In Transit

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I took last Monday off from writing but it wasn’t a rest day. To say that the last 2 weeks have been busy is well and truly and understatement. It is all a bit of a blur and although I could check my notes and calendar to work out the exact dates when things occurred, quite frankly I can’t be bothered getting off the couch to go check. I figure in the great scheme of things it really isn’t that important.

I do keep very detailed notes and I have a habit of documenting and keeping pretty much every email and bit of paper, just in case I need to confirm something. This is a very useful habit to have when working in a lab. Taking detailed notes and writing up experiments is an essential skill, not only for reproducing one’s own experiments but also to provide supporting evidence for patent applications. There are very specific conventions and rules about how experiments are required to be documented. A bound lab book with sequentially numbered pages was the essential starting point.  Although it may have changed in the five years that I have been away from the lab as electronic lab books were being tested when I wrote up my last experiment.  Each experiment is supposed to be written up following the same format, starting with a title. The aim of the experiment was next and although extremely important is usually only a sentence or two. It can be very hard to define exactly and precisely what the aim of the experiment is but without this it is impossible to determine if at the end you have achieved what you had set out to do. Even with a clearly defined aim, I am sure that on more than one occasion I found when it came time to write the Discussion/Conclusion (which is after the Materials and Methods, and the Results sections) that I had answered a completely different question to the one I was aiming to.

So last week I was aiming to have a quantity of Striking Violet reeled silk dyed, packaged and ready for sale by Monday 27th April. I remember that date without looking as I knew I had the weekend to finalise the bobbin design and package the silk. The Monday itself was set aside for photographing the finished product and getting it up for sale. The bobbin design has been close to finished for a while now but the real test of the scalable design was to actually package a quantity of silk for sale. So the Friday before the weekend was spent driving across the city to get the bobbin and packaging components. I had various prototypes and sample components but I needed to pull it all together for the final design. It turns out that it is quite tricky to use ‘off the shelf’ packaging components to make something completely different and not have it look like Frankenstein’s monster. I was aiming for a finished cohesive look but without the pricetag or the 2500 minimum order associated with a bespoke packaging design.

I had approached the bobbin design from quite a few different angles but in the end I had to either modify or make and then assemble all the components by hand. I have been making the bobbins by hand all along but the production model needed to look as much as possible like it had been made by machine. I had been trying to make something more complicated when I realised that the prototype that I had put together for the epic shawl was perfectly functional. Although, I had been thinking that I wanted black packaging (as everything looks better in black) the white was necessary as I couldn’t be sure the dye from the black cardboard wouldn’t discolour the silk after prolonged contact. Importantly the bobbin design had been thoroughly tested so I knew that it would run smoothly, it didn’t have any rough or sharp edges and the joins were physically strong enough. I had discovered the hard way during winding the silk for the epic shawl that the connection between the flange and the core of the bobbin was a potential weak point. It really reinforced the importance of product testing and functional design.

The actual packaging also proved that testing is important as although I really wanted to use the Pharma jars the lip on the inside of the neck made it difficult to get the bobbin out and had the potential to snag the silk. So I ended up using something a bit more conventional which had the added benefit that I could get the packaging, machine cut to size.  It turns out that poster tubes can be cut to length and are almost exactly the same weight as a similar sized Pharma jar.  As they come in a range of diameters and lengths they are the perfect scalable packaging for bobbins and I suspect are less likely to attract the attention of customs officials when shipping overseas.

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So I can happily conclude that I can dye and package the reeled silk for sale and now that I have done it once it should be a relatively simple matter to do it again.   The silk was shipped a week ago now and I have been keeping an eye on the tracking data.  The status at the top of the tracking page still says ‘In Transit’.  The detailed information tells me that it has made it all the way to the United States but I will be just a little bit relived once the status has changed to ‘Delivered’.

 

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10 Times the Magic

I am not feeling the magic this evening as it has been a long day and juggling my family commitments and starting up a business (feeding my silk obsession) is a difficult balancing act. I have been aiming to write posts for The Silk Lab on Monday evenings but last night I was just so tired from burning the candle at both ends for too long. As soon as our almost one year old was blissfully sleeping in her cot I crawled into bed without another thought.

Tonight, our five year old, who started school this year, just couldn’t do without some extra attention so I am sitting down to write this hours after I had planned. But as everyone tells you, your children are only this age once. So even though I really wanted to be doing my own thing I knew we would all feel better if I took the time to give her what she craved. An extra story, a nice hot shower and a foot massage made for a better but much later bedtime. It was really nice to slow down and take the time after a day of rushing. I have a cup of tea (decaf) and a rug for my legs now, courtesy of my husband, so I am settled down to write. It had better not be too long a post as tomorrow is another busy day.

Over the Easter long weekend I managed to squeeze in 3 big days of dyeing and the result was the prototype of a 10 step gradient that I am calling Ascending Iris. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do gradient dyeing as it is labour intensive and challenging to do well. I wasn’t sure if I liked the result enough to invest the hours to do it properly. I had been chatting about gradients recently with some fellow fiberphiles and the idea had gotten stuck in my head. In the middle of the night when I was up, feeding the baby I found myself trying to work out the depth of shade calculations in my head. I figured there was no use resisting and I might as well try it out using the cheaper silk. I quickly decided that if I was going to do this I wanted it to be awesome. One of the things that I dislike about some of the gradients that I have seen is the graduation in colour just isn’t subtle enough and that steps of the gradient are just too different. I guess technically a gradient, should actually be a continuum of colour, in this case a single colour but at different depths. But the quick and simple techniques often used to generate a gradient type yarn just aren’t suitable for reeled silk so of course, I had to come up with something much more complex. I had one colour in particular that I had been working with that I couldn’t decide on which depth I liked so it was the obvious candidate. I figured, that if I dyed it up over the full range of depths then I would be able to pick the one I liked the most. Without going into all the details (which at this hour is just making me tired thinking about doing it again) I selected dye concentrations that ranged from the palest, lightest tint all the way through to the darkest near saturation. I wanted enough steps in the gradient that although I couldn’t dye it as an actual continuum I wanted to look like it had been. I ended up with 10 steps. Each step is dyed in a separate dye bath and I found it consumed an unexpected amount of time and patience making all the separate skeins and arranging them in their separate dyebaths without making a giant tangle. It was really challenging and I found myself thinking on the first of the 3 days of dyeing that I probably didn’t want to do it again.

I can tell you that by the end of the second day I was starting to change my mind. Seeing the growing collection of connected mini skeins all just slightly darker than the previous one was exciting. By the third day, I had decided that I loved it so much that I would have to do it again with the premium grade silk. On the fourth morning, once I had washed the most recently dyed skeins and untangled the order I was so excited to see the real colours, that I was drying them with a hair dryer. While they were wet I couldn’t tell for sure if I had achieved my goal as the last 3 skeins to come out of the dyebath that morning were still wet and darker than their already dry neighbours. I kept going back to check the colour ‘just one more time’ before I had to make myself just put them down and spend some time with the family.

When I was thinking about writing this post, I recalled the excitement I felt as I looked at the complete 10 step set of skeins and tried to think of a way to describe that feeling. I have said before that it is quite magical to watch the colour strike onto the silk in the dyebath.  That magical feeling was amplified ten times, once for each of the steps in the gradients… So I am hooked! In fact I am thinking I may dye nothing but gradients. Although I might change my mind after I attempt to dye the premium grade silk in the same gradient.  But if the prototype made me this happy then I can hardly wait to see the magic happen next time.

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Ready… Set…. Knit!

I had planned to take my time and get all the bits and pieces together to knit the epic shawl starting on the first of May and then everything changed….

I have been enjoying writing the blog and dyeing the silk but I wanted to show people the silk in person.  It is really quite hard to get a good picture of the silk that accurately shows the colours and as the silk is actually reflective the perceived colour depends on the angle it is viewed from and the lighting conditions.  Even with a good picture I need to actually see and touch and feel yarn before I know if I will love it.  While I was looking for local knitting groups and craft markets I was surprised to learn that there is a local Handknitters Guild(https://handknittersguild.wordpress.com/) and that they just happened to be having their annual yarn market in May.

Well I thought this would be the perfect for the début of The Silk Lab’s hand dyed reeled silk.  So the market is on the 23rd of May at the Coburg Town Hall and I think I am pretty much committed to being a stall holder.  It makes me a bit nervous and it is completely out of my comfort zone but I am also excited and there is a massive amount to be done before then.

Which brings me to the plan for the epic shawl.  So instead of waiting until the first of May which wouldn’t have been enough time to finish it before the Market I figured I had better start it ASAP.  So I cast on the first of April… I have been putting in some solid hours of knitting but I am quite surprised how quickly is it coming along.  I am about half way through the size that I think I will knit although the pattern can be altered to just about any size… Below is where I was up to at the end of today’s knitting…

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It is pretty hard to see what it is and it won’t look like much until it is off the needles and blocked to stretch out the pattern.  Of course if you want to see it in person you should come along to the market or one of the Guild’s monthly sit N knit meetings.  Keep an eye on the Facebook page (TheSilkLab) to find out where you can see the epic shawl or The Silk Lab silk.  If you happen to knit or just want to follow the progress of the epic shawl you can now find The Silk Lab (http://www.ravelry.com/groups/the-silk-lab) on Ravelry.

Shiny Things

Just a super quick post tonight…

So I have the lovely Striking Violet silk all dyed up.  It is quite impossible to photograph as it changes colour depending on the lighting and the angle of the camera.  So now I need to choose beads for the shawl.  Apparently the way to do this is to thread 3 beads on the yarn and pick the one you like the most.  The trouble I am having is that I love shiny things and all the beads are very pretty.  The other issue is that because the silk looks different under artificial light and daylight my choice of bead I think would depend on when I would wear the finished garment.

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This photo was taken late afternoon with natural lighting and there are 4 different types of beads.  From left to right we have Transparent Rainbow Cobalt, Rainbow Rosalind Purple, Crystal and Metallic Cosmos.  I had better decide fast as I think I might be moving the cast on date to the first of April…

So which one do you like?

The Reality

This post is late.  I had planned to post once a week on a Monday.  Every lab I have worked in has a regular lab meeting.  The scientific equivalent of ‘show and tell’.  Usually they are once a week and people pretty much just say what they are going to do and then the next meeting they show results or say where they are up to.  It is a good format and it helps to keep people on track with experiments.  In research, just like in life, things seldom go according to plan.

In my last post things were coming together nicely. The packaging was starting to take shape and I was getting ready to dye the first of the big 200 gram cones of reeled silk.  That is where reality steps in and things get complicated.  I started by winding one of the cones of silk off into a skein for dyeing.  It needs to be unwound off the cone to make a skein which allows the dye to diffuse and penetrate into the silk.  The skein is tied carefully to prevent the whole thing becoming a tangled mess while in the dyebath.  So I am happily winding the skein, which I do by hand.  I can feel the lovely smooth silk running through my fingers and it has a gentle lustre as if it is lit from within.  It is beautiful and the quality is everything I had hoped.  Then there is a little bump in the silk…. I stop winding and go back. I know what it is. I don’t have to look. I have that horrible sinking feeling in my stomach.

When I used to work in research I couldn’t wait to get into the lab in the morning.  A lot of experiments in science need overnight or longer for things to happen, grow, develop, expose, run, react, express or incubate. So coming into the lab the morning after a big experiment is a bit like Christmas morning when you get to open your presents, very stinking bug filled presents  (I used to do quite bit of microbiology).  Although unlike Christmas presents, more often than not experiments don’t work out the way one might have hoped and it can be horribly disappointing.  Especially if  you have been working on the same thing for a long time and THIS time you think you have finally cracked it.  That tiny little change that you made to the protocol will have made all the difference and the experiment will finally work.  I once worked on perfecting a technique for close to six years!  Each time I improved the protocol I convinced myself that this was it, it was going to work. I had hope.  For six years I would come into the lab in the morning after a lot of planning and reading and researching and  I would look at the results of the experiment from the day before and I would get that horrible sinking feeling in my stomach.  I do not miss that feeling and it was a surprise when I recognised that sensation. All that excitement, all that expectation, all that anticipation comes crashing down when you realise that it hasn’t worked, that it is back to the drawing board as it were.  Or in this case, the silk has a knot.

So what is the big deal? Yarn often has knots or joins in it and since a lot of yarn is sold in 50 gram balls, in the process of knitting a jumper one needs to join the yarn quite a few times.  There are more than a couple of ways to join normal knitting yarn or even spun silk where the join is pretty much undetectable and the ends cleverly hidden within the stitches of the knitting.  But because the reeled silk is slippery, I think it may actually be necessary to tie a knot to join the two pieces of silk together and it is very difficult to hide the ends of the pieces since the reeled silk has no fluff or fuzz and is completely smooth.  So when I found a knot I was less than happy.

So it took me a while to think, regroup and go back over what I was trying to achieve.  So this post is late.  The first thing I did was to weigh the silk I had before the knot and calculate the meterage.  There was over 350 meters of perfect silk.  That was also the second point. The quality of the silk was excellent.  After a bit more thinking , I came to the conclusion that 350 m is quite a lot of knitting and that the silk was still beautiful and I still wanted to knit with it.  In fact, when I checked, 350m could be enough to make the shawl I had been planning although it was going to be close.  In some ways having a limit of 350 m took the pressure off a bit.  With a full 200 gram cone of silk I felt I should knit an expanded epic version of the shawl and I did wonder if it would be too much work.  I don’t really have a enough time for epic.  Seriously, a lot of people don’t have time for epic.  So instead I am going to try an match my knitting to fit within the 350 meters, in a game commonly referred to in knitting circles, as Yardage Chicken.  It will certainly make it more interesting and it will force me to use my brain and be efficient with the silk.  This is a good thing given the cost of the silk and I think the smaller shawl will be more versatile and could even be worn during the day as a very pretty scarf.  I did also manage to find the time to do the full quality control  on the entire silk shipment and 130 grams / 350m meters seems to be the average but there are also some  longer ones including a near perfect 196 gram out of 200 grams with no imperfections.

In the end I did dye up the skein of silk in a beautiful colour that I call, Striking Violet.  It is bright and intense and I love it!  I think it will look stunning knitted up as an intricate looking lace with sparkly beads.  Did I mention that the pattern has the option of adding beads to the knitting as part of the lace pattern?  Adding beads will slow down the knitting and maybe reduce how much I wear it during the day but I do likely sparkly things so I might just wear it anyhow.  I still have to decide these things but I have time.  The plan is to cast on to knit the shawl on the first of May and finish it in a month.  I will have a bit of company as I am joining in an old KAL (Knit Along) on the designers Ravelry page.  If you knit or crochet then you should check out Ravelry (www.ravelry.com).  If you happen to be feeling brave and want to join me in a game of Yardage Chicken as we knit a silk shawl then pop me a message.  You can use the contact link on this blog or message me on the Facebook page (yes, The silk Lab is now on Facebook, ).  You can even knit the shawl using your own yarn but it does have to be purple as it is The Perfectly Purple KAL.

For those of you that are wondering… After six years I did manage to perfect that particular technique I was working on in the lab and had a fantastic 18 months of brilliant results pretty much for every experiment until I resigned.  It was nice to go out at the top of my game but sometimes I forget the  struggle it took to get there.  It might be time to look into ways to join reeled silk…

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I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

The past week in The Silk Lab has been a very productive and exciting time!  I have been thinking and planning for quite a few months now and the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place.

Sometimes I find that the creative process starts with just one idea that remains unchanged and is solid enough that it holds up right to the end, resulting in a nice little finished object or design.  But more often than not, I will get a single idea that alone doesn’t amount to much, but sparks a chain-reaction of ideas which pop into my head, a bit like a string of little fire crackers.  These often come at the most unlikely time, often when I am thinking or doing something else but my subconscious has obviously been working away on the idea in the background.  I find it is helpful to have the partially finished objects where I can see them and ponder their attributes.  So, I often have various bits of materials and designs on a flat surface, nearby to where I might be doing something else.   After a time, I might just pick up and start working with the materials and see what they can be made into, what shapes, colours, angles and edges might come together to transform the individual components.  This was how it happened with the bobbins.

I had been mulling over a few ideas in my head.  I had some nice solid ideas for functional packaging for the silk but I had been holding off on finalising the design until the shipment of the premium grade reeled silk arrived.  Reeled silk is quite unlike anything else, and being a unique material also poses some unique challenges when working with it.  Unlike other yarns, like wool or even spun silk, reeled silk should not be rolled into a ball.  It is dense, slippery and has a tendency to tangle which can be a nightmare combination when dealing with over half a kilometre of the stuff.  Reeled silk is incredibly strong, and on a mass for mass basis it is apparently stronger than steel.  But being a bit of conundrum, it is also quite delicate as it is actually composed of very long thin fibres which are twisted together to make up the filament and these have a tendency to catch and and snag on things.  So when I started working with reeled silk, I had the revolutionary idea that it would be best wound onto bobbins.  The bobbins could be stored in a box with a spindle so it could be dispensed directly from the box.  The box protects the delicate fibres from mechanical damage but also protects the silk and the vibrant colours from damage and fading by minimising exposure to light.  And did I mention, no more tangles.

Creative types like myself, like to collect materials and it may be quite a long time (weeks, months, years or even decades) before the material is finally matched with its perfect project.  I like to read about my chosen materials, go back to first principles much as possible.  Sometimes this can give me ideas or sometimes makes obvious a difficulty that I may have to solve down the track.  Interestingly,  I discovered that exposure to light can not only fade the colour from the silk but can actually degrade the fibres of the silk itself.  This is true for a lot of fibres and can be evidenced by the fabric cushions on garden furniture which seem to just fall apart after some years in the sun.  So bobbins in boxes were the perfect solution and as an added bonus the boxes stack nicely too.

Well, that was the plan which I then revisited once the silk actually arrived.   The silk was beautiful and it arrived wound as 200 grams cones and I knew right away that I had an issue.  There was no way that I was going to cut the 200 gram lots down into the 50 gram lots that I had planned for the boxes. It was too beautiful and perfect and it would be a shame to chop it into shorter lengths. So the new plan was to work with it as the complete 200 gram lot and that the perfect test item would be to knit a lace shawl.  I was very pleased with that idea but then I had to work out the execution. The current bobbins were too small and the construction method couldn’t be scaled up to a larger size and the same could be said for the boxes. On top of this,  I was concerned that the boxes may not cope well with rough treatment in the post and might arrive a bit worse for wear.

With these thoughts in my mind I went about my day until I found the time to have a bit of a play with the bobbin construction and that’s when the first of the puzzle pieces fell into place.  Finally a bobbin design that was sturdy and scalable! While I was at it, one of my previous, but dormant ideas resurfaced as the solution to the packaging issue.  Instead of boxes for shipping, a great solution, is hard plastic wide mouth jars.  They happen to be called Pharma jars (as in Pharmaceutical jars) and you may even have one in your cupboard. They are made from high density polyethylene (HDPE) so they are recyclable and very sturdy.  They have a wide opening and neck to fit large bobbins and a screw top lid means they are resealable and potentially watertight.  They are commonly used to package vitamin and mineral supplements as well as pharmaceutical products.  Perfect, just the sort of thing I like!  So at the first available chance I put together a prototype bobbin that should be large enough to contain the entire 200 grams of silk and fit into a large Pharma jar.  I can’t wait to try the silk on the bobbin for size but first I need to dye the silk a pretty colour….

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For those people that like a little extra reading about the strength of natural silks.  Check out the link for a fun little article on the latest thing in materials engineering, spider silk…..

https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2r16q1p5#page-1

 

 

 

Sneak Peek

There has been a lot happening in the silk lab today and I have had one of those days where the great ideas just keep coming… So tonight’s post is going to be a quick one as I am itching to get some more done.  But I thought I would give you a little sneak peek of the purples that are happening in the lab.

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I have been testing out some colour recipes using some cheaper silk before I use the really nice stuff.   I want to get the mix of colour and depth of shade spot on before I dye the first 200 gram skein for the epic lace shawl.

I am not sure what I will call my colours.  In the lab everything is labelled and usually with exactly what it is.  It is always good to know which bottle is the concentrated acetic acid and which is the distilled water.  But a lot of yarns have very creative name.  So far I have just been referring to them by their recipe which is quite useful but not so meaningful to most people.  I do think the one at the front could be a Paua Purple and there is a maybe a Deep Amethyst in there too.  The one on the back left bobbin almost has to be a Lilac.  That reminds me, the bobbin design went through a massive evolutionary leap today and I still have some more ideas that I want to test out tonight.  If you check out my next post you will get to see what I am so excited about….