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!
When it comes to yarn dyeing, there are lots of different techniques. One is "glazing," and it has nothing to do with doughnuts!
Glazing is a technique where a dyer applies dye in very thin layers, so that the original color of the yarn is still visible underneath the glaze. It's a lot like the technique of glazing in watercolor painting, where a transparent wash of color is added on top of another color to create more complex fields of colors.
There are several different ways to glaze yarn in dyeing, but they all boil down to using small amounts of dye, and making sure the dye strikes on the yarn very quickly. One way to do this is to pre-mordant the yarn, or to make sure there is plenty of acid in the dyebath before adding the dye. Some dyers use dry yarn or yarn that is only slightly damp. This is another way to make sure the dye stays on the outside of the yarn - since it will take some time for the moisture to penetrate to the core of the yarn, the outside of the yarn will be the first to get wet, and therefore the first to absorb the dye.
One of the biggest challenges in glazing yarn is predicting what color your yarn will be when it comes out of the dyepot. There's definitely plenty of magic happening there, but a little understanding of color theory can go a long way in deciding what color of glaze you should use. There are plenty of in-depth books and tutorials about color theory, but there's no need to get bogged down in all of that if you don't want to. What you need to know is this:
Knowing what color(s) you're starting with, and what color you're adding in your glaze will help you predict the outcome.
But, naturally, I had to take it one step further. Sometimes it's helpful to see a prediction of what the glazed yarn might look like to help avoid disappointment. Here are six samples of predictions of what a recent handspun yarn might look like if I glazed it with blue, purple, pink, orange, turquoise, and black:
To create these predictions, I used PowerPoint, though you could use any photo-editing tool that lets you make transparencies. I opened up a picture of my yarn, then drew a rectangle shape over part of the photo. I made sure the shape was selected, then edited it under "format shape." The "fill" section lets you choose the color and the transparency of that color. I usually set the transparency levels to about 50%, and then play around with all the colors I'm thinking of using.
This isn't a perfect prediction - after all, the colors that show up on my monitor aren't going to be the same colors as my dyes, and it would be difficult to get the exact concentration right - but it does give me a good idea of what the glazes will look like, and helps me make more informed choices when I decide to overdye yarn.
In this instance, I decided to overdye a leftover skein a blue-purple color. I intend to make a hat and maybe some mitts, and want them to coordinate with my Weekender sweater, but not be too matchy-matchy. Here's the overdyed skein:
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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