Everything is designed and created here in Scotland, all the way from the sheep to the finished product. I buy my fleeces from good farmers in Scotland and all over the UK. Mostly from British Rare Breeds with the exception of a few sheep and some other fibre animals living in Britain. I’m very passionate about keeping our heritage, and our rare breeds alive.
First I start with a nice fleece from one of the many gorgeous sheep available to us. I do all my sorting and grading outside, as there are usually some bugs or moths and a pretty strong smell when you open the bag.
I happen to love the sheep smell, but it can be an acquired scent. It is best if you have a large slatted table as it helps the dirt and 2nd cuts to fall through, but any large table (I use 2) will do.
If your fleece is rolled properly it should roll out with the staple-tips facing up at you. Some fleeces especially from lambs can have a really slack fleece and more individual locks, so it makes it a lot harder for the farmer to roll it properly (more on this later**).
Skirting the fleece – Part’s that tend to need skirting are by the back legs and around the tail area (for obvious reasons). If it’s a good fleece you won’t have to skirt much, as long as you remove the bits that are matted with poo(polite term us spinners use is Vegetable Matter) or felted (keep the skirt and use it in your garden as a weed suppressant and fertilizer).
Sorting and Grading –
To sort your fleece properly you have to be able to unroll it nice and flat then identify where the neck or the bottom is (hint: the bottom is where you will find the bits of poo)… Next remove any vegetation like twigs, seeds and bugs. It is best to get them out at this stage as they tend to spread a bit when washed.
I like to turn it over too at this stage, to view the cut side so I can remove any of the 2nd cuts that haven’t already fallen out, because if left they will get carded and make little bobbles that you will have to keep stopping and picking off while you are trying to spin your nice smooth yarn, and that can make your spinning less enjoyable. Once that’s done it’s on to the grading.
I know spinners who grade into four parts (which I think is impossible & unnecessary) & spinners that don’t grade at all (which is fine if all you’re making are rugs). If you want to make a nice sweater or any kind of clothing really, there is a big chance it will show because when you knit it up, you will be using soft and coarse wool in different areas and will end up looking uneven. You will also feel the difference when you wear it next to your skin.
I sort it into two with grade 1- being the softer wool around the shoulders and down to the hip and grade 2- wool found around the britch, rump & haunches as all other wool has already been skirted. Sometimes the neck can be nice, but does tend to get quite dirty. I put them into separate bags and label each of them ie: Shetland Shearling 2014 – Grade 1 – From “cute lamb farm” – email/Tel – price – repeat buy?
If you have received one of those fleeces that ends up in a heap of locks, just set aside a space for your grade 1 + 2 sit at the table and just feel some locks and have a good look at them. After a while you will realize that there’s a difference in the way some of them feel and look, it’s just a matter of getting used to it. Then go through the locks a bit at a time putting the softer stuff to one side and the coarser stuff to the other. The coarser stuff doesn’t usually have as much of a crimp in the staple and can be a bit duller in colour.
Washing – Some people prefer to spin “in the grease” (unwashed fleece) but I don’t think it shows the wool at its best. It’s dirty, plus over time can damage your equipment and can give really uneven results when dyeing. Unwashed fleece is usually what attracts the moths too. Most people will tell you that you have to wash a fleece by hand – the odd one will say if you’re very careful you could wash it in an American style top loader BUT never in a front loader. It is simply not true – however different models/brands of machine react differently. 9 times out of 10 mines go in the machine, but always-always-always try a small handful of every fleece first!! Even if you have washed say a Shetland fleece before, it does not mean that it will be the same this time even if it’s from the same sheep! They can differ from year to year.
I always try a sample at a 400 wool wash and if that doesn’t work, then I try it at a 300 wool wash. The hotter it can take it the better as that helps to break down the sweat and lanolin, but I find 300 enough for most fleece. Do NOT try and cut corners by putting a whole fleece in there at once because it will felt even at 300 heat, as it will be packed so tightly with the weight when wet that the lanolin will just stick together. I use large laundry net bags and depending on the size of the fleece I split that into about 4 separate washes.
I always try and put the fleece into the laundry bag so it is all lying in the same direction ie: staples facing up to you so it doesn’t get stuck together. Remember because you are giving it room to breathe in there, you can go and do your carding or spinning until the wash is finished, which is really productive. Another good thing is that it gets a good spin so it dries real quick too.
Drying – I like to place them on a laundry dryer as they have slats and nets on them, you can do this indoors or out just make sure it’s not too breezy as it will end up all over your garden. When dry I stuff it into a 5ltr hard plastic airtight bucket, if you stand on it at the time and get most of the air out, you can fit 3 fleeces in there and then pop in some moth repellent balls just to be on the safe side. Take a lock and stick it to the front with a label.
Carding & Combing – It’s now that I like to think about what I’m going to make from it.
If my fleece has short staples then I would probably be carding(it’s a Drum carder I use) it as combs don’t really work on fibre’s that are really short, longer staples can be combed or carded, but tend to be combed.
The reason for thinking about the project at this stage is because you can get very different results. Depending on your fleece and what you are going to use it for, you might have to put it through the carder/combs 2 or 3 times.
Spinning & Plying – To outline the basics briefly: when carding fleece you get a puffy bouncy yarn with lots of air which makes it warm and soft, so good for sweaters – this technique is called woolen style spinning: when combing fleece locks everything gets aligned in the same direction and when spun gives you a strong smooth resilient yarn that would show the stitch definition and be hard wearing – this technique is called worsted style spinning.
There are many variations on both these techniques which will help me get the product I want. Depending on what I have decided to make from this fleece I would consider plying it, once or twice is usually enough for me and that would give me a 2 or 3 ply yarn. I will then wash my yarn and hang it up to set the twist before knitting or crocheting with it.
Dyeing – Can be done at any stage after it’s been washed, with carded batts, combed tops or when spun into yarn. I do not have a favourite dyeing technique but I do enjoy spinning in colour. All of these stages will give you a different technique and end result.
When I dye my fibre in Batt form I like to tear them into different size strips and muddle them all about and then spin in that order, you can get some really funky results with a nice self striping yarn.
I have used Hand – Dylon dyes for yarn which gave some really nice results, and very easy to use, but most of the time I use all-in-one acid dyes and mix them to get my own unique colours. I usually do this in my big aluminium dye pot for larger amounts and I do a lot of the smaller stuff in a microwave (not the same one I use for food!).
Pattern making – With my yarn spun, plied and washed it’s time to knit up my swatch sample which I tend to make around 6inches square, this helps me work out my pattern and draw my schematics for the design I’m going to use.
I tend to design when and where ever the urge takes me, so I may end up with a few designs lined up and waiting on the right yarn.
Once the knitting or crocheting is finished it needs to be washed and blocked which helps the fabric look its best. Next I sew up any linings, attach labels and then take a photograph.
It’s a long process but one I enjoy immensely, especially when you see the end result and know that you did all that.