Tour de Fleece recap

I’m going to be trying to update here somewhat regularly with spinning and knitting stuffs. I love it when podcasters give their weekly overview of knitting accomplished, and I anticipate it could be a good record to look back on.

So with that in mind, here’s my very brief Tour de Fleece recap. My goals were to spin one mile of singles, to reduce the volume of my fiber stash, and to remember my love of fiber! I count success in all areas. Lots of tinkering with and adding onto small projects got done, and carding and combing projects, and knitting from handspun projects; I count these as wins for fiber love and stash reduction even though I didn’t count yardage on them. For the projects I did count yardage on, I estimate about 1.66 miles of singles spun, plus some plying into the deal! It’s amazing how much can be accomplished when one puts one’s attention to it. :)

Photos of handspun yarn for Tour de Fleece 2014

The photos are just projects I started for the Tour, and they include about 2-2.5 ounces spun on spindles, 8 ounces spun on the Pocket Wheel, and 4 ounces spun on the CPW.

For a couple of days during the Tour, I had a kid-free house and found that a blocked-out hour or two can be extraordinarily productive and that my fears of not knowing whether to prep, spin, or knit during any given crafting time were unfounded. I followed my heart and did what needed doing, especially what needed freedom from little people helping. :) I’m actually looking a little bit forward to having some days this fall with both kids in school — and wondering if production spinning and/or making garments might not be in my future after all.

Well, that update was fairly painless, so here’s hoping that I can drop in a note about my knitting and fiber prep stuff soon as well.

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Your fingers would remember their old strength better…

…if they grasped your FIBER.

I feel like Theoden King, coming out of his ensorcelled stupor to find the vibrant world of people and things he once loved. I feel like Emmett, returning to Bricksburg through the portal and realizing that he has — possibly has always had — the ability to generate new ideas and create unique constructions from the materials around him.

I can SEE EVERYTHING.

Clearly, there has been another spinning and blogging hiatus. As evidenced by this blog, I do have my ups and downs but this has been a severe down. I am not sure I have touched spindle, wheel, yarn, or fiber for nearly a year. I had almost an aversion to my whole stash, I was in denial about the likelihood of pests in my wool, and I had other responsibilities that crowded out hobby time.

But a month ago, something started to stir inside me again. Tour de Fleece was coming…maybe I should think about spinning a little? If only to reduce the volume of wool being stored in inconvenient places! I braced myself, and tackled the task of inventorying my unspun fiber.

In the process, I did have to face my fears: there were some isolated collections of unprotected fiber and yarn and raw fleece that had been made unusable by infestation. Tools and materials I’d acquired from friends looked at me with accusing glares as I remembered how much I had wanted to impress and please people by making special things with these products, inciting some uncomfortable feelings. But I also was able to stir up some long-forgotten feelings of bliss and delight as I handled my beautiful wool and pondered the textiles it could become. I started picking up spinning projects, and planning garments.

I am back. And as I start spinning regularly again, I am astonished to realize just how much skill I seem to have acquired in my years of spinning. I look at singles and know how they will behave once plied; I look at fiber and know how its colors will interplay as yarn; I take yarn and I can envision exactly the garment it ought to be, and go looking for the pattern to match. I’m far from the best spinner out there, and frankly my skill is far behind others who’ve got nearly 9 years of practice under their belts as I have. But that’s okay. I’m a spinner, and that’s not bad!

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Getting my groove back

The beginning of 2012 hasn’t been good for me and fiber. I felt my interest waning a little bit in the weeks leading up to our vacation to California. Other things were SO much more fascinating than boring ol’ yarn and fiber: namely, a burgeoning interest in accounting, of all things. Given the chance to spin, knit, or read about non-profit bookkeeping — I’d choose the latter, every time. I know. Taking fickle mindedness too far!

Unfortunately, by the time I got home from California to the dreary gray February Pacific Northwest, ennui and disinterest had bloomed into an outright revulsion for all things yarn, fiber, spinning, and knitting. I looked at my stash and wheels and I shuddered at the waste of space…and then I recoiled at the complete break in my own personality I was experiencing! This wasn’t me! I now think there was something like Seasonal Affective Disorder bringing me down.

The annual Whidbey Weavers Guild Spin-In was approaching at the end of March and my attitude toward fiber still had not lightened. My parents urged me to attend (egging me on with offers of free babysitting), and I resisted at first, but at last I relented, hoping to see some friends there. And as I prepared to go, something started to re-kindle within me. I looked at my wheels and instead of complete disgust, I saw a window of opportunity…I was struck by a vision of using a petite and portable and extraordinarily quiet little wheel in the living room of my house while my children sleep. Not making unusually fine yarn or complicated or difficult yarn, but just yarn. Usable yarn. Plenty of it. So I looked at the balance in my checking account and decided I hadn’t used my “mad money” allotment in a few months — I took a check with me to the Spin-In, to put a deposit down on a Pocket Wheel. Step one of re-entry into the world of fiber bliss was complete.

As I sat and listened to the lecture (on wild silks of India) I basked in the presence of super neat fiber folks. The next day I headed back to the event bright and early, and got some shopping done. While idly browsing (thoughts at the back of my head involved a sweater quantity of dark rich brownish something or other) I stumbled across the Island Fibers booth, where I noticed the bags of fleece. The first one I beelined my way to was the most incredible deep black shot through with silver and tipped with ruddy red-blond.

sally bill lockAs a clear vision of a gorgeous heathered yarn popped into my head, I saw the tag on the fleece…in lieu of a breed it was marked simply, “Sally Bill Special”. I think my jaw dropped at this point. Just last summer, in a class on choosing and spinning fleece for socks, Judith Mackenzie had shared with us a Sally Bill fleece. Sally was a shepherdess on the San Juan Islands — on Lopez no less, an island with which I have a deep affinity and a decently long history. She imported a Romney/Lincoln flock to the island, but closed gene pool being what it is, she used any local ram to procure lambs. As it turned out, she was something of a genius when it came to selecting for the traits she preferred in a handspinner’s fleece, so even seeming-random breedings were chosen to improve her flock and she culled the remaining ewes carefully to progress her wool toward an ideal. Judith raved about this flock and held it up as an example of how a flock can excel in producing handspinner’s fleece despite its lack of pedigree. Judith! And here was one of the golden fleeces, within striking distance!

I didn’t hesitate. I nearly elbowed the customer out of the way who had been checking out when I discovered my prize. I had never purchased a whole fleece before, and I knew that the $16/pound price was a bit of a premium, but I didn’t care. I had to have it. And this was step two of rediscovering the joy in fiber. I beamed so wide I feared my face would split. I ran around finding everyone I was on speaking terms with, shoving handsful of raw smelly sheepswool locks at them. “DID YOU SEE WHAT I JUST GOT???” I shared my bliss with everyone.

The majority of the fleece went to the fiber processor on site, who happened to be Taylored Fibers. I hadn’t worked with any of their roving before, but I really liked what I’d seen and fondled at their booth in previous fiber shows. I put my faith and my fleece in the capable hands of Mr. Taylor, keeping just about 8 ounces to play with.

And once I got home, play I did. I washed the fleece and then started preparing it. I started by combing a few locks and it seemed I was exactly right, that the silvery bits and sun bleached tips would lighten and warm the black fibers into an interestingly flecked shade of deepest espresso or dark chocolate.

brown-black combed top

I spun some worsted samples from combed top, and at the other end of the spectrum I spun some woolen and semi-woolen samples from hand carded slivers.

woolen and worsted spun yarns

I loved these yarns. I remained so pleased with my purchase.

And then today, Mr. Taylor visited my island and brought my roving with him! The final tally was 4.75 pounds of roving from 7 pounds of fleece, and it is GORGEOUS.

bump of brown roving

It resembles nothing so much as my own hand combed top, it’s nicely blended and has minimal veggie matter and almost no neps. As soon as I could I grabbed a chunk and introduced it to my CPW, using my current favorite semi-woolen draw (attenuated short draw with twist in the fiber supply for a lofty and bouncy but fairly smooth and even result). Spinning it was HEAVEN. I have never, ever had such a nice spinning experience. It drafted almost on auto-pilot, it enthralled me with its dancing colors, it was so soft and touchable! The diameter and twist it wanted to spin at with my default spinning was a lovely versatile singles. I wound it off and did my oft-used sampling method of winding an Andean bracelet, then re-winding the resulting two strands into another bracelet, so that I could ply together four strands and get a round yarn from just one singles without the added complication of Navajo plying. I spindle plied about 9 yards, then finished it somewhat roughly.

yarn on leaf

I LOVE THIS YARN. I love the color. I love the handle. I love the bounce and the slight sheen, I love the evenly consistent grist. The whole experience of creating it has nearly left me breathless with the pure enjoyment of it. LOVE.

I even started a little swatch, knitting it up on US 6 needles in a k3p2 rib. Do you see the squooshy 3-dimensionality? This yarn wants to be cables! I think it might be a little too fat for the project I have in mind, but I predict a 3-ply might be just what the doctor ordered.

k3p2 ribbed swatch

So there you have it. I’m back. I am more in love with wool than ever, and I’m feeling a little more sedate about it. Instead of ambition and braggadocio, I’m feeling a quiet and steady, deep and abiding satisfaction. It’s wool…it’s all good, man. :)

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Always inspiration

Clearly I haven’t been back to blogging for a bit. I confess, I was pretty frustrated by the alpaca debacle. I launched what I thought would be a fun and interesting investigation in pursuit of a tidbit dangled by Judith Mackenzie, fiber expert. Instead I found myself, as well as Judith herself, to be the recipient of derision, scorn, and animosity from alpaca breeders. Doods! I am not saying that your most wonderful California or Virginia alpaca is somehow inferior! I’m just saying that I ascribed to “alpaca is prickly and drapey”, but Judith’s words made me want to challenge that assertion by figuring some things out on my own. That’s it!

Here are some things I wrote in rebuttal to comments here and in my Ravelry inbox.

“Yesterday I watched part of Judith’s DVD on Spinning Luxury Fiber…Based on that viewing, I am going to presume that when she told her Northwest audiences that Northwest alpaca is unique, she meant that North American alpaca is different from Peruvian traditional and commercial flocks, and that the Pacific climate happens to be a good place to grow high-quality alpaca fiber — but not necessarily any different from that grown elsewhere in North America by careful breeders. I also think that when she says that all alpaca fiber is medullated, she is working on outdated information. All alpaca fiber is *capable* of being medullated, but any given fiber can be completely, incompletely, or almost not medullated. In this way it differs from sheep’s wool, which was the real gist of the reason for relating medullation/wave to lack of medullation/crimp. Finally, I think that Judith is and remains an excellent judge of the qualities that make a given fiber suitable for different textiles. From novelty yarns to traditional weaving to unusual knits, Judith looks at a fiber — from any plant or animal — and sees its potential. And she wants to convey to her students that North American alpaca has a vast, unusual, wonderful and special potential to become incredible textiles in the hands of a fiber artist. It’s really frustrating to me that so many alpaca breeders I’ve come across during this discussion seem to think that this is a negative thing.”

“I think this just underscores the difference between the handspinners’ market and the commercial textile industry. We (spinners) are always searching for extraordinary fibers and using each individual fiber, each source, from each separate animal, to ITS best effect. The industry is looking for uniformity and suitability for mass production. So that might be why I hear Judith’s message to be, “Check this stuff out, cherish it because it’s local, it’s unique and worth investigating!” where you hear it as “This product is different and different is bad.””

This is on my mind lately because I’m finishing up watching the Spinning Luxury Fiber video, which I’d purchased solely to cross-reference the alpaca information during the discussion in September. But re-watching now, with the extensive information about silk, camelids, and bearers of down undercoats, I’m struck by two things. One is once more to marvel at how Judith’s entire repository of life experience serves to make her a MAGNIFICENT judge of fiber for handspinning. Be it a tent worm cocoon or a fireweed fluff or a bison undercoat or an unusual batch of bleached tussah or a new strain of Corriedale, she sees the fiber and categorizes it within an enormous mental database of fibers and how they behave as yarn and fabric. She might not be a party to the latest information on alpaca breeding trends or know precisely why the silk brick she bought has longer better-quality bombyx than typically produced by brick-makers, but when she touches and feels and spins it, she KNOWS that it is different and special.

Two is to be so grateful for the Interweave set of videos. Because do you know, nothing replaces in-person instruction. I do not regret spending hundreds of dollars to sit in hours of classes with Judith this year. But almost everything she covered, is presented in the videos. You can drop $30-some bucks and get a world renowned instructor RIGHT in your living room, for HOURS. And then you don’t have to take my word for it that she’s not just pushing some agenda in a get-rich-quick scheme or in cahoots with specific alpaca breeders. She is sharing the knowledge that will benefit the world of handspinners. And the Judith effect, that incredible spark of inspiration and sudden infusion of skill that hits any time you’re in a room with her (I spin more finely and more smoothly every time), it’s available DIGITALLY. And that inspiration is priceless. I highly recommend that the detractors who’ve been reading here, should check out at least the luxury fiber video. It’ll be a good use of your money, I truly believe it. And no, I’m not affiliated with Interweave…yadda yadda.

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On homemaking

More spinning content to come, there has been Northwest alpaca and it has been good. :) But for now, a post based on a conversation my friend and I were having about there not being as many really good (especially secular) homemaking blogs as we’d like to see…

For the past few weeks I’ve been re-focusing my attention on matters at home. From cleaning to budgeting, I’ve felt like my skills as a homemaker have been slipping, so I’ve worked to bring them back up to par. I’ve read a lot of homemaking blogs along the way and these have given me a lot of food for thought. So I wanted to put some of those thoughts in one place.

My greatest inspiration has come from http://ourmothersdaughters.blogspot.com/. I spent a couple days and worked my way through every post listed in the sidebar under “Food Organization”, “Laundry Organization”, and “The Reasonably Clean House”.

I love the concept of the Reasonably Clean House. I think it speaks directly to that perfectionist streak in so many of us that leads us to do boom-and-bust housekeeping, delaying needed cleaning tasks until the mythical time when we’ll have enough energy to do it PERFECTLY, or focusing so hard on the details that we miss the big picture. (Also known as the common character trait that has made the Flylady rich.) The full phrase is “The Reasonably Clean, Fairly Neat, and Comfortably Tidy House” which just about sums it all up. Isn’t that what we all want for our families? Isn’t that what many of us are trying to provide when we sign up for this full-time homemaker gig?

Along the same vein, I was super taken with the notion that the minimum that should be expected is that a homemaker provides their family with food and clean clothes. I mean, what could be more basic? And yet the laundry piles grow perennially in my house, I struggle with the food budget because of all the little last minute trips to the grocery, and fail to set dinner on time because of the lofty menu ideas I come up with at the 11th hour; and though I do probably a better-than-average job of keeping the toilets scrubbed, I still feel like a less-than-average housekeeper.

I’m working on implementing regular laundry, prompt folding, “blitz” cleaning (right into the corners!), confining and corraling dirt-makers (especially kids!!), menu planning, and more. And it feels really good. I feel like a competent homemaker this week, and I’m optimistic that I can find a rhythm that will make this last for the long run.

As another point of motivation, I’ve been so impressed by the cute decor at all the various photographed homes in the blogs I’ve read. I’ve felt stymied about decorating my home because of the monetary outlay, but you know? A few flowers, some cheery textiles, and some thrifted items could really go a long way toward making me feel like I’m providing a lovely place for my family to grow and for our friends and family to visit. So I’ll be working on that in the near future too. Maybe even applying a little (paint). It used to be traditional to whitewash the living areas every spring, and after living here two years, I really think we’re ready for a touch-up (not to mention the color that I’ve craved for my whole adult life!) Projects ahoy…

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Alpaca update

I’m too lazy to upload another photo of the same darned black swatch. :P I’ll simply report that after a couple of days hanging on my wall, the swatch did not grow in length. But after a couple of weeks, it went from 8 to 8.25 rows per inch.

So now I’m burning to learn more about the nuances of alpaca. Just how different is Northwest alpaca vs. the rest of the US vs. Peru?

There are a heck of a lot of variables to contend with and I can’t decide how many to test and how many to hold constant. Spinning technique, prep technique, diameter, number of plies. I pulled out a tuft of Peruvian alpaca top that Judith gave the workshop group back in April, and decided to spin it with the semi-woolen draw I’d used on the Northwest roving. To be honest, I think the resulting yarn is really similar but possibly a little denser. I was going to knit a swatch and compare the density per square inch, but the Peruvian yarn I spun is 4-ply, so maybe it’s not a fair comparison? I dunno.

I found a source for commercially combed Northwest alpaca top though. And for Ashford alpaca top. If I can get some combed North American top then that would round out a collection of origins keeping the fiber prep constant, which is a start. I’m also eyeing the Peruvian royal grade top, as that class of super fine fiber tends to be crimpier than other grades, per Judith. But I worry that might just confuse the issue more than necessary. I’m also thinking of comparing Northwest small-mill roving to other North American small-mill roving. But again, this might be excessively broadening the scope of what I’m trying to learn here.

I’ll continue pondering the experiment design, and scouting for fiber sources. In the end, what I’m hoping is to be able to spin some alpaca from local farms on the island, and to be able to write some marketing copy that speaks from experience in terms of distinguishing this product from other alpaca yarns on the market. I don’t want people to decline my yarn just because 100% alpaca “never has enough memory for a shaped garment”. But if I’m going to make claims to the contrary I’d like to have my ducks in a row, so to speak.

So. The plan would be to spin Northwest, North American, and Peruvian top semi-worsted into a 3-ply, knit into swatches, hang on the wall. Possibly spin Northwest and North American roving semi-woolen into 3-ply, knit into swatches, hang on the wall. What other variables should I vary and compare?

This should be fun. :)

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Northwest alpaca

In April during the Weavers’ Guild all-day workshop with Judith Mackenzie, Judith mentioned something interesting about our local Pacific Northwest alpaca. She said that, due to a fairly closed gene pool and a tendency for local show judges to use a unique set of criteria for judging alpaca fiber, that the alpaca we find here in Oregon and Washington is utterly unlike “typical” alpaca, elsewhere in the US or certainly in South America. Where you might have heard that alpaca is sleek, drapey, fine, and sometimes wavy but seldom strongly crimpy — Northwest alpaca turns that all on its head. Breeding ever finer, shorter, and crimpier, the fiber is drawing closer to resembling cashmere than anything else. Judith proposed that soon the animals will need to be sheared every 1.5-2 years instead of yearly, but that the quality of the fiber should command a higher price to compensate for getting less of it.

She gave this information while in the midst of passing a sample of Peruvian alpaca top for the workshop attendees to try; but sitting next to me was the owner of  Island Hopper Alpacas, who had brought some of her animals’ fiber along and offered a sample of roving for comparison. And it was true, the difference was immediately apparent. Where the top was cool and lifeless (though delightfully fine and pettably soft), the roving was a warm and sweetly soothing cloud that I almost imagined rising up to meet my hand like a purring cat. The difference was not all attributable to the preparation either, at least in my opinion. Judith recommended spinning the top from the end for a durable, hard-wearing worsted yarn like the Peruvian weavers use in their wonderful works that last a lifetime and never so much as wrinkle; for a nicer hand and a more friendly knitting yarn though, she suggested spinning from the fold to introduce loft and to control the slippery fiber. The Northwest alpaca on the other hand, she strongly recommended should be spun with a short semi-woolen draw — as she prefers for cashmere. Immediately struck by the urge to own some of this fiber, and knowing that my friend (the aforementioned Island Hopper owner) was interested in selling some blankets she’s had stored, I asked Judith how she’d recommend preparing that Northwest stuff by hand. After a quick ponder, she answered that drum carding would likely be the best approach.

Thus, when I entered Judith’s class last weekend on spinning exotic fibers like cashmere and alpaca for socks, this Northwest vs. Peruvian dichotomy was strongly on my mind. I didn’t even need to ask though: as she introduced us to alpaca-as-sock-yarn (providing a sample of very fine and crimpy Royal grade alpaca), she began to discuss this Northwest alpaca phenomenon again. Claiming that the South American alpaca breeders at last year’s Tinkuy de Tejedores had nearly started a screaming match with her over the disgraceful changes to the noble camelid’s fiber, she pointed out that our local gene pool is in fact mostly like the royal (<18 micron) grade that she had with her that day: the fine fibers are crimpier (well, she did say that alpaca fibers are not formed with true crimp, but certainly with a strong and even wave), and thus just elastic enough to make passable sock yarn especially if the knitter compensates with a suitably elastic pattern.

SO. Back on the island, I’m super interested in exploring the properties of this unusual fiber — and in making sure my fellow fiber geeks know how special it is! So for starters, during an online discussion of this alpaca situation, an experienced spinner asserted that while crimpy alpaca has *some* memory, it still should be blended with wool for elasticity, and is utterly unsuited for a sweater (presumably because it will be heavy, and will grow, as alpaca has the reputation of doing). But I feel fairly confident that this fine crimpy fiber will in fact spin up into a lightweight yarn with enough memory to hold its shape. And thus, an experiment was born!

Yesterday and today I spun alpaca roving from Paradise Found Fiber Farm into three lofty singles using a semi-woolen/supported medium-long draw on my Bosworth Moosie spindle. Then I plied them into a soft and airy 3-ply.

I knitted this yarn into a square swatch 30 stitches wide, and measured the initial stitch gauge as 6 stitches per inch, 8 rows per inch.

Then I washed it and blocked it out gently with pins to make sure it was perfectly squared up. When it was almost completely dry, I unpinned it and remeasured the gauge. It had bloomed to 5.5 stitches per inch, but remained at 8 rows per inch.

Now, I’m going to hang it vertically on the wall and wait for it to grow. I might even give it a good tug now and again just to replicate what a person might do while wearing a sweater. :p After a day or two, I’ll take it down and remeasure the gauge.

I hope to be reporting results soon! I should probably get ahold of some Peruvian alpaca for comparison, hm…I’m also going to use my McMorran balance to measure this yarn’s grist and my iSpin app to measure its diameter, just to be thorough.

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