Rub-a-dub-a-fleece

Washing (or scouring) raw fleece is not a quick job, I think that’s something all can agree on. It’s also surprisingly contentious. Everyone wants to tell to their method, and you gradually learn that different fleece require different scouring methods, so everyone is probably right!

So I’m going to write about my experience today.

I have been given a rather nice Shetland fleece. Rather nice that is, but filthy. The fleece is very greasy and every single lock is gummed together and dirty at the tip. Underneath however, you can see the gorgeous fibre hidden under the grease-trapped dust and poo.

It doesn’t look too bad here, but thankfully this is not smelly-vision
See what I mean about those yucky tips?

I gave some of it a good hot soak  yesterday with plenty of washing up liquid. The water was like oxtail soup (sorry if you like oxtail soup), but after a few rinses it seemed OK.

However, this morning’s inspection showed it to be still greasy and those dratted dirty and sticky tips were still gummed up.

Rather than transfer that gunk to my carder I reluctantly decided to re-wash the fleece. So more really hot water baths followed. The first was so hot I couldn’t put my hand in it, with loads of washing up liquid and a dose of washing soda to break the grease. I  always wash the fleece separated into small mesh lingerie washing bags. With this second wash, I opened each bag, one at a time under the water and teased the locks apart, concentrating on those dirty tips to loosen the greasy dirt.

Yes it was time consuming, bit surprisingly gratifying as the dirty came out quite easily with this method. I think because the fleece has just been sheared the dirt hasn’t had to much time to harden-off.

Now it’s drying out looks amazing and is so soft.

I’m itching to get spinning

Having a bash at core spinning

Last night I blended some rather lumpy Southdown fleece I was trying to use up with some dyed Shetland. It was just for fun – no plan involved, just testing out my DIY blending board. When I sat at my wheel – watching ‘Hidden’, I couldn’t think what to do with it. Then I remembered seeing Lexi Boeger’s method of coreless- core-spinning in her book ‘Hand Spun’. I thought the strong colours would work well against the natural if spun in this way, so I had a go.

According to Lexi the principle is to only work with a small amount of fibre at a time, and to spread the fibres wide into a trianglular web. You spin the core with the fibres at one edge of the triangle, whilst simultaneously holding the other part of the web at right angles to this so that it can wrap around the core between your drafting hand and the orifice. Its bit like patting your head and rubbing you tummy at the same time – but once I got going I enjoyed it. There were a few messy bits, which I attribute to the lumpy Southdown myself!

I love the way the colours wrap around the natural core

I’m not sure its truly core spinning, but its on the way there and I do like the effect. The yarn was very over-twisted, but after a good soak in hot water and hanging with a light weight to dry naturally it is fine now.

Felted singles

Having read about this spinning technique I though I’d have a go. It doesn’t save much time as you still have to run the yarn back through the wheel, which takes as long as simple plying. It was prompted by my practise at making a ”Z’ twist fat singles’ and so I decided to over-twist this singles yarn as I practised the night before a dyeing session. So I treated it cruelly when washed it, and also in the hot dye bath as well.

As there were several colour dye baths it was too tempting not to dip-dye the hank. Firstly it went into red-cabbage allover, and then the ends were dipped into madder and turmeric.

This is what it looked like before hot washing and dyeing.
And after re-spinning it’s open up nicely and is quite soft.

I’ll be trying this out soon to see what it looks and feels like as a knit.

Visit to Diamond Fibres – wool processors

Today I accompanied a group of students on a visit to Diamond Fibres in Horam, Sussex. The company processes wool for worsted spinning, rather than woollen spinning, so concentrates more on longer staple fleece.

Starting in the sorting shed, we were shown round by Roger, the owner, and given a really thorough introduction to the processes involved in changing raw fleece into yarn.

There was a Wensleydale fleece on the picker, which Roger explained had already been washed once at 60 degrees to remove the first lot of dirt and oil and then dried. After picking, which would open up the compressed curls that the first wash had not reached, it would be re-washed and dried before further processing. He reckoned that it may in fact require a third pick and wash.

The students were looking tired just at the thought of this!

Following picking, the next process is carding the fibres to start aligning them in parallel into a continuous ”sliver’ of fibre. Unlike my meek little hand carder, they have a carding machine with 16 drums of metal, not wire, teeth. At this stage, any short fibres will still be in the sliver, it isn’t until combing that these will be removed.

The sliver begins to look more like something that is spinnable, but there are still thin and thick sections along its length. To eliminate these and even out the sliver it goes through ‘gilling’. Diamond have two of these machines. The first one has wider spaced teeth, and is used at this point, whilst the second is much finer and bulks up and evens out the sliver later on after combing.

When the sliver goes into the gilling machine, two are fed in at once, producing one thicker sliver of uniform thickness.

The fibre will in all likelihood go through a second gilling, during which the output sliver gradually bulks up, according to the machine settings, to achieve the required grams per metre.

If the requirement is for carded roving for hand spinning, this will be the last process. It may even be stopped earlier on, depending on what condition fibre is required.

If however, the desired outcome is combed sliver, then it has to go through the combing machine. This takes up to sixteen slivers side-by-side through the combs, crimping the final sliver to compress the fibres together and prevent breakage. It looks like doll’s hair emerging from the machine. Any remaining short fibres, nepps, noils or debris fall out into a waste bin beneath the combs.

This combed sliver has become slightly uneven during the combing process, and this is when it goes through the finer gilling machine to produce a consolidated, even sliver ready to have a small amount of twist introduced, (about four turns per inch) to make a softly twisted roving.

This roving is then drafted out into a thinner roving, and finally drafted and spun into singles weighing approximately 0.2g per metre. Amount of twist can be controlled to produce softer or firmer yarns at both singles and plying stages.

The singles can be plied into 2, 3, 4 etc ply yarns according to need. 2 ply tends to be flat, 3 ply rounded, and 4 ply has a square profile. To make a cable yarn, 2 x 2ply can be twisted together.

2ply yarn made from two of the 0.2g/metre singles would weigh approximately 0.4g per metre. This would yield something like 250 metres per 100g, which is within the DK category of yarn, and will be between 12-14 WPI.

Of course, as Roger pointed out, natural fibres do not conform as precisely as synthetics do, so there are highly likely to be variations in weight to length of a hank of yarn depending on humidity and other physical conditions when it is weighed. Oh the joy of natural fibres, thats why we love them!

I think the students now really appreciate how much work goes into making the yarns they pick off the yarn-store shelf. One even went so far as to say that they would never again complain about yarn being so expensive!

Dyeing to be purple

For no better reason than wanted to play with acid dyes I dyed a 58g hank of handspun Texel and Clun Forest 2 ply today. Inspired by WASPI I chose to mix a purple. If we haven’t won our pension compensation by the winter I shall knit mittens for wearing on demos.

I’m going to pop 100g of Shetland fleece that has some pink staining on the tips into the exhausted bath to hopefully give it a tint.

Half-way through the tint was looking too blue, so I added 1/8th TSP magenta to bring it back towards purple.

Below is the yarn, it’s still wet so it’s going to be a lot lighter when dry.

Satisfaction is a bobbin of plied yarn

I love the final plying process when spinning yarn. This is Texel and Clun Forest wool fibre, processed from raw fleece. One single of each as an experiment.

I find it very difficult to get a smooth yarn from my own prepared raw fleece. It’s pretty easy from commercially prepared tops, but getting all those little nepps and second cuts out is pretty impossible for me.

I’ll wash this and see how it comes out.

Wild Chalk: a celebration of the natural world of the South Downs

The South Downs are home to the Southdown breed of of sheep, the wool from which can be used for hand spinning. So to support the local Shout Downs national park and sheep farmers I joined several other members of my local spinning group, Woolly Umbrella, and took my skills (basic as they are) along to Wild Chalk. This free event, organised by the South Down National Park Rangers, was held in East Brighton park. Our part was to demonstrate spinning wool and encouraged people to have a go. I took along several drop spindles and a sack of washed fleece. Others brought along a spinning wheel, drop spindles and needle felting to share, plus an exhibition with some beautiful examples of naturally dyed, handspun wool. Most people were spinning the local Southdown fibre but mine, to my shame, was Texel cross Southdown.

As you can see children and adults alike really loved to watch, and most of them tried spinning from fleece to some extent or other.

I practised with a newly acquired Turkish spindle and using the Andean Plying technique even produced some reasonable 2ply.

Food colour dyeing

Today I wanted to dye some of my hand spun wool yarn a bright green. No natural dye I have would do this, and I didn’t have any green acid dye, (or any acid dyes at all), so I decided to use food colouring. I already knew that food colouring works as a fibre dye but did not realise that it was an acid dye, (thank you Google) so works best on wool, silk and other protein fibres that will dye with an acid dye. Acid dyes are not acid, but they require an acid such as vinegar or citric acid to attach themselves to the fibre.

Initially I’d intended to use liquid food dyes but discovered I have either thrown them out or someone had used them up, so had to resort to the paste colours I used to use for sugar flower modelling. These seemed to work fine and are quite intense, if a little harder to dissolve, (I had to squash some lumps against the side of the jug). I may use them again as they are just sitting in the cupboard at the moment.

So to prepare the yarn I soaked it in a mixture of one part vinegar to two parts water for about 30 minutes. This did two jobs at once, soaked the fibres to remove trapped air and added acidity. I could have added vinegar to the dyebath instead.

Meanwhile I put some water to heat on the stove and mixed the bright leafy green I wanted from my stash of food colouring dyes.

I mixed the food colouring paste with hot water in a small jug, and added a teaspoon of salt, (this helps to level the colour and increase its take-up), stirring them well until the liquid was clear, then added this to the pan of water that was warming on the stove.

When the dyebath was ready I removed the hank of wool from the vinegar and water soak, gently squeezing it to remove excess liquid, and immersed it in the dye. The temptation to stir the yarn into the dye bath is always with us, so I gently prodded it below the surface and walked away and left it. It took about 20 minutes of gentle simmering, turning the yarn very gently once, to achieve the colour I wanted.

Because I liked the colour so much I decided to dip a second hank quickly into the dyebath so I got very pale green and then, having rinse it to check the colour, I trailed half the hank into the dyebath again and let it stay in there until it became darker. This gave me a dip dyed, ombre yarn in tones of the same green.

Post-dyeing rinses brought the brightness down a little on both hanks, but overall I was pleased at how little colour came out. I rinsed quite hot; wool can take high heat and won’t felt, as long as you don’t agitate it or put it straight into cold water. The important thing is to have the rinsing water at a similar temperature to the dye bath. Wear gloves to protect your hands during these hot rinses. To save energy you can slowly decrease the temperatures through the rinses. Never let the tap run onto the wool or it is likely to felt.

Because it was a lovely day today I hung the hanks out in the garden to dry, but you can spin dry them as long as you put them inside a mesh laundry bag or a calico bag.

Both yarns were handspun with a bouclé effect. The dip dyed one took the colour less well partly because it was from a different fleece, and partly because it should really have had an additional scour before going into the vinegar soak.


Spinning wheel drive ratio – getting down to the nitty gritty, and learning to control my tendency to over-spin yarn

Spinning wheel drive ratio is the number of times the bobbin revolves whilst the drive wheel makes one revolution. It is governed by the size of the whorl that drives the bobbin. There is of course the effect of any brake to be considered as well, but this has to be adjusted to get the yarn to wind onto the bobbin and is not the same as the drive ratio.

Most modern wheels offer different ratios by providing several different sized whorls on the bobbin or flyer. Probably because my upright double drive is an old wheel, and I mean old, wobbly and fragile – one that would be termed ‘vintage’ on eBay, it only has one ratio (it only has one whorl on the bobbin). I tend to over-spin when using this wheel, so I wanted to teach myself to make softer yarn and thought understanding drive ratio might help me. Being a bit techie and liking to understand how things work, I decided as a first step to check out what the drive ratio is on my upright double drive wheel.

Using advice from ‘Spinning Wool – beyond the basics’ by Anne Field, I started the process. Firstly I removed any yarn from the orifice and bobbin and slackened the tension screw to the lowest setting. Next I tied a tag of yarn on one arm of the flyer as a marker, and aligned this arm with the rear maiden. Now, using my hand I turned the wheel one complete revolution, counting how many times the tag of yarn passed the rear maiden. This figure is the drive ratio of the wheel as it is set up (remember that a different sized whorl will give a different ratio). In this example, the bobbin revolved 6 times during one revolution of the drive wheel, which means that my old double drive upright wheel has a 6:1 ratio.

Next in my experiment to spin softer yarn I trawled further advice from Anne Field. She suggests that the fibre itself can give you information as to how to spin it, and that frequency of crimps along the staple length of fibre can give you a clue about how the twist frequency. In her opinion a fibre with 7 crimps in 2.5cm, for example, is best spun with 7 twists per 2.5cm of singles. OK, I thought, so I pulled a staple from the Shetland fleece I am working with, and counted the crimps per 2.5cm. I used a magnifying glass to help me, and came out with a figure of 5 crimps in 2.5cm, which meant that I needed to aim for 5 twists in every 2.5cm of singles as I spun the fibre.

Once again I referred to Field’s book, and from the suggested methods for establishing a visual reference for the distance in which the twists should lie, I chose to mark 2.5cm on a piece of paper. I then taped this my lap whilst spinning. Other methods included marking these lines in your spinning apron, or using points on your fingers, e.g. tip of thumb to knuckle. This last one is the one I plan to move to once I am a bit more confident.

To re-cap, my aim, based on the Shetland fibre’s crimp, was to have 5 twists in 2.5cm of yarn. This meant 2.5cm of twisted yarn had to be drawn onto the wheel during one revolution of the drive wheel (5 revolutions of the bobbin), thus 5 twists would be inserted into that set length of yarn.

Anne Field estimates that approximately 1 twist will be lost in each 2.5cm of singles once the yarn is plied (although I am a bit hazy about how that happens), and so it seemed to me that I could spin the yarn with 6 twists per 2.5cm and finish with the 5 twists I wanted. This fitted in really neatly with the wheel’s drive ratio of 6:1, (1 treadle, and therefore 1 revolution of the wheel, turns the bobbin 6 times). This made me wonder whether this wheel was designed and made for spinning this type of wool from the older British breeds.

So by treading SLOWLY, drafting 2.5cm of fibre and releasing 2.5cm of yarn into the bobbin for each revolution of the drive wheel (one pedal motion), I actually managed to make a start.

To check how I was doing I stopped after a few metres of singles, pulled some back off the bobbin and let the yarn twist back on itself to emulate the final plied yarn. After evaluating the twist, and adjusting my spinning accordingly, I eventually managed to achieve approximately 5 twists per 2.5cm! Yes….I was getting it – slowly.

The resulting yarn is so much softer and fuller than my normal attempts – and a small hank is now drying in the bathroom for me to evaluate tomorrow.

My next step is to lengthen the draft and feed 5cm of yarn onto the bobbin in 2 treadles (revolution s of the drive wheel). In theory I can increase the length of draft and feed depending on the length of fibre I am working with, providing it has 5 crimps per 2.5cm.

I’m not sure what happens if there is more or less crimp, and therefore more or less twist required in 2.5cm. That is my next learning curve.

I may I have made some mistakes and probably over generalised, so welcome comments and advice.


Brighton Textile Art Group meeting 11th May

Well I did it, I made it along to the meeting today and joined the group. Thank you to all the kind members who made me feel so welcomed. There was a natural dyeing workshop today, but of course I had not booked in advance. However, I took some singles spun on my Spurtzler and plied this using my hands in an Andean ply. Then I had two little hanks to dye in the onion skin and the daffodil dye baths.

Click on the photo to visit the brighton Textile Art Group website and see what other events and workshops are in the future.

There is a little more detail of the day on my Natural Dyeing page.