Friday, October 25, 2013

Hacks, Semi-Hacks, and Good Ideas

     I tinker with things. I can't help it--sometimes it's necessary to mess with something to make it more efficient, or to make something more useful. These have picked up the inelegant name of "hacks." The word "hack" originally meant to cut something into pieces. It began to be used as a noun in the 1980s by computer people to refer to a piece of computer code. Since that time, the word has been attached to nearly everything that people tinker with to make more useful.
A Finnvard trestle studio stand
     There's an entire group of hacks that center on what one can do with furniture from IKEA, the well-known Swedish home furnishing chain. IKEA furniture--especially the cheaper, flat-pack stuff favored by college students--is great for hacking: it's cheap, plain, and modular. In many ways, it's the ground beef of home furnishings, and can be turned into a lot of different things.
     A lot of what's in the studio started off at IKEA: my work table/desk is a Gerton tabletop with Adils legs and a hutch (no longer available); a Finnvard adjustable trestle serves as a stand for my hand bobbin winders, my umbrella swift, my combs, or my hackle, depending on what I'm doing; an umbrella stand makes really good storage for yard sticks, long stick shuttles, and my monopod; while a partially-opened Bjursta extendable table is just the right size and height to be a stand for my table loom. The studio stays organized because I have a large collection of small wooden drawer sets and rattan baskets, all from IKEA. It's safe to say that my studio decor is "early IKEA," mostly because I can turn basic furnishings into what I need.
     The latest IKEA hack is a reed stand and additional storage. A stand for loom reeds--especially long reeds--is essential, as they will bend if not stored without weight on them. They're also horribly expensive: a decent reed stand (without additional storage) ranges from $250 to $400. I needed a better, less expensive solution.
The IKEA Ivar reed stand
     I cannot take credit for this idea: the original hack was by a woman on Ravelry who posted a picture of what she did with some unwanted IKEA furniture that had belonged to her college-age offspring. I liked it, but thought I could take it a bit further by using the taller version of the same shelving. The result is a seven-foot tall, skinny set of shelves above a reed stand that fits behind the door of the studio. This IKEA hack took the following materials (total cost about $65):

--2 84" Ivar bookcase ends
--5 Ivar 19" shelves
--1 Optimator stablizer
--2 19" long 1x3" pieces of pine
--4 36"x3/8" wooden dowels
--4 1 5/8" wood screws

My reeds (and some sticks),
all properly stored
It was a pretty easy task to assemble the Ivar bookcase, leaving a 48" gap between the bottom shelf and the next shelf. Once the bookcase was assembled, the real work began. I took each of the 1x3s and marked where I needed the dowels to go. After marking, I drilled holes most of the way through the 1x3s for the dowels (I used a drill press to get the holes the right depth), then cut the dowels into 6" lengths with the cutoff saw. Once that was done, it was a simple matter to tap the dowels into place with a mallet. The 1x3s are attached to the uprights for the bookcase at 15" and 30" from the bottom with the wood screws. The entire project only took a couple hours, and I have a reed stand with shelves above for various cans of oil, lube, starch, and air, my warping tools, my combs, and (at the very top) stuff I rarely use. Behind the reed stand are my two tallest (56") reeds: I decided that this was a better way to store them, rather than make the reed stand taller and need a step ladder to reach the shelves.
     All in all, I'm pretty pleased with how my new reed stand & storage turned out: my reeds are safe, I have more storage space (which filled up quickly), and I had a good time working with a bunch of power tools.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

East Bay Mini-Maker Faire

Our display table. Bea, Cookie, and me, getting
ready to start teaching.
     What do you get when you cross a science fair, a county fair, and a clean, G-rated version of Burning Man? You get Maker Faire. The brain-child of those crazy individuals at MAKE magazine, the first Maker Faire was held in the San Franciso Bay Area in 2006. Since that time, it's grown to 2 large Maker Faires (Bay Area and NYC), about 60 smaller, one-day "Mini Maker Faires," and a couple of international Maker Faires.
     Sunday, October 20 was the 4th East Bay Mini-Maker Faire (EBMMF), one of the oldest and largest of the one-day "minis." As Spindles and Flyers (one of my two spinning guilds) has been active in the Maker movement, and has done something at every EBMMF since the start, a small group of us showed up on Sunday morning to teach spinning on drop-spindles made out of dowels, cup hooks, rubber grommets, and used CDs. We worked hard, we taught a lot of people (around 200 people by my estimate), and we had fun.
     The Mini is a good warm-up for the big Maker Faire in May (May 17-18, 2014): I found we need a lot of space for teaching, and I'm toying with the idea of setting up a "restricted space" to demonstrate some fiber arts techniques that aren't as "kid friendly" as drop spindle spinning.

Step One: Getting the fiber ready to spin.
That's me, running the drum carder.

Step Two: Spinning. Lorah is demonstrating
how to draft to a young spinner.

Step Three: Plying. Jill is helping a young spinner
turn her spun yarn into a 2-ply yarn.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Dress Journal #10: Corsets & Crinolines 1

     The innermost layer is done, so it's time to move on to creating the shape necessary to support the visible layers. By this, I mean the all-important corset and the petticoat(s).

The Corset

     First things first: In my book, the corset is not to give one a tiny, Scarlett O'Hara waist. It is not the 19th century version of Spanx. Instead, it is the 19th century equivalent of a good long-line bra: it provides support for the bosom. It also helps to transfer the weight of petticoats, crinoline, bustle, and skirt(s) to the hips in a more comfortable fashion than having all those drawstrings and waistbands sitting right on top of unprotected hip bones. I don't believe in tight-lacing: if that's your thing, more power to you, but I need to be able to breath, drive a car, and actually move and work in a corset, so I need to be comfortable, while having the appropriate shape and posture. As I'm both very short-waisted (all my height is in my legs), and thick-waisted (primarily due to age), I need a corset that will support my bosom without digging into my legs when I sit, and allow the freedom of movement that a lot of 21st century tasks (like driving a car) require. When I wear a properly fitted corset, my measurements don't change, but my shape does.
     During the times that women wore corsets, many women wore light-weight corsets for more strenuous activities such sports. In that respect, the corset was rather like today's sports bra. Many of these "active" corsets were of lighter materials, and frequently stiffened with cord rather than steel to allow the torso more flexibility. Really stiff cord is hard to find: on the other hand, weed-wacker line is not, so that's what I"m using to stiffen this particular corset.
     I started with the corset pattern from Simplicity 9725, then made adjustments to the pattern to fit my torso without requiring a great deal of tight-lacing. I'm using a heavy cotton twill and, unlike the pattern, this will be made of two layers sewn together to create the channels for the weed-wacker line. This corset is white, so I can wear it under light-colored outer layers. I am also parting from a traditional 19th century corset by using hook-and-eye tape rather than the more popular "pop" front busk: I have a terrible time getting the busk fastened by myself, and would like to be able to dress myself.
     The construction is fairly straight-forward. I number each of the pieces to keep them in order, and fairly quickly have the two halves of the corset ready to be sewn together. Before I start sewing the layers together, though, I sew the edge binding onto the "fashion" (outside) layer, so once the weed-wacker line is in, I can turn the binding over and hand-stitch it down. Once that is done, it's the mindless sewing of channels for the weed-wacker line, following the seam lines to get the correct contours. After several hours and lots of thread, I have two very well-quilted halves of a corset. Time for stiffening.
     I'm using .080 weed-wacker cord, and it takes a lot: the better part of a 175' roll of the stuff. Fortunately, it's not expensive (less than $10) and can be cut with a pair of cheap scissors. It's also stiff enough I can thread it into each of the channels without any additional tools.
     The biggest part of corset-building is a lot of handsewing. Binding the top edge. Binding the bottom edge. Stitching down the lace beading. It's slow work, but it's now done, and with a couple of adjustments, the corset is finished.
     Over all, it took about 4 6- to 8-hour days to build and finish this corset. Now, I can move on to the crinoline.


  • Chemise
  • Drawers
  • Corded Petticoat
  • Corset


Monday, July 29, 2013

Dress Journal #9: New Clothes Mean New Underwear

     Historic spinning demonstrations have become a hot commodity. I have three this year: one was in April at Ardenwood Farm in Fremont, and there are two upcoming ones--in October and December--at Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park, north of St. Helena. These are all circa 1855 demos, in "costume," so I need something appropriate to wear.
     "Costume" can be pretty broad when it comes to local historic sites. Most historic sites (Sutter's Fort in Sacramento is a notable exception) let their volunteer docents wear whatever they can manage in the historic clothing area; as a result, it's usually a hodge-podge of long quilting calico skirts, long-sleeved blouses, and aprons. The docents mean well, but I have to work to a different standard. It's how I roll.
     Fortunately, I have a big fabric stash, I know my way around a sewing machine, and I have the time to build proper clothes for these historic spinning demos. I have about 9 weeks before the next demo, so I dug out some pretty sage-green print for a mid-1850s basque waist and skirt, to be worn over starched petticoats (no hoop skirt--not period). The same skirt, with a different basque waist, can be used for Dickens Fair in December, so I'm covering a lot of bases with a few multi-tasking pieces. But first, I need underpinnings: chemise, drawers, corset, petticoats, stockings.
     The first layer is chemise and drawers. I haven't built (to completion) mid-19th century garments for more than twenty years, so new chemises and drawers are essential: this is the layer that goes into the washer and dryer after every wearing, so once I'm sure the pattern works, I build multiple sets (rather like having a well-stocked lingerie drawer).
     Speaking of patterns, I use (and heavily modify) commercial patterns. I can--and would--work with a sloper and do the pattern design myself, but I lack an essential tool: a close-by pair of experienced hands to do fittings on my body. My dress dummy was last fitted in 1984, and over the years the "sands of time" have shifted to the point that her figure is not anything like my figure. Fortunately, the variety and quality of commercial patterns has improved greatly in the past thirty years, so a lot of the alterations are to get the fit exactly the way I want it.
Simplicity #9769--Drawers
     For the chemise and drawer patterns, I'm using two of Simplicity's "The Fashion Historian" patterns, #9769 for the drawers and #5726 for the chemise, as I want a chemise without puffed sleeves. Both of these are pretty decent: the drawers pattern only needs adjustment for my size and measurements. On the other hand, I don't care for the "modern" version of the chemise, complete with faux drawstring. The beaded trim along with edges of the "sleeves" will be eliminated, the buttons and buttonholes abandoned, and the beading along the neck will be functional.
     I'm in luck! At some point in the past couple of years, I started work on some mid-century clothes to wear to Dickens Fair, and already cut out and started to sew a set of drawers from this pattern. They just needed finishing, so a couple hours later, I had a set of drawers.
Simplicity #5726--Chemise
     The chemise needed to be started "from scratch." As I was digging around in the sewing room, I came upon fifteen yards of cotton batiste, so it went into the washing machine as I started to make the adjustments to the pattern. Once finished (and the batiste was dried and pressed), it was a simple matter to lay out the pattern, cut it out, and sew the chemise. In the process, I remembered why I hate flat-felled seams: either do them on the sewing machine and suffer scorched fingers as the raw edges are turned under and pressed, or do them by hand and take a lot longer. I'm glad to report that my scorched fingers are doing just fine.
     By the end of the day, I had a chemise and a set of drawers that only needed some minor handsewing (neckline, waistband, drawstrings). I also need a spool of lavender ribbon to thread through the beading on the chemise and drawers, but that will have to wait until Wednesday's trip to the fabric store.

  • Chemise
  • Drawers   

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Good-bye to Old Friends; Hello to New Friends

The Gilmore is gone. After 18 years of faithful service, including the occasional mishap (why I don't weave with a temple) and tangled warp, I've sold my big (46" weaving width) 4-harness/6-treadle floor loom, and we delivered it to a very nice young woman down in the South Bay.

The Gilmore, with the last warp--twill tablecloths.
I found the Gilmore through a 3x5" card tacked to a bulletin board at Straw Into Gold, the Bay Area's legendary fiber arts store, in early 1995. It was being sold by a production weaver (she wove saddle blankets) who was "retiring" because her shoulders couldn't stand the stress of weaving with a heavy beater. She sold me nearly her entire studio--the loom, all the bits and pieces a weaver collects, nearly all of her tools, her small weaving library, and her entire stash (about 200 pounds of yarns)--and kept only her spinning wheel and her Gilmore Gem 8-shaft workshop loom. We carted everything home, lugged the Gilmore up the stairs (we put a gouge in the wainscoting that is still there in the process), and got it installed in what was then my studio (now my sewing room). I removed the ten pounds of lead weights attached to the beater, added more heddles, warped it, and quickly learned all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a Gilmore jack loom.

A lot of yarn has been turned into cloth on the Gilmore. I've woven everything from the rug next to the bed (the first thing and last thing my feet touch every day is something I've woven) to scarves and shawls on it. The last project on the loom was a pair of cotton twill tablecloths that I finished in early June. 

It was a pang to let the Gilmore go, but it was time. I needed a larger, more complex loom that is more versatile. I also needed to move to a loom that I didn't have to fold up to dress--the Gilmore weighs close to 200 pounds, and closing up a 200-pound loom by myself was getting to be a little bit of a struggle. 

Exit, the Gilmore. Enter, the Macomber.

Mongo the Macomber--my 56" 16H/23T loom
I wasn't planning on getting a loom this big. I was looking for an 8-shaft workshop loom to replace my Baby Wolf, and had reduced my "short list" to two looms: a Gilmore Gem or a Macomber CP, better known as a "Baby Mac." Then, in May, I found the Macomber through Ravelry's Warped Weavers Marketplace. It was big (56" weaving width), it was complex (16 shafts), it was a good price, I wasn't going to have to lift and close a 200-pound loom, it was in...Southern California, about 450 miles south of me. No matter--I checked the measurements from Macoomber, measured the back of the pick-up truck, and closed the deal. It took three days to drive down to Southern California, load the loom, drive back up to the Bay Area, and roll the loom--on furniture dollies--into the garage, but we did it. I spent the next two weeks finishing off the tablecloth warp, rearranging the studio, moving the Gilmore down to the dining room (no scratches in the stairwell this time), then completely disassembling the Macomber so it would be small enough and light enough for two middle-aged people to lug it up the stairs to the studio.

It's said that to really know a piece of equipment, take it apart and successfully put it back together again. I feel like I really know this loom, as I've reassembled it from the ground up. Along the way, the Macomber picked up a nickname--Mongo--after Alex Karras' character in the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles. Mongo is officially Macomber B4 #6636 (of the black name plate, Saugus MA series), built around 1968-1970, and sold to California State University Fullerton for their textile arts program. The university did not skimp on the "bells and whistles." Mongo has two plain warp beams--one with a friction brake and one with a ratchet brake--along with a warp separator bar, and plenty of room for four additional harnesses. As a school loom, he's suffered some indignities--including a warp being painted on the loom--but served well until the university eliminated the program in the early 2000s. I suspect he was used primarily as a rug loom: the warp painting debacle was with warps spaced 1/4-inch apart, and there were only about 50 heddles on each shaft. As I reassembled Mongo, I cleaned and burnished the metal parts with extra-fine steel wool, then gave them a coat of silicone, cleaned and waxed the wood, and added the extra treadles (now 23) and heddles (now 300 per shaft) to make Mongo a loom I can use.

I've now woven a couple of warps on Mongo, and I like my new friend a lot. There are still a few adjustments to be made: the weaving bench Bob Allen of Gilmore made for me a few years ago is a couple inches shorter than I really need to feel comfortable weaving, and I'd like to swap out the plain warp beam for a sectional warp beam as I really need to weave warps longer than my warping board. With these small adjustments, Mongo is a loom I will be weaving on for a very long time.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Turning the Page

A big chapter of my life ended on June 30th. After 17 years of worrying about lesson plans, grades, keeping a classroom safe and productive, and all the other tasks that go along with being a full-time high school teacher, I have finally retired. It's a little earlier than I expected (I'm only 57), but it was time for me to move on to other things.

I have never been a "typical" teacher. I've tried to make room in my overly busy life for my friends, my hobbies, and my passions. I've never let teaching define a big part of who I am. As a result, retirement from teaching simply means I don't have to start worrying about lesson plans at the beginning of August, and getting up before the sun (and the students) once school starts in mid-August.

So, what am I doing to fill my "empty" hours? We will now pause for everyone to laugh hysterically. OK, enough of that. I started my own business as a fiber artist. Its name is Cal-Oro Fibrewerks. I have a tiny, tiny store on Etsy, a Facebook page, and I'm busy turning out handpainted fibers, handspun yarns, and handwoven textiles for people to love and (hopefully) buy. That's taking up a lot of my time, and I've never been happier.

In addition to the new business, I have a couple new "jobs." I'm now the president of the local historic preservation non-profit. I joined another fiber arts guild (Silverado Handweavers) and am serving as guild's liaison to the regional fiber arts organization.

I'm also doing some additional costuming, both for some historic spinning demonstrations, and for attending some Steampunk events. I think I even have time to start writing my blog again.

Basically, I'm busier than I've ever been, and a lot happier about it. Turning this page has been a very good thing.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Yarn Washing Day

Once again, I've accumulated a large quantity of yarns that need to be washed. A lot of it is handspun awaiting wet-finishing; the rest is millspun from an unraveled sweater, then quickly run through the indigo pot. No matter its origin, it all needs to be washed.

I like yarn washing during the summer. It's dry, and I can use my drying rack outside. It's also warm (it's forecast to be 82F today), so my yarn dries in a few hours. This is today's washing (before):

The green is about 1,100 yards of green multi-color merino top from Ashland Bay Trading Co. that's been spun into a nice tweed worsted-weight yarn. The little skein of wildly-colored yarn is a 2-ply sock weight superwash merino that I handpainted and spun at some point last year, but never got around to plying until this morning. The white is more of the Falklands 2-ply; again, I don't remember exactly when I spun it, but I plied it just this last week. Finally, there's all the wool/viscose/angora millspun worsted-weight that came from a sweater I unraveled in April. It used to be brighter, but a quick dip in the indigo pot calmed down the turquoise and knocked back the blinding white.

Washing (really, wet-finishing) is a fairly aggressive process. I use the technique recommended by Judith MacKenzie McCuin, which involves soap, boiling hot water, ice cold water, and a small sink plunger. If you want more information on how to wet-finish yarns in this fashion, check out Judith's article "Wet Finishes for Yarn" in the Summer, 2007 issue of Spin-Off magazine. I finish off the wet-finishing process by "thwacking" the skeins on the side of the claw-foot tub before hanging them out to dry on the drying rack: it straightens and settles the yarns into place, and is good for releasing any frustrations.

Once the yarns are hanging, I can forget about them. My drying rack is on the upstairs porch, on the north side of the house, so there's no direct sunlight that might fade the yarns. It's also up high enough that ground-based critters can't get up there, so the yarns are safe.

So, this is what it looks like when everything is dry again. How much yarn is hanging on the rack? I don't know exactly, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 yards, of which about 1,500 is handspun. It's a good couple of weeks of work.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Wool Washing 101

I get asked "How do you wash wool?" a lot, especially during the summer when raw fleeces are most available. In the interests of time and my decided dislike for repeating myself ad nauseum, I'm putting a full set of directions here. First though, I'd like to thank Paula Shull, fiber artist extraordinaire, for teaching me the basics of washing wool--my method is based on her method, and it works.

To Wash Wool

1 raw fleece
Large flat work surface
7-10 yards nylon netting
20-50 small rubber bands
2 24x36 mesh lingerie/laundry bags
1 top-loading washing machine
60 gallons very hot water (above 140 degrees)
1 stick or large wooden spoon
1 kitchen timer
1 cup Dawn dishwashing liquid
1/2 cup white vinegar

The key to easy washing is selecting good fleeces. The less dirt and vegetative matter (VM) in a fleece, the easier the fleece is going to clean up and prepare for spinning. Bargain fleeces can be cleaned up and made spinnable, but they require a lot of time and work; when the time and irritation is factored in, a $5/lb. fleece frequently costs more than a $10/lb. fleece.

Step 1: Skirting
Even award-winning, show-quality fleeces sometimes need a bit of skirting, and regular fleeces frequently need a bit more. Skirting removes the worst of the stuff that won't be used anyway, and keeps it away from the wool that will ultimately go through the combs or carder and be turned into yarn.

To skirt a fleece, simply roll it out on a very large, flat surface: I spread a big blue tarp on the driveway, then slide the fleece out of the bag and roll it out. Fleeces are usually rolled the same way--folded lengthwise with the freshly sheared side out, then rolled from head to tail and stuffed in a large plastic bag--so unrolling it should be pretty easy. Once the fleece is unrolled, pick out any obvious VM, and go around the edges of the fleece, pulling away the short bits and dung tags. As you work, pick up the fleece as best you can and give it a good shake to remove any loose second-cuts: if left in, those will end up as nepps.

Step 2: Washing
The water for wool washing must be hot and plentiful. Turn the setting on the hot water heater to the maximum and leave it for at least 8 hours before checking the temperature of the hot water coming out of the tap (if the hot water supply is shared with other members of a family, let them know the hot water is very hot; no one likes being scalded). If it's still under 140 degrees, plan on washing smaller quantities of fleece at a time on the stovetop, or contact a plumbing contractor about a new hot water heater.

Cut at least several pieces of nylon netting 24 inches x the width of the nylon netting (usually 72 inches) with the scissors.

Working along the raddle lines (the places where the locks naturally separate), break the fleece down into dinner-plate-sized pieces. Take a piece and set it in the middle of a spread-out piece of nylon netting, then gently wrap the nylon netting over the fleece. Continue wrapping until you have a large "sausage" of nylon netting stuffed with the piece of fleece. Put a rubber band at each end of the "sausage" to keep the nylon netting in place. Keep making "sausages" until the entire fleece is broken down and wrapped in nylon netting.

Fill each lingerie bag with one layer (about 6) sausages, then close each lingerie bag.

Fill the washer with hot water and turn off. Dissolve 1 cup of Dawn dishwashing liquid in the hot water, then add the lingerie bags of wool, pushing them beneath the surface with a stick or wooden spoon. Close the lid, set the timer for 40 minutes, and walk away.

At the end of 20 minutes, turn the washer setting knob to "Spin" to drain the washer and spin out the wash water. Do not use a Spin setting that adds water during the cycle. Remove the bags of wool and set them aside, then refill the washer with hot water and turn off. Add the bags of wool, push them beneath the surface, close the lid, and set the timer for another 20 minutes.

At the end of the second 20 minutes, turn the washer setting knob to "Spin" to drain the washer and spin out the water. Again, remove the bags of wool and set them aside while filling the washer. When the washer is filled, add the vinegar, stir, then add the bags of wool, pushing them beneath the surface. Close the lid and set the timer for 20 minutes.

Step 3: Drying
At the end of the third 20-minute period, drain and spin the washer and remove the bags of wool. Open the lingerie bags and remove the sausages. Open each of the sausages and carefully spread the wool to dry on a drying rack in an airy place, preferably out of direct sunlight. As the wool drys, feel the wool: does it feel clean? If not, roll the sausages back up and repeat the washing steps. I have found that medium-grease fleeces such as Romney and Corriedale just need one washing; high-grease fleeces such as Cormo and Rambouillet need two.

Step 4: Storing
Once the wool is completely dry, store it in a cool, dark place. I use 12-gallon plastic storage bins as I can simply stack the wool in the box with the nylon netting it was washed and dried in dividing the layers. This preserves the lock structure for combing.