The superpowers of a fleece

A sken of dark grey yarn with colored specks in it

For a long time I have wanted to spin a yarn and knit a project where I start from the characteristics of the fleece and make a yarn that highlights the superpowers of that particular fleece. I wanted all the decisions I made from preparing the wool to designing and knitting a garment to be made with consideration to the fleece I had started with.

This post is part of a new blog series. In four posts I will take you through preparing, spinning, designing and knitting a garment, looking at consistency and some calculations. I will use the wool from one sheep as a case study.

A finull/rya gold medalist

In the 2017 Swedish fleece championships I got my hands on a beautiful, dark grey finull/rya crossbred. It is very soft with airy staples and mostly undercoat.

From spring to autumn

The ewe who grew this winner fleece was shorn in the spring, which usually means a little coarser wool and shorter staples than the autumn shearing. This fleece, though, was wonderfully soft.

A finull/rya mix and gold medalist at the 2017 Swedish fleece championships, shorn in the spring. Sheperdess: Margau Wohlfart–Leijdström

The competition had taken place in September, and I realized that the ewe probably was still wearing her summer coat. I contacted the shepherdess, Margau, and I was right, she hadn’t done the autumn shearing yet. A couple of weeks later, I had the autumn shearing in my hands. A little longer staples and even softer than the spring shearing.

Same sheep, shorn in the autumn. The staples are a bit longer and the tips are slightly sun-bleached.

Finding the superpowers

For a long time I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the fleeces. The spring fleece was a gold medalist and I felt a responsibility to make the most out of it. I wanted to let the wool tell me how it wanted to be spun to become its best yarn.

To look for the superpowers in a fleece I need to examine the fleece itself. But I can also get some clues from considering the characteristics of the breed in general, in this case two breeds – Swedish finewool and Rya.

Swedish finewool and Rya

Wool from Swedish finull (closely related to Finn) is typically very fine and soft with a high crimp (2–10 waves per cm). It has well defined staples of up to 8 cm. It is a good choice for spinning a lofty yarn with longdraw from carded rolags.

Rya has very long staples (up to 30 cm) of strong and shiny fibers and about 60% overcoat. A worsted spun yarn from combed top would be a good choice for this kind of wool. Rya is often used in weaving. The combination of the two can make a winner.

A finewool/rya crossbred

The shepherdess Margau has a flock of 25 finewool and rya sheep and has also crossbred these for several years. This has resulted in wool with the best of the superpowers of both breeds – strong, shiny and soft. She has won several medals from the Swedish fleece championships.

The wool I got from Margau is truly magnificent. I am a sucker for grey. This wool has shades of medium to dark grey with a hint of brown. The wool shorn in the spring has the staple length of finewool sheep, up to 8 cm. It is very soft and airy. I would say it looks more like finewool than rya, but the staples are more open than finewool. Finewool can be tedious to prepare since the staples usually are very thin and defined. This wool is a lot easier to prepare.

The autumn shearing has longer staples and a bit lighter. The tips are slightly sun bleached. The overall feeling of the wool is soft, but it is also clear that the wool is strong and shiny.

A row of wool staples
Staples from the spring and autumn shearing of a finewool/rya ewe

This summer I had made a tweed experiment where I blended the autumn shearing with some sari silk. I really got a taste for the mixture between the dark wool and the colourful specks of sari silk. I decided that I wanted to use the spring and autumn fleeces together and blend them with the sari silk for a tweedy yarn.

Fiber preparation

I wanted to be really thorough and sample my way to the best yarn for this wool. I knew from the experiment I had done earlier that carded rolags was the best way to prepare this wool. Before that could happen, though, I needed to go through a few other steps.

Mixing the fleeces

The spring and autumn shearings were a bit different – the spring shearing was shorter because most of the nutrition had gone to the lamb during gestation and lambing period. The autumn shearing had longer staples and were also a bit sun-bleached. I wanted all of these characteristics in the yarn – the short staples for loftiness and the longer for strength – so I mixed the fleeces in a big basket.

Teasing and blending

I used my combing station to tease the wool. This is the way I usually tease before carding, it is a quite efficient method. In this step I could also blend the sari silk with the wool.

A braid of turquoise based sari silk
Sweet sari silk

I loaded the stationary comb with the wool, not considering staple ends or directions, I just loaded ruthlessly to about a third of the height of the tines. At the top I added the sari silk. I combed three passes and then removed the blended fiber from the stationary comb tuft by tuft. This left me with clouds of wool blended with sari silk.

Carding

I am quite used to carding and I have my way of doing it that I think works quite well. Still, after watching the Interweave downloadable video How to Card Wool: Four Spinners, Four Techniques, I made some adjustments. I used to load the whole width of the card with wool, but now I leave a one inch passepartout of the card empty on the sides and top of the carding pad. This way I make sure that all the fibers are actually on the carding pads and not escaping through the sides. I also pay more attention to rolling the rolag between the cards to make neater and more uniform rolags.

Carding is something I love doing, and with these adjustment it became even more satisfying to see the fluffy teased clouds turn into proper and uniform rolags.

Sweet hand-carded rolags with specks of recycled sari silk.

Spinning and plying

I wanted a soft and round yarn, so my idea was to spin a 3-ply yarn with long draw. I made lots of samples with long draw in different thicknesses, but I wasn’t really happy with the results. All the samples felt too dense and not soft enough.

Spinning

For a while, English longdraw had been lurking in the back of my mind, but I was a bit reluctant to try it. If I liked it it would mean that I would have to spin everything with english longdraw and I wasn’t sure I would be able to do that with the consistency I wanted. But I tried it and realized that I had found the best way to spin the rolags. The samples were soft and lofty, and it felt just right. I ended up with a sport weight thickness that seemed perfect for the wool.

yarn samples of different thicknesses
I sampled my way to the best 3-ply yarn for my fleece

Spinning longdraw requires really well carded rolags. With any unevenness in the carding there is a risk that the yarn will be uneven and/or break in the draw. This is even more true for English longdraw where you draw one arm’s length in one motion. Having little specks of short fibers in the rolags feels a bit counter productive here. I didn’t let that stop me, though, I just had to take extra care in examining the roving before setting the twist. I think the yarn broke just a handful of times during the whole spinning.

When I spun the yarn I could feel the amount of blending of the two fleeces. In some rolags the drafting was really easy, almost too easy. This meant that I had mostly shorter staples from the spring shearing in this rolag. In others, the drafting was a bit tougher due to a higher amount of longer staples from the autumn shearing. The longer staples were important to the durability of the yarn, but too much of the longer wool would make a denser yarn than I wanted. Had I done this preparation in the summer I would definitely have mixed the fleeces by willowing them.

A bobbin with dark grey yarn with specks of colour
A bobbin full of yum

Plying

When I ply I like to transfer the singles together to a new bobbin. This way I start plying from the same end as I started spinning. It also allows me to go through the singles one more time before plying. I don’t need to handle three individual singles when plying. Instead I ply them in a bundle straight off one bobbin.

A skein of dark grey wool with colored specks in it.
A finished skein of final/rya tweedy yarn, full of superpowers.

Getting to know a fleece

This wool has gone through my hands numerous times. From sorting, teasing, carding, spinning and plying. I try to read the fleece to find out what I need to do to let it shine. In handling the fiber I get to know know what it feels like, how it sounds, the staple length, the crimp, how well it drafts, how much lanolin is in the wool. Every time the fiber goes through my hands I get new pieces of the puzzle. It is like every step in the process gives me a deeper and broader knowledge and understanding of the wool.

A sken of dark grey yarn with colored specks in it
Some tweedy loveliness

Coming up: In the next part of this blog series I will dive into consistency in all the steps in the process and look at how I take measure – literally – to end up with a yarn that is even.


You can follow me on several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • I run an online spinning school, welcome to join a course!
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. The contributions from my patrons is an important way to cover the costs, time and energy I put into the videos and blog posts I create. The content I create is totally free from advertisement. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts, share images from behind the scenes and post lots of woolliness.
  • In all the social media I offer, you are more than welcome to contact me. Interacting with you helps me make better posts and videos. My private Facebook page, however, will remain private.
    If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!

Processing cotton

As I wrote in an earlier post, I was given newly harvested cotton from a fellow spinner in Stockholm. I have never handled cotton for spinning before. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to investigate a fiber that is new to me and that I have avoided for environmental reasons.

This is part 2 of my cotton blog series. The first post was about my thoughts of the fashion industry in general and cotton in particular.

Ginning

After the blossom has withered, the seed develops in the cotton capsule (boll). Fibers are attached to the seeds to make it possible for the seeds to be swept away by the wind and start a new plant. Compare it to  dandelion seeds. They wait for a gust of wind to catch them and transport them to a new home where they can start a new plant.

Each cotton boll has from 10 to a gazillion seeds, cozily wrapped in soft cotton fibers. Deseeding, or ginning the cotton is a time consuming process when you do it by hand. On the plus side, ginning by hand yields more clean cotton fiber than ginning mechanically. The fiber (lint) is also less compressed with hand ginning than with mechanical ginning.

When I researched cotton processing I stumbled upon this beautiful and very smart and efficient way of ginning cotton with a flat stone and a metal rod. I tried to do it with what I had at home – a wooden rolling pin and an equally wooden cutting board. I realized quite quickly that it wouldn’t work at all and I was frankly quite embarrassed by my naïveté. Instead I stuck to my original plan and ginned by hand.

The lint is quite strongly attached to the seeds and ginning by hand is a challenge. It took me quite a while to finish the whole 150 grams of cotton. 75 g of it ended up as seeds and the remaining 55 g was spinnable cotton lint.

A bowl of cotton
Cotton!

Willowing

When I read up on willowing wool for a previous video and blog post, I learned that cotton also has a willowing tradition. So naturally I wanted to try willowing cotton as well.

Willowing means to open up the fiber by whipping it with willow sticks. Cotton is prone to compress itself if you handle it manually. There is another way to open up cotton bolls that I haven’t tried yet. You can open up your cotton with a bow-like tool. You place the bow close to a pile of cotton and strike the bow repeatedly. The string snaps the cotton, which opens up. Quite neat if you happen to have a proper bow. I have yet to try this.

I must say I wasn’t as impressed by willowing cotton as I was by willowing wool. Perhaps I did it wrong. I did willow on quite a soft surface. Or perhaps cotton don’t need as much willowing as wool. Either way, the cotton opened up in the beginning, but after a while nothing really happened. I have seen videos where people willow cotton with a lot smaller sticks, more like twigs, and keeping two twigs in one hand for willowing. Another thing to try.

Walter, the neighbor’s cat watched and hung around. After so many videos where I have looked for a cat to make an appearance on my set, I finally got a cat extra! I think he did well and he is welcome back.

The sweet thing about the cat appearance is that spinning and purring is the same word in Swedish: Jag spinner (I spin). Katten spinner (the cat spins).

Josefin Waltin sitting on the ground, looking at a big and furry cat
A dear moment between two spinners.

Carding

I used my regular cards. They are quite fine and work well for cotton. I have read that you need cotton cards for carding cotton, and I am sure the result will bet better with cotton cards. But wool cards are still better than no cards at all.

I use short and very light strokes for the short cotton fibers. Basically, I use the same technique as for wool carding, and finish by rolling the carded fiber into a rolag. I could of course make a pretty cotton puni as well, but I honestly didn’t think about it at the time.

Make sure you don’t make lots of rolags and then store them compressed. Cotton is not elastic and won’t spring back into shape after being compressed. Any kind of fiber preparation is best fresh, and that certainly applies to cotton.

Josefin Waltin carding
Cotton carding in the September sun

The vest I am wearing in the video is the Ivy League vest by Eunny Jang. The yarn is my own handspun (the ones that are not naturally colored are my own hand dyed), mostly of rare and endangered Norwegian sheep breeds.

Happy spinning!


You can follow me on several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. The contributions from my patrons is an important way to cover the costs, time and energy I put into the videos and blog posts I create. The content I create is totally free from advertisement. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts, share images from behind the scenes and post lots of woolliness.
  • In all the social media I offer, you are more than welcome to contact me. Interacting with you helps me make better posts and videos. My private Facebook page, however, will remain private.
  • If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!

Flax retting

Flax retting on the ground

While I have been processing the retted flax from the 2017 harvest, I continue to handle the the 2018 harvest. In this post I invite you to a very unconventional rippling, windy winnowing and a real retting adventure!

This is part five in a blog series about flax. The previous posts are about flax processing in general, the 2018 harvest in my experimental flax patchspinning flax on a spindle and flax processing. Last year I wrote about the first harvests in my experimental flax patch and my first attempt at spinning flax on a wheel.

Rippling

After the flax has dried completely I need to ripple it before I can ret it. This means that I remove the seed capsules from the stalks. The seeds will make a total tangle of the flax if they remain on the stalks and I need the seeds for next year’s cultivation.

Usually, you would use a ripple for rippling flax. A ripple looks like a giant comb. You pull the strick of dried flax through the tines and the seed capsules fall off the stalks at the other end. Easy peasy. If you happen to have a ripple. Which I don’t. I did see one at a flea market in Austria, though. I have never seen a flax ripple that big! The shop was closed, so I could only see it from the outside.

A rusty flax ripple in a shop window
Giant Austrian flax ripple

So, instead of a flax ripple, I do the MacGyvery thing and use a pillow case and a rolling pin! I put one strick at a time in the pillow case, put the pillow case on a table and start rolling on the pillow case with the rolling pin. The seed capsules break and stay in the pillow case and I can remove the strick of flax seedless.

A person rolling with a rolling pin over two bundles of flax in a pillowcase
Rippling without a ripple. Photo by Isak Waltin

This is where the neighbours walk past asking polite and curious questions.

Retting

When the flax is deseeded it is time to ret it. The retting process separates the flax fibers from the cellulose core with the help of humidity and mould. You can use running water, dew or snow – water retting, dew retting or snow retting. These methods take different amounts of time and result in different colours in the finished flax.

While we do have a creek nearby, I have never tried water retting. The creek is usually dry after the snow has melted and I can’t really count on it for flax purposes. I know some people use an inflatable kiddie pool, but I haven’t tried that yet. Snow can be very unstable too, so my best shot is dew retting.

As many of you may know, the summer here in Sweden has been exceptionally dry, so I was prepared to help the dew along with my watering pot. It rained the first nights after I had laid out the flax, though, and there has been lots of morning dew.

I spread the flax in a thin layer in rows. I make sure the roots are in the same direction in every row.

The neighbours are still curious and polite at this stage.

Turning and checking

Now I need to watch the retting carefully. Dew retting can take anything from 15 to over 30 days, depending on the rain and dew. I turn the flax once a week and check the process.

After one week I can see that the retting process has started, you can see that it has got dark spots. There is no sign of the fibers separating from the core.

A hand holding a flax straw. Flax on the ground in the background
Day 8 of retting. The retting process has started. You can see the dark spots on the straw. The flax fibers have not separated from the cellulose core.

Another week later the flax is darker but there is still no sign of the fiber separating.

A hand holding a flax straw. Flax on the ground in the background
Day 14 of retting. The retting process continues and the flax is still darker. However, the flax fibers have still not separated from the cellulose core.

On day 19 something has started to happen! After wiggling the stalk in different directions, the fibers actually separate from the cellulose core! It is still too early to break the retting, but I have to check every day now.

A hand holding a flax straw. Flax in the background.
Day 19 of retting. The flax is still darker and the fibers are starting to separate from the cellulose core.

Finally, on day 21, the retting is finished. Just as on day 19, the fibers separate from the cellulose core, but with significantly more ease. As soon as I wiggle the straw, the fibers separate fro the cellulose and I can pull the fibers off in their entire length.

A hand holding a flax straw, flax in the background.
On day 21 the retting is finished. The fibers separate easily and in their entire length from the cellulose core.

I roll up the flax in bundles and dry them standing up in a conical shape.

A bundle of flax standing in a conical shape on the ground
The retted flax needs to dry before I store it.

When the flax has dried it will keep for decades. Rodents stay away from it, since it has retted. I will keep mine indoors over the winter and process it outdoors next summer.

Winnowing

While the flax has been retting, the seeds that were saved in the pillowcase have dried in a bowl in the window. There is a mixture of seed, capsules and vegetable fragments from the stalks. I want to keep the seeds. Had I been a chicken owner, the girls would have got the winnowed capsules for breakfast.

I wait for a windy day to winnow them. I pour the seeds between two bowls in the wind.

Hands pouring seeds from one bowl to another.
Winnowing the flax seeds. Photo by Nora Waltin

The light seed capsules blow away in the wind while the seeds fall down into the lower bowl. I pour back and forth until most of the capsule parts are gone. This particular day, the wind had a very hard time deciding which way to blow. I danced around, trying to find the direction of the wind and ending up with most of the stuff in my hair and on my clothes.

I am very disappointed in my neighbours who weren’t even around to be curious and polite.

Hands holding bowls, pouring seeds from one bowl to another.
The wind takes the dried and light capsules to new adventures. The heavy seeds fall securely into the lower bowl. Photo by Nora Waltin

I end up with a promise of a successful flax season 2019.

A bowl of flax seeds.
Winnowed flax seeds

Happy spinning!


You can follow me on several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. The contributions from my patrons is an important way to cover the costs, time and energy I put into the videos and blog posts I create. The content I create is totally free from advertisement. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts, share images from behind the scenes and post lots of woolliness.
  • In all the social media I offer, you are more than welcome to contact me. Interacting with you helps me make better posts and videos. My private Facebook page, however, will remain private.
  • If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!

Flax processing

A struck of processed flax

Last weekend I attended the Wool and flax days at Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm. Dressed in all wool and linen, I brought my own retted flax from the 2017 harvest. My plan was to process my own flax with their tools and guidance. My friend Anna was kind enough to shoot the whole thing.

This is part four in a blog series about flax. The previous posts are about flax processing in general, the 2018 harvest in my experimental flax patch and spinning flax on a spindle. Last year I wrote about the first harvests in my experimental flax patch and my first attempt at spinning flax on a wheel.

Skansen open-air museum

Skansen is the oldest open-air museum in the world. Old houses and buildings from all over Sweden have been brought to Skansen for display. Skansen employees are dressed in period costumes and tell the visitors all about the buildings, tools and ways of living.

I spent an hour of the beautiful August afternoon at Älvrosgården, a farm from the beginning of the 19th century. For this event flax processing tools had been brought out on the yard to show how a strick of dry and dull flax stems can be turned into gold.

Tools for processing flax were often a bridal gift. A married woman needed to be able to process the family’s flax to make clothing and domestic textiles. You can often see names and wedding dates on old distaffs, hackles and scutching knives.

I showed the staff my modest flax harvest and asked if I could process it with their tools. They were delighted and very kind and showed me the ropes.

Breaking

The flax fiber is placed on the outside of a cellulose core. To separate the flax from the core you need to break the core. This is done in the flax break. In this stage you see how the cellulose cores crumble to bits while the long flax fibers stay intact. The Swedish word for this stage is bråka. Quite similar to the English word.

A person breaking flax
I’m breaking the flax to break the cellulose core that is surrounded by the flax fibers. Photo by Anna Herting

Pulling

This is a tool I have never seen or heard of before. It is called a “draga”, which is an old word for something that pulls. Which makes sense – you pull the broken flax through the “puller” to remove the coarsest bits of cellulose. Quite effective! Has any of you seen this type of tool before?

A person pulling flax through a puller
I’m pulling the flax through the “puller” as a step between breaking and scutching. Photo by Anna Herting

Scutching

The next step is the scutching, Skäktning in Swedish. You use a wooden tool similar to a knife to remove the bits and pieces of broken cellulose from the flax fibers. The more bits you are able to remove, the better prepared the flax will be for the final step.

A person scutching flax
I’m scutching the flax to remove the small pieces of cellulose that were broken in the breaking step. Photo by Anna Herting

Hackling

Hackling the flax is usually done in several steps. In this case, two steps. You pull the scutched flax through vicious tines to remove short and brittle fibers and the last pieces of cellulose. In this step you also arrange the fibers parallel. After having hackled a while I learned how to lift the strick of flax over the hackles instead of swinging it. When swinging, the flax turns in the air and doesn’t lie straight over the tines.

A person hackling flax
First hackling step. Flax samples on the table with different retting methods. Photo by Anna Herting

On the table you can see samples of flax that has been retted with different methods – dew retting, water retting and snow retting.

A person hackling flax
Second hackling step. Photo by Anna Herting

The first step of the hackling process is through a rough hackle and the second step through a finer hackle. This stage is performed at your own risk. I managed to go through it with only one pierced finger. These are the only flax processing tools I actually have at home.

Close-up of a person hackling flax.
I ended up with only one hackling wound! Photo by Anna Herting

The coarser bits that end up in the hackles, the tow, is saved and spun into a coarser yarn or used as insulation in the buildings. The pieces of cellulose core that is scattered on the ground are treats for the chickens. So while this is a time and labour demanding process, nothing goes to waste.

Admiring

The flax turned into such a beautiful bundle of gold. I am still amazed at what I have managed to make, from just a handful of flax seeds. I got new seeds for this season from Ann-Marie, a retired flax farmer and spinner. This flax is actually spinable! And I just found out that Ann-Marie is selling out the last of her seeds and she is sending me some for next season!

My beautiful strick of flax from the 2017 harvest in my experimental flax patch.

The fibers are long, lustrous and plentiful. And I must have done something right with the retting too. I am happy as a clam about my beautiful flax.

Four strikes of processed flax
Results from my experimental flax so far. From the left: 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

You can see the difference to the earlier years. The 2014 harvest was the thickness of a rat’s tail. 2015 was at least three rat’s tails!  In 2016 I failed with the retting, you can still see lots of pieces of cellulose. Finally, the newly processed flax from the 2017 harvest is long, beautiful and silky. And just outside our house, the 2018 harvest is retting on the lawn.

I’ll be back next year

I passed my flax processing exam. The Skansen staff was so kind and helpful and welcomed me back to process my next harvest. A big thank you to the Skansen staff at Älvrosgården for their kindness and guidance, to Anna for shooting and to Ann-Marie for the seeds.

Happy spinning!


You can follow me on several social media:

  • This blog is my main channel. This is where I write posts about spinning, but also where I explain a bit more about videos I release. Sometimes I make videos that are on the blog only. Subscribe or make an rss feed to be sure not to miss any posts.
  • My youtube channel is where I release a lot of my videos. Subscribe to be sure not to miss anything!
  • I have a facebook page where I link to all my blog posts, you are welcome to follow me there.
  • On Patreon you can get early access to new videos and other Patreon only benefits. The contributions from my patrons is an important way to cover the costs, time and energy I put into the videos and blog posts I create. The content I create is totally free from advertisement. You can read more about my Patreon page here.
  • Follow me on Instagram.  I announce new blog posts, share images from behind the scenes and post lots of woolliness.
  • In all the social media I offer, you are more than welcome to contact me. Interacting with you helps me make better posts and videos. My private Facebook page, however, will remain private.
  • If you like what I do, please tell all your fiber friends and share these links!

Harvest day in the experimental flax patch

I never know when it is the perfect day to harvest my flax. When I read up on the subject, it usually says to harvest about 30 days after the first blossom. The stems should be yellow to up to about a third of the length of the stalk. This year, though, has been extreme in the sense that it has been hotter than ever before. Weeks of temperatures close to 30°C  and no rain for over a month. According to a local flax association, the heat can make the flax mature faster than usual. I the end of July I decided it was harvest day in the experimental flax patch.

This is the second post in my flax series.

A quick resume

This is the fifth year with the experimental flax patch. My ambition with it is to learn something new every year and bring that new knowledge into the next season. Someday I hope I have enough knowledge to produce spinnable flax fiber.

I have processed the harvests for the first three years to the best of my ability. The only flax processing tools I own are two hackles. Last year’s harvest has been retted and dried but I haven’t processed it yet. I may be getting some real processing tools later in the fall.

I bought the first seed from a commercial seed brand. The resulting harvest was ok and I used the threshed seeds for the following seasons. Earlier this year, though, I bought the seed Ilona from a retiring flax farmer.

Flax harvest of 2018

I used the Ilona seed for the 2018 flax season. I have never had such long and straight plants! When I sowed the seed I got a little carried away, though. It was too much for my regular flax patch in the flower bed at the house. I decided to expand the experiment with a branch in the allotment. Unfortunately, I hadn’t enough seed for both patches. This resulted in the seed being spread unevenly, which in turn affected the quality of the flax harvest. Flax likes to be planted evenly and quite closely together. The further away the plants are from each other, the thicker the stems and the more seed capsules they will develop. For spinning the flax stems need to be thin and straight with fewer capsules. Perhaps the extreme weather contributed to the quality as well – the plants were uneven in both length and thickness.

Close-up of bundled-up flax stalks
Quite a difference in thickness of the flax plants in this year’s flax harvest.

When I pulled the plants I tried to pull the same length for the same bunch. I’m still concerned that I may have pulled a little too soon, but since this season has been so crazy, I didn’t want to keep it in the ground anymore.

The root of a flax plant
The flax is pulled straight from the ground, root and all. Photo by Dan Waltin

It is perfectly fine to pull the flax early, though. It will result in finer fibers, but also a less amount of mature seed to thresh for next season. So I will have to buy new seed and hopefully I will get some good quality seed from an experienced spinning flax farmer.

Flax seed pods
Sweet seed capsules

Next step: Rippling and retting

The next step in the process is rippling and retting the flax. I usually dew ret on the lawn just outside the house. But since the weather has been so dry, I think it will be a while before there is any dew to talk about, so I think I will wait a couple of weeks before I start the retting process. Meanwhile, the flax hangs safely on the wall of the house and looks pretty and promising. And I still have last year’s retted flax to process and some commercial flax to spin.

Happy spinning!


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New series: Flax

It’s flax season! I don’t want to spin flax indoors because of all the dirt that falls out in the process. This is why I basically only spin flax in the summer. Also, late summer and autumn is the time for flax processing. So, I will write a flax series.

In this series I will write about my own experimental flax patch, processing the fiber and spinning. To begin with, here is a short summary of the different steps in the process from seed to yarn.

Flax processing

Processing flax is quite labour intensive. Since I – so far – have a very small flax patch (about 2 square meters), it is manageable. These are, in short, the steps I go through with my flax in the process from seed to yarn:

Sowing

The seed can be sowed as soon as the soil is defrosted and manageable. I usually wait for the first weed to sprout. After deweeding, I’m ready to sow. This makes it a lot easier to distinguish the sprouting flax from weeds later on. To avoid the flax patch becoming a day bed for the neighbour’s cat, I usually place a grid a few inches over the ground.

Flax seeds
Flax seeds

Harvesting

I try to harvest about 30 days after the first blossom. I grab a bunch of plants and pull them right up, roots and all. Keeping the roots gives me a longer stalk. Also, the root protects the fiber from rotting (compared to a cut plant).

Drying

I make bundles of the flax and hang them over a fence in the sun to dry. I try to hang them high enough to avoid any curious rodents. When the flax is totally dry it is time to ret it.

Bundles of flax hanging to dry
Bundles of flax hanging to dry

Rippling

The seed capsules need to be removed from the stalks before you can process the fiber. This is done with a ripple. It looks like a big comb. You pull a bundle through the ripple, and the seed capsules fall off. The seed capsules are saved and threshed for next season.

I don’t own a ripple. Instead, I put the bundles in a pillow case and beat it with a mallet to remove the seed capsules from the stalks.

Retting

This is a tricky part and I don’t have enough experience to know when the retting is just right. Since we don’t have a stream nearby, my only option is to dew ret my flax. I spread the bundles in a thin layer on the lawn. If it isn’t wet enough, I water the flax with a watering pot. I have to watch the process carefully to avoid under or over retting. I also turn the flax once a week to get an even retting process. When the fibers separate easily from the core when I bend the stalk, the retting is finished.

When the retting is complete, I dry the flax in bundles.

Breaking

The flax stalk has a cellulose core. The flax fibers are placed around the core. To get hold of the fibers, the stalks needs to be broken. This process breaks the core, but not the fibers. Since I don’t own a flax breaker, I do it the stone age way – I try to crush the core with a stone against a rock. Sometimes it works.

Scutching

In the scutching process, the majority of the broken pieces of cellulose are removed from the fibers with a scutching knife. Since I don’t have one, I use a spatula. It doesn’t work very well.

Hackling

To separate the fibers I use two different hackles. A coarser one at first and then I continue to a finer one. This is the final part of the processing of the fiber. I end up with the hackled line flax and the coarser tow.

Spinning

I haven’t spun any of my own flax yet, mainly because I don’t think it has a good enough quality. I also haven’t practiced flax spinning to a point where I think I deserve to spin my own flax.

Coming up

In the next post in this series I will write about this year’s flax harvest.

Happy spinning!

Tweed!

Two balls of dark grey yarn with coloured specks in them

As I have mentioned before, I am taking part in PLY magazine’s spinalong 51 yarns. It is a theme-based spinalong based on the book 51 yarns by Jacey Boggs Faulkner. Each week they choose one participant who wins a year’s subscription to the magazine. I actually won on week 10: Semi worsted. This week’s theme is tweed.

Tweed: First try

I started a couple of weeks ago and planned to use short clips of handspun yarn that I had unplied and fluffed up. It didn’t work out very well. The fibers didn’t join in in the yarn. Instead they fell out and looked like lint that had got stuck to the yarn.

A ball of dark grey yarn on a stone
Tweed, first try: Failed.

A second try

Of course I wasn’t happy with the yarn. I could have settled for a failed yarn, but I didn’t. I really liked the specks of colour in the dark grey yarn and I knew I could do better. So I browsed for Sari silk and found a beautiful colour blend with turquoise as a main colour. I am very much in a turquoise period right now.

I picked it up from the post office just a few days later and it was as yummy in reality as it was on the picture online, perhaps even more so.

A braid of turquoise based sari silk
Sweet sari silk

Since I have no prior experience with tweed, I wanted to spin a couple of samples with different preparation to find the best way to spin the yarn. So I tried both with hand-combed top and hand-carded rolags.

The yarn I used was a beautiful dark grey mixbreed of Swedish finewool and Rya. The fleece got a gold medal at the 2017 Swedish fleece championships and I snatched it at the auction.

Hand-combed top

A ball of dark grey hand-combed wool with specks of colour in it.
Hand-combed top with sari silk

Before I started combing, I realized that there would be a problem with drawing the top off the comb. When you draw, you usually get the longest fibers first. This would mean that I would get all the sari silk bunched up in the end of the top. And this is exactly what happened. The sari silk was also more streaks of colour than tweedy specks. In addition to that, a lot of sari silk had got stuck in the tines of the combs.

I spun the yarn on a supported spindle and plied it on the fly. Just as I had suspected, the sari silk was unevenly spread across the yarn.

A spindle with dark grey yarn and some coloured specks.
Tweed yarn spun from hand-combed top and plied on the fly on a supported spindle. Almost all of the sari silk is hidden closest to the shaft.

Hand-carded rolag

Carding was a lot nicer than combing. I teased the locks by combinb, together with the sari silk. I pulled the wool off the combs tuft by tuft and loaded them on the cards and carded away. The sari silk was evenly spread across the rolag and it looked beautiful.

A rolag of dark grey wool with coloured specks in it.
A beautiful tweed rolag

I spun it the same way as I had spun the combed tops. I had to pay extra attention to the drafting. Usually, I stay away from nepps when I prepare for carding and I remove any nepps when I see them along the spinning. But this time I wanted to keep them in and I had to watch the yarn carefully so that the yarn didn’t break or get lumpy. But it did turn out beautifully.

A spindle with dark grey yarn with coloured specks.
Tweed yarn spun from hand-carded rolags and plied on the fly on a supported spindle. The sari silk is evenly spread throughout the tweed yarn. Spindle from Malcolm Fielding.

Thoughts

There are clear differences between the finished yarns. Structurewise of course, the yarn spun from carded rolags is fluffier and softer and the yarn spun from combed top is stronger and shinier. But also you can see the difference in the tweed structure. The yarn spun with carded rolags has the sari silk more evenly distributed. The yarn spun from combed top has the sari silk unevenly distributed.

Two balls of dark grey yarn with coloured specks in them.
The finished balls of yarn. On the left is yarn from carded rolags and on the right is yarn from combed top.

It is even more obvious in a knitted swatch. I knit it with the same needle gauge and with the same amount of stitches and rows. You can see the sari silk evenly distributed on the left swatch knitted with yarn spun with carded rolags. The fabric is a bit denser than the one to the right. It also feels softer. To the right is the swatch knit from the yarn spun with combed top. You can see that the sari silk is more dense at the bottom and less so at the top. The sari silk is also less obvious in this swatch since it is combed into the top and spun more as streaks of colour than specks. The sari silk to the left ‘pops’ more.

Two dark grey knitted swatches.
Swatching: Yarn from carded rolags on the left and combed top on the right.

Even if I suspected that the results would be different, I needed to feel it and see it. Only when I experience the difference in real time can I really appreciate it and learn something from it: I learn how fiber behaves and how these fibers in particular behave. My hands need to know the fiber to be able to spin the wool into its best yarn. After this experiment, I think I have a clue to how to accomplish that.

What’s next?

My plan now is to spin the whole fleece into yummy skeins of 3-ply tweed yarn. I will spin it with longdraw from carded rolags on my spinning wheel. I will probably make it a bit thicker, perhaps sport weight yarn. Also, I may use slightly less sari silk per rolag, I prefer it to be more subtle than in the swatch.

I also have secret plans to design a garment to fit the structure and feeling of the yarn.

I went from not having given tweed a second thought to planning to spin a whole fleece into tweed yarn and designing a garment to match it. That wouldn’t have happened without the spinalong. Thank you PLY magazine and 51 yarns!

Happy spinning!


You can follow me on several social media:

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Flicking tips

A ball of wool

After a discussion in a Facebook spinning group about solidified grease in the tips of a fleece, I decided to do a mini study of different ways to prepare a fleece for spinning. I have a fleece of my own that is wonderfully clean but has tips with solidified grease.

The fleece

On the last wool journey with my wool traveling club, I bought a beautiful NKS fleece. NKS stands for Norsk kvit sau: Norwegian white sheep. This is basically what crossbreds are called in Norway. The fleece I chose had a full year’s growth.

In Sweden most sheep are shorn twice a year, which naturally makes the fleece shorter. This means that the fleece shorn in the early spring is of worse quality (since all the nutrients go straight to the lamb) and usually has more vegetable matter (because the sheep have spent much of the winter indoors). The fleece shorn in the autumn has better quality (since the sheep has no lamb to nourish) and less vegetable matter (since the sheep are out grazing). So: Twice a year gives a better but shorter autumn fleece. Once a year gives a longer fleece but can be more mixed in quality.

Lanoliny tips

The fleece was wonderfully clean and shiny with staples of around 12 cm. The tips, though, were greasy. I think that the Norwegian rain had pushed all the lanolin out into the tips. I washed the fleece straight away by soaking it in rain water. It wasn’t until recently (one year after I bought the fleece) that I started processing, and by then the greasy tips had solidified.

Experiment: Flicked vs unflicked tips

I wanted to make an experiment and compare different preparation methods. First, I prepared the way I usually do with a fleece I want to comb: Loading the combs with the cut ends on the tines and combing three passes, then pulling the wool off the comb in one long top.

Combing this way was a struggle. It took a lot of muscle power to get the combs through the wool. And after three passes it was not nearly in a condition I could approve (I always do an uneven number of passes so that I pull the wool off the combs from the cut ends). So, I did five passes. Pulling the wool off the comb was also difficult, the wool was still uneven with bits of solidified gunk left. I picked as much of it out, but there was still stuff left when I spun the top, which of course interrupted my spinning flow.

When you play the videos, a captions symbol appears to the left of the settings symbol. Click or unclick the captions, depending on your preferences.

This was not a pleasant combing experience. So, I tried a different way. I flicked the solidified grease ends before combing. Combing the staples with the tip ends flick carded was a whole different experience.

A lot of gunk was left in the flicker and the floor was sprayed with gunk powder.

A floor dirty with wool waste.
Powdered gunk and gunky flicker waste.

The combing was easy and pleasant after flick carding the tips and I was perfectly happy after my usual three passes. Pulling the wool off the combs was also nice and smooth and the spinning was uninterrupted and yummy.

A skein of white handspun yarn.
A finished skein of fingering weight 2-ply NKS wool, spun with short draw from hand combed tops on a spinning wheel. 194 m, 70 g, 2766 m/kg.

I spun the skein above with both of the preparation techniques. Mostly the flicked version, though, since I only combed a couple of bird’s nests with the tips unflicked. I also knitted a swatch with the finished yarn.

A knitted swatch
A knitted swatch, 25 stitches and 39 rows in 10×10 cm

Other ways to use a flick card

This was one example where flick carding the tips made a big difference for the preparation and spinning experience. I also use my flick card for several other purposes:

  • To remove brittle tips. If I have a fleece with fine fibers and brittle tips I can use the flick card on the tip ends. The brittle tips will end up in the card instead of the yarn (as nepps).
  • To flick both ends of a staple. Sometimes I want to spin from the lock. A flick card is a good tool to separate the fibers in individual staples and spin staple by staple.
  • To tease staples before carding. This might take time, but will give a good result. Fibers that are too short, brittle or dirty will stay in the flick card and the good stuff will go to carding.

Do you use your flick card for other purposes?

Tech stuff

In these videos I have played with both narration and captions. As you may know, I want to shoot my videos outside if possible. But the area around our house is quite noisy. In the background on the other side of the lake you can see the most intense motorway in Sweden, and it makes a lot of noise. Also, we live close to a city airport and the planes fly just above our house, it’s almost like we can tickle the planes on the bellies if we stretch enough. This is why I wanted to try to narrate the clips. And I think it worked out.

In a previous video where I tested my makeshift studio, I added equally makeshift captions. Since then, my editing software has upgraded with a function for closed captioning. Yay! I think they work too.

Please let me know if there is anything of the technical stuff I can improve.

Don’t waste your wool waste!

When I spin, I usually get a yield of around 55 % of the original weight of the fleece. The rest goes away as waste in either sorting or combing/carding. But I never throw any of the waste away. The most obvious use would be for toy stuffing, but I’m not a big toy maker. Instead, I use most of it in the garden. The wool waste has value even if it’s full of dirt, vegetable matter and poo. Or just because of that.

Pot planting

When I sow in pots I put some wool waste in the bottom to let the roots get some space. If I plan to keep the plants indoors in the winter, I also put wool on top of the soil. This has several benefits. First of all, it protects the surface of the soil so that it doesn’t dry so fast. The dirt in the wool will sink down into the soil when watering and will act as a fertilizer. If I use white wool on top of the soil, it also reflects the light, which is beneficial for the plant. Last, but not least, the wool will prevent the fungus gnats from laying their eggs in the soil.

Mulching

For basically the same reason as the pots, we put wool waste on top of the garden beds at our allotment. It keeps the soil from drying out, it keeps weeds from growing and it fertilizes the soil when it rains. The wee workers in the soil will pull the fibers down into the depth and make the soil earthy and porous. The wool waste may also prevent slugs and roe deers from eating our crop. Not always, though, the bold city roe deers and the despicable Spanish slugs are nasty!

Sometimes the wool doesn’t stay in the garden beds, though. In the early spring I see lots of magpies pulling fibers to use in their nests. I can live with that.

Instant felted soles

I like to put wool waste in my shoes to make instant insulating soles. The more I use the shoes, the more the wool felts and makes excellent personalized soles.

Against visiting ants

Every March equinox, the ants come marching into our house. If we find their way in, we try to stuff the hole with a piece of wool. That usually helps and feels better than any chemical ant control.

Feeding the compost

Small pieces of wool waste from spinning I usually just put in the Bokashi compost. Or, if we have a bigger amount of wool waste that for some reason can’t be used elsewhere, we just put it in the compost. It may take a while to decompose, but eventually it will. And we use all our precious compost in the garden beds.

Wool waste water

Last, but not least, I use the water from wool rinsing. Swedish wool usually has a quite low amount of lanolin in it. I want some lanolin in the wool I spin, so I just rinse the wool in water. This gives me just the right amount of lanolin to spin. I preferably use rain water if the rain barrel is full. The used water has lots and lots of fertilizer and I use it to water the plants outside. It makes the whole garden smell like sheep, and for a little while I pretend I have my own flock.

Do you have more clever ideas for not letting the wool waste go to waste?

Up close in the microscope

Wool fibers seen through a microscope

The other day I had a spinning date with my friend Anna and her cousin Helena. We had a great time spinning and chatting away. Anna also brought her microscope. I had brought staples from all my current fleeces and I went bananas with the microscope. Here are some examples.

First up is the Swedish finewool, one of my favourite breeds. I think the staple is from the neck, it is very short and fine. You can see the crimp in the microscope and how fine the fiber is. There is a lot of air trapped between the winding fibers. I want to keep this air when I spin it, to make a warm and soft yarn. Therefore I spin it with long draw from hand-carded rolags.

Three staples of white, crimpy wool
Swedish finewool

White wool seen through a microscope
Swedish finewool in the microscope

Next up is white superfine Shetland wool, long staples of fine and crimpy fibers. In this comparison, though, the finewool looks finer than the Shetland wool, and slightly crimpier. And I can see some peat between the Shetland fibers! It is appealing to spin it with long draw to keep the air in. However, these fibers are very long and they work better with the combs to make a strong and shiny yarn with short draw. Any shorter fibers or comb leftovers will be carded and spun with long draw, though.

Two staples of white crimpy wool
White Shetland

White wool seen through a microscope. There are pieces of peat in the wool.
White Shetland in the microscope

For comparison, here is a Leicester staple, with completely different characteristics. The fibers are long and shiny and with waves more than crimp. In the microscope you can see only straight fibers and they seem a bit coarser than the Shetland and finewool samples. It is easy to imagine these fibers organized parallel in a strong yarn. I have spun this yarn with short forward draw from hand- combed tops into a strong and shiny warp yarn.

A staple of wavy wool
Leicester wool

white wool seen through a microscope
Leicester wool in the microscope

This is so much fun!