Out of hibernation

Araucania botany laceIn 2016 I went to the British Wool Show near York – it’s on again in August – and came home with two skeins of Araucania’s Botany Lace merino in mottled shades of orange. Despite the name, this isn’t a laceweight (ie 2-ply) yarn, but a fairly skinny 4-ply. Realising that 200g wasn’t enough for a jumper, I acquired some gunmetal grey yarn to go with it and dug out the remains of a ball of orange sock yarn, then set about knitting a top-down sweater in three colours based on a Knitty design called Saint Rémy. It will hopefully look like this when it’s done.

Virtual Saint Remy sweaterAll was going well until some way beyond the armhole split. I stopped knitting the body after a few inches and started on the sleeves, so that I’d know how much yarn I had left for the body without the sleeves being too short. Half way down the first sleeve I spotted a mistake in the yoke and lost my knitting mojo because I couldn’t decide whether it was worth pulling out several hours of work to correct it. Can you spot it?*

Saint Remy sweaterGetting on for three years later, I have returned to this work-in-progress and brought it out of hibernation. I took it along to my knitting group the other day and was persuaded that the mistake in the stripes wasn’t noticeable, but advised that I should repeat it anyway in future stripes so that it will look deliberate. So that is what I’m doing. If the uneven stripes look both glaringly obvious and odd in the finished garment I will just have to cut a few threads, knit the necessary extra rows and then graft the yoke, cuffs and welt back together again. Taking such action holds no fear for me after lengthening a linen jumper last summer.

A swift update

My swift has reached a usable state, but I have still to make it look pretty by staining it, varnishing it or whatever.

Nearly finished swiftI realised that it doesn’t need the four central pegs that the virtual swift has, just one at each corner. And it would be better if those corner pegs were a couple of inches in from the tips of the battens, to allow space for the yarn. I could move them, but then there would be holes.

The swift does work like this, as long as I stretch it out so that the skein is held fairly tightly and won’t slip off.

I made the base from a thick, heavy piece of plywood to give stability and remove the need for a clamp to fix the swift to the table. Actually, it would fold up rather smaller if it only had a small base with an arm sticking out to take a clamp, and I would probably do that if I made another one.

This was such an easy, quick project. I cut the expanding “coat rack” rotor from thin plywood, but it could be made even more quickly from a length of hardwood batten.  Apart from the wood, all that’s needed is a few nuts, bolts and washers and a fidget spinner bearing. It makes the task of winding a hank of yarn into a ball so much easier.

All I need now is to make a ball winder to go with it.

* The lower grey stripe is only 4 rounds, not 5 like the other stripes.

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Virtual yarn winding

I’ve been too busy this week to make any progress on my yarn swift. Even if I had found a spare hour or two all in one chunk, the weather has been too wet and cold to work outside. Instead, in spare moments I’ve been developing my 3-D modelling skills in Fusion 360.

Not only do I have a working model of a swift that both stretches in and out and rotates …

Model of a yarn swiftModel of a yarn swift





Model of a yarn winder… but I’ve also made a start on a virtual version of the ball winder I’m planning to make. This still needs some gears and a handle to drive it, and I have a nasty feeling that gears are going to prove difficult.

I only wish I had managed to complete the swift, because I had to wind another of my Dundaga skeins into a ball by hand using nothing more sophisticated than the traditional aid of a chair back. When I say “had to”, what I mean is that it was necessary to use the plain pink yarn for swatching purposes. I tried knitting a little Fair Isle swatch in the round using two balls of the same gradient yarn but starting each at a different point in the colour cycle. Unfortunately, the colour contrast just isn’t good enough even though I had put some thought into how far along the gradient sequence the colour displacement should be. It would be awful to start knitting a garment with this long colour-change yarn and then find after many hours of labour that the colourwork pattern was indistinct in large sections because the two yarns were too similar in colour at those points.

Plan B is using plain pink with the gradient yarn.

tension swatch in Dundaga 6/1I don’t know yet which yarn should be the motif and which the background, I will knit a larger swatch than this tiny tube before deciding. The tube will need to be washed and blocked to see how big it ends up, but I’ll pull out the larger swatch to save on yarn. I’ve knitted the tube on 3.5mm needles which seems about right, albeit much bigger than would be usual for a supposedly laceweight yarn, even when stranding two colours. I think the yarn will fill out and “bloom” when it’s washed as it clearly still has plenty of lanolin in it. And it doesn’t look like a laceweight to me anyway, more like a 3-ply or even a skinny 4-ply – I’ve measured it as 17 wraps per inch.


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A swift way to wind yarn

Dundaga 6/1 yarnI wound the first of my five new skeins of Dundaga yarn the other day, with it draped around my knees. Funnily enough, I couldn’t persuade anyone to hold their hands out for the eternity that it took to wind a ball. The slightly hairy, singles yarn wanted to twist and kept doing its best to stick to itself and knot because my knees did a poor job of keeping the skein taut. After that experience I decided my time would be better spent making a swift than struggling with the remaining skeins.

I’m supposed to be making a ball winder, but a swift to deliver the yarn smoothly is an altogether easier prospect.  There are two principal designs: the umbrella type which expands (like an umbrella) to accommodate different skein sizes, and the simpler Amish style with movable pegs. Making an umbrella-like frame seemed far too complicated, but I didn’t really like the idea of pegs either, they’d only get lost in this household. I had a look online to see how people had made their own swifts, and a solution based on a pair of expanding coat racks and a lazy Susan looked promising. I’d rather make something from scratch though, especially when I found I could buy a cheap umbrella swift on Amazon for less than the cost of the coat racks and turntable needed for the DIY option.

The reason that two coat racks are needed is essentially because the ones available tend to be based on three diamonds and consequently don’t have a central joint around which they can rotate. Sticking two of them side by side, on top of a turntable, solves the problem. I wondered whether I could achieve the necessary size range for both big and small skeins by making a coat rack- (or pantograph-) like structure composed of an even number of diamonds. It would still fold up small for storage like an Amish swift, but could be quickly expanded like an umbrella swift to suit the hank circumference without the need for adjustment by placing pegs in the right holes.

I found an offcut of plywood and set about cutting it into six strips, rounding the corners and drilling holes in each end and the centre of every strip. When I bolted them together I was pleasantly surprised to find that this “coat rack” closes up neatly and feels reasonably stiff and sturdy when extended, as long as I don’t stretch it out too far.

Expanding swiftThe next job was making wooden pegs for each of the eight points around the outside, to hold the yarn. I cut up a length of hardwood dowel …

Using a mitre saw to cut dowel… and then drilled one end of each peg so I can just screw them onto the bolts that are holding theSwift pegs with a bolt plywood strips to each other.  I had doubts about whether the dowelling would take a bolt, but it seems to be OK.

If I ever want to wind a skein with a particularly small circumference, unscrewing the four corner pegs should work.

Now I need to make a base and attach the expanding rotor to it. I’ve started with a thicker offcut of plywood and sunk a hole in the centre to take a small fidget spinner bearing.

Drilling the baseActually, I’m not convinced the bearing is necessary, because when I assembled the swift roughly, with the centre of the rotor bolted into a short length of dowel that was pushed into the middle of the bearing, it span sweetly about the bolt with the dowel and bearing remaining stationary.

I’ll decide what to do about the bearing before rounding the corners and edges of the base. I’m hoping that the whole swift is heavy enough to stay put on a table without the need for an arm that can be clamped, although I may have to stick something grippy onto the underside. I’ll apply a finish to smarten it up and make it super-smooth so that yarn won’t catch on it, then it should be ready for use.

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Dundaga wool – excess baggage from Latvia

Latvian forest roadWe’re just back from a cycling holiday in the Kurzeme region of Latvia. It was blessedly flat, mostly cool and occasionally damp, and we saw an awful lot of pine trees.

We started and ended in the capital, Riga, which was hot and wonderfully quiet in the mediaeval centre – the tourist season hasn’t really got started yet. This was the cathedral square in the heart of the city last Wednesday afternoon.

Riga cathedralWhile on the trip, I was idly leafing through a map obtained from Tourist Info to see what the following day’s ride had in store for us when I spotted there was a yarn producer not far from where we were headed. It’s called Pāces vilnas fabrika, it opened in 1892 and it’s the only near-vertical woollen mill in Latvia, ie fleeces come in at one end and dyed, woollen-spun yarn goes out the other. (For a true vertical mill, the yarn would have to be woven into cloth.) Better still, it sells yarn direct to the public, although it appears that guided tours are no longer offered. That didn’t bother me as I’ve been round many a West Yorkshire mill when I worked in the textile industry, although I would have liked to see the raw wool scouring side of the operation as this plant apparently uses none of the usual detergent- and bleach-based scouring chemicals, just water and salt.

Dundaga CastleI persuaded my dear, long-suffering husband that we ought to divert to the tiny village of Pāce on our way to nearby Dundaga, where we’d booked into a 13th Century castle for the night. (Not as grand as it sounds – said castle is more of a B&B than a hotel, with inexpensive rooms that, if ours was anything to go by, smell like the drains are indeed several hundred years old.)  I sold it to him as a heritage tourism experience, definitely not retail therapy at all.

To get to Pāce involved riding for 18km or so on unmetalled forest trails. We could have stayed on the road to Dundaga and then continued, still on tarmac, to Pāce, but the more direct route appealed. It turned out to be one of the best parts of the holiday because we were so deep in the pine forest that we saw lots of wildlife and no vehicles other than occasional logging trucks – which was actually quite encouraging, because we knew if they could get through then we definitely could on our bicycles.

At the woollen mill, there was no obvious way in. No reception, no factory shop, no bell to ring, no sign telling visitors where to go, nothing.  Just a large door which, judging from the sound emanating from it, led to the carding room. We were just debating whether to boldly march in there when we spotted a workman strolling across the yard. He didn’t speak English or German, but when I said “wool” in Latvian (a word I had taken the trouble to learn), he led us through the door and up a flight of stairs to an office, where a woman who was on the phone gestured to us to sit down.

To cut a long story short, this woman spoke reasonable English and took us through a spinning shed to a couple of rooms where the yarn was laid out, much of it in loose skeins of about 200g piled according to colour on the floor.

Yarn at Pāce millYarn at Pāce millI’d had a quick look at the Dundaga yarns on Ravelry the night before and had decided to concentrate on the mill’s main output, a singles laceweight yarn they call 6/1. I had in mind that I’d buy a single skein of one of their many beautiful multi-coloured options, all of which have long colour changes with very subtle variations from each colour to the next.

After running around excitedly for a few minutes, during which our guide was understandably stealing glances at her watch, I settled on a skein and only then asked the price. “€16 a kilo for the multi-coloured yarn, €13 for the plains”, was the answer. I’d been expecting a far higher price, even allowing for the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere. I quickly decided that instead of buying a single skein that would make a shawl, I needed more, much more of this wonderful, inexpensive yarn. The only problem was, our bike panniers were already pretty full and we’d flown to Riga with Ryanair, an airline infamous for making its passengers conform to its restrictive policies on baggage dimensions and weight with steep penalties for those who don’t.

After a quick chat with my better half, I concluded that five skeins might just be feasible. Worst case, I reckoned I could wear them bandolier-style across my body to smuggle them past the Ryanair boarding gate staff. So I ran around like a kid in a sweet shop for a few minutes more and ended up with this haul: two pairs of multi-coloured yarn and a hank of plain, sugared-almond pink that goes with one of them. The nice lady rounded down the weights when she put the skeins in the scales, and then rounded down the total cost to the nearest Euro too.  I love that place!

Dundaga 6/1 yarn

The haul

We stuffed the yarn on the back racks of our bikes for the remaining 5km to our not-so-palatial accommodation in Dundaga. The day we flew home I wore all three sweaters I’d taken with me to make room for the extra 950g of yarn I’d acquired, and I was glad of them when we landed at Leeds-Bradford late at night to find the temperature in single figures, some 20°C cooler than it had been in Riga that day.

Flaum finished


Since getting home I’ve hit Ravelry again to work out what to do with all this yarn. It smells “sheepy” and has little bits of straw still in it – definitely a heritage product that deserves to become a special garment. I chose one of the colourways because it has a pale blue and a beige in it that are very similar to the colours of the Flaum cardigan I recently made. I’d like to knit a sleeveless, or cap-sleeved, top that I can wear under that open cardi on cold days, using the multi-coloured yarn stranded Fair Isle-style with the plain pink. Or possibly stranding the two multi-coloured skeins against each other, with the colours out of sync of course. I can’t find a pattern that’s quite what I want, although one that several others have knitted using Dundaga 6/1 comes close, Maple syrup. I’m going to have to design something myself, I think.

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Learning 3D CAD

Last week I posted about the yarn winder I’m intending to make from an old drill. I’m expecting to have to 3D print some plastic parts for my winder, and in preparation for that I’ve been learning a 3D CAD (computer aided design) program called Fusion 360. In the past I’ve used SketchUp when I wanted to model things on a computer before building them, and I think SketchUp will still be useful for building/architecture-type things – what would it look like if we extended the kitchen, for example.  But since I got into 3D printing I have begun to recognise its limitations. I had a brief dabble in Tinkercad, a simple CAD system aimed at novices, and soon rejected that as even more limited. Then someone whose 3D printing skills I admire recommended Fusion 360, which is produced by the same company (Autodesk) as Tinkercad but is a far more sophisticated product.

I’d looked at Fusion 360 before and rejected it because it’s expensive to buy. What I hadn’t realised was that it’s free (for now, at least) to students, teachers, hobbyists and even small businesses. And, by default, the models you create are stored in the cloud instead of cluttering up your hard drive, which is important because 3D design files can be large. So I downloaded the software a few weeks ago and have been working my way through various online tutorials and experimenting with it ever since. Actually, downloading is not even required nowadays, there’s a browser version of it too.

So, what do I think of Fusion 360, after using it for a while? Well, simple it ain’t. I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is completely new to 3D design software, they’d be completely overwhelmed by the myriad possibilities, the complexity, the unfamiliar terms (T-splines, primitives, meshes, etc) and the menus-within-menus. I’ve been struggling to get things to work as expected, but part of the problem is (I suspect) that my 3-year-old laptop isn’t completely up to the job, added to which the various tutorials – even those produced by Autodesk – are not kept up to date. Often a tool isn’t accessed in the way that the tutorial says it is, and when I track it down I find that it has changed subtly and it isn’t always clear how to use it. The program hangs every now and again, possibly because there isn’t really enough memory available to run it, or possibly just because it’s glitchy. When something refuses to behave I find that saving the file, or closing it and then reopening it, or just stopping to make a cup of tea, will usually improve matters. I’m guessing that the browser version would be even worse.

3D modelled lamp

Black and chrome

Three weeks in, I no longer feel as frustrated by all of the issues I’ve been experiencing because I’ve learned how to work around most of them. And I am very impressed by the power of this software, especially given that those nice people at Autodesk are prepared to let us crafters and hobbyists use it for free. One of the first exercises I did was to model a table lamp (this is from the free Instructables 3D Design class, if you’re interested – Instructables is also owned by Autodesk). The quality of the photo realistic, cloud-rendered images is pretty amazing.

3D modelled lamp

White and brass

If you’re interested in learning about 3-D design/manufacture, I’d say give Fusion 360 a try. But you will have to put the effort in to become sufficiently familiar with it for it to be useful.

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Repurposing an old drill

Old hand drillSome time ago I went to a vintage fair in Wiltshire and came home with an old hand drill. Apart from the fact that it’s rather lovely, I had an ambition to turn it into a yarn winder some day. I’ve made a start on that.

I started by dismantling the various components, a process which resulted in a number of tiny ball bearings bouncing all over the kitchen floor. I’ve found 14 of them, which I hope is all there are. I’m not too worried if not because ball bearings are cheap and easy to come by, and I may not need them anyway in the winder design.

I had to resort to drilling out one of the screws that held the winding handle onto the large gear wheel, because I just couldn’t budge it even after leaving it soaking in penetrating oil. The screw head looked suspiciously shiny and I’m guessing that it wasn’t original and was the wrong thread, which would explain why it wouldn’t undo. I had a similar lack of success in removing the interference-fit pin that held the smaller gear wheel onto the shaft, and had to drill that out too.

Painted drill gearsI’ve cleaned up the two gear wheels, removing probably 60 years of oil, sawdust, rust and general dirt. Now they’ve had a couple of coats of spray paint they look a lot better and are fit to be used in proximity to precious yarn.

A ball winder works by rotating the shaft on which the yarn will be wound – which is at a 45° angle – around a vertical axis while spinning the shaft along its own axis at the same time. This photo shows a top-of-the-range version in a local yarn shop. The drill’s bevel gears will do a fine job of translating a winding action around a horizontal axis into perpendicular rotation, but I’ll need to create a new mechanism to achieve the required spin. The commercial winders I’ve seen use a 45° cone arrangement, which is what I’ll try to replicate. You can see the cone in the photo below.

Cone detail of ball winderThe disk at the base of the 45° shaft has a rubber “tyre” around its edge. The cone itself stays fixed, so that the rotation of the shaft around it drives the disk and causes the shaft to spin on its axis.  The ratio of rotation to spin is important to achieve a neatly wound ball, but I’ll worry about that once I’ve worked out how to make the spin happen at all.


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