I spend a lot of my time with a fleece at the preparation stage. This is where I lay the foundation for the quality of the yarn. But sometimes I cut corners and skip steps. Sometimes I add an extra step or extra time to increase the quality or the experience of the spinning. Today I reflect over when and why I’m cutting corners or create new ones.
The other day I told my husband about a recent project where I had cut corners for the sake of the shorter fluff to stuff cycle and an instant feedback between the steps. He paused and asked me “What makes you decide what corners to cut?”. And Voilá, a blog post idea was born.
Cornerstones of processing
There are several steps I take on the journey from fleece to yarn. All of them important for the quality of the product. Sometimes, though, the quality of the yarn may not be my first priority. I very rarely skip something because I want it done faster, I know it doesn’t serve me. But there may be other dimensions I am interested in for a specific project.
After washing the fleece I go through a number of stages. You can read more thoroughly about some of them in the post Fleece happens.
First of all, I always work from raw fleece and wash it in water only. I want to get to know the fleece from the very beginning. That means I don’t buy fleece that someone else has washed. I don’t buy wool that someone else or a machine has processed. There is so much information in the steps I take before I spin the wool that I don’t want to be without. All steps offer a unique chance to explore the wool and find out its innermost secrets. All steps are appealing to me and give me peace. I don’t see any of the wool preparation steps as time consuming. Instead I see them as gifts that can reveal the secrets of the wool if I just listen to it.
I don’t cut any corners when it comes to the fiber. To me, too much information is lost in commercially prepared fiber and I don’t feel connected to it as I do with a fleece that has come straight from the hoof.
Picking is where I pick each staple to separate it from the mass of the fleece. In this the staple may open up slightly, easing felted or tangled parts and allowing vegetable matter to fall out. I also get a unique opportunity to go through the fleece with my hands, literally staple by staple, getting to know its characteristics. During picking I also get rid of second cuts, dirt, felted parts or otherwise lesser quality wool.
At the beginning of my spinning journey I did this with all my fleeces. But somewhere along the way I omitted it, I’m not sure why. Lately, though, I have started picking my fleeces again and realize what a time, muscle and fiber saver it is. A fleece that has been picked is so much easier to handle than an unpicked fleece. When I start working with a fleece that I have picked before storing I know it has gone through a quality control. If I’m lucky I have made some notes during picking that are useful as I continue the processing.
Picking is not a corner I want to cut. It may take time as I do it, but it does save both time, muscles and fiber. Processing will be easier and less straining for both me and the fiber. I believe that a picked fleece will result in a higher quality yarn with a higher fleece to yarn yield.
I always tease my wool before carding. One way or another, be it with combs, flicker, cards, hands or by separating undercoat from outercoat. I never skip this step. When I tease the wool I open it up and ease the hold the fibers have on each other. This makes it easier on my arms as well as on the fibers. Should I cut corners on teasing I would be able to work for a shorter time due to strained arms and hands. The yarn would be of a worse quality since unteased locks will protest in the carding, break fibers, create nepps that interrupt my spinning flow and leave a lumpy yarn. A teased wool will therefore generate a higher fleece to yarn yield, have a higher quality and leave my body happier.
When I comb wool for the sake of combing (as opposed to using combs to tease), the wool will be teased as I comb. Sometimes though, the staples are so dense or felted that I add another corner and tease with a flicker before I comb.
You can read more about teasing here.
Carding and combing
I generally either card or comb my wool. This is the stage where I pre-chew my fiber before spinning. It is definitely possible to spin unprepared (or only teased) wool, but without pre-chewing the spinning will be chunkier and require more effort. During the winter I have spun a low-twist singles Lopi-style yarn from lightly teased locks of Icelandic wool. The purpose was not to cut corners. Rather, it was to preserve the natural colour variegation in the staples. The preparation was chunkier and did require more effort. But all according to my plan.
Any tool that allows me to be a part of the mechanics – be it a spindle, hand cards or a backstrap loom is a tool where I get feedback directly from the fiber. With this as guidance I will be able to to make informed decisions about how to proceed.
If you find combing and carding by hand tedious, try picking and teasing the wool first. I can promise you a difference – the flow in the carding or combing dance will be a lot smoother. You will be able to feel the characteristics of the fibers and their relationship to each other between your hands.
How about drum carding?
I don’t drum card my wool. I don’t own a drum carder. The one time I tried it, it seemed to take as long as hand-carding but with a less balanced body position and lesser quality. Also using the drum carder doesn’t give me the feedback I get from the wool when I hand-card.
In my videos and webinars you mainly see me with a spindle of some kind. I do spin on my spinning wheel too, actually more than I spin on spindles. Usually I spin larger projects on my spinning wheel. With that said, I have spun several larger projects with spindles too, like the Cecilia’s bosom friend shawl and the prototype leading up to it, and my Moroccan snow shoveling pants that I knit from 1 kilo of super bulky spindle spun yarn.
I usually pick the spinning tool that I think is the best for the project and the context. Perhaps I want to spin different yarns simultaneously, well, then I may spin one or two on spindles and another on my spinning wheel. I do have two wheels, but only room for one stationary wheel. And there is always room for spindles.
Plying is not something I have dived into like I have on other parts of the process from fleece to yarn, so I can’t say I know much about it. Perhaps it is therefore I sometimes allow myself to cut corners at the plying stage.
For the singles to compose themselves after I have filled a bobbin it is a good idea to allow them to rest. I usually do this, not always overnight, but at least until the evening. If I just want to test a yarn and spin a sample I tend to skip this step.
I have learned that it is a good idea to reverse the singles before plying, so that I ply the singles together from the same end I have spun them, especially when it comes to worsted spun yarn. Spinning and plying from the same end will allow for a smoother yarn while spinning and plying from different ends may result in a slightly fuzzier yarn. To reverse the singles for plying I take the two (or more) singles and roll them together on an empty bobbin, so that I ply all singles from one and the same bobbin, from the same end they were spun. I try to follow this recommendation, but sometimes I cut corners here.
Plying from separate bobbins
When I spin on my wheel I spin each single on a separate bobbin. As I ply the yarn from the bobbins all singles come into the plying twist in the same way. But when I spin on spindles I may wind the yarn into a centerpull ball and ply from the inner and outer ends of that single into a 2-ply yarn.
I am fully aware that the inner and outer ends of the yarn will come differently into the plying twist. But sometimes I do cut corners here. Most recently with my Moroccan snow shoveling pants and a pair of nalbinding mittens. For the pants I wanted to stay as close as possible to the original procedure from wool to knitting. When it comes to the mittens I was after the short fluff to stuff cycle and instant feedback from one step of the process to the next.
Soaking and setting twist
I do soak most of my yarns and set the twist. But there have been situations when I have cut corners here. Like in the two projects above where I plied from the two ends of a centerpull ball. I wanted to stay close to the traditional making of the pants and I wanted a short fluff to stuff cycle for the mittens and have all the steps fresh in my memory. I know that the yarn is a bit unbalanced, and that is okay. The purpose of the project was to find peace of mind and focus when the world was, and still is, in full storm outside my crafting bubble.
All in all, I sometimes do cut corners and I always know why I do it. It rarely is about saving time. In fact, I know that spending more time on processing may even save me time in the long run. It will definitely give me a higher quality yarn.
Do you cut corners? Where and why? Where don’t you cut corners? Share in the comments below.
Thank you darling Dan for your clever question about cutting corners. It made me reflect over my process and what is important to me.
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