Monday, November 22, 2010

Neck Warmers

Sometimes called cowls, but this brings to mind  Batman and sweaters from the 70's, so I'm going with neck warmers. I have been designing & knitting these at a great rate over the past couple of weeks, partly because it's getting cold & my neck is likewise getting cold, & partly because they make great gifts. "Tis the season, after all... :)

The prototype is made from Scheepjes Voluma, no doubt long discontinued. I have a bunch of skeins left over from a long-ago purchase from Elann. It's acrylic & mohair, with enough fuzz to be cosy, but soft enough to wear next to the skin (very important!). Unfortunately, it's also somewhere between a fingering & sport weight, so the prototype didn't further the design process much, but I wear it in the evening when I get cold, & Brendan calls me "mommy ninja" when I pull it up over my nose :) I found the lace pattern in a book called "A Creative Guide to Knitted Lace" by Jan Eaton. I have no idea where I picked it up or when, but it has charted lace which makes the design process much easier.

The dimensions I'm basing my designs on came from the new Interweave Knits holiday supplement. As I was browsing through, the idea of neck warmers appealed to me but neither of the designs in the book did. I wanted lace! Elegant, flowing lace... I swatched the lace for the grey neck warmer & then calculated it for the larger, bottom end, which worked well for the lace I'd chosen, and for the method of decrease I'd worked out for getting it from the larger diameter to the smaller... The neck warmer patterns I'd looked at had used a consistent decrease throughout, so the prototype looks like a blunt-topped triangle. And although I like it very much & wear it all the time, I came up with some better ideas that I have incorporated in the designs for the others.

For one thing, although starting at the bottom does take advantage of the stretchy cast-on (I use the basic cast-on loops because they are the stretchiest, in my experience), but where you really need the stretch is the neck edge, so all the subsequent neck-warmers have been from the top-down. Another design feature I've added is, rather than consistently increase as I go up, I knit around in the cast-on number of stitches for ~4 inches, then I start increasing drastically (8-11 stitches, every 4-6 rounds) so there's less fabric pooling around the neck. I like the elegant look of this design, plus you can see the lace better. For the bottom edges I've been either crocheting-off in loops or using a knitted picot bind-off (found in Meg Swansen's "A Gathering of Lace" also a wonderful source for charted lace patterns). The pink one is the picot. I tried using garter stitch at the bottom edge (as in the prototype), but it just curled up & didn't look pretty at all. I have been blocking them all, too, which makes the bottom edge behave very nicely.

White neck warmer on the needle...

...and finished...

...and on me!
As for fabric, I've settled on alpaca for softness & warmth, in a fingering weight yarn. The pink one is the exception, being made from KnitPicks Capra DK weight (wool & cashmere blend). All of the pictured neck warmers have used just one skein of yarn, except for the white one (which was the second one I made, while I was still experimanting. You'll also notice that the white one has the triangle- rather than funnel- shape, so there's more fabric draped around the neck.) The blue one is from Knitpicks fingering-weight alpaca, and the black & white ones are from Lion Brand's Baby Alpaca (which comes in a range of natural colours). When it comes to absolute softness, the Lion Brand is the winner, but the Knitpicks alpaca is good for colours outside the natural range, & I'm going to get some more of that for some of my more colour-conscious friends & family.  It's a real bonus that you can get a whole neck-warmer out of one skein of yarn, too. None of the yarns I've been using costs more than $7 or $8 per skein.
This one is for me! :)
The most interesting part of this design is getting from smaller circumference (neck) to larger (bottom). I've shown some close-ups of the lace so you can track where the increases have allowed me to add more repeats of lace. I've also had to come up with different ways of adding increases, sometimes double increases less often (as in the pink one) and sometimes single increases more often (blue, white, & black). With single increases I actually switch the method of increase depending on whether I've got an even or odd number of stitches within which to increase. I like using yarn-overs as increases when I can, since it adds to the lacy look.

When looking for likely lace patterns to use, I look for smallish repeats of 7-11 stitches (one not pictured here has a repeat of 16 stitches, which made it harder to work in the increases & made the neck warmer a bit less stretchy than the others). It's easiest to work the increases into the plain stitches at either side of the lace, so I don't worry about trying to find lace already charted in the round. Also, I change how many plain stitches there are between lace repeats to suit the pattern, as long as the resulting lace looks nice it's fine. I've only pulled-out one so far because the lace was so tedious to work. I've got a shetland lace pattern on the needle right now (I am working them all in the round, of course!) that has no knit rounds between the lace rounds ("String of Beads" from Sara Don), and although it is a challenge and the going is slower, I'm enjoying it & the resulting lace (in a rich brown alpaca- yummy!). As you can see, it's a good thing I slowed down & blogged this before there were even more pictures to load! (Maybe I'll put up more pictures as I go...) And, did I mention that I can get one of these done in about 1 1/2 evenings of knitting? Such fun... ;)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bertie the Bus

While my son Brendan was in elementary school he was fortunate enough to have had the same consultant teacher, Cherie, from 3rd grade to 8th grade. Not only was Cherie just about everything you'd want in a consultant teacher, patient, creative, resourceful, & smart, she is also a lovely person. About when we transcended "team" and became family I'm not sure, but it may have been around the time she had her first son, who celebrated his 3rd birthday last week. Even during the summer vacations we'd try to get together with Cherie & Nick at least once to catch up & play (no work allowed!). Last February we welcomed Nick's little brother, Matt, to our extended family :) And now, since Brendan's no longer in elementary school, we have to do some planning in order to see Cherie & her guys (husband Scott included). Yesterday evening we all got together for dinner & trains & birthday prezzies- yay!

The trains are a big part of visits to our house, since Nick adores Thomas the Tank Engine just like Brendan did! It is so much fun (& nostalgic) to get Brendan's trains & track out & watch them go for it. The Thomases were one of my favourite parts of Brendan's early childhood. We started with the little figure 8 track & moved quickly into more track & accessories and larger, more elabourate layouts (that was my fun). We immersed ourselves in the big book of stories, the videos, & Brendan's first movie in a theatre was "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" when he was four. And although the Thomases have been put away for many years (replaced by nearly a million legos, I think) Brendan had as much fun playing trains yesterday as Nick did :)

For Nick's birthday I decided to make something practical plus something fun. Practical was the stripey earflap hat and fun was my attempt to make Bertie the Bus as an amigurumi. I had thought of doing Thomas but all the different planes & shapes that make up a tank engine made it hard to wrap my head around, but a bus is, essentially, a rectangle, and I can crochet rectangles!!

I wanted all the embellishments to be well tacked-on (because of baby brother), so I opted to crochet the eyes rather than use buttons. I crocheted half a circle with black & then the other half and next round with white, to give the eyes some character, & I like how they turned out. The wheels & windows are all circles & rectangles, with an embroidered smile, and the only other fancy bit was the back bumper, where I used South American crochet to carry 2 colours so I could have a contrast license plate. I didn't want it to be too big for him to grab easily, so I used KnitPicks Comfy cotton fingering weight yarn and a size C/2/2.75mm needle to make a firm fabric, then stuffed it with fibrefill.
And, true to 3-year-old form, Nick was happy to let baby brother model his hat, but he did have Bertie the Bus join in the train play, which made me very happy! :)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fibre-Reactive Dyeing

Last week I was busy dyeing silk scarves for a church fundraiser. The technique is something I cobbled together from various sources, and it works for any protein-based fibre (basically of animal origin, like wool & silk) although different fibres take the dye with different intensities. I use fibre-reactive dyes (I purchase them from Dharma Trading Company) which are also called procion dyes. The way I fix the colour, or make it permanent, is by using white vinegar and heat. Silk scarves come out quite dramatically, as you can see, and you would hardly believe I was able to dye them in my microwave, all in one day :)

This sort of dyeing is one of the few things that makes me glad I have an unfinished basement, so that I don't have to worry as much about the dye getting all over. That doesn't mean that I don't put down dropcloths (I dye in the laundry area, so I have to protect the washer & dryer & anything else my laundry might come into contact with, or else I'll regret it!). I actually use a well-protected washer & dryer as my staging areas, since the nearby stationary tub is an important part of the process.

Because I want to get right down to the dyeing, I use silk scarf blanks which I also purchase from Dharma. I like a minimum length of 72", and usually use the 14"x72" silk habotai scarves. I have also used the silk chiffon scarves, which are nice but not as shiny. Dharma also has habotai silk veil blanks, which are gorgeous & floaty. The end result is more like a silk shawl, but it's so light it can go around your neck like a scarf. I've experimented a lot with the different blanks that Dharma has & have settled-on the habotai scarves because of their price & versatility. But any silk scarf can by dyed using this process, so I do recommend messing around with different ones till you find what you like.

The same goes for colour. I have a about 12 colours that I use regularly, but you could get by very nicely with just 5 or 6 basic colours, which is nice for starting out. The dyes arrive in powder form, which means they'll last a long time, but you alsohave to mix them with water to use them (the Dharma catalog & website has good directions for mixing for tie-dyeing, which is essentially what I'm doing). That's about the only part of the process that is toxic (since you mustn't inhale the powder), so a mask is essential. I also use disposable latex gloves for most of the process (because they're lighter & less clumsy than rubber gloves) & I get my masks & gloves at American Science and Surplus. To hold the dyes in liquid form I recycle my dish soap bottles from Mrs. Meyers (I love the lavender scent :). These bottles are much sturdier than the usual dish soap bottles, but you can try grocery store ones & see if they work as well. My bottles hold 16 oz. which are on the large-ish side for squirting inside the bags, but they also last longer so I'm not mixing as often (a good thing). Something else that that you need for mixing is a measuring teaspoon, and funnels make the whole process much easier. I got by for a few years by making paper funnels ahead of time, but they aren't as stable as plastic & when you're trying to minimise the mess, using something tippy and wonky doesn't hold back entropy- or so I have discovered...

This is probably a good time to mention that equipment used for any dyeing must be segregated from your usual kitchen tools. Even though the liquid dyes aren't harmful, they're not to be ingested either, so you're safest using dyeing tools for dyeing only. That goes for potholders, towels, measuring cups, you get the drift. Since I dye in my knarly basement I have shelves to store my dye equipment & never bring it upstairs unless I'm using the stove (or microwave).

Other equipment needed for fibre-reactive dyeing is: 2 gallon ziplok bags, a glass pie plate or casserole that fits in the microwave, at least a gallon of white vinegar (from the grocery store), a drying rack of some sort, & a large bucket is helpful, as is something called synthrapol (Dharma has their own brand of this), which is a soap used to prevent colours from bleeding when dyed items are washed in it.

I use 10 lb. flour bins for my soaking buckets because they're sturdy, have good lids, and I had them laying around :) I label everything, so there's no possibility of getting mixed up, and because I have a bucket for soda ash solution (for dyeing plant-based fibres like cotton t-shirts) as well as a bucket for vinegar. I always put the lids back on after taking something out to be dyed, so I won't spill dye into a bucket with undyed scarves in it.

Scarves need to be soaked for at least an hour, but overnight is best. Once I'm ready to go- dyes mixed, area protected, ziplok bags out, gloves on, ah! I nearly forgot! Wear at least an apron, if not old clothes to dye in. There's nothing like dyes that need fixative to stay permanent for staining what you don't want dyed anyway- go fig. I actually found an old lab coat for this bit of dyeing. It provided much more cover than an apron & it was warmer... our basement is getting colder as the year turns. Anyway, once I'm ready to go, I think a bit about colourways. I have evolved some colour combos & theories in the past few years of dyeing. The scarves take the dyes brilliantly, so it's all a matter of thinking of what's popular & what's fun, why are you dyeing scarves & for whom. I use a minimum of 3 dyes per scarf, & try to think in terms of adding "zing" to my combos, so they won't be boring. Zing colours are unexpected in some way, but can also tie things together. That said, I also usually do scarves in colourways of blues/greens/purples or reds/maroons/bronze. Fuschia, amethyst, & grape are crossover colours, as is yellow. Yellow is very difficult to keep as just yellow, since it tends to be overcome by neighbouring colours in the rinsing. So I like to use yellow to change turquoise to a beautiful green, and red & fuschia to shades of orange & peach. Since these scarves are for a fundraiser, I don't want to make anything too weird to be enjoyed by someone out there...

The basic technique for dyeing is this:
Pull from 1-3 scarves out of the bucket & squeeze out excess vinegar. If I'm doing more than 6 scarves I'll do them in sets of 2 or 3, although it's harder to get enough dye into 3 scarves & there's a risk of some white places remaining. If I do sets, I fold each scarf differently, so the colours will take in different places & make each scarf unique. I fold them in thirds or fourths & lay them inside a 2 gallon ziplok in a horseshoe shape. Then I decide which colour will be the middle of the horseshoe, the transition colour, and start there. I shake the bottle of dye, pop up the top, put the bottle in the bag, & squirt dye onto the scarves, working it into the scarves with my free hand (needless to say, both hands are gloved). I roll the scarves a bit to make sure the dye is getting to the other side, & keep squirting & mooshing until I've covered enough area. Retreat from bag, rinse hands & bottle, grab next colour, head back into the bag to colour one of the legs of the horseshoe. Make sure that there's plenty of dye in the transition areas from one colour to another. That's where the most interesting stuff happens!

Once the whole thing is coloured, I rinse, & then zip the bag except for the last 2 inches (very important!!). I place the bag in the glass pie plate, take it upstairs with the potholder, place the plate & bag in the microwave, & microwave for 2 minutes. If you're the nervous type, go back & dye the next scarf(ves) rather than waiting around. It gets very big & puffy in the microwave & you always think it's going to pop, but if you left 2" open it won't! The potholder is for carrying the plate back to the stationary tub, where I leave the bag to cool while colouring/microwaving the rest of the batches.

 Silk doesn't felt, so you don't actually have to let it cool completely before rinsing (like you have to do with wool yarn). I switch to regular rubber gloves for rinsing because they're stronger. At the rinsing step I find it helpful to segregate the colours by red tones & blue/green tones, which prevents muddying as they soak. I first rinse each bag of scarf(ves) in coolish water to remove the vinegar, minimising the chance of muddying the colours, and rinse the bags as well so they can be dried & reused- I have some I've been using for 2-3 years, surprising but true. Then I put the red tones in one bucket or side of the stationary tub, and the blue/greens in another with lots of lukewarm water to soak. After a half an hour or hour, dump out the water & refill. Repeat. I usually add synthrapol after about 3 or 4 rinses & then make sure that gets rinsed out. When the rinse water looks more like weak koolaid, I call it quits & put everything through the spin-only cycle of my washer. Then I hang them all up on drying racks. (In the picture of orange/purplish scarves, you may notice one that's orange with yellow stripes. That one was made using natural dyes- safflower and brazilwood- and a shibori technique.)

The wool yarn in the picture above was dyed using pretty much the same technique. As you can see in the ball in the middle, not all wool takes the dye with the same intensity. The middle ball is 100% wool & it takes the dyes with the least intensity. Adding silk (the bottom-middle ball is wool/silk blend) makes a big difference, as does adding nylon, in the case of sock wool, or using wool superwash wool, which covers all the rest of the skeins. As mentioned above, you also have to let the skeins cool completely before rinsing, and for that matter, you have to dye them in the skein, making sure the skein is tied in at least 4 places to prevent tangling. 

I hope this little foray into the fun of  fibre-reactive dyeing inspires someone else to give it a try! Let me know how it goes...