Thursday, May 18, 2006

Spinning the wheels

Before I started knitting I never thought I'd become obsessed with fiber. When I made my New Year's resolution I thought knitting was a harmless -- barring the occasional poke from a misplaced knitting needle or safety pin-cum-stitch marker -- hobby that wasn't at all addictive. That was obviously before I wound up with a fifty gallon tub of acrylic yarn. And then I discovered the joys of wool yarn... and alpaca... and silk... and blends of the three. *gulp*
Acrylic yarn is fine. Really. Sure, it pills, but it's inexpensive and easy to find, and it's good for practicing before you get down to the nitty-gritty task of knitting a pair of socks or a hat. Wool, on the other hand, seems to be more difficult to find except for the folks who have websites selling it; there are only two shops within an hour's drive of where I live and one of them is no longer hospitable for reasons I won't go into. Suffice it to say that I choose not to do business there anymore. Anyway, I now also have a rather large amount of wool yarn that I'm working my way through in the form of numerous pairs of socks and a shawl, and a baby blanket for an acquaintance.
In my recent posting about the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, I mentioned that I'm now the proud parent of a drop spindle. While at the fair, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be fun to spin and dye my own yarn?"
After several fumbling attempts at spinning, and much laughter and humorous self-mockery, I found a lovely (small!) group of handspinners on Yahoo. Yahoo, it seems, has groups of people discussing literally every topic under the sun. This particular group is made up of spinners with varying degrees of expertise; some of them use both a wheel and drop spindle, some prefer the drop spindle, and so on. Upon joining the group, I peppered the members with questions like "How do I get the bloody thing started?" and once I got it started "How do I keep it from untwisting?"
It's much more complicated than it seems at first glance, but once you figure out the general idea, all it takes is patience and practice. A couple of listmembers e-mailed to point me toward a website that has video clips of people demonstrating the basics of spinning with a drop spindle (; they were kind enough to answer my questions anyway, and one even offered to meet and give me spinning lessons.
To date I have one small (very small) skein of cream-colored yarn that represents my first effort at spinning; I'm sort of keeping it as a trophy. This afternoon, though, I started spinning with some of Stacey's gunmetal blue roving; I've still got bugs to work out, like how to pull the fibers without breaking the line, and how to keep the spindle from unwinding while I'm getting the next bunch of fiber ready to start. Okay.. more bugs than I thought, but I'm slowly getting better at this. Someday, though, I also hope to get one of those beautiful Ashford spinning wheels, maybe one of the cute upright ones with a nice cherry finish. Ahh... pipe dreams. For now, anyway.
As far as the dyeing part of the project, three days ago I planted seeds in the newly constructed raised bed on the other side of the vegetable garden: coreopsis, bull's blood beet, purple basil, and amaranth. My indigo, woad, and safflower seeds have vanished, however, so no blue dye for me in the Fall! Some of the plants take about two weeks to germinate, and take a couple months to mature, so at the end of the season, I'll have yellow, purple, and reddish-rusty plants to work with. Which means I still have plenty of time to master the art of drop spindle spinning.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

MSWF 2006

It's an hour and a half drive through the country and down I-70 to a little place called West Friendship, which is between Frederick and Baltimore. Every year, this little town hosts a giant trade show-cum-county-fair called the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival; visitors and vendors come from as far away as California, and I wouldn't be surprised if some come from abroad to show their wares and to see the sights. And, wow, there's a lot to see: people selling spinning wheels, yarn, dyestuffs, handwoven fabric, garments and blankets made from handwoven fabric, knitting and crocheting supplies, looms, wool rovings for spinning, fleece and carding machines, and almost everything in between that has to do with sheep and wool. And then there were the weaving, knitting, and crocheting workshops and the lectures on Navajo weaving and on sheep as an integral part of Navajo life, and even an entire building set aside to exhibit Navajo work. That was pretty amazing and worth the trip all by itself! The colors and patterns are something that have to be seen rather than written about because they're so incredible.
And then there were the animals. There were people selling and showing sheep and angora bunnies, there was a pen where a fellow gave lectures on alpacas, and another pen where a pair of very haughty llamas stood and sneered at passersby. The alpacas are about half the size of the llamas and seemed to have sweeter natures than their larger cousins; the llamas were haughty and disdainful... and big. I had no idea they were so big before seeing one face to face. There were also six barns full of sheep of various breeds, including one that's about twice the size of any sheep I've ever seen, and something called Jacob sheep with two sets of horns. I'd never seen or heard of such a thing before, but they seemed fairly goodnatured, as did the merino rams I met. They were very sweet, the rams, and looked very wise and solemn. Of course a good many of them had just been sheared and were wearing little blankets to keep their coats from getting grubby, and there were some farmers who were busily giving their fleecey friends haircuts while people stopped to chat and ask if they could pet the sheep. The sheep took it all very well, I think, though several of them said, "Baaaaaah!" in a way that seemed to mean "Don't you have anything better to do than gawk at a nekkid sheep?! How humiliating!"
And yarn, Yarn, YARN! Yarn everywhere in hundreds of colors, textures, and fiberblends. Yarn dyed with cochineal beetles, yarn dyed with indigo, yarn made from banana fiber and soy fiber and recycled sari silk, yarn from Wales, yarn from Ireland, yarn twisted in skeins, yarn on cones, yarn knitted into socks, hats, and shawls, yarn felted into scarves and hats, yarn in bagged kits for sweaters and mittens, yarn being spun from wool rovings dyed in just as many colors. There wasn't a single thing in the whole place that wasn't beautiful, animals included. The range of textures alone was enough to intoxicate; the colors were beyond description. One of the vendors dyed her own yarn with plants: indigo, woad, madder, and so on. Some of her yarn was double-dyed, like osage orange (which yeilds yellow-green on its own) dipped again in indigo to make a variegated aqua.
Since I picked up knitting at the beginning of the year, I've begun to appreciate the work involved in fibercrafts, and I've become more interested in taking a stab at doing a bit of dyeing on my own. For my birthday, my mother got seeds for some dye plants -- indigo, woad, beets, safflower, and a couple others -- and I later got some books on how to use those plants in conjunction with mordants that change and fix the color. In mid-January I made my first forray into the world of dye, using KoolAid on merino wool yarn. That turned out well, though in the future I may use more KoolAid and be more careful with stirring it until all the powder dissolves so I get a more uniform color.
People who knew I planned to go to the Sheep and Wool Festival exhorted me not to spend too much money, and at the same time to buy good stuff. I'm pleased to say that I managed to do both and that I didn't give in to the temptation to buy a dozen of everything including angora bunnies. After going from one vendor to another in a daze caused by sensory overload, I stumbled across a stall run by a young woman from New Jersey. She was selling yarn, drop spindles, and enormous batches of dyed wool rovings for spinning; her prices were excellent, as were the items she offered for sale, and I told her I thought so. She was pleased at the compliments and told me that she felt that it was her responsibility to pass on the good deals she got while doing business with suppliers. After taking another good look at the wool, I chose a beautiful gunmetal blue -- the last one, I think she said, in that colorway -- and then asked her about the drop spindles.
I still don't know much about how they work, but as far as I know the oldest forms of spinning were done on similar drop spindles by ancient cultures. A spindle is, in essence, an oversized wooden top with a notch in the dowel to keep the yarn from sliding off; as the spindle falls, it spins and twists the fiber into yarn which, in turn, is wound around the spindle shaft. Apparently, if you don't want to go buy a spindle, you can make one with one of those AOL discs that frequently show up in the mail, a dowel with a pointy end, and a cup hook to hold the yarn; the heavier the spindle, the thicker gauge of yarn you can spin. There were several woodworkers who specialized in spindles made from exotic wood, and there were even some made with enamelled faces; I opted for a less expensive, less exotic, less complicated spindle. I'm a novice, so I thought it'd be best to start out slow and work my way up.
Mom discovered that one of the stalls nearby carried natural dyestuffs including cochineal beetles (dead and crushed to powder) and insisted on buying some because it's hard to come by. She also decided I needed some of the osage orange sawdust since we both really liked that yellow-green-celery color that comes from using Alum with it. And it turns out we have a box of red henna powder in the bathroom -- I'm not sure why or where it came from -- but it works as a dye for wool, apparently, and that's where it's going to go. And when I finally start those seeds, things will definitely get interesting.
Here's hoping there won't be a drought this year! If there is, I'll still be able to... dye happy. :-P Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival website.