Thursday, 23 December 2010

Washing dog fur with Power Scour

I'm back to report on my progress with Alaska's fur.  I weighed out a precious 20g sample, put it in a net bag and washed the fibre in Unicorn Power Scour I think I have tried most methods when it comes to washing raw fibre.  My first  Black Welsh Mountain fleece I naively bunged straight in the washing machine without removing the daggings.  Daggings are what happens when sheep use the wool on their tail and back end as toilet paper.  Amazingly, the fleece didn't felt, Welsh Mountain fleece is forgiving,  but the poo was well distributed and for a while, no longer dry. 

I had a run of washing fleeces in washing up liquid, cheap and good at removing grease.  However, when I finally got around to digging those fleeces out of storage to spin, the fibre was brittle and useless, whether or not that was the fault of the  washing up liquid I don't know but they were good fleeces when they left the sheep; I think washing liquid is best left for dishes. 

After that unpleasant experience I acquired a load of stinking angora goat fleece.  Deciding this was delicate hair not greasy wool, I used baby shampoo.  This seemed to work but took so many washes to remove all the dirt.   I discovered the Unicorn range at Fibrefest, Coldharbour Mill in Devon.   I was so relieved to find a specialist product designed for washing raw fleece, it's not exactly the kind of thing you find on the shelf in the supermarket.  Now any fibre I wash at home, including shop bought wool jumpers, I use a Unicorn product.    

With the sample of dog fur, I did one wash, rinsed a few times, then gave the fibre a second wash in Power Scour.  The fibre has a tendency to clump together into balls which resist water penetration.  Has anyone else noticed this?  Has anyone tried to wash a huskie?  Is it hard to get them wet?  I wonder if this is a defence mechanism, with a thick woolly coat like a husky's I can imagine there would be a danger of becoming waterlogged if the dog was submergedIf a sheep falls into water the fleece gets wet and heavy and the sheep can easily drown.  Also I guess when you live in a cold climate, taking a long time to dry out is likely to cause hypothermia.  I don't know, I'm just speculating. I ended up pulling the clumps apart in between washes so the water could do its job.  

The hardest part of washing fibre, I find, is leaving it alone.  I want to feel like I'm doing something, which generally means giving the fibre a jolly good rub, the way housewives did their laundry before the days of washing machines.  Rubbing is the worse thing you can do, felting occurs when you bring together heat, soap and friction, and felting is irreversible.  With sheep's wool, felting happens when the barbs along the fibres become tangled up and locked together, although hair doesn't have those barbs, a version of felting can occur with hair fibres.  The machine washable wool jumpers you buy in the shop are made from wool which has been stripped of its barbs, how they do that I don't know but it's another process the fibre has been through and no doubt a load more fossil fuel burnt. 

The best way to wash fibre (or a finished garment) is to leave it to soak.  All you have to do is keep changing the water.  It is important to keep the water at a similar temperature as fibres are 'shocked' by sudden changes of temperature and this can induce the dreaded felting.  This time of year especially, the cold water straight from the tap is really cold so even when rinsing you need to use warm water.  I think I'd protest too if I was enjoying a hot bath and someone took me out and plunged me into icy cold water.       

After washing, I put the dog fur, still in its net bag, into a pillow case and gave it a short spin in the washing machine on the slowest speed.  That first sample is now dry.  I am happy to report, the fibre no longer smells of dog!  The conclusion to this scientific experiment is that Power Scour is effective against the smell of dog.   

I am now working my way through the rest of the dog fur, I found washing small amounts in separate net bags one way of combating the clumping tendency.  Once all the fibre is washed and dry I will be back to report on the carding and spinning!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Spinning Dog Fur

I have a new challenge.  Has anyone out there worked with dog fur?  I have taken on a commission to spin some husky fur, this is not something I have tried before. 

I met the gorgeous Alaska last week.  Alaska was born in Battersea Dog's Home.  Luckily for Alaska, he was soon homed and now a few years later (it would be rude to reveal a gentleman's age) Alaska would like to give his human a present made from his fur.  Alaska's mum was allegedly a Malamute and his father is unknown.  Whatever the father was, he must have needed a step ladder.  I was expecting a great big scary wolf but the fellow who arrived at my door was about the size of a sheltie and extremely cute. 

Alaska has a double layered coat, the outer coat ranges from white through shades of grey to black, the fibres are quite long, straight and on the coarse side.  The undercoat is soft and fine, mostly white in colour and rather short.  The fur I have been given to spin is brushed out undercoat which Alaska has naturally shed, this means at the end of each hair there should be a small nodule, the root.  Fur which has been cut off the animal does not have this nodule.  Hair which retains the root is easier to spin as the nobbly bits help to hold the fibres together.

Wool fibres from sheep are a natural velcro, the fibres are barbed and will cling to each other, making spinning easy.  Hair fibres on the other hand are smooth and require coaxing to stay together.  Hair fibres, such as alpaca, mohair and angora, are often blended with wool, the wool locking the more slippery fibres into the yarn.  In this case, Alaska doesn't want his fur hobnobbing with any other animal's fibre so the challenge is to spin a pure dog yarn.       

As the fur is very short, I will need to use the long draw technique (explained in the post 'How does spinning work?').  The end result will then be a fluffy yarn with a halo effect.  I just hope I can produce a yarn which holds together and doesn't fly apart!  The next decision is whether or not to wash the fibre before spinning.  Any ideas?  The fibre doesn't smell too much but it does have a smell and I'm sure no one, however much they love their pet, wants to walk around smelling like a dog - sorry Alaska.  I do remember an article in the Reader's Digest many years ago about someone who had a tame wolf.  They spun the wolf's fur and made a jumper.  Whenever they went out wearing the jumper, other dogs either attacked them or ran away wimpering in terror.  

I'm worried that if I spin the fibre in it's raw state I may not be able to wash the finished yarn enough without damaging it to get rid of the smell.  On the other hand, the fibre may become matted during washing.   I think I am going to test wash a small amount of fibre and see what happens.  I have the very good Unicorn Power Scour which fellow ravelrers (is that the right word?)assure me removes the rather potent whiff of ram.  Anything which can clean a year's dirt and and grease from a sheep's fleece should be up to cleaning dog fur, after all, Alaska changes his underclothes regulary so his fur can't be anything like as bad as a fleece.     

Before he left, Alaska gave me his paw and we shook on the deal.  There's no going back now.  I will be recording my progress here so do return and find out how the washing and spinning goes!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

How does spinning work?

I think it's time to explain some of the terms I've been rattling on about (and will rattle on about in the future).  Let's follow the whole process.  First, part your fibre from the animal, this is either done by shearing or plucking, depending on the creature.  Originally, sheep shed their fleeces themselves, much as a dog molts.  However, wool used to be extremely valuable and people found it inconvenient to have to pick their wool out of the hedge so over years we bred the ability to shed their fleece out of sheep.  This is why sheep have to be shorn, we humans have made sheep dependent on us.  Alpacas and angora goats have the same problem, they also have to be shorn.  Angora rabbits however do molt and can either be plucked when their coat is being shed naturally or they can be shorn.  The best time to sort fibre is as it comes off the animal, this is the only time you can be sure which bit of the animal the fibre came from.  Fibre quality varies depending on where it grew, and who wants to wear an animal's pubes anyway?

Once the fibre has been harvested and sorted, as a handspinner I have two choices, to wash the fibre first or to spin 'in the grease' and wash the completed yarn.  I usually spin alpaca in it's raw state as alpaca is not very greasy and can become matted during washing.  Angora goats smell terribly so I always wash mohair (mohair fibre comes from the angora goat, angora fibre grows on angora rabbits - confusing).  With wool it depends on the project and the fleece, I have some very short eight week old lambswool I'm spinning in the grease because I reasoned the lambs couldn't have got that dirty in eight weeks and I was worried about washing the fibre.  Saying that, I've helped out at lambing time and the amount of blood, birth fluid and mum's saliva lambs are drenched in the wool is probably far from clean!      

The next step is to card or comb the fibre.  Carding and combing are two different processes, carding is usually best for shorter fibres while combing is only suitable for long strong fibres.  I have never used hand combs (it's an ambition of mine to learn to use them) so I will concentrate on carding.  Carding can be done with hand carders or a drum carder.  Basically a carder is a surface covered in teeth , rather like a fierce hairbrush, which separates out the fibres.  Yarns insulate by trapping air between the fibres, carding helps to introduce air prior to spinning.  

Technically there are two types of spinning: woollen and worsted.  There are different processes for making a woollen yarn and a worsted yarn.  However many handspinners, myself included, produce yarn which is a hybrid, not a true woollen or true worsted.  A true woollen yarn is made from shorter fibres which are carded not combed and spun from a rolag using the long draw technique.  A worsted yarn is made from long fibres which are combed and spun using short draw.  I may mix these techniques up so I might card the fibre then spin short draw, for instance.  A rolag is made when you remove the fibre from the carders and roll the fibre into a tube then spin from the tube.  Rolags are generally spun long draw, in long draw spinning the fibres lay at right angles to the direction of the yarn, with short draw, the fibres lie parallel with the direction of the yarn.  Woollen spun yarns contain more air and tend to have a fluffier finish, yarns which have been spun using short draw contain less air but tend to be stronger.  A true worsted yarn will be smooth and strong with a good lustre.

To create a yarn, you can spin a single strand or ply several strands together.  Plying makes the yarn stronger  and creates a balanced yarn which will not distort the garment when knitted.  A single yarn can be inclined to twist up on itself, therefore the danger is it will pull any garment made from it out of shape.   

When the yarn is finished, it is best to wash the yarn to set the twist, washing helps to stabilise the yarn.  I hang up the skein dripping wet, the weight of the water helps to remove any kinks.

I hope this brief explanation of spinning makes sense.  Having written this, I think it is much easier to spin than to explain how it's done!  Do ask questions if there is anything you would like to know more about.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Robbie the Ram

I've just added some pictures, they're a bit grainy because they were taken on my mobile, but they bring back memories.  I went to the Royal Welsh Show in the Summer, to see the Golden Shears World Championship sheep shearing competition.  I was wandering round the sheep sheds, admiring the Welsh breeds, when I heard a shout of:  'Oi, come back 'ere!'  

Such a cry in a sheep shed can only mean one thing - an escapee.  I  rushed to the rescue.  An older gentleman was standing  between the rows of pens watching his prize Kerry Hill ram trot away to freedom.  Now Builth Wells is a huge show ground and extremely busy, not the place you want to be chasing a loose sheep.  I raced down my aisle in a vain attempt to intercept the ram, but by the time I got to the elderly farmer, he was busy barricading the recalcitrant Robbie into his pen with a bale of hay, which Robbie thought rather delicious.

Having wrestled with many an escapee in my time, I still cannot work out how the farmer achieved this, Robbie must have weighed in at not less than ten stone and had  had a considerable head start. In addition, there was no one else nearby.  I can only conclude that what seemed an ineffectual response, ordering the ram to return, had worked.    

You can admire the handsome Robbie below.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Not Getting Much Spinning Done . . .

I've just joined Ravelry at last and started this blog, all last night, I blame it on the snow.  Through Ravelry, I found the wonderful account of spinning and knitting on Jane's blog 'Sheep to Sweater a Beginner's Version'.  Her account brought back memories!  I am in the Kent Guild of Spinners, Dyers and Weavers, we give public demonstrations at events.  Last year Romney Shears, a Kent sheep shearing competition, decided to spice things up by challenging us to a Fleece to Garment competition.  No more sitting in the sun spinning, chatting and admiring the very fit shearers!  This was serious. 

The shearing competition starts at 8.30am, I think, I can't quite remember, it may have been 8.00am, the agreement was, the first fleece shorn would be delivered to us in our tent and we would have to produce a wearable garment before Romney Shears packed up for the day.  Fleece to Garment, Sheep to Shawl, whatever you want to call it, sounds simple enough, you get a fleece, you spin it, you knit it, done.  But what about the dirt?  Sheep change their clothes once a year, imagine the state of a raw fleece.  Then, once a yarn has been spun, the usual practice is to 'set the twist' by washing the yarn, this helps to stabilize the yarn and slightly felts the fibres together.  No chance when you only have one day.  As for dyeing, totally out of the question.  

Since the Guild has a health and safety policy and a risk assessment, or dozen, we had to insist on a prewashed fleece.  As a Guild,we are not supposed to use raw fleece for public demonstration.  So I ended up whizzing down to Romney Marsh the week before to collect a fleece from the same flock due to be shorn at the competition.  A Guild member washed the fleece in preparation for the challenge.  

On the day, the first fleece shorn was brought to us and laid out for the public to see  (not that there were any public at that time of the morning) then we got going.  Carding an entire fleece by hand, we didn't even have a drum carder, is arm aching work.  Fortunately, we had plenty of volunteers, even some husbands were roped in, despite never having carded anything before.  As soon as we had enough carded fleece to make a start, some people started spinning.  As the first two bobbins were semi filled, a volunteer began plying.  The knitters knitted straight off the bobbin.  Amongst the madness, someone, I don't know who, managed to find time to knit the wonderful commentator, Steve Meredith, a thong! Don't ask.  Steve gave us loads of encouragement and provided regular updates to the audience.  After 8 hours 40 minutes, most of which I spent at my wheel, we had produced a sleeveless waistcoat.  The waistcoat was auctioned for charity and was bought by a young shearer who was either very generous or too worn out to realise what he was bidding for.  

This year, at Romney Shears, I saw that waistcoat walking around.  It had been on the shearing circuit, traveled to Australia and become something of a legend amongst the shearers! 

Spinning Alpaca in the Snow

Going crazy stuck at home due to the snow.  I have several tonnes (that may be a slight exaggeration) of fibre waiting to be spun but the fibre is at the mill and I can't get to the mill because the mill is in the middle of no where and the roads are impassable (at least I'm guessing they're impassable, I haven't actually tried to drive any where in three days).  So last night I looked around to see what I could spin and came across a couple of unpromising carrier bags of alpaca fibre.  

I remember helping to shear both animals, a grey and a white, back in the summer.  Alpacas are particularly fiddly things to shear.  First, you have to catch your alpaca, which means four people running round the pen trying to find something to get hold of on a creature which is all neck and leg.  The alpaca then spits in your face, gross.  Alpacas aren't as greasy as sheep, they come from South America where apparently it doesn't rain as much as in England so they don't need waterproofing.  This means you have to keep oiling the shears to stop them from overheating.  It's rather alarming when your alpaca starts to smoke!  With sheep, the lanolin in the sheep's wool oils the shears for you.  

Anyway, last night I got out the fibre and as I didn't have much from either animal, I decided to blend the grey and the white.  I weighed out just over 25g of each colour and ran the fibre through the drum carder.  I will spin 50g onto one bobbin, 50g onto a second bobbin then ply the two together and I should get a 100g skein (except it never quite works).  By the time I'd finished carding, my eyes and nose were streaming from the dust.  It's always a toss up whether or not to wash alpaca before spinning, if you wash it first the fibre goes into 'I'm having a really bad hair day' mode, if you don't wash it, you have to keep stopping to pick out the bits.  I'm spinning this alpaca unwashed.  It is coming up really fine, the finest yarn I've ever spun, except the time I had a go on a great wheel. The wheel's owner assured me it only spun chunky.  Oh well, that's the beauty of handspinning, you can never be sure what is going to happen.

Back to this alpaca, I'm sitting between the laptop and the spinning wheel - traditional craft meets modern technologyI  must get on, I can't wait to see what the finished yarn will be like!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Starting Out

So I'm starting a business during a recession doing something everyone says isn't possible.  I'm not sure if there are any professional handspinners in England or not, I may be about to become the first one in a lot of years.  Of course in the past all spinning was done by hand but these days spinning is a hobby or at best a second income.  Why am I doing this?  I'm tired of being locked into a big slow grinding system, I'm tired of suffering as a result of other people's poor decisions, I'm tired of feeling as though my hands are tied.  It's time to go self employed, be in charge of my own destiny then at least if I make a mistake I have only myself to blame.