Pilgrim Fabrics

Mrs. William Bradford, hemming an apron

I’ve been traveling to Plymouth, MA from Texas for work over the last few months. As is typical of most business trips, I wasn’t seeing anything in the town other than the car, the hotel, and the conference room at the office. Finally, I just couldn’t bear it! Plymouth, of all places! I had to see at least something Pilgrim-ish, or never eat Thanksgiving dinner again. So, on my final trip, I went a day early to hang out at Plimouth Plantation,  a “living” museum of the village that operates perpetually in the year 1627. I was particularly interested in….of course…fabrics.

Mrs. William Bradford, enjoying the lovely weather while hemming an apron, was kind enough to let me get up close to see the weave on her clothing.

Notice the stitching on the hem

I asked her if anyone in the village had a spinning wheel (yes, they talk only in character!) and she said, “Oh, no! We buy our clothes ready made when the ship comes once a year.”

These actors were very knowledgeable, actually, about the characters they were portraying, and also lots of details about the village–Mrs. Alden was even cooking a tansy (spinach, bread, & eggs), taking coals from her open hearth and sticking them under an iron skillet on little legs to cook it. Fascinating!  My taxi driver said the actors come from all over the country and stay 6 months at a time in houses near the village. They study up on the history of the period, read the journals and diaries left behind, and love to chat about 1627! (The Pilgrims arrived in 1620.)

Sturdy cloth to withstand wear and tear

I also learned that back in Holland, where they lived as a community for some years before coming to Plymouth, this group of women did not do much spinning of their own to make fabrics.  Living in the large city of Leyden, they purchased their clothing ready made, or bolts of cloth if they wanted to sew something on their own. But it bears repeating that although they themselves weren’t the ones spinning the threads that were ultimately woven into the fabrics they were wearing or purchasing….someone’s pair of hands were, since every thread woven into a cloth in 1627 was handspun and handwoven!

Bed curtains for warmth and privacy in the one-room cottages


Time at the Wheel

“Good,” Arabella told me, “you understand the basics.  Now what you need is time at the wheel. Nothing else can teach you what you need.”

Click here to go to post

As I come to the end of the marvelous green bump that MonChere brought me on Mother’s Day, I have tangible evidence of the truth of Arabella’s statement.  The green bump (that’s what a large roll of roving is called) spun into about 9 skeins. Oh, the difference between the first skein and the last!

As beginning spinners, we are inconsistent in the size of yarn we are spinning, and also in the amount of twist we are adding to the yarn in the spinning process. The result is a finished yarn that is really too curly and twirly to be usefully knitted. (Which is one reason why you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on the wool you are learning upon!)

Notice the "skinny" strands and the "fat" strands

In this first skein, notice the uneven strands–some are “skinny” and some are “fat.”  This occurs when the spinning of the singles is uneven–of course, the hallmark of a beginner!  This is one of the skills that can only be gained by “time at the wheel.” Spinning such a large bump of wool gave me enough time at the wheel to really improve on my consistency.

Another issue for beginners is “overspinning,” which is also a consistency issue. It happens when too much twist is added to the single during spinning. When plying two singles, spinning in the opposite direction from which the singles were originally spun “balances” the finished yarn as they are twined together–except when both singles are inconsistently overspun. Then you just get what’s pictured here–evidence that this spinner needs more time at the wheel!

It does happen, though.  The improvement does happen. Compare this last skein (hooray!) with the first above. Notice the evenness of the strands compared to each other, and the evenness of the whole skein compared to the first. This last skein even felt completely different in my hands as I wound it–lighter, fluffier, balanced.

The yarn is more consistent

As for the improvement, I can’t tell you what to do specifically, except keep spinning. It’s very strange, really. A spinner begins as an uncoordinated, goofy, stumbling upon oneself, uncertain being, but sticking with it, somehow she manages to bring it all together by not thinking about it, but simply doing it. Time at the wheel, says wise Arabella.

International Fleeces–Meet Talia!

You simply must meet Talia Sommer of International Fleeces, and read how she began her business because of a mosquito, and her love of spinning. Her website is beautiful and informative, and she sells everything the spinner or fiber artist needs to dive into the wool and never come out!

I am interested in natural dyeing techniques, and plan to do some of this over the summer. How providential that I received her newsletter today, promoting the joy of dyeing with natural dyes!

International Fleeces Newsletter

Her pricing is extremely reasonable, and she has a wide range of fibers (I cannot wait to get my hands on this baby camel and silk tussah blend at only $4 per oz.) Go visit her and sign up for her newsletter!

Talia also writes a very informative and well-researched blog. As a new spinner, I am learning the differences between the fibers–wool, plant fibers, blends, and what sheep was that?  Talia has a series in her blog of “Focus on Fiber” in which she gives great information on breeds, their history, and the characteristics of their wool. Interested in Merino, Jacob, Romney, or White Faced Woodland?

But mainly I like Talia for her story and her picture. Doesn’t she just look like someone you’d like to know? I think so.

Screen Grab of "About Us" with Talia

Ancient Spindles

I’m not sure how long it will take me to get over being flabbergasted at the discovery that the spinning wheel is modern compared to the length of time humanity has been wearing clothing.  Which of course means that prior to the 14th century (12th in China) every length of thread or yarn on earth was spun with a spindle and a pair of human hands. Though trade centers probably developed very early in human history for cloth as it did for other necessities, still somebody had to take that wool or flax and turn it into usable thread and yarn.

Two Egyptian Spindles and a Net Needle

Pictured here are two spindles and a netting needle from ancient Egyptian finds. This is the tool that wove history! (Honestly now, aren’t you amazed??) I read recently that the Egyptians didn’t wear much wool; they mainly spun flax into linen cloth for clothing. But the tool remained the same across all cultures, whether you spun from sheep, goats, camels, buffalo or flax or silk.

Notice the notch in the top of this spindle. This marks the place where the magic happens in spinning. Loose plant or animal fibers are held in one hand, and fed onto a device that “spins” the fibers, which causes them to grab onto each other and basically lock together. That is an astounding bit of physical science and physics all its own that we’ll get to one day!

Notice the notch!
Ancient Egyptian Spinning Tools

This photo was taken of a case in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt and shows an ancient carder, spindle, and two whorls (those round disks at the top). Carders were used to pull the fibers in the same direction to make spinning more efficient. The whorls were used on the spindle to change the thickness of the thread/yarn being spun by increasing or decreasing the amount of “spin” added to the fibers.

Hey, now the political practice of spinning makes a lot more sense! The aides are the “whorls” that control how thick or thin the cover stories need to be!

And Then….

MonChere arrived on Sunday with a giant bag of roving that had  been sitting in her closet, unspun, for 12 months.  Her gift to me is not the roving itself, it’s the spinning of it!!  I warned her that I am still a beginner, but she seems okay with that.  I hope to give her back yarn as gorgeous as this roving.

I love this gift!  I can’t wait to start spinning.

Wool Obsession Resource

I found a wonderful source at Wool Obsession for anyone trying to understand the various types of fibers available to spin and what they look like.  You can compare flax to hemp,  cashmere to mohair, and much more. The blog also lists current ebay auctions for the type of fiber shown.

As a new spinner, I am not only trying to learn about fiber types, but also the many different sheep breeds and their various wool characteristics.  I thought Rambouillet was a poet? What do Targhee wool and Merino wool have in common?  Good site for quick info and good auctions! (Hey, they even list Yak fiber!)

There’s Magic in the Spinning

Loose Alpaca wool

So what’s the big deal?  I’ll tell you–a spinner takes a handful of loose, random wool from  a farm animal, and turns it into thin strands of usable yarn, and now we can all wear clothes.

Usable yarn! We can make clothes!

Okay, so it really hasn’t been a big deal for several hundred years, but for several thousand years before that, it was a very big deal!! A spinner was a magician of sorts.

Taking loose, random wool and making usable threads and yarns….How?? Actually it’s a pretty simple bit of physics. Spinning adds twist to the fibers such that they are locked together, and can no longer be drawn apart. Until the twist is added to the wool, it’s not usable as thread or yarn.

Wool converted to usable thread! Amazing!

The spinner controls the drafting and the twisting with her hands—drafting with the back hand and controlling twist with the front hand. Drafting while spinning is the art of pulling the fibers to slide away from each other just the perfect amount to then add the twist you want to achieve the thickness of yarn.

From keeping sheep warm to keeping us warm

A magic spinner

This is the magic that happens between the two hands of a spinner.

Yeah, yeah, a modern spinning machine in a mill can spin faster with more guaranteed uniformity.  But there is no magic in that.

From Batts to Roving

Though some spinners prefer to spin directly from the batt, there are additional steps that prepare wool to be spun by the rest of us mortals.  Each step in the process of preparing raw wool is designed to “organize the fibers” to make spinning easier.  The batts that come off the carder have their fibers more aligned, and there’s more air between the fibers than there was in the loose fleece; however, the batts can still be very compressed. This can make spinning more difficult, especially for us newbies!

If you’ve bought a batt or two, and are having difficulty spinning, you can easily turn your batts into roving. Here’s how:

1: Divide the batt leaving a bit attached

Divide the batt in half by pulling the fibers apart down the middle to the near edge, where you will leave a bit attached (about 1½”).

Next, turn the batt around so that the connected area is at the top, and on one side of the attachment, divide the batt again down to the other end where you will also leave a bit attached.  Continue to turn the batt and divide, always leaving a bit attached at the end.

2: Continue dividing, leaving a bit attached

When you are finished with one side, go back to the middle of the batt and start on the other side. After the batt is separated into segments, straighten it out, smoothing and “drawing” the fibers into one length.

3: Draw and smooth roving into long strand

Drawing means just gently pulling the fibers to align them.

4: Continue to draw and separate fibers

Now you’ve got roving!  But this roving is still very thick for a new spinner.  So take sections of the roving and draw (pull) them further apart, without separating the strands completely.

There are so many activities to synchronize for the new spinner that starting with thin, airy roving helps the process keep going!

Try this– you can very easily draw the fibers apart if you pull too firmly, because they simply slide past each other and separate.

Wanna know how spinning the fibers prevents the slide?

From Fleece to Batts

The day I spent at Jacob’s Reward Farm was marvelous!  Arabella and I got to help Cindy prepare for the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, which is happening this weekend at the Howard County Fairgrounds.  Cindy wanted to take a dozen batts with her, and we were there to help.

What? What the heck’s a batt? Now I know!  We made over two dozen batts in Cindy’s kitchen.  We started with a pile of fleece that had already been washed and air-dried before we got there.  Sinking my hands into the pile of wool felt significant–earthy and real.  Similar to the way it feels to first plant something in the garden in the spring.

I sat at the kitchen table and “picked” the fleece–which means I separated the fibers, picked out any grass, and pulled apart any tight or snarled areas.  This work prepared the fleece to go more smoothly through the drum carder.

The drum carder is what actually creates the batt–which is simply a small sheet of  wool. The carder has teeth on two barrels that mesh against one another, and in that process, the fibers are further separated, smoothed out and aligned.  This alignment really helps the spinner, as it allows the fibers to grab the twist added from the spinning wheel more easily.

Arabella made all the batts by slowly feeding bits of the picked fleece through the two drums of teeth. She cranked the handle, the drums turned, she fed more fleece through, and just kept doing this until there wasn’t any more room on the drum for any more fleece.

The batt will be as wide as the drum carder’s width, because you basically just peel it off the teeth at this point, and you have a batt!

But making batts is also where the magic lies…..in blending.  After we had the batts completed from the fleece I was picking, Arabella went to get some white Alpaca fleece (this fleece is from Boaz).  She then rolled up a handful of Alpaca fleece inside the Jacob wool batt, rolling it like a sausage.  She then fed the sausage through the drum carder, and this process blended this gorgeous, silky, fine white Alpaca wool with the gorgeous, dense, grey Jacob wool to produce the finished batts.

It was a great day!