Yarn: Untangling


skein is a unit of yarn, in which an elaborate amount of yarn (often 100-200 yards) is first looped around an object (usually a yarn-swift) numerous times, until there are several dozen loops or spirals of yarn around the arms.  This is then twisted around several times, and then twisted around itself several times, before being tucked into a compact shape that fits easily onto the shelf of a yarn shop. Skeins do not as a general rule, roll or run away from the knitter.IMG_5287.JPG

If you are not careful, though, they easily become a tangled mess. Like this one did.

The only solution is patience, and time.  If you don’t want to give up the yarn, then you have to sit patiently, picking apart the knots and tangles.  This can take a long time; some people don’t believe it’s worth the trouble.  Some people would rather take scissors to the whole thing and churn out two piles of yarn:

  • “bits long enough to work with”
  • “string too short to save”

I belong to the third category of yarn-workers, which demands patience and time while the skein is brought to a new category of order, the yarn ball.

IMG_5288.JPG The yarn sometimes loses a good deal of the sheen and luster that attracted you to it in the yarn store as you do this patient work of untangling. Your partner will roll eyes at you as you do this work, and even tut-tut at you as you nearly scream in frustration at it.  But sooner or later — given enough time, and enough patience — all of the knots and tangles will be removed, and you will have a yarn ball.

It is imperative that all skeins be turned into yarn balls before you start knitting with them.  Under no circumstances should you attempt to knit from a skein, not even “for a few stitches” or “for a few lines of purl” or what-have-you.  ALWAYS take the time to untwist the skein before you knit with it.  Your patience will thank you.

Yarn swift


the bushing for the yarn swift is not 90-degrees. theres a bump when the handle circles. alas.

yarn swift

I put my yarn swift to work this morning, making a pair of yarn balls for a blue and black scarf I’m working on. Here’s the black yarn loaded onto the swift. 

Tools make tools make things. The carpentry tools make the yarn swift. The yarn swift makes the yarn ball — a “tool” of sorts that prepares the yarn to be knitting more easily, and to unwind more simply. The knitting needles are made with the same carpentry tools that made the yarn swift, and they — and the knitter — make the scarf. 

For too many people, products just appear. We rarely think about the tools and dies, templates, jigs and infrastructure that brought this chair or that t-shirt to our doorstep. A school makerspace helps close that gap — as well as teaching the skills necessary to be part of that virtuous cycle. 

Yarn winder step five


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 swift

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Finding a One-Day Project

I was feeling pretty terrible about my woodworking skills. I have a bunch of projects I want to do, but I haven’t finished any of them. In many cases, I have the wood, and it’s been acclimating to my workshop for a while now. But I haven’t actually done what I set out to do.

I made a list of my projects, as a result, and identified the four or five that I could finish in a day if I put my mind to it.

One of the projects that I’d been wanting to do is build a yarn-ball winder from Clayton Boyer Designs.  As a knitter, I wanted to be able to turn my own hand-made wool into something more serious.  Once I make it, though, winding it into a ball is somewhat haphazard.  It tangles more often than I’d care to admit.

So I got out the yarn-ball winder pattern, and I choked back a tear.  No way was I going to scroll-saw that many gears in a day.  It’s a multi-day project at least. But…. the yarn swift?  That could work.

The Yarn Swift is a vertical bar mounted on feet, that supports a pinwheel-like arrangement of fixed and moveable bars.  It’s used for taking a bunch of yarn and arranging it in a skein after spinning it.  The skein can then be repackaged using the yarn-ball winder, later. In theory.

Looking over the plans for the yarn swift, I decided that this, this I could build in a day.  At some point, I’d convinced myself, I had bought the hardware I needed to build it? Isn’t it in this bag of hardware? So it is.  Let’s get started.  I cut out the paper patterns (full size!), glued them to the boards (I already had them!) and got my scroll saw and drill press working.

Pretty easy.  Labor intensive, though.  I’d say that this project took me about three hours this morning, and about four hours this afternoon. There were also two trips to the hardware store, because I had bought the metal hardware and parts that I needed for the yarn-ball winder but not, as it turned out, for the swift.  And the first time I went to the hardware store, I bought the wrong thing.  Alas.


From a skill-development point of view, this was pretty much a perfect project to follow on yesterday’s tool board project (see the tool boards in the background, already getting loaded up with tools? Go, me!) It involved a lot of use of the scroll saw; it involved drilling holes and countersinks; it involved making interior cuts within the bars of the swift’s arms, and it involved cutting dowels cleanly, so that the ends were flat.  Some hand tools were used in the process of making this yarn swift, but mostly it was power tools.  Even so, it was sweaty work — guiding the blade of a scroll saw around a curve is not always easy.  Still, I had fun.

I had hoped to get it all cleaned up — the paper patterns removed, the sanding completed, and the first coat of stain applied.  But I just didn’t get there; if I hadn’t had to go to the hardware store twice to get what I needed; and if I’d just been able to walk in and get exactly the right parts in thirty seconds, I might have gotten the patterns removed and the glue cleaned off.  But I think that trying for a coat of stain would have been impossible.  As it is, I can do that first thing in the morning, and this project will have been finished in twenty-four hours by the clock — not 24 hours of actual labor.

I also feel like I’m now ready to tackle the yarn-cake winder/yarn-ball winder, which involves quite a lot of gear-cutting and scroll-saw cutting.   This project was a nice wind-up and skill re-hash; and now I’m much clearer about reading Clayton Boyer patterns.

Reviewing the Design

Reviewing Mr. Boyer’s plans, I find that he’s done an excellent job of encoding the information about what to do and in what order to do it, on most of his parts. I rarely have to consult the directions about which step to do next.  There’s a lot of changing out of drill bits and saw blades as I go, because not everything is clear-cut to me.  But Clayton did, and does, know exactly what he’s doing.  He specifies diameter of holes to be drilled, depth of hole, size of bolt to pass through two holes into this part, and through that part, and mounted in this one.

It’s an insight into what real designers do, actually. Each part is specified — make this of 3/4″ stock.  That means, as I’ve now learned, make it of solid wood, not plywood.  The size and shape is exact — paste the parts to the wood, cut around the shape, sand down to the line.  Mr. Boyer knows that wood expands and contracts, so his plans allow for that, a little.  Even so, he knows that his mechanism may, in fact, seize up.  Also, he specified that I should use a tube of a particular diameter for the bushing of the pinwheel.  I didn’t.  I used a slightly larger tube, and split my glue-support bearing.  Oops.  Clamps and glue, fortunately, can fix a great many things.

You can see Mr. Boyer’s patterns on my cut pieces, below.  The plans are full-size, meaning that all you have to do is cut out the forms, and then paste them to your wood, and then cut and shape to those specifications.  It mostly works; the errors appear to be mine, and not his.  His forms are perfection, frankly, and I’m looking forward to building the ball-winder, and the other projects that I’ve purchased from him.

I’m looking forward to tackling a clock or one of his mechanical calendars, next.

For the MakerSpace

As always, tools make tools make things. The yarn swift, and the ball-winder that goes with it, are tools.  They are capable of supporting a knitting program in a MakerSpace, such as a Stitch and Bitch Circle, where people get together to work independently on knitting projects, and engage in various degrees of gossip community building through conversation. 

I’ve found that doweling and beads can be turned into some quite-respectable knitting needles, so the yarn-cake winder and the yarn swift and the knitting needles together all demonstrate a core competency for a MakerSpace — an awareness that carpentry projects can be used to support textile projects.  And these tools also raise awareness that textile projects are themselves a MakerSpace project of some seriousness and validity.

Yarn-cake winder: step one

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I began working on the yarn winder today. There is no point in waiting to let the skills you just practiced, rust. So I got started right away. 

 The first thing was to trim down a large sheet of half-inch plywood into the rough sizes of the major parts. Some of these parts are arranged in pieces that must then be glued and clamped together to form laminated pieces. Among these is the spindle for the yarn to be wound onto. Another is the winding base.  The shape of these individual parts make them unlikely to be produced by cutting a block of wood to the right shape. But getting the shape of the pieces correct with my scroll saw is equally difficult. I find myself wondering, which of these mistakes will be the one that causes the overall machine to fail?

Overall I remain impressed with the quality of Mr. Boyer’s parts design. I have a clear sense of what the parts are, where they fit in the overall model, and why they are the shape they are. He’s a good designer of such things. It also encourages me to believe that I can complete one of his clocks, too. 

There are considerably more parts in this project than in the yarn swift.  I think there were a total of eleven wooden parts in the yarn swift. I think there are over sixty in this project though I haven’t counted. They get bolted together and glued together and some are meant to float freely on a spindle. I’m genuinely concerned about whether I can make this work correctly. I hope I can, but i don’t know.  

Next up: trimming all of the pieces to the correct size, and then assembly.

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