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In life, as in Wool, Diversity is our Strength

I’ve been struggling lately with how to express some feelings I have about the fiber world of late.  Frankly, I’m saddened to see the tired old tropes still clinging: Men who knit, weave, and crochet harassed and belittled.  People of color rejected or made unwelcome. Members of the dominant socio-economic group complaining when fiber arts are used for something other than “relaxation.”  Condemning a major fiber arts platform for reinforcing their community standards and reminding people hate will not be tolerated.

I know many people who somehow manage to create little boxes that hold all sorts of things nicely and neatly separate from other parts of their lives.  Knitting is a hobby and nothing more. Social media is for trading photos of family BBQs and nothing more. Schools are a place where all we do is learn from books and nothing more.

I don’t know how that works.

I am a woman.  As a woman I have been continuously paid less, born the brunt of the mental and emotional burden of relationships, subjected to terrifying misogyny and sexual assault on a daily basis.  I am no more capable of separating these experiences of my life into neat little boxes than a person of color can remove the pigmentation from their skin.

By definition politics is “the activities, actions, and policies that are used to gain and hold power in a government or to influence a government” AND “a person’s opinions about the management of government” (emphasis added).  Every single person feels the effects of politics in every fiber of their beings in every moment of their days.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The fiber arts are no different; they may very well be functional, but they are also art.  Art by its very nature is a political expression – a visual and tactile story told in a manner everyone can understand immediately to influence, provoke reaction, create thought.  Textiles have, since their inception, included politics; indeed they were frequently created for that express purpose. Here’s a small sampling.

  • In South America, quipu (“talking knots”) were a textile in the form of knotted strings woven into belts.  The Inca used them to collect data and keep records, monitor tax obligations, to properly collect census records, record calendrical information, and for military organization.  These textiles date most often from the 3rd century BCE to the 17th century – and are used in some areas today.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry is a textile we think of as historical record – created in the 11th century CE and documenting the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.  Take a closer look at the images and manner of their depiction, and one realizes that the tapestry is also sensationalized and exaggerated: it’s a propaganda piece and it has been used as a propaganda piece for a millennium.
  • Colonists to the Americas deliberately handed out small pox infected textiles to Native peoples knowing the infection would spread to them and wipe out entire tribes. Prior to the American Revolution, colonists in the Americas resisted British taxes by making their own textiles and refusing to buy cloth from Britain and held spinning bees to challenge each other to spin the most yarn.  In 1777 a Philadelphia tavern owner, Molly Rinker, would pretend to knit, instead inserting messages about British troop movements into her yarn balls and dropping them into George Washington’s camp.
  • African print textiles have a complex history, with those wonderful and colorful prints we know so well being manufactured by Dutch Colonial powers as a tool of subjugation.  Now they have been transformed into an expression of vibrant culture and pride.
  • The red knitted caps of the French Revolution, known as Phrygian caps, were inspired by the caps freed slaves wore in ancient Rome and are widely considered a symbol of Republican government over that of monarchies and dictatorships in art, literature, and theater.
  • The history of cotton is itself an expression of global politics and racism – covering subjects as wide ranging as slavery, industrialization, far wages, unionization, global trade wars, the politics of the British colonization of India, pesticides, GMO crops, water use, and child labor.
  • In 1992 I had the express honor to experience the AIDS Quilt spread across the National Mall in Washington DC.  At that time it consisted of panels from every state and 28 countries.  I had the pleasure of visiting it again in 1996, the very last time the Quilt was able to be spread in one place, it grown by thousands of panels.  Known as the largest community art project in the world, the Quilt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. This expression of love and remembrance was created precisely to show the impact of the disease and how many people, from all walks of life and age, it affected.  It inspired people and incited awareness. It was the first time I truly understood the power of fiber arts and it was the beginning of a new insight into the influences of textiles.  To this day I am humbled and inspired by the Quilt.
  • Today in Tibet, the Pangong Cashmere Center is promoting community development and empowering women through textiles.  The Center was founded with the express mission of creating economic opportunity while retaining traditional cultural connections and values.

And that is the tiniest selection of millions of examples throughout history and across the globe.  Textiles have always been included in sumptuary laws. When particular dyes, fabrics, or materials are restricted to specific classes – or ranks within a class – textiles are explicitly political.  To suggest that politics has no place in the fiber arts is to express a profound ignorance of history, dismiss the experiences of billions of people, and elevate one’s own privilege to the detriment of one’s self and our entire community.  To suggest that fiber arts are merely a “relaxing hobby” is to dismiss tens of thousands of years of rich and diverse history and technological development, artistic expression, and the voices of all the men and women to whom I am connected through my spindle, my loom, and my needles.  To suggest that textiles are nothing more than utilitarian belies the depth and breadth of their presence in our lives and the means by which they express identity. Whether it is a hat, a quilt, or a knotted rope, textiles are an expression of the diversity of our world, of its struggles and triumphs.

At The Spinning Loft we promote breed study, we focus on having fleeces that represent the unique features of each sheep breed and promote their wonder, utility, beauty, and joy.  We specialize in stocking as many heritage breed sheep as possible – both foreign and domestic. We stock as many colors of natural wools that we can find for each breed. We work with our shepherds and pay a fair price which contributes to a living wage for their farms regardless of scale.  I would like to think we’ve made it clear that diversity in wool is our top priority, and through that diversity we believe in the success of our shepherds.

Spin All The Woolz is not just a jingle – it’s how we view the world.

I am always asked “which breeds do I like the most” – and I can rarely answer with fewer than 10.  Truthfully, I love them all. Yes. Even Merino, which you have all heard me say I dislike. I do dislike it – but it is also a valuable fiber with much to give.  When someone tells me they “hate Navajo Churro,” I can’t let that go. I ask what characteristics they dislike. I ask about what preparation they experienced. I asked how they worked with the wool.  I ask them what purpose they had in mind when they spun it.

So often a hated fiber is one that either a person has never met before and hasn’t figured out yet, or one that a person tried to force into their preferred little box.  Fiber, like people, does not take well to being forced to live a life that isn’t reflective of their unique characteristics. Sometimes what we hear or spin makes us uncomfortable; the problem is not the message or the messenger, but our own feelings.  Diversity is critical to our survival and inherent bias is real and systemic.

I do not allow hate – I encourage and promote transformation and growth and sometimes that growth is challenging.  Those perspectives are important, they have something to teach us. Monoculture, be it tomatoes, sheep, or people will eventually be wiped out because monoculture cannot adapt and grow.  But diversity – diversity adapts, meets the challenges of environment, overcomes adversity; diversity thrives.

I think it’s remarkable that this month, diversity is so prevalent in my life.  It is the subject of recent writing for my work. It is the subject of my blog this month.  Diversity is unavoidable – trying to keep it in a little box is destined to fail. I encourage you to embrace it and ask yourself why it is we are so defensive when our community members express who they are and their experiences.  We need to listen to grow and thrive.

I know that for some of my community, these words come late.  To you I apologize; I can only hope that you know me well enough to know I have stood with you.  I needed to find a way to express myself in a way that clearly stated my values and the values of The Spinning Loft.  I wanted these words to indicate that we are listening to you, and we shall continue to do our own labor as a result of what we hear.  We shall continue to act consistently with promoting the values of diversity and inclusion.

I know for others in my community, these words will drive you away.  I am saddened by your insistence on sacrificing your fellow fiber artists, to turning away wonderful experiences, in favor of your own comfort and to the defense of your personal authoritarianism.

The Spinning Loft stands against hate.

The Spinning Loft stands with human rights.

The Spinning Loft stands with Ravelry.

The Shipping Wombat
The Shih Tzu Overlords

Which, when combined, make The Spinning Loft

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Challenging fleeces – how to cope with less than perfect fleeces, multiple coats, and the mystery of skirting

With so many fiber festivals happening in April, May and June, I thought it would be appropriate to go over some things you might come across while being tempted by warm wooly goodness.  

What treasures can you find at a fleece sale?

By far the most common place at a fiber festival to buy a whole fleece is in a fleece sale. Festivals, particularly those geared to handspinners, have rules about what conditions fleeces entered into the sale must meet. At Maryland Sheep & Wool, for example, rule #5 states “Each fleece must be skirted to ensure it is clean, dry, as free as possible of contaminants (e.g., vegetative matter (VM), chaff, burrs, manure tags & second cuts, etc.).”  A fleece sale is a safe and reasonable place to acquire a fleece.

Remember that some festivals require a fleece that is entered for judging to be eligible for purchase – even if the shepherd doesn’t want to sell it. So they are often priced exceptionally highly in hopes that buyers will keep walking. So if you find a gorgeous fleece, and it’s $80/pound, keep that in mind; even the most pristine of fleeces is rarely priced this high.

The breed barns and sheep barns are another option for acquiring fleeces at a festival. They are often a treasure trove of fleeces grown by shepherds who aren’t there for the fleeces, but for the sheep themselves.  They often the fleeces from their sheep aren’t worth the effort, frequently the case with the so called “meat sheep”. I found my favorite Lincoln shepherd this way – she raises beautiful, handspinner friendly fleeces, but she rarely enters a fleece in a fleece sale.  Because the breed barns are not the fleece sale, there is a wider range of possibilities for flaws and cleanliness issues in those fleeces.

So what is a handspinner to do?  Go forth – and go armed with knowledge and an open mind.

The Cult of the (Im)Perfect Fleece

This Polwarth is pristine right off the sheep, but it’s not the norm!

While everyone loves super clean fleeces with not a spec of straw to be found, and coated perfectly so the tips barely touch fabric for a full season, these fleeces are neither common nor cost effective for the majority of handspinners.  Fleeces almost never meet this standard. And when they do – be prepared to pay a boatload for them. The shepherds earned that with the exceptional care they took for those fleeces.

I’ll tell you a secret though – most of the time, those “perfect” fleeces, are not my favorite treasures.  In fact, my most favorite spins have come from fleeces that are anything but perfect. And frankly, spinning can be expensive enough in our world, I want to empower handspinners of all ranges of experience and all ranges of income to spin the fleeces they acquire into the textiles they love.  

A standard Polypay fleece – some dirt, some VM, great spinning!

See, something like 90% of fleeces have more moderate levels of vegetable matter and dirt, they normally have dirty tips that need opening up or extra attention, and they are rarely coated.  By ignoring the less than perfect, a handspinner may lose out on some amazing fleeces. Sure they may take a bit more effort, but the variety is so very much greater. Truthfully, I have rarely met a fleece that wasn’t fantastic after a couple scours and rinses. Those that need more, are fine after a cold soak.  These are normal.   

Truthfully, unless you plan on buying one perfect fleece and making it your life’s mission to create a textile from it, you’ll have a great experience working with a “normal” fleece.  If you do have an opportunity and the resources to experience a Truly Perfect Fleece, by all means I encourage you to experience one. I have to confess that of the fleeces I consider “perfect” that I’ve experienced, neither was coated, but they were lovely experiences.  

Multiple Coated Fleeces

Dual coated Romanov fleece.

Lots of handspinners tell me that they are hesitant to try multiple coated fleeces because they don’t know how to work with them or what to do.  Naturally, I encourage it anyway with a few tips because at least one breed of multicoated fleece, Shetland, is one of “I can’t live without” breeds.  And talk about versatility! Undercoats that are usually next to baby skin soft and insulating; outer coats that shed rain like Goretex(™); combinations that ignore all weather entirely; and textiles that conquered territory across the northern hemisphere.  

Quite simply you have 2 options for working with a multi coated fleece: 1.) you can separate the outer coat from the inner coat (the longer coarser outer coat, from the downy short under coat), or 2.) you don’t separate them.  Within these two options is a range of goodness and amazing experiences.

Not all “multicoated breeds” have multiple coats, although perhaps more accurately, they have outer coats that are similar in length and texture to their inner coats so they are single coated instead.  

The Mystery of Skirting

There’s a significant range of thoughts I hear about skirting, but regardless of how severe a skirting is all the fleeces in a fleece show – or which you may be offered for purchase – have been skirted at least once.  So let’s talk a little about the apprehensions you might have with regard to various levels of skirting.

It really comes down to dirt, debris and, ok, I‘m saying it: poop.  Right? Not everyone likes to work in their gardens, not everyone copes well with diaper changes, or even scooping our floofy overlords’ sidewalk/litter box offerings.  Facing something like that in our wool is just an icky surprise.

Shearer skirting as he shears
Shearers will get rid of most of the “nasty bits” – shepherds will also give the fleece a once-over.

Shearers do the initial skirting when they shear a fleece and remove the worst areas.  When a fleece is skirted, the edges are removed – the parts that are around the groin, lower legs, tail, and belly.  In this photo I took of a shearer working on a favorite shepherd’s flock, you can see those edges that the shearer removes as he rolls the fleece for the shepherd for further inspection.  Everything on the floor to the left – all that very dirty wool is skirting and it’s where most of the tags and poopy locks are found. That pile is swept aside and put in a trash pile with hoof trimmings and whatever other muck gets cleaned out of the barn into the compost pile that day.  Everything in his left hand, where the white wool is, is a skirted, and rolled, fleece. Shepherds then have the option of taking another pass and further skirting a fleece. It’s not required, the shearers do a great job, as this one did, but we knew the fleece would benefit from another pass on the skirting table and handspinners prefer the extra attention to their fleeces.  

The second pass removes more of the edges (skirt) of the fleece, any tags, shakes out second cuts should any have snuck in, and picks out some of the larger bits of VM.

This image shows a fleece after a second skirting pass. (image on p. 10 of the Spinner’s Book of Fleece by Beth Smith)

You are left with a fleece that remains in the shape of a sheep, but which still has legs, and neck wool present.  Some spinners prefer only the parts within the white line, which they would claim as “properly skirted”, but that is the prime blanket (if there’s a tender spot on the back ridge line, this should be removed in a second pass, however); the other sections are still wonderful parts of the fleece.  

The key point to remember, is that any fleece you acquire at a festival has been skirted.  To what extent a second – or even third – pass depends on the shepherd and sale expectations.

Truly Challenging Fleeces

Some fleeces are just generally challenging. They are frequently filthy, loaded with VM, have short staples; sometimes they have flaws.  They are also rewarding. Some of these fleeces have been my favorite spins.

Santa Cruz sheep fleece
Santa Cruz – it can be a challenge, but very rewarding!

We recently featured Santa Cruz and it is probably one of the more challenging fleeces I’ve worked with myself. Because it’s so rewarding, I use it as my challenging fleece case study pretty frequently. Santa Cruz is challenging because it’s short stapled, filthy, loaded with VM, and defies physics.

So how do I deal with it? It’s fairly simple:  I shake it out, do a cold soak, do my standard 2 scours and 2 rinses, let it dry, shake it out, and proceed to flick, card or comb.  I treat it just like I would any other fleece. There is one caveat – despite how short these staples are, my experience with this fleece tells me I prefer to comb it with mini combs.  

Dealing with dirty short stapled fleeces is not complicated, as I said, I follows the same process I would with any other fleece. The real issue is how, especially when I first encountered these fleeces, I got in my own way.  It’s short – surely there’s a special process? Nope. It’s dirty – surely I have to do something special? Nope. There’s a lot of VM – surely I have to do a bunch of fancy things to address it? Nope. There’s a stain – surely it will eat my yarn forever and be useless? Nope.  I learned, as you will, to trust the process and sample the fiber. It will tell you all sorts of things.

It’s all just wool. There’s nothing fancy or extreme to be done.  People have been using less than perfect fleeces to make textiles for tens of thousands of years and for tens of thousands of years they did not have the myriad of specialized tools we think are a must.  They used fingers, teasels, hair comb looking things, bead whorls on a stick, warp weighted or backstrap looms, cold water or water heated over a fire.

Once More into the Breach

Ultimately, as handspinners we have many choices when we go to a fiber festival or buy raw fleece online.  We now have tools to make our lives easier and continue a long tradition of making textiles. We have access to traditions all over the world to inspire us.  Go with a trusted source, educate yourself, and don’t be afraid of challenges. Hopefully, all this information helps you feel less apprehensive about the various fleece challenges you might find.  

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Sampling for a sweater

The Hush Chemise

Last month we talked about sampling in general.  My favorite reason to sample – and it includes gauge swatches – is for a large project.  We spin to make fabric after all, and we should use our handspun for big projects! In this case, I wanted a chemise to wear under garb that would breathe well, have amazing color, be a bit lacy, and just be fun and unique.

Sampling for a garment means sampling a yarn AND sampling for gauge.  The key is keeping a “fresh” singles of the final yarn wrapped around a card nearby while you spin, as well as a  ply back sample of the same yarn matching the number of plies with which you intend to knit.

Taking careful notes and keeping a sample card from start to finish is the best way for me to make sure I use the right yarns throughout the process, so I tend to take a sample from wheel to blocked swatch before moving on to my next attempt.

I like to make sure I have 4-6 oz available just for sampling if I am familiar with how a certain breed and put up behaves; if I’m not, I’ll go with a solid pound so I can play with prep, singles weights, number of plies, finishing methods, and swatching on different needle gauges.  

I had a pattern in mind already (The Hush Chemise (from the book Needles and Artifice), which you can purchase on Ravelry), but I had to get gauge and I did not want to buy yarn when I could spin my perfect yarn for my perfect chemise.  I’ve been sampling breeds for a long time so I have a decent understanding of what breeds I wanted to consider and ultimately decided that a Southern Cross Fiber club offering in the Cavern colorway in a 50/25/25 Falkland/Mulberry Silk/Royal Alpaca blend that I had gone crazy over and ordered tons of extras of, was the best choice for drape, as well as the thinner lace to fingering weight needed for the chemise.  It needed to be a fiber that I could spin finely enough to be a light 2-ply.

Then I just had to work out the best singles weight for the best ply back sample, that finished to the best finished yarn weight, and the best gauge swatch!  Easy!

I know, you’re all laughing, “right, sounds easy; she’s crazy!”  But I’m not really. See, all that breed sampling pays off. I already knew my default yarn was nearly perfect because I have spun and knit with it so much.  I knew I had to aim just a bit thicker, but not by much, because of the Falklands and the alpaca getting fluffier in finishing. A few ply back samples and singles wrapped around cards later and I knew I had  candidate. I plied up a few dozen yards, finished it, and knitted a gauge swatch on the called for needle size, one up and one down, then washed and blocked the swatches. And there it was! As I suspected. I tend to need to go down a needle size and that tendency held true.

I took that sample card, the whorl notes – which in this case was an RPM note because I spun the yarn on my Device of Questionable Origin, and the gauge swatch with needles noted, and set forth on spinning up my four pounds.  I saved a half pound or so back in the event I run low and need to spin some more. Once spun, plied, and finished, I cast on my sweater and started knitting!

The fabric drapes just as I wanted it to, and my sampling paid off – my piece measurements are right on track.  The color is perfect and it’s fabulous under my garb!

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Why Sample?

What to do with all those samples? Also – why do I sample?

There are many reasons to sample – the most important of them is so we get gauge. This is also important in lace knitting. We want to make sure that once that item we took so much care to make is finished, it does what we intended it to without surprises. It’s important to knit enough of a swatch – I like a 4”x4” size – to get several full repeats of any pattern both horizontally and vertically if you are knitting lace or cables. If you are not, you want to make sure you have enough fabric for your tension to have leveled out. If you don’t get gauge, go up, or down (or both!) a needle size and check again. Make sure you wash and block before you measure. Swatching and sampling will also help you determine if you got the right drape.

It matters for spinning too – is my yarn thin or thick enough? Do I prefer a two or 3 ply for that stitch pattern? Keep a control card with an in process singles wrapped around it, and a ply back sample, so you can spot check as you go.

But sometimes we have multiple samples for an item. Or, maybe we sample different colorways or breeds of sheep. What do I do with all those samples and leftover yarns?

And here’s another use for those samples: What if you develop a hole that you need to darn? AND YOU ARE OUT OF YARN? Or maybe you misjudged your order and need just enough to finish the row and bind off? We’ve all been there. IF you have your swatches you are stress free, unlike your friend who has to match a dye lot and order another ball. You just pop over to your swatches and unravel that perfectly matching yarn and continue on your way.!

My friends, so many reasons to swatch and so many options!!!!

I touched on sampling briefly in my Breed Study blog post back in April 2016. I’m still working on that stole by the way. I think it’s a lap blanket now. But I promised you a blog post about what to do with the samples and it’s time.

Summer is a great time to sample. It’s hot, we’re distracted by summer activities at the beach, ball field or vacation rides. Small items are more manageable. And remember, like it or not, fall is not far off and we need to start planning our fall and winter knitting projects. We even run into significant temperature fluctuations for air conditioning vs outdoors. Brrr, I can hear my coworkers’ teeth chattering away.

Here are a few ways to use your samples:

A breed sampler stole, lap blanket, or picnic blanket. Hey – wool is actually easily cleaned, bacteria resistant and insulating against dewy earth at summertime band concerts. What’s not to love? Here are a few patterns which are easy to add on various samples to get you in the mood:

This Sampler pattern from Leisure arts uses larger scale samples to create a lovely throw.

You didn’t think I’d forget those adorable little hexipuffs did you? The Beekeeper’s Quilt let’s you make all sorts of little puffs to assemble any way you want – stuff them for extra warmth – and using up some less than spinning desirable wool you may have acquired on a whim, or from a wonderful non-spinning friend who loves you, found it for free, and had no idea that you just aren’t ready for that right now.

The pattern I use for my sampler stole is Feather & Fan, which I picked up out of a stitch dictionary, but is also available online. Pick a number of repeats to get your preferred width, stick a simple garter stitch border on it to keep it from curling, and go!

Want something a bit more color oriented? Or maybe something more garment like? Oh yeah, we got that too.

Less is More by Spunky Eclectic’s Amy King is an awesome use for different weight yarns in different colorways. Choose your own adventure!

Rams and Yowes comes in hats, scarves, blankets, and even sweaters. And don’t be afraid of color in those sheep!

Anything Fair Isle! Watch your tension and keep those carries shorter, but Fair Isle is great. Tams, mitts, cowls. Small projects are great!

But wait, I weave – or want to. Oh my friends, we love you too! Aside from just throwing everything on the loom in a rave of color and yarn use (no really, go to town, it’s your cloth) you can do something more color coordinated like these:

Pin Loom weaving let’s you make woven ‘granny squares’ and assemble them anyway you want! Some inspiration can be found in Pin Loom Weaving and we do carry Zoom Looms.

Just put on a warp and go to town with whatever color coordinated yarns, as I did, or non coordinated ones you wish!

Just grab some warp and weft, and get to it! 

Don’t stop here – use these as launch points to do your own inspiring combinations! Sampling is awesome – and educational!

Not on Ravelry? Links to the Ravely patterns also available on public sites are listed below, in order of appearance in the article:

Sampler Afghan
Beekeeper’s Quilt
Less is More
Rams and Yowes  (though you may need to use the Ravelry store anyway)

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A Guide to Wheel Overhaul

I make a point to overhaul my spinning wheel(s) once a year.  To keep track and make sure I do it each year, I do all my overhauls around the time of Maryland Sheep & Wool.  Of course, I clean up the moving parts throughout the year after I spin a pound or two of fiber and replace drive bands as they go, but this is a different thing – my annual overhaul involves disassembling the main parts, cleaning them, oiling all the wood, checking drive bands for fraying and replacing them, checking all my spokes, etc.

It’s important to maintain them so they last another hundred years or more and to keep them in spinning condition. No Spinning Wheel Shaped Objects here!  And it’s not complicated. The first time I did it I was nervous – what if I messed something up? But of course, I made it harder in my head than it was in reality.  It’s really a very simple process.

I keep several rags, my favorite wood oil, a trusted and gentle all purpose cleaner, cotton swabs, toothpicks, drive band and footmen connector materials (appropriate to the wheel), and wheel oil handy as I do this. For these photos, I overhauled my Watson Marie, which remains in fine trim and did not require the toothpicks.

Watson Marie, pre-cleaning
Say hello to Eleanor, before her annual overhaul.

My first step is to disassemble the wheel – take the flyer off, pull the maidens, mother of all, and the drive wheel, inspecting each part as I go.  Then I flip the table, inspect the treadles, table, footmen, and legs, removing them if applicable. Most treadles are attached to the wheel – I don’t remove those, but I will disconnect footmen to inspect and replace the connectors.    

The major wheel components disassemble easily.


It may look scary now, but it will all be fine!

I will clean and oil the table, legs, footmen, and connectors.  This is an ideal time to replace the connectors and make sure that all the screws for the treadles are secure.  

Next up I inspect, clean and oil the drive wheel and return it to its customary position, setting the drive band – which I replaced if needed – in place.

Now we process the mother of all.  Clean and oil the mother and maidens, inspecting them carefully looking for any questionable wear on the leathers, felts, etc. While you are unlikely to find a need to replace these, now is the time to replace them if they are failing. 

Next up – the flyer assembly.  You got it: clean it, oil it and reassemble, inspecting the hooks and the flyer arms as you go.  

Cleaning the flyer

Finally, reseat the drive band and make sure the wheel is properly aligned.  This is normally an issue in antique wheels, but some modern wheels can be easily knocked.  Stand behind the drive wheel and watch the drive band as you move the treadle with your hands,  if it bobbles, adjust the position of the drive wheel (this may require some toothpicks on the uprights or legs for antique wheels).

Clean and back together!

That’s all there is to it!  Go forth and spin all the woolz for another year!

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What does it take to prepare for a show?

I’m often asked why we don’t do more shows.  My wooly ones, we want to!  We plan to!  We are applying to!  But it often comes down to time.  As you all know, both the shipping Wombat and I work full time (and then some…) jobs and then we come home to work on things in the store.  We work around conferences and work travel.

That means we choose our shows very carefully. We choose them to maximize our contact with you all as best we can.  And we are slowly but surely building the number of shows that we do.

Next up is the Maryland Alpaca and Fleece Festival on November 11-12 at the Howard County Fairgrounds, and we thought we’d give you a sneak peak into what it takes to prepare for a show

First, of course we select all the goodies we bring.  I normally build a spreadsheet so we can check everything off as it goes into the truck, selecting just the right fleeces and variety of things to bring with us.  I pick tools, books, and fibers; we decide on what special feature we will have for the show.  Sometimes we assemble a special sampler – available only for that show; other times we feature a specific sale.  We make sure any special goodies have arrived whether its wheel oil pens or sheepy measuring tapes.  This normally takes place a month or two in advance, especially if we need to order anything.

Next we stage everything.  Did we bring enough?  (Answer: almost never.)  What are we missing?  Luckily for Maryland Alpaca we’re close enough that we can bring more on Day Two – or even Day 1 if set up proves that we may be short on something exciting.  Did I forget the shetland?  What did I do with the power cord?  We even have a bin dedicated solely to admin with power cords, and zip ties, and energy bars!  I always stage the weekend prior to make sure I have time to look at everything and make changes.

packed and ready
How many fleeces did we stuff in there?

Then we pack the truck. My friends, I think I could pack a flock of sheep into my truck with all its nooks and crannies, and yet we are always over stuffed and in need of more packing space.  Luckily, for Maryland Alpaca we can use two cars – but for PLY away and the farther shows we only get one and we must pack wisely. Vacuum bags and laundry bags are a space saver I appreciate dearly. We can get over 100 fleeces in the car in addition to tables and cubes, and books and tools that way!  Packing happens the day before we leave for the show.  It allows us to get an early start and not feel rushed.

Driving to the show for set up is always fun – I once spent 16 hours holding a bag of wool with my head so it didn’t slide into the driver’s lap!  But once we arrive we set up.  We’re pretty good at getting ourselves set up.  Every vendor I know has their own special way of setting up – some pile everything in the middle, some put away their walls whole!  As you know, we are known for our Wall of Fleece.  And shows always feature our Traveling Wall of Fleece!  It’s just like walking into the store – only smaller and tailored to the show we are at.  Sometimes, we feature only American Heritage breeds when we are at a Colonial Farm.  Other times we bring one (or more) of everything!

Setting up the booth
Bringing order from chaos!

The Shipping Wombat assembles all the cubes and tables while I ready the fibers and stuff cubes.  Then we attack everything so you all see what you love – do  we have combs? Why yes! Cards? Yup! Spindles? Of course – care to try one?  Scour? We do!  Some sources say we hold the booth set up record, I don’t know about that but I know the fastest we’ve done it is 2 hours.    We are a well oiled machine.  Mostly we like to keep our set up/break down time efficient – we want to get to you all arriving for the show!

After that the fun begins:  Several days of very early mornings, and late nights as we welcome our wooly friends to huff our fabulous fumes.  (I swear, shetland smells like crayons!)  Answering questions and inviting you to fondle fibers.  Packing your baggies of goodness.  Exploring combs and cards.  Comparing the merits of different washes and scours.  This is the best part.  Seeing all of you!

When the show is over, we do it all in reverse. Depending on the show, break down can happen in as little as 45 minutes but it usually takes about 3 hours – re-stuffing fleece in vacuum bags is a wee bit tricker if we have no room for the vacuum. Then we head home, empty the truck. Pick up some BBQ.  (It’s true – our post show guilty pleasure is BBQ!  Meats, slaw, corn bread, beans, collards and a tall cold beer.  Oh yeah…..) Catch up on the paperwork. And at some point, put everything back where it normally goes!

So there it is.  A little snapshot of our show prep.  I’m sure we missed many things.  But don’t let us miss you at Maryland Alpaca!

The Spinning Loft

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Is it REALLY Garbage?

This spring prior to PLY AWAY 2017 I got what I thought was a normal message from Abby Franquemont, who was in need of some fiber for her upcoming PLY Away class, a 3 day intensive on Andean Backstrap Weaving from raw fleece to woven object.  She wanted normal, run of the mill fleeces of a medium type; not too long, not too soft, not too coarse, nothing really specific.  Basically, she wanted “sheep’s wool” of the type any random farmer in any random place might have in their flock.  I hmmmm’d a bit and came up with a few good options.  But then the zinger: “Oh, and I want the flaw-iest, crappiest fleece you have.”  

Teachers often ask me if I have flawed fleeces for class demonstrations, so I figured I knew where this was going.  But it was oh so much better.  Abby’s intention was to show her students that a flawed fleece could not simply be composted as waste – people have to be able to USE these fleeces no matter what.  Handspinners do not all have the luxury of pristine gorgeous fleece with which to work.  

So I gave her a southdown fleece I had. Actually, I gave her the choice between two I had.  Meat sheep already have a terrible reputation – however unfair that is, and this one was utterly hated by the shepherd who sent them to me, so much so I had to talk him into sending it.  He should be happy I did, because I need these fleeces sometimes too!  They had every single flaw in the book, but one of them was way worse than the other: it was utterly filthy – I think the sheep liked to mud bathe; it had canary stain; it had yolk; it had cotted tips; it had staple breaks mid way down it’s desperately short 1.5” staple; it had VM enough to make a barn.  On top of all this it was very greasy and had tarry tips!  Honestly, it was one of those fleeces that make a person cringe in agony, sigh, and toss it in the compost heap (or around the hydrangeas).  Abby squealed with glee at the sight of the really nasty one and snatched it up in a hot second.  Bystanders were confused by her excitement over its utter horrificness.  

Fleece with much damage. But is it unusable?
This is the other fleece. Abby chose the other one, with even more issues.

The Chosen Fleece is ideal as a teaching moment.  With all those flaws a teacher gets to go over all the reasons why someone would say “don’t buy that and tell the shepherd/seller why it’s garbage and why they are horrible people for putting it out there because you can never spin it because of all the reasons.”  Here I am back, and my opening post will be loaded with controversy!

I’ve heard them all:

  1. There’s a break so it cannot be spun; it can and to great result.  
  2. There’s staining so you can’t spin it; you can and it will be yellow – or you will overdye it.  
  3. There’s stain so it will dissolve in your hands; not necessarily, see 1 and 2.  
  4. It’s filthy so it’s not worth spinning; cold water and a few hours works wonders – even on mating dye – spin away!  
  5. It’s got cotted tips, you can’t spin that; they mostly card off in processing, see 1.  
  6. there’s so much VM; it shakes out most of the way once it’s clean and the rest spins out.  Plus, I hope you clean your floors sometimes, this will clean up nicely when you do that.  

Knowing that flaws do not doom a fleece to the compost heap of woolens, and eager to see how her students felt, naturally, I asked Abby if she’d mind letting me know how the students fared and their impressions.  As with so many things, Abby outdid herself.  She didn’t tell me, instead, she sent one of her students to my booth. 

Cat Ellen was filled with excitement, spinning a spindle full of buttery singles.  She said to me. “Abby said I had to come show you this.  It’s yarn I made from that horrible fleece! And you know what?  All we did was cold soak it!”  She handed me this amazing ball of buttery yellow yarn – and showed me the weaving she was working on with it.  “I didn’t realize Abby was doing natural dyeing in class too?”  “She didn’t!  It just blended that way!”  So I decided to meet up with her after PLY Away and talk with her about her experience.  Note: Cat’s photos are used in this blog with permission.  You can and should read her blog story on the bigger project here.

Alison: If you had ever seen such a fleece – what did you think about fleeces like that before Abby’s class?  I believe Abby shared that this fleece had absolutely every flaw in the book: canary stain, yolking, staple breaks, really short staples, cotted tips – you name it, it was in there.  Have you ever worked with a fleece with any of these flaws, let alone all of them?   If you had, what was your experience?  (I hope there’s a picture of the fleece out of the bag in all it’s “glory” – if not, the “not as horrible” fleece above will have to suffice.)  

Cat: I have never seen anything like this. I’d never really even wondered what you would do with a fleece that had every undesirable quality possible. Up until this class, I didn’t ever work with wool in the grease or enjoy processing wool. I preferred “spin ready” materials.

Alison: I understand that you had to sort the fleece, soak it in cold water (no scour!), and process it like any other fleece for spinning.  What were your impressions when you worked with the fleece in class?  

Cold-soak scoured fleece
Cat’s photo of the cold water soaked wool, on a hotel towel with dirt and VM picked out. This was not scoured – the Andean farmers don’t have wool scour.

Cat: Since I thought the assignment was to cold-water process the wool before class the third day, I set the wool to soak in our hotel sink while we went to dinner. Afterwards, it probably took about 20+ minutes to finish running the rinse water until it ran clear. The first soak water was a deep brown at the beginning.

I set out a hotel hand-towel on the desk, held the hotel hair dryer in my teeth (holding the rubberized loop that hangs the dryer on a hook), and used the lowest setting help blow the dirt particles out of the wool while I opened the locks and pulled out the vegetable matter. The photos of the effort really show how dirty the wool was, even after the water ran clear.

Alison: Once it was carded and spun, and you wove with it, – a process markedly more demanding than knitting or crocheting on a yarn – could you tell it was from a such a flawed source?   

First note: It wasn’t carded or combed. I spun it directly from the clean locks, with almost no pre-drafting. And so far I’ve only completed spinning the singles and dyeing the wool. I still need to ply the yarn (high-twist) to prepare to measure out a warp for an Andean Backstrap.

I don’t think that anyone would ever notice that this wool was not originally a great fleece. The yarns from the “problem fleece” compared to the white locks (in the grease) look remarkably similar when spun up. And I had a gut feeling this wool would take dye beautifully.


cold-soak scoured fleece
These are the three wools Abby obtained and gave out – the Southdown of Ill Repute is on the right. Cat: All three samples we were given, after cold-water soak only, no scour, no soap, no hot water — then hand-picked through with a hair dryer on the lowest setting, to speed up the drying process and be ready to spin the next morning.

I started spinning the “problem fleece” first, just in case it took longer to work with. I had to watch carefully for the second cuts and breaks. I spun directly from the wool without combing or carding. I started to really get into a rhythm with the wool. After a while, I could see how you would never want to throw out any fleece, because all it might need is some extra loving care.

Spindle and wool
Cat: This is the spindle I used, and how the singles looked. You can see that the locks are not combed or carded.

Alison: Was it any more/less work to process this fleece than a pristine one?  

Cat: While it was weird at first to try to use a stained, dirty, plant-filled fleece, I began to really adore this wool. I kept imagining what the sheep might be like, what it might have suffered to have vitamin deficiencies and dirty hair. Once you discount the dust and dirt, the biggest difference between the “problem fleece” and the other two samples was that this one had very little lanolin. Since I have never been enamored of wool-in-the-grease, part of me liked this wool better for being less greasy. Yes, the white and brown/grey locks seems long and luxurious in comparison, and they slid neatly past each other in the grease. But this wool just didn’t want to give up.

At first it was a little hard to deal with the locks, I think because I didn’t comb or card it and just spun it from the lock.  But, once I got used to them, it got easier to spin confidently.   The finished yarn seems *very* solid and dependable and I trust it as a 2 ply high twist warp yarn.

Ball of new-spun yarn
Cat’s Triumphant first ball of singles: Just a tiny halo on the strands, but these want to be high-twist, two-ply, Andean warp!
Skeins of yarn ready to dye for weaving
Both balls of yellow and both balls of white are now ready to dye.

Alison: Now that you’ve worked with a fleece that we spinners might consider “garbage” – what are your thoughts?  Did it change your mind?  

Cat: You would never know that the deep pink yarn was ever a “problem” fleece originally. And I’m truly looking forward to plying up the high-twist yarn used in Andean Backstrap Weaving. I can see know why the elders in the village were concerned that the children learn to spin early. Because once you’ve started making yarn for your weaving, it is really hard to stop spinning everywhere, all the time. And with the right love, any fleece could possibly be awesome.

Ready to ply and weave
Rinsed, dried, and ready to ply next.

Alison: Thanks, Cat!  I’m glad you had fun with it – and discovered that “any fleece could be awesome”!  

It’s so true: Any fleece could be awesome.  Even the apparently sketchy ones have so very much to give in terms of pleasure and reward.  Flaws are not an automatic death sentence for a fleece and they should not be considered so.  They do need to be understood and loved.  But never just dismiss them as unspinnable or trash and demand recompense, trashing the reputation of seller or shepherd in the process.     

Spin all the Woolz, folks.  

All the woolz!


The Spinning Loft

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Tales from the (Fleece) Sale

So there I was, wandering the aisles and reviewing fleeces at the Fleece sale.  I wasn’t shopping for me, no I was not!  I was shopping for the store.  I was also training some new wool buyers.

See, I like the fleece sale.  It’s a really great opportunity for me to expand my shepherds list for fleeces.  The sale lets me evaluate fleeces honestly and anonymously with my shipping Wombat and whoever else I bring with me without the hazards of having a shepherd lurking at my shoulder getting bristly, worried, or upset at my critiques.

It has happened before when I’ve evaluated a shepherd’s fleeces against breed standard.  I get that, all their fleeces are important to them and maybe Sally-Ewe had a rough lambing or was tormented by an obnoxious barn cat.  But Sally-Ewe’s fleece is not breed standard.  It was too short, didn’t have the right crimp, or it had unacceptable flaws.  Perhaps it was horribly filthy; while I’m super supportive of 4H’rs that’s not going to get me to buy a fleece filled from tip to butt end with pulverized – *what* is *that*?  As for that one, well, it may be an otherwise lovely merino, but I am quite sure that fleece had both scurf AND canary stain (and since it’s hard to see scurf in the grease that’s a shocker!).  This one is really old and her fleece is, well, more kemp than wool now. Yes, your shetland may have a very fine micron count for the thel, but it’s still a dual coated breed –  it’ll never be a fine wool.  And also, by the way, Sally-Ewe’s fleece just wasn’t worth $100/#.*  A little realism here.  I will pay you fairly – but neither I nor anyone else should be gouged.  I think I’ll pass.

See, I really need all my fleeces to reflect the characteristics of the breed’s wool accurately and appealingly.  Sometimes my choices are limited but I can’t evaluate a Scottish Blackface using the standard for merino.   The fleece sale, therefore,  is perfect for evaluating a shepherd’s work as exhibited in fleece.  I can see if a shepherd knows their standard, cares for the nutrition and land, is more focused on a spinner’s flock or the promotion of the breed.  I can tell very quickly if I want to call them on the phone and ask for more, directly, at the time of shearing – or even reserve fleeces on the hoof.  Many times after a sale I have gone out of my way to go go to the farm and meet with the shepherds.  And reserve I do, my friends, reserve I do!

Back to this year’s MDSW….

So I’m wandering through the sale on Sunday, while my fleece buying trainees were in the skirting demonstration.  My Wombat and I are exploring everything Saturday left and turned over looking for gems – and some more Shetland fleeces, which after PLY Away I was desperately in need of.  Again.

Then I saw it. Ok, I saw THEM.

A gorgeous silvery-pearlescent fine wool fleece from a breed I strongly dislike(™).  The staple length was good – slightly shorter than I’d like, but that color!  The fleece was uncoated, but not egregiously unclean, just a slight bit of very large bits of straw and hay from the sheep lying down right before shearing – and that color!  The staple was sound and pinged like a guitar string – and that color!  The weight was good – and that color!  The price was good – and that color!  Obviously I must hold this for a bit to make a decision.

But then I saw it.  Slightly further down the table….

Pewter & Pearl – this is one beautiful natural colored Merino.

A slightly darker, pewtery-pearl fleece from the same flock. An even better color.  With even better staple.  With even better length.  With even cleaner fleece (perhaps this sheep didn’t lounge like its fellow).  Even slightly bigger.  And at the same good price.  It’s beautiful.  It’s got a stripe!

WHAT DO I DO?!?!?!?!  I need two of these fleeces like I need a hole in the head.  Right?

No really… right?  I mean surely…. I have to make a decision.  I can’t get them both.  Right?

The Shipping Wombat is summoned.  “Honey should I?”  “Well,” says he, “we could use a colored one on the site.  You know we need that.  But I don’t think we need two.”  BUT BUT BUT….  “BUT WHICH ONE?!?!”

I call for help from a trusted favorite shepherd friend.  “Well, this one is prettier, but this one will photograph better – and really, it’s just as pretty.  This is so subjective, Alison But if it were me, I’d chose…..” and she picked a fleece.

WHAT DO I DO?!?!  Well, if you’re me and certain other fleece-meisters you get both.  Right?

Well, I didn’t get both. I exhibited what is a rare and unusual amount of self control.  Clearly I need I doctor.  I did get one of them though – you didn’t think I was going to NOT get one of them did you?  I’m sick, but I’m not THAT sick.  Sheesh.  Course, now I’m kicking myself for not getting both, but that’s what happens when I second guess.  Never second guess.  Never.


Karakul? I can’t believe it’s not Fabio…

I found this AMAZING Karakul fleece. I know I know – what can be amazing about Karakul?  It’s so coarse and it’s just for rugs right?  No my darlings.  No.  And this one I was secretly hoping was amazing.  It seemed a bit disheveled.  Was it tangled?  Is this the undercoat – or is it a bit felted at the butt end?  I had to find out.

I begged, I pleaded – actually I just asked.  I needed to see the fleece open to make sure my instinct was right so I asked the fabulous ladies (YOU GUYS ROCK) at the fleece sale if I could open it up to check a few things.  I wanted the fleece – but needed to be SURE.  We barely started to unroll it when I confirmed this miracle.  No wonder it seemed tangled.   LOOK AT THE STAPLE LENGTH!  “Surely it’s more than 18 months growth, right?” one of us asked.  “Where is it from?” asked another.  “California, and it’s clean and dry – I bet they just let it loose in some pasturelands,” I said. “It reminds me of the way it looks when they are allowed to shift their grazing naturally, with the seasons.”  I have never seen a Karakul fleece like it.  And the staple is as long as my forearm.  No.  Really.  That’s my arm there.

And is that?  Why yes!  It’s THEL – there is an undercoat on this bad boy!  A delicious, soft, yummy undercoat.  And the outer coat.  My friends, my own hair isn’t as silky soft as this Karakul.

I think we may have a fight on our hands…..

*Disclaimer: Names and dollar events have been fictionalized – and I haven’t encountered all these things in a single fleece – but the inspiring events were real.  

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What is breed study?

The Spinning Loft prides itself on having as many breeds of sheep in stock as we can in the form of wool and fleece for our clients and we generally have more than 50 unique breeds in a combination of prepared fiber and raw fleece (at time of writing we have 56).  We also carry samplers consisting of 2 oz of a variety of breeds themed according to the sampler.  


Aside from catering to the need to Spin all the Woolz, well we do it for breed study of course!  Breed study is really all about knowing what works for any type of project.  This happens through experience an experience comes from sampling: sampling different wool types, sampling the wool of different breeds of sheep, sampling different preparations.  Breed study allows a spinner to experience a wide variety of wools, it teaches us about how they act, what they might be used for and the effects that can be created with different wool types.

Does a wool like lace?  Cables?  Textured effects?  Does it work better worsted?  Woolen?  Perhaps it likes a preparation somewhere along the continuum of semi worsted or semi woolen?  Would it like to be knitted?  Crocheted or woven?  Does it drape?  Is it durable?  Is it springy?

Sample, sample, sample!

All of these factors – and more – affect your spinning and your finished object and sampling helps you to decide what wool to use for a particular project.  It also helps inform decisions about what types of wool a spinner might prefer to spin.  It is well known, for example, that I do not enjoy merino as much as I enjoy Bond or Polwarth.  Initially, I thought this was odd – both Bond and Polwarth are very similar to merino in many ways.  But I learned through breedy study that I prefer the hand of the other two over merino, without sacrificing the softness, loft, spring and drape of merino.  

We stock every breed we can find so that you can find exactly the wool you want to spin – and you don’t have to buy a whole fleece to do it.  

Ok, but what do you do with it?  

Sure, you are thinking, 2 oz samples (or even 4 oz samples) of 10 different breeds is great – but what do I do with all those tiny skeins?  

I will be having a whole blog post coming up about what to do with 2 and 4 oz bits, and those projects are not limited to breedy study, but in the meantime I want to share what my “breed study” project is.  Because when I set out I decided I wanted to dedicate a project to my sampling, something that showcased sheep breeds in all their glory and natural colors.  Because, well, I wanted to *do* something with all those samples!  

It’s obviously ongoing, and thus will take forever to finish – if I ever can call it finished!  But it’s still such fun.  

See, samples can be useful

It’s a simple stole in a simple pattern.  After I sample my swatches – whatever yarn is left is added to my stole.  I suppose when I get to my desired length I will probably cast on new stitches alongside to add another panel and turn it into a lap blanket or a ruana!

You said the “s” word!  I don’t like the “s” word!

I did.  I did say the “s” word.  But don’t turn away in horror!  Sampling is actually pretty darn awesome.  

When I began my breed study, I only created two samples of each breed.  I prepared them in the ‘traditional’ way for each fiber type, combed for longwools, carded for down, flicked for fine wools (mostly) and I did a singles yarn, a 2 ply yarn and a 3 ply yarn.  I used the 2 ply to make a lace swatch and the 3 ply to make a stockinette swatch.  I used the same pattern and the same size needles – and the same wheel and whorl settings.  I do this just to make everything uniform and compare only the wools themselves.   

I have since gone back and made other swatches from the earlier samples because as I went on, I found that those weren’t enough.  What about lace on a 3 ply?  Why not card that longwool?  Why shouldn’t I comb the down breed?  After all, breed study is about learning about how wools behave and what I like about them.  I need to try all the woolz in all the wayz!  I still use the same needles and lace pattern though.

Ok so, I got carried away there.  But that’s just it – that’s the excitement of breed study!  Four breeds led to eight, then twelve, and somewhere along the way I found myself with 104 (and counting) and a whole lot of tiny skeins.  All my sampling led me to so many revelations – so much fun and adventure.  I just wanted to do more and more and more of it.

Oh sure – how can fiber be an adventure? It’s an exploration of geography – where in heck is Borerary?  It’s an exploration of history – wait, the vikings used Gammelnorsk Sau for their sails?!  Gotta get me some (and I did).  Woodrow Wilson put shetlands with an attitude on the White House lawn?!  Why yes!  It even suggested culinary exploration (they do taste different!).

But wait, there’s more!   

Sometimes I don’t want to do what the fiber tells me to do – I just want to spin for the joy of it.  And sampling helped me do that too.  Trying to spin a fiber that is prepped in a way that it fights me while spinning used to lead me to hate that breed.  But then I realized – what if I change it?  Now I can enjoy spinning ALL the breeds because of what I learned sampling.  Picking up a coarse fiber still makes me happy because I learned what it liked.  Picking up merino can also make my day now – yes, even merino.  

And just spending time spinning a few ounces makes my day too.  Sometimes I don’t have time to spin a whole 4 or 8 ounces, and who am I kidding, I love to finish a whole bump of wool all in one go.  But knocking out 2…. Well, that’s a sanity check in a tiny wooly bag!  

I’m sold – where do I start?  

Buy all the woolz!  

Ok, seriously.  You can start with samplers.  Or you can choose 4 fibers of different fiber types.  Or you can start at the beginning (or end) of the alphabet.  Or you can pick up a few ounces of every breed in stock somewhere.  Or …. oh heck, the possibilities are endless.  But I do recommend keeping a list.  Otherwise, how will you know if you spun Zwartbles or Hebridean?  Gulf Coast or Gammelnorsk Spelsau?   What if you see a breed and you think you spun it but aren’t sure?  Well, you could do what I do and pick up 4-8 ounces anyway.

All this in a tiny bit of woolen fluff.   After all, wool is wonderful!
Well, I do still keep a list.

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What the Shepherds Have Taught Me

When I began this journey of fiber exploration, I did not intend to dive into the realm of breed study – or even to become a wool merchant!  I began as a way to de-stress and provide an outlet for some creative juices, to do something with my hands to take my mind of something less appealing.  In short, I began in a way many others do.  And I began knitting; I didn’t take up spinning until later – because I couldn’t find the yarn I wanted and because it appealed to my sense of history.

When I discovered different breeds, a whole new world opened up to me (more on that later this year) but I soon found myself unable to get ALL the breeds.  I had books about the wools from so many breeds – I began with Fournier – and I couldn’t find some of them.  So I started talking to shepherds instead.  Along the way, I discovered things about the wool from the shepherds that is either not commonly shared or may be commonly ignored by the general spinning public; particularly the spinning public that does not work from raw fleece quite so much.

This blog post honors some of the things I have learned from my precious and appreciated shepherds.  It began as “an interview with a shepherd” – or rather, shepherds.  I have asked many shepherds many questions, but they all ultimately have similar things to say.  Some of these things I have touched upon before, some of these things are talked about by multiple people, and some of these things really get the shepherds on a tirade.

Without further ado, this is some of what my shepherds have taught me.

Most of my shepherds don’t know their wool is worth selling

No, it’s true.  They really don’t know that people love to spin the wool from their sheep.  Most only have contact with the wool pool and the wool pool pays them so little.  It is especially true of shepherds raising what are considered meat sheep – breeds like Suffolk, Oxford and Southdown, or Clun Forest. Some shepherds choose not to raise wonderful breeds like Leicester Longwool because they take too long to reach a market (for meat) age.  And some, like Icelandic or Shetland, because they are so small they don’t fetch enough money for meat.

When they learn about spinners they get excited – and sometimes have a bad experience because of our proclivity for longer staples or pristine wool.  One shepherd I work with – especially for some of the meat breeds – was so excited to work with us because we could field those questions and give him another outlet for his sheep – and pay the shearer – while letting him get on with what he loved: raising his sheep.

Fleece is a byproduct – and most of us think it’s garbage

This lesson is a partner to the previous one.  I know this statement hurts me to the very cockles of my being and it probably makes all of you cringe, but it’s still true.  Shepherds raise sheep for meat – or for breeding stock.  Sometimes a quality ram is worth its weight in, er, you know what I mean.  Some of the shepherds have also learned they can get a couple month’s feed or help pay the shearer with what they make from the sale of fleece to handspinners.  But ultimately, wool is not making them rich.  If they are lucky, the added income stream helps them to pay the bills.

If a shepherd develops a relationship with various sources, such as The Spinning Loft, we are able to work with them, give feedback on the fleece, and get better fleece over time – and pay the shepherd a fair price for their labor and efforts.  And, as quality goes up, so do their costs and the cost of that wool.  It costs a LOT of money to raise sheep – money for vet bills, barns, feed, equipment, shearers (even meat stock has to be shorn before harvest!)  – and they don’t get nearly enough money from the sale of the wool to cover those expenses.  And that doesn’t include their mortgages, farm equipment, electric and water bills, food for their tables, etc.

I recently posted an excellent article about this subject in the UK, and it’s no different (if not worse) here, in a place where eating lamb is exotic and mutton all but unknown.  Almost all the clips from the large and medium flocks are bought by large mills for things like Pendleton blankets, Patagonia, etc.  and they are paid pennies for their pounds of fleece.  Whatever doesn’t sell still goes to the compost heap or the trash.  Now, as a spinner you’re thinking “oh yes pennies please!” but that’s such a disservice to our wonderful shepherds.  I remind you – they lose thousands of dollars on the wool and like you and I, they deserve to earn a living, put food on the table and send their children to school.

Coating is a misery

As spinners, we all love a pristine fleece in gorgeous condition with nothing to remove.  Such fleeces lend themselves to our impulsiveness, our desire and our need to just dive into some glorious wool.  But coating is not without its problems.

Sheep already have coats: their fleeces!  Adding another layer can put added stress on the sheep that produce the wool we love.  They can get overheated, they can get caught in scrub and become easy pickings for predators while in the field, the coats can actually damage the fleece by felting the tips – or by trapping grease and sweat and causing sores.  Coating can even stress a sheep who doesn’t like the coat so much it affects their health causes a break in the fleece.  Coating is also prohibitively expensive for most of them.  Those coats are not cheap and they have to be changed as the fleece grows – sometimes every month or so.  That’s a lot of coats!  To save money many shepherds make their coats – which adds the burden of time at a sewing machine to their already long days and these are shepherds, not seamstresses or tailors.  Coating adds a ton of money to the cost of your fleece – money spinners prefer to spend on wool.

Sheep live in fields and barns, VM and dirt comes with the territory

Sorry about the dirt and grass, but we love to be outside!

It’s uncanny – not a single one of my shepherds has failed to mention this when I have asked them “what they wish spinners knew”.  Some of them have even spent HOURS decrying this trend against VM and dirt.  They understand – really, they do.  They know that a cleaner fleece is easier on us. They know a cleaner fleece commands a higher price.  “But don’t they understand?” my shepherds cry, “The sheep live in fields – they don’t shower and change their clothes each day, throwing yesterday’s in the wash!”   And it’s true.  Sheep lie in the grass or dirt.  Sheep wander through brush and scrub and trees.  Sheep don’t mind standing in the rain – and snuggling down in the warm compost heap.  Some sheep even have long locks designed to shed the water from that rain – which then can drag through more sloppy ground

Sheep who also live in barns tend to be dirtier, though they are also less likely to cot or felt thanks to less weather exposure.  But on the flip side, they like to eat hay underneath or above their flock mates – and boy are sheep messy eaters!  They always wind up with bits of hay and straw in their necks, and backs; if only they’d learn to use a fork.

Shepherds must care for the land on which they keep their sheep – making sure that it provides them with nutrients and safety.  They often struggle to remove burdock and other prickly shrubberies from their sheepfolds.  Quality environment leads to healthy sheep and quality fleece and that is far more important than the dirt we can not only wash off of ourselves, but off of our wool.  We must accept that all fleece is not pristine.

Please don’t ask us for just a small amount from this spot on a fleece

This one really gets their goat.  Imagine, kind spinners, if after you worked so hard to produce a beautiful skein of yarn someone wanted to buy that yarn.  You are overjoyed.  The skein is lovely and you are happy someone wants it.  You toiled for a nice even yarn, something smooth and consistent – or maybe you toiled for the perfect art yarn, filled with bobbles, eyelash or beads.  It took many hours of careful scouring, lock by lock, followed by many hours of careful combing or carding.  And then even more hours of spinning and plying.  Perhaps somewhere in there you also dyed your fiber.  Perhaps you achieved 1000 yards from your small amount of fiber or perhaps it’s the most poofy lovely DK weight – destined for a cabled hat and mittens.  You are so happy!  You worked so hard and your toil has paid off.

But wait – what is this?  The buyer only wants this particular 3 yard stretch from the middle of your skein for some fair isle work?  Would you please cut that part out and sell it instead?  And incidentally, your family wants dinner, other customers are scrabbling for your attention, your wheel is squeaky and wants to throw its driveband (you were hoping this sale would help you get it overhauled by the maker this month).  But alas, your buyer says you should just cut that part out because they insist it’s the right thing to do.  No my spinner friends, it is not.  There are people the shepherd works with to achieve this.  If you really want only a couple pounds, go in on the fleece with some friends and share it or contact a retailer who sells in smaller quantities.

Our shearers are underpaid and overworked – and they skirt.  

A shearer at work – Shearing, skirting, and keeping the sheep safe

Oh our wonderful unsung heroes!  Shearers are a dying breed.  There are a handful of them throughout the US (and world, really).  All of them travel during shearing season from one flock to the next shearing hundreds or thousands of head a year and spending weeks and months on the road away from home.  They charge by the head, and hope this charge pays for their truck, their hotels, their gas, their equipment, maintenance, and all the other bills you and I have as well.  Shepherds book them months in advance and they stick to their schedules.  They are not on call – and some, like those who shear with scissors, are a rarer breed still.  Shearing is hard work – the sheep are heavy, they spend hours at a time hunched over a flock, one sheep after another on uncomfortable ground.  While they shear, if they have an agreement with the shepherds, they trim hooves (yes, that’s an add on).  Shepherds and shearers work together – the shearer can see various conditions when they shear.  Perhaps there’s a clump of dandruff, or a break in the fleece, the shearer can spot these and notify the shepherd.

If you want to anger a shearer ask them to skirt more carefully.  I had a lovely discussion with a local shearer who works with one of my shepherds.  We had planned the interview and I was clear up front that I was hoping to learn and share with my fellows so as not to offend.  I was glad that I did.  As I mentioned in my last blog post – shearers already skirt.  They do it with the hand not wielding the blades and the shearer I interviewed said that it was the most offensive question he gets asked.  He said it was akin to someone questioning the quality of our work – and no one likes that.  Shearers “work hard,” he said, “to shear fleeces cleanly and efficiently for the shepherds; and to make those fleeces usable if desired – and that means skirting.”  He also said he appreciates it when the shepherds disclose that they have a spinners’ flock – they can schedule more shearings that day, adjust timing, or even ask if several flocks nearby can be brought together for a shearing – but it doesn’t change how he shears.  “The shepherds,” he emphasized, “won’t have me back if I don’t do a good job.  A shearer must shear cleanly, efficiently, with the fewest possible number of blows (a blow is the pass they take with the blades to shear the wool off).  Having to go back over a fleece, creating what you call second cuts, slows us down and risks wriggling sheep or wasted wool.  And my family needs to eat; doing a good job is how I feed them.”

Speaking of shearing – nicks happen and the sheep don’t notice

This one was totally logical – and yet surprising.  The first time I saw a sheep sheared at a shearing with one of my shepherds, the ewe squirmed at a delicate moment and the shearer accidentally nicked her butt.  Naturally, I asked my shepherd about it and her young son answered my question, “Oh they don’t feel that – it’s no big deal.  It wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t squirm just then.”

My shepherd confirmed it and explained.  As prey animals, sheep have developed limited nerve endings in their skin.  Unlike you or I, they don’t react with a sharp hiss and recoil in pain when they get nicked.  And just like when we shave ourselves, nicks, though unusual, do happen.  There’s a special antibiotic/antibacterial liquid that the shepherds use when it happens, and the shearers always feel terrible.  But it really is no big deal and the sheep never notice.

And what about the stress, you might wonder.  Well, most animals object when they are rolled over – at least until they get all the way over.  It’s just really awkward for them in the process.  All that struggling ends when the sheep are on their butts and relaxed, like a dog getting its belly rubbed – and it’s all just a temper tantrum anyway.  The sheep aren’t hurt, tormented, stressed or disturbed any more than your 2 year old at her first hair cut.

Sheep need shearing – unless the breed is feral, the gene that allows them to roo (shed their fleece like a dog or cat or rabbit blows its coat) has been bred out and they rely upon us for their hair cuts.  Remember that: sheep rely on us for their health.  Part of that health includes shearing.  Besides, we want that wool for spinning!

We raise sheep because we love them – the money comes from the meat

If you love sheep, eat lamb AND use the wool.  Our shepherds love their flocks.  They find them rewarding and want to maintain their shepherding lives.  But they make more money from selling their sheep for meat – and that includes the very low prices they get.  I wondered at this myself  given the price of lamb in the supermarket until I learned that almost all our lamb is imported from Australia or New Zealand, with Iceland a close third.  Now, I love all three nations – and I appreciate their products – but there are hundreds of local shepherds who have lamb that doesn’t need a freezer transport and a plane ticket.

I know many of us would say “if you love your sheep don’t kill them!” but the truth is that ewes have many purposes, and rams do not.  Many spinners don’t like ram fleeces – sometimes they are coarser, they are often larger, and sometimes they have a “rammy” smell that takes a bit more attention to remove in scouring.  And, the older a sheep gets, the coarser its fleece gets.

I learned from several shepherds that too many rams in a flock are not only dangerous to the shepherd, but to the ewes and lambs as well.  A ram that wants to mate can easily kill a lamb to gain access to a ewe, so they are frequently kept separately from the ewes.  But too much testosterone in one place leads to rams attacking each other and fighting for dominance.  One of my Jacob shepherds reported finding a pair of valued rams in his field after such a fight, one had not survived while the other was severely injured and required significant veterinary care.  A shetland shepherd I work with reported a ram attacking her every time she separated him from the ewes!  All that mating has some other effects as well: on several occasions after observing a much larger flock than usual or intended, I have been told of “accidental lambs.”  A ram can mate with an ewe who shouldn’t raise a lamb that year, or who is too young, and the shepherds don’t always know that it has happened until it’s too late. “What about wethering?” I asked.  Well, it seems that wethering is not the best solution either.  Sometimes the wethers are attacked and bitten by other rams.  And unless that wether has an extremely lucrative fleece or companion purpose, he’s just eating.

I also learned that just as different breeds of sheep have different types of wool, different breeds of sheep taste differently!  Tunis really does taste better than Merino or Corriedale or Suffolk.  So does Icelandic.  And Katahdin is quite different than Tunis.  Who knew?

Breed standard length – well, that’s not necessarily what I can get in a year

This one was revelatory for me.  An inch is an inch is an inch right?  A year’s growth is the breed standard right?  Well, sort of.  Long wools grow their wool faster in a shorter time, reaching a reasonable breed standard in 6-8 months instead of a year.  But meat breeds take longer.  Finer staples with super crimp are slower too.  All that crimp we love makes the fleece take longer to reach it’s length; too many sharp turns – like the Col du Chaussy in the 2015 Tour de France!

And what may be a year’s growth – well, that may not be in the best interest of the sheep.  A year’s growth on a Teeswater might well be 10-12” but letting a Teeswater go for a year frequently results in felted fleece, or causes the sheep to overheat, particularly in the tropical weather of the mid Atlantic and south east, so the shepherds shear twice a year.  Keeping a Merino going for a full year can create issues in the skin folds and disguise fly strike, so maybe they are shorn every 8 months instead.  And sometimes a bad winter or hot humid summer threatens the well being of the sheep and the shepherd doesn’t shear or keeps a fleece shorter to save the sheep.

My shepherds have taught me so much – this is really just the tip of the iceberg.  The more I learn from them, the more I love the wool their sheep make – and appreciate them.  They live in the best interests of their flocks – and that results in the best interest of my spinning.  I have learned that sometimes that means *I* have to work harder – so that *they* can keep bringing me the wool I love.  It’s a fair trade.

All Hail the Sheep.  Scēap Waes thu Hael!