Today was shearing day, we usually shear the sheep when the nights are warm enough for everyone to stay warm and the days are beginning to be uncomfortably hot. This Spring has been wet so far, which means that our sheep run the risk of being damp and warm for long periods of time (flies love that), so we messaged Karl, who shears our sheep for us, early this year.
Karl came out and the sheep were shorn in no time. He always does a great job, treating them with care and respect and talking to them the whole time. This year they all behaved themselves, which is unusual, in previous years we have had to lasso escapees and even tackle one or two as they run past. Luckily, Karl plays football and takes it all in his stride. He seems to find us amusing, and laughs at the lengths we go to to keep our babies comfortable. We set up a shade gazebo for Karl to shear them under and then leave it up for a few days so they don’t get sun burned. We spray every little graze with antiseptic spray (the pink splotches) and give them a soothing feed of hay after their shearing ordeal. At the same time, he takes the time to make sure they are comfortable while he is shearing and they seem to just lay against him or on the ground while he works, and he talks to them like we do, so we count him as one of us, and so do the sheep.
I now have a bag of lovely wool from Eli to process into wool and knit or weave into something lovely. I could have saved more, but I have plenty of fleece to spin in my craft room already.
All right, this is a really yucky post. I have heard and read about how traditional spinners used to wash fleeces in urine to get them really clean. The theory (or maybe science) behind it is that the alkalinity of the ammonia in the urine reacts with the lanolin in the wool to make a very basic kind of soap. This soapy mess then cleans the wool.
Wool scoured in this way is then rinsed (multiple times, I imagine) to get rid of the smell. The resulting wool is soft and unfelted apparently. It also removes a lot more vegetable matter than other kinds of washing (according to the hype). I want to give this method a try, but not anywhere near the house.
This experiment needs;
A big tub with a lid: Thanks to a quick thinking husband, I found one of our fire safety bins (not so useful in the rain) and gave it a good scrub.
A raw fleece: One of the partial fleeces I have in my stash should be small enough to fit in the container.
A water source for rinsing: The garden hose has a 30 metre stretch and gives nice hot water on a warm day.
A place away from the house to minimise the awful smell it will no doubt produce: The far end of the yard, behind the garden bed will have to be far enough.
A whole lot of pee: It is just as well the urine should be aged for this, as there is no way our family can produce enough to fill this tub in a day or so. We use a bucket for night time pee trips (so we don’t have to go outside and wake the dogs and sheep up), so I just began to collect that pee in my handy bin instead of tipping it out way up the paddock.
The fleece is soaked in the urine for about a day (two if it’s really dirty), then the whole lot is tipped out and the fleece rinsed multiple times to take out any remaining smell.
The fleece is spun out in the washing machine and spread out to dry on a sheet in the sun.
My final immpression is that this is an effective way to clean a fleece if you have no soap. It does seem to stop the fleece felting and the wool is cardable and as soft as can be expected from a course fleece. The smell really put me off though. I think I will try washing a whole fleece with soap nuts again, but do the two day soak.
A new interest has floated into my mind over the usual holiday down time: lichen dye for wool. I have noticed that a lot of lichen grows on old fence posts beside the road. That started me thinking about what it is good for (as it turns out, quite a lot). I was driving home from a doctor appointment yesterday and began to notice the large amount of furry fence posts beside the road (much to the unease of the cars behind me, who must have been worried about my erratic steering and low speed), so I eventually pulled over and went to take some photos and collect samples to play with. I collected a couple of handfuls of lichen from a dead tree and took it home to play with.
After a fair amount of internet sleuthing, I found a likely candidate: Usnea. I also found some other lichens (that I left in place for now).
It seemed to be a natural progression to make this handful or two of squishy goodness into dye, so I found a YouTube video to show me how it is done and off I went…
I plonked the whole two handfuls in a pot with water and put it on to simmer for an hour or so. Some videos say it can be boiled, some say to not boil it, some say to boil it then cool and boil again, some say once is enough. I will just play it by ear and simmer until I get some colour, and if that doesn’t work, I will boil it.
Apparently this species of lichen is also really antibacterial and can be used to treat infections on the skin. I think I will also harvest some to dry and keep on hand in my herb collection.
Now I wait.
After about two hours of gentle simmering, I decided to try boiling as there wasn’t a lot of colour showing in the water.
After two boiling sessions the pot is showing an uninspiring yellow/brown. I can see some orange tones in it, but I don’t think I have enough lichen for the pot to make orange. I will see what my wool does.
Some sources say that wool needs to be mordanted and some say that mordant can actually interfere with the process. I am going with the no mordant camp for my first skein (mostly because I’m impatient to see what I get from the lichen). Usually the wool is soaked in water before being plonked into the dye bath, but I just put the skein in dry (due, again, to impatience).
I am heating up the dye bath again, to increase the dye uptake. I will leave the pot on the stove for an hour or so, then I will let it all cool down and see what we get.
The resulting beige colour is not that inspiring, but I can still see dye in the pot. I am going to dig out my iron mordant pot and see if adding iron to the pot will improve the colour a bit.
I have added 4 tablespoons full of the iron mordant. The colour has improved straight away. I will leave the yarn for another half hour then see what I get.
After rinsing the yarn and hanging it to dry, I have ended up with a really pretty orange/brown. I think that I will iron mordant a few more skeins and gather some more Usnea (a lot more). I can imagine a pair of socks knitted in this colour.
I learned today that Usnea species gives a brown/orange colour in dye, that iron mordant brings out the orange tones in this dye and that I have my father’s ability to drive while thinking about things (that is… no ability at all). I will continue to gather and experiment with lichens and fungus in the dye pot, but I had better spin some new yarn to play with before I get too carried away.
Recently we had the sheep shorn for the year. A lovely man from a local town came out and did the job for us; after the year we tried shearing them with kitchen scissors, we decided the money is well spent. He bought his own equipment and was quick and efficient, we will be using him again I think.
Eli came out of the experience looking sorry and thin. We have been trying to fatten him up a bit, but it appears his age and breeding mean that he needs a huge amount of feed to get any weight on him at all. The current cost of feed and the fact that we have to pay so much for it means that our ability to fatten him up is limited, but we will keep trying.
Eli’s fleece is lovely and long. He has quite a bit of crimp in the locks, but the wool isn’t particularly fine. There is also a lot of vegetation in the fleece (chaff and stray mostly), but I will have a go at spinning it, because I’m excited about using our own wool.
Even though processing some of Eli’s fleece cost me an extra bucket of water, I’m glad I tried it. It is a deeply satisfying experience to process your own fleece; especially when it is donated by a family member. I think I will try to spin enough to make a beanie for the people who raised Eli, they might like it as a keepsake.
Now I am wondering how Frieda’s fleece will process. This drought had better end soon; I need to wash a lot of fleece.
In all the rush and confusion around the start of the year I forgot to introduce our newest family member; Eli. We adopted him as a friend for Frieda, and our way of encouraging her to realise she is a sheep, not some kind of mish mash of human, dog and rabbit.
The full story;
Just before the end of the year (I can’t be precise here, I didn’t write down the date), I was walking past a group of Mums at school (the regular afternoon chat session, which I love to join, time permitting) when one of the lovely Mums called out to ask me if I wanted another sheep. I , of course, said yes (automatic response I’m afraid) then thought I should ask some pertinent questions. The back story was; a friend of this Mum had raised a lamb in the house (the same as Freida), he was a wether and had been a pet for her two year old son. She wanted to re-home him as he was being aggressive to the little boy. Sheep can become very pushy with those they see as below them in the social order. I thought twice about getting an aggressive sheep as they can be a big problem, but decided in the end to give him a go as we were desperate to find a friend for Freida since our old ewe Ma had sadly died from pneumonia. In order to get Freida to join the sheep herd, she first had to come to terms with the fact that she is a sheep.
I picked him up one day after work when the original Mum bought him to school in the back of her car. he was ensconced in a pile of hay in the back part of her four wheel drive with a collar and lead on. We woman handled him into the back of my car, a job which went very smoothly as he was eager to do whatever we wanted. His name was Eli and he was some kind of wool bearing sheep (i.e. not a shedding sheep or a hair sheep like the rest of my herd). He rode home in happy silence and jumped out of the car to meet Freida when she came barreling out of the humpy to see what was going on. They sniffed each other and got down to the business of finding grass to eat, they have been inseparable ever since. The house he came from was a very animal friendly one and it showed in his general nature.
Eli is polite and calm, he is as trusting as it is possible for a sheep to be and allows us to do anything with him (obviously having never been hurt). He has shown no aggressive tendencies here (probably because we have no two year old humans in the herd) and has bonded to Freida well.
He enjoys sitting in the sun, eating (anything really) and having his ears scratched. He has developed a real love of corn flakes (we give him a handful as a treat sometimes) and chaff.
Eli is a Dorset/merino cross, which means he has wool in some inconvenient places (like his belly and legs). He has been tail docked when he was a lamb, this procedure is essential in wool breed sheep as the underside of their tails are wool covered and, after a week or two, very poop covered. We will be getting him crutched (where the belly, legs and bottom bits are shorn on a roughly six monthly basis) as soon as we can get the shearer out here.
He has given us a huge amount of freedom as he has become Freida’s company and he will give me some beautiful fleece to spin as well. He has also given us the privilege of getting to know him.
I have been using soap nuts to wash our clothes for a while now. I am really happy with the results; it cleans the clothes, takes out the sweat smells without adding any other scent and removes most of the stains. I also don’t have to rinse, therefore saving 50% of the washing time and water. I wanted to transfer those benefits to washing/scouring fleece for spinning, so I went googling of course (when did ‘googling’ become a verb?). There was only one reference to using soap nuts to wash fleece (that I could find anyway); Sheep Cabana blog. The post says to use them in place of the usual squirt of detergent. Another adventure begins.
I have MANY bags of fleece to spin. I always seem to collect more than I can comfortably spin in a year, even though I promise myself I won’t get any more until I spin what I have. Recently I looked at Eli (Freida’s companion, and best friend now) and saw that he has a good long fleece, all ready for a spring shearing. He is a Merino/Dorset cross, which means his fleece is fairly strong with a good crimp, but it should be soft enough for socks and gloves.
Spring is only three months away, and with the spring comes usable fleeces from my sheep. I am setting myself a challenge; to clear some of the fleece piled in my craft room to make room for them. Usually, I wash, card and spin small, manageable lots. This time I’m trying my hand at bulk processing; I will wash a lot of fleece, then card or comb a lot of fleece, and finally spin, ply and wash a lot of yarn.
First, the washing;
Scouring fleece is a matter of simply making a fairly hot bath with detergent of some kind (in this case; soap nuts) and soaking the fleece in it. I use lingerie washing bags to hold my fleece because it makes fishing the soaked fleece out so much easier and I can just hang the whole bag on the line to dry. The trick is to avoid felting the fleece; I don’t agitate it at all, just push it under the water and I try not to change the temperature of the water quickly. This fleece took two soaks in the soap nut solution to come clean (it was a very greasy fleece), but it did come clean. After it is soaked, I throw the bags into the spinner of the washing machine and spin out the excess water. The bags are then hung on the line to dry.
The soap nut/fleece scouring experiment is a success. I can now wash piles of fleece using soap nuts and not have to feel guilty about releasing all that detergent into my environment. I would definitely recommend using soap nuts for washing clothes and/or fleece.
I have been spinning a lot lately (whenever there is time), mostly from a coloured merino fleece I picked up somewhere. The yarn is lovely and fine, but what to do with it all? So I decided to make some little knitting bags; the kind you can hang over your wrist and knit from, or stick your needles into and shove in your handbag when you realise the bus is pulling over at your stop (or is that just me?). I will spin the yarn, knit and full the bags then pop a ball of my yarn and some knitting needles into it and sell my ‘knitting starter kits’ at the markets (offering a free knitting lesson at point of purchase). I don’t know if anyone will take me up on it given the heat at the moment, but we will see.
My little bags don’t really have a pattern, it’s more of a knit-by-feel affair, but I will try to explain the process (with photos of course). First I find some spare homespun wool that I have been wanting to use for something and turn it into a neat little ball by putting it on my yarn swift and winding it off with the ball maker thing.
I then cast on some stitches, enough to make a decent square. For this bag I used 20 stitches and knitted a square base using garter stitch (knit every row). The square has to be big enough to fit a ball of wool on plus about 40% (to allow for shrinkage when fulling).
A knitted square. I just love this yarn; caramel alpaca plied with gold thread
I pick up stitches around the sides of the square, trying to pick up the same number as my cast on side. The number of stitches on each side is not really crucial to success, but it does make things neater and easier to finish.
I knit in rounds to make the sides until the bag is deep enough to hold a ball of wool, bearing in mind that fulling (or felting) makes the piece shrink, so adding about 40% to all measurements.
My bag is coming together
Now comes the tricky bit; handles. I have just discovered the Japanese knot bag design, and it suits the knitting bag design I have in mind. All I need to do is knit handles with one being shorter than the other…right?
This photo from the internet shows the design I mean
My little bag is a mini version of the one in the photo (knitted rather than cloth too), so the longer handle only needs to be long enough to loop around the wrist. I knit the handles by casting off until I reach a corner, knit some handle stitches (in this one I made them six stitches wide) then slip those stitches onto a stitch holder. Now I continue casting off until I reach the next corner. I do this all the way around until there are four sets of handle stitches (on stitch holders). Then I knit back and forward on one set of stitches using garter stitch until it is long enough to loop over to the handle stitch set beside it (that is the next set along tracing around the perimeter). I graft the handle onto the handle stitches using the three needle cast off. The other two handle stitch sets are done the same way but this handle is long enough to go over a wrist (plus 40%).
Now the knitted part of the bag is finished, it is time to full or felt it.
Fulling is easy; just throw the bag in the washing machine with some detergent (I use shampoo actually) and let it wash for a few minutes. Fibre felts at different rates, so the fulling process may be really fast (if I used Icelandic wool yarn), or it may be very slow (if I used Suffolk wool yarn), but it will felt (as long as the fibre is wool and is not super wash treated). Alpaca is a medium speed felter, so it took about 15 minutes.
The bags I have made so far in the washing machine ready to felt
The finished bbag with a ball of wool and needles inside, ready to go. As you can see the bag shrunk quite a bit.
So now it’s back to spinning more wool from that merino fleece.
For my next adventure into rare and/or old breed wool I decided to give Icelandic a spin (pun intended). I bought about 200g from a lovely lady on Facebook, it arrived as a neat little plait of combed roving with a picture and some breed information on the label. The skein smelled delightfully of sheep; warm, earthy and somehow mouth watering (the artist in this article had the same reaction to the smell of Icelandic wool).
The good old Vikings seem to have really loved their sheep and took them everywhere they went. It seems that once they landed in Iceland they had very little contact with the wider world (the sheep not the Vikings, they went on to conquer other countries and found more sheep breeds) and the breed has remained ‘unimproved’. The Icelandic is known as the oldest and ‘purest’ breed of sheep because cross breeding has been banned in Iceland for many generations, keeping the genetics the same as they have been for the past 1100 years (except for naturally occurring mutations of course).
The tops in my little plait is a mix of both inner and outer coat (or tog and thel if you prefer) making my yarn a lopi type yarn. Lopi yarn is made by blending both layers of Icelandic fleece together and lightly spinning them to produce a soft, airy but long wearing yarn. The yarn I produced is not particularly loose-spun, I tend to make firmly twisted yarns, but it did blend into a lovely uniform grey and is fairly soft.
I decided to card the tops again to blend the colours together a little more
The rolags are very springy and soft
Icelandic spins up into a hairy yarn. I did try to spin with less twist, but my instinct is to add more
I plyed my yarn loosely and ended up with a lovely soft grey yarn
I did discover that Icelandic wool felts very easily; I carried my plait of tops around with me to various locations while I was spinning and it seems that rubbing up against the plastic bag felted some bits of the outside. The felting carded out…thankfully, but it did remind me to be extra careful when washing my finished yarn.
I don’t know whether to sell my yarn on my stall or…
Sometimes happy accidents happen, and this is one of them.
I am currently completing the last two units of a Bachelor of Education (primary), these last two units are hard and require a lot of brain space. I usually spin, weave or knit in the evenings (after a long day at the computer) to relax and do something productive. So last week I decided to try a new plying method for making fingering weight yarn (plying is when you twist two strands together to make a stronger and thicker yarn). The usual method is to spin singles in a clockwise direction and then ply two together in an anticlockwise direction. My new method involved winding the singles into a centre pull ball and plying in the usual anticlockwise direction from both ends of it to make a two ply yarn.
This time I was distracted by thinking about my current assignment (teaching fractions) and plied the whole 100 g of singles in a clockwise direction (without even noticing; yes I was that distracted). The result was a really twisty yarn that could not be used for anything and looked sort of wrong. So I went looking for advice on the internet (as I always do) and found that other people have made the same mistake (unsurprising really) and decided they liked it better that way. This plying method is called Hawser ply and it is used to make super stretchy yarn for knitting cuffs on sleeves, socks and hats. The catch was that I had to make another 100 g of clockwise plyed yarn then ply them both together in an anti-clockwise direction.
Two balls of mistake yarn ready to ply up. You can see how twisty it is.
After I made my mistake yarn again (on purpose this time) I plied them together in the recommended anti-clockwise direction and got a very stretchy DK weight yarn. I can’t wait to knit something up with it now to see if it does make better cuffs.
Hawser yarn on the swift
The finished Hawser plyed yarn
I ended up with 200 g of Hawser ply yarn
It’s exciting to make mistakes and discover new things isn’t it. I think I will make more of this type of yarn in the future, just because I can. It has also got me interested in exploring different plying methods (there are so many) and getting a bit more variability into my yarns.
Oh and I did eventually get to making some fingering weight yarn.
My second attempt at fingering weight yarn; merino this time.
What is a yarn swift? Well…you know when you are watching a movie in the evening and decide to ball up some yarn for a new project you are just dying to knit? The inevitable problem is to get someone (partner, visitor, small child, family dog) to hold the skein while you ball up the yarn. Nobody wants to do it so you end up trying to ball from a skein hung over two chair legs or over your own feet (which is a bit like yoga) leading to knots and snarls (knots in the yarn, snarls on your face). A yarn swift is a mechanical helper who will hold the yarn steady for you whenever you like while you make cute little balls of knitting materials.
I guess my mostly absent partner got very tired of being met at the door by arm loads of skeins because he made me a swift.
First we did a bit of internet research to find the right design;