Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Picking, Combing, Carding, Spinning...Weaving: That's What's Happening

Working with wool and alpaca fiber recently.
The subtitle of this blog reads "and, of Course, the Occasional Side Trip". What I've been doing these past months qualifies as more than a little excursion, at this point.

I am hand-spinning wool and alpaca and getting ready to re-learn the art of harness weaving -- you know, a loom that goes "whish swish, whump thump" as you throw the shuttle and pull back on the beater to secure the just-made fabric.

The spinning was necessary; last fall I signed on once again at church to teach children to card and spin a little at this summer's Vacation Bible School. The summer before we'd had fun together but the spinning was execrable. So over months this spring I learned to handle a drop spindle decently and fell in love with what Amos Alden calls an "ancient and honorable craft". So ancient, in fact, it's wound up with pre-civilization.

One of the crop of pinky-red, yellow and fuzzy (!) toadstools
sprouting in our lawn after all the rain and fog.
Here we are, towards summer's end, and there are alpaca and sheep fleeces in the basement, bags of it in the garage -- fodder for another volunteer project -- fleece awaiting picking in a bowl, spindles and spinning wheel in the hallway, and a loom in the family room. They multiplied like the toadstools in our lawn after this summer's weeks of rain and dimness.

Not an excursion, then. Costuming? I've got a pretty beaded reticule on the way and a chintz 1770s anglaise on hold. No then, costuming's not going away. It just has to share space in the calendar and in the brain with work and family, volunteering and with wool picking, scouring, carding, combing, dizzing -- that doesn't mean spinning around until you fall over -- spinning and weaving scarves and warm alpaca blankets, and maybe, a linsey-woolsey petticoat? Let's see what happens.

Meanwhile, the last months unroll below in pictures. One fleece is worth ten thousand threads.

First there was the spinning wheel, a present for my grumumppieth birthday. Built in 1887 somewhere in Scandinavia, it traveled to North Carolina with immigrants and was held on to by their descendants until they unaccountably decided to part with it. A sort of faded reddish color, it's decorated with banding and painted designs in black. Rather chic, I think.

Circa 1887 Scandinavian spinning wheel.

Chic it might be, but it sat. Then I cleaned it and got everything smoothly turning, but it still sat. It's still sitting. I haven't learned to keep up with it!

Then there was the drop spindle that turned up at an antique show. It's from Eastern Europe, and I didn't know until recently that you're supposed to rest it on a surface to support it as it turns. Taking a class from a local professional, it was on this spindle I learned to spin in preparation for Vacation Bible School.

The Eastern European spindle. It has no notch on the pointed
top: you half hitch your yarn to hold it on.

Obligatory cute kitty shot.
Alpaca fleece arrived, part of the VBS project. Had to have lots of fleece ready for children to spin, plus more cleaned and ready to for them to try to card into cute little tubes, called "rolags", a Scotch term. So I learned to clean alpaca: to flick locks to remove bits of dust and hay, to roll rolags...

Second cute kitty shot. Muffin's sitting on the completed
rolags in the box. Can't blame her, they're soft.
Wanting to have wool for the VBS children to handle and card and spin too, because it's easier to work than slippery alpaca hair is, I bought a pretty Shetland sheep fleece from a lovely girl in Ohio. Lothlorien's whole fleece arrived in a box, smelling pleasantly and not too strongly of sheepy lanolin, and imbued with her personality. Here she is.

Lothlorien, the creamy Shetland in back.
Spinning practice went apace. I turned back to alpaca not long after the first lesson, heaven knows why, probably because I had so much of it. Wool fibers have lots of scales, and they have waves and crimps that makes them stretchy, resilient, and fibers stick together and are easy to spin. Alpaca has fewer scales per fiber, often has little crimp or curl and isn't stretchy, and so is slippery-ish and a bit harder to spin. Whatever. It's what I really learned on and I love how deliciously sooooooft it is.

Here is a lock from Tuesday, the alpaca whose hair I've been spinning. See his cute stripe? He's ticked!

Christopher holds up two balls of spun alpaca. They're for a scarf for him at Christmas.

Here's one of the balls. See all the fluffs on the edges? That's before washing, too. It "blooms" after being washed and is even fluffier.

Here's the yarn, plied from two strands, or "singles". So much terminology. Just like sewing.

I washed the plied yarn. It bloomed, all right. Big, chunky, fluffy, soft like Muffin's kitten would be.

Well, our VBS coordinator gave me some wool that was even easier for children to handle, some curly, long-locked Blue-faced Leicester. Sheep breeds have funny names. Do you see any blue on the face of the sheep below? The skin under the white wool on his face does have a bluish tint.

Hexham Champion, 2008, from Middle Dukesfield, in England.

So I learned to comb out the 6"-10" wool, purchasing long wickedly sharp combs, true weapons capable of really injuring somebody, at the Bluegrass Sheep and Fiber Festival in May.

The boys wanted to learn, so they got spindles, too. They're still learning, a little, as the fit takes them.

Can you see the snowball, erm, fleeceball, rolling?

At Vacation Bible School the campers handled wool and alpaca, carded and combed and spun it and two children took big balls of wool home, with hopes to buy a drop spindle and continue learning. Everyone else got an alpaca puff to pet and scare their parents with, plus a length of what they had made. Here we are on the first day of camp, learning about wool and other animal fibers.

Next day we carded and used those wicked combs to actually comb some lovely locks into fluff ready for spinning on the morrow.

The children spin. First I'd demonstrate, then they'd try it and try it again.

Here's Jenni from Living with Jane. She helped children make jewelry, do glass mosaics, and felting.

The children actually span -- the obsolete past perfect tense of "spun"? -- quite a bit of yarn, not all of which was given away. We built a yarn winder from Tinkertoys to put it in a skein so it could be washed again to finish it.

The yarn winder. Spin the cross-shaped piece and it goes around.
Completed skein. The yarn thickness varies a lot. Children
just learning made it, and it has charm.
Well, we wanted to use it, and the boys and I were interested in how a loom works, so I read up in library books and online, and we built a rudimentary two-harness counterbalance loom, invented eons ago. Versions of this loom were used in India to make the incomparably fine muslins exported to Europe in the late 18th century, just in time for Classicism and the Regency. Versions called drawlooms made figured silks, and European weavers produced the luscious gold-and-silver thread enhanced, flower-bedecked brocades that we all sigh over.

Here's the Tinkertoy loom, with a red cotton warp on it, ready to be woven with the weft, made of the child-spun wool you saw above. That's a cardboard "stick" shuttle.

Yes, it works. Those two rectangular-shaped things decked with
strings (heddles) and hung from the top bar (castle) are called
At VBS the owner of Rosie's Ponies and Petting Zoo and I got to talking about the friendly llamas and sheep she had brought for the children to admire, pet, and feed, and she kindly offered the animal's fleeces when I asked if she might sell some, since she didn't use them. I got to thinking and in a spark of what I like to think is grace, it seemed that the fleeces could be turned into warm things for those in our area who need them. Thus was born the Big Fleece Project. It's still in infancy, but we hope to have felt and yarn from the fleeces to use.

One day recently the boys and I visited their farm, petted an affectionate (!) camel, a cozy-stand-next-to-you pony, admired llamas, petted rare Soay sheep, and packed up fleece after fleece that had been sheared. The back of the SUV was filled to the roof with fleeces stuffed into bags.

We brought them home, and that evening and the next morning, sorted them, skirted the sheep fleeces, a fancy term for taking off the edges, which are usually encrusted with matted, dungified, muddy, weedy bits. You see, a shearer cuts the fleece off sheep such that it's in once piece, ideally. He starts on the tummy one one hind leg and works round to the back and ends with the other hind leg. WikiHow explains.

Not all the fleeces were usable, but many were, and they were draped everywhere, drying out before being bagged.

Remember VBS? Here's the petting zoo day. Look at Mr. Llama and his buddy behind him, craning for affection and some treats. See if you can match his fleece in the piles below. I think I recognize some of the sheepy fleece, too.

Llama fleeces fall apart easily, so they're in bits: chocolate brown, cinnamon, latte, silver mist, cream, and agouti. They're my names. Must be hungry right now. Oh, so soft.

Llama, llama everywhere.
One Shetland fleece and lots of mystery short-staple (length of the wool) wool, a bit overpowering due to being damp. My mother was not terribly impressed on first contact with the project.

Sheep fleeces, entire, drying the only super-sunny, dry place I could think of,
the back of the truck.
"Black sheep, black sheep, have you any wool?" We ended with eleven bags full.

Soccer and fleece. They go together. Right?
In the last week or two I've almost completed spinning yarn for Christopher's scarf, and am starting to clean another Shetland fleece. In a post or two, how that's done. Oh, and the new loom, and not a Tinkertoy one.

Meantime, it'll be back to the Journal Journey!


Kleidung um 1800 said...

What an amazing adventure!!!
I'm sure this will become as much part of your life as historical sewing. Maybe one day you'll get a big loom (a very big one!) and start a weaving business for rare and long forgotten patterns ;)
I really think this is a great new branch into the textile hobby :)
Looking forward very much to seeing what you will do with all the fleece :)


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

Oh my word you don't do things by halves! LOL!
Alpaca is fantastic spun with wool, have you thought about mixing the fibres? The wool gives the alpaca stability as pure alpaca yarn is so soft it stretches and sags when knitted up. (oi, such an expert am I, but we sell an alpaca/merino bland yarn and I had to learn all about it!)

ZipZip said...

Dear Mrs. C. and Sabine,

By halves? Never, oh never go by halves. You could be sorry, but...

Alpaca spun with wool? Oh yes indeed. That's the plan for the knitters. Weavers can use alpaca by itself as weft (widthwise) but not warp (longwise), on things like scarves that aren't put under tension. That's what Christopher's getting because it's so toasty and he's always chilled, poor cub.

Sabine, I dream of weaving brocade on a lovely big Swedish loom, yes indeed. Probably always a dream, but so luscious to think of, and they spur us, don't they?

Hugs to you both,


The Quintessential Clothes Pen said...

What an adventure, Natalie! I'm sure you've learned so much, and I've learned a few terms just from reading this post, too. And such creativity, to build looms and useful devices from tinktertoys. And I think it just wonderful that you've included your boys in the learning, too. What a wonderful creative opportunity for all of you! Please do continue to share about your projects in this arena. I think it is just as wonderful as dressmaking!


ZipZip said...

Dear Quinn,
Why, thank you! Working at the roots of cloth is so neat, and adds to how we understand the fabrics of the past. That's the geeky part.

Besides, working with alpaca and wool is like petting every soft and sweet animal you ever met. What beats that?

The boys have always been interested in costuming, and in making anything. They make clothes for their stuffed animals with fleece and scissors and ribbons and string, and love to fiddle with all the tools, especially the pointed, sharp, dangerous ones. Boys...

Very best,

lissla lissar said...

Hi, I read but never ever comment, except, well right now. I just restarted spinning with a drop spindle after a ten year hiatus, and I'm thinking of building a small loom as a homeschooling project with my six-year-old. Maybe. Toddlers allowing...

ZipZip said...

Dear Lissla,
Neat! Hope the relearning is going well but suspect it is, since your muscles probably remember the movements.

The Tinkertoy loom was simple to build and a way to learn about the parts of a loom. It is missing the cloth beam and warp beam, since the warp is wound around the front and back beams, and of course it doesn't have treadles.

However, your six-year-old can learn about warp and weft and harnesses and heddles and shuttle, and how to make stripes in cloth or checks, depending on how you warp the loom or handle colors in the weft.

You can do the math with figuring out how much warp you need for mug rugs or a tiny scarf, and can do the calculations for ends per inch and all that sort of thing. It's great for math as well as building finger dexterity.

If you're planning to build one of wood there are plans for building simple rigid heddle looms and tapestry looms. There is also a German guy by the online name of Action Weaver who has made free plans available for a harness loom, but it's quite a project.

Wish you look with it and hope the toddlers allow. Do I remember those days :}

Very best,


lissla lissar said...

Thanks! Our six year old is the oldest of four, the youngest two are twin toddlers. So I'm thinking about a very simple wooden box type loom to start with, and/or maybe learning to finger knit. I think we're up to learning warp/weft and heddle, but I need a few hours' study before I can identify all the other parts. Still, all good experience.

ZipZip said...

Dear lissla,

Twins!!!!!! Yay. My boys are fraternal twins. At 7 they are best buddies and look after each other. They also tussle a lot, ack. Lots of learning the Golden Rule and what our Shepherd would do.

Yes, a box loom! That would be a good one. You can build a cardboard one as a prototype, even, to test out the ideas.

Finger knitting sounds cool, too. I'd not heard of that.

Very best,