Monday, March 29, 2010

Attack of the Fiber Fanatics! Retreat, Retreat!

They came from all over the world (ok, mostly from California). They were armed with implements of fiberous destruction (trying new ideas on wheels and looms, trust me, there's going to be a lot of fiber on the floor). They were ... the attendees of the March spinning and weaving retreats with Judith MacKenzie McCuin!

As in the past, the retreat was held at the YMCA at Point Bonita, one of the lovely places to be in the Bay Area. Just go north over the Golden Gate Bridge and immediately turn left in to the park. You may get to see the sunrise over the Bridge with some company.

The retreat was divided in to two parts, a spinning retreat with about 25 attendees, and a weaving retreat with about 11. A lovely lady I met last year at the Golden Gate Fiber Institute, Pam, and I were two of the students staying for the whole thing.

The spinning component of the show focused on color. Things like how to blend color from a hackle, how to create amazing batts from a drum carder, and how to use combs to create unique color blends utilizing the concept of optical mixing or blending. One of my friends, mrspie, who attended for the spinning section of the show wrote an awesome pair of blog entries about the event.

One of the highlights of the event for me was to see a type of wheel I'd never seen before - a Betty Roberts wheel. It's an accelerated wheel, which means it is designed such that the thing acts like a spinning wheel that has one wheel as big as the other two combined. I didn't get to spin on it, sad to say, but it was certainly a sight to see!

And of course I had to take a photo of Judith's wheel, a Jensen. Such a pretty wheel. One of these days, I'll be rich and obscure enough to collect spinning wheels! And looms! And pay someone to raise sheep and alpaca for me! And a cotton and ramie farm! And silk worms! And... maybe I should just keep my day job and take photos to drool over later.

The spinning part was fun, but it was the weaving part that was really new and exciting for me. I haven't taken any kind of weaving classes before, and I had just upgraded my loom in time for the class. I mean, really just in time for the class. It arrived Thursday night, and was in the car headed to Point Bonita on Friday. I hadn't even had a chance to assemble the parts that needed assembling yet! Not to mention find out that not all the parts were exactly right, but Schacht, the makers of my loom, did totally right by me and overnighted a corrected part so I could finish the weaving part of the retreat with all 4 height extenders on my loom.

So here's my set up for the weaving class:

Since I hadn't been in one of Judith's weaving classes before, she had me and the other new students start on a basic scarf that had us using fuzzy and boucle yarns as our warp and weft. Folks in the class will attest that I may have said a foul word or two about the mohair fuzzy sh*t yarn after a while, but even I had to admit the end result, along with the next scarf which explored crammed and spaced weaving, and the gamp, were happiness-making. (I'll explain those terms a bit in a minute.)

So, about those terms. I didn't find an explanation on the web I like, so I'm going to try to explain it. A crammed and spaced pattern is one that allows for alternating sections of tight weaving structures with very loose weaving structures. Kind of self-explanatory when you think about it. Have you ever seen a shirt or a curtain that seems to have long lines of quite transluscent fabric interspersed with lines that did not let as much light through? That may well have been done on the principles of crammed and spaced.

A gamp is a pretty cool concept too. Let's say you've got a book of patterns like the classic A Handweaver's Pattern Book. What would happen if you took three or four of the patterns in there and threaded the loom to do all of them at the same time? I'll tell you what will happen - you can't DO them all at the same time. Threading the loom is only the first part of actually making a pattern match what's in a book. The second thing is how you tie up the treadles so that the threads raise or lower (depending on your type of loom), and on a 4-shaft loom you can only tie up the treadles for one of the three patterns at a time. And that means that while one of the three patterns you've tied up for will look like you expect, the other two will be new and magical, and not recorded hardly anywhere. Especially for a newbie like me, I had no idea at all what these would look like, and the weaving went very very very slowly 'cause I had to stop, stare, and call people over to show them the magic I was making.

It was just the coolest thing I've ever done in the fiber arts. You don't have to do combinations like this, tho' it's certainly a short cut to exploring possibilities. For my next gamp trick, I'll try one pattern at a time, and make a tea towel. Then I'll change the tie up, and make another tea towel. And then change the tie up again, and make another tea towel. The only limit is my imagination.

That's all I've got time to write up for now. I took a few more pictures, which are being posted in my Picasa album. If there is interest, I'll also post a picture-less post of notes I took from the class. I need to transcribe them for myself anyway, and if anyone else would like to see them, just drop a comment. All told, I had a great time, I learned a lot, and I am anxious to go back in August for another class with Judith at the GGFI!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wheel Review - SpinAway Holiday Wheel

The nice thing about spinning wheels these days is that there is something out there suitable for anyone. A wheel that is just not working for one person will be the bee's knees for another. That was the case between me any my Majacraft Little Gem II. Nice enough wheel, and goodness knows I adore the Majacraft Rose, but at the end of the day I found the tension adjustment a nuisance, the portability not quite everything I was hoping for, and so decided to try for a different travel wheel, the SpinAway Holiday wheel. I'd gotten to try it out last summer at Spinning Day at the Winery and thought it was just fantastic. The waiting list was long (so long that the manufacturer's, a lovely pair of folks, have closed the waiting list for now so they can work through their back orders) but I am a patient soul - no giggling, now - and my wheel finally arrived last week.This post is a review of the wheel, purely from my perspective. Other folks may say "but that's not how it worked for me" and they'd be absolutely correct. So, as they say, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

Item 1 - Travelability
Wheel assembly is a critical feature of a travel wheel. If the thing doesn't come together/pull apart reasonably easily, and if it doesn't fit in convenient bags or cases, what's the point? Here is a picture of the wheel fully disassembled. Putting it together is pretty easy.

Getting the treadles on and the wheel in its little base was quite easy. First time I did it, though, I put the wheel assembly on backwards with that little wheel in front on the right instead of the left. I quickly figured out that puts the flier on facing away from you when you would be spinning - obviously not correct, and quickly fixed.

Here is another picture of the wheel halfway put together. This is an accelerated wheel, meaning the larger wheel turns a smaller wheel in the assembly so that you can get big wheel ratios on a little tiny wheel. There is obviously some magic going on in that compartment - I have no idea if he's got gears, straps, or gnomes in there connecting the big wheel part to the smaller part. It works, it doesn't require me to do anything, so I'm fine with it. My sweetheart, however, stares at it a lot trying to figure it out. Perhaps I need to lock my wheel up when I am not home lest his curiosity gets the better of him!

The next step is to get the bobbin post and the tensioning system set up. You can see a black rubber cord that connects the little wheel to the whorl. It is quite stretchy, and does not have a huge impact on tension. That's where a second cord comes in - you can see it on the blanket behind the wheel.

That thin white cord is made of nylon, I believe, and is the primary tension for the bobbin. When you put it on, it is in a figure 8 folded back on itself, and you want no tension at all on the bobbin. It's not a particularly stretchy thread, so don't fight with it. You'll hurt its feelings and it will probably break. So, no tension when looping it over the bobbin and around the little wheel.

The flier is the next thing to go on, and it just slides in to the post holding on the bobbin. Easy-peasy. I do believe I'll be putting little beads on the end of the metal hooks on the flier, though the makers were careful to make sure the end of the hooks are rounded. Still, it is a nice way to both personalize the wheel a bit and to make sure those ends are not going to catch on fibers.

Item 2 - Spinning
A very wise spinner by the name of Judith Mackenzie McCuin has all her students "tune" a wheel as their first exercise in class. The idea is to see what range of fiber diameters you can get from your wheel. By adjusting the tension and the drive band between the two available ratios, one should be able to get some reasonable variation in fiber diameter. The Holiday wheel is an accelerated spinning wheel with only two ratios and more of a double-drive type tensioning, definitely a change for me from my previous travel wheel's scotch tension system. So, I started with spinning with varying tension on the small whorl, then repeat that with the larger whorl.

Working with an undyed merino top, I was able to comfortably get about 6 different yarn thicknesses with the combination of tension adjustment and ratio change. I could have probably stretched it a bit either way, but the focus here is on Comfortable. This is not my primary wheel, I am not trying to make lace or novelty yarn, so this was just fine for me. Fiber spun past either the thinnest or thickest shown above got quite, ah, variable. Serious thick-and-thin spots, which is fine if that's what you are aiming for, but not what I wanted out of this exercise.

Item 3 - Maintenance
For the most part, this wheel needs very little maintenance. A bit of oil on the posts going in to the tension system help make sure that system moves up and down smoothly, and a damp cloth to get the dust off will help the rest of the wheel. As far as I can tell, no other maintenance is required. If the drive band or tension band break, spares are included with the wheel.

As part of the question of maintenance, I want to talk a bit about what kind of customer service you can expect if something does go wrong with your wheel. When buying a wheel, one of the things you should ask yourself is "what do I do if something breaks? Will the manufacturer be helpful?" Things break, fact of life. But if you've got a good company standing behind their product, it's all ok. When I first got my wheel, there was a problem with one of the treadles staying attached to the wheel. Norm at SpinAway was fabulous about it. We talked on the phone and he immediately understood the problem. He covered the cost of me sending the wheel back for the necessary adjustment and got everything sorted out in just a few days. If I'd lived closer than 3000 miles away, it wouldn't even have taken that long. He made sure I felt taken care of (in a good way) and I am happy to report an excellent customer service experience.

And that's the wheel review! I hope you found it useful. I know several folks out there have been waiting to get the full details, some of whom are on that waiting list anxiously awaiting their own wheel. Be patient, folks, it's worth it!