Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ryeland: From Great Britain with Love

When you think Ryeland, think warm woolen mittens, cozy house slippers, perfect for layering during cold winter chills. 

Ryeland sheep have a long and interesting history on the British Isles where most of today's flocks still reside. According to the Ryeland Flock Book Society website there is recorded evidence of these sheep being kept as far back as the 1300's. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly received a pair of Ryeland wool stockings and afterwards declared she would not wear stockings from any other wool. Today the Ryeland fleeces are apparently a bit less fine than their ancestors. Breeding for meat became more profitable and the Ryelands were cross bred to increase carcass size. The population of Ryelands declined after WWII and today these sheep are considered a conservation breed.

The wool I obtained is from Wildcraft in the UK, specifically from a ewe named Truffle. While Ryeland is typically white, there is a coloured gene and you can now find flocks that are breeding for natural coloured Ryeland. My fleece had a staple length of 1-3", with most of the wool falling right around 2".The entire fleece weighed a bit over 3lbs washed.

The wool arrived having already taken a fermented suint bath. I didn't care to spin it with the lanolin that still remained, so I gave it one more hot wash and two rinses before pressing on.

The staple length was short, crimpy, blocky, and a bit disorganized. This is reportedly normal for Ryeland, though I think my washing again after the suint bath caused greater disorganization. Not a problem, just worth noting. It actually looked and felt much like a traditional down wool.

At this point I decided I wanted to card the wool. The short and somewhat varied staple length could make carding  a little tricky but I wanted to make use of as much of the fiber as possible (I would have lost lots if I combed) and I wanted to take advantage of the springy down type quality of the wool by spinning a semi-woolen yarn. So I set off happily making rolags, picking bits of the lighter and darker greys at random as I went along. I wanted a heathered looking semi-woolen, the idea itself made me smile.

While I sat there carding I determined that I really wanted to create a three ply to knit slippers with. Ryeland is not an easy felting wool so this seemed like a great use for a wool that is not exactly next-to-skin soft. I weighed out my rolags into three relatively even piles and started spinning. I used my Kromski Sonata with a 12.5:1 ratio and produced three bobbins of slightly fuzzy Ryeland singles.

When it came time to ply I used the jumbo flyer and switched to a 7.5:1 ratio. It was a joy to watch the colors change and blend gently as the singles came together. The end result was a nice even 3-ply with a heathered appearance and a small amount of halo -just perfect for my slipper project.

Ryeland was a lovely adventure and I am thankful to Karen of Wildcraft for working with me to get this fleece to the US. If you enjoy preparing your own fiber, specifically down types, consider giving Ryeland a try. If you can find it already prepared I think it would be a nice project for even a more novice spinner.

I'd like to apology for the delay in posting this project. Life has been incredibly busy! I promise I'll be back soon though with some Babydoll Southdown and Tunis!

Friday, March 30, 2012

The very surprising Leicester Longwool

Leicester Longwool is a "luster" longwool with gorgeous long, silky locks and a shine to rival fine mohair. The breed was first developed by Robert Bakewell in the mid 1700's and quickly became popular. These sheep were exported to the United States and even kept by George Washington. Unfortunately their popularity waned as the desire for finer wools came into vogue, and the Leicester began to disappear.

Through the efforts of a number of small breeders and organizations like the ALBC, the Leicester is slowly making a comeback. According to the ALBC however the breed still remains critically rare both in the United States and globally.

I was excited to have the opportunity to work with a portion of a Leicester fleece over the past 2 months. I received the fiber in raw lock form and tried to wash it with care. I had heard it was important to use water at or above 130 degrees F and not to let the wool sit more than 15 minutes before changing the water or I would have a difficult time removing the lanolin.
So I did just that, using mesh lingerie bags to keep the layers of fiber from tangling with each other.

I'm not sure how long the fleece sat before it got to me, but I was unable to get all of the yellowish color from the tips washed out. It is alright though, it will just add a nice creamy character to the finished yarn!

I contemplated combing the washed locks, and I did do a small sample, but ultimately decided to card the wool. First I had to untangle some of the butt/cut ends of the locks that had gotten stuck together during washing. (Why didn't I separate the locks completely before washing?) I the end I used scissors to snip off the last 1/2-3/4" of the worst of the locks. That taken care of, I happily spent an afternoon carding up the rest of my fiber.
The fiber was not difficult to card, though I recommend picking open the locks slightly before you get started. The basket of rolags (see left) was light and airy, and surprisingly SOFT! Everything I had heard about the longwools led me to believe this fiber would be strong, and it was, but also coarse. It wasn't, now it also wasn't like a cloud of angora, but you understand what I'm saying. I expected fiber suitable for carpets and this was a pleasant surprise.

Spinning was next and I decided to put away the spindles and spin this on my Kromski Sonata with a 12.5:1 ratio. It took no time at all to get my hands adjusted to the fiber length although I did have to remind myself to loosen my grip on the cloud like rolags. Spun with a forward draw, I put all of my fiber on one bobbin.  I will caution though that I put less twist in this than I might have used for, say, Romney. I did not want to turn this gorgeous fiber into rope! Less is more in this case. Be sure to sample before you dive in and you'll find the right balance.

I left the fiber to sit overnight and came back to it the next day. I wound the bobbin off into a center pull ball and then spun the fiber back onto itself.

What a fun spin! So much luster and shine, just beautiful, and drapey too thanks to the lower twist. I ended up with 95 yds of roughly DK weight 2-ply, 64 grams total.I still wouldn't make a next to skin sweater with this, but I would put it against my neck.

If you enjoy spinning longer staples, I encourage you to give Leicester Longwool a try. I know I'll be looking for more at Maryland Sheep and Wool this year!

Coming up soon: Tunis, Ryeland, and more!

Monday, March 19, 2012

And sometimes I knit. . .

It has been an exciting week for me. Sometimes an idea just overtakes me and I need to go beyond merely sketching it out. Some patterns just want to be born, they need to be plotted and knit immediately abandoning all other projects. I will find myself sitting up at my desk long after I should be in bed, carefully mapping out cables or calculating decreases for a raglan sleeve. It is an exhausting process but one with great rewards! To see your idea in the flesh is truly exciting. Thanks to my lovely friend and test knitter Linda, the fruits of my labors can now be shared.

I give you the newly released "Lover's Lane".

This time I was inspired  by L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books. I remember reading them as a little girl, the first one read aloud with my mother. . .such wonderful memories. Re-reading the books again as an adult I could easily see the landscape of Avonlea spread before me through Ms. Montgomery's beautifully descriptive prose.

With spring approaching it became even easier to imagine myself walking the paths that Anne walked. I long to walk beneath the arched boughs  of Lover's Lane, past the Lake of Shining Waters, and sit beside the Snow Queen with her fragrant apple blossoms.

"Lover's Lane" is the first in what I hope will be a series of patterns inspired by my favorite works of fiction. Already in the works is a half circle shawl knit in delicate suri alpaca lace. It is shaping up to be a wonderful adventure. 

Soon we will be back to discussing spinning, but in the mean time. . .what inspires you?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hog Island, a rare treat

  I recently had the opportunity to work with Hog Island wool. I would venture to guess that the average spinner has not heard of this breed of sheep. This is not surprising since it is a critically endangered sheep that developed as an isolated group on Hog Island, a barrier island set between the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern shore peninsula shared by Virginia,Maryland, and Delaware. The sheep were abandoned on the island after a hurricane drove its human inhabitants away.  Proving to be very hardy, the sheep survived as a feral population for many years before being removed form the island. There are a few historic sites and private farms with flocks in the Chesapeake Bay region and beyond that are working to preserve these animals. You can read more about them at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website or in the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook.

  For my part, I contacted the Accokeek Foundation in Maryland looking for some raw fleece to play with. What I received was about 1lb of fleece from a whether named "Lambie". Lambie seemed to have a penchant for lying in the dirt so the first thing I did was soak the fleece in a tub of cold water for about 36 hours. This released a large amount of dirt and debris making washing less intense of an operation. As per usual, I separated the fleece into roughly 8oz portions and placed it in a mesh bag before washing. It makes transfer from wash to rinse water easier for me, and I like not having to handle the wool too much when wet even if it is not prone to felting.

  Once dry I got to sorting the fleece. There were areas that had fairly intact lock structure, but for the most part this portion of the fleece had blocky, disorganized fibers. The staple length varied but nearly all the locks were shorter than 2" with 1.5" being the overwhelming majority. You can see the variety of lengths in the following photograph.

  I started out carding the fiber with my standard Clemes and Clemes handcards but was producing a fair amount of nepps in the rolags from the shortest fibers. I might have left the nepps, but I didn't want a textured, rustic style of yarn.

  I switched to my combs and hackle and was impressed with the results. The fiber was combed once and then transferred to my Acorn hackle. This produced a prodigious amount of waste, but I was prepared for that. Anyone who has ever processed a merino fleece by hand can sympathize when I say that my yield from raw fiber to processed top was slightly less then 50%. Still, I agonized over the fiber loss at first, it seemed wasteful, but in the end I assured myself that this was the only way to get the yarn I wanted and that Lambie and his friends would surely be growing more wool for next year.

  The fiber did diz off nicely into a lovely top though, with a crisp but spongy hand. I happily prepared several of these nests for spinning on my wheel. Yes, this is what I wanted and carding was not going to get me there. I did save some of the waste wool for stuffing toys, there we are- pang of conscience appeased!

  Despite having combed the wool, I was determined to try spinning it long draw. The fibers were certainly short enough to make it possible. So I pulled out dear Henrietta, oiled her up, and got to spinning. It was fantastic! For the most part the fiber slid through my hand with ease, controlling the twist with my forward hand every now and then to keep things from getting away from me.

  Once I finished the single I let it rest overnight. The next day I wound the fiber into a center pull ball and plied from both ends to get my 2-ply yarn. This is a neat trick to keep from wasting any of your singles. (A word of caution not use it on things that are especially "grabby" though like mohair.) This skein weighs about 2.5 oz (71g), is 120yds and 8-9 wpi. It is fairly soft, soft enough for me against my neck and cheek, though maybe not for a next to skin sweater.

  I did worry about not adding enough twist to give the yarn extra strength. However, I am really pleased with the fluffy, springy, woolen results. No, this particular skein would not hold up well as work gloves or boot socks, but it not in danger of falling apart either. Here is a close-up for a better look at the structure.

  I enjoyed this experience thoroughly and believe this is a breed of sheep worthy of greater recognition. I hope that interest in Hog Island sheep by spinners, and all other fiber artists, continues to grow. We will be responsible for assisting in saving a piece of American history.

Future breeds will include: Tunis, Ryeland, and more!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Romney, how I love thee

This post is kind of like cheating. Romney is probably my favorite fiber to spin, it is comfort spinning for me. We like each other, Romney and I, and when you get along with a fiber I feel like it shows in your results.

So, a little bit about Romney wool, besides how much I love it. Romney sheep are considered a member of the "Longwool" family, a group that includes the Bluefaced Leicester and the Wensleydale, among others. Romney is kind of an "on the fence" wool as far as softness. Hovering right around a 30 micron count it will be soft enough for some people to use next to skin, but may be a little coarse for the delicate flowers out there. Romney is still very versatile and can be used for any number of projects including outerwear and even felted projects.

OK, enough about that. You want to see my photos and hear about the real details, right?

Here is my fleece, purchased at Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival 2011. Grown by a sheep whose name is Stella Luna (yes I like knowing where my wool comes from!) I contacted the shepherdess at Blackberry Fields Farm and discovered my ewe was about 5 years old at time of shearing.

Beautiful, right? This fleece was about 8lbs, some adult fleeces will be larger but I figured 8 was enough. Staple length was between 4.5" and 6" with lovely crimp.
I started my adventure by skirting on my porch. Whenever possible, I recommend skirting outside; it is a messy business. After skirting I still had 7.5lbs of wool. I then started washing this baby using Power Scour. I washed about 8 ounces at a time in plastic bins in my double sink. I used lingerie bags to make it easier to transfer the wool between the wash and rinse water. Two washes, three rinses and the wool was clean and ready to spin or process.

I tried flicking open the ends and spinning but it was not as relaxing a process as I was looking for so I decided to go ahead and  hand card before spinning. This was personally a more pleasing spin. The skein pictured below shows the fruits of my labors. This was spun with a backwards draw (not woolen long draw though) on my Kromski Sonata and chain plied. You can really see the variation in the fleece color here.
 At this point I had acquired more fleece and the prospect of hand-carding the remaining wool seemed daunting. I have 2 young children and while they like to help they aren't old enough to be put to work carding for me. On the recommendation of a local Jacob breeder I sent most of my remaining fleece off to Gurdy Run Woolen Mill in Pennsylvania. It felt a bit like cheating, but I reminded myself I did skirt and clean the darn thing myself so half the work was done already (Ok, not half, but the dirty part anyway!)

What I got back from the mill was a giant box of really well prepared roving. I was very happy with my decision. While I did loose some of the grey of the fleece by having it blended, there is still a nice heathered effect in the finished yarn (see right. )

This really spun like a dream. I used the same spinning technique as for the hand-carded skein above, but got a somewhat smoother yarn. This one however is a traditional 3-ply and not chain plied. The skein is spongy, not dense, and knits up to an aran weight.

I still have a good amount of my box o' roving to spin. Just like your favorite comfort food though, I like to save it for a day when I need that nice friendly, safe, relationship at the wheel. Like the day after I first tried spinning silk top on my wheel. . .but that is a story for another day.

Our next adventure will be with: Hog Island Wool

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Introduction

Welcome to my little corner of the web. Some of you may know me from Ravelry as "Melrose", moderator of A Spinner's Study. First, let's start with the name of my blog "The Woolchemist", in case you haven't gotten the reference, it is a play on the word "Alchemist". I'm not going to try to transmute lead into gold, but it seemed like a wonderful analogy  for the fleece to finished project journey.

My goal for this blog is to share my experiences with the wool/fiber of many of the breeds of sheep, goats, camelids, and various other fiber bearing creatures that I stumble across (or troll the internet and fiber fairs in relentless search of.) I intend to focus on one breed or fiber with each blog post, a sort of journal of my trials and tribulations, complete with photos. Whenever possible I'll show progress from raw to finished yarn. Other times, I'm sure, we'll have to settle for processed fiber and give my combs and cards a break. Either way it should be a fantastic adventure.

Along the way I'll chat about the tools I use for spinning and what works best for me. You'll hear about my favorite fiber sources and how my house perpetually smells like wet wool. Who knows, I may even have time to knit.