On Dating a Spinning Project

I used to think that sampling – spinning a little bit to experiment with what you’re going to do – sounded like the most boring thing one could possibly do with a spinning wheel. Be fastidious? Make a bunch of different samples to try all the different variables before you start on a project? Boring! Just get me into the project already; spinning takes forever as it is.

But as soon as the lovely priest/farmer K gave me the fleece from one of her sheep, I just had to start playing with it. There was no way I was at a place to spin an entire fleece right now, though. It just couldn’t happen. Then I realized: I can sample. No commitment, just playing. It’s like dating a fleece.

Here’s the stats: It’s a border leicester/ramboullet/coopworth cross (I think). It has a beautifully long staple of about 5 inches. If you measure crimp like you measure a waveform (which I assume is what you do), these are lovely loose locks of about 2 crimps per inch. I didn’t weigh it, but I think it was about 4 lbs when I got it, pre-skirted, before splitting it down the middle with mom.

I decided, for this first effort at sampling, to keep my variables to a minimum. I would spin some clean and some “in the grease” (codeword for dirty), I would spin singles and a chained three-ply, and I would give some a post-spinning bath (finishing) and some not. My constants were that it was all spun over the fold, directly off the locks without carding, with reasonable singles that made a heavy-worsted three ply.

First, I spun some in the grease; this was a novel experience, although it made my hands filthy (if soft) and left a nice sticky spot on my nice jeans. Yuck. But fun. I left some of it singles, and plied some of it.

Next, I washed a packet of locks. For ages, I’ve been wanting to try the Yarn Harlot’s ridiculously intensive fleece-washing method. The washing machine method is fine, but with the very dirty fleeces I’ve washed before, they were still a bit sticky afterwards. This method is much more thorough, and this fleece is already in much nicer shape for handspinning than any fleece I’ve worked with before.

You can go to her blog to read the whole process, but the basic idea is that you use an old pillowcase to wrap some locks into a fleece packet that will avoid agitation, and place it in a roasting pan filled with cold water. (Part of the point is to preserve the structure of the locks, so you do really need a rectangular pan.) You then go through a series of slow heatings – leaving the pan on the stove for an hour at at time with very low heat – first without soap, then with soap, then three or four times without soap. This gently but thoroughly frees all the dirt, grease, lanolin, and chemicals from the fleece without agitating them or removing them from their beautiful wavy locks. It’s very tedious, but I am gratified at every rinse, when I free the packet from a wealth of incredibly gross-ified water.

The result is just stunning. The locks are perfectly clean at the end, soft and smooth, and feel so wonderful to spin. After working with these clean ones, just touching the dirty fleece is thoroughly gross.

I spun about half of these locks into singles, then plied some of that.

Next, I took everything that I’d spun and split it in half, leaving some of it unfinished, and sending the rest to get a little post-spinning bath. (Pre-washed yarn is on the left below; yarn spun in the grease is on the right.)

You can see the massive difference between the yarn that was already clean (on the right) and the yarn spun in the grease (on the left). this is the second washing for the dirty yarn, and the first for the clean yarn. Gross! (The glasses have color in the bottom; neither yarn turned the water orangey-red.)

Below, you can see the finished samples, carefully recorded on cards. If you can’t read the writing, the top two cards are the yarn spun in the grease, and the bottom two are spun from pre-cleaned locks. The second and fourth cards were also finished after spinning. It appears that it is much easier to get clean yarn if it is thoroughly washed before spinning instead of after.

I might need to wash this entire fleece with the yarn harlot’s method, just because it will make spinning it so much nicer. Since I just have a normal-sized roasting pan, it takes me most of a day to wash 1 oz this way. Meaning it might take the rest of my natural life, unless I do a batch every single day that I am at home for six hours at a time. So I guess I’d better get cracking!

As for the experience of sampling, I will definitely be doing this more often. Especially for sweater projects, which I am always hesitant to start because they occupy my wheel for so long. I only chose washing/preparation variables; I wasn’t even trying to do the spinning differently. I could spin at different thicknesses, worsted or woolen spinning, different amounts of twist, and different numbers of plies and plying methods. This can spin out of control (ha) into dozens of samples very quickly, and I have precious little interest in that. The key, I guess, is to focus on the variables that you’re interested in for the specific project. Which, I imagine, is not difficult to select.

We’ll see if I follow through on this dating thing. I may have eloped last night with two pounds of golden roving that have already filled half a bobbin, with not a sample in sight. What can I say? Packing makes me compulsive.

2 thoughts on “On Dating a Spinning Project

  1. Hello Rebecca,
    In the midst of all you have been doing I am surprised you find time to do so many projects. . . sounds like you are enjoying the fleece. All the pics on your blog are fabulous – reading about and seeing your new space has inspired me to go clean out my stash in the sewing/crafts area!


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