Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How a Sheep Becomes a Yarn

Today we will learn about the process of changing pieces of a barnyard animal into a yarn suitable for use. In other words, how to make a sheep's sweater into YOUR sweater!

As you may recall, this all started about five years ago when I was living on a kibbutz in one of the hottest places in Israel. The kibbutz had a small petting zoo, with a bunch of goats, some sheep, some rabbits, some turtles, etc. A few times a year the sheep were shorn of their fleece, which is rather uncomfortable to wear in that particular valley. A close friend of mine, Ayala, also a knitter, had the idea of taking the fleece and making yarn out of it. I thought this was an amazing idea.

At the kibbutz petting zoo.

We received a garbage bag full of dirty, smelly fleece, and we researched what to do next. We sat for cool, comfortable hours on the cold tile floor of the volunteers' air-conditioned rec room, snipping little pieces of "organic matter" (i.e., dung) out of the fleece. This process, by the way, is called skirting, and is highly scientific when done by professionals, but pretty haphazard when done by us. But it was okay because we weren't working with high-end materials. In the first place, the fleece was not particularly suitable for spinning, as the sheep were not raised for wool, and in the second, the sheep weren't sheared professionally, as the fleece was never intended to be used. But we were armed with curiosity and creativity, and we wanted to start from scratch. So we snipped and cut and pulled and picked until we had a bag of relatively dung-free fleece. Next step was washing, which took place in the ulpan moadon (general hanging-out room). I liberated some special delicate soap from the laundry, where I worked on the kibbutz, and we washed, and rinsed, and washed, and rinsed.


We washed... and washed. And rinsed... and rinsed. This stuff was dirty. It took a lot of water and soap and some time, but eventually the water ran clear-ish. We laid it out on a laundry rack to dry. 

We drove to a nearby town to purchase some dog brushes, which were the closest things we could approximate to carders, and Ayala had the kibbutz woodshop make us each a drop spindle. 

Our improvised carders

Drop spindle

We carded a bit of the wool, and watched some videos on using drop spindles, but that's pretty much as far as we got. I left Israel, and the whole project fell by the wayside.

Cut to five years later. I've scheduled my first spinning lesson. I dig out all those ancient artifacts from under my bed-- a big Ziplock full of wool, the little carders and the drop spindle. I put a few of the carded rolags into a bag and bring it to show Paula. She compliments me on the cleanliness of the wool, but the quality is less than can be desired. We decide to put it away until I have learned to spin properly, and then I can make something with it.

A few months pass. As you know, I fully master the spinning wheel and become an expert spinner. I decide it is time once more to tackle the bag under my bed. Actually, I try it twice. The bag of wool is made up of mainly two grades-- a pure white, scratchy, hairy fiber, and a softer, yellow fiber. My first attempt, done earlier in my spinning career while waiting for my English wool to arrive in the mail, is made with the white. Since it looks cleaner and nicer, I think it must be the better fiber. Only weeks later do I look at it more closely and realize that I was totally wrong. Not only that, but my spinning skills were not yet so polished, and the yarn was fairly uneven, as you can see in the picture-- thick and thin, snarled in some places, bumpy.

 First attempt at spinning the kibbutz wool.

I plied it, to make it a bit stronger and more even. It didn't improve it much. (This was also during my beginning attempts at plying.) It was the hairiest, scratchiest, most uncomfortable yarn I'd ever touched. I learned from my wise spinning books that those long white hairs are called kemp: "Coarse thick whitish hairs in a sheep's fleece." Penny Walsh, author of "Spinning, Dyeing, and Weaving: Self-Sufficiency", asks us to "think of the bristly white hairs that stick out of your grandpa's tweed jacket." However, I am not planning on making a tweed jacket or a tweed anything. So this was a bust.


Disgusted, I hang this up on the yarn wall and move on. In the meantime I receive my package of proper roving ("top") and you have seen the results of those glorious experiments already. After some time passes, and my skills improve, I start thinking maybe it's time, once more, to break out the old wool. So I do. Here it is, fresh from the plastic bag under my bed:

Skirted, washed wool.

You can see the different sections of white and yellow. This time, I carefully picked out the softer yellow pieces. I spent quite some time "teasing" the fleece, pulling it gently apart, picking out the kemp and larger pieces of dirt, and taunting it about its mother's weight problem. I was left with an airy pile of even cleaner fleece:

 Teased fleece.

Finally I carded it, a fairly strenuous process. I'm pretty sure I'm doing it wrong, but I don't know how to do it better. All the websites and the books say the metal teeth shouldn't interlock. I don't know how to prevent this or how to properly card without the teeth touching. I carded and re-carded and carded again.


And finally I had a bunch of "rolags", which are basically just long rolls of loose fiber you produce from carding. Some were smoother than others. All were filled with these awful little pills of fiber that I didn't have the patience to pick out, though I had a feeling they were not supposed to be there.


All of this preparation took some time. I picked out as much usable fiber as I could. And then finally it was time to spin. I hauled Elizabeth outside and set her up, and off I went. After spinning with the top I'd bought-- remember, "top" or "roving" is a rope of loose fiber, and when it's commercially prepared all the fibers are aligned parallel to each other, which makes spinning and drawing very easy-- spinning with THIS fiber was NOT so easy. The little bits of dirt and grass and grit that I hadn't managed to card out all went right into the yarn if I couldn't pick them out in time. Those little pills made little lumps in the yarn. The draw wasn't nearly as smooth as with the English top. But I enjoy a challenge, so I did my best and spun a fairly long, continuous, fine fiber. 

Second attempt at spinning the kibbutz wool.

You can see all the mistakes, all the mess-ups. The little bits of plant matter, the snarls, the rogue hairs I didn't catch. But for all that, it's not nearly as bad as my first try. In fact it's pretty respectable considering the source of the fiber.

I plied this one too, except instead of splitting the single into several singles of equal length (a long and annoying process requiring lots of equipment) I used an amazing new technique I taught myself from YouTube called Navajo or chain plying. It's impossible to explain, but not actually very complicated when you're doing it. The long and short of it is that you use loops to make a chain while you spin to create a three-ply yarn from one single. I will give you more details in future posts as I continue to iron out the kinks of this method. As you can see from the picture below, I have not yet perfected it.

 Three-ply kibbutz yarn.

It's far from even and not that pretty. In fact it's pretty knobbly and UNeven. This method, while simple in theory, is difficult when you're plying from a center-pull ball rather than a bobbin-- the yarn doesn't feed out as easily and the tensions get screwed up. Plus I had just learned how to do it. 

The result.

At the end I had spun approximately 16 yards of approximately DK-weight three-ply wool. (Meaning I had spun a 48 yard single.) It is certainly scratchy. You wouldn't want to wear it against your skin. But let's compare it to the first attempt.

Both kibbutz yarns.

On the right: The first yarn I spun, from the scratchy, hairy white fibers. 32 yards of two-ply, bulky weight yarn. On the left: Second yarn, made from the softer yellow fibers. Three ply, DK weight. You can clearly see which is the better yarn. Also the fact that the first yarn, which is only two-ply, is BULKY (thick), whereas the second yarn, which is THREE-ply, is only DK (thinner), shows that I am now able to spin a much smoother, finer yarn. It definitely still has a LOT of flaws, but the general differences are pretty vast. I'm open to suggestions on what to make with either yarn.

So, I'm improving! And now you know how a sheep becomes a yarn. Till next time!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Hi buddies!

Now that we've gotten through the highlight reel of the last few years and the exciting acquisition of my spinning wheel Elizabeth, I can tell you all about the Joys of Spinning.


I can pass long, peaceful, quiet hours sitting in my backyard spinning yarn. When I'm spinning I don't need to think. I just need to move my hands and my foot in a calm, practiced, soothing rhythm, with only the rhythm of the wheel or occasional scream of a neighbor to break the quiet.

It makes sense that spinning is so enjoyable for me. I like making order out of chaos. Folding a clean load of laundry, for example. Neatening up the kitchen counter. Don't get me wrong-- I love chaos as well. But sometimes I like to take a little piece of the chaos and organize it. Spinning gives me another way to do that. I can take raw materials and make something out of them. And I mean RAW. Straight off the sheep in some cases. My friend Adam likes to rank his friends in order of their usefulness come the apocalypse. My knitting and sewing skills got me on the list, but now I would be an even MORE valuable addition to our post-apocalyptic society. Give me a sheep and I'll make you a sweater with know-how and manpower alone. I'll clothe every last Mad Max.

Paula, my spinning teacher, told me that it takes approximately 40 hours of practice to perfect the art of spinning. I haven't clocked my time on the wheel, but judging by the quality of the yarn I've made over the last few months, it's taken me about fifteen skeins to get from clueless beginner to fairly proficient spinner. And today I am going to take you on that journey with me.

First, we need to cover exactly what these raw materials are. Yarn is generally spun from animal and plant fibers. The most common material used is sheep's wool. If you have access to a sheep's fleece, you can prepare the fibers yourself by cleaning the fleece and then carding it, using a pair of brushes with metal teeth to comb the fibers into usable rolls of wool.


You may have tried this during a childhood visit to one of those restored nineteenth-century villages where they show you how to churn butter and make candles. (Best field trip ever.) If you don't happen to have a fleece or if you don't feel like spending hours of your life snipping little dried pieces of dung out of the one you do have, there are plenty of commercially available fibers, pre-cleaned, pre-dyed, and ready for spinning, that you can buy. This is called roving or top.

I started off using some crappy roving I found in a knitting shop here in Jerusalem. As I got more into spinning I started shopping online to find quality wool. I ended up ordering a shipment from a British supplier (to no one's surprise, Britain is kind of where it's at sheep's-woolwise). Not knowing exactly what I was doing, I ordered a little of this and a little of that-- ending up with a package of almost two pounds of wool of varying types and colors. Here are a few:

French Merino wool in natural brown

21 micron wool in assorted colors

70% merino/30% silk blend

This is what roving looks like before it is turned into yarn. It's just a rope of fairly loose fiber.

Okay. Now you know what we're dealing with here. We begin at the beginning. This is the first yarn I ever spun on Elizabeth (bear with me if you've seen these images before):

I had not yet gotten Elizabeth into perfect working order when I made this. The yarn is a mess-- even a non-knitter can see that. It's kinked, meaning that it's overspun, and also wispy-- underspun. The weight (thickness of the thread) varies wildly from ultrathin to ultrathick. It's uneven, unbalanced, unusable. I class it as part of my "hopeless beginner" stage.

That stage quickly progressed into "slightly more confident beginner" and I began to make yarns like this. I've never been very patient, so I was eager to experiment with combining different colors before I actually knew how to spin well. So this happened:

I didn't realize at this time that I was not understanding the very basic principle of spinning. Spinning is the act of feeding loose fibers into a mechanism which twists it into a hardy string. That, I got. But what I didn't get was that very instrumental "feeding" action. I was drafting the roving (i.e., splitting the rope down the middle into quarters or eighths or what have you-- manageable pieces) and simply feeding them straight into the orifice (yes, that's what it's called, I know, I know) of the spinning wheel without paying any attention to the principle of DRAWING the fibers out as I fed them in. My Urethra* moment came as I began to spin some of the French Merino roving I had ordered. But in the meantime I was making bulky yarn with bumpy, awkward joins (the point at which you attach a new piece of fiber to the yarn you're spinning to make a continuous thread) and I was running out of fiber strangely quickly, with not a lot of yardage to show for it. Clearly I was doing something wrong. But I put that thought on the back burner because, as I am rather impatient, I wanted to start learning fancy new skills before I had mastered the basic ones. That led to PLYING!

Plying is the act of spinning several single threads ("singles" in the spinning lingo) together into a stronger, thicker thread. This can be done on a drop spindle or on a spinning wheel. Here's my first attempt, done on the drop spindle (which I have never exactly gotten the hang of, by the way):

Yucky. But I don't have to tell YOU that. You can see how unevenly twisted the yarns are, how unbalanced the plying is, and how generally disappointing the whole endeavor turned out.

I plied a few more yarns, with okay results. I continued to progress in my yarn-making. During this period I made this, which wasn't too bad:

It wasn't too great either, but it was respectable. I tried plying on the wheel and got this:

Eh. I had used one of my earliest yarns, so it was not impressive-- and plying on the wheel turned out to be a hassle. You ply in the opposite direction of spinning. In other words, when you spin a yarn you turn the wheel to the right; when you ply, you turn it to the left. This is very counter-intuitive, and it confused Elizabeth A LOT, poor thing. She's getting on in years, and if I use her for a few hours without giving her a break, she'll start getting a bit cranky-- squeaking in protest, refusing to turn smoothly, popping off her drive band. She's a bit temperamental. It's why we get along so well.

Anyway. Everything was about to change. It happened one Sunday afternoon while my roommate was photographing me spinning as part of a "Behind the Scenes" theme for a photography group she is in. Some of her shots:

Left: drafting the roving into smaller pieces. Right:spinning.

Left: attempting to correct the mistake of letting too much twist into the wool (the correction itself incorrect-- I figured out a better way). Right: action shot.

It was then that the sudden understanding of how spinning works flashed into my head. URETHRA!* You don't just feed the pieces into the orifice (snigger). You DRAW out the fibers slowly, letting them catch each other and pull each other smoothly onto the bobbin. I hadn't been able to make a smooth yarn with a consistent weight because I was feeding in the drafted pieces as-is, without drawing the correct amount of fiber through my fingers as I worked. It's hard to explain. At any rate, it was a watershed moment. I understood why my yarn thus far had been bumpy and uneven and ugly. From then on everything was different.

I practiced my new skill on some of the roving I had ordered and got this. I call it my "legit" phase, though not exactly a triumph. Before washing and drying, a process which removes a lot of the kink and curl from yarn, it looked like this:

Left: yarn spun during urethra* moment. Right: first yarn spun using the proper principles of spinning.

Both yarns were far from perfect. Each one had short tightly coiled sections, which meant I had spun the yarn too fine and too much. And each yarn was irregularly weighted (i.e., of varying thickness).

After washing/stretching/drying:

It doesn't look too bad. It's still not perfection. I know that because I have ACHIEVED perfection since I made these. Okay, maybe not perfection, but pretty damn close.

Continuing on. "Pre-perfection" phase. I made this. It was my longest continuous yarn ever, and it was a carefully designed, strategically made marbled single using both the brown merino and white wool. It wasn't so easy drafting both of these fibers simultaneously-- and you can see where I messed up. It's not perfect and not totally even. But it was the best thing I had made so far. (Admittedly, each yarn I make is "the best that I have made so far.") I named it "Tweedy":

So pretty!

I was proud of this. I spun it very finely, intending to make another single and ply them together. But I had run out of white wool by the time I finished. This yarn was 160 yards long, which is the longest I've made yet! I still had a lot of brown merino left-- so I made another single. And oh, oh my, it was GLORIOUS. Feast your eyes upon it:

LOOK AT THAT! I MADE that! It's so uniform! So even! So thin! SO BEAUTIFUL! I couldn't believe my own powers of creation. It still wasn't perfect, though. There were many points at which I had spun the yarn too finely, and when I was winding it onto the niddy-noddy the thread broke in several places, which is a shameful thing, but I soldiered on.

Preparing to ply was a long and annoying process involving tons of equipment. I had to first wind each single from the bobbin onto the niddy noddy, tie the skein, let it sit for a day, then use the Swift my dad made for me and my ball winder to wind each single into a center-pull ball. Most people ply off of bobbins, but since I only possess one bobbin, I have to use this alternative method, which is certainly less efficient and possibly less effective, but it does work. I ended up with these guys:

They don't look to be the same size, but Tweedy was a slightly heavier weight-- fingering-- whereas the newer, more perfect single was light fingering, so it appeared smaller even though they were almost exactly the same length (go me!). I prepared Elizabeth and plied like the wind. Though plying is much faster than spinning, this took a surprisingly long time because of the yardage. I filled the bobbin completely and had to wind the yarn off twice, cutting and tying the ends together. Here's a blurry picture of what plying looks like:

You simply feed the two threads together into the orifice, using the same method of damming and releasing twist that you use for spinning. I haven't perfected this yet-- the plies are not uniformly even. But they look pretty damn good. Here's the finished product in all its glory:

Ta da!
Approximately 155 yards (5 yards or so were lost from each single through the plying process) of two-ply, DK weight yarn. Though I did wash and dry the skein, it barely needed it. My theory is that plying uses up the yarn's extra twist and significantly evens out any kinky areas. Ain't she a beaut! This is a viable, usable yarn. Not sure yet what I'll make. If I use this in combination with one of the other yarns I could probably get a hat out of it.

But I STILL haven't even gotten to the crowning glory. The TRIUMPH. The PERFECTION. Now, I I fully expect that in the course of time, as I become a better spinner, I'll look back at this and think: yeah, that was okay. But at this moment, I am bursting with pride. 

I wanted to try something funky and colorful. I laid out my assorted colors and chose a few that seemed to go together. Then I split each piece in half. I split each half into quarters, and laid them out like this, repeating the color sequence four times:

Then I spun. I spun into the night. Brown--orange--maroon--green--blue. I'd tried to split them up evenly so that each section would be similar lengths, roughly. The colors lined up prettily on my bobbin.

I tried to make the yarn uniformly fine. I was pleased to see that there were no hard, tightly coiled sections-- meaning I hadn't overspun-- and I was careful to avoid lumps and irregularities. I've mostly figured out now how to correct those things. (It's all in the draw.) Once I had used up all the pieces I'd laid out, I took a short-cut and instead of moving the yarn from the bobbin to the niddy-noddy to the swift to the ball winder I simply wound the yarn straight from the bobbin onto the ball winder. I intended to ply it right away, so there was no need-- or time-- for it to "set" on the niddy noddy. Then I repeated the whole process with the second halves of each color. My original thought was that each section would be about the same length so that when I plied, the sections on each single would match up neatly, but that wasn't the reality. There was a lot of overlap between colors. But it ended up looking awesome so I didn't mind. And when I was done plying, I had 100 yards of this GORGEOUS, smooth, even, beautifully spun, beautifully plied, multicolored yarn. I can't stop looking at it and touching it. 


Okay. It's not PERFECTION exactly, but I'm not a perfectionist, and this is REALLY FREAKING GOOD. I love it so much. I don't know if I can even knit it. I might just have to leave it in this beautiful form and admire it and force other people to admire it for the rest of its days.

...At least until I make the next perfect yarn. ;)

*I realize that urethra is not the word you shout out at the moment of revelation. This is a reference to a hilarious Netflix show. I hope you got it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I'm back

Okay guys. I'm officially reviving my blog. Though I have completed several dozen knitting projects in the time we were apart, I'm not going to revisit each one. I thought we could do a highlight reel and then get straight to the current and exciting stuff.

Since I stopped posting, I've made ten adult hats, three baby hats, two sweaters, three baby blankets, six pairs of socks, four headbands, two pillows, and many random other miscellaneous items. (Thanks, Ravelry!) Here are some of my favorites:

Hanukkah Socks
Made: November 2013
For: My sister

Every year I knit socks for my family as Hanukkah presents. I made these the year before last for my sister Rebecca. It turned out to be one my favorite sock patterns ever. Colorwork argyle is complicated and difficult-- this is like the quick and dirty, easy-peasy way to achieve the cool argyle look, plus texture (I love textured socks), without dealing with a million different yarn and a complex pattern. I didn't even need a cable needle for these-- the same effect was achieved by twisting the stitches on the needle. Love them!

Herringbone Cowl
Made: November-December 2013
For: Me

I bought this gorgeous yarn at a yarn store in Skagway, Alaska, while on a cruise with my family. I dawdled in the shop choosing a skein probably for at least thirty to forty minutes while they waited and only complained a little. I'd had the pattern in my queue for a long time and I decided this yarn was perfect for the project. I LOVE the colorway-- it's so rich and bright, and the yarn is soft and comfortable next to the skin. The herringbone pattern was a bit titchy and the beginning of the round is messy. Again, a textured stitch pattern-- which I like. The only drawback is that the cowl curled a lot and blocking didn't help. But it's very warm and I like to wear it in my apartment on freezing Jerusalem winter nights.

Baby Blanket
Made: August 2014
For: my friend Gemma's baby

I loooove this blanket! I used Caron Simply Soft, which I always use for baby blankets and baby things in general because it's sooo soft and it's machine-washable, and all the colors are always available so if you run out it's easy to match the color. I made the blanket after the baby was born, so I picked boy colors, and I love the clean stripes. It's made of four triangles, starting with the long edge and decreasing down to the point, so the knitting felt quick. Stitches for each triangle are picked up along the edge of existing triangles, so there's only one seam and there aren't ten million ends to weave in. However, the border was hugely annoying. Stupidly I sewed the last seam before picking up for the border so instead of one loooong row worked back and forth, I had one loooooooooooong round. The pressure was too much for my circular needle; it broke. I ended up having to knit the border in two pieces and seam two edges together and the result was messy. So it wasn't a perfect story.

Made: October 2013
For: Jill

This would fall under that "miscellaneous" category I mentioned earlier. I was putting together a care package for my best friend Jill and when I saw this pattern on Ravelry, I knew I had to make it for her. (By the way, there are knitting and crocheting patterns for almost anything you can possibly think of. ANYTHING. See this uterus for an example. And it's not the only uterus pattern on Ravelry either.) At the time, Jill was a counselor at a women's health clinic. She was on the front lines every day helping women get access to birth control, abortion, and counseling. OBVIOUSLY, SHE NEEDED A KNITTED UTERUS. So I made her one.

Fall Sweater
Made: September 2013-November 2014
For: Me

Careful readers will note that it took me over a year, and not two months, to finish this sweater. I was really excited to make it when I ordered the yarn from KnitPicks, but after I cast on and started knitting my enthusiasm cooled. This was a LOT of stockinette. Like, a loooooooot.... like ALL stockinette. And the rows were VERY long. I picked it up occasionally in between more complicated projects or when I just wanted something to do with my hands, but the bulk of the knitting was completed last fall. It blocked out biiiig. Which I like, because I wanted a long sweater, but it was... long. I made the extra small since I used a heavier weight yarn than was called for by the pattern, so it turned out a big larger than expected. The only thing that's a bit annoying is that the sleeves are super long, and it's heavy. Otherwise it's really nice. I think I loaned it to someone and I don't remember who. Er... 

Hanukkah Socks
Made: November 2014
For: My mom

Another favorite pair of socks! I used a new kind of sock yarn for this which is part wool and part acrylic, and though it's really soft it's also light fingering, so a bit finer than what I usually use, and it's really soft so I was worried about elasticity, but my mom reports that  the socks stay up fine. I love the combination of the color and the sweet, feminine pattern.

Chevron Pillow
Made: February 2015
For: My sister

Apparently chevrons are very in right now. My sister saw me making a pillow for Jill and she requested one for herself, and miraculously I managed to design, knit, block, and seam the whole thing in two days while I was in New York for a visit. She picked the colors and the pattern. Instead of doing colorwork zig-zags, I cheated and used a simple chevron pattern to create the design. Super cute. I made it with Paton's Classic Wool, which I am really into right now-- it's affordable, comes in lots of colors, and it's 100% wool which is hard to find at a crafts store like Michael's, where I usually get my yarn because I'm too broke to shop at fancy stores. There is SUCH a huge difference between using wool and acrylic. For one, you can block wool and shape it, which opens up lace patterns beautifully, whereas you can't really do that for acrylic so lace patterns often end up looking lumpy or uneven or just not their best selves.

Made: March 2015
For: My friend Sarah

I made this simple, cute little headband for my friend Sarah as a bridal shower gift. It was really easy but SO adorable-- as soon as I was done I wanted to make one for myself. In every color. The first few rows after you do the cable, it looks like a messy mistake, but then it evens out and looks great. (Okay, to be honest I just included this one because that picture is awesome. It even has my spinning wheel in the background.)

Okay. Now that we've revisited the Best Of from the past few years, we can forge ahead to my current project! However... I think that deserves a post of its own... Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Happy Birthday, Dad

It has been a long time since we last met. Approximately a year and a half. It's not that I haven't had things to tell you, exciting things! It's just that my life has been so busy and eventful that there just wasn't time. Yes. That's it. That's the reason. Shut up now.

However, the time has finally come to put this hiatus to an end and resume our beautiful friendship. It's for a VERY exciting reason. My dear friends, I have become a spinner of yarns.

Wordplay aside, I've taken up spinning as a hobby. Now, I know what you're thinking. "But Abra," you're saying in your head. "You already have so many hobbies! Maybe you should get a job?" Hush, my little friends. I've been mildly interested in spinning for a long time-- ever since Ayala and I attempted to make our own yarn from the fleece of a kibbutz sheep. That is a cool story, actually, but we'll save it for another time. The point is that the seed was planted several years ago, then hibernated under my bed in the form of a plastic bag full of itchy, stained sheep's wool full of burrs and other plant matter, and then finally came to fruition about three months ago, when I happened to learn of a woman in my neighborhood who offers free spinning lessons to any interested comers. I called her and started taking lessons. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea, chatting, and spinning on her two Ashford wheels. It wasn't a totally intuitive skill, and it took a few lessons before I could maintain a good, steady pace. The resulting yarn was overspun, underspun, kinked, slubbed, and generally hideous, but hey, it was yarn that I had made out of wool, and that was pretty cool. "You need a wheel," Paula told me, and I agreed.

First spinning attempts with Paula.

Soon after we began our lessons, I flew home to New York for a cousin's wedding and a quick family visit. I had told my dad I wanted a wheel and we determined to put our heads together and see what could be done. He offered to build me one from an Etsy schematic, but we were short on time and I wasn't sure how I'd be able to get it back to Israel with me, so instead he found a prospective wheel on Craigslist and one freezing night we drove out to Ronkonkoma to check it out. The Nilus Leclerc wheel wasn't new-- the model was produced between 1974 and 1976-- and it was missing a small part or two and had some chinks in it, but it was a good make and Daddy managed to bargain it down to $100. (In contrast, a new Ashford wheel costs about $700, and non-brand-name models are about $230 at the cheapest.) It was an early birthday present.

Elizabeth at home.

We had some work to do, though-- Daddy had to use his ingenuity and garage resources to fabricate a few parts, and we had to buy candlewicking to make a drive band. And we also had to figure out how to make a drive band. There was a lot of research done (by my dad) and a lot of nagging and worrying done (by me) but by the time I was ready to fly back, we had practiced disassembling and reassembling the wheel several times, managed to provide all missing parts, and packed it carefully, in pieces, into a garment bag. The first thing I did when I got back was reassemble the wheel.

Then there were a few very frustrating weeks in which I would fiddle with the wheel, try to figure out why it wasn't running smoothly, do some online research, try this and that solution, send my dad long ranting emails about my attempts to fix the wheel, get back dozens of links to useful websites and tutorials that confused me, and generally fail to get the wheel into working condition. It was a rough time. I knew if my father had been there we would have figured it out in a day, but on my own it was a lot harder and I wasn't sure if I would ever get it working. There were small victories (the day I finally figured out how a drive band works, for example), but the wheel just wouldn't turn smoothly no matter what I did.

First yarn I spun on a dysfunctional Elizabeth. (Crappy, in case you can't tell.)

Then I had the breakthrough. The woman who had sold us the wheel found some accessories in her storage and mailed them to my dad, who sent them to Israel through the kindness of a fiber friend. The package included two carders (for combing raw wool into spinnable pieces), a niddy-noddy (for winding spun yarn into skeins) and, most importantly, a 1953 manual on spinning, which turned out to be instrumental. This book, "Your Handspinning", by Elsie G. Davenport, complete with tons of hand-drawn illustrations, troubleshooting, and stern gems such as "Skeins which come undone in the dyebath, skeins of which the beginning and end are lost when they are wanted for use, skeins with so few ties that they cannot be properly shaken out, are a disgrace to the spinner who made them", broke the whole thing wide open. ("What about buying an old wheel?" Elsie warned. "Here are temptations and pitfalls innumerable!" Thanks, Elsie.)

Spinning manual with attitude.

I read it cover-to-cover. When I was done, I KNEW WHAT I HAD TO DO. It was the easiest fix in the world. I will not bore you with the details. The only thing I had to do was tie a loop instead of a cord and voila. It worked. It worked like a charm. Like a dream. Before I knew it I was spinning that scratchy old sheep's wool like a pro. Or rather, like a person who has just learned how to spin.

Spinning like a pro.

I only got better from there. I figured out the rhythm of my spinning wheel (which I have named Elizabeth, by the way), figured out how to solve all the niggly problems I'd had, figured out how to stop twist from coming down into my roving, figured out how to make a fairly even, continuous thread. I am far from perfect or even good, but since I got my wheel I've been steadily improving. Here's an early example and a later one for comparison. The yarn is much less slubby and uneven now. I GET how it works now.

Left: early attempt. Right: more advanced. You are very impressed.

In the meantime, my dad's birthday was growing closer. He loves when I knit him presents, so my mind started churning. What better present, I reasoned, could I give my dad than something I made from yarn that I spun using the wheel that he had procured and fixed up for me? The wheel that I had somehow made work, using the mechanical and mental problem-solving skills with which he had gifted ME? Nothing could be better. However, I was then faced with the problem of what to make him, because the yarn I'd made was, well, pretty ugly to tell the truth and there also wasn't a lot of it. Certainly not nearly enough to make a pair of the trademark socks I usually knit for him. Not enough for a hat, which wouldn't be useful anyway, as my dad's birthday is in May. What in the world could I make for an adult male out of bits of beginner handspun? A coffee-cup cozy, perhaps?

This was the thought process that led me to making the ugliest thing in the world.

The idea of a coffee-cup cozy was cute, but impractical; my dad would never use it. I wanted to make something useful above all. So I decided to make a bowl. The yarn I had made was pure wool-- it would felt easily into a sturdy, useful receptacle for nails or screws or other doo-dads, of which my father has many. The colors were bad, but felted, I figured, they wouldn't be THAT bad. So I started, with the first successful wool I had spun-- a mint/forest-green blend. But as I knit, it soon became clear that there just wouldn't be enough. So, reluctantly, I added in the second yarn I had spun, a colorway I'd named "Yellow Lemonade" for obvious reasons.

Forest Mint and Yellow Lemonade.

Well, dear friends, Yellow Lemonade and Forest Mint did not mesh well together. But I had already begun, and I wasn't going to give up now. (Though I should have.) The colors weren't the point, after all. After a few hours of knitting I had produced a hideous, shapeless piece of knitting that looked like a hat for a blind bucket. Luckily there is no photographic evidence of this stage of its existence.

The next day I prepared to felt. Since my washing machine locks when it starts a cycle I can't use it for felting, which requires frequent checking and shaping during the felting process. I poured out a bucketful of hot soapy water, dropped in the knitted thing and began to agitate it with a broomstick. I did this in my backyard. I can only imagine what my neighbors thought I was doing. Perhaps interrogating a hat for sensitive information, or simply torturing it in order to avenge some crime it had committed against me.


I went through three bucketfuls of hot water. The bowl quickly began to shrink and shed, growing smaller and hairier with every slosh. The colors blended in an unholy mixture of hot pink and green-gray, colors that God had never intended to be joined together. I withdrew the thing from the water, gave it a last wring, and wrangled it onto a glass bowl for shaping.


It was hard to look at, honestly. But I didn't see a way out. Then another Ravelry user commented on my picture, suggesting I dye it. That wasn't possible because I don't have any dye or means of getting some, but it did give me an idea-- I could embroider pleasing designs on the bowl to distract the eye from its monstrosity. I did so. It sort of worked.

Last resort embroidery.

Well, it wasn't WORSE. But now I had to hide all those ugly knots and things on the inside of the bowl. I lined it with some felt and added one of my "Made by Abra" labels.

Yes, I admit that I Frankensteined this into existence.

I am not proud of creating the ugliest thing in the world. But here it is: a felted bowl knit from the very first yarn that I ever spun on my spinning wheel, made as a tribute to my father. There is love in every awful stitch. Hopefully, one day the yarn that Elizabeth and I make together will be worthy of a pair of socks for my dad, and on that day we will lay those socks next to this bowl and we will laugh and laugh. But until then, this thing exists as a testament to my parents' generosity, my dad's handiness, and my own stubborn perseverance. May this bowl go on to live a long, fruitful life, hidden from the view of decent people, in my dad's garage, full of drill bits or zip ties. Happy birthday, Daddy!

(P.S. Let it be noted that I wrote this post approximately 3 weeks prior to my dad's birthday AND his suggestion that I write a post about spinning. Do I know him or what?!?)

Couldn't have done it with you, Dad!