Competition results!

The correct answer, listed top to bottom in the photograph, was:

  1. Combed sliver
  2. Carded, woollen
  3. From the lock
  4. Carded, semi worsted

Congratulations Mary de B!  You are the winner of the Bowmont competition, getting all four correct!  Drop me an email to remind me of your address (I know I had it before, but I lost it – sorry!) and I’ll send you your prize.  Leigh, you were so close I think you deserve a prize too, so again, I’ll be after your postal address so I can send it.  Anyone who is interested in seeing more Bowmont photos *must* check out Leigh’s blog, by the way.  She has been spinning it *incredibly* fine (singles at 66wpi, anyone?!?) and has some lovely photos of wool staples, comparing Bowmont  with Shetland and merino (the two breeds used to create the Bowmont sheep).  You can see the wonderful, fine, regular crimp of the wool in those photos, too (something I forgot to record before washing my allocated fibre).

Bowmont Roundup (and competition!)

In summary, for the first time, I took raw fleed and I washed, prepped and spun it all myself.  I chose four different preparation methods – two carded, one ‘from the lock’ and one combed – for comparison, and for practice.  I ended up with four skeins of two-ply yarn in the range 17-20 wpi,

The carded, woollen prep was quick and easy, resulting in a soft, lofty and pleasantly uneven yarn with a rustic feel.  It is beautifully soft, but I feel it is somehow a waste of this gorgeous fibre, which has such potential for lustre.

The carded, semi-worsted top had some really nice sections – but carding invariably introduced some neps, which had to be picked out, ignored or ‘teased’ into the yarn, which spoilt both the fun of the spinning and the appearance of the final yarn

Spinning straight from the lock was a frustrating experience, with stretches of ‘nice’ spinning interrupted by awkward drafting and having to join in a new lock frequently – usually with mediocre success.

Combing the fibre then spinning from dizzed sliver was a revelation!  The yarn was smooth, lustrous, consistent and wonderful; it was a time-consuming process and somewhat wasteful, but there were no steps I disliked doing, and the yarn was beautiful.

Of the four methods, I would consider woollen-prep carding and combing for a full project; the yarns produced are very different, so clearly the use of the finished yarn would be a major factor in choosing the prep, but both are practical, enjoyable and produce good results.

And now for the competition!

The following photograph contains all four of the 2-ply skeins I produced.  Can you tell which skein was prepared with which method??  Answers in the comments please, and there will be a yarny prize for the winner! (Or a not-yarny prize if the winner prefers…)


Have fun!

The Final Prep: Combing the Bowmont

Yesterday, I mentioned that ‘true’ worsted yarns are produced from combed wool.  Well, meet my wool combs:

They were made by Majacraft, who also provide great instructions (warning: pdf!) on how to use them, and really are pretty sharp, and I’m glad they come with that backplate/holder.  They definitely get kept away from Kita’s curious wee nose.  The odd brass ‘thing’ is a diz: something that seems to be one of the best-kept secrets of the yarn prep world.  I’ll explain more as I go…

For combing, fibre needs to be really clean, and so I used the locks from my prep that were the whitest and least sheepy-smelling of the lot in this batch.  Combing really, really opens up the fibre and you get quite a bit of static flying around.  You also end up with all your fluffy, white fibre stuck on the comb – which is where the diz comes in.  This thing is like magic.  You use the tiniest hook imaginable to pull a tiny tuft of fibre through the smallest hole – and you pull.  And pull.  And pull.  You get a feeling for when to shift your grip on the long, lofty, slender sliver that you are making (though it’s a tad frustrating until you do), and the diz just seems to hoover up all the fibre from the comb and suck it in as you go, until all the waste and tangly bits are left on the comb, and you can just *spin* what you have left.  The first lot I tried with this, I think I had well over 30% waste, but my efficiency improved dramatically as I practiced – and anyway, all the leftovers can be combed and used for woollen yarn later.

Spinning that stuff is like a dream – it is smooth, nep-free and just *flows*.  I produced some really lustrous, smooth, soft, consistent yarn this way:

Combing wool is time consuming, but not frustrating (as the dog-combs were) and gives a significantly better result than the semi-worsted carded prep.  It may take longer, but you don’t have to fight any imperfections whilst spinning, and the whole thing was just *fun*.  I’m delighted to own these mini combs, and will definitely use them again.  I might even remember to take photos next time.

Bowmont spinning: carded wool

I used a pair of Ashford fine tooth hand carders to prep my Bowmont.  I’m not going to talk about hand carding, because others have done it far better than I could already, but suffice it to say that the wool is ‘brushed’ between the two spiky, bristly cards.  The fibres are kept somewhat aligned by the brushing, and then the fibre mat is rolled off the cards or gently lifted off them, depending on whether you want woollen or semi-worsted prep.

If you roll the fibre off into a rolag (the correct name for what is otherwise known as a ‘fluff sausage’ – try that, Google!), and spin from the end of your ‘sausage’, you are pulling fibres into the nascent yarn at right-angles to the direction you aligned them in during carding.  This means that the fibres in the yarn are all jumbled up, which means lots of air is trapped in there and results in a yarn that is light, fluffy, squishy and insulating.

If you split the mat into strips in the same direction as the carding, you will pull fibres into the yarn in the same direction as their original spin.  That means the fibres will lie straighter and more parallel to each other; they will pack together better, and give a yarn that has less trapped air, and which is therefore denser, harder, smoother and less insulating than its woollen-spun cousin.  This particular method – using carded wool – is sometimes referred to as ‘semi-worsted’.  True worsted yarn is produced from combed, not carded, fibre and I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

I produced both woollen and semi-worsted yarn in this workshop, though it seems that even my fine cloth carders were not fine enough to avoid ‘neps’ forming in this ultra-fine wool.  Neps are small, knotted tangles that form when you card wool; it seems that they are so tighly knotted that they cannot be removed by more carding.  In fact, the more you card, the more neps you seem to get!

I found that I still had too much grease in my fleece for the semi-worsted prep to draft smoothly for long; I got the best results when I split the mat into very narrow segments, or pre-drafted my segments so I didn’t have to draft while spinning.  Spinning woollen-style from the rolag was much easier, and a lot of fun!  I realised doing this that I haven’t done much woollen or long-draw spinning before, as I have mostly worked with commercial combed top, but I definitely need to do more of this.  The process is quick and infinitely amusing, and the yarn produced has bounce and character galore!

Semi-worsted yarn:

Woollen yarn:

I allowed the ‘neps’ in the woollen prep to enter the yarn, without fighting them or trying to tease them out.   The woollen yarn is noticeably fluffier and has much less lustre than the semi-worsted; the semi-worsted has some lovely sections but is definitely erratic, showing the occasional lump, bump or  
fuzz that I wasn’t able to tease out of the fibre during the spinning process!

Come back tomorrow for the final installment in this Bowmont series, and an account of what certain snobby fibre-ists consider the only ‘real’ method of fibre prep: combing!  (NB – I don’t agree with them…)

Bowmont: the saga continues (spinning from the lock)

Being the lax and remiss blogger that I clearly am, I need to summarise my Bowmont work rather, or it will never get blogged.  After washing, those dirty locks fluff up nice and white and clean (with just the occasional dirty tip or fleck of VM*):

The next question is "how to prep the clean wool for spinning?"  I investigated four different answers to that question, and I’ll describe each over the next four days.

Today, I’m talking about theoretically the quickest and simplest method – spinning directly from the lock, using a dog comb to open the ends of each lock first:


The comb in the photo is not a flea comb (most flea combs have flat teeth, which can damage the fibre, apparently), but a fine, round-toothed comb.  It cost me about £3.50 from the local pet shop.

I didn’t particularly enjoy spinning this way; it took a lot of time to open the locks, and I found the locks still fairly tough going to draft.  Worse, I found it hard to get a smooth, strong join between one lock and the next.  I spun from the tip end of each lock, for no particular reason other than that it seemed intuitive to me.  Others in the guild have since said that they always spin from the butt (cut) end of the lock, and that it makes drafting easier and smoother.  The singles I produced were smooth but not very consistent, and when plied together the resulting yarn was rather straggly and unattractive:

If I were to attempt spinning from the lock again, I’d definitely try spinning from the butt end to see if I found any difference.  I’d also like to try doubling each lock over my finger and spinning ‘from the fold’ – something which I have never done but may well try with some of my remaining fibre.
* VM = vegetable matter!

Washing the Bowmont

I’m now officially *very* behind on blogging this workshop – this post is all about washing the fleece, which was the job of *last* weekend, and which took about seven hours in total, I think.  That’s much longer than the workshop leader estimated, so it seems I’m slow.  😛

The reason it all took so long is because Bowmont wool really is ultra-fine: finer than Merino.  The micron count of fine Merino is 18 – 22; for Bowmont, it is 15 – 20.  Fortunately, Bowmont also contains less lanolin than Merino, so should require less washing to achieve cleanliness.

Lesley recommends washing the fleece almost lock-by-lock, ‘swishing’ it through a hot, soapy bath and rubbing at dirty spots or lock ends under water, then rinsing in a clean bath at the same temperature.  It feels very, very wrong to be rubbing at such fine fleece – especially in hot water! – but as long as the locks are kept intact, it really does seem to work without felting.

I sorted my fleece first – most people probably didn’t have to go through this preliminary step – or at least, their fleece probably wasn’t quite so anti-sorted to start with.  Anyway, since the washing works best when the water is really quite hot, and since the bath cools down alarmingly quickly, I definitely found it worth having the fleece pre-sorted into locks, all facing the same way, for easy access, like so:


Fleece lasagne!  This wool, when clean, is bright white, so you can see we have a job to do…  And apparently the tips are extra-dirty this year – lucky us!  Joking aside, Lesley thinks that this is a result of her having to treat the flock with anti-blowfly stuff as a preventative measure last autumn.  You *have* to prevent blowfly – a sheep with a blowfly maggot infestation is literally eaten alive, and quickly – so I’m not going to quibble about dirty tips.  I didn’t manage to get all the fleece sorted so neatly; some of it was a bit too mangled, no doubt due to a too-close encounter of the Kita kind.  I set this aside to wash more ‘roughly’ – just to see what would happen.

I did experiment a bit with how many locks I can wash at once; I decided that one at a time definitely got them cleanest, but was waaaaay too slow!  I think the optimum for me was around 5 locks at once.

It was still a very slow process, so my view for about seven hours of weekend was this:


I’m sitting on the dog’s beanbag, with the hot bath nestled into it (for insulation).  The method used is to grab a bundle of locks by the butt end, then wash the tips in the hot, soapy water (baby shampoo used as detergent), rubbing to free the dirt then ‘swooshing’ the lock through the water to get the dirt actually out of the lock.  Then turn the locks around and wash the butt end; this is much cleaner to start with, and only needs a few ‘swooshes’.  Then turn it around again, and get rid of excess water by ‘pushing’ it out of the lock using finger and thumb along the length.  The second turn is important as it ensures the scales that make up each fibre’s surface are pressed down, not lifted up, which preserves the lustre and smoothness of the fibre – and presumably makes it less prone to felting.  The process is repeated in the rinse tub (which is probably to the right of me at this point), but this time it’s quick for both ends of the lock (well, usually!) because all you should be doing at this stage is getting rid of detergent.  The clean, wet locks go on the towel, looking a *lot* cleaner, but a bit sorry for themselves – flat and limp, with a bit of a ‘tail’ if you didn’t manage to hold the butt end of the lock firmly enough as you ejected any excess water.

They fluff up again as they dry, though.  I wish I’d taken before and after photographs of individual locks; the tight, even crimp of this wool is amazing, like a too-regular perm!

My main discoveries from the workshop so far:

  • The temperature of the wash bath is *crucial*.  The hotter, the better.  It makes a huge difference as to how much lanolin comes out, and how easily.  (This is one of the reasons I’m wearing rubber gloves; water hot enough to wash this fleece well is too hot for my hands to handle!  Other reasons are that if it’s taking all the oil out of the fleece, it will be incredibly drying to my skin, and also that sheep muck is icky, and hygiene is important.)
  • Rubber gloves really impair my dexterity.  It can be hard to tell precisely how much of the lock I’m gripping or rubbing, and how hard.  An advantage of larger bundles of locks is that it’s easier to tell what you’re gripping.
  • Washing fleece this way takes *hours!*

My washing success was somewhat erratic; some locks were squeaky-clean and bright when I’d finished; others were still a little yellow in the middle and smelled delicately ‘sheepy’ still.  Before going on to the rest of the process, I sorted the fleece into the cleanest, less clean and kinda mucky sections.

The mangled wool was washed by the simple expedient of pushing it under the water, then gently squeezing and releasing it – then repeat with the rinse bath.  It felted quite a bit and will never, ever be nep-free, but I’ve kept it anyway.

Next installment: actual spinning!  (and carding, and combing, and dizzing, too!)

Bowmont Challenge: the first installment

As I believe I mentioned before, I’ve gotten myself involved with a workshop/challenge that centres around the ultra-fine wool of the Bowmont sheep.  The Bowmont was apparently bred to produce a sheep with a premium, fine wool that was hardy enough to withstand the British climate and which had a lower grease/wax load than some of the other fine wool breeds (e.g. Merino).  The Bowmont is a cross between the Saxon Merino and the Shetland sheep, and the wool really is ultra-fine, and with a very, very fine crimp (more info here, the website of the lady who owns the sheep we’re working with! – and also here – Leigh is also participating in the workshop, and has done a far more thorough piece on the breed characteristics than I will!)

For this challenge/workshop, we each got a pack of fleece – adult Bowmont, Bowmont lamb and dehaired cashmere.  Those of us within the E.U. got the fleece ‘raw’ though the cashmere is cleaned and combed to dehair it; those outside the E.U. sadly had to forego the pleasures of washing this stuff – which is an adventure in itself!  I will be washing, prepping and spinning my fibre; others will be felting theirs (intentionally or otherwise, I guess) and whatever else it is that us wacky fibre folks do when they get their hands on new goods.

This workshop, by the way, is a venture of the Online Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers – of which I am a fledgling member!  This is the first workshop I’ve been able to join in with, and the first time I’ve washed or prepped any fleece that wasn’t just ‘gleaned’ from the hedgerows.  I’m starting to think that this wasn’t necessarily the simplest place to start…

My primary aim with this workshop was to wash, prepare and spin the fleece – just to get my hands on the end-to-end process for the first time.  I’m also intrigued by the thought of this ultra-fine wool and just wanted to *play* with it!  Besides wanting to just *do* wool prep, I thought this would be a good time to get my hands on some tools that I’ve not used before and to compare prep methods.  Admittedly, as I’m a beginner with this stuff, it’ll be a comparison of a beginner’s execution of all three four methods, but then, I might as well compare like with like!

Prior to starting this workshop, I owned one pair of hand carders.  To further my aims, I’ve bought another set with a finer carding cloth and have a set of Majacraft mini-combs (complete with clamp and diz) on their way to me.  I want to compare:

  • a regular, woollen preparation using hand carders
  • a ‘semi-worsted’ preparation using hand carders but rolling the rolag so that fibres are parallel to its axis
  • a true worsted preparaion using wool combs
  • spinning directly from the washed lock (added later at Lesley’s recommendation).

Then, of course, there is the cashmere.  I’ve never spun with a true down fibre before, so I don’t know if I’ll use this in conjunction with the Bowmont or not.  As it is, there will not be oodles of fibre to play with in each method; I may just see what I have left when I’ve completed my primary goal and decide what to do with it then.

Although this workshop officially started at the beginning of April, I didn’t really get around to starting till last weekend – partly due to other stuff happening on the weekends (like visits from friends and family) and partly because I was downright scared of washing the wool.  I needn’t have been – though it did take *hours*.  I was going to post all about it right now – but this post is quite long enough as it is, so I think you’ll have to wait for a future installment…