When I first started spinning, I found some cheap wool that I could practice on as I worked to perfect making a nice yarn. I was new. I was teaching myself. I struggled…oh boy, did I struggle. I couldn’t draft it. I made lumpy, bumpy yarn that fell apart or pulled apart at inopportune times. There were times that I just couldn’t get it started. But I continued nonetheless. I did learn how to spin. But the more important lesson was this. Use the good stuff! The good stuff will be easier to spin. It will be more fun to spin as you go from color to color that you actually picked out. You will want to spin more and then you will become a better spinner.
The same is true for knitting. As many of you know, I’m a relatively new knitter and when I, again, was teaching myself to knit. I went to a big box store and bought cheap yarn. I didn’t want to waste the good stuff. Instead the garment I made was all wrong. And so it was time and money wasted.
So just like your nice china and crystal, get out your nice stuff whether it is spinning fiber or knitting fiber. And work with it. You will be happy that you did.
If you need some “good stuff” to replace the “cheap stuff”, you can find beautiful yarn and roving in my web store here.
Do you do it? Or do you just dive right into a project?
As many of you know, I started this journey as a weaver. How closely you set your threads is the key to getting the fabric that you want. And once you know that you can build the rest of your calculations and get your yarn on the loom. But knitting isn’t quite like that is it? Most of us try to match the yarn in the pattern and if that yarn isn’t available in your collection or in your yarn store? What then? Some of my friends, and you know who you are dive right in with enthusiasm and the dream of a great new garment, but as they knit they realize, hey this is just too big or this is just too small. A shawl, a cowl or a scarf can be very forgiving. They don’t have to be a particular size. But what if you want to make gloves, mittens, socks or a sweater, fit does matter.
I’ve been having yarn spun for me for several years now. And one thing I know for sure is that a small mill spun yarn is very hard to get spun in those classic sizes of DK or worsted or sport. I can get a yarn that is on the line between DK and worsted. I can get a yarn that is between sport and fingering. So how are you supposed to use these yarns to make a published pattern?
You need to swatch! And you need to swatch any particular stitches that are in your pattern. If your sweater has a cable, swatch it. If your sweater is in a basket stitch or a double moss stitch, swatch it. What I hear people saying is, it takes time!! It takes extra yarn!! And you may be perfectly lucky and your garment may turn out the right size and shape without it. But what if it doesn’t? Then how much time have your wasted? How much material have your wasted? Will you rip it out or will you just set it aside in disgust?
Here is my current long term project. I want to make my first handspun sweater. I have a pattern in mind. It is a cardigan. It has double moss stitch as the body and the sleeves are cabled. I am using 2 lamb fleeces from my Blue Faced Leicester/Cormo crossed ewes. And I need to figure out if I want a 2 or 3 ply yarn. So I need to sample the yarn AND the sweater. And I need to determine the best way to process this fleece, whther to card or comb. This past Crafternoon, I knit my swatch out of 3 ply. I was also able to really get a grip on how to spin these fleeces to minimize the noils and bits of chaff. I am combing the wool and then spinning off the combs.
And as you can see, the resulting yarn (on the right) is turning out more lustrous and smooth than the carded yarn on the left.
So please, spend the time to swatch. You will be a happier knitter.
How do I get alpaca fiber? Alpaca is available as a commercial top for spinning or you can go to your local alpaca farm and buy fleeces. Fleeces are sheared from the animals once a year. They are usually graded at the time of shearing into 3 to 7 grades. The prized fleece is called the “blanket”. This is the fleece that is on the body of the animal. In the best animals, this blanket fleece is even with very little medulated fiber. The seconds and even the thirds come from the neck, legs and bellies of the animal. This fleece has more medulated* fiber and it is also of more variable lengths. This fiber can be harder to spin, but it can be blended with wool to make a lovely, more elastic yarn. Be sure to ask the fiber farmer about their grading practices and know what you are getting. If you are buying at a festival fleece sale, you cannot usually lay out the fleeces to look at it. In that case, put your hand in a different parts of the fleece and feel. You can take a small pinch of the fleece to see what the staple length is. Do this sparingly, no one wants a fleece that is all torn apart. There is an etiquette to this at a fiber show. You can ask the fleece show volunteers to help you determine a good fleece if you are new to alpaca fleece buying.
How do you clean and prepare an alpaca fleece? Alpaca does not have any lanolin or grease in their fleeces. But the animals do like to give themselves dust baths. So there is dirt and dust in the fleeces, generally. You can wash the fiber before or after you make it into yarn. I would test a small amount of the fleece to find out the level of dirt. If it is very dirty, then wash it before you spin it. If it isn’t very dirty, then you can spin it first and then wash the yarn. Care must be taken to wash the fleece carefully so that you don’t felt or just knot up the fleece. Fill a basin with moderately hot water (180 degrees) with some mild detergent like Orvis paste or Synthropol. Leave undisturbed for about 45 minutes to an hour in a place that will keep the fiber relatively warm. Gently lift the fleece out of the water and dispose of the dirty water. Refill the basin with warm water for a rinse. Leave again for 30-45 minutes. Lift out. Look at the water, is it dirty? Feel the fleece does it feel soapy? If yes to one or both of these questions, then repeat the rinsing step until the fleece is clean and does not feel soapy. Depending on the amount of the fleece you are washing, you can spin out the water in a washing machine or a salad spinner. Leave to dry. When it is dry you can prepare the fleece for spinning. For Huacaya you can card the fiber into rolags or batts and then spin. For suri, you may need to flick the locks to open the fibers. Then you can card the fiber or you can comb the fiber to prepare it.
How do you design a yarn to take advantage of the best characteristics of alpaca while minimizing it’s foibles? As I wrote in a previous post here, alpaca fiber is very warm and insulating. This is because of the way that it is formed in the folicles. The medulla or inner portion of the fiber has small air sacs. Judith Mackenzie in her book, The Intentional Spinner, says these are a little like bubble wrap. The sacs hold in the warmth of the wearer. This hollowness contributes to its tendency to static electricity and clinginess of the fiber. Alpaca itself is also more slippery than wool is, so you will need to adjust your tension on you wheel to achieve a good twist and take-up. When spinning the fiber, you need to add more twist than when using wool to make the same yarn. But you also need to take care that the yarn is not overspun and therefore stiff and dense. Yarn made from Huacaya will bloom when you wash it and it will give you a halo effect. Most of the alpaca top or roving that you will find commercially are made from Huacaya, since it is more prevalent than Suri. Suri fiber has no crimp and no elasticity. It does have great sheen though and you can find fleeces from local alpaca farms to use for yarn. Suri is much more difficult to spin according to Deb Robson in her book The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Yarn spun from Suri may look even and balanced while you are spinning it. However when it hits water, any imperfections will become evident. This is because it tends to resist being adequately spun. When this yarn is knit or woven you will see the imperfections and you may see some curling. You will need to practice with this fiber to get the results that you want in your final fabric.
Flying Goat Farm Superfine Alpaca top is made in Peru from 100% Huacaya. It has a micron range of 24-26 microns . I hand dye the top to make colors that will inspire and thrill you. You can see some of them here.
*Medulated fibers are ones that are a little more coarse. They tend to not take dye well and can feel prickly.
Just one look in those eyes with their long, long lashes and everyone falls in love with an alpaca. Of course that is right before they spit on you. I have been smitten as well. I do not personally own any alpacas. They have been offered to me, and I have just always said no. Why? I love the fiber. I love the animals. Because it is just the two of us, I didn’t want to add another species that would require a different knowledge base and time schedule to care for.
Alpaca descended from Vicunas that were domesticated by the Inca in ancient Peru. The largest flocks and alpaca fiber mills continue to be in Peru. In the early 80’s, some Americans started to bring alpaca into the states. They became a rage and the value of the animals went sky high, some even attaining the price in the tens of thousands for a single animal. Not all alpaca owners had the knowledge base to work with the fiber in the states. So much of it is being sent back to Peru for processing. In the last few years, some alpaca owners have started their own fiber mills to make yarn from alpaca here in the states.
There are 2 different types of alpaca. The Huacaya (wa-ki-ah) which is the most numerous has a fine crimpy fiber that is 4-6 inches long. The fiber can be extremely fine or not. It can be highly crimped or not. The crimp is not the same as the crimp of wool. It doesn’t provide memory or the ability to “spring back” into shape. The crimp of alpaca probably does contribute to the overall feeling of softness. The other alpaca type is the Suri, which grows really long straight, silky fiber. It looks a little bit like Cousin It. But there isn’t yet a lot of yarn or spinning fiber yet available commercially made from the Suri, it is a boutique item. The fiber is reallly too long to be put through a mill. So it needs to be cut into shorter bits, like silk does.
Huacaya fiber is very strong. It can be very fine as well (18-26 microns). It is a hollow fiber. This hollowness gives it the property of being lightweight but very insulating. The fiber pulls heat from you giving the impression that it is cool when you touch it. Although it is cool to the touch, alpaca is many times warmer than wool. Like wool, it is water loving and will absorb water and wick it away from your body. There are several grades of alpaca. The saddle area is the prime fleece of an animal. The leg and neck fleece is considered 2nd or 3rds, because it has more diverse staple length and crimp. The fleeces do not have luster, they have a more matte finish. The fleece comes in 22 different colors from bright white to cinnamon brown and deep, dark black and many different patterns, such as belted and spotted. There is no lanolin on this animal. They do like to take dust baths, though. So you need to wash out the dirt from your fleeces. The fiber itself is very smooth with a low number of scales. It does not felt readily, but will felt with extra agitation.
With all these properties, spinners of alpaca can counteract the lack of elasticity by spinning it in a worsted way. That will give your resulting fabric more structure and less stretching out of shape. You may want to spin it in a woolen manner. That yarn will be extra insulating and soft. The resulting fabric will show less stitch definition. Pick a stitch that has more structure if you don’t want your knitting to stretch.
Flying Goat Farm carries superfine alpaca roving to spin or felt. The fiber is an average of 26 microns and will make next-to-the-skin soft yarn. Each 4ounce portion is $15 plus applicable taxes and shipping. Click here to see some of our colorways.
Tune in next week to learn about alpaca yarn and how to use it. Do you have alpaca questions? Leave a comment or contact me email@example.com and I’ll answer it next week.
Wool has a bit of a bad rap. So many people tell me they can’t wear wool because they are allergic or it is itchy. Yes there are some itchy wool yarns that shouldn’t be worn next to the skin. There are many wool yarns that have been treated gently and make fabric with lovely drape and softness. There are many benefits to using wool. In my opinion, it is totally worth the time and trouble to find a wool yarn that works for you. Even my itchiest mohair wool blend sweater loses it’s itch factor when I wear a cotton turtleneck underneath and I get the benefit of beauty, comfort and warmth. In a future post, I will be talking about matching specific breeds to appropriate projects.
Wool is a totally renewable, sustainable fiber. It grows back year after year. Processing wool does not have a large carbon or chemical footprint. Cleaning takes hot water and some soap. The rest of the processing can be done totally by hand, but even if it is processed at a mill, there is just electricity used in most cases. Superwash wool has the least “itchiness”. It has been highly processed to remove the scales on the individual fibers. But it also has the highest environmental impact. I do like to use superwash wools for socks, knowing that it is a little less ecologically friendly.
Wool is biodegradable. In fact, it can be used as an excellent nitrogen source for mulching. Some shepherds use the skirtings (dirtier wool from the bellies and legs) as mulch for their gardens or orchards.
Wool is flame resistant so it naturally defends against fire. When exposed to a flame, the fibers extinguish themselves.
Wool is a great insulator. Some new “green” homes are using wool as insulation. As insulation, wool wicks moisture away from the home and reduces the presence of mold and bacteria. It also acts as a filter for odors in a home.
As outerwear, wool keeps you warm in the winter by insulating and cool in the summer by being breathable. It wicks away moisture from your body, so the moisture is evaporated. It also repels water since the outer layer of the fiber is hydrophobic.
For garments, wool is very easy to care for. Of course you shouldn’t put it in the washer and dryer, but handwashing and air drying is all you need to do. Stains are easy to remove as well either with soap and water or dry cleaning fluid for oily stains. It is highly durable so it is a smart investment for your wardrobe.
Puck says “Try wool! Ewe’ll like it!!”
Do you love wool? Why or why not? Post a comment to share your thoughts on wool.
Here are some of the wonderful gifts that would be perfect for the spinner in your life.
1. Spanish Peacock spindle–This craftsman makes the most beautiful spindles in many different styles: top whorl, bottom whorl and supported. Check out his gallery to find a great gift for the spinner you love.
2. Sarah Anderson’s book– Have you always wanted to spin cocoons and boucle? This book is informative and stunningly beautiful.
3. A cup holder for a spinning wheel–This is definitely for the spinner who has everything! I found it at The Woolery.
4. Gradient dyed roving–One of my guilty pleasures is buying wonderful roving to spin, even though I can dye it myself. Melissa at Wild Hare Fiber Studio dyes wonderful gradients that are so fun to spin. Check out her latest offerings here.
5. A blending board by Clemes and Clemes is a really fun tool to have. The spinner you love can use it to make unique color and fiber blends.
6. Spinner’s Control Card–This tool is great for the spinner who is working to make different weights of yarn. With it, a spinner can check the weight of their yarn. It will make a good stocking stuffer! You can find it here.
7. An art batt or two! You can make unique and beautiful yarns with an art batt. There are lots of ETSY makers. One of my favorites is JazzTurtle. You can find her shop here.
8. A McMorran balance–This is another great tool for a handspinner. With it you can measure how many yards per pound your yarn is. This measure will let you calculate the yardage you have made as well as help you to translate your handmade yarn into commercial yarn lingo, such as sport or worsted weights. I found it at The Woolery.
9. Subscription to Ply Magazine–This magazine is merely 2 years old. I love the photos and the information presented. The articles are written by a wide array of spinners. A gift subscription will be enjoyed all year!
10. A gift certificate to FGF–We have wonderful natural colored and dyed rovings for the spinner you love. If you don’t know which one might be most loved, give him or her a gift certificate and let them pick.
What’s on your wish list? Please share your favorite gift idea for a spinner in the comments!
Where to find us
Open by Appointment in August
Open 2-5pm 8/18
We are located in Frederick MD
9/14-21 Black Sheep Yarn Shop in Timonium MD
We are at the following fiber shows:
Shenandoah Valley Fiber Fesival: September 28/29: Arts and Crafts Building
Fall Fiber Festival at Montpelier Station: October 5/6 Tent III
Rhinebeck Fiber Festival: October 19/20: Building A