Experiments in Raw Fleece – The Finished Yarn

Merino/Romney 2 ply spun for Tour de Fleece

What a weird few weeks it’s been.

So since my last post, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few farms, meeting a few sheep (along with some donkeys and llamas), skirting a bunch of fleece, and then… I sprained my ankles. Both of them. Long story, and let’s just say I’m really good at injuring myself in new and interesting ways. They’re on the mend now, but they’ve taken about a month to heal.

So that has actually put quite a damper on a bunch of plans, and I’ve spent more time than I care to think about sitting on the couch, elevating and icing said ankles. Which really put the kibosh on all my Tour de Fleece plans.

I haven’t been totally immobile (because seriously that would have driven me crazy), but I haven’t gotten anywhere near as much done for TdF as I had planned. As I write to you, on the very last day of the tour, I’ll be plying up my third skein. The two above I spun in the first two weeks, one is 250 yards and the other is 230. I’m really, really pleased with the final product. I feel like it’s been a long road, but it hasn’t been, really. I only got my Merino/Romney fleece in March, started washing, waited for my combs to come, spent a lot of time prepping, and now I’ve finally looking at my finished (or almost finished work). Four months from start to finish isn’t bad.

I’ve said this frequently over the course of the past few months, but processing my whole fleece and being with it every step of the way as filled me with a satisfaction I’m not sure how to articulate fully.

Meeting your fibre source, and really experiencing the life behind home-prepped fleece has is miles different than going with commercially prepared fibre. And there is a life in self-prepped fleece that you don’t get with something done commercially.

Not to say there isn’t joy in a commercially prepped top (I just got some Manx Loaghtan that I’m super excited to spin), but it certainly is different, and experiencing that and really getting to know my fibre through its life after it’s been shorn is an experience I think any spinner would benefit from.

So is this the end of my Experiments in Raw Fleece series?

No way! I have a ton more fleece in the garage from a variety of different breeds that I’m just itching to get started on. The process of learning with spinning is always on-going, and I imagine these fleeces have much more to teach me. I look forward to listening to what they have to say.

A Week (Or Two) In Review – Part Deux

Light Fingering Cheviot 2-ply.

You can hear the wind whistling through this blog it’s been so quiet the past few weeks; but not for lack of anything to talk about.

In fact, I’ve been so busy, there hasn’t been much time to sit and compose my thoughts into coherent sentences – and it’s almost all been yarny/fleecey/fibrey goodness.

Also it’s summer, and that means a lot more outdoor time. We get lots of indoor time in the winter, so here in Central Alberta we have to soak in the warm rays of the sun as much as we possibly can during the summer.

But I digress.

I was going to write one big giant blog post, but honestly that sounds like a chore, and you wouldn’t want to read a bunch of disjointed thoughts anyway (right?). So let’s do it this way – brief overview, and then I’m really going to drill down into some topics in their own posts, because whew boy, I have some things to say.

Super-Secret Shenanigans

The first thing I want to talk about, or rather, allude to but not really talk about, is my new super-secret project I have in the works. It’s been something bubbling in the back of my mind for some time, and the pieces now are falling into place for it to happen. Unfortunately, that’s all you’ll get for now – but in approximately four to six weeks I plan to announce my devious (not really) plans. It’s been taking up a fair amount of my time, and I can’t even talk about it! But it is fibre related, and it’s something I hope a lot of my fellow Canadians will be excited for (mysterious, eh?)

The Merino/Romney Fleece

I swear this is the never-ending fleece. Not that I’m complaining because it’s an absolute dream, but I’ve been a washing/combing madwoman the past few weeks, and the fleece is looking like I barely touched it. I originally thought I’d wash, comb, and spin bits at a time, but turns out I wanted to wash and comb it all and then spin. I did, however, get my first samples spun up, and I’m over the moon about them. The impetus for buckling down on the prep as much as I can before July, however, is because it’s…

Tour de Fleece!

That’s right, I’ll be participating in my first ever Tour de Fleece, and I’m pretty stoked. I’m part of Team Wool ‘n Spinning, and I want to spin as much of my Merino/Romney as I can, hence all the prepping. If I run out of Merino/Romney that’s prepped, I’ll move onto my 6 lbs of various breeds I bought from Custom Woolen Mills in May. Don’t worry, I’m certainly not going to run out of anything to spin.

S-Twist and Z-Twist… What’s the diff?

I spin S (wheel goes counterclockwise) and then ply Z (wheel goes clockwise), which is the opposite from what most other spinners do. Why do I do it that way? No idea, but when I taught myself and that’s what came naturally, and I’ve just stuck with it. Is there a difference at all? That’s what I set out to figure out, because I couldn’t really find anything definitive online – and I’m not one to leave a question unanswered. So that’ll be an upcoming blog post with what I found out from that mini experiment.

Also Natural Dyeing

Lilac dye test

Oh ya, I did that too! I did a test sample, and then went whole-hog and dyed 700 yds of my Cheviot light fingering weight 2 ply that I spun up last month. I used lilac with an alum mordant – and I’ll save the specifics of it for another post, because I’m going to get all technical about it (sort of).

Pictured left is the mini-skein dye test I did before jumping in with both feet.

And a Lazy Kate

I finally got myself a tensioned lazy kate so I can make traditional 3 plies – which I really wanted to do because my chain plying game sucks. Eventually I’ll get that up to snuff, but frankly, it’s not top priority with everything else on the go, so a lazy kate was necessary. I’ve already sampled using it, and I love my itty bitty 3 ply skein. I cannot wait to spin more.

Farm Visits!

I’ll be visiting a few farms with sheep flocks within the next few weeks, and I hope to expound a bit more on that after I come back (and also show off my new acquisitions), so stay tuned. I’m really looking forward to these visits, looking forward to some new fleeces, but maybe most of all, looking forward to petting some sheep. Who doesn’t want to pet some sheep?

I will totally be posting pictures on Instagram by the way, so come and find me to get in early on the sheepy goodness.

Experiments in Raw Fleece – Tool Talk

I’m a big believer in getting the right tool for the job. I’ve needed a lot of tools for a lot of different things in my life – from photography equipment to screen printing, art materials to carpentry tools. I’m a doer, and with that means I like to try a lot of different things, and one thing I’ve learned is don’t cheap out on tools or materials.

Wool combs made by Richard Hawkins

The right tool for the job isn’t always the most expensive. Especially for somebody not doing any of the aforementioned things above professionally, there’s no need to get something on a professional level. But likewise, cobbling something together and/or using something really, really cheap just causes more frustration than it’s worth.

On the flip side however, I don’t like spending more than I have to, and the most expensive thing doesn’t always make it the best.

But there’s a middle ground. It’s not the cheapest, nor the most expensive option, but it will work perfectly well for my purposes, and that’s what I like to aim for. It’s a mixture of keeping my costs down while also providing me with the least amount of frustration.

Spinning uses really specialized equipment, so a lot of it is on the more expensive side (supply and demand, after all). So when I started looking around for a pair of wool combs I was smacked with one of two options:

1. Make my own; or
2. Fork out the dough for combs

For some reason I thought combs would be about the same amount of money for hand cards, of which there are quite a range of prices and quality. Was I ever hit with a rude awakening. Combs are expensive, and they’re all about the same price no matter where you look. Since I’m in Canada, my options for purchasing were even fewer – with our dollar the way it is right now I’d be paying 25% – 30% higher than the listed price, plus shipping, plus duty (so, let’s say on average 50% higher than the listed price). That’s nuts.

So, I looked around for some options. Could I make my own? Was there a kind of comb I could use in lieu of proper wool combs, just to get me started?

So I searched around, and I saw people using hair picks or dog combs, making their own hackles and combs out of a combination of the above. But looking at those and comparing with proper wool combs, that option was limiting, and to me it looked more like an exercise in frustration than anything. Some people use these, and swear by them, but it wasn’t for me – I wanted some combs that would be good for a range of different fleece types, and the tines on hair picks and dog combs really just lend themselves to one kind of wool from what I could figure. Since I have two pretty different fleeces waiting for me in the garage, that wasn’t going to work.

So, Back to looking at wool combs, and keeping it limited to purchasing from a Canadian supplier.

My first batch of combed top from my Merino/Romney fleece.

I searched around, asked a bunch of people, and emailed some shops. I finally rested on a pair of combs made by Rodger Hawkins of Peterborough, ON, sold by Gemini Fibres out of Mount Albert, ON.

They aren’t the cheapest combs, nor are they the most expensive, and word was they were good for a range of wools, which is what I needed.

As luck would have it, I even had a birthday coming up, so guess what I asked for? My family is pretty awesome.

I’ve had my wool combs for a few weeks now, and they are excellent. They’re easy to use, and comfortable, and I’ve used them for both my Friesian and Merino/Romney fleece, and this set works well for both wool types. I’m really, really glad I got these rather than trying to cobble together something else – sitting and combing wool is something I’m finding relaxing, and I can’t wait to wash up the rest of my fleece so I can get to combing in earnest.

Lessons Learned
    I like combing wool much more than carding (which is fortunate, because worsted spinning is my go-to)
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Experiments In Raw Fleece – Sample Scouring

Friesian Fleece laid out and ready for washing.

My first impulse with my fleeces was to grab the whole things, and just get washing. Do the actual cleaning all at once so I can get to the prepping which I am really excited to experiment with. I’m really excited about the wools I bought – the Friesian was a wonderful surprise, and the Merino/Romney is an absolute dream to the touch.

What I actually did though, was exercise some restraint (a minor miracle for me), and decided that I better do some test scouring first since, you know, I had no idea what I was actually doing with this whole raw fleece processing thing.

The first thing I did was test the temperature of my water at its highest point (just turning the hot tap on and letting the bucket fill). From everything I read lanolin loosens at around the 45C mark, and I wanted to make sure my water was hot enough. Thankfully, my water was at 50.2C coming out of the tap so I was good to go. Normally I don’t mind yarn with a bit of lanolin in it, but I have plans to do natural dyeing on the yarn I spin, so all lanolin (or at least the vast majority of it) has to come out so I can get good colour coverage.

Friesian Fleece after washing

I stuffed a few handfuls of the Merino/Romney and Friesian each in separate laundry bags, and filled up my tub with about 8L of that 50C water. I first tried Dawn, then Orvus paste, and then quickly decided that Orvus was the more practical and useful cleaning agent. I talked a lot about soaps in my last post over here, so click on over to read really in depth about that.

I did a total of three samples in two different washes. One batch of both breeds in Dawn, and then another batch of just the Friesian with the Orvus paste. The only thing I changed with both washes was how I actually loaded the fleece, and the soap.

The First Batch

Filling up my laundry bags with my samples was kind of a mess. I just took some handfuls and shoved them in without much thought as to keeping the locks nice and organized. My mistake – and I’ll talk about that a bit more below.

I filled my tubs with about 8L of water, squirted about half a cup of Dawn in, and then very carefully mixed it in, trying to prevent as much sudsing as I could (still got a lot of suds though, which I found frustrating when it came to rinsing). I let the samples sit in the water for about 15 minutes, dumped the water, filled up again with the same amount of water and soap, and did another scour (again for 15 minutes with about half a cup of Dawn in 8L of water)

After the second wash I was happy with how clean the water was. I will say here my fleeces are particularly clean – both breeds were jacketed flocks, and were skirted before getting to me, so they didn’t actually need that much hard scouring. Where most of my water usage came from was trying to get all the soap suds out. It took three additional washes of water, all at 15 minute soaks, to get the fleece suds free.

After the final rinse, I loaded them up in my washing machine and spun them dry. If you’re going to do this step make extra double sure that your machine doesn’t spray water during its spin cycle, otherwise you’ll get a felted mess.

After the spin dry, I took them out, and let them sit for less than a day and bam, I had dry clean fleece (I also live in a very dry climate, so air drying times are quite short for me as a rule).

They did have a soapy Dawn smell, which kind of covered up the natural clean sheepy smell that I love, so I wasn’t super excited about that. I know it seems like a weird thing to nit pick about, but there you have it.

The Second Batch

Frisian lock, second batch, trying to preserve the lock

I basically did the same thing for this batch with a few slight adjustments. My water, sample size, and washing time were all exactly the same. The two main differences were:

    1. I used Orvus Paste; and
    2. I tried to preserve the lock

For this batch I washed twice, although if I didn’t care so much about getting out all the lanolin I think one would have done it. For the first scour I used 2 tbsp of Orvus, and the second wash I used 1 tbsp, both in 8L water baths. I then rinsed twice, and followed the same path of spinning to dry.

I had read a few notes saying that the hand might be not quite as nice after washing with Orvus, but I didn’t notice a difference between Orvus and Dawn. The other bonus with the Orvus was no scent at all – what I had afterwards was a clean sheepy smell with no additional smells from the cleaning agent.

Preserving The Lock

I can tell already that this is going to be a learning curve for me. Lets face it, I’m probably not going to wash lock by lock, but I really want to preserve that structure as best I can. You can see in the second photo above in my first sample scour, without giving much thought to how you lay out your locks, you kind of get a hot mess at the end of all your washing.

So, for the second batch I laid out one layer of locks in my laundry bag, and pinned up the edges to give minimal movement to the locks while washing. It definitely worked better, but there will be more work to be done. I laid them out with the cut tips all facing in towards each other, and the outer tips facing the edges of the bag to allow maximum water movement around the dirtiest bits.

I think with more pinning, and actually putting more fleece in each bag the locks will be preserved even better.

Prepping for Spinning

Hand cards loaded with Friesian.

I love spinning worsted. My go-to form of spinning is short forward draw (inchworm) from a combed top. That’s what I plan to do with most of these fleeces, with some experimenting for woolen preps as well, which I’m less comfortable with (but I hope to change that).

I have hand carders, but no combs (which will be ratified sooner rather than later), so for the hot mess of the first wash I thought I’d trying carding my fibre.

I’m a bit out of practice with carding, so I’m not going to go too much into that here – there’ll be lots of blog posts down the line with how I’m doing that. I did card up some of the Friesian and try spinning, but I have a few other spinning projects on the go and didn’t really spend the time I should have on getting that right for spinning.

When I’m done my current spins, I’m going to focus on carding the Merino/Romney and I’ll spin up a sample, and post all about that here. Once I get my combs as well I’ll really get into the details of combing and carding and getting all that fibre prepped for spinning, and eventually dyeing.

I plan to get my tetanus booster and then go whole-hog with the washing, which is the reason why after my samples and now a good foundation of how I’m going to do this, I haven’t started washing more and more. Stay tuned for updates after I get that taken care of (can’t be too careful!) where I’ll be sharing more washing and prepping stories.

I feel like I’ve learned a ton already, and I have so much more to go. I’m finding the whole process really satisfying, and seeing through raw wool to knitted object is already proving to be a great experience for me.

Lessons Learned
    Take an extra few minutes to preserve the lock while washing to make combing easier when everything is dry.
    The dog is very useful to see if my fleece is properly cleaned – she goes nuts for the raw fleece in the garage, but if it’s cleaned enough at the end of the scouring process she’s totally disinterested.
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Experiments in Raw Fleece – Let’s Talk Soap

Soap has been on my mind a lot these past few weeks. My internet search history would lead one to believe that I was either a germophobe on the war path, or somebody with a lot of farm animals. But no, I’ve just been a googling fool when it comes to what works best to get all my lovely raw fleece clean. I even started drilling down into things like chemical composition and MSDS sheets to tell you the truth.

All my searching came up with several options – four of which seem to be the standard in the world of at home fleece washing – Dawn dish washing liquid, Unicorn Power Scour, Kookaburra Scour, and Orvus Paste.

What I did first was start looking for Unicorn Power Scour – it seemed to be the most highly recommended, and being my first foray into fleece washing I wanted the right tool for the job. Much searching later, and I found that for a 16 oz bottle I could either get it from the States (with shipping tags in the $25-$45 US range) or from a (very) few sellers in Canada where the shipping was not much better. With our dollar the way it is, and with Canadian shipping what it costs, at the minimum, I’d be spending the same or more than what the product costs as on the shipping, effectively doubling my price. When I broke it down to how much I’d go through (9 lbs of fleece in my possession now, with another 2-4 fleeces coming my way), it became impractical to spend that much.

Also, just a general life rule, I refuse to spend the same or more on shipping than the product I’m purchasing costs. I hate the idea and I’m stubborn and refuse to do it.

Friesian Fleece all laid out in the garage.

So, I jumped to Dawn, which is the easiest and cheapest to get. Normally I don’t go for the cheapest option (it’s usually the cheapest for a reason), but I was just itching to start washing this fleece, and a lot of people do seem to swear by it, so what the hell, I figured I could always just use it for dishes if I didn’t like it.

I grabbed a few handfuls of fleece – just enough to test the waters, so to speak, and see what the process was like.

Now, there are a lot better how-tos on the internet than what I could possibly write out here since I have the barest minimum of knowledge when it comes to fleece washing, so I’m going to forgo that (scroll to the bottom to check out the links that helped me), so rather than how-to, I’m going to talk more about my experience.

Dawn was… OK. It did, eventually, get my fleece clean and the lanolin out – and the fleeces I’m working with are extremely clean to begin with. I did two scours, and then four rinses just to get all the suds out. I was hyper aware that the water would suds up, and even barely moving the locks in the water at all produced quite a bit of sudsing that I found cumbersome to rinse. I can see how using Dawn for smaller amounts of fleece would be a reasonable thing to do for processing a few pounds a year – but I’m looking at twenty plus pounds this year alone, and that amount of rinsing wasn’t going to be practical for me.

I also looked at just how much Dawn I had to use on the small amount of fibre I was processing – it came out to a little shy of a full cup at 50C degree water and about two 10L washes. Taking that into account, it wasn’t really cheaper than any of the other options. It wouldn’t take long to go through a whole lot of Dawn.

7.5 lbs of Orvus Paste

So, scrapping the Dawn, and not being able to acquire Power Scour at a reasonable price point with the shipping, time to find my next soap.

Kookaburra seemed like the next option, but again, with shipping and even fewer sellers than Unicorn, that ruled that out almost immediately.

Which leaves Orvus. Fortunately, I live in a province that has a lot of agriculture and ranching (a lot). I thought I’d be able to find some in the city (we have a few tack shops not far from me), but no, I’m a bit too urban for that. Fortunately, my mom the hero lives more rurally, and hit up a local farm shop on her way into the city. For less than $60, I got my hands on the most giant bottle of Orvus paste ever, which should last me not only the twenty or so pounds I have planned for this year, but will probably outlive me.

Despite the fact that Orvus Paste says “not for home use” in big bold letters, it is sold for cleaning handmade quilts, and says right on the bottle it’s a good wash for home delicates (mixed messages, much?). What Orvus Paste is actually sold for is for washing horses and cows down, so it’s good at cutting grease and the lanolin on raw wool.

Orvus does have a lathering agent (that’s the sodium lauryl sulfate it says right on the bottle), and it does suds up, but with minimal movement there are fewer, and less dense suds. The other bonus is, it doesn’t leave a scent on my wool like Dawn – when I pulled the second sample scour out with the Orvus, all I had left was a clean sheepy smell, which I love.

I did have to do less rinsing, and I definitely used less actual soap. I did two scours, for a total of 3 tbsp of paste, and then three rinses but I know I could have gotten away with two in all likelihood.

So just practically, since Orvus uses less water and less soap, that’s the one for me. Which is really good news considering I bought so much before I had even tried it. There are a few places online you can purchase smaller amounts (Maiwa in Vancouver is one) if you’d like to try Orvus before getting a huge amount like I did (or if you don’t have access to farm supply shops).

I was going to go over the specifics of how I washed my samples in this post – what I did, water I used, how much soap, etc. I talked about that a bit above, but since this post is already a small novel, I’m going to split that and have that be an upcoming post. I learned quite a bit even just between the first and second sample scours, so I’ll go into all of that in a bit more detail in a new post. Stay tuned!

Lessons Learned
    Preserving the lock – that’s pretty important if I want to prep the way I planned. So definitely pay more attention to that.
    A little Orvus goes a long way.
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