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.
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.
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.
In a previous post I wrote about fleece sorting and my fascination of the diversity within a breed and within a single fleece. I chose a few staples from my recent purchase to show you.
The first fleece is a Shetland fleece in the colour Mooskit. As you can see, there is a variation in colour, staple length, crimp, fiber fineness and staple definition. The shortest fibers on the left are from the neck area, very short, crimpy and fine, they remind me more of Swedish finewool than Shetland wool. I would card this and spin with long draw on either a Navajo spindle or a supported spindle. I would probably treat the short fibers on the far right the same way. The two staples closest to the ruler are longer, darker and a bit coarser, perhaps from the rump area. I could either comb and spin these separately for a more sturdy yarn, or together with finer parts of the fleece to give the yarn strength and colour. The long light staples on the mid left (from the sides) look like they are dying to be combed and spun with short draw on a spinning wheel. On these staples you can also see the break in the fibers about 1 cm from the cut end, where the old fibers are thinned and new have started to grow out. This fleece had such breaks on some parts and they were easy enough to pull off. Combing would also remove these bits.
The second fleece is a white Shetland fleece. The variation is not as big as in the Mooskit fleece, but there are still differences. From very fine, crimpy and clean back and side wool to coarser and more wavy belly and rump wool. I could choose to comb it all together for several skeins of consistent yarn. I could also divide the fleece into different qualities for different purposes. I would love to use some of the finest parts to practice spinning extremely thin yarn.
Both of these fleeces are Shetland fleeces and graded as super fine, but they look quite different. I have another six Shetland fleeces and they have all varied quite a lot. Shetland sheep is a primitive breed, which I have written about in an earlier post. Among other things, they shed their wool as I showed in the Mooskit fleece above. All my other coloured Shetland fleeces have had breaks in the staples where new and old fibers meet. But much less the white fleeces. My theory is that there has been more pressure on the breeding of the white sheep than on the coloured ones and thus this feature has disappeared in some of the white sheep.
The advantage I have as a hand spinner is that I can dive into a fleece like this and plan how I want to use it. I can sort it in an endless amount of ways to fit my purposes or I could combine different parts of the fleece to get the most out of the different qualities of different parts of the fleece. I can play, experiment and above all, learn from what I see in one single fleece if I just look close enough.
I just had a moment, a realisation. A moment to cherish and save in my treasure bank like a piece of beautifully wrapped candy.
You know when you make something and it doesn’t feel right, and then you make a subtle change and suddenly everything falls into place. In spinning it can be about the length of the draft, the rhythm of the treadling or the amount of fiber drafted.
This just happened. I’m spinning a Shetland fleece I bought this summer. It is very soft and crimpy and has a very long staple. I have realized that there is a bit too much lanolin left in it, it doesn’t flow right. I have made adaptations so that the combing flows easier, but the spinning wasn’t the way I wanted it to be and it bothered me. The flow wasn’t really there and the fiber told me so: “It isn’t wrong, but it definitely isn’t right either”. Until I made that liberating change that made such a difference. It wasn’t much, just a lighter hold with my spinning hand. And suddenly there was flow. It was as though the fiber said to me “yeah, you’ve got it now!”. I had found the key to how the fiber wanted to be spun.
The beauty of this is, that the process of spinning itself allows you to really contemplate and reflect over this while you are spinning, which makes the experience even more powerful. I feel like I have had a shot of vitamin Spin.
Last autumn, when I made a video at Överjärva gård, I happened to buy another fleece. I didn’t mean to, but I saw it in the wool shop and I immediately realized that it needed me. It was half a fleece from the Swedish finewool sheep Engla.
When I sorted the fleece, I decided to divide it into different piles according to the quality of the wool. I ended up with three piles – the very short and fine (neck) staples, the medium length staples and the longer staples.
The fleece was a joy to work with – it was clean, easy to sort, wonderful to comb and card and dreamy to spin. I do love Swedish finewool. I can honestly say it has been one of my very favourite fleeces.
I bought 800 g of fleece and ended up with a total of about 440 g of yarn.
So, I carded the fine neck staples and spun them with long draw on a supported spindle and made a 3-ply yarn out of the singles and I was very happy with the result. A light, airy and even yarn with lots of bounce. I also made a video about the plying.
I carded the medium staples as well and spun them with long draw on a Navajo spindle. One of the yarns I made was a prize winner – The sheep, the chicken, the pig and the lion. I also spun several skeins of singles on a Navajo spindle.
I combed the longest staples and spun them with short draw on a supported spindle. I experimented with chain-plying “on the fly” and made two videos about it, a detailed video about how to ply-on-the-fly on a supported spindle and another one where I show how I start from an empty spindle with the ply-on-the-fly method.
I feel very fortunate as a hand spinner to be able to sort my fleeces to make different kinds of yarns, whether it is according to colour, structure or length. It can result in really unique yarns. And I learn so much from it.
I got wool today! Three bags full, actually. Two beautiful Shetland fleeces, one Moorit (brown) and one Eskit (dark grey).
Previous Shetland fleeces
I have bought a few Shetland fleeces and I love all of them dearly. I bought the first ones when my wool traveling club attended Shetland wool week 2015. I got to enter the wonderful treasure room for hand spinners at Jamieson & Smith Shetland woolbrokers. A room in the basement filled with dreamy fleeces, handpicked for handspinners. I ended up buying one white and one Flecket (patches of black, grey and white). This Christmas I bought another two – one Shaela (light grey) and one Yuglet (dark grey). More about them in a later post.
About the Shetland sheep
The Shetland sheep is an old sheep breed and they are traditionally rooing their wool. The sheep sheds its wool at a certain time of year when the fibers thin and the new wool starts to grow underneath. This has advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that the fiber closes at the weak spot, which makes a garment more resistant to cold and wet weather. Another advantage is that the yarn is smoother, since the ends are thinned out instead of cut off.
A disadvantage is that there is a lot of waste, and sometimes a risk of nepps and noils in the finished yarn. If the fibers don’t break or isn’t pulled off and if the sheep isn’t sheared at the rooing moment, there will be a weak spot where the rooing occurs while the new fiber starts to grow. So, on the fleeces I bought at Christmas (about six months after the rooing) the part between cut end and rooing spot was quite long, about 4–6 cm. These parts were either wasted or used for carding.
When to get the best fleece
I wanted to get my next fleeces with as little outgrowth as possible. The rooing usually occurs in June as far as I know. I read in a post in the Shetland woolbrokers’ blog that Jan is busy with incoming wool from July, so I gathered that the shearing starts about then. So I e-mailed them in July and asked them to get me the best fleeces they could find. I wanted two solid-colour fleeces and the colour really didn’t matter (not black and not white, though), the important thing was the quality. And today I picked them up from the post office. The woman at the post office looked rather suspiciously at my three bursting bags, smelling faintly of sheep. I must have looked rather funny on my bike with one bag in my bike bag, one strapped on to the bike rack and one dangling from the handlebar.
The fleeces are really wonderful. Soft like butter, superfine fibers, strong and resilient. They are also amazingly clean. I’m used to Swedish fleeces, where even the cleanest ones have some vegetable matter in them, either from silage, weeds or needles. Once I actually found a whole chestnut in a fleece!
The Moorit fleece (picture above) is super soft (lamb, I think) with staples about 12 cm. The ends are bleached, which is common on brown fleeces. This means that the finished yarn also might be bleached, which I will put under consideration when choosing projects for it.
The Eskit fleece (lamb) is just as soft and clean. The staples are longer, up to 15 cm. There might be an outgrowth though, you can see the change of quality in the bottom 3 cm of the staple. Hopefully the fibers break at the rooing point when I comb it and the cut end parts stay in the combs.
I have divided both the fleeces in two parts, one part with the finest, softest fibers from the neck and the sides and one with the still very soft but not softest fibers. This way I can adapt my yarns to different projects.
My spinning plans
I will comb the fleeces and spin with short forward draw. My go-to yarn is 2-ply fingering weight, But I think I will also stash up on some 3-ply sport with these fleeces, I have lots of queueing knitting projects requiring sport weight yarn. The shorter lengths left in the combs will be carded and spun with long draw. I do love to spin these carded rolags into singles on my Navajo spindle and use as weft. More on how I prepare fleeces in an earlier post on combing and carding.
Gotta go now. I have fleeces to cuddle.
Please correct me if I’m wrong about the properties or terminology of Shetland wool.
I just came home from vacations out of town. First we had a wonderful week in Austria, hiking and seeing my relatives. We flew to Vienna and then took the train to Salzburg. So, when it came to craft planning I didn’t want anything in my hand luggage that any security staff could take away from me. My standard in-flight craft is nalbinding. A blunt wooden needle (or, in this case, bone) and yarn. It doesn’t take much space either. And my loved ones are always in need of warm and wind-proof mittens. These particular mittens will be for my brother-in-law. They were also a perfect companion for hiking.
We had to stay overnight in Vienna, so I could rearrange my luggage and have access to both spindles and knitting projects for the train ride. And I do love spinning on the train.
Lots of knitting was done also at the B&B we stayed at. I couldn’t not knit the 2017 Shetland wool week pattern, even though I’m not coming this year either.
And, oh, I also found the house spinning wheel at the B&B! A little beauty that had been used for both flax and wool spinning by the owner’s mother in the early 1900’s.
The second vacation was in a log cabin in Tiveden in Sweden at the Åsebol sheep farm. They have finewool, Texel and Rya sheep.
We came by car and I brought a lot more crafting stuff on this trip. The car was quite full. I had a basket of carders and combs between my feet on the floor. But it was worth it, this farm is one of my favourite places on earth.
We did some hiking there as well, and I brought the nalbinding.
We spent a lot of time at the farm, just enjoying the silence and the occasional Baah. And i did a lot of spinning. I brought five spindles plus carders and wool combs and enjoyed them all.
At the end of the week, I had spun quite a lot.
Two more weeks of vacation at home. And there will be spinning!
In October 2016 I made a video in the pasture at Överjärva gård. Anna helped me with filming and we both had trouble moving our fingers due to the cold. Sheepwise, we didn’t know quite what to expect. But two very friendly and curious ewes kept us company all through the filming. Anemone the multicoloured finewool lamb and Susanne the Gotland sheep. It was so comforting to have them there. Their calmness, the warm breaths and their constant nose poking on the spindle. Later, Anna was lucky enough to get her hands on Anemone’s lamb fleece.
The fiber I was spinning was from a prize winner, the Dalapäls ewe lamb Blanka. She (well, her owner actually) won a silver medal in the Swedish fleece championships of 2016 and I bought the fleece at the auction that followed. Spindle and cup from Malcolm Fielding.
I usually buy fleece and do my own preparation. For that I use my mini combs and my carders. I try to use as much of the fiber as possible and make as little waste as possible.
I do love combing. The way the wool transforms from separated staples to a fluffy bundle is like magic. And drawing the fiber off the comb in a long, continuous piece is very satisfying.
The longer fibers align themselves into that long combed piece. But usually there is an amount of shorter fibers left in the combs. I pull these out, one pinch at time, and card. The nepps and noils stay in the combs and I use this waste in the garden.
I follow the same routine when I card, but without making the combed bird’s nests. I lightly comb the fleece I want to card, pull it off the combs one pinch at a time and then card. This way, I use the combs for teasing the wool. It is much faster and nicer than teasing each staple with a flicker, which I used to do. And now I love carding too!