Sunday, February 21, 2016

Bermuda Buttercups

Oxalis pes-caprae--the
crabgrass of Northern California.
   Sunday was a very nice day--mid-60s, low humidity, lots of sunshine--so I spent part of the day pulling more weeds from my perennial bed and along the retaining walls. It's nice to see the yard start to wake up after a cold December and a wet January: the currant bush is starting to put out leaves, and my very confused purple irises (they've been in bloom since Halloween) are about to be joined by my "fancy" irises.
   The main weed I pull at this time of year is the crabgrass of the Bay Area, Oxalis pes-caprae. It has a lot of different names: Bermuda buttercup, Bermuda sorrel, African wood-sorrel, Cape sorrel, buttercup oxalis, sourgrass, English weed, and a bunch of names that can't be repeated. I've used a few of those, but around here it's usually referred to as "that damned oxalis."
   This is not your average wood sorrel. I have clumps of wood sorrel in shady spots all over the yard and I like its tiny pink and white flowers and tidy behavior. I've grown up with wood sorrel (we always called it "shamrocks"), and I love to chew on the stems for their sour, lemony flavor.
My yard is not this bad, but it's close.
   Bermuda buttercups start to show up during the dark, cold, days of December, when nobody wants to be outside pulling weeds, then explodes across the landscaping in January and February. It's everywhere: popping up in verdant lawns; covering bare ground where nothing is planted; even growing up between cracks in walks and walls. As soon as it gets a little sun, the plants send out tall stems with a tuft of yellow flowers at the end. The floral spectacular lasts about six weeks, then the plants die back to the ground, leaving a mess that has to be pulled up and raked away.
   Nothing kills Bermuda buttercups. I know this--I've tried everything from pre-emergent herbicides to chemical defoliants, and the blasted stuff just comes right back for more. I think it probably would withstand nuclear attack. It's particularly insidious because it propagates in two different ways. When conditions are right, and the plant is pollinated, it will produce large, brown, seeds that end up everywhere (I think the plant may shoot them across the yard). However, seeds are not Bermuda buttercups' regular method of spreading: the plants produce hundreds of tiny, peanut-sized, bulbs that become new plants that each produce hundreds of tiny, peanut-sized, bulbs. The plants force their roots--and bulbs--deep into the soil, so even when the plant is pulled up, the bulbs stay in the ground. As a result, I have Bermuda buttercups everywhere: front yard, back yard, in potted plants and raised beds that have nothing but purchased potting soil.
   I do not like Bermuda buttercups. I can, however, tolerate plants that are useful, and it turns out "that damned oxalis" has a couple of uses. The first one is in salads. When the yard is full of plants, I'll pull a handful or two of leafy stems, give them a good rinse, and strip the leaves for the salad bowl. It adds a bright, lemony, note to the salad.
   The second use is that it's a dye plant. Ida Grae, in her book Nature's Colors, described it as a dye plant, but a previous attempt didn't produce any results. I tried again last week: I don't know if earlier in the season is better, or the water pH was different, but this time, it worked. I mordanted 250g of yarns with 10% alum and 5% cream of tartar, then simmered the yarns for about 45 minutes in a dye liquor made of 250g of Bermuda buttercup flowers and a gallon of tap water. I got a cool yellow on some handspun llanwenog, and a brighter yellow on the wool/nylon sock yarn.
Gold, yellow, and cool yellow--
all from the same dye pot.
   The big surprise came when I change the pH of the water the yarn was in. I set one skein of sock yarn aside, then soaked it in a "push" bath of 1/4-cup household ammonia in a gallon of water for about 15 minutes. That was all it took to turn the yarn a gorgeous gold.
   All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the results of my first experiments with Bermuda buttercups. I picked another 185g as I was pulling weeds: 100g are spread on a cookie sheet to dry, while the other 85g were packed into a ZipLoc bag and tossed in the freezer. I want to see if the color will still hold through being dried or frozen. If it does, I'll be able to pick, dry, and store the flowers until my regular dyeing sessions during the summer. Who knows? I might start to like Bermuda buttercups.

On the loom: Still threading heddles for the upholstery fabric.

On the needles: Bit of Magic scarf out of Plymouth Happy Feet; Number 27 socks, out of ice-dyed Valley Franklin sock yarn.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Box of Sox

A box of handknit socks.
   I'm the first to admit it: I like socks. I especially like handknit wool socks. During a normal California "winter," when the daytime temperatures drop below 60 degrees, I pretty much live in handknit socks. It's a matter of survival: the wood floors are cold (common in an historic home), and I don't like wearing shoes (I wear Birkenstocks except when it's wet).
   I also like to knit socks. Socks are easy, fast, colorful, and at the end of the process, I have a pair of (mostly) matching sweaters for my perpetually chilly feet. After knitting a couple dozen pairs of socks in the past seven years, I have sock-knitting down to a system: 2 US#2 circular needles; figure-8/"magic" cast on; either a "flat" or "star" toe; increases to 60 stitches, then knit plain until 60 rows from the cast-on. I now use a short-row (aka "Fleegle") heel, then knit the leg until the sock (or stocking) is as long as I want: if it's just standard socks, I knit the leg until it's as long as the foot, then do a couple inches of 3x3 ribbing before using a super-stretchy bind-off. It takes me 30-40 hours to knit a pair of socks--spread out over consecutive evenings, it's a pair of socks every 7-10 days.
   As a result of my love for sock-knitting, I have quite a collection of socks. They are neatly stored in a large box in the bedroom, paired up and folded so I can pick through them easily. There have been a few discards over the year. The first pair of socks I knitted--out of Patons Classic Wool--suffered the usual fate of all-wool socks: an accidental trip through the washer and dryer. I'm sure they made a very nice pair of slippers for some child. Another early pair was knit of 100% alpaca yarn. A word of warning--alpaca does not work for socks. I have no use for size 14 socks, so they went away. The latest sock purge were the pairs with "afterthought" heels. I like the afterthought heel, especially for yarns that make interesting patterns, but I can't do a Kitchener stitch to close the heel to save my life. As a result, those socks had a 3-needle bind-off that put a seam right at the bottom of my heel. They weren't comfortable, and now they're gone.
   The periodic sock purge still leaves me with  handknit socks and stockings. I have blue and green striped stockings, made with naturally-dyed yarns. I have a pair of truly wild self-striping variegated stockings made from handspun. I have tall socks for wearing with hiking boots, and regular socks for wearing with sandals (and tennis shoes, if forced). However, a sock purge also means I have an excuse to knit more socks.
Number 26.
   The current pair ("Number 26") are out of Paton Kroy FX, in "Clover Colors." I'm revisiting this yarn and colorway: I bought a couple skeins in 2010, but turned them into a shawlette in late 2013. Oddly, the shawl doesn't look anything like the socks--you wouldn't guess it's the same yarn, even when placed side by side. In fact, the socks are only marginally alike, even though both skeins are (theoretically) from the same dyelot. Fortunately, it's no big deal--I have no plans to wear the shawlette and socks at the same time--and I'll have one more pair of socks for the box.

On the Loom: 15 yards of 6-shaft broken twill out of Astra 10/2 cotton, on Mongo. The Gem is nekkid, in preparation for a doup leno workshop in 7 weeks.

On the Needles: Number 26 socks (see above).

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Looming Badassery

   I will admit it: I have a lot of faults. I'm lazy, I occasionally have a bit too much to drink, I like sweets and snack foods far too much, and I nearly always put fun before what I should be doing. I am also, at times, like former president Jimmy Carter: I have lust in my heart for a bright, shiny, very fancy...loom.
   For most of history, looms were pretty much looms. They had treadles, heddles, beams, and weaving on them was pretty straight-forward: once warped, it was up to the weaver to make the magic of cloth happen. Everything relied on the weaver's skill in stepping on the treadles in the right order, throwing the shuttle, and beating the weft at just the right time with just the right amount of force to put the weft into place and change to the next shed for the next pass of the shuttle. That's how weaving was--yes, there were fancy drawlooms for weaving brocades, and eventually jacquard and dobby looms, and fly shuttles for weaving wider cloths, but to most weavers, "loom" meant the beast with four or eight (or more) shafts, treadles, and a beater. The biggest advance came in the 1930s, when E.E. Gilmore and L.W. Macomber independently came up with designs for rising shed "jack" looms.
The AVL A-Series Loom. 
   This began to change in the 1980s with the advent of computerized, more automated, looms. In late 1981, Ahrens & Violette Looms changed their name to AVL and introduced the first of their mechanical dobby looms. It was a marvel: 16 shafts, dobby chains that could be pegged up with any treadling sequence (no more treadling errors), automatic warp tensioning, and a fly shuttle for weaving really wide cloth really fast. AVL's ads claimed that their loom "enables you to produce beautiful professional quality fabrics as much as 8 to 10 times faster than on a conventional loom..." AVL struck gold, and they've never looked back. These days, big, fancy, AVL looms are ubiquitious in production weavers' studios, and it's easy to understand why--it's pretty nice to design a complex piece of fabric, then sit down and let the loom do all the "hard" work of weaving, including raising the shafts and throwing the shuttles.
   It's tempting. It's especially tempting on those days when I'm having to crawl into the loom for the third or fourth time to change a tie-up, or weaving a long warp when my various little aches and pains are bugging me.
Mongo--my 16S/23T Macomber B-4
   Mongo (my beloved floor loom) is big, old, and completely manual. It's a relic from the last great age of weaving (the 1960s and '70s): Mongo was built by Macomber Looms in 1970 as a 56", 16-shaft, 22-treadle, jack loom with double warp beams, and is still mostly in the original configuration: I swapped out the plain friction-brake warp beam for a sectional warp beam, added an extra treadle (long story short, I miscounted the treadles when I was putting the loom back together after moving), and installed LED strip-lighting on the castle to better see what I'm doing.
   There's a certain amount of badassery that goes along with weaving on a really big, completely manual loom. First, there's the feeling of power that comes with operating a big, heavy, piece of equipment. It's like operating power tools or a big piece of construction equipment (such as a back-hoe): you are in charge of this monster, and it's up to you to keep yourself safe and the job on task.
The AVL Industrial Dobby Loom.
Warp it up, turn it on, and go get a coffee
while it does all the work. 
   There is also the issue of what constitutes "handweaving." There's no question that weaving on a completely manual loom is handweaving. I'm down with that: when I'm really in the weaving zone, my feet dance across the treadles, the shuttle zips along the race, and flawless cloth magically appears in front of me. But is it still "handweaving" when the computer is telling the loom what shafts go up or down next? Or when all the weaver has to do is pull the fly shuttle cord and the beater to create cloth? Everyone has a different answer for those questions, but my answer tends toward "no": that arcane knowledge that is part of the magic of turning yarn into cloth isn't really necessary if the loom is so automated that it almost doesn't need a human.
   So I stick with my Mongo. There are some things I simply can't do on a loom this big: I can't weave more than about 46" in the reed; and I can't lift more than five shafts on one treadle. But when I sit down and throw a shuttle at Mongo, I really feel like I'm weaving, and connecting with all those past weavers who liked good cloth and straight selvedges.

On the looms: Nothing! I cut off a set of samples for upholstery fabric, then wove off the rest as a 2-color bumberet.

On the needles: Just a pair of socks out of Paton Kroy FX. Instead of knitting, I've been covering a brick with needlepoint--it will serve as both a doorstop and a heel rest for my electric bobbin winder's foot pedal.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cracking Up

The crackle scarf
   Forgive me, as I am a bad blogger--it's been a month since my last update. This always happens in November and December: I get busy with the holidays, and blogging gets shoved to the back burner. Before I know it, it's the middle January.
   The fancy twill towels and the crackle scarf are finished! I don't like having warps on either of the looms, and 2015 turned out to be a year in which I got a lot less weaving done than I really like: between broken looms and a broken weaver, my productivity went way down, and some of the warps felt like "dogs" (weaver-speak for a never-ending warp) long before the end knots came up over the back beam.
   Oddly, the crackle scarf was particularly troublesome. I normally don't have a problem with a weave, but this one was a bear. Some of the problem was probably with the design: 4 rotating blocks, each with a supplemental weft in the middle block and another supplemental weft, in a different color, in between each block. It looks beautiful, and reminds me of the spiraling flower spikes of Pride of Madeira, but keeping track of pattern weft, ground weft, two supplemental wefts, which block I was on, and making sure the selvedges were nice was enough to drive a saint to sin. As it was, I found three treadling errors as I was pressing and clipping ends after wet-finishing the scarf. Since it's flawed, I can't sell it, but there's no reason I can enjoy it this winter.
   Because it took so long to weave the crackle scarf, and a couple of samples, I opted to weave off the rest of the warp in plainweave, with the main warp color as the weft. It turned out to be a pretty nice-looking fabric: the bright red-orange and olive green pinstripes contrast nicely with the deep blue. At this point, the 3 1/2 yards I wove are wet-finished: I may turn some of it into a "pocket scarf."
An undulating twill, out of alpaca-silk.
   I finished the crackle warp on Monday; I finished beaming the next warp on Mongo this afternoon. I've been challenged to weave six projects in 2016 that use only yarns in my stash, and this is the first. The warp is 4 1/4 yards of Malabrigo Baby Silkpaca Lace, in the "Zarzamora" colorway, that I bought with a gift certificate I won at the Marin County Fair in 2012 for the "Fall Leave at Sunset" shawl. It's going to be paired with a weft of periwinkle blue alpaca/silk that I picked up at Stitches West a few years ago as a magpie purchase from the WEBS booth. The design is for an 8-shaft undulating twill that looks like ripples. There's enough warp to weave a scarf and a couple nice samples.

On the looms: "Ripples" scarf, out of 2/15 Baby Silkpaca and 2/14 alpaca/silk. The Gem is nekkid.

On the needles: Nothing. I finished another pair of socks and a set of mitts over the holidays, and I'm currently hemming the Fancy Twills napkins.

Update: This was written back on January 14, but I was so late in putting in the photos, the "Ripples" scarf is off the loom, and I've beamed 4.5 yards of 10/2 mercerized cotton to weave some samples for upholstery fabric.