Friday, 30 January 2015

Spinning from a Braid of Wensleydale Wool

I saw this dyed Wensleydale braid in a spinner's destash sale and gave in to temptation. Unbraided, then unrolled widthways, the sheet of fibres still showed an open wave of crimp and a lovely lustre.

Wanting to spin a yarn with well defined, long colour changes, I split the width into quarters as accurately as I could, trying to keep the shades of green in in the strips in equal amounts. Having tried spinning from commercial roving before, I knew a more even, fine yarn requires drafting each strip out, but pulling the long stapled fibres into an extended ribbon seemed to homogenise the colour. 

Spinning was a joy, everso much quicker than when I had to flick the locks first and much easier to keep fine and even.  So quick, I only took an evening to spin 50g. What is more, I saw proper colour changes on the bobbins of singles.  I had put more twist into them than when I was spinning Black Wensleydale from the lock, so plying just beyond the balance gave me better yarn than before.

"I think I might show this skein off on Ravelry.  Technically speaking, it has to be my most impressive outcome ever."
From her perch on the dresser, Elinor Gotland thought otherwise.
"Can't see much sign of that long colour change you were on about."  
While I struggled for words, who should appear in the kitchen but himself, all clad in lycra ready for a bike ride.
"Hey Elinor, off to join the Taliban?"
"Coc Oen.  No-one takes fashion advice from a man wearing padded shorts. You look like a toddler off to find the potty, only too late."  
I went off to find my camera.

In my enthusiasm, I had spun the braid rather finer than the Black Wensleydale locks.  Still, the contrasting smooth and lumpy yarns might enhance each other. Anticipating a good drapey hang from such a dense, worsted yarn, I set off knitting a pattern with ribs and lace segments.  I know blocking transforms a piece, but this really didn't turn out as hoped, with no colour changes evident in a surprisingly springy fabric.
Back on Ravelry, using the pattern search, I found Dissent by Lisa Mutch.  Straightforward garter stitch stripes came out much better and once I got to the wedge of solid green, some subtle colour shifts began to show up. This is a very satisfying pattern, the curves knit up logically with minimal stitch counting and no need for markers.
Blocked out, I think the striping effect within the green section adds to the swoop of the thing, though this shawl looks best when being worn.

"Your two yarns do make a striking combination, Beaut." Elinor was watching me primp in front of the mirror.  "You could call the shawl 'Heathcliff and Cathy'." 
I looked at her blankly, then it all fell into place.  Wuthering Heights! Wearing a Black Wensleydale wig has filled that ewe's head with romantic notions of North Yorkshire.  Those lonely walks on the moor have nothing to do with her fitness programme.  

Elinor has gone Bronte.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Washing and Hand Spinning Black Wensleydale Fleece

Shankend Farm has acquired two new hoggs with lambs at foot. This is Kate's photo of them, coming off the trailer last summer.  Great was the excitement in the Shankend group on Ravelry, as these sheep are Black Wensleydales and their fleeces had travelled with them, ready for sale.

Wensleydale sheep are a longwool breed and their fleece is much prized by hand spinners. Though the micron count of the individual fibres is not especially fine, the staple length is very long and everyone ooh and aahs over the lustre.  Here is the sheep my wool came from, taken after she had been shorn. Below is a picture of a longwool sheep I saw at a show. 
Here is the box with my 200g of raw locks.  Just imagine that ewe covered in glossy black ringlets next summer.
Time to consult The Spinners' Book of Fleece.  On Beth Smith's recommendation, I invested in a bottle of Unicorn Power Scour. Following her instructions, this raw fleece had a 20 minute soak in three successive baths of hot water with detergent, then three hot rinses.  Loads of dirt came out.  I put the sample sachet of Unicorn Fibre Rinse in the last rinse bath.
My companion, Elinor Gotland, was impressed.
"Got to hand it to you, Beaut.  You only have to do it wrong a dozen times before you'll take advice. Tidy result.  Oh, now look, some of these butts are matted.  You agitated that fleece."
"Might have squodged it up and down a bit.  Just to help the dirt out."

I was useless at combing the locks, too. The fibres did not go into an electric fuzz, like some of my past attempts, probably thanks to the Fibre Rinse.  However, added to the internal fibres crossing, the locks rotate in a spiral.  Starting at the tips, tugging at the tangles soon pulled the butts out of the other comb.  

Instead of just opening the tips with the flicker, I resorted to flicking the whole way to the middle, then back from the butt, aligning the fibres of one lock at a time.
This was time consuming, but pleasurable in itself.  Black Wensleydale does not feel coarse at all, more silky and the great length of fibres was completely new to me.  Since the crimp is more like a wave, I imagined much less twist should be used in the spinning.
Just holding a bunch of aligned fibres was challenge enough, never mind calculating the number of treadles per inch of drafting.  With my hands far apart, to let the long staple length slide, I did manage to spin from the tips, with intermittent tangle events. Joining each new lock on needed a considerable overlap.
Though the singles were fine, they were very uneven.  Spinning from the fold helped, but having started, I pressed on with working from the tips, hoping that practice would improve matters.  These lustrous bobbins show how much I got from almost the whole 200g raw locks.  I plied them just beyond the balance, which seemed a moderate amount of twist while I was working.
The yarn had a nice hot bath with another squirt of Unicorn Power Scour, a final rinse and was hung up to dry.  I must have been a bit rough, again, because the strands of yarn had to be peeled apart when rolling the skein into a ball. Still, this was fingering weight spinning, look, 15 wraps per inch.  At least, it looks like that when I measure a bit without lumps.
Showing the yarn without a flattering amount of tension, you can see it is balanced after its wash, but terribly loosely plied. I must have put very little twist in the singles - those long staples do fly through the hands.  Bound to split easily while knitting and it would be a devil to crochet. On reflection, I've learned a lot more making this one substandard ball of wool than from many, easier, better ones. Wensleydale has very different characteristics to fine or Down type fleeces.  It felts easily and must be cleaned very gently.  I need to take some to Spinning Camp to be shown how to comb it. If I could make some roving, I bet that would be more straightforward to draft.  Above all, this is a beautiful, fine, strong, shining fibre and it will be worth it.

The bottle of Unicorn Power Scour has much less left in it than I thought.  I suspect Elinor Gotland has been helping herself. 

Because she's 
worth it.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Knitting Nordic Mittens with Finnsheep Yarn

Giving may be a joy, but few pleasures can compete with getting a present which is exactly what you wanted. My littlest brother found out from my Mum how much I admire Riihivilla's blog and her mitten kits and ordered one for me for Christmas, all the way from Finnland.  

"This yarn is spun fron Finnsheep fleece, Elinor. One day, I'd love to go to Helsinki and visit Riihivilla's stall in the Kaupattori Market.  I expect you've been to Finnland and met some Finnsheep, have you?"   I was rolling up the two skeins into balls, while my companion examined my new 3mm short circular needle.
"Can't wait to see how your big sausage fingers are going to manage knitting with this tiny thing.  No, I've not been to Finnland, though I've seen the rushes of a lovely young Finnsheep being filmed on location there for 'The Girl with the Sheep Tattoo'. Pretty name, Fiia it was.  Pretty thing, too, white as snow with a classic profile.  I can see how she caught the director's eye."
"What part is she playing?"
"Well, you know the basic plot, the Girl and the Midnight Shearer, stealing fleeces to order for a cartel of wealthy spinners?"
"Ye-es... and?"
"Fiia is spotted by The Girl.  Only a small role, but she gets a marvellous shearing scene.  Straying a little apart from the flock as evening falls, background music - The Swan of Tuonela, so atmospheric."  Elinor sighed, rested her elbow on the Finnsheep wool and finally, stopped titting about with my 3mm needle.

Riihivilla's Aarni Yarn is delightfully soft.  My kit had one skein each of two contrasting natural shades of brown.  Leena uses plant dyes to achieve a great range of colours, which are also on sale.  The mitten pattern is quite different to the Fair Isle ones I made recently, the cuffs are lined and the thumbs have a proper gusset, rather than being set in on a simple line of stitches.  It was a fiddle, getting used to manipulating the little circular needle, but once I got the hang of it, progress round and round was much quicker than when pulling through a longer cord.  It definitely increased the tension in my knitting though. The pattern for the spruce tree on the front of the mittens is different on every line.  This seemed daunting, but as long as I kept close tabs on the chart, the knitting went fine.
"So, when are you going to be filmed getting your fleece shorn? Will it be on location in Sweden?"  The room temperature went down a few degrees. I froze in the blast of Elinor's arctic glare.
"Type casting wrecks careers."
"Ooo, sorry, I just assumed, with your lovely Gotland fleece and all ..."  To my relief, she thawed.
"Nude scenes are best left to the shearlings, Beaut.  I'm more your character actress, playing the barmaid at the 'Gyllene Skinnet', near the fjord where The Girl moors her smuggling boat.  We'll be filming my big scene soon, when customs officials turn up looking for Captain Crovect and I have to distract them while he slips away on the tide."
"Well, I'd be gobsmacked to see you wiping tables and pulling pints.  How about a bit of method acting?  You can do the washing up."
"You know I can't have my hooves in water.  I'll get foot rot."
"Come on, Leading Lady.  First call for Miss Gotland.  Let me show you where I keep the rubber gloves."

Friday, 9 January 2015

Knitting Icelandic Lopi Yarn

"Look what a friend sent me for Christmas!"  I showed off two balls of Lettlopi yarn to my companion, Elinor Gotland.  "I haven't seen her since she got home from Iceland.  Wonder what it's like to take a holiday there? I'm imagining volcanos and huge skyscapes, filled with the Northern Lights."
"I'm reminded of a hell of a long time stuck inside a sheep shed."
"How come?"
"I travelled out there one September and booked into a mountain spa retreat, late at night.  Just popped out for a breath of fresh air first thing in the morning and before I'd had a chance to admire the
 scenery, I'd been rounded up by men on horseback and locked up with the Icelandic sheep for the winter."
"No!  Couldn't you tell them they'd made a mistake?"
"Turned out to be the last day of the sheep gathering, all the Icelanders were rushing to get to a massive party.  Thought I'd explain later, then I met Ivar - we clicked. Not the kind of retreat I had planned, but quite an experience. He was a really solid ram, marvellous muscles."   

"Body builder, was he?"
"Naturally rugged, Beaut.  You can get enough of the strong, silent type, though.  By May, I had pure cabin fever."
"This yarn looks like natural colours to me."
"Oh yes, they have all the shades, Icelandics.  My grey fleece blended in, no problem."
"Feels quite crisp, bit like Herdwick."
"Mmmm."  Elinor rubbed the wool against her cheek.  "Tog and thel, blended together. Double coat, see, soft inner layer for warmth and long outer coat for protection. Primitive and primal.  Much like Ivar."  It was good to hear her laughing, she's been pretty morose this week.  More to do with her January detox than any long, dark, teatime of the soul, I'd say.  

Lopi looks like an unplied single yarn, but isn't obviously felted. Elinor was gaily unravelling yards of it off the ball and it just fell into gentle kinks.  I couldn't work out how it had been balanced, so as not to twist wildly, like my own hand spun singles. Clara Parkes wrote this excellent review which explains a great deal.

To take advantage of the Icelandic wool's warmth and durability, I knitted myself a Downton Hat, from a free pattern by Annie Cholewa, who would appreciate users donating something to charity.  As she suggests, I checked the gauge for this wool and found working to the teenage size came out just right for me on 3.5mm needles.

Once through the washing machine wool cycle and just as Clara Parkes writes, the itchiness had gone and the fabric had closed beautifully. Rugged enough to pass a tough test, keeping out a sharp wind coming along the estuary, over the flooded water meadows.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Growing Madder and Dyeing Wool with Madder Leaves and Stems

I have been growing madder every day, for nearly two years. Seeds of madness, sorry, madder, were sown in trays in Spring 2013 and planted out in a raised border. Branches and tendrils came up in a frenzy through the summer of 2014, then burst out in berries in September. 

Despite shoots racing up, then tumbling over the path, I have never restrained the madder, oh no.  Every leaf  is precious, sucking up the sun and drawing down strength to roots destined to produce alizarin red dye.  Last week, I decided the topgrowth had died back completely for winter and could at last be tidied up.
In Jenny Dean's book, Wild Colour, she mentions that pink dyes can be extracted from even the straw like remains of this herbaceous perennial plant. While feverishly waiting for the ripe time to unearth some mature roots, this bucket of clippings could settle a deep anxiety over whether I am nuturing the true, the blushful Hippocrene. Should some random, scrambling weed turn out to have been enjoying my sunniest wall and good cow manure, I fear raging paroxysms and conniptions may ensue.

This frostbitten foliage got chopped up with secateurs, stuffed into a net bag and brought up to just below a simmer for an hour.  The water turned a murky beige.  Reading around, overheating seems to be a very bad thing for madder dyes, so I just put in some alum mordanted fleece while the dye bath was still hand hot and left it for 24 hours. Salmon pink - hooray!   After that, another big handful of wool went in and was heated gently, reaching a sort of ballet tights flesh tone.  Finally, half of that was left in the bath to be heated with a splosh of iron in vinegar, which turned it pinkish brown.

"Well, bring out the flags and whoop de doo. Preposterous, going all delirious over that pile of pastels."  
Elinor Gotland has started a January detox, before she goes back to continue filming 'The Girl with the Sheep Tattoo'.
"Just think how much more dramatic the madder root dye is going to be!  Fancy another herbal tea?"

Had I complied with her recommended destination for my lovely dyed fleece, I would now be queuing up in A&E or on the front page of tomorrow's tabloids.  Possibly both.