Saturday, 30 March 2013

A Trial of Daffodil Petal Dye

Is there anyone not heartily pissed off with this endless, bitter chill?  It is scant consolation that the slugs limp trembling cross the frozen earth and torpid are the snails, in shelly fold.  Numb are the Rushworth's fingers as she pots on her chamomile seedlings.  The prospect of getting them outdoors seems impossibly distant.  

It has been a fabulous year for the daffodils. Clumps I thought overcrowded and liable to go blind have been blooming since St David's Day and still look fresh. The woods and the verges on the Industrial Estate are awash with floral sunshine. Archetypically Welsh, I thought, but no.  It turns out the Romans probably brought the bulbs here from Spain and Portugal and daffodils only became a national symbol  when the Victorians decided  they would be much prettier to pin on their lapels  than the leek. Checking things out for this blog is proving deeply disillusioning. 

I had read that a yellow dye can be got from daffodil petals and given the wealth of raw material, it seemed a great plan to salvage some of the glory.  I was sure the flowers would be fading by Easter, but here we are and not many of them have gone over.  Yesterday, I decided to do a proper trial run with a small quantity, 4oz (100g) of somewhat wilted or damaged petals picked that morning. I soaked them for a  
 couple of hours, brought the water up to a simmer (90 degrees) and kept it there for 30 minutes. Thanks to the members of the Plants To Dye For forum on Ravelry for advice on this and also on how to alkalinise the dye bath, since they were agreed that this would work better than my usual acidifying with vinegar.  To alkalinise, I put half a teaspoon of soda ash in at the end of the simmer. Bicarbonate of soda (a baking powder), or a drop of ammonia would do just as well.  The yellow in the dye bath immediately looked deeper. 

There seems to be a bit of controversy among natural dyers about mordants.  These are chemicals you simmer the wool with beforehand, to make it take up dye better. Tannins from bark or rhubarb leaves will do the trick 'naturally' but they also add their own colour.  The other mordants I have read about all contain metals of various toxicity. Salt has sodium, which shouldn't do much harm, though you wouldn't want to pour it on the garden.  The most commonly used mordant seems to be alum, which contains aluminium.   The amount needed can be minimised by combining it with Cream of Tartar, another baking powder.  If you buy this in the supermarket, check the packet to see it really is potassium bitartrate, I bought one called Cream of Tartar which I found was actually a different chemical, when I read the label.  Chrome and zinc mordants are said to give brighter colours, at the cost of leaving a more toxic waste to dispose of. 

I tested the dye on 2 oz (50g) wool, so the ratio was twice as much weight of fairly fresh petals as dry wool.  The first two skeins are 100%  wool double knitting weight, previously simmered with alum and cream of tartar, the next is a bit of unmordanted homespun and the last is 100% chunky wool, washed but not mordanted.  I soaked the wool in water while I was making the dye bath, when it had cooled,  I put the wool in and brought it back up to a simmer for an hour or so.  When the bath had cooled back down again, I took out all except one mordanted skein and added a few dissolved copper sulphate crystals to see what happened.   I expect you can buy these, but I am lucky enough to have a relative who was given a chemistry set last birthday and is a dab hand at crystal growing.

The wool had three rinses in tap water and dried overnight.  This morning I have gushed over the thrill of it to frankly uninterested family members, wound it into lovely little skeins and taken this photo.

The orange skein had copper in the final simmer, the yellow is mordanted wool, a proper daffodil colour. Just like it says in the books, without a mordant, the chunky wool took up much less dye.  Because my homespun wool was unmordanted, it just got a pale yellow glow.  Here is the test skein sitting on top of a ball of the original.  I shall find out how light fast the colour is by leaving a strand on the window sill. 

In conclusion, mordanting is indeed worthwhile, though a right faff with no instant gratification.  Daffodils do give a lovely yellow wool dye. It will definitely be worth saving all the petals when the time comes to do the dead heading.  If I have not got a specific project in mind by then , I shall dry them and keep them in a paper bag.  They shall not be gone, these daffodils fled away into the summer.  Sorry, Keats, better you than Wordsworth.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Woad Seeds

Woad plants have been used to make indigo blue dye for thousands of years.  I have read  that woad seeds have been found stored in Neolithic sites.  The use of woad as war paint in Ancient Britain is commonly reported as a fact, so it was disappointing to find that this belief hinges chiefly on Julius Caesar's comment in 'The Conquest of Gaul' being overenthusiastically interpreted.  He wrote Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem. This translates as 'Truly, all the Britons stain themselves vitro, which produces a deep blue colour.'  It is a leap in the dark to say vitro meant woad, it is more likely to relate to vitreus - glass with a bluish colour.  Kym Lambert writes that trying woad pigment in tattoos has a nasty caustic effect without a blue result and it is not great as a body paint either. 

Never mind, I shall give up the face paint and go back to expressing war-like intent with a hard stare or sharply worded memo. Before I troubled to read up on the subject, my eye and imagination were caught by a small woad plant in a nursery.  I bought it, put it in a sunny spot and it grew huge, with a great cloud of yellow flowers.  I read about how to extract dye on this excellent site and thought I might just about get the necessary carrier bag full of leaves.  Then the plant died.
I saved the seeds and sowed them in a tray, growing little plants which spent the winter in my veg patch, looking very battered.  They flourished the following summer and I had a chance to try woad extraction and dying.  Got it right the third time, after an unfortunate attempt to make a Sig vat in a chamber pot. 

I let one plant flower, but pinched the spike out of the others to keep them growing more leaves.  Some seeds I planted last summer and put out in the veg patch, others got the luxury of my unheated greenhouse and are looking pretty leafy already. These are really second year plants and I now know that spring sowing for harvest of the leaves in the first summer is the recommended option.  Today being a leaf day on the Biodynamic Calendar, I have sown some of last year's seeds.

Having a load of seeds leftover from the first plant, I soaked them and simmered them and tried dying a skein of double knitting 100% wool in the resulting bath.

The colour of the wool was a slightly greenish beige.  Not thrilling, so I added a splash from my jar of clear vinegar with pennies in it, which both acidifies the bath and adds copper, and suspended the skein so half would have the dye colour modified.  

The final result is not to die for, fnah fnah.  I will wait now for the summer leaves and real blue heaven.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Biodynamic Germination of Dye Plant Seeds

This time of year, I stalk the racks of seed packets in the garden centre, imagining myself as The Germinator - 'Come with me, if you want to live...'  I have been sprinkling seeds on trays of compost every spring for decades, but truth be told, not all of them have lived.
Last summer, I began to try brewing herbal dyes for wool, out of nettles and bracken and plants I already had in the garden.  There are lots of herbal dye recipes in books and online, the colours they gave on small skeins of wool were soft and nuanced, utterly unlike any wool I had bought. The fact that the process never gives the same results twice and often is not as predicted, made it even more exciting.   I coveted flowers I now knew to be dye sources, growing in my neighbours' gardens.  However, being too noble (or cowardly) to pinch them, I have had to wait til now to grow my own.  

Over the winter, I plot how many annual plants, vegetables and flowers I can fit into my suburban garden.  Initially, I generally have a harmonious and subtle colour scheme in mind, but the way I feel by February, if the flower picture in the catalogue is orange or purple, especially if it is big, it will end up on the shopping list.  This year, potential dye colours are my main consideration.

Having pored over the famous 'A Dyer's Garden' by Rita Buchanan, for 2013, I have bought sunflower seeds, lots of varieties, because I love them and read one can make green dyes with them.  Green is not so easy a colour to get out of plants as you might imagine, though early summer nettles give a soft dull green and bracken shoots a vivid lime.  I shall also have weld, because it is supposed to give a clear and colourfast yellow, woad, which I have grown before, for indigo blue, and some new choices for flower dyes which I hope will also be a pleasure to see in the garden.  In March I shall be germinating Cosmos Sulphureus for orange and Coreopsis, for golden browns.  Madder seeds will be sown, but apparently it takes three years for their roots to establish enough to harvest for the red dye.  

All of these plants want full sun, but they will have to do their best with shade for some of the day, or indeed all of it, often enough in Wales.  Please let it be a hot sunny year!  I have cut back a big shrub and rooted out a huge clump of fennel in a patch that gets sun til lunchtime, leaving only the tulips which will have died back by the time my seedlings get outdoors. 

One thing I can do is give them a head start.  I germinate seeds in trays wrapped in clingfilm, indoors under a skylight, but window sills are fine, especially if there is a radiator under them.  The packets usually tell you they need to be kept at 20-25 degrees centigrade, but nowhere in my home is consistently that warm.  I belong to the 'put another jumper on' brigade, when the children complain of frostbite.  

I discovered years ago that it does make a big difference to both success and speed of germination to put seeds in the compost at the right time of the month, when the moon's orbit is bringing it closer to the Earth.  This is one part of the Biodynamic Calendar, which is arrived at by calculating a complex combination of factors, starting with this orbital cycle, called the Sidereal.  Then there is the phase of the moon, which is the one you can easily work out by its shape if it is not too cloudy to check.  How much lit moon surface can be seen from the ground tells you how the moon and sun are aligned in relation to Earth.  This is called waxing and waning or the Synodic Cycle.  Then the calendar takes account of which constellation can be seen behind the moon and planetary influences.

I cannot quite go the whole Biodynamic hog, with its homeopathic sprinkling of stirred water and burying of cow's horns full of dung, but I had to concede years ago that planting and transplanting by the Calendar makes an immediate and obvious difference to how many of my seeds germinate and how quickly they do so.  This has given me food for thought.  Theories of astrological influences don't really count as explanations to me, although I would not object to sacrificing a few slugs by starlight or even doing a special little germinator dance, if it got results.  If you want to buy The Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar 2013, you can find it on Amazon.

This is what my seedlings looked like six days after sowing at the beginning of March, towards the last perigee.  OK, they are going stalky and had to get out to the greenhouse despite bitter cold weather returning, on with the frost watch heater and good luck to them.

I would hypothesise that the real influence being picked up on by all these astrological observations is familiar old gravity.  We know from space station experiments in zero gravity that while light is important, gravity directs roots and affects their pattern of growth.  The moon and sun exert a significant gravitational pull on the earth, which is constantly changing as the interrelations of their angles of orbit alter.  Everybody knows about high and low tides, the moon's gravitional pull makes the water on this planet bulge toward it as it circles above.  Each month, when the moon's orbit brings it closest to the earth, at perigee, the gravitational pull is 50% stronger, causing higher tides.  All gets very complicated, but I suspect the basic phenomenon the biodynamic calendar measures, to find the right days to plant for faster germination and stronger growth in seedlings, is the impact on them of little changes in the gravitational pull of moon, sun and planets.

From cosmic mysteries to next week's jobs.  In the Northern Hemispere, the moon will start coming back closer to earth on Tuesday 19 March and will continue descending til Easter Monday.  Because it always starts 'in Gemini', biodynamic types would say next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are ideal days to plant flower seeds, whereas next Sunday, when the moon is 'in Leo', would be tops for fruit.  So I shall get trays of Coreopsis and Cosmos going midweek and sow tomato seeds at the weekend.  Madder seeds will wait for a root day the following week.  Maybe I shall do a dance too, just in case.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Huxtable Jumper Pattern

This is my first jumper knitted from wool I spun myself.

The pattern is a heavily modified version of one available free from Tahki Stacey Charles called Simple Pullover
intended for a chunky looking yarn called TAOS

This is how I, very inexpertly, spun my wool and the pattern I finally ended up making after much unravelling (see previous blog post). The sheep from Huxtable Farm has to take all the credit for the colours.

I used about 1.5kg raw wool fleece of deep brown to blonde with grey under wool from a Jacob X Texel ewe from Huxtable Farm.  Staple length 7cm plus, shorn July 2012.  They will have more to sell next July.
Once the wool is scoured of grease, it weighs much less.  I think you would need less than 1kg of chunky yarn if you bought 100% wool, less weight if the fibre were lighter. 

One pair 6 mm needles and one pair 6.5mm needles and a 6.5mm cable needle.


I couldn't work out how to sort the fleece, so I mixed staple colours and lengths while carding into rolags.  Spun thick, uneven singles and plied pairs together with variable twist along length. I spun a few rolags into really thin yarn for sewing up at the end.


Tie each skein with cotton in four places,  Add a tablespoon of Fairy Liquid to about 10 litres warm water, and put in a skein, squeezing the wool gently.  Heat up to 85-90 degrees C over the course of an hour, then leave to cool.  When the temperature has dropped to about hand hot (40 degrees), rinse the wool in three changes of hand hot tap water, squeeze out and leave to dry.  Roll into centre pull balls, my favourite bit, it is poetry (see previous post).

Do not skip this bit like I always do.

12 stitches and 16 rows to 10cm square on 6.5mm needles in stocking stitch

Size Large

Knitted Measurements: Chest 118cm, Length from shoulder 66cm, Sleeve from armpit to wrist 50cm.  

After a 30 degree machine ‘hand wash’ cycle, the jumper barely shrank at all.  The plan to knit large and wash sufficient to shrink/felt it slightly was intended to minimise the effect of my uneven yarn and end up with a really warm, heavy weight jumper.  After washing at 30 degrees machine wool wash, stretching the length out a little and drying flat, the measurements were: Chest 112cm, Length from shoulder 66cm, Sleeve from armpit to wrist 49cm.   Although it is still a bit big for me, I haven't the nerve to wash it in a cotton cycle.

Cast on 70sts on 6mm needles.  Work in knit (k)2 purl (p)2 rib for 8 rows.  Change to 6.5mm needles and stocking stitch and knit until piece measures 41cm from beginning, end with wrong side row.
Cast off 2 stitches at beginning of next 2 rows.
Next row k2 slip one, knit one, pass slipped stitch over (skpo), knit to 4 stitches from end of row knit 2 together (k2tog) k2, purl next row. Repeat these two rows 20 times.                                               
Slip remaining 26 stitches onto a holder.
Cast on 70stitches on 6mm needles.  Work in k2 p2 rib for 8 rows. 
Change to 6.5mm needles
row 1 k30 p1 k8 p1 k30, 
row 2  p30 k1 p8 k1 p30, 
row 3 k30 p1 C4B C4F p1 k30, 
row 4  as row 2, 
repeat rows 1 & 2 three times then rows 3 & 4 once for the whole length of the front to produce central horseshoe cable.
Keeping pattern going up the centre, knit until piece measures 41cm from beginning, end with wrong side row.  Cast off 2 stitches at beginning of next 2 rows.
Next row k2 skpo, knit to 4 stitches from end of row k2tog k2, purl next row. Repeat these two rows 20 times.                                                
Slip remaining 26 st onto a holder.
Cast on 32 stitches on 6mm needles. Work in k2, p2 rib for 8 rows. Change to 6.5mm needles and stocking stitch and knit 6 rows.
Increase 1 stitch on each edge and knit 5 rows, do this 9 times total (50 st)
Knit until piece measures 50cm.
Cast off 2 stitches at beginning of next 2 rows
Next row k2 skpo, knit to 4 stitches from end of row k2tog k2, purl next row. 
Repeat the last two rows 20 times.                                                
Slip remaining 6 stitches onto a holder.
Finishing and Neck
Sew raglan sleeves to front and right side of back.
With 6.5 mm needles and RS facing, thread from holders 26 st from back, 6 from right sleeve, 26 from front and 6 from left sleeve. Work in k2, p2 rib for 8 rows and cast off loosely.
Join sleeve and side seams.

Final Thoughts

The sleeves on the jumper are looser than I would prefer, you could cast on 2 or even 4 stitches less when beginning the cuff.  This would leave a narrower neck, but as it is fairly open, it should be ok.  The cable pattern is something I added to the original and it makes the front knit up a little narrower than the back.  Since the whole jumper is loose, you could cast on 4 stitches less at the back (though this would make the neck narrower) or keep it baggy and cast on 4 more stitches at the front.

You know what, it feels good to say, this jumper is to me, from me, love me!!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Getting organised to knit hand spun wool - centre pull balls and modifying a pattern

Why are centre pull balls more pleasing than randomly rolled up ones?  If it were just neatness, then the wool balls you buy in the shops would be more pleasing still, but, to me at least, they are not.  If it were simply pleasure in the pride of my own work, then other people's handspun balls would be no lovelier than shop bought ones, when they are generally streets ahead.

There truly is art in artisan.  No two things are quite the same when they are hand made, they speak to the heart, whereas machine made uniformity is practical, efficient, logical.  In Pied Beauty Gerald Manley Hopkins loved
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

Here I am, pontificating on the joys of the earthed and organic in a virtual, intangible, technological space.  Bit ironic.  Still, this blog will start with the poetry of a centre pull ball of natural sheep toned wool - the perfect balance of random colour harmony and functional form.

There is something thrilling about having everything organised, neat balls of wool and a clear plan for a project.  Arranged, but not regimented, a bit of room to go with the flow.  I tend to leave rather too much room for the flow, so no surprise that over the years, my knitwear has often born little resemblance to the picture on the pattern.  I have a tolerant family, but given that my hand spun beginner's wool is neither uniform along its length nor the same weight as any commercial brand, much modification of the pattern for my first raw fleece product proved necessary.   I found out the hard way that it is best to work out most of the detail in advance and will conclude with the fruits of this experience.

First, the satisfying and easy bit.  To start winding a centre pull ball, tuck one end of the skein under your watch strap and do not lose it.  Wind the wool round three fingers, straight at first and then diagonally.

Then wind straight again, then diagonally in the opposite direction, repeating this til the ball on your fingers starts to slip down and cut off the blood supply .

Wiggle your fingers out, then hold the ball with two fingers in the middle and carry on winding on the same diagonal shown in the picture, slowly turning the ball.

The hole in the middle gets tighter, so you will be down to one finger keeping the centre open by the end of the skein.

As you knit from it, it will sit still instead of bouncing about as a ball of wool does when you work from the outer end.  As you use up its heart, it collapses into a soft pancake, but holds together remarkably well.

If you don't think this is Pied Beauty, surely you have no wool in your soul.

Now the frustrating and harder part.  I chose a fab, fitted jacket pattern for chunky wool, picked a size smaller than I wear because my knitting is always looser than average and cast on as soon as I had made my first ball.  I had knitted two balls before it dawned upon me that the garment was elephantine and no single fleece would provide enough wool to complete it.  So I unravelled the thing, rolled the balls again and started with a much smaller size. Still the proportions seemed way out and the width of the piece veered in and out depending on whether I had knitted a row spun 'superchunky' or a row where the wool had accidentally gone down to lace weight for a bit.  A rethink was required.

I found a much simpler pattern for a box shaped raglan sweater in chunky wool, available free to download 

This time I did what it always tells you to on the pattern, knitted a tension square.  Sure enough, the number of stitches and rows to 10cm was nowhere near the same as was expected of the brand of wool specified.  I fetched an old jumper of similar design which fits me nicely and measured that to be sure how big I wanted the new jumper to end up, then calculated how many stitches I would need to cast on in my hand spun wool.   

I also decided to wash the tension square in a 30 degree cotton washing machine cycle to see how much it shrank and felted - about 5%, but the resulting fabric was not too thick and the knitting came up much more even for washing and drying flat, despite the artistic nature of the wool.  I added 5% to my pattern dimensions so the final thing would be the right size after a machine wash. 

Even then, once I got to the raglan, it knitted up much too narrow and I had to recalculate and reknit it three times before it matched my old jumper + 5%.

So, I think if you have hand spun wool of indeterminate weight and are wondering how to make something with it, choose a simple pattern, knit and wash a tension square in the stitch pattern you will be using, then work out how many stitches will give the measurements you need and keep on checking and adapting as you go.  If anyone has better advice on all this, I would be really grateful to hear it.

My holiday is nearly over, work on Monday, so I don't expect to blog again til next weekend, when I shall put up pictures and my final pattern for what I have called The Huxtable Jumper, a garment undeniably fickle-not quite what I intended, though jolly sturdy, and absolutely freckled (who knows how?).  In my eyes, it is poetry.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Raw Fleece, Spinning in the Grease

This title sounds very 'Fifty Shades of Sheep'.  Anyone reading in the hope of a bit of sheep porn will be disappointed.  When we were first going out, while out on a romantic country walk, my beloved did once push me into a ditch and hurdle a wall in pursuit of a sheep, crying 'Flossie, come back, she means nothing to me!'  Reader, I married him.

I dithered for a week after my spinning day course with Claire Boley, then bit the bullet and bought an Ashford Traveller Wheel.  This is not so big as to clutter the sitting room and it has a double treadle, which I found easier than the single I tried at Claire's.  I also bought standard cloth, curved hand carders and a jumbo flywheel and bobbin.  The latter two were intended for the thick yarn I expected to spin and I am very glad I got them, as the jumbo flyer is much more forgiving than the regular size and you can use it with standard bobbins.

The picture shows two standard bobbins with singles about to be plied onto the jumbo bobbin.
The wheel comes as a flat pack with an alarming array of parts, enough to scare an IKEA veteran.  However, the instructions are very clear, it took a couple of hours, but I only had to redo a couple of steps along the way and the process did give me a fair understanding of how it works.

Claire had taught us using a raw fleece and explained they only cost a few pounds each from the Wool Marketing Board.  No luck working out who or where to go to in South Wales and I learned that shearing the local sheep won't happen til May.  Despondent, I searched eBay and found there are quite a few people selling anything from small amounts of fleece to whole sheep's worth from their own flocks, shorn last summer.  The starting price seems to be £5-£10, but watching from the background, I see gorgeously desirable whole fleeces might go for £50.  I bought two, both weighing 2kg for £7 each from Jacob X Texel sheep at Huxtable Farm, which is in Devon and has a website

The fleeces arrived very quickly.  When I got them out of the bags, they felt slightly damp and smelled sheepy, but after being laid out on old duvets, they quickly dried and no longer smelled and I gather this is all normal when you have to post fleece in plastic bags.  You are supposed to sort a fleece, dividing it up into the best wool from the shoulders, the weathered, longer wool from the back and the shorter stuff from the legs and belly.  I couldn't make head nor tail of either of my new purchases, but I was thrilled to bits with them and decided to get going with carding and spinning whatever parts came to hand.  The picture is of about half a fleece, all I have left now.

The wool falls into locks, which you pull out,trying not to disturb the others too much.

The teaspoon is just to give an idea of scale, not a necessary bit of kit.  It is also unnecessary to wash the wool first, in fact, as I found at Claire's, it is easier to spin 'in the grease' than with prepared clean roving.  The lanolin the sheep produce is soothing on dry hands and you can pick out the odd bit of grass or dead insect as you go.  These were nice fleeces with hardly any debris.  I have read instructions on washing fleeces first, but unless you want to dye 'in the wool' or are especially squeamish, I can't see why you would bother.  I think people are born with a particular level of squeamishness, my husband throws up if he smells the waste food recycling bucket, winces when he opens the dishwasher door and back in the day, needed rubber gloves, a clothes peg and tongs to change a nappy. I listened to a Radio 4 broadcast in which a researcher said that a person's levels of disgust equated to many other traits, including their politics.  People who are easily disgusted are more right wing than those who are not.  Certainly holds true in my family.

Anyway, first the wool fibres are aligned by carding into rolags.

My first fleece was spun into thick, uneven singles, but oh, the lovely varied browns and greys!

Once I had plied two singles into rather uneven, very chunky wool, I wound it into a skein and secured it in four places with cotton ties.  The picture is of a skein I made today, it is much better than my first attempts, but still very amateur.

The wool mustn't go into hot water or be stirred around or the fibres all fix together as felt.  Ordinary washing up liquid will wash out the dirt and grease, put it all in a big pot with hand hot water and bring it up to 80-90 degrees centigrade over the course of an hour.

As you see, the water is a brown soup with all the grub that comes off raw fleece and the actual wool changes colour.  Let the water cool back down to about 40 degrees, hand hot, before rinsing in three changes of hand hot tap water, squeeze out the wool and hang up to dry.

It is important to know how fast the water is heating up and how hot it has got.  I started with a kitchen thermometer, but this is really meant for sugar cookery at much higher temperatures, so the bit I needed to see was way down the bottom and with repeated scrubbing, the writing wore away.  By chance I saw a glass rod thermometer with the numbers inside the glass, so they won't wear off and a temperature range just up to 110 degrees.  It is perfect, good for giving things a gentle stir too.  It is from a brewing company called Young's U Brew, I can't see the thermometer on their website but no doubt you could get one if you emailed. It only cost £3.99 on the market where I got mine.

Once the skein of wool has dried, it will have shrunk a bit in length and may have felted slightly.  However it is all clean and soft and ready to roll into a ball and start knitting.

Since I have used up most of my first two fleeces, I would really like to buy a fleece from a South Wales sheep, if you have one to spare.  Short of that, I feel quite at liberty to go back to eBay and ogle some handsome rams.  Cor, look at the fleece on that!


Raw sheep fleece may carry germs.  If you are pregnant or in a poor state of health, I understand you are advised not to handle it.  If you are in good health, I suppose you can take your chances.  Dogs and cats also carry germs, but I still stroke them.  Children are the worst disease vectors, mine have even given me nits.  

Final note - this is not actually 'spinning in the grease' - see post of 5 July 2013 when I had learnt more.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Learn to Handspin Wool - A Cure for SAD

April may be the cruellest month, but I find January is a miserable git.  Last year, I survived by rereading all the Patrick O'Brian novels about Aubrey and Maturin on the high seas.  After working Christmas and New Year, I had a week off this January and resolved not to mope about, but to teach myself to hand spin wool.

The helpful lady at the library found me three books and googling hand spinning, I came across Shiela Dixon's site which gathers together great articles, links to tutorials online, courses to go on and she has a shop.  Inspired and excited, I bought a drop spindle and some wool roving from her and had a go.

As you see, roving is cleaned fibres of wool all aligned, it comes in a long strip called a batt or sliver and is as light as a puff of air.  Worsted spinning is when you pull aligned fibres from one end to create a smooth yarn.  Drafting is the process of drawing a few fibres which pull after them more fibres - lots of people have explained it better than me, on the youtube videos you can see ladies chatting away as they effortlessly draft and spin.  There are lots of different techniques for every bit of the process, the trouble is, you have to learn to do them all simultaneously without letting the spindle start going into reverse so the yarn untwists and breaks or dropping the whole lot on the floor to collect extra contrasting dog hair.  One tip I can pass on, don't bother dividing up the roving into eight strips and drafting it in advance, as is shown on one video.  It looks easier, it is easier, but although it is great to have a length of wool spun after much frustrating failure, this is a dead end, you have to persevere and learn to draft and spin as you go if you want to progress further.

Woolen spinning produces a fluffier 'lofted' yarn.  I found the roving much easier to work with once I learned to pull off a short length, tease it out and lightly fold the ends over to make a rolag about the right size to hold in one hand.  Pull out a few fibres from the roll and fold them over the hook on the drop spindle, give it a twist and off you go.

Some drop spindles have a notch to hold the yarn from slipping round the whorl, mine didn't, so I customised it with a kitchen knife and this helped a lot too.  Once you have a spindle full, the yarn is called a single, as soon as you unroll it, the twist you put in kinks the whole thing up and then it unravels.  

To make wool that you can work with, you have to ply two singles by attaching two ends to the spindle and spinning the opposite way to wrap them around each other.  For me, this meant yet more drama and doghair contamination.

These are my self taught early products.  While practice did improve them, I was really rather fed up when I showed a friend how to do it and she was as good as me within half an hour.  Same went for my sister and my niece.  Either I am even more awkward than I thought, or this is one of those skills that comes much easier with direct tuition.

At the end of my week off, my friend Cath and I drove to Exeter for a whole day's tuition on raw fleece and spinning on a wheel with Claire Boley, who has a website
Highly recommended, we had an utterly absorbing day and made great progress under her kind and patient supervision.  This is what I brought home at the end of the day.

OK, it is wildly uneven in thickness and twist, but after that day, I knew my true ambition was achievable.   Of which, more later.

Two conclusions, firstly, you can save yourself heaps of time and effort by learning from an expert. Secondly, the grubby, sweat soaked small balls of wool I managed alone did keep me absorbed, mostly cheerfully.  Unlike old paperbacks, spinning uses both hands and thus reduces chocolate consumption 100%. A doctor who uses acupuncture, even on patients he likes, told me that the meridians all converge on the fingertips, so the many tiny pressures of spinning, knitting and weaving would be expected to improve wellbeing under the Chinese concept of healthcare.  For whatever reason, I have gone on spinning madly and here comes spring, finding me in much better shape than yesteryear.