Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Spinning for Socks – A Short Course of Instruction

In Praise of the Humble Sock

What article of clothing is arguably most humble?
The “lowest” of all - the sock.
Eaten by dryers, mate-less cast aside, maligned by hurried owners,
Living in the rear of drawers and atop “to discard” piles,
Socks survive.

Stuffed into shoes, boots, and sandals,
Scuffed shoeless over floors, driveways, sidewalks and yards,
Tucked into gift boxes as a last-minute afterthought,
Maligned when absent, but needed,
Socks thrive!

Wool carefully chosen from saddle of fleece,
Lovingly washed, dyed, and combed,
Carefully spun smooth and strong, as carefully plied,
Knitted tightly, with heels expertly turned,
Gussets and toes decreased just so,
Socks pride!

From colors muted to startling bright,
From wools and cottons plain to silks and mohair boucléd.
In stitches simple and fancy, ribbings easy and hard,
Socks triumph!

Pamela Kite
December 19, 2003

Why on earth would anyone make socks from the sheep out? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are spinners and knitters who’ve ever done socks as a project. But some of those answers fall into distinct categories we can enumerate:

Socks require only about 4 ounces of fiber. That makes spinning for a pair a relatively short project, easily completed in a weekend or slightly more of precious spinning time.

For spinners with short attention spans, again 4 ounces (a single bobbin on most wheels) is a ‘doable’ amount. It doesn’t take forever to spin that amount, unlike spinning for a sweater, which can seem to take forever!

Spinners who have ‘dignified’ day jobs can let their jazzy side out to play with socks. Those who would never wear lacy, frilly things to work can wear lacy, frilly socks. They’re hidden beneath trousers, and almost never seen, but make the spinner feel secretly girly!

Socks are great sample projects for new fibers and spinning techniques. A couple of ounces of an exotic fiber you bought to play with can become a sock top, matched up with wool heels and feet for wear.

Socks are great for playing with color, too. The requirement isn’t all that great, either in terms of supplies or time, but you aren’t ‘wasting’ either – you’ll have a pair of socks to wear when you’re finished playing!

Handspun, handknitted socks can be designed for a specific wearer. Those of us who have feet that are an ‘odd’ size can fit ourselves and the specific tenderness of our feet precisely.

All right, these are some of the reasons you can have for spinning and knitting your own socks, or those for someone close to you. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about sock history for just a second, and then get into how to choose a good fiber for the sort of sock we want to make and talk about some knitting guidelines for socks in general.

A Short Sock History

Foot coverings were originally called “leggings” and were wrapped lengths of fabric or hide. Wrappings didn’t like to stay put, though, and even tying string around them wasn’t a great deal of help. Then someone decided that foot coverings could be sewn from woven fabric. Seams generally went down the center of the top and bottom of the foot. These footlets were generally quite short – more or less anklets that could cushion wood or leather shoes, and are shown flopping over the tops of these shoes in paintings and drawings.

Sometime before the 5th century A.D., shaping legging fabrics to fit came into vogue. By 1500 feet were added to the leg covering, and ‘hose’ were sewn to fit each individual beginning around the same time. These were mostly for the wealthier members of society, however – peasants simply went barefoot or wore the short, floppy anklet versions.

Knitting was something of a revolution for sock-making. A fabric that actually could be made to stretch and fit more than one person! This was much too useful an innovation to be kept close in the European knitting guilds, and spread quickly. Now everyone with access to wool could have socks to help keep feet warm and cushion uncomfortable shoes!

Knitted, combined foot and leg coverings called stockings date back to at least the mid-1500’s, and quickly replaced sewn leg and foot coverings. By 1840, the term ‘sock’ had come to mean a man’s, boy’s or young girl’s foot and lower-leg covering.

Socks were a frequent first in-the-round knitting project for children. Comfortable socks are firmly knit, well-shaped fabrics, and making them with a neatly-turned heel was something of a milestone for young knitters, who then could go on to make more complicated pieces between seemingly endless pairs of socks. Sock-knitting was a more-or-less continual thing in families through the first half of the 20th century in less-developed areas of the world, including many areas of the United States. There are still areas of the world where the ability to knit stockings is considered a necessary skill.

Fiber Choices and Spinning Options for Socks

First, you can use any fiber to make a sock-shaped garment. Want to use singles superfine merino spun at 6 epi and knitted at 3 stitches per inch on size 6 needles? Go for it. Nobody will stop you. There are no spinning police and no knitting police. Enjoy wearing them, or hang them on a wall. They’ll definitely last longer on the wall, but again, wear them if you like. That, you see, is one of the benefits to doing it your way. You can do it your own way!

But if you want to spin for long-wearing, comfortable, warm socks that will keep their shape, choose a medium to medium-fine fleece like Romney or Border Leicester, Finn or Shetland – anything between 46 and 60 on the Bradford scale. Generally, you’ll choose a fleece for socks that is medium-soft, medium-long, and medium-crimpy. But if you go strictly by the breed characteristic you may neglect some good choices. I’ve spun Lincoln lamb with a count of 54, and it made wonderful, heavy sock yarn. Down breeds like Suffolk and Dorset are springy and almost impossible to felt. Some individual down fleeces are too coarse for anything but rugs, but some are perfect for socks! So don’t rule out ‘coarser’ or ‘meat’ fleeces until you check them personally. They may be exactly what you’re looking for!

You’ll definitely want to spin a worsted yarn – or as close to it as possible. For the best wear, yarns for socks should be made from aligned fibers, spun and compressed tightly. If you plan to choose fleeces with socks in mind, also plan to comb the fibers. With a medium fleece you can get away with a semi-worsted yarn – but worsted will wear better. In purchasing fibers for socks, look at top first. Leave the beautiful carded batts and rovings for sweaters and shawls and hats.

What I normally use in a class (or for my own socks) are three different fibers: first, a garden-variety domestic wool top with a Bradford count of 56; and second an 80/20 blend of wool and kid mohair top with a Bradford count of about 54. I also use small quantities of 64’s wool and silk in an 80/20 blend, also in a combed top preparation – lovely stuff, and at the outer realm of possibilities for socks, if spun quite carefully.

Start spinning the 56’s wool while we talk about some sock alternatives, both in fiber and spinning technique. For the newer spinners in the group, we’ll also touch on choosing and preparing raw fleeces. For now, set your spinning wheels in such a way that you can spin this 56’s wool to somewhere between 24-30 wpi singles. My suggestion is to start at a ratio of about 9:1, with light take-up. Aim for about 12 twists per inch in your finished singles. Tinker around with your wheel ratio and take-up until you get this grist. If you can spin it comfortably with a 6:1 ratio, that’s fine.

What grist [b]do[/b] you want to spin for sock yarn? It depends on the fleece. Socks will wear best if made from a tightly-spun yarn. But sometimes a single push of the treadle can make the difference between a firm yarn and a harsh one. I know you get tired of hearing ‘sample’ but you really do have to get over it. Look at sampling as shopping – you wouldn’t buy a soft-spun singles superfine merino wool for socks, so don’t spin one. Or look at sampling as exploration. You’re charting the potentialities of this particular fleece or top. However you look at or rationalize sampling, don’t neglect to do it. We learn by exploring.

Let’s talk about how fibers wear. Socks, in particular, wear mostly through friction – either the friction between the sock and the shoe, friction between the sock and the foot, or as a combination of those two. Some additional friction and temperature variation from the laundering process is also a contributing factor. The best way for a spinner to combat those sources of friction is to spin a firm, fairly high-twist yarn of multiple plies. Why? High-twist yarns are more compressed and have more twists per inch of each individual fiber than low-twist yarns. And the more plies you have, the less each individual fiber and ply are abraded and the better the wear.

Think back over your sock spinning and knitting experiences. Which yarns have given you the best wear? Which were almost indestructible? Was it the single-ply, low-twist, fine-fiber yarns, or the four-, five- or eight-ply yarns of wool and nylon or mohair?

I’m not suggesting that we try to hand-spin fingering-weight eight-ply merino blend yarns. Of course it can be done, and you may choose to do it at times, but it would tend to make those 4 ounces into a month’s rather than a weekend’s spinning. But 3- or 4-ply, even 4-ply cabled yarns are well within the realm of practicality for that hypothetical weekend. And they’ll give amazing wear from medium wools, and decent wear from fine wools.

My personal favorite sock yarns are cabled. Yes, I know I have to spin more singles yardage in order to cable the finished yarns. And I’m aware that I have to spin finer in order to end up with a sock-weight cabled yarn. But my knitting time is limited by the other things in my life. It’s much better in the long run to make socks that will last awhile, thus leaving more knitting time for things like sweaters and lace shawls and gloves and hats. My usual sock fleece or top is around 54-56 count. I haven’t found nylon to be particularly necessary in medium wools, although I have been known to blend it into the finer 58-62’s fibers. I usually spin this medium wool worsted-fashion at about 36 wpi as singles. This is not the time, however, for the smallest whorl on the wheel. I’ve learned that the best ratio for spinning this fiber firmly, without going over the line to harsh, is about 10:1. Yes, I sampled several fleeces and prepared tops to determine this. The socks are available for inspection whenever you want to drop by.

I spin the singles clockwise (Z), and ply the first time counterclockwise (S). Then I ply the resulting two-ply yarn again, clockwise. I end up with a nice sock-weight yarn of about 18 wpi and 10-14 tpi.

For the newbie spinner - What is a proper job of preparing a raw fleece for sock-spinning? There are all sorts of guidelines available online and in books, but simply put: First ruthlessly skirt and then clean the fleece. Process it for socks by combing, or by carding and removing the batts from the cards in such a way as to make a semi-worsted preparation. Spin it worsted-fashion with a high degree of twist to a grist of approximately 24-30 wpi. Two- or three-ply the singles, again with a fairly high degree of twist, to a finished yarn of about 16-18 wpi. Cable if desired.

I said earlier that you can use any fiber for making a sock-shaped garment, and that’s true. The alternatives for long-wearing, comfortable socks are a bit more limited, but there’s still plenty of leeway for the adventurous spinner-knitter. Let’s take a look at some of those alternatives to the norm, though, and why you might want to use them.

“I don’t like medium fibers – they’re scratchy and make my feet and ankles itch.” Sound familiar? It isn’t because the speaker’s being over-sensitive or unappreciative of your skills and talents – some people truly do find medium wools uncomfortable (my grandchildren included). So reclaim that pair for someone else and figure out another alternative. If medium wool’s too scratchy, can you make socks from finer wools? Sure you can! You can make socks from any fiber, remember?

Softer fibers like merino, targhee, rambouillet and other merino crosses with Bradford counts in the 60’s can be used for socks with some thoughtful spinning and knitting modifications. You won’t get quite the wear from these that you will from a good Romney fleece, but they’ll be less prickly on tender feet and ankles. Blending these fine fibers with either tussah or bombyx silk will help wear, as will blending them with fine kid mohair or a bit of Lincoln or Wensleydale lamb fleece. Even ‘fake cashmere’ made from nylon will increase the wear for these fibers. And you can always blend some of that Romney or other medium-staple wool into the mix as well! Proportions will vary somewhat, but the usual recommendation is about 80 percent fine wool and 20 percent reinforcing fiber.

All right, you have that 80/20 blend. Now how should you spin it for decent wear and so that you don’t have to pull out the size 000 needles to knit the socks?

You’ll want to set up your wheel a little differently for fine fibers, of course, once you’ve zeroed in on the grist of singles and amount of twist you want. I usually go up a bit in speed when spinning finer fibers for socks. And you’ll definitely want a worsted preparation, which can be a bit tricky if you’re blending your own fibers – but persevere! If you want to try it, grab some 64’s merino blended with nylon or silk and set the wheel for a ratio of about 14 to 18:1. Set take up so it’s minimal – you want about 16-24 tpi on these singles. And try for singles in the 35-45 wpi range for a finished 4-ply cabled fingering-weight yarn.

You’ll want to use size 0 or 1 needles for these soft yarns to give better wear. If you’re a loose knitter, you may have to go to 00 needles. The idea is to counteract wear by knitting tightly. So aim for 8-12 stitches per inch. Swatch in the round until you have a very firm fabric with little or no movement in individual stitches. Check your gauge and figure your sock pattern accordingly. And remember, the idea here is wearability. Think process knitting. Even at 12 stitches per inch, most of us will have less than 100 stitches in a single round.

One last note on fine fibers: Plan to hand wash the socks carefully. And expect some felting with wear, especially on the bottom of the foot.

Now that we’ve talked about finer fibers for socks…Let’s talk about hand-painted tops for just a minute. They’re so gorgeous! How do you spin and ply to keep those lovely colors bright and unmuddied? You actually have two options, and variations within those options. Again, you’re in charge – make a choice and follow through!
Most commercially-painted top is made up of several colors, and the colors are blended in lengthwise stripes. Those stripes are pretty well-defined. It is possible to vertically strip each stripe apart and spin each strip as a different-color singles. You’ll have a few fibers in the neighboring color(s) in each strip, but they won’t show up enough to matter. Then ply the singles normally and knit as you would for any stripe pattern, changing the colors at the points of your choice.

All right, all right – I know this takes a lot of the fun out of things. You bought that top because you liked the way the colors flowed and blended. And it doesn’t help at all with the top or roving that you painted yourself in six- to ten-inch blocks of color! I did mention that there were at least two ways to spin multi-colored top, didn’t I?

For those color sections that are greater than the length of a single fiber you can, again, tear them apart and spin singles from each color, plying the singles and blending at the knitting stage. OR, you can spin them as they come (or after vertically pre-drafting a yard or more of the color changes for shorter color repeats), letting the colors fall where they may at the singles stage. Then Navaho-ply the singles slowly and carefully to make a three-ply yarn with beautiful color definition. Again, it’s up to you, the spinner. Learning Navaho-plying isn’t difficult, and the ‘bumps’ disappear in firmly-plied yarn. I’ve never felt a bump in my Navaho-plied socks, and I have pretty sensitive feet. If the Navaho-plied yarns are still gossamer-fine (possible if the top is a 64’s merino and silk blend), cable those yarns together for a thicker finished yarn.

The Knitting

When it’s time to knit, I choose needles that are about the same diameter as the yarn. That means 0’s, maybe 1’s, and only sometimes 2’s. That gives me a gauge of somewhere between 7 and 10 stitches per inch. You want a firm fabric for the same reasons that you do in finer wools – it will wear longer, with less pilling and felting. It will also feel better on the bottom of your feet – no uncomfortable rubbing of purl bumps after a couple of hours. You have to remember that you’re working with handspun – do a large (24-30 stitches and rows) circular gauge swatch and measure over at least 2 inches in at least 2 different places on the swatch. As spinners, our yarn is subject to some variation. As knitters, we can easily allow for that.

If you prefer to make toe-up socks, a gauge swatch is still a valuable reference, as it can keep you from having to frog and re-work the toe cast-on several times. You can start out with the needles that give you the fabric you want. Remember, you need a firm fabric.

The other variable is fit. You can check the previous reference on this blog for fit hints. But socks that slide around on your foot will require much more extensive and frequent darning than those that fit closely, regardless of the fiber you’ve chosen. Socks, in case you haven’t already figured this out, require negative ease. For those who haven’t run across this term before, I’ll explain briefly.

When you’re making a sweater, you want to add anywhere from 5 to 18 percent of your skin-level circumference in order to arrive at your finished dimensions. In addition to ease, this is because sweater fabric is thick, taking up some room (up to three inches total in bulky yarns), and sweaters insulate better if they aren’t skin-tight. Socks, on the other hand, need to be skin-tight in order to provide the cushioning your foot requires without taking up too much room in your shoe or sliding around as you walk. So you want your sock fabric to be slightly stretched during wear. My own rule of thumb is to subtract an inch’s worth of stitches from the circumference. In other words, a 10-inch circumference will require 9 inches worth of knitting. Another suggestion is to subtract 20 percent from your as-measured circumference to arrive at a cast-on number.

In Closing

Your mother probably told you that everybody is different, and she was right. Every sheep is different, too. While there are general breed characteristics that mean you probably wouldn’t choose Lincoln or Churro for a baby layette, there are also exceptions to the standard. Shepherds can and do breed for softness, fineness, crimp or luster in their flocks. And cross-bred sheep can show the best of several ‘parent’ breeds. My favorite sock yarns come from Shetland-Romney crosses that belong to a friend.

If you follow the above instructions you [b]will[/b] make well-fitting, long-wearing socks from your handspun.

What about making socks from luxury fibers? I really haven’t tried much of that. I did put angora cuffs on a pair of socks – the angora felted long before the wool, and I had to cut it off and re-knit the cuffs from wool. I made one pair of socks (at my father-in-law’s request) from a 50-50 wool-yearling mohair blend. He loves them, and is still wearing them six years later. But I thought then and still think that the fabric is just too scratchy! My next experiment (when I get around to it) will probably include some alpaca, simply because I’m on an alpaca ‘kick’ lately. But right now I’m happy sticking to wool for my socks.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Helpful (sometimes forgotten) resources for the knitter/spinner

We aficionados of the information superhighway tend to look online first for information. And we frequently find it – along with a bewildering array of misinformation! So where does the average spinner and knitter look for advice on that beautiful cashmere or qiviut or superfine merino fiber or yarn? How do you learn how to do a gauge swatch, and what information you should get from it, and how to translate that into the sweater you want to make for yourself this winter (hopefully without frogging the whole thing six times)? How do you duplicate the stitch pattern you saw in the LL Bean catalog – you can’t buy it, it’s only offered in men’s sizes and your three year old can’t wear anything that big for at least a decade!

We do indeed have multiple online resources. Various knitting and spinning lists are incredible treasures of first-hand experiences with almost any yarn or fiber. Even in the middle of the night in the US, it’s broad daylight and you can get an answer in a hour or so from someone in Australia or Europe. On-line forums with searchable archives are another 24/7 resource – I always learn something new from places like the Knitter’s Review Forum.

Yes, the information superhighway is an excellent resource. But what if you’re in the midst of a power blackout, or (horrors!) your teenager has the computer tied up working frantically on the mid-term report that should have been started six weeks ago? Of course you pay for the ISP, and you could claim seniority and owner privilege, but if said teenager flunks that course you may still be supplementing his/her income two decades from now because no college would take his/her application! Mental picture of yourself still working to support that child and his/her family at the ripe age of 85 intrudes…nope, I’m not going to do that. What other resource might you be able to reach?

Look on your bookshelf! Even if you don’t own many knitting or spinning books, you probably do own at least one or two. Some are staples for beginners – almost anything by Elizabeth Zimmerman, Sally Melville or Maggie Righetti will handle basic knitting questions, and spinners can look to Anne Field, Lee Raven, Alden Amos or Priscilla Gibson-Roberts. Chances are you own at least one basic book in your chosen craft, and often those basic books can answer almost any question you have, as long as you read thoughtfully.

And if you never purchase books, but do occasionally pick up a magazine like Knitter’s or SpinOff or Vogue Knitting for inspiration, check out those issues for the answer to your question of the moment. While nicely-indexed binders organized by year are wonderful, if your collection isn’t quite so organized, a fast perusal of the covers will bring back a memory of the sort of material that was included in that edition. Or you might find yourself re-discovering a technique that didn’t interest you at the time, but which is absolutely perfect for your current project!

Another sometimes overlooked resource is the expertise found in our local guilds or knitting shops. Most guilds have directories that include contact information for help between meetings, and guild meetings, even informal ones, are always opportunities for a bit of one-on-one instruction from someone else who’s got practical experience with whatever is giving you trouble. As for knitting shops, they’re almost always gathering places for knitters and spinners who simply go there to work in congenial company. While you’re working and chatting, you can ask a question.

So next time you have a question and the internet isn’t available, check out some of the ‘locally available resources’ in your immediate neighborhood. You might find exactly the expertise you need!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I’ve Really Been Around – Honest!

I’ve been playing with a fairly new obsession recently, and my blogging has suffered as a result. I got an Ipod! A 60-gig video Ipod! Now, if you know what’s coming, you can just cruise on away – you won’t hurt my feelings a bit! There will be some fibery content below – but mostly just unbridled enthusiasm for a very old idea (everything old is new again…and if you’re old enough to remember that line, you may think I’m nuts to have joined the digital music revolution)!

Not only do I have my 1000+ (and growing – ITunes is almost as good a budget-wrecker as a fiber festival) collection of songs all in one place now, along with all of my photos for the past 3 or 4 years (I can’t believe there are more than 1,500 edited photos), but I’ve discovered podcasts! There are actual, honest to goodness knitters and spinners putting out regular shows, complete with some wonderful music - all about fibers and knitting! These have me completely addicted. Now instead of knitting while watching whatever my DH has on the television, I’m putting on my earphones and knitting away to the dulcet tones of different podcasters!

These podcasts take me back to the days of radio. Yes, Virginia, there were still a few radio shows broadcasting when I was very young, and I must admit to a fondness to the re-releases of many of the old shows on CD’s these last few years. I love listening to the old Jack Benny shows, and have heard many of the Burns and Allen gems for the first time on these CD’s. My DH loves “The Shadow” and several other shows, too, and we put these in the car CD player and thrill or laugh the miles away as we travel.

Which podcasts do I like best? I’m still exploring. I admit that I’ve downloaded all the Cast On episodes, and love Brenda Dayne’s voice and choice in music. But I’m also working my way through ‘samplings’ of several other podcasts, and love seeing what’s new on ITunes and in other places from week to week.

What am I working on while listening? Ah, now we’re getting into the interesting stuff! The alpaca and silk shawl is coming along – more slowly than I would like, since I’m having trouble right now getting either podcast-listening, spinning OR lace-knitting time (work is intruding on my play-time), but I am trying to get at least a few rows done each day. The leaf design is lovely, and while it requires attention, still moves along at a fairly decent clip.

My mindless knitting project right now is an EZ Fair Isle Yoke sweater for myself from the pattern reprinted in “The Opinionated Knitter” – simple stockinette stitch until you get the body and sleeves knit, then Fair Isle patterns in the yoke. I had 2600 yards (six skeins) of lovely, creamy fingering-weight wool and dyed two skeins a beautiful variegated purple, pink and blue colorway. I’ll use at least one of those for the Fair Isle patterns, and the cream wool as the main color. I considered dyeing the main color a very pale pink, but decided against it before starting. The longer I work with the yarn, though, the more I’m beginning to think that a pale pink might be really pretty. I may put the body and sleeves on a ribbon after knitting and kettle-dye the already-knit portions with another skein of yarn to finish up the knitting. I’d rather not over-dye the variegated colors – they’re exactly what I want right now. Although the dyeing may be a little tricky, I’m too far along to happily rip out, dye and re-knit the cream yarn now! I really don’t want to do sixteen rows of K2P2 rib on size 0 needles again! I’ll get photos up when it actually looks like something other than a large mass of cream stitches. As for what I’ll do with the leftover wool…I’m thinking a hat to match the sweater might be fun, as might gloves or mittens. We’ll see what inspiration strikes when Christmas is over!

Time to run - supper is going to burn if I don't!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Fiber 101 continued

And now for the promised second installment. Thank you all for your kind words - you're generally a much more appreciative audience than my family or the engineers and physicists for whom I work!

We covered protein fibers last time - basically anything that originated with an animal or insect. I'll talk about cellulose next, and give some very basic information on the man-made fibers. These are springing up so fast that details are out of date before you can publish them - even on the web! I do think it's interesting that so many of them are attempts to imitate silk. As a confirmed silk addict, I've yet to see any of the synthetic fibers completely measure up to the original, but rayon, soy, ingeo and tencel all have their good points. Interestingly, silk is usually less expensive to spinners than many of these imitations!

I close with some things that I think about when beginning a new project. Take a look, see what you think, and let me know what you think yourself!

Cellulose Fibers

Cotton lint is the surrounding material for the seeds of the cotton plant. Cotton comes in hundreds of varieties and dozens of natural colors. There are many varieties available worldwide. It is a fine-diameter cellulose fiber that is fairly short, with individual fibers ranging from ½ inch to 2 ¼ inches in length. The longer Pima, Egyptian and Sea Island fibers are the luxury standard for cotton. Most of the cotton grown for household uses in the United States is Acala, a short-staple, fine, shiny fiber with little natural wax.

Cotton requires a long, hot growing season with plentiful rainfall. It is also quite hard on the soil; cotton fields should be rotated with nitrogen-rich crops in a minimum one year of cotton and three years of legume or alfalfa ratio. These requirements make cotton a tropic or sub-tropic plant. Cotton can be grown in East Tennessee, but you’ll only harvest about one year out of four – the other years frost will get the crop. (It's also illegal at this point to plant cotton in East Tennessee - we're in a buffer zone for the boll weevil.)

These growing requirements made cotton a ‘luxury’ fiber until the invention of the cotton gin in the late eighteenth century. It’s hard to believe that this staple of our day-to-day clothing was ever more expensive than wool or linen, but until the late 1700’s this was so. The cotton gin and mechanized spinning, however, made cotton fiber and yarn much more affordable.

The labor-intensive cotton agriculture business was one of the main economic justifications for slavery in both the pre-civil-war United States and other countries. Until after World War II all cotton had to be harvested by hand. It is still harvested by hand in much of the world. Having grown a dozen cotton plants each of the past three years (with no crop to show for it yet), I can testify that the idea of acres of these plants is much more work than I want to try!

Cotton can be spun into singles of thicknesses ranging from finer than a human hair to fingering-weight. It is usually spun rather fine and plied to the desired diameter, since larger-diameter cotton yarns tend to wear badly – they get quite fuzzy very quickly. Cotton wicks moisture away from the skin, making it an ideal fiber choice for hot climates and seasons, and the very fine yarns can be woven or knitted into gauzy fabrics that are quite comfortable even in hot, humid weather.

Cotton is heavier than the same yardage of most wool yarns (wool as in sheep’s wool). This means that it should be knitted or crocheted at a tighter gauge, with a smaller needle, than a comparable-diameter wool yarn. This will avoid having the fabric stretch from its own weight. Gravity can’t be fought, but you can compensate for its effects! Cotton has no crimp, and so little or no stretch. This means no recovery with washing, and the necessity for making all the stretch necessary for a garment a part of the fabric structure. Mixtures of cotton and man-made fibers have a little more stretch, but aren’t as cool to wear. Wonderful yarns are made from cotton and silk in combination, but this yarn also needs to be swatched carefully and mindfully.

As knitters, you may find cotton rather harder on the hands than wool, especially if you have a touch of arthritis. The lack of stretch means that you’ll need smaller needles than those needed for comparable weight sheep’s wool. And a non-stretchy fiber makes forming the stitches slightly more difficult. But cotton can’t be beat for summer sweaters and shawls, or light baby clothes!

Most cotton yarns can be machine washed and tumble-dried quite successfully. There are some exceptions out there, though, so check the yarn label carefully!

Flax/Linen, Hemp and Nettle

All three of these are bast fibers, with similar properties and identical methods of production. The fibers are retted from the plant stems in a long, labor-intensive process. Flax is the name of the plant from which linen thread is derived. Hemp and nettle are becoming more common, but are still not yarns you’ll find at the usual local hobby or big-box shop.

These are the longest of the natural fibers except for silk. Individual fibers range from the very fine fibers of plants grown in rich soil to very coarse fibers from plants grown in poor soils. Linen especially is easy to grow in almost any region. Many people plant flax in gardens just for the lovely blue flowers, and don’t even know that they have a good source of fiber along with the flowers.

All three fibers are processed in the same way. I’ve grown flax several times and obtained wonderful fiber, but I live on river-bottom land. Seeds are sown thickly in a well-tilled plot in mid-spring. A fence is frequently put around a flax patch to keep the plants upright, and chicken-wire or a string grid mounted up the fence and across the patch at vertical intervals of 6-12 inches. The tall plants will grow through the interstices and stay relatively straight. The chicken-wire also serves to slightly discourage rabbits.

After the plants have flowered and seed pods formed, they’re pulled from the ground and laid out to dry in the sunshine. After drying, the stalks are carefully threshed to glean the seeds. Then the stalks are either stored until spring or retted immediately.

Retting involves rotting the woody part of the stems to loosen them from the fibers. I fill a large tub with water and sink the stalks, weighting them just enough to keep them under the water level. Water is changed every couple of days. It normally takes about 2 weeks to rot the woody stems sufficiently to be able to pull fiber loose. The stems are removed from the water at that point and again dried out.

The retted and dried stems are broken loose from the fibers with a flax brake or a wooden scutch and sword. Then a handful of stems at a time are combed through successively finer hackling combs until you have the longest, finest fibers. These are spun for line linen. The waste – short or broken fibers – is used to spin tow.

All bast fibers have several things in common. The top-quality yarn of each type will be very smooth and strong. The tow yarns will be very hairy and prickly, much like burlap sacking. The yarns have good body, but no stretch – all the ‘give’ in the fabric must come from its construction. The good news is that knitted bast fabrics don’t crease and wrinkle as much as their woven cousins. All three fibers are cool, wicking moisture away from the body and drying quickly. Linen, especially, is quite absorbent, able to retain more than four times its weight in liquid.

Nettle is absolutely the finest of the bast fibers, but is also the most costly. It is difficult to grow, difficult to process, and large amounts of plant materials are required to make a small amount of yarn. It is, however, almost as shiny as silk and quite fine in diameter. It is the supplest of the bast fibers as well, and the drape of a nettle fabric will be similar to silk.

Linen is next, with the best linen fibers rivaling nettle for fineness. It is somewhat easier to process (you don’t have to deal with the nettles). Linen comes in many grades, and you’ll want to shop carefully. Dye lots are especially important with linen threads, since not only the individual dye-pots but the crops themselves vary so much in color from year to year.

Hemp is becoming more and more popular. It isn’t as costly as either of the other two, probably because it is the easiest of the three to process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking all hemp is like that used for teenagers’ beaded bracelets. High-quality hemp yarns are smooth, supple and shiny, almost identical to line linen of the same weight.

All bast fiber yarns should be knit only after careful swatching. Linen is lighter than cotton, but still heavier than wool yarns of similar grist. Stitches and fabrics will stretch while wearing. However, linen (or any bast fiber) is especially suited for summer sweaters, fine laces, and household items. Knitting is similar to cotton, with the accompanying caveats about the possible difficulties on the hands magnified, since bast fibers tend to be rather stiff until washed a few times.

Care is simple, and similar to other knitted items. Bast fabrics should be either hand or machine washed in warm water, spun quickly to remove excess water (or rolled in a towel), and laid flat to dry. Lace items should be blocked quite severely. These are the only knitted fabrics that will benefit from ironing. Hard pressing with lots of steam should be a part of the finishing for any bast fabric. And that same sort of pressing will revitalize many older linen fabrics.

Bast fibers are some of the longest-lasting fibers. There are examples of linen and hemp fabrics in many museum collections; some are dated as among the oldest textiles found to date.

General notes on cellulose fibers

All plant fibers are much more difficult to dye than protein fibers. Scouring with harsh chemicals so that dye can penetrate the fiber shaft is necessary. Cotton is the easiest fiber to dye in a home setting. I suggest Rit dye for experimentation, and Procyon-brand substantive dyes for intensive exploration. But dyeing large amounts of these fibers takes dedicated equipment and a certain amount of care. I recommend Google and your local library for additional information.

Man-Made Fibers

There are two main classifications of man-made fibers – those made from petroleum-based chemical products and those made from various recycled or waste agriculture products. There are many new and exciting fibers in the second category, but the most common fibers right now are those in the first category. Let’s take a look at them first.

Petro-chemical fibers

Nylon and polyester and acrylics (the oldest polyamides) are the first of these that come to mind, since they’ve been around the longest. The various microfibers are newer versions. These fibers are all created by dissolving petro-chemicals or their derivates in a specific mixture and then forcing the liquid through spinnerets under high pressure. The liquids are extruded into jets of air that dry the resulting fibers quickly, and are then spun in a similar fashion to fine cotton. The currently-popular microfibers are produced in this way, but the individual fibers are much smaller in diameter than those of 1960’s polyester.

These fibers have several things in common. They’re easy-care, machine-washable and dryable, sturdy and don’t wrinkle. They’re stretchy. The older ones don’t transfer heat and moisture well, so they’re hot to wear, but the newer polyamides are more breathable, and indeed have been engineered to imitate natural fiber properties as much as possible. This has improved wearing comfort. In order to enhance their wearability, or add easy-cleaning properties to natural fibers, the two are frequently blended. You will see many microfiber or polyamide blends with wool, cashmere, angora, mohair and cotton. These are normally quite successful from a knitter’s or crocheter’s standpoint, since they offer washability and improved wear while retaining the luxurious feel of the natural fiber.

Superwash sheep’s wool is now most commonly created by coating the individual wool fibers with a polyamide. While this increases the diameter of the wool fiber slightly, it does provide machine-washing capability. You should be careful not to tumble superwash wools on high heat, however, since the coating isn’t always as heat-proof as you might wish.

Care for polyamides is normally listed as easy; machine wash in warm water and tumble dry on low or medium heat. Caution is advised with ironing or high heat, as it can melt these fabrics! You might also want to think twice and check the label for flame resistance before using them for infant’s wear.

Recycled fibers

These are the exciting new fibers I talked about earlier. They range from ecospun, which is basically recycled soda bottles, to soy silk and ingeo, both of which are made from the waste products of soy and corn plants. More are available all the time – one of the latest is made from bamboo fibers and is a good substitute for linen, but with more of a cotton feel.

Ecospun could just as well have gone in the petro-chemical category. It is the name given to fibers made from recycled plastic bottles. Some is shredded quite fine and blended with natural fibers to add washability and extend their wear. Some is simply reprocessed into one of the extruded fibers discussed above. I've had good luck adding this to wool for socks - it increases wear almost as well as nylon.

Tencel is one of the newer fibers made from petrochemicals. It has been engineered for breathability and excellent wear. The feel is rather like silk or supple suede, but Tencel has more stretch and less tensile strength than silk. It is an acceptable substitute for silk, though, and costs less. It is also a good choice for brushed fabrics like ultrasuede.

Soy silk and ingeo are both made from processing byproducts or waste. Technically both are cellulose fibers. They have the shine and smoothness you expect from silk, but should be dyed with cellulose dyes for the best color. These fibers are showing up more and more frequently on yarn shelves. I have spun both, and find the fibers very similar to silk in hand and behavior. They breathe better than most synthetic fibers, and can develop a lovely slight halo with wear that feels rather like suede.

Care labels on yarns should be checked carefully – some of these yarns are machine-wash and tumble dry, some require hand-washing. Tencel, soy silk and ingeo all block well, with only a slight tendency to stretch while wearing.

Choices are yours

Fiber choices abound. Knowing as much as possible about the characteristics of the various possibilities can help you choose the best possible yarn for your project. What follows is a short quiz that might help when you’re assessing the fibers and yarns for a new knitting or crochet project. I go through this almost automatically, and it has never let me down - when I've answered the questions honestly rather than getting carried away!

1. What are you making?
2. Where and how will it be used?
3. What care requirements do you have?
4. How much wear will the item receive?
5. Is this to be a classic part of your wardrobe or a currently-stylish accessory?

Once these questions are answered, you have a starting point. The next questions might be along these lines:

6. How much do you have or want to spend on yarn?
7. How do you want the finished fabric to feel?
8. How do you want the finished fabric to look?
9. How much time are you willing to spend?

Only then should you look at things like color and design. We’ll discuss a couple of possibilities to give you a feel for how your thought processes might go on a project.

Project 1: I want to make a purse for a young friend. She’s very stylish, loves vintage fabrics and is likely to wear classic, well-tailored clothes. She is currently a college student, but will graduate soon and enter the job market as a professional. All right, let’s take a stab at the questions.

I’m making a purse. It will be lined. It needs to be sturdy so that it can be carried, with a long handle – preferably one whose length can be adjusted in some fashion. It should stand up to rather heavy wear, but is probably not going to be used for more than a couple of seasons. Being able to wash it in the machine would be a plus, but isn’t absolutely necessary.

At this point I’m looking at several possibilities. Cotton, linen, hemp and wool would all wear well, and all are at least hand-washable. Felted wool would be quite sturdy and water-resistant as well. You could brush it clean, and the colors are great. Cotton would also be nice, and comes in bright colors. I’d need to choose a lining carefully and knit on small needles, though – I’d also have to allow for stretching. Hmmm, I’m leaning toward wool, but let’s keep going. Linen and hemp would work well, but are harder to clean and knit than wool and cotton.

I don’t want to spend a great deal on this, either in money or in time. That pretty much lets out linen and hemp, both of which are more expensive choices than cotton and wool. I’d like the finished fabric to be touchable, something you enjoy tucking under your arm. It should look classic, even somewhat elegant. Cotton tends to look beat-up and old more quickly than wool.

All right, I want a worsted-weight or bulky wool in classic colors – plum, burgundy, cream, dark green or black. I’ll knit the bag and then felt it, and line it with some vintage upholstery silk I have in my stash. Straps can be knitted I-cord, felted at the same time as the body of the purse and then sewed on with the lining. It will take about $25 in materials (if I don’t have anything I need in my stash already) and a maximum of a week of knitting time, with an extra evening of finishing and sewing.

That wasn’t so hard! Now let’s try something a little more challenging for Project 2.

I need a sweater to wear for work. It will need to go with my usual gray, black, tan and brown slacks – preferably with any of them – and be wearable in at least three seasons.

For three-season wear I can use cotton, silk, linen, or light-weight wool. Alpaca and cashmere blends might be a little warm for spring and fall, though they would feel wonderful. It needs to be relatively easy-care, either machine washable or easily hand-washable – no dry-cleaning. It will get quite a bit of wear, since my work clothes tend to be worn about once a week. So wear points like underarms and necklines should be abrasion-resistant. That pretty much lets out silk, which abrades quickly. I don’t want to spend the money for 9 or 10 skeins of line linen, even though it would work well for the project, and I don't particularly want to knit linen. It needs to look somewhat dressy – nice business attire for wearing on those days when I have meetings with folks from outside my own groups. But I want a touchable, comfortable fabric.

Either wool or cotton will work for this. If I choose wool, it should be in no more than a fingering-weight yarn, and lace-weight would be better, with multiple tightly-spun plies to resist abrasion. Short sleeves would be best; ¾ sleeves are acceptable. Cotton would also work well, but I’d need to allow for the stretch from the extra weight of a cotton yarn. Let’s shop for this with an open mind. Look at the sale bins first, and then go on to the shelves. This will be a classic, and I’ll wear it for several years, so I can afford to spend a bit more time on it. A natural or pastel color in the red or blue-green color families will work best with my usual dark slacks.

Are you beginning to see how it works? Let’s try one last project, simply because it’s something you’ll do sooner or later. You need a gift for a new baby. This one should be really special (for your own child or grandchild). You want to do something that will be used for the first year or so, but only on special occasions. However, since babies are basically messy creatures, you need to allow for that. Let’s say you decide on a baby blanket in a lace stitch with a lace border (I did say it was special). Your choices are many. Wool is classic, and can be bought as superwash to make care easier. Cotton may be a good choice for a baby in the South or Southwest, and is probably the easiest-care choice. Silk is also a possibility, either alone or mixed with either wool or cotton. It gives a drape and shine you won’t get with either fiber alone, and can be a little bit warmer than cotton alone. You don’t want to use a fuzzy mohair or angora, even in the wintry Northeast, since those fibers tend to make babies sneeze. Tencel is also possible.

This is going to be a lace structure, so the thread should be firmly spun and a minimum of two plies in order to show the pattern to best advantage. Smaller needles will be required to make sure baby fingers don’t get caught, so it will take a bit of time to knit.

Surprise! You can use cotton, wool or silk, tencel or a blend of any of these. If the mother won’t take proper care of fine sheep's wool, use superwash merino or a superwash/silk blend. Be sure you get something whose label says it’s machine-dryable! Cotton can be bleached to get rid of any particularly messy stains. Silk can’t be bleached, but a solution of peroxide and water will do a great job of whitening stained areas.

Traditionally, natural white/cream is used for this type of thing, but you can suit yourself. Generally speaking green and yellow are not the best choices for very young children – they make them look slightly jaundiced. Lavender, blue, pink or even brighter colors like red and royal blue are better choices for colored yarns.

Now that you have a good general knowledge of how each fiber will behave in a yarn, you can experiment with more confidence. By all means make choices ‘outside the box’. But do it knowing what allowances will have to be made for those choices! And have fun along the way!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Fiber 101

This is something of a new adventure for me. I’ve been teaching fiber-arts for quite a while now, and rather than have my ramblings pieced out all over the blog, I’ve decided to post some of my more formal class materials here, in sections.

I was talking to my son earlier this week. We’d been on a dorm-furnishing shopping spree, and run into some folks in the store who were doing the same thing. Since the other college-bound student was a pretty girl, my teenaged son was happy to strike up a conversation. That conversation sparked the comments outlined below.

He was astonished at the lack of general knowledge his fellow freshman showed about what she was buying. She knew nothing about thread counts on sheets and towels, why cotton would be the best choice for most of those items, and had no clue that flannel sheets might be uncomfortable between August and October, March and May in East Tennessee. Or that jersey or silk sheets might be downright cold during our rainy, humid winters. “How can she not know this stuff, Mom?” he asked. “She’s bright – she’s a physics major – so how can she be so dumb about the little stuff?”

I had the unenviable task of explaining to my deluded offspring that many people weren’t raised with fiber artists as one parent and one grandparent, didn’t have a spinning wheel or loom in every public and most private rooms of their family home, and hadn’t learned spinning, weaving, crochet, tatting and knitting as a child. This basic knowledge regarding fibers was part of his childhood education. Since he was a gregarious child with a wide circle of friends, they also picked up much of this knowledge from either him or from me. But the majority of teenagers don’t have a clue – and guess what? Most adults don’t, either!

My new students frequently lack this basic knowledge base. It is no longer part of our cultural heritage, and if you don’t go looking for the information, you may very well be the sort of shopper who never really thinks about why wool is sold in the winter and cotton in the summer. Bur for those who are now curious, I’ll begin a tutorial about the basics – call it Fiber 101.

Fiber 101

Let’s talk about the raw stuff of fabric, whether that fabric be woven, knitted, crocheted or felted. At public demonstrations I often comment that “everything starts with the yarn.” That’s absolutely true. And a good understanding of how a yarn is made, and from what, will let you know the best fiber to choose and how to care for the article made from the resulting yarn.

First, let’s define some terms:
Fiber is the raw stuff – straight from the animal or plant.
Yarn is the spun fiber; the difference is in the added twist from the spinning process. That twist gives the needed friction to extend short fibers into long yarn.
A textile is the finished fabric, either knitted or crocheted to shape or as knitted, crocheted or woven yardage to be cut and sewn.

Fibers fall into two main categories – natural and man-made. There are some exciting new fibers that are probably best categorized as recycled, and we’ll talk about those later. The vast majority of our clothing and household textiles are still made from either cotton, wool, linen or silk or some combination of these with a man-made fiber. Where do these natural fibers come from and why are they chosen for a particular fabric? We’ll explore the differences and choices.

Within the two main categories of natural and man-made fibers are sub-categories. Natural fibers have two sub-categories – protein fibers and cellulose fibers. Generally speaking, protein fibers come from animals and cellulose fibers from plants. Man-made fibers also have two main sub-categories – petroleum derivatives and recycled fibers. We’ll discuss both, starting with the protein fibers because they have such a wide range of possibilities and challenges for the fiber artist.

Protein Fibers

Let’s talk about wool first. Wool is, in broad, a generic term for the outer body covering of any quadruped. These coverings are primarily constructed of protein arranged in a linear fashion - hair. In general conversation wool means the outer covering of a sheep. But in a broader sense wool can mean part or all of the outer covering of a sheep, llama, alpaca, rabbit, dog, cat, cow, horse, goat, musk ox, bison, yak or New Zealand possum, among others. You can find yarns from any of those animals except cats and dogs in any well-stocked yarn store. Each type of outer covering has different end uses, usually dependent on the fineness and length of the individual fiber. As a general rule, most of the animals listed above are raised only partly for their fiber, which is harvested each year by shearing or rooing (plucking or combing). With the exception of the New Zealand possums, which are terrible imported pests in that habitat, and buffalo or bison, which are being raised for meat, animals are not generally slaughtered for their fibers.

Wool is further divided into fleece and down. Fleece is usually the outer coat, but in breeds where the outer coat is quite coarse (horse, bison and cow), it can also be the term used for an inner coat. In general, fleece contains fibers from 2-8 inches in length and is of varying diameter, which can be measured on either the Bradford scale (mostly used for sheep’s wool) or in microns. Down is always an undercoat, and generally consists of fibers that are quite short – ¼ to ¾ inches in length – and fine, with diameter commonly measured in microns.

Fleece runs the gamut from rough and hard-wearing (think rugs and seaman’s sweaters and upholstery) to soft and fragile (think soft kid mohair or angora sweaters and fine-wool baby layettes). Insulating properties are good, and can be modified easily by spinning the fibers in either an unaligned or aligned fashion.

Unaligned fibers are used for woolen yarns. In general woolen yarns are not as long-wearing, but are very warm. The tangled fibers trap body heat and hold it within the spaces between fibers. Aligned fibers are termed worsted yarns, and are usually smoother, harder and longer-wearing than woolen yarns. They can be more easily worn in a wide range of temperatures, since the closely-aligned and compacted fibers allow heat to dissipate more easily.

There are a couple of other characteristics of fleece that can be exploited to create specific textiles. Fulled or felted fabric can be created by the application of any two of the following: heat, soapy water or agitation/abrasion/pressure. Fulling and felting will cause fibers to lock more tightly together, creating thicker, sturdier, less elastic fabrics. The process will also shrink the dimensions of the original textile. Some fleeces felt easily. Fine-wool sheep, alpaca, mohair goat and angora rabbit come immediately to mind. Simple wear can felt these fibers. Some fleeces are more difficult to felt; down-breed or long-wool sheep, Highland cattle, horsehair, and llama are examples.

Sheep’s wool is naturally flame-retardant. This makes it an excellent choice for items that will be worn in a camping environment, and anywhere you’ll be around a flame. Fine sheep’s wool is also a good choice for baby wear, since it’s a natural insulator, comfortable in all but the very warmest weather. Sheep’s wool has another interesting characteristic that makes it especially good for cold, wet weather. It will retain heat even when wet. This is what makes wool an especially good choice for wearables like socks, gloves and hats.

Down is normally the inner coat of an animal, although the term is sometimes used (in error) to describe short, very fine plant fibers like those from cat-tail and nettle. Down is usually very warm and not particularly strong unless plied. The fibers are generally too short to spin in anything but a woolen fashion – worsted 100% down yarns are a practical contradiction in terms except for hand spinners. Individual fibers are largely hollow, which accounts for their warmth. Unlike fleece, which is mostly (though there are exceptions) harvested by shearing, down is normally harvested by rooing or combing the short fibers from the coat. Most animals’ down is harvested from live animals, but this isn’t always safe. Bison, yak and buffalo down is either gathered from their environment or harvested from animals slaughtered for meat.

Some downs will felt; some will not. These differences appear to have more to do with individual animals than with breed differences. Downs have a low resistance to abrasion and usually become quite fuzzy with wear. This characteristic can be enhanced or modified by blending down with other fibers.

Fleece and down can be cleaned in the same way. A 10-minute soak in hot soapy water followed by two or more rinses in water of the same temperature will clean these fibers nicely. You may want to add a splash of white vinegar to sheep’s wool fabrics to restore the pH to a more normal level. Wools should be laid flat or blocked to air-dry. The heat and tumbling action of an automatic dryer provide the two necessary components for felting. Remember that sheep’s wool sweater you accidentally threw into the washer and then the dryer?

Bradford Scale for Sheep Wool

Type of Wool

Extrafine merino
Superfine merino
Fine merino
Standard merino
Medium wool
Coarse wool
Braid (very coarse) wool

Spinning Count


Micron Count

over 40


Silk is the other protein fiber. Silk is the continuous filament extruded by bombyx mori to form the cocoon in which the larvae transforms into the adult moth. Various elementary and middle-school children have described this as gross; I find it quite fascinating. Bombyx mori are native to all continents, and their favorite food is mulberry leaves. However, the species must survive, and so the larvae will feed on almost any available foliage. The type of foliage determines the color of the cocoon, and the strength of the fiber extruded for that cocoon. Mulberry leaves make for the whitest, finest cultivated silk fiber.

Silk cocoons are gathered and a tithe is reserved to hatch and mate for the next cycle. The other 90% of the cocoons are either baked, heated in a large skillet or plunged into boiling water briefly to kill the larva and prevent hatching. The emerging moth creates holes and tears in the cocoons which break the continuous silk filament, making the cocoons useless for high-end applications. However, wonderfully textured yarns are spun from the hatched cocoons.

Silk cocoons are reeled for the strongest, shiniest yarns. I’ve reeled silk a few times, and you may enjoy a brief description of the process. After breakfast I put very hot water into a crock pot and turn it on low. You want the water to remain just below a simmer in order to dissolve the sericin (the glue extruded by the silkworms that make the fibers stick together). Boiling water will explode the fragile silk filament. Chuck in 30-45 cocoons (about an ounce) for an afternoon’s reeling. After a couple of hours, when the cocoons have begun to soften and get mushy, I place the crock-pot on the kitchen counter just beneath the cabinet. I next suspend a canning jar ring or macramĂ© ring above the top of the pot as a guide. Stirring with a chopstick or toothbrush will start the filaments unraveling from their cocoons, and you’ll guide anywhere from a dozen to 20 filaments through the canning ring guide. They’ll stick together nicely – the sericin is still on them – and look like a very narrow ribbon. Now you need some space, because you want those filaments to have a chance to dry before they’re wound onto the reel. I have a long, narrow kitchen with the dining room at one end. So I put the crock-pot at the far end of the kitchen and fasten the reel to the dining room table. That gives about 20 feet, which is plenty of space for the drying.

Once the setup is complete I carefully and slowly crank the reel, pulling and basically unrolling the filaments from those 12-20 cocoons until I reach the point where filaments are breaking. Then I join in more cocoons from the crock-pot. By the time I’ve reeled all the cocoons, it’s time to start supper and I have about 10,000 to 15,000 feet of rather crunchy, very thin and fragile silk ‘ribbon’. I carefully remove the reel from the table and shift it out of the way for the evening. Next day I’ll remount it in the studio, about 5 to 10 feet behind my spinning chair, and spend several hours ‘throwing’ the silk, or adding twist. The extra twist not only enhances the shine, it makes the thread stronger. Then I’ll ply that yarn back on itself two or three times to make a strong, very shiny, very thin yarn for weaving, knitting or needlework.

There are alternative methods of silk preparation, and each alternative makes a very different-appearing yarn. Simply soaking, then drawing out the cocoons and spinning will make a textured yarn with a great deal of shine. Or use the cocoons from hatched moths and the waste bits from the reeling process, cut into short pieces and carded, to make a textured, slubby silk noil yarn.

There are other substitutes that are acceptable food for bombyx mori, although the cocoon fibers spun by these moths will be various shades of tan, gold-brown or brown, depending on the type of leaf and the amount of tannin contained in the leaves. Silk worms fed leaves other than mulberry are used to make tussah silk yarns. The various processes for harvesting are identical, but the individual filaments are normally stronger and thicker than those of mulberry-fed silkworms.

Silk doesn’t felt, and should be washed in the same way as wool fibers unless the dyes used on the yarns are not color-fast. In that case you’ll want to hand wash and rinse in cool water and mild soap, finishing with a splash of vinegar in the final rinse. Hang or lie flat to dry, depending on the weight of the fabric. Silk will stretch in a looped fabric, so make large swatches and hang for a day or so before measuring.

General notes on protein fibers

Protein fibers dye easily with many household colors and a vinegar or citric acid mordant. Dyeing protein fibers is a great deal of fun, and easily done with food colors or unsweetened Kool-aid powder. Additional details and instructions can be found easily by typing “wool dyeing methods” into Google.

Sheep’s wool fibers have various amounts of crimp. This crimp is renewed whenever the wool gets wet, and gives sheep’s wool a good amount of elasticity. For this reason wool is frequently mixed with other fibers that don’t have this type of memory, including other wools like mohair, angora and alpaca, but especially with down and luxury fibers. Since mohair, angora, alpaca and all of the down fibers are also luxury fibers, this can make for more affordable fibers and yarns. While 100% alpaca or kid mohair yarns feel wonderful, they can present problems when used as the only component in sufficient yardage for an entire worsted-weight or bulky sweater. The sweater grows throughout the day’s wearing, and is really too warm to wear except outside on sub-zero days. Mix the luxury fiber with anywhere from 50 to 80% fine sheep’s wool and you have a fabric that is just as soft, much less heavy, and much more wearable than that same fiber alone. And it won’t break the budget! If you must have 100% luxury fibers, plan for the time to make the garment from fine-gauge yarn. The garment will both look better and feel better while you’re wearing it.

Most ‘wool’ yarn that you purchase will be sheep’s wool, and most of that is merino with a Bradford count ranging between 62 and 64. The exception is usually found only in weaving yarns, where you may run across rug wools with Bradford counts in the 30’s and 40’s, and also suiting or tweed yarns with Bradford counts in the upper 40’s and 50’s. Spinners generally learn a great deal more about this end of the sheep’s wool scale, but knitters and crocheters normally deal with one or another grade of merino. Don’t be fooled into thinking that merino is merino is merino. There are at least four distinct grades of merino, and each feels very different. Check out that Bradford scale again for some clues.

Be careful when using ‘superwash’ fibers. Generally, superwash is a treatment given to fine sheep’s wool in order to make it resistant to felting. The individual fibers are either coated with a polyamide or soaked in acid to eliminate the scales that make wool fibers lock together. Superwash treatments will NOT apply to any other fibers that are blended with the wool, however. A friend was heartbroken not long ago because she threw a hat knitted from a superwash wool, silk and kid mohair yarn into the washer and dryer. The superwash wool and the silk didn’t felt, but the kid mohair did! It’s now a very odd-looking hat. And some superwash is machine washable, but not machine dryable. If in doubt, check the label or hand wash!

Superwash wools are sometimes highly recommended for baby items, and can indeed make easy-care and snuggly, warm baby items. Be sure to check the labels for flame-resistance, however. A polyamide bath can sometimes change the normally flame-resistant structure of sheep’s wool. You don’t want to dress a baby in something that could burn them badly!

Next we'll take a look at cellulose fibers - probably next week!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Spinning Tutorial – some notes on spinning for a specific purpose

I’m presently teaching a local spinning class. It’s been going on for a while now, and the students are past the beginner’s usual over- and under-spun bobbles. They’re at the point where they’re comfortable with the process of making yarn. Each of them has his or her ‘default style’ of yarn, I’ve noticed. Some have spun fairly even, fairly fine yarns almost from the beginning, others spent weeks on trying to smooth out their lumpy, bumpy yarns before they settled on sport- or worsted-weight singles.

Surprising, to me, was the fact that those on drop spindles started spinning even yarns more quickly than those with spinning wheels. After reflection, though, I can see why that might be so. A spindle gives you time to think about the process, and lets you slow down each step to a crawl, if necessary. Park and draft has a lot going for it as a beginning spinning method, and is much easier to do on a spindle. Of course it’s possible to do park-and-draft on a wheel! But those with wheels have a tendency to keep treadling, I’ve noticed, trusting that it will all work itself out in the plying (which it frequently does).

Last meeting the question I’ve been waiting for arose, as usual from the most adventurous member of the group. “How do I spin the yarn for an entire sweater?” she asked. So we began working on the next step in spinning – spinning consistent yarn for a specific project. I thought you might be interested in some of what I told the group.

Spinning just for the sake of spinning is fine. You’ll do a lot of that in the beginning, and you should. Practice makes perfect, and the more practice you get as a spinner, the better spinner you’ll become. But sooner or later you’ll decide you want to spin enough of the same thing to do an entire project in your handspun yarn. So where do you start? Naturally enough, you should start with the project!

I got some wonderful advice when I started working on consistent spinning. My spinning mentors (I was lucky enough to have two really good ones) both agreed on the best way to manage it. So I ordered three pounds of 54’s roving from a good supplier and started spinning, aiming for worsted-weight singles. I’ve described that process before – it was quite a challenge for a dedicated frog-hair spinner like me! No, I don’t need three pounds of yarn for a sweater. I only need about 18-20 ounces. But it took at least 40 of those 48 ounces of fiber to get the 24 ounces I targeted as my needed amount for a sweater. The first two 4-ounce bobbins varied widely, from my ‘unconscious’ frog-hair to bulky-weight ‘compensation’ singles. I don’t think I spun so much thick and thin when I WAS a beginning spinner! But I finally settled into the groove, and eventually found that spinning worsted-weight singles was even pleasurable! The sweater wasn’t one of my successes (and I need to re-knit it one of these days), but the spinning lesson was perfect. The upshot of all this digression? Order or have on-hand at least twice the total amount of prepared fiber you’ll need for your chosen first project. If you’re using a raw fleece, you may need as much as four times the amount you’ll need, depending on how much waste you have in the washing and preparation processes. So an entire 8-pound Targhee fleece may be just enough for a single next-to-skin sweater!

And before you cringe, you won’t have to continue that way. Now I try to make sure I have about 10-25% more prepared fiber than I need for a project. The ‘extra’ gives me sampling yardage, ‘changing my mind’ yardage, or ‘I have to have a matching _____’ yardage. But you still need to allow for processing/preparation waste. My own rule of thumb is to buy at least twice as much raw fiber as I’ll need prepared for the project, and it’s always worked so far.

All right, you’ve chosen your project; now it’s time to choose your fiber. That’s one of the most important choices you’ll make. Guidelines for fiber types for specific projects are exactly that – guidelines. You can ignore them if you choose – there are no spinning police. But you really should take a look at them; they’re guidelines for a reason. Let’s run through some of them, and the reasons behind them.

Outerwear sweaters, mittens and socks generally use medium fibers with a Bradford count from 48-54. Yes, you can use superfine merino, but there will be trade-off – you won’t get the wear you will from 54’s, and you’ll have more pilling, even if you 4-ply the yarns. Medium-staple fibers mixed with alpaca, silk, or even tencel can add drape, warmth or shine, if you prefer. Angelina can add sparkle. The nice thing about most of these medium fibers is that they have a certain amount of natural shine, and they generally take dyes beautifully. Spun medium-fine and plied to balance, these are the workhorses of the spinning world, giving long wear and beautiful results to knitting projects from lacy 2-ply cardigans to cabled 4-ply Aran pullovers.

Next-to-skin wear other than socks, like warm sweaters, gloves, scarves and hats usually call for finer fibers, those in the 60’s Bradford range. That’s a compromise. You’ll get some pilling, and you’ll need to watch areas like underarms for wear, but you won’t have to wear a shirt under the sweater, and your hands will stay warm even playing in the snow. These are perfect places to blend exotics. A 60/40 mixture of Rambouillet or merino and alpaca will keep you toasty warm even if you’re exceptionally cold-natured and adding 20% of angora or kid mohair to your wool may have you stripping to your undershirt indoors.

Certain types of projects require specific wools. Shawls can be made with wonderful drape and softness from an alpaca/silk blend. Soft, cuddly fibers are a natural for shawls for babies and special occasions, and can be wonderfully comforting anytime. Generally, however, spinning shawl-knitters choose something with a less-pronounced crimp for their finest wedding-ring shawls. Why? Merino is great for many uses, but I seldom choose it for a shawl. That lovely crimp blocks out to almost 40 percent larger than the unblocked size. And two weeks (or one humid day) later, the shawl will again be the unblocked size. By all means use merino for a shawl – but plan to knit the shawl to the size you want it to be when worn. Shetland, that staple for fine shawls, has less crimp than merino – in fact, its crimp is more like that of the average medium wool – and is almost as fine in diameter as merino. This gives lace a crisp hand, and blocking holds until the next time you wash and block, even in high humidity. So check out the recommended fibers for your project, and figure out why they’re recommended – then make your own decision!

Exotics are wonderful for many projects. Knitters know to be aware of their tendency to grow either lengthwise or widthwise, and spinners can compensate for this by blending them will lovely, elastic, fine wool. You can generally stretch those exotic (and expensive) fibers at least four times further than you thought by blending them with wool in a 25/75 proportion by weight. The look and feel and drape will be present, but the wear may be much improved. However, there is little more sinfully luscious than a 100% down fiber scarf tucked around the collar of your winter coat, or a 100% silk shawl to throw around your shoulders in frigid summer air-conditioning. My own favorite winter hats are made from 100% alpaca. One is a rather whimsical wide-brimmed felted creation of burgundy-dyed handspun, and the other a snug, natural brown-colored double-layered stocking cap with a lace inset that’s almost too warm in East Tennessee!

All right, you’ve chosen your project and your fiber. You’ve probably also chosen your preparation – worsted prep (combed fibers) for harder-wearing items like socks and barn sweaters, woolen-prep (carded fibers) for warm hats, mittens, and sweaters. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can spin carded fibers into something that’s ‘good enough’ for a project that should use worsted fibers. It may spin well, knit nicely, and look great at first, but you won’t get the wear you would from equally well-spun worsted-prep fibers. Preparation matters. It matters in the spinning, in the knitting or weaving, and in the finished item. Properly-prepared fibers spin easily and pleasantly. Poorly-prepared fibers fight you every step of the way. So take the time to do proper fiber preparation!

And don’t think that buying commercially-processed fibers lets you out of preparation completely! Top must sometimes be split lengthwise to spin easily, and it will always need to be fluffed up and pre-drafted to some extent. Roving should also be loosened up and pre-drafted a bit for easier spinning. Skipping this step in the interest of saving time is one of those things that will inevitably bite you.

Are we finally to the spinning? Not quite. Before you sit down to start spinning your 2 pounds of fiber (or more), take a minute to think about what kind of yarn you want. If you’re going to do a knitted and fulled project like my floppy alpaca hat or those wonderful, ubiquitous FiberTrends slippers, you’ll want a fluffy, bulky singles or 2-ply yarn spun from worsted-prep fibers (think about why). If your project is a tightly-cabled fisherman sweater, your desire will be for finely-spun worsted singles that can be 4-plied into a lovely, round yarn that will make your stitch details pop! The requirements for socks will vary, but generally will be finely-spun worsted singles that can be either 3-plied or cabled for abrasion resistance to a fingering-weight yarn.

Now that you know what sort of yarn you want to spin, set up the wheel or choose a spindle. Learn to use your whorls – they’re your friends. Yes, you can spin cotton on a 6:1 whorl. But you’ll spin it more easily and pleasantly at a 20:1 ratio. Conversely, if you want lace-weight Shetland singles, you probably won’t want to spin at a 16:1, but at a 6:1 ratio. That way you’ll have time to pay attention to your drafting triangle and stop when you find a slub that’s trying to sneak into your lovely, even yarn. And you won’t over-spin your singles to the point where your 2-ply will corkscrew back on itself!

As for choosing a spindle…the general guideline is to choose a lighter spindle for finer yarns. There is one extremely good reason for this – a heavy spindle can literally snap gossamer yarns! But you do use a fairly heavy supported spindle to spin extremely fine singles. The difference is whether the singles themselves or the table/floor/spinner’s leg is supporting the weight of that spindle. I have a couple of very light-weight spindles that I can use to drop-spindle cotton as long as it’s Sea Island, pima or something else fairly long-stapled. Those same spindles don’t work well at all for acala or upland cotton unless I support them. But then they usually aren’t heavy enough to turn well against the resistance of that support. So for upland or acala, I use a takli, which is a lousy drop spindle, but a great supported spindle.

Spinning wheels are general-purpose machines. Spindles are more specialized hand tools, and spindlers will have their favorites just as chefs have favorite knives. As spinners we need to understand the possibilities and limitations of our tools’ abilities. However, an adventurous spinner will push those same tools to their limits, making them do things other spinners would never imagine.

You’ve begun spinning for your project, finally. Now it’s bedtime on Sunday night, and you won’t have a chance to sit down and spin again until Wednesday. How do you make sure you start spinning the same grist next time? A sample helps. Find a sheet of paper and tape a sample to it, or tie a longer sample to your spinning wheel somewhere. You can fondle it before you sit down next to refresh your fingers’ memory of the way the ‘proper’ yarn feels. It may take you a minute or two to get back into the groove of spinning it, but that’s OK. After you feel you’ve ‘found your niche’ again, stop the wheel (or spindle), unwind a bit, and see how it compares with your sample. If it’s pretty close, just leave it. If it’s way off, pull it back off, break it loose, and toss it away (or save it for something else). Then attach your fiber again and start spinning what you wanted. It’s only a bit of fiber, and you’ve got plenty.

Finish all yarn before you start knitting with it. I don’t make many flat statements, so please listen! I know you don’t like waiting for the skeins to dry – I don’t either. But I’ve had the requisite number of disasters to make me fully cognizant of the potential for a repeat catastrophe if I don’t take the time to complete this step. I’m always reminded of a weaving maxim – it isn’t finished until it’s wet-finished. Washing yarn allows for more than cleaning. It allows twist to settle and yarn to bloom, and makes knitting or weaving more pleasant. It allows you to discover in advance that your dyes are running, and do something about it before you put them next to a contrasting border or stripe. It fills the room with the lovely smell of clean wet wool. And it gives you time to make your final design decisions, dig out the proper knitting needles or reed, and look at your notes or pattern one more time.

Conventional wisdom says to spin and finish all of the yarn for a project before you begin knitting. There are indeed spinners who do exactly that. There are far more who can’t wait to get into the knitting part of the project, and who spin only when they need more knitting yarn. Either way will work, as long as you keep careful notes about how you finished your yarn and samples of each step of the process. This should prevent you from starting a center-out round shawl with lace-weight 2-ply that finishes off with a DK-weight knitted border.

Any spinner who has learned how to make fairly even singles can then go on to spin any yarn he/she likes. It’s simply a matter of being willing to play until you find the best way for you to get what you want. There are no short-cuts to the learning curve. Spinners aren’t usually those in search of instant gratification – we enjoy the process, whether it’s the process of creating yarn or the process of creating unique, one-of-a-kind items. That isn’t to say spinners aren’t frequently perfectionists – many of us wear that label along with its sibling, obsessive-compulsive syndrome. In some cases that longing to control all the variables is part of what started us spinning! But many of us who wear those labels have also learned the knack of ‘exempting’ part of our spinning time from our obsessive behavior. I decided long ago that spinning time was play time. And play time is ‘time out’ from trying to be perfect – otherwise it isn’t play! Surprisingly (or perhaps not), I’ve become easier to live with since I remembered how to play. I’ve also become a much better spinner, a more adventurous weaver, and a more adventurous knitter!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Summer Update

Things are hopping at work and at home these days, so the blog has rather fallen by the wayside. Life has a way of interfering from time to time, I’ve noticed. I always make time for some sort of fiber project, though.

I’ve been spinning for and knitting lots of socks lately. It’s my usual summer project, for a variety of reasons, and rather comforting to spin for something so familiar after several months of experimentation with exotic fibers.

Pictures will have to follow later, but I’ve been working on several sock yarns. Medium fleeces of about a 54-56 Bradford count, either generic 56’s from Woodland Woolworks ( or some Romney/Shetland cross fleece from a local shearing earlier this spring. Also in the works is a pair of socks from some Romney I spun up and dyed deep burgundy last year.

You know me – I can’t resist tinkering a bit! One of the yarns of 56’s was spun roughly mixed with some silk roving I bought awhile back. How do you rough-mix? Well, you lay out a long length of wool roving on the floor and spread it out. Then you take a strip of silk roving, split it lengthwise into quarters, and spread those quarters out over the length of wool. Pre-draft both fibers together and spin into a thin yarn, then 2-ply and cable for a wonderful sock yarn. Shiny sections will be mostly silk, and since the singles are quite thin (about 36 wpi) those shiny sections get spread throughout the finished yarn. The finished cabled yarn is lovely – cushy and with just a bit of crunch from the silk, and about 18 wpi. It worked up into a nice sturdy sock fabric on size 0 bamboo needles at a gauge of 7 stitches per inch. And the variegated pink dye is perfect – I’ll love these on cold, dreary January days this winter!

The Romney/Shetland cross is being combed on my Viking double-pitch combs. This is a really nice fleece, medium gray in color with a staple length of about 3-4 inches. I deliberately left just a little grease in the fleece when washing, because I knew I wanted to spin it quite thin and cable. And I love the way the yarn fulls when I spin it this way! The singles are done after a weekend-long public demonstration two weeks ago, and are patiently awaiting plying and cabling. They’ll have to continue to wait, I’m afraid, for at least another week – I stepped down off some stairs the wrong way and slightly tore my Achilles tendon last week. So now spinning is going to have to await healing!

This will be something of a whine, so if you want to skip this paragraph, feel free. I am the lucky owner of three spinning wheels – a Majacraft Rose, a Kromski Symphony, and an Ashford Traveler. All of those wheels are double-treadle, because that’s much easier for a back that I did in years ago. I’ve heard so many times (and even said myself!) that any DT wheel can be used as a single-treadle if necessary. And they can - for a short time, and very carefully. But they aren’t designed to work as ST’s, and they don’t like to be used as ST wheels. Now I’m upset because I can’t spin for at least two entire weeks UNLESS I can manage to do so in a ST fashion. Since I’m currently concerned with plying thin yarns (about 45 wpi), a lot of control is needed. And I cannot manage that kind of control in ST mode! I’ve tried – oh how I’ve tried – but I cannot do it. After just a couple of minutes, the wheel starts to reverse direction, my back begins to throb, and I feel like I really need a glass of something! I really do need just one more wheel, thank you very much, and that one needs to be a single-treadle! Maybe if I’m a very good girl Santa will bring me one? Probably not, but I can still wish!

The burgundy socks are an UFO. I started them last summer, in fact, in a feather-and-fan lace pattern very similar to the one in “Socks, Socks, Socks.” But I quickly grew weary of the pattern, and put them aside for the Christmas, winter and spring knitting. Now I need to finish the second sock (I’m almost at the heel), and am making myself do at least two pattern repeats a day. Peculiarly, I’m not finding the pattern quite as much of a slog this time around. I started these socks just after finishing up the Buegler Feather and Fan Shawl from GOL; perhaps I was just bored with F&F?

I gave myself a treat for the cooler September spinning season, and I like the look of the roving so much that I may take it along on vacation in August as a spindle project! I ran across some absolutely beautiful fine black alpaca that was mixed with silk in a 60/40 ratio. Both fibers are naturally-colored, and I have decided on a Christmas project for the yarn. Spinning this should be pure pleasure! But not the type of pleasure I want during an East Tennessee summer of 90-degree-plus days with 90 percent humidity levels! Vacation will be the earliest I’ll touch this, and only then if the ocean breezes cool things off enough to make it pleasurable.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Paean to Silk

I love silk, and once in a while I just have to play! The above was the result of a weekend experiment. I dyed, spun and knitted a silk bell or cap into the cell phone cozy shown. It's the perfect size for carrying my cell around the office building where I work, and has enough extra room to tuck latte money inside as well!

Silk is the undisputed queen of fibers. No other fiber has the texture, sheen, strength and drape of silk, whether the fabric is woven, knitted, or knotted. Manmade fibers such as rayon, tencel, and soy are merely attempts to imitate what Mother Nature did with the Bombyx Mori moth – nice enough, to be sure, but still imitations.

In cost, silk is in the mid-range of fibers, with prices for silk top ranging from $40 to $75 per pound. Cocoons, bricks, and bells are less expensive, ranging between $2.50 and $5.50 per ounce. They are a wonderful option for many applications, including learning to spin this fabulous fiber.

Most spinners love to spin silk once they’ve tried it. We mix silk top in different proportions with all animal fibers and even cotton. Sock knitters mix silk with wool for strength and sheen. Weavers and knitters mix it with wool, alpaca and cashmere for the subtle sheen, unmatched drape and to stretch precious fibers. Dedicated cotton spinners mix it with dyed cotton lint to increase the shine and strength of their singles. Some spinners have made a lifetime study of silk in its many forms, spinning soft, textured yarns and harder, shiny ones. I’ve even heard of a couple of spinners who learned to spin by spinning silk!

First, let’s talk about the silk itself. Like most natural products, it comes in a variety of colors and qualities. Both color and quality depend upon the diet of the silkworms. Feed the worms low-quality foliage, and you will get low-quality silk, with weak spots and breaks in the length of the fiber. Feed the worms fresh, healthy mulberry leaves and you’ll get various shades of white cocoons, shiny and containing fine, strong fibers. Feed them different types of oak leaves and you’ll obtain various shades of tan and brown cocoons. Is there a science to the feeding? Of course. A good silk buyer can tell from the shade and quality of the cocoons where the silkworms were raised and whether there was adequate rainfall that season. Since they’ve done the hard part for us, we can simply concentrate on the shade of the fiber.

One caveat, however. If you’re tempted by a really good bargain in silk roving, check it carefully before you put down your hard-earned cash or plastic. Sometimes silkworms are fed a diet that is less than perfect, sometimes the weather is poor during their lifespan. This can result in fiber that is weak and brittle. Silk should be strong, requiring real muscle to break even a few of the short fibers in top or roving form. If you’re looking at bells or cocoons, see if the fibers are broken or if they appear to have thin spots. If the seller doesn’t want to allow you to inspect the silk, or if the color appears uneven, pass it by - it isn’t really a bargain.

Silk comes to spinners in several forms, as I mentioned above. Each has its uses for the fiber artist, so we’ll talk about each in turn. First are the cocoons themselves. You can dye them as cocoons with protein-fiber dyes, soak them for 24 hours in a crock-pot placed on low, pull the cocoons into a length and spin a very textured, heavy silk yarn. Beautiful as an accent yarn in any fabric. Of course, you have to remove the worm, but that isn’t really a problem.

You can reel and throw the silk yourself, which is a great deal of fun, but rather time-consuming. It does, however, make a beautiful, smooth yarn with all the best characteristics of the fiber. These yarns are perfect for weaving, lace-making, or knitting on very fine needles. A single ply (containing the unreeled fiber from 6 to 20 cocoons) can be plied with a single of another fiber for a mixed yarn with characteristics of both fibers. Directions for reeling silk are available in many locations, especially

The second form in which we buy silk fiber is that of a cap or handkerchief. These are fun, too. Silk caps are bell-shaped; handkerchiefs are square (just use the terms interchangeably – they’re the same thing except for the shape) and can be dyed with wool or protein fiber dyes as easily as wool. They will grab the color, giving brilliant results. After the cap is dry, separate it into single layers by inserting your hands into the center and snapping them apart several times around the circumference of the cap until it is loosened and fluffy. Then carefully pull the layers apart. Draw each layer out into a long, untwisted roving. You can wrap this around a paper roll or index card - a nostepinne works in a pinch, too. Then spin this “roving” or use it as is in a knitted or woven fabric. If you choose to use the roving unspun, be aware that the finished fabric will pick easily; a tight gauge will help with this.

The third form in which we purchase silk is probably the most common for spinners. That is silk roving or top. In order to produce this form, the reeled silk is cut into lengths varying from four to six inches. These cut lengths are then run through the same equipment that produces other fiber tops. The final product (prior to spinning) is a thick, unspun rope of aligned fibers. This is probably the easiest form of silk to blend with other fibers. If necessary, the fibers in the top can be cut into even shorter lengths to blend with shorter fibers like fine wools and cottons. While a cotton/silk blend is labor-intensive to produce by hand, it is beautiful in its final form. If doing it yourself doesn’t appeal, there are lovely painted rovings available from various sources.
Silk top forms a strong, slightly- to very-fuzzy yarn. The fuzziness will increase with wear. Why does a smooth fiber like silk turn fuzzy? Because the fibers in top have been cut to shorter lengths. Silk is a very smooth, slick fiber, with none of the scales and roughness associated with wools and bast plant fibers. When spun, these short ends escape the twist and create a halo effect in the yarn. This tendency can be used as a design element and enhanced by spinning the silk softly, which will increase the halo. The halo of soft-spun silk can approach that of angora or mohair. The spinner can also choose to minimize the halo by making very tightly-spun yarns with a great deal of twist. While these yarns will approach the appearance of reeled silk threads immediately after spinning, they will eventually halo as well (although not to the degree of the softer-spun yarns). The spinner is the designer here. Sample as necessary to create the yarn you want.

A little silk can go a long way. An ounce of silk will make anywhere from a hundred to a thousand yards of yarn. Again, the spinner determines the finished grist of the yarn. Some things to consider, though, are the final use of the yarn and the wear it will receive. My personal experience is that high-twist fine yarns show the sheen of the silk fiber best. These singles, with a grist usually between 60 and 100 wraps per inch, can be plied to whatever thickness is desired. These yarns are shiny and very strong, even in singles forms, as long as they have sufficient twist. Go back to your early days as a spinner when spinning silk. Twist is your friend, so use plenty of it! It takes a great deal of twist to keep the fibers in silk top from escaping. Twist also enhances the appearance of the silk yarn. So use your smallest whorl and treadle rapidly, or get out your lightest spindle and use lots of twist, adding even more than you think necessary. The finished yarn will be better for it.

I love to dye silk in any form. Spinning dyed silk caps, cocoons, or top is a pleasure. Silk is a protein fiber, so dyeing is simple. Silk dyes brilliantly with any wool dyes, commercial or natural, and you can obtain beautiful results with even simple dyes like food coloring and kool-aide. Mordants are simple as well - white vinegar or acetic acid give wonderful results. If you choose white vinegar, use approximately 1 cup per gallon of dye bath. If microwave or oven dyeing, simply soak the silk in the vinegar/water bath overnight before dyeing. Watch your temperature in the dye bath, however. Boiling water temperatures will cause the silk fibers to break down and weaken. So keep the dye bath at no more than 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to rinse your dyed fibers or yarns well, and a final rinse with some white vinegar added will neutralize any remaining dyes. Dry out of direct sunlight.

Silk and animal fiber blends are equally simple to dye. Just be sure to keep temperatures suited to the more delicate silk fibers. Silk-cotton blends are trickier. In home production, it’s usually best to dye the fibers separately and then combine them in the carding stage. The reason is simple. Cotton is a cellulose fiber that must be “scoured” and mordanted with often caustic chemicals in order to accept dyestuff. These mordants will destroy the silk fibers.

You can work around this, however. Silk is very reflective. It will blend well with dyed cottons with no dyeing itself. This makes it possible to blend silk with dyed cotton. Very fine silk singles can be plied with cotton and will almost disappear, with the eye focusing on only the dyed cotton color. You can also choose to dye only the silk, which will create a yarn with a tweedy or mottled effect, with the dyed silk showing as shiny flecks against the cotton. Or, as stated above, you can dye the silk separately and then combine the fibers. Again, spinner’s choice.

Treat all finished yarns and articles as though they were 100% silk. Silk care should consist of hand or very gentle machine washing in mild, neutral pH detergent. Following that with a vinegar rinse is recommended, too. Follow by flat or line drying and a cool iron if necessary. Silk is quite strong in mass, but individual fibers are delicate. The fine fibers will break down easily, and prolonged agitation or tumbling will hasten this process. Treated appropriately, however, silk is quite sturdy, with some of the fabrics lasting for generations. One additional note as to care is in order. Moths like silk as well as wool. So take precautions against infestation in both your finished articles and your fiber. Enjoy exploring the many facets of silk. It is, indeed, the queen of fibers, and will reward your efforts at understanding with many hours of spinning and wearing pleasure.

Details on the creation above? I dyed the silk cap with Wilton cake color in Delphinium, pre-soaking on Thursday night in a vinegar/water mixture and microwave dyeing on Friday after work. Saturday morning I pulled apart the silk cap, made it into a rough roving, and spun the layers into singles on a combination of spindle while I did errands and attended a guild meeting and wheel after I returned home. Sunday I plied the singles Navaho-fashion, mostly to preserve the lovely colorways. Twist in both singles and plies was quite high. The finished 3-ply yarn was between 15-18 wpi. I didn't even wash the yarn to set the twist - just cast on 39 stitches and immediately began a K2P1 ribbing, which I continued to the final four rows. I decreased 4 stitches every row on those last four rows, sock-toe fashion, switching to stockinette for those rows only. Finished up with a 3-needle bind-off to close the end, and made a three-ply cord of some of the remaining silk, stitching it to the top of the small purse with more of the silk.

The ribbing hugs the phone and, since it's about 2 inches longer than the phone itself, snuggles in above the phone to keep it in the purse. Yet when the phone rings, a simple squeeze at the bottom pops it out. The shawl pin decoration was an inspiration with a practical bent - I keep it in the office to wear with one of my shawls when the air conditioning gets to be too much and am constantly losing it in my desk drawer. This way I know exactly where it is when needed!