Notes from the Studio
Some days--like today, when I have so many things on my to-do list that I can't decide where to start--fleece washing is just the mental vacation I need. Sure, it's messy and requires some heavy lifting, but at least I don't have to make decisions. My neighbor had her sheep sheared yesterday, and I was eager to see what her new Gotland x Border Leicester lambs had going on for themselves. Just look how sparkly and shiny she is!
Washing a fleece successfully (and enjoying the process) really comes down to having a workable setup. In my dreams, we all have a fleece-washing rig like this one at Battenkill Fiber Mill, in Greenwich, NY. Endless hot water, drains, roomy crab baskets, and oh yes, an electric basket lifter.
But in reality, all we really need to wash fleeces is hot water and somewhere to dump the dirty water. Can you wash fleeces in a top-load washing machine, or in the bathtub? Well, I have friends who do, and I've never heard of anyone having a problem. I've heard warnings against it, but I haven't seen conclusive data. What I do know is that lanolin hardens to a sticky wax, and I also know that if my pipes become clogged because of my indoor fleece-washing activities, I would have to become way more familiar with my septic system than I ever want to be. So I choose hauling water and dumping outside, over tangling with my septic system.
When I washed fleeces in the barn, I had to carry the dirty water through the studio, and walk through the greenhouse and garden to dump the dirty water in the driveway. Having the hot water and dumping area within a few steps of one another is a new luxury for me. We put in this new door in the kitchen, and since it's right between the faucet and stove, it makes a perfect "work triangle" for washing fleeces. My washtub, soap, and fleece are set up on the deck just outside the door.
The first step is skirting the raw fleece, to remove the short second cuts, poopy bits, and as much of the veg matter as possible. When it comes to veg matter, everyone has their own personal threshold. I don't mind big things like hay, sticks, or seedheads. As long as you pull on the stem, the seedheads come right out without shattering.
But the dealkiller for me is what I call "veg shrapnel."
In my experience, little veg bits like these seem to come out only to get stuck in the clean fleece. When it's all washed, you can tease some of it out, but whatever you don't get out will just get carded and then spun into your yarn. And then eventually knit into your sweater. Some veg matter in minimally-processed yarn is to be expected; the alternative is to dissolve every speck of veg matter with sulfuric acid, as is done in commercial mills.
Poopy bits, believe it or not, are easier to deal with. Toss the poop, and toss the really mucky locks, especially if they're short or matted, like the clump to the right.
The clump in the center will wash out, but know that it might be the cause for needing to do that third (or fourth) hot wash.
Hopefully the majority of your fleece will look like this:
Once the fleece is skirted, I put it in a mesh laundry bag and soak it in cold water.The soak can last between a few hours to overnight. It won't do anything for the lanolin, but it'll start softening some of the poop and mud.
When it's time to really wash the fleece, I fill my big stockpot and heat it on the stove until it's about to start simmering. I dump that into the washtub, then fill the pot again with hot water from the faucet. The water from my faucet doesn't get hot enough to melt lanolin (there's a range of recommended washing temperatures; I've learned the hard way that my tap water alone isn't hot enough). Besides, it cools as I'm filling the pot the second time.
For soap, I've used dish detergent, Orvus paste, and I'm currently using Unicorn Power Scour. I found dish detergent to be too sudsy, Orvus paste melted the skin off my hands (I have a sensitivity to sodium lauryl sulfate), and so far, I have no complaints about Power Scour. I even like the way it smells: not perfumy--it just smells like a clean sheep.
I stuck a pump nozzle into my bottle, and it works ok. Maybe one day, I'll even trim the straw so that I can actually screw it closed. I use 2 squirts for my washtub, and swirl gently so I don't get bubbles.
The absolute hardest part of washing a fleece? NOT agitating it. It's like trying to resist the urge to scratch a poison ivy rash. We all know that the way to get anything really clean is to scrub, right? Yeah, no. Not fleece. It's best to walk away...although I've never been able to resist sneaking in a few plunges (pushing straight down is not agitating, I swear!).
It's important to not let this water cool. I set a timer for 20 minutes so I don't forget. If the water cools, the lanolin that melted off the fleece will become redeposited and nothing on god's green earth will be able to dislodge it again.*
While it's soaking, I refill my stockpot and put it back on the stove. After about 20 minutes, I fish out the laundry bag and drape it over a fence to drip, and squeeze out the water. I rinse out the tub, and do it all over again. And once more from the top.
To rinse, I fill the tub with warm water, and soak for about 30 minutes. Fish out, drape, squeeze, repeat. By now, all the lanolin has been melted off the fleece, and dumped out. So for the second warm rinse, I let the fleece soak until the water cools. When the water is cool, I rinse in cold water until the water is mostly clear. After the third or fourth cold rinse, I call it a day. Most of the fleece should look very clean, but if the water still looks murky, it'll be because there are a few stubborn dingleberries, and it's not worth rinsing the entire fleece again and again.
I lay out the fleece on the potting table in the greenhouse, and wait impatiently for it to dry. Tomorrow, I'm going to dye some of these white locks to bring to the Indie Untangled Rhinebeck Trunk Show next month.
*I once heard a tale about a woman who succeeded in fixing this mistake. She brought a pot of water to boil, and dipped the fleece lock by lock, changing the water every few locks. If anyone feels compelled to try this, please let me know if it works!
This is my backyard fiber festival, and it is, without a doubt, the festival that I enjoy the most. And that's because it's the one show where I get to be a civilian, with no responsibilities or duties. It was a thrill to be on the other side of the booth and to be the idle browser, but what do I do when I'm let loose at a fiber festival? I divide my time equally between the fleece tent and the sheep pens, of course!
In the fleece tent, I was the scribe for the judging. Other than the cold-sweat inducing moment of panic when the judge pointed to a fleece and asked me, "What's wrong with this fleece?"* it was a great experience. The American Romney Breeders Association held their annual meeting and show this year at the Festival, so it was primarily a Romney fleece show. I learned about the old-school lock formation (loose and fluffy crinkles), vs the new-school (tight crinkle crimps), and the impact a little luster can have on a fleece's overall presentation. I've never entered a fleece in a competition, but my takeaway was that any fleece I enter should be ruthlessly skirted, with locks that have great flow: crusty, mucky, felted tips need not apply.
This is Ron Andress, whose natural color Romney fleece won Grand Champion. It was the fleece that I'd secretly decided to buy after the judging was over, so I admit to a little tingle of smug satisfaction, knowing that I'd picked a winner. But that purple rosette was a beacon for prospective buyers, and someone else fell deeply in love with the fleece while I was tallying the scorecards. The buyer was new to spinning and to fiber processing, and I knew that she couldn't have chosen a better fleece to begin her education. Romney roving is what I like to use for teaching spinning, because of its very loose, open structure. It flows so effortlessly that it doesn't just spin itself; it even drafts itself. It's resistant to felting in the too-tight, often sweaty, clutch of a new spinner, and the crinkle crimp twists together easily. I only pouted a little at losing out on the fleece because. as I told the buyer, that sheep is out there eating grass, and growing more fleece right at this moment.
Working the fleece sale was a breezy delight this year, thanks to the hard work of the Festival committee organizers. Honestly. With enough carefully laid out Excel spreadsheets, I think I could rule the world. One of the best things about camping out in the fleece tent is that most of the fiber world moseys in, "just to look," haha. One bright moment was meeting Master Spinner Nelda Davis, the paragon of careful, deliberate handspinning. She bought a buttery, fine Mini Cheviot x Shetland fleece, and she must have seen me drooling a little, because she gave me a handful to play with. I had my Ladybug with the bulky flyer kit, but I had plenty of time working the sale, so I thought I'd see just how fine this fine fleece could go. Threadlike is how fine! I spun the handful of locks onto 2 bobbins, plied that together, and then plied the 2 2-plies. And since it was still only a fingering weight, I wound it around my hand and Andean-plied the 4-ply together into an 8-strand cable ply. I showed it to Nelda later that day, and her response? "Wow, I'm impressed." Well. That was a moment that I'd like to preserve in a bottle. Sadly, I was in such a flustered daze after that that I lost my mini skein.
When I wasn't in the fleece tent, I was nuzzling Shetlands. It was practically a family reunion, with Judi Lehrhaupt, the breeder who sold me my girls, and Jane and Greg Kornhaber, whose flock also came from her. For bio-security reasons, I don't take my sheep anywhere, so when Jane and Greg asked if I wanted to show their lambs, I jumped at the chance. I don't have any experience in showing animals, and I'm not even great about harness training my sheep, so I appreciated the opportunity to learn from experienced shepherds.
The first event was the Parade of Breeds, which is not judged, so it was the ideal time to make my debut as a handler. I walked Hermione, a ewe lamb, and her brother Loki, a ram lamb, who happen to be my Phoebe's niece and nephew. See? I told you it was a family reunion!
The judged events were the following day, and I think Hermione pretty much sums up both of our feelings about strutting our stuff to be judged.
I'm happy to leave the showing to the pros (i.e., those 8-year old 4-H wunderkinds who have the sang-froid of a cowboy and seem to have a psychic bond with their farm animals), and spend my days lolling in the fields with my sheep.
It's Sunday night, and my mind is still abuzz from the excitement of the weekend. Chatting with other shepherds is always so informative, and being with fiber friends invariably leads to ideas for the future. There's a road trip to Vermont in the works, to cruise for a stud (there's really no delicate way to describe this situation). And plans are under way to host a Fiber Farm Day and Fleece Swap. Sound interesting? Drop me a note, and I'll make sure to fill you in on the details.
*My answer: "Dirty, and...uh, short?" Correct answer: "Tips are too tight, and the staple length is uneven."
Phoebe and Beatrice are such good friends. Just because two sheep are the same age doesn't mean that they'll get along, but these two are a good match.
Beatrice is outgoing, and has been accepted by the big girls, but she really enjoys hanging out with Phoebe. And without Beatrice, Phoebe would be lost.
For the past few nights, I've been separating the new girls from my old girls at night. My old girls are used to having my undivided attention, and they won't let the new girls get close to me. My evening routine has settled into taking hay and grain to the old shed, letting my old girls push the new girls out, and then closing the gate behind them. Then, the new girls are free to follow me to the new barn, where they get their own hay and grain.
I sat at the barn threshold with the grain trough in my lap. With their noses buried in the trough, I was able to pet Moon and even Beatrice. I didn't try to pet Phoebe the first couple of nights, because I didn't want to interrupt her eating. I just concentrated on keeping Moon from butting her away from the trough.
It helps that Moon isn't shy and will always walk over for pets--the two lambs watch her and it makes them wonder what they're missing. Beatrice had come over a couple of times to snuffle at my fingers, but both lambs seemed afraid of my hands. I can't blame them; I knew the breeder had been travelling this spring, and hadn't been able to cuddle them as much as she would have normally. And the last thing they remembered was being grabbed and hauled away from their mommies to be brought here.
So for a few nights, I let them eat from the trough and only reached out to Moon and Beatrice. But last night, as I was putting the old girls in the old shed, Moon snuck by and decided to party with the other yearlings.*
Which left me with just the lambs! I got more hay and grain for the lambs, and they followed me to the new barn. Instead of the trough, I brought the grain in a scoop. I sat on the threshold again, which is basically at ground-level, and held the grain in my hand. They just gave me some suspicious side-eye, and wouldn't eat the grain. I sprinkled the grain on the threshold next to me, and Beatrice came over to vacuum it all up. When she started to look for more, I held out a handful of grain again. She'd only had a little grain and wanted more, so this time, she ate out of my hand. In the meantime, Phoebe finally came to the threshold that had been licked clean of grain by Beatrice. With the hand that wasn't feeding Beatrice, I sprinkled another handful on the threshold for Phoebe. As she was eating the grain, I took another handful and held it just above the threshold. And finally, finally, she took the grain from my hand.
When the grain ran out, I reached out slowly and started scratching Beatrice's nose. And then her chest. She froze, and I could see it dawning on her why the older girls would mob me for pets. I scratched her chest and started picking sticks and dried leaves off her fleece as her eyes glazed over and she started burping and chewing her cud.
Phoebe watched for a while, and then sidled up. I held out my hand, and then, I slowly withdrew my hand. I don't know if all sheep are this way, but when I draw my hand away from my sheep, they automatically follow my hand and step closer. Phoebe did exactly that and put her soft little nose in my hand. She had all sorts of leaves, hay, and other um, barnyard detritus stuck in her fleece, and she let me pull everything out. I got the feeling it was the first time she'd felt completely at ease here. She had a full tummy from being able to eat without having to worry about being chased, butted, or trampled by the big girls, and as I scratched her neck and chest, she flopped down and fell asleep immediately.
By this time, Beatrice was so over being shy that she'd bury her head in the hay basket, then come stand in front of me, dripping hay, and butt my hand to pull the hay off her.
*And they did party, those punks! They pushed open the gate to the front field, and spent the night chomping on fallen apples and stripping the bark off the apple branches. They had so much fun all night that they've been sleeping all morning. Teenagers, honestly.
Three new Shetland sheep joined my flock this week: one yearling, and two lambs. Moon, the yearling, is mioget (golden-brown), and the twin of my Poppy. Beatrice is a fawn lamb, and Phoebe is a moorit (dark chocolate brown) lamb.
I'd met Moon at Rhinebeck in the breed barn, and had fallen in love with her sweet disposition and her super-fine fleece. When I bought the lambs, I was happy that a yearling they were were familiar with would be coming with them. I was worried about how they would integrate with my 3 yearlings.
The first day was rough. I had the new girls in a separate field from my old girls, but they could see and sniff one another. When I finally let them together, it was a head-butting frenzy. My Poppy must have recognized Moon on some level, because she didn't go after Moon as violently as Quin and Roobie did.
The two lambs shadowed Moon, who wasn't particularly interested in being their surrogate mother. She let the lambs be near her, but didn't let them get too close. Beatrice, who is bold as brass, marched up to the hay feeders as if she belonged there. She let the older girls bump her, but didn't let them chase her away. Phoebe, on the other hand, skittered away from any movement.
As I watched them, I realized that lambs aren't very different from human children. Beatrice rolled with the punches (and head-butts) and was accepted, more or less. She laid down with them, and snuck in mouthfuls of hay and water whenever she could. Phoebe was constantly jumpy, and alternated between running away and trying to snuggle up to, and even nurse from, Moon. My guess is that she hadn't been weaned for very long, and she was used to being able to hide behind her mother. I think Beatrice had been weaned longer, and had gotten used to standing up for herself. By the evening, Phoebe was a target, with all 4 yearlings chasing her and butting her relentlessly.
I have a party trick when people come to visit. I take them to the field, and as we approach the sheep, the sheep run away. I have my visitors stand still, and I walk away at an angle between the sheep and my visitors. When I'm sure the sheep are just dying of curiosity, I turn my back on them, and start walking toward the visitors. And the sheep feel compelled to follow me. They are, after, sheep. So every time Phoebe ran from the yearlings, the yearlings chased her. Sometimes the yearlings wanted to butt her, but sometimes, they just wanted to sniff her. The less they could sniff her, the more they wanted to chase her, and the more she ran. And 'round and 'round they went.
On the long drive home, I mulled over what fibers I would blend to produce the ideal shawl or sweater yarn. The Shetland Islands has been a leitmotif in my life this spring, so when I envisioned shawls, I had haps in mind. Unlike the intricate lace wedding shawls that, according to tradition, were fine enough to pass through a wedding ring, hap patterns were written with a simple lace design and knit with a thicker yarn, for everyday wear.
My yarn, I decided, would be lofty for warmth, durable--no wimpy pilling!, elastic because my hands are getting arthritic, and able to hold a lace pattern like a champ. The yarn would need to make a finished fabric that was lightweight, but have enough substance and body so that it didn't just puddle around my neck. And on top of all that, it needed to be soft enough for my sensitive skin.
The more I thought about it, the more requirements I kept dreaming up for my yarn. I wanted to be able to hand-pick each fleece from sheep I knew personally (or at least knew the shepherds), and I wanted a range of natural colors. But natural colors with depth and tonal complexity. And the last thing? I wanted heaps and heaps of this wonder yarn, which meant that I'd getting it spun for me. So it needed to be a blend of fibers that could be processed by a small fiber mill, and still retain its homegrown roots.
When I got home, I started weighing, carding, and blending some fibers together.
For weeks, I played with percentages and color combinations, and I spun and knit several test samples. I took the yarn with me everywhere, showing it to knitting friends and asking for feedback. It wasn't until I finished my Hansel Hap Shawl by Gudrun Johnston, and blocked it, that I was certain I got it right.
It was time to go mill shopping. I heard so many glowing recommendations for John and Lydia Piper at Gurdy Run Woolen Mill, and when I spoke with John, I could see why. I've never dropped off fiber to be processed before, and he was very patient about walking me through the process. We talked about the the fibers I'd chosen, and the best way to draft them individually and together. We talked about starting with a combination of combed top, carded roving, and raw fleece to end up with a yarn that had all the qualities I wanted.
The process of mill-spinning is both more high-tech and at the same time, more hands-on than I'd thought. Sure, the machines do the actual carding, drafting, and spinning, but it's not all one run-through. I didn't exactly think that John and Lydia just dumped fibers into a chute, tapped a few buttons on their laptops, and enjoyed iced tea on the porch while they waited for the machine to spit out skeins of yarn. What did I know? Not much, apparently.
The raw fleeces are washed by hand, and the carding, picking, pin-drafting, and spinning are each individual steps, requiring human oversight and adjustment. They handle the fiber between each stage, to weigh and evaluate what went in, and what came out. There's complex math involving weights and measurements, which Lydia explained and I nodded whenever I thought she needed the encouragement to go on.
There are cool gadgets like an air splicer (I want one!), but the skeining and tying are done by hand. I hope to go back for a visit on the day they're working on my yarn, and Lydia said if I'm lucky, she'll put me to work tying up the skeins. I can't wait.
This past weekend was the TNNA Needle Arts Trade Show. It was like the biggest yarn shop in the world; the yarn shop's yarn shop, as it were. Indie dyers, yarn companies, equipment manufacturers, designers, tool suppliers...if you've seen it in a yarn shop, it was represented at the show.
My friend and mentor Dalis Davidson, of Dancing Leaf Farm, was a first-time vendor this year, so it was a great excuse for me to go hang out with her, and to check out the scene. Being neither a major wholesaler nor a yarn shop, I was just basically an unattended child in a toy store. I got to play with friends, paw through all the Habu yarn and knit samples, and I even carded an art batt on the Strauch motorized drum carder. It's not a model I have in the studio, so it was a treat. Having Otto Strauch himself hovering over me (and videoing!) my carding technique wasn't nerve-wracking at all. Nope.
The highlight of the day was getting the chance to test drive the new Schacht Flatiron wheel. It'll be available for sale in August, and I was very excited to give it whirl. I've been thinking about the experience, and it reminds me of the first time I tasted Marmite. Like Marmite, seeing the Flatiron for the first time elicits an immediate "what is that?!" response. Which, if you're me, leads to, "I have to try it!"
So what did I think? Long draw is my go-to method, and I hold the fiber in my left hand. Which was convenient, since that's the way the demo wheel was assembled (the flyer can be mounted on either side). The drive wheel, measuring 22.5" (compared to the Matchless's 19.5"), has horsepower to spare, and its wide footprint ensures that despite the fact that it weighs less than the Matchless, treadling feels smooth and rock-solid. One perk of the design is that because the bobbin is about elbow-height, it's possible to see the entire bobbin. Maybe I'm the only one bothered by the fact that I can only see 3/4 of the bobbin while I'm spinning on the Matchless or Ladybug, but I appreciated the full-bobbin view on the new Flatiron.
And speaking of the view...it's eye-catching and singular, no doubt. I asked Barry why it looked the way it did. His goal, he said, was to engineer a a wheel that could be shipped flat, and the design was influenced by a steampunk aesthetic that he hoped would lure the young IKEA crowd. Hmm. Any young IKEA fans out there reading this post and feeing the allure of a steampunk-inspired wheel? Please sound off below.
As I was grilling Barry about the...let's say unorthodox...styling, a longtime LYS owner chimed in to say that when the Matchless made its debut, it was met with criticism and horror. So we'll see. Maybe symmetry and charming little ladybugs will become a thing of the past in the wake of this new design. It'll be available for delivery (in a flat box!) in August for $795.
Spinning modes: Scotch, double drive, bobbin-lead
Spinning ratios: 4.6:1 to 26:1
Weight: 15 pounds
Drive wheel: 22 1/2”
Orifice height: 26”
Dimensions: 33” wide x 33” tall x 18” deep
Comes with 3 bobbins, medium and fast whorls, cotton and poly drive bands, threading hook.