Monday, March 13, 2017

Making yarn

This is a love song.  I am having a moment with spinning this week, and I can't stop talking about it.  I'm sure Doc is fresh out of patience with me on this subject, but honestly, I just find this endlessly wonderful.  I made this yarn!  Now, I'm not totally new to this.  I've been spinning for a few years as a rank beginner, first on an antique spinning wheel I bought at a yard sale for twenty bucks and which was a little bit broken and missing a few pieces and which Doc repaired with twine and wood scraps and his general usual ingenuity.  We He got it running and then my friend Louise helped me figure out how the heck it worked and I made some generally terrible yarn which was tighter than a bowstring and hard as nails, but whatever, it was yarn, and I'd spun it!  Hoo, that really felt like something.  A few years later, Doc gave me an Ashford Kiwi for christmas, and everything changed, because the Kiwi was new and well-oiled and it had all the parts it needed, and the drive band wasn't constantly coming untied or falling off.  I sat out on the porch with it, spinning clumpy wads of wool into lumpy skeins of yarn, and they still looked like the dog's breakfast, but I was happy.  Once time, somebody actually stopped their car and came up onto my porch to watch me at work, fully amazed that people still did this sort of thing.  I wanted to braid my hair and wear brown boots and calico aprons.  Grow wheat and flax, maybe acquire a cow.  I also entertained an irrational thought or two about getting a couple sheep, because why not?  We live in the country, and I have this idea that they are really just dogs anyway, and how hard can it be, right?  They're so cute in their little straw-filled pens at the fiber fair, gnawing on hay, letting the little children--and also me--scratch their wooly foreheads through the fencing.  Eventually, Doc said one of the best and smartest things of his entire genius life:  "Instead of getting two sheep, why don't we just go to the fair every year and buy two fleeces?"  
I blinked quickly as this sank in.  Well, yeah!  Why don't we do that?  I don't even want to grow my own tomatoes, what makes me think I can take care of livestock?  Sure, I live in the country, but that doesn't make me a farmer.  I don't want to raise sheep, I want to make yarn so I can knit with it.  So last fall, a raw Romney fleece (the sheep from which it came having been raised and cared for and fed and fenced and guarded and shorn and loved by someone else, someone who probably loves getting up at dawn every single day of the year to trudge outdoors and feed animals and hoe out barn stalls--so, not me) came into our house.  It was a fresh fleece, nothing but a sheep's haircut in a plastic bag.  The ewe (named "Rhaine", isn't it wonderful to know that?  I love that so much) had been coated, meaning I suppose that she wore a coat, so the fleece was relatively clean, and it had been skirted, meaning that someone else--not me, see above--had already done all the dirty work of removing the yucky bits.  Still, the fleece was heavy with lanolin and it smelled very wonderfully, er sheepy.  Catdog has never looked so alert in her entire life as she did when that bag came through the door.  
One handful at a time, I washed it.  I filled a plastic tub with the hottest water I could stand to put my hands in, along with a squirt of dish soap, put on double gloves because it was still really hot, and laid the handful of fleece on top of the water. I gently pushed it down into the suds, and very, very gently continued to nudge it in and out of the water.  I admit I talked to it a little bit--"Hi there, lovely,  I'm not doing anything here, just a little bath is all.  You're so pretty!  No worries, no need to get felted, that's a girl."  I lifted it out gently, as if it were a crying baby that needed soothing.  I encouraged the water out of it with my thoughts.  No, I gently squeezed the water out.  Gently!  I rinsed it twice in two more pans of scalding hot water, and then lay it to dry.  The water that poured out of the pan was the most godawful yellow, with most of the lanolin in it.  (I know, it's good for your skin, but that's what Aveda is for.) Up there, you see a freshly washed and dry handful, in a photo taken when the world was still a green and kindly place.  Friends, the sense of satisfaction at that moment was already tremendous.  It cannot be described.  This fleece, while relatively clean but full of lanolin, was heavy.  Doc carried it to the car slung on his back, looking like a creepy Santa Claus, and was complaining by the time we got there.  Once washed, though, it weighs NOTHING.  It smells like, well, like clean clothes.  It is softer than summer air.  Already I loved it so much, and if it hadn't already had a lovely fairy name--Rhaine--I would have given it one.  
Using two dog brushes--the ones with the tiny bent wires--because that's what I had, I carded a small pile of it into these little wool sausages, called "rolags".  Now, don't ask me what any of these terms mean, because I promise you I know absolutely nothing about any of this and am almost certainly going to be wrong.  But I think these are called rolags.  To make them, I laid a few locks of clean wool on one dog brush, er, carder, and used the other to brush it, passing the wool from one brush/carder to the other a few times.  Then I rolled it up from the bottom to the top, so that the fibers, which had gotten more or less organized, were running "around" the sausage, if you will.  (There are a lot of interesting youtube tutorials  where you can see this in action, if you're interested). From these rolags, drafting from the end of the sausage, I could spin the wool into yarn.  
I have learned over time that carding is the preparation method you use when you want to make "woolen" spun yarn.  (If you want "worsted" spun yarn, you need to comb the fleece, which is different--more on that to come; Doc is busy in his workshop making wool combs, so exciting! I told you, I've gone off the deep end over this.) So I spun it woolen, which is supposed to be lofty and airy and a little bit fuzzy, because the carding process organizes the fibers a little bit, but not all the way, so because they're going kind of here and there as they get drafted, there is a lot of air getting kind of trapped in there.  It should be light, and warm.  Knowing and understanding the difference between woolen and worsted has become one of the most useful tools in my arsenal.  (Still, don't ask me about grist.  Good heavens, I have no idea.)
I plied the two singles together, and washed the skein.  As it hung drying beside the fireplace, I could not help admiring it out loud, constantly, and repeatedly.  Doc listened.  "Yes, it is nice.  No, I think it's great!  Very pretty.  Yes, you'll knit something really nice with it.  I know!  Yes!  YES!  ALL RIGHT?"  He fell asleep in self-defense, just to get some peace.  No, he was very patient.   He's the hero of this story.  I learned that this wool, which is clean and gorgeous and soft as a baby's cheeks and which looks perfect and wonderful in the carded rolags, still has a few clumpy blobs in it, which I should have removed, because they won't draft and just go into your yarn like a big pill.  I could see them going by as I drafted, and kept saying, ugh, there's another one.  So there are a lot of irregularities in this skein.  Memo for next time, because now I know.  And hoo, there will be many next times.  He said I could have two fleeces!  Every year!  Here I come.  

19 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, it is so interesting to learn about all the hard work that goes into making yarn! I would think that it would be so rewarding seeing the final product after all the hard work you put in! the wool looks so fluffy after you washed it I feel like touching it. That's good you can do it regularly and Doc is so patient and supportive!

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  2. I loved this post. I used to spin but gave my wheel away a few years ago. I still enjoy seeing and hearing about the miraculous process of spinning though.
    Blessings
    Betsy

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  3. I am more than impressed with that pretty wool and I loved the story you spun about the journey.

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  4. It's lovely! So thrilling! And it's got such lovely natural color.

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  5. Hysterical - I so enjoyed this post...
    The yarn is truly beautiful.

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  6. Quite the enjoyable post and your woolen-spun yarn looks wonderful! I can't wait to see what you knit with it. Keep up the good works.

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  7. What divine lyrical and photographic images! It was almost like being there. Can't wait to see what it looks like on the needles!

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  8. Wow, I always have a go at spinning, most recently at Standen House in Sussex UK which was holding an exhibition of Kaffe Fassett's work, but also at beekeeping festivals and country fairs and apple days and wherever anyone turns up with their spinning wheel and a bag of fleece and allows complete beginners to have a go. I just love the process. My grandma used to spin, so maybe that is why I love it so much. Anyway, I now have a direct source of shorn, cleaned, carded, spun and wound Romney Marsh wool. It comes from a farm on Romney Marsh, Kent and for years the fleece was used to make slippers but the daughter who is moving with the times now produces knitting wool and beautiful woven blankets. The yarn is in undyed colourways but different weights. I especially appreciate how once knitted up it keeps the rain out. I'm going to research spinning courses right now. Brilliant post Kristen - thank you!

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  9. I have so enjoyed this post. How rare to find someone so happy and love how your hubby is encouraging you.

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  10. Who's a clever girl then? The colour I love ( well it is grey) and it looks so nice.

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  11. So beautiful! I learned to spin in college and loved it. I always thought I'd have a wheel one day. Fast forward 40 years, no wheel yet, and I've forgot ten how to spin. I still have my carders and a drop spindle. Perhaps it's time to revisit an old love...and buy a wheel...

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  12. Bravo Kristen, I hung on to every word! What a delight from start to finish. Beautiful squishy yarn ball for the win! I have a cousin called Rhaine. I was always jealous of her very cool name :)

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  14. I loved your post! I am a beginner knitter and just starting a top down sweater in charcoal gray wool...

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  15. I am even more impressed by your skills than I was before and that is hard because you are my knitty hero! Jo x

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  16. Completely off topic-need better view of the bird tattoo :-)

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  17. Love your post. I'm with you (and your husband), let someone else raise the sheep(wool). My husband said once, "I know you want to have a sheep or two in the yard." "Nope. I just want the fleece."
    Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! Helen

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  18. Kristen, you are a very gifted and humorous writer. I loved this post. :)

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  19. Your handspun is lovely!

    Have you thought of a little rigid heddle loom, like a Cricket? It is so gratifying to weave fabric with yarn that you have made.

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