Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nothing Like a Dame

In cogitating about what kind of a sweater to knit from my handspun Coopworth, one thing has been troubling me. I've been picturing a sweater with wide bands of color from darkest at the bottom edge to lightest at the neck. There's a nice flow from the dark brown to the dark taupe to the tan, but then a big abrupt jump to the creamy white. I was worried that the contrast would be too jarring.

I pondered it a while in the back of my mind, thinking maybe I would have to reserve the white to use somehow as an accent, instead of as part of the flow. But then one day in a local yarn shop, I spotted some Coopworth fiber in light gray, a color that I hadn't seen before. It's actually kind of salt-and-peppery, if you look closely. Maybe it's from some silver-haired dame of a ewe, who'd once been a darker color but had gone gracefully gray. Hmmm, thought I, this could come in handy. I'd better grab it.

In fact, it might be just what I need to ease the sudden jump between colors. I wasn't sure, since the others are in the brown family, and this is gray. But when I held them together, it looked as if it just might work.

I spun some up to see how it would look. It felt a little coarser than the other colors, further evidence, perhaps, that this is from an older sheep.

I think I also spun it slightly more loosely. But the texture difference isn't too pronounced. The yarns are enough alike to be sympathetic.

When I hold these five colors together, they make a calmer transition. With the gray added, they seem much more comfortable together. Who would have thought?

I can imagine this now in a sweater of graduated colors. While I'm figuring out exactly what that sweater will look like, Rastro and I will spin some more of the gray, so I'll have equal amounts of each color.

So I think I have my answer. There's nothing like a dame.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring in Her Step

There are signs of spring all over. The sun is shining, and the bare trees are showing a faint haze of color before bursting into bud. The redbud trees are the rusty red that, oddly, presages the magnificent purply pink of their blossoms. The birds are singing loudly, shouting their delight.

And, while the yarnstruck nephews and niecey are off on a short vacation, we have a very welcome family member visiting, who clearly knows how to enjoy the bright spring weather. It's wonderful to have a dog around the house for a while, something we very much miss.

Now that I've finished cleaning and carding my little Jacob sheep fleece, I've put it aside to spin later. It's time to knit again.

On the knitting front, next on the agenda is a sweater from the Coopworth wool I spun a while ago. This is something I look forward to with both excitement and a hint of trepidation, since I have yet to knit anything from my own handspun. Of course there's nothing to worry about, it's just that slight hesitation you might feel before you do a cannonball into the swimming pool.

The challenge is really in coming up with the right design for the handspun. My guess is that it's roughly a doubleknitting weight; I'll have to try measuring wraps per inch and swatching a little to be sure. Of course, since it's beginner handspun, the gauge may vary. So the design will have to be something forgiving. And I don't have a large amount of any one or two colors; what I actually have is roughly equal amounts of several natural sheep colors ranging from dark brown to a creamy off-white. So what's a good way to use it? I'm not leaning toward an overall stranded design. I would like to let the handspun texture stand out a little more, rather than emphasize a lot of pattern. But I'd like something a little fancier than a perfectly plain striped stockinette sweater. I'm toying with some ideas for wide stripes with a cable motif repeated in each band.

The Coopworth colors I have to work with are actually rather like the colors of the Jacob fleece I've just been preparing. I suppose it's not that surprising, since both are natural sheep colors, that's they're in pretty much the same range. But in the Coopworth, each color comes from a different individual, whereas in the Jacob, they're all on the same sheep!

The biggest danger threatening this sweater right now is the spring weather. After a short trip the last couple of days to someplace that's getting a lot of dreary rain, the sunshine is downright infectious. If this keeps up, I may start feeling strange urges to knit brightly colored cotton tank tops. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that.

But I'm eager to see what this handspun can become, and I don't want to wait all the way until next fall. Oh, be strong! (And knit quickly!)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Oh Frabjous Day!

"Calloo, Callay!" she chortled in her joy.

Snicker-snack. We've made short work of my little Jacob fleece, the Frumious Bandersnatch and I. Here it is, my new Strauch Petite drum-carder, with its big teeth that clack. It was a thrilling Christmas present from world's-most- patient-husband, which I'd been itching to put through its paces. (But it wasn't the only thrilling fiber-related Christmas present, more on which another day!)

We began once the scoured fleece was clean and dry.

I decided to sort the wool to enjoy the separate colors rather than let them blend into a single mid-range tone.

I got to work, gingerly at first, loosening up the locks of wool with my fingers, picking out bits of straw and weeds as best I could, and laying the locks on the intake tray to be picked up by the toothy rotating drums and carded into batts of fiber. I learned as I went. Peeling the rectangle of carded wool off the drum, I would primp it and put it through again until it seemed reasonably smooth and well blended. When the first few batts were done, and drawn out and wound up into balls of roving ready for spinning, I was ready to burst with excitement.

As I got a little more practice, I noticed the lumps and little matted ends of the locks were taking several runs to untangle, and quite a bit of loose short fiber was collecting on the surface. Some locks had an awful lot of dried vegetable matter that was hard to pick out. Naively, I hoped that what I couldn't get out with my fingers would fall out on its own as the drum's teeth combed through it. Some did fall out, but more actually got broken up and distributed efficiently through the batt as I cranked.

It was time for some research on-line. I found that experienced carders recommend teasing as the best way to get the dry grassy bits out. Teasing, as they meant it, was more than just opening the locks of wool by hand as I had been doing. I needed a secret weapon.

This. A dog brush, a relic of my dearly loved fellows who have been gone for a while, though they lived to a ripe old age. I don't think they would mind. They'd have been very curious about all this wool and the creature it came from, and would have given it all a good sniffing over. Oh, I do miss them.

But the dog brush worked wonders. In a process called flick carding, it took out all the tangles and mats, sorted out the too-short fibers, and swept out the vegetable matter. The locks were so beautifully brushed and fanned out, once I'd been after them with the dog brush, that I half wondered at the necessity to run them through the drum-carder at all. But of course the drum-carder blends the colors beautifully, which vary significantly even within the separated colors, from one little lock to another, and from base to sun-bleached tip. And the rovings that result from drum-carding are the form I want for spinning, rather than individual locks, lovely as they are.

So, my later balls of roving were much slower to produce, but cleaner and more finely prepared than the earlier ones. Once I had worked out what it really took to prepare each bit for the carder, the pile of raw wool seemed to loom taller than ever. But I chipped away at it day by day, and now... victory!

I did lose quite a bit of weight in the processing (or rather, I didn't, but the fleece did). I started with 1.6 pounds and ended up with just over 1/2 pound. Some of this was the lanolin that washed out, and the weedy bits that I labored so hard to remove. Some of it was little tangles from the sheep just going about the business of being a sheep, getting rained on, drying in the sun, maybe getting stuck in a thicket, or scratching his itchy back up against a tree or fence-post. But there also seemed to be a surprising number of those unusable short clumps of fibers called second cuts, resulting from a certain, shall we say, insouciance in the shearing. Novice that I am, though, I'm sure a lot of the loss was due to inexperience, and I'll do better next time!

But now I have 1/2 pound of wool in three beautiful colors from one little sheep, lovingly prepared for spinning by yours truly. I'm so proud of it!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sweet 16 and Never Been Tagged

...but passing along only adulation.

Yesterday, for the first time, I was touched by one of the "memes" that travel around the knitting blogs. What fun! I begin to feel more and more part of the community.

For anyone who hasn't heard of memes, they're sort of like playing tag and a party ice-breaker all at once. Someone tags you and you're "it." You follow the instructions yourself, post them on your page, and pass on the tag to the next few "its". This one came from Beate of Cloudberry Knit, who tagged me with one that calls for each person to tell six unimportant things about her/himself and then tag six more blogs.

I don't know many people that well in blog-land, though, and am not really comfortable tagging the ones I read. I went to Beate's site, was entertained by her six things, and thought about what to do. My problem may be solved, though, as the post seems to have disappeared. I'll take that as license to abandon the rules and make up my own!

Here are my rules:
-- I'll tell six unimportant things about myself.
-- And then I'll list six blogs I enjoy and say why.
-- If I can muster enough boldness, I'll leave comments there to tell them I've done it. (If any of them should chance to visit here, they need feel no pressure to play along. I'm just a fan!)

So here are six silly and random unimportant things about me.

1. I must love cookie cutters, as I seem to have a drawerful. One of my favorites is an antique one of a pig. And yet, when I make cookies, they're almost never the type you roll and cut out. Maybe that proves it's the cookie cutters, not the cookies, that I'm after.

2. I like to bring back tea towels from the countries I visit. I used to kid myself that I was doing it for gifts, but it was too hard to give them up, so now I know better!

3. When I was growing up, for one class at school we had to choose between home economics and chorus. I went with home ec. I love to sing, but at that age I was too shy. So I sewed a poncho, diapered a baby (doll), and baked a cream-puff.

4. While we're on the subject of school, back then I hated U.S. history, a class we were required to take. But now I'm fascinated, and seem to keep bringing home books about it.

5. I'm often sad when a movie is made from one of my favorite books; they usually don't match up to the picture my imagination paints. I don't plan to go see "Horton Hears a Who." I'd rather remember sweet, sincere Horton instead of wise-cracking Jim Carrey.

6. I think animals with black fur are rare and beautiful. I love black dogs, and I'm excited when I spot a black squirrel.

And here are six blogs that I truly enjoy.

Stash, Knit, Repeat Amy is a lovely person who helped welcome me into this world of blogging and posts beautifully knit projects, beautifully photographed.

Like The Queen Bess is a fellow Virginian who sometimes writes of places I know, a beautiful knitter and spinner of wool, a teller of tales, a lover of dogs and nature, and a generous spirit who lays bare her creative process.

Zeneedle Margene knits and spins lots of pretty things, leads me to many other interesting knitters, patterns, and vendors, and has a positive outlook that never fails to have me leave her site in a happy mood.

Spinning Spider Jenny Jenny posts some of the best tutorial information about spinning that I've seen anywhere, book or blog.

Soapbox Noricum combs Flickr and finds the quirkiest objects, sometimes ingenious and sometimes beautiful examples of crafts.

Cloudberry Knit (I'm making up the rules here, so I can point back to Beate if I want to. Ha!) I love Beate's exuberance, her energy, the knitted projects and other pretty things she shows us, and the glimpses of Norwegian and Danish traditions that she shares.

And here's one more, though I fear it's not active any more:

Fair Isle Fibres Fair Isle Faerie has offered a window into the life of a crofter (small-holding farmer) on Fair Isle in the windswept farthest reaches of Scotland. Sadly, her blog has gone quiet for a couple of months. I hope she'll continue one day.

I've never met any of these people, but what riches their writings have brought me!

Monday, March 10, 2008

...And Make it Snappy!

Oh, wait, it's already done? Well, that was quick.

Yes, the Comfy Winter Turtleneck is finished. It's based on a pattern from Knitting Simple Sweaters from Luxurious Yarns, by Marilyn Saitz Cohen, and knit in Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Superchunky, on US size 11 (8mm) needles.

As usual, however, I made a few changes. The original pattern was for an oversized, stockinette-stitch turtleneck. For starters, I often don't look my best in a big, loose sweater, so I knit it one size smaller, for a more fitted look. Even so, with only 750 meters of yarn on hand, it was going to be touch and go.

The limited yarn quantity also inspired me to change the neckline from the original big fold-over turtleneck to a more streamlined mock turtleneck.

The cable and rib pattern I added down the front, though? That was just for fun. :) I'm really pleased with the way it came out. I think the proportions are just right.

The whole thing went ridiculously quickly. It really only took a little over two weeks. And that's in spite of the usual quotient of minor misadventures and re-knitting. I started it about a week before the end of February, got the second sleeve done on Saturday, and devoted yesterday to the neck and finishing.

I'm always surprised by how many loose ends there are to darn in. In a solid-colored sweater with only 10 skeins of yarn, even with two ends to each skein, you wouldn't think there would be all that many ends. But then there were a few skeins with knots that had to be cut out, so that made a few more. And each strand of yarn used for seaming? Two more ends.

Even when I got up this morning and donned the sweater to wear to work, what did I see peeking out? One more little end. I think these things breed in the dark. But I just got after it with my darning needle, and wear it I did.

I'm very happy with this sweater. It looks quite nice on, trim and attractive, especially considering the bulky yarn! It's stretchy and comfortable. The mock turtleneck really came out as more of an overgrown crewneck. When I found I actually had a liiiiitttle bit of yarn left over, I did think about picking out the cast-off edge to knit on another inch or so. But I decided against that; it looks relaxed and wearable as it is. I think it will layer well with other raised necklines or look good on its own.

I'm not so sure I'll use the Cashmerino yarn again. The color is beautiful and rich (closer to how it looks in this photo), and the yarn has a lovely feel to the touch. But it's heavy. Not just heavy, HEA-VY. The sweater weighs over two pounds. The weight of the yarn works fine with this pattern, but would give some designs a tendency to droop. And as I've seen some others mention before, it's starting to fuzz up almost immediately. I've worn it just once and have already found a pill or two where it rubs under the arms. We'll just call it bloom, shall we, and hope that picking off the odd pill now and then will keep it looking neat.

But on the whole, this is a sweater I'm enjoying already. Dressed up or dressed down, I'll be wearing it a lot, as long as the cool weather holds out. And it's certainly served its purpose of being a palate cleanser of scrumptious color between projects in natural sheep-y beiges and browns.

Just think of it as a delicious little spoonful of sherbet.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Five Things I Learned from a Fleece

Last fall at the Fall Fiber Festival in Montpelier, Virginia, I bought my first raw fleece. For a new spinner, it had begun to seem irresistible to take some wool essentially just as it falls from the sheep's back during shearing, and take it all the way through cleaning, and carding, and spinning. I could knit something I had carried from beginning to finished product.

Looking through the bags of wool in the fleece sale, I had no particular idea what to look for. Each different type looked like a wonderful adventure. The one I chose was from a Jacob sheep, from a local Virginia shepherd. These sheep are immensely appealing little fellows, both because they have parti-colored black-and-white coats, like a spotted dog, and because some of the rams are graced with rather strange-looking double horns.

Aside from admiring the breed itself, I was attracted to the chance to work with wool in more than one color and to the small quantity in this particular bag. It's only 1.6 pounds, which certainly isn't a whole fleece. But it was perfectly adequate to my purpose of just getting my feet wet at working with raw fiber. And isn't it beautiful?

Jacob fleece can be handled different ways for different color effects, blended thoroughly to make a heathery gray, or made into a sort of spotty ragg wool effect with different colors plied together, or the colors entirely separated to make different solid-colored yarns.

A week or two ago, I decided to jump in and have a go at the first step in the process: scouring the fleece, which means giving it a thorough washing to remove the lanolin and dirt. I had read about it in various spinning books and on-line. Once again, all I can say is all that book learning doesn't hold a candle to the experience of working with the real thing. There is nothing like trying it for yourself.

That little Jacob fleece has taught me quite a lot.

1. People who process wool for spinning really earn their pay. This is hard, time-consuming work. It's not particularly expensive to buy prepared rovings. To do this oneself, one needs to have a conscious reason. For this first try, learning what it's like was reason enough for me. After that, it might be for the satisfaction and self-sufficiency of creating things from the sheep forward. It might be to know what animal one's sweater has come from. It might be to be able to choose the perfect type of fleece for a particular purpose. It might be to have the control to prepare the wool in a specific way for the desired spinning result. But there ought to be a reason.

2. The life of a happy sheep is a life of plenty of dirt. Twigs. Weeds. Burrs. Ladybugs. Even, I fear, the occasional dingleberry (though in fairness, it may have been a food pellet). Playing with a fleece is a dirty business. Just trying to separate big wads of it for washing resulted in a lot of fallen debris. That may be a job best done in warm weather, outdoors.

3. There are a couple of things that make it easier to get it clean. It takes soaking in lots of hot soapy water to dissolve the lanolin and get the dirt out. But not necessarily the hotter the better. If the water is so hot you can't even handle the wool to squeeze out the water between soakings, then some very dirty water stays right in the wool, wash after wash. Mesh laundry bags make excellent containers to keep the wool organized and allow the water to run through. Zippered pillow-covers do not. They're too watertight, and the filthy water won't run out. Wash after wash. After a couple of rounds with a motley assemblage of mesh bags and pillow covers, I went to the store for more mesh bags. It was worth it. I think in the end, I washed the wool six or seven times in hot, hot soapy water, and another three or four times in clear rinse-water.

4. It's a smelly job. I'd seen people refer to raw fleece as smelly, and I didn't understand what the fuss was about. I could bury my nose in my lovely bag of unwashed fleece, and it had a pleasant mild animal smell, nothing at all to complain of. But when it's hot from the soaking water, ahh, that's a different story. It's a bit aromatic and gamy. Thankfully, once the wool is clean and dry, it smells sweet again.

5. I really don't know much about fleece. Are those stains, or just natural coloration? What makes a good fleece? Are those areas matted, or are those tight bundles just the normal structure? Has the fleece been skirted (messy wool removed from the edges)? I don't know what that looks like. I learned to recognize second cuts (too-short tufts of wool caused by the shearer's clippers running over the same spot a second time); how many are normal? How much can I handle the wet fleece without felting it?

But now I know a little more than I did before. I'll learn a little more yet with each time I try it. And it feels immensely satisfying to see the nice clean locks of wool spread out to dry, and to know that I can do this, and that I'll be making something with one little sheep's coat that I cleaned and prepared myself.

There's a lot of happiness in that. Reason enough.