Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tying things up: Knots

What is it?

Something we use every day, or at least those of us with shoelaces. There was a time, long past, when everyone knew some basic knot tying as it was the most common way to bind things together. The advent of duct tape, bungee cords, and Velcro has seriously reduced the knowledge of the average person in this regard.

Why do it?

Almost all of us have encountered a need for knots. Maybe it is tying something to the roof of a car, tying a tarp down over a grill before a storm, or even putting 2 pieces of a broken shoestring back together. If you do anything outdoors you're likely to run into this need. Or maybe you're an international spy who needs a way to truss up some guards. A few simple knots in your repertoire can greatly increase your success in these areas.

How did I learn it?

This one lies completely with Scouting. While in Webelos, we started to learn the basic knots. The troop I eventually ended up in put a lot of stock in outdoor skills like knot tying and pioneering (rope work, such as lashing) to the point where we would hold speed competitions. Such contests sometimes got a little silly, which is why I can still tie a Bowline behind my back to this day.

How do you learn it?

This is one you need to learn by doing. No matter how many times you read about how a knot is tied or watch a video, until you tie it. I recommend getting some rope or cord to try these knots out as you play with them. Be selective in the rope or cord you use. Most nylon rope will slide and be stiff, making it very poor for knot tying. You can practice with hemp, manilla, or sisal rope, available at any hardware store, but if you intend to practice indoors, be aware that it will shed fibers. I personally use paracord for practice. It is mostly nylon, but it doesn't slip and is very easy to work with. As it is something I carry with me all the time, this gives me good practice with the material to which I am most likely to have access.

There is a lot of great information out there on the web on knot tying, from step by step directions to YouTube videos. I'll share a few of my favorites here:

Animated Knots - I've found this site to have a great variety of knots. I like their presentation, the step-by-step animation, and the use of different colored ropes when tying 2 (or more) lines together.

You Tube - There are honestly thousands of videos on YouTube for tying knots. I've found those done by Expert Village cover a great variety and are fairly easy to follow, but do a search for any knot you're looking for and you'll find someone showing how it's done.

Smartphone and Tablet apps - I recently grabbed a decent free app for my iPad, and some of the paid ones provide animation or video as well. I'll often sit in front of the TV after a long day with my iPad on a knot I don't know and tie it over and over again.

ITS Tactical- Knot of the week - a little more advanced, and not always weekly, I like the unique challenges and projects they introduce.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

Very often, folks want to know what knots they need to know. That's tricky as it all depends on the situation, but here are 5 or 6 that would serve you well:

Square knot - not the end-all, be-all some will make it out to as, this knot is still the easiest place to start and very useful for tying 2 even size lines together. Far more reliable than that Granny knot you might be using

Bowline - if you need a loop in a rope that doesn't move, this is the granddaddy of them all.

Taut line hitch - if you need a loop that CAN move, but won't under stress, use this one. This and the bowline often make up the 2 ends of a tent rope.

Sheet bend - or the double sheet bend, makes an excellent way to secure 2 differently sized lines. Like when you need to lash something to the roof and you're cobbling together various lines.

Timber hitch - not much to this one, but it works really well as part of a securing process or for hauling anything. Learn the corresponding hitches that help keep things in line.

Slip knot - Makes a great stopper that's easy to remove.

Do you have a favorite knot? Let me know!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Picking out a multi-tool

What is it?

Many posts ago I talked about carrying a knife. In that post I mentioned multi-tools, something I always like to have around. In fact, I think if I counted I must own at least 8 or more of some form or another.

Why do it?

With the invention of the folding multi-tool by Tim Leatherman in 1984 (yes, it is named after him, not for working on leather), the world of the Swiss Army knife was shaken up. Swiss Army knives still abound, the multi-tools now hold a lot of sway and provide options previously undreamt of. But picking the right tool can be a bit of a mystery. I tmay also be why I have so many!


What matters in a multi-tool? It turns out, quite a bit.

Use: what do you want the multi-tool to do?
• Everyday needs – opening boxes, tightening screws and nuts, cutting paper, dealing with splinters, cutting your nails, opening bottles
• Camping – wood working and cutting, cord cutting, can opener, cooking (including grabbing hot pots), fixing gear, pounding stakes
• Occupation – wire cutting, crimping connectors, pliers, cutting hoses/rope/etc, filing. All things that are done by mechanics, linemen, IT workers, carpenters, electricians, etc
• Sports/recreation – bicycling, shooting, motorcycling, smithing, climbing, woodworking, etc

Carrying method: How do intend to tote it around?
• On a belt – most multi-tools have the option of a carrying pouch or a belt clip, but can get in way of a seatbelt. It can also give that "Batman utility belt" look
• In a pocket – inconspicuous, always there, but wears on pockets
• In a bag – either within its own pouch or on its own, not with you if you set the bag down
• On a clip – many have carabineer options, for loops, rings, and belt loops, but bounces around

Size/Color: how big is too big?
• Is this for everyday? If so, how much space do you have available?
• How much does it weigh, either in the pocket, a bag, etc.
• What will it go next to? Consider that it might rub against a cell phone, keys, or whatever is nearby.
• Color is largely subjective, unless you need low-vis options like black oxide. There are numerous options, including many flashy colors

Tools: What is in this thing?
• It's easy to go overboard, and better if you have a use for everything if possible. Prioritize what you really need with the other sections above
• Consider zccess to the tools you’ll need most, and more quickly – very often things like knives should be to the outside
• Locking tools, for safety
• Replacement of wearable items, such as wire-cutters
• Quality – not all tools are created equal, and some models may be better at a task than others, even from the same manufacturer

• Additional tools – bits, wrenches, etc
• Warranty – may never need, but shows a level of faith by the manufacturer
• Engraving – for that really personal option

What do you carry?

As I said, I have a bunch of these, and that doesn't include the 3 or 4 my wife has. Here are a few of my favorites and why.

Leatherman Charge TTi - I've been carrying this one for over 7 years, and it has served me very well. The ability to change out the screwdriver bits is great, which prompted me to get the optional bit set. The file is the only thing showing wear, but not yet to the point where I'll take advantage of the 25-year warranty to have it replaced. It used to ride on my belt all the time, but since I took up motorcycling, I've moved it to a sheath on my EDC. I love having the knives on the outside for quick cutting with easy thumb opening. 2 blade options is also a big benefit.

Gerber 600 Basic - Actually, I have an earlier model, but it's essentially the same. I've owned a number of these, including, until it disappeared somewhere, a customer one in forest green. I really like the one handed 'flick' opening, and have one of these in my truck and another in my 72-hour kit. I have found that some of the tools are not as tough as I'd like, and having all of the tools on the inside makes access slow.

Leatherman Style CS - This is on truck key chain. I carry the Micra on my motorcycle keychain, for similar reasons. Both of these have great scissors, a small blade, tweezers, and a few other every day tools I find useful to keep around. They are small, but that makes it easy to make sure they go with me everywhere.

Leatherman MUT - This is the newest tool in the stable, so I don't have a lot to say on it yet. I'll be getting around to a full review soon for a friend, but at least I can tell you what led me to pick it up. While I do shoot, I also play airsoft, which uses replica firearms. More than once I've needed to open up a gun to do a quick repair and didn't have the tools I needed. This will help fill that option. Additionally, it has great bit options, tougher wire-cutters, and a quick cutter for things like cord or seat belts. Finally, and this was the deciding factor, it has a hammering surface. More than once I've used the handles of the TTi to pound things, but it really isn't cut out to handle that. We'll see how it works out!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Status Quo Bias

I heard a term today that I've thought about before, but didn't have a good label: Status Quo Bias. While it isn't a skill, per se, it is something that lead (and leads) me to develop new skills, so I wanted to share some thoughts here.

What is it?

I heard the term while listening to one of my favorite podcasts (OK, I think my favorite podcast), The Survival Podcast. Don't let the name throw you, this show is really about self-reliance and sustainability. Topics range from gardening to financial debt to wilderness survival and everything in between. Anyway, a listener sent in a link to this YouTube video: Your Yard is Evil. Very funny, very pithy, well worth the few minutes to watch. Good intro to the term.

In short, Status Quo Bias (SQB) is doing something because it's always been done or everyone else does it. Like growing a lawn, despite the silliness of the whole idea. It isn't always an old thing. In fact, I think some of our SQBs are fairly new and equally as silly. I do and learn a lot of my skills despite, or to combat SQB. Let's look at a few, as examples.

Eating out So many Americans do it. It's faster and easier, and has become the norm in many households. Yet it's costly, often bad for our health, and does it save time, really? Actually cooking and eating as a family seems to break from SQB at this point.

Car maintenance I'm not thinking of the big stuff, like replacing a cracked head, but things like changing a tire, checking your oil, radiator, and tire pressure, or being able to put on a spare all seem to have gone by the wayside. There was a time when you learned this at the same time you learned to drive, but it seems we're more than willing to rely on AAA or the various service vans that prowl the highways. But what if your have an issue on a back road and your cell phone is dead? Or, better yet, what if you could have prevented it by keeping up on some of those little items?

Carrying a knife I've talked about this before, but it is an example of SQB. As a kid, I carried a pocket knife all sorts of places, even sometimes to school. It was a tool, something you needed to have around. I have one in my pocket as I type this, and 2 more in easy reach. Yet, pull one out today and you get such interesting reactions! More often than not, it's a moment of concern followed by questions of why you need one. This is usually while you're doing something like opening a box, cutting some tough tape or cord, or one of those stupid blister packs everything comes in. My current preferred response is to stare at someone with slight disbelief and respond along the lines of "Because no one else does" or "For things like this!"

I could go on and on, but I'd love to know what you see as SQB. And, more importantly, I want us all (myself included) to think about it more and decide "Am I doing this just because of the status quo?"

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thoughts on personal defense

By FBI statistics, in 2009 there were 1,318,398 violent crimes reported in the US. Of course, there are crimes that never get reported, so this is the best number we have to go on. In a population of just over 307 million, that's, statistically, better than a 1 in 307 chance of being involved in such an incident. Now, obviously, there are high risk factors that many of us try to avoid, such as drug use, organized crime, and "dangerous" neighborhoods, but the fact remains that, with all the improvements we have made as a species, some of our population decide they will use whatever methods they deem necessary to gain their ends.

What is it?

When going through our daily lives, we hope never to need to deal with a situation where defense is needed. However, having a few tools at our disposal to help prevent injury to ourselves or our loved ones can be invaluable if the need arises.

Why do it?

This should be fairly apparent. With very limited exception we all desire survival. Even those who intellectually might stand opposed to self-defense might find that their instincts will betray their brain if such a situation ever arises. Therefore it seems sensible to me to do just a little thinking about the topic while we have the luxury of time.

How did I learn it?

I will first and fully admit that I am NOT a self-defense expert! While I have taken some Eastern Martial Arts training (tae kwon do, kashiman shun riu, and aikido) I don't hold any serious levels of those skills. Most of my close quarters training is Western in form, including longsword, dagger, pole-arm, and grappling. You'll notice most of those forms listed won't be of much use while wandering a modern city as I seldom have a halberd on which to rely. I have also had some firearms experience, but have never, thankfully, had anything worse than a paintball or BB shot in my direction, and hope that never changes. I can count on 3 fingers the number of unplanned (non-consensual) fights in which I ever fought and all were in high school. Please consider that when digesting this information.

That said, I have picked up some basic pointers and commonalities of defense that I think are valuable and can serve anyone well, regardless of how they decide to go about preparing for a situation we all hope will never arrive. To supplement the training I've taken, I have fought in armoured combat tournaments and trained others in armoured combat.

How do you learn it?

This is a big area, and this time I will say "Not here - mostly". As I said, I'm not an expert on this, I'm an interested student. My goal is to make you think about it and give pointers to both reduce the need to ever have to defend yourself and some basic things to do if it happens. I will mostly encourage you to seek out additional training depending upon your preferences.

First, what do you need to defend yourself against? According to the same FBI statistics mentioned above (and available here), aggravated assault is the most likely danger. This generally means "assault with a deadly weapon", regardless of intent. This may be mugging, an attempted sexual assault, domestic dispute, etc. Broad area, obviously. Robbery falls next, though it may not involve a weapon as this often elevates to the first category. The last 2 violent crimes by quantity are rape and manslaughter, though if we get to this point, defense has likely already failed. All of these are terribly unpleasant, so let's look at how we might go about defending ourselves. I'm going to go in order of most favorable to least, by my reckoning and preference.

#1- Avoidance - Don't be in a position for this to happen! The defensive tool here is called "situational awareness", or listening to your gut. We often suppress this instinctive warning, but it is worth honing it up a bit. When you see that unpleasant alley, don't walk through it. Avoid sketchy parks after dark. Don't wear expensive clothing or jewelry where everyone can see in areas of risk. Too many people, IE men, take a tough guy attitude and "aren't afraid of anything." Well, I'm afraid of being shot or stabbed to death, so I think it's worth taking stock of your surroundings and deciding if what you're about to do or where you're about to walk is worth the risk. Sometimes you may decide it is, but you certainly better be aware of your surroundings.

#2- Run and yell - I think people forget that this is a valid defensive technique. Criminals do not want a ton of attention brought to them, generally, so making noise, setting off car alarms, etc, can convince them not to push forward with their plans. Combine that with GETTING THE HELL AWAY! If you have a viable avenue of escape, use it. Think of this the way many of us were taught to think of driving. At any time, if you had to get away, which way would you go? This takes little time and, once a habit, little thought. In my opinion, everything else we talk about here is a precursor to this method.

#3- Non-lethal distance defense - Pepper spray, mace, and distance tasers fall into this category. The goal of them is to distract, delay, and hopefully incapacitate an attacker so that you can get away. Pick up whatever you can legally carry in your state (and figure out what you need to do so legally, if need be) and keep it on you. Personally, I would defy legality on sprays if needed on this for defense as I'd rather face a charge than end up in the hospital or morgue, but that's a risk I take on myself. Do your research before deciding on a spray to get (I prefer sprays as I think they are more instinctive and more likely to effectively land than distance tasers) and try to find a model where you can get an inert practice canister to try out. Be aware that a stream model may be better than a spray (especially in a windy situation) but requires more aim, thus making that inert practice model more vital. There are folks who are not very affected by certain sprays, but shooting ANY liquid into someones face will give them at least a brief pause, during which, you guessed it, you run!

#4- Firearms - The reason I list firearms before the remaining topics is one of range and staying at a safer distance to avoid personal injury, even though this is controversial to many people. I do not personally carry concealed, a decision that is partially due to legality in the state I work (I can carry in my home state, but not the neighboring one where I spend a lot of time) and partially by request of my wife, who does not like guns. That said, I probably would carry if things were different, mostly so that I would have the experience of carrying when I went somewhere I felt the need. If someone doesn't carry all the time and practice with it regularly, I think it is possibly more dangerous to do so "on occasion" and I would urge them not to do so. I would ALWAYS encourage someone who does carry to have a non-lethal spray as above to use first.

With a firearm, the second you draw it, you are in an lethal force situation. It should never, ever, come out unless there is definite and deadly threat to you or your loved ones. Generally, this means your assailant has a lethal weapon (gun, knife, baseball bat, etc) and has threatened to use it. It can never be brought out to scare someone off as, once it has drawn, YOU may be considered to be assaulting THEM! Compound this with the fact that, if you shoot someone, you have to deal with all the emotional trauma this will bring (no matter how justified you were. Ask an Iraq War veteran if you doubt that this can mess you up!) And, of course, the legal problems that ensue. Suffice to say that, while I think this is a viable form of defense, you SERIOUSLY need to learn all you can about it and train in how and when it can be used properly.

#5- Close quarter weapons - There is an old saying that "Nobody wins in a knife fight." Friends of mine, while teaching stage combat, illustrate this point well by having the combatants wear white t-shirts, then fight with giant markers instead. The resulting marks illustrate well how likely both parties are to receive injury. If your opponent doesn't have a knife, you might seem to have an advantage, but realize you will be the one using what is in most places considered a lethal weapon. I do see value in items like the kubotan when facing an unarmed assailant, but all close quarters weapons require some serious training. Keep in mind you need to be able to bring it into play, as well. The fastest weapon to draw is the one in your hand. And expect that if you are this close you may be injured.

Oh, and I don't consider most of the weapons I have the most practice with, like the sword, to be viable defensive items for everyday situations. It is unlikely you'll have it on you when you need it, and less likely a criminal will mess with you if he sees it on your hip. Some folks may have them around for home defense, but I only think that will work out well if you really, seriously, know how to use a sword. Even then, you're screwed if the guy breaking in has a gun.

#6- Close quarter martial arts - I consider this the last place you want to be, within striking distance of an assailant. It may quickly shift into a bad situation and will almost always require far more skill and training on your part. That said, I think everyone, especially women, need some experience here. Not a black belt in any Asian art, but experience with a handful of quick, effective, injure and escape techniques. Remember, everything here is about getting away, not having a kick-boxing match with some stranger. Leave the movie antics to Hollywood. Break a knee or crush and arch and GET AWAY!

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

If ever you are involved in a situation you need to defend yourself, it will likely mess you up emotionally and mentally. Please, get the help you need. Many of us have experienced the unpleasantness of injuring a friend, even slightly, and felt the guilt that follows. Compound that and add in the complete loss of personal security and you can begin to understand the impact. If the assault comes from someone who is known, it's even worse. Plan for this to be part of your defensive strategy.

Practice what you think you will use. Even if it's getting out that can of pepper spray, building up the muscle memory will be helpful. In a violent situation, your mind often goes to what is called by some the "lizard brain", that instinctive survival state. If you haven't practiced with your defenses, you may not actually utilize them no matter how good they might be.

You will note that I did not include "Call 911" in the defensive options. While I respect the police and what they can do when directly confronted with a bad situation, they will take at least a few minutes to get to you. You won't have minutes to wait. Get away, THEN call 911. Let them help you with the aftermath, whatever that might be.

Finally, remember your single best defense is that mass between your ears. Use it and be safe.

Friday, March 25, 2011

EDC follow up, now with pictures!

I figured I would put up images of what is actually in my bag since everything is moving over from the old bag to the new one as a follow up from my EDC post. First, the new bag(s) is here, so let's look!

Maxpedition Kodiak Gearslinger
This is the main bag. It is slightly taller and a little less deep than my old bag, but far more pockets. I'll let you explore Maxpedition's site for all the ins-and-outs, but here's mine unloaded for comparison later on.
I'm seriously impressed with the construction. The stitching is great, YKK zippers feel solid, and the pocket layout is sensible. It has no real pockets for pens and the like, but that's why I picked out a few other pouches to attach.

EDC Organizer


This is my solution to no pen slots and the like. It will connect onto the main bag using 2 Blackhawk Speed Clips, which turn out to be quick and easy to use.

FR-1 Pouch
I wanted to move a few things to the outside and my first aid kit was one of them. This was the solution, and gives me room to add a few missing items.

Double Magazine Pouch
A difficulty in my old bag was keeping my flashlight and Leatherman. They lived in a side pocket, which made them less speedy to get to without taking the pack off. I picked up this, designed for gun magazines, to hold them both.
It has an extra advantages of doubling as a belt pouch for both items and being able to easily come off at the airport.

Universal CCW Holster
I don't actually carry a pistol everyday, but I wanted to try this out as an option for easily carrying my fixed blade knife, as I spoke about here. No picture this time, you'll see it in a minute and it isn't that special. It hooks into the loop fabric in the back pocket on the main bag.

All that stuff!
So, other than a laptop and/or iPad, plus the occasional jacket, here's everything I carry in my old bag.
Most of this you can identify from my previous post
A few things I missed, many of which others pointed out in the comments, include a water bottle, tissues, some snacks, and my emergency radio/light. Missing in all this is the first aid stuff. Let's look at that.
Again, much of this I mentioned and I'll be doing a med kit post or 2 later on, but the key thing I didn't mention (and motomuffin did) is gloves. Be safe! I also have a tube of super glue in there for sticking cuts back together. Not always pretty, but very effective. Not shown is the piece of moleskin I carry for blisters.

Here it all is in it's pouch
and all closed up

The knife has had some modification to the sheath (easy to do on this model) and been put into the the holster, so it now looks like this:

All zipped up!
Putting everything in the bags, zipping it up, and attaching the external parts to where they belong, here's what we get.

You'll note that I put the first aid kit and sheaths off to the side of the bag. This is largely an access bonus but also keeps the bag from sticking too far back from my body. When spun to the front I can easily get to flashlight, multi-tool, and first aid kit.

First impressions
I've only been carrying this rig for a few days, but I already like it. I have easy access to stuff, better organization, and the comfort level is good. We'll see how it fairs over the coming weeks, months, and years!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Everyday Carry, or "What's in your backpack?"

What is it?

Whether we think about it or not, we all have some level of what in some circles is called EDC, or EveryDay Carry. This is a term often applied amongst gun enthusiasts to their chosen self-defense weapon, but has been expanded to include those items you make sure you always have on you or very nearby. It is the latter we will be talking about in this post.

Why do it?

The simple fact is there are certain things we need on us in our daily life and many more that would come in handy. Women have been masters of this for years. Think back on all the things your mother could pull out of a purse or handbag at a moments notice! Men, of course, have long resisted the desire to follow suit as it just isn't "macho" enough, but many of us have been carrying backpacks long past our school years. Laptops have become a great excuse to carry more with us without looking like we have a "man-purse", but a recent surge in messenger and sling bags, many with a tactical slant, have made it more acceptable to carry more stuff with us.

While we so often expect to be able to hit a convenience store when we need something, life doesn't always work that way. To be clear, I'm not talking about a "72-hour" or a "Bug Out Bag", which tend to be larger survival style bags. I plan to tackle that at some point, but here I'm speaking of something far more universal and versatile. A few simple things carried in a comfortable bag can make all the difference between a good or bad day!

How did I learn it?

At this point, do I even need to mention Boy Scouts? Seriously, "Be Prepared" sticks in your head! But I honed this over the last 20 years, first in college, then in the working world. My time as an EMT had an immense impact in this area as I learned you want to have everything you are likely to need when you get to a patient, but you can only carry so much, especially into, say, a wrecked vehicle. When I moved into IT and a laptop became something I toted around all the time, I shifted things again. Finally, learning to ride a motorcycle has led me to rely less on what might be in my vehicle (otherwise a large pickup), causing me to have a refined list of things that I never want to be without.

How do you learn it?

I'm going to give you my opinions here, then you should absolutely read what other people say. Mostly, however, you should try it out yourself. Some of this you'll discount immediately, some of it you'll take as gospel, but a lot will be experimentation. Try it out, don't spend a lot upfront, and see what works for you. But put some thought into it, otherwise you end up with more than you bargained for, like so many mothers have done!

The bag - For many of the women out there, you already have a favorite EDC or 2 in the form of a purse. Many, like my wife, don't carry a purse in the traditional sense but a small shoulder bag instead. Some of us favor backpacks or laptop roller bags. I've carried a variety of things over the years, including a waist bag (essentially a big fanny pack). Whatever you settle on is less vital than a few key criteria.
Is it comfortable for you? You're the one who will end up carrying it all the time, so your opinion is the most important. If you will be carrying a lot of weight, like a laptop, this is even more critical.
Is it maneuverable? This is why I moved away from a roller bag for my laptop. I found it was terrible on rough terrain and even slowed me down in the airport. The extra weight of a backpack was worth it.
Does it have space for what you'll be carrying? It seems obvious, but buying a bag then realizing there isn't a pouch that will handle your ever-present hardback book will certainly disappoint. When possible I like to take my largest item to the bag to verify, but when ordering online pay close attention to the dimensions. On the same note, too big will be bulky and lead you not to carry it, or carry too much!
Is it durable? This may not be a big issue for some, but I hate falling in love with a bag then having it fall apart or look terrible after a few months of work. Many fabrics such as canvas, nylon, Codura, and leather hold up well to continued abuse
Can you get to your stuff? Organization is often overlooked. I've passed it over many times myself, and I've watched others have to empty out a bag to find a single thing they wanted. Think about it up front, but realize you can organize in big compartments with smaller pouches and bags.
My current bag is the predecessor of this one, but after about 6 years of constant use it is wearing thin, so will be replaced this week by the Maxpedition Kodiak. I realized I almost never use both straps for the backpack and wanted better organization options, so we'll see how the Kodiak serves.

First aid - One thing I'm big on is having some first aid supplies on hand, no matter who you are or how much you actually know. Band-aids, some gauze and tape, tweezers, and alcohol wipes are a bare minimum. I also find it handy to have a bit of my vital medicine on me at all times, along with some painkillers. If you don't know what to put in a kit or like getting it all together, light and affordable(ish), check out Adventure Medical. They're industry leaders and have a variety of products you can pick up online or at your local EMS or Cabelas. Even if you don't know what to do with the items in the kit, someone around you might, but without the items available their knowledge may be for not. And, of course, take a first aid course! :)

Fire and light - Less people smoke these days (which is a good thing!) but it means few folks have a lighter or matches on them. This is a small, easy item to have on you that comes in handy whether you get stuck in the woods, need to scorch the end of a nylon strap, or sanitize a needle to dig out a splinter. I carry both, and also a magnesium fire-starter, but I'm all about the backup.
Similarly, you never know when you'll need a flashlight. I carry 2 myself, a small keychain-style LED light and a palm-sized tactical (very bright) one. They're great when you lose something under your desk, need to check out an issue with your car, or find yourself in a dark parking lot. I also have a few glow sticks to act as quick area lighting/flares.

Tools and knives - I've talked about pocket knives before, and your EDC is a good place to carry something to back that up. A multi-tool that may be more than you want in your pocket is perfect here and serves a lot of purposes. I also carry a fixed-blade knife in my EDC, but that may be more than most want.
On top of those, I have a few other more survival based items. One of the most used is a cheap poncho. I keep replacing it as it comes out in those moments when I forget a rain coat. A compass is handy, but this is only good if you know how to use one, and best with a map. I also have a small, straw-style water filter which I have yet to use and hope never to do so.

Writing items - This may seem obvious, but having a pen when you - or someone else - needs it is a huge boon. I'd also remind you to carry something to write on besides gas receipts. I have a small Moleskine-style notebook I got at Barnes & Noble with tear-out pages. I've recently gotten back into the habit of carrying a Sharpie as well, a habit from my EMT days. I'm less likely to be writing on people with it now, but it still works on almost any surface you come across.

Defense - We hope never to need it, but it would suck to need it and not have it. I'll skip the whole topic of firearms for another post as it's such a polarizing topic, but I will encourage everyone (even if you do carry a gun) to have some form of defensive spray as a non-lethal option. I won't go into the choosing of pepper spray here, but send you instead to this great site about it. The idea of a self-defense item is not to permanently disable someone, it is to give you time to get to safety. Whether you do that with pepper spray, a taser, a defensive tool like a kubotan, a tactical flashlight, or whatever, just having a way to gain a few seconds to run to your car or a safe building can make a huge difference to you and those who hope you make it home safe. Give it some thought.

Random stuff - There are a few other things I like to carry with me that may not be important to others, but I find useful.
Trash bags - I have about 4 of these at any time, the large, black ones. They make impromptu ponchos, ways to carry wet or dirty clothes, and, of course, work for trash. They could be used for a shelter if you were hard up, but that's an extreme.
Paracord - The mainstay of survivalists everywhere, this thin, light cord works for so many situations. It holds knots well, doesn't stretch easily, and is fairly cheap. Use it to lash something onto the roof of the car, hold something onto your pack, or any number of situations where rope comes in handy. A 50' bundle is small and easy to carry.
Books - I almost always have one with me. Actually, I DO always have my pocket version of the SAS Survival Handbook with me, but I also normally have what I'm reading or my iPad so I can keep myself entertained during long waits. Of course, the Survival Guide has other uses than general reading.
Cards - Nothing cures boredom quicker than a game, in my experience, so a deck of cards is handy when stuck at a slow restaurant or waiting for AAA to come give you a tow. I currently only have a standard deck, but sometimes I carry other quick, small games like Fluxx

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

I've laid out a mess of stuff here, and I'm hoping others chime in with their experiences. It is worth noting that one bag will not likely serve all of your needs. I've changed what I carry over the years and bags have changed with me. When traveling you may need to pair down to meet space or TSA requirements. This is actually part of what led me to my new EDC bag, specifically the integration of the MOLLE system.

While designed for the military and obviously appealing to the "tacti-cool" crowd, I see a lot of appeal to those of us who travel a lot or need to change up what we carry. As pouches can easily be swapped on or off the webbing, it becomes possible to mix and match to create the perfect bag. Better still, in minutes you can take the pouches with your multi-tool or pepper spray off the bag and tuck them in your checked baggage before heading off through airport security. I'll be putting this bag through its paces in the near future and I'll let you know how the system works out for me.

The single most important thing to remember is that YOU have to carry this day in and out, so build the system that works best for you and don't be afraid to change it when it doesn't.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Picking out a sewing machine

What is it?

This is something I get asked about a lot by friends and folks who know I sew. I should likely explain that I have sewn personally and professionally for over 20 years, so it doesn't surprise me to get this question. Most of the time I get this from folks who are new to sewing or want to give a gift to a someone. I think there are some critical things to look for here, and I was reminded recently when my friend Erin asked for input.

Why do it?

I find that many people eventually try their hand at sewing for a variety of reasons. Maybe they are interested in picking up a craft like quilting. Some, especially those into reenacting and living history, want to make their own costumes or period clothing. Still others just want to be able to hem their own pants or repair some items they've had sitting around for ages. Whatever the reason, if you're going to do much more than stitch on a button, most people decide a machine is worth the cost to save a ton of time. While it is true that for thousands of years man clothed himself (or, in most cases, women clothed us) doing each stitch by hand, but folks generally owned less clothing and weren't always trying to fit it around our busy modern life. So, if you think you need one, it helps to know what you need.

How did I learn it?

I learned to sew on my mom's Singer, but when I was 20 and heading back to college, I was given an old Kenmore, built into a table, by a friend's mother who just wanted it gone. That fairly unreliable machine served me until I moved back to PA and...long term borrowed my mother's again. This lead to her giving me a Singer Merit for Christmas. It wasn't until a few years later, when I got serious about making big and heavier things - plus occasionally charging for them - that I bought my first machine. Since that time, I've owned a number of machines and currently have 6 sewing machines, not including the 2 my wife owns, each with their own purpose. I've figured out what works, what doesn't, what you need, and what's really just flash.

How do you learn it?

Like owning a car, much of this is personal, but hopefully I can give you some pointers to ease your path. I'll take the path of someone new to sewing with a few pointers for those of you who may be older hands.

Usage Level - Be realistically on how much you will use this machine. That will have an impact on how much you want to spend. For the casual, once in a great while use, many of the cheap, basic models will serve. If, on the other hand, you intend to sew a lot and/or fabrics that can be tough on a machine, pay a bit more for quality. Rough fabrics can include wool, velvet, velor, leather, and canvas. Some of those seem obviously tough, but fuzzy fabrics like velvet can cause a lot of build up inside the machine's inner workings. Cheaper machines will jam up faster than a better built one as the parts may be weaker or more exposed.

Industrial or Home - Industrials are generally purpose built machines that take up a lot of space and do one task or stitch very well. For the vast majority of people out there, this is unnecessary. I own 3, but currently use none of them since leaving professional costuming. Be aware that some companies use "industrial" as a label on what is really a home model. If it doesn't include a power table and motor, it's a home model.

Stitches - This is often the first thing people see when they look at a new machine. "Wow, this one has 6 zillion stitches!" How many do you need? Realistically, 2. If I'm being downright honest with myself, 80 percent or more of my work is done with the straight and zig-zag stitches. Following that, I think that a blind hem stitch is a big help as this is great on pant legs, skirt hems, and the like. A 3-step zig-zag is another nice one to avoid rolling on certain fabrics. Past this, it's mostly window dressing.
Many people get hung up on an automatic buttonhole stitch. This is a great feature IF you do a lot of buttonholes. For a few hear and there, I don't think they're worth it. In fact, I think new users should consider doing them manually as it's good skill learning and considerable reduces your cost.

Reverse - This is standard these days, but not all reverses are created equal! The reverse lets you back-tack to lock stitches in, but can also be handy when doing buttonholes and decorative work. Many reverses require you to hold down a lever or button to move the needle backwards. Realize that this needs to be done while guiding the fabric, so that if you need to reach across or exert great pressure to perform this function, it may be tough to do regularly. Some more advanced machines allow you to hit a button and switch the current stitch to go in reverse. I feel that most folks will get by with a "hold-down" solution, but if you think there will be a lot of it consider the second option.

Feed Dogs - Fabric is moved through most sewing machines by feed dogs which move the fabric from underneath. There are exceptions, but we're not worrying about them. The point I wish to make here is that sometimes you don't want the fabric to move, either because you're darning, doing embroidery, or some other operation where YOU want to control the movement. This means that the feed dogs need to be circumvented. One option is the use of a plate, often plastic, placed over the dogs. This option, honestly, is horrible and, if possible should be avoided. The plate will break or get lost the first time you use it. Instead, consider a machine where the dogs lower if at all possible. If you think you'll never need to worry about it, take a risk, but you might find yourself regretting it.

Speed - Machines are almost always controlled by a foot pedal. This pedal often acts like a gas pedal in that the harder you push, the faster you sew. Some are little more than an on/off switch and should be avoided. One of the nicest additions to sewing machines in the last 10 or so years is the ability to set a max speed on the machine itself. Thus, no matter how far down you push the pedal, you can only go so fast. For folks just starting out this can be a good way to keep yourself from inadvertently stitching 5 inches past where you intended to be. As a more experienced, high-speed user I find it a wonderful way to slow myself down when I need to be paying more attention. The muscle memory in my foot that says "floor it!" but the slide speed on my Janome says "not so much".

Brand - Here we can get into a lot of trouble. Almost everyone in the US has fond memories of the Singer their mother got from their grandmother and how long that machine lasted. Today, Singer is the low-end offering of SVP, who own Pfaff and Husquavarna Viking. While this doesn't mean they're a bad option, it does mean they aren't the top-of-the-line they once were. Still, for the newer user, consider Singer or Brother, especially if you don't intend to use it a lot. However, if you can find used machines, consider piking up something by Pfaff, Husquavarna, or Janome. They may cost more, but will hold out for a long time. The first machine I bought myself was a Husquavarna Viking which was 10 years old when I got it. I beat that machine into the ground, making 3 period tents out of heavy weight canvas, more wool cloaks than I can count, and finally put it out to pasture after 14 years of, honestly, industrial level use.

Electronic or Mechanical - For durability and general use, nothing beats the mechanical machines. My current go to machine is an electronic model, but only because of some of the specialty items I couldn't otherwise get. Your first machine should be mechanical, especially as it provides less to go wrong! Hopefully you can suss out a lot of the small issues you find and not dealing with electronics makes this easier.

Embroidery and other hooplah - Not at first, seriously. It seems super inviting, very sexy, but spend some years mastering things like stitching 2 or more layers of cloth together. I have an embroidery machine which is now seldom used, do in part to software I can no longer run. I used it as a professional, but it was still likely overkill for what I needed. Unless this is going to be a business, don't bother.
I think that may be true of most of the gimmicky machines, like quilter's models. 9 (or more) times out of 10, you can do what you need without all the extra bells and whistles.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

What, that's not enough? All right, consider taking a class in your new machine, or a sewing class in general. You'll be amazed at what you can learn. I got a few free with my last 2 machines and picked up techniques I never considered before.
Don't assume this will be your last machine. If you stick with this for a long time, you'll move on to another. I recently sold that Singer Merit my mom gave me to a friend's sister, where it is helping a new enthusiast get some skills under her fingers.
Oh, and don't use, or at least type, the word sewer. Everyone will read it the way they're used to seeing that word, not as sew-er.