Shearing Day!

This weekend was a big “work” weekend for me. First was shearing day at Meridian Jacobs, a nearby sheep ranch. I’ve been reading all this post-humanist social sciences work about networks of animals, things, and humans, and shearing day was all that. The sheep, the shearer, the shears, the metal gates separating groups of sheep, the volunteers wrangling the sheep through the barn, the ear tags and spreadsheets to keep track of individual sheep, and of course the fleeces. I brought my camera but forgot to bring a notebook to jot down my observations, so ended up texting notes to myself to transfer to the computer later. It actually worked pretty well and might be a reasonable solution to the problem of how to take notes unobtrusively in the field.

The "dance of agency" between sheep and shearer. They didn't always agree on who was leading.
The “dance of agency” between sheep and shearer. They didn’t always agree on who was leading.


Super-cute puppy.
Super-cute puppy.
Systems for categorizing and tracking fleeces.
Systems for categorizing and tracking fleeces.
Skirting fleeces (removing dirty and coarser sections) and examining the fiber quality.
Skirting fleeces (removing dirty and coarser sections) and examining the fiber quality.
Britch (wool from the legs) is coarser than the rest of the fleece and gets processed separately.
Britch (wool from the legs) is coarser than the rest of the fleece and gets processed separately.
One of the rams tried to head-butt his way to the ladies, and ended up tied in the corner.
One of the rams tried to head-butt his way to the ladies, and ended up tied in the corner.
Newly nekkid sheep out for a stroll.
Newly nekkid sheep out for a stroll.
One more obligatory  cute puppy picture.
One more obligatory cute puppy picture.

Symplocos Part II: Back in Black (beans)

After she got over her noodle disappointment, my housemate wanted to know what comes next. “Well,” I said, “we’re gonna have to eat more black beans.” Back when I taught the workshop at Lambtown, I had soaked four pounds of beans for that dye bath. Four pounds! Dry! That’s a lot of burritos.

So I’ve been kind of holding off on this next round. But with the heat in the house not working, it seemed like a good time to hang around in the kitchen with pots bubbling for hours on end. Since I’m just running two little test skeins, I only soaked one cup of beans. A totally reasonable amount of burritos.

Alum on the left, symplocos on the right.
Alum on the left, symplocos on the right.

I’m trying to be a little more rigorous about keeping track of projects, so: 500% weight of goods, although since the dye is only in the skins of the beans, it’s really much less. Simmered for an hour and a half. I used tap water, which I’m learning is not only really alkaline but also seems to fluctuate pH. The first few times I did black bean dye with Davis tap water, I got greens like I have here. Then for a while I was getting blues, which means the water was more acidic (or at least not as far off from neutral). That shift coincided with moving across town, so I thought it had something to do with the pipes, or which particular wells feed in to which parts of the system. Guess not.

The other surprise came when I popped another skein into the exhaust bath. I was of course expecting a paler color, but I ended up with…brown.

Exhaust bath. Brown.
Exhaust bath. Brown.

I guess there must be two colors in there, and lucky for us the nice ones get sucked up into the fiber first. Live and learn.

no ideas but in things

Yeah, yeah, I know you had to write a 3-paragraph essay on that one in high school too. And you may, like me, have forgotten the exact wording of it and had to look up again whether it was Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams who came up with it. (Hint: it was the good doctor.)

But it’s also probably the best slogan I could hope for the kind of materially grounded theoretical framework I’m playing around with (hang on to your hats, it’s gonna get a lot weirder around the place from here on out).

And it’s a good spur for me to have more things on this blog. I don’t mean posting more (although I hope to) but I mean really celebrating the thingness of all the things that go into fiber arts. This will be difficult since this is, after all, a blog. It’s by definition abstract and immaterial and wordy. But just imagine you’ve come to hang out in my living room, and we’re sipping our tea, and all of a sudden I jump up from the couch and yell, “Oh! I have to show you this!” and run off down the hall to rummage through the insane den of textilic mayhem that I call my “bedroom.” And I come out triumphant, and proudly place into your hands…


…a nøstepinne. (With inexpertly wound center-pull ball of extremely overspun cotton singles.) This one came from Trif’s Turnings, the woodturner who always shows up at Lambtown with an ever-expanding array of handmade spinning tools. A couple years ago I took a lathe class in the hopes of turning my own spindles, but, uh, no. So I’m quite happy to support someone else who wants to make such lovely toys for us fiber freaks.

Shopping for a nøstepinne is the next best thing to finding yourself in Ollivander’s. No unicorn tail or powdered dragon toenails, but all different woods and weights and you really just have to play with each one and see how it twirls to know that yes, this is the Right One. And yes, I realize that I basically paid good money for a stick, but it’s a really nice stick, and a definite step up from the empty toilet paper roll I usually resort to.

Symplocos Experiment, Part One

Over the summer I was researching alternatives to metal-salt mordants, and found information about a plant-based mordant from Indonesia. Traditionally, weavers have used the bark of several species of Symplocos, but are being encouraged to switch to using the leaves. I ordered some, and followed my usual timeline of thinking about it for months before actually doing anything with it. This weekend I finally got around to trying my first experiment (not coincidentally, right before the last week of the quarter with papers due and finals coming up. Eep.). I mordanted some test skeins of handspun merino cross (sigh, despite being so anti-merino lately) in Symplocos powder, and a control set of skeins in the usual alum purchased down the street at the International Market. I know you all want to see the outcome, so I’ll cut to the chase:


From left to right, the yarn is mordanted with Symplocos, Symplocos + onion skin dye, alum + onion skin, just alum.

I dyed the yarns in the same bath, made with mostly red onions. It’s a little hard to tell in this picture, but the Symplocos skein came out slightly darker and with a slight reddish undertone. The alum-mordanted skein has a slight greenish tinge. I have no idea yet how they’ll compare for light- and wash-fastness.

Okay, now that we got the exciting part out of the way, I’ll let you know how it was working with the Symplocos. The stuff I ordered came as powdered, dried leaves:

measuring out symplocos powder

When I added the powder to my pot of water, it all just floated on top. It took several minutes of heating and stirring to get it to wet.

Mmm, tasty.

It did eventually sink as the directions said it would. It smelled lovely while it was simmering, sort of like a cup of rooibos tea. My housemate came home while I was letting the yarn cool down in the bath, and was disappointed that I wasn’t cooking noodles.

Not noodles.
Not noodles.

The directions suggested straining out the plant matter before adding yarn, and I wish I had. I put the yarn in a strainer that fits in the pot, and the Symplocos was below that. Unfortunately, I let the water come to a boil and that circulated the Symplocos powder throughout the bath. The dried powder did come off the yarn while I was rewinding the skein, but kind of made a mess under the umbrella swift.

Anyway, I declare Symplocos Part One a success! I have test skeins to try it out with a couple more dyes, and then plan to knit all the bits together into a piece that will be functional and also allow me to compare the different mordants over time. Stay tuned!

References for those that want ’em:

Cunningham, A. B., Maduarta, I. M., Howe, J., Ingram, W., & Jansen, S. (2011). Hanging by a thread: Natural metallic mordant processes in traditional Indonesian textiles. Economic botany, 65(3), 241-259. It’s the first hit on this Google Scholar search and is available open-access.

Also, check out the Bebali Foundation’s Plant Mordant website for directions on how to use it and where to order it.

Better Isn’t Always Better

(Danger Will Robinson, it’s about to get all post-colonial1 feminist up in here.)

So the Heifer International catalog came in the mail, and as I was idly flipping through the pages I stopped at this picture:


My first thought was, I bet those ladies are total badasses on the spindle and don’t need those newfangled contraptions anyhow. And sure enough, when I looked closer, I noticed one of the ladies in the back row looking on, spindle in hand. The caption and accompanying article assert that the spinning machines produce better quality yarn and faster than spindles. I call bullshit.

Abby Franquemont2, a spinner who grew up in the Andes mountains in Peru (and started spinning at age 5, woefully late compared to her peers), argues that the idea that wheels are faster than spindles is an artifact of Western/Northern/First World/One-Thirds World3 spinners mostly learning later in life. You can get up and going to production level on a wheel pretty quickly. A spindle takes more practice, but Franquemont says that a spindler who’s been trained since early childhood can put out just as much yarn as a wheel-spinner. I believe it, having seen a support spindler in the Himalayas whirl through a bump of fiber in the blink of an eye. I’m willing to bet it’s also true of the spinners in the cooperative the article describes, who live in…the Andes mountains in Peru.

Beyond just the speed of the tool, there’s also how it fits into the life of the spinner. For one thing, the article follows one spinner who lives without electricity in her home. So, how is she going to use an electric spinning machine? Will she have to do all her spinning at the workshop, which the article describes as being a 5-hour commute for another cooperative member? How is that faster than a tool that fits into the rest of her daily life, that she can use for a few minutes at a time in between other tasks or even while she attends to other tasks? A tool that, if it breaks, is simple to fix and replace, and cheap enough to have multiple lying around?

In Himachal, I saw spinners squatting by the side of the road with their takli while they watched the livestock they had brought out to graze, and out in the middle of the snow park while they waited for tourists to buy roasted corn. That’s not gonna happen with an e-spinner, or even a treadle wheel. A portable wheel is still pretty substantial (I’ve ridden my bike with mine strapped to my back, but only a mile on flat, well-paved roads, and even that was dicey) and requires a flat, clean, hard surface to sit on (not necessarily so easy to find in a rural mountain setting), not to mention a chair for the spinner to sit on. A spindle, on the other hand, can be tucked into any convenient fold in one’s clothing, and drop spindling while walking is not quite a piece of cake but pretty close.

I also wonder about how this Peruvian wheel-spun yarn is “better” than the spindle-spun. The article talks about improving alpaca breeding for softer fiber (I’ll save the softer-isn’t-always-better rant for another day; this is already getting long enough). And one spinner demonstrates how easy it is to make both thin and thick yarn on the e-spinner. Ok, news flash: you can make thick yarn on a spindle, too. These ladies don’t because it’s not valued in their society4; it’s not “good yarn” to them, only to the Western etc. consumers who want bulky knit hats.

Now, this isn’t meant to be an anti-wheel screed. I love my wheel, and have even decided that spinning on it is a crucial part of my writing process for grad school (although in jotting down this little thing, I’ve decided to go with the top-whorl drop in solidarity). I’m not even against e-spinners, if that’s your thing, although I have to say I don’t personally see the point. But I want to push back against this idea that more is better, that fast is better, that mechanized is better.

Perhaps some of those women are choosing to adopt the e-spinner, and more power to them (literally, ’cause you have to plug those things in). But it’s not exactly a free choice. It may be required or encouraged in order to work with a particular organization. In Himachal, I met a man running a hand-made textile business, who was very proud of having introduced treadle wheels to his employees. When we asked if many of the women had switched to wheels, he answered, “the smart ones did.” I sincerely hope that women who choose to stick with the spindle don’t end up labeled as lazy or stupid, or lose out on opportunities because they don’t conform to the ideas of some outsider, no matter how well intentioned.

1Apparently, pomo is so last-time-I-was-in-college. It’s all poco these days.

2Franquemont 2009, Respect the Spindle. Read it, people.

3It’s Choose-Your-Own-Hegemony!

4Abby Franquemont talks about this, and it mirrors my experience in India as well.

Lambtown Ladies Sing This Song…

Oh, Lambtown. I know I always gripe about how you’re always on the same weekend as everything else cool that my friends want me to go to, but man, am I glad this year that we got things out of the way before school really started.

I spent Saturday afternoon with a fun bunch of natural dye enthusiasts. Things were very nearly disastrous when the stove wasn’t working at first, and I had to come up with Plan B–solar dyeing on the blacktop outside the kitchen and rotating the dye baths on one electric induction burner. Thank goodness I had thought to bring that just in case! About halfway through the class the stove was finally working, so we were able to finish up with multiple dyebaths simmering.

Of course there were many other surprises, as always with natural dyes. This time around, purple corn came out more like a slate blue, and even with a vinegar rinse didn’t shift much into the purple/pinkish zone. Was it the corn? Some was from the same batch that I used for my first test, and some was ordered from a different farm. Was it the water? Dixon tap water versus Davis tap water? Was it the alignment of planets or phase of the moon? We’ll never know.

I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of students. They were game for unpredictable results, asked really perceptive questions, and were ok with answers like “I don’t know. That would be a great experiment to run.” They came up with great ideas for activities to do with their own families and students–like having a group of 4H-ers each bring a bucket of water from their homes and seeing how the same dye comes out differently in different water. If any of you are reading this, thanks for your part in making this a successful workshop!

On Sunday afternoon I was scheduled to do a one-hour demo of card weaving. I showed up early enough to have time for a little shopping before hand, but not so much time that I could get into too much mischief. But I considered some heavy-duty mischief (drum carder? viking combs?). The demo went great, and then I watched Stephenie Gaustad judge the alpaca fleeces in the wool show. I learned a lot from watching her handle the fleeces to check for luster, softness, evenness of staple, and vegetable matter contamination. Oh, the VM. So many of the fleeces seemed to have great character but lots of foxtails and feed stuck in the locks.

So that’s all done with. Now we’re on to Spinzilla and the first week of grad school, two activities which are proving to be not entirely compatible…

So About that Workshop…

One thing that’s been difficult for me in transitioning from hobbyist fiber arts nerd to semi-professional fiber arts nerd is fighting the sense that I’m wasting time when, for example, skimming 19th century travelogues for descriptions of shepherding practices. Okay, that probably still counts as wasting time. But it’s been really hard to convince myself that this is my work now, and that it’s really okay to spend a hefty chunk of my time reading about and playing around with string. So I’m really excited to have my first gig as a fiber festival presenter next month. Yay for Lambtown!

I’ll be leading a workshop on natural dyes, focusing on locally available materials and environmentally sustainable methods. I promise that it will be fun! If you happen to be in the Sacramento area in the first weekend of October, please check it out.

I’ll also be demonstrating card-weaving the following day, and I promise that that will also be fun. Thanks to my colleagues in the Davis Spinners’ Guild and Sacramento Weavers and Spinners Guild for putting together this event and letting me be a part of it.

Purple Corn

I was going to philosophize about the haphazard nature of my blogging habits, but let’s cut to the chase.

Purple corn.

purple corn

Purple. Freakin’. Corn.

I adapted the recipe from  Navajo and Hopi Dyes. I was supposed to leave the yarn in the dye for 48 hours but was too impatient. I don’t think it really mattered. The lighter, more pink one is from the exhaust bath, which I just put out in the sun for the day. I don’t know yet how light-fast or wash-fast they’ll be. I’m drying the corn kernels back out and think they’ll still be edible (it’s a variety for grinding up into flour anyway). I have enough corn left to do a little batch during my workshop next month (oh yeah, remind me to tell y’all about that) and am asking around among farmer friends to see if anyone is growing some in this neck of the woods.


List Post

Things I Miss About Himalaya:

1. My friends there. Duh.
2. Buses. With garlands and music and conductors conducting amazing feats of memory to tell you when to get off and gods with blinking lights.
3. Trucks. American truck drivers: more tassels, please. And more painted-up tigers leaping off the back, and eyes with flirty eyelashes on the front, and horns that full-on play music instead of just honking.
4. Non-ironic use of the terms “ladies” and “gents.”
5. Watching thunderstorms from the front porch.
6. “Hair saloons.”
7. I never thought I’d say this, but: the trumpets blaring off-octaves at any hour. And I mean, any hour. And I mean, the octaves. So close and yet so far.

Things I’m Glad to Get Back To:

1. My friends here. Duh.
2. My spinning wheel.
3. Potlucks.
4. Sarcasm.
5. Sipping dark-and-stormies on the back porch.
6. Dark chocolate.
7. Bougie pizza (although, see #2 below).

Things I’m Having a Hard Time Getting Used To Again:

1. American accents. World, I am so sorry.
2. Prices.
3. Vast, empty streets.
4. Sarcasm.
5. Flatness.
6. Eating with a fork.
7. It’s. So. Quiet.