Saturday, November 1, 2008

A little tight

I have been spinning for about a year now. It all started with a drop spindle. There was a woodworker at the farmer's market who made all kinds of wooden bracelets and tops and things. One day, I asked if he ever made spindles. He said he didn't, but he could. So, he made me one.

We had kittens in the house, and drop spindling with a kitten is as dangerous as it sounds. The kittens love it, let me tell you, but it's not so good for the fiber. I spun a little, but not very much. Progress is slow on a drop spindle, and I'm not entirely sure the one I have is balanced/weighted quite right. It was his first spindle, after all.

So, I didn't do a lot of spinning for a while. But it was in the back of my mind. And then there was a wheel on Craig's list. For cheap. We went and looked. We bought. As we were leaving, it became apparent that the wheel was disconnected from the footman (the footman is the little piece of wood that connects the wheel to the treadle and makes it spin). Not a good sign, but Branden thought he could fix it.

The wheel is an old one, and was shipped in pieces from New Zealand and assembled upon arrival. Whoever assembled it glued it a little bit crooked (either that, or a long time in storage caused it to torque a little bit). So the wheel wasn't exactly on straight, and that put stress on the bearings that let it spin around. Branden made an adaptor to fix the spot where the wood had been broken, and realigned it as well as he could without taking it apart and reglueing.

So, now I had a spinning wheel. It wobbled a little bit, and it rubbed sometimes because the wheel isn't centered, but it worked well enough to learn on, anyway.

Of course, having a spinning wheel meant that I needed fiber. I bought some combed top at a local store and spent an afternoon learning how to spin. (On merino, no less...) The yarn came out lumpy and bumpy, with sections that were overtwisted and sections that were undertwisted. Slubby doesn't begin to describe it. But, it was yarn.

So I knit it up. I'd apparently overplied, so there is quite a bit of bias, and it's a very thick, very short scarf. But, with a nice button to keep it wrapped around my neck, it would make a great neckwarmer. The bias makes a nice angled edge that helps it look intentional.

Artemis wasn't too thrilled when I asked her to model it, but it's about the right length for her.

But spinning store-bought fiber was somewhat expensive, and I wanted something that I could practice on without worrying about wasting it. I am also an inveterate process person, and wanted to see the whole sheep-to-yarn process. We returned to Craig's list and found a farmer with some sheep advertising that he had wool for spinning. At $2 a pound.

We went up to the farm, and picked up a fleece. It was dirty, but it seemed to make sense that it would be, having just come off of a sheep. I asked the farmer how he sold his wool so cheaply, and he explained that he hired his sheep out to graze people's fields, and so the wool wasn't his money maker.

Think about that for a second. A big, fluffy ball of wool with legs is sent out to eat grass in an abandoned field that needs to be cleared. A field full of weeds. And burrs. And bugs.

To say the fleece was dirty is an understatement. The farmer didn't skirt it, so it was especially dirty around the edges. But, after about 7 bathtubs full of water and a weekend of smelly bathroom, it was finally clean enough to use.

I carded up the wool, and began my practicing. Romney is a great wool to learn on, even if it comes from a dirty sheep. But this particular dirty sheep had an extremely coarse coat. I don't mind itchy wool, but this is not something I'd ever wear or knit with. It's also permanently sweat stained. (It provides me with a deep and abiding temptation to borrow a loom, though, because it would make a great rug if properly dyed and woven...)

By the end of the useable part of this fleece, my yarn was getting better, though it was still a little off-balance. More importantly, it was close enough to real yarn that I could return to softer and more expensive fibers.

A month or so ago, I spun up some natural colored Coopworth, which I absolutely love. It seemed a little overplied to me when I first spun it, but I took it off the bobbins today, and it is showing no signs of being off-balance. Swatching will tell, I suppose. But isn't it pretty?

It's not perfect, but I like it. I was having real trouble getting the yarn to come out even, and my thickness seemed to be stuck somewhere around worsted. I decided to take a spinning class. I know that some of you may be thinking that this would have been a good place to start, but that would make the learning process far too easy. I much prefer to give something a try, figure out what I'm having trouble with, and then take a class to fill in the gaps. This is often not the most efficient way to learn, but it makes for all kinds of adventures. (Note to self: dirty sheep wool is an adventure best had only once, and is one that should be followed by copious amounts of soap...)

This morning, I took my first spinning class. I used a shop wheel rather than my own, as mine tends to make ominous clunking noises and I thought it might be better if I didn't distract my classmates with the thu-thunk of my wheel spinning.

I was taking the class to work on spinning a uniform thread. I sat down, and all of my problems with unevenness went away. Before the teacher even showed me what was wrong. This was a bit odd...if it's me (and not the wheel), then I should have had the problem regardless of what wheel I used. I was even using a natural white Coopworth fiber, the exact same kind that I used on my last batch of yarn, so it wasn't the roving.

Turns out that I had the tension set a little high on my wheel. I played around with it a lot when I first started spinning, but I'd found what I thought was a good tension, and haven't changed it since. The teacher sets her tension a little lighter, and voila! I can suddenly spin an even thread. And, I can even spin a fine thread.

I also got to try out Scotch tension (my wheel is set up as a double drive band, though it does both). The two methods don't seem all that different to me, but boy, does tension matter!
These look almost like singles for real yarn, don't they?

The white ones were done in class, and the dark brown was done on my wheel at home. As with so many things in life, it appears that spinning works better if you loosen up a bit.