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!

Spinning outdoors

Is it risque? It’s certainly liberating. Given the restrictions on meeting up indoors, going to the park seemed the the perfect way to meet up when we can’t go to our normal groups.

This is the second one I’ve organised and it was lovely way to spend a Friday afternoon. I took my portable Louet wheel and others brought wheels, drop spindles, knitting and crochet. And a picnic lunch!

Shade was mandatory as it was so hot, and we found a generous tree that have us a shady space big enough for plenty of social distancing.

I’m taking the photo…
So someone kindly took one of me

I took along a sack of stove-top rainbow dyed fleece as described on my Dyeing Wool page. It’s a little coarse, but in nicely formed locks, so I am flick carding it and spinning it quite thick for use in a rug, (maybe)?

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

Pencil spinning

Due to the virus situation the workshops have been closed at the University where I work, and we are ‘remote teaching’ from now on. That is quite a challenge for a practical subject like knitted textiles.

One thing I have enjoyed over the years of teaching first year knit design students is their excitement and enthusiasm when they realise that they can make their own yarns. Normally I would be running a hand spinning workshop for them next week, but obviously not anymore. We have two spinning wheels and I take in a box of drop spindles. Cartons of fibre are pulled out of cupboards and spill all over the floor, its a lovely day with some wild yarn developments taking place. I think its a great way to encourage them to explore the raw materials of textiles, and also to introduce them to yarn design.

But sadly this year its not to be! So I decided that before they left I would demonstrate ‘pencil spinning’ using two commercial yarns. Even this simple method was received with excitement, so I have made two short videos for the students, but have shared them on YouTube for everyone and put them on here as well. Bear in mind they were made for the students, following a demonstration so I refer to this, and the focus is on making small amounts of marl yarn for hand knit design sampling.

They have taken yarns away with them, so I hope to see that they have applied their wonderful creativity to making new and colourful yarns.

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.

Test run of my new Louet Victoria

Today I’m taking my new Louet S95 Victoria folding spinning wheel out on a test run. We are taking the bus – with a change in town – to my spinning group.

I’m using its own rucksack to carry her, and so far it’s OK. I’ll probably add chest and waist straps in the future to make it more comfy. I’ve popped my my lunch, a spare bobbin and some fibre in the front pocket. As I don’t know if the rucksack is waterproof I’m hoping it doesn’t rain.

I’ve got a little trolley I planned to use for taking my Ashford Traveller to group, but still haven’t got round to buying some stretchy ropes to secure the wheel to the trolley. Which is partly why I’m using the rucksack as a rucksack today.

I’m on the way home now, and that went well. I took the time with the group to play with the ratios of the Victoria , which are 1:6, 1:8.5, 1:13. I found that I could match the same fibre spun into yarn spun on the largest whorl of my Traveller, (which I think is 1:6.5), best on the 1:8.5 whorl, but that might be the way I was handling the fibre today. I spun the sample I was working from a few weeks ago, and do find temperature and humidity effect the fibre and my hands.

I will have to name my Louet, my Traveller is Dora, my Traditional is Hector. My little old Scottish double drive wheel is SweetPea because she is tiny, delicate and beautiful and treadles so sweetly.

Don’t waste the demo yarn!

Whilst demonstrating as a member of a local textile group, Woolly Umbrella, at the Wild Chalk festival, I kept a drop-spindle of my own going with singles that I Andean plied at the end as part of the demo.

I don’t think repeatedly putting it down and restarting helped me get an even twist, or it may have been the plying, or a mixture of both, but the yarn isn’t balanced. I knitted a lace pattern with it, and the bias isn’t so pronounced as in stocking stitch, but I can see it.
For fun I added the knitted sample to a purple dye bath I had prepared to dye some other yarn, and here is the result.

Hand spun yarn dyed with purple acid dye.


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.