One of the most enjoyable things about spinning is that once you have made your decisions about the kind of yarn you want to spin, you just spin, and spin, and spin. My previous post on sampling explored the decision making process if you are curious about I approach this.
Amidst the tumult of moving cities, settling into a new house, school and neighbourhood, the myriad of complexity involving simple things like where to get bulk oats or coloured hairspray for crazy hair day or getting the car serviced, it is a blessed relief just to spin.
There are so many projects I have been wanting to spin for and finally it is all getting done. You can see here a 100g of Finn x Lincoln from Fairfield Finns, carded into batts and spun into a 3 ply semi woollen for a hat, a tiny ball of 2ply worsted laceweight in ultrafine Merino from flicked locks for a special project and a 2ply worsted DK merino from hand dyed top for mittens.
And then a big spin I have started with a Gotland fleece I bought from Granite Haven a couple of years ago.
Spinning takes me to a calm place where time stills, worries fall away and all there is the treadle and the draft and the filling bobbin.
I haven’t dived into anything big since moving but I thought I would share the beginnings of the sampling methodology that I am developing for my spinning. It is a method derived from methods we learned during the Spinning Certificate at the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria, bits and pieces picked up from watching videos of other spinners and my own interests. It is a method in progress not anything definitive.
The fleece I am exploring is a Shropshire lamb fleece from last years shearing at Collingwood Children’s Farm, a demonstration farm in urban Melbourne.
I start with thinking about both the raw fleece as a whole and as a staple and put down my observations prior to washing. It was at this initial point that I discovered that the fleece was tender. The back section was extremely tender but the best bit over the shoulders were only slightly tender with a single break in the top third of the staple. A break is a weak spot in the fibre and happens when the sheep has been stressed for any period of time. Stress is anything that might have stopped the sheep sending nutrients towards fleece growth, it might mean a very hot day, a stray dog harassing the sheep or even a change in paddocks. I write a description about the raw fleece.
After examining the raw fleece and staple and preserving a few locks, I wash and process the fleece, sometimes just a small bit for sampling, but mostly as a whole fleece at once. I file all the fleece descriptions together so that anytime I want to make something with that fleece I can easily look up my initial observations.
The next step is a thinking step. By looking at the characteristics of the individual fleece and (by research) breed characteristics, I make some decisions about how I might approach the fleece and for what purposes it might be useful. The two books I turn to most are: The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook and The Spinner’s Book of Fleece. They tell me about the general breed characteristics of the fleece and even suggestions for approaching spinning the fibre.
These books tell me that Shropshire is a down sheep with very crimpy elastic fibres that resists felting. It makes good socks and jumpers. It can be carded or combed or flicked, spun worsted or woollen.
Then I just try a couple of things. With this Shropshire lamb I was most interested in understanding the impact of a mid section break in the staple (the tender part) might have on its usefulness. The value of this fleece for me is in its provenance, a rare breed sheep raised by a not-for-profit urban farm, 3 km from my (former) home and its softness and elasticity. So I thought it was worth seeing if I could work with the break.
The first sample was a 3 ply sock yarn, prepared with a flicker, spun worsted with a good amount of twist. The flicker broke most of the weak section away. I spun three amounts on my bobbin and wound off onto weaving bobbins for plying.
This is a method demonstrated by Kate Larson in Spinning to Knit With and really does speed up the sampling process. The resulting sock yarn is firm and elastic.
For the second sample, I thought I would try carding a rolag and including all the staple length, break and all in the finusial yarn. For this yarn, I spun up a bulky 2 ply using a woollen short backwards draw. The result is delightful, full, bouncy and squishy.
Then I knit up a sample, trying stitches and gauges that I think match the yarn and end purpose. Whilst the resulting knitted swatches are lovely (to me!) in themselves and may provide exact information for future projects, they also prompt questions and ideas for more samples and experiments. For example, the 3 ply sock yarn is great but I am curious how the tenderness of the fleece might affect the wear of the sock over time. I could make a sock from this yarn and a sock from a non tender, adult Shropshire fleece I already have and compare the two. I would also like to try putting in a little less twist in the singles and see if I might get a bouncier sock yarn.
The bulky 2 ply would suit hats and cowls with lots of textured stitches but might not wear well as a more robust garment like a cardigan. I could try it out.
As a spinner, I find so much intellectual pleasure in sampling. I could easily spend all my time just sampling, asking questions and knitting up virtual garments in my head.
How do you sample? What is your method?
Larson, Kate, Spinning Yarn to Knit With, Interweave Press, video download
McKenzie, Judith, Three Bags Full, Interweave Press, video download
Robson, Deborah, Handspinning Rare Wools, Interweave Press, video download
Robson, Deborah & Ekarius, Carol, The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook
Smith, Beth, The Spinner’s Book of Fleece
My first knitting project, begun and finished in our new city, are a pair of colourwork mittens for Our Dear Boy.
One of the pleasures of moving is unpacking boxes of favourite books long packed away. Since we are just renting at the moment while we look for a house to buy, I only allowed myself one craft-related box of books to unpack. I wasn’t sure what was in the box and I was thrilled to discover that Susanne Pagoldh’s Nordic Knitting (1991) was inside.
This is a lovely book, just crammed full of historic Scandinavian stitch patterns, organised by region. I used to stalk this book at the public library. In the days before blogging, I filled notebooks with photocopies and summaries of this book. A copy of my own came to me a few years ago, part of a deceased knitter’s estate that her daughter disseminated among the knitters she knew.
It is cold here on our walks to school in the morning. Our Dear Boy asked for mittens and serendipity provided the pattern in the pages of Nordic Knitting. Pagoldh provides instructions for knitting a pair of Selbu mittens from the Norwegian Folk Museum Collection. The pattern calls for worsted weight yarn on 1.75mm needles to create a tight, windproof, water resistant fabric.
I had some vintage Patons Herdwick DK from a time when all their scouring and milling was still done in Australia. The gauge is similar and with the pain of knitting in that gauge, I am grateful I did not use worsted! I used a single 50 g ball each of natural white and pale blue dyed darker with Earth Palette cold black dye. The result is a slightly variegated, hairy yarn that looks a little ancient when knitted up as these mittens.
The colourwork is simple and working your beginning of the round on the long columns of colour, completely avoids the jog. Genius and something I must remember! The instructions are very basic and you need to make things up a bit as you go but that was one of the pleasures of knitting these mitts. I worked the double decreases to shape the mitten hands either side of the columns to preserve that patternwork right through.
One of my favourite things about these mittens is the off centre star. Normally such things trouble me but the askewness delights me here. The other thing I loved, is that I had just enough yarn. You can see my leftovers above.
Warm hands…warm heart…that is the hope!
The Craft Cubed festival in Melbourne is a celebration of artisans and craftwork organised by Craft Victoria. It runs throughout August.
This year, Nicki Colls from Fibreshed Melbourne has created the most wonderful event for you to enjoy at the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria.
I am helping out and just for the day, I get to be a Spinning Master! So come along if you are in town, and ask me about how I first fell in love with spinning, which tools I love the most and which fibres give me fever.
Since I last posted here, dear readers, a lot has happened.
We sold our house in the urban wilds of Melbourne and moved to the beguiling shores of Lake Wendouree in Ballarat.
We decided to stop waiting for the life that was to come and start to live the life that we have now.
It is lovely here, colder, crisper and higher in altitude than Melbourne and it seems to be agreeing with me.
We are settling in to a new school, a new community and new vistas.
And waiting for the internet to be connected to our house. This post is courtesy of the public library!
I could not have known when I was finishing my Endurance yoke sweater that I wouldn’t get the chance to wear it much.
Endurance was made as part of the Shackleton Knit Along organised by Fiber Trek last year. We were encouraged to pick a project that represented a mighty challenge to us, a feat of endurance that we would undertake as we followed the 1914 expedition by Shackleton to Antarctica.
You can read about the making of the sweater in a previous post but suffice to say it was an act of endurance undertaken whilst working on my doctorate and finished whilst I recovered from pneumonia. During the ongoing illness triggered by the pneumonia, many things changed for me, energy levels, cognitive functioning and my shape. All of my middle bits got bigger and the shaped yet comfortable yoke sweater got squeezier and squeezier.
After a year, I decided that Endurance couldn’t wait any longer in the drawer. It was time for a change. I cut the body off the yoke, unravelled it then knitted back down from the yoke without waist shaping. The sleeves were also shortened by cutting and reknitting the cuff.
Now Endurance fits Our Dear Boy, all ten years of him with room to grow some also. He loves it because it is so soft and warm. It was taken away on Cub Camp and helped to keep him warm in the tent as the night dropped below zero (degrees Celsius). It came back with rip in the sleeve which thrilled me, because it means he is choosing wool to have adventures in! It was easily mended and the marks of wear can be a thing of beauty. He kindly agreed to pose for these pics but insisted our dog be shown also.
This is Part Three of a short series about the handspun, knitted spencer I made as the final project in completion of the Certificate of Spinning, run by Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria. Part One explored the spinning process, Part Two documented the knitted article. In Part Three, I share my road testing of the spencer as a worn garment.
As you might remember, the spencer project was an exploration in making a low carbon footprint, locally sourced thermal undergarment as an alternative to the highly processed, highly travelled merino thermals that are so useful in winter.
The fleece and fibre, the spinning method and pattern design were all specifically chosen to fit this purpose. Alpaca and polwarth were chosen for warmth, next to the skin softness and local origin. The woollen preparation, long woollen draw and garter stitch knitting created lots of air pockets to trap warmth. The garment was cheap to make, though time consuming, involving scouring, blending, carding, spinning, washing, winding, knitting, sewing and blocking.
So how did the spencer perform? Was it a useful alternative to the commercial merino thermal?
In the interests of science, I wore the spencer everyday for two weeks. You can see it peeking out under the layers.
This is what I found:
- I instantly forgot I was wearing it. There was no scratch or itch at all.
- It kept me incredibly warm, not in hot way but in a very comfortable way.
- The garment held its shape surprisingly well and did not sag or stretch. I assume the side seams were instrumental in this.
- There has been no pilling. This really surprised me as the yarn is woollen spun which is notoriously pilly. This may be because I used washed locks as the basis of the carded rolags rather than washed fleece. This meant only fibres of a uniform length were carded. There were no short fibres to wiggle out of the yarn as pills. I also plied with more twist than I have done in the past, perhaps this gave the fibres the structural support they needed to stay put.
- The garment has not fulled in anyway, despite sweat and compression. I know it has only been two weeks but I would have expected to see some fibres compacting together but it still looks lacy and remains springy.
- Despite using larger needles, the initial cast on is still a little tight. I would try a stretchy cast on next time.
I consider this project a success. The hand spun, hand knitted spencer IS an alternative to the commercial, mass produced merino thermal in terms of performance, carbon cost and financial cost.
However, it does take time to make. And, despite my excitement and commitment to make more spencers, when the Aldi supermarket special sale of ladies merino thermal tops presented itself, I bought myself two tops along with my groceries. The garments had a label purporting that the fabric was environmentally responsible but I have no idea about the labour practices involved or the miles it had travelled to get to me.
Whilst my handspun spencer was still cheaper to make than the Aldi one (amazing since the Aldi one is cheap anyway) and softer to wear, it required an effort of labour and thought that fast fashion does not. So whilst this spencer may be an alternative to the mass produced merino thermal, it turned out not to be the alternative this winter. Fast fashion is fast, it offers a solution for right now, and that is its seductive appeal. It seems so easy and simple particularly as its origin story is so silent, shrouded and complex.
But maybe, with a little more (precious) time, by next winter, handspun spencers might be my total solution?
If you read this blog through a blog reader or via email, then you may encounter some very strange formatting in the previous post that may prevent you from reading the whole post. I cannot explain the strangeness but I think I have fixed it. You can access the repaired version of Fibre of Memory here.
Anyway, I finally caught up and watched a recent episode featuring an interview with Tom Dennis who farms Polwarth sheep on the family property Tarndwarncoort in Victoria where the Polwarth sheep breed was first developed in the nineteenth century. Known now as Tarndie, this is the farm where I bought one of my very first fleeces. As I listened to Tom’s stories and the family memories bound up in Tarndie, I got to thinking about how yarns and fibre of known origin intertwine stories of place and time between the farmer, the sheep and the maker.
Some of Tom’s story about the history of the Polwarth and the Dennis family property have become bound up in my stories of visiting the farm to purchase that fleece. The material artifact of the fleece itself passed through the hands of his family and passed into the hands of my family, the Dennis family stories embedded in the fleece are now overlain by the life of knitted garments in my family.
I remember my visit to Tarndie so vividly. The drought had broken but the land was still parched. The Black Saturday fires had shocked the whole country just a few months earlier. I was pregnant with my second child. We were on our way back from a holiday on Kangaroo Island and we stopped in on our long drive home. My partner chatted with Tom in the yard, our toddler son played with the dogs and Wendy Dennis (Tom’s Mum) helped me choose a fleece in the old, stone fleece room. The smell of lanolin was heady, the chocolate and greys of the fleeces were so rich and exciting, it was almost impossible to choose.
With a difficult pregnancy and then a newborn, I didn’t get to spin that fleece for years but a single skein of fingering weight yarn became a newborn cardigan and beanie. That beanie was the first thing my daughter wore. A short time after she was born, our temperatures began to drop rapidly. We were wrapped skin to skin in a heated air blanket and her wonderful dad dashed off to find the beanie. For the first hour of her wee life, wrapped up next to my body, she wore only her tiny gumnut beanie made from the fleece of the sheep raised by Tom and his family at Tarndie. My dear girl thrived. And so Tarndie and the sheep who are raised there became an poignant part of our lives and our story.
Thank you Fruity Knitting for sharing that fascinating interview with Tom Dennis. The Dennis family have played an extraordinary role in wool production internationally and are a significant part of the current renaissance of the local fibre production industry. Knowledge about farmers, their experiences and the significance of their sheep are vital to maintaining an ethical, sustainable and dynamic fibre scene for the benefit of makers and generations of future makers.
It is not all worthiness though, Fruit Knitting is a delightful watch, Andrew and Andrea are comfortable and professional, they have a real sparkle together, the show has a diverse, interesting format and the Australian accents are like water in the desert to my ears! I haven’t explored the previous episodes yet but their interview line up looks impressive.
Do you have a favourite Fruity Knitting episode I should check out or a perhaps a story about some yarn/fibre from Tarndie?
And here it is…my final project for the Spinning Certificate run by the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria.
The pattern is a Pattern for a Sleeveless Spencer by Marian Leslie from the Shetland Wool Week Annual 2016. I used a fifty:fifty blend of alpaca and Polwarth fleeces, carded into rolags and spun into a two ply, woollen laceweight yarn. You can read about my sampling and spinning process in a previous post.
The sample garment shown in the Shetland Wool Week Annual is in natural white and it looks very pretty. My first thoughts when I finished my version in undyed silver grey was that it looked a little WWII-make-do-and-mend-things-you-can-make-with-a-worn-out-sock! I can see all the inconsistency in my spinning and blending. But then I remind myself that this was a technical exercise, intended to demonstrate the knowledge gained during the Certificate in designing a yarn with a particular function in mind and I think the project has worked well in this regard.
- Firstly, it fits! The yarn knit up in gauge to make a predictable, well fitting garment.
- The pattern design and yarn work in tandem to produce a highly functional garment. Side seams support the structure of the garment so it won’t sag which otherwise might have been a problem with a seamless garters stitch garment
- The garter stitch whilst plain actually works to increase the warmth of the garment, using double the amount of light, air-trapping yarn next-to-the-skin of a stockinette fabric.
- The yarn works perfectly for the function of the garment, maximising warmth in a super lightweight, discreet layer for underneath regular layer.
Next time however, I would like to try using singles of alpaca and Polwarth plied together instead of blending to improve the colour consistency. I would like to try making it in white or very pale silver and with sleeves. I would also really like to try the Finnsheep as one of the singles.
I also realise that I need a Part Three, for although I know the garment fits and is not scratchy, I haven’t worn it for any length of time. It needs road testing, so look out for another post when we get our folios back.
Till then, if you are interested in learning a bit more about the Spinning Certificate and are curious about the other final projects, the Guild is holding an exhibition of Certificate work which opens on Tuesday 16 May and runs for two weeks. The Guild is located at 655 Nicholson Street, Carlton North and is open Tuesday to Saturday 10 – 3pm.