Spinning Deborah Pulliam’s wool

On September 24, 2001, my friend Deborah Pulliam sent me a box of fibers.

1-box_3575

Inside she tucked a note: 

Deb's Down breed sample assortment

(sock wools to follow!)

Enjoy—

I opened, patted and admired, and set the box in a safe place to enjoy later, when I could truly appreciate the fibers.

Deb Pulliam and I shared a fondness for fleeces from the Down breeds of sheep, which are generally maligned as handspinning fibers. I'm not sure where her affinity for them began. I know it ran deep. In my case, when I started to spin in the 1970s wool in any spinnable form was as challenging to find as a spinning wheel (very), and what I could locate was, generally, grease Suffolk or Dorset from meat flocks or backyard sheep (in one case, the pets of children who were allergic to dogs and cats). So that's the kind of wool I initially learned to wash and then spin.

Years later, when Deb and I got to know each other because she was writing for Spin-Off and I was editing the magazine, I could never take Deb up on her open invitation to come visit her in Maine. I was a single mother in a precarious financial state; both time and money for travel were scarce. But we had hour-long-plus phone conversations, often on Saturday evenings, and we exchanged e-mails, and occasionally we met in person: at a SOAR in northern Vermont and at a Textile Society of America meeting in Northampton, Mass.

In 2007, when Deb was at the end of her fight with cancer, I finally flew to Maine to see the home whose restoration I'd heard about and of which I'd seen many photos. I went to help Deb be in her home, rather than the hospital, during her final weeks. At that point, it was not a time for much talk about about wools.

The project I'm working on now began its life in fall 2007, not quite six months after Deb departed from this plane of existence. Over more than two years, co-author Carol Ekarius and I have been gathering fibers for it. As we have gotten close to our deadline, there has been what I consider a serious gap in what we've been able to obtain: we have not been able to find representative samples of all six core Down breeds. We've located good Shropshire, Southdown, and Suffolk (what I've come to think of as "the S set"). We have been missing Dorset Down, Hampshire, and Oxford.

I remembered Deb's box and thought hard. These wools are special to me, and I wasn't sure I wanted to have them subsumed in the mass of fibers I'm processing. But I decided (no, I KNEW) that Deb would want the Down breeds well represented, and I pulled her box from its safe corner to see whether what she'd sent might match what we were missing.

She had tucked in Dorset, although what she sent is almost certainly (because of where it came from) wool grown by a poll Dorset (white-faced sheep), rather than by the Dorset Down (brown-faced sheep) that we need:

Dorset_3576

Dorset—from Cummington (?), Mass.

My favorite of this year's fleeces!

Combed w/ double pitch Viking combs

The "Cummington (?)" means Deb almost certainly acquired the wool at the Cummington Sheep and Woolcraft Fair, which she took great pleasure in attending. The wool itself may not have come from the town of Cummington, and she was diligent in her documentation.

Even though this wool wouldn't fill one of our gaps, I spun it. I spun it with more care than I've been able to apply to the other samples, which are being produced with unseemly speed. I may be willing to dedicate these wools to the project, but I am not willing to rush their spinning.

Then I turned to the next packet:

Ryeland2_3579

Ryeland from Lanark, Scotland

Combed w/ Louet mini combs

Because of being rolled & shipped, lock structure is messed up—probably should have just carded it all—

(but I love combing!)

Ryeland is Down-like but not from the same branch of the sheep family tree. We have two Ryeland samples. The black is lovely, and I've spun it, but the white was not a good representative of the breed so while I'd pulled sample locks I had not made a skein. So I turned to the wheel with Deb's sample. She had combed about half with her Louet mini-combs. After reserving sample locks, I combed the remainder on my Louet mini-combs and spun a skein that speaks effectively for Ryeland.

I love combing, too. My primary fiber-prep tools for this project are a pair of Louet mini-combs (mine are two-row) and a pair of double-pitch Viking combs.

Change to post: It's morning and the Ryeland's dry now, so I've taken its photo. I also put the Dorset skeinlets in the shot again, because their original photo was taken in my spinning area at night with woefully inadequate artificial light. I knew if I didn't get the post up when I had both the thought and a moment, it would never be written, so I took what I could get. . . . The extra fluffiness in the Ryeland is just part of what good Ryeland does, even when spun with predominantly worsted (unfluffy) techniques. The Dorset is also wonderful. I want to knit it and show what it can do. (Must Move On.)

Ryeland-Dorset2_3580

Within the boxes of fibers we had acquired from other sources, I located a bag of Oxford that I had held off on processing—not one Deb had sent, but wool from a meat flock in the Great Plains. As soon as I had seen it initially, I knew that getting anything from it that would show the potential of Oxford would be a challenge. It was full of the sort of chaff that doesn't wash out and doesn't fall out during preparation and spinning (as a lot of vegetable matter does).

Oxford1_3569_2

Realizing that this was as good as I was going to be able to get, I sorted through and found enough clean locks to spin a small skein (on the right). I also spun a skein to show the persistence of this particular type of chaff (on the left).

Oxford2_3573

So we have Oxford now. Deb would be happy.

And Deb's taken care of Hampshire for us in glorious fashion, although I haven't spun these yet:

Hamp_3578

Natural black & white Hampshire from Stillwater, ME *

Carded @
Val Weiland's little mill
[DR note: Wood-Stock Farm Carding Mill,
Hampden, ME]

* Owners got rid of all Hamps because "We want to sell
wool to handspinners" so they bought Romneys. Argh!

I'll also spin her Suffolk, even though I have already spun a very sweet Suffolk that we obtained (through some sort of miracle) on eBay. (Some of the best . . . and some of the worst . . . of our samples have come from eBay.)

Suffolk_3577

Suffolk—backyard sheep in Brooklin, ME

A tad coarse (esp. compared w/ Dorset) but very serviceable

Some extra veg. & dirt but washes up nicely.

Nice counter to "Suffolk is crap/no good for spinning"

Prize comment from workshop participant: "Hey, you can make a nice soft yarn from coarse fleece!"

Combed w/ double pitch Viking combs

I still don't have a Dorset Down sample. I may need to proceed without it (along with a few other breeds, like the Arcotts and Romanov and all of the "hairy mutant Romneys"). We're not being allowed to take forever with this project, much as we'd like to. There's that deadline.

As I've been spinning Deb's wool, appreciating her help despite the fact that she's gone, I've come to realize that I've been a custodian for these fibers. The reason I haven't already spun them is that Deb needs to be part of this project. Her Down breed sample packet was meant not just for me, but for all fiber folk. So now that's the job it's doing.

And I'm going to make one more try at getting some Dorset Down. . . . For Deb's sake. . . .

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20 Responses

  1. LynnH

    Oh, what a lovely tribute to your friend. I can imagine how bittersweet it is to use the fleece she sent now that she is gone.

    How wonderful that she can be part of your project.

    The Oxford is positively luminous.

    Incidentally, the teacher for the kids I taught last year, gave me a gift certificate for Schuler Books (you’d love this independent bookstore). I spoke there about my pattern in Joy of Sox and the process it took.

    And then I used the certificate to buy Clara Parkes’ Book of Wool. I thought of you. The wild pile of wool in the center of the cover is so visually intriguing, and you’d know much about it from a glance. I know it’s wool.

    AND I re-lived our night with cameras and Priscilla and Nelda at Sock Summit. I showed the crowd my 4 examples of Turkish Socks. Appreciated by all.

  2. Valerie

    what a lovely tribute and informative post, Deb. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to share this information. Can’t wait for the book to come out!

  3. Meg

    A beautiful story, even for someone like me, for whom the wool stuff goes right over the head! I’m so glad this rush to the finish includes some time to reflect, pull things together, and get it right…

  4. Susan J. Tweit

    Your tribute to Deb, and the wool you both love(d) so, is such a lovely one. It’s particularly poignant because it shows off how much you and she shared–the meticulousness as well as the passion for the sheep and their fiber. This kind of personal reflection–wherever you can sneak it into the book–is what will make it a classic, well-thumbed and much loved.

  5. Deborah Robson

    Sneaky thought much appreciated, Susan. The challenge is that the voice of the book is a blend of me and Carol: my personal observations are subtexts (believe me, they’re there!!!). Where I can probably tuck in some of the remarks about Deb will be in captions. (And, of course, the acknowledgments.)

    Yet I suspect strongly there’s another book in my future, one that will be even more challenging to write in and around the other demands of life. One that will have room for even more stories.

    I have made some new friends in this process who would have loved to have known Deb, and vice versa. I’d like to introduce them to each other in any way that I can.

  6. Joanne

    You did such a good job here are intertwining the fibers and your love of your friend…and that’s what gives meaning to many in the spinning community! I too am a “down breeds” lover (spun my share of Suffolks!) and I think I have an Oxford fleece in the next room. Glad you found what you needed close to home…but do let me know if you’re still looking for particular kinds of fleece. I might could have it, or know someone who does.

  7. Anna McCarthy

    I just loved Deborah Pulliam’s taste in wool, as it were. I loved every one of her projects in Spin Off. All her stuff just resonated for me, perhaps as a former State of Mainer: All her projects were so real, so down to earth. The lichen dyed socks. And I know where Castine is.. Her socks, her vest, all of it. How I wept when she died and yet I never came close to meeting her – that I know of. All her projects live on in my imagination in my appreciation of despised breeds. Thank you.

  8. Deb Robson

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    Joanne, I'll be dropping you a note . . . need to go to the PO and pick up another packet of wools just arrived (deadline for this part of the project is Monday, eek; and there's more due shortly after that).

    Anna, yes: you did know Deb . . . I say that because of what you have said about her work. (If you'd ever met her in person, you'd remember: she was not loud, but she had a presence . . . she was one-of-a-kind.) The techniques she used were as interesting as the wools and her spinning. Not complicated. Also down-to-earth. Always thoughtful.

    I initially "met" Deb when she wrote "Thoughts from Godspeed's foredeck," about spinning and sailing vessels. She knew textiles, and she could find the stories in them. A list of her Spin-Off contributions: http://ow.ly/11m8l

  9. Diana Troldahl

    I had never heard of your friend Deb before reading this post (I am very new to spinning) but I appreciate your gift of sharing her with us now.
    She brings to mind my own friend Deb Nickerson (whom we called ‘Knickers’) whose passions were as strong, and as akilter from the majority.

  10. Nancy

    Deb’s passion and passionate committment shown through each published piece of hers I ever read. I treasured reading them. Thank you for including a bit of her in this new work. Some of the nicest hand has been wool ‘not suited to handspinning’; of which I’ve had particularly good results with suffolk.

  11. Freyalyn

    What a lovely post – so bittersweet. I loved Deb’s stuff in Piecework and wherever I found it. And I know where the Ryeland came from and have also bought fleece from the same farm, so feel a tiny link there.

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

  12. Deb Robson

    I spun more of Deb's wool yesterday: the Hampshires, one white and one black. I have one more treat–some of her Suffolk. Once the project is over, I'd love to use these yarns to make something. Again, they will need to be portions of something larger, as they are a part of this project. There is, however, enough to make a palpable contribution to some knitting or weaving or crocheting idea that becomes, as Deb would like it to be, useful.

  13. Deb Robson

    I've noted that from UK Knit Camp there will be an optional tour to the New Lanark World Heritage Site . . . probably *not* the source of Deb P's Ryeland, but perhaps nearby. What lovely wool this Ryeland is. It was bliss to spin. I'm glad you have had the experience of spinning wool from the same farm!

  14. Cary

    You may be able to find fleece from horned Dorsets at Ewe & I Farm in New Hampshire, if you are still looking for some. Last I knew, Cindy and Jerry still had some old style horned Dorset ewes.
    They have a blog here:
    http://eweifarm.blogspot.com/

    Hope this might help in your search! I have loved the Down breeds since I first began spinning and spinning “snobs” would insist it was not good for anything 😉 My dad and brother had a lovely flock of old style Suffolk and the fiber was fantastic (and free, LOL!)

    Enjoyed your post very much…

  15. Freyalyn

    Deb’s fibre from Lanark would have come from Robin and Margaret McEwen-King, who have a really interesting mixed herd, plus pedigree Shetlands, that they breed specifically for handspinners. They had a fabulous Jacob/Polwarth wether called Babe with beautiful silver blue fleece – I had his fleece for five years running. Worth tracking them down…

  16. Clara

    I so love that Deb placed those fibers in your care – she knew what she was doing. What a beautiful way to honor her work *and* carry it forward in your own. You are creating a reference work whose importance and impact will span far beyond any of our lifetimes. It’s exciting to watch it unfold from here – thank you for giving us these sneak peeks!

  17. Deborah Robson

    Cary, I love Horn Dorset, and while I don’t need any now I might when the project is over, so thanks for the source tip. I’ve spun a bunch of Suffolk and Dorset (poll) that I got free, years ago. . . .

    Thanks, Freyalyn, for letting me know where Deb’s Lanark fiber came from. I am beginning to wonder if the universe will let me connect with some next summer.

    And Clara, I do hope this work lays a foundation for others to build on, as my work is resting (word chosen deliberately, although this project is not currently very restful) on the visions and accomplishments of those who have put together what they’ve learned of these fibers before me.

  18. Kristen

    Wonderful project! If you are still looking for some Dorset Down, my neighbor raises them and I’ll be helping him with shearing this spring. I’d be happy to send you some fleece.

  19. Deb Robson

    Kristen, if if your neighbor has Dorset Downs (the brown-faced sheep), rather than Dorset poll, the white-faced, I'd be thrilled. I do have Dorset poll and Dorset horn samples already.

    Dorset Downs are these guys and most of them are in the UK:
    http://139.78.104.1/breeds/sheep/

    Dorsets (poll and horn) are these guys, and there are a bunch in North America and also (from a different genetic line) in Australia:
    http://139.78.104.1/breeds/sheep/

    Sheep are endlessly fascinating. . . .

    Anyway, I LIKE Dorset (poll and horn) a lot personally–and what I need for the book is Dorset Down. So I'd be delighted to have your help if this fits: the book goes to the editors about now (some is already there), but photography will be later in the spring, probably after shearing, so we might be able to tuck in a last-minute set of samples for that.

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