Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing

There are a lot of people who don't see the point of hand knitting. Why, they wonder, would any sane person spend hours upon hours carefully wrapping bits of yarn around a pair of needles when one can buy equivalents of the finished product at Wal-Mart? Especially when said Wal-Mart product is a hell of a lot cheaper. Luckily, I don't know anyone with that attitude. I'm very fortunate, in fact, to have friends and family who appreciate my love of knitting, in the fullest sense of the word.

I have to wonder what the former group says, though, about knitters who spin their own yarn first. Because, damn, if I had a few hundred spare bucks lying around, I'd be surreptitiously Googling spinning wheels. And it'd be all Sheila's fault.

A couple of days ago, at the regular Thursday Stich N' Bitch at Threaded Bliss, a lady named Marlene Gruetter from Timber Ridge Farm in Ohio came to talk to us about where little yarns come from.

Five years ago, Marlene and her husband bought a farm, and, told they needed some animals, decided to purchase two (2) goats. They came home with six goats, and now they have goats, sheep, rabbits, and llamas, all of whom produce bags and bags of fiber every year. (Okay, in the case of the bunnies it's a very small bag.) Her husband shears the animals, and Marlene sorts, cleans (there's a separate technical term for "picking out the bits of hay, mud and poo," but I can't remember it now, bad student), washes, cards, spins, and weaves.

There were about a dozen knitters there that night, and only two of them had ever done any spinning at all. A tabula rasa, as it were, of knowledge about raw fiber and what to do with it. Marlene started by talking about the critters themselves, and showed us samples of the different fibers that came from them. She even brought along her award-winning mohair fleece. Now, when I think "fleece," I can't help but picture a single, cohesive mass of fiber. This was simply a bag of large locks of goat hair. Marlene had removed the trash from it, but it was otherwise unwashed, un-brushed, and pretty much just as it it come off the goat.

She also brought along some samples of llama, alpaca (she doesn't raise alpacas, but she has a friend who gave her some alpaca fiber), and angora from the rabbits. Brief nomenclature lesson: There are Angora rabbits and Angora goats. The fiber that comes from the rabbits is called angora, but the fiber that comes from the goats is called mohair, not angora. Just to clear that up.

Anyway, the angora in particular was amazing. I really can't do it justice. One person said it was as if your fingers weren't sensitive enough to really feel it, it was so fine and smooth and soft. Marlene also had some yarn spun from 100% mohair, which was much slicker and smoother than I had ever thought. Most mohair yarns are blended with nylon or wool (For those who have seen the purple shawl I just finished, that yarn was about 75% mohair, 22% wool, and 3% nylon), and I was surprised at the difference the blends had made to the mohair.

After showing us some different fleeces and fibers, Marlene demonstrated how to blend and card. This is a labor-intensive process, even with a drum-carder that combs the fibers by turning a crank, instead of using two combs to manually brush the fibers. Depending on how smooth one wants the finished yarn to be, the same fleece might need to be run through the carding process multiple times, and one can only card relatively small pieces at a time. This is why, Marlene explained, when her husband asks "What are you doing today?" she can simply say "carding," and he'll know she'll be busy all day long. This is also the reason that many fiber farmers send their fleeces out to be carded and spun. Even with a modest number of animals, it's far too much work for a single person.

When the fiber comes off the drum, it's in a flat piece about an inch thick. This is called a "batting," and I had something of a belated epiphany when Marlene mentioned that these bats are used by quilters. Duh. I've known for years that the stuff one puts between the layers of a quilt is called batting, but I'd never connected it with the spinning term. Live and learn. When one buys fiber for spinning, one can buy it in the bats, or in rovings, which (if I'm understanding the terminology correctly) is a bat that has been teased out into a longer, thinner shape.

The roving is a very thick, very puffy, very loose collection of fiber. Think cotton balls. You can't make anything out the roving that won't fall apart as soon as it's tugged or pushed or pulled or had, really, any pressure at all put on it. To make the fibers hold together, there are two things to do: felting and spinning. You can felt raw fiber the same way you felt knitted yarn, and Marlene does quite a bit of this. She says that it is, sadly, a dying art form, and she's determined to do her part to revive it.

The second way to make the fiber hold together is by spinning it into yarn. Spinning is, essentially, the process of twisting the fibers together so that they cling to one another enough to hold their shape. A spinning wheel automates the twisting process, nothing more. The spinner determines everything else, including how thick, thin, loose or tight the yarn is.

Marlene brought out the spinning wheel, and demonstrated. She asked for volunteers to try it, and I pretty much jumped at the chance. To spin, one holds the raw fiber in both hands, using one hand to feed the twisted yarn onto the bobbin, and the other to tease out the un-spun fiber so that it can be twisted. There is, obviously, a great deal of practice, skill, and know-how involved in said process, but it amazed me how easily that big puff of fiber turned into an object resembling yarn.

I spun about three yards of yarn, which in its modest length contains many different spinning techniques. Parts of it are very loosely twisted--one might go so far as to describe them as "un-spun lumps." Other parts are very firmly twisted, and have a charming habit of kinking into tight little piggy tails at the least provocation. There are even some parts that combine the two techniques, resembling densely matted lumps. And there are even a couple of inches, here and there, that look like yarn. It was amazingly, amazingly fun, and I can see now why not only are there many knitters who enjoy spinning their own yarn, there are folks out there who have no interest in knitting, weaving, or crocheting, they just love making the yarn.

I wonder if there are cheap spinning wheels on E-bay...


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