Sunday, April 27, 2014

If I Had a Hammer (and a saw, and a bench pin)

Almost spur of the moment, my friend Marisa and I decided to take a silversmithing class at Danaca Design. We’d taken a precious metal class [embed] last December, and although it was a lot of fun, it wasn’t something I felt like I could use on a regular basis.

Silversmithing though, I’ve had some minor experience with—way back in the day in high school. The art department at Chantilly High was pretty impressive and had a great jewelry unit that fired my brain. I’ve puttered with jewelry making since then, mostly wirework and beading, but I always wondered what it would be like to do some real sawing, shaping, and soldering on an ongoing basis.

So since we both had the weekend free we jumped on the class. It was Saturday and Sunday, 10 am-5 pm, and although it sounds like a lot of time the hours just melted away. We were left scrambling both days to get our projects done, and on the second day some of the students ended up having a pendant partially finished and planning to come back during some free studio time to finish up.

The first day we made a pin out of copper. This project had us working with a single piece of metal, picking a design, sawing it out, using tools to create texture, and by the end of the day, making a pin and soldering it on. I really enjoyed the sawing out of the shape, and was kinda gratified that I was still decent at it, given that it’d been almost 30 years since my last attempt.

The second day we worked in sterling silver and each made a pendant, set with a stone and textured as we saw fit. There was a bezel to set the stone, soldered on a prepared background, then additional trim if we wanted it (mine had a wire border), also soldered on. Then the final shape was sawed out, filed, and the edges sanded smooth. A loop was soldered on the back, and finally, the stone was set.

The class was great. Very technique heavy—which is inevitable in a skill-oriented class. There wasn’t enough time to do a lot of deliberating on design—I tried to choose an approach rather quickly so I could focus more attention on getting to all the steps to complete the pieces.

That class stuck with me, and I started to think, not only about the skills I’d practiced in class, but some of the designs by other students and studio members that were in the gallery.

So I bought a few tools to supplement the jewelry ones I had already, and banged out a couple pieces:

I’m gonna see what else I’m able to do in the weeks ahead. The last thing I really need is another hobby—but then, this isn’t a new one. It’s one of the oldest hobbies I have, and the fact that it’s been nagging at me since the class ended means I’d better pay attention to it. Sooo…we’ll see how it goes.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Recycled Sweater

I took a solo trip to Ireland about 17 years ago. I had several places I wanted to hit on that trip--the Guinness brewery, the town of Ballyheigue in County Kerry where one of my great grandmothers was born...

And the Aran Islands. I also wanted to pick up a few souvenirs, including an Aran sweater.

I found a small store on Inishmore that sold some sweaters. Most of them were huge, but I found one the looked like it'd fit, even thought it was on the bulky side. It was hand knit, a pretty cornflower blue with several intricate patterns. Unfortunately I never took a picture of the sweater in its original state, but here’s a picture of some of the original pattern:

Unfortunately once I got it home I realized the fit was bulky and totally unflattering. I probably wore it once. The rest of the time it sat in a plastic bin under my bed with my other bulky sweaters. I'd look at it every once in a while and try it on, hoping that somehow the fit would be different, but it never ended up being more flattering.

Once I started knitting I toyed with the idea of unraveling the sweater and using the yarn for something else. I balked at the idea of ripping it apart, but if I never wore it, what was the point of keeping it?

I held off on giving it serious thought until I found a pattern that seemed to be worth ripping it apart over. After ruminating over a few possibilities over the years that never seemed *quite* worthwhile, I finally found Berocco's Aidez sweater.

Pretty, isn't it? The reviews I read said it was a relatively easy knit. After deliberating for a week I finally separated the pieces of the sweater and unraveled them into balls.

A user on had converted the pattern from pieces that all had to be seamed together to something that have the body knit in the round, with the sleeves joined to the body and then the rest of it also knit in one piece. After some swatching I picked a needle size and went at it. It was a relatively quick knit, until I got to the collar. The same user recommended knitting it separately and sewing it on. I chickened out on that--as I'd never done separate collar extensions that then had to be sewn on before. That’s one of my major obstacles in knitting—I dither around for quite a while when confronted with a new technique, and this time was no different. I put the sweater in a paper grocery bag and tucked it aside.

Fast forward almost a year later (lame, I know) during a cold snap in Seattle (below 30F, I know a lot of the rest of the country would throw snowballs at me for complaining) I finally pulled the thing out, read the directions for knitting and attaching the collar, and got working on it. I realized partway in that I'd have to knit a longer collar, as there were issues that were created by knitting the sweater in the round instead of in pieces that would make it necessary to make a longer collar. But I muddled on through, and sewed the collar to the body of the sweater without too much trouble.

Afterwards I soaked it in Euclan, a detergent that doesn't require the garment to be rinsed. I'd suspected when unravelling the original sweater that it hadn't been washed or blocked, and once I pulled it out and felt the texture of the yarn change and soften, I knew I'd been right. Good thing too, as blocking it makes it harder (although not impossible) to unravel a garment after the fact.

I laid it on a towel, stretched it a bit to make the cables open up, and let it dry for about 24 hours. I wove in all the ends and tried it on.

It's a pretty good fit! A tad long, but that suits the style of the sweater. I have a short torso, so that's often an issue with sweater patterns for me. Next time I'll try to bear that in mind when knitting from a pattern. But I'm really pleased with it, and it's very comfortable to wear.

I still have a whole front of the sweater that I didn't unravel. I’m thinking I might try to make a fair isle vest out of it, depending on what other colors seem workable for me, and which pattern I choose.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sevilles in Seattle

Winter is citrus season, and January is when the fruit varieties start to surface in some of the higher-end grocery stores. So I wasn’t too surprised when I saw Seville oranges at Whole Foods for $2.99 a pound.

Seville oranges are a sour, highly acidic orange with a lot of seeds. They aren't something you’d want to eat raw or drink the juice of. But they’re a standard ingredient in Cuban cuisine, and are the traditional orange for marmalade.

I’d tried marmalade with Sevilles once before, and ended up having a distressing amount of it burnt on the bottom of the pan. But part of that was because I’d tried to use a shortcut in this recipe from David Lebovitz. I stood there in the Whole Foods, looking at the Sevilles, and decided to give the recipe another go.

Processing the oranges takes a fair amount of time. You squeeze out the juice, remove all the seeds and save them, then slice up the rinds as thin as you can, and in small, bite-sized pieces. I tried to keep them all about 1/4-1/2 inches long.

You bundle up the seeds and whatever membranes came out of the orange when you were squeezing or slicing it in a piece of cheesecloth, tying it tight. Then you cook the rinds with water, a little salt, and the cheesecloth bundle for 30 minutes.

At this point Lebovitz suggests leaving it overnight to let the natural pectin that’s in the seeds leech into the orange and water mixture. I didn’t do that last time, and in trying to get the marmalade to the right consistency ended up cooking the heck out of it, and burning some. This time I cooled it down and put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day I got the canning jars boiling, pulled out the orange mixture and dipped a finger inside. It definitely had a gelatinous quality already. It was liquid, but had a lot more body than an “orange soup” would’ve. I followed the rest of the recipe, adding sugar, putting in a candy thermometer, and getting it to a low-medium simmer.

According to the recipe the mixture is supposed to come up to 220 degrees Fahrenheit for it to set properly. The last 10 degrees takes forever, and I was afraid I was going to burn the bottom again. I kept a few spoons in the freezer and as the marmalade continued to cook I tested the consistency of the set. It was thickening, but not enough. I sat in the living room, knitting and puttering around, getting up every few minutes to stir, look at the thermometer, and make sure it wasn’t burning. I checked various marmalade recipes online to see if any of them allowed a gel at less than 220 degrees. Couldn’t find one. In fact some said you sometimes had to go higher, depending on the amount of water in the recipe.

The temperature had gotten to around 217 or so when I started to smell a slight tinge of burning. I stirred around and saw that a few rinds were caramelizing, but no burning yet, thank God. So I turned the heat down as low as possible and tested the set again.

It was ready. Go time. I turned off the heat and pulled out the last ingredient.

The Lebovitz recipe calls for a tablespoon of scotch. I had Bulleit bourbon, and figured that would work. I stirred it in and it smelled delicious. Oh my God. There’s nothing like loving the smell of something you’re going to can and knowing it’s gonna be hanging out on your shelves waiting to be eaten. Yay.

I pulled the jars out of the water, drained them, and as quickly and as carefully as I could jarred up the marmalade, wiping the rims with a clean, damp paper towel. In the end the set was a tad more solid than I’d like, but I was just grateful I caught it before it burnt this time.

Lebovitz doesn’t can his marmalade, so I looked at other recipes for canning orange marmalade, and ended up processing the jars in boiling water for 10 minutes.

Verdict: it’s the best marmalade I’ve ever made. I’ve done other citrus combos since my disappointing first Seville attempt, and those have been good, but this…is awesome. A great level of bitterness, a teeny amount of extra depth from the bourbon, and just sweet enough. I found myself sneaking spoonfuls out of the jar I put the excess in after starting the processing on the marmalade that was being canned. Definitely worth all the effort, especially given how much I love orange marmalade.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Spinning Some Yarn

My dear friend Lisa Chan of Gripping Yarns showed me some of the basics of spinning with a supported spindle a couple years ago. She’s a wood turner who makes her own, and it was exciting to learn a new skill from her using one of her spindles. Here’s Lisa herself, demonstrating how to use the spindle:

I played with it for a while, and enjoyed it, but wasn’t getting the results I was looking for, my spinning was a bit too inconsistent. I put it aside, and kept meaning to go back to it and give it another go, but then got distracted by other things.

I was at Weaving Works recently and after picking out some yarns I needed I started to dawdle around the fiber for spinning and felting. Some really pretty Meriboo (70% merino, 30% bamboo) caught my eye—it was really soft, and had a lovely sheen.

When I showed it to my husband later it creeped him out just a bit. He said it looked like human hair to him. Which I got immediately, but to me it had the color and sheen of a dark, shiny pencil mark on a piece of paper. The sample of yarn spun from it at the shop was a soft charcoal grey and had the same shimmer present in the fiber. There were 2 shades of grey there. I bought the rest of the fiber they had in the darker shade, and figured I’d give it a shot.

The spinning went a lot easier than I’d thought it would. I still struggled with making it even—sometimes it was a fair amount thinner than I’d like, other times it was a bit too thick. But I got to the point where the variation was mild enough that it’d make a usable yarn.

As I continued spinning I decided I wanted to make a hat out of the yarn. The simple rib thank you hat from the Purl Bee looked like it would be pretty and easy—and would require the least amount of yarn. But I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough fiber in the dark meriboo to make a hat—they’d only had .6 ounces of it left and I bought all of that color that they’d had. So couple days later I went back to Weaving Works and bought the rest of their meriboo in the lighter grey—I think it ended up being about 1.3 ounces or so. I had a decent amount of the darker fiber spun up already, and thought I’d try spinning the rest in a combo with some of the lighter grey, and then spin up the rest of the light grey fiber separately. Then I’d knit the bottom half of the hat in the dark grey, move into the “half and half” spun yarn, and finish off with the light grey yarn—hopefully making a hat with a slightly ombre effect.

Combining the fibers together was kinda tricky, especially with my novice spinning skills. But I muddled through okay, and then spun up the rest of the light grey on its own.

The next step was plying. Plying involves taking 2 singles, or yarns that I spun, and twisting them together. Lisa loaned me one of her drop spindles a while back, and I used it to ply the yarn together, using this technique:

It was a tad tricky at first, but once I got the hang of it the plying went pretty quickly.

Once I had the yarn spun and plied, the next step was figuring out what size needle to use. So I knit a few swatches:

And then unraveled ‘em (I needed every inch of yarn I’d spun) and started knitting the hat using size 6 needles. Because the pattern was very, very simple, I was able to pay attention to the yarn itself, watching for any irregularities in its thickness in case it became an issue as I knit.

Fortunately that didn’t end up becoming a noticeable problem and I ended up with a soft and very functional hat. I’m really pleased with the way it turned out and will definitely be spinning more for more complicated and interesting hats and garments in the future.

Right now I’m working with tussah silk, making a much finer yarn. It’s a trickier fiber to work with, a lot stiffer, and has a fair amount of barklike matter that needs to be picked out as I spin it. But the beautiful golden sheen it has makes all the effort worthwhile.

I’ll probably make a shawl or scarf out of it—it’ll depend on how much yardage I can get out of it once it’s plied. We shall see how it goes.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas Knitting

Some years I’ve knitted presents for people. One year I knitted for almost every member of my immediate family. It was a bit of a mad sprint at the end, and a lot more stressful than I’d anticipated it being when I started doing it. I took a couple years off of holiday knitting after that.

For the most part, knitting handmade gifts isn’t exactly cheaper than buying a present. But there really is nothing like a handmade gift, especially if you’ve had the time (and taken that time) to strategize something that could really suit them.

This year I ended up knitting for a couple family members, as well as a few friends who weren’t expecting anything. Christmas for me this year was as much about focusing on giving where it wasn’t expected as it was about d├ęcor or decadent food. It was a way for me to remember how blessed I’ve been with friends this year, and I thought about that, sometimes, when I was knitting away.

But first off, I made a shawl for my mom, using the Shaelyn Shawl pattern, which isn’t too challenging a knit but is really pretty.

I knitted this with a single strand of Henry’s Attic Zephyr, which is 50% merino wool and 50% silk. It’s a nice, soft yarn with a pretty sheen and is very low on the itch factor. This was a rather fine gauge knit, on size 3 needles.

The next shawl was for my friend Alison, using some of the same color I used for my mom’s shawl, but double-stranding it with a green color of the same fiber.

This was a chunkier version of the Shaelyn Shawl on size 6 needles, but just as soft.

I made the third shawl using Stephen West’s Boneyard Shawl pattern, double-stranding the blue and green sections with a grey strand of the same fiber (I was pretty obsessed with this fiber, as you can probably tell).

This was also done on size 6 needles.

Miracle of miracles, I did knit something using another fiber! This is one I’ve loved for years, another Henry's Attic fiber, this time alpaca. I did these for my friend Rob and wanted something simple and in a nice neutral. This yarn is all-natural colors, I assume they strand together colors from two different fleeces.

They’re the ribbed hand warmers from Purl Bee. I added a thumb to them, using a 1 x 1 rib on the thumbs so they’d have some texture, and knit them on size 3 double pointed needles.

This hat was done last, for my husband—I had the luxury of knitting it up quick and last-minute, as I could wait until December 25th, if possible, to finish it! I ended up finishing it up the day before. It’s 2 strands of the Henry’s Attic Zephyr (surprise, surprise) and another, slightly lighter red strand of another Henry’s Attic yarn that is 80% alpaca and 20% silk.

This was also a Purl Bee pattern, the large rib “thank you” hat. It’s a great, quick, and satisfying knit.

I also did this on size 6 needles. It was a slightly tighter gauge but had a nice amount of give and wasn’t too stiff.

I gotta admit it’s satisfying to knit up a bunch of presents. It’s fun to pack up some of them and ship them across the country to new homes. And I also like seeing the pile of ‘em before they go out!

In the new year I'm gonna try to start immediately knitting for next Christmas, including a "present project" every 1-2 months. That'll keep my pace regular without making it too stressful. We'll see how that goes.