Last weekend, I was having dinner with some of my friends after we had visited the Estes Park Wool Market.
I had just purchased a raw fleece, and three of us had recently been gifted with one raw fleece each. The eternal question came up - "Why bother with processing a fleece from start to finish when you can buy lots of really good fiber that's already cleaned and ready to spin?"
I was stumped, in part because I didn't have one answer. I had at least ten. There are lots of reasons to process your own fleece, from raw wool to finished yarn. Here are some of mine:
1. To Say You've Done It
I tend to have a strong urge to try new things, especially when it comes to fiber arts. Sometimes, having tried a new skill, I can say, "been there, done that, what's next?" That was the urge behind buying my first fleece, and it's a perfectly valid reason to try it. If nothing else, you'll have gained (yet another) post-apocalyptic life skill!
2. It's a Different Part of the Process to Enjoy
Wool is the original miracle fiber. It's warm, elastic, durable, resists staining (but takes dye beautifully), breathes well, and is fire resistant. I love the feel of it in my hands, whether it's when I'm spinning, knitting, weaving, felting, or rug hooking. When I buy a raw fleece, I get to extend my enjoyment of the process.
3. Learn More About the Process
Every time I process another raw fleece, I learn something new about spinning. How does this sheep's wool behave? What will it look like as yarn? What uses would make it really shine? It also makes me appreciate processes that were a normal part of life for people working with textiles in the pre-industrial era - and it makes me really appreciate my water heater!
4. Learn What to Look For in a Fleece
There are plenty of guides that tell you how to buy a fleece, but there's nothing like the experience of following all the advice and then using the wool to see if it's something you like.
The more fleeces you process, the easier it will be to look at a raw fleece and make a buying decision!
5. Get Exactly the Fiber Prep You Want
There is nothing in the world like fiber that has been hand combed or hand carded well. It is easier and fluffier to spin. You can easily create roving or combed top that fits your own hand, not a thickness that is optimized for industrial production.
You can also experiment with combed vs. carded preparations. Some fibers are usually only available as one or the other. What would happen if you did it another way? Combing and carding yourself gives you the opportunity to experiment and see what you like best.
6. Participate in Your Local Fibershed
This is a big one! When you buy a raw fleece from a shepherd, you are helping them offset the cost of raising sheep. If that shepherd is local to you, then you're also participating in your local fibershed - building communities, building soil, building local economies - all buy buying a raw fleece.
That raw fleece I bought at Estes Park? It was from a sheep raised by a high school student. She was working in the booth, and she knew her stuff! She knew the qualities of each fleece, whether it would be best for spinning or felting, and much, much more. Did I need another fleece this year? Probably not. But I did fall in love with the fleeces she showed me, and I wanted to encourage her to continue to raise sheep. That's just not something we can do by ordering commercially processed spinning fiber online.
7. It's Less Expensive (Sometimes)
I'll be honest here, most of the fleeces I buy cost more per ounce than commercially processed fiber. What's up with that? It's because of the "wool pool," which is meant to help shepherds sell their wool clips (even low grade wool) instead of composting, burning, or throwing it away. The trouble is that the prices shepherds get in wool pools are often so low, they don't recoup the cost of shearing. Then the fiber is all tumbled together by "class," and shipped to a mill that is often overseas, processed, and shipped back. The system is a high cost to the farmers and a high cost to the environment.
A fleece that costs a little bit more per pound than commercially processed fiber has a lot of value added to it. For one thing, you know your yarn is coming from one sheep that was carefully raised, rather than many nameless sheep. Often, the fleece has been coated to make your scouring, carding/combing, and spinning easier. And again, most importantly, you're helping to support a local farmer.
Sometimes, a free fleece comes my way, and then the dollar cost is definitely lower. These fleeces usually require a higher investment of time and energy to get ready for spinning, but can yield some amazing results.
8. Use Breeds You Can't Find Online
Sometimes, it' really hard to find certain breeds of wool online. They are less populous, and less popular, than the wools that most dyers are selling. But you might be surprised by the variety of breeds you can find in fleece form in your local area. This is a great way to sample different types of wool.
9. Amuse Your Dog (and Your Neighbors)
When I scour fleece, and when I card/comb a clean fleece that still has lots of vegetable matter, I do it outside. My dog loves this, since he gets to sniff a stinky fleece, then run in circles in the backyard for hours on end.
My neighbor also gets some amusement watching the dog, and I love showing her the difference between a clean and dirty fleece. I consider it a small bit of fiber education!
10. Gray Water Makes Great Fertilizer
Cleaning a fleece takes a lot of water. Luckily, it doesn't all have to go to waste. I usually fill a large container with about 20-30 gallons of cold water, and soak a fleece in that for a few hours. This releases a surprising amount of dirt, including poop. Then I remove the fleece, and have water and fertilizer for my plants. Since I live in the desert, this is an important way to help conserve water and take care of my yard at the same time.
There's nothing quite like a pile of clean wool drying in the sunshine! (This is the same fiber that is pictured as a dirty fleece at the beginning of this post!)
Here are the results of the drum carding color blending experiment! From left to right:
All the fiber is Bluefaced Leicester, spun with a short forward draw. I was going for a little bit thicker than my "default" yarn, but I didn't try too hard to make sure that all the weights were the same, so there is definitely a little bit of variation in thicknesses and ply twist.
One thing that I wasn't expecting is that because the first three didn't get put on the drum carder at all, they retained the alignment of industrial combed top, and therefore have more luster, while the ones that went through the drum carder look fluffier. It's a perfect example of the qualities that divide worsted and woolen yarns.
Since I typically use 2-ply yarns, that's what I spun for, which technically adds another layer of color blending. Here are the singles on the bobbins for reference:
I do want to emphasize that none of these yarns is "right" or "wrong." It's all about what you want out of your yarn. I can think of times where I want lots of barberpoling and variegation, and other times when I would want a more even look. There is still a bit of variegation visible with the last yarn (three passes on the drum carder). It's a pleasant heathery look that I tend to love, but if I wanted complete blending, I might send the fiber through the drum carder for a fourth pass.
Now on to the last step - knitting and weaving with the yarn to see how that affects the color blending!
One of the things I love about using a drum carder to prepare fiber for spinning is how easy it is to blend different fibers and colors. When I first learned to use the drum carder, the "rule of thumb" was that you needed three passes on the drum carder. While I found this to be true when processing fleece, I often want to combine colors and textures from commercially prepared roving. Would I need to follow the three pass rule if the fiber has already been perfectly aligned?
Generally, the more times you put fiber through the drum carder, the more thoroughly blended the fiber will be. Other things affect the blending too - like how many layers of color you use. In the photograph above, both balls of roving have been through the drum carder once - but how I fed the fiber in made a huge difference. On the left, each color was fed in as a single layer. On the right, I alternated colors frequently, which resulted in much more blending from the first pass.
In the photograph above, you can see the progression of blending. On the left is some roving that has been through the drum carder once, with each color fed in as a single layer. In the middle, the roving has been through the drum carder twice, and on the right, the roving has been through the drum carder three times. In this experiment, there wasn't a huge difference for me between the fiber that had been through the drum carder two and three times.
So how many passes do you need on the drum carder? It all depends on what effect you're trying to achieve in your yarn. Stay tuned to see how each of these spins up!
It's the question that every artist dreads. It's also the one that's asked the most often. Sometimes people ask it out of genuine curiosity. Sometimes they mean it as a compliment - they think the work is exquisite, and therefore must have taken a very long time. Sometimes they're trying to decide how much they're willing to pay for it.
This last question is the worst, and one of the reasons that artists don't like to share how long it took them to make something.
Another reason artists don't like to share how long a piece took them is that artists don't always track their time, and art is often a non-linear process. A project might be started, stopped, picked back up, "finished," then have additional edits made. Other projects frequently are started and stopped between each part of the process, making tracking time even more difficult.
One way some artists answer the "how long did that take you" question with how long they've been practicing their medium, or practicing art in general. In that view, each project adds to their experience and gives them the knowledge of how to make a new project better and with less time spent on mistakes. This answer is a firm way to say, "thanks for your interest, but I don't share that information." It insists that the artist's experience is what gives value to the work, not how long the piece took. It protects the artist's privacy, and keeps the questioner from having an opportunity to devalue the artist's work based on how much time it took them.
While I certainly admire artists who can command a living wage for their work, I also feel that fiber art is constantly undervalued by the perception that it's "just a hobby." I cringe when someone tells me they get a dollar an hour for something they made. I get angry when I see people selling product at craft fairs and farmer's markets for low prices, sometimes prices so low that the garment costs less than the yarn/fabric must have cost the seller.
In part, we have industrialization and fast fashion to blame. As early as 1840, it became more economical to buy cloth rather than spend time making it. Commercial cloth (and ready-to-wear clothing) has become cheaper and cheaper ever since. As we became divorced from the processes of making yarn and cloth, we stopped appreciating its value.
We also traditionally see textile work as "women's work." While the history is a little more complex than it just being work done by one gender, seeing textile work as something done by women, at home, in the time between other household chores makes it very difficult to quantify, and therefore value.
Last winter, one of my handspun, handknit sweaters went into the washing machine. The yarn was not superwash. It was an accident, no one was hurt, and I did manage to unshrink it just a little bit. After the initial shock, I joked to my husband that it was an excuse for me to get to go shopping for a sweater quantity's worth of yarn. And then I started explaining how much the yarn would cost for a sweater quantity - up to $200 for wool similar to that sweater. Since it was handspun, the fiber had cost me a little less, but there were hours and hours poured into the making of the yarn, and then knitting it up into a sweater. I just didn't know how many.
In my own work, I don't typically keep track of how long something takes me to knit, weave, or spin. It is a hobby, and I know that making things for myself is what gives me the most enjoyment. I do sell some of the things I make, but when I do, I'm always careful to price them so that my time is accounted for and I'm getting paid at least minimum wage. There are a number of other costs to consider when pricing items, like cost of materials, equipment, overhead, and profit if you're trying to run a business.
But there's still that elusive question: "How long did that take you?"
For my most recent sweater, I decided I would keep track. I didn't time myself with a stopwatch, so all of the time is in averages. Because I wanted to get a big-picture view, I decided that I would spin the yarn myself - which also included blending the fiber on the drum carder. Some of the fiber was dyed by me, some of it was dyed by others, and I did not count the time cost of scouring and dyeing. (But if you're interested in that stage, Bren Boone has an excellent post where she breaks down the time cost for her of scouring, carding, and spinning a skein of laceweight yarn.)
Carding the fiber took me about 15 hours, spread out over a weekend.
Spinning the singles took me about 35 hours, spread out over several weeks.
Plying took me about 10 hours, spread out over a week.
Finishing the yarn (skeining and washing) took me about 3 hours.
I knit all the ribbing on the sweater by hand. Each of the bottom hems took me about 3 hours, as did the short rows and ribbing on the neck. The ribbing on the cuffs took me an hour each. That's a total of 14 hours of knitting the ribbing.
I knit the rest of the sweater on the knitting machine. While it is faster, there is a real time and energy commitment to using a knitting machine. You can't just put your knitting on the machine and walk away (at least not on my machine!) and the techniques are a little bit different than hand knitting. In total, I spent 10 hours on the knitting machine with this sweater.
Lastly, there's the final step of blocking, seaming, and weaving in ends. It always seems like there are twice as many ends to weave in when using the knitting machine! This step took a total of 3 hours.
So - the grand total for preparing and spinning the fiber into yarn was 63 hours.
The grand total for knitting and finishing the garment was 27 hours.
The total amount of time spent making this sweater was 90 hours.
So, naturally, the next question is how much is it worth?
Where I live, the minimum wage is $11.10/hour. So that's $999 worth of my time. If we were to bump the wages up to what's currently considered a "living wage," $15/hour, the time cost rises to $1,350. I tend to think of my time as a lot more valuable than that - after all, spinning and knitting are skilled forms of labor that not everyone has. But for the sake of this post, we'll stick with $15/hour.
Time isn't the only cost - I used about 30 ounces of fiber, most of it merino, which generally sells for about $5-6 an ounce. There is some silk, yak, and other luxury fiber thrown into the mix, so I estimate my materials cost at the higher end of the range, for a total materials cost of $180. I used a pattern to knit the sweater, which cost me $8.
At this point, the cost of the sweater in time and materials is $1,538.
If I were in the business of spinning and knitting sweaters for sale, I would also need to account for equipment costs for my drum carder, spinning wheels (I used two in this project), and knitting machine. Based on equipment depreciation calculators and an assumption that the various pieces of equipment are in use 40 hours a week (because we're in business here), equipment cost is about 40 cents an hour. That doesn't sound like a a lot, but when you multiply that by the amount of time the sweater took to make, the cost of equipment is $36, raising the total price of the sweater to $1,574.
And then there are other types of overhead - how much does it cost me to rent space, keep the lights on, have running water, and have access to the internet to buy a knitting pattern, fiber, etc.? This is tough to calculate, as many of us say, "oh, the fiber would be in my house anyways," but there is a real cost associated with the space our fiber-things take up. But, assuming that this business takes up 10% of the space in a house where the combined cost of the mortgage/rent and utilities is $1,500/month, the monthly cost of the business space would be $150. Again, assuming this is a job that happens 40 hours a week, the cost per hour (assuming a 4-week month) is 94 cents. For a 90 hour project, the cost of overhead is $84. Now the total price of the sweater is $1658.
There are also real costs associated with selling a product - if it's sold online, there are website hosting fees and credit card fees to contend with. If it's sold like a website through Etsy, there's a fee to list it, and there's also a commission that's paid to the website once it's sold. If it's sold at a craft or art fair, there's a booth fee, plus the cost to travel there. If it's sold on commission through a gallery or store, the commission will range from 20-40% of the price. These costs need to be built into the price of the item. Assuming the fees are 20% of the product price, that's $332 for this sweater, which now has a price of $1,990.
Last but not least, every business needs to be profitable. Every business has different profit goals, but up to now, we've only been calculating the break-even cost for me to make this single sweater. Profit margins need to be built in to the price of a product so the business can continue to grow. Profit margins also keep the business from suffering a loss if the price of supplies suddenly go up, or the project takes longer than expected to make, or if the overhead increases unexpectedly. Profit margins vary wildly across industries, but 40% or 50% is a pretty common goal. Assuming the lower end of the range, that's about $810 for this sweater, which now has a sticker price of $2,800.
So, the next time you go to a craft fair and you think an artist is charging too much, remember that they're real people, with real skills, with real time, money and energy poured into their craft. And if you're tempted to ask the eternal question of "How long did that take you?" please remember that time isn't the only indicator of value.
This year, the spinning group in my guild decided to do a fiber exchange/challenge. The rules were simple: each person would bring in four ounces of clean, unspun fiber, we'd swap it, and make something with it by the end of the year.
I got a mystery wool, along with some light tan alpaca. I tossed it all in the dyepot along with some mohair that had been lingering in the stash. Once the wool was dyed, I blended everything on my drum carder, and spun it into fine singles. Then I 3-plied it, resulting in this yarn:
The mohair and wool give it a lot of shine, and the alpaca gives it a little bit of softness. Initially, I'd loved the color, but by the time I'd finished, I felt like I'd gotten my fill of that shade of pink.
So, back to the dye pot I went. I used a tye-dye method that I read about in the first issue of Tiny Studio Magazine. The result is a variegated yarn with pink, purples, and oranges.
Now to the next part of the challenge - actually making something with the yarn!
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