Your Wool as Yarn
Wool Knowledge Is Power
By Virginia Scholomiti
Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of understanding where and how your fleece may fit into a hand spinner’s palette. This is just one of the uses for wool but a good one to start with.
Before you can think of assessing the fiber your flock produces to figure out how best to market it to spinners, you need at least a nodding acquaintance with some of the terms and technicalities of what spinning is all about.
Your customers will undoubtedly ask questions about your product, and this demands at least some knowledge on your part.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to find a lot of time in your already full day to take up carding and combing, or spend your hard-earned cash to purchase a spinning wheel. You don’t have to knit or crochet or felt.
But you do need to understand what you’re talking about when it comes to your own fiber and it’s potential. You’ll be looking to build a customer base—folks that will return to you in the future and recommend you to their friends as a (trusted?) good source. You’ll be the expert in the fiber you have and should be ready to answer some questions from potential buyers.
Educate yourself to advance as a fiber supplier. This way you can accurately answer questions about the specific fiber your flock is producing. You’ll also see how to improve your flock by breeding for the characteristics needed for a premium return. You can also consider enlisting a family member or friend who already has an attraction to fiber. They actually get excited, wanting to pursue this for you.
You also may find a local fiber lover or spinner who might agree to meet with you and discuss your fiber. This person might even hand process some of it and spin it for you, or spin it raw. Check your area for a local spinning guild, it can be a great resource. Its members’ feedback may serve to help you identify what attributes your fiber may have for the fiber community.
You might convince a spinner to spin up some samples for you to use in representing your fleeces for market.
One note of caution here if you use the skills and impressions of one spinner, she (most spinners are women) may come with her own preconceptions on what fiber she likes to work with, which could bias her impression of your fiber. And her skill level may or may not produce the best type of spin for your particular fiber.
The internet can also be a great resource, if you know what to search for and can trust the opinions of the sites you visit.
Like everything else on a farm, you really are better off having some knowledge about this yourself.
Basics of Twisting Fiber into Yarn
Spinning is just simply twisting fibers so they stay together and gain strength.
Here’s a very simplified introduction to spinning and some terms to be familiar with so you can converse with customers and help them know if your fiber might be right for them.
Like everything else, it will involve at least a small amount of time on your part. Hopefully you’ll read through this article, becoming excited to add this dimension to your skill set. You may actually enjoy it and want to get more deeply involved with adding value to your fiber.
Take a handful of your fiber. It can be raw, as long as it is fairly clean. Or you can gently wash it and work with it when it’s dry.
Begin to pull or “draft” the fiber into a thin length for spinning. You can do this by gently teasing the fibers apart with your fingers. Try not to pull the fiber completely apart, which can be harder than it sounds.
You can use a tool called a “diz” (a disk with a couple of different size holes) to pull your fiber through. Here I used a large button, threaded a bit of fiber through one of the holes, and then gently pulled the fiber through. You may have to thin out the fiber on back side before it is able to be pulled through.
The idea is simply to stretch the fiber to make a long continuous section of fiber that’s fairly uniform. The thinner you make it, the thinner the finished yarn will be. The thicker you make it the bulkier the yarn will be.
Note: Later on, you can use a carder for this or hand cards. The resulting length of prepared fiber is called “Roving.”
Now, simply take your handmade roving and begin twisting it on your leg. You want to put a lot of twist into this, so give it quite a number of rolls.
Now you double up your “Single” (what you call a single strand of twisted yarn) and let it “Ply” on itself. Plying is allowing two or more strands of yarn to twist around each other. Voilà! You now have a finished “Two Ply yarn” from your fiber.
Try this a couple of times, making a thicker yarn, and a finer, thinner yarn. It may take a couple of tries to figure it out, but you will see that there are lots of variables in how you prepare, draft and spin your fiber.
Congratulations you have spun your first yarn! Are you intrigued?
A “Drop Spindle” is an inexpensive, portable and great way to begin to understand the process of turning fleece into yarn. I’m sure you know there’s a large variety of spinning wheels—both old and new—that people use to produce yarns, but in general they’re costly. And although I prefer to spin on a wheel, you can gain all the info you need by starting with a drop spindle. Or, in fact, you don’t even need to spend a lot on a drop spindle to get the idea.
I spoke to Pam Blasko, a shepherd and fiber artist and owner of “Dream Come True Farm.” Pam works with me on producing videos and tutorials for the Shepherds Talk … All Things Fiber website. Pam has taught many folks to spin and has a solid background as a shepherdess, so she’s aware of all aspects of the process. She’s a wonderful spinner and has a gift for working with the drop spindle.
Here’s a quick intro to drop spindles:
Pam Blasko on Spindles
Pam explains “There are different kinds of drop spindles. All fall into two main categories, the top whorl, and the bottom whorl. The ‘Whorl’ is the round part that increases and maintains the spin.
“The top whorl is my favorite for teaching beginners.
“The top whorl has the hook on the top of the spindle, as opposed to the bottom whorl, which has the hook on the bottom.
“There are also many regional and historical variations.
“Spindles come in varying weights, 1/4-ounce, all the way up to four ounces.
“The lighter the spindle, the finer the yarn; the heavier the spindle, the bulkier the yarn.
“If you try to spin a fine yarn on a heavy spindle, the yarn will break.
“If you use a lighter spindle to spin a bulky yarn, the weight of the spindle won’t spin easily enough to twist the yarn.”
There are drop spindles that are easily made. Just for fun push a dowel with a hook on the end into an apple. The apple becomes the whorl. Pioneers traveling across the U.S. used the stick-and-apple spindle to spin, while they rode in covered wagons. And you can, too.
It has to be balanced to really allow the spindle to spin correctly.
You can also make a spindle out of an old CD. Use a washer and epoxy it in to the center of the CD, then insert a dowel with a hook on it. The dowel should be about eight to ten inches long, the shorter this part of the spindle, the faster it spins.
You may want to have drop spindles available when people come to your farm if they’re spinners. Let them take a small bit of fiber to spin, to see how the fiber spins up before they purchase it.
Pam Blasko: A Pro Fiber Buyer’s Needs and Preferences
Pam purchases fiber regularly to teach beginners how to spin on a drop spindle. You’ll be pleased to know she prefers to purchase fiber from the source.
“I will pay more for a premium fiber. Depending on the breed and the availability, I may spend two to three dollars an ounce.
“If I know a shepherd who has the premium fiber I’m looking for, I’ll go directly to the farm.
“Next, I would go to a wool festival if there’s one coming up in my area where I can see and handle the fleece.
“Finally, I’d find a shepherd online willing to talk to me about the fiber he or she currently has. If purchasing online, I ask that a raw sample be mailed to me, so I can see exactly what I’m getting.
“Typically, I don’t want the fiber washed, as I like to do that myself to be sure it’s handled correctly for my purposes. And to see how it reacts to my gentle prep: I don’t want someone using something harsh on it and breaking down the fibers.
“I’m looking for a staple that’s about five inches. Under four inches is too short, and nothing over six inches.
“Next, I’d want to know if the fleece has been skirted. (I like a well-skirted fleece.).
“I ask if it’s been coated. And if not, I ask about the vegetable matter and chaff.
“I may ask if they’re bedded on shavings, as that can be a problem.
“If there is some vegetable matter (VM), I like to know about what percentage.
“No sheep droppings in it. If you’re paying premium for fiber, I’d expect ready-to-spin in the raw, if we choose to.”
“I like to introduce spinners to the raw fiber and let them understand the process from the bottom up.
“We typically hand card the fiber together, a medium-to-long wool fiber of about five inches and something that’s medium soft, with a bit of crimp to it. Romney and Border Leicester would be good examples.
“Slippery fibers with little or no crimp can be difficult for first timers.
“Once in a while, for a beginner spinner struggling for the first time, I will provide prepared roving, as it may help with their first experience.”
When asked, “If you were looking to purchase roving, where would you purchase it?” Pam replied, “My first choice would be to purchase the fleece raw, so I could see it before it’s processed.
“Like anything else, the quality going into roving becomes evident in the end result.
“Otherwise, I look online, as there is good selection. I would still ask for a sample, to be sure it’s not compressed.
“It’s extremely important how the roving is prepared and how it’s stored. If it has been sitting for a year, it may have started to felt, which is very common.
“I prefer to purchase from the farm, if I can find it, so I know where it comes from. I find that’s part of the fun of spinning and teaching—to communicate with the shepherd—which brings you closer to the animal.”
A Fiber for Every Need
Pam has a list of farms where she makes regular purchases. Once they know what she’s looking for, the shepherds can select fiber for her that they know will be exactly what she wants. Whether it’s for teaching, or creating her own art, or weaving, or knit and crochet creations, the characteristics of the individual fleece are the main ingredient.
I hope by now you have a few little samples of yarn from your fiber. If you have several different types of sheep, you’ll be able to make up a sample of each and compare them. Some samples will be bouncy and stretchy; some will be silkier and not very stretchy.
There are uses for all fleece types, but the pitfall is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
If your flock produces coarser types of wool, it’ll most likely be scratchy if you put it next to your skin.
Likewise, if you have any guard hair in your fleece, it may manifest as scratchy hairs poking out.
However, if you would like to make a rug, your finewool flock may not produce fibers that will hold up to use and abrasion.
You’ll also notice that your samples from one single fleece will vary quite a bit, depending on how thick you made them and how much you twisted the fibers. Even the loveliest of fibers can be ruined by a horrible spin job. The yarn may fall apart. It may coil and knot up and make tight rope-like sections that are most unappealing.
These faults are due to spinning issues, not to poor fiber.
Have you ever seen the shelves in a yarn shop? They’re filled to the brim with endless types and varieties of yarns, each with a specific forte and strength; each with a different purpose in mind. Each started with fiber that was chosen to perform well in the intended finished yarn and spun to exact specification to make just the right twist and weight of yarn, with just the right number of plies. Now it will be exactly the yarn someone is looking for to make that special project a work of art.
Originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of sheep!.