Saturday, May 29, 2010

a sampling of what we saw at maker faire 2010

It occurs to me that I came home with no images of the Raygun Gothic Rocketship, which was the centerpiece attraction this year. I have no video of the crafting area, the Bizarre Bazaar, the rides in the new south area, the Homegrown Village, the Tech Shop or the Maker Shed. The faire has grown, not only in numbers, but in sheer physical area; and it takes some doing to get around to everything--even with two days to do so.

So here is a tiny portion of what we saw, which was itself a tiny portion of all there is to see and do:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

maker faire

We have never been a family that makes an annual pilgrimage to Disneyland or rents the same beach house for a week in August. Instead, we look forward each year to the Maker Faire.

The Maker Faire was started in 2006 by O'Reilly Media, publishers of Make and Craft magazines. It has one purpose, and that is to celebrate the joy of creating--or in O'Reilly's coinage, of making.

For those types who always have some project or other going, it is like a weekend in heaven--if your heaven can tolerate hot asphalt and enormous crowds, that is.

I am willing to make the exception.

We were in attendance the very first year, where we saw the soon-to-be familiar themes of 


(this room was filled with old machinery expressly for dismantling and looking at from inside)

and bicycles
(he is stopped here, but grasping the broom handle with both hands and zooming through the fairgrounds, he actually did appear to be flying)

We have been to every Bay Area Maker Faire since, even managing to time a trip to Austin to coincide with the 2nd Maker Faire held there. In Austin we saw laser-printed tortillas, rode the camera-equipped Yahoo Purple Pedals, and placed memorial marigolds in the giant Dia de los Muertos skull.

Our attendence has gradually evolved into a predictable weekend. We travel with a group of like-minded friends. We eat roti prata at a favorite area restaurant. We look forward to seeing the mobile cupcakes, the art cars, the Cyclecide, the Swap-O-Rama-Rama, the robot battles, the Tesla Coil, the Lego room, and so many of the now-traditional aspects of the fair. 

But we also go in anticipation of discovering something new and fun and inspiring. Someone walking on hoof stilts, perhaps:
Or a multi-rider bicycle in the form of a snake skeleton:
Computer geeks, fiber nerds, musicians, and budding artists (that would cover our family quite easily) all find their tribes at the faire. So do steampunk enthusiasts, sculptors, scientists, green advocates, and performance artists. 

Here is a quick list of some of the things I remember the kids doing over the years:
  • creating armatured clay figures and a few second of claymation video
  • dissecting a plastic frog
  • playing an electric cigar box guitar
  • painting customized rubber duckies
  • making instant ice cream using dry ice
  • walking a maze with auditory guides shaped like giant mice
  • joining a jam session
  • going on a scavenger hunt using scanner-equipped smartphones
  • printing t-shirts of their original designs
  • making mini bots, marshmallow shooters, wooden cars, Chinese takeout boxes and sock monkeys
Many of the projects we had already done at home, but there is something to being immersed in an environment where this kind of creative fun is the whole point. And our Coke and Menthos experiments at home were nothing like the gigantic fountain that is set off each year on the fairgrounds.

We have also listened to some amazing talks, sat in workshops, learned how to solder, how to make different kinds of molds, how to build an aerial camera with a kite. We've heard about hacking the mind, building an airplane, drawing cartoons and animating movies.

Perhaps my favorite Maker Faire memory is of the knitting drummer from 2007. Drumming with oversized knitting needles, he simultaneously knit a large, woolen square: ta-dum! loop. ta-da-dum! loop, loop. It was at once perplexing, ridiculous, and outrageously fun. And what more natural place to do this than at a festival dedicated to thinking outside the box?

Well, gee, a quick search is all it takes these days--here he is:

This weekend is my hometown's Tour de Cluck, which I'm sorry to miss--who wouldn't want to take a bike tour of backyard chicken coops? I'm also sad about missing a friend's memorial service, carefully timed so that her favorite roses would be in bloom. My niece is performing in her first ballet recital--an occasion that will be even more memorable for her lively personality, I'm sure. And yet it's never been in question where we would be: at the Maker Faire, celebrating the things that are important to us--independent thinking, community spirit, innovation and perserverance, the joy of making one's life.

Monday, May 17, 2010

starling handbag

A couple years ago, I started following futuregirl's blog, even though she was then primarily a crocheter (she now knits, as well) and I had not crocheted anything other than a handful of squares for a group baby blanket project.

It's not really the modality that matters so much as the process. I was instantly drawn to the way futuregirl (aka Alice) thinks about what she is doing, plays with her designs, and makes multiple versions of the everything she creates--all the while explaining everything in clear and simple prose. I love that she offers pattern downloads and tutorials explaining her work. And though (or perhaps because?) I have a sloppy hand myself, I greatly appreciate that she is neat and precise.

Her Starling Handbag captivated me (and many others--there's a flickr group for Starling Handbags here) with its simple, basketlike design and the potential for customization. I often carry gigantic totes that end up holding everyone's lunch, water and current reading, but I dreamed of a little bag with room for only my wallet, phone, keys--and perhaps just *one* book.

With all the tutorials and explanations on the site, I was sure I could do it.

I had a cotton handspun my husband had brought back from a trip many years ago. I'd always loved the color but had never found the right project. It seemed perfect.
Unfortunately, my tendency to lose track of counting quickly kicked in and I had to crochet the base to size rather than stitch count. I believe I was thinking that 11" was as long as the longest book I might carry.
I have no photos of the bag in progress. Was it because I had my tongue between my teeth the entire time, or because the project went so quickly and easily? I wish I could remember.

In any case, it was finally crocheted up but very plain. The whole thing stalled while I tried to think of how to make it nicer. There were all the elaborate designs on the Flickr set, but I'm not that artistic; I needed it to be simple. I finally settled on spring flowers so I could finish and be done with it. I cut out a pattern on scrap paper and laid it against the bag to be sure it would work--
--then cut the same patterns from felt and stitched them on.
Futuregirl has a wonderful bag lining tutorial on her site which is characteristically both simple and precise. I sew adequately but followed her lining directions because they are perfect. From a collection of sarongs I had inherited, I found one that matched the turquoise of the yarn. Interior pockets are a given, of course.
This is the bag I've been carrying around all spring. It represents so much to me: my husband's gift, an attempt at a new skill, and my boundless gratitude for all that futuregirl and so many others generously share via the web.
And also, of course, my continuing effort to downsize, to carry only the essentials  and not worry about the rest.

Friday, May 14, 2010

playing with yarn, part 5 (knitting rhymes)

Knitting is rhythmical, and one way to help keep rhythm while learning is to knit with a rhyme. When my older son was young, we learned this one for the knit stitch:

Under the fence

Catch the sheep

Back again

Off we leap

At that time we knew of no purl rhymes, so we made up our own:

Yarn to the front

Dive down deep

Catch a pearl ("purl"--I know, ouch!)

It's yours to keep
(Sometimes it's hard getting that loop off the needle in four short syllables.)

A quick search now turns up all sorts of knitting rhymes, not only for knit and purl, but also for Continental and English knitting. I think all that matters is that the rhymes you use are easy to remember and intuitively fit the motions of knitting and purling. A good rhyme helps cement the physical memory; the less you have to think about knitting, the more fluid and enjoyable it will be.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

playing with yarn, part 4 (making knitting needles)

I believe children in Waldorf schools routinely make knitting needles before they learn to knit. It brings a little bit of woodworking into a fiber-based activity, and it is calming to sand and finish. Calm is a good thing to have when knitting!

There is also a sense of accomplishment in having created one's own tools before beginning. When you've put time into polishing your tools, you are more invested in using them with care.

A 1/4" dowel will make size 10-1/2 needles. A 3/8" dowel gives you size 11 needles. Both of these are for use with bulky yarn and are easy to learn to knit with.

Mark and cut the dowel to a size you like--I think 12" works well, but I've seen children's needles that were shorter, and if you are making something wide, you may want a longer size.
You'll end up with two pieces of dowel roughly the same length.
After this, you need to make points. You could whittle--
--but an easy way is to use a pencil sharpener. You don't need, or even want, your knitting needles to be pencil-point sharp, just tapered.
In theory, you could knit with pencils themselves, although you'd be getting lead all over your project. So let's stick with the dowels, which are now sharpened and ready to sand.
We start with 100 grit sandpaper and gradually move up to 320, sanding until the wood is very smooth.
When you are finished sanding, you simply need an end cap of some type so that the yarn won't fall of the end of the needles. Pink pencil cap erasers work just fine, although you'll want to glue them so they stay on. K and E glued acorn caps to theirs:
S rubbed his needles with beeswax and orange oil, then sculpted balls from fimo clay, baked them, and glued them on:
These were dyed with colored stains from Ikea, coated with tung oil, and capped with Lego pieces that had been drilled out:
I'd love to see other examples of homemade knitting needles, and will gladly add any photos you send to this post.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

playing with yarn, part 3 (spool knitting)

Apparently this is also called French knitting and corking, terms which I am unfamiliar with. I can't call it anything other than spool knitting because when we were kids, my mom literally took old empty wooden thread spools and hammered nails into them for us to use.

We didn't save any of these knitting spools, as they were considered temporary pastimes like folding gum wrapper chains or playing cat's cradle with a piece of string.

Some years ago, though, my dad was cleaning house and found the doll on the left in the photo below. I believe this belonged to my sister, as I have no recollection of ever using it. Despite the fact that it was a commercial product, not homemade, it also uses finishing nails to hold the yarn.
The spool in the middle is a more recent product known as a knitting mushroom. It fits in the hand well and has large, U-shaped hooks on top which don't snag the yarn. It contains the remains of someone's old project, testament to how a well-made object adds to the pleasure of an activity.

On the right is one of the last knitting spools my husband made one year when we took down some branches. He drilled a hole through the center and added nails like my mom used to.

The yarn, and eventually, the piece of knitting, will go down through the hole in the center. To cast on, you make a series of loops around the nails. Then you bring the yarn around the outside, as seen in the last photo.
Once you have the loops on, all you will do is continue to wrap the yarn around the outside, bringing the loops up and over the yarn. Remember finger knitting? It's exactly the same principle. It's as if your fingers were curled into a circle instead of laying out flat.
Here's how it looked on another day, after we'd gotten a little farther:
Spool knitting makes ropes, belts, handles for bags, drawstrings and lassos. You can make lengths of them to add designs to your creations: snails, snakes, spirals, flowers. You can spell out your name in different colors. Many years after playing with spool knitting, I came across Elizabeth Zimmermann's I-cord and realized that it was a two-needle method of spool knitting. Funny how all these things come back around.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

playing with yarn, part 2 (finger knitting)

It's all but impossible to do something and photograph it at the same time. I'm grateful that my son is willing to go through the sequences of what we do in our yarn group so that it can be shared. This doesn't capture the feeling of sitting and talking, leaning over and learning from each other, but hopefully it allows someone else to get a glimpse of what we have been doing lately.

Finger knitting is easy, tactile, and requires no equipment. A lot of young children (mine included, in years past) seem to enjoy seeing how quickly their piece grows. There are two methods that I know of.

Finger Knitting Method 1
Although the following method is sometimes called finger knitting, I call it finger crochet. It's a way to make a chain stitch without a hook.

First, the slipknot:
Once that is done, you continue to make a series of slipknots using your fingers. Just reach through the loop, grab yarn from the long end of the slipknot, and pull it back through. Continuing this, you create a chain:
Adding a crochet hook can feel a little unwieldy at first. It helps to remember to turn the hook up when catching the yarn, and down when pulling the yarn through.

Finger Knitting Method 2
This method is much closer to knitting as we think of it. You cast on by weaving the yarn around your fingers--first one way, and then back again. Once you have yarn on both sides of both fingers, you will bring the yarn straight across all four fingers as in the last picture of this sequence:
Now make your loops. Bring the yarn that is wound around your fingers up and over the yarn that is going across the fingers. It helps to bend your finger so the loop can just slip. Bottom yarn over top yarn, like so:
Continue with each finger in turn. Bring the bottom yarn over the top yarn for the pointer, the middle, the ring, and the pinkie fingers. Then you'll pass the yarn across the palm side of your fingers again and bring the bottom yarn over the top for the pinkie, the ring, the middle and the pointer fingers. Back and forth, forth and back. It goes pretty quickly:
In about a minute, you'll have a piece of knitting that looks like this:
Some years ago, one of my boys made scarves for his aunts using this method of finger knitting. They are narrow, but they knit up so quickly that it's possible to do a nice long scarf in a single sitting. If you need to, you can also transfer the loops from your fingers on to a large knitting needle until you're ready to pick up again.

Knitting is nothing more than making yarn into fabric by creating a series of loops, and the best demonstration of that is knitting directly on your own fingers and making the loops with your other hand.

Monday, May 10, 2010

playing with yarn, part 1 (handspinning)

We've started getting together with friends to do things with wool. The ultimate aim is to teach knitting to parents and kids who are interested, but there's so much around knitting that we decided to do some lead-in activities first.

Because we live in an agricultural county, all of us have seen sheep in fields, watched them get sheared, and touched unwashed wool. We pulled out clean, carded roving and rolled it around in our hands to see what happens when it's twisted. The drop spindle is just a tool to help with that twist, and it can be made very simply with a toy wheel, a short length of wooden dowel to fit inside the wheel, and a brass cup hook:

You put it together like this:

And screw the cup hook into the top. This is a top whorl spindle, and it spins a little faster than the bottom whorl type.

That makes for a tighter, thinner yarn.

It also makes it a little easier to get the hang of spinning, I think.

After the spindle is assembled, you need a leader to attach the wool to. We used a loop of cotton string slipped around the shaft and hooked under the cup hook.

K showed us that an easy way to start spinning was to roll the spindle along one's thigh.

Or you can stand up and set it twirling with your thumb and forefinger.

I'm not really a spinner but I often think that someday when my life settles down, I might become one. It's very soothing and somewhat hypnotic to watch wool pull and twist into yarn. It also made for a fun first day of our yarn circle.

Friday, May 7, 2010

homemade yarn swift

A short while ago, I mentioned to my knitting buddies that I don't own a yarn swift. Whenever I need to wind yarn, I ask my agreeable husband to hold out his hands and tilt this way and that until I have a ball.

But real knitters use a swift, it seems, and my friends urged me to get one. I did consider it until I realized that there are too many styles and prices to easily choose a single model. As I was googling, however, I came across many versions of homemade swifts:

from a broken patio umbrella

from a lazy susan

from tinkertoys

and this one, made from scrap wood and widely copied.

I mentioned to my husband that a homemade yarn swift would be a nice thing to have and not surprisingly, he jumped at the chance to be freed of having to stand like a statue every time I begin a new knitting project.

A few hours in the garage, and he had a finished swift. He used the latter pattern, adding a few curves and some rubber feet. It's beautiful, and it spins like a dream.

I especially love the fact that it breaks down into a few simple pieces for easy storage.

At the moment it's tucked in an old pillowcase, which will eventually be modified for a better fit.

My husband recently started his own blog to chronicle a robot he is making from an electric wheelchair. If you're of a geeky bent, take a look at it here.
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