WIP Wednesday

Yes – I said I’d make this a tradition back in April – and this is the second installment.  Consistently inconsistent, that’s me!

Anyway, I thought it would be good to do a quick overview of the projects I’m currently working on: not necessarily a full WIP roundup; just the ones that are actually getting some attention these days.  So:

My wheel project is currently the wool/alpaca batts I talked about preparing for the Tour de Fleece (here and here).  I’ve spun and plied five skeins so far, plus a bunch more singles:

I’ve stalled out a bit on this project, to tell you the truth.  Last year, the Tour de Fleece helped me establish a habit of spinning for 15 minutes in the morning: this year, it somehow broke it completely.  I think it’s because I’m spinning this long-draw, which is exhausting for the arm/shoulder.  Also, my Traveller has a left-mounted flyer (which is standard), but it would be more ergonomic for me if it were right-mounted.  I hold the fibre in my left hand, so I can’t draw across my body.  Anyway, I was finding spinning to be painful and tiring, which isnt’ great.  I’ll have to see what I can do to restart my mojo.

Knitting is going rather better, though. The first of my green lace socks (name still TBD) is done, apart from grafting the toes:

I’m really *very* pleased with the way this has turned out: my plan now is to write the pattern, then knit the second one using the pattern I’ve just written.  A sort of self-checking mechanism, if you will.

Which leaves only my Myrtle.  This is progressing well, too: I’m almost a whole ball in, and I’m ready to start the shaping on the first sleeve cap:

This is the second garment I’ve knit using moss stitch and Maya, and, just like before, I love the way the colour variations are broken and mixed further by the texture.  I will admit to feeling a little anxious that there will be too much difference in appearance between this and the stockinette portions, but I’ll just have to wait and see.  (Then again, the swatch doesn’t look too bad sitting next to the sleeve, so…)

Preparing for the Tour, part 2: we blend!

My last Tour post talked about picking the wool for my blend.  The wool had already had a lengthy, if somewhat unconventional washing – but the alpaca got no such exalted treatment.  I think I said already that this is the seconds from what was probably a cria’s first shearing; this, like the blanket, is lovely and soft, but it is very, very short:

This is better than it could be: seconds are from the neck and legs of the animal, and often include a lot of stiff, straight, prickly guard hair.  This contains almost none of that, so it’s mostly the length that distinguishes it from the rest of the fibre.

I used my trusty Louet Junior drum carder to blend one part alpaca fibre with two parts picked wool.  I discovered quickly that the extremely short alpaca fibre cannot be fed into the drum carder in the usual way: it all becomes embedded in the licker in (the small drum), and none makes it onto the larger drum.  And at this point, I started to realise I was in this for the long haul…

If you have a fibre that cannot be carded ‘normally’, you introduce it into the blend by making a layered construction on the large drum.  After carding a layer of wool, I had to apply tufts of the alpaca onto the drum cloth:

And push it down onto the drum (or else it would just be lifted straight off onto the licker in, just like we were trying to avoid):

The pushing is accomplished by using the cleaning brush/burnishing tool, held so that the backs of the tines push between the tines of the main drum cloth.

A layer of wool; a layer of alpaca.  A layer of wool; a layer of alpaca.  A layer of wool.

The astute will notice that we haven’t actually blended anything yet.  We’ve got wool and alpaca in the same batt, sure, but they are not really mixed together.  Now that they’re in this sort of sandwich formation, with wool on all exposed faces, we can card it more normally.  The alpaca starts to mix in with the wool, slowly but surely:

After the fiasco that was my last big carding/blending project, I’m quite paranoid about getting the colour even throughout the batts.  I’m fine with localised variation – but I don’t want big sections that are noticeably different to the others.  To avoid this, I prepared the first and second pass batts in batches of three.  I weighed out enough wool and enough alpaca for three batts, and then subdivided that, still using the scales, for the first (sandwich-building) round.  Each of the batts in the batch was split into three, and the thirds mixed up, so the second pass batts contain a bit of each from the first pass:

This photo shows all the second pass batts, in their sets of three.  Next, I mixed up the rows, so that each row contained batts from three different batches, and no row contained batts from the same three batches as any other row.  (Why yes, I do tend to overthink these things!  Thankyou for noticing!).

Again, each batt was split into three, and mixed up with the others from its row.  The second pass batts are much more blended than the first pass ones, but distinctly stripy.  To help get rid of that, I pulled short sections from the batts and fed them into the carder edgewise.  That means the carding action will be perpendicular to the direction of the stripes, smudging them out, and producing a much more even blend – or at least that’s the theory.

And it works!  These batts are evenly blended enough to spin.  However, they do contain quite a lot of neps – short, nubby pieces of fibre.  You could just give in and consider these to be added interest, or pick them out as you come to them in the batt, but I’m spinning this long draw, which means that they actually get in the way of the twist as it flows through the nascent yarn.  You can still pick them out as you come to them – but for me, the spinning is smoother and much more fun if I don’t have to.  Also, the fibre seemed to flow better after a fourth (yes, a fourth!) trip through the carder – so back they went again, this time in the same direction as the previous pass.  Luckily for me, neps seem to ‘float’ to the surface of the fibre as you card, so I could pick them off as I went.

Now, can anyone tell me what there is in that that took me a week and a half to finish?!

(Joking.  That was a lot of work).

Preparing for the Tour, part 1: introducing the picker

So, I mentioned that the fibre blending for my Tour de Fleece was a bit of an adventure.  The wool, once cleaned of the pond scum (Thank you, Geodyne!) looked like this:

The palest grey, and pretty clean.  (OK, maybe there’s a bit of pond still visible on the right there.  Don’t worry; it soon falls off).  The prolonged soak and re-wash had left it somewhat compacted.  Not felted, but not loose and airy, either, so there was no way it was going to go through the drum carder in that state.  I decided it was due a trip through the picker – a device that seems to be pretty much unheard of on this side of the pond.  That’s the picker that it’s sitting on, in that photo up there.  Inside, it looks like this:

Scary medieval torture device, anyone?  The underside of the sliding lid has a similar arrangement of nails, and when moved up and down the box, it pulls fibre from the ‘in’ end to the ‘out’ end, across the nail beds, opening it up as it goes. As well as teasing (not ripping!) the fibre apart, a lot of ‘crud’ drops out – hence the detritus that has gathered on the bottom of the box between the nails.  Bye bye pond scum!

I don’t think I’d recommend this for a tender fleece, or for fime fibres, but it’s remarkably good at opening up compacted locks.  After a couple of trips through the picker, it looks like this:

This is much more ready for the drum carder  than the previous stuff.  It’s not as effective as flicking open locks, but it’s a lot faster – and in this case, the lock structure was pretty much lost sometime between shearing and washing. (And the washing didn’t help).  It’s kind of difficult to demonstrate the differences between before and after in the photographs, so let’s try a before-and-after, side-by-side shot, too:

See the difference so far? (before is on the left; after on the right).  The lock structure is still there, but the fibre is looser, more open.  If you put it on a lightbox, you’d be able to see through the ‘after’ stuff much more clearly than the ‘before’.

I said this was faster than flicking locks, and I meant it, but running several hundred grams through the picker still took an hour or two.  Like pretty much every piece of fibre prep equipment ever, you don’t wan’t to try and process too much at any one time: overload it, and it will be hard work, and a lot less effective.  And don’t think you’re going to be ripping your way through the stuff you felted with some ill-considered washing or dyeing choices, either: this is not a way to rescue a fleece from serious damage.

Next time?  We should be ready for the actual blending!

(For the curious: my wool picker is a Lil’ Dynamo.  I bought it a year or so ago, and this is the first time I’ve put it to any serious use.  I selected this model firstly because we have dogs, and the box design looks so much safer than the cradle types.  Secondly, the price is very reasonable, making it a feasible purchase for folks in the UK.)

Tour de Fleece, week one

Ahh: the Tour de France, where real men wear lycra and attempt incredible feats of endurance and stamina.  And the Tour de Fleece, where spinners do much the same, except with less lycra, more wool, and a distinctly lower requirement for high calorie intake.

This year, as well as I’ve challenged myself to do two things:

  • Spin up enough of a wool/alpaca blend to knit a sweater later in the year, and
  • Get to grips with my new Russian spindle (bought at Woolfest).

I have to admit that I haven’t gone near the Russian spindle since tidying up after my recent travelling sprees.  And, as it happened, I had no chance at all to do any of my own spinning on the first day of the tour – Saturday the 2nd – because I was demonstrating and teaching drop spinning at a friend’s come-and-craft birthday party.  Still, I consider spending several hours teaching spinning to new acolytes to be a good way to kick off the tour.

A bigger technical hitch was that I hadn’t actually finished carding the blended fibre for my sweater spinning.  I wanted to blend the seconds from the cocoa-coloured alpaca fleece with a grey wool that I, errrm, ‘washed’ mostly by putting it in cold water to soak ‘for a week’ sometime last year.  By this spring, it smelled pretty much like the bottom of a pond, and had green slime growing on the top.  However, the lanolin seemed to have mostly disappeared, so I finished washing it, and called it good.  It doesn’t smell bad any more; it reminds my of my dive kit, for some reason.  The quantities I had of each meant that I could produce a blend that’s roughly one-third alpaca.  This is what my sample batt looked like:

And here’s the two-ply yarn.  Very woollen, very lofty, very stretchy:

The blending has been an adventure.  Last weekend, I spent a day and a half on it, and got enough fully finished to keep me busy on the wheel this week.  This weekend, I’ve managed to finish the rest of the carding – thank goodness!  So, by the end of the first week of the tour, I have three very full bobbins of singles, plus a partial bobbin:

And a big box of batts – enough to keep me out of trouble for a wee while yet:

Kita is amazed