Ancient fleece – an experiment

Whilst digging in our loft today to make space for the plumber to run new pipes, I found a fleece!

I couldn’t believe what I saw, because I was sure I remembered throwing it away years ago, and I mean years…probably the best part of twenty years! I can say that with quite a lot of certainty because it was given to my Mother when she wanted to learn to spin on her Westbury wheel. She had bought it in the 1970s I think, in Glastonbury, as a kit. My Father made it up for her and she stained it a dark walnut colour. But she didn’t have any fleece – or to be honest the faintest idea how to spin. A friend of a friend found her two Jacob fleeces from a local shepherd in Somerset, but I don’t believe she ever got any yarn off the wheel.

Not bad for a 20 year old fleece

I ‘inherited’ the wheel (and the fleece) when I bought a flat and had space to house it. Once again it sat unused, and the fleece sat lonely and unloved as well. When I had children, the wheel became the object of their attention. They delighted in treadling it and bits fell off.

After my Mother died I took the drastic decision to sell it to save it, if you see what I mean. I so regret that now, I wish I’d put it in the loft, which is somehow where this fleece ended up – I must have chucked the other one, or maybe gave it with the wheel.

Since then, I have acquired an Ashford Traveller and a Traditional, but I would love to have another Westbury for sentimental reasons. So if anyone is looking to sell a Westbury wheel do get in touch with me first.

So today the fleece saw the light of day after many years. I thought it would be absolutely ruined, if not full of moth, but no, it is fine. I don’t think it was very greasy to start with, and there isn’t much VM. I’m in the middle of a test wash of a part of it to see what happens. I can’t believe it has survived, but I’ve given parts a good tug and there isn’t any breakage, and very little discolouration. It is a beautiful chocolate brown and cream, so I plan to separate the colours and spin it as a tweed-effect, providing all goes well.

It will lovely if I can spin it; a sort of homage to my Mum who never quite got it together to spin it herself, much as she would have loved to. If I could spin it on a Westbury, my homage would be complete!

Exhausted after another long fleece-washing session and mulling over the costs and benefits of Power Scour and Fibre Scour

We had a few rainy days recently so I put a lot of fleece to soak outside – hoping the rain water would help the process along. The catch of course was that I then didn’t want the waste the opportunity that the glorious weather we had today offered for washing the fleece in the garden and getting a head start on the drying.

When will I learn? Four hours later I do have a load of lovely white fleece hanging up to dry on meshes, but I am exhausted.

Because I had soaked the fleece in cold water for a few days, I had to wash it by slowly heating it in batches in a pot on a stove. I wish I had an old Burco boiler – my Mum used to use one for washing the bed linen. I will keep an eye out for one. Using pots meant that I had to do four batches. I have two big maslin pans I use for this and for dyeing, so after heating the first one, the second could be warming whilst the first was cooling sufficiently for me to handle it.

It was a pretty filthy fleece and the overnight cold water soak had really helped loosen the dirt, but I still had to give each batch two washes before rinsing twice.

I’ve invested in both Fibre Scour and Power Scour for washing fleece, as well as working with washing up liquid. I’ve not tried Kookaburra or any other as I haven’t found them for sale in the UK. The results of both of the ‘professional’ scourers I have tested are very good, there is no doubt about it. But, and its a big BUT, is it financially worth it?

This was the first lot I have washed using Power Scour, but because I did all the fleece with this, I don’t have any of the same fleece washed in any other way to compare. However, the Power Scour has done a good job. It doesn’t foam up so is easier to use than washing up liquid. Price-wise per wash some people claim its no more expensive than using washing up liquid, but in the UK the 473ml (16 oz) bottle of Power Scour cost me £21! OK, they claim you only need a tablespoon to wash a pound of fleece, using around 2 gallons of water (that is 15ml to wash approximately 450g of fleece in 9 litres of water), but I think this will still work out more expensive than using washing up liquid.

UPDATE 11th August 2020
The Unicorn website recommend using 1 tablespoon of Power Scour to 2 gallons of water (15ml to 9 litres of water) when washing in a washing machine. As those of us in the UK don’t generally have top-loader washing machines this is not usually an option for us, but it is useful to know the water to detergent ratio as opposed to the fibre weight to detergent ratio.

https://www.unicornclean.com/fibre

2 gallons being equivalent to 9 litres is neat as that is the capacity of my maslin pans. My fleece was in batches of around 250-300g, so I used 10ml per batch). My frugal soul overrode my experimental spirit and I have to admit that I did the second wash in washing up liquid.

I also added a few drops of Tea Tree oil to the second wash for its antibacterial properties, and lovely clean smell. Fibre Scour already has Tea Tree oil as an ingredient which is a plus for me, as well as the clever bottle that measures the dose each time.

Power Scour ingredients are listed as:

Nonionic and Anionic Surfactants, Propylene Glycol or Ethanol, Copolymer, Lavender Fragrance & Filtered Water.


POWER SCOUR COST

Lets do the maths: At 15ml per wash you can get between 31 and 32 washes out of the 473ml bottle of Power Scour. If 15mls wash 450g fleece this means you can wash up to 14 kilos of fleece with one bottle (assuming you only do one wash using Power Scour).

My bottle of Power Scour cost £21 (including post and packing). Divide £21 by the number of washes (31) makes it about 68 pence per 450g wash, or £1.50 per kilo of fleece.

So how does this compare to washing up liquid?


WASHING UP LIQUID COSTS

Washing up liquid ranges between £5.64 per litre for Method, £3.56 for Ecover, £2.88 per litre for Fairy, down to £1.78 for supermarket own brands (all prices for Tesco website 30th July 2020).

Lets work with Fairy as it is pretty like Dawn, the one recommended by many spinners in the US. I will work with the regular sized 625ml bottle, not the giant one (it will offer a bit of a saving if you opt for that size, in the same way that buying a gallon of Power Scour should save on cost per wash).

I reckon you need a pretty good squirt of Fairy to wash even 100g fleece. I count 1-2-3 whilst squirting and find this about right. I’ve just measured this and it comes out as 20ml of washing up liquid (give or take a bit for the size of the nozzle and the viscosity of the liquid).

Lets do the maths again: At 20ml per wash you can get between 31 and 32 washes out of the 625ml bottle – so far so similar! However, here is the difference, if 20ml is needed to wash 100g fleece you can only wash up to 3 and a bit kilos of fleece with one bottle of Fairy, (assuming you only wash the fleece once).

A 675ml bottle of Fairy costs £1.80 at Tesco. Divide £1.80 by the number of washes (31) makes it about 6 pence per 100g wash, or 60 pence per kilo of fleece. Hmm, that seems a big difference; less than half the cost per kilo of Power Scour.

So unless my amounts or maths are totally off the mark, washing up liquid is clearly cheaper to use that Power Scour, even when the amount of washing up liquid used to wash a kilo of fleece is significantly more than Power Scour.

FIBRE SCOUR COSTS

Fibre Scour recommends 20ml to 10 litres of water – but does not give a fibre weight which I find really annoying – you can wash 10g or 500g of fibre in 10 litres! So lets opt for the 500g.

Lets do the maths: At 20ml per wash you can get 25 washes out of the 500ml bottle of Fibre Scour. If 20mls wash 500g fleece this means you can wash up to 12.5 kilos of fleece with one bottle (assuming you only do one wash using Fibre Scour).

My bottle of Fibre Scour cost £14.99 (including post and packing). Divide £14.99 by the number of washes (25) makes it about 60 pence per 500g wash, or £1.20 per kilo of fleece. Marginally cheaper than Power Scour, but no real economic challenge to washing up liquid.

Lets return to the fact that the results of both Fibre Scour and Power Scour are very good, there is no doubt about it. They also seem to make the washing a lot easier, removing the dirt more thoroughly and getting the stains out. But is it worth it?

CONCLUSION

In believe the reviews that compare the cost as ‘not that different’ are based on purchasing Power Scour in the US, where it is considerably cheaper than in the UK. US websites advertise it at around $19 for the 473ml bottle, whereas the cheapest I could find it in the UK was £19.99. $19 is about £14.50 at current exchange rates. Still pricey to my mind, but more in line with the Australian Fibre Scour which costs £12 for a 500ml bottle in the UK.

I wish I could afford to use either Fibre Scour or Power Scour for all my fleece as I do like the result. I’ve opted to purchase another bottle of Fibre Scour as it is a better financial option in the UK.

I look forward to a time when increased sales volume might mean that the ‘professional’ products come down to a more reasonable price. However, until then I shall be saving these for either extremely dirty (but what I hope are good quality fleece), or my ‘best’ planned and purchased special fleece, whilst continuing to use washing up liquid for everything else. I will mostly likely always use washing up liquid if a second wash is needed.

If there is a UK based chemical/cleaning company out there who would like to venture into ecological raw-fleece-washing territory it would be wonderful to hear from you.

There is more about my experiences scouring raw fleece here

Spinning outdoors

Last week a few of us got together (safely distanced and masked), to take our textiles into the park. I enjoyed myself so much I forgot to take a photo!

The thought of spinning outside in the sunshine encouraged me to use bright colours. So I took along some Shetland fleece I dyed a while ago using acid dyes, (I have written more about dyeing fleece with acid dye here).

I’d spun up a bobbin of Suffolk fleece that is not very exciting, so I planned to use that as the core for a bright, irregular spun, core-spun yarn to which I would add a charcoal wrapping yarn. All 100%wool. I took my folding Louet Victoria S95 wheel which is a joy to use.

The core yarn was Z twisted quite tight. The wrapping colours were also put on Z twist, and the final charcoal, commercial yarn was S spun over the others.

Photo taken at might, so the colours are not accurate.

After washing and drying the twist the colours hardly muted and it’s come out as lovely yarn.

Taken outdoors, but the colours are a bit light.

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

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.

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.