Posts Tagged ‘wool’

Merino Vs. Blue Face Leicester

June 15, 2010

This morning I went to my pile of dyed wool that’s waiting to be spun, and pulled out a bunch of lovely soft stuff, that I remembered dyeing with logwood a couple of weeks ago.  Only one problem.  I couldn’t remember if it was Merino or BFL.  Fortunately, I was clever and figured it out with my specialized problem-solving device – Knowledge!  Forcing myself to review what I know about the two breeds got me thinking about all the places I’ve seen wool for sale with descriptions like “It’s just like Merino but easier to spin!” when there are actually quite a few differences between them.  So I wrote up a giant explanation of them and posted it to the shop blog.  I like having educated customers.

It’s mostly based on my own experiences and opinions with them, so I would be happy to hear if anybody has had different ones.  I like being educated too!

This is why I love spinning.

June 8, 2010

This yarn, right here.  It’s BFL wool, silk, and alpaca, spun up into a light worsted weight 2 x 2 cable.  70 grams, 81 metres.

Now, some people might say (and have said) something along the lines of “But why would you want to spin something so even, you can hardly tell it wasn’t mass produced.”  They would, of course, be dead wrong.

This yarn began in at least three very different parts of the world, and traveled quite a ways, through many transformations to get where it is now.  Shall I tell you it’s story?

Let’s begin with the wool.  Blue Faced Leicester, the new Merino and every spinner’s best friend.  It was grown on kind of an ugly sheep, who looked something like this lady here:

One nice spring day, while frolicking in a field with her babies, the poor thing was attacked, wrestled to the ground, and shaved.  How humiliating!  Her dirty, stinky, sweaty fleece was then sent away, never to be seen again.  Somebody washed it, picked out the bits of hay, and sent it through a giant combing machine.  I confess, I don’t know much about the actual industrial process, but in one way or another the fleece was cleaned and picked and stretched and combed until it looked like this:

Once it was prettified, it was packaged up in little baggies and sent off to the lovely Colleen at Flannelberry Fibre.  Who is awesome and everybody should buy stuff from her.  From there it was just a short trip over the mountains to me.

The alpaca grew on (drumroll please!) an alpaca.  Named Allie.  She belongs to Judith Elder-McCartney, a friend of my mother’s, and lives on a farm in Seaforth, Ontario.  She probably looks a bit like this, only more feminine (this one’s a boy):

She underwent a similar treatment as my anonymous BFL sheep, though I’m not sure if alpacas actually get wrestled to the ground quite the same way as sheep do.  Her fleece was washed, and sent off on a trip through the giant spinning wheels of spiky death known as a drum carder.  Have you ever seen a big one in action?  There’s a video here, fast forward to about a minute in if you don’t want to listen to the reporter getting overly excited about wool.  And then it too was stuffed into a bag and shipped to me.

The silk didn’t grow on anything.  It was, in fact, spat out by worms.  Big, fat, white worms.

Which everybody knows, but it’s still fun to say it.  Anyways, the magical silk worms lived in China.  At least a few hundred of them, possibly more, spat their little hearts out to make this yarn.  From China, the cocoons were sent to Camenzind + Co. AG in Switzerland.  According to their website, the family business has been around since 1892 and they’re in their fifth generation of silk production.  That’s pretty cool.  They did their thing and made all the leftover bits from reeling into lovely combed silk top, and shipped that off to Eve Kriss at The Silk Tree.  She put it in baggies and brought it to the Silk Weaving Studio where I bought it, after wiping the drool off my chin from looking at their insanely gorgeous weaving.  If you’re wondering, the drool did not harden into silk.  I was vastly disappointed.

Ready to spin?  Not quite – you may have noticed that the yarn is not, in fact, white.  Not even white and grey, as would be more likely given the colour of the alpaca.  No, I must include the dye in this story also.  I might be tempted to skip it, except it came from Maiwa.  I’m almost sorry to say that I used acid dyes on this yarn, not indigo.  But I haven’t brought my indigo vat back to life yet after the winter and my acid dyes were all ready to go, in solution and everything.  Oh well.

Anyways, Maiwa.  If you haven’t heard of them, you can thank me later.  Maiwa was started a couple of decades ago by a woman who liked textiles, and natural dyes, and didn’t want them to go away.  What started with a single purchase of a single item on a trip around the world became a mission, and since then they have taught countless people in rural Asia how to use natural dyes again, and sought out people who know how to weave, how to work with leather, how to block print, and helped spread those skills around, importing all the resulting goodies to Vancouver.  And if all that wasn’t enough, they do the same thing here, teaching workshops on dyeing and weaving and knitting and keeping us all well supplied with everything we need to do those things.  So.  My acid dyes came from Maiwa, and even if they were manufactured in a lab somewhere instead of being extracted from leaves, they still did their tiny part to support a huge textile legacy.

I didn’t actually measure the dyes for this one, except to be sure that I had enough to make it a nice deep blue.  I threw in a bit of everything – lots of blue, a good bit of black, some red, some yellow.  I went against my training, which was to dye perfect, uniform colours.  Fabric can look a bit dorky when it’s muddled in the dyebath, but less-than-even fibre leads to yarn with great depth, much more interesting than a flat blue.  I threw the silk in as a last-minute thought and it did what silk does and grabbed all the dye it could, gobbling it up before it could even penetrate into the centre of the roving.

The spinning itself was actually pretty uneventful.  I did actual samples, which is unusual for me.  I wanted to figure out how to include the alpaca.  I tried a couple of techniques, and settled on encasing it between the two plies, then cabling them together to hold it in place just a little bit better.  So that’s how I spun it.  Spread out over a couple of days because I was working of other projects.  Swore at the silk a bit, it’s so slippery and always goes a bit weird when it’s dyed.  The plying was fun – if you’re a spinner and haven’t tried encasement, you should!  Even if it does make plying slower.

Winding the yarn into a skein is always my favourite part.  You can finally see it all at once, not just a bobbin-layer at a time, and it’s free to do what it pleases, no longer held under constant tension and control.  This is the first yarn I’ve spun in a while that’s a blend of fibres other than wool, and it’s a bit surprising how palpable the difference is.  It is smoother shinier, fuzzier, heavier, and drapier.  The cabled structure means it is very strong, and whatever is made from it will last a very long time, an elegant heirloom or maybe just a scarf that will last many winters.  I looked at it every which way, twisted, hanging loose, by the window and under a spotlight.  I petted it a lot.

And then it was over.  I wet-finished it, hung it to dry, and then there was nothing left to do but take pictures and reluctantly list it in the shop.

So there you are.  The creation of this yarn supports nine different businesses, not counting my own, from all around the world.  Plus at least seven shipping companies.  And it’s gorgeous.

I named it Man-Eating Squid.

Wheeee I like spinning!

January 10, 2010

Friday afternoon I made DBF drive me out to the not-so-local fibre shop for weaving supplies, since none of the local ones have anything.  She also had just gotten in a shipment of raw fleece, so of course some had to come home with me.  Not much, a pound of grey Romney and a pound of Lincoln Longwool.  I washed them last night and I’m totally impressed – practically no VM, no second cuts, very little dirt.  It’s taking forever to dry, so today I took the hairdryer to a small handful of the Romney and carded it up into proper rolags (a first for me) and spun it all at once.  It was gorgeous.  Kind of like spinning butter because of the lanolin that didn’t wash out, but mostly like spinning nicely carded wool.  Finally got down the long draw thing.  The only problem is I was having too much fun to stop and take pictures, so you’ll have to imagine it.

And do a happyspinningdance with me!

Now THAT’s a full bobbin.

May 9, 2009


Part Eight: Felting

March 11, 2009

This is the awesome rebellious part where you get to do all the things that you’re always told not to do when working with wool.  Hot water?  Check.  Lots of soap?  Check.  Agitate?  Check.

My favourite felting method is how they make yurts in Mongolia.  They lay out a giant layer of leather on the ground, then cover it with whole, unwashed fleeces (the natural wool grease helps shed rain from the roof), pour on their boiling water, roll the whole thing up in the leather and trot it around behind a horse for a while.  Some day I’ll get to try it!

As was noted in the comments of ‘Designing’, I’m going to felt the cozy by hand instead of in the machine, in the hopes of a) getting it to felt more and b) losing less dye.  Everybody has their own method of felting knitted items.  Most people, I think, use the method I did for my swatch, which was simply to put it in the washing machine, set on hot.  I’ve read about people with a bucket full of tennis balls and hot soapy water, swooshing and stirring like madwomen with a giant wooden spoon.  I confess, the thought does rather appeal to me, except I don’t have any tennis balls.  Instead, I think I’ll just do it in the kitchen sink, similar to how I do my felting of straight non-knitted wool, just more water, since I don’t have to worry about it falling apart.

Materials: Rubber gloves (thick ones, to protect you from the boiling water), soap (plain ol’ dish soap works pretty well), a kettle or pot for boiling water in, a wool knitted (or crocheted) item.

Step One: Drizzle soap on item.  I had the brilliant idea of using a cutting board to raise the surface to a more back-friendly level while still allowing water to fall off and go in the sink, but . . . it wouldn’t stay put for me.

Drizzle Soap

Drizzle Soap

Step Two: Pour on boiling water.  Put pot/kettle back on heat so it stays warm.

Step Three: Agitate.  Squish it, scrunch it, roll it between your hands, roll it up in a sushi mat, rub it on an old-fashioned washboard, whatever.



Step Four: When you realize the water’s not hot any more, pour on some more.

Step Five: Stop and check the size every once in a while.  At first it will feel like nothing’s happening, then it will look fuzzy, and then you’ll think “hey, I think it’s getting smaller!” and then it will be too small.  I almost messed up here, but I stopped just in time!

It's Felting!

It's Felting!

Step Six: When it’s finally the right size (it takes about half an hour), squeeze out the water in a towel and mold it to the form you want.  Stuff it, lay it flat, drape it over a bowl, anything that will hold it in place until it’s dry.  It will hold some pretty complex shapes if you try hard enough.

Step Seven: Wait for it to dry.  Leave it in place until it really is all the way dry for it to hold the shape best.  Mine took pretty much 24 hours.



And now, at last, we are ready for Part Nine:  Testing!

Part Five: Swatch

March 6, 2009

At last, it’s time to make some real decisions about what this thing is going to look like!  But first things first:  a swatch.  I confess I’m usually pretty lazy about swatches.  I do about a 2″ square (about a quarter the size of what’s generally recommended), do a quick measure, unravel it, and cast on.  This time though, since I’m planning to felt the final product, I’m going to have to do a proper swatch.  Sigh.

Step One: Knit a square approximately 4×4″.  Measure it (and don’t forget to write down the measurements!).

Swatch Before

Swatch Before

Step Two: Put it through the laundry.  With other stuff, for two reasons:  because they will provide extra friction for felting purposes, and because it would be silly to waste all that water on one little swatch.

Swatch After

Swatch After

Step Three: Measure again.  Compare with size of original and prepare to do some designing math!

Part Four: Spinning

March 5, 2009

This is the part where I find out if I should have dyed my wool before carding or if I was right to do it after and, well, I was wrong.  This time.  So I’ve re-carded it all  and am ready to start spinning.

Like carding, there are many ways to spin yarn, and many many many different kinds of yarn to make.  You can use a spindle (top or bottom whorl, supported, Navajo . . .) or a charkha (what Gandhi used) or a spinning wheel (Saxony, castle, modern, single or double treadle . . .).  Heck, you can even use a plain old rock if you’re patient and particularly desperate.  I’ve done it, just to see if I could.  As for types of yarn, there are more of them than there are tools to spin with.  Thick or thin (or both), woollen or worsted, plied or not, long or short draw, potential decorative elements, all these things and more contribute to what properties the yarn you end up with have.

My spinning wheel is a Louet Victoria, a double-treadle folding travel wheel.  Which is perfect for me because I live in a small basement suite, so when I’m not spinning I can just fold it up and stash it away somewhere.  Or on nice days I can go and spin in the park.


My Spinning Wheel

For this project, I’m not going to be too picky about how I spin.  I’m going to knit the tea cozy in the round (no seams!) and then felt it, so in the finished product you’re not going to see much of the actual yarn itself.  I’m going to a relatively thick (though I generally spin thin, so it won’t be true ‘bulky’ yarn), and probably just single ply.  Although depending on my success with the making the yarn thickish, I might ply it anyways to thicken it up, so the tea actually stays cozy.

Step One: Spin.  See video.  The carding one was too much fun, I wanted to do another.  Plus it’s almost impossible to describe how to spin, even with pictures to help.

Step One-and-a-half: Ply.  This would be step two, if I was doing it, but I’m not, so I’m just putting it here in case you’re wondering when it happens.  A brief explanation of plying:  Spin approximately the same amount onto two bobbins.  Spin the two parts (plies) together, spinning the opposite way.  If the singles were spun clockwise, ply counter-clockwise.  Ta da!  You now have a 2-ply yarn.

Step Two: Make a skein.  Using a skein winder, niddy-noddy, a swift, or your friend’s arms, wind the skein off the bobbin and into a nice long loop.  Like a coiled up extension cord.

Making a skein

Making a skein

Step Three: Set the twist.  When the skein is removed from the skein-making device, it will sproing and twist around all over itself, which is kind of inconvenient, and also causes problems when it comes to actually using the yarn.  Knitting, for example, particularly with energized singles (not plied and twist not set) make the knitting slant off to one side, instead of gong straight up.  So you have to set the twist.  To do this, fill a sink/bowl with lukewarm water, and soak the skein for a while (I usually do at least 20 minutes).  As with dyeing, a squirt of soap at this point will help the water penetrate all the way through.  Once it’s thoroughly wetted, take the skein out, squeeze out the excess water, and hang to dry.  It will drip, so over a sink or bathtub is usually a good idea.  It depends a bit on the weight of the yarn, but I usually find it dries if I leave it overnight.

And now we’re all set for Part Five:  Knitting!  Well, almost.  First there’s Part 5a:  Swatching and then part 5b:  Designing the Pattern.  So I guess knitting is actually Part Seven.

Part Three: Dyeing

February 25, 2009

Dyeing is kind of cool, because you can do it at any stage in the process depending on what results you want.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to dye before carding, because you can even out any colour differences and worry less about it getting all matted, and if it’s not too dirty you can even dye it before washing, and skip a whole step.  Although probably most of the time these days people get their wool already processed, so those two choices have been eliminated.  Anyways, dyeing at different times can give you different effects.  For regular repeating stripes, I’d do it in the yarn stage, with half the skein in one pot and half in another.  For one long shift from one colour to another, I’d probably do it after it had been knitted (or whatever) but you can also get that effect if you paint the roving (there’s a good article on how to manage it here).  For a really good, solid colour, dyeing in the wool is best (that’s where the phrase ‘dyed in the wool criminal’ came from – it means they’re a criminal all the way through).  For a speckledy tweedy kind of product, I’d dye in the wool, and then ply three (or four) different colours together.

In this case, I’m going to use logwood, a natural dye, mordanted with alum, which should give a nice rich purple that will go well with the green glaze on the teapot lid and the inside of the cups.*

Step One: Place wool in nylon stocking, to give it kind of a roving-like shape.  The stocking should help control the mass of wool so it will be less of a giant sticky mass (especially useful if I decide to throw in a skein of something else just for fun).  Don’t use your favourite pair – most things that dye wool will dye nylon, too.

Sexy Legs, er, wool.

Sexy Legs, er, wool.

Step Two: Weigh the fibre.  A good scale is one of those tools I am still sadly lacking, so to get an approximate weight, my genius boyfriend set up this genius scale:

Genius Balance Scale

Genius Balance Scale

Counterbalancing it with a known quantity of fibre gave me slightly more accurate results than the old “heft one in each hand and guess” trick.

Step Three: Soak in lukewarm water, with a little bit of soap.  The soap helps the water get into all the little nooks and crannies inside the stocking.  You have to soak it way longer than you’d think, all those little air pockets that make wool so warm are really good at resisting water.  And if it’s not wetted all the way through, the dye won’t get to the middle.

Step Four: While wool is soaking, make up the mordant solution.  Measure the mordant into a small container, add some hot water, then stir until it dissolves.  Pour this concentrated solution into your dyepot, with enough water for the wool to float freely.  Make sure that the water in the solution is the same temperature as the water the wool is soaking in, the shock of going from cold to hot quickly begins the felting process.  Most natural dyes require a mordant to make them light and washfast.  Different mordants are required for different types of fibre (primarily split into two categories – plant or animal fibres, like linen vs. wool).  They can also be used to change the colour of the final product.  Changing the mordant can allow you to get light pink to dark purple, or yellow to green or even black.  To get purple from logwood on wool, I’m using alum to mordant it.

Step Five: Add wool, begin heating.  DO NOT let it boil, the wool will partially felt in an icky, messy shape, and then you’ll have to start all over again.  Use a candy thermometer, if you have one, to keep track of the temperature, lowering the heat and/or removing the pot from the element if it starts to get too hot.



Step Six: After an hour of not-quite-simmering, remove pot from heat.  Let sit for about twenty minutes, to cool to handling temperature.  Hang until it stops dripping, but don’t let it dry all the way.  At this point, you can take a break and do the actual dyeing in the next day or two, but you should do it within 48 hours, and the wool should stay damp the whole time (wrapped in a wet towel should do).  At least, that’s what my instructions say, but I also know people who mordant lots of fabric or yarn at once and then just dye with it as they get the chance.  I personally have not experimented with either method to say for sure.



Step Seven: Extract the dye.  Some natural dyes need to be extracted, some don’t, it depends on what form you get them in.  Logwood sawdust just needs to be boiled for about two minutes.

Step Eight: Dye, yay!  Basically the same process as mordanting.  Put the extract in enough water to completely cover the fibre, at the same temperature as the wool already is.  Place the wool in the pot, and turn the heat on.  Again, don’t let it boil.  Not only do you want to avoid felting the wool, logwood is particular about the temperature, the colour will be dulled if it gets too hot.



Step Nine: After about 45 minutes, remove pot from heat.  Let cool, then remove wool.

Step Ten: Wash the wool – soak in water that’s the same temperature as the wool is, with a little bit of soap.  Soak again in plain water to rinse out soap and any extra dye particles.



Step Eleven: Roll in towel and squeeze out excess water, lay out flat to dry.

Step Twelve: Remove from nylon stocking.  I like to do this while the wool is still a little bit damp, to cut down on static issues.

*I’m using logwood extract from Maiwa Handprints.  This section is intended to provide some general procedure tips not  included in dye recipes.  For full technical instructions, see their handout here.

Part Two: Carding

February 24, 2009

Now that I have some lovely dirt-free, grease free locks, they need to be processed.  There are several different tools that can be used to turn freshly washed wool into spinnable wool, and each has a purpose.  For this wool, probably the best thing for me to use would be wool combs, which look like a pair of sabre-toothed tiger paws (really!).  And apparently a tool so archaic they don’t even have a page on Wikipedia.  Umm . . .  here’s a pretty good picture. They are generally accepted as the tool for preparing wool for hand spinning – they will straighten the long fibres, sort out the shorter ones (from second cuts during the shearing or just broken hairs),and  open up the locks to allow the remaining vegetable matter and dirt to fall out.  Carding brushes are generally used on shorter staple fleeces, or the leftover bits from previous combings, for either spinning or felting.  Drum carders (hand-crank or electric) are the industrialized version of the hand carders, and will give you a batt, which can be turned into roving, which is commonly what you would buy in a spinning shop.  Lately there has been a bit of a fad using drum carders to create art batts (like this purty sparkley one) that are a combination of all sorts of fibres and colours and even some other materials that you wouldn’t normally think to spin.  But I’m getting off topic now, so back to it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any combs.  Yet.  So, on a tip from the shearer from whom I purchased the fleece, I will simply comb the wool with my carding brushes.

Carding Brushes

Carding Brushes

Observe the lovely pile of washed wool just waiting to be turned into a fluffy cloud of softness . . .

So (keeping in mind that this is in fact the WRONG way) here’s what I’m gonna do:

Step One: Pull a lock or two out of the bag, enough that I can hold onto it comfortably.

Step One-and-a-half: Pick out any big bits of plant.  This fleece doesn’t really have any, but if it did, I’d have to take care of them first.

Step Two: Holding the lock by the end, brush a couple of inches by the skin side.

Step Three: Reverse grip, hold onto newly brushed end, and brush out the tips.

Step Four: Place the now beautiful fluffy lock in a pile, put what’s stuck to the brush in the process-more-later pile.

Step Five: Repeat, lots and lots of times.

This is the first video I’ve ever done, so . . .  I’m sorry.

Next up:  Part Three: Dyeing

Part One: Washing Wool

February 20, 2009

First of all, here’s a taste of what raw wool looks like:

Raw Wool

Raw Wool

This is a fleece I bought last summer, from a Shetland/Cotswold crossbreed lamb.  It’s quite beautiful, and I’ve very much enjoyed working with it so far.  The staple (length of  the hairs) is quite long, 6-8 inches, with a moderate amount of crimp (waviness).  Very soft and silky smooth, and takes dye like anything.

Doesn’t look like much in this state, does it?

Raw Wool Detail

Raw Wool Detail

The first step of making this muddy, greasy, sweaty mess into something useful is washing it.  Washing both removes the dirt and some vegetable matter and cleans off the lanolin (sheep skin oils), which would inhibit take-up of the dye.  If it was still summer, I would consider washing the whole fleece all at once in a big tub in the back yard, but it’s still rather cold for that, plus I only need a small amount for this project, so I’ll do a few small batches in the kitchen sink instead.  (Really I should have washed it all at once when I got it to discourage moths, but I didn’t.)

Apparatus:  Strainer from salad spinner, large, deep bowl, old towel(s), Orvus Paste (or Ivory dish soap), raw wool.



Step One: Fill bowl with the hottest water from the tap (hot water melts and dissolves the lanolin).

Filling Bowl

Filling Bowl

Step Two: Fill strainer with dirty wool.

Filling Strainer

Filling Strainer

Step Three: Gently immerse wool in water.  Do not swirl, squish, or agitate in any way, just let it soak for 10-15 minutes.  Don’t wait so long that the water gets cold, or the lanolin will solidify back onto the wool.

Soaking Wool

Soaking Wool

Step Four: Remove strainer full of wool.  Pour dirty water onto garden or lawn.  Don’t put it down the drain, it is a) illegal (at least it is in my city), because it clogs them and b) unwise, because it clogs them.  Plus c) it’s good fertilizer.

Fertilizing Lawn

Fertilizing Lawn

Step Five: Repeat steps one through four until water is more or less clear.  For this fleece, I’ll probably do three or four rounds.

Step Six: Fill bowl with hot water as before, but also add a kettleful of boiling water (hotter will melt off more lanolin) and a small amount of Orvus Paste.  Gently stir the soap in last, if you add it first, you’ll get lots of suds that will take forever to rinse out of the wool.

Step Seven: Let sit as before, maybe a bit longer, but again, don’t let the water get cold.  Dump the water as before.

Step Eight: One more round, to rinse off the soap.

Step Nine: Let wool drain for a while in the strainer.

Draining wool

Draining wool

Step Ten: Remove wool from strainer, and lay out on an old towel.  Roll towels up and squeeze (don’t wring!).

Squeeze in towel

Squeeze in towel

Step Eleven: Unroll towel, transfer damp wool to fresh, dry towel.  If you’re feeling really fancy, toss the second towel in the dryer for a couple of minutes so it’s warm and will dry the wool just that much faster.

Step Twelve: Wait.  Cover with tea towels if you have animals that will hop up on the table and try to play with the fresh clean sheepiness (I’m looking at you, Opus!).  Again, if it was summer, I’d just lay it out on the lawn and the sun would dry it out MUCH faster.  Instead, I’ll probably have to wait overnight.

Drying Wool

Drying Wool

Step Thirteen: Marvel at the difference between the dirty wool and the clean wool.

Clean vs. Dirty

Clean vs. Dirty

Stay tuned for Part Two:  Carding!