Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bagatelle the Second

Here is my other recent pattern. This one takes even less time to knit than Balalaika and is certainly more functional. The world probably did not need another cell phone cozy pattern. But when Matt burned his hand on a pot handle hot from the oven, it was clear that Something Must be Done.

Download pattern from Ravelry

Photographing Prophylaxis was more work than design and knitting combined, but it made for a well-received dinner party. From left to right: goat cheese, leek, and prosciutto frittata; pan-roasted asparagus and cherry tomatoes with toasted garlic; and sour cherry cobbler (all recipes adapted from the inimitable Cooks Illustrated franchise).

After designing the pattern for Prophylaxis, it occurred to me to make sure I wasn’t just "unventing" it, as Elizabeth Zimmerman would say. My researches uncovered this charming number, which I will have to make some time for the sake of the clever stitch design. However, it wraps around the pot handle in a way that doesn’t seem very foolproof.

Although the function of Prophylaxis is as wholesome as it gets, the presentation in the written pattern is just a little risque. (I challenge anyone to have resisted the temptation.) Since this would otherwise be a great design for kids to churn out presents for all the family, I will cheerfully Bowdlerize the pattern at the first request.

Friday, November 27, 2009


knit Tetris mosaic cell phone cozyI’ve been designing knitting patterns feverishly for the last year, and have gone public with precious few of them because I’ve been so focused on getting published. This post and the next will feature a couple of bagatelles that were apparently not substantial enough for the big time. But who wants substantial when it’s knitting-to-a-deadline season?

I’ll lead off with Balalaika, my homage to Tetris on that game's 25th anniversary. This cell phone case was great fun to design. It’s an interesting mental challenge to arrange the blocks without gaps (and so restful, without the blocks falling on your head as you puzzle it out). I enjoy working with mosaic patterns, and I love how this pattern looks like any old mosaic until you pay attention.

Download pattern from Ravelry

Balalaika was almost as fun to photograph as to design. The bright sunlight on the day of the shoot was a challenge, but I’m so tickled that we figured out how to make it look like the knitting was in free fall, that I’m not too fussed about the lighting.

Now that I’m done working on this project, perhaps I will finally get shed of my “Back in the USSR” earworm. Could be worse though -- I could actually remember how the Balalaika tune goes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Red Cabbage Dyeing Lab Report #1


Pacific Northwest, close to sea level, city tap water known to be of fairly high quality


100g KnitPicks Bare superwash fingering weight yarn (75% wool, 25%nylon) divided into three hanks (I wasn't impressed with how well the yarn itself emerged from the rigors of dyeing - seems a bit loosely spun)

Scouring and Mordant

Washed yarn in grapefruit-scented Ajax dishwashing liquid and rinsed. Simmered yarn one hour in 8% alum and 7% cooking cream of tartar. Rinsed, allowed to dry, and stored for a couple of weeks.

Dyebath Preparation

Chopped 250g red cabbage and simmered one hour (keeping temperature below 212 F). Let dyebath steep overnight - a lovely purple/magenta color, and strained out cabbage.


  • simmered yarn in dyebath one hour (keeping temperature below 212 - mostly gently bubbling) and achieved a pale, purplish gray
  • added 1/2 cup salt - no improvement
  • added 1/4 cup vinegar - no improvement
  • simmered another hour - no improvement
  • let sit in dye bath overnight - by now a bit more redness to it, but marginally so
  • during all this, the color of the dyebath remained essentially unchanged
  • rinsed yarn


  • swished one hank in ammonia water (4 glugs of ammonia from the half gallon bottle, as small as I could make them) until a nice pale green - a couple of minutes
  • swished another hank in ammonia water for a shorter period of time, so didn't turn quite as green (also not quite as even around the cotton ties)
  • swished the third hank in water with 3/8 cup vinegar - no discernible difference


Allowed yarn to air dry overnight, during which time all pretense at purple faded from the acid skein, leaving it gray with a few small bluish spots (like old mimeo). The greens also lost some of their joie de vivre.

All three colors look better in incandescent light than in natural light. In fact, oddly enough, the yellower light gives them a bit more redness.


There are so many places I could have gone wrong - I don't have the experience to judge.
  • not enough alum
  • wrong cream of tartar
  • something in the water
  • dyebath too hot
  • not enough acid
  • wrong species of red cabbage
  • wrong season for red cabbage
  • process not as described due to unspecified user error
I do think we can rule out insufficient cabbage, given the beauty of the dyebath and the fact that it was not a whit exhausted. Also, while the nylon content probably made for a paler dye job, I doubt it changed the color.


If one wanted to knit a weathered 1930's gingham dishtowel, this yarn would be just the article. The colors are pleasant enough, but not really my style. Overdyeing is probably in the future. Maybe with blue, and something to sadden it a touch.

Given other people's experience of red cabbage finickity and its reputation for eventually greying in the best of circumstances, I doubt there will be a lab report #2.


Wild Color by Jenny Dean (sadly, out of print)
Natural Dyeing by Jackie Crook

Friday, March 13, 2009

Homemade Yogurt

As I've been looking around for ways to trim the grocery budget, yogurt stands out as an obvious choice. At $3 a quart for Nancy's yogurt, it seemed worth figuring out if I could do better.

I hauled the yogurt maker out of Narnia,* and gave it a try. It worked reasonably well, but reminded me why it was consigned to Narnia in the first place -- it makes eight 4-ounce cups, which is way too much fuss and bother.

So I turned to middle Joy to learn how to make yogurt without a special machine. Middle Joy (1975) is the go-to version of The Joy of Cookingfor do-it-yourself back-to-the-land recipes. Middle Joy suggests using the oven, but ours doesn't have a low enough temperature setting. It also suggests just putting the yogurt in a cooler to work its magic. Bingo! We have a beverage cooler that is just the right size to hold a quart canning jar.

Making Yogurt in a Cooler

This recipe is very simple. The only time consuming bit is waiting for the milk to cool.

I have tried using nonfat milk and supplementing with a bit of dry milk powder as a thickening agent, but haven't had very good results, so now I use fresh milk with 1% fat. I don't generally drink milk but, since milk is much cheaper by the gallon, I buy a gallon and freeze the rest for later yogurt making.

I find that yogurt made with yogurt as a starter tastes a bit better than yogurt made with powdered starter. Also, a box of 6 packets of powdered starter costs about as much as 6 yogurt cups. so you might as well get the extra yogurt for your money. If you make yogurt frequently enough, you can use your last batch of yogurt as a starter for the next batch, and not have to buy starter at all.

  • 1 quart milk
  • yogurt starter (per package instructions) or 2 tablespoons of reasonably fresh yogurt (less than 5 days old) with live cultures
  1. Heat the milk to 185-190 degrees F (a digital thermometer with an alarm makes this easy). This takes about 8 minutes.
  2. Cool the milk to 110-115 degrees F (this takes roughly half an hour at room temperature).
  3. Put starter in a separate cup, mix in a little of the warm milk, add it back to the rest, and mix thoroughly.
  4. Pour mixture into a quart canning jar and put in cooler. Add towels on top of the jar to fill up any extra air space inside the cooler.
  5. Let cooler sit undisturbed for about 10 hours. (Jostling interferes with yogh-ing).
  6. Refrigerate yogurt.

Bread Machine as Yogurt Maker?

Despite the manifold virtues of the cooler system, I wasn't satisfied at first, because it's not particularly easy to get the yogurt out of the tall quart jar. Two wide-mouth pint jars are better for serving but, stacked on top of each other, they're too tall for my cooler. Of course, I didn't discover this until I had them loaded and ready to go.

As I stood in uffish thought, I noticed my bread machine (another fantastic money saver - over time). The jars fit perfectly into the machine's loaf pan. I made a custom program that didn't do any kneading and spent as long as possible on each of the pre-heat and warm cycles. Unfortunately, my particular machine forces you to include a bake cycle in the custom program, and maxes out at 6 hours for the other cycles. So I set my kitchen timer for 6 hours, came back before the bake cycle, restarted the custom program and took the yogurt out after another 4 hours.

I was pleased I could make it work, but the process was too much fuss for me - I'll live with yogurt in a quart jar from now on.

*Narnia is our random term for deep storage of unneeded kitchen wares -- couldn't say why. Neither can we explain why the food processor is called the Gorbachev -- it just is.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Plastic Pipe (CPVC) Swift

I recently embarked on a project to reclaim laceweight cashmere from a commercial sweater. I quickly realized that I had no interest in skeining approximately 3500 yards of yarn onto my niddy-noddy. Matt to the rescue -- with plastic pipe of course (other plastic pipe projects to his credit include a woodwind instrument, a laundry airer, the niddy-noddy, a footstool, and a yarn rope maker).

I used the swift to skein the yarn directly off the sweater, which was a fabulous boon. While this swift was inspired by the need to make yarn into skeins, it also works well for winding yarn off of skeins.

After Matt made this swift, I thought to search online for other PVC swift projects, and found this one. It's very nice, and superior to Matt's in some ways: it is easier to load with a skein of yarn and it may not require a clamp to hold it in place. But Matt's swift folds up smaller for storage, has a handle, and adjusts easily to different skein sizes, all of which are important features to me.

Here are Matt's write-up and project pictures. They're not a step-by-step tutorial (I certainly couldn't build a swift from them), but if you know your way around a workbench, they should get you headed in the right direction.

Matt's notes

I built this in about half a day. I had most of the parts on hand, though I did have to make one run to the store.

Dimensions and skein size range

When opened out so that the verticals form a square, the sides of the square are about 12" long and the diagonal of the square is about 17". The smallest skein it will accommodate (with the arms all the way closed) is about 3' in circumference. The largest skein it will accommodate (with the arms opened out all the way) is about 6' in circumference.

This is about as big as you'd want to make the swift out of 1/2" CPVC. Under tension the arms twist a little, allowing the verticals to lean inward slightly. This is inelegant but has not proved to be a problem yet.


  • 1/2" nominal CPVC pipe (5/8" O.D.), fittings, and pipe cement
  • 2x4 and scrap wood
  • self-adhesive felt (found at the hardware store alongside the furniture casters and glides)
  • all-thread rod, machine screws, washers, and wing nuts (see below for specifics)

Central pivot

I drilled a 5/8" diameter hole through the 3 1/2" dimension of a 2x4 and inserted a CPVC pipe axle through the hole to make the pivot. I did not oversize the hole because I didn't want the finished swift to wobble. The fittings on either end of the axle are cemented in place to prevent it falling out. I lubricated the axle with a little petroleum jelly. It turns smoothly and easily without wobbling.

Adjustable arms

I used a drill and a file to make corresponding slots in the fittings at the hinge locations, through which I inserted #6 machine screws with wing nuts. Once the arms are adjusted to the desired angle, the wing nuts are used to compress the fittings and hold the arms in place. To use, loosen the wing nuts, set the arms where you want them, then tighten the wing nuts enough to resist the yarn tension. Re-tighten the wing nuts if the arms start to fold inward as you wind yarn onto the swift.


One of the four verticals is longer than the others and serves as a handle. The other three verticals have tee fittings on top which are not glued on. The tees keep yarn from riding up past the ends of the verticals. They are removable to make it easier to put a skein on or take it off the swift.


The goal was to use the materials I had on hand to make a clamp that would work on the 2" edge of a typical counter or on any tabletop less than 2" thick . All I can say is, it works. It's big and ugly, but it's strong and stable. If I make another swift I'll probably try adapting a commercial clamp of some kind (here's an interesting example).

The lower jaw has a slot in it rather than a hole, so that its angle can change as the clamp is adjusted. The chunk of dowel keeps the wing nut and washer from lodging in the rough-edged slot. If I'd had something smaller than 1/4" diameter threaded rod or if I'd made a neater slot, the chunk of dowel wouldn't have been necessary. The self-adhesive felt prevents the jaws from marring the table or counter.

Possible improvements

Skein Loading
To put a skein on this swift you fold the arms in enough to pass the skein over the vertical pipes, then open the arms out enough to put some tension on the skein, all while managing the skein itself -- a somewhat fussy proposition, because if there isn't enough tension the skein falls down. One solution would be to extend the horizontal pipe members out past the verticals by 2-3" to give the skein somewhere to rest while you're fiddling with the adjustable arms. You might want to make the extensions removable so they don't get in the way while you're turning the swift.

Handle Placement
With the handle as currently configured, short persons winding miles of laceweight will get tired of reaching for the handle at the far end of its circuit. With the swift opened out to its maximum circumference, reaching the handle while standing clear of the arms is awkward for anyone. Rather than having one of the verticals that carry the yarn do double duty as a handle, you could mount a separate handle closer to the pivot point (you could even allow it to slide along one of the horizontal members so that its distance from the pivot was adjustable). This would reduce the distance between the user and the far end of the handle's circuit. Just don't place the handle too close to the pivot point, or it will be difficult to turn the swift smoothly.