Creator unknown: Photograph of a Romney Marsh sheep, [195-?] Reference Number: PAColl-8508 (http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=33308&l=mi)
Ever since I asked Kandy to teach me how to crochet, I have been hooked... pun totally intended.
The door to a new world opened to me beyond the simple single and double crochet. I am learning the steps from "sheep to sweater." Two weeks ago, the universe and my curiosity joined forces and during a "bitch 'n stitch" night at Baaad Anna's, I had the chance to take home some "raw" sheep fleece.
Part of me was hesitant because I have heard how people would "rather not deal with the fleece" because it was a lot of work and they would "rather buy ready to go yarn," etc, etc. However, I decided not to pass up this learning opportunity and I went for it and found myself gifted by the help and teachings of a wonderful lady.
Penny, the lady who took me under her wing, taught me how to pick good pieces of fleece, gave a quick 101 class on drop spinning, and told me that she would be happy to teach me to drop spin yarn. She also invited me to a spinning and knitting group, Sticks and Strings, and hinted that she would teach me to knit. To say that I am thrilled is an understatement.
This adventure is opening my eyes to the process, time and energy that goes into making yarn locally and by hand with simple machines. Let's talk about it...
First, you need the fleece which is the big bundle of hair that is shaved off of the sheep. Each fleece is as different as each sheep and that is one of the reasons why it is a great idea to buy from local fleece providers. Right now I know that I can call and order more "Rodney the Romney" fleece if I did not get enough for my sweater. There may not be enough for me to get some this season yet I could get some next year after Rodney has a chance to grow some more. Yes, I am working on visiting Rodney and getting a photo.
part of Rodney the Romney's fleece
People get very technical and serious when talking about washing fleece. That is partly because if you agitate the fleece too much, you can end up with a big ball of unspinnable felt and partly because of "tags" (i.e. poo patches). Sheep are animals and animals eat, poo and roam in pastures, so yes, there are bits and pieces of random stuff in the fleece. The good thing is that sheep are herbivores and that with one (or several) soaks in hot soapy water and a good rinse, you are golden.
After the washing and drying process, the machines come out and the fun continues! Carding is the process where curls and strands of hair are brushed to get them all running in one direction. This is done to get the fibres ready for spinning.The bundles of fibre that come out of the carder, also known as "batts," vary in size depending on the size of the carder and if you are using a set of hand carders or a drum carder.
using a drum carder to comb clean wool fibres to make my first batt
Once the batts are ready, it is time for spinning. There are sooo many types of spindles for spinning that it can be daunting at first. However, from what I have learned thus far, there are two major categories: hand spindles and spinning wheels (some are powered by pedals and others with electric motors). So far, my experience has been with hand spindles. Penny made me a simple straight forward drop spindle with which to start learning and I bought a Turkish style drop spindle which I am still testing out.
my spindles... a drop spindle (left) and a turkish style spindle (right)
Spinning happens in stages depending on how many "plies" are required. Plies are the individual lengths of yarn that get twisted/spun together to make the final product. Get a piece of yarn from your collection and at one end, separate the strands of yarn that are twisted together... each of those strands are a "ply." A lot of the yarn that I have seen is has four plies yet you can find yarn with more or less.
four ply worsted wool yarn
There you have it! Once the plies are all together you have yourself a ball of yarn ready to be dyed or to use in its natural colour.
While spinning your own yarn is challenging and it is easier to buy from the 'big box' store (that's what Kandy calls them), I invite you to think about supporting the locals in your community. Support those that are pampering their sheep to make available the highest quality fleece. Support the small mills that offer their services to wash and card the fleece for you. Support the spinners and dyers who work hard in their craft and who are available in your community to share their products and passion. It is imperative for us to learn where things come from, how they are made and who makes them. Meet the craft people and makers in your community, support them and while you are at it, why not become one yourself?
Originally published 3/27/13