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!

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