drive nails" that common sense says are impossible.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

woolen for knitting

I need a new gansey. Some of my old ones are showing the signs of long use..

I have a credit at one of the big yarn and fiber emporiums so the gansey can be anything I want.

What do I want? Long ago, I settled on 5-ply gansey yarn from Romney as my favorite sweater yarn, but I now I spin better and faster.  And, I do less rock climbing and more sailing.  Is there a better yarn? This has triggered a rather obsessive round of spinning samples and knitting swatches.

Certainly, before I started spinning, I knit a lot of mill-spun woolen and Lopi yarns, but much, much less after I discovered worsted spun sock and gansey yarns.  I am not even certain that I have finished a knit object from woolen spun yarns in the last couple of years.  All the objects in the WIP bins are woolen, all the finished objects are worsted.

I went back over all of my sweaters and swatches, and decided that I like knit wear from worsted spun yarns better.  I do wear my sweaters knit from woolen yarns, but I like the sweaters knit worsted spun better.  Thus, the worsted sweaters are more worn, while the woolen sweaters are left more pristine.  Archaeologists should remember this effect.

The mill-spun yarn in the stash is mostly woolen. The mill-spun worsted-spun yarns have mostly been knit, leaving the woolen yarns in their bins. The stash also contains a bunch of fine woolen yarns that I spun. For example, a while back Dana gave me a good price on a few pounds of CVM left over from Lambtown. Now, it is a big bin of fine, soft woolen singles just waiting for a good project.  Should I ply a few of those into the yarn for my gansey to give it extra softness?  No, after much sampling, I like fabrics knit from worsted yarns.  That is why there is still a bin of woolen singles in the stash. Now that I have a loom, they will become weft.

The yarn I settled on for my next gansey is worsted spun, constructed as  5 x 2-ply cable into 1,000 ypp / 10 ply gansey yarn.  The fiber is a generic Falklands fine wool. It will get knit on 2 mm gansey needles with a knitting sheath. The 2 mm needles because they are less stiff, actually produce a looser, softer fabric than the 2.38 mm spring steel needles.  Gauge is ~ 9 spi  The fabric is rather thin, warm, and durable.  It is perfect for a wool "sweat shirt", something that will stand up to cold, wind, and rain.  It will be as light as a fleece shell, but warmer.

This comes back to the old question of: Why 5-ply?

Today my response is: When you consider the universe of possible yarn constructions, 5-ply is an economical compromise.  10s (worsted spun 5,600 ypp singles) were the base of the English weaving industry, and thus were produced by every contract spinner - and widely available everywhere.  5-ply is about the point where those weaving singles when plied together are thick enough to knit into an outdoor garment suitable for the climate in the 15th Century.  On the other hand, 5-ply is cheaper than 6-ply, and people did not want to buy that extra ply that they did not need.  As regards the extra effort, that is in the spinning of the finer singles, and there is a payback because the finer singles are warmer and more durable. The extra effort to ply 5 singles together is paid back because the yarn is warmer and more durable.  The bottom line for 5-ply is that it was the cheapest thing that works.  Today, many spinners think plying up a 5-ply yarn takes some skill.  It does, spinning is a skilled craft.  However, once the spinner has the skill to make 5-ply, it is easy.

Over the last couple of years, I have made a lot of various plain yarn constructions ranging form 2-ply to 12-ply and then cabling 2 and 3-ply yarns into yarns ranging from 4 to 24-ply. Certainly 6-ply (worsted weight) and 12-ply (Aran weight) have virtues for extreme cold, and I have to thank Judith Mackenzie for pushing me into making a long series of 6-ply and 12-ply yarns.  The difference between 12-ply Aran weight yarn and the 3-ply semi-worsted mill spun that is sold as Aran weight is the difference between "LIGHTING!" and a 'lighting bug".  Real 12-ply Aran weight is the right yarn for knitting polar gear (on long stiff needles with a knitting sheath.)  

The easy way to make Aran weight yarn is to use a weaver's bobbin rack as a lazy Kate and route the yarn through a tension box as weavers use for warping. Cabled yarns will be more durable, but not as warm.  Cabled yarns also give better stitch definition.

All  in all, I like the way 5-ply made from singles of 5,600 ypp worsted spun wool knits up. It can be knit loosely to breath in warm weather and it can be knit tightly to be weatherproof.  For me this answers the question of,  "Why 5-ply?".  I think people worked with different yarns for knitting, and liked the fabrics made from 5-ply.  Moreover, their customers liked the fabrics made from 5-ply.

I was going to say that plying 5-ply sport weight is the same effort as plying 2-ply sport weight, but that is not true.  The 5-ply takes twice as much twist, and twist is energy.  What I mean to say is that making 5-ply with a low windage flier is faster than making 2-ply with a high windage flyer.  And, most modern flyers are high windage.  It is much, much faster for me to work with a small flier and windoff frequently than to work with a large flier and windoff less frequently.  Thus, I work with small fliers except when I need knot free hanks of yarn.  Three knots are the difference between plying a hank in 3 hours and taking a full 9 hours to ply the hank on the Jumbo flyer. (And, I can replace those knots with long splices when I rewind the yarn, meaning the net time for plying on the small flier is ~3.25 hours. )  What can I do with 5.75 hours?  Well, I have a pile of fresh yarn, I can knit!  I like to knit fast because that leaves more time for sailing, gardening, and . . . .

Edited to add that I actually liked the 3x2-ply (1,800 ypp ) yarn so much much that I promptly  started a Sheringham Gansey from it at a gauge of 10 spi. The swatch gauge just kept going  : ) I love these yarns. It is a fairly soft fabric that I am knitting on 14" long, 1.7 mm SS tubular needles with the Shetland knitting belt.

Working with rather fine needles on rather fine yarns in a cool house, I have gotten out the leather knitting apron.  Look at the old pix of knitters - they are all wearing aprons - they knew what they were doing.  Fine DPN are pointy, and aprons protect the legs.   1/12/2014.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Dutch in NZ

One way or another, I am frequently thinking about how the old seamen stayed warm.

It turns out that the Dutch were in NZ 50 years before Captain Cook. Circa 1700, European sailors were braving the Southern Ocean.  Those sailors survived because European knitters had experience clothing fishermen/whalers to work along the edge of the Arctic Sea ice.

While the Southern Ocean has its own special sea conditions, the great enemy of polar seamanship is hypothermia.  The great friend of polar seamanship was the elaborate knit seaman's outfit.  The outfit kept them warm enough to do their job.

The only way to understand such knitting, is to wear it out in a storm.  Knitting with a knitting sheath and long steel needles produces a garment that is unlike any other garment in modern life.  If you have not worn one, you cannot understand it.

You cannot drive "framing" nails into wood with your bare hands, but with a carpenter's hammer, it can be done.  Sorry, when you are building a house, tacks and pin nails that can be pushed in without a hammer just do not count.  Likewise, you cannot knit a weatherproof woolens without a knitting sheath, but with a knitting sheath, it can be done.  Without a knitting sheath, you can knit a sweater that is warm by modern standards, but by polar weather standards, it does not meet performance standards.

Cross-lacing flyers

There is a school of spinning that thinks spinning fine is facilitated by cross lacing the flyer.

No!, If there is so much take-up that it is difficult to spin fine, then there is a problem with the setup or maintenance of the wheel. First clean and oil the wheel and make sure everything is set up correctly.  Cross-lacing will always slow down a well setup and well maintained wheel.

As proof, I can easily spin singles of 22,400 ypp (very fine lace weight) at rates of a couple hundred yards per hour without cross-lacing my flyer.  I can spin 5,600 ypp  ( heavy lace weight) woolen singles at rates of 500 yards per hour.  I spin miles and miles of "lace weight" yarn per month. (I like knitting yarns plied up from "lace weight" singles.  The yarn for a gansey contains 6 miles of lace weight singles.) And, in the last 3 months, I spun 36,000 yards of 2,800 ypp singles for the loom.

I do not get out much, but I assure you that there are not many people that can spin that fine, that fast.  I can not spin that fast with my flyer cross laced.  Cross-lacing slows me way down. If your teacher says cross-lacing is better, ask for a demonstration.  I can give you a demonstration, I will charge you, but setting up a flyers is one of those things that is worth knowing how to do correctly

Spinning faster

Why not spin faster?

Is it more work?  No, with my Alden Amos flies it actually takes less physical effort effort to spin length of yarn that it takes to spin the same length of yarn with the Ashford stock flyers. I have a different ratio, so I do not have to treadle any faster, and it takes less treadle effort. So, it comes down to a matter of drafting the yarn. Drafting faster is a matter of skill - not more skill, but of different skills.

Now, I am going to sit at my wheel for 3 or 4 hours.  Do I want to get up with 350 yards of yarn or with 1,600 yards of yarn?  What is the difference?  Slightly different wheel setup and holding my hands differently.  The physical effort is almost the same.

Spinning faster is a matter of working smarter rather than working harder.  Spinning faster is a matter of learning the craft so one can spin more with less effort.


Last night there was this thing on PBS about retracing Shackleton's open boat voyage.

They claimed to be using authentic period knit clothing. They were not.

Look at the photos from Shackleton's trip and the modern re-enactment.  Shackleton's knit clothing was knit using knitting sheaths that provided the leverage to knit much tighter and more weatherproof clothing.  The modern replicas were knit much more loosely, and were not as weatherproof and warm.

Likewise, Shackleton's knit clothing provided a great deal more padding between the sailor and points corners that attack the sailor in a small boat in rough weather.  This is something that one must experienced to appreciate.  A well knit gansey pads against against corners and blows to the body in ways that are qualitatively different from modern, looser knitting.  I had been wearing my Mustang Survival coat for reefing in foul weather.  Then, one day I wore my gansey.  That night - no bruises across my chest from the boom banging against me.  It was a revelation of the virtues of a well knit gansey.

The re-enactment expedition was poorly served by their textile consultants.  The knitters, who knit the modern garments did not know the craft of knitting for sailors in polar conditions.  Their stupidity and ignorance caused hypothermia that increased sea sickness and dehydration.  Hypothermia decreases mental judgement.  Hypothermia decreases physical dexterity.

Shackleton's knit clothing was much, much warmer than the clothing worn by the enactors.  This is what happens when knitters and textile historians do knot know their physics and do not do their math home work.

One can look at the photographs of Shackleton's men, and estimate fabric thickness and density.  From that one can calculate  the "warmth" of the fabric.  Then, one produces fabric of similar warmth. The responsible knitters then tests to fabric to ensure that it is warm enough.  Testing garments for warmth is easy.  Find a good polar vortex storm, put on the garment, and sit in storm while you knit. If the garment won't keep you warm as you sit on the quay knitting (watching for a boat carrying a loved one to come out of the storm), then it is not warm enough to sail the Southern Ocean.

When I replicated such sweaters, I used McAusland heavy 3-ply knit on US#3  long steel needles with a knitting sheath. It was about 200 hours of very hard work, and it was the single most difficult knitting project I ever did.  I later wore that sweater to prune an apple orchard during a week of snow, wind, and freezing rain - that included sustained gale winds - It was below freezing, raining, and the wind was blowing trees down. The only other people out were the rescue workers and linemen working on downed power lines. That gansey kept me warm and toasty all day, every day for more than a week's work in the storm.  I had ice climbing gear from Patagonia in my baggage, but the gansey was warmer and more comfortable in those  extreme conditions.  (These trees held my mother's collection of  300 antique apple grafts, and careful judgement was required to prune them. These were full sized trees, and everything was icy so physical dexterity was critical.)

When new, that sweater was as warm as the sweaters that Shackleton and his crew wore.  However, it was not as durable.   Shackleton's knit wear endured on the ice. I respect that greatly.  The kind of mill spun yarns used to knit Shackleton's clothing are no longer available.

That is why I took up hand spinning.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The warp is spun

For the last 3 months, there has been a large plastic laundry basket of wool next to the spinning wheel. It would get refilled a couple of times per week as spinning progressed, so there was always at least a pound or two of wool in it.

Yesterday, there was an obsessive/compulsive spinning session, and the basket is empty.  My legs are sore from treadling long and fast, but the basket is empty. The spinning bobbin is full, all the blocking reels are full, and I need to make some more storage bobbins, but this project is spun.  12 pounds of wool into 36,000 yards of singles in about 200 hours.

That seems very slow, however, it includes climbing a learning curve on how to manage singles.  Previously, I had simply stored singles on bobbins, but I ran out of bobbins. So, I learned to wind the singles on niddy noddys and steam block them. This takes a more robust niddy noddy design. This gives some insight as to why the use of niddy noddys for measured lengths of yarn for sale was outlawed.. Yarn wound on a niddy noddy tends to be much tighter than yarn wound on a skeiner.  Steam it, and it gets really tight. Many modern niddy noddy modern designs are not suited for steam blocking - you will end up breaking the yarn as you try to remove the yarn from the niddy noddy. Thus, I had to make some better niddy noddys.  A well blocked, well  made skein wound up into a "pretzel", is stable - until it gets wet.  Then it needs to be re-blocked.  Small skeins of knitting yarn that get wet can be (sort of) blocked by hanging a small weight on them.  A hank of woolen singles that gets wet wants to be wound onto a blocking reel.

Even well blocked singles wound into a cake or ball need a core. Center pull balls/cakes of high twist singles are not stable over periods of  weeks.

Bobbins are to weavers like clamps are to wood workers - you never have enough. Today the bench was clear of  wool carding/combing stuff for the first time in weeks, and by late afternoon there was a big bin of bobbins in process.  There are a bunch of bobbins on both the cone rack and the bobbin rack with mill spun warp on them. tomorrow they will be emptied by plying those warp ends up into 5-ply gansey yarn. It is actually a very nice knitting yarn. In fact, these days, it is my favorite "mill spun" knitting yarn.  I need those bobbins.

Now to weave it.

I think about the problems of the fellows packing saddle bags of singles from the spinners to the weavers by horse train in the 13th century. They would have been out in the weather for days on end.  It would have been very hard to keep those hanks of singles dry.  If they did get wet, then winding off those skeins of fine high twist singles would have required great skill.  Those old timers still have their secrets.



Thursday, January 02, 2014

5 days of spinning

One of my goals for December 2013, was to spin a total of 5,000 yards (1.8 lb.) of worsted warp within 5 consecutive  days.

I just could not get it together to do that. Several day's production were well over 1,200 yards, but I would get to the fifth day of spinning and I would get interrupted, so I never got over ~4,500 yards in 5 days.  It may not happen on this project as I have only a couple of  lb of warp left to spin.

On the other hand, this fall has not been a complete bust spinning wise.  The gray bin in the corner has ~12 lb/36,000 yards of  hand spun singles in it, all spun within the last 3 months. About half are worsted warp and the rest are woolen weft. It is all 2,800 ypp so it is low twist, and it was easy to spin.

Later in January, I am going to go do a show and tell to attempt to persuade a wheel maker to make a line of faster wheels for spinners that want more yarn for the time they spend spinning. Small changes in design would allow very fast wheels to be made/sold for the same price as slow wheels.

Abby says, "It is all about the yarn."  I say, "It is all about better, cheaper, faster yarn!"  I do not need the expense of a "mini-mill". I just want to run my spinning wheel at a reasonable speed.

Steam blocking on niddy noddys.

Spinning singles, winding them on to a niddy noddy, and steam blocking them with a tea kettle on the niddy noddy works. Those hanks/skeins can be leased and stored, or packed off to the dyer. It is very low capital, and there are 10,000 yards of singles in the gray bin that prove that it works for singles intended for weaving.

However, a skeiner or yarn blocker with a steamer is faster.