knit | spin

Final Project: Part Three

June 14, 2017

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?

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  1. I would love to find a true next-to-skin fibre. Yours must be incredible. I love every step of this story – the hours that you put into your Spencer. I hope they’re repaid by years of comfort and utility.

    1. It’s funny Frith, but living in Australia, it is hard to find anything that isn’t next-to-the-skin soft. We definitely are a fine fibre country full of fine Merino, even the Finn and Gotland are very fine here. So, what many knitters crave here are the crunchy, tweedy yarns that we see folks enjoying so much in the UK and US! Gosh, what I wouldn’t give for a good local tweedy yarn for durable outwear!

  2. Thank you for the update. I’m surprised that you haven’t had any fulling – a compliment to fleece selection and your spinning. The high twist in the plying would have helped.

    I think I may have to make myself something similar this year – I just have to track down a suitable fleece (I have yak down – now there’s a thought).

    And of course, it’s only cheaper than the Aldi one because you didn’t include your labour, which you can only do when it’s for you.

    Well done. It’s been a fascinating project.

    1. Thanks for your interest Freyalyn. I was very surprised at the lack of fulling. Although, I think I should still expect some to develop. The locks and twist may have just made the yarn more resistant to fulling not impervious! I am wondering if the depth in the armholes might also be protecting the garment a little. Yak down sounds like a fabulous place to start, it will be super warm. I wonder what you will blend it with?

      And yes, you are right of course, I hadn’t factored in my labour but I was really focused on the costs to me as a maker, materials and time versus cost of commercial garment. Best wishes for your project.

  3. Bravo on such a fascinating project from fibre to garment. I have loved reading about it from concept to finished clothing. I especially appreciate that you don’t give any easy answers when it comes to the draw backs of time and effort in making something like this. These are where fast fashion gets me too, especially in clothing for my son. When he has a growth spurt I often need to fill a hole in his wardrobe right away.

    Time and planning are precious resources and while I know I could be better at using both that remains a challenge.

    1. Dear Becca, yes, time and planning are everything. I have thought it would be a good idea to make a seasonal calendar of making, that reminds me when to dye with certain plants, purchase fleeces, spin for winter projects etc. Perhaps then I would be making my spencers in autumn and actually wearing them in winter!

      I do agree that kids complicate clothes buying and making. Just when I think I have everything sorted with hand-me-downs and second hand, along comes an urgent purchase of track pants for camp or black trousers for the school play next week that sends you right into the arms of the big box store.

  4. Such a lovely Spencer and narrative to go along with it. I, like you, am surprised that there was no pilling with the long draw but spinning it lock by lock probably did the trick! Congratulations on your Certificate of Spinning!!

    1. Thanks Elaine, I reckon I might do some more experiments with woollen spinning from locks to see if indeed that is what is preventing the pilling. It would certainly be good to know and replicate!

  5. A very thought provoking series of posts which I have enjoyed very much. The allure of fast fashion is something I am getting better at ignoring as I get older. It’s all too easy come and easy to which gives me very little pleasure. I believe that your Spencer carries with it a notion of romance with not a little hint of times gone by which would make it my garment of choice were it mine. The fact that it seems to wear so well is a huge plus – so much handspun is treated with great care and reverence making it ‘special’ clothing rather than everyday wear. I am slowly working towards a total (or as near as possible) home made wardrobe so hard wearing, comfortable clothing is something I am working on. Will you continue to wear it or will the mass produced ones win out overall?

    1. Dear Jane, What a brilliant goal to be working towards…brava! Since the spencer is actually more comfortable than the bought one, I reckon I will be going back to the spencer but it does lack arms so I have been using the bought one to walk the dog in the morning. I think if I had the spencer with arms, I might not take it off all winter!

  6. If the Aldo “mass produced” and very cheap garment is silent concerning its provenance, I would be certain that it was produced in conditions in which I wouldn’t want anyone to be working.

    1. Dear Sophy, I guess what I meant was that all mass produced goods are silent in terms of origin. As makers we look at where our materials are from and we are the labour ourselves, we make and share the story of our garments. The mass produced garments appear to us in the shops almost magically and unless we research specifically we are unaware of their story…they don’t speak as easily to us as a handmade item. I am not sure if Aldi is one of the signatories to the global accord on garment manufacturing transparency in supply chains like some other fast fashion companies like H&M are. It would be good to find out. But you certainly make a good point, cheapness is most often associated with poor labour conditions.

  7. Thank you, excellent project notes! I need one today, must mow field with ++ wind. I almost fell off my chair when you mentioned the Aldi! I am in the States and when I visited my son in Germany that is where I Always went. But for chocolate and licorice 🙂 I do have some Alpaca and Polworth, perhaps I should try combining them for my next shawl.
    One more thing, everyone, please go to Kate Davies Designs and see her open letter to the Shetland Council (they have lost their grip), sign the petition and make a comment!

    1. Dear Susan, thank you for drawing our attention to the defunding of Promote Shetland who actually brought out the Shetland Wool Week Annual from which the spencer pattern was drawn. But for Promote Shetland, we might not actually be sharing this discussion about DIY thermal garments.

  8. It does sound so cosy, and there is something innately satisfying about a handknit undergarment.

    My mum knit spencers for my baby all those years ago, and they always felt like they kept her much warmer (could well have been the encasing in Nana-love also!)

    1. Thanks Kylie, I have been wondering if I might actually get MY kids wearing these. It is a blessed time when they are babies and wearing the wool.

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