Alchemy: vervain

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I am not by training or comprehension a chemist. But there is something about the chemical processes I quite enjoy.  The process from alchemical work that I love most, is of course calcinatio: the burning to white ash of a plant material (any material, really) soaked in alcohol.

Part of it is that I have an excuse to start up a fire in my athanor – excuse me I mean my Weber grill.  I put an iron pan of an herb soaked in grain alcohol on the grill, and wait while it gets hot enough to burn off the alcohol, and for the flames to turn blue.

But it’s only now — the twelfth or fifteenth time that I’ve done it — that I have any clear sense of what’s happening. The carbon and other flame-sensitive volatiles in the plant matter are burning off and being converted to vapor and smoke.  What is left is the residuum: the plant’s essentials that are not reducible by Fire to Air (smoke and vapor)  or Water (liquid converted to gas). This is the Earth of the plant, the remnant.

It’s interesting that even a century after the development of the periodic table of the elements, I can still see on a gross scale exactly what the medieval alchemists were getting at when they spoke about the four elements — and that it’s easier to understand what’s happening in an alchemical way than it is to understand in the terminology of modern chemistry.  There’s an opportunity for learning here, really: can we teach chemistry directly? Or should we help students understand the alchemical origins of modern chemistry, through direct observation of Fire (heat), Water (liquids and solvents), Air (the behavior of gasses), and Earth (irreducible solid components)?

Early in the process, of course, the visuals are stunning. Watching a fire burn at night, and gathering information about what’s happening, is deeply seductive.  This particular Vervain (Verbena officinalis) burns blue, partly from the alcohol used as a solvent to begin the breakdown of the plant matter, and partly from the vaporization of the burnable matter in the plant — cellulose, carbon, and volatiles.  What remains in the Earth of the plant — essential solid components that do not burn at these temperatures, and whiten (or at least gray-en) under the application of extreme heat until the ashes turn orange and sometimes even cherry-red in the flame.  When the flame cools and the charcoal dies down, you’re left with white ashes.

Eventually, this will be an alchemical salt — a spagyric tincture added to white ash of the same plant — which was one of the first efforts, historically, at making more potent medicines from herbs with known medicinal value.    I can’t say that I will ever want to take this salt.  But I do find it interesting and valuable to realize that an internal change has taken place in me from doing the work.

Namely, this: we are not complicated creatures, us humans.  We learn often learn things by doing, by copying, and by understanding a range of experiences with a range of words and language that matches what our senses tell us.  When the language drifts too far from what we can see, touch, taste, feel, smell, and experience as a whole — we tend to lose ourselves in abstraction.  But something burning on a fire is real and present in a way that engages all the senses, and teaches us things about the world that our ancestors knew intimately well.

Yarn winder

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The devil is always in the details.

Here we have the yarn winder, mostly sorta but not really working. We’re like, 77% of the way to working. But the act of trying to get to 100% operational is breaking the machine down even as it stumbles toward completion. 

It’s possible that both the first and second Death Stars in Star Wars blew up, not because of the actions of a brace squadron of resistance fighters — but because they were overdesigned technical marvels that failed at their first test firing. Even an empire as vast as a galaxy — especially an empire as vast as a galaxy — can build a non-functional superweapon that destroys itself on ignition. All the other empires so far that have built superweapons have done the same; why not assume the same of the Galactic Empire?

How do I extrapolate that from a yarn winder?

Simple. Gears are required — by the laws of nature, mind you — to be a particular shape. Why are the teeth of a gear on a Colonial or US Civil War-era mill so exact, so huge, so regular? They were ground that way by the first six months or so of operation. The engineers who built them over-engineered them, and then let nature do what nature does — which is grind down and wear away things that are even slightly unfit for their environment. 

And so, as I test and shape the gears of my yarn winder, the plywood chips away and the teeth get narrower and the profile of the gears gets sloppier. In time one of the teeth will break and I’ll build the whole thing anew. 

When designing, especially for the long haul, the needs of the design must take into account the question of lifespan. In a school program, maybe that’s a week or even two days — the length of the project. But in a machine, it’s hundreds of hours of use.  Maybe thousands. Even as I build this machine, it’s breaking down so that parts will need replacement and repair. 

And it occurs to me that maybe the Sith masters knew this. They derived as much satisfaction and peace of mind from the deaths of millions of life forms on a planet, as on a space station. The ability to destroy planets or planetoids though quality design, or space stations through bad design, equally serves the Dark Side. 



Banners in process

I’m a member of the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn. It’s a druidic society, based on the book by John Michael Greer, The Celtic Golden Dawn. I’ve been gradually working my way through the curriculum, which involves meditation, alchemy or spagyrics using locally-common plants, some ritual, and some divination using Geomancy. There are some side exercises as well, but those are the main components of the work.

One of the elements that makes up a temple of the DOGD are a pair of banners, the banners of the East and of the West, which are black and white, and adorned with a stylized dolmen or three-stone archway and three rays of light emanating from those arches; the white banner of the East additionally has two squares, a yellow and green one, laid at 45°-angles to one another forming an 8-pointed star.  I’ve been using paper printouts of the images of the banners, but I haven’t been entirely happy with them.

Re-sizing the squares

So I made them in fabric, using tutorials on appliqué and sewing, as well as my own basic sewing knowledge.  The result is a pair of very handsome banners.  Each needs a cord to string them from a post or hook on the wall, still; but I need to get the cord since I don’t currently have it; and I’m going to need to install some grommets for the cord (thanks, Matt).  I think I now need to build a couple of stands to support them, as well, so I don’t drive hooks into the wall.

Each banner involved roughly the same process — I made paper templates of each piece, using freezer paper.  Freezer paper is stiff and waxy, which means that it can be used to create a paper template for each piece.  It looks like you can use the waxy side to glue your paper directly to the fabric with an iron.  I was reluctant to do that, though; so I simply used my freezer paper as if it was a paper pattern.

Initially I made the two dolmens the same size. Then I realized, if I do that, then the squares on the white banner have to be larger than the banner. So I had to re-size the squares, and then redesign the dolmen to match, wasting my initial dolmen; I couldn’t figure out how to re-size it to accommodate the overall design.  Nothing for it but to toss it in the scrap heap for another day. Alas.

I first made all my pieces. Then I ironed them, and folded over their tabs and edges as I did so.  And then I sewed them onto the background panel of each banner, pinning each to try to get it flat and unwrinkled.  I failed to get them flat and unwrinkled.  I am not a patient tailor or textile worker or seamster, apparently.  I want to get projects finished and feel like they’re done.  I also like the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing, and not having yet-another-unfinished project languishing around.  There’s something to be said for just getting it done.

A typical Dolmen assembly

Every piece of appliqué has to have tabs, to fold behind the shape.  You have to design the tabs for each piece so that every edge is folded, and nothing can unravel.  For the triangles that are the rays of light, this mostly means making larger triangles, or something like trapezoidal diamonds.  Even so, they don’t fold well.

Here’s how I made the dolmens.  You can see that the top edge is one long fold, with cut corners so that it doesn’t overlap with too many other things.  The uprights of the dolmens equally have tabs, as do the overhangs of the lintels, including the middle part of the lintel.  There has to be a tab on each side, of course, because fabric has warp and weft.  It will unravel without a fold, even if you sew it down; and then your lovely appliqué will come undone quite rapidly (everything done with green thread on my banner of the east will have to be additionally tacked down again, by hand, because the tensioning on the sewing machine was wrong, and the stitches are coming undone already).


The finished banners

Once the imagery of each banner was finished, I flipped the backing material over, so the imagery was on the inside.  I then sewed the backing together, adding in the yellow tassels at the corners of the lower part of the banners. The resulting object is like a rather shapeless bag.  One corner of this inside-out bag is left open, and the bag is then turned — the outside/imagery/appliqué side is pulled through the open hole, and the whole banner is flattened, resulting in a banner shape that has folds all around the edges — remember how important it is to have a fold in a piece of fabric, to prevent it from unraveling? This is as true for background pieces as for appliqué.   The mostly-finished banner then needs to be pressed and maybe top-stitched — run through the sewing machine all around the outside edge to create a neat seam that flattens and stabilizes the banner all around.  It could also be quilted in order to stiffen it, and give it some sturdiness that I didn’t introduce through the use of interfacing — a sort of papery-plastic-like material that comes with glue on it, so you can glue it to a completed appliqué on the back, and stabilize the project.  Interfacing is also used in tailoring to stiffen collars and shirt cuffs, and other parts of clothes, to give them sturdiness and stability.  I’ll see in the morning if it needs that extra step of top-stitching and/or quilting.

However, these banners are essentially done.  They’ve done three jobs for me: spruced up my druidic training regimen by giving me something to look at while I’m working; taught me the basics of appliqué; and used up some of my fabric stash.  The using up of a fabric stash should not be under-estimated.  It’s very easy to build up a supply of fabric, and not so easy to let it go to its finished, intended use.

Although I had the initial plan for these banners dictated for me by the organization to which I belong, I have to admit, these make a very nice school project.  Every object or color on an appliqué has to be thought about separately, and they have to be united through folds in the fabric, and through stitching together.  Both of the squares on the white banner, for example, are about three times as wide as in the final example; they’re folded over themselves in order to make clean corners.  The green square is also cut in four places, so that it can be interleaved with the yellow square (which is actually un-cut at all, and runs under the green square’s pieces.  I’m looking forward to doing this kind of work again.

Yarn winder step five

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As I said in the last post, we’re inching toward a working machine.  The photo below shows the machine assembled completely. From left to right across the photo: the yarn feeder arm and wire feed assembly, then the spindle on the 12P gear, then the central wheel, then the crank wheel. Above the machine are two c-clamps used for fixing the machine in place while you wind a ball of yarn. And at the top of the photo are the feet of the yarn swift that will hold the skein of yarn that is being wound into a ball or cake. 

The challenge I’m facing at the moment is that the stem of wooden disks that supports the spindle has to be able to turn freely without being loose. Looseness introduces sloppiness into the yarn ball. Tightness results in the internal arbor catching on a bit of unshaped or misshapen glue inside the tube… and snapping the disks with shearing force. Every single disk has failed now and the column is increasingly made of glue rather than wood.   

I have a variety of options at this point. 1) I can drill and sand out the shaft by hand. 2) I can recut all the disks and sand them individually before reglueing the stack. 3) I can buy a speciality drill bit which is something like 21/64″. 4) I can find a friend who can grind the 5/16″ steel arbor down to 4.85/16 radially/lathe-like. Option 3 is probably best, but I may have to do 2 anyway. 

Sanding the gears is also needful. But my friend and family member Lynn has pointed out that wooden gears over time are often self sanding. Work them long enough and they grind themselves to the optimal shape. Who knew?

Yarn-cake Winder Step 4

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I am inching toward completion at this point.

Yarnwinder1.jpg Here you see the three gears — the cranking gear on the right, the central gear in the middle, and the 12P gear on the base of something that looks like a striped lawn chair.  That’s the base for the spindle.

You also see the yarn feed post, on the extreme left of the assembled machine; and the two built-in C-clamps along the bottom.  The only thing missing at this point is the arbor or pivot that connects the 12P gear to the spindle support base. A friend of mine is using his angle grinder to grind that steel pin to the right shape, this afternoon.  I hope to have it later today.

Yarnwinder2.jpgAnd here’s that spindle support base, now attached in the right place and ready for the spindle to be attached.  It looks a little like a striped lawn chair.  For this photo, I’ve put in a spare bit of steel rod for the arbor, and I’m using that to test-crank the gears, and figure out where to concentrate my sanding effort to get the gears to the right shape.

Hint? Everywhere. Everywhere needs sanding.  I am not a good scroll-saw-er yet, and the result is that my gears are wildly irregular on nearly every gear.  I have a choice at this point.  I can just keep cranking the gears until everything is worn down to the right smoothness by raw friction.  Or I can sand each tooth meticulously until every tooth meshes perfectly with every other tooth.  Or I can choose a third-option position, halfway between those two options or on either side of half-way.  The more sanding I do ahead of time, the less sawdust and sand will be in my finished yarn product.  The less sanding I do ahead of time, the more sawdust and sand will be in my finished product, and the harder it will be to wind a skein of yarn into a yarn cake.  Even so, I may go for this option.Yarnwinder3.jpg

The final picture is the completed elements of the yarn-cake winder (excepting that one arbor, and a couple of small pads for the C-clamps.  The spindle is the large wooden thing; the spindle base is the thing in the clamp, and then the machine itself.  You can see a pencil on the right for rough/approximate scale.  The spindle has a skateboard bearing inside of it, provided as a result of a trip to Cutting Edge in Berlin, CT.

I got into knitting in part because of Deb Castellano of the blog Charmed Finishing School (and her store, the Mermaid and the Crow/La Sirene et Le Corbeau).  It pleases me no end to create a piece of machinery using my newfound carpentry skills, that will allow me to practice more effectively the art that she connected me to in the first place.

But once again, why knitting? Why machinery? Why include textiles and knitting and yarn-work at all in a MakerSpace? I would hope at this point, after three prior separate discussions of the building of this machine, that this would be obvious. Even with someone else’s plans in my hands, I’ve had to work through design problems, study drawings, make sketches, and drive my way through the tool use necessary to build this machine (and the yarn-swift that accompanies it).  Without these machines, I’d have a much harder time working with skeins of yarn. With them, I have a much easier time making my own yarn, dyeing my own yarn, winding and knitting (or crocheting, or braiding) my own yarn. This device is a critical piece of the technology set for string and yarn-arts.

What is a technology set?  A technology set is all of the technical equipment necessary to oversee a process of construction from raw materials (or raw-er materials) to finished product.  For yarn, that set looks something like this:

  • Carding combs
  • drop spindle or spinning wheel or great wheel
  • yarn swift
  • dyeing vats and dyes and mordants
  • yarn-cake winder (this device)
  • knitting needles
  • braiding disk
  • lucet
  • crocheting hook
  • naalbinding needle

With these ten tools, it’s possible to take a bundle of raw wool and turn it into a scarf or a hat or a length of rope akin to paracord, or a colored braid.  The technology set teaches ten different skills, and helps students understand ten different processes. None of the technology is difficult to understand; the technical processes are open and transparent; and they are hand-skills which can be replicated (much faster but much more opaquely) by machine.  They take carpentry skills to make objects that are used for working with string, they demonstrate the principle that Tools Make Tools Make Things, and they demonstrate to students a skill-set that allows them to extrapolate and develop an understanding of how any raw material is turned into a finished product.


Yarn-cake winder step three 

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This is where I was at the end of the day today: a set of three gears that fit inside one another, more or less, a body or frame that supports the gears, and a set of holes drilled that will eventually hold the pivots for the gears, and the mechanism for the yarn-cake winder.

The machine does not yet work. What’s still needed?

Well. That’s sort of a complicated story.   Let’s go through the machine from top right to bottom left, of the photo where it’s on the red chair seat.

  1. The hole in the long dowel needs a piece of twisted wire, rather like a spring, to be the in-feed point for the yarn.
  2. The hole for the arm lock hole may need some sanding or smoothing to make the arm lock pin work.  The individual holes need sanding.
  3. The whole frame needs sanding, and the remaining adhesive for the pattern needs to be cleaned off.  The two ‘feet’ of the frame need to be attached/glued to the main body.
  4. The smallest gear, called 12P  on the plan, has to be attached to the spindle support. (not shown). The spindle support needs to be attached to the spindle base (also not shown, but visible as that weird, angular L-shaped bit in the second photo).
  5. The spindle needs to be attached to the spindle support.  I need to purchase a skateboard bearing, OD 7/8″, ID 5/16″, to go inside the spindle’s base and cap.
  6. The pin/bolt which serves as the pivot of the smallest gear/turning mechanism for the spindle needs to be installed.  In order to be installed, it has to be ground at the tip into a 45°-angled cone.  I don’t have the equipment for that.  Buy equipment? Borrow equipment?  Bring rod to friend’s house to grind?  Pay them to grind it for me?
  7. The locking pin in the base needs to be installed. Need to buy an allen wrench bolt to go there.
  8. The arbor for the central/middle gear needs to be installed.  The support wheel needs to be glued to the main wheel.
  9. The largest wheel/crank wheel needs its pivot point installed.
  10. All pieces, once I know that they roughly work, need to be sanded/smoothed, and cleaned up with some mineral spirits. Some parts may be stained or painted; I haven’t decided yet.

Again, I have to praise Mr. Boyer’s designs. He’s got a good thing going here.  It’s a great example of Tools Make Tools Make Things.  More than that, though — I find that I send him my questions, and he gets around to answering me… usually at about the time that I re-read his directions for the fourth or fifth time, and go OOOOOOHHHHHHH, That’s how you do it.

The making of this machine has honed my scroll saw and drill press techniques.  I’m getting cleaner holes, sharper lines, and greater clarity about what I can and cannot do with my tools. I was right — the Yarn Swift was a good beginning project for getting up to speed on my tools. This yarn-cake spinner is the right tool for learning how to make the parts for one of Mr. Boyer’s calendar or clock projects, which I’m looking forward to tackling next.

It’s also giving me a new appreciation for wood as a material, and for the problems of thinking in three dimensions. Mr. Boyer had a fair bit of time to design these two models, both of which are based on historical examples of sorts, although both models are more timeless than rooted in a specific era.  They’re both made with Home Depot/Lowe’s lumber, so in that sense they belong to the now, but they could have been made any time in the last few hundred years, I suspect —maybe not looking exactly like the, but serving some of the same purposes, certainly.

But it raises this important question, which I’ve raised elsewhere on this blog. How do you train children or adults to think in three dimensions? When it comes to a project like this, really, how do you train them to think in four dimensions, where time is the fourth dimension? This model eventually will hold a yarn ball at a fixed angle… and the fixed angle will nicely rotate a yarn ball in two directions, resulting in both a winding, and a cross-hatching effect.  Two different movements in time, choreographed by one crank-handle, resulting in a finished project…

which is, itself, raw material for yet another project: a scarf or a shawl or a sweater.  Huh.

The final element of this thing is the yarn-cake spindle.  In retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t ask a friend to do a turning for me on a lathe.  The stack of plywood disks is ugly.  It’s hard to sand.  There’s a gap in the wood near the top, and I wish I’d cut that disk again rather than filling it up with wood putty.  The parts which are 1/4″ plywood sheets seem fragile. Will they hold up?

I’m not at all sure the machine will work.  I keep wondering if I over-cut, or cut too deeply, this gear or that tooth.  Is this part the right shape?  Will it work?  How much tolerance does the machine design have for failure?  How much tolerance do I have for the idea that I’m going to have to re-cut some of these pieces?

Still, when I think about where I began today — with the teeth not yet cut on any of the three gears, with most of the pieces still not glued together, with only a rough idea of how they fit together — and where I am now, with a machine where the pieces are starting to come together in a final format, I’m reminded of a key insight I took away from Constructing Modern Knowledge: that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a part is worth a thousand pictures, and a machine is a thousand parts.  When we ask students to build a machine, a working model of something, we’re asking for a research project. We’re asking for a book.

A working machine is a labor of astonishing proportions.  Mr. Boyer hasn’t just built the machines, he’s made the designs available to others (admittedly for a fee).  And it makes me realize how critical it is, and how little-understood it is, in most middle and high schools, that we teach children to think in three- and four-dimensions about made objects like this.  And I wonder how we can do that better.

Yarn-cake winder: step two

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All of the parts to the yarn-cake winder need to be trimmed. I started with the 1/2″ thick parts. Today I need to finish those, and start on cutting out the 1/4″ parts. Sooner or later, I need to start figuring out the assembly process. 

One of the things that’s been driving me a little batty is that some of the holes need to be unusual sizes: 11/64″ and 21/64″. I don’t have those drill bits. I suppose I could drill the holes in x/16″ths, and get close to those numbers, and then file to the right shape. This is what’s recommended. 

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