Sunday, 30 November 2008

A Dyeing Art

I've been quiet (again!) on here these last few weeks, because November is my busiest time at work, with most things I do having a deadline of the end of the month, so that other people can then work on the data generated for year-end close. This means lots of late nights, but I don't mind that for a couple of weeks a year - my last job involved that every bloody day so this is a great improvement. It doesn't stop me actually going out and doing stuff in the evenings, but that leaves no time for blogging. It's all finished now, so I can catch up on some of the things I've done in that time. First up, dyeing!

I mentioned back in October that I'd received some undyed yarn and Kool Aid in a swap, so I was eager to give this a go. Being a hopeless overachiever, I was not content with my first go being plain or even random splodges that would knit up with no purpose. Oh no, I wanted self-striping sock yarn, with contrast heels and toes, and god damn it, that's what I was going to do.

I armed myself with this article from Knitty, on how to dye with Kool Aid. I decided to go for a colourway in the red part of the spectrum, using the three flavours of cherry I'd been sent and the colour chart in the article. I planned on using Cherry as a bright red for the contrast yarn, then stripes of Blastin' Berry Cherry (pink) and Black Cherry (purple) with white stripes in a pink-white-purple-white sequence, with four rows per colour, ie a sixteen row repeat.

I must pause here to share my horror at Kool Aid. This is food? For children? Even before opening the packets I was struck by the strong, sweet, violently chemical smell. Opening the packets nearly made me gag. This was not something I'd be prepared to put anywhere near my internal organs. It just can't be good for you.  That's not even counting the Jonestown connotations of drinking it.

OK, so I'm not entirely stupid, I did start with the easy bit. In my stash was a 50g skein of undyed Bonny (75% wool, 25% nylon, fairly rough, hardwearing, unknown washability) from The Yarn Yard, which was included as a freebie with an order I made ages ago. I figured that in dyeing that solid red for the contrast yarn, I'd work out anything else I needed to know. I dissolved two packets of Kool Aid in a large glass of water (water quantity doesn't matter by the way, just enough to cover the yarn) and put it into a bowl. Merrily, I started off by completely ignoring the first step of the Knitty article, which was to wash the yarn. Why on earth would I need to do that? It was clean yarn and was going to get wet anyway. Here's why:

Dry yarn doesn't soak in the dye solution properly. Damn. I poked it with a spoon, a lot. It got pretty wet but not entirely. There were loads of dry, white sections which just kept repelling the liquid. Bugger. I put a lid on it anyway and put it into the microwave for a few minutes minutes, as directed. On having a look, it was better-soaked, but there were still white patches, so I added a third packet of Kool Aid, aiming at the paler parts. Another two minutes in the microwave and I had this:

Pretty even-looking, I thought, and I was impressed by how clear the water had gone, as if by magic! All the dye had been taken up, hoorah! So I rinsed it and hung it up to dry, like so:

However, here was the dry yarn the following day:

Far too patchy. I therefore washed it with actual detergent this time, to use those surfactants to get it properly wet. I then repeated the dye job with my fourth and last packet of Cherry. The result was much, much better:

Buoyed by my success, and determined to include the washing step this time, I started on the main event, the Knitpicks Bare (75% merino, 25% nylon, very soft, superwash) from the swap package. So how do you get self-striping yarn? By dyeing a sequence long enough to give a set number of rows per colour. I wanted a sixteen row repeat, so I had to make a skein that was 16 rows' worth round, and then dye the first quarter pink and the third quarter purple, leaving the second and fourth quarters undyed. First of all, I had to work out how much yarn one row of sock would take. Unusually for me, I swatched:

As you can just about see above, I marked with a red pen where my sock row ended. I then frogged back to the start of that row. I measured how much yarn that was between the DPNs and the mark:

It was roughly 30 inches, which meant my big skein would need to be 480 inches or 40 feet around! Luckily my main living area is an open plan lounge/kitchen/dining room. I placed two dining chairs the right distance apart and started the rather boring task of walking round and round the room, stringing out the yarn into a giant loop, like so:

You can see from the picture the usual general disarray in my flat - I am not a tidy person. I tied off the skein and also added further ties at each quarter point so I'd know where I was. This skein was not going to be able to go into the microwave so it was time for some hob-top dyeing:

Above you can see quarter one in a pan containing the pinky-red Blastin' Berry Cherry, and quarter three in with the purplish Black Cherry - needless to say this was after I'd washed them. The linking sections, ie quarters two and four, are just in another pan (with no water) to keep them out of harm's way. As directed, I brought the two dye pans up to nearly boiling, then covered them, turned off the heat and let them sit for about an hour. Again the water was nicely colour-free as can be seen better with the pink than the purple:

Except, well, they aren't really pink and purple, are they? More like red and brown. I don't know why, maybe because the yarn was superwash? For whatever reason, the Bonny took the dye true to the Knitty colour chart, but the Bare had a much more yellow-toned cast to it. Oh well.

Anyway, the big skein was rinsed (a fair bit of excess dye came out but the colour didn't fade) and hung up to try all around my kitchen:

I then had to put it back into a workable format, which was tricky as my swift obviously can't handle a 40 foot skein. I had to drape it over the sofas and walk around it again, very slowly and carefully winding onto a wooden spoon. It was intensely frustrating, even more so when I had to then wind a proper ball from the spoon. I've since invested in a niddy-noddy from here to save my sanity next time. But here it is, ball-wound:

And here are the two together:

Not bad going, apart from the colour-tone issue. What I didn't want was for the red of the contrast yarn to just look like an odd dye lot to the stripes, I wanted it to be distinctly different. Just slightly different would have been bad. As luck would have it, the contrast red is exactly the same colour as the stripe red, even though they are different flavours of Kool Aid - you really can't tell. It must be the yarn bases. I do quite like it, and it is very arterial and venous blood against bone. The balls smelled faintly sweet for quite a long time afterwards.

Just to prove that my sums worked, here's how the socks are knitting up:

More than that's been done now, although I've stalled because I've reneged on my commitment to do no Christmas knitting, so I'm working on that at the moment.

Finally, look what it did to my hands!

This was with me being very, very careful not to get it on anything, but I still ended up stained for several days afterwards. Even more grossly, breathing in the airborne powder stained my snot reddy-pink - yuck! And surely if it dyes yarn so well, what is it doing to your digestive tract? Again, people drink this stuff? Disturbing.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Being a good girl, for once

I spent today at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, formerly known as the Millennium Dome, at a professional conference - the same one I went to at Lord's last year. Actually, this one was in the excruciatingly-named IndigO2, a mini-venue inside the massive tent. The size of the damn thing never fails to amaze me.

As it happened, who should be playing there tonight?

This meant we had to endure an extremely lame crack by one of the speakers about the economy being "even more depressing than Leonard Cohen". Weak.

Furthermore, one of my fellow delegates had a spare ticket going. And was willing to sell it for less than the £75 (ouch!) face value. And I already at the venue so wouldn't have had to trek across London to get there...

But I took a deep breath, put my sensible hat on, and declined, for a number of very good reasons:
  • Tonight was a gym night not a going out night. I've lost a stone so far in the attempt to look better in the wedding photos, and those calories won't burn themselves.
  • Given our over-exuberance with booking entertainment for said wedding, I really shouldn't spend the money, even at less than face value. Hell, what with the depressing economy and the sinking of the pound to only $1.50 for the first time in years, I've just decided I mustn't buy any more yarn from the States (or anything else in dollars) for the foreseeable future. I shouldn't buy concert tickets either, even in sterling.
  • I actually saw Mr Cohen on Tuesday night this week, in Bournemouth, my home town. He was brilliant, of course. He is a god. This wouldn't have been half as good, being in the cavernous O2, and on my own as it was only a single seat on offer (I don't mind going to concerts alone as such, but wasn't up for doing so tonight). The show in Bournemouth was amazing, he did "The Partisan" this time so there was even singing in French, and our seats in the BIC were even closer than at Manchester. I didn't take my camera though.
  • Oh yes, and because I vowed earlier in the year that I would never set foot in the O2 again for a concert, because it is so horrible. Back on that blog entry, I even said that I would not go back there, even for Leonard Cohen. Mind you, that was before he was touring, when I thought he never would again. Still, I do keep my word.
As an aside, the person offering the ticket has seen Mr Cohen twenty times this year, so far. And you think I'm obsessed?! Even though I've seen R.E.M. another three times since I last blogged about them (Southampton, Twickenham and Copenhagen over the summer), that only makes 18 in my whole life. I'm jealous, of course.

So I headed off home to the delights of sitting on the exercise bike watching MTV. However I did stop to purposefully walk back and forth across the Prime Meridian a few times:

I have photos, not yet blogged, of me doing much the same on the Equator in Quito, back in May, and I have a small sense of satisfaction at having been to both zeros in one year. I would like to go to 0,0, just to say I've been, but that seems to be somewhere off the coast of Nigeria so I think it's unlikely any time soon. Instead I am now sat at home listening to a bootleg of the Manchester concert and only just regretting not taking that ticket...

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Putting that education to use

So what crafty hobby should someone with a Masters degree in chemistry have? I mean, knitting's all well and good, but doesn't really cut it on the science front (although Cassie has written recently about knitting scientists and other mathematical types - also, please go and do her questionnaire on knitblogging) and I felt I needed something with the ability to write an equation and a bit more potential for dangerous chemical burns. Cold process soap making seemed to fit the bill, so hell, why not? You all know what you're getting for Christmas now, and indeed birthdays, forever.

I armed myself with two books before I started, it always being helpful to be informed, and besides, I had no idea what ingredients to order. The one recommended by this website was The Soapmaker's Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch. This is a very comprehensive book, from first steps through to the actual science (with bonding diagrams and everything). I read it cover to cover, but don't find it terribly well laid out. I think I need to apply some judicious sticky labels down the side. The other book, The Handmade Soap Book by Melinda Coss, is far simpler, and easier to follow, but not as informative. They work very well together though. That and a spreadsheet I just had to make myself for the saponification values, being the uber-nerd that I am.

Soap making is rather dangerous, as it involves NaOH, otherwise known as sodium hydroxide, caustic soda or lye. This stuff can burn through flesh, disfigure and blind. You know, I don't recall being particularly scared of it at university, where we threw noxious stuff around the lab with impunity. Perhaps that was the general feeling of immortality that every late-teen has, or perhaps the comforting presence of the lab techs who I'm sure would have known what to do in the event of severe injury (and I only ever saw one bad chemical injury during my studies, although many more cuts on broken glassware). I used to come home with my clothes full of little holes, but miraculously not my flesh. These days, I have far more fear, and therefore approached the lye with caution. In all seriousness, this is bad shit, people.

Because of my course and habit of never throwing anything away, I was already kitted out for protection when I embarked upon the practical session this weekend! This is how you would have found me in the kitchen on Saturday afternoon:

And with a little knowledge of acids and bases, I got out my bottle of vinegar (normally used as fabric softener in this house) to splash in case of alkali burns. Mortal enemies:

The process for making soap, or "saponification", involves the sodium hydroxide turning the fatty acids found in a variety of fats and oils (and, oh, skin, hence those burns) into glycerin and a sodium salt which we normally know as "soap". If you look on your proprietary soap and see something like "sodium tallowate", "palmitate" or "stearate", that's your salt. Indulge me for a second:

C3H5(COOR)3 + 3NaOH --> C3H5(OH)3 + 3NaCOOR

OK, OK, no more of that, I promise. The actual process is relatively simple, assuming you get the amounts right. The amount of lye needed depends on the exact types of fatty acids (those COOR chains) and every kind of fat and oil out there has many different types in different proportions, leading to different lathering/cleansing/conditioning properties. So you can either follow a recipe for the amount of lye, or use some nice numerical charts from the books. I followed a recipe for batch 1 but have now made that spreadsheet I mentioned to work it out for my own proportions of oils.

The fat is by far the most innocuous step. My first batch was to be made of coconut oil, palm oil and olive oil. The first two are solid at room temperature so have to be melted. Here was my pan of fat before melting:

Heh, no I promise I didn't go all Fight Club and source bloodied human fat from the local liposuction clinic. The red colour is because I had steeped the olive oil in chopped alkanet root first. This is a natural dye, acting a bit like litmus paper. It's red in acid, but turns a pretty blue-purple in alkaline conditions such as soap. Seeing as I was scenting this first batch with lavender (being a nice cheap essential oil if this went wrong), it seemed appropriate.

Whilst the oil is cooling back down to around 40C/100F, you prepare your lye by dissolving this very innocent-looking stuff in water. Do not confuse it with sugar.

The mixing with water is highly exothermic (heat generating) so that also has to cool. Mine peaked at about 70C when first mixed, with noxious white fumes given off, and took a little while to cool. Here's where the chemistry training came in useful, with it having been drummed into us for years that you add most reactive to least reactive, never the other way, ie base to water not water to base. That's because if the first drops of water hit that base, there'd be a huge exothermic reaction which is dangerous, whereas the other way round the excess water will quench it. Similarly you add the lye to the fat, not vice versa, later.  The books mentioned doing it this way round, but not why.  Given I like ignoring instructions, I might have done it the other way, had I not known better.

So here were the two liquids, pre-mixing:

The rest all went pretty quickly so no photos. Lye gets added to the oils, and the mixture is then stirred vigorously. I used an electric whisk. This did cause a bit of splashback and I have some tiny red marks on my face from it, and man, they stung - I soon learned to use a pan lid as a splashguard. After 15-20 minutes, when you drip the liquid back into itself, you can see a faint mark on the liquid surface. That's called "trace" and means it's time to add other stuff, such as scent, then pour it into the molds. Note that if you rush this bit, the soap can separate back out into caustic soda and fat, leading to a rather nasty chemical peel instead of nice, fluffy bubbles. I used silicone bakeware (love this stuff) which is non-reactive (teflon or aluminium being bad choices here) and easy to unmold again. I layered dried lavender flowers into the bottom then poured in the soap. Here it is, poured into two loaf tins and some overflow yoghurt pots, as it made more than I thought it would, then wrapped in clingfilm against contamination:

Look how purple the alkanet root had gone! They are then wrapped in towels for insulation, and left for a day to happily react away, generating lots more heat as they go. I kept peeking, of course. Who wouldn't?

This evening I got to free them from their molds, which is important to do whilst the the soap is still soft enough to cut into bars. It then gets to sit and cure further for another four weeks, until it's mild enough to use. Here's the cut soap, which by this time was a pale lilac:

Pretty! So that seems to have worked. I started another two batches tonight, one floral, one rather more manly at my darling's request - he is ever so forbearing of my whims, although did suggest that I could do with a shed.

Fingers crossed it is fully cured in time for present-mas!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Enter Sandman

Last week's photoshoot (and thank you for the lovely comments) was all about getting the camera settings ready for Halloween. We didn't go to Torture Garden like last year, but we did go somewhere that was equally fitting of serious dressing up. It was another White Mischief night, as we've been to before, but smaller than the others as it was at 33 Portland Place, a small mansion/private party venue in Bloomsbury (with a bad reputation - there was a police drugs raid when we were there!), rather than in a big club. The theme was "The House of The Sandman", but the original German version by ETA Hoffmann, which is much nastier than the sanitised version we get these days, like most of the Brothers Grimm stories. Here's the relevant quote from the story:

“He is a wicked man, who comes to children when they won’t go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there. They have crooked beaks like owls so that they can pick up the eyes of naughty human children.”

As such, one of the suggested dressing-up themes was "eyeless bodies", and that's what I chose to go with, getting some black-out contact lenses for the occasion (not the full-sclera ones though, those are incredibly expensive), fake blood, and a new corset - any excuse, right? In the 20 minutes we had to wait for our cab, the boyfriend took rather a lot of pictures of me, and this being an entirely narcissistic post (and blog), I shall present them here:

He's a clever boy with a camera, isn't he?  Everybody kept saying I looked really young wearing the lenses.  I'm not sure why that would be.

I don't have any good pictures of the evening itself, as the boyfriend was shooting film (old skool!) and it's not developed yet, and I took my smaller camera on the basis that it fits in my handbag, but it truly is shit in low-light conditions, so all my photos are shaken to buggery. I'll put them up though, so you get the general idea.

Me and the boyfriend, who went as Wee Willie Winkie, "sleepwalkers" being another recommended theme:

Me and Mrs Lovett, aka Gail, complete with meat pies:

A rather sexy older man with a gravelly voice and marvellous dusty grey wings. I told him he was like Leonard Cohen will be when he dies and goes to heaven - if only I wasn't spoken for...

Smokers on the patio, photographed because I really wish this many people wore hats in everyday life:

The Sawchestra, there being rather a lot of saws being played that night:

Burlesque performers, one as the devil, one as a ballerina in a hooped skirt:

The Puppini Sisters, who are fairly famous but I thought they were rubbish, but they only did three songs anyway:

And actually even more rubbish was Death doing a pastiche of Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet":

Our hosts, the band formerly known as Kunta Kinte, now called Tough Love. They're pretty good and they did a cover of Metallica's "Enter Sandman". Rock on!

I actually didn't get a photo of by far the best band of the night, The Dead Victorians. Check out their songs on their Myspace page - genius. So much so that we're trying to book them for the wedding. This is rather indulgent because we already have the awesome Southern Tenant Folk Union booked, but hell, we may as well make this a music festival while we're at it, and some risque songs from men in top hats will go down very well indeed.

Unexpected visits by the Metropolitan Police notwithstanding, the organisation wasn't great - the hideously overpriced bar even ran out of alcohol by just after midnight, and we all called it a night just after 1am. Better to leave early when the going's still good, in my opinion. Sadly I have no scheduled dressing up occasions this side of Christmas now, but I'm sure I can find one if I look hard enough...

P.S. Here's the official photographer's shot of us, and here are the police!

Monday, 3 November 2008

Hope vs Experience

This is not about tomorrow's US election, despite the concepts of the title being rather hijacked in recent months. I don't really want to blog about politics, particularly those of a country not my own - in many ways it's none of my damn business. Which isn't to say I don't have an opinion or indeed a strong preference; I just doubt my blog will be well served by discussing it. All I will say to any US readers is: please go out and vote. Not only did people die to give you a vote, not only is it your civic duty, not only do you have no right to complain if you don't bother, but it would just be nice this time if whoever does get in has a proper, undisputed mandate to lead. Don't worry, I'll be saying exactly the same thing whenever we get round to having an election over here. Sermon over.

What prompted the title was actually this rather touching piece of graffiti in the loos of London's Astoria II music venue:

If you can't read it, and there wasn't much I could do to make it clearer, it says "Florence *heart* LIAM 4 EVA (HOPEFULLY)". Doesn't that just speak volumes? Florence, poor girl, clearly likes Liam very much, but she's so painfully aware that these things don't always work out. Perhaps things haven't gone so well so far.  I don't even want to dive into the psychological depths of why she's done her name in lowercase.  Fingers crossed for you, unknown lovers.

We were at the Astoria to see a band with rather a lot of experience: Kill Hannah. They've been around since the early 90's, but really only got famous on the recent emo bandwagon. I'd never heard of them until the boyfriend got tickets, but it's always fun to go along to something completely different, if only for crowd watching. Emo kids are so funny, after all. And kids it was - they were all so young! I mean, seriously, even the lead singer referred to them needing fake IDs to get in, which makes them mid teens, it's not just me feeling my age. Given he, underneath his Robert Smith-style hair and makeup, is 34, it was rather disturbing to watch the teen girls who could easily have been his daughters scream and squeal, desperately wanting to be the "crazy angel" or the "girl with lips like morphine" of the best-received tracks. Apparently knicker-throwing is not uncommon. The tour (and the album they're plugging) is called "Hope for the Hopeless" and I really do hope that's the case with those groupies. Many of their parents were waiting patiently outside in the cold to collect them, and I doubt they'd want their daughters breaking their hearts over him.

In case you're wondering, and it seems this the most common question they get, Hannah was a girl who the singer briefly dated who then dumped him. He retaliated by naming his then-new band "Kill Hannah". Apparently she knows and doesn't mind. The boyfriend and I have several possibilities between us over the years for a popular beat combo to be named "______ _______ is a Fucking Bitch", but sadly we both lack the musical talent to make it to the big time, and it really would only be a decent riposte if we managed to get to the top of the charts. The second most frequent question for Kill Hannah is, he said, "What's your proudest moment?" He claimed it was playing the Astoria that night. We were sceptical. It was a cold Wednesday night in a tiny venue by Tottenham Court Road. But that and the other over-emotional hyperbole from the stage seemed to go down well with the kids. Shame his speaking voice is so much like Michael Jackson's...

They were very good, though. I'm not dissing their music. I had a great time!

Oh, and it seems black fingerless gloves are absolutely de rigeur for an emo. Must knit some, because whilst I'm not an emo, I do think they look wicked cool.