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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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New Year – New Projects

Well, sort of.

So I decided that 2019 as a year for me to clean up some of my ongoing projects and get them finished.  I’m sure you’ve been there – a lingering unfinished object, a pile of fiber you started to spin and put aside for a more appealing color or simply because you were tired of looking at it; you know the type.

So many samples!

Well, I realized while cleaning up my office that I had a whole lot of samples for which I had spun, plied, finished and knitted sample squares all awaiting notes clean up (what does that squiggle mean again?), some that I’ve spun and plied, but are awaiting finishing and knit samples, some that I’ve sampled for the store but not for my personal samples, and still more that I’ve sampled, and are already in the stole, but that I wanted to go back in and do some more extensive comparisons on!

Many breeds living harmoniously in one shawl.

And after all that is done, the leftover yarns are being used in my breed study stole, which will now be far too large for a stole, and has become a ruana.

But they’ve all been lingering for far too long.  I mean sure, sometimes it gets boring to knit the same sample squares – I use the same pattern and the same needles for all my samples so I can compare them properly.  But it’s also so rewarding: I really understand the fibers once I’ve sampled and knit with them.  And I love that I’m using those leftovers in a project.


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The Importance of Heritage Breeds

You’ll notice a theme throughout 2019 here at The Spinning Loft and elsewhere: Heritage Breeds.

In 2019 the Livestock Conservancy is challenging fiber artists to “Shave ’em to Save ‘Em” by encouraging them to spin and work with as many Heritage Breed fibers as possible.  As you all know – The Spinning Loft has carried and featured these breeds for years and this year we will be among the providers supporting their challenge.  Our stamps are on the way and the initiative launches very soon.

Heritage breeds are amazing.  A few of their many benefits include: wide genetic diversity, improved hardiness, a wider variety of wool textures and applications, wider range of habitat, key niches in ecosystems, more vigorous health and resistance to disease, and improved lambing.  Also, if you eat lamb, they also have more diverse flavor.

Most frequently we encounter Heritage breeds as part of a cross.  For example, dozens of breeds, some of which are now heritage breeds, trace their origin to Leicester Longwool which began with the now extinct 18th century Dishley Leicester.  The Leicester Longwool is a common sight in such places as Colonial Williamsburg where they are used in historical re-enactment, breed preservation, and textiles because they are the sheep brought to Williamsburg by the Colonial settlers.

So what is a Heritage Breed? 

Well, it’s quite simple really.  A Heritage Breed is a breed of one of the seven traditional US livestock species that has been raised since pre industrial times and breeds true to type; each generation retains the traits of its forebears.  They were adapted over time to their local environments, and retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.  They are truly multipurpose animals.

The danger they face is mainly industrialization.  They are often slower to grow so they take longer to get to market.  Having a wider range of fleece textures, lengths, and colors means they are not suited for industrial mills.  Many tend to be smaller so they are not as suited for industrial meat production.

They also face extinction due to cross breeding.  Many of these breeds were and are used to impart their desirable genetic traits into other breeds.  A shepherd who wants a disease resistant but very wooly sheep is likely to cross a very disease resistant Heritage Breed with something like a Merino to get more wool with greater disease resistance.  The danger of industrial breeding, of only considering these breeds as part of a cross or only crossing them for spinners’ fleeces and flocks, is that they are dying out.  Breeding back is not a solution because once other genetics have entered the mix, you no longer have the original characteristics and will never get back to what is truly the Heritage Breed.  We must preserve them while we can.

How do they get on the list?

The Livestock Conservancy is the organization in the United States which monitors, raises awareness of, and promotes Heritage Breeds in an effort to save them from extinction.  They work with breed organizations to monitor registrations, shepherds and state agricultural organization to spread the breeds around and foster them.  They are truly amazing and they have a counterpart in the UK known as the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.  Some of the breeds on the American list are also on the British list.

Annual breed registrations indicate overall active livestock breeding populations and a Heritage breed gets on the list when its annual registrations of new births falls below a certain level.  If the breed is a landrace, which tend not to have a breed association, the Conservancy reaches out to shepherds directly.  The idea is to track those populations of livestock which will result in future generations and retain breed integrity.

While the Conservancy has a solid list of characteristics to determine what breeds get on the endangered list, we are mainly focused on sheer numbers.  There are 5 classes on the Conservancy list:

  1. Critically endangered – To be critically endangered, a breed must have less than 200 registrations each year.  That means less than 200 breeding ewes in the United States.  Breeds such as Gulf Coast, Santa Cruz, and Hog Island fall into this category.  Having stood in the center of one of the largest remaining Hog Island flocks in the country, and counting only 40 head of these amazing sheep is a gut wrenching experience.
  2. Threatened – Threatened breeds register less than 2000 each year.  Breeds such as Jacob and Leicester Longwool are on the threatened list.
  3. Watch – The Watch list is where you will find populations in flux, with fewer than 2500 registrations each year.  They tend to be Heritage meat breeds, such as Oxford and Tunis, which find themselves with a slightly wider variety of applications, but for the handspinner, these breeds can be particularly challenging.  They have wonderful wool, but because the shepherds do not think of them for textiles, they tend not to be particularly clean, long or even available; most often they are composted or dumped at the regional wool pool.  I am always looking for shepherds who raise these wonderful sheep and are willing to work with me to improve their fleece condition.
  4. Recovering – This is a category of hesitant joy.  It’s a population with more than 2500 registrations but that still needs to be monitored.  It might come as a surprise to you that Shetland and Southdown find themselves here.  Southdown is here for the same reason that those breeds on the Watch category are there, but there are slightly more of them.  Shetland is here because they are primarily used for wool and not for meat – you only get about 20 pounds of very small cuts from a Shetland; they are not terribly large sheep.
  5. Finally, Study – These are breeds where the population is of genetic interest but either lacks definition or lacks genetic or historical documentation.  There are no sheep on the Study list.
Sheep in the Mist
Hog Island sheep

The Spinning Loft is proud to work with shepherds and stock all but five of the sheep on the Livestock Conservancy list.  Two of those are hair sheep – which while technically spinnable, is not very friendly to the hand spinner.  Three are breeds I struggle to find entirely.  Locating both shepherds and fiber which is in spinnable condition for my clients is a huge challenge for these three breeds.

Heritage breeds are endangered breeds, many of them critically, and without additional outlets for the shepherds they will be abandoned in favor of wool and meat that meets standards of industrial production.  In some cases, such as Santa Cruz and Gulf Coast, there are fewer than a few hundred of these sheep globally.

When you seek out these breeds to create your textiles, you take a tangible and concrete step in saving them for future generations and in promoting diversity in our environment.    


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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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Confessions of a Wool Processing Convert

Or Welcome to the Wonderful Word of Processing Fleece!   

In honor of our new sampler, we decided to cover the processing of raw fleece into a finished yarn this month.  While there are certainly numerous other posts on the topic (you can find links to some of our favorites at the end of the blog post) we often get questions and we like to share tips when we can.  Here goes!

I never thought I would enjoy dealing with raw wool.  It’s greasy, smelly, has … things … in it and my hands are gross when I finish handling it.  And the buckets of scour water – it’s like there’s a mud puddle in there sometimes!  Right?  Are you with me?  Well, that’s what I felt about it anyway; I was not a fan.   

And yet…

The raw fleece to finished object process is wonderful; you control all the steps and create exactly the textile you want (with some practice and sampling of course).  For a control freak, it’s ideal.  For someone who wants to maximize their expense to enjoyment ratio, it’s heaven.  For a person who wants to explore, it’s perfect.  

Don’t get me wrong – there’s still grease and grime, and things, but you pretty soon realize that wool has different smells by the breed and place of origin (for you wine lovers out there, pour a glass and enjoy your wool’s terroir!) and those fumes soon become a source of stress relief and comfort.  I should really consider starting a “Baaa day” – wool fumes and a facial or mani/pedi!

It all begins with scouring the raw fleece you acquired.  Lots of people are intimidated by this process but it’s really quite simple.  In fact, it’s fundamentally identical to a thing we all do every day: bathing.  Scouring wool is literally the process of immersing something dirty in hot water, cleaning it with soap, in this case scour, and rinsing all the grime away.  

The Steps

Shaken, not stirred…

Select a fiber you wish to try.  Open its bag and set the bag aside – you will want to keep the label.  Shake the fiber out gently over a trash can to loosen the locks and shake out larger bits of vegetable matter (“VM”), dirt and debris. You don’t need to get TOO crazy here, but a good shake does make a difference.  VM will not scour away, but it can be difficult to get the fleece to let it go until the grease is gone.  This is also a good time to open up some of the dirty tips with a comb if there are any particularly clumpy ones.  

Those happen – sheep like to frolic in muddy pastures and barns, and while the shepherds work really hard to rotate flocks away from such things, they are sheep.  They live outdoors and they get rained on.  They tromp around in grass, they lay on it, even in the rain.  And coating is often not practical or healthy for sheep, and always more expensive for a wool buyer.  

Just remain calm, this is after all dirty fleece.  Shearers skirt at the time of shearing.  Shepherds skirt again when they inspect the fleeces.  98% of anything you might see in your bag is VM or dust and debris.  1.5% is tarry tips (which are oxidized lanolin and I highly recommend a cold soak for those). Only very rarely might a dag (yes, that is a dob of sheep poop) sneak through.  But look, they’re vegetarians and we all clean ourselves, so let’s not panic ok?  Wash your hands afterwards.  Wear rubber gloves if you want.  This is not cause for alarm, let alone the destruction of a shepherd’s reputation or someone’s business by attacking them online and decrying how unacceptable and poor you find their wool.  These things are often subjective.  

Gently place the fiber in the mesh bag.  You don’t want to stuff the bag so tight, or fill the tray so much that the water has no room to work.  Leave lots of room for the water to get in and do its magic and a solid couple of inches underneath the fiber when it’s wet for the grime to fall away.  If over packed, the grime stays in and you have to rinse and scour more.  

If the fiber looks very grimy – give it a cold soak for an hour or so.  I frequently do this with particularly high grease fleeces such as merino and cormo as well.  I’ve even left them overnight by accident.  I try to limit it to overnight as I am not personally a fan of the fermented suent method of fleece scouring.  Periodically take a look and if there are muddy tips, you can gently rub them between your fingers to loosen the dirt.

You can gently rub open dirty tips, in this case where we have some mating dye on the wool.


Most of the mating dye has been removed with a cold soak and by gently opening the tips. 

You can actually stop here if you want.  A cold soak is actually sufficient for cleaning if you want to retain the lanolin for a more water resistant garment (say for mittens, hats, or even heavy fisherman sweaters).  

A kitty litter tray makes a good scour tray

If you want to scour the wool, now is where we get into the nitty gritty.  Put a dollop of scouring fluid in a container.  And fill that container with piping hot tap water (hot enough to scald your hand should you attempt to leave it in the water for more than a second or two after the water has been sitting for 10-15 minutes). I don’t use a boiling kettle to supplement my tap water because I use a scour designed to be used at home hot water temperatures.  This saves me time and costs because my hot water is already hot for home use and I am not adding time and electricity or gas for getting the kettle up, let alone carrying a boiling kettle to wherever my scour bucket is.  

I can tell you that I find the water best suited to this purpose in my laundry sink which is located about 5’ from my hot water heater and in between the heater and my washing machine.  While that means I have to go to my basement to deal with my scouring, it also means I tend to scour wool on laundry day.  

Immerse the wool in the hot scoury tap water.  Remember, there should be plenty of room for water to penetrate the wool and for the grimy bits to fall out.   I can’t stress this enough.  If you don’t think you have enough room for the water to get in and do it’s magic, or if you are finding that it takes more than 2 scours after you’ve done a cold soak, you might consider less fiber in your water.  Let the wool soak for 18-20 minutes, I’ve even done 15 minutes for less grease wools like shetland.  

Remove the wool from the grimy water, either by lifting the bag or the colander, and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water.  Your water no doubt looks something like below.  Like I said, a muddy river has camped in your bucket.  Dump that in your garden, I assure you the plants love that stuff.  I had roses blooming under my bathroom window in January once because I scoured wool in the bathtub into mid January and they kept getting dumped on.  Hydrangeas like it too.  If you are concerned about any chemicals that may have gotten into the wool from sheep dips or the like, simply don’t pour it on edibles.  The wool scour I prefer is environmentally friendly so I am not concerned about that.  

Muddy river water? no, just dirt from the a fleece.

You’ll repeat those steps one more time then rinse the container out – it probably has silt in the bottom.  Refill the container with piping hot clear water – no scour.  Immerse the bag in the water and let soak 18-20 minutes.  This is your rinse.  It’ll get out any remaining scour and dirty water that may not have been squeezed out after the second scour.  You MAY need a second rinse – err on the side of the rinse.  In this second rinse you may choose to add some Fiber rinse to condition the fiber.  Rinse is particularly welcome in the case of down breeds which tend to feel “crispy” after scouring.  The rinse will also restore some of the lanolin we scoured out alongside the grime.  

If I have a particularly low grease, clean, fleece I might top off the 2nd rinse water to bring the temp back up to scalding, add some scour and reuse the water for the first rinse of my next batch of wool.  But I only suggest this on particularly clean, low grease fleeces.  

Once you‘ve completed your rinse cycle, remove the bag from the water and VERY GENTLY squeeze out the water.  If using the colander method – press the water out.  Your fiber should look something like this-


And, it’s now much less dirty!

At this point lots of people will try the whole thing again – thinking the fleece is still dirty.  Maybe it’s not bleach white like they wanted.  Fleece comes in a wide range of white from buttery to pearl.  Nothing you do will change that white color, it’s part of the protein and collagen the sheep made.  Embrace the array of natural whites.  If you want bleach white, you’ll need commercially bleached fiber – and yes, I do mean bleached.  Sparkling white has been bleached in industrial vats with strong chemicals and then treated with optical brighteners.  By processing our wool we avoid all these industrial chemicals; it’s part of the allure.  If you hate that your white is buttery, you’re only option is dyeing – or giving away/selling your hard won processed wool.

Or maybe they think those tips are still filthy. They are not still filthy.  Remember that cold soak I suggested earlier?  The one before which I combed open the tips, or wherein I massaged the tips to help loosen them up?  Both of those actions help solve tips such as these.  Whatever you do, do not scour again.  Further scouring may actually damage the fiber.  Turn the fiber very gently out onto a towel or mesh sweater drying rack and let it dry.  Maybe turn it over onto a drier section or a fresh towel half way through.  Generally I walk away for a day.

Once the fiber is dry, it’s ready to flick, comb, card or lock spin into yarn.  If those high grease fleeces still feel greasy, it’s ok to get another scour and rinse WITH fiber rinse in, but I wouldn’t worry about it unless it’s hard to process or spin.  You still have to set your yarn AND wash and block your finished object.  Over processing now will only augment damage to the fiber later.  And remember, those finished objects have a long career ahead of them.  

If you are still worried about your tips and want to make sure you don’t need another round, go ahead and flick them open to release the dirt (experience will generally have you do this as part of your pre spinning preparation instead). If the tips were damaged, they’ll come off in the flicker and there’s no cause for alarm. You may achieve this by tapping or by twisting the lock in the center and brushing the ends.  Tapping opens the fiber into a cloud, brushing retains lock structure. Tapping is a woolen preparation and creates a lofty airy yarn, brushing is worsted and creates a smooth, dense yarn.  

Congratulations!  Your fiber is ready to spin.  Wasn’t that easy?   

Frequently Asked Questions

What is this black stuff?  

Most likely it’s tar – oxidized lanolin and grease.  Let it soak a while and it will come out when you flick.  It is not a cause for concern, but a cold soak would be helpful as they tend to be stubborn.

Why is it so grimy?  

Sheep live outside and some like lounging in mud.  Some even snuggle into compost heaps.  They don’t shower and even though they may get rained on, it doesn’t help them much unless they walk through a moving stream or river, thanks to all that grease.  That’s why we use hot water and scour.  

My wool isn’t white!?  

White comes in many shades from almost bleach to creamy butter.  Wool runs the gamut.  If you want bleach white – well, wool is probably the wrong fiber for you.  If you try bleaching it, it’s likely to be damaged.  Take a page out of Beth Smith’s book and love all the shades of white!    

The tips aren’t completely clean, do I scour it again?  

If you scoured as instructed, then no.  Those tips have some staining from the grease or still contain trapped dirt.  The fleece is clean; flicking it will open the tips and release the dirt.  Once it’s dry – is it still really greasy? Then the water temp may not have been high enough.  This sometimes happens with very fine wools like merino.  Do a “second scour’ again this time adding a kettle of boiling water and re-rinse and dry.  It should solve your problem.


Now those links to my favorite wool scouring posts:

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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