Bunny Plucker

Zeus Post Shearing 2014

Not to spend all of my blogging time on making the fiber animals all naked, but it is spring, and the shearing needs a-doing. Or, well…it does if you’re a rookie rabbit owner who underplucked the poor buns during the winter for fear of them freezing and then found, come spring, that their legs were almost felted in place.

Word to the wise: if you raise Angora rabbits as fluffy as mine, you are NOT doing them or yourself any favors by leaving too much of their undercoat in place over the winter.

Zeus Post Shearing 2014
Zeus, post-shaving. I was able to preserve the top coat without shearing, so he’s just missing his dust ruffle.

My rabbits are a French-German mix, so I don’t technically need to shear them IF I keep up on the plucking. Their undercoats were so bad, however, that trying to trim the mats with scissors was almost impossible. It’s much easier to cut them with clippers, I discovered, so if you’ve got mats to deal with, borrow a pair of dog-grooming clippers. My mom has the Wahl Pet Clipper kit, and it did the job. I won’t say they’re the best tool you can buy for angora, so I would do some research and ask breeders of purebred German angoras about their clipper preferences before investing myself.

Ananke Post Shearing 2014
Ananke let me get a better picture of her shorn backside so you can see what they’re missing.

If anyone else finds themselves in a similar situation, for what it’s worth, here are the things I picked up in shearing mine and my mom’s rabbits last weekend.

Keep the skin tight.

Wrinkled skin can get caught between blades, which means cut bunnies. Which we all want to avoid.

  • If you don’t have a pro rabbit stretching rack or really chill bunnies, get a calm person whom the bunnies know to hold the bunny while you clip.
  • DON’T PULL THE WOOL. This causes skin tents. Pull the skin.
  • Try to gently pinch the skin between your fingers, just enough to feel where it is, so you know what you’re doing before you cut.

Know your bunny anatomy.

And gender. Trouble areas to be especially careful of include:

  • Nipples, especially on nursing does.
  • Penis and scrotum. (More the scrotum, those things flop all over the place.)
  • Legs. Put pressure on the joint close to the body to help straighten those out.

Maintain your equipment.

Part of this comes down to grooming the rabbit first to get rid of any dirt or hay in the coat, which is important if you have free-range rabbits. But also:

  • Oil the clippers before you start. Clean and oil them as needed while you work.
  • Make sure you’re working with a sharp blade. (If you can’t easily cut through un-matted fiber, your blade is too dull.)
  • Have good, sharp, short-bladed scissors on hand for areas where you find yourself needing more control.

The last trick I found useful is one for dealing with really thick mats. The clippers and scissors both struggled with those. I worked in very slowly by shaving a bit, then gently tugging the pelt a bit to loosen it, which gave me a less dense area to tackle next. It’s slow going, either way, but lesson learned: next year, I will be doing much more thorough plucking during the winter.

Ananke Spring 2014
Just for cuteness…a face shot of Ananke.

Breaking Black

Breaking Black Yarn

I’ve been enamored with the notion of intentional spinning of late, which is to say, spinning yarn for a specific project. I spun several hundred yards of a Romney-Angora laceweight blend, intending it for a shawl. When I finished, I was quite pleased with the end result, and, overambitious soul that I am, I said, “Hey, why not dye this intentionally too?”

I have only played with dyeing yarns solid or ombre up until now, but for some reason, I thought my beautiful skein of handspun would be well served by my assassination of the handpainting process.


The color palette I was using for inspiration was this room design off Pinterest. I aimed to get two different shades of gray, a deep chocolate brown, and a pop of rich teal in medium color runs. What I got was this:

Breaking Black Yarn
So…not even close to what I was going for.

It’s not entirely hideous, but neither is it the carefully designed set of colors I was aiming for. Mangy is the word that comes to mind, but maybe it will knit up better?

I had watched this very good tutorial on using food colors and a microwave to do handpaint dyeing, and the gal mentioned the possibility of “breaking black,” which is to say, breaking black into its component pigments. I somehow thought she meant that this would be difficult to do, not difficult to avoid, and so I blunder blithely on, thinking I could just using differing concentrations of black pigment for the different grays.

I swear that the paper towel test gave me the exact colors I was looking for. Clearly, there is something more going on in how the yarn takes up dye and I have much to learn. Especially about producing gray, because I happy to love gray at the moment, and I would like to be able to produce it consistently.

I think my next approach will be to try doing a gray ombre, with teal at one end and foregoing the brown. Hoping that the immerson bath will keep the dye more consistent and less broken. Any advice, you veteran dyers?

She Shears Meat Sheep By the Seashore

Going for the long-tail search terms with that title. Oh, yeah. The far distant tail of the long tail.

Seconds before I dropped the sheep into the shearing position--handling the sheep was, for me, the easy part.
Seconds before I dropped the sheep into the shearing position–handling the sheep was, for me, the easy part.

To aim for a shorter tale, I got to shear a sheep last weekend through the UMaine Extension School. They partnered with Wolfe’s Neck Farm to provide a pretty stellar (if entirely too cold), hands-on learning experience. Also, networking for farmers, FTW. Very impressed with the amount of materials they provided for the minimal course fee–on top of getting to handle sheep and being fed lots of chili, they sent us home with a manual that basically tells you everything you ever wanted to know not just about shearing sheep, but about housing, feeding, judging, and generally caring for them.

A friend who has taken some of the extension courses in the past said that extension education seems like basically a group of experienced people who really want more people to be doing the thing they’re teaching, so they bend over backwards to make it possible. That describes my experience.

But want you really want is pictures of me shaving a sheep, so here’s the album, complete with an “auto awesome” gif. You’re welcome.

Much laughter has been had at my expense by those who have known me since I was a squeamish girly-girl, but I also happen to be pretty good with animals and if my first sheep was any indication, it’s a skill I could master without overly much ado (practice, yes: ado, no). The New Zealand method requires some stamina and flexibility, but much to my surprise, I am stronger and more flexible than I sometimes realize.

Bonus? I picked up a massive, lovely Romney fleece for dirt cheap. Most of the sheep (being bred for meat, not wool, since no one lets a bunch of n00b shearers loose on a flock of fiber animals) had poor quality fleeces, but the farm’s ram was a (filthy) beauty whose fleece was destined for the wool pool. The farm let me have the fleece in exchange for a donation that was more than they would have gotten from the wool pool and much less than than I could have gotten it for at a fleece show. Everyone wins.

Granted, it’s going to be a beast to skirt and wash, but I’m pretty confident it will be worth the effort. Sweaters for everyone this Christmas! Or, you know…one a year for the next five Christmases. We’ll see. 🙂

Knitting as a Case Study in Gender Bias

I’m a bit of a vocal feminist, which you know if you read my other blog. I try to keep focused on the fiber stuff over here and leave things politics-light, but I read a couple of article this week that brought the two together in a way I just can’t ignore.

They’re both incredibly fascinating pieces that highlight, in a sideways fashion, the hidden underbelly of misogyny: it hurts men too. Not that I will claim that barring access to knitting is the same thing as being systematically threatened with rape and paid significantly less than men even now, but still, when women and everything they are traditionally associated with are demonized, men get cut off from potential avenues to happiness or expression or just plain being.

But let’s get to the articles. First, the one I was baffled and a bit annoyed with:

Young person with a Y chromosome is lauded for picking up a popular hobby in a fashion that can only be described as mundane and exhibits little more than average skill, but his hobby merits a three-page story because it is not typically practiced by young people with Y chromosomes.

Seriously. It would take NO WORK to turn this article into an article for The Onion. It already reads like a satirization of the way that women are singled out for success in Traditional Male Pursuit #267. The title of the article calls out the fact that it’s really only his gender that makes him noteworthy, yet there is no mention of his gender elsewhere. And yet…there is also nothing about the way that he came to the hobby or anything about what he has created that sets him apart from any other Gen-X/Millenial knit-geek I know.

There are two ways to deal with the Displaced Gender theme, in my opinion. (1) Talk about their gender and the specific challenges or odd situations this creates. (2) Pretend we live in a better world where gender isn’t an issue and focus on the brilliance of the work the person is doing.

Talk about gender or don’t talk about gender, but don’t write an article in which gender is the only interesting tidbit without talking about gender.

Scooby Doo says no. (Animated GIF)
No. Just…come on.

The thing I did find interesting about the article is that a man is treated here in a way that women are sometimes treated in non-female dominant fields: as a curiosity who merits more attention than seems reasonable given what he’s doing. This does highlight my main point, which is that women aren’t the only ones who lose out under misogyny.

As counterpoint, here’s a better article:

Vogue Knitting LIVE convention offers a panel where male knitwear designers and yarn shop owners talk about working as men in a female dominated industry.

The language of this post echoes the language you might expect to hear of women working in [insert, really, any field other than crafting or teaching little kids] or making a hobby of [insert any hobby that isn’t crafty]. It doesn’t try to make it out that men have suffered any real hardships by this (i.e., it doesn’t fall into the fallacy of equating the suffering of the oppressor with the suffering of the oppressed), but it does point out that the bias against female-oriented crafts has made it a little awkward for men to publicly pursue their interest and to connect with other like-minded fellows. The article also ends on a note of science about why knitting is generally beneficial, the bottom-line message being KNITTING IS FOR EVERYONE.

And that is something I think we can all agree on. Why I’m a feminist Reason #792: Knitting is for everyone.

Village Farm Alpacas

Female and young alpacas

Mom and I took a little jaunt up the coast yesterday for pie and an impromptu yarn crawl of sorts, which put us in a great position to visit Village Farm Alpacas. I’ve been interested in owning alpacas for a while now–it’s one of the reasons we bought the house we did–but this is the first chance I’ve had to get a better look at what alpacas take to raise. Terry, one of the owners, shared a wealth of information with me and I am so impressed that I would like to encourage anyone in the market for alpacas (breeding stock or pets) to give these folks a call.

Female and young alpacas
These are some of the females and young alpacas, leaving their barn.

What is the alpaca biz like?

I’m not interested in alpacas as a business, per se, but the Village Farm model is pretty interesting. They have a store, open 7 days a week, which is critical for supporting the breeding operation. If you’re selling animals for breeding stock, the only way to command the best prices on the market is to take your animals to shows to be judged on their fleece, size, health, etc. – but champion bloodlines are worth the cost of traveling to the shows. All of the Village Farm fleece is processed by one-woman with a solar-powered mill who runs her operation nearby, so they are able to sell roving and yarn to get a better market value for their products. If you buy from the store (which has a great selection of products from their animals and from a farm coop in Peru), they’re happy to take the time to give you a farm tour, which is the part I was particularly excited about.

What makes a great fleece?

Before we met the animals, Terry showed us a prize winning fleece and talked about what you want to see in a top quality fleece and how you look for that in an animal. Having a low micron (super thin fiber, about a fifth of a human hair) is valuable for softness, which you just have to have tested if you want to bring in top dollar for the fleece. For ease of spinning, the lock should have a good number of crimps per inch as well as a high amplitude crimp (bigger difference between the peaks and valleys of the crimps). You’ll want a good fiber density and fiber that organizes itself into bundles, which Terry pointed out you can see even from a distance in the animals–they’ll have good, poofy top-knots and look more wooly than hairy.

Meeting the animals

Terry introduced us to the ladies and the crias first, but the real fun came when he brought us to a pen to visit the gelding males. Geldings are MUCH less expensive than females or sires, the same way that dogs are less expensive if you’re not buying to breed them. They’re less aggressive than sires and friendlier than pregnant females, so this is what I would be looking at for my own little herd. Karuso (grandson of a champion) wandered directly over to me, and after talking to us a bit about how alpacas should and should not be handled (they’re herd animals who need to understand their place in the herd to be sociable, not cats you can pet and coddle without developing behavioral issues), he let me try holding Karuso in place and scratching his neck. Karuso wasn’t impressed with my animal-managing skills and ducked away after a minute, but I got enough time to get a little taste of what it feels like to handle alpacas in order to care for them.

Chillin' alpacas
The female alpacas in their barns.

What do alpacas need?

As Terry offered to put together a package of animals for me, which I sadly had to refuse because we are not quite ready for alpacas, he gave me a basic sense of what you need in order to care for alpacas.

  • Land: One acre can support up to 8 alpacas.
  • Company: Alpacas need other alpacas–three is the minimum you should keep.
  • Shelter: Alpacas need a simple three-sided shelter for the colder months.
  • Feed: Each alpaca goes through about 25 bales of hay annually, plus a specific feed supplement.
  • Water: Obviously, all animals need water, but you need to either have a frost-free tap and a self-heating trough or buckets for winter or the time and willingness to haul enough water for three large animals. (Well, large compared to rabbits, anyway.)
  • Fencing: Terry recommended electric fencing, but I might need to research that more deeply and possibly consider other options because having sweet fluffy alpacas behind electric fencing not far from the border of a residential neighborhood with a lot of kids strikes me as a recipe for deep-fried, underage trespassers who can’t be bothered to read warning signs.
  • Protection from coyotes: Their setup involves leaving talk radio playing at the edge of the field at night.

The last critical element is, of course, time. After getting rabbits last year, I can’t downplay this element–the rabbit grooming takes far more time for me than I thought it would after talking with pros. And while alpacas supposedly don’t require much grooming aside from toenails and an annual shearing, I suspect there’s always going to be some aspect that just takes me more time because I’m not doing the task frequently enough to get fast at it. So…not a decision to be undertaken lightly. Thought and planning required.

What doesn’t require much thought is pointing out that the Village Farm folks have some lovely fibers and garments in their online store as well, so if you’re looking to buy roving/yarn from really nice people with beautiful animals, you might want to bookmark it. And if you happen to have land ready to go and know you’re up for the time commitment of owning alpacas, you should probably give Terry and Bonnie a call–they’re very knowledgeable and helpful.

They’re also about two minutes away from Eagle’s Nest Yarns and the excellent strawberrry-rhubarb pie at Moody’s Diner, so there are many good reasons to make Waldoboro a stop on your next coastal Maine yarn crawl. 🙂

On Moths and Lanolin

Let’s talk wool wash for a moment, shall we? Because I am seriously confused. When I first started learning about working with wool, EVERYONE I talked to (farmers, spinners, knitters, etc.) told me that removing most of the lanolin from my fleece was critical BECAUSE moths eat lanolin. From multiple sources, in fact, I heard that some people hang onto a bit of the grease fleece in order to misdirect moths away from their stash. As I’ve been researching wool washes (because I’m cheap and want to know what goes into a wool wash on the off chance it makes better financial sense to make my own), I looked at the ingredients in Eucalan, which claims to repel moths. Seventh on the list? Lanolin.

You mean to tell me moths have a love/hate relationship with lanolin?
This is the face I made when I read that.

Incredulous, I dug further. The Eucalan site says that the lanolin is used to condition the fibers (hrm, okay, fine), and that it is the essential oils that work to repel moths.

I took a look at Soak next, which has a much more formidable ingredient list, but also notes in their About Us section that “No laundry wash will keep moths away from your knits (not Soak, and not our competitors). Because moths are attracted to the oils from your skin that are trapped in the fibers, your best bet is to wash them regularly and store them clean.” That jives with the claims I’ve heard on lanolin previously–it’s an oil sheep produce. Snack time for moths.

The thing is, I can’t find any great research on clothing moths and their relationship to lanolin, so what I want to know is (a) whether the naturally-derived lanolin in products like Eucalan is altered in a way that makes it not appeal to moths and if not, (b) whether the conditioning power of lanolin is actually worth the risk of attracting moths.

Finally, help me do a little impromptu research here (I’ll share the results along with a review of Soak versus Eucalan versus homemade soaps if I get at least ten responses):

Oops! We could not locate your form.

Most Wanted Muppet Knits

John and I went to see Muppets: Most Wanted last night because I am a massive Muppets dork and would have been sorely disappointed if I hadn’t caught the flick on its opening weekend. Quick and dirty review: it had a lot of good moments (Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais are perfection) and recaptured the somewhat chaotic, wordplay-riddled energy of the earlier Muppet movies (“They’re incapable of being culpable!”), but it fell short of being a tight production. Partially because of some of the lackluster musical numbers, partially from something that’s harder to explain but could be loosely defined as the writers needing a Kermit of their own to reign them in a bit.

Rest in peace, Mr. Henson.

The reason I’m mentioning the movie on this blog, instead of my writing blog where I tend to review movies, is that the one thing that was absolutely out of this world about the movie was the costume design. Ms. Piggy, as always, is of course the last word in phenomenal outfits that walk that elegant line between glamour and good taste, but what really caught my eye in this movie is Walter’s wardrobe. In particular, this sweater.

The picture doesn’t do it justice, but that is one heck of a lovely piece of knitwear, thoughtfully designed, gorgeous shade of blue, and obviously made of a fiber that works with the design for a great drape. It impressed me enough that I started paying attention to the rest of the cast’s knitwear, and Gonzo’s got quite the range of sweater vests for a weird blue…whatever. I didn’t find any great pictures of the rest of the knits from this movie, but searching for a picture of Walter’s sweater brought me to this cardigan of Walter’s from the last movie, which is also a heck of a detailed beauty of a sweater, no corners cut there.

Somebody please tell me that (a) these beauties were handknit and (b) they know where to find patterns for replicas in human sizes. Because I would buy a book of Muppet knits if they included those sweater designs.

Finally, just for fun, remember this intro? The big blue guy in the center (Thog) is a small part of the new movie, as is Behemoth (aka Gene), which is a fun throwback to the original show.

Cnuic Gloves

Fingerless gloves in handspun.

Ta-da! I spun AND knit these, finger gussets and all. I’m calling my iteration of the pattern Cnuic gloves because the rolling green-gray shapes makes me think of the hills in a book of Scottish fairy tales I remember reading as a kid.

Fingerless gloves in handspun.
Piano fingers!

And I’ve put the instructions together for you, completely free of charge. 🙂 Which is nothing, really, because finger and thumb gussets are pretty standard knowledge, and the stitch pattern is from Cookie A.’s Pomatomus socks and the two belong together.

Made from lightly green-gray handspun
Cnuic Gloves


Read about the spinning process »

Intentionally Spun

Skeins of yak/silk with spindle

I’ve finally done it. Only what, three years now after picking up spinning? I’ve finally spun something on purpose with a specific target in mind. And do you know what? It’s the first bit of handspun that isn’t sitting listlessly in my stash, waiting for me to figure out what to do with it. Who knew that when you plan the project out in advance, it’s almost impossible to wait long enough to let the twist set before you ball up and cast on.

Skeins of yak/silk with spindle
4 oz. / 375 yards 50% yak, 50% silk from One Lupine

This is roughly 375 yards of 17 wpi 50% yak, 50% silk. The roving was hand-dyed by One Lupine, a Christmas gift from my most excellent sister-in-law who lives in their general corner of the globe. I worked it up on my 23-gram spindle from Port Fiber. Quick review on the spindle: the spin was lovely, but I won’t buy fancy shaped edges on a whorl any time soon. The nature of the wood means that you get splinters, which means snags. Bad news for a 28 wpi single ply. The curvature of the whorl also made it hard to get the budding cone of yarn to sit snugly against the whorl, which made it trickier to build the cone in a balanced manner. Once I replaced the hook with a sturdy 1/2″ brass cup hook from Home Depot, I found it much easier to get a good, centered spin going and the weight distribution was good for what I was working with.

I knew from the moment I opened the box Christmas morning that this gem of a fiber was destined to be long fingerless gloves for me–my hands get severely cold when typing. I wanted them to be thin to avoid dealing with bulk in between by hands and the keyboard (the reason I don’t use the gloves I have), which meant aiming for a fingering weight yarn…which is about what I’ve figured out how to spin with some consistency, so that worked out nicely. 🙂

I did the math and figured out that with a 2-ply (again, only plying technique I’ve picked up to date), I would want my singles to be about 28 wpi. My mother gave me this little treasure for Christmas:

Spinner's Control Card
This control card makes it quick to check my gauge.

And let me say, I found it to be extremely useful.

The roving was a rainbow mix and a bit thin, so I split the colors apart and then split each of them into four parts of more or less equal weight. (Having a digital scale is unavoidably useful for spinning, I am finding.) That allowed me to spin four single of roughly equal length and roughly equal color variations so I could make two 2-ply skeins so I can make one glove from each and know (a) how long to make the gloves and (b) that they’ll more or less match.

Yak/Silk Rainbow Handspun
Hard a hard time getting the lighting right, but you can see the color variation.

Both of the balls came out weighing the same, within two yards of being the same length, and with fairly even color variation…though I got over-eager and started knitting before taking a shot of the balls together.

Pomatomus Glove
I love the subtle color variation with this stitch pattern.

And here’s a sneak picture of glove number one, sans fingers and thumb. The stitch pattern is from the Pomatomus socks on Knitty. I’m not the first person to have made this transition, but the other instructions out there are disappointingly lacking in specificity, so I’ll share my pattern notes when I finish working this out. Come back in a week or two for the details!

Update: Here’s the pictures of the finished gloves and a free pattern for them!

Ode to the Slouchy Hat

Slouchy Hat in Pink and Orange

I love slouchy hats. Mostly because my hair makes my head too big for non-slouchy hat to fit on, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I’ve been a little burnt out lately and have had very little interest in knitting things that are not slouchy hats. So here are my thoughts on slouchy hats and my review of a couple good patterns I’ve used.

The Anatomy of a Slouchy Hat

Every hat pattern I have ever worked with has started from the brim up, although there’s no reason you couldn’t hypothetically work it the other way. But let’s be classic and take the pieces in the order they are generally arranged in.

Brim: Ornamental or warm?

As a Maine-ah, I am off the opinion that winter hat brims need to be wide (tall?) and a bit snug in order to keep my ears properly warm. I prefer to start with a brim that’s 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide and fits like a beanie. If you’re making a hat for spring or fall (and maybe in a lighter yarn), you might want to just work the brim ribbing for 1/2 to 1 inch.

Increases: How wide do you want it?

The more you increase after the brim, the wider slouch you’ll get. I like a lot of flop, so a 50% increase tends to make me happy. If you have to adjust your pattern for gauge, here’s how the math goes:

[Number of stitches you want to end up with] ÷ [Number of stitches you have] = Number of stitches to work between increases.

If the answer is 2, as it would be for a 50% increase, you would (k2, m1) or (k1, kfb) around.

Height: How much flop do you want?

Whatever kind of hat you are making, the taller you knit it, the more capable of flopping off the back or side of your head it will be. For an adult with a massive head like mine, working a full eight inches from the cast-on edge before I begin decreases is a pretty good height.

Decreases: Do you like pointy hats?

The faster you decrease, the pointier the tip of your hat will be. For floppy hats, It works pretty well to take your largest multiple under 10 and decrease that multiple by one stitch every other round. For example, if you’ve got 88 stitches, your multiple for our purposes would be 8. So you want to (k2tog, k6) around, knit a round, (k2tog, k5) around, and so on down. Once you hit k2tog around, you can just work straight decreases until you’ve got few enough stitches to pull through and cinch  up the top.

Good ‘n’ Slouchy Hats

Striped & Slouchy Hat

Good, simple slouchy hats just don’t get any better than Christi Wasson’s My Striped & Slouchy Hat. This is a good pattern to use to play with gauge or to substitute yarn for. I have no idea what my fiber content was–something out of a grab bag I picked up at Halycon’s open house last year–but it was a heavy worsted that had enough spring to probably contain wool and enough softness to feel like cotton. Love the funky slouch, right? Perfect pattern for beginners or knitters who need a break from mind-numbing lace.

Slouchy Hat in Pink and Orange
Striped and slouchy and easy as pie.

Falling Water Slouchy Hat

If you want something with a little more pizzazz but not much more by way of challenge, Rose Beck’s Falling Water Slouchy Hat is delightful. I knit this from another unidentified (but probably a merino/alpaca blend?) yarn in my stash as either a gift or a charity hat, but I will be hard-pressed to give it away because I LOVE IT. My yarn was a bit lighter, so I added 8 more stitches to both what I cast on and to the increases for the large size. The pattern stitch is a multiple of 16, so if you need to adjust the sizing, just make sure you end up with a number of stitches divisible by 16 at the end of your increase row.

Falling Water Beret in Purple
The photo doesn’t do justice to the rich purple of this hat or the niceness of the lace.