Waysides and Urban Fibres

March 6, 2015

Thank you all for your unbridled enthusiasm and encouragement for the Waysides project Annie Cholewa and I are undertaking.

I was so thrilled by your response, I wrote back to all your comments equally enthusiastically. Then watched them all bounce back to me! The server that hosts my blog experienced some drama that resulted in lots of undeliverable mail. Another resend resulted in more boomerangs. The problem is resolved now but some of you have received two replies and some have received none and I am too overwhelmed by the resultant mess in my inbox to work out which is which.

So…thank you very much my dear regular readers and thank you to all the visitors from Annie’s blog. I am sorry I was not able to respond in kind. Please do drop by again as I really enjoy replying to your comments.

IMG_0101In the mean time, I am been spinning up a storm in order to get all my yarn ready for some Waysides dyeing. I was really keen to use some local fibres in this project but that is a tricky business as I live in an urban area. However, just by accident, I stumbled across something that is just perfect.

Late last year, Our Dear Girl and I visited the Collingwood Children’s Farm, an urban farm situated on the banks of the Yarra. It is about six kilometers away.  It is a car drive but connected to our neighbourhood by a waterway. If we put a canoe into our neighbourhood creek and paddled downstream quite a ways, we would eventually join up with Yarra and then find ourselves at the farm. This is easier to say than do, so we will keep using the car for now.

IMG_4961The Collingwood Children’s Farm has chickens and geese and cows and goats and sheep, mostly heritage breeds that are used in demonstrations for children. They have a regular Farmers Market and a big bonfire for Winter Solstice.  I was keen to see the English Leicester sheep they have there, lovely animals with long ringlets for fleece. We were about to leave after our wander when one of the farmers asked if we had managed to find the sheep we were looking for as they had recently been shorn and wouldn’t look much like English Leicesters. We got chatting about the shearing and their fleeces and then the farmer asked if I wanted any fleeces…for free!

I beg your pardon? Doesn’t the Guild take your fleeces? That’s what it is says on your website.

Oh well, the fleeces are quite dirty and no one really wants them.  We have a big pile of them in the barn.

But aren’t they very special fleeces?

Yes, they are beautiful fleeces. You can take as many as you want.

I took two. And came back the next week for a couple more for me and a friend.

That actually happened. That is a true story and it happened to me!

IMG_5085These fleeces are very dirty and stinky. That is true. But they are also beautiful fleeces. Apparently, the breeding program at Collingwood Children’s Farm is overseen by English Leicester breeder Ethel Stephenson who runs her own flock in Benalla. She often uses her own rams improve the CCF flock. Her sheep have won countless ribbons at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show.

IMG_5197I skirted them and sorted them into piles to wash. I didn’t sort according to quality but a friend has lent me a marvelous book called Your Handspinning by Elise Davenport (1971) that details how to sort a fleece by quality/position on the sheep. I can try this next time.

IMG_4979Washing the fleeces was an extraordinary process of transformation. I soaked them for a few days first, outside in buckets in the sun and then poured dirty water off onto the garden. I knew this was safe to do because of how the sheep are managed at CCF. I then scoured them in hot water and Unicorn Power Scour using Deb Robson’s method of twenty minutes for each soak to keep the temperature up.

IMG_6133After a couple of rinses and a spin in the washing machine to get all the water out, a beautiful clean fleece was drying on the children’s trampoline. They are getting used to the trampoline being used to dry fleece and woollens now and with some eye rolling, generally indulge me.

The dry fleece was then bagged securely in a pillow case and labelled and only then is it allowed in our house. I never store raw fleece in the house as it too delicious to moths.

After various experiments with preparation and spinning English Leicester this is what I am doing now:

Picking out the locks, laying them end to end and spraying with spinning oil to reduce static. I am using the recipe from Beth Smith’s Spinner’s Book of Fleece (2014): 1 part rubbing alcohol, 2 parts mineral oil and 7 parts water.  I had tried using olive oil but it went rancid and sticky.


Using small combs rather than a flick carder to align the fibres and remove any vegetable matter. I now clamp the combs to the table which is easier on my hands. I load the combs with the locks anchored at their base. Three passes of the combs, puts the fibres in the right direction to diz.


Dizzing into roving. I dizzed the fibre off the comb using a plastic yogurt lid that I pierced with a hot metal needle.  Using roving enables me to draft very quickly and smoothly in worsted draw to keep that twist low.

IMG_0065After dizzing, beginning with the end I just dizzed, I wound the roving around my hand, twisting the last little bit to indicate the start.

IMG_0053Spinning on my lowest whorl which has a 5:1 ratio (5 twists for every revolution of the wheel) and drafting with a worsted short forward draw at a rate of three inches per treadle to try and achieve about two twists per inch.

IMG_0104My sample was lovely, a two ply sportsweight that was lustrous and drapey and silky smooth. I figure this would be a very useful weight for the Waysides project.

IMG_0112Now if you are a Melbourne reader and you are a spinner, do go and visit the Collingwood Children’s Farm and go get yourself an English Leicester fleece. Wash it and let it sing. Tell other spinners to go get some too. Blog about it, put it up on Ravelry or post pics on Instagram tagged with #urbanfibres.  We are so very lucky to have such precious urban fibres available to us.

Remember you can catch up with Annie’s progress here and see all my posts on Waysides here.

Back to spinning!





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  1. Lucky, indeed! I like the sound of this project, I’m glad it’s been something to make you feel inspired. The transformation of that fleece is incredible! Luckily longwools don’t have too much lanolin, they clean up so beautifully. I received a really dirty fleece from a local farm and was psyched about it… my first fleece! But it was awful. I didn’t skirt it properly (left way too much dirt in to start), there was a ton of canary staining or lanolin getting hard and sticky (not sure which), and the VM was just impossible to deal with. Then I discovered that I didn’t love the feel of fiber anyway (Southdown) so I tossed it.

    All of that is to say: for some free fleeces that started out looking not so great, you really lucked out there!

  2. OH BOY, OH BOY, OH BOY !!!! I was going to say, dirt? you got water? bit of soap? and you are off and running! You were way ahead of me and your wool and spinning is fabulous. FREE EL fleeces…..sigh! Good job…….now for some ‘weeds’ haha

  3. What an exciting gift for you!! The Leicester Long-wools are simply gorgeous. Perseverance has turned your sow’s ear into a silk purse. Enjoy every bit of it.

  4. This was a fascinating learning post for me. Keep them coming! The spun product looks amazing. Can’t wait to see what you dye and knit with this. 🙂

  5. OH MY!!!!!! I love free stuff and even better when it is such beautiful and ‘expensive’ free stuff. when we lived in the UK a local small holding I knew just put their fleeces in the tip because no one wanted them. Even our local spinning guild wouldn’t take them because no one wanted to clean them. This is very sad but in the UK understandable when the weather can be awful for weeks and it is hard to dry them. I was amazed at how well they came out. And how lovely your spinning is… very helpful information for us beginners. Thank you.

  6. The transformation of that fleece into that stunning yarn has me quite breathless! What a sense of achievement that must bring and the excitement of winning a wonderful prize too! Feels a bit like a moral story “the practical woman and the magic fleece”…how hard work and a good eye results in long lasting happiness…? 🙂
    I am really looking forward to this collaboration between you and Annie – especially as I just discovered that she lives just a couple of miles from me…really inspirational stuff!

  7. I feel like you just left me in your dust … go you! That yarn is so special and will be even more so when dyed. I can’t wait to see what you do with it next.

  8. A really fascinating blogpost, Rebecca – my spinning habits are so different from yours (and far less disciplined!). I guess it is partly a difference of time and place – I learned to spin in rural Devon some 30 years ago, and just everybody worked from fleece – you couldn’t easily buy processed fleece for spinning and it was very expensive anyhow. So all of us Devon spinners regularly handled dirty smelly fleece – and I still just love the smell and handle of a raw fleece (incredible as that may seem to some!) I cannot imagine those beautiful fleeces lying around unwanted at the Collingwood children’s farm – we would have been fighting for them – and I think fellow spinners I know now would still fight for them. If I was planning to spin undyed fleece, ideally I would soak the raw fleece in warm water and a perhaps a little eco washing liquid, changing water several times – so that I am left with a fleece to spin that still has some natural lanolin left. But I can understand that time constraints (and space constraints too) make the extra starting from scratch processing that you describe in this blog not easy or practical in 21st century life. I am seriously impressed by your maths calculations of whorl ratios, draw rates and twist! – that’s where I’m really lazy and undisciplined! Spun yarn looks just beautiful.

  9. Oh!! How beautiful are those locks after a bath?!
    And how amazing is it that here, in inner city Melbourne, you managed to source local fibre? I just love this. Wayside is making things happen for you in such wonderful ways. I eagerly await the next instalment 🙂

  10. What a wonderful post to read! How neat is it to receive such nice fleeces and then to have them free is just that much better. Lovely spinning!

  11. Amazing! What absolutely gorgeous fleece! Fascinating to see your processing methods too, what a fantastic project you have embarked on

  12. I just can’t believe my eyes! You washed it to perfection!!! It’s just spotless! Before your blog I was never interested in spinning, but now I know that some day I am going to do it as well. You are inspiration!

  13. I have a couple of English Leicester fleeces here in white, light to medium grey (spinning in the grease) and a black. I love them all and yours is so beautifully spun and what a great story too and a fantastic find.

  14. You are amazing. Just reading about this process has made me realise to a new extent how deep your experience and knowledge goes and also the breadth of the journey of learning about fleece and fibre (which looks life-long). My knitting journey has stalled temporarily but I look forward to the coming months when the teetering pile of jobs and arts projects dwindle and the winter months force quiet time indoors for craft. xo H

  15. I swear, Rebecca, my mind gets blown a little bigger each time I visit here. Of course, I’m reading this knowing now what has happened to all this hard work 🙁 If nothing else, this post has deepened my appreciation of how truly special wool yarn is, even the commercial stuff, to remember where the wool came from in the first place and the transformation it makes in order to make it onto my needles. Thank you for this 🙂 BIG hugs. XO

  16. The processing of a fleece. This is serious stuff, Rebecca. Your photo tour made me appreciate the Leicester waiting for me in a bin upstairs.

    The Waysides Project strikes me as a smart and intriguing project. Count me in as an eager armchair reader. There’s much to found in an urban landscape. Perhaps the rust in bottle caps and the red clay in brick dust will make the palette. Whatever happens I can’t wait.

  17. What a great example of ‘seek and you shall find’! Love all the dizzing and roving though no idea what it means…….

  18. What luscious fibre and what a crack spinner and fibre preparer you are! I get lots of gift fleece but never EL. Now a small dyeing query though. I would rate EL among the hardest sheep fleeces to dye–so strong and smooth. Finer fibres take dye more readily in my experience. And–what about the combing oil? Could that be hindering dye take up, or have you washed it out prior to dyeing?

    What sleek, shiny and lovely yarns you have there. I just love this project…

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