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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Second attempt at spinning

Four years ago, after taking a spinning class, I wrote,

I very much enjoyed the class and think this is something I'd like to do more of. I also think I learnt enough to get started on my own, provided I don't leave it too long before trying again. Once I've got started, I suspect I could make a lot of progress with just practice, though there's probably a lot I could learn from other people, too.

At about the same time, a dear friend of mine offered to lend me her spinning wheel, as she hadn't used it for some time. As it happened, the next time we met was at her son's wedding, and she kindly brought the wheel with her to the wedding and handed it over to me there. Chatting to her daughter Polly on the same occasion, I lightheartedly promised that I'd wear something handspun to her wedding, at some unspecified time in the future.

Once home, I found the wheel a little daunting. I looked at it nervously from time to time, noting its lack of drive belt or connection between treadle and wheel, and the bits of half-spun wool tangled around the wheel's axle. I picked at these occasionally until eventually the wheel ran freely, but didn't get much further, and the wheel gradually retreated to an out out of the way corner.

Provided I don't leave it too long. Hmm...

Just over a week ago, Polly got married. Some weeks before that, I started thinking about my promise to wear something hand spun. I was quite sure she'd have forgotten about it and even if she remembered, was hardly likely to care. All the same, it was a reminder of just how long I'd neglected the wheel and it was a shame to leave it unused, especially considering the effort taken to get it to me. In the meantime, I had got as far as buying some carded wool, with the best of intentions to use it. I had a little bit of cheap brown wool to practise with, and some gorgeous purple merino to make something nice.

As at the class, if I started with beautiful purple fluff, surely whatever I made would end up looking nice?

With the deadline of Polly's wedding to spur me on, I brought out the spinning wheel and gave it a bit of a rub down with furniture polish (wax and oil) because it looked a bit dry. I then turned my attention to the flexible parts. The treadle wasn't too difficult; it was fairly obvious how it needed to be connected, so I tied the two parts together with a bit of string, leaving it just loose enough to allow movement. I then consulted the internet to try and work out what kind of wheel I had, and therefore how it worked. The closest model I could find was the Kromski Polonaise:

Do check out Spinwise.co.uk, where I pinched the photo from. They have many nice things.

Having found a similar wheel online, I could see that it differed from the one I learnt on in a key feature: Instead of having a break (an element I found to be of utmost importance to my spinning attempts), it is a double drive wheel. This means that the drive belt goes around the wheel twice, once to drive the flyer and once to drive the bobbin. The drive wheel on the bobbin is smaller than the one on the flyer, meaning that the bobbin turns faster, and the difference between the two is what gets the yarn wound onto the bobbin. There are two things going on here: First the yarn is twisted, then it is wound onto the bobbin. All very clever, but the fixed ratio made it feel like I had less control than with the brake.

It seemed that string was an acceptable material for a drive belt, so I made a belt from string. First though, I had to find out how to adjust the tension. This involved twisting knobs that didn't want to be twisted - most nerve-racking on someone else's wheel.

String? What string? I have no idea what you're talking about.

Once I had the wheel working, with a little help from George, I had a go at spinning my cheap brown wool. It wasn't easy. To start with, I couldn't get it to wind onto the bobbin at all. I spent ages adjusting the tension until it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't spinning the yearn fine enough to go through the orifice, and it was just getting stuck. As well as working on my spinning technique, I did quite a bit of polishing of various parts of the wheel, and eventually got going. By the time I got to the end of the 50g of brown, I was feeling reasonably confident that I could make a useable yarn. It was still very thick - so much so that I decided not to ply it (twist two together) but use the singles directly, as I didn't want super-chunky yarn (nor was I entirely sure the bobbin would take it).

I crocheted up the brown practice yarn, both to check that it was actually possible to crochet single ply, and see what size piece I'd end up with following the pattern I had in mind. I say, follow and pattern as if it was all written down. It was just an idea. Crocheting it up gave me a chance to see whether it was a good idea or not.

After reasonable success with my test piece, I started work with the purple fluff. George like this very much. I managed to persuade him not to get into the bag of fluff, but he kept getting as close to it as he could.

George liked the purple fluff.

My spinning wasn't very even...

Lumps and corkscrews

... but I'd seen beginners' guides offering the advice that first attempts usually end up being fancy yarns like this, so I didn't feel too bad about it. Also, I discovered that it's possible to improve it after the event with careful twisting and drawing out, though there was a risk of breaking it every time I did this.

I crocheted the yarn straight off the bobbin, without bothering to wind it into a ball in between. This meant I was alternating spinning with crocheting, which I quite enjoyed. Since I was using singles, I could join one bobbin-full to the next in exactly the same way as I'd join yarn when spinning, so I have a piece crocheted from a single strand of yarn, which is quite pleasing. The second time I did this, I failed to take the bobbin off the spinning wheel before joining, leaving me with a bobbin-full of yarn on one side of a small hole, and a half-crocheted scarf on the other. The crochet work was somewhat less portable than it might be until I'd finished that bobbin.

Here is the finished garment, modelled by George:

George serving as a black velvet cushion

It's a little too short to be a scarf, and a little too narrow to be a shawl, but at something between the two, it's quite wearable, and I did indeed wear it to Polly's wedding.

With my brother-in-law, nephew and niece, who played their parts as page boy and flower girl excellently

The next step is to start from a raw fleece and learn how to scour and card it. This may require the purchase of equipment.

Monday, 13 July 2015

In case you were wondering how dock leaves affect nettle stings

A well-known folk remedy for nettle stings is application of the common dock leaf, scrunched up and either rubbed or dabbed on. However, very little research has been done on the chemicals involved. Some assume that dock is alkaline and counters the acidic sting that way, but it doesn't take much research to discover that dock is, in fact, acidic. This leads some people to say that there is nothing in the dock that will soothe a nettle sting, so it must be a placebo. Someone said this to me on facebook today, which led me to do a little research.

Don't get me wrong, I'm well aware of the power of the placebo effect, but I'd be surprised if that's what's going on here. Firstly, there's been at least one occasion on which I've picked the wrong leaf by mistake, and found the nettle sting still hurting hours later. Secondly, this looks like a reasoning error: Dock doesn't counter the acidity, therefore it's ineffective. This fails to consider any other chemical in the nettle sting that might be affected by the dock.

Infographic from Compound Interest detailing the chemicals in the nettle sting, and a possible source of the claim that the dock leaf is merely a placebo. The accompanying article makes clear how limited the research is in this area.

After a bit of digging, I managed to find one scientific study that looked at the effect of dock on serotonin (also called 5-HT), histamine, and acetylcholine, which are all present in the nettle's sting, and also the related compound nicotine. From the results of their tests, they conclude that dock leaf extract specifically antagonizes 5-HT. In other words, dock leaves work by suppressing the effect of serotonin in the nettle sting.

The original report was published in conference proceedings here (p58) and I'm not very surprised that this has been overlooked. Conference proceedings are not the most visible form of publication for scientific studies. I'm just doing my bit to spread the word about this little study.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Mushroom season has started!

I know that the serious mushroom hunters find 'shrooms all year round, and many are lucky enough to find the spring varieties - St George's mushroom, dryad's saddle, morels - but I've yet to find any of those (apart from the one I found growing in the store room), so mushroom season for me starts late summer/early autumn. From a couple of online groups, I knew that they're coming up early this year, so I've been on the lookout for a week or so. Yesterday, George came out for a look with me, and...

George, not entirely convinced that these mushrooms are interesting

... the greencracked brittlegills are up! I see from a previous post that these were up in late August a couple of years ago, so they really are early this year.

It's just possible to see the green dusting on the side of the mushroom in this picture. I tried to point it out to George, but he wasn't paying attention.

These are very mild tasting mushrooms. Fried in butter, they're very nice; they taste of butter. They're useful for padding out stews and suchlike, but there's a limit to how much almost-tasteless mushroom I have a use for, and they do come up in huge quantities. However, I had an idea.

I had great success pickling oyster mushrooms last year, following John Wright's instructions. I added some herbs - rosemary and bay - and the result was delicious. I wondered whether the very mild brittlegills might take on some herbal flavours with similar results.

The procedure starts with cleaning, chopping, and salting the mushrooms.

Salting the mushrooms

The purpose of this is to draw out some of the moisture. As it happens, this variety is very dry, so almost no moisture came off, so I'm not sure this part was really necessary, but I didn't feel like cutting corners this time. I duly salted, left for a couple of hours, drained off the non-existent liquid, salted and left again, drained (there was a little this time) again, before rinsing quickly to wash off the salt.

The next stage is to boil the mushrooms for a couple of minutes in vinegar, then leave them in the vinegar for a couple more hours. After this they can be bottled, but first I rolled them in chopped herbs - wild garlic (previously frozen in oil), lemon balm and thyme - before putting them in the jar and covering in olive oil. John Wright doesn't include the next step, but I did heat the jar in a cool oven (everything was pretty warm to start with) so that it would form a vacuum to seal it.

One jar of pickled brittlegills, infusing in herby oil

I'll leave these a while for the flavour of the herbs to infuse, then let you know how they turn out. As a bonus, the vinegar is converted into a delicious stock* as it has swapped some of its acidity for mushroom flavour. Similarly, when the pickled mushrooms are gone, the oil has taken on mushroom and herbal flavours.


* I'm not sure that's quite the right word, but it's a savoury liquid that's a good basis for sauces