Monday 25 February 2008

Balancing a plied yarn

Last week I had spun and plied a fine grey Shetland yarn, when I had wound a skein and removed it from the small niddy-noddy, it twisted over on itself, as shown.

My heart sank at this. I'd spent a couple of evenings preparing this yarn, spinning one singles one evening, the other and plying on the next. I hoped the problem might be solved by washing the yarn and then drying it with a weight to pull it straight. This was not to be - oh no - no such happy resolution. Nothing like. I dropped the yarn in a bowl of hand-warm water and it straight away seemed alive. It squirmed.

I leant over the bowl of water and stared at the skein anxiously, it didn't look right at all. It had kind of curled up in the bowl, like my cat in his basket. Skeins don't normally do this. They normally kind-of stretch out and float, like when you return a strip of seaweed to the sea. I pulled out the unhappy little skein, I hung it over a rack and dried it with a weight, but even with the weight hanging from the wet skein, it wouldn't straighten out.

Do you see its fancy twirls and squiggles? Not the sort of yarn I wanted. Not as good as my previous attempts at a balanced, fine yarn. One of the oddest yarns I've produced.

It reminded me of another skein, tucked away in a drawer for a couple of years.

No, this is not knitted! Yes, it does look like moss! I was trying out an idea, plying a yellow yarn with a green, thinking of knitting a sample square to try out a jumper yarn. When I took it off the niddy-noddy, my beautiful yarn turned into the strange coil you see above. It's very elastic, makes a nice warm neck collar, but will never be knitted!

How was this achieved? I had plied the yarn the same way it was spun. Normally, to ply a yarn the spinning wheel direction is reversed. The twist in a singles yarn gives it kinetic (stored) energy. The straight fibres fight against the spinning. A singles yarn can be set, just like curling your hair with old fashioned curlers: wash and dry under tension. In a plied yarn, two singles spun the same way are plied with opposite twist. The plying "balances" the energy in the singles with a twist that pulls the other way.

I remembered that Mabel Ross's Handspinner's Workbook had a section "Balance in Yarn Spinning". Very much aware that I really don't understand properly how plying works, I went back to this book. She describes how a balanced yarn needs to be plied, and being a mathematician, she gives an equation.

To summarise, plying a yarn the opposite way to the twist in the singles, removes of half the twist from each of the singles yarns.

To achieve balance,
the twist per inch in the plied yarn
must be equal to
the sum of the remaining twist in the singles.

9 tpi in each of two singles, plied 6 tpi the opposite direction, leaves two singles each with 3 tpi. 2 x 3 tpi = 6, the same tpi as the plying, and so a balanced yarn.

O.K. this is not the simplest concept in spinning. But Mabel Ross has done what no-one else seems to. She looked at what happens, analysed it, and made a description that if you can follow it enables you to ply a balanced yarn every time.

Big sigh. I had to stop, think, calculate, but it was worth while. I got some black Shetland, just a little (I didn't want another whole skein going wrong!), and prepared a couple of short lengths of singles yarn, then plied, putting in 2/3rds the twist of the singles. It worked.

What is more, it's a good fine yarn. I didn't spin enough to see how many times it would wrap around one inch of my ruler, but there were 20 wpi in the half inch.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Wools from rare sheep breeds

I recently ordered a book and a new weaving shuttle from Scottish Fibres, and, because I like to try out different wools to see what they are like for spinning, I ordered 100g of Gotland , 200g white North Ronaldsay and 100g of black North Ronaldsay. The North Ronaldsay is very special, as the sheep live on the island they are named for, and a major part of their diet is seaweed. Attempts to keep them away from their island home have failed, because these sheep have adapted to filter out the high levels of iodine in seaweed. Take them away from this food source, and they are unable to absorb enough iodine from other less intense sources.

Here is the wool, in the box it arrived in (it was one of those lovely moments like finding the sugar mouse, 10p coin, and the satsuma in the toe of your Christmas stocking...) do you see the lustre of that grey Gotland? It's silky soft. The North Ronaldsay is so, so woolly soft. It seems to be carded, not combed, has a short staple and spins a lovely soft, bouncy woolen yarn with a few little neps.

Here's a close up of the Gotland, showing the range of colour in this "grey", from light and silvery to odd black fibres, it is more than plain grey, I think you can see this in the photo of the yarn I have spun. It is soft enough to wear next to skin, finer textured than many of the other lustorous wools.

A favourite reference book, "In Sheeps Clothing", by Nola and Jane Fournier, (pub. Interweave Press) warns that it felts easily, so this might be something to bear in mind when using the yarn. Maybe I should have a go at one of those garments where you knit slightly oversize and then deliberately felt? Would it loose it's sheen? Best way to find out is probably to knit a sample square and put it through the wash.

So, today I have been spinning yarn from the white North Ronaldsay on my efficient double treadle Timbertops Leceister wheel, and on my older single treadle Timbertops wheel I've been spinning fine yarn again, this time from grey Shetland wool. I have have to concentrate hard to spin fine at the moment. The aim for a lace yarn is 12 strands of fibre in the singles, and then to decrease, but at present I'm comfortable at about 22 strands - I say about because I wasn't using a magnifying glass when I squinted at the end of the yarn and tried to count!

I am being very careful now to watch how much twist goes into the wool. I discovered that half-an-inch is a bit less than I though it was... hence I was calculating wrong and that maybe why the yarn didn't work out right when I plied.

This is a handicap with having grown up with two systems of measurement. The official switch from imperial to metric happened when I had already had about 4 years in school. I think I am familiar with cm and inch - but in truth I am slightly confused as I swap back and forth between them. The Mabel Ross lap apron with marked measurements (see my previous post) is very useful.

Here's a little picture of the North Ronaldsay on the bobbin to end, and a link to Cally's blog, as she is also enjoying spinning this special wool.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Fine spinning again, with Shetland wool

I've been working at my lace yarn spinning. As the Wensleydale yarn turned out looking a bit hairy, I picked up some white Shetland wool that was near to hand. I bought this as "combed tops", however, to make sure I had the right quality of fibre and the longest staples I combed it with the same fine tooth comb I used on the Wensleydale. I was interested to discover that about 1/3 of the fibre was half the staple length of the longest fibres. These shorter lengths are still very good quality and I have put them to one side for spinning a woolen yarn.

I changed whorls to give an 8:1 ratio and then I worked carefully, aiming to spin for one treadle (8 twists) per 1/2 inch of fibre. I was very pleased with this:It's very fine, but still has some softness and bounce to the yarn. I spun a small amount on two bobbins, and then plied. I am not happy with my plying technique yet. I need to plan this carefully next time. I got too much twist in when I plied, so that when I took the skein off my niddy-noddy (skein winder) and held it by one end, the skein gently twisted over onto itself. I had tested a few times, by plying a length and then letting the tension between where I was holding the yarn and the flyer orifice go slack, so that the yarn was hanging down in a loop. This generally shows up over plying because the yarn twists around itself instead of hanging down in a simple loop. However, I am spinning on a double-drive wheel. As the yarn draws on to the bobbin with double-drive, it gains extra twist. This doesn't happen with a scotch tension wheel. The effect on the double drive wheel is extra ply in the yarn, so this needs compensating for by having the yarn slightly under-plied before letting it wind on the bobbin. I haven't cracked this yet, but I'm sure that once I get it right I shall get a feel for the technique and be able to spin good yarn.

To show how fine my spinning is now, here are the coloured Wensleydale and white Shetland yarns by a ruler:
The Wensleydale has plied to a yarn of 39 wraps per inch (wpi). The Shetland is less fine, at 30 wpi.

Janet has sent me an instruction sheet she's written, with the aim of getting to spin a yarn with as few as 5 fibres twisting together in each single thread. It says aim for 12 to begin with, then reduce to 5... [pause for thought......] this is quite a challenge I have taken on.

I just wanted to show you the very useful lap apron that I was given when I bought my second hand Timbertops Wheel. The lines on it indicate half inch and inch. This side is white, the other black, giving good contrasting backgrounds for handling light / dark fibres.

This apron is clearly marked copyright Mabel Ross. She's the author of four superb books on spinning, two are in print and readily available: The Essentials of Handspinning, and The Essentials of Yarn Design.

Two others, just as good and useful, and containing information not available elsewhere, are out of print. These are:
Encyclopedia of Handspinning
(the price of this 2nd hand is getting a bit silly) and
Handspinner's Workshop: Fancy Yarns (very difficult to find a copy, I searched for 2 years before I was lucky. If anyone has a copy for sale, please let me know as I know someone who wants it.)

Ruth Gough, if you read this, I agree with Janet, I'd like to see these books back in print! Maybe some of those handy lap aprons too? Diane Varney's Spinning Designer Yarns and Alison Daykin and Jane Deane's book Creative Spinning are both very nice books, and inspirational, but no-one else gives you the very simple descriptions and formulae that Mabel Ross has in her Fancy Yarns book. (Ruth Gough of Wingham Wool Work keeps two of Mabel's books in print, under licence from the copyright holder, Mabel Ross's son).

Some people don't like Mabel Ross's approach to spinning. She was a teacher of mathematics, and so when she wrote about spinning it was natural for her to reduce the technique for spinning all sorts of yarns to simple calculations. She drew up tables for how to adjust your spinning to get exactly the yarn you want. You either love or hate this method. I love it. I used to run away (terrified!) from tables and calculations at one time, but have learnt that there's lots of things you need to do in life that are so much easier if you just face up to the figures and take your time to do simple sums and measurements.

Saturday 9 February 2008

Fine spinning - and Ashford Joy spinning wheel

Last year I attempted to spin very fine (lace weight) yarn. I had difficulty finding information about how to do this, and I wasn't very successful. My yarn was not so fine as I thought it should be and I because I'd got the idea that you needed special lace weight flyers and high speed whorls, I had difficulty controlling the spinning process and got too much twist into the yarn. A lovely soft, springy wool fibre turned into a rather hard feeling yarn.

Last night the Alsager Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers met for a spinning evening, and I managed to get there and had a lesson in fine spinning from my friend Janet who has had tuition from various experts including a lady spinning for knitting the traditional Sheltand lace shawls. (If you don't know what these look like, see the Heirloom Knitting web site.)

When I got home I had to have another go at this new technique before I went to bed! I used coloured Wensleydale fleece. Janet advised that Wensleydale is good to start with because of the long staple, it's a bit easier to handle than fine Shetland until you get used to spinning fine. We prepared the fibre by combing with a very fine tooth comb sold in pet shops for grooming cats (when I bought mine, I found I had to hunt around a bit to get one that was very fine toothed).
To spin, Janet demonstrated on an Ashford Joy wheel using a ratio of 8:1 (that's 8 turns of the spinning wheel and flyer per one treadle). She drafted half an inch of fibre per treadle, so that was giving 16 twists in the yarn per inch. When I got home I recalculated a bit rather than change my wheel set up, I had a 12:1 flyer, so drafted 3 inches fibre to two treadles.

The yarn I span at home (on the older of my Timbertops Leicester wheels) is not as fine as the thread Janet was spinning, but it is fine enough to show I have got the basic principle right and I intend to spin onto two bobbins and then ply this thread before going any finer.

There is a special little trick Janet taught me for drafting the fibre to spin very fine, in addition to taking it slow and steady, and watching the fibres carefully. This trick is that the hand that is nearest the orifice and which restrains the twist must let a little of the twist travel into the drafting fibres. Experienced spinners will know how just a little twist like this helps to feed new fibres into the yarn and prevents the fibre in one hand separating from the twisted yarn in the other!

As of last night, I'm a paid up member of the Alsager Guild. I haven't joined a guild like this before because of difficulty in getting to where any of them meet. But now I have re-arranged my working hours so I get Friday afternoon at home. This makes it easier to leave home at 6 p.m. to drive for an hour to get to a meeting. I actually spent as much time driving last night as I was at the Guild meeting - but it was well worthwhile.

You may remember I posted last month that I was going to go to the Guild meeting. I didn't get there. I had my tea early and had my stuff ready, then I got stuck because I just couldn't get my beautiful Timertops Leicester spinning wheel into the back of my small Fiat Punto. I had forgotton it only fits if the back seat is folded down and the wheel dismantled, and then extra packaging is needed to keep everything safe. It was a wet night and I didn't like having to put my wheel down on the wet driveway while I arranged the car, and I had managed to pull a muscle in my back carrying the heavy oak wheel from the house to the car (this involves a long path and a steep flight of 12 steps). I gave up after 20 minutes, it was getting late and I went back into the house for a cup of tea and a think.

I know that other people who have a special spinning wheel use a folding traveling wheel when they go out and about. I spent four weeks thinking about this, and checking out what was available. There's a really good comparison on the Woolery website which I found helpful. Then, on Monday, I decided if I was ever going to get such a wheel I should have one in time for the Friday Guild meeting. I phoned Fibrecrafts and asked if they had an Ashford Joy, placed my order and it arrived by carrier the next day. I had been a bit sceptical about the idea of wheels that fold up, but when my Joy arrived and I discovered for myself what a clever design it is all my worries went away. I took these photos for you, the first is that exciting moment of opening the box - and wondering how many different parts the wheel comes in, would it need much work to assemble?

The answer was, no, it was very simple to put together. I had to screw hooks into the flyer arm and put the scotch tension system together. These are things I'm familiar with from having owned an Ashford Traditional in the past. As well as a very good instruction book, other goodies were a "Learn to Spin" leaflet and a couple of copies of the Ashford magazine "the Wheel" with intresting articles on spinning, knitting simple jumpers, and Shibori weaving on their rigid heddle loom.
I put the wheel together in no time at all, and here it is stood next to an ordinary sized dining chair, to give you an idea of how compact it is (it's about 1/3rd of the size of my Timbertops wheels):
And here it is, in its bag and ready to go! The bag has a shoulder strap and it is very easy to carry.

It is heavier than some of the other folding wheels, this is because the wheel is extra thick and solid wood to make up for being small diameter. This gives it good momentum for spinning. It has four different ratios on one fixed whorl (no need to swop bits about, just shift the drive belt into a new groove). It runs very smoothly on ball bearing hubs, and is easy and pleasant to use.

I recommended it to a couple of new spinners at the Guild because: it is a versatile wheel with a good range of different speeds; it is easy to carry and will fold up small enough to tuck behind the sofa if you have limited space at home; it is very well made; I know from Janet's experience that you can spin everything from fancy yarns to lace weight on this wheel; a central flyer position is nice as it doesn't force you to spin in a particular way, you can easily draft with either hand and, on the double-treadle version you can use either the two treadles or just one of them, so you can swap your feet around and be comfortable.

Friday 8 February 2008

Timbertops Leicester

Here is my best spinning wheel. It is approaching it's first birthday and I love it more than ever. It is a very special wheel, built by a master craftsman, and with the special features of double treadle and having the flyer on the right hand side.

It is a Timbertops Leicester wheel, made by James Williamson in the last batch of wheels he was making before retirement. After visiting James and Anne Williamson in September 2006 at their home near Leicester, England,I waited anxiously to discover if James was going to be able to find the wood & parts to make one extra wheel in his last batch. 

This is not a tidy room but it is handy having a fibre stash close to the spinning wheel. Here are a few close ups of the stash. here are some bags of wool, the bags are sewn form cotton sheeting and are ideal for storing wool as it can breathe. I attach labels to the bags with safety pins as some types of wool look very similar and can be muddled up.  The next picture shows a bagful of the most beautiful coloured Wensleydale fleece. I bought this from Sandy of Yorkshire Woolybacks after shearing last summer, and enjoyed washing it for myself. I intend to comb this wool and spin worsted yarn for weaving;

Wednesday 6 February 2008

I've been knitting

Ten days of silence from me, there's a couple of reasons for this. One is that my work (two employed part time jobs, and a voluntary job) seemed to take a lot of my energy and another is that I had taken some photos but not got to the local library where I have to go and borrow a computer if I want to upload photos to show you.

I found that with my work demanding creative energy last week, there was less creativity to spare for my textile hobbies, so it was a good time to get on with a steady project where the planning stages are already history.

The first sleeve of the jumper I last wrote about in September turned out well on the second attempt, so I started on the second sleeve. First attempt at the sleeve: I knitted from shoulder to cuff and cast off in November, and it looked awful. I started the decreases at the elbow, instead of tapering it down from the shoulder. The most important lesson I have ever learned about knitting and other crafts is to undo work you aren't happy with and try again. This way you learn and move forward.

I am very pleased with the second first sleeve, and the first second sleeve is going well too. Here is my jumper, seen inside-out so as not to disturb the knitting needles.

The cuff on that sleeve looks rather long, as pictured above. The reason for this is that I want a really good warm jumper for the depths of winter, and for wearing to work at a job where the office I work in is a cold cellar room. I have decided that cosy cuffs, neck and bottom rib are important for beating cold drafts and as I have poor circulation, that snug cuff will help keep my hands warm.

I took another photo to show the jumper right side out with the cuff folded back, as I shall wear it:

Now my ambition is to finish this jumper while it is still winter and certainly before the anniversary of picking up the first stitches arrives in March this year!