Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Handspun Gift

I've come a long way from my earliest tentative days of fashioning wiry, scratchy, overtwisted yarn (albeit with a great sense of excitement!) My spinning has come along to the point that I feel comfortable enough to give something made of my hand-spun yarn, at least to an indulgent and tolerant family member.

At the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival this fall, among other treasures, I picked up this little ball of hand-dyed Romney roving from Catoctin Creek Farm, near Frederick, Maryland. (I have to think kindly of people who care enough about a humble ball of roving to tie it up with a satin ribbon.) I hadn't spun wool from Romney sheep before, and the colors seemed bright and kid-friendly. I thought it would be fun and might make a cute scarf.

Spinning the Romney wool was a real pleasure. It's a long-wool breed, with long, luscious fibers that drafted out so smoothly that they made me feel like a more skillful spinner than I really am. It felt cottony and flossy. The preparation was immaculate, a very welcome change from some of the fiber I'd been working with over the summer.

For spinners, who may care about such things, I split the rope of hand-dyed roving lengthwise and spun the two halves onto separate bobbins. The plan was for the color changes to occur in more or less the same place so that the colors would stay mostly pure when the strands from the two bobbins were plied together.

When I began plying, though, I found that either my splitting or my spinning was uneven enough that the results were unpredictable. The colors blended and softened and became surprisingly complex. It was prettier and paler than I'd imagined. The colors began to remind me of my grandma, who's always looked pretty in pastels. I started thinking that just maybe I could make something for her.

This was no small matter. I'd only knitted from my hand-spun twice before. Of my earlier efforts, another relative had said, "hmmm, it's kind of scratchy." That hadn't exactly encouraged me to think of it as gift-worthy. (And I have to admit that, while I do love the two hand-spun sweaters I've made thus far, I wouldn't be anxious to wear them against bare skin.)

I was reading something at the time that gave me a notion that fulling the yarn might make it a bit softer and woollier, so I decided to give that a try. When all the yarn was spun, after consulting my spinning books, I took my latest fiber processing tool in hand. (Yes, a plunger.) Ignoring the yarn's cries of protest, I shocked it cruelly in hot water and cold, and commenced to beating it senseless.

I didn't like doing it, but it was for its own good. I also learned a couple of lessons myself. One is that enthusiastically agitating yarn in a large sink of water is a very splashy operation. Less water next time. Or a raincoat.

Despite a certain skepticism I still harbored about the wisdom of all this, the yarn survived and even bloomed. The strands lightened and loosened, but bound together more as a whole, and developed a fuzzy halo. I think this may have been an experiment worth repeating.

I worked out a design for a scarf and got to knitting, thinking of my grandma all the while.

It was entrancing, watching the colors shift and merge as the scarf grew from the needles. And nothing really repeated. The color patterns were unique the whole way through. It was a lovely experience, from one end to the other.

I'm still worried about whether it's soft enough. For myself, I wouldn't mind a slight cold-weather scratchiness at all. But this is for my grandma. I think I spun it as softly as Romney can be spun, with low twist and plenty of air. But it is simply a coarser wool than the aristocrats of the woolly world, like merino. So I wish I could give it that buttery feeling, but it has its own nature. If it's not perfectly comfortable against her skin, maybe she can wear it outside a coat collar. Or not wear it at all, and just show it to her friends, and say "my granddaughter made this."

So I wrapped it up tenderly and shipped it off for Christmas, hoping that it will be nice enough. At least she will know that I wanted to make her something that I spun myself.

I hope she likes it.


Anonymous said...

It is absolutely gorgeous! Love the colors, the spinning, the scarf! (give it a soak in a sink of warm water w/ some hair conditioner in it, that may soften it a tad)

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful - I am so impressed. What a lovely gift!
I'm afraid my arrogance and inexperience had made me think that scratchiness is a property of the wool not the spinning. I know over-spinning (of which I am currently Queen) makes the wool hard - and all my spinnings to date are very dense and hard - but also Suffolk wool (of which I have an inexhaustible supply) is known for its strength and qualities as a worsted spin, so I was not too critical of myself.
I am interested that you agitated the wool so much - were you not concerned it would felt?
Anyway it looks soooo lovely.
Best wishes to you and Happy New Year.

cathy said...

Puffyrabbit, thank you! :) The conditioner sounds like a great suggestion.

Hi, Christina! I'm a beginner, too, just muddling along making lots of mistakes. I think you're right that scratchiness is an inherent property of the type of wool, but I think how it's spun might make it a little better or worse, within limits. I've learned that less twist makes a "softer" yarn (cushier and not so dense), but whether it's less scratchy, I'm not sure.

Re the agitating, I did wonder if it would all felt together, but from what I've read, people often do it to finish woollen-style yarns (with lots of short, jumbled fibers). Romney was just what I had at hand, and I was curious. :)
Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Cathy, the yarn and scarf are just beautiful! You're so brave! I've never agitated my skeins. In fact, I handle them with kid gloves. I do, however, give them a good whack on the counter once I've rolled out the water.