What do you sit on when at your spinning wheel?

This is a question I often ask other spinners, as I can get quite uncomfortable if I don’t set myself up on the right chair for the wheel I am using. I must admit to being a bit of a voyeur at my local spinning group, because I like to watch how others set themselves up and see how they work their wheel, its fascinating to watch different techniques. I never stop learning!

I have several wheels that all have different height flyers and orifice, so have found that I need to change position depending on which I am using. The lowest is my vintage double drive lace wheel (single, tiny treadle, named Penny) which comes in at just above knee height, followed by a Louet Victoria (Vicky, single drive, double treadle) and then my single treadle, double drive Ashford Traditional (Hamish). I’m considering adding a double treadle kit to him, but he has been stained mahoghany by the former owner and I don’t think I could bring myself to do that to the new treadles.

The highest orifice is on my double treadle Ashford Traveller (Dora), which is the one I use most. The Traveller is easy to manoeuvre around the living room, has a small footprint, and I’ve added a jumbo flyer as well as a wide ratio standard, so its pretty versatile. I just wish it was a double drive as I prefer this set up, but you can’t have everything. One day I might come across a double drive Traveller and have the spare cash to make the upgrade.

I digress – apologies, but I do that a lot.

Back to chairs. After attempts at trying other set ups, I’ve found a dining room chair best for the Traveller – with a firm cushion at my back and one on my lap. The back cushion supports my lower back, encouraging me to stay upright, and also pushes my bum forward so that I don’t get compression from then front edge of the chair seat pushing into the back of my knees. The lap cushion helps to prevent neck and shoulder strain. An added perk is that I seem to spin a more consistent yarn when using the lap cushion.

Before I discovered that this type of chair worked for me I was sitting in a soft armchair, albeit an high and upright one. Trouble with this was I had to have lots of cushions to sit forward, and then, although my lower back was OK, my bum tended to slide forwards because the soft seat didn’t support the backs of my thighs enough to keep upright. Plus the seat is quite narrow and I got neck strain from avoiding the arms when I worked long-draw or was plying.

So I am now reasonably comfy on the dining room chair with the Traveller, but I think I’d be better with a slightly lower seat. Its just the palaver of carrying chair and wheel to a good position where: it doesn’t rock on the edge of the rug, there is a table near me to put mycup of tea on, the dog won’t walk through my fibre, and I can see the TV – not too much to ask I feel.

Working on the low lace wheel I use a nursing chair that is only 12″ (about 26cm) from the floor. This chair has a big seat and no arms, whilst the back is quite high so its a good shape for spinning. The back is a good height, but I’d like it a bit narrower to allow full movement in my shoulders.

The Traditional is in another room and I use a swivel office chair with adjustable everything. This is good, but is sadly an ugly (and patchily faded) royal blue and too heavy to carry from room to room. So its not an option for the living room where I like to spin in the evenings watching TV with my partner.

My Louet Victoria (Vicky) is a folding, portable, lightweight wheel for use outdoors or at workshops, so sometimes when using her there is no choice about where I can sit. If I can take a chair with me, I have a very lightweight aluminium folding directors chair that doesn’t have that awfully uncomfortable bar across the front under my knees. I like to take a cushion for the seat to make it super comfy and this helps me sit upright. It also keeps my bum warm if the day is cold. However this type of chair has arms – but they are pretty low and wide apart and I seem OK on this.

I’ve tried a backless stool and ended up with terrible back ache, so thats not an option for me. I am toying with the idea of a traditional ‘spinning chair’ with a low seat and narrow back, but the seats all seem really small, and I am worried my bum will overflow the sides!

So that is a summary of where my spinning chair experiments have led me.

Sometimes, depending on my overall muscular-skeletal day-to-day twinges I find working the treadle wearing a soft shoe rather than barefoot alleviates foot and knee pains. But I love spinning barefoot outdoors in warm weather.

Acid dyeing handspun remainders

A recent stock-take of the various bits of hand-spun yarn sitting on bobbins I now want to use for other projects inspired me to ply them all up and dye them into interesting yarns. Only small quantites of most, but great for small items.

One was a test of blending Tussah silk with Lleyn fleece, and I plied this with some nice soft spun Dorset singles. The silk added a pleasant dry handle to the plied yarn, and the noils added texture. There was more Dorset singles left, so I plied these together as a separate yarns. Next I plied two ends of Suffolk together, they were somewhat different thicknesses and twists, so made a slightly uneven, spiralled yarn. Finally I worked with a lovely colour changing singles, spun from a blend of Alpaca and Texel (cream) and Black Alpaca and Dark Grey (almost black) Suffolk fleece. The Alpaca blends had been carded in stripes on the drum carder so that when it was spun off the batt it alternated in dark and then light lengths. I plied this with a pale grey Suffolk single that I had acquired from a farm in Hereford last summer.

All these came out as interesting yarns in their own right, but I wanted to add some COLOUR. So I got out the dye kettle and the acid dyes. After some thought I decided to aim for a Deep Red and a Blue-Violet. I’ve been trying to be more technical about my dye mixing, and so with the aid of an Excel spreadsheet I have devised, I carefully mixed the solutions, but the Blue-Violet still emerged as Violet.

There was 66g of the Dorset and Suffolk/Dorset, and they went into the Red dyebath, whilst the 45g of Lleyn/Tussah/Dorset went into the Blue-Violet bath and they gently cooked away for an hour or so.

Part of my improved technique is to use a jam thermometer to keep the bath below 90C, preferably just above 89C to prevent felting. I also walk away so I am not tempted to STIR IT! The only stir I am allowed is after teh bath gets to temperature, when I gently remove the yarns, add the vinegar and stir it in. I read that doing this allows the different colours in the mix to be absorbed into the yarn (or fibre), before the acid does its work to set the dye to the fibres. Both these techniques seem to work well for me as I am getting less felting and more even, accurate colours (apart from the Blue Violet of course).

The dye baths were not exhausted – I had worked with a 2% colour to fibre weight ratio for medium depth of colour – so the lovely tweed ply was dip dyed into both pots, leaving mid-sections of the natural tweed plies undyed. I felt this needed a third colour to lift the others, so a very small section between each of the main colours was dipped into a weak yellow dye.

Dark red in front, dip dyed tweed in the middle, blue-violet at the back. You can just see the texural Tusssah silk blended purple yarn.

I’m really pleased with the products of the session – carried out whilst I watched the new TV programme ‘Roadkill’. Unfortunately I was a bit stupid, or maybe it was the effect of the programme I was watching, and whilst mixing a new batch of yellow stock solution I mindlessly poured boiling water onto the dye powder in a plastic jar. Of course the jar melted, buckled sideways and then toppled to the floor before I could catch it. Waves of strong yellow dye flooded the kitchen floor (I am exaggerating, it was only 150ml or so, it just felt like waves). It took five washes to clean the floor so that no-one would walk yellow onto the beige carpets, and my socks will never be the same again! Plus I had to start again with the stock solution. I did debate mopping the floor with some yarn, but decided that might be too hit-and-miss even for me…

In fact this morning, whilst hiding from the dog, (don’t ask why) I noticed a snail-trail of yellow dye snaking down the side of the kitchen cabinet – how did I miss that one?

What am I going to use the yarns for? I think a warm hat to cheer me up with its bright colours during this depressing winter-to-come is on the cards. I might knit it by hand or I maybe use my Brother KH260 chunky machine, and hope to report back on here when its finished.

Footnote:

Leaving the dye overnight in the pots – I was tired after all that floor-mpopping – the next morning I decided to finally extract the last from each one. So 50g of Dorset fleece went into each, and I got a rich coral pink, and surprisingly bright lilac for my troubles. It was so rewarding to empty clear water out of the dye baths afterwards.

Waste-not-want-not is a good motto.

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!

Carding raw fleece – another post!

I have been doing quite a bit of drum carding of raw fleece I have gathered over the summer, and whilst doing this I recorded a couple of videos of the process.

This is the first one; picking and running the fibre through the carder the first time

I always put the batt back through the drum carder. I find this second carding makes a much nicer fibre for spinning. The second video covers doffing the fibre, splitting it and putting it back through. After this you can either take the batt off, as shown in the video below, or use a diz to take it off in a continuous roving. To do this, only separate one end of the batt (to the width of the diz), and pull the fibre off in a spiral as the drum reverses around.

The wool is from a Dorset sheep, and I have hand-dyed it in acid dye to this rather pretty duck-egg blue.

The second video shows doffing the fibre and putting it back through the carder after splitting and drafting to thin it out.

I haven’t spun this fibre into any meaningful amount of yarn as yet. That is a pleasure I am saving for later.

In the video below you can see the fibre being picked prior to the carding.

Aplologies for the portrait aspect filming of this video!
This was the fleece just after dyeing

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

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.

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!

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.

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.