Indigo, collaboration, science, and new adventures

Last night I gave an invited lecture on indigo dyeing practices throughout the world at the Etobicoke Handweavers and Spinners Guild. I drew from a couple of articles I had written on the subject for Interweave Press (including this one) and was very well received; as an added bonus, there was a colour chemist in the audience who came up afterwards and struck up a conversation. We had marvelled at how the incredibly complex and non-intuitive process of indigo dyeing (which involves several steps, rather specific chemical reactions, and starting off with plants that show no sign whatsoever of blue-bearing potential) had been discovered independently multiple times throughout the world. I mentioned in my talk that several indigo dye plants (and there are several, if not hundreds!) are used medicinally as well; I wondered if their treasured status as a producer of the rarest of colours–blue–helped foster belief that they held healing and other beneficial properties too. The chemist offered, well, what if it happened the other way? What if the plants were first used medicinally and through the grotesque processes of the human body (her words, not mine, though sometimes apt) people noticed the occasional tinge of blue? (I had ended my talk with a clinical anecdote about the occasional appearance of indigotin, the indigo pigment itself, in certain pathologies in the human body.) And that got me thinking… that makes a lot of sense. And how great is it to have this kind of conversation, about art and biology and organic chemistry and dyeing cellulose?

I’ve missed being in a guild for a long time. I was in a great one in Colorado, where I learned a great deal, but was a bit soured on the endeavour when I found myself among a rather unfriendly group when I first came to Canada. I really enjoyed the people I met last night, though, and was impressed by the knowledge amassed in the room. And did I mention the guild sits out in a small natural preserve with its own dye garden, including a butternut tree?! I do believe it might be time to start connecting with my local artisan community again.

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Future of the blog…

I first started blogging in 2004; this assumes you don’t count my original forays onto “online diary” sites in the late 90s, and Livejournal throughout my time at Wellesley. I remember graduating and keeping the LJ alive for a while, then switching to Blogger, which led to all sorts of live adventures (for real). WordPress was the next step, but I feel like blogging’s time is past. These days I’m active on Facebook to keep up with friends, and Instagram for the social-media-dopamine-hit. Most of my fibre projects, as well as an awful lot of sheep and horse and science dork (me) photos, are on IG.

Occasionally I get the idea for a blog post that I end up turning into a pitch to one of the magazines I write for. Might as well get paid for it, right? I think I may retire this blog–I might keep the posts upbut relegate them to background and use my eponymous domain name for self-promotion. Maybe I’ll change my mind, though. Who knows.

But rightnow, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some editors to email.









(Basically my Insta content, right here)

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So, what’s your favourite thing to knit?









Lace Leg Warmers by Shawn Glidden(in my own handspun California Red Sheep yarn, courtesy of a sheep named Mastodon)








Velma by Mia Edvardson(thrift store bargain, yarn was 100% and all of a dollar)









Les Cables de Faux by Lisa Gaskell(my first pair, hurriedly finished as my plane touched down in Montreal a few years ago)








Easy Ribbed Legwarmers by Carol Wells

(my calves are a bit, er, meaty these days from horseback riding, so this last pair might be more anklewarmers… but I’ll let them count)

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New Year’s Resolution: No Superwash

It’s ubiquitous, superwash wool. Superwash refers to wool that can be machine washed (and possibly dried) without fear of it shrinking and felting to Lilliputian sizes, thanks to one of a couple chemical processes. The first is a chlorinated bath that removes the “scales” from wool fibres, smoothing them out and taking away their ability to lift up and then stick to each other, which is essentially the process of shrinking/felting. All hair has scales, by the way, even human hair–it’s overlapping layers of the cuticle, which is the outermost part of the hair shaft. Wool, especially certainly breeds like Merino, has lots of scales and is especially prone to felting.

Another way to remove the risk of felting is to coat the wool fibres with a polymer, sort of a plastic outer layer that covers the scales. This is all well and good, and superwash has certainly been a boon to the wool industry in general(and has its uses), but it’s not without problems. First, both the chlorination and polymer processes are quite toxic. That last link also gives some info about a less toxic variation of the polymer process, but I’d like to move on to other issues with superwash:

It kind of makes the yarn suck. I know, I know, them’s fightin’ words, but hear me out. Because there are no scales, the fibres become quite slippery, which explains superwash yarn’s tendency to GROWWWWWW when it’s washed. It can be cajoled back to normal size again, but generally not without the use of a clothes dryer, and it adds an extra layer of complication to something that must be blocked (like lace). It also changes the hand feel, especially if there are polymers involved. It’s taking wool and making it, well, more like acrylic. I’m currently knitting a pair of leg warmers from gorgeously dyed gradient wool, but the feel is absolutely terrible in my hands. Superwash strikes again. (Though it should be noted that this varies greatly among mills/producers. Some superwash yarn still feels quite nice.)

While superwash is a handy quality in commercially produced items like my merino base layers for winter sports, I have to ask myself, do I really need machine washability in my handknits? Most of what I knit will be hand washed anyway, especially the lace, and I even hand wash my socks. I don’t need the superwash quality.

So, I end up with my New Year’s Resolution for 2018: I will not be buying any superwash yarn or fiber this year (though I’ll knit with the stuff I already have). Primarily for the environmental benefit, but also because I just don’t like the stuff as much as untreated wool. This may even be a challenge, because superwash is everywhere, and people seem to look for it on the label even if they don’t end up chucking their finished items in the washing machine.

Feel strongly about superwash? Got a nice untreated wool yarn to recommend? Leave me a comment.

Posted in Knitting, sustainability, wool | 4 Comments

“Darn my socks”

This was an actual quote to my dad to my mom, circa 1982-ish, as he dumped a pile of hole-y work socks (cheap black cotton dress socks) in front of her. My mom assumed he was joking and started laughing, unable to stop for a few minutes, during which time my dad got more and more angry. “Oh my god,” she said, “you’re serious, aren’t you?” He replied, “My mother always used to darn my socks.” “Send them to your mother, then!” (cue more laughing)

I’m with my mom on this one–on a number of counts, but certainly on the futility of spending time darning cheap socks from Sears that come in a pack of ten and wear out fast. Especially when the wearer is a fairly successful physician and can certainly afford to buy another 10-pack. But hand-knit socks? Well, my friends, time to learn the fine and ridiculously easy art of sock hole repair: darning. Interestingly, the word “darn” is one of the few words in English to come from a Celtic language, specifically Breton (meaning piece or fragment). Unless, that is, you subscribe to the theory that it comes from an Anglo-Saxon term, but I’ll let the linguists duke that one out.

It takes a long time to knit socks. I may be a particularly slow knitter, but even the fastest knitters spends considerably more time knitting a pair of socks than it would take to buy them, even counting the drive to the mall. Handknit socks are worth repairing when they inevitably get a hole from wear and tear, a snag, or even a moth attack. Recently I noticed a hole in my favourite pair of hand knit socks:







Still not quite sure how it happened, but the socks haven’t been worn heavily so I’m leaning towards a snag on something. I decided to mend the hole but first, had to get the proper tool.

Enter the darning mushroom. It’s a variation of the darning egg, essentially an egg-shaped wooden tool that may or may not have a handle to make it easier to hold. I’ve heard tell of people using lightbulbs, but the thought of tiny slivers of broken glass appearing in my hands and lap is less than appealing, so I looked for a darning mushroom. It’s an easy tool to use: push it into the sock in question so the hole is exposed across the rounded top, and use the “stalk” to hold on as you work. The top of the mushroom gives you a surface to push against and also see the edges of the hole and where you’re weaving (more on that below). I was lucky to find a woodworker just an hour or so north of Toronto, Sharon Burger(link is to her Etsy), who makes darning mushrooms out of salvaged local woods. I picked up this beauty in black cherry:







And then I got to work. I’ve seen some darning tutorials that advise seaming the hole and pulling it closed, like a sutured incision, but in my experience darning is meant to create a durable patch that will cover the hole without puckering the knit fabric around it. You do this by threading a yarn needle (I use my own handspun wool yarn) and weaving across the hole first in one direction (say, top to bottom) and then the other (right to left and vice versa):







In the end, you’ll have a new bit of wool fabric integrated into the sock. It’s generally visible (I suppose I could have used the original yarn for the sock from the leftovers I have somewhere, but it still would look different being woven rather than knit), but I think that’s part of the appeal:







End result? More months or even years of wear and new life for a hand knit item. No trip to the mall required!

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PSA: Free yarn for a good cause

My new favourite go-to website for workhorse yarns (eg, Cascade 220), is Yarn Canada. Just quick, unremunerated public service announcement that they are giving away $2000 in free yarn to individuals and groups who will use that yarn for charity work and good causes. Check it out!

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Another riding sweater?

So, ages ago, I knit a lovely riding sweater to wear when working the horses in cooler weather. I actually haven’t worn it that much, due to needing to redo the zipper, add a clasp at the top, and being reluctant to let something that took so much time to make become covered in pony slobbers. Despite this, I’ve decided to make another sweater for riding anyway; this one is specifically going to be for wearing at a clinic with my coach in Quebec next year. If it doesn’t get too filthy, I’ll also be able to wear it when I swing down to Montreal from the Laurentians on an off day.

What pattern, you ask? I have no idea. I do know, however, that it will be made with fleece from my barn’s new flock of fiber sheep. (This has all been very exciting, let me tell you.) I did a small swatch of semi-woollen, sport/DK-weight yarn from a BFLxRomney ewe by the name of Diesel, and it’s perfect light sweater material:

Diesel is closely related to the sheep that produced the Grand Champion Fleece at the Royal Winter Fair this year, so she’s got good genetics. The whole flock is young so I have to wait til next year for their fleeces, but I can’t wait. (Also, in case you’re wondering, sheep are DELIGHTFUL — seriously. Sweet and smart and hilarious.) Diesel (front) and her sister, Elisabeth:

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