Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mini Fiber Review: Finn and Llama!

Testing out new wool by sampling is a wonderful way to build your expertise as a beginner. You may not fully understand how to use each fiber type until you've been spinning a little longer, but there is no rule saying you can't experiment starting on your second skein of yarn. So, have you been pining over that ounce of Cotswold? Or have you been intimidated by double coated fleeces like Soay? I say, you should just jump in and try it out. You don't have anything to lose, and you'll definitely learn something valuable in the end!

Also, the finn/shetland wool I mention at the bottom of this post is with me in Korea, so I'll try and do a review of it when I can. Once I finish one of these projects (the project for my loom or the lock-spun yarn project), I'll get that on the wheel! :D

Originally posted on June 13, 2012:

Today I’m going to chat about 2 new fibers to me: organic llama and finn wool. I bought these fibers precisely for doing fiber reviews, and I must say, they threw me for a loop. First, we’ll begin with the organic llama. I began my first spinning adventures with alpaca, then trudged around in wool and perfecting my dyeing technique for the next year and a half. Coming back to the camelid family was fun for me, and this fiber was a pleasure to spin. I bought this llama from a fellow Etsy seller, SheepandI. She has a fun shop that includes antiques and homegrown organic wool.

I’ve had a few fun conversations with Shirley, and after one in particular, we discussed removing the harsher hairs from her llama to produce ultra soft, premium llama wool. She subsequently dehaired and listed these premium products in her shop, specifically this listing. Even though mine still contained the guard hairs, they are few and easy to pick out, and the remaining llama is actually quite soft. I could wear it next to my skin, though people with allergies/sensitivities may want to try the dehaired version instead. Here’s the roving I bought from her:

Two things I’ve been failing to mention are 1) how I chose to make my samples; and 2) how I keep track of them. Whenever I prepare samples for myself or for reviews, I like to make a thin and a thick sample, a 2-ply and a -ply. To obtain this goal, 3 samples is usually sufficient. I will produce a thin 2-ply, a thick 2-ply, and a 3-ply of whatever size. The reason why I think 3 samples works for getting an idea of how a fiber will look spun up is very simple (and effective). First, you can see how poofy a yarn can get if you compare a thin 2-ply with a thick 2-ply. I’ve found some fibers to poof up more in a thicker yarn than it’s relative poofiness in a thinner yarn. For the 3-ply, it gives you an idea of how 3, 4, etc. plies will look with this fiber, and it’s a great way to decide how much twist you’ll need to make a multi-plied yarns. That’s the gist of why I do what I do for the sampling part, and I am by no means an expert spinner. I just do what I can via experimentation.

When you’re sampling, it can be difficult to keep track of which fiber this was prior to spinning since the process of spinning can change the surface texture (which is also why I keep a sample of the unspun fiber). When you compound multiple samples of the same fiber with multiple samples of other fibers, you can see the impending nightmare that can produce! Now, everyone who samples has their own system of organizing them, to a lesser or greater degree. I have a space problem as it is, and by keeping the samples on small notecards in small bags, I can group them all together in a big gallon-sized bag. I know that a lot of people that keep them in binders, but they’re too big and rigid for the places I need to stuff samples. :) If you manage to improve on this method, drop me a line!

This llama roving had a slightly longer staple, about 4-5 inches, so I was able to spin a relatively low-twist 2-ply yarn:

The 3-ply I made was spun with a bit more twist so I could get a tight, round yarn. Whenever I make a three ply yarn, I always use the Navajo method. I should do a post on making a 3-ply yarn this way, since it’s really easy and often mistaken as difficult to use. Anyway, I think llama is a new possibility for sock yarn because of the longer staple length (it’s easier to maintain a consistent diameter). I would even blend it with some romney for the crimp and strength characteristics of the wool.

The finn I got the chance to play with was wonderful! I will note briefly that the specimen I used (5 ounces bought from another handspinner, not the sheep owner) was heavily covered in scurf. Scurf is a term used to describe sheep dandruff. But that’s exactly what it is, dandruff [edit: this is probably a mixture of dandruff and lice]. Now, normally this wool would be swiftly converted into a plant insulator or bird bedding, but I couldn’t ignore how insanely soft the wool was. I’ve been brushing out the locks with a dog brush before sending it through the carder, and a majority of the dandruff falls out. I’m wondering how patient I can before I just give up on the whole 5 ounces! (The task seems daunting when you’re only carding 5-10 grams at a time, and it takes you 2 hours to get just that much done.) I’m going to find some other finn to test out, and if I find something new, I’ll revise my following review. For now, let’s just go with it:

Poofy, eh? :) Something I immediately noticed (besides the softness and the scurf) was the mixture of crimp and curly the locks had, and how long the staple was for its fineness. Typically, very soft and fine wools will have short staples, but this finn wool had a minimum length of 5 inches unstretched.The second thing I noticed was its sheen. When pulled taut to remove the crimp/curl, the wool was moderately shiny--another unusual feature of fine wools. In a nutshell, finn wool threw me for a loop! Here are the samples I made:

The first 2-ply I made didn’t have quite enough twist, as you can see in the following picture. Because of the really long staple length, the fiber was still securely locked in place. The loose twist coupled with the crimp of the fiber produced a very interesting 2-ply that has a lot of potential. In my second two ply sample I added more twist and produced a balanced yarn that looks more “normal.”

The 3-ply was made with a bit more twist than it wanted, and it turned out to be a beautiful, round, balanced yarn. Because of its poofiness, I think finn wool will bloom into airtight luxury mittens and hats, though I have much more carding in my future if I want to try that theory out!

The fibers I presented here gave me a pleasant surprise because of the unexpected outcome. Ultimately, these posts are meant to increase awareness of the fibers and provide a set of more detailed pictures than what I’ve been unable to find on the internet. Further, I am trying to present a practical and tactile review which sometimes gets lost in the jargon. Hopefully, you found this post useful, or at the very least amusing as you wile away your evening hours. Drinking may help with the latter camp. I requested a sample of finn/shetland from a finn wool producer, so if you want to know how that goes, be sure to stop by my Facebook page.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: PLY Magazine Autumn 2013 Issue

I think I may be in love with these magazines. Seriously. I did an initial impression review a little while ago, and now that I've had time to sit down and read from cover-to-cover, I'm ready to spew forth some thoughts. If you haven't read that initial review, head over and read it now to get some context. I'll be making references to it in this review.

This issue features colorwork as its main topic. I know that other fibery magazines will have a primary theme to each issue, but it never feels like a salient topic in those magazines. I think it has something to do with the ad coverage, thus subduing the importance of the topic slightly. I'm going to hit on this idea when I review the Spring 2014 issue of Spin-Off.

Colorwork is a fantastic topic to delve into, since many beginners ask me the question: How do I spin this dyed combed top/batt? Well, on the one hand, that's easy. On the other, it's complicated. Of course, the easiest way to spin either of those fiber preparations is to pull the fiber into long strips and get spinning. But they don't all really mean to ask me how to spin these fibers; they are asking me how to spin them with color in mind. That's where handspinners set themselves far, far apart from commercial products--you just can't get our kind of creativity mechanically. This is the slump where some beginners find themselves. They want to play around with colors in the way that commercial spinning mills can't, but they are daunted by the incredible meshing of colors masterful spinners can make. Really, there needs to be a teaching aid, some kind of middle ground.

I post on this blog what I can for those spinners who want to challenge themselves with color, but I'm only one person with only my expertise. This Color issue from PLY is the perfect option for those seeking to explore the specific ways to exploit color in yarn. They have a large group of spinners from which to pull various levels of expertise, and everything PLY covers in this issue weaves colorwork into the process. For example, the first article of the magazine covers chain plying to lock in your color changes. It covers the pros/cons of chain plying, how to do it, some tips, and it even has pictures comparing the colorwork of a 2-ply, 3-ply, and chain ply. In fact, there are several pictures in this article which show the reader the various stages of the chain plying process. The combination of (several) pictures and clear text should be enough to take any beginner down the path to chain plying. Better yet, it shows the beginner how you can blend colorwork together with technique--by chain plying, you are in complete control of keeping the colors of a gradient dyed top lined up.

All of the articles in this issue (and in the Winter issue I have as well!) connect with the topic. Some are more prevalent than others, such as color blending and fractal plying, but there is enough connection in order to refer to this entire issue as 'the color issue.' If you're specifically looking for new ways to combine color and preparation and technique, buy this issue. For those who are building a reference shelf, buy this issue. In fact, any spinner who has ever spun anything colorful should have this issue on hand. As a masterful spinner myself, I have learned many things in this issue.

Want to hear a little more? Okay. I'm ready to admit that I fall into spinning traps. You know, the kind of 'home base' traps you revert to when you're tired, trying a thinner/thicker yarn than you feel comfortable with, or when you aren't trying to be too creative with the yarn you're making. My first several yarns were all constructed the same way. Split, draft, spin, repeat. It didn't matter what I spun, either. Early on in my spinning education, I learned how to make drum carded batts. I split, drafted, and spun those in the same way I spun top. This is a classic spinning trap because it was the first way I learned how to spin, and soon it became the only way I thought you could prep fiber for spinning. Many beginners fall into this kind of trap. But it's okay. There's a way out, and you can skip the infinite loop with the PLY article written by Jacey Boggs, Spinning Across the Top: Beyond Stripping.

Keep your hands loose, and your fiber fluffy. As you spin, the fiber will pull off in a left to right/right to left direction. If you've ever bought a gradient dyed braid (where the colors transition from, let's say from green to blue) and wondered how to keep the transitions the same as they are in the braid, spinning across the top makes the perfect technique to use. There are a plethora of pictures showing you the various steps of the back-and-forth technique, as well as plenty of tips and stories to read.

Here's an example of some of the science and research they do for some of their articles.
Here's an example of an advertisement embedded cleverly into a tips/tricks article.
There you have it, the Color issue of PLY in a nutshell. It has been an enlightening experience for me. I'll do more reviews for PLY in the future, and I'll also do reviews for Spin-Off and fibery books I encounter along the way. I still have to read a few books to read before I review those, but they'll make their way here too! :)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fiber Artist Review: Esther's Place

Hey all! I'm going to continue on with making these fiber and artist reviews, since so many of you find them useful. I know I keep saying it, but I really will. :) Here is a review I did back in June 2012 about Natasha's fiber shop in Illinois. If you ever have the chance to visit the Chicago area, make your way to her place and stock up on locally grown wool.

Originally posted on June 11, 2012:

Three posts in a week?! What crazy world is this? :) So, when I have plenty of time to get things done, I get them done. Funny how that works. Several months ago, the Champaign Weaver's and Spinners Guild had a special guest from Big Rock, IL. That was Natasha Lehrer, a young, powerful, and small framed woman who owns and operates Esther's Place. I think it's sweet how her business started, so be sure to read how it all started. Be sure to stop by her adorable and cozy store if you're close. Lucky for me, it was only about a 15 minute drive.

After viewing one of Natasha's fabulous silk collages (which has also earned her an Honorable Mention), I grew fascinated and inspired by her sense of color depth and organic style of crafting. I wonder how much time she spends thinking about each piece--perhaps she's just one of those amazingly talented people who can flow through a piece without structured form. For the scientific person in me, all I can do is make mental imprints of her stunning work and test and experiment to achieve something "close." So, if you have a chance to work with her and/or visit her shop in person, prepare to be enlightened.

In addition to her own work, she runs a fiber co-op in her store which is supplied by local wool. It's a great source for wools that are tough to find, and her shop helps the local economy. I landed my hands on one wool in particular that I've never heard of before, and 3 more "rare" wools that I've heard of but never tried. You'll be sure to see those in the upcoming fiber reviews. Let's talk now about the beautiful batts I bought from Natasha several months ago. And there's lots of pictures. Like this one:

The first batt I bought was mostly cheviot wool, with a sprinkling of angelina and probably some other things too. I used most of it in a tote I made for my mom for this past Christmas, but there was still about 15g left over. I wanted to make a fat, funky yarn that would really show off the colors of the cheviot. What better way to do that than by making a corespun yarn? I give you 7.5 yards of ultra chunky, cheviot wool corespun yarn:

A quick note about corespinning. If your yarn keeps turning out hard and cord-like, I have a tip: LIGHTEN YOUR GRIP! I made that huge mistake on my first few attempts, and it was solved by letting the wool grab the core yarn naturally. Hold your wrap yarn hand a few inches away from your taught core yarn and allow the twist to enter the wrap point when you release tension on the wrap fiber. There should be air spun into the yarn, so try not to force the wrap fiber too tightly around the core--the result will be a hard, cord-like yarn (which has applications, but probably not your goal). I haven't decided what I want to make with it yet, so it'll hang out in my finished handspun yarn sack until I can decide.

This next batt was entitled, Natasha's Crazy Batts. I've definitely seen crazier batts, so I'd like to alter the title to be: Natasha's Refined Textured Batts, since that characterizes that flavor of this batt better, in my ever-so-humble opinion. There is texture and color and a hint of spice--and it's all put together so as to not be displeasing to the eye. Here's the batt I chose, though I wanted all that she brought to our guild meeting so many months ago:

The ingredients include: merino, corriedale, alpaca, angora, bamboo, and angelina sparkle. I pulled off strips from one side of the batt to the other, since there was already a semi-established color gradient. I predrafted the wool and spun it in order, with very little drafting while spinning. It turned out to be a low(ish) twist thick and thin single that had a lot of potential. I decided to spin a single of bamboo at roughly 12 WPI (wraps per inch) and ply the two together. Then I decided I wanted to incorporate some Leicester locks Natasha had dyed by incorporating them into the yarn during the plying phase. Here they are:

I separated out the prettiest and most colorful of the locks, and lined them up next to me so I could just grab one when I wanted to ply it into the yarn. I don't know how often I put them in, but it was probably around every 4-5 yards. I learned quickly how to lock them in place such that they wouldn't easily escape the yarn. When you're ready to insert a lock, wrap the lock around one of the yarns (best with locks at least 2 inches), place the wrap yarn (in my case, the bamboo) at the start of the lock and continue plying as normal. The bamboo should wrap around the lock section a few times to fully secure it. A good wash and beating should cause the surface fibers to felt together slightly too. Here's a close-up of the lock in the yarn:

And here's the final yarn:

When I got to the end of this particular skein, I didn't have enough handspun to finish one more 2-yard loop. Instead of cutting it short, or leaving the ends super long, I came up with this easy solution:

I just used a plain 'ol acrylic yarn to tie the two short pieces together. Waste not! :D I got a grand total of 44 yards, and it'll probably knit up at 4-ish stitches per inch. I'm also not sure what to do with this yarn yet either. Maybe if I accumulate enough of this bulky thick and thin yarn, I can make a fun scarf or cowl. Or mittens. Fringe is a good possibility too. Anyway, I'll probably make my way back out to her place before we leave the States, and perhaps to take a class or something..who knows!

Last thing. I failed to mention all of the goodies that were in the Kiss-O-Gram batt from my last post. The ingredients are: corriedale, merino/tencel, oatmeal BFL, sari silk, lamb locks, alpaca, BFL locks, lincoln locks, and glitz. Talk about jam-packed! That said, I didn't really have any issues with predrafting and spinning this batt--there were just a lot of interesting textures and nothing too harsh for next-to-skin items. I'll be back with a mini fiber review tomorrow (hopefully)!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Things I Have Learned: Sourdough Starter

Okay, so you asked for it. :) Among my many yarn and fiber journeys is the journey to eat healthier and at home when possible. I know that many of you out there have started down this path too, given the overwhelming buzz about what we eat and the detrimental effects it has on our bodies. As a poor grad student for many years, and living with another poor grad student, we grew accustomed to comparing the cost per quantity of food so we could get the biggest bang for our buck. When there wasn't time to cook, we often hit the $5 footlong subs from Subway and other similar deals around our campus area. When we did cook, we picked food/recipes to be less than $5 per person per meal...otherwise it was cheaper to eat out. It was a constant struggle to eat well, and we did, but I fear that our 'eating healthy' amounted to more money in the toilet than in our bodies. In other words, we ate a lot of low fat/fat free foods which were full of empty calories, and I remember feeling so hungry not long after eating these foods.

Fast forward a year and a half, and now I make most of our meals with organic ingredients, we drink whole milk, and I never get those ridiculous hunger pangs right after eating like I used to. Being in Korea and not having access to many of the foods we're used to has forced me to look to the internet to learn how to make many foods from scratch. At one time, I remember making butter by accident while whipping up some cream for a homemade dessert and thinking that it was so cute because it reminded me of making butter in grade school. Now I make butter every other month or so by shaking up cream in a jar for 30 minutes. I have done it so many times now that I can describe each stage the cream goes through as it changes, and that slightly warm cream forms butter faster than cold cream. I even make homemade sour cream which takes about two days to sour.

But each of these recipes is a result of the need to have certain ingredients to fit our western palettes. Don't get me wrong, we love Korean food (and we like ethnic food in general). We just want a taste of home, and getting these ingredients is either difficult or impossible. And while we have enjoyed my homemade items, including fresh bread, I still craved the taste of fermented foods. Some foods are harder to make from scratch, like kombucha (but I may have found a source of scoby patties) and sauerkraut, but sourdough is a bit easier. Plus, there are tons of recipes for sourdough X: sourdough muffins, sourdough biscuits, sourdough pizza crust, etc., in addition to sourdough bread.

I first attempted to make a sourdough starter about 6 months ago, and it failed miserably. I was following this recipe to get it going. It didn't take, and I was a bit disheartened. After all of the holiday cooking I did, I didn't feel like pursuing anymore 'new' recipes. At around the start of April, I decided to give it a go again. I wasn't going to let defeat keep me from trying again. I followed the directions precisely, and the little scientist in my head yelled at me. Why? It's silly to perform the exact same steps of an experiment and hope for different results. In the world of baking, the ingredients matter--something I learned a week into my little kitchen experiment. Perhaps a new batch of flour was key...

First, I didn't quite follow the directions of the recipe I used. I didn't have any rye flour on hand, and I didn't want to wait another week for some to arrive from iHerb. So, I mixed up 50g of water with 50g of white flour. The next day it didn't look like it was doing anything, but I fed it anyway. I fed it for 3 whole days (doing it twice a day after day 1), and it still refused to look alive and smelled like a wet dog. Eww. Now, if you don't know me personally, you aren't aware that I have to smell everything. Everything. In how many of my videos have I told you to touch and smell the wool? The nose is an incredible organ. By day 5, the starter took on a horrible smell: acetone. It had started bubbling a bit, but it smelled awful. And completely unappetizing. Two days later, the smell hadn't improved. I whined on facebook for some help, and I got some great advice for better ways to start a starter. I was already 1 week into my adventure, and I didn't want to give up, so I did the unthinkable: I added whole wheat.

Adding in the proper yeast food made complete sense, and I can't believe this hadn't occurred to me before this point. I've been baking bread for many years now, and I generally know what bread needs to get it the way I want it. The water/flour mixture is the proper feeding ground for the natural wheat yeast to thrive..but it helps considerably to have a proper 3-course meal for the little guys (and gals). After one feeding, the acetone smell had nearly dissipated, and the bubbling was a bit more vigorous. Yay! I did it! Now came the hard part.

Sourdough flavors don't develop overnight, which leads me to the next ingredient: time. Sourdough starters can be little beasts when it comes to being fed at the right times. For this one, if I fed it too early, it wouldn't bubble much at all before the next feeding, which was 12 hours later. If I fed it too late, it would go from being super bubbly to a bubble wasteland in about an hour. One time I forgot to feed it and it practically wept--it had the consistency of thick potato soup without bubbles. The recipe I followed suggested that it might take 30 days for the mature sourdough flavors to develop and for it to be stable enough to store in the fridge. Let's just say that I was glad when I was able to recently put the thing in the fridge as it meant I was no longer tied down to the kitchen!

When you feed a starter like this one, you produce a lot of starter which can be used for recipes. So, I began making a million muffins of all varieties. Plus a loaf or two of sourdough bread each week. Here is the muffin recipe I ended up using:

Sourdough Muffins:

1 egg
1/4 t salt
1 cup sourdough starter (260g)
1 t baking soda
1/2 cup fruit (blueberries, cranberries, dates, etc.)
1 t vanilla extract
1/4 cup oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 425F (220C). Combine dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately. Incorporate the dry into the wet quickly. It should be lumpy and resemble thick pancake batter. Grease (and flour) muffin tins. Spoon in mixture. 2/3 full for rounded muffin tops, completely full for muffin tops which spill over and create poofy muffins. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes, then eat about 3 of these.

I decided at this point to start looking for recipes for other types of breads: sweet ones, savory ones, griddle baked, and oven baked. It turns out that I don't know much about what 'real' bread bakers know. A word kept coming up, levain, and I had no clue what that was. I also saw a lot of recipes talking about 100% or 80% hydration, with a breakdown of the recipe by wet and dry ingredients and what their hydration level is. Huh? Okay, so these bakers really know how to bake bread! Knowing the hydration level of your starter is key to substituting your starter in a recipe for which the starter called for might be of a different hydration level than yours. Basically, if you know the ratio of wet to dry ingredients in your starter, you can adjust any bread recipe to accommodate a sourdough starter instead of the water + yeast method.

I'm not there yet. In fact, after 5 weeks of diligently feeding my starter twice a day and making (and eating) more muffins than I care to admit, I was happy to put it in the fridge for a while. I worked very hard to prevent any waste, so after the first week, I was using the throw away portion of the starter for my muffin and bread recipes. Each day, I made 6 huge muffins and on every 3rd day or so, I made a loaf of bread. I will experiment with using my starter with other bread recipes, but for now, I'm happy to have 'me' time again. I'll also remember to take some pictures, since I keep forgetting to do that. Now I have a bunch of baby seeds to look after, and my kitchen counter is covered in tiny green babies.