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!