how to choose a fleece for hand spinning

This is a question that crops up a lot in the Create With Fibre Community on Facebook so I thought I would talk about it in more detail here.

Fleeces, like sheep come in many varieties.   The British Wool Marketing Board classifies them and grades fleeces in the UK and there are most probably equivalents in your country if you live elsewhere.  The BWMB have published a very good and inexpensive book, The British Sheep and Wool Book,  which lists the main breeds available in the UK and this is most helpful if you want to learn more.

To some extent, the principles  described here apply to pre-prepared fibre too, although the type of prepararations you want to buy, carded fibre or combed tops is also a factor and will depend on how you want to spin it and whether you like spinning from tops in the first place.  More about that another time but just don’t get too hung up on it, try something and se it it works.   Here we are talking about wool from fleece specifically.

BTW, If you sign up to the Create With Fibre e-zine, I will send you a FREE copy of my article, ‘Sorting and Washing Fleece’.   This is re-produced with kind permission of the Association of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers.  Visit their website to find you nearest Guild.  Guilds are wonderful and your best source of real life information about working with fleece.

sorting fleeces at the BWMB in Irvine Scotland

Staple length/lustre

If you are unsure, buy

something with a staple length of 8.5-14.5cm/3-5 inches. It will do for pretty much anything and be the easiest to spin.

Very short fibres, ie less than 5cm/2inches long are harder to work with unless you know what to do.  Having said that, there are some lovely fleeces in the Shortwool and Down Catetory.  For example, Oxford Down and with a little practise you will enjoy them, as they are soft and crimpy.

Very long fibres, ie longer than 17cm/6 inches are also harder to work with and you need to have your hands a lot further apart in order to draft them.  NB you don’t need them closer together to work with short fibres, you can just draft differently by using extended draw (long draw in the US) or long draw (English long draw in the US) techniques.

if you want something warm and woolly, choose short to medium fibres, if you want something with more lustre or hard wearing, choose longer fibres.   But really,  most people don’t pay too much attention to that unless they are spinning for socks or something, so don’t get hung up on it.  What do most of us do?  See a fleece we like and buy it.  Then spin it and decide what to do with the yarn afterwards.  Simple. Its a hobby after all!

Fineness or coarseness of fibre

This will depend on the type of project you want.  Coarser for durable  such as rugs and bags.  Examples are Devon, Herdwick, or for something a bit softer try Scottish Blackface.

Finer where you want something soft, such as a good Shetland.   And do check out how often the finished item is likely to be washed, if it is something that will be washed often and you are buying wool as pre-prepared tops, merino is not great, unless you buy Superwash merino as pre-prepared tops.  it is Teflon coated to prevent felting during washing but it does still need careful handling.

A Scottish Black Face Tup or ram.

For frequent washing and softness Blue Faced Leicester is good but really is best bought as tops unless you want to spin a curly yarn, because  it has such tiny curls.

And there are lots of Medium fleeces that are good for most things.  Jacob, Shetland again,  Cheviot, North Country Cheviot (actually a separate breed) Texel, Zwartzbles…the list goes on.  The good old Mule is nearly always brilliant for spinning.  This is a cross between two breeds and each area tends to have its own favourite cross.  Here in the West of Scotland it is normally a Blue Faced Leicester tup crossed with a Black Face ewe.

Sorting a Zwartzbles fleece

The younger the animal, the finer and softer the fleece.  And individual animals vary too.  Which is why the Wool Marketing Board tends to grade by the fineness of the actual wool rather than by the breed of sheep.

So the best advice? Have a go and have fun with it, don’t get bound up in rules and trying to figure it out.   You could also do worse than buy my book, ‘How to Spin Just About Anything‘ which has loads more about wool, other fibres and how to spin them, along with over 140 photographs.

‘How to Spin Just About Anything’ a great source of info

 

Knitmas is coming…

What are you knitting for Christmas?  I am, as usual overambitious.  It seems like there  is plenty of time for the three scarves and several hats I want to make but then suddenly the time always seems to run out.  Then I am knitting morning, noon and night to get things finished, giving Unfinished Objects as presents to be continued in the New Year, and coming up with other solutions.

these Squash blossom book marks  created by Bonnie Sennott are a quick knit, using a free Ravelry pattern if you are running out of time.  I have knitted rather a lot of them, aren’t they great?

Zuccini flower book marks are quick knits in time for Christmas
Beaded French knitting jewellery is another quick make for Christmas

Need ring-fenced knitting time and cake?

Enter Knitmas.  It is our first Create With Fibre Christmas event and we are excited!  Come along and work on your Christmas knitting in front of the log fire.  On the afternoon of Monday 4th December, we will congregate at the old Black Bull pub Dalmellington Ayrshire.  This is a small event with only 20 tickets on sale and there are 9 spaces left.

The Black Bull is a 17th Century coaching inn, which is now the quirky and unique home of our friend and sometime Create With Fibre helper Jane.

  • We will knit in front of the log burning fire and eat cake.
  • There will be a goody bag for everyone
  • £1 from each ticket will go to labour behind the label.
  • There will be a free mystery mini workshop.
  • McHatties Yarns will have their designer yarns for sale
  • Create With Fibre surprise goodies will be available.

So bring  your knitting, wear your best woollies and don’t eat too much lunch before you come!

A Special Retreat and Some Sheep

Ryeland Sheep & Fleece
Ryelands are one of the oldest British sheep breeds and have been in the UK for hundreds of years.  Their legs are covered in fleece as well as their bodies, which along with their cute noses, gives them the distinctive ‘teddy’ appearance.  They are great mothers, good for both fleece and meat and rarely suffer from foot problems.  They can have either coloured or white fleece.  Wow!
The wool is great for spinning or needle felt.  it has a rather unique ‘crispy feel to it without being at all scratchy and will not pill or felt easily when made into knitwear.

One of Jacqueline Bonner’s Ryeland sheep

The Best Wool for the Job

I think that imported Merino is over rated as a spinning fibre, although its availability in as coloured tops makes it a good choice for UK based feltmakers who do not want to work specifically with indigenous fleece.   If you live in a country that produces it in larger quantities such as Australia or New Zealand, it is a good choice for you of course.    And there are breeders this side of the Pond of UK version of the breed, called Bowmont.  Although Merino type wool is soft it is prone to felting, hence its popularity with felt makers.  it is lovely for babywear if the parents don’t mind handwashing.  But Ryeland is a good all rounder and I love its ancient roots as a breed.

An Exciting New Retreat for Textile businesses

Janet has launched her very first Retreat specifically for those with a yarn, fibre or fibre animal business.  She has provided 1-1 mentoring for many years and this is something she is really excited about.   The Retreat will take place at the same amazing venue as the Create With Fibre knitting and spinning retreats.  So the views, food, wine, woodburning stove and time to spin, knit or crochet will all be there.  At the same time, we will talk about the business dilemmas and plans we have.  There will be 1-1 time with Janet and also a chance to actually get down to the nitty gritty and do some work on those plans.  Together we are stronger!

The Wonky Weaving Project

This has been so exciting and I love projects that emerge and develop as they grow.  We are working in Maybole, South West Scotland.  I was asked to do a weaving project to celebrate the town’s 500th anniversary as a Borough.

The weaving on one of the eight rigid heddle looms

The organisers were enthusiastic about the idea of a weaving project because this like many, was a weaving town. They wove Ayrshire blankets here and there were also many home weavers if you go further back.

But get this: the weaving riots in Maybole were just about the worst anywhere. Far more so than the oft talked about Paisley riots.  The riots were about mechanisation and factories destroying the livelihoods of home weavers. Difficult times.

So the group involved in this project  wanted to learn to weave, create  a wall hanging and learn a tiny bit of history at the same time.  And they have been amazing.  Only two had ever woven before.  They range in ages from 14 to 80-something and only a couple really knew each other. Weaving has brought them together.

The weaving is all done and now needs to be put together.  We did it on ‘rigid heddle’ looms but pretty much any loom will do, including a frame loom like our very economical Create With Fibre midi frame looms of course.

I call it ‘tapestry type’ weaving. It is not true tapestry, you can see the warp in places especially when we add those lovely bits of curly fleece.  Far easier and faster too.  We created slopes, curves  and texture and somehow the eye sees a landscape. And ‘wonky’ because of all those curves and wonky bits of course!

The finished weaving will now be backed and hung

We will add tiny needle felted sheep and boots now. Boots because Maybole was a boot making town too.

Weave, weave, weave…

Right now, weaving is the new black.  So many people want to learn.   So here is a spot of advice: don’t buy the largest loom you can find, thinking it will ‘do you’ for longer and save you buying another. 90% odds that not only will you have no dining room any longer (unless you have dinner round it) you will also rarely if ever warp it up ready to weave.  It is too daunting.  And my take on it is this: you can weave pretty much anything on a ‘rigid heddle’ loom.

A folding Rigid Heddle Loom

It will fit in a cupboard. You can sit in a chair and weave with it propped up on a windowsill, they are designed like that,  and simply weave panels if you want something wider.

The range of patterns that can be done is awesome.  Check out The Weavers Idea book by Jane Patrick.  It and other books especially for rigid heddle weaving are what you need.  Sarah Howard wrote a lovely book called ‘Wear Your Weaving’ which shows how to create garments using narrow panels.  

And if you just want to have a go, you can even weave around a cardboard box.  We have a FREE e-course ‘5 days to become a weaver’ which shows you how.   Check it out here and get our free e-zine at the same time.   Https://createwithfibre.co.uk

Hubby has been making our newest products, the ‘Dinky Loom’ and Midi Loom.  They enable you to do the simplest of weaving with tiny scraps of leftover yarn. I am making squares for a woven jacket.

Squares woven on the Dinky Loom

They are so quick to do and portable enough to take anywhere.

The dinky loom in action

 

 

Teaching spinning, weaving and knitting is what we do…

Was just looking through the diary for 2016 and it hit me.  I have taught a lot of people.  When we started this in 1994, I had this vision of growing spinning, weaving, knitting and all things fibre and yarn all over the UK.  Kind of like planting seeds.  Well it is happening!  So I am blowing our own trumpet just a tiny bit here, just because what we do is not always evident.

Having taught many of the people who are now in their turn teaching spinning, I can see it.  Some of them have quite high profile businesses now, and some of them I have gone on to work with in partnership for many years.    See the current courses on our Create With Fibre website.

Then I realised.  I have taught over 750 people this year.    The 750 has admittedly included about 200 new weavers at two larger scale events:  A music festival  commissioned us to teach weaving all weekend, and a primary school who had me there for two days teaching nearly all of the classes….But all of the rest are in relatively small courses.  sometimes, like this week,  I am teaching three courses in a week (weaving wednesday, Indigo dyeing Thursday and beginners spinning on Saturday this week).

Often there are courses for one of the Guilds of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers.   Last weekend we were at East  Central Guild, and before that Eden Valley.  The beginners spinning is one of a series of special courses for Dumfries & Galloway Guild.

Then there are the courses for Councils, youth groups and voluntary organisations.  At the moment, a series of several weaving sessions and a wall hanging project for Maybole 500, which celebrates the town being 500 years old.   These  have been many and various over the last couple of years.  A tipi making project with ten different youth groups (that one went on for months), and weaving projects with a number of schools for example.

weaving with primary school children

And I teach at other locations.   This year I have taught at Higham Hall    four times, weaving, spinning on a spinning wheel, spinning on a hand spindle and a fibre and yarn retreat.  They have already booked me for next year if you fancy a retreat…  The workshops for Scottish Fibres  have gone on for years.   Two a year usually, although this year we have added in extra ones, one on spindle spinning and one on weaving.   And we do them at yarn festivals too.  Look out for us at Perth Festival of Yarn this year.

Beginners spining for Edinburgh Yarn Festival

Then there are the fibre and yarn Retreats at The Old School.  They are completely awesome.  Only in February/March and October/November each year, because The Old School gets very busy and cannot fit us in at other times.  So who wouldn’t want to come on an exclusive Retreat at a 4 star, rather special, quirky and unique guest house?  With wood burning stoves, panormic views and each of the four bedrooms a whole, lovingly restored classroom.    Did I say it has 9.8 on Trip Advisor and a Taste Scotland award?

Oh, and I do a few ‘cosy courses’ courses here at my home each year.   We are just about to launch our 1-1 bespoke retreats at our place, so it is an exciting time.

nattural dyeing course chez nous

Yeah, like I said, courses are what we do…