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

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?

Spinning is Brain Work

The first few times I spun with Arabella and the spinning class for 2-3 hours at a time, I was so utterly exhausted that I had to lie down when I got home.  Spinning is a very sedentary activity, so how could I be this tired?  It was my brain!  My brain was exhausted!

Probably because while spinning, the brain is working at several different tasks at once, and you have your fingers, hands, feet, and eyes active in the

God's beauty revealed in the small flowers
Flowers from Jacob's Reward Farm

process.  Your brain is processing, your eyes are carefully watching the fiber, your foot is treadling not too fast and not too slow, and you are drawing the fiber out between your hands and allowing or not allowing twist with your top hand, and then stopping the twist so you can feed the yarn onto the spool…..whew!  It takes a while just to get the coordination down! But like riding a bike, spinning seems to be movement that our bodies intuitively know how to master.

So now, after a dozen or so collective hours of spinning, I am beginning to “get it.”  Instead of just a jumble of actions and slippery wool moving or not moving through my fingers, my brain has started to isolate and understand each of the various tasks. I think this process is what will improve my spinning going forward.  Isolating, and then focusing, on the different actions will produce different results in the yarn.

Here are some of the beginning actions to isolate:

  • speed of treadling
  • amount of twist allowed in the yarn
  • drafting the wool

I’m going over to Arabella’s to practice on her Louet spinning wheel.  She says what I need now is “time at the wheel.”

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!

The “Modern” Spinning Wheel?

Because we live in a time when clothing is simply something we grab off a rack in a store, we’ve lost appreciation for what it takes to make fabric or cloth of any kind.  We rarely think of it at all–unless we were raised in sewing homes, like me, where our mothers measured, pinned, and cut large batches of cloth into pieces they would sew into our tops, shorts and matching Easter dresses.  Or maybe you’ve admired a period costume in a film and given a nod to the past ideas of spinning or whatever else it took to make such things.  That was me.  Until I started spinning myself.  (Yes, it was only 2 weeks ago!)

My natural curiosity got to me and I started wondering about origins of spinning wheels, who invented what, and so forth.  So I dove in to take a look, and I am simply flabbergasted at what I have discovered. Flabbergasted.

The spinning wheel itself is actually a very modern device, and used in only about 8% of the time that humanity has been wearing clothes and making cloth.  The very first images and mentions of spinning wheels only date back a mere 760 years. Here are some key context points:  The Magna Carta was established in 1212, Marco Polo was packing for China in 1271, and the Vikings were settling down and raising sheep instead of pillaging. (Okay, these things seem old, I’ll admit, especially compared to the latest version of MicroSoft Windows.  But it’s only 800 years!  We’ve been wearing clothes a lot longer than 800 years!!)

So, I next had to ask:  What on earth was used prior to 1250, and the invention of the spinning wheel?

The fiber: animal wool or hair, fibrous plants such as reeds, bamboo & flax, and silk

The spinning tool: a spindle and a pair of hands

The fibers have stayed consistent throughout history and are an assortment of animal and plant fibers. A spindle is basically a stick (or bone or other hard material carved like a stick) upon which fiber is twirled to produce a “twist” while the fibers are also being slowly drawn apart.  The fibers “twist” into yarn, and if they’ve first been “combed” in the same direction, the fibers “twist” even more easily. That is spinning in a nutshell.  But what’s so astonishing is that for 11,200 years every piece of cloth or fabric or yarn or thread was produced by a pair of human hands on a stick.

Now aren’t you flabbergasted, too?