Knitting Yarns

knitting yarnsAnother book that I got for Christmas was Knitting Yarns edited by Ann Hood, given by my friend Anne, who is a voracious reader. (Last year she set a resolution not to buy any new books – unless it was to read for her book group – and instead to read books that she already had but had never read. That took more self discipline than I could muster – she blogged about the experience under the delightful title Mrs Dalloway is in the Cludgie.)

But I digress. Knitting Yarns is a collection of essays by different writers that celebrate knitting and knitters. There are stories about learning to knit, knitting as therapy, the memories evoked by knitting and the role it plays in relationships. There are even a few knitting patterns, though sadly no photos.

I haven’t read the whole volume yet – I just dip in as the mood takes me. But I was delighted to find a piece by Barbara Kingsolver, whose book The Poisonwood Bible is one of my all-time favourites. (And Anne says that her new book Flight Behaviour is the best thing she read last year.)

Barbara wrote a piece called “Where to Begin”, about shearing a sheep and the transformation process of turning the fleece into yarn. I was reminded of it by a comment on yesterday’s post by Avril of Stitch in Science, wishing that a photo could convey the feel of an object.

Here’s an extract from “Where to Begin”:

“It starts with a texture. There are nowhere near enough words for this, but fingers can sing whole arpeggios at a touch. Textures have their family trees: cloud and thistledown are cousin to catpelt and earlobe and infantscalp. Petal is also a texture, and lime peel and nickelback and nettle and five o’clock shadow and sandstone and ash and soap and slither. Drape is the child of loft and crimp; wool is a stalwart crone who remembers everything, while emptyhead white-haired cotton forgets. And in spite of their various natures, all these strings can be lured to sit down together and play a fiber concerto whole in the cloth. The virgin fleece of an April lamb can be blended and spun with the fleece of a fat blue hare or a twist of flax, anything, you name it, silkworm floss or twiny bamboo. Creatures never known to converse in nature can be introduced and then married right on the spot. The spindle is your altar, you are the matchmaker, steady on the treadle, fingers plying the helices of a beast and its unlikely kin, animal and vegetable, devising your new and surprisingly peaceable kingdoms. Fingers can coax and read and speak, they have their own secret libraries, and illicit affairs, and conventions. Twined into the wool of a hearty ewe on shearing day, hands can read the history of her winter: how many snows, how barren or sweet her manger. For best results, stand in the pasture and throw your arms around her.”

Isn’t that fab? I’m off to the felting table to generate an illicit affair between some merino tops. 😉

Wool packaging

A friend of mine used to get deliveries of fruit and veg boxes from Abel & Cole, but then stopped. Some of the items she ordered were kept chilled using insulated packaging made from layers of lightly needle felted wool encased in plastic, made by the Wool Packaging Company. She wasn’t sure what to do with them but felt guilty about throwing them away, so she asked me if I’d like them.

According to the company’s website, after washing and scouring the wool is garneted and then needle felted. When I removed it from the plastic cover, it looked like a fairly delicate prefelt made from various different fibres running in different directions. Some of the fibres were fairly coarse, a bit like Icelandic but not as long, and the colours included the whole range of natural shades, from cream to brown, but mostly shades of grey.

It was also fairly thick, so I tried to separate it into two layers so that I could felt only half the thickness. And because it hadn’t been carded for making textiles, there were still a few burrs and other bits of vegetation present, which I picked out.

After wetting down and adding soap, I rubbed and rolled as normal, and it started to felt quite well. When I rubbed it on the washboard, many of the coarser fibres dropped out – similar to felting with Icelandic and Norwegian wool. In the end it shrank by around 20%.

Left: before felting; right: after felting

The final felt is quite coarse and hairy, and even when it’s dry it tends to shed a lot of fibres. However, the colours are lovely and organic. It’s too rough to use as a scarf or anything wearable, but I think that small areas could add some interesting texture with other fibres. Some judicious shaving might be required though!

Here’s a sample of white merino with some patches of prefelt.

Blue is (not) the colour

Yesterday I took some of my newly cleaned fleece into Morley College to have a go at dyeing it. I was using acid dyes, which I was told came out the colour they appeared (unlike disperse dyes in the heat press, which are always much brighter).

I mixed some scarlet and turquoise dyes to give a deep blackberry colour, added the acid fixer, and mixed them with water in a tea urn. Then I put some fleece in and heated the mixture so that it was hot but not boiling. I left it for 20 minutes, then removed the fleece and rinsed gently in hot water.

To my disappointment, the wool came out salmon pink rather than deep purple – not a colour that appeals to me at all!

A swift consultation with the tutors elicits the explanation that “blue is a difficult colour”. Apparently you have to leave the wool much longer in blue dye for it to work, and even then it can still be problematic.

So I decided to experiment with locks of wool on a smaller scale (a bowl of dye on a hotplate). The photo below shows the effect of using orange, violet and blue to overdye the salmon pink (top row) and on virgin white wool (bottom row).

Even when I left the wool to soak in the blue dye over lunch, the overdyed sample came out with streaks of salmon pink. A bit more work required to crack this, I think!


Washing the fleece

The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the frogs are stirring in the pond. Time to make a start on cleaning my fleece!

As ever, the advice on how to do it was contradictory. Magdalen, who gave me the fleece, wrote on her note that I should soak it in lukewarm water for a couple of hours without soap. Debby, my tutor at Morley College, said that if I wanted to dye it (which I do), I should put it in cold water with a little detergent, as the lanolin in the fleece resists dye because it is too oily.

Online, the consensus among spinners seemed to be that using hot water and dishwashing detergent was best, as long as you don’t agitate the fleece and don’t let the water get cold, as this causes the lanolin to reattach itself to the wool. Eventually I decided to use the method outlined by Fuzzy Galore. But as I can’t do all the fleece in one go anyway, I will probably try different techniques on different batches.

When I laid it out on a plastic sheet in the garden, it became clear that it wasn’t in one piece, like a sheepskin rug, but several large clumps. I picked off some of the grubbiest bits of dung, plus the largest bits of straw, thorny twigs and other vegetation.

Then I picked a clump that didn’t look too grubby, filled the kitchen sink with hot water, added some Fairy Liquid, and gently pressed the wool so that it was submerged in the water.  I left it for 15 minutes, by which time the water was filthy, scooped out the wool into a bowl, drained the water and repeated the process. The water wasn’t so dirty this time.

Then it was two 15-minute rinses, again in hot water but without the detergent. The final rinse water was a little cloudy but not dirty.

I was a bit worried about spinning it in the washing machine, as many people seem to recommend, so I put a few handfuls in the salad spinner and span it by hand! This was actually very effective and didn’t take too long.

Then I laid it out on some net curtain on top of a rack above the bath to dry. I’ve managed to do three batches, which I reckon is about half the fleece.

As you can see, the wool is much whiter than it was, and it’s considerably less smelly! It doesn’t seem to have felted  anywhere, so either I have handled it really well, or it’s going to be difficult to get it to felt! 😉

Knitted pinwheel purse

As a break last night from sewing up purses/spectacle cases/Oystercard holders/smartphone cases, I picked up my (dusty) knitting needles and made this cute pinwheel purse from Frankie Brown.

It’s very simple and very clever – the secret is in the blocking (wetting it and pinning it out to dry). It would be a perfect wrapping for a pair of earrings or for keeping a few buttons or beads in.


Felted yarn

As I haven’t bought any wool tops or merino yet, I tried felting yarn at home. I have a stash of very old Rowan wool – so old, in fact, that I can pull lengths of wool off without needing scissors. As it obviously wouldn’t be any use for knitting, I thought it would be fine to use it in felting experiments.

Getting the yarn to felt took longer than the wool tops or merino. I’m not sure whether this is because there’s less surface area to felt, or whether the wool has been treated in some way to prevent it from felting or bobbling.

Felting it in a grid resulted in a woven tweed effect (below), which I quite like.

Felted yarn grid
Felted yarn grid

Felting the yarn in the shape of a star, or flower, was less successful. My ever-supportive partner said it looked ‘like something you’d find if you lifted up the rug when you were hoovering’. Huh! As if he ever hoovers…

Felted yarn web
'Like something you'd find under the rug when hoovering'

Maybe it would look better when dry-felted with an embellisher onto something else? I’ll have to think about it.

My first felt

Last night was the first creative and experimental textiles class of the new term at Morley College, and it was good to see familiar faces from last term, along with a clutch of new students. This term we’re covering felt and cooked cloth, and hopefully will be able to build on some of the work we did last term, combining felt and embroidery.

We started by experimenting with wool tops, which is wool that has been washed, combed and dyed ready for spinning. They come in long, smooth bundles of fibres, which you pull apart into thinner and/or shorter wisps.

Silk, angora, merino mix and fine wool tops (photo by Sarah Dewfall)

To make the felt, we put a layer of bubble wrap (bubble side down) on top of a wet towel, wet the strands of wool tops and arranged them on top of the bubble wrap. When we were happy with the arrangement, we wet the whole thing with soapy water, then put another layer of bubble wrap on top and rolled it up horizontally into a sausage. We rolled it back and forth (like using a rolling pin) for a few minutes, then unrolled it and rerolled it up vertically, and rolled again. We repeated this twice more, rolling it up on both diagonals. When it was ready, we rinsed it in clean water to remove the soap, and dried it off.

When wool felts, it shrinks. So we made our first pieces as grids, leaving spaces, to see how the wool shrank and how the gaps became smaller. We used merino, which is beautifully fine and soft to work with, and came in a stunning range of colours.

Felt web
This felt 'spider web' was originally about a third larger, with bigger gaps
Felt sample
Some parts of this composition are very loosely connected after the wool shrank during fulling
Blue and green felt
Again, shrinkage during felting results in interesting holes!

The piece in the third photo above was felted for slightly less time than the other two. More pressure, rubbing and moisture leads to fulling, which results in a more stable fabric with a harder texture and more shrinkage.

Then we moved on to working with wool tops that were slightly coarser, making felt balls and sausages. Balls are built up layer by layer, adding different coloured strands wetted with water and soap, and rolling them between the palms of your hands. You don’t need bubble wrap or much space, and you can embroider them and string them together to make a pretty necklace. Or you can cut them in half or slices to show the layers of different colours and make a brooch.

Felt sausages work on the same principle, except that you construct all the layers in one go. Each layer must be at right angles to the layer beneath. So if the first layer of red fibres is vertical, the next layer of, say, white fibres is horizontal. Then the next layer is vertical again. Once you have enough layers, wet them all with water and soap, and roll them up like a sausage in a J-cloth as tightly as you can. Then roll. And roll. And roll.

This is quite hard work, as it takes a lot of rolling – several of us got itchy palms from the constant friction! But it is important to ensure that the sausage is as firm as possible – if it isn’t felted properly, the layers will come apart when you slice into them.

Felt sausage
This 'green bean' is my felt sausage, drying out!

One tip to give the layers more stability  is to dip felt beads or sausages into a solution of 50% PVA glue and 50% water. Squeeze out the excess, and leave to dry before slicing.

We will be slicing our balls and sausages in next week’s class – come back then to see the results! 🙂