Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cheaper is not always better...

In these times of economic difficulties and uncertainty we are all trying to do everything we can to pinch pennies, save money, spend wiser, and stretch dollars farther (or is it further?). I digress-go figure.

There are, however, situations when that which costs less really costs more in the long run.

I have two situations in mind.

The first is when you shop at any of the "big box" type stores when there are small, local, momandpop equivalents available AND the item in question is NOT an absolute necessity. I have phrased it that way (with both stipulations) because when money is non-existant and your child needs some necessary piece of clothing or you need to put food on the table I am not suggesting you should patronize the local up-scale childrens boutique or the local gourmet shop. I don't have much in terms of common sense but I have enough to know that would be ridiculous.  When the item being shopped for is NOT a necessity AND there is a local alternative then I believe it is that local merchant that we should support.  When the "luxury" you are craving is something as simple as a bag of chips or a cupcake, visit the little corner store or the upscale bakery (especially the upscale bakery!!) There are local book sellers, markets, gift shops, all kinds of wonderful places.

I know time is as tight as money these days. And, why pay more for the same item if you don't have to? Well, for one thing, the change of scenery will probably do you some good.  It is far too easy to get stuck in a rut.  Go someplace new. Meet new people.  The service at a small local shop is almost guaranteed to be better.  The local shop keepers value your business in ways the huge stores never will and can't even fathom.  If you are looking for something special just ask the owner.  Try that at the local mega-mart. If you don't know where the local shops are--find out. You never know what other great "finds" you will find once you start looking. When you spend your money in these local shops much more of it stays in your community benefitting you, your neighbors, and the community as a whole rather than just benefitting greedy corporate america.

I understand that the same item at one of these smaller stores will most likely cost more (the shop owners have to pay themselves and their workers living (not minimum) wages AND offer health care at exorbitant rates. But we are talking about non-neccessities here.  So, save your money. If it takes a couple extra days before you get to reward yourself the reward will be a little sweeter.  Besides, the couple of extra days will give you the time you need to find that little cafe.  Or the local chocolatier.  Or the independent book seller. Or your LYS (local yarn shop for the non-knitters out there).

A few short months ago I had only one LYS that I frequented and I only knew of three others. I am now aware of six, have visited four at least once, and regularly frequent two.  You never know what is out there until you start looking. Or, ask your family and friends for recommendations.

The second situation where cheaper is not always better is a fiber related one.  A few weeks ago, National Alpacca Farm day to be exact, I bought a whole, unprocessed alpacca cria fleece.  When I did this, I committed several fiber related sins.

We went to two farms on the day in question.  At the first farm I saw a raw fleece.  The staple length was a gorgeous 4-6 inches.  With just my fingers I drafted and spun a few fibers. It was beyond incredible!  At the second farm the owners have a cute little shop with a number of finished garments, a small collection of alpacca and alpacca blend yarns, and a big assortment of alpacca and alpacca blend fibers from their own animals for sale.  Unprocessed alpacca fiber is much easier to deal with than unprocessed wool because you don't have to wash it before you spin it.  Alpacca does not have the greasy lanolin that makes sheep's wool so dirty.  In fact, for competitions the breeders are not allowed to wash the animals.  That is how clean they are.

This fleece caught my attention.  It is black with a dark red-brown at the tips from the sun. It was less expensive because it was unprocessed.  And, it was on SALE!! The processed rowing ranged from $4/ounce to $8/ounce depending on quality, color, and blend.  The unprocessed fleece was normally $3/ounce and was on sale for $1.50/ounce! The catch was that I had to take the whole fleece (26 oz. $39). So, for the same money I could get 26 oz of unprocessed fleece (understanding that a little of that weight is vegetable matter so my net fiber is probably I'm the range of 20-24 oz).  For the same money I could get 4.75-9.75 oz of processed roving.  So, we're talking anywhere from 2 to almost 5 times the fiber for the same price!! There was no question.  I was in love. The color is exquisite. Of course I forgot that knitting with really dark yarn is a Bitch! I also forgot one other teensy, weensy, little thing.  I neglected to check the staple length.

This fleece it turns out is this particular cria's first fleece.  A cria is the name for a baby alpacca.  I'm guessing this was a baby born in the fall. Alpaccas (like sheep) are shorn once a year-usually in the spring.  So, while this is baby alpacca (even softer than regular alpacca which is saying something) the staple length is at best two inches.  At worst maybe an inch. Ouch! Hindsight may be 20/20 but it also can hurt like a mother.

I started out trying to spin it as is much the same way I had been able to with the fiber I played with at that first farm.  Yeah, not so much. I only use a drop spindle (I dream of a wheel of my own but I've never even tried one and wouldn't know where to begin) and even as drop spinners go I am at best an advanced beginner (I did manage to make a respectable 3-ply sock yarn of 15 WPI from a Blue Moon Fibers kit). So, while I have learned how to make a very fine (25+ WPI) single for lace or socks with a fair amount of consistency, I have very little experience with a range of fibers, two dog slicker brushes for make shift hand carders, and no experience making a consistent thicker yarn or using a very short staple.

So, this morning I got out the dog brushes. For the record, I bought these specifically for this purpose-they were never used on actual dogs.  This beautiful dog of a fleece is a different story. I made six little mini-rolags and started to spin it with my "baby" spindle (it only weighs half an ounce). I'm trying to make the singles a little thicker than I usually would. 

I got the fibers unclumped and layered a bit better than what they were before.

At this point I am thinking I will andean ply it.  Another thought is to blend it with another roving. Is that an option given the "tools" I am using? Do I try to card them together? Will I ruin the other roving in the process? Or, do I continue carding this stuff (it seems to be helping) and just blend them as I spin them?

I'm usually pretty good at figuring fiber things out. And, while it may take a while (and some good resource materials) I have confidence that I will get there eventually. I'm just hoping that with so many amazing spinning talents out there one of you will take pity on me and my blinded by the sale sign purchase and offer up some advice on how best to proceed.

Of course, if all else fails I do have at least four other spinning projects started that do not have fiber issues...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Got Gauge?

My thoughts on gauge are a lot like my thoughts on patterns. I sort of do my own thing and go with the flow.

My approach to swatching has changed.

When I first started knitting I was in such a hurry to get going that I would just do a 'quick & dirty' swatch to find out the number of stitches per inch in stockinette stitch.  I would look at the yarn label, cast on the number of stitches that "should" make 6 inches, knit 4-5 rows in garter stitch and then 4-5 rows in stockinette, then measure.  If I liked the way it looks and liked the way it felt while I was making the stitches then I would rip it out and away we would go.

I still do that every once in a while.  I've learned some patience and mellowed a bit but I'm not gonna lie to you. I still do a 'Q&D' every once in a while. For the most part though, I have learned to enjoy swatching for swatching's sake.

Because I rarely use someone else's pattern I am free to chose my yarns based solely on what I like.  I base my choices on what speaks to me at the time. I may have a specific color or fiber or yarn weight in mind. Or not.  What's on sale that day also plays a part in my choices (now more than ever).

Most recently, I have had this little jacket in mind.  It is cropped.  It is asymmetrical (in shape and stitch pattern).  It is fitted.  It is for spring.  It has 3/4 length sleeves.  It has a gauge of 4-6 stitches per inch in stockinette. On a size 5-7 needle.  It is 'electric' blue. It has good stitch definition.

When I started looking for the yarn that this sweater-in-my-mind is made out of I ran into some problems.  The first yarn I found that seemed to fit the bill was Noro. I forget which ones because I love them all and enjoy mixing them.  That was the problem.  I made two of my last three sweaters out of Noro (Kuryon & Silk Garden Sock Yarn). I know I will making more sweaters out of Noro's lovely yarns just not this one.  When I finally tore myself away from the Noro goodness I had a really hard time finding anything. All the amazing blue yarns that were the right color were too heavy. So I kept reminding myself to "Think Spring". Think Spring, think Spring, think Spring. And as I walked around the Yarn Basket I saw a basket of this:

(imagine picture of cozy, pastelly, yarn.  I will photograph soon.  I promiss.  When the light is good.  But I wanted to get this post up in the meantime. )

Great Adirondak's 100% Alpacca in soft sweet pastels.

It was love at first sight.  So, the little jacket I am knitting now is going to fall short of the S.I.M.M. because it is NOT that magical color of blue, and it will not have the tailored look I wanted.  That's okay.  As I knit it I am thinking that I will add a little bit of ruffle detail to accentuate it's soft, feminine feel.

Meanwhile, I didn't give up on finding THE yarn that is going to make THAT jacket.  I looked around Kathy's stash-for-sale at Colonial Yarn and found IT. The only problem (although it is not really a problem more of a misconception on my part) is that it is cotton.  With cotton in hand I searched the shop again. No luck. I never imagined that a cotton (not my favorite fiber) would be the answer but it is.

So, I bought 8 skeins of that perfect blue and 2 skeins of a darker almost navy blue for trim accent.  When I got home I started swatching.

(Insert picture of swatch.  No, not the picture from the phone.  A better picture.  Take it when you get off your ass to take the picture above.)

Swatching for stitch patterns (and gauge) is one of my favorite things now.  The goal of this kind of swatching is to decide on a needle size, get the gauge measurements, and most importantly play.  In playing I find out what kinds of stitches and stitch patterns look best with the chosen yarn.  Since the goal is to play and then choose a favorite or favorites I don't feel the sense of impatience to 'finish'.  In this case, I swatched a whole skein (only 70+ yards) to get an idea of the coverage I am going to get from each skein.

(While you are at it, take a couple of pictures of the Got Gauge Sweater and put them here so people can understand what you are talking about when you blather on about the mathematical relationships between the multiple gauges, blah, blah, blah.)

My last Noro sweater taught me that gauge can be your friend, and that playing with gauge can be fun and effective.  For this sweater,whose name incidentally is the same as this post title, I wanted to do something different with sock yarn.  I experimented with different needle sizes.  The first size I tried was a US 2.  I got a gauge of 6 stitches per inch.  Then I went up to a US 9 and got 4.5 stitches per inch.  Lastly I tried a US 13 and got 3 stitches per inch.  I had made notations of the three needle sizes and the three gauge numbers.  As I was trying to decide which swatch's stitches I liked best I looked at the numbers and realized there was a mathematical relationship between them that made sense to me.  So, I made a sweater whose main gauge is 4.5. The lower half and sleeves have a very lacy and flowy feel in a  gauge of 3. The finished edges are closely knit and ruffly and the sleeve seems are very finely knit in a gauge of 6.  Because the numbers are mathematically related the increases and decreases were simple.  So, in this case, gauge was my friend and co-designer. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Questions about the fiber industry

The preceding post was written on Sunday, Sept 28th but due to technical issues (operator error) was not published until today:

First of all the heading of this post...should it really be questions about fiber industries (plural)? My questions are about spinning, dying, knitting, AND designing. Where does one industry stop and another one start? Many of my questions are also about the publishing end of it all and as such involve a whole different beast.

Secondly, how does one such as myself contact the appropriete people to get the answers? Are the people who are kind enough to give answers the people WITH the answers? Does that even make sense to anyone besides myelf?

With those pre-questions asked, here goes.  This is an open letter to all of those individuals involved in the many aspects of the varies industries/activities/hobbys that I find myself chasing after down the rabbithole (I think the white rabbit was an angora). Whether you do these things from your home for pleasure only or as a professional as your only source of income I welcome any and all advice.  And thank you in advance.  You can either leave a comment here, or e-mail me .

Deep breath, here goes...

To whom it may concern;

I am a novice in all things fiber related.  I never cared for fashion. I didn't know there were "Knitting magazines" or this vibrant fiber community.  I had never heard of or seen a drop spindle. That all changed in 2005 when I found after learning to knit that "I GOT it". I am talking about the great and amazing, religious-like awakening of the soul when you realize your life's calling. Now I just need to find out how to make a living doing these amazing things.  Here are my questions in no particular order:

1.  For independant dyers: how or what kinds of records do you keep to dupicate a colorway? Do they include photos? How many skeins do you dye at a time?  My dying experience has always been a series of happy accidents.  I tend to prefer painting the skeins.  Do I keep track of the ml of dye used?  How do you keep your sense of serendipity and your sanity?

2. How do you find wholesale companies to get 'blank' yarn from? Do you use one company for the various yarns or do you work with multiple companies?

3.  For spinners/dyers: Do you sometimes just spin solid color or white yarn and THEN dye it or do you usually spin multicolor top or roving?

4.  How does one get 'test knitters'?

5.  Designers: If a garment is made with 'standard' construction do you just design on paper and give to test knitters or do you knit it yourself first and use the test knitters as a double check?

6.  Selling designs: mainstream magazines vs. Knitty online vs. Ravelry vs. Your own web site or blog which is best and why? Which is easiest? Which pays the biggest dividend for the long run (i.e. name recognition vs financial)?

7.  Coding technicalities: help! How does one integrate photos, charts, schematics, and regular documents together in to one PDF thingie? Then how does one 'host' this PDF thingie and offer it for sale using PayPal?

8. If you want people to notice and use your work BUT you also know you want to put togther a book AND you need to make money at this; how much do you put 'out there' and how much do you 'keep in reserve'?

9. What is the typical pay for a design from the major publications (VK, IK etc.)? Do they look at stuff from rookies such as myself?

I think that is it for now. For some of the above questions I have sort of answered them for myself but I would still like to hear what people have to say. Question #7 is a big hang-up for me in part because our PC is about seven years old and having issues. We are looking into buying a laptop but that is a whole other series of questions.

Gotta run.  Today is National Alpaca Farm Day so we're off to see and pet some Alpacas.

PS. One of the sweaters I am working on now is 100% Alpaca (dreamy soft).