The front door is in…finally

This weekend my partner suddenly burst into action and installed the long awaited front door (we are talking years here). This door marks the last piece of the puzzle for our humpy; we are now officially able to lock the entire building up.

The geese were very surprised to see us coming and going through this new door and honked around it every time it moved.

Having a door there at the front of the humpy (well…the side that faces the front of the block, about 1km to the North of the humpy) is a very useful addition in terms of efficiency of movement. Originally I planned to have the door there so I could reach the conveniently placed washing line and chook pen quickly. Then, as the building activity slowed, the hole that would become a door became blocked off by tin and a thick curtain (to block Winter breezes) and we resorted to carrying washing and chook food around the humpy from the Western door.

The washing machine sat in front of where the door would be for the last year or so as the temporarily tacked on tin was a good place to run the water drain through. Now I am trying to reconcile having the washing machine right beside the front door because the drain is attached to the outside of the humpy and it is a fairly large job to move it.

This was a fairly quick and simple job; we simply removed everything in front of the space and raked the area clear. Then we found some of the ever-useful pavers lying around and made a fairly level base for the door frame.

The door and frame were screwed to the existing wall frame and the the open side was framed.

The door and frame was picked up from a garage sale for about $10 at some point in the last two years, it has been leaning against the wall in the humpy since then. I had ceased to notice it sitting there. My ingenious partner found some aluminum framing in the useful pile out the back and made a frame for the door frame (if that makes sense?). Some scraps of corrugated iron screwed to the frames means that we now have a wall with a door in it.

My daughter is aiming to paint the door and it’s frame to protect it from the weather as we think it is an internal door (not complaining for $10).

It is amazing how much difference it makes to the feel and look of that end of the humpy; it sort of feels finished. I love being able to step out into the front yard and walk straight to the washing line or chook pen and I am even thinking about how to arrange a little table with two chairs so I can sit out there for breakfast in Summer.

From the outside
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How did we come to be off grid?

I had a question asked yesterday by a lovely lady who reads my blog; how did we come to start our off-grid adventure? This is the long, convoluted and wordy answer to that question (with some gratuitous photos, of course).

A busy front yard shot. Totally without context.

I was raised off-grid; when I was born my parents lived in an old bus and a tiny cabin in the Sydney area. They had electricity for a short time when I was a baby, but always collected their own rain water. We moved to the Bellingen area when I was three, to a house with no electricity. Although we did eventually get grid electricity connected there, we moved again when I was 12…you guessed it…to a house with only self generated electricity. We had a generator for many years before eventually adding a solar system.

One of my more exciting memories is of my father allowing me to rewire part of the generator from a wiring diagram and then making sure that all personnel had exited the building before trying it out for the first time (I really thought the monster machine would explode if I had wired it wrong).

When I first moved in with my partner (Wow…35 years ago!!) we had a flat with electricity, which seemed the very height of luxury to me at the time. We had light switches which could be flicked on without first checking the battery charge percentage. We had hot water from a tap that didn’t involve the lighting of a fire or the gathering of dry wood. We even had a wood burning heater which was allowed to burn with no pots cooking on top of it (such wasteful decadence). The thrill wore off though; after years of living with electricity bills and the constant, low-grade environmental guilt all that decadence caused, all I really wanted was to return to responsible living and the different, but valid luxuries of living in the bush.

Prim at the markets. One of our family members.

My partner, myself and two small (but annoying) girls moved back to the bush about 20 years ago. We lived in an old farm house with no electricity, outside water supply or garbage pick up. We were share farming Biodynamic avocados and the house was part of the contract. For me, it was a return to my comfort zone, but my poor partner struggled with being away from electricity and the responsibility of providing our own water for the first time in his life. He loved the sheer gadgetry (for want of a better descriptive term) of the solar set up and the generator, but he struggled with the restrictions they bought with them. He did eventually get the hang of it though, after a lot of flat batteries, bans on electronics and fixing broken generators (which died from over use). By the time we moved to our current block and built the humpy he was an accomplished bush dweller, who knows the value of a litre of water or a kilowatt of electricity.

Carpet snake in a tree anyone?

My partner will still opt for comfort over economy every time, while I will go for economy over comfort. This balancing act makes sure we get some of each (and sometimes both) in our projects. Our overall goal is to build our home world with as little reliance on the increasingly unstable outside world as possible. For us to understand the mechanics of our support systems (so we can fix them if they break) and to make as small an impact on our surroundings as we can (at least of a negative nature).

We also view the animal world as no different to the human world (We are, after all hairless apes) and try to treat our family members of various species accordingly. I like to think this isn’t an ‘air headed, hippie’ notion as we realise that every animal (humans included) have differing needs and need to be treated accordingly. It means that when we consider the needs and wants of our family, we weigh them equally; for example, our sheep; Freida has a need for company, as sheep are social animals, it was inconvenient to have her with us every hour of the day, but we considered it a worthwhile sacrifice for us to always leave someone home or take her with us in order to nurture her sense of security.

This means that we have a house full of animals most of the time. Animals come and go as they need help, some stay for their lifetimes, some grow up and move on. I love this lifestyle, it allows me to get to know a lot of species very well. It also means we live in an environment that is often messy and really encourages our immune system to be as strong as possible. Life in our humpy is never boring.

Aquaponics update- the system is cycled and ready for A*****e to move in.

It has taken many weeks for the system to go through it’s ammonia-nitrite-nitrate cycle, but it is finally ready to house A*****e. Today is the day we move him to his new pond.

The lettuce and spinach are growing really well; I have been harvesting them consistently.

This is the lettuce the day I planted it.
Doesn’t the lettuce look healthy?

When I first turned the system on, the sound of running water outside sent me into a near panic every hour (the water cycles through for fifteen minutes every hour) when I heard the sound of our precious water running away. Drought does that to you. Now I am used to it, I find it relaxing and calming; splashing water is such a rich sound don’t you think? (drought does that to you too)

I have continued to add occasional fish food to the system to give the bacteria some ammonia to work with and I added a cap full of Seasol to the water to feed the plants.

Three weeks ago I tested the water to see if it was ready to accept fish in the system; it was not. Water testing is a big part of keeping an aquaponics system healthy (not to mention the fish). Fish can die very easily in high ammonia and nitrite water, so it is important to wait until the bacteria colonies are established before adding an ammonia generator (which is what fish are). Below are the results of the test from the first week;

The pH was 6.6…it should be around 7.3
The ammonia was 2.0…it should be 0.0 (or close to it)
The nitrite was 1.0…it should be 0.0 (or close to it)
The nitrate was 10….it can be quite high

The fact that there is a nitrate level to read shows that both the bacteria that turns ammonia to nitrite and the bacteria that turns nitrite to nitrate are there, living in their little clay ball cities. I just had to wait for the populations to grow enough to get the nitrite and ammonia levels down to almost nothing.

Two weeks ago I tested the water again;

The pH is getting higher.
The ammonia is lower.
The nitrite is very high.
The nitrate levels are high, yay!

Not ready just yet. We will wait another week.

This week I tested again and found a surprising result;

The pH is going in the wrong direction; it is 6.0 when it should be 7.3
The ammonia is close to 0.0, yay!
The nitrite is below 0.25
The nitrate is around 80…perfect level

To begin to change the pH I added 1 teaspoon of aglime to the water and retested after a few hours. I also began to acclimatize A*****e by getting my daughter to put him in a bucket about half full of his water then I poured water from the new pond into it at the rate of 1/4 cup every 15 minutes or so. After a full day of this he was ready to be poured into the pond.

He’s in there somewhere.

My daughter also moved over some sand, weed and a floaty rock thing for him. He seems very happy in there so far. The water test after three days was encouraging, except the pH.

pH is still 6.0 to 6.4
Ammonia is 0.0
Nitrite is 0.0
Nitrate is 80.0. Plenty of plant food.

My next move is to add another grow bed. I am really enjoying the mad scientist element of aquaponics; test tubes, coloured chemicals, wild solutions.

Weaving hemp and cotton tea towels

I admit it; I’m addicted to weaving tea towels. I also want to weave some wool fabric for making a coat, some silk scarves for gifts and some scrap yarn fabric for making bags, but when I find the time to warp something up, immediately my mind reaches for a tea towel draft and some absorbent yarn.

I did get a scarf or two of scrap yarn woven between tea towel weaves.

This project is a special one; it’s my first try at weaving with hemp (as the yarn…for those who were wondering). I bought a one kilo roll of fine (8/2 weight) hemp yarn, I just can’t seem to resist a good deal on yarns, and decided that it would be perfect for tea towels. Hemp is a bast fibre (meaning it comes from the stalks of a plant and is cellulose based) and is known to be very strong, resilient and absorbent when used in weaving. The yarn itself is very rough and stiff, it feels kind of like string to me, but my reading (and YouTubing) tells me it will become soft over time and use. Flax is very similar to this and linen, the finest, most hard wearing cloth is made from flax.

I decided to try out the Viking weave pattern again, because I really do love it. So first I wound a warp; this is a long, fairly tedious activity that involves winding yarn around a series of pegs to make lengths long enough to weave the items you had in mind. I am not good at maths, but I followed the instructions on the weaving draft to wind the warp 5.2 metres long (which should get me eight tea towels). Once I had the length decided, I wound the first length around the pegs until I had a 5.2m length, then I repeated that 408 times to get the width of cloth I needed (each length is called an end).

Just to make things interesting, I also had to count each end and divide them into bundles that fit into inch increments on the loom; using a length of yarn that crosses over every 24 ends (the pattern says there are 24 ends per inch), that way when it is time to wind the warp onto the loom the bundles could be distributed evenly along the back beam (using a raddle).

Each little red loop has 24 strands in it. That means that when I get to putting it on the loom I can divide each bundle into an inch slot.

When the warp was all wound and tied securely in a lot of places, I spread it out using my home made raddle. A raddle is basically a tool for holding yarn temporarily in the right place while it is put on the loom, I built mine from a photo on a weaving site (it is a very simple tool).

The raddle is the row of silver hooks on the bit of 2X1 pine. Each gap between the hooks on the raddle is an inch long.
The warp spread out on the raddle.
A nice neat warp so far.

Next I need to thread the warp. This involves threading each end through it’s assigned heddle (the wire bits hanging on the frames in the photo below) each heddle has a hole in the middle to allow the thread to pass through. The weaving draft tells me which frame each thread needs to be attached to.

Finished threading through the heddles, now for the reed.
All threaded through the reed and tied onto the apron bar. I used cardboard strips to spread the warp evenly then wove an inch or so with a pale yarn as a border.
I discovered a few loose threads that needed to be weighed down with hooks and sinkers at the back of the loom. These threads hang down in the shed and make mistakes in the weaving.
Then it is time to weave. I love watching the pattern emerge.
The first tea towel almost done.

My plan is to use the same pattern for each tea towel but to use different colours for the weft; all in 8/2 cotton of course.

I know this is a fairly complicated post, full of the jargon of weaving, but it is my attempt to document the process of making things I use in my everyday life, and I love the language associated with weaving, it is so ancient and full of seemingly nonsensical terms. It is really a very simple process that comes naturally to the hands but it is hard to explain in words.

House update- an exciting visit

With everything that has been going on for the last few months we haven’t done much on the house building for a while. Things have started to move again though…slowly. This week several things came together to get things moving again.

Firstly the loggers are at our place. I have very mixed feelings about this; we need the money this will bring in to build our house, we can’t do it without this big input of cash…but, I hate ripping our ecosystem apart and creating so much destruction (especially in the face of news about our current mass extinction). I drive through the chaos every morning on the way to work and apologise to the land in my head. The loggers are very good and are sticking to the rules, they are good people who do care about the animals and plants sharing our space; my mixed feelings come from my own guilt about making that decision.

Secondly, and on a more positive note, Hayden from Curvatecture (the company we are working with to get the building off and racing) happened to be in our area when I emailed to let him know we would soon be making moves towards building again. He decided to pop in and see our site and get a feel for our lifestyle on his way through.

We introduced him to all the animals and he was very good about patting Freida when she demanded it. He shared a cup of tea with us (coffee for me) and we got to know each other a little. Hayden is a very interesting person who has some great ideas for our house, and I think we were able to sort out some general understandings. He has been a source of great information and advice so far.

As soon as the loggers have finished we will be finalising our house plans and hopefully starting to build. The first stage will be the house foundation, we are hoping that the funds from logging will get us through the council approval stage and (with luck) build the foundation. After that we will have to get creative to fund the next stage of building; the walls.

Freida update- she joins the herd

This is another behind-the-times post; Freida has been living with the sheep herd for about two months now. After Eli joined the family, she bonded closely to him and they both began to explore the outside world.

At first they both slept in a tent in the back yard and ran around with the big sheep through the day. After a few weeks we began to leave the gate to their tent open at night so they could choose where to sleep. Now they live full time with the herd.

We still lock Freida and Eli up for the morning feed as the other sheep can be very pushy and will chase them off. This way we know they will get at least one good feed in the day.

Freida has become a very smart and calm sheep, which is something of a relief; we thought she may have trouble learning to be a sheep after the start she had.

She is still as loved as ever, but now she is able to fullfil her biological needs without getting in trouble (at least not much trouble).

Make a tote bag from hand woven fabric

I am busily using up scrap yarn from my overflowing stash. As part of that I wove a piece of fabric that is frankly…um…mixed up; I used all sorts of fancy yarns in the weft, eyelash yarn, boucle yarn and a little bit of ladder yarn. All that in no particular order, colour or pattern, just throwing in a little bit here and there.

What to do with this fabric? I decided to make a tote bag.

First I cut it off the loom and overlocked the edges.

I gave it a wash too, to test for shrinkage.

Next I cut a lining the same size and some handle material.

Then it was time to sew up both the bag and the lining into basic bag shapes. Leaving a small hole in the bottom of the lining to turn the whole thing inside out.

Sewing across the bottom corners gives the bag a nice square bottom. I didn’t forget to measure the same distance down the corner seam on each piece. I sewed the lining corners the same way.

The corners were folded so that the bottom seam and the side seam lay on top of each other; the seam you can see in the photo below is the side seam, it is laying on top of the bottom seam. This makes a sort of cross seam at the base of the bag.

Finally I sewed the top of the outer bag to the inner lining. The handles can be pinned between these layers. I went over the handle joins more than once when sewing this part; handle joins are subject to a lot of strain. The handles need to be looped downwards with the ends facing up towards the top of the bag, when sewing the top seam (I learned that the hard way).

Yes…the handle is the wrong way around. I had to unpick and re-sew the whole thing with the handles the right way around.

I turned it all inside out (or right side out) then sewed up the hole.

There’s the bag done. Not too bad for a scrap yarn project.

Now on to spinning more yarn to make more fabric to sew more things.

Meet Eli- new family member

Eli and Freida at breakfast

In all the rush and confusion around the start of the year I forgot to introduce our newest family member; Eli. We adopted him as a friend for Frieda, and our way of encouraging her to realise she is a sheep, not some kind of mish mash of human, dog and rabbit.

The full story;

Just before the end of the year (I can’t be precise here, I didn’t write down the date), I was walking past a group of Mums at school (the regular afternoon chat session, which I love to join, time permitting) when one of the lovely Mums called out to ask me if I wanted another sheep. I , of course, said yes (automatic response I’m afraid) then thought I should ask some pertinent questions. The back story was; a friend of this Mum had raised a lamb in the house (the same as Freida), he was a wether and had been a pet for her two year old son. She wanted to re-home him as he was being aggressive to the little boy. Sheep can become very pushy with those they see as below them in the social order. I thought twice about getting an aggressive sheep as they can be a big problem, but decided in the end to give him a go as we were desperate to find a friend for Freida since our old ewe Ma had sadly died from pneumonia. In order to get Freida to join the sheep herd, she first had to come to terms with the fact that she is a sheep.

I picked him up one day after work when the original Mum bought him to school in the back of her car. he was ensconced in a pile of hay in the back part of her four wheel drive with a collar and lead on. We woman handled him into the back of my car, a job which went very smoothly as he was eager to do whatever we wanted. His name was Eli and he was some kind of wool bearing sheep (i.e. not a shedding sheep or a hair sheep like the rest of my herd). He rode home in happy silence and jumped out of the car to meet Freida when she came barreling out of the humpy to see what was going on. They sniffed each other and got down to the business of finding grass to eat, they have been inseparable ever since. The house he came from was a very animal friendly one and it showed in his general nature.

Look at that happy face.

Eli is polite and calm, he is as trusting as it is possible for a sheep to be and allows us to do anything with him (obviously having never been hurt). He has shown no aggressive tendencies here (probably because we have no two year old humans in the herd) and has bonded to Freida well.

He enjoys sitting in the sun, eating (anything really) and having his ears scratched. He has developed a real love of corn flakes (we give him a handful as a treat sometimes) and chaff.

Eli getting a good ear scratch

Eli is a Dorset/merino cross, which means he has wool in some inconvenient places (like his belly and legs). He has been tail docked when he was a lamb, this procedure is essential in wool breed sheep as the underside of their tails are wool covered and, after a week or two, very poop covered. We will be getting him crutched (where the belly, legs and bottom bits are shorn on a roughly six monthly basis) as soon as we can get the shearer out here.

He has given us a huge amount of freedom as he has become Freida’s company and he will give me some beautiful fleece to spin as well. He has also given us the privilege of getting to know him.

Home Biogas system – a BIG step forward (part one)

We have been trying very hard to move away from using gas to sustain our daily life. We have historically used gas for running the fridge and for cooking and heating water on the gas stove. Recently we have upgraded our gas fridge to an electric fridge (solar powered) and now we are adding a biogas unit to the mix. This means that we will no longer have to buy gas bottles (yay!!), this is the final step away from using bottled gas.

Bottled gas or LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) is produced during oil refining and given the temporary nature of our supply of oil on this planet, we need to be looking at ways to move away from our reliance on it (not to mention the huge environmental cost of using it). LPG contains propane in Australia, in other countries LPG can be a mix of propane and butane.

Biogas captures methane and carbon dioxide (methane mostly) as a result of decomposition of organic matter. That is why the discovery of methane on Mars was such an exciting thing; where there are dead things there were once live things (usually, although not always and probably not in this case). I became interested in biogas many years ago (after watching an episode of The Good Life) and decided to work towards setting it up in our humpy. The idea that we could use our waste (of all descriptions) to generate some of our energy needs was very exciting.

The idea has been sitting on a dusty shelf at the back of my mind for years. Other, more attainable, goals have been on the work table of my mind. Six months ago (approximately) I stumbled upon a post advertising a biogas system designed for home use and the idea suddenly moved to the front of my mind again.

We eventually decided to go with a Home Biogas unit from Quality Solar and Plumbing

They are the only company selling these units in Australia and they are relatively close to us (only about three hours drive way). We saved up (in tiny increments) and finally, with a windfall of back pay, we ordered the unit. We also managed to add a toilet unit to the order. As soon as this unit is set up we can start to generate our own cooking gas (although the Year three student who lives in my head can’t help making jokes about cooking with farts).

As soon as the order was placed we realised we needed a site for the future toilet/gas generation unit. Then we need a shed or some kind of building to house the toilet and a pad for the gas unit to sit on.

A gratuitous ocean shot from our long journey to Mullumbimby to pick up our biogas system.

The first part of our biogas adventure was picking it up and touring a working unit while we were there. The very helpful Brian at Quality Solar and Plumbing gave us a tour of the biogas unit he has set up at his house.

This is the working unit. It was really exciting to see one working.
You put the food scraps or animal manure into the black pipe at this end…
and gas and fertiliser come out this end. How amazing is that?
This is the stove unit that comes with the kit. There is no smell at all to the gas and this burner obviously gets a lot of use.

We have our unit home. It is sitting in it’s two little boxes, waiting for us to make it a home and set up the toilet. I can’t wait to get it going.

The two boxes in the car constitute the entire kit. I was amazed at the small size of the whole thing and how light it was to haul around. It will be much heavier once the bottom of the digester is full of water.

The kit is supposed to include everything we need to put it all together. We will see…

Washing fleece with soap nuts

I have been using soap nuts to wash our clothes for a while now. I am really happy with the results; it cleans the clothes, takes out the sweat smells without adding any other scent and removes most of the stains. I also don’t have to rinse, therefore saving 50% of the washing time and water. I wanted to transfer those benefits to washing/scouring fleece for spinning, so I went googling of course (when did ‘googling’ become a verb?). There was only one reference to using soap nuts to wash fleece (that I could find anyway); Sheep Cabana blog. The post says to use them in place of the usual squirt of detergent. Another adventure begins.

I have MANY bags of fleece to spin. I always seem to collect more than I can comfortably spin in a year, even though I promise myself I won’t get any more until I spin what I have. Recently I looked at Eli (Freida’s companion, and best friend now) and saw that he has a good long fleece, all ready for a spring shearing. He is a Merino/Dorset cross, which means his fleece is fairly strong with a good crimp, but it should be soft enough for socks and gloves.

My go-to book when learning about new fibre types.
Eli will, hopefully, have wool that is slightly on the fine/soft side of this scale, thanks to his Merino ancestry.

Spring is only three months away, and with the spring comes usable fleeces from my sheep. I am setting myself a challenge; to clear some of the fleece piled in my craft room to make room for them. Usually, I wash, card and spin small, manageable lots. This time I’m trying my hand at bulk processing; I will wash a lot of fleece, then card or comb a lot of fleece, and finally spin, ply and wash a lot of yarn.

First, the washing;

This is the brand of soap nuts I buy. I hope to grow my own one day though.
I put a cup full of soap nuts into a saucepan with about two litres of water and bring it to the boil.
The resulting liquid; after I strain off the soap nuts. I use about half a cup of this liquid to wash clothes in but I think I will use a full cup for washing wool.
This is the pile of fleece to be washed; about a kilo in total.

Scouring fleece is a matter of simply making a fairly hot bath with detergent of some kind (in this case; soap nuts) and soaking the fleece in it. I use lingerie washing bags to hold my fleece because it makes fishing the soaked fleece out so much easier and I can just hang the whole bag on the line to dry. The trick is to avoid felting the fleece; I don’t agitate it at all, just push it under the water and I try not to change the temperature of the water quickly. This fleece took two soaks in the soap nut solution to come clean (it was a very greasy fleece), but it did come clean. After it is soaked, I throw the bags into the spinner of the washing machine and spin out the excess water. The bags are then hung on the line to dry.

A close up of the dirt and lanolin in the fleece.
A close up of the fleece after washing and drying.
There is now just over a kilo of fleece sitting in my ‘to-do’ basket waiting to be carded for spinning.

The soap nut/fleece scouring experiment is a success. I can now wash piles of fleece using soap nuts and not have to feel guilty about releasing all that detergent into my environment. I would definitely recommend using soap nuts for washing clothes and/or fleece.