Monday, May 20, 2013

three bags full: learning to spin, on a budget







When I was a little girl, I used to save the silks when we'd peel corn-on-the-cob. I'd turn my bicycle upside down, and turn the pedal to get the back tire spinning, then I'd feed the silks into the spokes. I was spinning straw into gold, or wool into yarn. I was fascinated by the process and remember wondering how the expert spinners I'd see at country fairs and local pioneer museums made it look so effortless. 

Although it was a lifelong dream, the cost of learning seemed like a tremendous obstacle to me: hand carders are costly, not to mention the cost of a spinning wheel! Courses that teach spinning seemed pointless if I didn't have my own wheel on which to practice. Over the years, I've housed other people's wheels, but these seem as quirky and unique as their owners and I just didn't have enough basic know-how to produce anything.

So, I took my hand-made drop spindle, a gift from a friend, into my hands last month. I delved into a bag of roving I'd accumulated during my needle-felting phase, and got to work spinning funny little balls of colourful thick-and-thin yarn. I was hooked.

Once I got through the roving I had, I was hungry for more. Coincidentally, my husband has been at work learning about wool with his Kindergarten class, and had arranged to visit a farm where they'd be shearing sheep. He came home with a big, smelly, filthy fleece, and I dove right in, so to speak.

The first ball of uncombed, unprocessed yarn was brownish, pungent, and greasy with lanolin. I washed a small bit of fleece in a bowl of water, and the next ball came out whiter and softer.

I'd read about washing larger amounts of fleece in the washing machine. As I had no lingerie bags (alas, having no lingerie), I improvised, stuffing two net onion bags with filthy fleece and putting them to soak in a washer-full of hot water. I added less than a 1/4 cup of dish soap, and checked back now and then. When the water was really gross, I carried the bags up to the kitchen sink and let them soak in a rinse bath.

They still didn't seem as clean as I'd like, so I opened the bags up and let the fleece free. I continued adding a bit of dish soap, rinsing, and very gently swishing. I know that heat and agitation signal death to wool (unless you're intentionally felting); I was experimenting here!

I stuffed the fleece back into the onion bags and ran them through a spin cycle in the washer, then spread them to dry on a beach towel. They still had way more specks of grass etc. in them than I wanted, but I figured this would be as good as it gets.

Well! When it was dry, I carded it (on borrowed hand-carders), and almost all of the flecks of foliage ended up on my lap. The wool is white, lofty, and just calling to me to be spun!

If you're new to a drop spindle, or if you've always itched to spin but haven't the budget for it, here are a few tips:

1. Borrow Abby Franquemont's excellent book, "Respect the Spindle" from your library (I got this one through inter-library loan!). Read it!

2. Make yourself a drop spindle using a wooden toy-wheel, a piece of dowel, a small hook, and some wood glue. A bit of sandpaper is handy, too.

3. Procure a fleece...ask around! Although the world's economy was built on wool at one time, fleeces are pretty much worthless (read: FREE) now (the shearer told my husband that it would cost him money to transport it to the processing plant).

4. Clean it (you can follow my dodgy method or find better tutorials on youtube). Use onion bags if you don't have lingerie bags. Be resourceful. Women have been spinning on spindles forever, and didn't need fancy, expensive tools to do it.

5. Card the dry wool. Guess what? You can even use dog brushes (the kind with wire-bristles) if you're in a pinch. I learned this by asking a friend's mother, who happens to be a master-spinner.

6. Play, and practice! It's not about the product, at this point. I may create some silly hat with all my funny balls of yarn, but it's not the point right now. The focus is on the process, not the product...which makes it fun!

There you have it. My first forays into spinning. When my children get older, I'll hopefully find time to take a course or two, and will start saving for a wheel as quirky and unique as I am. Until then, never fear: my hands will not be idle for a moment as they spin balls and balls of imperfect yarn.





22 comments:

  1. awesome for you! I bought a fleece once for $10. I think that sheep rolled around in the muck for a whole month before it was sheared. What a freakin' mess. I trimmed it, laid it outside for days until it rained and then soaked it in the washer. Only half. I lost interest. I gave the other half away. I wanted to use it for stuffing, so I didn't have to be mindful of felting. But, it was too much work for that stage of my young children life. My kids were enraptured with the drop spindle though. I think they were better than me. Even the hubby. :}
    Enjoy your new escape.

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    1. I've been there, Amanda...I've thrown out big dirty fleeces, too, when the work of cleaning them overwhelmed. I did clarify to my husband that he should choose one that wasn't covered in mud/manure!

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  2. Yay! Working from raw fleece really gives you some life lessons, doesn't it? I find that I learn things about myself when processing wool. Slowly, I'm changing one of the main things that I don't like: impatience. (:

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  3. Awesome! I was gifted a handmade drop spindle and how-to booklet a couple of years ago and STILL haven't learned how to do it. Sounds like a great excuse for a visit (as if I needed one). And I love that you dove right on into the raw wool. Now you really, really need some sheep at the homestead. Just sayin.

    And I love what Amanda said about your new escape.

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    1. Wabi Sabi,
      You name the date.
      And yes, sheep are in the plans once we rid the farm of burdock plants!!

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  4. It looks so clean and fluffy.How do you dye it

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    1. Not there yet, mom...but will try with plant dyes first. Wabi Sabi, I will get some woad from you, perhaps? And mom, I'll raid your garden later in the summer!

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  5. I think you should just keep the little balls in that pretty basket and admire them.

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  6. A new opportunity to learn skills at our own pace-I adore those life experiences. And your way of explaining is so delicate and gentle--kindergarten teachers are some of the world's most valuable people. Doing the most important work of all-instilling a Love of Learning for Lifetimes...

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    1. Thanks so much, Lynda! I didn't start out as a Kindergarten teacher, and I don't speak to adults in a sing-song voice (haha)...I wrote this post to myself at 20, wanting to spin but feeling overwhelmed at how much I didn't know and how little money I had! :)

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  7. I just bought my first drop spindle. I will have to check out that book. Thanks for the post!

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  8. My sister prefers to card , dye and spin over knitting! I am scared to even attempt to try( the addictive properties of the activity are legendary!)as the whole house has wool squirreled away in every nook and crannie as it is. Where would I hid my next addiction?

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  9. Skirting a fleece isn't difficult and it's what you do to a super dirty fleece before washing it. No fancy equipment required! A drop spindle is on my wish list. I've got bags and bags of unprocessed wool that's been calling me for quite sometime. Thank you for your continued inspiration xo

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  10. The dollar store has lingerie bags, for a dollar of course. I keep a lot of them around because they are perfect for drying herbs!
    Every time I see someone spinning I get the urge to try. A farmer friend was telling me her neighbours throw their fleeces into the compost. I just about fainted!

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  11. Ah, that first try. I was hooked after that. Good luck on your spinning adventure!

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  12. I was worried, too, when I first washed my own about the specks of natural material still in the wool after washing but found that most of it came out as I worked it to spin on the drop spindle - so satisfying isn't it?

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  13. Very impressed. Had my first go on a spinning wheel this January- not as easy as it looks! What I produced looked ok, but when I tried knitting with it, it was clearly NOT OK. I have binned it! Maybe I should try this way instead!

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  14. how exciting. i have wanted to learn to spin as well.

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  15. Oh my, you lifted my spirits with this post!! I am so happy you were able to do something you have been dreaming of.
    I dream of having sheep someday and spinning my own yarn...

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  16. I've just taught my daughter to spin on a drop spindle - she loves it! That book - Respect the Spindle - is awesome! Good luck with your spinning adventure!

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  17. This is amazing! I never knew the process. Your pictures and story are beautiful.

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