Working with imperfect fleece: part 3, spinning

I haven’t had time yet to work out a way to take photos of my own hands while I’m spinning. I need some sort of extended shutter release that I can hit with my foot.

Meanwhile, we’ll make do with what I can come up with, which is yarn photos with captions.


Because I’d carded rolags, I was tempted to wonder (even against my better judgment) whether I might be able to spin the wool with a long draw, which emphasizes the woolen (as opposed to worsted) qualities in the yarn. I drew out a yard, even though I knew it wasn’t going to work very well. This is what I got:


Ick, of course. Twist travels to the narrow spots in the yarn. When the fibers are in great shape and well prepared, you can draft out slubs without difficulty. However, when you’re dealing with second cuts and other neps, they won’t draft out. The twist travels to the narrow spots. It skips the neps completely, turning all the nep-regions into weak spots that break. You get ugly, fragmented yarn (and a lot of frustration).

On to the short draw, which gives more direct control over each segment of yarn:


There are still bumps at some of the neps (1) and thinner spots that collect twist (2), but it’s possible to elongate the neps, making them slimmer and securing them more effectively in the yarn (to the left of 1 and between 1 and 2). It’s a drastically better yarn: more even and far sturdier.

While spinning, I remove any second cuts or other bits that will leave with one quick plucking motion. I get rid of some of the vegetable matter (VM) by pinching the new yarn quickly between my fingernails and stroking firmly toward the orifice of the wheel. That movement sometimes snaps off the ends of a piece of plant on both sides of the strand and they drop away. Another quick scrub of the nails down the yarn and the remaining middle bit of VM falls out of the forming yarn. I don’t do more of this than I can easily accomplish while keeping the rhythm of the spinning going. I spin a relatively slender singles with a fairly high amount of twist because the fibers are only 1.5 to 1.75 inches (38 to 45 mm) long and are quite fine.

Two-plied, fresh off the bobbin, here’s what my small skein looks like:


Even with the irregular twist caused by the neps, the skein as a whole is balanced.


Using an old Weave-It loom (the new version is a Weavette), I made a quick square just to play with the behavior of a fabric made of this yarn.

Then I got my skein wet to finish the yarn. I usually don’t weight my skeins, but this one looked like it wanted to dry under just a bit of tension. I balanced a half-full shampoo bottle against the side of the shower; some time during the night the bottle fell into the tub, but it had already done its minimal amount of work by then.


Here’s the finished skein:


That crinkled spot in the skein is from the too-sharp bend it took around the hook on the shower caddy. Take a look at my little woven square: I rubbed it for between 20 and 30 seconds in the warm water with the detergent and it started to full up nicely.

The yarn I spun isn’t even and regular. I knew from the beginning it wouldn’t be. It couldn’t possibly be, because of the condition of the fleece. But it is quite pleasing:


If I knitted or wove it into a fabric, it would be pretty and comfortable and it would wear well. (Yes, it would dye nicely, too, if I wanted a color other than white.)

My daughter can’t wear most wools . . . or even many luxury fibers . . . next to her skin. She finds them scratchy. She has a far lower "itch factor" threshold than most people. She can handle baby alpaca and qiviut (ha; she does not have a baby alpaca or qiviut sweater). Even most Merino doesn’t work for her; the finest Merinos probably would, although she hasn’t encountered one of them yet. She’d probably do fine with cashmere.

I handed her the small washed swatch of rare-breed wool and she felt it with her fingers and then lifted it to her cheek as her eyes grew wide.

"This is really soft," she said, rubbing it against her face. "I could wear this!" She looked more closely. "It has a nice shine to it, too."

Later, as I sit here writing these comments, I bury my nose in the skein. It smells sweet and clean, and ever-so-slightly like spring, and a whole lot like hope.


These posts have described one way to deal with an imperfect fleece, and that final small skein is a heck of a good reason for doing so. Although it’s nowhere near as nice as the specific yarn I remember from the Save the Sheep contest, it’s recognizably a close relative. And it’s a long, long way from where I started.


The completed yarn has a lot of character. It’s unique, and it’s got a whiff of magic to it.

By the way, the wool is from one of the few remaining Santa Cruz sheep—a three-year-old ram. He’s a miracle, and I think my wonderful, slightly irregular, yarn is a tribute to his survival and a personal argument in favor of his breed’s continued existence.


Tomorrow: A few ways to help save rare breeds and species that produce irreplaceable fibers

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Copyright 2008 Deborah Robson


3 thoughts on “Working with imperfect fleece: part 3, spinning”

  1. Deb,
    I am amazed and in awe of people like you. I can’t believe that magical little skein came from that mess of wool you first showed. I would never have expected it to clean up so nicely. But then again, I’ve never done anything like that before. And after reading your adventure, I know I never will! (Sorry. But I admire the hell out of people who will go to that effort. Wow)

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