Friday, May 30, 2014

Cakes of sock yarn

Mostly, spinning in May was about 10,000 yards of 5,600 worsted singles and then plying up couple of hanks of  5-ply, and making up 5 hanks of  6-strand cabled "sock yarn" @ ~ 1,600 ypp  from 2-ply commercial warp yarn.

The  handspun singles were on little bobbins, each holding just over 100 yards.  Thus, 2 hanks of  gansey yarn frees up a whole boot box of  little yarn storage bobbins -- leaving almost a boot box of little spinning bobbins, each with about 100 yards of single on it. Making gansey yarn is about bringing order to chaos.

For the sock yarn, I go from a neat cone to a sweater box full of yarn cakes.  Then, the trick is to turn the yarn cakes into sweater.

Kit for Sheringham gansey: 2,600 yd of 6-strand cable at 1,600 ypp, 5 x 8" and 5 x 14" stainless steel DPN in size UK 15 with crochet hook. I will use a wide Durham style knitting sheath with a 1.65 mm needle adapter. Note that this sizing is a bit different from what is in the modern charts.  These needles and sheath have become my default knitting tools for this yarn.   At 10 spi, it will be a soft, warm, durable, elastic sweater, but NOT weatherproof. (This yarn is magical. It sucks the light right out of a room. Thus,I expect it is very good to wear while sleeping.)  The cable is a little bulkier than 3-ply. For ordinary 3-ply/ 1,600 ypp,  I drop down to  UK 16.  For straight 4-ply, I would stay stay with the UK 15 needles.  There has been enough swatching and sampling to drive my wife crazy.

This will be a soft fabric. Could I knit it without a knitting sheath?  Sure, it would just take me longer and the tension would not be as even.  The needles are fairly blunt, so a leather knitting belt would also work, allowing similar fast knitting and even tension.  

Again, these are all commercial needles and I have used fine emery to 'break" the polish just behind the tip for faster and easier knitting.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tips again

For a few months, I have been using commercial stainless steel knitting needles. Mostly they are fast and easy, but some decreases and fancy stitches were a problem.  Ordinarily such stitches are only 1% of the total number of stitches, so I seek needles to do the bulk of the stitches easily and suffer the fancy stitches.

Then, the other evening, it hit me, I had  been here before.  There was a solution.  Just use a bit of emory cloth to break the polish on a 1 mm annular area around the tip. Yes, it works. And those little annular areas are not so large or so rough that they interfere with knitting the 99 %.

Actually breaking the polish on the tips significantly speeded up my knitting with those needles. I am back to the position that commercial needles are just too polished for fast knitting.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Today, perhaps the very best place to see contemporary fine hand knitting is at Textures on  Montana Street in Santa Monica, California.

Jane, the owner, was an integral part of the Three Bags Full sweater store in San Francisco, California.  Three Bags Full closed a couple of years ago,  In many, ways the new store is better.

Textures is a fashion boutique. They are not the blue wool sweaters you would buy in the shops of Saint-Malo.  Mostly, the fabric weights are less than what Three Bags Full  carried  in SF (because it is in Santa Monica and only 8 blocks from the beach.)  However, it is also only a few miles from LAX, and many of Jane's customers travel frequently to the southern hemisphere, so Jane carries summer and winter weight objects, all the year round.

While they are very nice, Jane manages to keep her prices much lower than what I have seen for similar objects at places like Neiman Marcus, Saks, and  other designer fashion boutiques.   And, nobody else has the selection and range of fine hand knit objects that one can find in Textures.

Many of the objects are so finely knit and shaped,  that a drawing of the object gives no clue that the fabric is knit rather than woven.   When objects are knit by skilled professionals, paintings, drawings, and sculpture cannot indicate whether the clothing was knit or woven.  Objects produced by skilled professional knitters are much better than the objects that we see produced by amateur / recreational knitters.  On the other hand, these days we do not see much fine work by skilled professionals.

All of which brings up the question of:  "Why we do not see more finely knit objects produced by  recreational knitters?"  Yes the professionals have more skill, but amateurs have more time.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pathological Excellence

I have been recently accused of a pathological need to be the best.  There were perhaps 20 comments on this.

Do you accuse Melody Cameron of wanting to be the best? And, how many Irish dance competitions has she won? Yes, she likes being the best Irish dancer in the world.      Did you accuse Michael Phelps of a pathological need to win as he piled up gold medals? Yes, he likes winning.  Do you send "nasty-grams" to  NFL teams that the win the super bowl?

No, but you are rude to me.  That is the key phrase.  You are rude to me.  Your mother failed to teach you manners.

 As Dean Wolf taught me, "Make sure you are right, then go ahead."  That is, the foundation of being the best, is being right.  And, we were the best. We took on environmental cleanup jobs that nobody else would touch and we did them: Faster, Cheaper, Better.  And if I might add we did them safer.  At Hanford, we went a million man-hours without an accident -- despite working with toxic, radioactive, hazardous, and explosive waste. Other places, there were burning oil wells and we put out hundreds of them  - that is an activity where only the best survive. On those projects, one little mistake and many, many people would have died. If I have a need to be the best, then you may be sure that I am going to make a point of being correct.

Being the best is a good thing.   Try it, you will like it.   Since some of you are not going to be best spinner, you might try going for "best manners."  As it is, I think some of your mothers are rolling over in their graves and scaring the gophers.  If you had better manners it might give the gophers some rest.

The other thing is that at Hunters Point, FMC Pocatello, and at Hanford we had complete drawings and inventories of the buildings, and then we had to go out and find stuff. We had detailed journals and logs.  I supervised many thousands of soil samples and test wells. I compared our results with the results of other RI/FS/RA teams at other CERCLA sites. We went out and talked to retired workers to find out what really happened. I know the limits of archaeology and history.


Socks knit from fine, multi-ply or multi-strand yarns do not need ribbing for stretch. These fabrics have enough stretch in the fabric.  However,  knit to fit - you do not have the crutch of ribbing to hide defects in fit.

This has implications for interpretation of old art for the presence of knitting.  Look at the socks and hose in Weldon's, and  it is difficult to determine if the fabric is knit or woven.  It is even harder working from an oil painting or fresco.  You may not be able to knit like that but, people can and do, and people did.   I find that textile historians tend not to be able to knit that well, beginning with Rutt.

Earlier, I mentioned that the current generation of sock needles are 8" long. These days, my finer needles corresponding to UK 16, 17, and 18 are 14" long, and I have stopped using the shorter needles in these sizes.  A work in progress on these needles is difficult to transport, and thus, these days all the fine knitting is done at home.   (Just a year after I got a knitting bag big enough to hold my gansey needles, I have stopped using them).  My favorite chair while knitting with the long needles remains a wooden folding chair - because it gives clearance for the knitting sheath and the needle.

The leather knitting pouch works very well for the more flexible, blunter needles (if any 1.5 mm needle can be called blunt  ; )  that I am using these days,  and I could live with a knitting belt as my sole knitting support.  I do like the knitting belt for knitting in the car or on aircraft.  And, certainly the Shetlanders knit gloves professionally on such long needles.  However, swaving with bent pricks is a game changer for fine gloves, and one cannot swave with a leather knitting belt.  Thus I need to keep my knitting sheaths for swaving. And I do think that the right knitting sheath is faster than a knitting belt. On the other hand, a knitting belt is faster than the wrong knitting sheath. And if one is switching back and forth between different sizes and lengths of needles, it is difficult to always have the right knitting sheath at hand.  And on socks, I like Eastern Cross Stitch on the sole, and swaving does not do that easily, so currently all socks are knit on 8"  straight needles with a knitting sheath.  Right now, the only WIP being knit on a knitting belt is a gansey from 6-strand fingering yarn on 14" long 1.5 mm knitting pins.  It is a nice fabric.

At this point, I think that modern knitting patterns are the result of trying to make a silk purse out of fat, 2-ply yarns.  There was a time when wassit was a standard yarn, used for utility knitting.  It was 5-ply.  The resulting fabric was durable and elastic. It was DK or sport weight, but could be knit on UK 13 or 14 needles to produce a very dense, elastic fabric.   Then, as we started using cheaper 2-ply yarns, they did not have as much elasticity, so we started doing more ribbing.  Ribbing is a trademark of a knitter that does not use multi-ply yarn.

When I started spinning 5-ply, I replicated the commercial product.  It produced stitches that "popped!" More recently, I have been making these yarns with less ply twist. They have to be steam blocked to balance, but they produce a denser fabric without the needle holes. I like it a lot.  Not as much stitch pop, but over all, a more attractive fabric.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I have been knitting a lot of socks recently.

I have been knitting the stash of  6-strand cable yarns,  and yes I like it better than most of what is in the LYS.

I like long wool for socks and that is simply non-negotiable.  (Except maybe sleep socks for my wife.)

 For some uses, I like 6- strand cable construction.  For some uses I like 6- ply construction.   It is no longer worth my time to knit socks from 2 and 3-ply yarns.  Let me restate that: It is no longer worth my time to knit most objects from 2 and 3-ply yarns. It better for me to spend a little more time doing it better the first time, than spinning and knitting twice.  It is a better use of my time to just spin the right yarn the first time.

These days, my sock needles are 8" hollow stainless steel with blunt tips.  These are very flexible and range from 1.5 mm  to 2.1mm roughly corresponding to UK sizes 13, 14, 15, and 16.

The other side of that is that yarns with finer plies and strands are more flexible and can be knit on finer needles with less effort.  Hiking socks are being knit from worsted-weight, 6-strand cable on 2.1 mm, blunt tipped, hollow, 8" stainless steel needles.  These needles are more flexible than the spring steel needles that I made in the past. The bluntness works with the rather loose cable ply to reduce the problems of splitty yarn, but bluntness does make fancy stitches and reductions more difficult.

Some here question the quality of my fabrics.  However, the other day I was sitting, knitting,  and waiting for my wife in a Neiman Marcus store, and one the clerks told the Head of Alterations that I was there. The Manager had her entire alterations team come upstairs to meet me, and see the kind of  knitting that I was doing and the tools I was using -- and that was just a portable sock project -- nothing special.


A friend was dying, and tripped backward over a child's toy on the floor and spilled a whole kettle of  boiling dye and wool over herself.  She was wearing an apron, but the pockets in the apron held hot wool against her belly and contributed to her third degree burns.

If you are going to dye, go down to the local cash and carry restaurant supply, and buy yourself a chef's coat and cook's apron.  They help prevent burns.  They are not very expensive, and they will make you look so cool.  And, closed toe shoes, leather is best.  Hot water will go right into many kinds of cloth shoes.

I have complained many times to Williams and Sonnma and Sur laTable, telling them that aprons in the kitchen should not have pockets, because pockets in kitchen aprons hold hot liquids and contribute to burns.  Real  restaurant supply firms have real cook's clothing that will help keep you safe

However, I do have a bunch of aprons with pockets across the belly.  I tie them snugly in front, so I can tuck a knitting sheath in the apron strings.  That means the pockets are all but inaccessible.  This ticked me off for a long time.  Now, I drop a strong magnet in each pocket. The magnets catch my steel crochet hook, my steel darning hook, and my steel cable needle on the outside of the pocket.  Those are the three tools that in the past, always seemed to go astray.  Now, I can drop them in my lap, and know that they will not go too far.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The History Mash

I started "mashing" history when I was looking for clues as to how seaman and fishermen on square rigged ships stayed warm.  Academic history had missed the importance of knitting sheaths and knitting belts. Knitting sheaths and knitting belts allow the knitting of warmer garments. Knitting sheaths and knitting belts were important tools in the day to day life of Europe and GB as furs became less common, and wool became the primary material for warm clothing.  Knitting sheaths and knitting belts allow knitting warmer fabrics than can be knit with only hand held needles.  This is a truth that can be easily proven.

I came to hand spinning in 2009 because I wanted better yarn for my knitting.  That means I wanted useful quantities of  better yarn in a reasonable time frame.

However, hand spinning was in the doldrums.  Everyone was spinning slow.  Sure, I know people that in 2008 hand spun enough yarn for 12 sweaters.   Still, everyone accepted the concept that hand spinning was inherently very slow. And, they were spinning fat 2-ply, which requires minimum twist. There were discussions about which was faster, a (drop) spindle or a wheel and  "slower by the hour and faster by the week" had currency.  Most of my ideas about better yarn include more twist.

As I tried out spinning wheels to buy, they all seemed like they had governors on them to keep them from going too fast.  So, I made a point of buying a wheel that would be easy to modify. It was something that I could modify into a 'hot rod".  However, there was no manual on how to turn a spinning wheel in to a hot rod, and the comments were, " Don't be silly, it can't be done!!"  I used that wheel to learn to spin. After a couple of years, I could spin, and I wanted more speed.  DRS gave me more speed, but I wanted more.

There were stories about CPW being fast. Will Taylor let me spin on his.  I had looked at a number of CPWs, and Will's was far and away in the best condition.  If any CPW was fast, it would be Will's.  My Ashford hot rod was already much faster.   So much for the myth of the CPW, and the people who believe in such myths lost credibility.

I made a series of trips up to Jackson to meet Alden Amos and Stephenie Gaustad, and spun on their wheels.  I ended up buying a pair of  high speed fliers from Alden.  The decision was based on a good bit of historical research into the traditions of spinning.

I was not doing research for an academic paper, so I was not bound by any academic standards in any way.  The sole standard for success or failure in my historical research was Better Spinning as I defined it.  If I become a better spinner the research was a success.  There was a ton of fine academic research out there, but it did not describe a Yellow Brick Road to spinning fine and fast. For example,  The academic researchers do not come out of their academic research on old textiles as great hand spinners.  They research history, not spinning.   I had to go off road. I was researching spinning, not history. I had to think outside of the academic history box. I had to think things that nobody else was thinking.  Many spinners like academic history.  Going "off road" infuriated spinners as a group.  It still infuriates spinners as a group.

Of course my mash of  historical research was only part of the process. The mash developed a set of options, each of which had to be tested. Options that did not test as well were dropped.  What you saw here were options that worked.  Modern textile historians are not good  hand spinners.  In contrast, some of the Victorian historians that my critics disparage were very, very good spinners. (Much, much better hand spinners than the folks who disparage them!)  If I am looking for lessons in spinning, the history written by a very good spinner is likely to be more useful.  My criteria is always, "Does it teach me something me something useful about the practical process of spinning? --  not will it be accepted by the modern academic community.  Remember that the paradigm of  "slower by the hour and faster by the week" came out of the academic community. Those researchers did not do their homework to understand how fast a full time professional spinner could work.

The truth from my mash of history is that it is very possible to spin 500 yards of  worsted 5,600 ypp yarn (10s) per hour on a wheel.  A talented professional might do much better.  Nobody can do that on a spindle.  The wheel/ spindle speed debate was nonsense based on a lack historical information.  If one uses a commercial wheel of the style used by the best commercial spinners circa 1500, the wheel is always faster.  That in 2009, there was still a discussion  as to whether a drop spindle could be faster than a wheel points to the absolute failure of academic historical research to resolve hand spinning questions.  The superiority of a wheel is even more apparent with hosiery and shirting yarns (22,400 ypp).  On these issues, I will not take the word of any historical researcher that has not spun such yarns in commercial quantities on both a wheel and a spindle.  This is not something one can understand unless one has actually tied leases in a a hank of  fresh shirting singles, dyed them, warped, and woven the result.  Actually doing it lends perspective.  

I know spinners that spend more time spinning than I do.  However, I produce more yarn than they do.  And by spinning faster, I have more time to knit, weave, and do other things. Also, at some grists, spinning faster is easier. Just spending more time spinning is not a path to spinning faster and finer. (Assuming you have put in the 4,000 hours needed to learn to spin.)    If one in going to learn to spin finer and faster, one must learn on an ongoing basis from those who have spun finer and faster.  However, they are dead.  If we want to spin finer and fast we have to take lessons from history.

The lessons from modern academic research did not lead to finer and faster spinning (as of 2009).  However, my mash of history did get me to spinning finer and faster.  By my standard, it was an outstanding success.  If you want to claim that academic research is better, then show me that you are a finer and faster spinner, and that you become such a spinner as a result of  historic research conforming to academic standards, and not by using my mash of history results.  I find that the folks that assert the virtues of academic work in spinning tend to recite from rote, rather than explaining logically from critical thinking.  The  comments critical of this blog often sound like the honking of  a flock of geese.  I can recognize the individuals, but they are all saying that I should not doubt the conventional wisdom of the group.   Some are the same individuals that said I should not doubt the conventional wisdom of the knitting group, and I should not use a knitting sheath.  Sorry, but without a knitting sheath it takes me much longer to knit a gansey.  The knitting sheath saves me time, and lets me knit objects that cannot be knit without a knitting sheath.  The group is wrong about knitting sheaths.

Now,  I have blazed a trail to finer and faster spinning.  It is a path that few others will  follow.  Most will  continue spinning thick yarn, slowly.  That is their way. It is not a bad thing.  Still, I expect there are one or two who seek to spin finer and faster.

Today, my Traddy runs many times faster than it did new out of the box. That is the primary result of my history mash. That is a testable result.  It means that this afternoon, I can spin better.  I care about that.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Arms Race and Edward Longshanks

When I started spinning, a large number of spinners told me that the spinning wisdom of the ages had been passed to them. They made fun of me for trying to spin finer and faster.  They said it could not be done; and it was not necessary.  Comments to me really have not changed in the last 4 years.

They were/are condescending, rude, and wrong. It can be done. If one is going to actually spin and finish objects that were the traditional job of spinners, it is necessary to spin faster.  I do not care how fast you spin, but I do care how well I spin.  I do care how fast I spin.  To that end, I measure and record my spinning.  It is called, "a spinning journal". Parts of that spinning journal will end up on this blog.

If you do not want to know about my spinning, then do not read this blog.

I do not say everyone must spin fine and fast, I merely point out that it is possible to spin fine and fast. I do not judge people (non-spinning) by their spinning skills, but I do judge "spinners" by how fast and how fine they spin. (And, I give real respect and deference to elite spinners.)  If you do not want to be judged by these standards, do not tell me that you are a "spinner",  instead say,  "I am a talker!"

For many, spinning is very much a social pastime with its roots in Queen Victoria's Court. They want to spin well enough to be accepted by the group, but not to spin as well as a "vulgar tradesman".  These are social spinners. I know some very nice social spinners.

In contrast, I spin because I want the yarn, and I want better yarn.  I want to spin as well as the vulgar spinster.  To get there, I have to figure out what parts of the modern spinning tradition are for better spinning, and which spinning traditions are social ritual developed so that all members of the group produce similar yarns, and thereby everyone can feel that they are like other spinners, and therefor belong to the group.

Such group ritual is disrupted when when anyone displays new skills or technology. The group then feels threatened and displays aggression toward the non-conformer.  Does that sound familiar?

There are many brands of spinning wheels - it is a big market. However, modern wheels all have a very narrow envelop of performance design standards.  Is that because they go as fast as is mechanically possible?  No, it is what the group wants, so everyone can spin the same yarns at the same rate.  Alden knew how to make faster wheels, but he only made single treadle wheels which are inherently slower.  He knew about accelerator wheels, but he also knew that his market would not tolerate wheels that went that fast.  He knew about DRS and gang whorls that allow much faster spinning but he also knew his market.

Alden knew how to make a much faster wheel, but he did NOT  bring any of that up when I came to him asking for a faster wheel.  Many spinners had tried to buy speed from him in the past.  However, spinning speed is not for sale, it must be earned.  And, those spinners who earn speed, will find speed, even if speed is not for sale. (The Gods of Speed demand sacrifices!)  And, the group makes sure that speed is not for sale. Selling real speed would trigger an "arms race."  The group does not want an arms race. The group likes the technology adopted by Queen Victoria's court - and that was not the technology of the (vulgar professional) spinster of 1750, or even 1500.  Rather it was a  romanticized technology from a mythical era.

Real handspun from real hand spinners was something altogether different:

Handspun wool with silk,
gold, and silver.
All Handspun

Does anything depicted above look like what is most often called "handspun"?  However, it is all handspun.

I want to spin handspun!  The textiles depicted above were made by vulgar professionals.  They had,  "the spinning wisdom of the ages".  Cottage spinners do not add silk, gold, and silver to their wool yarns.

I am not going to get there unless I spin fine and fast.  That requires real spinning tools and real spinning skills.  I am not going to get there with toys and romance.

The depictions above  prove that it was done. The "Boss Cows" of the spinning community are wrong.  Look at how wool was being moved and monetized in Edward's time  (circa 1295)  Yes, in Edward's time there was large scale, industrial, hand spinning in Italy. This is very different from the romanticized, cottage spinning of the Victorian myth. 


Edwards use of wool futures is not in the books on textile history, and yet Edward's wars helped Italian spinners (and weavers) get British wool cheap!  Why are not these kinds of financial incentives for the Florentine textile industry in the books on textile history?  Such omissions are why I do not trust textile historians. Our textile historians are steeped in the Victorian textile myth of cottage crafts.

See  on how crafts secrets were controlled and protected.  

The secrets of dyeing and weaving were carefully guarded, and the most skilled craftspeople were, at certain times, prohibited from leaving their native cities for fear they would share their expertise with rival manufacturers. The quality controls and strict oversight of the production of luxury textiles reflect their importance not only to their owners but to the entire society that contributed to their production.

 Modern academic standards of documenting historic textile technology are a large part of the Victorian Textile myth. One does not see a craft technology depicted in art until the technology was long outdated.   Academic standards of documenting historic textile technology are silly.  We know better.  Yet they are recited back to me over and over, again and again.  

However valuable silk was to Italy, wool was a larger net source of wealth.  They got there, by miniaturizing silk throwing equipment into the flyer/bobbin assembly which was used for wool - much earlier than it shows up in art, or even LDV's notebooks.   This gave Northern Italy a huge competitive advantage in spinning.  Spinning is the largest cost in wool textiles.  A large competition advantage in spinning, is a competitive advantage in textiles. 

Britain was selling wool (cheaply) because British spinners were not as good as Italian and later Flemish spinners.  Look at tapestries  produced circa 1500.  The spinning in the  British  tapestries is not as good as those from other parts of Europe.  The British cottage spinners taken as a model by the Victorian Court were not the best spinners n Europe. By and large modern English Speaking hand spinners do not recognize the Italian, French, and Flemish contributions to hand spinning.

Modern textile historians get all wound up in their academic standards so they cannot see what happened or figure out when it happened.  That is not my problem.  My problem, my worry,  is to make my next bobbin of thread a little more like the handspun depicted above. 

I am a hand spinner in an arms race with 14th century Italian hand spinners.