An Open Source Natural Dyeing Machine

17 Mar
The Dye-Bot

The Dye-Bot

According to French textile engineer Mathieu Sandana, the textile industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide, much of that coming from the dying process. This has lead to his current open source hardware project, “Le récupère couleurs” (the colour recoverer or dyer-bot), which is a machine for dying garments or yarn, with a particular focus on using vegetable dyes and recovering and re-using the dye-stuff.

The dyer bot is being developed for use by French locally produced fashion label Rosa Tapioca, and has received 2,040 € worth of funding through kiss kiss bank bank, a French kickstarter equivalent.

On their project page, they write:

The dyer-bot will dye garments, fabrics and yarns. There is no equivalent machine existing in the industry and it will take natural dyeing further. Its has three main advantages as compared to other textile dyeing machine.

1Cheaper: the dyer bot will cost less than every other industrial dyeing machine suitable for natural dyeing. Moreover, free recycler dyeing materials (tea, avocado rinds, unsold flowers) can be easily used with it.

2Easy-to-use : the machine is tought to be used by people with no knowledge in dyeing so they can make their own colors. The process will be made as simple as possible and published on

3Grow local and ecological economy : it will allow to reduce transportation and geographical concentration of toxic industries.

If you have a couple of minutes to be wowed by colours being taken from the farmers market right through to the garment, do check out the fabulous video found on their project page.

Information about ongoing process on the dyer bot is available at

The dying process. The waste materials then become compost to grow more dye plants.

The dying process. The waste materials then become compost to grow more dye plants.


Waterproof and Water Shedding Fabric

23 Jul

Waterproof fabric basically comes in two types, totally (or nearly totally) waterproof fabric which typically has a plastic or rubbery texture, and fabric which is merely water shedding. The former type is often made by coating the fabric in a drying polymer such as linseed oil, or some sort of rubber extract. Linseed oil is an excellent product for this use as once it dries it is waterproof and not damaged by solvents. Fabric coated this way is used to create oilskin garments, such as the ubiquitous stockman’s jacket popular in Australia.

You would be hard pressed to find a better book on the many uses of linseed oil, than Stephen Shepherd’s “Shellac, Linseed Oil & Paint“. It is, admittedly, a little varied in writing quality, but it’s packed with useful information on linseed oil and various additives that can make it behave in different ways.

Shepherd also has an excellent book on hide glue (gelatin) which is also occasionally used in waterproofing textiles, often in the form of a very watery solution called “size”. Sizing, or applying size to the warp, is also a technique used occasionally by weavers working with linen to protect the fibres and reduce friction. Hide glue (and size) can be removed later using warm water, which would tend to make it not terribly useful for waterproofing cloth, except that it can be made waterproof with the addition of Alum or other additives. See Shepherd’s hide glue book for more details.

In the second category of fabric treatments are those treatments which merely make the fabric shed water to some degree, without making it totally impermeable to air or water. Here in New Zealand, the best known example of this is the Swanndri, an iconic NZ garment which is a baggy jacket made of tightly woven wool and treated so that it sheds water rather than absorbs it. This garment has been a popular choice for NZ farmers for about a century, although it is sadly now made in china.

The Swanndri waterproofing recipe is a closely guarded secret. The original maker of the garment, William Broom, apparently dipped the finished garments into the waterproofing solution which caused the garment to shrink unpredictably, hence the baggy fit.

While we don’t know what recipe Mr Broom used, we do know what technology for making water resistant cloth was around at the time, and as a starting point, this article indicates that Mr Broom actually had a copy of a particular book on his shelf: “A Fortune in Formulas“, first published in 1907.

This book quotes many different recipes for making cloth water resistant, but most seem to revolve around the applicate of metal acetates or stearates, with the most common metal being Aluminium. For example, the following recipe:

An easy method is the formation of aluminum stearate in the fiber of the cloth, which may readily be done by immersing it in a solution of aluminum sulphate in water (1 in 10) and without allowing it to dry passing through a solution of soap made from soda and tallow or similar fat, in hot water. Reaction between the aluminum sulphate and the soap produces aluminum stearate and sodium sulphate. The former is insoluble and remains in the fiber; the latter is removed by subsequently rinsing the fabric in water.

An alternative recipe in the book is very similar, but starts with Aluminium Acetate. The chemical reactions here seem fairly straightforward, and I can understand them with just a high school knowledge of chemistry. The chemicals themselves are “fairly safe” to experiment with if investigated thoroughly in advance. Material Data Sheets are available on the internet for each chemical used, and you should ensure a thorough understanding of each chemical reaction and it’s products before embarking on experimentation in this field.

In general though, the idea of causing a chemical reaction to occur on the cloth itself, resulting in the depositing of aluminium stearate on the fibres (not coating the yarn, but the individual fibres within the yarn) sounds similar to waterproofing techniques still used today. Aluminium stearate is still used as a waterproofing agent, and is not generally regarded as being toxic, although I’d be interested to know about how to avoid pollution if doing this on an industrial scale.

Once you know the word to search for, you can google waterproofing recipes with “Alumium Acetate” and “Aluminium Stearate”  and you’ll find lots of interesting results, including expired patents. I’m a bit unclear on whether the book “A Fortune in Formulas” is itself out of copyright, so I wont post a link to it here, but it is possible to find digital copies of it elsewhere on the internet.

OSLOOM: An Open Source Jacquard Loom

3 Jul

The OSLOOM project has been working for two years to build an open source Jacquard loom. It is one of the first open source textiles projects to receive some funding via Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a website which enables you to solicit donations for a project with a particular stated outcome, and only takes those donations if the amount of money promised reaches your goal. This allows projects to attempt to reach their funding goal from lots of small pledges from individual donors, which is why the general process is called “crowd-funding”.

After raising approximately $10,000, the OSLOOM project has worked away on their project, often with periods of seeming inactivity, but this year seems to have been a busy time for them, and we’re starting to see some results that look like the beginnings of a loom.

An early Jacquard loom

Before we dive into that, however, I imagine some people might be asking, “what exactly is a Jacquard loom”? Names after it’s creator, the Jacquard loom is a programmable loom, which originally used punch cards which specified the pattern of which threads were raised or lowed for each row of the cloth. What differentiates a Jacquard loom from a dobby loom, however, is that the Jacquard loom has individual thread control.

Most looms allow the lifting of a certain set of warp threads by the raising of a shaft which contains heddles through which the warp threads pass. If you raise a certain shaft, all the threads which go through the heddles of that shaft will raise. If you want complex patterns, you can have quite a number of shafts. A sixteen shaft loom, for example, allows the creation of very complex textures and repetitive geometric pattern. What it wont let you do is weave a complex single picture. A Jacquard loom, on the other hand, allows control of individual warp threads, and so lets you weave any possible pattern. While in theory you might assume that this would render every other sort of loom redundant, since a Jacquard loom can weave any pattern that any other loom can, the cost and complexity of a Jacquard loom ensures that this is not the case.

From the latest OSLOOM update

The loom being designed by the OSLOOM project is described as an “electromechanical Jacquard loom”. That is, the control of the raising of warp threads is not performed by a punch card system and mechanical apparatus, but by electronics. The open source hardware movement has been led to a large degree by a number of successful electronics projects, so it’s no surprise that the OSLOOM is powered by an Arduino open source programmable microcontroller board.

As you can see, it’s a far cry from the wooden looms that many hand weavers are using today, and yet it’s modular aluminium construction also looks very different from industrial looms. This is a genuine DIY project that you’ll be able to build yourself (once it’s design is finished), but only if you’re an electronic and metalwork hobbiest.

It seems to me that the OSLOOM project marks the arrival of a new group on the non-industrial textile scene. This is a project driven to some degree by the hackers, makers and geeks who are prevalent in the rise of open source hardware. If this is new to you, go check out Make Magazine for a taste of what this crowd is interested in.

To some degree I’m a member of this crowd too (I’m a computer geek by trade), but my interests also lean towards the handcrafted and historical, so you’ll be seeing a mix of the high tech electronics and the hand cranked and hand carved on this blog.

I’ll look forward to bringing you more information about the OSLOOM project as it becomes available. In the meantime, you can find them at:

The OSLOOM Website
The OSLOOM Kickstarter Page

Mechanized Sock Production

19 Feb

Knitting socks by hand takes a long time.

It seems to take me all winter to do a pair and have it complete just in time for it to languish in my drawer over summer. During both world wars, ladies in our area apparently got together in groups to knit socks for the soldiers, and apparently after some practice were knitting a sock per day.

Socks also wear out faster than some other items of clothing. Choosing the right yarn can really help there. Most of the socks I’ve hand knitted to date have been using regular wool from the local craft store, really intended for knitting wooly jumpers and so forth. This sort of woolen-spun yarn is soft, fluffy and warm, but not very strong and not terribly appropriate for socks. Some breathability is required, and the yarn itself must be hard wearing. Modern socks typically achieve this by adding some nylon, but it can be done with wool if the yarn is semi-worsted or felted.

Sock production is of interest to us at Atamai Village, and so I’ve been researching small scale mechanized sock production. Last week I had the pleasure of visiting what I believe is the world’s only museum of vintage sock knitting machines, run by Jacquie Grant in Hokitika, New Zealand.

Jacquie has spent a lifetime collecting vintage mechanical textile equipment, particularly sock knitting machines. Her collection primarily consists of hand cranked machines, intended for home or cottage industry, but also several fully automated industrial machines. The hand cranked machines were popular in the early part of the 20th Century, and were typically sold as a “work from home” scheme for the housewife, the idea being that you would buy the machine, and then sell the socks back to the company. This business model was apparently not very economical once there was no longer a war on, and the sock machine companies used various scams to keep people buying their machines even when they could no longer afford to buy the socks back.

Dodgy business practices aside, the machines are wonderful. Cranking the handle creates rows and rows of circular knit, and various contraptions aid with ribbed stitches, and turning heels and toes. Vintage machines from a range of different manufacturers exist, although some of those brands were in fact the same companies, and many similarities exist. Vintage machines can often be found on ebay and trademe, and there are several people, including Jacquie Grant, who can provide professional assistance in tuning them up and getting them working again.

There are also three options for a modern hand-cranked sock machine.

Jacquie’s company produces a modern version of the vintage “Auto Knitter” brand machine, called the New Zealand Auto Knitter (NZAK). The existing model of this is the Simplex, which Jacque has been making in conjunction with a NZ engineering firm for many years. This machine is probably the most widely used and best documented of the modern sock machine options. Prices are available on the auto knitter website, and a very detailed video user manual can be found on youtube. This video also makes a good general introduction to vintage sock machines.

New from Jacquie is also the NZAK Quicknit. Jacquie describes this machine as “not better, just different”. It has features found in some of the other vintage machines, including the ability to have different cylinder sizes (thus making it able to knit children’s socks), and the ability to knit a fully ribbed sock with the ribber in-situ.

Also now available is the Erlbacher Gearhart sock machine from the US. This is a modern reproduction of the vintage Gearhart sock machine by Erbacher Gear & Machineworks in Missouri. These manufacturers are fairly new to using sock machines, and while I have heard some good things about the machine online, the only two people I have met on my trip the USA last year who have used one have indicated some potential problems when ribbing. I’m not in a position to effectively judge these machines, but I would recommend doing some research before considering a purchase, and ideally not just online.

Regardless of whether you are interested in newly made machines or vintage ones, Jacquie’s museum is a “must see” for anyone interested in vintage fibre technology. I hope to write more on some of the more industrial machines that I saw there as well.

So, how is this all related to the topic of this blog, opens source textiles?

The vintage sock machines are all in the public domain. This isn’t quite the same as being open source. To really empower people, open source technology needs to come with blueprints, design documentation, and a community of people interested in collaborating on design improvements. The newly manufactured sock machines are not in the public domain, although they are not covered by any current patents. Sock machine manufacture is fairly technical, and I don’t see it as a good opportunity for an open source machine at the moment. So, why the interest?

Well, one important aspect of open source textiles is the goal of empowering small scale textile production, both in cottage industries, and small local industrial scale. Some of these machines seem like ideal candidates to be part of this. We’re certainly planning to incorporate at least one sock machine (probably a NZAK Quicknit) in our village scale textile production at Atamai.

Another discovery from this tour is that Jacquie Grant has a wealth of knowledge to share on the subject of industrial revolution textile production, and I hope to bring you more information about machines in her collection.

An Electric Spinning Wheel That You Can Build At Home

1 Dec

It’s all very well to talk about the wonders of open source technology, but it doesn’t mean much without some real examples. That’s why I’m so excited to tell you all about Maurice Ribble’s open source electric spinning wheel, called the “Electric Eel Wheel”.

The Electric Eel is a hand spinning wheel with an electric motor. It operates much like a regular saxony spinning wheel, with a belt driven flyer and a scotch tension system to slow down the bobbin, except that rather than treadling it with your feet to provide the power, you simply set the dial on the front to the speed you like.

There are a number of companies providing (non open-source) electric spinning wheels. Cost is generally fairly high compared to a manual wheel. For example, the Ashford e-spinner is around US$900, and the Roberta Electronic is around US$1,2000. These are all fair prices for a machine made for sale, but with a bit of DIY spirit, you can now make yourself one for much less.

Electric wheels have a number of advantages over human powered spinning wheels. They are particularly handy for people who can’t treadle due to leg problems, but even for everyone else, they can provide a speed and consistency that is hard to achieve while treadling. The Electric Eel is also significantly more portable than most full size spinning wheels.

This wheel was developed by Maurice for real use in his household. He has provided all the information you need to build it, either totally from scratch, or using a kit. While you can order a kit from Maurice, you’re under no obligation to do so. You can even sell your own kits if you like, or sell the wheel commercially, as long as you attribute Maurice as the original designer.

Being an electric wheel, one of the most confusing bits for some people might be the electronic components, which is basically a controller for the motor and some input dials. If you don’t want to have to worry about how this magic box works, just buy it from Maurice. However, it’s important for the open source movement that we don’t all just treat things as magic black boxes. Maurice has provided full schematics for his electronics case, so you can replicate it yourself if you don’t want to use his. The contents are all off the shelf components. These components are not themselves open source, and while that would certainly be nice, they are cheap and easily available.

Maurice tells me that he’s currently working on version 3 of his design, which will include a grand, yet to be unveiled improvement to the bobbin and flyer arrangement. You don’t have to wait for this though, it’s already a great wheel, if you’re in need of one, dive in and make it.

To find out more, see the Electric Eel project page. It contains detailed build instructions, photos, and a forum to ask your questions.

Textile Processes – Wool

22 Nov

There are a lot of different processes involved in creating a finished product, such as an article of clothing, from wool that’s still riding round on a sheep’s back. All of these steps have been automated in various ways during the industrial revolution, and various tools and techniques have been tried. Many of them are opportunities for small scale crafters to create unique and creative products, but also, many of these steps can be drudgery if carried out in large volumes without machinery.

So, lets dive into the main areas of wool processing to make fabric, and perhaps you’ll see some areas in need of open source technology.

1. Shearing: While electric shears are certainly faster than hand shears, sheep shearing remains a highly skilled trade which can probably not be any further automated.

2. Grading: Even within a given fleece there are a areas of fibre with different characteristics. The fleece is graded based on staple length, fibre thickness, crimp pattern and lustre.

3. Picking: Large contaminants are removed from the fleece, possibly by hand.

4. Scouring: A collection of fleece (presumably of a given grade), is usually washed to remove the oily lanolin and the dirt and smaller contaminants trapped on the fleece. Some hand spinners do not was the fleece until after spinning, as the lanolin is an effective lubricant for spinning, but this is not a common approach in mechanised processes. The fleece must be scoured prior to dying, and if it is not scoured prior to spinning, then some of the contaminants may not be removeable later. The tricky bit about scouring wool is that warm water, soap and agitation will turn the wool into felt, and it wont be spinnable. Instead, scouring is usually performed with soaking only, and minimal to no agitation.

5a. Carding: Carding is the process of breaking up the lumpy structure of the pile of fleece and mostly aligning the fibres. By hand it is done with two wooden cards covered in small wire bristles. The mechanical process involves the drum carder, which has the same bristles mounted on rotating drums.

5b. Combing: While carding gets the fibres roughly aligned, it introduces a lot of air in doing so. Carded and spun fibre creates what is called a “woolen” yarn (even if not made from wool), whereas combing the fibre with large combs until the fibres are more precisely parallel and more closely packed together produces a “worsted” yarn, which is less insulating, but stronger and shinier. Neither is better, but they have different uses.

6. Preparing the Sliver: The carded or combed fibre might need some preparation to arrange it into a long sliver of fibres ready for spinning.

7. Spinning: Spinning is really two operations. First, the sliver is drawn out (drafted) into a longer thinner sliver, sometimes so thin that it would break if it was handled in this condition, and then it is twisted. This creates a single ply yarn. In hand spinning, the drafting is done with the hands as the fibre is fed into the spinning wheel. When done by machine, rollers moving at different speeds are used to draft the fibre before it is spin mechanically.

8. Dyeing: Although listed here, dying can be done at almost any stage of the process, providing the wool is not covered in lanolin. Dyeing before spinning has advantages in that different coloured fibers can be combined to interesting effect. Dying the spun yarn is a common approach in commercial fibre processing, however.

9a. Knitting: Both woolen and worsted yarns have uses in hand knitting applications, however many fabrics we use are also knitted (by machine). Knitting gives good stretch, and when done by machine is perhaps more efficient on a small scale than weaving cloth, as the complexities of warping are avoided. Most T-shirts, for example, are knitted fabric. The downside of knitted fabric is that it can pull apart if a single end becomes loose.

9b. Weaving: Weaving yarn into cloth is itself a complex trade with several processes which use unique tools. Different levels of technology and complexity are available for different scales of production, from kitchen table to cottage industry, and right through to industrial weaving mills.

10 Fulling: Newly created cloth typically needs some further washing and preparation so that shrinkage can be managed, and also so that any movement of the fibres occurs in a predictable way. For many types of cloth, it is desirable for the fibres to felt together ever so slightly, caused by some water and agitation, in order to visually blend the individual yarns together and create a warmer fabric.

11 Napping: For fabrics where fuzzyness is not desirable, finishing the fabric might be performed by raising the “nap” (the fuzzy stray fibres) during the fulling process, and then cutting the nap off.

12 Sewing: Creating garments from cloth is perhaps the area of fibre processing which people are most familiar with. It can be done on a small or large scale, although it’s not mechanized to the extent that some of the above processes are. The affordability of commercially made clothing is more due to global wage inequality than it is to economies of scale.

Welcome to Open Source Textiles

21 Nov

Welcome, dear reader, to an online conversation about open source fibre processing technology. This is something which I think should be of interest to a range of hobby or small-scale commercial workers involved in any of the steps of processing some sort of fibre into a useful product, such as clothing.

Photo by flickr user :: Wendy ::

For thousands of years, humankind has processed a range of natural fibers, some of the main ones being wool, linen, cotton and silk, using the best available technology and processes of the time. A range of different steps in the process have given rise to many specialist occupations, and also to many unique machines.

Up until the beginning of the industrial revolution, improvements in the processes and tools used to prepare fibre products were typically shared directly from the innovator to other fibre workers. The tools used during this period were typically the product of many small refinements added by generations of workers who used these tools regularly to provide all or part of their livelihoods.

With the industrial revolution came technologies which would change the face of fibre processing, and entire society it clothed. For the first time, intellectual property laws were used to try and keep these advances in the hands of relatively few, and so the new fibre machines, while greatly increasing the wealth of the civilisation which possessed them, tended to concentrate these riches in the hands of powerful industralists and textile mill owners while at the same time impoverishing the thousands of cottage industry fibre workers.

This social inequality led to great unrest and hatred of the machines themselves, as evidenced by the luddites and many other groups of “machine breakers”. This blog, however, is not anti-technology, but is instead here to investigate the potential advantages to putting the technology back to work in the hands of the people.

What is Open Source Technology?

The term “Open Source” means a free and open design. The term comes from the computer software industry, where the “source code” is the design of a computer program. If you have the source code, you can change the program and make it work for you in a new way. In building a movement around this approach, computer programers discovered that there were many benefits to collaborating with others around the world on the design of their programs, and in fact doing so created better products and was totally compatible with their ability to make money doing so, even though they were giving the design away for free.

It is only relatively recently that these same open source philosophies have been applied to physical devices, hardware rather than software, although it could certainly be argued that this isn’t a new idea, but is in fact the normal way that human ingenuity worked aside from the last 250 years or so. That may be true, but we now have some advantages that the artisans of the middle ages didn’t have when designing technology.

The foremost of these is rapid global communication. Through the internet, experts in a field can collaborate on their technology in a way that was never possible before. Ideas and designs can be disseminated and tried out very rapidly. It certainly seems that if we hand to re-design all the fibre machines invented during the industrial revolution, starting at about 1750 AD, then we could do so in a lot less than 260 years, given our ability to communicate and share so effectively.

That may be a good thing, as it’s the contention of this blog that we should indeed redesign some of these machines, but with new design goals which will be discussed here in more details. Don’t forget that many machines of this period were designed with only one goal, to maximise efficiency so that more product could be produced with less people. Other possible goals, such as creating a safe and happy work environment, providing broad employment, creating more beautiful products, enabling the very poor to build wealth, and so on could all be considered when re-designing these machines as part of the open source revolution.

I believe that there are a range of possibilities for machines less efficient than those used by industry, but more understandable and useable by more people, particularly hobbiest and cottage industry producers. The key to this is to build a solid foundation of free and open designs that others can build upon. These designs, due to their very open nature, will actually become move valuable than proprietary non open source designs, because everyone who builds or buys an open source fibre processing machine will be able to take advantage of a global community of support, including ideas for open source accessories, design improvements, and usage hints.

Join in the open source technology revolution. No politics required, lets just build some great machines for our own needs, share them with others, and see the magic that happens when enough people start doing it.