Use it before you lose it (spinning)

Of course, if you can’t use it quickly, at least write it down.

So… this weekend, I took a class on Shetland spinning and lace knitting, traditional techniques for how to produce those wonderful shawls that helped the Shetland islanders to earn a living. (of sorts, I think; the history that I know of indicates they were badly underpaid)

What do I want to remember from that?

For the spinning, I must remember that the right fleece is essential. And I don’t mean just a Shetland fleece, but one that is good quality, with fibers of the right thinness, etc. And that it is preferable to spin in the grease. Now I would never have thought that, but apparently the lanolin helps the fibers to hold together when you are spinning the extreme fineness necessary for laceweight and cobweb-weight yarn. And it’s not as much of a problem with Shetland breed fleeces as it is with other breeds, because they don’t produce the overwhelming amount of lanolin that makes spinning in the grease a questionable choice.

Watch out for the rise (the new growth after the winter’s dormancy), because if there’s too much of it, then you are paying for something that you are not going to use. And be strong — you are going to throw away a good bit of it. Some of it will be okay for spinning for purposes other than lace, but there is still a noticeable portion that is just rubbish, and throwing it away is okay. (For some, this is very difficult.) The areas most likely to be thrown away for the lower portions of the leg, the center down the back, and definitely the belly wool. The nicest is generally close to the head and neck area, but the sides may have decent stuff. The closer you get to the rear of the animal, the lower the quality goes.

You are also watching for dirt, etc. Get rid of the worst bits, but remember that a reasonable amount of vegetable matter will come out in the prep. NOTE: if the fleece is good except for the extreme dirtiness, then this is one time you might wash it beforehand. But do a very limited washing, since you don’t want to lose too much lanolin.

You can card it or comb it. Do it in small amounts, as you work. The more traditional method is combing it with something like a flick carder or a dog comb-type tool. Full-on combing is not really good, since you lose a lot more material that way. You are more interested in achieving a lock-by-lock spinnability. For lace spinning, one lock can last a long time. Carding is acceptable, but you will end up with the fibers more mixed, and are less likely to end up with the worsted-spin that is the traditional focus.
When spinning it, do an inchworm draft. Long draw just is not going to cut it for the degree of control you need to produce really fine fiber. For two-ply laceweight, you really are looking at around 5-7 fibers in a single. For cobweb-weight, you are looking at 3-4 fibers in a single. (I didn’t quite achieve that during the class; I think the best I got was in the 8-10 fibers in a single, but since that is better than I’ve ever done, I’m not complaining.) Be sure to put LOTS of twist in the single; lots more than you have ever done before. Then put a little more. But when you ply it, do so lightly. You want enough ply to make it difficult to split the yarn during knitting, but really no more than that. The light hand in plying helps to preserve the softness of the yarn, which is desirable for something that may end up next to your skin.

Okay, at the moment I’ve run dry for spinning remembrance, but I’m going to share this with my fellow students and see what they might have to add.

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