Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Can you believe it?

After weeks (or what felt like ages, at least), rainy mornings, there is actually blue sky above today. And the weather is supposed to get a bit better during the next days. Whew!

Apart from that, I'm making things like this:

which, in this case, shows the ten thread samples Spinner E spun. E's data points lie in a group underneath the trend line for wraps per 3 cm compared to tex (which compares the weight of thread per metre to its diameter, giving a hint on how tightly spun it is).

And that tells us that E spun a bit looser than most of the other spinners, and did so consistently. Incidentally, E also has a quite "flat" spinning angle, flatter than most of the other spinners. Which perfectly fits together with soft, fluffy threads.

Monday, 30 August 2010

It's not getting less busy here.

Well, at least I have been knowing for a while that these months will be busy.

I'm wrapping up the analysis for the spinning experiment (hah! Finally!) with a little graph interpretation help from the Most Patient Man and preparing the last little bits for the Textile Forum (which starts next week, whee!). Meanwhile, I have also gotten the green light for some sewing for a very interesting project concerning medieval messengers . The project is still in its testing phase, but already sounds immensely exciting.

Apart from this bit of work during the weekend, the rest was fairly relaxed, including two nice breakfasts/brunches with friends and a lot of relaxing and knitting. And I finally finished my current-socks-in-progress:

Skew socks, from Knitty (issue Winter 2009), knit in a teal Regia Sock yarn. Though these are quite thoroughly modified; I have a high instep, and the original pattern did not fit that at all, which led to a major re-write of the pattern to fit my feet. The left sock feels a bit tighter at the moment (which might be due to much less trying-on during the knitting process), but they both fit, and the fit in the toe region is absolutely delightful. As you can see from the picture, I have a wide front foot, and normal socks just don't cut the mustard like these do - so I am actually thinking about adapting just the anatomically correct toe for use with standard knit socks.

Well. Though before I do such an adaptation, I'm planning to cast on for a second pair. And this time around, I won't knit the socks one after the other... but simultaneously. And I'm especially looking forward to simultaneous Judy's Magic cast-on for the two sock toes, which I finally figured out in the middle of Friday night. (The secret? Swiveling the needles.)

And no, I don't usually spend my middles of nights knitting. I spend them sleeping - Friday was an exception.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Rainy again.

Those past two weeks, we've had a lot of rain - and after a quite nice day with rain only in the evening, today's gone back to rain starting in the morning. Hey weather! That's not very summery!

In other news... there are not much other news. Yesterday's errand-running was quite successful, and now I finally have the correct version of my PhD diploma (there was a tiny error in phrasing which meant that it had to be re-done), and we bought some other things and stuff that was more or less necessary.

And now it's nose back to the grindstone, fingers back to the keyboard, and eyes back onto the spinning angle measuring stuff. Magnifying glass, here I come!

Thursday, 26 August 2010


Contrary to what I planned, I did some entirely different things yesterday, which was a very nice break from winding white thread onto black cardboard - instead, I tried to do some analysing; and the evening was spent partly spinning for the Hallstatt project, with net gain of about 0.7 g thread - very good outcome for the spinning time, which was 20 minutes short of two hours.

And today is another day to relax my eyes from staring at threads and reading out spinning angles, since I have several errands to run and things to do out of house. And I'm hoping that it will be so relaxing that all the rest of reading out spinning angles will go just like a breeze! (And if one of you has any tips or tricks for that... do me a favour and tell them to me.)

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

It's the sprint to the finish.

Now at last the finish line is in sight - if things go smoothly today, the Forum Experiment analysis (the hands-on part of it, that is) will get finished.

I'm already looking forward to squeezing results out of all that data. A few steps of the documentation are still left to do, though - like scanning all the visual survey cards so that they are available for presentations and easy on-screen comparison, and reading out the spinning angle on most of the samples, but the worst and most time-consuming part will be dealt with. And in good time, since I will do a presentation of the results at Textile Forum.

In other news: Some of you might remember Hartenstein and the two knights for the exhibition there. There's something more for that museum in the air... and I'm already looking forward to lots of fun and a heap of work. Stay tuned to read more about it once details are emerging from the project!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

Time really flies with insane speed at the moment, but things are also getting done hereabouts. There is not too much left to work on spinning experiment-wise - just a few spinners' samples left to wrap, measure, record and evaluate. And then I can try to squeeze as much interesting results out of that dataset as possible.

On other battlegrounds, I have tackled some uninvited private stuff too, like finding a new car insurance (our old one has crashed and canceled the policy for end of August). There is still a bunch of things to do, though - not least of it sorting through my currently quite depleted stock of wares and trying to re-stock in time for the next event. Now that is a nice reason to sort through the stock...

Monday, 23 August 2010

Today is one of these days...

...when I'm happy to have mostly desk-based work. We spent a good part of the weekend helping a friend of ours with his move, and a lot of stuff (some of that heavy) to be carried down from a fourth-floor apartment with no elevator got me a generous measure of muscle ache.

In addition to moving help, we actually got around to take care of some odds and ends here, my current-sock-in-progress has grown a bit, and I have whittled a second thick and bulky spindle stick. I'm already very, very curious to see how that one will work for me... but for now, I'm happily settled on my chair at my desk and set to get some more info out of the spinning experiment yarns.

That said, here is a demo picture of one of the spinner's threads:

You can click it to make it huge. Top row is all Merino, bottom row is all Bergschaf, and the columns are one spindle each, so you can see how the spindles and fibres compare. And even from this small preview, you can see that there is more thick-and-thin in the Bergschaf than in the Merino - which is probably at least partly due to the preparation of the fibre as batt.

Now I only have to get the rest of the threads treated similarly and then laid out in that way and do such a photo of them all... or can somebody please find Experimental Archaeology Brownies to help with that?

Friday, 20 August 2010

I have been thwarted. By my own stick.

Yesterday somehow was one of those slow, feels-like-nothing-gets-done days, so I sat down in the sun to do some spinning. And what can I say, other than my spinner-self showed my scientist-self that the latter had totally underestimated the power of the spindle stick when designing the spinning experiment... but let me explain.

For the Hallstatt project, I am spinning a thread thickness that does lie below my normal don't-think-about-it, do-it-in-your-sleep thickness. It is thin enough to mean that I need to pluck out or stretch out even micro-slubs to get a smooth, good-quality thread. It's always very hard to give difficulty ratings to thread, but it is definitely not the most undemanding spin.

My favourite spindle is one that I have been using for quite a while, since before I got the spindle-stick replicas made. That means the stick is home-made, from an old cedar wood arrow, and that means it is whittled down on top and bottom, but not to a very pointy point - more like a token rounding off on top especially. (Whittling is not my forte, and I much prefer spending my time doing something I can do well.) And since I don't usually spin for production, but mostly for demonstration, I usually leave the stick in and just slide off a finished cop of wool (most often to stuff it somewhere and forget about it for a while). But I have used the whorl with the Bergen sticks too, and they generally do work for me - I'm just not using them normally.

When I went to the Wooly Week Workshop, I brought my spindle whorl, a few of the Bergen sticks, and the cedar stick (with the whorl on that). And when we started, I used the cedar stick because, well, it was already in there and handy, and I use it all the time when I demo. So I did get "spun in", if you want to say so, with the spindle on the cedar stick, which I used all week for the tests.

Fast forward to the "production phase" here. Since one of the benefits of a removable whorl is that you are able to just swap sticks and ply off the two spun-full sticks later on, I thought I'd just continue with one of the Bergen sticks. And that is where I was thwarted yesterday. I tried spinning with the Bergen stick - and the spindle runs very well, very fast with it; there is little wobble because the tip is tapering so nicely; it feels good... but I was not able to spin the correct gauge thread with it, and I got breaking thread way, way too often. Believe me, I really tried hard to spin with it, but it just would not work. Finally I switched back to my thick-tipped cedar stick, and it worked much, much better again. So what happened? What is the difference between the sticks?

Is it added weight? The Bergen stick is a bit heavier than the Cedar stick, but that is not what brought me down - during the Wooly Week, I usually had a good-sized amount of thick starter thread wound around my spindle, bringing it up to a significantly higher weight than yesterday's assembly with Bergen.

Is it changed MI? According to André Verhecken, who does research about MI in spindle whorls, the stick does not change much - and a difference of one or two grams will not change anything significant in the MI.

But something changed when I changed sticks - something significant enough to keep me from making the thread I wanted to make. And as I watched myself spinning, I found out what else had changed - the stick diameter close to the top, where I put my fingers to give spin to the spindle. Bergen tapers very slowly from an already slim shank to a slim point about 3 mm wide, while Cedar is much thicker, probably about 6 mm in diameter where I place my fingers, and tapers over a short distance only. And I got the impression that when I give twist to the thinner shank, the spindle will turn a lot faster than when I give twist to the thicker shank... which would be a considerable influence on my spinning, and which would explain why I was getting more breakage - too much spin on the thin thread.

That means that, given time and practice, I could most probably adapt to the faster-spinning spindle setup and change over to the Bergen sticks, either giving less (slower) spin to the stick or drafting faster; though for these fine, finicky threads, drafting faster is not really an option.

And it means that, because I was not aware of how much spindle stick shape can influence spinning, the stick was a variable totally left out of the experiment 2009. On the other hand, adding yet another variable to check would have been too much for one week of testing time, and of course all spindle sticks on the experiment spindles were the same - so it's possible to develop a follow-up experiment with modified spindle sticks and then continue researching into this topic with all the data we have.

And this means that my scientist-self will think about spindle sticks, and experiments, and how it could be tested, and all kinds of things like that during the hours I will spend spinning the Hallstatt threads... after I whittled myself another chunky cedar stick, that is. Because that will take a lot less time and effort for me than to learn now how to cope for the higher spin on Bergen for the Hallstatt threads. Because after all, my spinner-self is still just a lazy spinner.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Distaff Questions

Yesterday's Praise of the Distaff raised two questions in the comments that I'll address here, since answering them will take some linking as well.

Chris asks:
"I was always told that if you saw someone spinning with a distaff in a medieval picture, it meant they were spinning flax. Is there documentation of a distaff being used with wool?"
I've been told that, read that, or heard that as well, and I think it might stem from the fact that when you are spinning on a wheel, you can place the wool fibre in your lap, thus saving the distaff. However, flax fibres in a lap will very soon end up in a huge knot - they are too long and too tangle-prone to spin without help of a distaff, even on a spinning wheel. This leads to a "wheel-based" strong connection in modern spinner's minds, which is basically Distaff=Flax, and Wool=No Distaff. However, I have yet to find a medieval picture of a spinner not using a distaff - they all have one.
Yet you can tell whether somebody is having wool or flax on the distaff - because the shape is different. If the loaded distaff looks like a stick with a traffic cone on, it is long fibre - probably flax; if it looks like candy floss (candy cotton for you US folks), it's short fibre - probably wool. And that brings us directly to the next question, which comes from Panth:
Is there any chance you could do a photo-tutorial of how you load your distaff with wool, particularly with how to load it with wool rolag(s?) prepared with hand cards (if, indeed, that's applicable). I have both distaff and drop spindle and would dearly love to make the leap towards more historical hand spinning but have been having trouble with loading the distaff effectively.
Well, I could, but it would probably take me ages, so I'll do the lazy thing and link you some stuff already on the internet.

There is a photo tutorial (in German, sorry) showing and explaining how to load a distaff with flax (the long-fibred stuff, not the short waste bits you buy as top nowadays) done by Faserfieber. For those of you not reading German, basically you open up the skein (Flachszopf), shake out the dust, loosen it up by laying out the fibres in thin layers, one on top of the other, on your lap (this gives you a fibre triangle in your lap), and then carefully roll it around the distaff. You fix it with bands on top and additionally close to the bottom; the bottom band is removed for spinning.
This gives you the characteristic traffic cone shape with the also characteristic bands around it. You don't use these bands for wool, so whenever you see a distaff in cone-form with bands, it's flax (or hemp, or nettle - but one of the long plant fibres).
So she's spinning flax:
(when she's not beating up her husband with her distaff, that is)

while this girl here

looks more like a wool-spinner to me. No proper cone-shape on the distaff there - and I'd suspect the two parallel diagonals across the fibre blob are meant to hint at the wool roving wound around the distaff. And yesterday's peasant lady is also definitely spinning wool, by the shape of the fibre on her distaff.
I haven't been able to find a photo tutorial about how to wrap wool around a distaff, but I can tell you: You don't need one. If you are preparing your fibre yourself, you want to get a long enough sliver of roving from it. That is easy if you comb your fibre - just diz it off. I haven't tried this myself, but I think you could do the following with hand-cards: card an amount of wool, maybe three or four carding portions; do not make them into rolags, but place them into a stack and then pre-draft them through something with a suitably small hole in it to get the right shape. 
If you are not preparing your fibre yourself, get a nice long (at least 80 cm long) strip of batt or stretch out a bit of commercial top so that it's not as chunky. 
In any case, you should now have a strip of prepared, pre-drafted fibre. Now you grab a stick that is between 45 and 120 cm long, according to your preference. Any stick will do, as long as it's not too smooth, you want it to have some "grip" on the fibre - and now wind your length of fibre around the stick, just like you would wind thread on a bobbin. That's it. 
I hope that helps!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Praise of the Distaff

There's another aspect to modern spinning - and "historical" hand-spindle spinning as it is done today - that has recently started to raise my neck hairs. It's a trap that most modern hand-spindle spinners fall into and do not ever get out of - mostly, I think, because they are not aware of it.

It is spinning without a distaff. When I learned how to spin, I did it on my own, knowing nothing of fibre prep and use of distaff. It's only quite recently, on the first Forum, that I actually met somebody who spins with a distaff as a rule and never without, and a second spinner (friends with the first) who pre-drafts her fibre to wear it around the wrist, thus having more or less the function of the distaff without the stick. Most spinners I know are just holding a piece of the fleece or top in their one hand, the upper drafting hand, and spin from there.

This has several negative effects. One, your hands are never perfectly dry, and you move your upper drafting hand when spinning - not much, perhaps, but you do. And as we all know, the combination of friction between fibres (movement), warmth and moisture leads to felt, not nice spinnable fibre; this means less quality in the thread as you near the end of your in-hand batch or a lot more prepared fibre thrown away - a huge waste of material and time. Two, you have to hold the batch of fibre in your upper hand, thus having two things to handle - the wool and the spinning. The wool in your hand does impede your movement a bit, and that might be the crucial bit - the reason why you are not spinning as regularly and evenly and fluidly as you could. Three, when you put away your spindle, the little batch of fibre attached to it can hang free and untwist the bit of thread between the spindle tip and itself. Four, you have to have an additional fibre supply if you do not want to mangle all the unwieldy stuff in your hand right away. Five, it is not historical (and that's a big deal to me).

These are all disadvantages that are as true for a spinner today as for a spinner of yore (well, except the last one, of course). So why are almost all modern spinners holding a wad of fibre in their hand? Probably because they learned to spin this way and never saw somebody using a distaff while their spinner-self was still young and malleable - and excited to try new things. But then, a distaff is so handy! And it doesn't even need to be so long. I am now working with a quite short tuck-under-the-arm distaff, and it is only 45 cm long. That is shorter than those distaffs depicted on medieval sources and those surviving completely in the archaeological records - which seem to be about 80-100 cm long at a rough estimate - but just long enough for me to tuck into the armpit and short enough to fit into my bags to take with me. Even shorter is also possible: a spare spindle stick can serve as a hand-held distaff like they were used in Roman times.

The difference between working with hand-held fibre and with non-hand-held fibre, whether it is fixed on a hand-held short distaff, on a underarm (or belt-held) medium or long distaff or wrapped around the wrist is enormous, especially for very fine yarns.* One, you don't felt your fibre, because you only pinch and do not hold. Two, your fibre is stored safely and out of your hand, thus impeding hand movement much less (this is less pronounced with the hand-held distaff). Three, when you use a medium to long, tuck-under distaff, you can turn the distaff with the spindle hanging on a short bit of yarn so that the upper spindle tip rests against your fibre on the distaff, thus keeping the spindle from turning backwards and untwisting the yarn. (Amazing, huh? And so easy! And it frees your hands, both of them, to do other chores, unless they require you stretching both arms. Might not work with extra-thin yarns and a heavy spindle, though.) Four, you can store a goodly-sized amount of fibre on your distaff, even on a hand-held one, to last you a while; so you can wander off and spin without taking a bag with extra fibre with you. And five, it looks like in the pictures.

Peasant woman feeding chicken; illumination from British Library MS Add. 42130, fol. 166v.

I have used a distaff once before, years ago, and already found then that it was a valuable tool, and that's long ago when my spinning was far from where it is today. And to this day, I'm not sure why I didn't stick with it; probably because I mostly spin for explanation and demonstration purposes and shied from taking the additional stick with me, and from taking it up and putting it down again. But now that I've finally seen the wonders of the distaff, I promise to amend my ways and to at least try to spin strictly historical from now on - and even more important, I promise to only teach new spinners to use spindle and distaff from now on.

So the next time you take up your spindle, try taking up a distaff with it. Pre-draft or diz your fibre top into a narrow band (the top as it is delivered is very wide and not really suitable for a distaff yet), or tear off a long narrow bit of your carded batt, wind it around a stick - any stick will do - and give it a try. And I'd be delighted to hear what you think!

* Personally, I prefer the medium length tucked under the arm; I can work with hand-helds, but my upper draft hand then tends to get cramped after a while, possibly because I have very small hands.

Picture source: Gies, F. and J. Gies (1999). Daily Life in Medieval Times. A vivid, detailed account of birth, marriage and death; food, clothing and housing; love and labor in the middle ages. New York, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Spinning for Hallstatt

To give you more than just text and promises of broken-off thread bits at the Forum, here are a few pictures of the spinning.

This is the single for the first of the three different plied yarns, on the spindle. That should be enough for the length required, so I will start to spin for the second ply now, with a different spindle stick.

You see the "full" (well, not really, but full enough for my purpose) spindle and the distaff with the fibre stored on it both in the picture. I will not sing the praise of the distaff now, since that would make this post explode. I'll sing it tomorrow for you.

And this is my little comparison card to check if the threads I spin are like they should be:

You can see the three different threads used in the tablet-woven band that is going to be reproduced. Thinnest of the three is the Z-ply on the right, thickest is the one in the middle. I am currently working on the leftmost, medium-thickness S-ply. The little comparison card - the white bit - is an old business card of mine. That should give you a first rough idea about the thread thicknesses.

But I'll make it easier for you. You probably know Gütermann Silk sewing thread? The one on the blue spools, Nm 100/3? Yes?

That's the extra thread meandering across the card in this picture.

I've left the first picture quite big, so you can click it and zoom in quite far. And these are original thread sizes of the thread used in the tablet-woven band.

If you'd like to find out a little more about the band, there's a tiny picture of the original at the bottom of this (German) page, and there's a German text about the project I am spinning for on this page.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Wool Spinning

I have already mentioned the Vienna wooly week, and I've been busy doing some more spinning during the weekend. Those of you that know my spinning style know that I have a tendency to do thin to very thin threads, and I have my own theory why that might be as it is (which I won't go into today).

Just like with hand-woven fabrics nowadays compared to those hand-woven (naturally, since there were no automatic or semi-automatic looms) in the middle ages, there's this basic difference in "look you aim for". Today, a hand-woven fabric is usually quite coarse (to keep the price in a somewhat affordable range) and slightly uneven on purpose - because that's how you see that it was hand-woven, right? And if you buy a pricey hand-woven textile, you want people to see it is special because it's hand-woven, right again?
The medieval weaver did surely not aim for the modern irregular look, but for as smooth and even as possible. And we have the same phenomenon in spinning. I have actually been told by people that "you'll want to make your thread a bit more irregular, or nobody will see it's hand-spun". Being a good medieval-minded spinner, no, I do not want that. And then there's this yarn thickness problem, too. Most modern hand-spuns are way, way thicker than yarns used in medieval weaves - which makes the fashionable irregularity of yarn thickness possible.

If you spin a thread that, on average, contains 120 fibres at any diameter, you can easily add or omit ten or twenty fibres and still get a reasonably even yarn. If you add or subtract more - I'll just make up some number here, say 50 - you will get an uneven yarn, but one that will still hold up to the weight of the spindle.
If your starting thread contains, on average, only 50 fibres at any diameter, you don't want a thinner bit with twenty fibres less - that will break your thread because it cannot support spindle weight anymore - and you don't want a thicker bit with twenty fibres more, because that will really show up as a slob. Which means the thinner you spin, the more even you have to spin, because every weakness will show up and every slob will too.

Fighting occasionally with my yarn while spinning those deliciously thin threads used in the Hallstatt bands, I have meditated quite a bit about irregularities. Not letting slobs occur will take quite an amount of concentration, and so does not making thin and thus weak spots. I work with a comparatively heavy spindle, since I like to know that each individual thread in the final 2-ply will be strong enough to take some tension.* The thread coming out of that process is insanely strong and elastic compared to a same-thickness plied yarn made of commercial merino wool** and really, really beautiful to behold - but very slow work. Really slow work. I manage to spin about 0,5 grams of fibre in one hour, and that's fibre spun in the grease, and with the accompanying amount of dirt and dust coating each fibre.
Slow work that needs full concentration, meaning I have to be fit, there needs to be good light, and I don't spin for more than two hours at the very most in one day - but it is very satisfying work as well!

*I have spun on light spindles that many people prefer for thin threads, but I don't like the insecurity - I much prefer to have the spindle earn its name from time to time... and don't tell me that you never thought about why it's called a "drop spindle".

** which finally converted me to an absolute lover of old sheep races

Friday, 13 August 2010

I'm back again!

I'm back after having a wonderful time doing all sorts of things: Going on a summer holiday and spending almost three delightful weeks getting stronger legs in pleasantly cool weather (read: cycling trip in Northern England), with a market right before leaving and a market and workshop right after coming back.

And then I spent a wonderful and very educating week in a place close to Vienna, where I met two dear colleagues for a full week and we did fibre preparation tests and spinning tests for four old-style sheep fleeces. That was a wonderful experience and I learned a huge lot about wool prepping for spinning. To top it all off, I get to spin threads for dyeing tests and a reproduction of one of the famous Hallstatt tablet woven bands - so there's spinning work being done here for the next few weeks. Yes, weeks - I don't spin all day, but rather only an hour or so, it is quite a lot of thread, and since the thread thickness of the 2-ply yarn is only about 0.2 - 0.3 mm, it is slow work as well.

And that's not the only thing being done here at the moment - rather (as usual after some time away) I have a huge to-do list with lots of exciting but time-consuming items on it, one of them finalising the spinning experiment analysis and putting it all into words, graphs and pictures for the upcoming talks about it - one at the Textile Forum, which is also drawing near at an insane speed, and one at the OEGUF conference in October in Vienna. Plus there's some other projects coming up, in different stages of pre-planning. And thanks to the many days away from home, I am feeling energised and happy to tackle all these things again. Heap of work, here I come!