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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Too wide a stripe

Despite the fact that I posted a pic of this nearly-finished pair of socks last week, I only noticed when I reached the ribbing a couple of days later that the stripes weren’t matching in the upper half of the leg. The reason why is very obvious when you look closely – the uppermost white stripe of the second sock is several rows wider than the equivalent stripe in the first sock.

The too-wide stripeThis offended my sense of symmetry once I’d spotted it, so I pulled out a couple of inches of knitting and discarded a few meters of white yarn to bring the stripes back into line. Here’s the result, pleasingly matchy-matchy.

Finished socksThe yarn was very cheap for a 75% superwash wool sock yarn – just £2 for a 100g ball – and that means I can’t really complain about the unevenness of the print. At least I hadn’t already done the tubular cast-off by the time I decided it had to be ripped out.

Modelled socks I don’t know what to knit next. I have another 100g of the same yarn and I could just knit my dear husband a second pair, with the stripe colours starting in a different place so that he could mix and match. But it’s rather boring knitting 4 socks in the same yarn, one after another, and I’d rather see if the first pair actually get worn before I commit to making a second pair. Seeing as it’s now almost summer, it could be a few months before I discover whether the second ball of yarn is destined to become his socks or mine.

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Socks and cushions

I’ve made the first of the cushion covers with herringbone-stitch fronts. The pattern was Fisherman’s Pillow and the yarn a super-chunky from Hobbycraft called Group Hug which is no longer available.

I’m not entirely happy with this cover, because the cast-off edge shows and looks quite different from the other three edges. You can see it in the bottom right corner of the photo. I chose not to turn the cast-off under, out of sight, because I thought it would be too bulky, but I may yet change my mind and re-make the cover. I’m leaving it for a week or two before deciding, and before making the second cover.

Meanwhile, I’m approaching the end of the pair of socks that I’m knitting. Just the ribbing around the top to go now. I’ll get both man-sized socks out of a single 100g ball even though I had to set aside a few grammes when I started the second one in order for the stripes to match. It looks like there are about 6 repeats of the stripe pattern per 100g.

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Spring socks

My dear husband has worn through a pair of his favourite socks and asked me if I’d knit him a pair like them. He’s never wanted hand-made socks before, despite my many offers in the last few years when I was looking for something to knit, so this was an unexpected turn of events. I moved fast in case he changed his mind.

German sock yarn

BellaLana sock yarn

I have a few balls of sock yarn in my stash and we went through them together. We settled on a German self-patterning yarn in the usual 75/25 wool/nylon blend that I bought for peanuts from a shop in Skipton that has been advertising its closing down sale since – to my certain knowledge – 2013, and probably much earlier. Long may it continue, I’m always finding bargains there.

The dear-departed socks had a wide rib but were otherwise unexceptional. I decided I’d do a similar rib, but broken (alternate rounds of plain knitting) to prevent the fabric drawing in. I knitted a tension tube to get an accurate measurement – my stocking stitch tension in the round differs a fair bit from my worked-flat tension – and concluded that 70 stitches would give the right size. On that basis, I opted for a 6×1 rib to get five repeats across the instep and five across the sole. A stitch count that is not divisible by 4 precludes a 2×2 rib around the cuff, but that’s fine.

I had no idea how the patterning in the yarn would come out, and the tension tube was too small to give much of a clue. The picture on the ball band is nothing like the stripes that have resulted, but there are several things that are odd about the ball band. (This might explain why the yarn was sold off cheap in a bargain outlet.) For a start, it gives the meterage as 260m per 100g, which would suggest the yarn is a double knitting thickness, and that makes some sense given that the recommended needle size is 3-4mm. But the label also mentions the word “sport” (= 5-ply, thinner than DK), and my tubular swatch proved that it knits to a standard 4-ply tension. Anyway, I’m very happy with the bold, multi-coloured stripes and so, fortunately, is my dear husband.

Foot of sockI’ve knitted about a dozen pairs of socks and I feel I’m getting the hang of it now. Hence the decision to go off-piste and devise my own pattern. I’m working from the toe up, which is my preferred direction, and I’m using the Fish Lips Kiss (FLK) twin stitch, short-row method for both the toe and the heel. This is essentially the shadow wrap short-row technique, but I do like the FLK way of handling the half-way point with two “boomerang” rows.

Toe of sockI started by provisionally casting on half the stitches (35) and working from the toe/sole interface on the underside of the foot, around the toe and back to the toe/instep interface on the upper side. Then I put the provisionally cast-on stitches on the needles, along with the live stitches from the toe, and continued working in the round. This gives a really neat, hole-free toe that’s smooth on the inside.

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