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.
It has been a year since a bout of pneumonia triggered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and my body stopped working the way it used to. At such a milestone, it seems timely to check in with a postcard. I am so much better than I was last year, I am no longer floating in the ocean. Instead, I feel like I am slowly growing myself into a mountain.
Yes, there has been a metaphor change! I love a good metaphor and in the face of the bleakness of a western medical model that still doesn’t understand with any significant evidence base why this illness occurs, how it can be treated or how long it will last, my metaphors give me poetic optimism and a larger context than my own personal illness.
At the beginning, the all-at-sea metaphor seemed to convey all the strangeness and weakness in my changed body and certainly soothed my panic at that new strangeness, but it doesn’t reflect the hard work of recovery or the agency required to get there. All-at-sea is about being lost, floating, drifting and the hope of returning to safe harbour. In reality, there is daily exercise with incremental increases in heart rate, yoga, meditation, medical check ups, healthy eating, resting, pacing exertion and the continuous restrained challenging of energetic limitations.
So it’s not really floating, is it? High time for a transformation from a metaphor of illness to a metaphor of recovery… a metamorphosis, if you will excuse the pun.
Growing into a mountain conveys the changes in how my body feels, where the wobbly sea-legs have been replaced by great heaviness. Instead of floating, I feel weighed down and and every step can feel like wading through mud. By thinking of this change as becoming a mountain, this heaviness is cast as something grounding and strong, the beginnings of a firm anchoring into the earth from which to grow tall.
In Meditation and Relaxation in Plain English (2006), Bob Sharples encourages the practitioner to sit cross legged on the ground and think “I am going to sit strong like a mountain so that my mind can be open like the sky”. p 26. The image is a lovely one and embodies both resilience and insight and the possibility that the very heaviness of illness can become transcendence.
The idea of my body as a mountain also invites me to think like a mountain. Thinking like a mountain was a phrase coined by Aldo Leopold in A Sand Country Almanac (1949) to capture the inter-relatedness and inter-dependence of all life within a landscape. At a time when all wolves were shot on site in the belief that this made for good hunting conditions for deer, Leopold saw that the health of the deer population were dependent on predation by wolves.
I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death…In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers … So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the change. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
If I think like a mountain about my own body, I am better able to understand and tend to the inter relations between fatigue and both physical and cognitive exertion and the physiological/neurological feedback loop that is triggered. With the ripples of consequence echoing through my body for days after certain events, I must tend to the wolves and the deer or risk the dustbowl of ongoing illness and exhaustion. Everything in balance. Mindful, curious attention.
Growing into a mountain offers me a fruitful path towards recovery. It gets my head ready for a long time scale. It is of the earth and yet touches the sky. It has permanence and solidity. It brings forth and nourishes life. Now that, is a model for wellness.
Best wishes to all the other mountains growing into wellness who have been so kind to this one.
It is the autumn school holidays again here… cubby building season.
This is one of the communal kid cubbies in our neighbourhood that our children regularly visit and work on with their friends.
See you after the holidays.
The Spinning Certificate I have been undertaking every month for the past 15 months is drawing to a close.
The course is run by the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria and coordinated by the exceptionally experienced Carmel Hanna. As part of our assessment, we are required to produce a final project that demonstrates our learning.
To that end, I decided I wanted to spin for something humble and practical, a locally sourced, DIY alternative to the highly processed and expensive merino thermal undergarment. Merino thermals use Australian ultrafine merino which has been processed off-shore in China using superwash treatments that are prohibited by Australian environmental laws. This not only creates a product with a vast carbon footprint but degrades the environment our neighbour and exposes workers to hazardous conditions. Merino thermals have wonderful insulating and breathability properties, they last a long time and are super useful but the environmental cost is high. I wondered if I could develop an alternative, albeit on a micro, individual scale.
I needed a lightweight, fine yarn that could be worn next to the skin without irritation, be very warm and maintain its shape underneath clothing. I selected a pattern from the Shetland Wool Week Annual 2016, a Pattern for a Sleeveless Spencer by Marian Leslie. This wonderful festival souvenir arrived in the post on my birthday in October, literally dropping the pattern I needed into my lap!
That was a pic I never got to share with you last year but now is a good time!
Instead of lace weight Shetland yarn suggested, I will be using a blend of alpaca and fine, local wool. Three sheep breeds were selected for fleece that had next-to-skin softness and elasticity. Alpaca was chosen for next-to-skin softness and thermal properties (being 8 times warmer than wool). As a blend, the resultant yarn would be both warm, fine, soft and elastic.
To choose the wool, I sampled 50/50 (by weight) blends of Finnsheep from Fairfield Finns near Gisborne, Ultrafine Merino from White Gum Wool in Tasmania and Polwarth from Tarndie near Geelong with a fine silver grey alpaca from Chiverton Alpacas in Phillip Island. Whilst Finnsheep is technically a long wool, Fairfield Finns have developed particularly fine, next-to-skin fleeces so I was keen to include it, in my sampling.
Fleece was blended with hand carders into rolags and spun in a Z direction with a woollen long draw using a whorl ratio of 11.5:1 on a Majacraft Rose. This spinning method was selected to maximise the thermal properties in resulting yarn: woollen preparation and spinning traps air between fibres resulting in a light, warm yarn. Two singles were plied in an S direction using a whorl ratio of 15:1 at a rate of 4 inches per treadle. The yarn was finished with warm soapy soak, a conditioning rinse and final rinse, thwack and hanging to dry. After finishing the yarn measured 18 Wraps Per Inch and 11 Twists Per Inch.
The Polwarth blend was chosen as it gave the most even, springy fabric that will both produce the thermal qualities desired and maintain the shape of the garment over time. It also provided a very even colour blend. Both fibres were sourced from with 150 km of my home, keeping the carbon footprint of the final garment small.
I have had the most wonderful nerdy time, thinking, planning and sampling for this project.
In Part Two, I will share the finished garment and reflect on my learning throughout the project. Do come back and have a look. If you are a spinner, what local fibres would you use on this project?
There is no good reason why I have made another Montbretia shawl other than this one is the one I always meant to make but didn’t quite have enough yarn. Montbretia is designed by Carol Feller for The Book of Haps. It is a very wide, asymmetrically curved shawl that is surprisingly easily to wear in any number of ways.
Whilst waiting for the matching yarn, I knitted up the first one from stash only. You might remember this version from last year.
The new Montbretia is of course exactly the shape but colours create an altogether different landscape.
The lovely green colour is called Meadowsweet (maybe…I can’t find the tag), a drapey fingering weight yarn by Shilasdair with a slight halo I bought some when we were in the UK a few years ago but needed one more skein to finish the shawl. The merino, camel, cashmere and angora blend is dyed with natural dyes on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The soft apricot colour is Australian millspun Polwarth from tarndie.com, a local yarn I bought at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show a few years back. You can see it in an earlier Enchanted Mesa.
That pop of plum is a Jamieson and Smith fingering weight that was rolling around in the stash, just waiting for a job like this. The shawl is light but super warm with all those lofty yarns trapping all the air.
Whilst stretching out the edges of the shawl for blocking, a weak spot in the Shilasdair ripped open an edge. The moment was a little tense but after a few breaths and a bit of drying, it repaired just perfectly. Knitting is very forgiving.
Ahoy there dearest readers! It has been some time since we last met. I have been drifting upon the seas encountering Christmas, School Holidays and Back to School. I didn’t mean to be away so long but the CFS part of me was not quite up to anything beyond the basics. I found I had to give up the interwebs for a while just to manage. Time seems to have passed quickly but in a very slow way!
Let me catch you up with my making.
On my needles you can see I have almost finished another Montbretier shawl by Carol Feller from The Book of Haps (2016). This is my sole project and has been for some months. For a while there, my arms were too tired to get through a row but slowly, slowly I have almost made it to the end.
Whilst I have not been knitting much, I have been trying to do a little more cooking beyond the (almost) daily achievement of dinner. After Our Dear Boy harvested a basket of cumquats, I managed a batch of cumquat marmalade which I have loved since I used harvest cumquats as a child. Our lovely Italian neighbours shared with us how they eat cumquats, just the skin, raw, peeled away from the squishy bit. It is like a lolly, sweet and delicious. But my heart lies in marmalade.
I have also been fermenting sauerkraut. When we were in Germany five years ago, I discovered real, fresh sauerkraut. It is a wonderfully healthy thing to eat. Locally made, fresh sauerkraut is $15 AUD a jar, but a cabbage is only $3, so the economic inducement to make my own was fairly compelling and the process is super simple.
On my wheel, you can see I have begun spinning for my final project in the Spinning Certificate run the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria. It is a Polwarth and Alpaca blend that I made with hand carders for a 2ply lace weight woollen yarn. Despite everything, I have managed to keep going with the course and look forward to sharing my final project with you as it progresses.
Thank you for your emails and good wishes over the last few months. You have cheered me in ways that are difficult to express. You have shared your own experiences with chronic illness so as to encourage and reassure me. These emails have always been unexpected yet curiously timely. I feel I have been most fortunate to have such kind and gracious readers.
I continue to steadily improve in health and energy.
Finally I would like to introduce you to Our Dear Pup who came to live with us a few month ago. She is funny, cheeky and delightful company for us all. She is a yarn thief, a spinning homework destroyer and a fleece eater but now we know that, I plan accordingly.
I hope to be back here again soon but in the meantime perhaps would like to share with me what you have been up to?
I don’t buy much yarn at the moment. The stash seems to have mostly what I need. It is like a magical purse. No matter how much I seem to use, there is always something left. The projects are changing of course, as the yarn depletes. Cardigans and sweaters have been replaced with hats and socks. Here are three children’s beanies that the stash has given me.
I use a very simple pattern as my basic beanie for children. It has a cast on of 100 sts on 3.5 mm needles in 8ply. Rib 1 x1 then increase by 10% and change up to 4 mm needles, work up to the crown and decrease in intervals every other row. It is a perfect canvas for playing. I knitted one up with stripes, the other with the motifs I used in Colourful Day and another in the Siksak pattern.
You might recognise the fushia handspun and the Zealana Rimu merino and possum from those previous hats.
I finished these with a pom-pom flourish.
It is a pleasure to make useful things that I hope are also beautiful from the left overs of other projects. It seems to link and embed the knitting into all the other projects that have come before. The stash and the projects that come out of it, have the wonderful layered quality of an archaeological dig but the layers aren’t static, they flow and intertwine through the past and present and future. These are small things I know, barely significant perhaps. They belong to the curious, intimate world of the everyday and in this context, I think they do matter.