Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Natural" Dyeing

When I started knitting 20+ years ago I thought it was just silly that someone would spend time making yarn. It never occurred to me that someone could dye their own yarn, but I would have thought that was a waste of time, too. While I have developed a different view over the years, a recent experience of using a plant as a source of dye is making me rethink all of this again.

I took a day-long workshop last year in which each student, led by an expert dyer, was given a small batch of yarn or roving and a choice of dye baths from plants like black-eyed susans and goldenrod. We soaked our fiber in the baths and took the results home to dry. It was really fun. I was told about all the work that went into collecting the plant and pre-mordanting the fiber, but only when I did it all myself did I discover how much work it was. I have planted several more dye sources, but I’m not sure I’ll be doing this again!

First, I grew the plant. This was not difficult, but it took some time (about 1 year). Then I collected the flowers. Also, not difficult. (the picture shows what is left of the plant now).

Then I boiled the flowers. This was not difficult, either, but it did smell rather bad. And then it became caustic, forcing me, husband and cat to evacuate the house for the afternoon. We sat outside while the cauldron bubbled its toxic fumes. Husband said he was fine with it, and it was nice when our noses stopped burning. It’s his fault for getting me the books.

It all sounds so natural, right? Growing plants, harvesting flowers, creating toxic fume clouds in one’s house. The part that seems less natural is the application of chemical solution to the wool so that it can accept the dye. This is the mordant step. I could have ordered the chemicals online, but instead chose to go to the garden center and purchase 3 lifetime supplies of mordant in the form of fertilizer (potassium aluminum sulfate) and fungicide (copper sulfate). Then a trip to the store to get cream of tartar (potassium acid tartare). True, all these chemicals are technically NATURAL, but it might not be what you had in mind upon hearing the term “natural dyes”.

Anyway, it was fun (husband agreed, cat won’t say) and the yarn looks cool.

The darker color was produced by briefly soaking the dyed yarn in an ammonia solution (more chemicals). It was supposed to be green, according to the book, but I was happy that it turned ANY color.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

finished the diminishing rib cardi

There are a few left-overs...

but, it's done!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

making progress on the diminishing rib cardi

It's the diminishing cable-down raglan.
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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In the catarondack chair

Outside is nice this time of year.
This is diminishing rib cardigan so far. It is definitely a striatum-dependent project, but I am very happy with the pattern. I'll get to the ribbing in another 3 inches--that will engage the prefrontal cortex a bit.
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Friday, July 2, 2010

The prefrontal cortex-striatum continuum, as it applies to knitting.

You know when you are totally stressed out you can’t follow a complex pattern, but instead seek out a simple, mindless project to work on? This could happen because the stress makes you more likely to use your striatum, which governs habitual behavior. Stress makes function more difficult for the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and following a sequence of events that are not habitual. While the striatum is activated when behavior is ongoing and doesn’t require paying attention, the prefrontal cortex is active when something new is being learned with a particular goal to be achieved.

I’ve been getting more and more interested in this effect of stress because we are doing research on obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is characterized by dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex and the striatum. People who have been diagnosed with OCD report that their experience is more intense when they are feeling stressed. There’s also evidence in rats that diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex is associated with stress-induced changes in behavior. And, one group has shown that rats will revert to habitual behavior that is governed by the striatum when they have been exposed to stress, when they would normally be using their prefrontal cortex to help them figure things out.

It seems I can’t knit without feeling rather geeky, so I’ve been viewing my projects on the PFC-Striatum continuum, with mindless projects at the striatum end and complex projects at the PFC end of the spectrum. Projects are rated by how much attention they require (can I bring the project to group knitting and drink wine, or does it require silence and high doses of caffeine?). Here is an example of striatum-dependent knitting:

The scarf in the middle shows how Noro yarn does all the work, while I mindlessly knit one row after the other. I may have used my PFC a little bit in the beginning, when I had to follow the pattern on the first 4 rows, but now it’s all striatum. The other 2 scarves pictured are similarly striatum-dependent. The rose-colored one is 31 stitches of spaced checks, June 9 on one of those perpetual calendars. The curly one is from Scarf Style, called Ruffles and designed by Amanda Blair Brown. The scarf pictured at the top is called Triangle Scarf and is from Norah Gaughan's Knitting Nature. This would be closer to the PFC end of the spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum, maybe even a bit beyond the extreme PFC boundary of the continuum, is Kelmscott:

This is what I have accomplished so far of the left front. The pattern changes on every row (no “wrong side rest” on this one), requiring constant attention to the pattern chart, like the few rows pictured here:

I only tore out the first few rows about 10 times before I discovered what I was doing wrong (the chart is knit in the opposite direction on the wrong side, which the directions made clear but I did not get it at first). I can manage about 5 rows before I need to put it away and do something more striatum-dependent. I don’t even attempt it if I’m feeling stressed or tired.

Here’s what makes Kelmscott so PFC dependent:

1. Each row is different, requiring close attention to the chart. While the individual stitches are easy, their sequence is not. The dorsolateral portion of the prefrontal cortex makes following the pattern possible, by allowing me to know where I am in the pattern (which row, right side or wrong, which stitch was just completed) and directing my motor system to follow the sequence of movements needed to do the different stitches. Stress would reduce the ability of the dorsolateral PFC to do its job, so I would be losing my place and making mistakes.

2. Kelmscott is going to take forever to finish, so what keeps me going, 5 rows at a time? My orbital frontal cortex allows me to balance the immediate and delayed rewards of the project so that I can stay motivated by keeping in mind the long-term benefits of what I am doing. So, while I might opt for a mindless project that produces quick results when I am stressed out, I am able to be more patient and work on the delayed-reward project when things are more under control. (I do gain some satisfaction when I make it through a row without having to tink back to the beginning).

I’ve been wondering if knitting Kelmscott could be used to strengthen my PFC? If this brain area is less active when stress perception is high, maybe increasing its activity could counteract the impact of stress. It has been shown to do this in rats (but not while they were knitting…). Am I doing myself a disservice by picking up the easy mindless project when I should really be getting the PFC revved up?

Next time: how I used my anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to abandon Cable-down Raglan.

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How I needed to use my anterior cingulate cortex

I found this yarn at Webs a few years ago. It’s Berroco Ultra Alpaca, a blend of wool and alpaca, in a color that I love but probably should not wear. I am now on the 4th project with this yarn, having abandoned the first 3 after making considerable progress toward their completion. Attempt 3 (pictured left) went farther than 1 or 2, and I still decided to ditch it and make Attempt 4.

Attempt 3 is Cable-down Raglan, designed by Stefanie Japel and found in the Spring 2007 issue of Interweave Knits. Attempts 1 and 2 were my own creations, but after they went pear-shaped I decided to follow a pattern. I thought it was nice how this design “follows the rules” per Stacy and Clinton, (linked in case you are living under a rock and don’t get that reference—please join us soon!) but it did not follow the same rules on me that it appears to have followed on the model pictured in the magazine. No, I believe that the model and I have different rules. I was also not pleased with how the cables looked a bit sloppy, like maybe I needed to use a smaller needle (granted, the picture does not support this concern). After Cable-down Raglan sat for about a year in this 1-sleeve-to-go state, I am now ready to tear it apart and use the yarn for Attempt 4. This decision was weighed carefully (and avoided for an extended period), and I believe it required a great deal of activity in my anterior cingulate cortex. This is a portion of the prefrontal cortex that allows one to recognize conflicts and make decisions when there are options to consider. Do I finish Cable-down Raglan and see if I like it after I’ve worn it a few times, or do I abandon it now and use the yarn for something I might actually wear? The conflict is that so much work has already been done (work that required my dorsolateral PFC, even), but it looks terrible on me. My extensive experience of completing items that look terrible has helped tip the balance toward Attempt 4.

Attempt 4 is Diminishing Rib Cardigan designed by Andrea Pomerantz (fellow science geek knitter; see her blog here) from the Spring 2009 issue of Interweave Knits. I’ve decided that the only way to make this color work for me is to keep it very simple. This pattern is considerably less PFC-dependent than was Attempt 3. You can see the modeled version here.

I've made it to the arm-holes with yarn I had not used yet, but now it is necessary to start taking yarn from the sweater in the picture...I'll share my progress soon.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Listening to my amygdala

I was recently reminded to heed the danger signals when a project is not going well.

Few hat patterns have caught my attention as much as Mary Ann Stephens' Polar Chullo. I am a big fan of Fair Isle knitting and I have a HUGE stash of fingering weight yarn--the chullo is a perfect project.

As I cast on 192 stitches (foregoing the flaps) I thought "that's a lot of stitches". The smallest circular needles I could find that were not already being used in my abundance of partially started projects were #2s and the patterns calls for #1s. Well, it's Fair Isle and tight is tight, so it wouldn't make much difference. These needles were 16 inches long, so the work was very bunched up. You see where this is going. I did, too, but I didn't LISTEN.

Here is a picture of the 30-inch hat band.
I have learned that my color choices look fine, that it would look better if the stitches were tighter, and that a 16-inch circular needle is too short. So, I have ordered a special pair of addi turbo size #0 20-inch needles.

Before I reached this Zen state of "it's the process, it's all good", I had an episode of rage. I got my indignant self on Ravelry to commiserate with everyone else who had a 30-inch hat band. Instead I saw 21 or so gorgeous hats, a bunch of colorways that were spectacular, and not a single mention of 10-inch distortions in hat band size. I was reminded that there are some amazing knitters out there. I was not feeling like one of them, and I got rather sad.

Not one to stay sad for long (it did last longer than the typical result of a knitting project gone awry), I pulled out of the episode by using some positive reappraisal: "at least you stopped before you completed the entire hat" and "now you know it's worth trying with a smaller needle size". I also reminded myself that my hat will look just as good as some of the ones on Ravelry.

The danger signals were coming from my amygdala, where past disappointments of failed knitting projects are stored in my brain. This brain area is part of a primitive circuit that coordinates a defensive response in the face of danger. A big bear jumps onto your hiking path, so your amygdala gets signals from your eyes and nose (big stinky dangerous thing) and also from your cortex (brown bear, more scared of you than you of him, but be careful anyway) and sends signals to your brainstem and hypothalamus to coordinate the appropriate response (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, courage to make yourself look bigger by jumping up and down, arms waving). This response begins subconsciously, before the cortex has time to interpret the details. Good thing, because sometimes thinking takes too long.

It might be good to get more in tune with the early signals from the amygdala. It's usually very accurate about detecting danger, like when 192 stitches on #2 needles seems like too much. It would be better to listen early on, before it becomes all too clear that disaster has struck.