Monday, July 29, 2013

Stained Fingers Dye Camp - The Experience

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to spend several days with Kim McBrien, owner of Indigodragonfly, the hand-dyed yarn and fiber studio a few hours north of my home. I joined four other yarnies for the 4 day long Stained Fingers Dye Camp: 4 days of learning how to hand-dye yarn and experimenting with color.

I'd booked accommodations at a newly renovated B&B, called Studio 23 run by a local artist Helen Vella. When I arrived, I was shown to a lovely room with a queen bed. I settled in, making use of the handy kitchen facilities upstairs to tuck away the lunch foods and snacks I'd purchased in town.

Monday morning, I tucked into the most delicious and bountiful breakfast I've had in ages! There was no way I was running out of energy after that breakfast: scrambled eggs, baked beans, bacon, mushrooms, fried cherry tomatoes, home fries, toast and fruit. And coffee - lots of coffee!

Then it was off to Dye Camp. After the first bit of orientation and safety lessons on mixing dye powders, we set to making 2 sets of sample dye cards in the shape of a color pyramid. Kim had provided us with 2 different shades each of the primary colors - blue, red and yellow. We followed the formulas on the color pyramid to vary the amounts of red, blue and yellow in each color sample. It was all very precise. When mixing dye powder, one must carefully calculate the amount of powder required, down to 1/10th of a gram and know the correct proportions of water to add. When mixing up the color samples in our pyramid, we were working with syringes that measured in milliliters, allowing us to blend exact shades.

Dye samples before cooking
We used small jars filled with bits of undyed sock yarn, adding dye and citric acid to each sample.

After cooking our samples, we were amazed to see that all the dye had been completely absorbed by the yarn, leaving clear water in the jars.

Dye samples after cooking: water is clear.

Once we had our sample card, labeled with the recipe for each base color, Kim turned us loose on her wall of undyed yarn and pointed us at the dye pots with the instruction to "Go experiment!"

Tensions ran high that first afternoon as we each tentatively began working with the dyes and dyeing pans. How would the different fibers react? What color should we choose? Would we cook it too long? What was the math formula again? When was the yarn done?

Slowly the yarn drying racks began to fill up:


And fill up:

 And fill up!

Okay, so maybe the racks didn't get that full in just one day. 

Safety first! Wearing masks while mixing
dye powder.
Day 2 we spent the morning learning to hand paint yarn and process it. After the initial lesson, Kim once again set us loose on the yarn. It was fun to watch each person's reactions to their own and each others' yarn as it came out of the dye pots and then as it dried. And Kim was there every step of the way to encourage us, help us with the math, and provide guidance about techniques for achieving the look we wanted. We also learned about her experiences sourcing yarns from around the world, working with mills, and trying to promote and support local companies.

I didn't have a particular goal for the camp other than to dye a bunch of sock yarn. I dyed a bunch of blue yarn first - my favorite color. And quickly learned that it's critical to ensure all your yarn gets exposed to the dye. It's extremely difficult to get even coverage and eliminate white spots on your skein. I ended up over-dyeing all but one of my skeins.

On Day 2, we got to see Ron and Darby in action, dyeing up pot after pot of Indigodragonfly yarns. It was stunning to see the pace and precision with which they were able to dye 140 skeins of yarn. Each one turned out gorgeous and exactly as planned.

My biggest "oops" of the week came on day 3. I had 2 goals for the day: 1) to over-dye some olive green yarn that had some white spots, and 2) branch out into Fall reds and golds on a couple of skeins. As my yarn heated up in the dye pot, I busily mixed up the dye for over-dyeing.  Once the pot was simmering, I dumped in the dye - only to realize that I'd dumped the dye onto blank skeins instead of the already dyed skeins I wanted to over-dye.

That's how I ended up with 4 skeins of olive green yarn instead of two. Then I decided that I didn't like the green and over-dyed it again with blue to create a peacock/Nova Scotia tartan effect which I was rather pleased with. 
Towards the end of Day 3, I was beginning to master the art of ensuring that all my yarn got equal dye coverage the first time around. In fact, we were all becoming quite proficient and confident - to the point of beginning to improvise and experiment. Unfortunately I had to leave camp after day 3 to go back to work, while the other ladies spent another day playing with yarn, fiber and dyes. 

Stained Fingers Campers modeling our yarn!
(photo (c) and courtesy of indigodragonfly)
I'm so glad I took advantage of this fantastic opportunity to learn more about all the hard work, skill and creativity that goes into creating hand-dyed yarns. It gave me a new appreciation for all those beautiful skeins I see for sale by independent dyers. It's not as simple as combining yarn, water, dye & heat. They have to consider who is farming and processing the yarns they source, build their knowledge of different dyes, how they react to various fibers and what colors they create. 

Then they have to master the techniques to create gradient yarns, self-striping yarn, solids, semi-solids, variegated, hand-painted, and whatever else I've left out. Each skein may get dyed multiple times to achieve just the right effect. Or have different colors added at just the right moment during the process to get a rich layered effect.

There's the photography, marketing and all the behind-the-scenes administrative work (shipping, receiving, responding to inquiries, keeping up with industry events, web site management, accounting) and so much more. 

Suddenly $25-35 for a skein of perfectly dyed yarn shipped directly to my home, ready for me to knit, seems a small price to pay.

Four days, unlimited dyes = a lot of yarn! And mine isn't
even included here since I left early.
(photo (c) and courtesy of indigodragonfly)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview - Patternfish

 Over the last 5 years, several craft-oriented websites have emerged as key players in bringing the fiber arts into the digital world. Among these leaders is the web site Patternfish, the brain child of Julia Grunau in Toronto, Canada. Patternfish provides members access to over 14,000 knit and crochet patterns from major publishers and independent designers alike.
While I'm busy organizing my thoughts and photos of my 3 days at the Stained Fingers Dye Camp, here's a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at Patternfish.
1) Where did the idea for Patternfish come from? How did it come into being?

I joined the industry in 1997, as a rep for S.R. Kertzer.  That means I worked for a distributor and sold yarn to yarn shops in and around Toronto-- Lopi, Stylecraft, Classic Elite, Austermann, Naturally, lots of different brands.   

Of course, the yarns and colours were great, and that's where everyone principally made their money.  But a lot of the designs really knocked me out: the beauty and imagination of them-- Classic Elite's in particular.  At the same time, though, patterns were often treated as afterthoughts-- quickly discontinued if a yarn quality failed, and then literally trashed.  They could disappear forever.  And the designers were notoriously poorly compensated. 

I thought all this was appalling and wondered over the years if something couldn't be done about preserving the patterns, regardless of the particular yarn's availability (and compensating the designers on a royalty basis).  I certainly never threw any of them out, even after I left the company and struck out as an independent rep.  Eventually it dawned on me that they could be sold as PDF's in a kind of massive, independent, unaffiliated online pattern bookstore, and since no one else seemed to be doing it, and I wanted to shop there, I thought I should.  So Patternfish was incorporated in October 2006.

While Phil was still writing the code, for a year or two before we went live in June 2008, I went round to all the usual trade shows I had attended and talked to all the people working for those companies whose patterns I still kept, and asked if I could scan and post their catalogues for sale.  I already had a lot of their patterns-- all they had to do was give their permission and then wait for us to send them their money.  For the most part they were incredulous that anyone might actually choose to buy something not from the current season.  But I could see that even if they thought I was being idiotic, I was at least a trustworthy and amiable idiot long known to them, so they all said to go ahead.  I was very lucky.  Now, of course, we have what engineers call "proof of concept" industry-wide.

2) What is the goal of your site?

First, and from the beginning, I wanted good patterns to get respect.  I wanted people to care about them as potential works of art.  For a long time they were treated like Kleenex.  I thought this was a dreadful miscarriage of justice.  Would you toss out an Alexander McQueen dress because it's a year or two old?  Certainly not.  Why do it with designs?

I want to present great-quality, compelling patterns as if they were in a beautiful magazine of their own, with large lush photographs and the kind of captioning that actually gives you a good idea of what the pattern was about.  If I'm going to have to purl four together through the back loops 500 times, I want to know about it in advance.

I want these worthy things to appear in a beautiful, classy setting.  I want people to get patterns at their best, in all senses of the word.  I want people to be able to sit in front of Patternfish with a cup of tea or glass of wine and browse happily at length until they find exactly what they want.

I do NOT want to be bombarded with flashy headache-inducing ads, so we don't carry any.  This has actually worked in our favour: yarn stores tell us they're happy to send their customers to our site because "they're not going to get poached by another store" offering free shipping or whatever.

I thought that if all this worked, that pattern sales would enrich the designers and companies (it costs Bergere de France, for example, about 2000 Euros to produce each of their designs, from sketch to printing, and they produce hundreds a year-- how long is this sustainable?).  And from the beginning, I saw it as all intertwined.  That if you sold more patterns and enriched those publishers, yarn sales had to follow from somewhere: "a rising tide floats all boats".  And from having worked in a big yarn store (Romni Wools in Toronto), I knew something else.  I dreaded someone coming in without an idea in their head of what they wanted to make-- or worse, too specific an idea, which would make finding that exact pattern impossible.  But if someone came in with a pattern already, and asked, "Do you have the yarn to make this?" then I could always answer "Yes!" and everyone would be happy a lot faster.  I never wanted to compete with yarn stores; they're too important.  So long as I make the decisions, we'll never sell yarn or anything that's not downloadable.

Once, one of our publishers-- also a yarn manufacturer!-- suggested launching a Patternfish brand of yarns.  I was very amused by this.  Why compete with our suppliers?  What on earth could we do better than they, yarn-wise?  I'd rather make their own product look irresistible, then everybody wins.

3) How many patterns does Patternfish have available? Where do they come from?

We have over 14,220 patterns, and that number increases virtually every day.

Sometimes we approach designers or companies and ask for their work; sometimes they approach us.  Of course, we have a dream list that we work on all the time.  Sometimes it takes years to get a commitment.  You have to be very patient and very focused.

4) What do you offer to your members that is different from other pattern web sites?

(I'm not terribly familiar with how other pattern web sites operate, so can't really compare.  That said...)

First, Patternfish has an unparalleled selection of superb patterns, both contemporary and vintage, from hundreds of renowned designers and name-brand publishers all over the world.  Almost half of them are exclusive to us-- absolutely not available anywhere else.  And when you buy from Patternfish you know that your purchase is backed up to the hilt.  Both we and the publisher stand behind the product.

One thing people always mention is our response time.  If you have an issue of some kind, and email us, apparently we respond very quickly compared to what customers might be used to elsewhere.  Phil and I have all the Patternfish email inboxes visible at all times and practically trample each other trying to get problems solved, and there are other Patternfishers who check frequently as well.
Our monthly newsletter is more engaging and entertaining than others according to fans who write. People describe it as sitting down for a chat with a knowledgeable  knitting companion.

Also, since patterns and associated customer happiness are all we ever think about, we've been innovators in a lot of ways that others have copied: establishing your pattern stash, automatic access to corrected PDF's if there's errata, and so on.  In addition,  Patternfish's pattern stash lasts forever, many others don't.

100% of our software and product development is devoted to bettering the customer's pattern experience.  I don't believe other pattern-buying sites can say that.

We are about to increase the speed of the site by a factor of 10, and introduce a couple of other staggering new features and products.  Fall 2013 is going to be very exciting for us.

5) Do you see trends in the kind of patterns that are popular among your members? (aside from seasonal trends)

Cardigans are more popular than pullovers for both adults and kids.  Cabled designs are decidedly more popular than fair isle or intarsia.  Easy is more popular than hard, obviously!  But the biggest single popularity factor, I think, is when something doesn't have to fit exactly.  Many knitters and crocheters shy away from having to achieve very precise fit or measurement requirements.  So anything where an exact fit isn't required-- shawls, shawlettes, wraps, swing coats, A-line cardigans-- they all do very well compared to more tailored projects.  Top-down designs are very popular, especially for babies and children, probably having to do with this reason; you can try the piece on as you go and adjust on the fly.

6) Is there any criteria for a pattern being accepted to Patternfish or can anyone post a pattern?

You have to have a good design.  We don't care if it's for spats or lunch boxes-- we have both.  The pattern has to be well-written, and preferably tech-edited.  The pictures have to be nice and big and crisp.  And we much prefer it if you have a body of work, say, 12 or more patterns all told.  It's very hard for anyone to make any kind of splash with much fewer than that.  The more patterns you offer, the more you tend to sell of each one.

No one can post a pattern directly on their own-- not yet, though it may happen in some cases.   They all have to go through an approval process.  Not to vet each one for arbitrary quality or standards of taste; once a designer or publisher is on board, they're free to do and submit whatever they want.  We check more for uniformity.  We want "Cascade 220" to be spelled the same correct way wherever it appears, and for Brown Sheep Company to be the manufacturer across the board rather than sometimes Brown Sheep or Brown Sheep Co. or whatever.  We (try and!) make sure the spelling is correct and that a US7 needle is correctly reflected as a 4.5mm and so on.  Just yesterday I had to change a yarn manufacturer's listing from "Alicia Goes Around" to "Alisha Goes Around".  We love having people be able to search designs by yarn manufacturer or yarn name, but for this to work properly, you really have to be consistent.  It takes a surprising amount of time.

7) How do you see the site evolving over the coming years?

Everything we do will be aimed at improving the PDF pattern browsing, buying, and holding experience for our customer.  And everything we do for the customer will benefit the publishers commensurately.  We will become more international both in patterns offered and revenue reach (right now about 75% of our sales are American).   There are going to be different formats and platforms to work with.  We're terribly excited.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Preview - Hand dyed yarn

I'm home from the Stained Fingers Dye Camp hosted by Indigodragonfly. Camp runs for 4 days, but due to work obligations, I had to squeeze all my dyeing into 3 days.

I'm too exhausted (happily so) to write an in-depth post about camp. But here's a sneak peek at some of my yarns:

Friday, July 19, 2013

Stained Fingers Dye Camp

I'm going to summer camp next week!

My daughter will be away for the week at a friend's cottage, so when a couple last minute cancellations created openings, I decided at the last minute to book myself into Indigodragonfly's Stained Fingers Dye Camp. There's another session in August that might have some spots open, if you've ever wanted to learn to dye yarn.

I'll be staying at a lovely B&B up in Haliburton and heading out to Kim's dye studio each day for hands on lessons in yarn dyeing. I'll be bringing some sock yarn I've been meaning to dye for ages.

The dye camp is 4 days of hands-on instruction and experimentation. Kim will be giving us the basic skills on the first day and then we have 3 days to play around with color. I'm very excited to be learning at the hands of a master! Have you seen her gorgeous colors?

Indigodragonfly yarn is available around the world, in select locations. They run their dye studio out of their home in the beautiful Haliburton area. They've done so well (not surprisingly) that they're bursting at the seams and looking to build a new studio so they can dye more yarn more quickly and meet the demands of their ever-expanding fan base.

Expect a full report, with photos, later next week when I've returned home from camp.

Also, I may have a cunning plan to dye up some sock yarn for future blog giveaways! So why not leave a comment stating your favorite color? Give me some ideas of what to dye up.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sock Sandwich

Gathered up some socks I had laying around and snapped a fun photo:

Patterns & yarn from the top down:
The Dowager's Prize Diamonds (pattern not yet released) in Lola-Doodles Twinkle Toes
Tread Lightly, in Raventwist Starri
Swirl, in Cascade Heritage Sock
Intertwined, in Wollemeise
Styles Court, in Sheepy Time Knits, Sheepy Feet
Trellis and Coin, in Estelle Cadenza
Wrought Iron, in Madelinetosh Sock
And then there were None (pattern not yet released), in Squeaky Elliot yarn

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Oh Happy Day!

I've had an exciting morning already and it's just lunch time now. There's even more of the day to come!

First off, as I was having my morning coffee, trying to wake up enough to start work, I checked the Ravelry "Hot Right Now" list on the Pattern page. This is a constantly changing list that ranks the Top 20 most viewed/active patterns on Ravelry.

To my utter amazement, my brand, spankin' new Joanna Lymstock shawl is at #7!  See -->

It's always exciting to have a pattern appear on the Hot Right Now list. For practical reasons, it's great exposure. In personal terms, it's just a thrill to know that people are looking at something I created.

My Styles Court socks and Mirkwood Shawl have also made appearances on the Hot Right Now list.

My other exciting moment this morning came when I received the July Patternfish newsletter. Back in June my Mirkwood shawl had the honor of being chosen as Patternfish's official 14,000th pattern published. As a followup, the Patternfish folks have been kind enough to feature me as one of their 6 newest designers! Go check out the newsletter and see some of the other wonderful designers who have patterns available on Patternfish.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

New shawl pattern released (sale!)

I've just released a new shawl pattern, the Joanna Lymstock shawl. This is a crescent shaped shawl which can be knit in either fingering or lace weight yarn. The lace portion is simple yet engaging, and the stocking stitch section makes this a very portable project. This is a perfect lightweight shawlette for a summer’s picnic or that special evening out. It would look fantastic held closed with a shawl pin.

The pattern accommodates both lace and fingering weight yarns, providing instructions for both. There are charts and written instructions. Also, I provide modification guidelines for customizing the size of the shawl. Approximate size of the shawl (based on the pattern) is 59" x 16".

The pattern was originally called the Dayflower shawl, since that's what the lace motif is called. But I've taken to listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks whilst knitting. While designing and knitting this shawl, I was listening to The Moving Finger, set in the town of Lymstock, in which Joanna Burton is one of the characters. Joanna is a pretty, carefree girl who is used to city life (ie, London) who relocates to the tiny town of Lymstock to help her brother recuperate from his war wounds. This shawl reminds me of Joanna Burton: delicate yet strong, interesting yet straight-forward and (by the end of the novel) equally at home in the city or the country.

This pattern will be **50% off ($2.50)** on Ravelry between July 16th and July 23rd, 2013. After that it will be $5.00.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Study in Socks - Your first time

You never forget your first time - knitting socks, that is. Usually because it is scary, frustrating, confusing and not quite as much fun as you'd imagined.

I always get a bit nostalgic reading people's posts on Ravelry about their first sock attempt. I, too, hated my first sock experience. I recall it vividly. I was using an Opal self-patterning yarn and some cheap metal DPNs. Because I wanted to replicate the nice firm fabric of a commercial sock and wanted to avoid laddering, I was knitting very, very tightly. So tightly that I literally had to struggle to push each stitch across the DPNs to knit them. Sometimes it took me a good 5 minutes to move those stitches from one end of the DPN to the other.

I was miserable. I put away the first sock in disgust and swore that sock knitting wasn't for me. Never again, I promised myself.

A year later, I got a sudden desire to try it again. As is usual, the desire struck when all yarn stores were closed and I didn't have the right kind of needles. But I fixed that the next day and tackled socks again, this time using wooden needles and loosening my knitting. A lot. The rest as they say, is history.

Lately I've been contemplating writing up a tutorial for first-time sock knitters to make their experience much more enjoyable than mine was. But then I found several pertinent threads on Ravelry with links to existing tutorials. Why reinvent the wheel? So I decided to gather up a list of resources for first timers.

If you know someone who wants to try knitting socks, this might be a good place for them to start looking for help. Or, if you know of any resources that should be listed here, by all means, let me know.

Socks, for the first time (advice and reference links):
  • As long as at least a few people have successfully knitted the pattern: Stop over thinking. Just follow the pattern one stitch at a time. It will all make sense in the end. Just trust the pattern.
  • Silver's Sock Class: This was what I used for my first sock.
  • Easy Peasy Socks for First-Timers, by Stacey Trock. This is the tutorial I would have written. I love her sense of humor and straight-forward style. For example,
    • "heel flap
      For the heel flap, you will only work the 20 sts that are on the first needle. (yes, this
      means that some parts of your sock will get longer, while other stitches sit around
      looking lonely. Don’t feel bad for those stitches. They’ll get to do exciting stuff later on.)
  • Socks 101, by Kate Atherly
  • The Humble Sock goes Toe Up, by Nikki Burns
  • Learn to Knit Socks, by Staci Perry.  You do have to pay $8 for the pattern, but it includes a series of Youtube videos showing each difficult part step by step, and people say she is a phenomenal teacher.
  • Just your basic baby sock, by Patti Pierce Stone. Many people recommend learning on a baby size sock so you finish it faster and thus don't get discouraged by how long it takes.
  • Lucy Neatby offers a free workshop-style sock pattern on her website. Just register and look in your Notebook under free patterns.
And the mother-lode of information for first time sock knitters: Links and resources for beginning sock knitters from the Sock Knitters group on Ravelry.

This isn't a comprehensive list. There's Youtube videos, websites and blogs all over the Web with handy info. Mayhap I'll keep updating this list as I find new resources that I think will be helpful.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Of yarn and project bags...

I recently took advantage of a sale at Little HipKitty's Etsy shop to pick up a couple more project bags. Because one never has enough project boxes, right? *cough* Or is that just me?

Well, this weekend I was headed for the cottage so I packed up some yarn for a secret project and tucked it away in one of my new project bags. I blame the fact that it was a long weekend, but I just now noticed that my yarn is all matchy-matchy with my project bag!

So naturally I had to show off how coordinated I am. I certainly feel fancy, having everything match! *grin*

I'll definitely be going back to Little HipKitty. The Chirp bag pictured here is just perfect for knitting notions or a small project like socks. It's well made and quite sturdy, with a lovely, strong fabric handle. You can see more of the kinds of bags available in the shop in the past sales section here.

The other bag I bought is lovely too. Sadly, my daughter appropriated it and it is unavailable for photos. It's stuffed full of an 8 yr old girl's treasures.

A princess bag for my little princess

Shhh! Identities have been obscured to protect the innocent!
PS. That's Lola-Doodle's Dowager's Prize Roses sock yarn.