Friday, 25 October 2013

Cleaning, Combing and Hand Spinning Polled Dorset Sheep Fleece

More on the delights of the Spinning Rally weekend in the New Forest at the beginning of September.  In the photo (courtesy of BG), are just a few of the wheels and the legs of the spinning circle.  To the left stands a drum carder, on which I carded my first batt. Centre stage, a mountain of Dorset Poll fleeces.  The campsite was on a farm with these sheep in the next field and we got the chance to buy their wool - it could not have been a more perfect location. 

So, I bought a Polled Dorset fleece in Dorset, with Wrigglefingers' experience to pick a good one. Managed the skirting by myself, but poor Wrigglefingers barely got a mouthful of coffee down her before I was back again, begging for a demonstration of sorting. This fleece arrived home in three bags, about a quarter of it being the best wool from the neck and shoulders, another third the medium quality, the remainder squashed into a binbag.  

The finest section of fleece had a couple of days cold soak in a bucket of water, before a hot wash with Fairy Liquid and three hot rinses.  Once it had dried, I had a new box of locks.  Shorter staples than the Welsh Mountain fleece, but no kemp or discoloration.  Soft, but not superfine or shiny like the Polwarth.  Neutral qualities, not rough, but a bit dry to handle after spinning raw fleece then Polwarth.
In the Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook, Dorset fleeces are well described as having dense 'somewhat crisp or firm' locks. Deb Robson writes 'This is a versatile, moderate wool, amenable to carding or combing'.  I got a beautiful pair of hand combs for my birthday, but have battled to achieve anything like roving, using them on the fleeces I have tried so far. Seeing people combing great puffs of fluff on the Rally was tantalizing.  I retrieved the combs from the dark cupboard of abandoned hopes. 

Washed Dorset Poll fleece proved a revelation. Its dense locks were easy to separate and slide down the tines of the comb.  The other comb is slid through the tips of the locks at a 90 degree angle, pulling the fibres out with successive passes. This time there was no struggling or yanking, the process felt harmonious and restful.  Only the little neps and short fibres were left after each transfer.  Although there is a relatively large amount of waste when compared to carding, the final loaded comb has a smooth bundle of aligned fibres.  
These are pulled off the comb into a sausage, by tugging gently from side to side.  I believe you can use a thing called a diz at this stage, but that refinement will be for another day.  At this point, I was more than happy to draft the roving out a little more between my hands.

Once I had made a nice heap, I could see the combed puffs of tangle, nep and vegetation free fibres were in a different league to my usual raw fleece rolags.  Destined for fine worsted spinning.  Bring out the flags, hooray, I can do it after all. Although I did break the singles quite often at first, the right fibre and the right preparation make a world of difference.  I spun these three beautiful white skeins, about 45g and 120m each, after scouring.  

Plying two singles together gave about 4 ply weight yarn, not even, but definitely thinner than double knitting wool.  Look at the wraps per inch on that! (14!  Fingering weight, at last!)  The yarn is full bodied, but in theory, this worsted ought to drape, rather than bounce like a woolen prep.
In the meantime, I had committed the bag of medium quality wool to the suint vat.  After three rinses, it was not looking good - locks in the middle, between the unwashed and the hot detergent washed samples.  Once dried, it seemed greyish and greasier than when it went in.

The lesson of the day could be that even a mild, sunny September is too cold for suint vats to work.  I think the degreasing process went into reverse. Looks like my vat has festered horribly since I last had a fleece in it at the beginning of August. Could it be the fluid has become overloaded with muck and lanolin?  Over the summer, I picked and skirted and suinted a good few cheap fleeces that turned out to be unusable. No good crying over spilt milk, but I have learned the hard way to check for breaks and weaknesses in the fibres and not to buy fleece with very short staple lengths.

Now for a confession.  In threads regarding the arcana of lovingly hand washing fleece lock by lock, I have noticed the odd, brave soul on Ravelry chipping in with the sort of outrageous comment that is never dignified with a response.  They say things like 'Oh, I just put mine through the washing machine.'   

Surely, I thought, there would just be a big felted lump at the end of a wash cycle?  Tempting, though.  I take little joy in hand washing and have noticed while scouring the yarn that Dorset Polled fleece is not at all inclined to felt.  Sod it, in for a penny in for a pound.  I squashed the low quality portion into a pillow case and put it through the machine wool cycle at 40 degrees - had to be hot enough to get the lanolin out.  Voila - it turned out just as well as the hand washed portion!  

Sadly, the suinted stuff was still weighty with grease, even after two machine washes with lots of Fairy Liquid.  It can be combed, but only by force, not for pleasure.  I guess it is condemned to be compost or slug proofing.  Maybe it could be used for tent insulation on next September's Spinning Rally.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Contented Cowl Knitting Pattern and Dye Garden Harvest 2013

The autumn colourway skeins I dyed last week ended up being made into a cowl. Polwarth is the first fleece I have spun which is a sheer pleasure to have next to your skin.  I'd make a 'Onesy' like my daughter wears and live in it, only 115g wouldn't keep the draft off much of anyone.  I just bought another kilogram, should cover rather more.
I did start knitting a cable pattern hat on 6mm needles, but the colour changes made it look all scrunched up. This 'Contented Cowl' knits up a dream, done in one train trip away. Choosing big needles makes it soft and stretchy.  Simple, just a little more structure than garter stitch, it's all about seeing and feeling the wool. Different pattern on the two sides - both please me.


115g soft aran weight yarn, 7-8 wpi, approx 130m
10mm knitting needles and a darning needle for sewing up.

Tension gauge - doesn't really matter, loose is good.  Relax.  
Final size 32cm wide x 90cm circle.


Cast on 35 stitches, leaving at least 5mm between stitches, so the first row is not tight when it comes off the needle.
Row One   (Knit one, purl one) repeat to last stitch and knit one.
Row Two   Purl
Repeat rows one and two til you are nearly out of wool , cast off loosely on a purl row and sew the short edges together.

So easy and so versatile, I am really happy with this cowl.  It can stretch round your shoulders or you can twist a loop under the chin and bring it over your head like a snood.
These photos were taken by BG while we were down the beach, looking for washed up bones for her Halloween costume.  Once, they probably belonged to some poor sheep who fell in the river.
Enough of storm tossed bones, I am contented.  This winter, I shall be snug and smug as you like.  Stored from the spring, I have a big bag of apple leaves, apple branches and a few dried daffodils.  From the summer, a jar of precipitated woad, plenty of dried weld, some coreopsis and chamomile flowers, not to mention the bags of hollyhock and red geranium petals in the freezer.  

Stored this autumn, lots of seeds. I germinated some in trays, a month or so ago, hoping to get a quick start next spring. Those pernicious slugs have eaten most of the seedlings already, plus all my late lettuce. Last weekend, I cleared the sunflower plants from the new wall border, dug in plenty of manure and watered the whole lot with slug-eating nematodes. 

I planted out hollyhock seedlings along the back and the surviving woad at the front, daffodil bulbs below.  I've been told slugs don't like fleece, so the new plants have collars of waste wool.  The madder plants I sowed last spring are scrambling.  I have tried burying sections of the shoots in the hopes they will root.  Only two more years til I can harvest some.

Sunshine seems to have given way to rain. I am still content.   Plenty going on in the greenhouse.  Just thinking of those dear little nematodes, soaking their way into the soil in search of lunch.  Ripeness is all.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Hand Spinning and Dyeing Polwarth Sheep Fleece

Polwarth sheep are few and far between in the UK.  I am a very lucky bunny to have been given some fleece by a person who keeps this breed herself.  She still has some she is prepared to sell.  If you are on Ravelry, you can contact her as WidowTwanky.  
My good fortune came at the end of a Spinning Rally Weekend, camping in the New Forest.  The company was excellent, the weather was - well, varied.  I arrived home damp, aching, but exhilarated. 

With the car only half unloaded, I put the Polwarth in a net bag and got it soaking in the hottest tap water with lots of Fairy Liquid. Before my clothes went in the washing machine, the fleece had a couple of hot rinses.  Long before I rinsed off my own accumulated filth, my treasure was laid out to dry.  

How about that for a sparkling box of locks?

No question of cutting corners with the preparation. All of this was hand carded into the best rolags I can manage, neps picked out.  Although the raw fleece looked fabulously white to me, I'm told this sheep, Mavis, was a particularly grubby customer. Tips with the heaviest tar on them were snipped off individually. Polwarth must be very waterproof sheep.  This fleece has much more lanolin in it than a Welsh Mountain sheep or a Jacob.  I am not sure exactly where the difference lies, but while Gotland is heavy in grease, Polwarth seems more oily to me.  The fine fibres had higher drag.  In my hurry, I had not washed the whole bag equally well.  Most was no problem to card and smoothly flowing to draft. A little more tug on the rolag was repaid with a fine yarn, less liable to come apart than commercially cleaned roving.  Then I hit a sticky patch. Literally.  The fibres were tacky, trying to stick to my fingers instead of each other.  In future - wash hotter in smaller batches.  I simmered a few samples of spun yarn with Fairy Liquid, giving them a bit of a stir and squeezing out the rinse water in a brisk fashion. Although my last fleece barely felted despite such rough treatment, I found the Polwarth needed much gentler handling. The fluffy strands of my first sample had to be teased apart in places .

The softness of washed Polwarth yarn is quite delicious.  I started by spinning as finely as I could.  Even with the clinging fibres, to stop the single breaking, I had to put high twist in it.  Overdid the navajo plying and ended up with a highly 'energetic' skein that wanted to knot itself.  Despite all this, even in a bit of lace pattern on thin needles, the fabric felt smooth and silky.  A thicker spun, two ply sample was lush.  Finally, Navajo plying a thicker single with less twist, particularly during plying, gave me a balanced, squashy, shiny, round yarn. Decision made.  Lace weight spinning will be a challenge for another fleece, another time. Trying out the samples on different sized needles, I noticed that the bigger the needle, the softer the fabric.

By the end of the box, I had made two 50g skeins of Polwarth, navajo three plied at 8-9wpi, which is about aran weight.  

Very gently, I scoured them, then mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar.

While spinning, I saw part of the October challenge on the Ravelry UK Spinners' forum is an autumn leaf colourway.  Very seasonal. Better still, we've had no frost yet.  Given such a mild October, I reckoned I could obtain orange, yellow, green and brown using the last flush of the dye plants still growing in the garden.   
The coreopsis plants had about 90g of flowers ready to pick.  Though they gave more of a bronze than the burnt orange I got from them at the height of summer, I was well pleased.

I have been drying Dyer's Chamomile flowers, but the blackfly loved the plants last June/July, so there never were very many at one time.  This is the first fresh dye bath I have made. Only 60g flowers to do the other 50g of yarn.  Twice the weight of flowers to wool is recommended. Nice buttery yellow even so.  Still on song for the autumn theme. 

I picked the last of the woad leaves from the veg patch on Sunday morning.  A mere 300g while still damp with dew, but that seemed about right since I only wanted to overdye 50g wool.  Using my usual method, I spent a sunny morning getting to the point of making the first dip.  I expected to get brown from overdying on coreopsis and green from overdying the chamomile.

I got turquoise.  Not at all what I had planned.  Too much blue in that dye bath.  Never thought I would complain about too much woad, but oh, ruination!  This is so NOT autumnal.  Good job I had a visitor, or the very air would have been blue.  I stomped off to walk the dog and ponder my downfall.  As usual with plant dyeing, the confounding factors are probably multiple. Yes, more woad in the autumn plants than I bargained for, but also, less orange in the autumn coreopsis and not enough chamomile for a strong enough yellow. Result - unbalanced - me and the dye.

Modifying the turquoise with copper might green things up.  An iron afterbath could sadden the zing out of it, but also make make my soft yarn weaker and harsher. 

The sunny weekend had brought more coreopsis buds into bloom. What a star that plant is.  The new flowers weighed 35g.  I mordanted the turquoise end of the wool all over again.  Loads of yellow dye came back out in the process. Hounds of hell, too late for regrets. 

After a second coreopsis dye bath, the final green is not strong as autumn leaves, but it is much less blue.  It does have tones of brown in it where the yarn took up a little more orange in some places.  I am not going to try for a full brown section, best quit while I am ahead.  Fair play, the Polwarth has tolerated simmer after simmer. Not felted, still soft and lush and shiny.  Lovely, lovely fleece.  I must have more ...  

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Wrong Mushroom

Lately, there have been pictures of wool dyed with mushrooms on the Ravelry dyers' forums. One post remarked that no mordant was needed.  Most interesting.  A book called The Rainbow Beneath My Feet was recommended. As I work my way into it, I am learning about mushroom structures.  Still not quite clear what is meant by 'teeth' - nightmare kitchen scenario - Porcini bite back, Shitake eat omelette.  To think I was afraid of poisoning.  

Making a cautious start, I had a scout about for fungi in the woods, noting their locations and taking photos.  I understand why those Ravelry pictures are showing up now, early autumn is prime time to find 'fruiting bodies'. September here was exceptionally warm and fairly damp.  Now I am paying attention, I reckon most of the ground the dog and I walk on  
must be a mat of mycelium, just waiting for
these conditions to sprout up buttons.  Growing out of the grass, bursting from the bark and miniscule in the moss, haven't worked out what the three above might be called.
The book is a field guide.  While it doesn't pretend to be all inclusive, it does have a flow chart system for working out systematically what sort of mushroom you are looking at. There are photos and detailed descriptions of the anatomy, size and preferred habitat.   

I wouldn't be sure enough to feed them to the family, but I'm pretty confident this one is Boletus illudens.  Plenty of them dotted about in the grass under the trees.  The red one below looks much like a 'donk' called Pycnoporellus fulgens, solitary and growing out of a hardwood, as specified.

Fortunately for the Boletes, the book says this kind give a beige dye.  The donk gives light orange.  Neither prospect is enticing enough for me to risk picking them.  Although a rainbow of dyed wool is possible, when you go through the fungal colour lists, there are a hell of a lot of species that give variations on a beige theme.  Changing the mordant gives more variation, but still shades of beige.  Pleasing as it is to discover so many unknown local fungi, I have, of course, scoured the book and memorised a few 'Mushrooms most wanted'.  Thelophora vialis gives greenish blue, Collybia iocephala gives purple-blue and Paxillus atrotomentosus, dark purple.  How exciting would it be to come across one of those?

My heart beat faster when I saw this horrible beast on a tree stump last weekend.  Could it be Echinodontium tinctoria?  Bearer of orange-red dye with an alum mordant and purple-gray with iron? Whichever way I looked at it, the habitat, size and description fitted - hard crusty blackish surface, lower portion fibrous-tough, took a good kick to confirm - yes, orange flesh showing when broken. Overcoming my fears of poison and teeth, I got out a dog poo bag and scooped up a load of damaged chunks.
Back home, I put on gardening gloves to break it up into a pot to simmer.  Forgot to alkalinise the dye bath til nearly the end of the hour.  Apparently, this is the best way to get dye out of all the Polypores, so in went a teaspoon of soda ash.  I was half expecting a hallucinogenic experience from the fumes, probably a paranoid vision of fanged fungi.  It just smelled of mushroom soup.  

Looked darkly swampy, when I sieved out the bits next day.  I had two rejected skeins left over from the Welsh Mountain fleece spinning, one three ply and one aran weight.  I mordanted the three ply in Alum and Cream of Tartar and put both in to the dangerous depths for a long simmer.  Looked beige. Simmered for another hour.  Still beige.  

Maybe I put in too much wool and this is dilute orange-red?  I took out the three ply and added vinegar from the rusty nail jar to the unmordanted aran skein.  The result is clearly not a dilute version of purple-gray.  Was it the acidity of the vinegar?  How sharper than a mushroom's tooth it is To dye a thankless beige!

On line, I found a mushroom identifier's site called Rogers Mushrooms.  Although this has nothing to say about dye properties, it does note that Echinodontium tinctoria is found in western North America from Alaska to Mexico.  Just a little bit off my dog walking route, then.

In retrospect, all that fretting about poison was pretty irrational.  I know full well rhubarb leaves are poisonous, but I bring them into the kitchen.  Although ricin is lethal, I sow castor oil plant seeds quite cheerfully, just wash my hands after.  Fungi are rather lovely - in a sinister way. 

Ripe and Ruin.  
As it goes, my daughter just made this stop motion song animation.  Do watch, much more fun than beige wool.