From sheep to yarn
People often ask when I learned to spin. I don't really know. The passion for fabric and wool seems to have been born into me. My dad had a passion for road trips, and as we ambled down country roads, Mom and I drooled over green fields and quaint houses with sprawling porches, envisioning a flock of sheep, a massive floor loom, and a spinning wheel in the middle of the porch.
I do recall sitting on the blue-and-pink sofa of a childhood home in Maryland, twisting a drop spindle--a Christmas or birthday gift--between my fingers and fiercely willing the fluffy purple wool clasped in my sweaty palm to become yarn. My mom and my grandmother sat with me, encouraging my efforts, but neither could spin themselves. It took me quite a few more years to get the hang of it, and when I truly caught on, it was under the querulous tutelage of an antique walking wheel at Tullie Smith House, part of the Atlanta History Center, where I worked as a docent in my teens.
It took almost another two decades for me to take up spinning as a regular hobby, but when I did, I quickly fell in love with the feel (and yes, even the smell!) of raw fleece, straight off the sheep. For me, transforming raw fleece into a finished product is a visceral aesthetic pleasure. I'm far more like Rumplestiltskin than the unnamed Miller's Daughter, for I truly do love spinning "straw" into gold.
The financial benefits of beginning with raw fleece are also substantial if you don't mind working through a little dirt. This amazing diamond in the rough (below) is a raw merino lamb fleece from the incredible Cactus Hill Farm (https://www.cactushillfarm.com/). I got it for a song because this particular lamb had had a bit too much fun in the dirt, and it was one of my best purchases ever. (Oh, and please note that I got it over a year ago and have been washing small bits and pieces since then. It started out more white, but yellows a bit with age because of the lanolin. Still washes perfectly clean, though!)
Washing removes the lanolin (if you do it right; I pull individual locks from the fleece and put them in a mesh lingerie bag with dividers to keep them organized. Then I use very, very hot tap water to clean it--two 20-minute soaks in Unicorn Power Scour, and one with just plain water). It also takes out a fair bit of the dirt. It does NOT, however, remove all of the dirt or the vegetable matter (little bits of hay, etc. that get stuck in the fleece). That's where the combs and hackle come in.
Most people who have seen fleece prepared for spinning have seen hand cards--flat boards covered in carding cloth with small teeth. If you're a very patient person and have picked out all the hay, etc. ahead o
f time, this works great. I'm not quite that patient, and I also work with wool that's pretty dirty and pretty fine. For that type of wool, combs are much better. I've only worked with the Valkerie brand of combs. I currently have extra fine regular sized combs, super fine mini combs, and an extrafine hackle (the big one that you see in the picture below!). They are magic! For this fleece, I slowly pass the wool back and forth through the superfine combs. The combs trap dirt, hay, pieces of wool that are too short to use in spinning...you name it! Check out the picture on the right. That shows the "combing waste" (in my hand) versus the wool that I've finished combing and added to the hackle.
Once I've filled the hackle with combed fleece, I need to pull the fleece off in a single long strip. (Side note: it's absolutely possible to diz straight off the combs, and that used to be my preferred method. I discovered, however, that it's much more time efficient to transfer the fleece to the hackle first so that I can pull off more at a time). I use a tool called a diz to do that. Basically, mine is a curved piece of PVC pipe with three tiny holes of different sizes in it. And I do mean tiny! In the picture below, I've started to pull the fleece
through a hole that's about 1/8 inch in diameter. As you can see, the fleece starts to puff up immediately!
The picture immediately below shows the ball of prepared wool, now ready to to spin! Typically, once I've filled my hackle and sorted out the combing waste, I end up with about 1.25-1.5 ounces of wool. The combing process (excluding the
washing) takes me about 2.5-3 hours for that quantity of a fine fleece. When it's finished, however, I have enough fiber to spin around 500-600 yards of single-ply yarn! I fill two bobbins with single-ply yarn, then spin them together for a stronger and thicker yarn (below right).
You'll be seeing this fleece again shortly! Once I have around 3500 yards of finished yarn, it will go on the loom. <3