Making do – Darning socks

This is a story about a pair of socks, hand knitted by me (of course), from hand spun alpaca and sheep wool (of course), but beyond that they have a story. When I was working at the first school I ever worked at, we had a tradition of taking the students to the local agricultural show as an excursion every year. Involving an hour on a bus and a windy trip up the mountains to the local population centre (and back at the end of the day). Every year I indulged myself with a little bag of alpaca fleece to spin from the stall at the show while the kids toured the petting zoo. One year they were watching a demonstration of merino shearing while I snuck off to get my little bag of softness for the year and when I got back, they had somehow talked the shearer into giving them a bag of the finest merino shoulder fleece I have ever seen. They presented this bag to me as a present and I was so touched at the thoughtfulness of children in general (and those ones in particular). So I went home with a bag of chocolate brown alpaca and a bag of pure white merino to spin that year as well as a warm glow of thankfulness.

That yarn became my spotted quoll socks in very short order and I have enjoyed wearing them ever since (for about 8 years so far). They have recently developed a very large hole, due to being chewed by a puppy I suspect (not mentioning any names here… Melvin). So I briefly considered retiring them to the compost, then decided to try my hand at darning…

I found this great tutorial and my visible mending adventure begins.

I need something to stretch the sock over to hold everything taunt and flat for darning. Usually people use a darning mushroom or egg, but I found a little plastic container that should fit inside the sock.

The container fit inside the sock and I put an elastic band around it to hold the sock tight. Then I found a darning needle (they have a flat bit at the pointy end and are usually fairly large) and some silk yarn. I decided against trying to match the wool as that wool is long gone and I want to be able to see what I have done when I have finished.

To begin with I made running stitches around the hole, which was very large, in a spiral pattern to stabilise the fabric before I began to actually darn.

Then I began to go backwards and forwards over the hole making a little stitch at each side of the hole to form a kind of warp I could weave a weft through.

Finally I wove backwards and forwards through the warp I created, anchored the weft with a stitch at each side each time I wove over and under the warp.

I kept doing this until there was a dense piece of fabric over the hole and anchored to the fabric of the sock. I finished off by turning the sock inside out and weaving the ends in around the inside of the hole.

It looks obvious, but it forms part of the story of these socks. These socks that remind me that kindness and generosity are part of us, part of what makes us human. Doing things to make others happy comes naturally to us all, and is something that should be encouraged and guided, these socks remind me of that (and they remind me not to leave my socks where puppies can reach them).

I wonder what other things I can mend?

Time to spin

It is now officially school holidays, when I typically take a week off from teacherly stuff and just be… well, just be really. It is time to binge watch a series of some sort (with aliens of course) and spin a lot of wool.

After the chores of the day are done and I can settle for an extended period without interruptions (thanks, in part, to a global pandemic), I start to make magic.

This holidays, I cleaned out my fleece stash and discovered that I have a lot of spun singles that need to be plied into yarn. I also have some very nice fleeces to be washed and spun into singles. My first step is to clear out my singles container and wash the new yarns. This yarn is going to our local Co Op to be sold.

Sorting through my fleeces. There were a lot of old fleeces in my craft room.
My pile of plied yarns ready for the Co Op
I found this lovely fleece in my stash. I see a spinning jag coming on.

Then I can wash some fleece and start spinning more singles. I have an ambitious plan in mind; I want to spin enough to knit a cardigan for myself. I will spin heaps of skeins of the same fleece (a white one), then I will dye the skeins in different colours and finally knit myself a cardigan. This little project could take until next Winter.

The fleece cards up really well, I think this is an easy spin fleece

This entire fleece will be used as test yarn for my natural dye experiments (otherwise known as ’50 shades of beige’).

The first lot of yarn. Plied and dyed (and a little felted because of too hot water).

I also found a bag of silver/grey suri alpaca fleece. I think it will be my next fleece to spin.

I am so happy and relieved to be back at my spinning wheel. For a while now, I haven’t had the energy or inclination to do anything crafty at all. I have just been living in a holding pattern, waiting for the next crisis, but I feel I am coming out of that long, dark tunnel into the sunlight.

Local insects and animals – Orchard Swallowtail butterfly

This is the later instar of the caterpillar

We found an alien caterpillar on Sid’s mandarine tree, so of course we took multiple photos and tried to find out just what planet this interesting specimen hails from. We eventually discovered that this is the caterpillar of the Orchard Swallowtail butterfly. These little munchers are identified as a pest because they eat the leaves, flowers and sometimes even fruit of citrus trees. At the moment Sid is coping with the load of life relying on him for sustenance, but we will remove some of them if it looks like he is suffering. Meanwhile, we are watching the different instars of development these caterpillars go through with interest. They begin life as tiny, spiky dots who eat their way up to larger spiky lengths of bad attitude who have a disagreeable colour scheme and shoot two red stinger looking things out at you from their head end if disturbed. Eventually they lose most of the spikes and become a lovely shade of green and silver before spinning a chrysalis and gradually losing their identity to become a butterfly (just like Mum or Dad).

During this adventure I have discovered that both caterpillars and butterflies are very hard to photograph. Most of our captures are blurry or not at a useful angle, please forgive me.

The female Orchard Swallowtail caterpillar, looking a little worn
She is laying an egg in this shot, and looking a bit offended to be on camera too
This is about the second or third instar
Just about ready to pupate
A chrysalis all ready to hatch out in Spring

Flooded in – and loving it

This and every other photograph in this post is taken from a Facebook page called Tabulam Community Noticeboard.

The above photo is one of the many causeways we need to cross on our way to work each day. Three weeks ago, when most of South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales were flooded, we were flooded in and unable to get to work (or anywhere). This happens every once in a while and is to be expected living in the bush, but here we are three weeks later, in the same situation. The creeks are high, all the bridges are under water, the causeways are under, the roads are shut. We are home.

Yet another bridge on my way to work.

I love being home, tucked up all safe and warm while the world goes on without me. This time however, these rains have done so much damage to so many people, I feel guilty to be safe, dry and warm while so many have lost so much.

Nature can be unforgiving and She seeks to balance herself without noticing all the little creatures in the way. We are little creatures to Nature, we don’t count at all in the big scheme of things. I think it is time for us (as a species, as a community and as a family) to get our bottoms in gear and get ready for some really hard times to come.

Local insects and animals – Red backed toadlet

While we were out collecting fire wood, we came across a bright little frog (or more accurately, a toadlet). My daughter found a bright red blob of a frog under a piece of wood on the ground, it was raining at the time which seemed to make the colour even more jewel like. I quickly took him into the humpy and tried to find out what kind of miracle he was. Eventually I decided to take a few photos and return him to his home (before he charged me with kidnaping).

It turns out he is a Red backed toadlet, a fairly common species in our area. I have never seen one before, but I’m glad to have met one now. They are a ground dwelling frog that takes advantage of the damp places in the bush preserved by having bark and debris laying on the ground. They spawn into muddy holes and the tadpoles are washed into puddles or waterways when it rains. They take two months to develop into frogs. Nature is indeed amazing.

These amazing little toadlets are not rare or endangered, but they do deserve to live undisturbed and respected. We will be leaving some damp, mulched areas near the dam in future. Places where these little frogs can lay their eggs uphill from the water and have the rain wash their babies into a water source that will hold for two months. We may get to see more of these little living rubies in the future.

Natural dye – Elder berry

The elder berry tree is fruiting and the sight of those little purple bursts of colour proved too much for me to resist. I harvested about two cups of berries and froze them in one of my handy paint bags (inside a silicon container to avoid mess in the freezer). Apparently the freezing process breaks down the cell walls and makes it easier for the colour to leach out. The next day I put them into my solar dye jar with some water and a half cup of home made vinegar. The acidity of the vinegar helps to bind the colour to the yarn.

Elder berries in a paint bag in a silicon bag… in a freezer.
My solar dye jar and home made vinegar
Putting it all together

The jar sat in the sun for two days and on the third morning I suddenly realised that I hadn’t mordanted the yarn before popping it into the dye. So I dumped a tablespoon of alum into the dye bath and plonked the wool back in for another day (I am known for being half-assed).

The first day of sitting
The second day of sitting

After three days of soaking (one full day with alum in the dye bath), I rinsed the yarn out and got a rather gorgeous lilac shade. Beautiful and delicate, but not what I was expecting. I wonder if the yarn would take up more dye if I pre mordanted it?

Before adding alum
The alum
After adding a tablespoon of alum
After rinsing and drying.

Natural dyes – Red amaranth

I have some red amaranth growing in my garden, it self seeds all over the place and the chooks love it. In my current state of natural dye obsession, I saw the colour of the seed heads and thought it must be useful as a dye. So I pulled one up and embarked upon another dye based adventure.

I found a couple of interesting clips and blog posts to get me started: Solar dye with Red amaranth and Vinegar extraction, then I went off on my own tangent (as usual).

I pulled up one plant and broke it into pieces. The leaves and seed heads made their way into a large coffee pot as I wanted to try solar dye techniques. Having read that amaranth is very sensitive to temperature and knowing my habits when it comes to wandering away from stoves, I thought it best to leave the sun with the supervision of the dye bath.

For this attempt I decided to go with plain water (I will probably try with vinegar extraction too at some point) so I filled the jar up to the top and left it in the sun for a full day.

After work the next day I could already see the red colour starting to leach out. So exciting!!

Of course I got impatient and decided to add the yarn to the dye bath before it had all extracted, thinking that it would do two jobs at once.

I quickly copper mordanted a skein of yarn (the same homespun from Eli I have been using all along) and popped it into the jar in one of my handy paint bags (well, squished it in really).

After a week of sitting in the sun (and the rain), all the dye had been taken up, but the yarn looked alarmingly beige. All the red had leached out of the leaves and gone somewhere, but maybe not into the 4aszxrt4fyarn.

Before rinsing the yarn I could see green with hints of pink.

After rinsing, well the yarn is a really pretty green with splotches of darker green. I have used the yarn I dyed with Johnson grass seed heads as a contrast to show just how much green there is in it. I do like the colour, but I am very surprised that such a dark pink dye bath made green???

I will try to extract the pink colours with vinegar next time. I think that solar dyeing is here to stay though. It is simple, flexible and doesn’t use any gas. It doesn’t hurt that the washing up is minimal too.

Natural dyes – loquat leaf

I think natural dyes are a gateway to a life of crime. Let me explain, yesterday I broke into a school (it was the weekend and the gate was open) and stole a bag full of loquot leaves (I had permission to harvest them, but maybe not on the weekend). I was passing by on yet another trip to the vet (not an emergency this time) and saw the tree in the school yard, in my defense, I was overtaken by the insane urge to try loquot leaf dye NOW. I snuck in (with Melvin in tow) and harvested a small bag full of leaves from the defenseless tree, then raced back out to the car (in a non-guilty manner).

I zoomed home with my little bag of stolen goods and cut the leaves up for a dye pot straight away.

My little bag of stolen goods.
The evidence disposed of.

I had a fresh skein of homespun yarn that needed a wash, so I gave it a quick scour and dropped it into a pot of copper mordant (at a rate of 1/2 cup per 100g). Copper mordant is supposed to brighten colours in a dye pot.

When the blue colour had all migrated from the water to the yarn, I dropped in my bag of leaves and continued to simmer the pot. I was very careful to never let it boil as loquot leaf is apparently very sensitive to temperature.

After about half an hour I turned it off (or more accurately, I bellowed out for someone else to turn the pot off) and allowed it to sit overnight.

Looks like a rosy beige to me.

The next morning I heated it all back up again. It sat at a simmer for another half an hour before I left it all to cool down and see what shade of beige I have this time.

The result was, indeed, beige. A lovely shade of rosy beige. I continue my search for a non-beige natural dye and resign myself to wearing beige socks until my old age.

Natural Dyes – Pomegranate skin mordant

Our pomegranate tree is fruiting! It produces a lot of juicy fruit over a long period of time, so when I read that pomegranate can be used as a natural mordant on all sorts of fibres, I got a bit excited. It can also be used as a yellow dye, but my interest at the moment is using it as a mordant so I don’t have to buy alum.

My approach to this project was to pick the fruit, extract the seeds and store for cooking etc, then remove all the pith inside the peels. After that I placed the clean peels on a tray and stored them in the oven for a week. We removed the tray before using the oven, but put it back in while the oven was still warm after use. In this way I managed to dry the peels to rock hardness without using any extra gas.

After the peels were dry, I ground them to powder in the coffee grinder and stored my new mordant in a labelled jar for future use.

To use the skins as a mordant you need to use 50% pomegranate skins to the fibre (by weight). By this I mean that I would use 50g of pomegranate peels to each 100g of yarn I put in the pot. I also have taken to using fresh skins in a dye pot at the same rate (realising that this will change the ratios).

There is something very satisfying about using scraps to do one more job before they become compost.

Washing an entire fleece (in urine)

All right, this is a really yucky post. I have heard and read about how traditional spinners used to wash fleeces in urine to get them really clean. The theory (or maybe science) behind it is that the alkalinity of the ammonia in the urine reacts with the lanolin in the wool to make a very basic kind of soap. This soapy mess then cleans the wool.

Wool scoured in this way is then rinsed (multiple times, I imagine) to get rid of the smell. The resulting wool is soft and unfelted apparently. It also removes a lot more vegetable matter than other kinds of washing (according to the hype). I want to give this method a try, but not anywhere near the house.

This experiment needs;

A big tub with a lid: Thanks to a quick thinking husband, I found one of our fire safety bins (not so useful in the rain) and gave it a good scrub.

It does seem strange to be cleaning a bin that will hold urine.

A raw fleece: One of the partial fleeces I have in my stash should be small enough to fit in the container.

This one is a Merino cross fleece with a lot of dirt and lanolin in it.

A water source for rinsing: The garden hose has a 30 metre stretch and gives nice hot water on a warm day.

A place away from the house to minimise the awful smell it will no doubt produce: The far end of the yard, behind the garden bed will have to be far enough.

A whole lot of pee: It is just as well the urine should be aged for this, as there is no way our family can produce enough to fill this tub in a day or so. We use a bucket for night time pee trips (so we don’t have to go outside and wake the dogs and sheep up), so I just began to collect that pee in my handy bin instead of tipping it out way up the paddock.

Collection started.

The fleece is soaked in the urine for about a day (two if it’s really dirty), then the whole lot is tipped out and the fleece rinsed multiple times to take out any remaining smell.

The fleece in the urine, before it sunk to the bottom. This fleece is larger than I thought.
After the fleece soaked into the liquid, I did have to add some more water to make sure there was enough liquid to wash the whole lot.
The first rinse has washed out a lot of dirt and lanolin, but the smell is still there.
I filled the bin up with clean water and some home made soap and set the fleece to soak overnight. One more clean rinse after this should make the fleece clean and get rid of the smell.
It took quite a few rinses to get the water to stay clean (ish). I just kept refilling the containers and transferring the wool between them.
Finally, after four rinses, the wool is not giving off too much dirt.

The fleece is spun out in the washing machine and spread out to dry on a sheet in the sun.

I squeezed out as much water as possible and took the whole lot in to spin in the washing machine.
I lined the spinner with a clean piece of cloth and wrapped the fleece up in it to avoid small pieces of wool clogging up my machine. There was still a fair amount of dirt in the fleece as you can see by the residue it left in the spinner (it needed a good clean afterwards).
I spread everything out on a clean (but old) sheet in the sun. It will take all day to dry I think, even in 36 C heat.
The wool in certainly clean and hasn’t felted at all. It does still smell a little, but the sun will bake that off.

The result?

After carding,I have a usable fleece to spin.

My final immpression is that this is an effective way to clean a fleece if you have no soap. It does seem to stop the fleece felting and the wool is cardable and as soft as can be expected from a course fleece. The smell really put me off though. I think I will try washing a whole fleece with soap nuts again, but do the two day soak.