Monday, January 06, 2020

Midwinter Spinning, Midwinter Sheep

Joining an end of yarn to fleece ready to be spun.
Every winter for getting on quite a few years the urge has come to sit and spin. In the Kentucky Bluegrass the days are faded, however blue the sky, or gray and so dim the streetlights sometimes come on, and we seem to orient ourselves towards the windows, or towards the lamps when the windows leak in only a moody, sometimes bitter light.

In that time for some reason handling wool is comforting. Spinning yarn requires attention and care, but the slow, thoughtful movements, the repetitive treadling of the wheel or the flicking of the supported spindle in the hand, and the drawing out of soft, washed fleece, watching as twist runs into the fibers and draws them into a springy, soft yarn, is soothing. It makes wan light, or wet light, or threatening light, or expectant light heavy with the thought of snow feel good and sweet, as illogical as that might seem.

I am wondering. Humans have spent so much of their lives spinning or twining fibers -- millenium after millennium -- to make ropes, strings, baskets, fabrics, those objects that help make life easier. Is the urge, once woken, still built in to our neural networks? Perhaps that's wishful thinking, but it sure does seem that way.

That's what I have been doing, after all the preparations, excitement, and stress of the end of the boys' fall school semester, and the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Pulling out a thin roving made of wool from our Shetland ewes, Lana and Nina.

Until 2018, I had prepared our ewes' fleeces for spinning by hand, by myself, as the boys are now too busy to interest themselves in the process. Even if the girls weigh under 75 pounds apiece, they still produce a great big humongous pile of fleece, two pillowcases stuffed to bursting. The pile would be knee-high if suddenly let out of the bags.

Black sheep, black sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full!

Oh, that's much too much --
Though it's very nice;
I'll take two instead
And spin it in a trice.*
In a trice? Erm, no...

(*My own weak doggerel, not part of the original rhyme.)

Each crimpy fragrant (if you like the smell of sheep, and I normally do) lock must be picked of its bits of straw, hay, seeds, and unmentionables. That's a pleasant thing to do outdoors, in the springtime, when it's breezy, because as you pull on the locks the moving airs will pull some of the vegetable matter -- VM -- and carry it away for you, gratis.

Then the fleece must be washed in small batches in several consecutive buckets of steaming hot soapy water, preferably outdoors, and rinsed in more buckets, and dried in creepy looking, drippy clumps in the basement, hung over a wooden rod above the old zinc washing sink. This is slow, wet, dirty work with a dash of danger as I haul boiling water in the teakettle outdoors to heat the bucketfuls of water.

I have a whole post about the process titled "Scouring and Teasing Shetland Fleece" from several years ago, when I first started working with wool. It might entertain you. It did me. I have so much fleece now that I'd never think to rescue such supremely dirty locks as I did then. Instead, I'd leave them out for birds and animals to make nests with.

This is from some years ago, when I first started working with wool. Boy, was that fleece a bit hard to work with...

Then the wool must be separated. This is an extra step, joyously extra, because our ewes give us a twofer. They are dual-coated, which means they are covered next to their skin with a fine, so-soft downy wool a couple of inches long that keeps them warm. Through and over that grow hairs, in spiral locks, up to about six inches long. These hairs remind me of very coarse human hair, and they direct rain and snow down their lengths and off the sheep, keeping the sheep warm and dry-ish.

Nina, will you model your coat for our readers, please? Thank you, sweet girl.

Nina, sporting her winter coat. See that spiral-locked outer coat? That's what makes her a dual-coated Shetland sheep,
an especially lovely and ancient type of Shetland.
Knowing how blustery the Shetland Islands are, a dual coat is Heaven-sent. It's an ancient sort of coat, and not all Shetlands sport it; thankfully there is enough genetic diversity in the breed that it keeps showing up, because it's luscious, or as I said, joyous.

Joyous, anyhow, until your hands ache after taking the umpteenth hundred lock in your hands and pulling each end to separate the long hairs from the down.

Try doing that on an entire ewe's worth of fleece. Now double it, to include Lana's wool. She's dual-coated, too.
Nina says, "I'm so sorry your hands are so sore. Do you have any crunchies? I can gum your fingers for them..." As of last year, she is fatter and bigger than her mother.
Lana -- that's her rump dead ahead, ignoring everyone because it's breakfast time.
She's next to her boyfriend Liam, also a Shetland, from whom she is not often
more than a few yards a way. He does not have a dual coat. That's a sweet Soay sheep, from
islands not too far from the Shetlands even more rugged than they are. My ewes live
with her and the rest of the flock at my friend Sarah's farm.
The hair from the separated wool is good for warp threads for weaving, or, mixed with the down wool, for tough outer garments, and I might try it for an add-in buckle for an 18th century hairdo.

We're not done, however. After separating the wool, there's carding the down coat to ready it for spinning. I have a hand-turned drum carder, so I don't have to use two hand carders and work lock by lock, thank heaven, but it's still a slow manual process to feed in each lock, and then run a full load through twice, and then offload the batt, tear it into three strips, and wind them into "nests" ready to spin.

So that's the process that I followed, and still follow, to some extent, because I actually enjoy some amount of hand-processing. It's hard, elemental work, and very satisfying. However, I found a wool processing mill that had the special equipment for separating fleeces, and now have a large amount of lovely, soft roving. It feels a little like cheating to spin so easily, without all the effort, but it's a nice change. Alas that the mill closed, and the only other one is in New England with a six months' wait! It may be back to hand processing.

I'll be back to finish up the 1890s posts in a bit. Right now, the wheel is in hypnotizing motion...


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

How deliciously evocative it all sounds!

ZipZip said...

Thank you! Visiting the sheep and working with their fleeces are among the happiest and most grounded parts of my life. Hoping you're doing well, and Happy New Year!