A fleece meditation

“I have a fleece from my young ewe Elin that I think you should have”, said Claudia, a shepherdess of Swedish Gestrike sheep. This happens every now and then. One of the advantages of being known in the spinning world is that shepherdesses trust me with their fleeces and they are curious of what I make of them. In this post I dive deep into the fibers in a fleece meditation.

The ladies and the elements

Claudia and I have met a few times since then but life has happened and the fleece stayed with Claudia. A global crisis came in the way. Eventually and with a little (or a lot) help from a friend Claudia managed to get the fleece to me. Claudia’s friend Kristina – also a spinner – was going to Stockholm where she studies and Claudia asked me if I could meet Kristina outside her school. Of course, I said. The bike ride would do me good.

So, we settled on a Tuesday in the end of April. I imagined a lovely bike ride through town, crisp birch leaves and cherry blossom edging the bike path and the fresh spring air welcoming my face in its midst. As it turned out, it was one of the most dramatic days of spring, weather wise – grinning rain, hail and icy winds had Stockholm in a firm grip, playing with its tousled inhabitants. The birches and the cherry trees were still there of course, but not in the atmosphere I had imagined. Still, a fleece was waiting for me and there wasn’t much I could do.

Embracing the hail as good as I could muster I hopped on the bike and pedaled my way in to town in sheer determination. I met Kristina, chatted for a while and went home with the fleece in the bike bag. An hour and 17 kilometers after I had left home I was back again. A bit cold, a bit wet, but richer in fleece and fresh air.

A raw fleece in dirty black and white.
The raw fleece from the Gestrike ewe Elin forms the beginning of a fleece meditation.

A bath

The fleece of the Gestrike sheep Elin is now in our house, filling the house with the soft smell of sheep and the promise of hours of gentle touch, creative work and new experiences.

Before I put Elin in the washtub I balanced her on the scales. 1,7 kilos, quite a large fleece for a Swedish heritage breed. I assumed some of the weight would wash out with the soaking water.

Soak

I filled the washtub with warm water in the bathroom – it is still a bit too cold to soak wool outdoors. As I gently pressed the sticky fleece down into the tub the water streamed up from underneath, found its path between the fibers, pressing the abruptly awoken dirt out of the staples and into the gushing water, creating reddish brown whirls which slowly shaped echoes of the locks.

A girl should have her privacy in the bath, so I left her in the tub for around fifteen minutes. When I came back I could hardly see her anymore. Gone was the clear water and the brown whirls. All that was left was a luke warm sea the colour of yesterday’s coffee with a few floating islands of wet wool lurking by the surface like frogs waiting for juicy flies. Between the islands were accumulations of soapy foam created by the union of the salty suint and the warm water.

Rinse

I gently squeezed the water out of the heavy water-saturated wool mass and filled the tub with fresh water. I repeated the process three more times, brown whirls fading slightly for each new soak. By the third rinse the water was clear and the wet locks distinctly visible in the tub, black and white staples shining like herrings in a school.

Spin-dry

After another squeeze I moved the shapeless wad into the washing machine to spin-dry it. Fifteen minutes later I opened the drum and was presented a bursting cloud of wool all the way up to the edge. Gone was the pile of sticky staples. Instead I saw before me an airy muchness of creative prospectives, inviting me to explore them.

A clean fleece in black and white.
Elin’s fleece is now clean an a lot lighter.

When I weighed the fleece again I was shocked of the number the pointer stayed at – 1,2 kilos. Gone were 500 grams of lanolin, sweat salts and short bits of fiber. My fleece was freed of half a kilo of gunk that I happily donated to the garden beds as fertilizer. My heart sings of the prospect of a flax harvest invigourated by dirty wool soak.

The fibers

Most of the staples had proud, gently waved outercoat, collected like the straws in a paint brush and air-filled hoopskirt undercoat, ready to embrace anyone who needed their warmth.

Black and white wool staples.
A few members of the Elin dance company.

Outercoat

The fibers are bundled up together to bring protection to the sheep. Some of the strands are long, proud and glistening, aspiring for length to protect the sheep from rain. I close my eyes and imagine the clusters of outercoat almost taking aim at the falling drops, competing about being the team to lead the wet intruder away from the body they have been set to protect.

Separated wool staples.
Dissected staples of Elin’s fleece – a whole staple, outercoat and undercoat.

Undercoat

Other fibers are fine, winding their way through the fiber collective, changing directions unpredictably, forming a billowing multitude of soft warmth to keep the wind and cold at bay. Together with air they fulfill their task with gentle determination.

Kemp

A third kind of fiber can be seen occasionally. Black, brittle and sprawly. This is the kemp, the oddball in the family. The kemp works with the other fibers, keeping the staple upright for additional protection against the elements and allowing more air to enter their fibery togetherness.

A microscope picture of wool fibers.
Strong and straight outercoat, fine and winding undercoat and coarse and brittle kemp, all working together to create the best conditions possible for the sheep.

The fibers look and work differently, yet in cooperation to protect the sheep they once grew on.

A fleece meditation: If I were a sheep

If I think of myself as the sheep the fibers are assigned to protect, how would I arrange them to do the same for me? How would I take advantage of their respective characteristics to create a garment that is for me what the fleece was to the sheep?

A staple of wool.
A fleece meditation.

Look at this picture for a moment. Long and strong outercoat, soft and warm undercoat. That means something. These fibers can be prepared, spun and arranged to their advantage and to give me the best protection. Soft, winding undercoat carefully carded into a pillowy rolag, kemp occasionally peaking out. Long and strong outercoat combed parallel into a bird’s nest.

A combed top and a rolag.
The beginning of the journey to a new textile. Outercoat and undercoat separated and processed.

When I close my eyes and feel a staple of Elin’s carefully selected wool in my hands I sense the different characteristics of the fibers. I envision a woven textile. In my mind I see the strong outercoat fibers as warp and the soft undercoat as weft.

Two shuttles with yarn. One light and airy, one dark and sleek.
Warp and weft. Separated but still together.

A dream of twill

I see twill. Fine singles, winding their way across the fabric. On one side the outercoat dominates – three over, one under – protecting me from the falling rain. The other side soft from the undercoat, keeping me warm and safe, kemp making sure there is room for air. Perhaps the fabric is slightly fulled to protect me even further. The two sides have different superpowers and different colours.

A woven twill sample.
A baby swatch, full of possibilities, waiting to grow into a mature fabric.

Claudia tells me that one of her ewes has a lot less outercoat than the rest of the flock. This sheep prefers to stay protected under a spruce when it rains while the downpour doesn’t bother her sisters. I want to be able to stand in the rain like the sheep, protected from the elements by an ingenious design that has worked for millennia.

A white wool staple with tips pointing in different directions.
The processing of Elin’s fleece could go in many different directions.

Eventhough the fibers in my textile would be disassembled and put together again in just one of many fashions, they would still work together. Their novel composition for a two-legged creature would still serve the same purpose: To keep me protected.

Meanwhile, Elin is generously growing a new fleece that shields her and that can be harvested again.

Stay safe and happy spinning!


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