Friday, 29 January 2016

Spinning Alpaca Tops into Bulky Yarn with a Rainbow Slub and Making a Humdrum Hat

My daughter's warm reception to an offer of knitwear sent me into a frenzy of spinning last week.  As my companion, Elinor Gotland, remarked, cold weather in Scotland had clearly enhanced the appeal of a woolly hat. The last one I made was crocheted in Black Welsh Mountain sheepswool - frankly unappealing, far too itchy, far too brown.  Since himself was going away up to Edinburgh at the weekend, no time for another failure, nor anything too clever, this hat had to be quick to spin and easy to knit.
Alpaca is especially warm, because of its hollow fibres, super soft and a particularly attractive choice when you have a couple of hundred grams of black and white tops from John Arbon sitting on the side, all clean, combed and ready to go.  Spun worsted, the yarn does come out rather dense and heavy.  Hoping for a more bouncy, lofty and funky result, I tried improvising rolags from short lengths of top with little tufts from a rainbow of wool
rolled inside.  Loosely rolled, once I pulled these 'fauxlags' back in a longdraw style, while I did get pleasingly colourful lumps coming through, the alpaca fibres soon started drawing out into their original alignment. Using a big knitting needle to roll the tops
up more tightly against the drag of denim jeans, I could create something nearer to a puni which held the circled fibres better for spinning a semi-woollen yarn.  The spinning went really fast on the 10:1 wheel ratio and though the twist and ply looked moderately firm, the yarn was quite fluffy.  While washing, I dared a hot to cold plunge and a short thwacking of the skeins to felt the strands for extra integrity.  Bit risky with alpaca, but I think I got away with it.  Another time, I'd be more generous with the colour, as a fair amount of rainbow just got hidden inside the spinning.

How to make a Humdrum Hat - the principles

Twist three strands of your yarn together and pick a knitting needle size that looks about the same width as the twist of yarn.  Knit a square in stocking stitch, write down how many stitches you cast on and how many rows you knitted, draw round the square on a piece of paper, then wash it the same way you intend to wash the hat - for me, that is usually a machine wash on the wool cycle, though I did handwash this alpaca.  Reshape while damp, dry flat on a towel.  Put your tension square back on the piece of paper, inside the shape you drew before and see how much it has shrunk in length - this varies madly in my experience, from no change at all to 15% shorter.  Lay a ruler on the square of knitting and count how many stiches in a row fall within 10cm width.  If you can measure the head of the person who will be wearing the hat, run a tape round the widest part from the base of the skull circling the brow, so a custom fit can be calculated.  Knitted fabric is stretchy, to end up snug, an adult hat size can be about 5cm smaller than the head it needs to fit.  I forgot that in my hurry, so my daughter's hat turned out on the large side, but knitwear is forgiving and so is she.

This yarn was bulky, using 6mm needles, the tension came out about 10 stitches to 10cm.  To fit a 56cm head, I cast on 55 stitches (should have been 50, really) using a stretchy, long tail cast on, using a 50cm long circular needle.  Joining to work in the round, it is always a fiddle to make sure there is no twist in the cast on row, but once you have got the first round done, knitting round after round is the easiest, quickest knitting there is.

Stocking stitch will naturally curl up on itself.  As you knit the tube, allow the work to curl up into the width of hat brim you want, then carry on knitting til the length from the fold at the bottom of the brim equals the distance from your earhole to the point on the side of your head where the skull slopes in steeply toward the crown.  If your tension gauge shrank in the wash, carry on knitting til the work is proportionately longer.  
Shaping the crown to match the shape of a head, strictly speaking, the gradient gets steeper the nearer you get to the top.  
There are lots of methods for making neat reduction patterns, but in principle, you just need to reduce the diameter roughly 4 - 5 stitches every row.  In a finer wool, this might work best reducing 8 or 10 stitches in one round then knitting a plain round or two before reducing again.  Keeping it simple, in bulky wool, knit round reducing your total stitch count to a multiple of 5 by knitting two together here and there.  Since I started with 55 stitches, easy peasy, just place a stitch marker every 11 stitches. Every time you reach a marker, knit two together.  As the diameter gets smaller, it gets harder to use the circular needle cord smoothly, so I switch to using magic loop.  

Once there are only two stitches between each marker, break the yarn, put the tail on a darning needle and thread it through the stitch loops, taking off the markers. Pull tight and fasten off. This is the first pompom I have made in ages.


  1. Hi Fran
    I just have to tell you how much I enjoy your blog over here in Canada, as a fellow dyer and spinner. I imagine my climate in southern Vancouver Island is similar to yours in Wales. Give my regards to Elinor. You and she are my favourites!

    1. Oo, my daughter is going to Canada next year, but on the other side of the country to you. I am already excited about visiting her (and possibly some Canadian sheep and wool shops). Thanks very much for writing.

  2. That hat looks lovely and warm Fran. I have decided on the spinning wheel I am having... In fact I have it now. It is not a conventional spinning wheel. It is an e-spinner. I would love to chat to you about it if you would like to. Perhaps we could exchange phone numbers?