Another new sewing machine – my Singer 401g

I have been toying with the idea of buying a Singer slant shank machine for a while, and during lockdown I took a punt and bought one reasonably local on eBay. Not the smartest move you might say, sight unseen and all that. I spent quite a time scrutinising the photos very carefully, read up about the machine, and asked lots of questions of the seller. Call it a treat to myself.

Updated with some photos just now, 16:00 4th July

Above, as it arrived, a bit grubb

And below, after a good clean up

Finally I went to collect it – social distanced collecting methods in use and no stopping en route. Its outside is a bit grubby, but its working and has all its accessories down to the lint brush and set of screwdrivers. Its obviously well used, it was owned by a dressmaker before, but I would guess not used for several years. However, its got service labels and having all its accessories indicates to me that it was well cared for and valued. It came in a drop down table, which was perfect as wanted one in a table, but not a massive cabinet.So far I’ve opened it up and cleaned its insides, removed as much old gummy oil – or as I can reach – and given it a thorough oil with light sewing machine oil. The double direction pattern dial was gummed up, and this gentle cleaning and oiling helped to loosen it up so that I could (very carefully) encourage it to move, and now it works freely. Its fascinating to see how the selection mechanism works, not that I am an expert at mechanics, but I can see the little paddle moving and the rise and fall of the selector post (probably the wrong name). I am itching to try out all those amazing built in patterns. I can’t right now as you will see in the next paragraph.The original clam-shell foot pedal is with it, and it did work – sporadically. After a while there was a nasty smell (reminded me of when my Bernina 1030 went into melt down, and when my Brother 950i knitting machine and very, very vintage Kenwood Chef did the same) and the machine would not stop running. Luckily the plug was close to me, so I whipped it out to the socket before any damage was done.My clever son opened the pedal and told me I should have cleaned that out (didn’t even think of it, sorry), and then he replaced a blown capacitor – he is pretty nifty at this and has a stock of electrical bits. The pedal now works – but the connection from the pedal lead to that ‘banana’ plug is dodgy. In addition some of the old plastic has broken away inside the pedal and the plug has a chunk missing which worries me. I’m not confident around electricity having had a few experiences that unnerved me, (see above). He offered to repair the lead and plug (he thought Sugru) and will in time, but I decided to order a replacement so that I could use the machine until then. I will compare them to find which gives the best speed control as some reports say new ones are not as sensitive.The motor seems OK, and my son will clean it at some point. So far the machine has displayed a lovely straight stitch – equal if not better than my Bernina 1030, and far better than the Jones 125.I did hanker after a Singer 411g or 431g but I think the 401g will satisfy me. It was only the chain stitch of these I wanted, but reading about it it sounds to require lot of fiddling to get it right and so that do you leave the machine set up just for that? Seems a waste to me, so I’ve let that wish go for the moment. I also think I remember that my Janome Coverstitch machine will do chain stitch, so maybe that is something to explore. I’m not even sure why I want chain stitch – I’m just a machine nerd (maybe?).Want this space for more chats about the Singer 401g that has joined my machine stable. Its going to be sewing frontline masks once the new pedal arrives.

Rub-a-dub-a-fleece

Washing (or scouring) raw fleece is not a quick job, I think that’s something all can agree on. It’s also surprisingly contentious. Everyone wants to tell to their method, and you gradually learn that different fleece require different scouring methods, so everyone is probably right!

So I’m going to write about my experience today.

I have been given a rather nice Shetland fleece. Rather nice that is, but filthy. The fleece is very greasy and every single lock is gummed together and dirty at the tip. Underneath however, you can see the gorgeous fibre hidden under the grease-trapped dust and poo.

It doesn’t look too bad here, but thankfully this is not smelly-vision
See what I mean about those yucky tips?

I gave some of it a good hot soak  yesterday with plenty of washing up liquid. The water was like oxtail soup (sorry if you like oxtail soup), but after a few rinses it seemed OK.

However, this morning’s inspection showed it to be still greasy and those dratted dirty and sticky tips were still gummed up.

Rather than transfer that gunk to my carder I reluctantly decided to re-wash the fleece. So more really hot water baths followed. The first was so hot I couldn’t put my hand in it, with loads of washing up liquid and a dose of washing soda to break the grease. I  always wash the fleece separated into small mesh lingerie washing bags. With this second wash, I opened each bag, one at a time under the water and teased the locks apart, concentrating on those dirty tips to loosen the greasy dirt.

Yes it was time consuming, bit surprisingly gratifying as the dirty came out quite easily with this method. I think because the fleece has just been sheared the dirt hasn’t had to much time to harden-off.

Now it’s drying out looks amazing and is so soft.

I’m itching to get spinning

DIY cloth face mask – free pattern and instructions

I organised an online face-mask-making workshop yesterday, and the links below are to the instructions and pattern for the mask we made. You can read more about making different types of masks on my DIY mask making page. If you just want to get stuck in, please use the links below to download the pattern and instructions and make cotton face masks for your family and to donate to key workers. The pattern has an opening to allow a filter to be inserted.

Pencil spinning

Due to the virus situation the workshops have been closed at the University where I work, and we are ‘remote teaching’ from now on. That is quite a challenge for a practical subject like knitted textiles.

One thing I have enjoyed over the years of teaching first year knit design students is their excitement and enthusiasm when they realise that they can make their own yarns. Normally I would be running a hand spinning workshop for them next week, but obviously not anymore. We have two spinning wheels and I take in a box of drop spindles. Cartons of fibre are pulled out of cupboards and spill all over the floor, its a lovely day with some wild yarn developments taking place. I think its a great way to encourage them to explore the raw materials of textiles, and also to introduce them to yarn design.

But sadly this year its not to be! So I decided that before they left I would demonstrate ‘pencil spinning’ using two commercial yarns. Even this simple method was received with excitement, so I have made two short videos for the students, but have shared them on YouTube for everyone and put them on here as well. Bear in mind they were made for the students, following a demonstration so I refer to this, and the focus is on making small amounts of marl yarn for hand knit design sampling.

They have taken yarns away with them, so I hope to see that they have applied their wonderful creativity to making new and colourful yarns.

Knitting and Wellness

Today met James McIntosh and Dr Thomas Ernst, inventors of the term ‘knititation’ and authors of Knit and Nibble. They had been invited to speak at the University of Brighton School of Art’s Centre for Arts and Wellbeing event, Knitting and Wellness.

When we first met, James told me that he had found The Knitting Book really helpful when he was teaching himself to knit – which was truly gratifying feedback. It’s nice to find out how people use and value my contribution to sharing knowledge.

James was first to speak, and he described his personal journey through depression and how knitting mindfully enabled his recovery and brought colour back into his life. Thomas discussed the science behind mindfulness and it’s aptness to knitting.

Nina Dodds, author of Invisible Jumpers, and I provided yarn and needles so that everyone who wanted to could knit during the event. We were gratified that everyone took up the opportunity!

This was my piece of knitting.

It was a great talk, entertaining and interesting. James and Thomas kindly gave me a copy of their book which I am reading this weekend.

At the end Thomas led a short mindfulness session, which was a new expressive for some of the audience. Hopefully we all left feeling refreshed.

Like James, and so many others, I find hand knitting keeps me calm; it’s repetitive movements bringing my attention back in a rythmic cycle. So now I’ve written this it’s time to take up my needles for a soothing session.

Long Buckby machine knitting club talk

Today I had a lovely day with Long Buckby Machine Knitting Club. They had asked me to come and talk about my book Translating Between Hand and Machine Knitting and gave me a wonderfully friendly welcome. This meant talking about my experiences as a machine knitter was like sharing with friends.

I met so many interesting people who have interests in common and was pleased to see some younger faces on the audience.

Janet Collins, Chair of the Knitting and Crochet Guild was there and spoke to the meeting about the recent amalgamation of the Knitting and Crochet Guild and the Guild of Machine Knitters. She also gave an impassioned plea for members to encourage younger people to become members. She told me that if the Guild is not offering what young knitters want, the way forward is to find out what they do want and make this an aim, otherwise the Guild will dwindle. As there are 1,500 members this would be a real shame.

I’m now on my way home feeling a warm glow from the kind words and the opportunity to meet genie machine knitters with so many skills.

Felted singles

Having read about this spinning technique I though I’d have a go. It doesn’t save much time as you still have to run the yarn back through the wheel, which takes as long as simple plying. It was prompted by my practise at making a ”Z’ twist fat singles’ and so I decided to over-twist this singles yarn as I practised the night before a dyeing session. So I treated it cruelly when washed it, and also in the hot dye bath as well.

As there were several colour dye baths it was too tempting not to dip-dye the hank. Firstly it went into red-cabbage allover, and then the ends were dipped into madder and turmeric.

This is what it looked like before hot washing and dyeing.
And after re-spinning it’s open up nicely and is quite soft.

I’ll be trying this out soon to see what it looks and feels like as a knit.

Knit Step by Step – new edition

A new edition of Knit Step by Step has been published this month. With new content including step-by-step instructions (with lots of lovely photos) of how to work the exciting on-trend chunky ‘arm knitting’. All wrapped in a smart new cover it looks great!

step by step 2020
Cover of the 2020 editon of Knit Step by Step

Visit to Diamond Fibres – wool processors

Today I accompanied a group of students on a visit to Diamond Fibres in Horam, Sussex. The company processes wool for worsted spinning, rather than woollen spinning, so concentrates more on longer staple fleece.

Starting in the sorting shed, we were shown round by Roger, the owner, and given a really thorough introduction to the processes involved in changing raw fleece into yarn.

There was a Wensleydale fleece on the picker, which Roger explained had already been washed once at 60 degrees to remove the first lot of dirt and oil and then dried. After picking, which would open up the compressed curls that the first wash had not reached, it would be re-washed and dried before further processing. He reckoned that it may in fact require a third pick and wash.

The students were looking tired just at the thought of this!

Following picking, the next process is carding the fibres to start aligning them in parallel into a continuous ”sliver’ of fibre. Unlike my meek little hand carder, they have a carding machine with 16 drums of metal, not wire, teeth. At this stage, any short fibres will still be in the sliver, it isn’t until combing that these will be removed.

The sliver begins to look more like something that is spinnable, but there are still thin and thick sections along its length. To eliminate these and even out the sliver it goes through ‘gilling’. Diamond have two of these machines. The first one has wider spaced teeth, and is used at this point, whilst the second is much finer and bulks up and evens out the sliver later on after combing.

When the sliver goes into the gilling machine, two are fed in at once, producing one thicker sliver of uniform thickness.

The fibre will in all likelihood go through a second gilling, during which the output sliver gradually bulks up, according to the machine settings, to achieve the required grams per metre.

If the requirement is for carded roving for hand spinning, this will be the last process. It may even be stopped earlier on, depending on what condition fibre is required.

If however, the desired outcome is combed sliver, then it has to go through the combing machine. This takes up to sixteen slivers side-by-side through the combs, crimping the final sliver to compress the fibres together and prevent breakage. It looks like doll’s hair emerging from the machine. Any remaining short fibres, nepps, noils or debris fall out into a waste bin beneath the combs.

This combed sliver has become slightly uneven during the combing process, and this is when it goes through the finer gilling machine to produce a consolidated, even sliver ready to have a small amount of twist introduced, (about four turns per inch) to make a softly twisted roving.

This roving is then drafted out into a thinner roving, and finally drafted and spun into singles weighing approximately 0.2g per metre. Amount of twist can be controlled to produce softer or firmer yarns at both singles and plying stages.

The singles can be plied into 2, 3, 4 etc ply yarns according to need. 2 ply tends to be flat, 3 ply rounded, and 4 ply has a square profile. To make a cable yarn, 2 x 2ply can be twisted together.

2ply yarn made from two of the 0.2g/metre singles would weigh approximately 0.4g per metre. This would yield something like 250 metres per 100g, which is within the DK category of yarn, and will be between 12-14 WPI.

Of course, as Roger pointed out, natural fibres do not conform as precisely as synthetics do, so there are highly likely to be variations in weight to length of a hank of yarn depending on humidity and other physical conditions when it is weighed. Oh the joy of natural fibres, thats why we love them!

I think the students now really appreciate how much work goes into making the yarns they pick off the yarn-store shelf. One even went so far as to say that they would never again complain about yarn being so expensive!