The Process of SkeinMinder Design

It’s been a pretty busy couple of months!  I’ve been going full speed on SkeinMinder design, whipping it into production-ready shape.  When I show the pre-production Minder to my non-engineery friends, they tend to get a glazed look in their eyes, shake their head, and think that I’ve somehow magically conjured this mysterious circuit-board-thing out of thin air.  Well, it’s not magic, though it still feels kind of magical when you email files off and get real parts in the mail.  And it’s even more magical when those parts actually work just like you expect them to.  OK, maybe there is some magic involved.  And magnets.  There are definitely magnets.

But seriously, how does one techie chick with a computer and a small home workshop (and maybe like 12 years of PCB widget manufacturing experience) pull off a serious product design?  Let’s find out!

First, I cobbled together a proof-of-concept model out of off-the-shelf-parts, jumper wires, and breadboards.  (Apparently the original electronics breadboards really were boards used for cutting bread.  Crazy, eh?)  This let me play around with the idea without spending a lot of money.  A lot of ideas seem simple at first, but when you actually try to implement them, they grow in complexity.  A proof-of-concept allows you to suss out the main technical challenges right away.  Most of the software development I’ve done, and probably the setup with the most winding hours on it, is my initial messy-looking jumble-of-wires POC model:

Not too inspiring-looking, huh?  I cobbled together an Arduino Mega2560 processor board, an LCD and some buttons on a breadboard, and I started off with a Powerswitch Tail for turning on and off AC power.  Pretty much all of these parts are plug-and-play.  I didn’t even solder anything.  After a couple months of pulling C programming out of very dusty corners of my brain, I had something that totally worked.  Yay!

You might think that at that point, the majority of the work was done.  Heh.  The real work had just begun.

Ok, so I had this thing that totally “worked” on the bench.  Too bad that I couldn’t move it from the bench for fear of the wires coming loose.  Not to mention that when I wiggled some of them, weird things would happen.  Enter Phase 2 (aka, the ??? phase).  I needed to make a prototype.  And not just one that I could move around, but one that I could give to someone else to use.  Other people will always do things you didn’t expect.  Especially in the SkeinMinder’s case – every dyer has a slightly different setup.  We have different brands of winders, different swifts, we wind different numbers of skeins at a time of different types of yarn.  It was impossible to sit on my couch and predict how all of those factors would affect the Minder’s behavior.  So I got my first prototype into the hands of a dyer friend pretty early.  I wanted to know if the assumptions I made about how the Minder would be used corresponded to the reality of how it was actually used.

Better-looking, right?  The prototype was a first shot at parts I thought I would actually use in the production unit.  The Mega2560 was totally overkill for the job, so I switched to an Arduino Pro Mini with the 328P chip.  I soldered the breadboards together, wired up buttons and connectors, and shoved everything in a generic box.  I still kept the 120VAC switching as a separate Powerswitch Tail unit, though I also started to prototype my own power-switching unit using a Sparkfun SSR kit.  I also bought a lot of experimental parts at the time.  I think I went through 8 LCD displays, at least a dozen large buttons, and probably 50 small buttons until I got the look and feel that I wanted.  While simultaneously making sure the parts were readily available and wouldn’t make the Minder too expensive.  It turns out that 90% of good engineering design is being good at shopping.

One person testing your design is great, but more is better.  I decided to form a beta group of about 5 companies, all with different winders and winding needs.  I put out a few feelers to friends and colleagues, and happily got immediate and highly interested responses.  That was incredibly inspirational and motivational.  I had been trying to decide how “real” to make the beta units.  I knew I couldn’t hand-wire 5-10 more units like I had the prototype, there was too much wiring, too much potential for mistakes or intermittent connections.  After seeing those responses, I pretty much knew my answer.

Twelve years of experience with making electronics widgets has taught me this: when you think you have everything totally designed for production and set, you generally will learn something new from those units and need one more revision.  It seemed like the right thing to do was this: make what I considered to be completely ready production units, and deliver those to the beta group.  They’d still probably need one more revision, but it was not likely to be major.  I want to have a pretty well vetted design before launching a Kickstarter campaign for the SkeinMinder.  Pre-selling a mostly new design as a production unit is really just a recipe for missed expectations and a faking-your-own-death-on-the-internet style of disaster.

Designing for production, then.  Let’s do this custom circuit board thing!  This is probably the most magical step to most people.  It’s still pretty darned cool to me too.  I mean, I basically play an advanced version of connect-the-dots for a while and generate something that looks like this:

SM Processor Snapshot

And then I upload and order it and get a rendering that looks like this:

And then the actual part comes in the mail and looks like this:

And then when it’s all soldered together, it looks like this:

And when the code is loaded and it’s up and running, it looks like this:

Ideas to reality, just like that!

While I was designing the circuit boards (there are 2 in the SkeinMinder), I was simultaneously developing the mechanical box design and layout.  There are a lot of mechanical constraints – connectors are a certain size and some are relatively fixed, the LCD is a certain height, the small buttons are a different height that need to be adjusted to correspond to LCD height, the big red button is a certain depth, the power switching parts need clearances and heat sinks, the buttons need to be far enough apart to push easily, and NEVER FORGET TO LEAVE ROOM FOR MOUNTING HOLES.  To top it off, circuit boards are generally priced by the square inch.  So the smaller you can make them, the less expensive they will be to make.  Does this sound like a bunch of conflicting requirements that requires a good deal of spacial awareness to resolve?  :)  I love it.  Hate Rubik’s cubes, love tricky circuit board layout.

When the circuit board design was done, the final mechanical enclosure design basically fell out of it.  I do have fancy circuit board software, but I don’t have fancy mechanical design software.  Plus, the box itself was an off-the-shelf part, so I really just needed to make drawings for the custom machining operations that indicated hole size, shape, and location.  It was a total pain in the ass, but I managed to browbeat my circuit board software into spitting out some 2D mechanical drawings.

SM Mech Drawings

Which the box company turned into much nicer drawings.

Polycase_snip

Which UPS has told me has turned into boxes that are shipping to me today!

Some of you might be asking yourselves “Couldn’t she have saved some money on the beta units by drilling those holes and cutouts by hand?”  Uh, actually, no.  ABS plastic is a pain in the ass to work using hand tools.  It tends to melt and spooge out of the way instead of cut nicely.  Holes turn out oblong for no apparent reason.  The centerpunch always manages to slip at the last minute, making your hole locations off so you have to drill them out.  I did manage to do one box by hand, and it’s even good enough for some very controlled beauty shots, but I wouldn’t give that ugly ducking to a paying beta tester, that’s for sure.  If I’m going to make a production unit, it’s going to look like a production unit.

Lastly (I know, right?  There’s yet another thing?!), there was the overlay design.  I originally thought about having a custom membrane switch made for the top.  They’re the style used on a lot of kitchen appliances and cheap remote controls.  They’re relatively flat plastic but have little domed buttons you press.  Well, a full-on custom membrane switch with the integrated buttons and flexible circuitry was prohibitively expensive.  Even in quantities of 100, they were still $50ish each.  Not including setup costs.  So that wasn’t gonna happen.  The next best thing (and much less expensive thing) was a custom plastic label with embossed sections, which would stick to the top of the cover and over physical button stalks that would poke up through holes in the cover.  It was mechanically more complex for me to implement because I had to coordinate button placement on the circuit board , hole cutouts in the cover, and embossed sections on the overlay.  But they’re  only about $8 in qtys of 100, have good tactile feel from the physical buttons, yet have the same professional look of a membrane switch, so they’re a much better solution.

Overlay_snip

I should also mention that the overlay is the one place where I sought external professional help.  As much as I’m good with dyes and yarn and circuit boards, I am not so good with graphic design.  I mean, I have a discriminating eye and can tell you what I like and don’t like and why, but when I put something together myself, it tends to look like it was done by an engineer.  You know?  Everything is too square and neat.  I’m fortunate to work with a terrific graphic designer (who is also a terrific knitter), Kimberly Roy, who put the finishing touches on the SkeinMinder.

Why the fancy overlay in the first place?  I mean, why not just use a sticker with some holes for the buttons?  Well, if you’ve ever done a boatload of yarn winding, you’ll know exactly why.  It’s pretty dirty business.  Dust and tiny little yarn fibers go everywhere and pile up, and I don’t want them to get into the enclosure and muck up the button works.  It’s also nice to have a clear plastic layer over the LCD, to protect it from scratches.  Plus, it also gives the enclosure a tiny bit more splash resistance for when you knock your beer over.  :)

So, yeah.  That was pretty much my July and August right there.  Everything from designing circuit boards to specifying enclosures, to designing overlays.  I can’t even tell you how rewarding it is to see it all coming together.  My poor friends are getting pictures of electronics and texts with A LOT OF CAPSLOCK AND EXCLAMATION POINTS EVERY DAY!!!!!

Are you ready for a peek?  Fortunately you can’t see my really badly hand-drilled misaligned holes though the paper overlay mock-up.  :)

Drumroll, please.  May I present….

The SkeinMinder ™

Not bad for a techie chick with a computer and a small workshop, huh?

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The Mythical Blue-Red Club is OPEN!

I’m psyched to announce the first installment of the Alpenglow Yarn Dyer’s Club!

Club Flyer, Mythical Blue Red crop highres

In a post a few months back, I talked about how I really wanted to do more explorations of natural dyes, and share those with people.  And I want to do that on a level deeper than Hey, so cochineal is red and indigo is blue and here’s how you make a red and here’s how you make a blue.  I want to explore the questions that came up when I was dyeing production batches, things like – how do I make that particular shade of red, and how do I do it repeatably?

There’s kind of a hole in the information available on natural dyeing.  For thousands of years, it was experiential lore passed down from generation to generation.  Most of it was based on observation – I did this and that happened.  Right around the time when science started to flourish, natural dyeing on a large scale pretty much ground to a halt.  Why?  Because synthetic dyes were first created.  In fact, some people date the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as the year in which William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered mauve, 1856.

Sources of dye knowledge available now generally fall into two categories – the home dyer’s reference and the organic chemistry tome.  The home dyer’s reference is usually written by a textile artist with several years experience in using natural dyes.  It generally suffices to get you started, explains basic mordanting, and gives an overview of several dye stuffs.  It’s full of general knowledge and rules of thumb.  It can also be full of erroneous jumps to conclusions and misinformation.  These books are no help when one batch turns out a different shade than another.  Or when a recipe you’ve used a hundred times is suddenly turning your yarn brown and brittle.  A lot of people will just throw their arms up and say Well, that’s natural dyeing for you.  But there are actually scientific reasons that these things happen.  So then you start digging through an organic chemistry book and realize that frosh chem was a hell of a long time ago and not all that useful.  Digging out fact-based knowledge and practices that are understandable to someone without a chemistry degree, and also relevant to hand-dyeing wool, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

It’s definitely a goal of mine to bring a more scientific context to natural dyeing in an understandable way.  And also to debunk some common misconceptions.  (I’ve been thinking about doing a post on The Great Mordant Debate for a few years now, and I think I’ll actually be writing that one soon.)  One of my goals with this club is to not only provide members with beautiful yarn, but also provide insight into the science behind the colors.  I think of my audience as both knitters and experienced natural dyers alike, and seek to provide relevant information on how to repeatably and successfully naturally dye wool a certain color.

But I’ve blabbed enough about my super deep dye motivations.  Let’s hit the juice! (as our wine appreciation teacher would say.)

First up is The Mythical Blue-Red.  This is a color I’ve managed to create once, maybe twice, but is a devil to reproduce.  It’s the color of red velvet ropes, of fancy theater curtains, of dragon scales.  The kind of red that drinks in your eyeballs and sucks the blood out of you (in Soviet Russia….color drinks you!)  I’ll focus on how to create this color out of cochineal, because it provides the most fade-resistant fast red.  I should note that this color tends to be the natural color you get out of brazilwood.  Why not just use it?  It’s not quite as lightfast.  Really, it’s totally fine for the typical life of a piece of knitwear, but I worry about someone leaving their yarn in a south-facing window in summer for too long (I’m probably overly paranoid, I know) .  I may dye one of the samples with brazilwood, just for reference.

I read everyone’s responses to my survey about the club, and noticed a definite and quite funny trend.  Anyone who was primarily a dyer wanted the option that was more colors and less yardage.  Anyone who was primarily a knitter wanted the option that was fewer colors and more yardage.  :)  So I’ve given you both, plus one more for those of you that want both colors AND yardage.

  • No Frills – $65 – for the budget-conscious who still want all the colors: Members receive 100 yd skeins of 8 colors in the Smerf base (100% superwash merino, fingering weight), dye notes, and nothing else.  Ships in a USPS first-class tyvek envelope.
  • Knitter’s – $110 – for those who want a little more yarn and don’t mind fewer colors: Members receive 200 yd skeins of 6 colors in the Springy Corrie Sport base (100% Corriedale, very springy sport weight, 100% USA made), dye notes, and a few goodies.  Ships in a USPS Priority Mail box.
  • Gimme Gimme – $140 – for those who want it all: Members receive 200 yd skeins of 8 colors in the Smerf base (100% superwash merino, fingering weight), dye notes, and a few of my favorite things.  Ships in a USPS Priority Mail box.

But what if there’s this color that you really really love and you want a full skein?  Or enough full skeins to make a sweater?  Well, after you get your club shipment, you have a month in which you can order full skeins of any of the club colors for 20% off.  How does that sound?

All members receive their choice of yarn above, complete dyer’s notes about the processes involved and what influences contributed to each color, as well as the final dye recipes for each.  I’ll also include some project ideas for using the coordinating mini-skeins.  I’ll leave the club open until it either sells out, or September 22nd rolls around.  Shipments go out October 31st, 2014.

I hope you’re as excited about this as I am!  I can’t wait to get to those dye pots!


So What’s Next? Part II (finally!)

Electronics

If you know me in real life, or if you’ve been following me on instagram, this next part won’t be a surprise because you’ve probably seen some pictures like this:


If you only know me through fiber, here’s a little background to catch you up.

I didn’t always dye yarn.  In fact, yarn is somewhat of a 90 degree turn in the great “My Life Thus Far” story.  I graduated from college in the late 90’s with a degree in engineering, and spent about 11 years designing and building autopilots for small unmanned aircraft, also called UAVs.  I worked for small companies, on fast-paced projects with small teams and limited budgets.  I learned a ton about how to design electronics and build them in the 100s to 1000s, using entirely domestic manufacturing.  It turns out that this is highly applicable to building just about any device that uses electricity.

It’s fun to see how much the maker movement is exploding right now.  There are so many great kits and parts that make getting a project going SOOOOO much easier and cheaper than it used to be.  I mean, we used to do a lot of simple quick-turn prototype boards to test out some new sensor and see how it integrated with our existing electronics, or lay the groundwork for using it in a new design.  Now you can buy a lot of that stuff from Sparkfun or Adafruit for under $10.  It’s really given me a renewed excitement about electronics, and my brain is abuzz with ideas for linking things together, and making useful gizmos that will help a dyer out.

Above is an early peek at the guts of a project I’m currently working on and hope to launch on Kickstarter later this year. This one goes out to all of you folks who are tired of babysitting your skeinwinder.  You’ve stood there for hours, watching it count up to 200, then flipping the switch to turn it off.  You’ve known that there has to be a better way, a way that won’t turn you into a brainless zombie staring at a tiny LCD, zoning out and only realizing it when it’s at 247 and then having to stop it in a panic and manually unwind 47 turns and manage a spaghetti pile of yarn that hopefully won’t get tangled and make the next skeins a nightmare, and……..yeah, we’ve all been there.  What you need is:

The SkeinMinder

The SkeinMinder ™ keeps watch for you.  It turns your winder off when it’s done winding your custom 423 yd skeins off of cones.  It turns your winder off when it’s done re-skeining from your 2 yd dye hanks into your 1.5 yd final put-ups.  It turns your winder off when there’s a giant snarl that brings everything to a screeching halt.  It minds your winder, so you’re free to get back to the dyepots.  So you can use that brain of yours to create and sell more awesome yarn.

The SkeinMinder is not an electric winder.  It’s a single control box, about the size of a….package of Trader Joe’s Authentic Feta Cheese?  Box of uncondensed soup?  1 lb bag of coffee?  Brick? – that sits on a table.  You plug it into the wall, you plug your winder into it, and you attach a very simple rotation counter and magnet.  It has one big red GO button and some smaller buttons for changing the rotation set point and other stuff.

I really want it to have a super giant red button like this one in the final version.  We’ll see if it works out.

Think you could use something like this?  Want one right now?  Please fill out this very short questionnaire, it’ll help me get an idea of your current setup and needs.

Have no earthly need for this, but know a hand-dyer or two who might?  Please help me spread the word.  Email them, share this post on whatever social media you hang out on, or do it the old fashioned way and tell them when you see them next.  Thanks, your help is very much appreciated!

At this very moment, the first handmade (with love) prototype is currently being put through its paces by my friend Sincere Sheep, because you never really find out what things suck until you give your project to someone else.  :)  Which is why Uncle Alpenglow NEEDS YOU!  I need FIVE highly motivated and communicative individuals to be early beta testers of the next version, which will be the first pre-production Minders.

What do you get?  You get to be in on the ground floor of development for an exciting new product in your industry, even before the Kickstarter campaign is public!  You get an early version that is hand-assembled, but made with production parts.  You get it at a discount, with a free swap-out for the final production model.  You get to make your needs known, and help tailor it to be the most useful yarn tool EVER.  You also get my undying (or maybe dyeing?) love and a thank-you pile of naturally dyed yarn if you’re into that sort of thing.  I’m looking for businesses with some specific needs, so please fill out the questionnaire.  Be sure to select the “Yes!  Me, please!” button.  If it looks like you’re a good fit, I’ll let you know!

If you just want to be kept in the loop about the SkeinMinder and the Kickstarter campaign when it happens, please let me know with the form below.  There will be lots of yarny goodies for the fiber person who wants to be supportive of small hand dyers, but does not need a SkeinMinder themselves.  :)  Just wanted to let you know.

I also want to let you know that this is just the beginning.  I have ideas for even simpler tools.  I have ideas for a really really REALLY really really cool drop spindle.  I have more ideas than I can shake a soldering iron at.  I can’t wait to turn them into reality.

Read the next SkeinMinder post


So What’s Next? Part I

Part I – Yarn

photo (5)

I’ve been thinking a lot about life. The universe. Everything. Towels. Towels that get you high. Towels that hitch you rides on spaceships. But I digress. I’ve mostly been thinking about what to scribble on this awesome blank page that is my life. Other than curse words and PENIS because, you know, I might still be 12.

I fired up the electronics brain again, and also fired up the dye pots and dyed a metric fuck-ton of yarn for Stitches West. So what’s up? Is it yarn? Is it engineering? For the love of Bob, what is it going to be?!?! As far as I can see it (and some days I can’t even see across my backyard), the plan is this. Yes. Yes is the plan. Doing things that I feel positive about, am excited about, doing things that I’m learning about. Because I’ve figured out that I’m kind of a learning junkie. If I’m not developing some new skill, or challenging my brain in some way, I get really bored and dissatisfied. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy some solid repetition of things that I’ve learned to do well. I do! But constant repetition with nothing new kills me. I need variety.

Take yarn. Yarn is squooshy. Yarn is colorful! We make cool, three-dimensional things that we can put on our bodies – and lo! might even be functional! – out of yarn! Yarn is great. But as I was dyeing the metric fuck-ton, I remembered what I didn’t like about yarn. I didn’t like dyeing the same colors over and over. And I found that I tended to gravitate to the same palette again and again -the colors that I knew would sell, the colors that were predictable, the colors that were easy to make, the colors that I knew I wouldn’t screw up. They’re   delightful colors – I love almost every single one of them – but I felt like I was on a treadmill. With natural dyes especially, there are so many things you can try, so many variables. Every time I dyed a batch, I would think of a dozen other questions I had, experiments I wanted to do, things I wanted to explore. What if I used a different acid? What if I used a different reducing agent? What if I used a different species of plant? What if I used more of this and less of that? But the metric fuck-ton and Stitches West wait for no dyer. No time, just makes the pretty colors that you know will turn out well. Even then, there are guaranteed to be surprises that will completely muck with your schedule.


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image_medium (1)

I also learned something else – it was super fun to share the process of how I dye with people. If you haven’t already read it, I wrote a series of posts in the Stitches West Vendors Thread about each dye I used. The preparation, the boiling, the straining, and the yarn-coloring. The response to my posts, especially in person, was amazing. Far beyond what I had even hoped for in a tiny little corner in the back of my brain. So many of you came up to me and thanked me for sharing, it was just really sweet and completely made all the effort totally worth it. Thank each and every one of you so, so much. (And to the lady who works for Facebook who was interested in putting together a class but didn’t have a business card – info at alpenglowyarn eagerly awaits your email. Dorking out with other engineers about dyeing is totally my idea of a good time.)

I want to do more of these things. More sharing, more exploration. So I’ve made the decision to stop the production dyeing, and morph into something a little different. Clubs. That’s right, CLUBS. The c-word, the thing that has made several people fake their own death on the internet because it was just too much. Clubs. The cool thing is that I’ll have the opportunity to do a different exploration and theme with each one. To maximize the number of colors without making it stupidly expensive, each club would be a series of mini-skeins. So you would get 100 yds of 8 or 12 different colors that would all work together. You’d also get an article with each one, with a detailed account of how each color was made. Maybe sometimes, you’d even get mordanted yarn and some raw dyestuffs so you can try it at home. Sound like fun? Let’s see, which one of these should I do first? Tell me at the end of this post!

  • The Mythical Blue-Red. I managed to create it once and I’ve been trying to do it again for years, ever since it immediately sold out and people were pissed that I didn’t have the same exact red that the display shawl was knit out of. Seriously, I had to take the shawl down because it was causing too much trouble!
  • Madder Red. Related to the above, but different. What is the reddest shade I can coax out of madder, without making the wool harsh? Can I use chalk at all? How about no acid in the mordant bath? How about rubia tinctoria vs rubia cordifolia? Whole roots vs finely ground? Keeping the extraction bath under 160F or boiling the crap out of it?
  • Shades of Blue. How does indigo tinctoria differ from indigo suffruticosa? Does using thiox vs hydros affect the color? What’s the difference between 1-minute dips and 5-minute dips? What’s the difference between 1 dip and 10 dips? The list goes on, I could probably do several clubs with just indigo.
  • Backyard Sunshine. Yellows are the most prevalent natural dye and the easiest to grow. Weld, French marigold, Mexican marigold, chamomile, coreopsis, dyer’s broom, goldenrod. I’ve grown a bunch of this already, it’s just waiting in a dry bin for me to get around to playing with.
  • All Those Other Random Dyes I Have that I Haven’t Gotten Around to Trying. With lightfast tests. This is usually the piece missing from a lot of dye books. Some have this real boner for “dyes” that are hardly more than stains, that fade to brown and grey in under a year or with a few washes. Let’s look at some of these, and put them through their paces. Maybe I should do a half-price one called “Fugitive”, where the entire point is to use dyes that won’t last. Whoa. That would be crazy. Who would buy that?

Anyway, these are the ideas that fly off the keyboard in just a few minutes. I have tons more. You could spend your entire life experimenting with and coming up with processes for natural dyeing. People do!  I could. The fact is, I’m not exactly going to. I’m thinking of only doing 2-3 Alpenglow clubs per year, and 2-3 collaboration clubs with other dyers or businesses. Wait a minute, do you know about Among Friends? It’s an amazing group that I’m thrilled to have recently contributed to (and hope to again!). It’s run by the fantastic women behind Knitted Wit, Sincere Sheep, and Spark!, and the whole idea is to put together themed kits from a few different dyers and designers each time. With awesome, really cool, side-goodies. Go sign up for one now. I promise you will not regret it!

Where was I? Right. Spending less time on yarn. And more time on??? Electronics, duh! I think I’ve already rambled enough for one post, electronics is a whole ‘nuther topic worthy of its own post. And I totally promise that I will not be George RR Martin and make you wait for 5 years for Part II. (TV series coming soon! Now with EVEN MORE BOOBS!)


Where the hell have you been?

Seriously, WTF?

Stitch marker commentary provided by Knitifacts

Honestly, the first thing that popped into my mind for this post title was “Back in the Dye Life Again”. But then I realized I would be quoting Steve Winwood and I am way too freakin’ young to be that much of a fogey. So instead I went with profanity, that and beer are always a good choice!

But we have a question at hand – where in the hell have I been? It’s been almost 2 years since I updated this blog, DOH! Well, I really have no excuse for the first half of 2012. I dyed a lot of yarn, did a lot of shows in California, and was just generally pretty busy with yarn. Until the summer, when a friend called and I decided to change my entire life all at once. The short version is that he asked me, “Hey, wanna join my startup?” and I said “Hmmm….OK!”

That really is quite the oversimplification, though. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I really, really, REALLY loved living in San Luis Obispo. It was the first place I felt I had a community and a home. It was small enough to make me feel like I knew everyone, but big enough to be interesting. And there were hills without houses that you could see from everywhere around town. And the weather was nice. And the rent was cheap. (Though I didn’t appreciate that until I moved to Mountain View! Holy Shitballs is rent expensive in the Bay!) Anyway, I was Happy. I wasn’t making any money (newsflash: it’s incredibly hard to make dyeing yarn pay the bills, much less pay for anything else), but I loved my life. Honestly and truly.

And then this asshole from college calls me up and has to ruin everything. :) I kid, but that’s a little how I felt. A smidge angry at having to make a really hard decision. Risk my happy life to do something new and uncertain, or risk staying where I was and bypassing a unique opportunity that had the potential to be awesome. What it came down to was one simple thing: if I said no, I would always wonder. And that I just couldn’t handle. I knew I would always ask myself “What if…?”

It’s true that we fear change. I feared it a lot. But fearing something kind of makes me angry. It kind of makes me committed to overcoming that fear. So I said fuck that, I’m lookin’ you straight in the eye, Change. Come and get me.

And ohhhhhhh, it did with a vengeance. New job, new location, and new boyfriend all within a month. It was crazy, really really crazy. Crazy fun, crazy exciting, crazy exhilarating! Crazy exhausting too. I don’t even know where the rest of 2012 went, I blinked and it was 2013. Actually, I pretty much blinked and it was summer. Work consumed every ounce of energy I had. I became a hermit, I didn’t visit with new Bay Area friends, I hardly kept in touch with old SLO friends, I didn’t make any new friends. I’m pretty introverted at my core, and at the end of every day, I had no energy for interacting with people. I barely had energy to make a pizza or a salad, and sit in front of the TV and watch something really really stupid that didn’t take any brain power (oh CSI, thank you for a year of brain-dead zoning out).

I found that I missed making stuff. This was the first job that was 100% management, where I never created anything physical. Well, it turns out that I have no sense of accomplishment or fulfillment when I’m not either: A) making a physical thing, or B) making a physical thing go. I also found that I really like driving the bus. I’ve always worked in small companies, and the great thing about small companies is that you have a bigger impact on projects and the company itself. But after 3 years of being my own boss and having my own (albeit one-person) company….well let’s just say that I like being the boss. I like making the decision of what direction to move in, I like doing what I think is right.

The other thing I really missed was lifestyle. Working for myself, I could go grocery shopping in the middle of day when the stores were quiet, and then work until 9pm at night. I had almost completely merged life and work. I had no concept of weekend and weekday anymore, I did personal stuff and business stuff all day every day. I know that’s probably not for everyone, but it totally worked for me. I rarely got burnt out, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like personal tasks were these awful chores that took away from my preciously hoarded free time. (Well, except for laundry. Laundry is always a chore.) When I went back to a “normal” workday, I hated it. I also missed SLO something fierce. The Bay is big and busy, and doesn’t fit me well.

After a year, it simply became time to move on. I needed personal fulfillment again. I needed to do technical work BADLY, I felt my brain was rotting from pushing Google documents around and going to meetings all day. There was a good stopping point for my job in late September, just after we delivered the first new unit to a paying customer, and the next phase would be mostly planning. So, I stopped. And promptly moved in with my boyfriend, because after the previous year, one huge change just wasn’t enough. ;)

So here I am! I’m in Redwood City now, even though my website still says that I’m in San Luis Obispo. I haven’t really had the time – no – I haven’t really had the heart to change it. And it doesn’t lie – all that yarn was absolutely dyed in San Luis Obispo. I haven’t dyed a single thing since moving up here over a year ago. LAME!

But that’s all going to change, right about now. The house we’re in has a huge backyard with a gazebo which just screams DYE YARN UNDER ME NAO! I just finished an inventory of my dye shop (OK, so it’s currently a storage unit) and I have a fair amount of undyed yarn and natural dyes. So my current mission is Wrap-Up and Re-Evaluate. Stay tuned for more relevant info about that mission. I swear, I SOLEMNLY SWEAR I WILL WRITE IN MY BLOG REGULARLY.

I know what you’re wondering. Gee, it sounds like you weren’t real happy, do you regret your decision? I can honestly say NO. No, I don’t regret my decision one bit. What I would have regretted until my dying (no “e” for once) breath, was never having tried.


A Day in the Life of Big Fat Alpaca

Psst…want a behind the scenes look at how yarn is made at a mini-mill? Come on, follow me! Mette of Ranch of the Oaks was kind enough to take many of these pictures during several steps of the process.

First, the fiber is washed in a special non-agitating machine, then set on a mesh rack to dry. I don’t have any pictures of this because it would be rather like….watching fiber dry.

The first fun step is going through the picker. This machine picks apart the fibers, opens up the locks, and fluffs it up. Locks go in, fluff comes out!

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Conditioning oil is then sprayed on the fiber – I know, weird right? You just washed it and now you’re spraying oil on it? This helps keep the static down, and keeps the fiber from sticking to the machines during the rest of the process. Then chunks of fiber (see how much fluffier they are?) are sent to the fiber separator.

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This machine gets out more vegetable matter – oh how those alpacas love to roll and get dirty! – as well as shorts and second-cuts for shearing. It can also be used to dehair and separate downy undercoats from coarser outer coats of other fleeces such as pygora, but requires many passes. Typically, a run will go through the fiber separator twice. Unless you’ve bought fleece that is riddled with vm…ask me how I know! I’m much pickier about my alpaca fleece nowadays. It wasn’t easy, but I now have the willpower to refuse the softest fleece if it’s chock full of hay and stickers. :) Anyway, this is the waterfall of fiber that comes out of the fiber separator.

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The next step is the carder, these are pix I took from a different alpaca run. The carder brushes the fiber and funnels it into a strip of roving. Consistency is important at this step – the more consistent the roving produced, the more consistent the finished yarn will be. The carder operates at a constant rate, so the thickness of the roving at the output is completely dependent upon how much fiber you feed into it. You’ll notice the blue stripes on the conveyor – these are marked so the operator can spread out a consistent weight of fiber between each stripe. To make roving for a bulky yarn, 3 oz of fiber might be laid down at a time. For a lace yarn, 1 oz of fiber might be laid down.

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The carder consists of one large central drum, surrounded by 6 pairs of carding rollers. The large central drum really just conveys the fiber from roller pair to roller pair – the pair do the actual carding. You might think that the carders align the fibers, but they don’t. They really just separate them and create a consistenty fluffy sheet. The fiber orientation is still pretty random in this sheet – meaning some are parallel, some are perpendicular, and many are at all sorts of angles and orientations in between. Here’s the roving coming out of the carder:

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Do you see where I’m going with this? Because the fibers aren’t aligned, lots of air is trapped in the roving. This is considered a woolen preparation. Most yarn that is mass produced, that you buy in your local yarn store, is spun from a worsted preparation. It goes through a commercial combing process – different machines with different actions prepare the fiber so that each one is parallel to the next, any fibers of inconsistent length are removed, and the resultant top (not roving! Roving = carded prep!) also goes through a straightening and steaming process during which much of the crimp is flattened out. This type of prep is done so that the spinning is as consistent as possible, and it makes a very compact and durable yarn.

Are you starting to see some of the differences? Neither is right or wrong or good or bad, they’re just different! There are many different ways to make yarn, and it’s great to explore them all! If that’s even possible, but I’m working on it. :) Anyway, yarn made from a woolen prep (that’s the carding process that I’ve photographed above) is going to be lofty, airy, but is going to be a little more variable in texture and thickness. It’s also going to retain a lot of the characteristics of the original fiber – since the roving isn’t straightened or steamed before it’s spun, the resulting yarn is pretty lively. Yarn made on a large scale from a worsted prep (the combing & the steaming) is very consistent, and tends to be more compact.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Or are you salivating and considering buying a spinning wheel so that you can experience all of this fiber wonderfulness for yourself? Enabler, me? Never. Anyway, MORE PICTURES!

A hand-spinner could take roving straight from the carder and spin it forever in eternal bliss. But unfortunately, machines aren’t as good as a hand-spinner. Your hands will automatically adjust if the roving is slightly thicker or thinner, and will create a pretty consistent yarn no matter what. A machine can’t tell the difference, so we have to feed it the most consistent roving we can. One way of making roving more consistent is combining it with another strand of roving – the thick and thin spots of one tend to even out the thin and thick spots of the other, and the result is more even. It’s combined at the draw frame – each roving is drafted a little separately, fed together, then drafted a little more together. Below you can see 2 sets of 2 strands of roving going into the drawframe.

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Here (different run) you can see the 2 sets coming out of the drawframe as single rovings.

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Now, since we’re further aligning the fibers in this step, we start to leave the realm of a fully woolen preparation. The fiber orientation is still quite random, but not as random as it was before. I don’t think that it’s wrong to still call it a woolen prep, as it’s just a smidge off (and there’s endless debate over the precise definition of these words – some feel that the only true woolen prep is a hand-carded rolag). But you can call it a semi-woolen prep if you like. Clear as mud, right?

And finally, the spinner! These pics are from a day that Mette was spinning quite a large batch – all 8 spinning heads were going at once. From the back, roving goes in:

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And at the front, yarn comes out!

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For my Big Fat Alpaca run, she only had 2 spindles going at once:

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Now, to further blur lines between woolen and worsted, this yarn is essentially spun short-draw – there is no twist in the zone between the drafting rollers. So a woolen prep, spun with a worsted technique….semi-worsted yarn! No, semi-woolen! No, woolsted! No, worsten! I have an idea – LET’S JUST CALL IT AWESOME.

Now, we have bobbins of freshly spun singles. Let’s ply! The two singles are twisted together in the opposite direction at another machine, which only plies.

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A close-up of the actual business:

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The result:

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And steaming! Which I had to take a quick video of to show you the whole shebang.  This evens out and relaxes excess twist energy.

Leaving you with….ta-da! A cone of beautiful yarn.

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You might think we’re done there. Well, Mette is, but I’m not. I then take the cone of yarn, wind it into skeins, tie it up tidily, and wash it. Why wash it? The cone is wound under tension, so the yarn will be a little stretched out when first skeined. Washing it relieves that tension, and makes is sproing back up again. Plus, remember when we added conditioning oil in one of the first steps? That’s still in the yarn. The yarn is also a little dirty – even though the first step was washing the fleece, the fiber has been picked, separated, carded, and fluffed many times, all which helps loosen up dirt that was initially trapped in those locks.

So I wash, dry, hang in the sunshine, label, and presto!

Yarn, ready for whatever you have in mind.


I should be…

  • Taking photos of yarn
  • Updating my website
  • Endlessly tweaking my website to make it better
  • Updating my yarns on Rav
  • Updating my projects on Rav
  • Figuring out sales tax for last quarter
  • Sending out a freakin’ newsletter since it’s been…what? Yeah, you probably didn’t know I even have a newsletter. Me neither.
  • What I am doing:

  • About to graft together the hood on my Vivian
  • Watching interviews with Lady Gaga on the internet.
  • Vivian Hood (Medium)

    Hey, don’t judge me on that last one – I blame my fitness teacher Michele for getting “Bad Romance” massively earwormed into my brain yesterday while doing a bazillion squats. Actually, to be totally honest, I think Lady Gaga is pretty damned talented. And I do like her Honeybadger doesn’t give a shit attitude.

    That said – GRUNGE 4EVER!!! I’m going to see the Foo Fighters tomorrow at the Forum in LA and couldn’t be more excited about it. I’ve been listening to their new album and watching videos on YouTube for a few days now. They are so goofy and awesome, I love you, Dave Grohl. LOVE YOU.

    Anywhoo – knitting, what? Well, since the weather started to turn chilly (until a heatwave decided to roll through – supposed to be 96 today, WTF?), I took my Vivian out of hibernation. (Which is being knit out of the blue yarn pictured in the blog header.) I set it aside for a few months since A) It was too darned warm to contemplate serious wool sweater knitting, and B) Once I completed the shoulders, I felt the waist was too high. So I busted it out again, tried it on again, took it to a few of my knitting groups, and got some opinions. All of which were along the lines of: “It looks great, WTF are you talking about?” And now that’s it’s sat for a while, it looks less short to me too. And it feels pretty nice when I have it on. So I decided to stop being such a stupidly picky perfectionist and just finish the damned thing already. I knit the remaining few rows of the hood last night, and now all I have to do is graft it together and install the zipper. Those are 2 huge things – the grafting is in cables & seed stitch, and I’ve never put in a zipper before – but I’m gonna power through them. Maybe even be done by the end of this weekend!

    There was another impetus for me to pick up the sweater again, which was reading Yarnagogo’s book A Life in Stitches. I was recently up in Oregon for OFFF, and hung out for a few days after to visit some friends. One of them told me that I had to go to Powell’s Books, and boy, was she right. It’s giant, a full city block, and it has its own map and information desks sprinkled throughout. I walked in, and was looking up with big wide eyes at the sign with all the subjects and their locations, when a nice voice asked, “Can I help you find something?” I turned around to the woman at the information desk and said, “Um, I don’t know. It’s my first time here. Maybe textiles?” She pulled out a map and gave me the quick overview, pointed out the textiles section (just through sci-fi, perfect!), and I noticed she had a knitting book in front of her. I excitedly asked, “Do you knit?” At which point she actually looked a little embarrassed and said, “Yeah, I knit.” I gave her a smile and said, “Me too, I actually have a business hand-dyeing yarn.” But she still looked a little uncomfortable, which seemed odd and made me uncomfortable, and so I didn’t bust out a business card and instead headed towards sci-fi and the coffee shop.

    Far from being giant and overwhelming with largeness and fluorescent lighting, like you might expect for a giant bookstore that takes up an entire city block, Powell’s is cozy and intimate. There are several floors and rooms, each one having a different subject. So I wandered through the sci-fi room and felt like I was in my own little geeky heaven. I went to the textiles section and found some awesome old books and pamphlets on natural dyeing. The other great thing about Powell’s is that used books are mixed right in with new ones, so all available knowledge on a subject is in ONE place. Brilliant!

    Anyway, I was wandering around with a 10-mile stare (have you ever seen people at the Stitches West Marketplace for the first time? Kind of like that!), just reveling in the fact that I was in a giant repository of human knowledge on just about every subject imaginable. And then, as I was scanning through the spinning books, I saw Abby’s Respect the Spindle. And I thought “Man, how cool is that. Someone I know has added to this great repository, has made a meaningful contribution to the sum total of human knowledge, and other people can come here and read and learn from her.” It almost made me want to buy the book again. And then I saw the latest issue of Spin-Off and thought about Jacey and her new book coming out. And then I thought “Hey! I haven’t read Rachael’s latest book!” Yes! Something I can buy from a person that I know! But wait – would that be in autobiographies or knitting or ??? So I went to the nearest info desk and the clerk looked it up for me. “I like the title,” he said. Yeah, me too. He directed me back to knitting, scan, scan, scan, scan – there! And I picked up a shiny new book, written by someone I’ve actually met and hung out with, and took it to the checkout counter with a silly grin on my face.

    It’s hard to articulate why that was such a neat experience. First, there was Powell’s. Instead of being some giant warehouse where everything looked the same, I instantly felt at home and like this huge place was my bookstore. Then I had the personal connection of knowing a few authors, which made purchasing something truly enjoyable. I was happy to be giving my money to a cool place, and know that a person I cared about was going to benefit from my small action. And at the same time, it was like a big FU in the face of giant chains and corporate branding and the growing homogeneity of our culture. My experience was actually personally relevant, suck on that Borders and Barnes & Noble! And there was also a smaller, and perhaps futile FU to the concept that books are obsolete. I’m a big technology whore, and I love that Kindles and iPads and tablet computers exist, but there’s nothing like browsing through an actual store and holding a physical book in your hands. Smelling the (probably toxic) page fumes. It’s just magical.

    Ahem. Where the hell was I? Inspired to knit sweaters, right! Well, in Rachel’s book, she talks about what was happening in her life at the time she was knitting certain things, and how those are intertwined. What I got out of all this was Damn, that girl has knit a lot of sweaters. Sweater knitting apparently is not a big deal for her. And then this giant lightbulb went off and I thought, “Shit, sweater knitting doesn’t have to be a big deal for me either. I’m the one who makes it a big deal just by thinking it’s a big deal, and you know what? I can control my own damned thoughts!!!

    So you heard it here first, folks. Sweater knitting – no big deal. I have a crapton of yarn, I know how to freakin’ knit, all I have to do is do it. So I’ve actually been using Ravelry to – gasp! – look up patterns lately, instead of drama. :) After all, Winter Is Coming.


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