Category Archives: Geekery

The SkeinMinder is on Kickstarter!

SkeinMinder Postcard Kickstarter_Page_1

I’m pretty excited to finally be able to write that and tell you all about it!  Well, mostly.  I have to admit, I’ve done more writing in the past couple of months than I think I have in the past 5 years combined.  I wrote personal emails to many many dyers, wrote a new SkeinMinder website, wrote the entire Kickstarter campaign, wrote a bunch about it in my Ravelry Group, and now writing more here!  It’s a good thing I like to write.

In any case, I don’t want this blog post to just repeat what you can already find on the website or Kickstarter campaign.  I’ve kept my blog a little more personal, a little more behind-the-scenes, a little more of a direct pipe from my brain to your eyeballs.  So I’ll keep the pitch short – the SkeinMinder is a tool for indie dyers.  It automates their existing motorized skein winders.  You can plug in your winder, set it to a number of rotations, and the SkeinMinder will keep track of them, and automatically stop your winder for you.  It may not sound like much to knitters, but for dyers with table-top winders, it’s revolutionary.  You can read more about life with and without a SkeinMinder on the campaign page.

When I say that the SkeinMinder is the best project I’ve done, I really do mean it.  Sure, I’ve worked on way flashier cutting-edge tech projects that were pushing the limits of what you could do with off-the-shelf electronics.  The work was fun, and I love an impossible challenge.  The SkeinMinder is comparatively simple from an electronics standpoint, but it has an element of personal connection that is rarely present in a pure tech project.  What I mean by this is that I’m actually improving people’s lives.  I realize I’m not feeding starving children or curing cancer or anything, but I’m making a huge impact on people that kind of mean a lot to me – indie dyers.

There aren’t many businesses who cater to the needs of indie dyers.  We’re a very small niche, we pop up and disappear all the time, and we tend to run our businesses without a lot of spare cash.  Newsflash, right?  Dyeing yarn is a lot of hard work for very little pay.  Lots of personal satisfaction, sure, but not a lot of dollars.  So who would actually try to make tools and sell them to this market?  You’d be marketing to a group of people that don’t really function as an industry, don’t have an official organization or network, have a high turnover rate, and are struggling to be profitable.  Pretty much only another person with a passion for dyeing would attempt this. To anyone else, it’s just a losing proposition.

You can see this with the main tool that indie dyers use – skein winders.  They’re all made by other dyers, or the spouses of dyers.  They’re expensive because they’re made in small quantities – one, five, or maybe 10 at a time if business is screaming.  The SkeinMinder faces the same challenge, but even more so because it’s an electronics product.  It’s possible to make electronics in small quantities, but not at a price at which you can turn them around and sell them to someone else.  You need to build batches of about 100 for the cost of parts and manufacturing to fall enough for that.

This is why the SkeinMinder’s Kickstarter goal is $65,000.  The stack-up goes like this: I need to make 100 in order to sell them as low as $365 each.  Add fees, shipping, and start-up costs to that.  And then, in order to ship in August, I’m going to have to work on the SkeinMinder full-time for 4 months.  I’m not going to be able to dye yarn (other than what I’m dyeing for the Kickstarter rewards), and I’m not going to be able to do any consulting work.  So it has to be able to pay me a fair and reasonable wage for that amount of time.

Making the SkeinMinder is a bit like hand-dyeing yarn – it’s mostly a labor of love.  I don’t know if dyers are a big enough market that I can sell 100 of them.  I really don’t know if I can actually reach the majority of hand dyers by the end of March.  This is where you come in.  (You were waiting for this part, right?)  Yes, backing the campaign is super awesome and you will have my gratitude until my dyeing breath (see what I did there?).  But what’s even more awesome is spreading the word about the SkeinMinder.  Dyers tend to the get their news from other knitters, so the more knitters who know about it, the more the word will spread to dyers.  Sharing, re-posting, re-gramming, re-tweeting, blogging, and podcasting all make a huge difference.  Thank you to everyone who has done that so far!

I really hope that I can reach out to dyers everywhere.  And not just because I want to work on SkeinMinders for the next 4 months, but because I truly want dyers to have better tools.  Wrangling yarn is so much work, anything to make it just a little bit easier is so worth it.  When my beta group wrote me their testimonials, I actually might have shed a tear or two.  Their workflow improved so much and they were so grateful for it – I was moved.  Every engineer’s dream is to make something that people love.  And here I am, living the dream.  Now to do everything I can to make it come true.

Join us on kickstarter 2



Mordants and Natural Dyeing, The Great Debate

I’ve thought about writing this post for a while. This topic, more than anything else in natural dyeing, brings up emotion and occasional controversy. My goal with this post is to present some facts, with references to reputable sources that you can check and read further. Natural dye books unfortunately tend to be bastions of misinformation, rife with generalities and opinions that are expressed as facts, and I do not consider the majority of them to be reputable sources of factual information about chemicals or chemistry.

I always kind of cringe when someone asks me about mordants and their toxicity.  It’s not because I’m reluctant to talk about it, it’s just that it’s a complex subject and I usually don’t have time at a show or in an interview to address the topic well.  It’s a difficult one to answer succinctly. That’s a big reason that I chose to write about it here on my blog, since I have the latitude to write a long post, and you readers are used to me going on for a while. :)  In fact, I’m going to apologize for the length of this post right now.  It’s a beast, I know.  But I intend it to be a relatively comprehensive reference for anyone wanting to learn more about the topic.

If there is a short answer to the toxicity question, it’s something like this: In order to dye a wide variety of colors, it takes chemicals.  No matter if the dyes themselves are natural or synthetic, they both take chemicals in order to properly bond. They also both take varying amounts of water. They both use resources and leave a footprint. The choice to use natural or synthetic dyes, or the choice of what mordants to use, is primarily a personal decision.  Each person makes a different choice based on their goals, experience, and environment. I do not look at this as there being a right or a wrong choice.  My goal is to arm you with knowledge, so that you can choose which chemicals you want to use.

To be clear, the health risks of dyeing are to the dyer, not to the yarn consumer.  The final yarn itself is not going to be hazardous.  The safety risks are due to prolonged exposure to these chemicals, over time, in large concentrations. Dyers should always use gloves when handling mordants, other chemical assists, and wet yarn. Not only may some chemicals cause irritation, but skin is also porous and can absorb chemicals if not protected.  Face masks are also recommended for synthetic dyes, or when handling any chemical that is in a fine powder form, and is easily airborne and inhaled.  Also, many mordants form acids when dissolved in water, which can be released in gaseous form when the mordant bath heated.  ALWAYS mordant in a well-ventilated area, and use lids on your pots to control fumes.

What Is a Mordant, Anyway?

A mordant is a chemical that becomes part of the molecular bond between the fiber and the dye.  Primarily these are metal salts.  (They are salts in the chemical sense of the word – the hydrogen atom of an acid is replaced with a metal ion. They are NOT edible salts.) You can think of a mordant as a molecular glue.  In general, dyes and fibers have a weak affinity for each other. If you tried to dye yarn without a mordant, the color would be very dull, and it would wash out promptly and fade easily. A mordant sticks to fiber well, and it also sticks to dye well. So you essentially “dye” the yarn first with a mordant, then repeat the process with the dye itself. This results in a strong bond between dye and fiber, which is fast to both washing and light exposure (in varying degrees for various dyes and mordants and combinations thereof). The mordant also affects the final color of the dye. Alum and tin are considered neutral mordants, because the resulting color on yarn is pretty much that of the color of the dye bath. Iron and copper are considered “saddening” mordants, because they make the color both darker and either browner, bluer, or greener.

Mordant 1: Alum (aka Potash Alum)


Potassium Aluminum Sulfate or Potassium Aluminum Sulfate Dodecahydrate
K(Al)(SO4)2 or K(Al)(SO4)2 * 12(H2O)

Use in Natural Dyeing:

The most common mordant used.  It’s considered a neutral mordant, in that it does not result in a color that is appreciably different than that of the dye bath.  It is considered to have good color fast properties, though other mordants result in even more color fast shades.  It is commonly used in conjunction with cream of tartar, which is thought to increase aluminum uptake and protect the hand of wool fibers, keeping them soft.

Other Common Uses:

  • additive used in water treatment to cause flocculation of impurities.  Alum disrupts the electrostatic charge surrounding fine particles and causes them to clump together.  Clumped, these particles are easier to filter out.
  • additive for pickling for improved crunchiness.  From what I’ve read, this is largely obsolete with quick-process pickling that is commonly used these days.  It is no longer recommended, and is no longer included in USDA pickling recipes.
  • the acid in some baking powder to cause CO2 to form.  “Alum” is referred to frequently as an ingredient, though sources that use the full chemical name typically refer to sodium aluminum sulfate, not potassium aluminum sulfate.
  • sometimes added to flour, sugar, or salt as an anti-caking agent
  • the crystal in crystal deodorants.  This is usually pure potassium aluminum sulfate.
  • astringent in styptic pencils to stem bleeding.

Hazards of Potassium Aluminum Sulfate:

Alum is generally considered the least toxic, or even a non-toxic mordant because it has long been used an additive to both foods and drinking water. Potassium aluminum sulfate does not even have a regularly published LD50, meaning an incredibly high dose would be needed to cause death.  However, it does form weak sulfuric acid when dissolved in water.  When the water is heated (during the mordant process), this can result in acidic fumes which are corrosive, and irritating when inhaled.   Always keep a lid on a hot mordant bath.  Moisture from bare skin can cause more concentrated sulfuric acid to form on contact and cause chemical burns, always wear gloves and handle crystals with utensils.  Potassium aluminum sulfate is also corrosive to many metals.  While it may slightly corrode aluminum pots as well, I always mordant in an aluminum pot to prevent any iron contamination that could occur when using a steel (yes, even stainless steel) pot.

Hazards of Aluminum:

In a World Health Organization report in 2003, they considered studies on the link between aluminum in drinking water and the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease to be conflicting and inconclusive, but recommend minimizing aluminum levels in finished water.  A 2011 IJAD article (referenced below) states that aluminum is a widely recognized neurotoxin, and there is increasing evidence that it has a role in the onset of Alzheimer’s.  The EPA only lists aluminum in a secondary guideline for recommended maximum contents in drinking water, as 0.05 to 0.2 mg/L (or ppm).

My Conclusion:

Though there is no clearly demonstrated causality between aluminum and Alzheimer’s, there is certainly evidence that aluminum crosses the blood-brain barrier and alters cognition in an undesirable manner.  Because of this,  I do not consider alum to be a benign chemical.  I always handle it carefully (with gloves) both in its solid form and once it’s dissolved in water.  I also always mordant outside, and use a lid.


Mordant 2: Iron (aka Copperas or Green Vitriol)


Ferrous Sulfate or Ferrous Sulfate Heptahydrate
FeSO4 or FeSO4 * 7(H2O)

Use in Natural Dyeing:

Iron can be used as a mordant on its own, but it’s generally used as an afterbath, to modify color dyed on fiber that was initially mordanted with alum.  It “saddens” color, making it more greenish-brown.  Yellows become olive, and pinks become plummy purples.  Protein fibers like wool are very sensitive to iron, and too high of iron concentrations or exposure for too much time can damage the fiber and/or make it have a harsh feel.  This is why iron is generally used as an after-bath step, to modify color that has already been dyed using alum as a mordant.  Exposure can be easily controlled, and the color is already fixed to the fiber with the alum mordant.

Other common uses:

  • dietary iron supplement, used to treat anemia
  • used in combination with tannins to produce historical inks
  • flocculant for treating synthetic dye wastewater

Hazards of Iron and Ferrous Sulfate:

Iron is a main component of the hemoglobin in our blood and necessary for life.  Because of this, the body has mechanisms to absorb iron from food, and thus it’s actually possible to overdose.  Somewhat paradoxically, this makes it more toxic than many other metals found in mordants, like aluminum or tin.  Children are especially susceptible to iron overdoses, and there have been documented cases of accidental death due to them eating adult iron supplements.  The EPA only lists iron in its secondary guidelines for contaminants  in drinking water (non-enforceable), recommending a maximum of 0.3 mg/L (or ppm).  Ferrous sulfate forms weak sulfuric acid when dissolved in water.  When the water is heated (during the mordant process), this can result in acidic fumes which are corrosive, and irritating when inhaled.  Always keep a lid on a hot mordant bath.  Moisture from bare skin can cause more concentrated sulfuric acid to form on contact and cause chemical burns, always wear gloves and handle crystals with utensils.

My Conclusion:

Iron should be used and stored with caution, especially if there are children in the household.  I treat it cautiously like any chemical, I wear gloves when handling it and keep hot mordant baths lidded.  I use iron very sparingly since I only dye protein fibers, which are easily made harsh with overexposure.


Mordant 3: Tin


Stannous Chloride

Use in Natural Dyeing:

Tin is considered to be a generally neutral mordant, yet it brightens colors and causes them to pop a bit.  It is the only way to get a truly bright scarlet red using cochineal.  Cochineal is also the only case in which a single bath method (dye and mordant in the same step) is highly effective and does not cause undue precipitation of the dye.  Drawbacks of tin is that (with the exception of cochineal reds) it is not considered to be as lightfast as alum.  Overexposure of protein fibers to high concentrations of tin or exposure over long time periods can cause them and become damaged.  Tin can be used as a pre-mordant in a separate step, like alum, though care must be taken to preserve the hand of the fiber.

Other common uses:

  • tin-plating steel to make tin cans
  • used as an indicator to detect the presence of gold.  A solution turns purple when gold is added.
  • approved US, EU, and WHO food additive, for color retention and anti-oxidation

Hazards of Stannous Chloride and Tin:

Inorganic tin salts are considered to have low toxicity since they’re almost entirely excreted after being ingested.  The World Health Organization has determined that it is not necessary to determine a numerical value for allowable tin content in drinking water, which is mirrored by the EPA in that there’s not even a secondary guideline established. Stannous Chloride forms weak hydrochloric acid when dissolved in water.  When the water is heated (during the mordant process), this can result in acidic fumes which are corrosive, and irritating when inhaled.  Always keep a lid on a hot mordant bath.  Moisture from bare skin can cause more concentrated hydrochloric acid to form on contact and cause chemical burns, always wear gloves and handle crystals with utensils.

My Conclusions:

There seems to be a pervasive myth in the natural dye world that tin is “highly toxic.”  It’s actually no more or less toxic than alum, and significantly less toxic than iron.  I don’t know where the reputation originated, perhaps the misinformed confuse inorganic stannous chloride with organotin compounds, which are completely different and highly carcinogenic.  All this said, I only use tin for a few colors, all based off of a cochineal scarlet.  I limit my use of tin because it’s relatively expensive (around $45/lb) and it tends to harshen protein fibers.  Also, it’s not quite as lightfast as alum, with the specific exception of cochineal scarlet.  There’s simply no other way to create that color, and it is incredibly durable.


Mordant 4: Copper (aka Blue Vitriol or Bluestone)


Copper or Cupric Sulfate or Copper Sulfate Pentahydrate
CuSO4 or CuSO4 * 5(H2O)

Use in Natural Dyeing:

Copper is used to “sadden” colors, as it tends to turn them more blue-green.  Yellows become greens, and pinks become purples.  It can be used as both an after-bath to adjust an alum-mordanted color, or it can be used as a pre-mordant on its own.  In the pre-mordant case, it’s typically used with citric or acetic acid to aid solubility, create a favorable environment for protein fibers, and increase copper uptake.  Unlike iron, copper does not harshen protein fibers.  The colors dyed with copper are generally more colorfast than those dyed with alum.

Other Common Uses:

  • herbicide and fungicide
  • “Bordeaux mixture”, an anti-fungal spray for grapes, rules about permissible weather and wind conditions vary according to state and locale
  • controlling root growth near water and sewer pipes, rules also vary about its use
  • controlling algae growth in ponds, rules also vary about its use
  • testing blood for anemia, it causes blood with proper amounts of hemoglobin to sink rapidly where anemic blood will float or sink slowly
  • etching zinc plates for printmaking

Hazards of Copper and Copper Sulfate:

Copper is found in several proteins and small amounts are necessary for proper biological function.  Like iron, an excess can cause poisoning and death.  Children are especially susceptible.  The maximum allowable contaminant level in drinking water is 1.3 mg/L (or ppm).  Mostly it is monitored because many plumbing fixtures are made with copper pipe, and the copper in them does leach into water.  Excess copper is also detrimental to aquatic life (fish are particularly susceptible), though dilute solutions are used to control algae.  Never pour a copper (or any other) mordant bath into a storm drain, or into any waterway or drainage.  Copper sulfate forms weak sulfuric acid when dissolved in water.  When the water is heated (during the mordant process), this can result in acidic fumes which are corrosive, and irritating when inhaled.  Always keep a lid on a hot mordant bath.  Always wear gloves and handle crystals with utensils.

My Conclusion:

Simply put, I like using copper.  I prefer using it over iron as a saddening mordant, because it does not affect the quality of the wool.  It also creates colors which are quite fast – they tend to bleed less when washing and rinsing, and they are more lightfast than colors created with alum.  Copper-mordanted yarn is also very effective at exhausting dyebaths, the color uptake is greater than that of alum-mordanted yarn.  Many times I’ll throw copper-mordanted yarn into an exhaust dyebath, and the resulting color will be a nicely saturated medium to dark tone.  With both copper and alum, I re-use mordant baths and always do my best to exhaust them before disposing of them.  I generally will use the exhausted baths to water plants that are acid-tolerant (and sometimes grass), or pour them down the drain (which leads to a sewer and wastewater treatment plant).  I handle copper carefully, with gloves, like I do any mordant or chemical.


Mordant 5: Chrome

Potassium dichromate

Use in Natural Dyeing:

Chrome is a mordant that tends to add a golden hue to dyes, and is considered to be quite color fast.  In the presences of protein fibers, it is reduced from its highly toxic hexavalent state (chrome-6) to a relatively safe trivalent state (chrome-3), where it then bonds with the fibers and becomes a mordant.  It is typically applied as a pre-mordant with formic or tartaric acid.  Prior to dyeing, the crystals themselves and mordanted yarn are light-sensitive, both should be stored in dark places out of direct sunlight.  Chrome has played an important historical role in dyeing very dark and colorfast blacks in conjunction with logwood.  It is not used often now, due to health hazards detailed below.

Other Common Uses:

  • a common ingredient in cement, it helps smooth texture and retard setting
  • photography and screen-printing for its photo-sensitivity

Hazards of Chrome:

Potassium dichromate is a hexavalent chromium compound.  It is highly toxic and quite hazardous to health.  Small amounts can cause contact dermatitus.  It is a known carcinogen meaning it causes cancer.  The maximum contamination level of chrome-6 in drinking water is 0.1 mg/L (or 0.1 ppm).

My Conclusions:

This one’s the doozy.  It’s the only mordant I won’t use and would actively recommend NOT using.  It is carcinogenic in its solid form – the form that’s used to mordant.  Despite the fact that it’s transformed to the non-carcinogenic chrome-3 state on fiber, I would never be able to be absolutely sure that there wasn’t any residual un-oxidized excess non-bonded chrome-6.  Some textiles dyed with chrome have been found to cause contact dermatitus, which points to the possibility of excess chrome-6.  Perhaps it’s possible to use a water-soluble chrome-3 compound that’s not carcinogenic….but for me, it’s not even worth the hassle of researching that.  I can create plenty of awesome colors without chrome.


Why Natural Dyes

So, if it still takes chemicals that need to be handled carefully to create naturally dyed yarn, and extra processing time, and extra care to prevent fiber damage, why do it?  The answer varies for each of us.  I like making things from scratch.  The way I dye, I use primarily raw ingredients and extract the dye from them to create my colors.  I also have a strong background in science, and I like to tinker and I like to learn.  Natural dyeing speaks to me because it’s a bit challenging to understand the chemical interactions and different mechanisms for different dyes.  Things don’t always turn out how I’d expect them to, and I’m continuously learning more about the dyes, assists, and mordants, and how they interact with fiber.

I also wanted to show people that you don’t need synthetic dyes to create brilliant saturated colors. I get a lot of surprised reactions when people look at my yarns and realize they’re dyed with natural dyes.  They’re bright and vibrant, not the subdued color palette that most people associate with natural dyers.  Another reason I chose natural dyes is that the dyes themselves are a renewable resource.  Some I can even grow myself.  It’s pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but in this one small way, I could choose a natural product over an oil by-product.

It’s also – excuse the pun – a dying art. Not many people use natural dyes, fewer do it in a business and small manufacturing setting. Many cultures with long-standing natural dye traditions are turning towards synthetic dyes because they’re cheap and easier to use. I want more people to learn how to dye with natural dyes, and I’d like to contribute to a resurgence of information about the techniques. I don’t want these skills and this knowledge to decline and be lost.

One last reason that I choose natural dyes is that I have absolute control over the chemicals I use, and I know exactly what goes into each color.  This is typically not the case with synthetic dyes.  Even ones that use a lot of “green” marketing, combined with scare-marketing hype that proclaims to be “non-chrome” – even these contain small amounts of chrome, lead, and manganese.  These are metals which are toxic in smaller qtys and have higher health risks than alum, iron, copper, or tin.  To be clear, I am not throwing Greener Shades under the bus here.  While I disagree with their marketing strategy, I applaud them for publishing their test results, and I applaud them for trying to provide less hazardous synthetic dyes.  Most dye companies do not publish the actual ingredients of their dyes, and even as a dyer, it is rarely possible to obtain this information.

Again, I don’t have a problem with the proper use of synthetic dyes.  The final yarn is not going to be toxic or a health hazard.  I own plenty (and you fellow yarn hoarders know exactly what I mean by plenty) of yarn dyed with them.  I admire the work of all hand dyers and am jealous that synthetic dyers get to employ more varied dye techniques that result in a wider range of final color displays on yarn.  I personally don’t want to work with them often, because they’re fine powders that are easily airborne, they do contain small amounts of moderately to highly toxic metals, there’s always a bit of uncertainty as to their exact ingredients, and I’d rather not have to wear a respirator.


The Final Send-Off

Oh man, I don’t want to end this post on a downer!  Dyeing is supposed to be fun, have I completely killed it for you?  I hope not.  By all means, DO go to a dye day.  DO take a class on dyeing, natural or synthetic.  It’s super fun to play with and create colors!  Just be properly informed and properly prepared.  Not all dyers treat their chemicals equally cautiously – I’ve seen people stick their bare hands into copper mordant pots, and I’ve seen people use synthetic dyes like fingerpaints without wearing gloves.  Be safe.  Use gloves, and use a mask when you’re dealing with fine powders.  Bring your own if you’re not sure that they’ll be provided.  And most of all – have fun dyeing!

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.


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.


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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Want to be on the beta program waiting list?  Fill out this form here.

So What’s Next? Part II (finally!)


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

Blue Soldermask is Cool

Can you tell that I’m writing this post from a computer with a shiny new motherboard and CPU? Thought so. The bad thing about this week is that my old computer died and I had to buy new parts. The good thing about this week is that my old computer died and I had to buy new parts. It’s one of those things that a total pain in the ass and unwanted expense when it happens, but after it’s all fixed, it’s so new and shiny and fast.

Commencing electronics geekery. If you’re only in this for the yarn, just skip to the next post.

Ok, so there was the day of researching stuff on NewEgg, after which I decided to do a pretty substantial upgrade to an Intel Core i3 CPU – after all, if I’m buying something new, it would be nice if the new setup was relevant for another 5-6 years. Then I sought out a motherboard that would be compatible with my good old PATA/IDE hard drive — I really did not want to deal with the hassle (and expense) of buying a new one and reinstalling my operating system. So I ended up with this sweet Gigabyte H57M-USB3, which yes, has both a PATA connector and USB 3.0 ports. Heh, how’s that for a contradiction in terms? Anyone, a buddy of mine had some extra RAM, but it turns out that it was DDR2 and the new Intel stuff requires DDR3. So ploink! 4GB of DDR3 RAM added to the cart as well.

And yesterday it all came in! Most impressive was the motherboard bling. First, there’s the catchy blue soldermask. Green is like, so eighties. Give me something with blue or red soldermask, and it’s automatically kewl. This particular blue is very nice – not too dark, very medium and pretty.
IMG_0188_0121 (Large)

And the capacitors! Every electrolytic cap I’ve worked with has pretty normal black polarization and value marks on top. These were purple.
IMG_0190_0123 (Large)

Then there was the overlay – the connectors were called out quite nicely, and they didn’t miss a chance to advertise their blinginess. The logo for Dolby Home Theater is by the audio connector, and written in bold across the middle is “2oz Copper PCB“! Ha! Well I’d freaking hope so, it’s a power-hungry motherboard after all. Hilarious that it’s written on the board, calling attention to that “feature” – I mean, really. How many people actually know what that means? Funny. Had I known that was a selling point, I would’ve written the copper weight on all the PCBs I’ve made….
IMG_0189_0122 (Large)

My inner PCB geek also finds it strange how much space is wasted on making the CPU swappable. First, the idea of that is just kind of weird for me, coming from a background where small, lightweight, highly integrated electronics is key. It’s just funny – making a chip have a touch-contact interface that’s that power-hungry, and has that many connections, plus a crapton of crazy high-speed connections. I wonder how many of those pins are just power? And the footprint required for the mounting of that chip is about 10 times bigger than the chip itself, not to mention the gigantic heat sink. Weird!

Anywhoo….So the hardware all fits together great, installation is a piece of cake. I push the switch – it starts! Yay! It goes thru the bios screen, gets to Windows, starts to the load the desktop – when the Windows Activation window pops up and proceeds to deny me access to my own legitimate copy, and therefore, my desktop and essentially entire computer. Awesome. The next 2 hours went like this:

  1. Tried to authorize via internet. Can’t do that because the drivers for the ethernet on the new motherboard haven’t been installed yet. Can’t access the desktop to install those drivers because Windows Activation won’t let me.
  2. Tried to authorize via phone. The number puts you into an automated system where you have to say a 42-digit number in 7 parts of 6. Authorization is invalid. The automated system does not give me to a real person, it tells me to go to the internet.
  3. I got to the internet on my laptop (2 computers always necessary for occasions like this), internet says to authorize by phone. I go back to the automated system and after 5 minutes of telling it every way I know how that I’d like to speak to a customer service representative/agent/operator/real live person, damn you! – I finally get to one.
  4. Who barely speaks English. I can understand a lot of accents, I don’t usually find that too challenging, but she had an incredibly thick one and honestly could not pronounce English letters and sounds. I read the entire 42-digit number to her, and of course, the activation is still invalid. I explain that I’m sure the problem is that I’ve had to replace my motherboard and the original computer was a pre-made, pre-installed deal, and probably the activation is tied to that original piece of hardware, so I need to speak with someone who can sort that out.
  5. She tells me I have to email a “scanned” copy of my certificate of authenticity and a description of my problem to an email address that I have to have her repeat 3 times in order figure out what she’s saying. I don’t bother explaining to her that there’s no way I can scan my certificate of authenticity, since it’s a sticker that is stuck to the back of my computer. I take a picture of it instead, write an email about my sob story of motherboard replacement, and send it off.
  6. The email bounces. No such address. Steam starts to come out of my ears.
  7. I look up a “normal” customer service number for Microsoft. After 5 more minutes of wading through an automated support system, I finally get to a real person again. I explain my problem. He asks why I didn’t call back the Activation department. I explain that I had to wade through the phone system for 5 minutes just to get to a real person and then that person had such a thick accent that I couldn’t understand what she was saying and she said I was supposed to send an email and it bounced. I was hoping to reach a person this time that I could understand and who could actually help me.
  8. At which point a miracle happened. He was sympathetic, bypassed some normal run-around that he was supposed to give me, and transferred me directly to another real live person in technical support.
  9. Who was also sympathetic and helpful. Also accented, but only mildly so and very easy to understand. There was the first false start of starting in safe mode, and deleting part of a registry entry (and man, talk about being nervous that customer service is going to screw up your entire system….), which didn’t screw up my computer but didn’t work either. But then he got authorization to give me a new product key, one which apparently isn’t tied to motherboard hardware, and voila! Here I am. Legitimacy preserved and I didn’t have to reinstall the operating system or “upgrade” to Windows 7. Seriously, people. I don’t need that shit right now, stop telling me that I do.

Step one – back up hard drive. Except that the external 500 GB drive I use for that appears to be dying. Plug into USB and it mounts and dismounts erratically. Hmmm. Where did I find that USB cable I’m using anyway? It looks kind of skinny and wimpy for powering a hard drive and why does it have a Motorola symbol on it? Jeez, is that from my old RAZR phone? Crap, I think it is….hey this white Apple USB cable looks pretty burly, it even has a big ol’ ferrite bead in the middle of it. Plugged that in and everything seems OK again. Backed up hard drive succesfully!

Now, I did overlook the one small matter of my CD/DVD drive also being a PATA/IDE interface, and the motherboard only has one PATA connector, which I’m using for the hard drive. And I need to install a bunch of drivers off of the CD the motherboard came with, so…..oh well, off to Best Butt for a SATA CD drive. Besides, I had to return the hard drive enclosure that I was going to use to access my files while waiting for the motherboard to come in, which worked the first time I plugged it in and then never powered up again. Oh, and I had ordered a different one off of Amazon, only to find when it came in that I goofed and ordered a 2.5″ one instead of a 3.5″. (Anyone need a 2.5″ PATA USB enclosure? $23!) Are you getting my drift of how bad my computer mojo has been lately? I think this good old GI Joe PSA sums it all up:

Back home, out with the old CD drive, in with the new (which doesn’t fit to the curvy front panel of my case very well, so there’s a 1cm gap that looks super-ghetto). Boot computer. USB hard drive is still plugged in and computer decides to run check disk on it. It finds weirdness and starts to repair stuff. Great. Then it finishes and just stops on the check disk screen. Nothing. Is it trying to boot off of it, what’s going on? I give up and go to Spike’s and drink beer with friends. I tell them my sob story – “But no, you think that’s bad? Wait, there’s more!” and we all laugh.

I come home in a better mood. Reboot and unplug the USB hard drive. Install the drivers from the new CD drive, and yay! I have The Interbutt again! Then…just to see what a difference going to the new CPU and 4GB of RAM made….I launched Adobe Illustrator. Which start in like 5 seconds instead of 5 minutes. Woooo!!! I love my new computer.

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