Making Friends with My Drop Spindle

I first learned how to spin using a drop spindle – one of the most ancient of fiber tools. A local hand dyer (Kristine from A Verb For Keeping Warm) taught me the basics at a trunk show she and her friends presented about 5 years ago. I fell in love with spinning. After creating finer and finer singles, I tried plying on the spindle. I fell out of love. Plying (ie. twisting two or more singles together to create a multi-ply yarn) on a spindle was too clumsy for me. I stopped spinning until I acquired a spinning wheel several years later. The Schact Hi-Lo spindle on which I first learned how to spin lay forgotten until January 2013.

English Shetland top on a Schact Hi-Lo Drop Spindle

Recently I found the need to pick the spindle up again in order to give a demo during a holiday knitting potluck. During practice, I fell back in love with the drop spindle. I managed to spin up a bunch of English Shetland top in a pale peachy-salmon color (a much lighter version of Spice Jar which I’ve blogged about before) which I will overdye to deepen the color.

Here is the unspun fiber:

Shetland Top in ‘Spice Jar Light’

Magically, within a few short weeks, it turned into this 4 oz. skein of 3-ply sock yarn:

3-Ply Fingering weight Shetland Wool Handspun on a drop spindle

What do I love about spindling? It’s so immediate. I can pick it up and spin for 5 minutes or an hour. Making coffee and waiting for the water to boil? Spin. Waiting for dinner to cook? Spin. Kinda bored and not sure what to do because you don’t have a lot of time on your hands? Spin on the spindle.

With wheel spinning, you go to the “spinning place” in your home, sit down, and spin for a period of time. Maybe your spinning place is a the corner of a room where the wheel is all set up. Maybe you have to pull out the wheel from where its hiding, set up your spinning chair, and spin. There is preparation involved – a ritual. You need to be sitting at the correct height. It’s location-specific. Sitting down to spin implies a commitment of time; if you’re going to all the trouble to make spinning preparations, you feel obligated to put in some quality spinning time – a half hour, an hour, an afternoon, whatever.

There is no commitment implied when spindling. You just grab the spindle and some fluff, either sit or stand where you are, and spin. Store your spindle & fiber in a small project bag and take it with you wherever you go. Keep it in the car. Standing in line? Spin. Going on a long walk? Spin. Sitting on a park bench enjoying the sunshine? Spin. Only have five minutes to spare? Spin!

Spindle spinning may seem slower than wheel spinning. Even so, all those little in-between times during the day in which you can pick up your spindle add up quickly. You’ll find that the spindle fills up more quickly than you’d expect.

How joyous is that?

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The Birth of a Cowl

Cowl using Plucky Knitter Traveler Yak/Merino/Silk blend

Normally I’m a disciplined knitter; I finish what I start before beginning a new project. Because I am currently suffering from multiple project idea disorder, I find it hard to stick to one project for very long. Case in point: 2/3 of the way through designing & knitting a vest for myself, I felt compelled to stop and design a cowl out of yarn that had been calling out to me from my stash. I was at a point where I had to stop knitting the vest in order to make decisions on how to handle the neckline. Cowls don’t have necks per se; just knit a cool tube! So I set aside the vest and designed and knitted my first cowl project in Plucky Knitter Traveler Sport, a sport weight yarn made of merino, yak and silk. The color is a lovely silvery grey called ‘Barely Birch’. Unfortunately I neglected to write out certain details of the pattern, so I had to knit up another cowl, this time taking careful notes and verifying the accuracy of the pattern. The second version is knit in Plucky Knitter Primo Sport, a sport weight blend of merino, cashmere and nylon. This  cowl is in a color called ‘Well Preserved’, a deep rich purple. I have yet to snap a photo of the second cowl.

Happily, the pattern is done and it was recently test-knitted by a dear friend. The next steps will be formatting the pattern, then photographing the cowl on a real person. If all goes well, this will be my first self-published pattern!

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Spinning for a Sweater, Part 2

English Shetland Top on the bobbin

For my Spinning For a Sweater Project, I chose English Shetland wool for my fiber. Why, when I could have chosen Merino or Blue Faced Leister, two of (possibly) the most widely spun (and knitted) wool fibers in the hand spinning world? As a spinner one cannot help but get curious about all the other breeds of sheep in existence, and how their unique characteristics can make for a unique spin. These differences also translate into unique knitting experiences as well as different end products. Merino sweaters tend to be luxuriously soft, drapey and delicate; they also have a tendency to pill easily. BFL garments wear better, are very soft but not as soft as Merino, and have a bit of a luster to them.

The Shetland sheep have called the Shetland Islands, an archipelago of a hundred-and-some islands off the northern tip of Britain, their home for more than a thousand years. As various breeds of sheep moved from south to north across the British Isles over the centuries, the gene pool of the Shetland sheep grew diverse. As a result, Shetland wool comes in a wide variety of colors and textures. Fleeces can either be extremely soft and fine with a well-defined crimp or they can be more coarse and less crimpy. Some claim that the softest Shetland wool ranks among the finest wool grown by any sheep breed in the British Isles. So fine, in fact, that a large lace shawl spun from the finest Shetland wool can be easily pulled through a wedding ring. To say that Shetland wool is scratchy is a gross generalization. Some Shetland wool is indeed coarse and scratchy; Shetland wool from other fleeces can be super soft. Yarn spun from the softer Shetland fleeces makes great sweaters that are lightweight, warm and sturdy.

Shetland is a wonderfully ‘wooly’ fiber and is great fun to spin. It loves to be spun in the woolen method but because I have combed top, I’m spinning it from the fold using a long draw. By the time I’ve completed this project I’ll (hopefully) be an expert at spinning from the fold! I’m much better at “short-forward draw”, which yields a smooth worsted-spun yarn, but it  has shortcomings. Short-forward draw uses more fiber (because the fiber is compressed during spinning) as well as it being a slowish process. By utilizing the long draw, I hope to maximize the yardage I get from 24 oz of fiber. It will also yield a lightweight yarn due to the air that gets trapped within the spun fibers. Finally, and most importantly, long draw is a relatively speedy spinning method: one experienced spinning expert claims that she spins up to 7 times faster using long draw vs. short forward draw.

Here I am holding the fiber while spinning from the fold. Unlike others, I prefer not to wrap the fiber over my index finger. This feels more natural:

Spinning From the Fold

Here is another view:

Another view

I’m enjoying spinning this Shetland top immensely. It feels lively, springy, and a little bit more toothy than Merino or BFL. I don’t expect the garment to be quite as soft but then again this will not be worn against the skin.

Next time: a 3 ply yarn emerges!

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How Knitted Wool Fabric Loves Water

Life is a bit crazy-busy right now which is why I haven’t been posting much. Hopefully I’ll be posting more in the near future!

I’ve been reading a lot of online messages lately asking the seemingly age-old question: “I’m knitting a [insert pattern name here] using [insert a popular wool yarn here] and the fabric is feeling really stiff. Will it soften up after I wet-block it?”

Based on 20-plus years of knitting garments, I can answer with  a categorical “YES” to the  question, regardless of the yarn, as long as it’s 100% wool (or close to it). The more synthetic fibers are blended with the wool, the less ‘wooly’ your yarn will behave. Wool loves to get wet. Fibers that have been twisted and put under tension during the knitting process will relax after a good dunking. When dry, some wools bloom, meaning the yarn puffs up a bit, changing the gauge. Sometimes the yarn develops a slight halo of very fine fuzz. In the case of Merino wools, they almost always develop a drape. This is even true of superwash wools, although changes in the before and after fabrics may be less pronounced. Your mileage may very depending on the breed of sheep, too. Sometimes, the wool doesn’t change a bit after a thorough wet-blocking – although I rarely find this to be the case.

A great case-in-point is Plucky Sweater, a terrific DK-weight yarn offered by indie-dyer The Plucky Knitter. This yarn is a 90% Merino wool / 10% nylon blend and in my experience, knits up a bit on the stiff side. This yarn has a tight twist and a ‘hard’ finish, meaning it’s not a fluffy, fuzzy yarn in the skein – it has a smooth almost cottony feel. After a simple dunk in lukewarm water, however, it transforms into a fabric I can only describe as ‘buttery.’ Not OMG-cashmere-soft mind you, but very lovely, smooth and soft. It also gains a nice drape not apparent pre-bath. In my experience, gauge did not change after blocking.

The lesson to be learned here? Whenever trying a new yarn, and especially when substituting in a pattern that requires something different, MAKE A SWATCH and give it a bath. Even if you don’t bother measuring the gauge (but you should, mind you), blocking your swatch will give you a heads up on how your eventual project will turn out.

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Rug Making – The Coolest Video EVER for fiber lovers

I stumbled upon this video moments ago, courtesy of Fab.com, my new favorite shopping site. They are currently having a sale of rugs by nanimarquina, a contemporary area rug manufacturer based in Barcelona, Spain. Their rugs are designed by talented people in their offices and then hand made in India and other neighboring countries. One of their goals is to reinvent the rug trade by eliminating child labor. Anyone who is enamored with fiber will find this video fascinating and inspiring. Near the end of the video is a shot of designers playing with tiny bundles of wool in hundreds of colors – it makes me salivate. When it came to rugs, I never really knew what “hand-tufted” or “hand-knotted” meant – until now that is. Enjoy.

ps: I highly recommend clicking the ‘full screen’ icon in the lower right corner of the video; the footage of India is quite beautiful to watch.

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Spinning for a Sweater, Part 1

English Shetland Top (Spinning Fiber)
Color: Spice Jar
Source: Meat Sheep Industries

A little while ago I embarked on a major new project: spinning for a sweater (which means spinning a large amount of yarn for a sweater), designing the garment, writing the pattern, and knitting the sweater for myself to wear. I may also decide to publish the pattern. For many, spinning for a sweater is a spinner’s ultimate accomplishment. Spinning for a small project such as a hat or scarf is very doable for most spinners. Spinning for a sweater (requiring upwards of 16 or more ounces), however, requires maintaining a consistent thickness in your singles over a long period of time – days, weeks, months, or more! This is not always an easy task.

Earlier in the year I purchased 24 oz of English Shetland top (“top” is a type of fiber preparation) from Meat Sheep Industries’ Etsy shop. The colorway is called “Spice Jar”,  a simply delicious blend of coppery oranges, golds and bronze. In theory, 24 oz should be enough for a garment of some kind (based on the fact I’m 6′ 5″ tall and have a 46″ chest). Whether I end up with a vest or a sweater remains to be seen. The fiber comes cleverly packaged as if it came from an old-fashioned grocery store or meat market. Meat Sheep Industries is the creation of Joan McGuire, whose successful Cupcake Fiber Company provides spinners with exquisitely packaged fiber batts ready to be spun up into socks, shawls, and other small projects. Joan’s desire to provide spinners with large quantities of fiber, dyed in the same batch, at a reasonable price led to her opening a second Etsy shop in the spring of 2012.

Next time I’ll discuss my choice of English Shetland wool and the spinning techniques I’m using for this project. Stay tuned…

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Knitting By The Sea

Starting a new project while enjoying the Pacific Ocean

A couple of weeks ago, on a fine warm Sunday afternoon, I found myself wandering along a scenic trail in the Marin Headlands, just a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I spend a lot of time in this national park (technically it’s a National Recreation Area). Close to the city, it feels like you’re hundreds of miles from civilization. Abandoned military bunkers dot the area, and on this day I found a perfect spot to perch on the “roof” of a bunker. Since these structures are dug into the ground, the roof is actually at ground level.

It was an unusually warm day at the ocean with only a slight breeze. I sat down cross-legged on the concrete roof, feeling a little like one of the native lizards sunning itself on the warm surface. I pulled out my knitting and spent hours working on a new project while listening to the ocean waves crashing onto the rocks below. As the sun fell lower in the sky and evening approached, I found it very hard to leave and make the 45 minute drive home. I’m tremendously grateful I live so close to such a wonderful place. Sun, ocean and knitting – what’s not to love?

PS: Pictured with my knitting is a Large Yarn Pop project bag. I discovered these wonderful project bags at Stitches West this past February and currently own three. They are of the highest quality fabric, lined, and feature a heavy-duty zipper that does NOT snag your yarn. Highly recommended. Check them out here: Yarn Pop.

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