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.