Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mad Skillz - Part 1

I was thinking the other day that I had managed, over the last 12-18 months or so, to add a number of somewhat odd abilities to myself. It's not that I am searching for a hobby, I don't feel the need for them per say, more I find that I just suddenly become curious and intensely interested in something. I have no idea where this will take me eventually, or what will be next, but I might just take a guess in another part. So, first off there was ....

Spinning. This was the first real skill I learnt, although perhaps the vegi garden was before that but it's so common an affliction it doesn't really count. No, I get a few raised eyebrows when (or if) I tell people that I know how to spin. I know it is not very Australian-male of me, I should be more interested in football or indy car racing or something. Anyway, we were at the markets at Bundanoon in NSW, which is where my mother lives, and there was a lady there spinning wool. I am reasonably mechanically minded, but at first glance the wheel looked impenetrably complex in it's operation. On the other side of this though, she seemed so relaxed and contented converting a bag of raw fleece to what passed at a thread, which was then spun again into a wool. It seemed like a sort of magic, like a raw egg congealing into scrambled mass on the application of a little stir and heat. I liked the fact that I could be part of a small section of a process which involved the raw ingredient of a fleece to the end product of a useful thing to wear, even if it was a wobbly scarf or something. This was empowering, and learning the wheel was a challenge.

I bought my wheel on eBay, and probably paid a bit too much, but it's a nice one. It is an Ashford brand, in a honey coloured pine. When I first got it, I have nothing to spin with it, so I had to then buy a bag of "slivers", which is precombed and dyed fleece. This seemed like a bit of a cheat, but I was already a bit overwhelmed so I was just trying to make it a little easy on myself and I knew I could ramp it up later to something harder, if indeed I ever made it that far. I read a bit, watched a few youtube videos and when I had something to spin, sat down to tried it myself. My wife, I think, probably expected me to give up early. And based on my first attempts, where I seemed to be all thumbs and be simply fighting the machine, it looked to be the logical thing to do. The twist kept getting past my thumb pinch, and this made drawing really hard. However, I paced myself, and took small victories where I could. I had brief moments where it felt to be getting easier. It is a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time at first, but slowly you get used to the motion and controlling the speed of the wheel. In fact, after a while you stop thinking about it, it just more or less does what you want it to. Getting the sliver to draw out evenly was really the concentration point.

Learning the tension of the wheel, and getting a feel for the right amount of twist, took quite a bit of time, and I realised, is where some personality of the spinner comes into play. My wool is reasonably thick and sturdy, because to me this seems right, but my wife who also was trying it out, produced thin and delicate wool.

Plying was also a stage to master, somewhat separate to the spinning, where the two threads are spun together to make the final strong wool. This is where you see how even your work is, as it rapidly passed through your hands. I had piggy tails all over the shop, and huge "slubs" - which are fat bits. After hours of slaving away I had produced my first "skien", which looked like a hoop of old Rastafarian's locks. It twisted up hopelessly, and was more or less a complete disaster. However, even in this first attempt I had improved visibly from the start to the finish, so I was encouraged.

Knitting. The wool I produced was not going to just sit around in pretty balls. I wanted to actually use it. You may congratulate yourself on how well it looks, but there is nothing like using something to really know it's quality. So, I bought some knitting needles and sat down with an excellent beginners book ("Knitting" by Klutz ISBN-10 1-59174-384-2) and tried to become something other than all thumbs again. My first project was a scarf, for myself, in the most basic of all stitches - garter stitch. Like air travel - casting on and casting off is the most dangerous, but the bit in between is lots of the same. Like the spinning though, consistency of tension was the key. My wife kept telling me to loosen up, but I always fell back to a slightly tense line.

The scarf I produced was too wide, had a wobbly thinner bit in the middle and was very heavy. However, I wore it all through our great family European vacation with pride and to great effect - it was warm and gave me comfort. There is something very pleasing about wearing something you have made from (almost!) scratch. You appreciate the effort that has gone into it, as you know exactly how much that was. You look after it. I guess in a word you cherish it, as there is something of you in it.

From there I decided to knit a scarf for my daughter, and chose to use store bought wool so that I could get some colour and also eliminate the still inconsistent quality of the wool I was producing. I knew she would be less tolerant of mistakes. This turned out to be really quite an OK result, she wore this in Europe too. I made some mistakes, and had to get my wife to help backtrack on those and patch them up. I seem to be like a train when I knit, with only a forward momentum. Going backwards is a real problem, I stare at the needles for ages not knowing what to do next.

After this, and back in Oz, I worked on what is the best scarf so far - one for my Sister. This was using my spun wool, which I now had a good handle on the twist tension and got it fairly consistent. I also designed using graph paper a heart shape which I put into the scarf using a change of stitching to stocking stitch. This meant counting rows and stitches at times, and changing from one stitch to the other. It took a lot more concentration than an all garter stitched affair, but looked really nice and quite subtle. I made the scarf not as wide as mine, but still fairly substantial. I added a fringe too, which made it look quite professional I think. Overall, I was very proud of this effort, and happy to give it as a gift to someone I love.

While in Italy, we found on our travels a little quirky shop in a square which had Italian wool for sale. Laura chose three colors and I knitted her a scarf out of this fine wool. It was a lot softer than the Australian wool, and had a lot of ply. She didn't want a pattern or a fringe, so the effect is quite modest, but it looks good on her and she feels the cold so I hope it brings her a warm neck in the years to come. That was finished only a few days ago, so I'm currently without a knitting project on the go - however, I have one lined up.

As I mentioned earlier, I felt cheated by using the Slivers, so I bought a bag of raw fleece, much like the lady I first met who started it all. I also wanted to get away from the white wool, so this was from a brown sheep. This was like starting all over again in terms of spinning. I didn't want to card the wool, but just learn to spin it right out of the bag. Carding looks to take too much time and besides, the carders are expensive and I don't own a set. This meant stopping often while spinning to pluck out grass seeds and knots and little clumps of fluff. The fleece is greasy with lanolin, and smells quite strongly, not surprisingly, of sheep. I want to keep that lanolin in there as a natural waterproofing, and I intend to make another item for myself - a Beanie. This is apparently not too hard, but does involve a lot of careful stitch counting. We'll see. If it turns out well, I'll make another one perhaps for my father.

I find spinning and knitting really therapeutic. I can, and reasonably often do, drink a beer or glass of wine while doing it. Unlike TV, which is passive and largely a time waster, these pursuits build up to a positive physical object. Something to be proud of, and perhaps, cherish. I might one day find a farmer who shears a sheep and learn how to do that too. Then I suppose I'll have to raise my own sheep somewhere. Then, and perhaps only then, will I feel I really know how to make woolen clothes from start to finish by hand. Each step has been deeply satisfying so far, and I imagine if I were to do this it would continue to be so.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Recently, I have turned my eye (of Sauron?) to the aged art of knives.

I don't know why exactly I have suddenly formed this interest, but I have. Perhaps it's due to the fact that a knife is quite a critical tool in a survival situation, or that it represents yet another area of basic life that I have a knowledge deficiency, I'm not sure. Anyway, I have focused on folding knives, with a blade 10cm or so. Think "grown up pocket knife" and you would be pretty close to the mark.

So. What is there to say? Well, there are a any number of companies that make knives. Some of the better ones are Buck, Benchmade, CRKT, Smith and Wesson, Kershaw, the quirky Spyderco, etc etc. There are lots. So where did I start? Well, my baby steps were with the "Classic" knife, the Buck Folding Hunter 110. And, I've got to say, if I had stopped there it would not have been a disaster, it's an excellent knife. The thing about this knife though, is that it's not really a modern knife, and it's heavy. They are the negatives, but there are plenty of positives.

In researching folding knives I discovered that there where a large number of blade locking mechanisms. I figured that the only way I'd know which one was the best was to get one of each. Actually, it was that and the sequence of events. I bought the Buck 110 retail, and after that everything on ebay seemed like a bargain, so it reduced my tendency to be cautious.

I think a brief description of each knife, pros and cons, is in order at this point.

Buck 110 Folding Hunter.
Buck was recommended to me by Ralph, and they are a solid old brand from the USA. This is a heavy, soldid knife, with brass liners and a wooden handle. The lock is at the back base of the knife, which has the disadvantage of being a two handed close. As it has only a nail groove, it's a two handed opening also. Still, whenever I open it the phrase "locks like a vault" comes to mind. It's a great knife to hold, despite no thumb ramps or gimping to stop slipping. It is rivited in place, so this is not a knife you can take apart. Oh, and it's crazy sharp right out of the box. In a cutting test it beat all the other knives I have bought easily. It comes with a leather carry pouch, and this is a big plus too. Overall, a fantastic knife. I did find a plastic (rather than wood) version which has no visible rivets, and I was tempted to get one, but really, one is enough. The blade is long and fairly thin with a wicked point, and as I mentioned, very very sharp. No belt clip on the knife iteself. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for this knife, more so than any other.

Buck Mayo WM
This is a modern knife which is probably considered "tactical" (read : fighting knife) but really it would not be great at that. It has a grey coating all over, including the blade, and is quite stylish. The blade has thumb studs on both sides, and is locked using a frame lock. This enables one handed openign and closing, although it's a bit stiff. On close inspection and use, I have come to the conclusion that I don't trust a frame lock. It is possible, like the S&W knife, to *almost* open it and it appears to be locked when in fact it is not. Instead, the frame is hitting the space where the teflon washers are near the blade. A fraction more and it locks properly, but if you don't notice this the knife may be used unlocked, and come back on your hand. It's an effective way to lose a finger with a sharp knife like this. The other issue I have is that the blade tip is only just - and I mean just - inside the frame when closed. It only takes the slightest movement on the blade out and the tip is exposed. If the blade is in your pocket, for example, and catches a thread on the thumb stud, well, I don't like to think of the damage that is possible. There is a belt clip which is screwed on, removable but not relocatable to other points on the knife (blade tip down). The knife has small but standard hex screws so the knife can be taken apart, which I do like. No gimping or thump ramp. Overall, a smooth stylish knife which is solid but has a few fairly serious flaws. Probably comes into the class of "looks better than it is".

Smith and Wesson 24-7
This is an all-black knife, with griptape insert on the handle and a semi-serrated blade. The thumb stud has a good clearance around it, so it's fairly easy one handed opening. It suffers exactly the same issue as the Buck Mayo above, in that it can partly lock on the teflon washers before the blade. However, it does snap open and close nicely when done right. When open this looks more like a serious tactical knife. It has again a hex screw take-apart frame, and a removable but non-relocatable silver belt clip. It has a great thumb ramp with gimping and a large grove below to make slipping when open a remote possibility. The biggest issue I have with this knife, and it's one that probably can be fixed, is that it comes as new with a not really sharp blade. It is the worst of them all in fact. In a test of tip first into a manilla folder, it took a great deal of force just to penetrate. I thought the serrations might help start a cut here (on the edge), but really, it doesn't seem to help. This is the only semi-serrated knife I have, and probably the only one I'll get. It is quite a trick to sharpen serrations.

Navy K710
This is a no-name brand on eBay from China, which I will be the first to admit isn't exactly promsing. The draw for me was the design, which pleased me at each turn (at this stage of the game I had refined what I was looking for), and for yet another blade locking technology - the "axis lock". This lock type has a great advantage - when locking the blade away the fingers at no stage need to be in the path of the blade. There is a button on the side which slides and does all the work. It also has a window breaker on the end, so this is a natural for my "car knife". Finished in all black, and I must say it's a really nice knife to play with in your hands - you can just fidgit and open and close it all day. For $18 or whatever I paid for it, and absolute bargain. The grade of steel is a bit of an unknown, it's probably ok, but not super strong.

Buck Folding Bantam BLW Cameo
This knife has a specific purpose in mind, and for that, it's great. The need is for a work knife - to simply open boxes and cut tape to get into things. The blade on this knife is really nice - smooth polished steel. Note that the Bantam comes in three sizes, and the BLW is the mid-sized version. The smaller one has no belt clip, and the bigger one I figure (I think correctly) would have been too big for the task I had in mind. It has a mid back lock, similar to the 110 but in a different place. Unlike most of the other knives here it is all rivited together, so no take apart or adjustment is possible. This would be bad if it didn't come shipped as a smooth knife, but it did, so I don't care! It's the second sharpest knife I have behind the 110, and I really like it. There is no play factor with this knife though - it's a one handed opening, just, but a definite two handed close. The case is in need of a steel liner, as it flexes a little under strain, but it's very light. This is my only real complaint about the knife - it's weight balance is way off in favour of the blade. Put it on the table and it'll tip over onto the blade. Despite this though, I'm very happy with it and find it's a pleasure to use it whenever I have the need.

Leatherman Squirt P4
This is a cheat really. I picked this up for $20 on a whim, but I've really been enjoying it. The "play factor" on this is very high indeed - the plyer opening/close action has a great snap back which is fun to do. The reason I include it here is that is does have a knife a part of its tool set. It is a very sharp but otherwise hopeless afair, with no locking mechanism at all, which makes it dangerous to use in my opinion. However, it has other tools and is so tiny, I like to shove it in my pocket just to have it with me. If nothing else, to play with!

That's all the knives I have, and it's probably more than I need, but once I got going I found I didn't want to stop. I don't think I will buy more knives from here. If I do, they will be something special I think. I have also started looking into knife care - mainly sharpening. I have yet to buy anything but have been looking at diamond dust blocks with a range of grits. The S&W really needs a sharpen to bring it to life, and I think that may motivate me to do this.