Sunday, December 8, 2013

Newly Spun

I freely admit that I am obsessed with yarn, generally, and specifically with this newly spun yarn:
I found the roving at the Fiber Festival of New England earlier this fall.  It was produced at Heron Crossing Farm in Whitefield, Maine.  The roving was packaged in a bag filled with an assortment of fiber from different sheep, some of which was paired together to form a composite roving.  The breed is Finnish Landrace.
I had my doubts about the resulting yarn once I began spinning.  Each color was different in staple length and the degree to which it held on to what appeared to be pieces of hay. Some of the roving moved smoothly, while some was very difficult to draft.  I randomly spun each color until I had 2 roughly equal bobbins of singles.
I used those to make a 2-ply yarn, not really knowing how the different colors would line up.
From the 8 ounces of roving I spun 7 ounces of yarn.  It's somewhere between worsted and woolen and I'll use a size 8 needle, I think.  Given how variable it felt while spinning, it has become a surprisingly soft  yarn.  It's going to be a hat and fingerless mitts, someday.  It's not part of the xmas effort, so I am suppressing the impulse to play with it sooner.  Wish me luck!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Faroese Man Shawl and Other Adventures*

Dear Oogy,
I have finally completed the Untried Northern Isles Technique project for November: behold the Faroese Man Shawl:

A basket weave bed jacket/shawl in Sirdar Snuggly double knitting yarn (nylon/acrylic blend)
It has all of the shape attributes of a Faroese shawl, so it does sit on one's shoulders effortlessly.  I did my best to make it something a distinguished gentleman would wear without cringing. We'll see what the Pops-in-Law has to say.  I was skeptical about the shawl's construction until I tried it on--it really is comfortable and after a few minutes I forgot that I was wearing it.  I have not ruled out a future project for myself using this pattern.

I had skipped over October's luxury fiber project.  I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis brought about by the amount of yarn in my possession.  The thought of buying more, and spending a lot of money on it, was too much for this Yankee.  So, I ferreted around the stash and uncovered 2 hanks of 100% cashmere that I was saving for a very special project.
I found my copy of Victorian Lace Today (thank you for the gift that keeps on giving!) and decided to make one of the wide bordered scarves.
It's labeled "easy".  We'll see.

While all of this angst is going on, I'm deeply involved in the Camel Knitters' 2013 fundraiser.
Camel Knitters Guild original design mitts
We have about 20 pairs of mitts to sell, and one big colorful scarf to raffle off.  It all happens on Dec 5 and 12!
Kathryn Alexander's Color on Color scarf made with lots of Knit Picks Palette yarn
I am considering the idea of making the mitt pattern available in some form or another.  It's been tested by you, me, and about 10 Camel Knitters, with great suggestions for improvements and clarifications.  Is it ready for prime time?  I'll let you know!

I hope your Thanksgiving plans involve lots of down time for knitting and other assorted fun.
*I changed the title of this post on 11/27 because "other atrocities" did not really capture what I wanted to say...

Saturday, November 2, 2013

impromptu fiber fix

I decided at the last minute to attend the Fiber Festival of New England today.
I was feeling sad about missing Rhinebeck last weekend, and I can't go to Stitches East next weekend on account of some scheduling conflicts, so I decided it was my only chance to get a fiber fix without flying somewhere to do it.  I didn't even know about this event until earlier this week.  According to a fellow fiber fiend behind me in the long line to get in, I was to expect something like a less-crowded mini-Rhinebeck.

I entered the event knowing I wasn't going to buy any fleeces (2 unprocessed here already) and that I would only purchase roving from rare breeds.  This is what I encountered upon entering:
I wish I could somehow include the olfactory presence of this experience.    I took this picture before walking around ALL of the tables.  I chose the fleece that is in the center of this picture, oddly enough.  How did I know!?  It's a black and grey Icelandic lamb fleece.
Brownie helped me scour it:
It's currently drying and producing a most pleasing aroma!

I didn't stop there, you know.  I did adhere to my original plan of getting some rare breed roving, but I also found the naturally dyed roving difficult to resist.  The booth for This and That Farm was my undoing:
An unbelievable array of color from natural dyes.

The blue is indigo dyed, and the green is dyed with a combination of marigold and logwood, both from This and That Farm.  Also pictured is a ball of shetland roving from the Rosefield farm and a bag of Finn roving from Heron Crossing Farm.
I'm eager to do some spinning, but the wheel is full of another project and all of the spare bobbins are full.  I guess I need to finish some old spinning projects before I can dive into these.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

September Bear Update

Dear Oogy,
An unprecedented achievement: I have completed a Thing-a-Month project before the end of the month!
Here is Peabey I, sporting his breast cancer awareness scarf in anticipation of October.

I plan to give him to a friend who is grappling with breast cancer treatments, for her birthday this week.
I managed to get through the 8 pages of instruction for Peabey with just one major gaffe, which I was able to graft together after the fact, and a few misreads that required tearing out several rows on a few occasions.  I am in awe of Snowden Becker's ability to work out the detailed shaping of the bear.  You can see this and other designs here.  Cool that she's a professor!
Peabey I is ready for winter.
I am about half-way done with the latest tammy.
I'm using up tiny scraps of Sheltand Wool that I've been accumulating over the past 23 years.  This one even has a bit of Campion from the days of my first Fair Isle sweater.

I'm looking forward to our luxury fiber project in October.  I'm deciding between qiviut and bison, but I have no idea what I'm going to make.  What's your plan?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Late start in September

Dear Oogy,
Did you ever find your bear eyes?  I must confess that I have not started our September project.  I have, however, picked out the bear(s) that I plan to make:
This is a kit from Knit Picks called Peabey the Polar Bear.  I am looking forward to making the bear, but I find myself distracted by other projects at the moment.  In my defense, one of those is the reverse engineering project that I began in July:
Look at that hot mess!  I'm attempting to use intarsia to make an argyle pattern.  I believe I have tried this in the past, and now I am reminded of why I have never finished an argyle pattern.  Luckily this pattern only accounts for a small portion of the sweater, or I would be putting that project aside indefinitely.

Another distraction is the tammy I started yesterday.  I was so happy with my Scatness Tam that I was inspired to make up my own.
Scatness Tam, using some Jamieson's, but not what KD directed in her pattern.  The background is Oogy-spun!

I love the wheel pattern on this tammy.
I'm using the general shape of Scatness Tam, some instructions from Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting, and patterns from Mucklestone's 200 Fair Isle Motifs.
I have also been making more mitts.  There was a party last weekend to launch this year's Camel Knitters Guild fundraiser.  I was grateful for the Camels' enthusiasm for the mitts project.  I'll keep you updated on our progress!

I do promise to start my bear soon.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Test Knitting

The mitt pattern is being tested...

by a few seasoned knitters.

So far we've found a few errors and some improvements are being made.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A More Simple Time

During a recent visit to the Hancock Shaker Village I was reminded of how our lives were not so fast-paced.
The iconic round stone barn
A bucolic scene
A natural dye garden

Naturally dyed yarn

I hope you are enjoying Labor Day weekend!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

August Update

Dear Oogy,
Would you believe that I am still watching my Craftsy class?  I have a block of free time on the horizon, so maybe I'll get it finished before August ends.  It's been very interesting so far, and I'm dreaming up all kinds of ways to use short rows.
Meanwhile, I have been knitting.
The prototype, knit in the round
I'm working out the details of a mitt pattern, which I plan to provide to the Camel Knitters so that we can make and sell them at our annual fundraiser.  I have often thought it would be fun to write a pattern, especially when a knit-as-you-go project turns out great.  It's not fun, I'm sorry to say, but I will be proud of the final product.  I hope my fellow Camels don't swear too much when they try to follow what I've written.  The mitts pictured above are knit in the round.  I have a separate set of instructions written for straight knitting.
Eeww, mitt guts.

My Triboro Tam is done.  It is reversible, and I find myself partial to the wrong side.

The wrong side

The right side
I have not forgotten about the reverse engineering project--I have made plans to acquire the necessary yarn in the very near future.
I hope your August has been relaxing and fun!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

(Semi) Weekly Brain Update: Navigation

This week’s task of deciphering the Journal of Neuroscience has felt much easier than the previous attempt.  There were two articles in the July 31, 2013 issue that leapt off the screen, into my download file.  They are both about memory, a topic I have been considering deeply as I read Suzanne Corkin’s book about H.M., Permanent Present Tense.  Incidentally, I love this book, and I plan to write to Dr. Corkin and thank her profusely for writing it.

The first article about memory is from Zhang and Little and their colleagues.  They examined cellular changes that correspond to memory formation in flies.  Yes, much of what we understand about genetic control of cell function comes from research on fruit flies.  Next time you swat one of those pests, remember to thank it first.  In this study the researchers measured the flies’ ability to remember that a particular odor was a signal for shock.  Then they measured the ability of a protein called Notch to cause accumulation of a protein called CREB, which gets manufactured in the cell and then moves into the cell’s nucleus, where it convinces specific genes to be transcribed.  These genes then produce even more proteins, which act to link cells together and promote their ability to communicate.  It is clearly established that long-term memory depends on physical changes in cells so that they establish connections with each other, but the mechanisms and signals inside the cell that initiate the new connections are still being worked out.  This research shows that the CREB production happens in a cycle, which the authors propose allows the circuit that was activated by the odor + shock situation to get re-stimulated every half hour or so, which strengthens the circuit and allows the fly to remember the next day that that particular odor is bad news. 
It’s always fun to try deciphering a fly article—fly researchers like to be creative with the names they give genes and proteins.  The article mentions Klingon (attaches neurons to glial cells).  You can learn anything on the Web, so I looked it up and found an alphabetical list including armadillo, bag pipe, big brain, blown fuse, and cappuccino (I stopped at C).  See The Interactive Fly for more!  More importantly, the mechanisms in fruit flies are remarkably similar to what is happening in our own cells, so this type of work has provided important information about human brain function.

While fruit flies have been invaluable tools for sleuthing out the cellular mechanisms of memory, brain imaging techniques have provided a window into the neural basis of memory in humans, even while they are learning.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides very clear and precise pictures of areas of brain cells (gray matter), and a new form of MRI, called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), allows one to see the connectivity (white matter) between these areas of cells.  Hofstetter and colleagues used DTI to examine a specific area after humans AND rats learned a new skill.  The humans played the video game The Need for Speed 16 times in 2 hours and had their brains scanned before and after playing.   The rats learned the location of a hidden platform in a pool of water over the course of one day, also being scanned before and after “playing”.  These time frames are considered very short in the realm of brain imaging studies that aim to show structural differences that arise from experience.  DTI measures diffusivity of water molecules in tissue.  In nervous system white matter, the water molecules typically align themselves along the length of the axon, which is the part of the cell that extends from one brain area to another.  A reduction in diffusivity is taken as a sign that the axons have increased their capacity to send information.  Hofstetter and colleagues showed that learning in both humans and rats was associated with decreased diffusivity in the fornix, a band of fibers that connects the hippocampus to other brain structures.  The researchers also demonstrated that the change in white matter was correlated with increased volume of the hippocampus gray matter. In addition, they examined in humans how much they learned about the race course, asking them to arrange scenes of the course in the order that they appear in the video.  The more they learned about the course, the less diffusivity they had in the fornix.

Oogy and I have designated August as the month that we each sign up for a Craftsy class, with the hope of learning something new.  She has decided on a class about shuttle tatting, while so far I have chosen a free mini class on short row techniques in knitting.  Her tatting class is about 245 minutes long, while my “mini” class is 135 minutes.   While we are learning how to tat and short row, perhaps the mean diffusivity of our fornix regions will decrease, indicating that the connections between the hippocampus and the memory regions that will eventually store our newfound knowledge have increased.  While it would be impossible to show it directly, we might also assume that our ability to form these new memories will be due to cyclical CREB production in these brain areas.    

Along with learning some new knitting skills, I also have exercised my hippocampus and fornix recently with a trip to New York City, with my buddy Selma Moss Ward.  We traversed much of Manhattan, beginning in the financial district, where Selma took this great shot of One World Trade Center, I think from Fulton Street.  We made our way uptown and found ourselves in a yarn store on the upper west side, The Yarn Company.  I found one of Amy’s designs especially appealing and procured it and a few skeins of Lorna’s Laces sock yarn in NYC-inspired color ways unique to this shop.  The design is for a hat in the tam o’shanter style called Triboro Tam.   I’m making mine in the suggested Buildings and Sky colorway, and if I like it enough, I’ll make another in Newsprint.
Lorna's Laces Sheperd Sock in "Buildings and Sky"

Same yarn in "Newsprint"
It’s only recently that my trips to NYC have taken me outside the general area between the train stations, so exploring the upper west side and downtown has been very interesting.  I’ve learned to navigate the grid of streets and avenues by foot and subway, and now I can even say I’ve ridden in a taxi.  Lots of CREB cycling through my hippocampus!         

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Weekly Brain Update: Deciding and Disseminating

Written early in the week of July 29…

In the July 24 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience I saw several articles that piqued my interest.  The first article, in fact, was a manifesto urging neuroscientists to be more active in communicating with the general public about work in this field.  While the primary goal in doing these posts has been to motivate myself to read the Journal every week, one byproduct of this is a public dissemination of information.  Hopefully it is acceptable to define “public” as the 5 or 6 of you who read this blog!
There were a number of articles that were focused on the generation of new neurons in the brain.  Many studies have demonstrated that learning is associated with an increase in the production of new neurons in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, one of two places in the adult brain where new neurons are made (see below for the other!).  This week’s study by Haditsch and colleagues showed that the increased production of new neurons caused by learning a new task was due to more precursor cells being generated, as opposed to the greater survival of already-formed new cells, which has been the predominant view of how this works.  Furthermore, they showed that the signal to increase the production of precursor cells was dependent on signals from the forebrain.  Another article about new cells was by Tailor and colleagues, who obtained hindbrain neuroepithelial stem cells from 5-7 week human embryos (a controversial source, for certain) and showed that the cells could be stimulated to multiply into functional neurons that would work as part of a circuit in the cerebellum. With so many neural diseases in which specific types of cells degenerate, cell replacement would be a valuable therapeutic tool.  It’s still science fiction now, but this type of research is making some progress.  Speaking of degenerative diseases, the third new-neuron article was about an animal model of Alzheimer’s Disease in which the authors, led by Cheng, examined the function of olfactory sensory neurons that had been temporarily infected with humanized mutated amyloid precursor protein, which is thought to be the main culprit in the formation of neural plaques.  Olfactory sensory neurons are the second type of neuron that gets regenerated throughout adulthood.  Every three weeks your olfactory sensory neurons are getting replaced by new ones, and so they have to constantly reestablish connections in the olfactory bulb and from there, to areas in the cortex.  It’s like a new circuit gets built continuously.  One of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s is an altered sense of smell, so it might be possible to use this system as a diagnostic tool, but also as a model in animals for testing the effects of treatments that are meant to delay or prevent the disease.  Cheng and colleagues were able to show that if they decreased the expression of the mutant amyloid protein, the cells could reestablish their connections and the mouse could smell normally again.  Researchers usually use aged rodents in order to examine disease progression, but this olfactory system provides a faster alternative.
I have unwittingly challenged myself a bit too much with the article I chose for this week’s post.  I decided to read this particular article because the abstract seemed to be written in a new language, which looked to me like a combination of classic behavioral terms and computational neuroscience.  I felt fairly confident that with enough concentration and contemplation I would understand the research enough to relate it to knitting and describe it to you.  Well, we’ll see if I can make sense of it. 

August 4, after trying all week to digest the article by Liljeholm and colleagues

Liljeholm and colleagues, from the Computational and Neural Systems Program at California Institute of Technology, examined choice behaviors in humans while they were being scanned for activity in specific brain regions.  There’s been a lot of research looking at choice behavior in humans, some of which has been described here in previous posts, but this study was unique in that they tested the degree to which people perceived differences in how likely it was that their choice would yield an appealing outcome.  Of course, they used food as the goal.  A person would have to choose between a banana and Milano cookies, but would need to depend on previous experience to know how likely would their choice actually yield the desired outcome.  If all was equal, you and I would choose the Milanos, but if the chance of actually getting the Milanos was very small, we might instead decide to have the banana, if it was more likely that our choice would be rewarded.  They had a long list of tasty treats in the experiment, including Godiva dark chocolate bars and peanut M&Ms.  

The authors were interested in determining what brain area was necessary to make the comparison of possible outcomes, with the idea that every decision we make is a complex computation of the expected immediate and long-term impacts of the decision, as well as how the situation affects the outcome of our actions.  They called this a “cognitive map” of goal-directed behavior.  In the choice above, it’s not just about how much tastier Milanos are compared to the banana, but when, where and under what conditions the decision is being made.  If it’s 7 a.m. and I’m well-rested and staring at a picture on the refrigerator of me at the age of 24, I will probably choose the banana.  However, I am more likely to choose the Milanos under any other circumstance.

Honestly, I understood very little about how the authors manipulated the cognitive maps of their participants, but I can tell you that they demonstrated that the anterior portion of the supramarginal gyrus of the inferior lobule of the parietal cortex is the hot spot for comparison of potential outcomes of a behavior.  I can also say that they confirmed the role of the medial prefrontal cortex in computing the expected value of the items (Milanos are far superior to bananas, everyone knows).  Their article deserves a much better description than that, but it’s going to take more time and additional background reading to make that possible. 

Here’s how I believe this relates to knitting:
Developing a pattern for mitts

The fair isle sweater is resting in the Pretend Yarn Store

The Albers Pullover (from Interweave Knits summer 2013) 10 rows from being done.
How do I decide which project to work on, the mitts, the fair isle sweater, or the Albers Pullover?  Based only on the appeal of the project, I would choose the fair isle sweater.  However, the cognitive map of my goal directed behavior is more complex than that.  It includes considerations such as: "there are only 10 rows left on the Albers Pullover" and "I need to write the pattern for the mitts in time to test it before the Camel Knitters need to use it" and "the weather is too warm to wear the Albers Pullover, even though it is meant to be a summer sweater" and "I have done enough of the fair isle sweater to know that the pattern is working".  This kept the inferior lobule of my parietal cortex busy and I'll let you know what that activity yielded in the next post.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Modified Plan

Dear Oogy,
As we approach the end of July, I feel the need to give you an update on my project for this month. It has taken an entire month's worth of swatches and contemplation for me to reach the conclusion that my original plan for reverse engineering is not sustainable.  Beginning with this photo:
From the Territory Ahead Fall 2012 catalog
I planned to use this yarn:
and these patterns.
You can see that the blue, green, and brown yarns do not match the picture, and the essence of the sweater was getting lost.  The sweater is cool because it's a bit understated, and my rendition of it was becoming rather overstated.  So, my new plan is to use the dark brown yarn as a contrast color and to PURCHASE a lighter color in the same yarn (Berroco's Ultra Alpaca) for the main color.  I was happy with the woven herringbone pattern and I really like the cable pattern, shown above in the green swatch on the left.  Those, and some stockinette and reverse stockinette with limited contrast color should capture the original intent.

Have you settled on plans for your reverse engineering project?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Weekly Brain Update: practice makes perfect?

I thought about calling it Weakly Brain Update, as I found it difficult to relate any of the articles in the July 17 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience to the craft of knitting.  
July 17 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience: more about the cover can be found here
The article that was the source of the colorful cover of this week’s issue seemed like the only potential candidate: Nelson and colleagues examined the impact of practice testing on human memory in a paired-words task and linked better performance to increased activity in the parietal cortex.  It’s nice to see a brain imaging study that supports what we tell students all the time: one of the best ways to study is to practice taking a test on the material.  I’ll be sure to show my students the cover shot before I give the next exam!  I suppose I could relate this to the ability to memorize pattern repeats, but is that more of a procedural, motor memory?  Are we able to remember the repeats more accurately if we make an attempt to knit without the pattern in front of us, and make mistakes?  Actually, I think that does happen, and will happen a lot now that I have approached the 42-stitch repeat large motif of my current project:
I've modified the color combinations, based on issues that revealed themselves in the swatch.
After writing the initial draft of this post yesterday, I paid attention to what I was doing today as I began the 42-stitch repeat.  At first I found myself counting to keep track of my placement in the pattern: 1,3,1,1,1,1,1,3,1,1,3,7… It’s when I stopped counting that I made a mistake and had to go back a few stitches.  That would represent the practice test, and would be when the activity in my parietal cortex is at its peak.  Whether or not that is promoting my ability to remember the pattern, we’ll have to see.
I reached row 3 of the 42-stitch pattern before it was necessary to face reality and go to work this morning.

The three patterns line up very well.

Even though it was tough to relate this week’s articles to knitting, I can easily say how amazed I am at what neuroscientists are able to study.  For example, it is possible to switch out an amino acid to ever-so-slightly change the function of a protein so that it interacts differently with neighboring proteins.  Kazi and colleagues examined how channel proteins are structured so that they are able to select what gets across the neuron’s membrane.  Specific parts of the channel proteins form little gates that stick into the channel opening.  If the gate malfunctions, too many or not enough ions will cross the channel, affecting the cell’s ability to process signals from other cells.  Another article was about how variations in the shape of DNA in the prefrontal cortex can be used to predict the severity of symptoms of schizophrenia.  The DNA’s shape dictates how well a gene will get transcribed, and the shape can change depending on a person’s genetic make-up or their experiences.  

The article that I read most closely was about a process known as long-term depression (LTD).  LTD, and its counterpart, long-term potentiation (LTP) are widely recognized as cellular mechanisms for learning.  In conditioning a relationship is established between two events, often a noise and a foot shock such that the rat or mouse will learn to get scared when it hears the noise.  This relationship is represented in the brain as increased sensitivity of neurons in the amygdala (LTP) and is produced by an increase in the number of excitable receptors on the cell.  With more receptors, the cell’s response to another cell’s signal is enhanced, in this case leading to a greater fear response to the noise.  In this week’s article by Clem and Huganir, the opposite relationship between extinction and LTD was examined.  

Most of it was electrophysiology, where they used electrodes to stimulate neurons in a dish and then other electrodes to measure changes in excitability of other neurons in the same dish.  They were able to show that specific patterns of stimulation were able to decrease the number of excitable receptors that were expressed in the cells, but only if the neurons came from a mouse that had experienced extinction, in which the noise was presented repeatedly without the shock, until it no longer was scary.  Somehow that new experience changed the circuitry to be less sensitive, by reducing the number of available excitable receptors.  

Their goal was to uncover the cellular mechanism of extinction with the hope that other researchers would be able to improve the success of exposure-based therapies for post-traumatic stress disorder.  In these therapies a person is guided through sounds and sights related to a trauma, to restructure their memory into something less traumatic.  If the cellular changes that correspond to extinction can be worked out, it might reveal new strategies that would make this approach more successful, and maybe take less time in humans.