Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Autopsy of the Montenegria Stitch

Many years ago, Amy Mitten did the very difficult thing of figuring out the Montenegria Stitch, a stitch popular on 17th century samplers, and how to work it around every type of direction change possible - and published a little book on it.  If you have ever come across this challenge - you know what a dilemma it is.

Montenegria Stitch - challenging with that long leg
You may have come upon this stitch with its long leg that goes over two graph squares when working a sampler, any modern designer only includes it as a linear band - a straight line that divides an area.  But on 17th century pieces, it was used for bands as you would use cross stitch today - things like this graph:

A typical area where Montenegria Stitch issued in 17th century pieces
So just look at that pansy.  How would you approach that????  There are right angles, there are diagonals that to into a straight path, there are verticals that move into a diagonal.  This is a one-way street to the UFO pile because you can't figure out how to do it!

That is why Amy's little book was FANTASTIC.  At first it is hard to imagine a book that only covers one stitch - but when you realize that as you move from a downward diagonal to a vertical - you just look that up that case in the book and it shows you the stitch progression to do it.  And then as you approach the next transition, you look up that case - and there is it!  Figured out for you.  To be honest - if you like band samplers from the 17th century - it is a MUST in your library.  And yes, it takes 128 pages to diagram out all the conditions you come across.  This version also does the reversible method as well (OMG) so it has been expanded since the first edition that I use all the time.

The book on one of my whitework samplers for the course
This book is spiral bound to make it a work horse while stitching.  But it has been out of print for a VERY long time.  Amy has decided under popular protest to reprint it this summer.  But because it is on special paper (it holds up to constant use) and spiral bound, she isn't going to do it 'on risk' - meaning she is taking preorders and will hold only a small number of copies after printing (I asked) for a few late comers/mistakes in shipping.  So if you want it - YOU NEED TO ORDER IT NOW.  It is going to print soon and will ship in mid July.

Why am I promoting this???  

Well, I am teaching the big whitework course, starting later this year.  It will be band samplers with the reticella and other cutwork on it.  There will be a design your own portion of the course.  So I can't anticipate every direction change that you might need for each stitch you decide to use.  And I am NOT going to plagiarize her book and republish all the information in it.  I considered including the book in the course but I have no idea how many people will be in it and how many years it will run - so ordering 100-500 books is just not feasible for me today - especially with the materials I am having manufactured.  So I am ENCOURAGING people who are thinking of the class who don't already have the book to get it.  One band stitched in montenegria stitch with this book and you will scream "WHY DOESN'T THIS EXIST FOR OTHER STITCHES???".

There are a handful of stitches that have these long arms where the stitch progression goes over more than one graph square.  They are, to coin a phrase "a bitch" to work on 17th century samplers.  And they never used cross stitch for those bands, I am sorry to tell you.  In one of the samplers I am including in the course, I used a different one that was original to the piece and it took me a full month to figure out the transitions and to graph them for the instructions.

So Amy's book - totally worth it.

Some of you might say - well, Darlene O'Stein's The Proper Stitch is the bible of these stitches.  Yes it is.  But she only diagrammed out 1-2 cases for each stitch.  While it is a wonderful book and is a fantastic resource, to have diagrammed out all the cases for these types of stitches it would have been 500 pages and thus they weren't and so it leaves the geometry yoga to you.  That's where Amy's book came in to do one of the most frequent stitches.  I have done about 40% of the cases of Alternating Double Backstitch for the Whitework course.  It takes FOREVER.  So save yourself the agony and just get Amy's book.


Monday, June 18, 2018

5000 meters of silk purl

Wow.  Did you hear that earthquake?  That was a manufacturer falling collectively out of their chair as that email got read.

Yup - I just ordered 5250 meters of silk wrapped purl for the Harmony with Nature Casket class that I expect to start offering next year as well as sending over pictures of the piece in process to show the hard workers at the purling machine who make the threads!  I heard that the purling machine is 'open' at the moment and so I decided to get it busy again before someone else claims the time.

That's a lot of silk purl and it will take a LONG time to make it.

I will get back to the robot story soonish.  I am under the gun at the moment stitching to get ahead on lessons while I am gone as well as packaging items for a new frostings box with my teen summer labor AND getting ready to disappear on vacation for weeks.  So I expect to blog during vacation when I am in down moments.

A section of back frieze under stitching at the moment

Friday, May 25, 2018

One Earth Designs

So the kids had been doing quite a lot of research on the designs of solar cookers and would review things as they were getting their presentations ready.  Near the end of the 'season', they discovered that one of the companies, One Earth Designs, who made big solar cookers for developing countries was now wrapping up a Kickstarter to get a portable, lightweight version of their much larger version made.  It was basically the manufactured version of what the kids were designing.

Excited, the kids and us coaches started trying to track down the company - amazingly it had grown out of Harvard and MIT and so we found someone we knew who knew Catlin Powers, the CEO.  Catlin was incredibly generous with her time and responded to an email from the kids and arranged a conference call with them.  She was in China at the manufacturing line at the time.

The kids explained the problem and the dangers to the Sherpa people and this amazing opportunity to get their prototype to Antartica in three weeks to do the type of testing others needed to see to be convinced.  Her system could actually be the one that could go to Mt. Everest.

Catlin did one better - she offered to hand carry production unit #1 back to the USA a week later and send it to us to make Nick's flight to Chile to meet up with his planes to Antartica.  We were over the moon!  This was changing from a nice project that the kids did for the competition to maybe even coming up with a solution that could be implemented to save lives on Mt. Everest in the next year!

We had to wait for months for the expeditions to get back from Antartica, but the pictures and data were worth it!!  It melted water at altitude and at -15 degrees, beyond the conditions at Mt. Everest base camp!  In one of the pictures, the person aligning the solar cooker to melt ice is an indigenous Sherpa gentleman working in Antartica before going back for the Everest season.  The report back was that they all wanted to try it more!





During this time, Catlin was able to take her product on Shark Tank and get a $500K investment from Mark Cuban!  Quite the story on their project.  Right now they are getting ready to talk to the Everest exploration contacts when they get back from the Everest season (April-May).  It would be an amazing full circle if next year we send one up to Everest for trials.  If we can reduce the amount of propane used - it will save lives.

The kids putting together the SolSport cooker after it came back from Anartica

Posing with the SolSport in the yard - we might just do a cookout before we send the unit back to Catlin!


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

An Amazing Robot

Their robot was a brick that could accept complicated mechanisms like hats that were put on top.  It had gears embedded in the top surface that were connected to the motors below and if there was a set of gears in the attachment, they would link up and the two motors below could drive them.  It was super compact and the wires were well managed.

We have a system that they use to design the base robot and the attachments that gets all the kids involved and divides up responsibilities so all the kids creativity and work is involved.  The solving of the board with a series of 'runs' the robot makes takes months of work - especially to make the robot work the same way every time.  Its Legos, you know!  They try all kinds of ideas to look for lines, reorient the robot against a wall, and generally all kinds of ideas to help the robot get back on track with the natural deviation off the trajectory that being a plastic machine engenders.  Since the robot has to go eight feet to the other side, just a few degrees off its heading can get the robot stuck somewhere.  That is what takes so long.

But think about it, by insisting that the robot performing the same task exactly and being fault tolerant (just like in the metal robots), we are teaching the kids to be detail oriented and to think of all possible avenues for failure and to come up with a solution.  Exactly what you want in a future doctor, autonomous car designer, or pilot.  After what happened this year in the metal robots - I said to someone that I would definitely fly in a plane these kids designed as I know they care about exploring all avenues.

That's what it takes to win the competition because when you get there, you find the event staff have almost always built a model wrong, installed one wrong, and that the tables themselves have holes or knots in the wood that make the robot go over a bump and veer off course.  We simulate that by putting stuff under the matt, putting a book under the corner to make it off kilter and not declaring victory for our robot until we have either taken the stuff off the table and turned our table (so variations in the plywood surface are somewhere else) and gone to a different team's house to run our robot on their homemade table.  That's why they haven't lost a robot game at any competition in four years.

So the robot did amazingly at competition and they won the robot performance award for top score at the qualifier.  But it wasn't good enough for them - the first run just never ran well enough on all the different tables (you have five runs, switching tables) and so back at home the next morning, they threw away four months of work on that run and totally redesigned it and its attachment - and got it running and trained with it in two weeks.

There are 535 points on the board.  They had designed in 460 points as what they could get done in four months.  The hope was to advance to the Worlds and then take the next four months to get the rest of the 75 points within the 2 min 30 sec they had to run the robot.  Seeing that the German 17-year olds were only putting up 340 points at their championships - we knew we were doing really well.  Here is a video of the night before competition when they got several perfect runs in a row.  The second run shows that driving team is even smother and had excess time left over at the end plus overlays of the methods used to keep the navigation of the robot on track.


As a casual observer, you might notice that there were two different driving teams - this isn't the norm.  Also the kids were all clustered around the table while it was running, each doing a different task such as being the ref, score keeping, time keeping and generally watching closely to see if the robot made a mistake so they could diagnose.  These are all techniques we use to make every member of the team highly tuned.  It is hard to design or program if you aren't up on the details.  And by all driving on the team - they all have to hold themselves close to the level of the best driving team.  In other words - be a team and be 'all in', not a hanger-on and on the team in name only.  You can also see the general affection - and remember - this is the night before the state championship that they are hoping to win.  Preparation, preparation, preparation makes for lower stress.  That was the eighth night in a row they were there after homework was done.

The mechanisms that they developed this year were truly inspired.  I love this one as it is the idea of one of the girls and there were five versions of it until this last one and I think four kids were involved in the building and perfecting of the versions.  It has to flip the manhole cover and keep it in the circle - it was a task that almost no teams attempted.  The big problem was there were two manhole covers and so somehow this device had to go over the bridge in the middle of the field - but it had to be close to the ground to flip the cover.  So the kids devised a 'drawbridge' like system that if they lifted an arm in the back it pulled on strings that would lift up the manhole flipper while they crossed over the bridge.  No matter what, when crossing the bridge the robot would get wonky so they programmed a series of moves to look for lines to square the robot up again and get back on heading.  It was incredible.

This is a video of the mechanism.  One thing we use extensively is the slo-mo video function on their phones.  One kid will film the robot doing something that isn't working all the time so they can then see the action in slow motion and figure out why it isn't working.  They use this really effectively to fine tune their programming and mechanisms - this was an example for the judges.

At the state championship, they had the top three scores of over 100 robots.  They didn't make their 460 because one of the main models wasn't built correctly on the tables.  Ours was - we have a dad who is a master lego builder (an official and rare title from Lego).  He examined ours and realized what was off.  But we still had a score that put us with the top five teams in the world at that point.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Old White Linen

For those following needlework vs robotics, the new Old White Linen arrived and it is now on the shop website. I have heard from many that the story of how things get made is interesting - so a bit of explanation on this one.

With the size of the industry and market, a weaving of 800 yards of especially fine linen can last a manufacturer 10 or more years, selling pieces off the shelf to distributors, etc.  The Montrose Linen that I fell for and have used up in the Casket courses was on the shelf and not-purchased for 20 years.  We used it up in 8 years.  So you are getting the drift that a production run can last a long time, especially for the really good stuff (think obscure) on the edges.  This is the same for the silk threads we use too (think about the times you have complained about a dye lot change...well that dye lot change may be the overturning of stock that is 10 years old - so dyes and environmental laws have changed during that time frame).

So last year we were getting to the end of the beautiful 73" wide Old White Linen that was 40 count and originally made for ecclesiastical work (not tons of turn over there!) and table cloths.  It had a great hand, soft color and was both even weave and tight so counted and embroidered work could be done on it.  That is RARE.  We got down to the last 100 yards that had been damaged by the finishers (they put on sizing) and there were small spots on it.  So we bought it and started cutting out the spots to get to the big pieces, saving the odd sizes to be cut further into smaller pieces for samplers for kits.

Then word came that the linen manufacturer - looking ahead at retirement - was out and was making one last run of white (not old white) to fulfill the demand anticipated for the church until the planned retirement.  Ugh.  A planned end.  And right when I had two new classes waiting for more of this linen.  The word also came back that since the last running of this type of linen about 15-20 years ago, the flax fields had shifted from central Northern Europe (Belgium) to southern Eastern Europe (Slovakia/Romania) and that the staple had changed and it was far harder to make this kind of linen, so they wanted to phase it out and didn't want to go to the trouble of making more of the Old White (likely believing that there wasn't really a market to tap it before they retired).

So in a bold move to keep my embroidery going, I ordered 400 yards of the white that was on the loom at that time (knowing that they couldn't adjust after warping up to make more).  It was a purposeful move, throwing a wrench into the works.  They already knew they had a dependable 'market' for that huge weaving run and it would last them as they wound down.  Their choices were to   refuse the order (unlikely), make a second run in a few years which would be inefficient as it couldn't be as large and not know if the flax would be there, or bite the bullet and make me a run of my own in the color I wanted.  Either way, I would get a linen supply and if the calculation was right, in the color I wanted.  The only downside was having to buy and hold on this end.

A week went by with no noise and then - a call from my distributor.  The manufacturer was asking if they made another Old White run, how much would we want?  Of course we went nuts planning for five+ years and adding on top of that.  We made it worth his while and ordered a ton, way more than the original order.

The upside for everyone is that we have the linen again!  The downside is that the width is now standard (54") and not a shock - the price went up after decades of holding.  Now a full yard is needed to lay out a casket on the linen to make it fit.  I am offering it in full yard (for caskets) and 1/2 yard (for mirrors).  In any case you will have left over for mistakes in tracing or for some other yummy projects and it will be in the right color to match.

I call this a 'hair on fire' moment.  Pretty much almost every two months we have one of those moments where the messages back from the manufacturers puts your hair on fire.  I never know what the emergency of the moment will be.  We have survived plant fires that destroy equipment and those long term shelves of inventory, instantaneous retirement of craftspeople, so many surgeries for irreplaceable personal, companies who get us to the prototype run phase of manufacturing and then decide to NOT make our stuff after two years of work, businesses attacked by ransom viruses, companies trying to sell and retire, natural material supply changes, environmental laws, royal weddings causing schedule changes, random fluctuations in what is popular putting 'runs' on threads or fabric, and many, many more oops moments than I can detail.  And that doesn't even begin to encapsulate the messages back about minimums to turn on a piece of equipment or reconfigure to make some item which requires 10 different colors to get them to do.  Gulp.  As a product engineer, I understand what they are saying and there are so many spreadsheets to try to figure out what else could be needed to keep that one color in production that I need (or want).  Just this week I called a distributor to order Anchor thread and was told that my order of 600 skeins of one color was below the minimum for the manufacturer to ship to them.  Ah, ok....another 'hair on fire' moment...

A very long time ago I realized that I would need to pay myself less and 'bank' capital so I could stockpile inventory when needed to get through these 'hair on fire' moments.  Imagine just being able to say "sure, I will buy a 10 year supply of linen" just to have it made.  Yea... it is a juggling act and any rational business person would say no and let let it go out of production.  You should hear my husband when I make the mistake of telling him anything.  He is ruthless and wants to see his wife work less - and so spouts the kind of stuff that keeps any normal retail business going.  "Have seasons, keep inventory variety small, discontinue colors and threads, fire sale them and move on".

That ain't happening I tell him.  This isn't normal business (it's passion).  So sorry about the price change of the linen and its size change.  But we have it...and it isn't extinct yet.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Making Robots Too

So things were going well with the project, we had a topic that the kids were really interested in and some mind-blowing experts and the results were working out.  We were also working on the robots too.

My clean room without metal robots suddenly had a lego
table in it again - what the heck??
In the spring, while at Worlds, our youngest son was there and unbeknown to us was watching the live stream of the Lego competition that was in a different venue.  They beam in the other competitions so we can watch at each venue.  We were all wrapped up in the fact we were winning our division and he was getting mad at the live stream.  He was mad as his score in the Lego robot game in December at the state championship would have been 12th in the world without the extra four months he would have spent on it.  So his team was capable of winning it all.  That chapped him, to tell you the truth.

All summer - he got to work by himself and sometimes
with team mates, resolving the game with a different
concept.
When we returned home, he got out the Legos and called over a few buds.  My husband and I were wrapped up in the controversy over how our division ended and getting caught up on work.  I walked downstairs late one day to find that the entire Lego table was set up (that means the kids got all the wood out and rebuilt it - a mean feat for adults!) and set up the competition field.  Ahhhhh - what's going on kids???

He had found the robot reveal video of the German team that won the entire competition and it had a five second movie of the robot being built in a digital designer program.  He realized that if he put it on pause, he could advance it through the screens of the video and see how they had designed their robot.  He sat there with his next door team mate and rebuilt the entire thing.  Then they studied their video of their winning run.  Then they modified it - improving it with ideas of theirs.  They spent a few weeks programming it and basically re-solving the challenge they had done already in the fall.

YIKES.  I think I mentioned before how this competition can inspire kids.  We stepped away from the kids and just let them go.  Sometimes failure can be a huge motivator.  And truthfully, my kid would rather watch sports or youtube or play games on his phone that come up with an independent project of his own, unlike his brother who always has five or six projects in play.  When given a problem to solve that is competitive - he is all gusto.  But without a goal like that, he isn't sure how to fill his time.  So this was quite a turn of events and we decided to see how far he took it.

Pretty far as he toyed with it most of the summer learning more advanced techniques and ideas.  He studied championship teams on you-tube all summer and tried things out.   When they started out the real Lego robotics season - it was like they had made a huge leap forward and now seemed like they could compete with the Europeans.  In the USA, the age for the competition is capped out at 14.  In Europe it is 16.  The difference is because the metal division is too expensive for their schools (parts get shipped from the USA).  But Lego is made there so they can be 17 at the day of Worlds and still be competing with the 9-14 year old Americans.  So the Europeans almost always win the world robot championship in First Lego League.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions

How can you follow up on an expert like David?  Well, lets try the owner of one of the main Antarctic logistics companies!  During the filming of the NOVA on Shackleton's expeditions, our mom introduced the author of the book to the owner of the logistics company who would be handling keeping the film crew alive.  Well, they are married now, live in the area and are a really lovely family.

From the ALE website showing the filming of the NOVA film

So we hosted a fest with his favorite BBQ take out and Nick of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions gave a overview to the kids of what getting to and living in Antartica was all about.  How they support the researchers, explorers and film makers with water and food and how they deal with the international treaty to keep no waste on Antartica.  The kids poured over their regulation filings he shared with them for data.  Check out their website - it is just so cool!  By the end of our night - the dad who was an wanna-be Everest climber and I were jumping up and down wanting to schedule a trip to see the penguins.  Nick was very fun to be with.

It was an amazing night to learn about how they melt water and that their main problem is how they really need to condense water out of the grey water so they can haul the sludge away.  Could our solution be modified to do that??  Nick suggested that if the kids came up with something rugged that they wanted to try out - well, the plane was leaving January 5th for the Antartica season.  Perhaps he could swing doing some experiments for them.  Even cooler - he hires many of the experienced Sherpa from Nepal to work for him in Antartica so they would get firsthand experience with the concept we were trying out.

OMG - did he just suggest taking the kids experiment to Antarctica????

Back to work with the Solar Death Ray trying to prove out condensing clean water from dirty pasta water to recycle