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Is Wool Yarn Ethical? A reason why I started spinning

There is a disturbing video making its rounds on Social Media, of workers brutally beating sheep as they are being sheared of their fleece for the wool industry. I won’t link to the video here because it is truly upsetting. Seeing this video auto-play time & time again reminded me of one of the main reasons why I started spinning yarn.

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One of the larger skeins of yarn I spun early on in my spinning journey. It’s a mixture of fiber from two alpacas: Rita von Teese and Bennie

When I was teaching myself to knit and finally became comfortable with it, I started asking knitting friends and acquaintances what yarn brands they recommended as far as quality goes. Often the brands that came up were 100% wool – often merino. So off to the (craft) big box store to investigate. I was surprised at the lack of information on the label about the wool itself. In fact, there simply is no information past the weight and fiber type – normally just 100% wool. Well, what kind of wool? From where? I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, “Is wool yarn ethical?” Looking up the websites for these brands provided no information as well. What I did uncover, is accusations of abuse and mistreatment of the animals bred for this industry. I was left concluding I simply could not continue on with a hobby knowing animals were potentially abused just so I could knit a hat. At the time, spinning seemed way out of my wheelhouse. But the more I wanted a greater understanding of how yarn is constructed so that I could understand knitting better, the more spinning became appealing.

My family frequently attended wool shows and fiber festivals, in the beginning because I

Making friends at a New England Wool Show
Making friends at a New England Wool Show

wanted to do more natural crafts with my children & this route was suggested to me. They proved to be a great family activity. I grew up in a rural area and sometimes it was nice to get away from urban life. It soon became apparent that I could buy fiber from small producers and hobby farmers. I have even at times met the animals the fleece came from, and bought their fleece fresh shorn – on the spot. This is how I know sheep do not have to be abused to be shorn. Sure, some are very stubborn, but a skilled and compassionate hand can get the job done quickly without punching and kicking and strangleholds with minimal discomfort to the sheep (shearing in and of itself is a craft and I’d even say an art form – it is very fascinating to learn about & watch).  In my observation they are also pretty darn happy to have all that heavy fleece off in the hot summer months. Much like buying local & direct to know where your food comes from, the same could be said about the fiber that is to be spun into yarn. I could connect with the producers and breeders, & I could feel confident in the product I was using. This connection lead me to learn how to process fiber by hand. At first, I couldn’t imagine handling a dirty fleece! Now I will skirt them if need be, hand pick then wash it – often soaking for hours on repeat – then card, dye and comb it (if creating top). My yarns really are from the ground up – and it is absolutely satisfying to me to see this product, a gift from the animal turned into something so lovely and appealing. This way I can really honor the animal that was so generous to share their fiber with me. Without these animals, I could never grow as an artist.

I know there will be people that will disagree with me that I cannot know know for absolute sure the animals are happy and well treated in captivity. And to some people’s horror, these same farmers also offer lamb meat (I personally do not eat lamb). I am a believer that every little bit of conscience effort is valid. We cannot do it all. I am also well aware of the large amount of greenwashing – and as I call it – “guilt-washing” out there. So I hope that is not how this reads. I am not here to convince you to buy my yarns. Honestly I am happy to keep them all to myself *evil laugh*. 😉 I am here to give thought to alternatives so that we do not have to always live in such extremes.

photo included in one of my bags of raw wool from a small New England producer
photo included in one of my bags of raw wool from a small New England producer

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My Spinning Philosophy (and how it ties into jewelry making)

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The other day I was flipping through my copy of Intertwined: The Art of Handspun Yarn, Modern Patterns, and Creative Spinning by Lexi Boeger and the intro to chapter 3 reminded me why I spin.

Free the Pattern

The Yarn made me do it.

“Working with handspun yarn provides a perfect opportunity to free yourself from the constraints of formal patterns by allowing the characteristics of the yarn itself to dictate the work’s form. There are many ways to do this, and a few examples will follow, but the idea to teach yourself to really look closely at the yarn, and let the details and eccentricities that you find there guide you in your creative process. Many people are hyper-focused on the act of knitting or crocheting, and oblivious to the yarn itself as they work through it.” 1

Faux Tailspun Yarn in pink flamingo
Faux Tailspun Yarn in pink flamingo

I’ve been in a bit of a spinning & knitting slump as of late which I find happens when my days are more consumed with jewelry making or fleece processing. This quote reminded me why I got into making yarn in the first place. It’s easy to get into concentrating on technique only, esp. when you are out of practice. But for me that takes away from the joy of spinning. I’m a throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of spinner. I’ve come up with the best skeins this way. They are in no way reproducible, but isn’t that why we love handspun anyway, the uniqueness of each skein?

I really enjoy Lexi’s book as she is about pushing the envelope as to what we think of when

just a few of my fave yarns I spun
just a few of my fave yarns I’ve spun

we think of handspun yarn. I don’t tend to click with many spinners I meet since their goal many times is to get the thinnest and/or most even yarn usually for a particular pattern or project. I would much rather let the fiber take me on the journey and then decide after it is spun what it would like to become. It usually takes me several attempts to make something out of a skein of yarn because it doesn’t always want to do what I want it to. I find a pretty pattern in one of my books, and convince myself that this particular handspun will do the trick. Most of the time, I am wrong. Instead, I have had to train myself to look at the yarn and decide from its feel what it should become. I do look at patterns for inspiration, but most of the time, knitting (or crocheting) just spontaneously happens.

If you think that a jewelry maker making the jump to spinning yarn is odd, here is where the parallels are drawn. When I make jewelry, I like to sit down with a component – such as a gemstone bead – and let it develop into a piece. Sure I have a sketch book with designs and this is more useful for the engravable jewelry. Even then do the designs rarely look like what is in the book. I like to let it develop as I go. Much like mixing different colors of fiber for spinning, I like to take beads and metals to find a harmonious blend. It’s painting, only on a 3-dimensional level to produce a tangible product or textile. To me spinning is the perfect compliment to jewelry making – not to mention the ultimate mash-up: spinning beads into my yarn (I also got tired of boring plastic and rubber stitch markers too so I make my own – that I call knitting bling). 🙂

coopsworth 2-ply with purple stacks
coopsworth 2-ply with purple stacks

When I started spinning I just went for it. The opportunity arose where I could buy a wheel and I seized it. It made absolutely no sense at the time, but I am so glad I left logic on the shelf, and delved into spinning yarn. It is an absolute bliss for me, even with every ache and pain that goes along with it.

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Current Yarn Stash – handspinning overflow

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This is the culmination of 4 years of hand spinning. All the experiments with both dyeing and spinning: locks, roving, all of it. All the hours put in to hone this skill. Some were hits, some were misses. I would say the majority are acceptable, if not pretty darn good for a gal who hated the drop spindle but decided to just to throw caution to the wind and buy her first wheel in 2012. I adore spinning. To hell with knitting. I will sit and spin all day any day. 😉

Now with two wheels (first my Lendrum and then my Spinolution wheel) I can work much more efficiently and that means the yarn stash has the potential to grow even bigger, faster. I didn’t do a lot of processing (skirting, washing, or dyeing) fleece last year. We seemed to be in a perpetual state of renovation. But that didn’t seem to stop me from combing, carding and spinning.

I laid all this out on the table the other day, and I was a bit disturbed at how big the yarn stash has grown. With all that time sitting and spinning I haven’t had, well, any time to knit or crochet or weave. It feels a bit stagnant to me, in the sense that – as much as I feel you can never have too much yarn, having these around is stunting my creativity and zest to try something new. There is literally too much choice right now.

One reason why I find it hard to let go is because spinning is such a cathartic process for me. It really is therapy – if not a spiritual experience. So the finished yarn carries a lot of those emotional qualities for me.

The other reason is that I look too critically at my work, and assume it is not good enough for anyone else to enjoy.

Excuses aside, it’s time to get these ready for listing and hopefully into some new homes (my handspun is probably the only thing I sell that I am not unhappy about if it doesn’t sell ;)). I have a few skeins drying now – some of these have been in storage so have become compacted and needed to be fluffed up and looking their best again. 🙂 I also have my pricing spreadsheets set up and shipping rates worked out. I just need to get photographing and listing. I’m not sure if that is all going to gel together by the end of this month – which is fast approaching. I was hoping to get a least a skein or two up this week but I guess you just can’t rush a good thing.

You will find the prices will be affordable if not downright rock bottom. These yarns have served their purpose as a teaching tool to hone my skills and I am happy to give away the time and possibly even partial cost of materials in order to make way for new skill building. The hardest ones to price will be my merino and alpaca yarns, since they were the most expensive of my fleeces to obtain. They are so soft and fluffy and – the hardest ones to part with. But I am all about intention and energy and my hope is that these yarns will make it into the hands of people who can appreciate all these qualities that come with them.

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Then when I am done with all that, you see these two containers in my closet? The label on the top bin says: wholesale overflow. And that is exactly what this is. 13+ years of wholesale, clearance and closeout jewelry supplies. In my lifetime, I will never use all of this. So these materials will have to find a new home as well. Now, to clone myself several times in order to get all this done… 😉

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Experimental Crazy Handmade Yarn Creation

scarf; shrug; accent piece: I am not sure exactly what I would call this but I am quite satisfied with how it turned out.
scarf; shrug; accent piece: I am not sure exactly what I would call this but I am quite satisfied with how it turned out.

I made this yarn out of…frustration? Boredom?

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I was really dissatisfied with the original yarn. So I decided to go for broke, and see what would happen if I boucléd it around some commercial cotton. This crazy handmade yarn is the result.

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The outcome is certainly interesting to say the least! So what to do with it? I now have a bulky, buckled spiral yarn made of wool, banana fibers and beads (now, cotton yarn added to that mix). What in the world to make with this hot mess & a half?

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When in doubt with a funky bulky handspun, I always turn to the elongated knit stitch. There are many different variations but one that I love to do is really simple. Cast on the number of stitches you want, insert needle to knit one, but bring yarn around both needles before looping around the inserted needle like a regular knit stitch. This extra bit of wrapping will elongate that stitch nicely.

Here is a video by Ashley Martineau of Neauveau Fiber Arts demonstrating the stitch. I love Ashley’s videos and her spinning style! I probably learned this stitch from her originally, a video tute on a pillow cover comes to mind. 🙂

So back to this funky creation I made with this yarn-I-was-so-fed-up-with and a simple knit stitch. I was shocked by the result. I didn’t expect much from this so I didn’t keep any notes. But I cast on approx. 80 stitches on large circular needles (17 comes to mind, possibly bigger). Then it was elongated knit stitch until I had just enough to bind off. That was it. Total TV watching knitting.

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My intention was to make a cowl or infinity scarf, but I guess you could call this what – like a shurg or a shawl too? And once I started to tug it out/form it it was screaming for this chain detail.

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These are the things I love to make. Happy accidents. Throw all the rules out the window and just go! I get so caught up in perfecting technique sometimes it’s nice to forget it all; not have a plan and see what comes. This may still be a total hot mess, but I know one thing. I throw this on with a nice jacket, and I have a conversation piece. And that is true artistry to me.

The moral of this story is: don’t be shy to go there and totally own the result. 🙂

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Finding Inspiration: What to Make With Handspun Yarn

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funky handspun becoming an infinity scarf in the wee hours (my fave time to knit)…

If you are like me, you like to comb the internet for inspiration. I consider myself a spinner, but not so much a knitter or crocheter. My knowledge of knitting and crochet is actually pretty basic. People tend to be quite surprised by this because the assumption is one starts spinning after mastering the needles.

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core-wrapped up-cycled banana fibers and sequins

I taught myself to spin just few months into teaching myself to knit and crochet (the beginning stages, anyway). The story as to how I got started would suit a post on its own, but the fact that I learned about making a textile from the ground up made me appreciate the basics of knit and crochet. Handspun yarn literally has a life of its own. Rather than you making it into what you want it to be, it tells you what it will be.  Thus, you gain a respect and appreciation for handspun that you realize is best left to speak for itself.

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jumbo colorful yarn chain (aka Navajo) plied from fleece seconds

Because of this, we are often left scratching our heads as to what to do with gorgeous artful textured handspun. I say “we” because I know I am not alone in this. Many of us have that stash of pretty yarns. Because of its unusualness (or its mind-blowing prettiness) it becomes a permanent fixture in the yarn bin like the wall-flower never picked to dance (and we know it really should be the belle of the ball!). Whether it is handspun or an artful commercial yarn, I know many knitters know exactly what I mean. When I started spinning the goal was to make the most even, symmetrical yarn possible. But soon I really wanted to push the boundaries of what yarn is. The problem was I wondered what I could make with such unusual and small amounts of it. I have a growing collection of yarn that I spun that I feel is “too pretty” to use.

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core-wrapped handspun with handmade flower inclusions

So even as a spinner, I find myself taking to the internet to find inspiration. Not patterns. Patterns are no good with such a unique medium. More of a reassurance that others truly are making items out of handspun and it’s not just a pretty yarn to be hung in the studio. I also have this bad habit of over critiquing my yarns and again, a post for another day… I found this wonderful article on craftsy that really sums up what to make with handspun yarn.

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crochet handspun jumbo yarn infinity scarf worn as a shrug with handmade flower and button detail

Since it is recommended to use larger needles with handspun and to keep the stitches simple, I believe handspun is a great textile for the novice knitter or crocheter, or, if you are like me – those who do not possess the time or patience for a long term project. I want to get back to the wheel, afterall. 😉  It may look intimidating at first. It can be comprised of many bumps, thick and thin sections and even over twisted sections, but when you realize a basic knit or crochet stitch will give you a stunning one of a kind scarf for example, one quickly realizes how how satisfying it is to use. The projects are not only simple, but since they are worked up with large needles, they make the perfect afternoon project.

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free form crochet left-over handspun neck warmer washing machine felted

Don’t be afraid to mix your handspun with commercial yarns. I love to make the ribbing of my hats with commercial yarn and then let the handspun be the personality of the rest of the hat. What about a scarf in elogated knit stitch switching back and forth between handspun and commercial? The possibilities can truly be endless, and it is freeing to not have to follow a pattern. Free form crochet is your friend with the leftovers! I’ll be starting a series here on the blog showcasing what I have knit with my handspun. Some will be hits, and some will be misses I am sure. Many of the examples posted here are from my spun seconds pile. I really need to have the courage to tackle that pretty yarn stash. My goal is to share the journey with you so that we can grow together. The yarn is piling up here and I need a butt kick to come up with some projects with it. I do not feel comfortable selling my handspun when I myself do not know what to do with it! With that, I am off to play with that jumbo rainbow yarn pictured above. signature

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Handspun Bouclé: A Closer Look

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Mohair bouclé on commercial cotton – hand dyed gracing the studio walls

Back in November I blogged about spinning bouclé yarn for the first time. I loved the technique so much it lead me to experiment with other fibers other than mohair to see what the end result would be. Here are some closeups of the finished products.

Mohair makes the most perfect loops
Mohair makes the most perfect loops

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The above photos are all mohair. I dyed these after the yarn was spun, and will do a post about the dyeing process soon. I am really growing to love dyeing both fleece and yarn.

handspun silk on alpaca
handspun silk on alpaca

So this was interesting. I spun some silk and then looped it as a bouclé on some handspun alpaca. After it was finished, I washed and fulled it (a process of shocking the yarn with hot/cold water so that it felts a little bit) and regretted it! I loved how it looked straight off the wheel, but thought it really lost a lot of its character and looked rather clumpy after the fulling process. Now that it has been hanging up in the studio for awhile, I am intrigued with it. Hopefully over winter break I’ll have a chance to knit it up & see what it looks like.

alpaca bouclé
alpaca bouclé

Alpaca makes a really nice bouclé, too – very similar to mohair. I finish plied this with handspun silk and it looks so yummy against the dark alpaca fiber. I just wish I could have gotten a better picture of the entire skein, it was hard to do since it is so dark. I’ll definitely share once I have it knitted up in something.

I’m definitely bouclé hooked. So many ideas! I’m taking a break from that to do some core spun yarns which I will share more about in the New Year.

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Spinning Bouclé Textured Yarn

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I’ve dabbled in the past spinning bouclé, but I never liked the results and I felt it was too time consuming. I realized after reading up on the technique that I was missing the most important element: mohair.

From my research, I found out that mohair (from the angora goat) gives the most perfect little loops. It cards to a straight slippery fiber and because of this texture the loops stay round and don’t collapse on itself like sheep’s wool would. Also my research stated it works best if you spin it in a fatter single and ply it on a thinner yarn.

So I got digging in my bins and found the perfect fiber to experiment with: some mohair roving I had bought from an individual at a wool show a couple of years ago as a destash. I couldn’t believe the price for the roving (cheap!). After spinning it, I wished I had bought more!

I ended up with 6 bobbins full of mohair singles. I had some commercial cotton that I picked up at a thrift store making it the perfect (and affordable) base for this yarn.

I ran the commercial cotton through the spinning wheel once in s-twist (spin to the left) to add more energy. This is so that after the final ply, spun in the opposite direction (known as z-twist), you end up with a balanced yarn. I know spinners are mixed on this practice. I don’t always do this but after examining the cotton it just felt like the best course of action.

So fairly soon I got a rhythm with making loops. You basically hold the 2 plies loosely with one on either side of you (2 lazy kates in other words on either side of your chair) and start pushing up the mohair onto the base yarn until they make loops. Once I got into it it was so much fun and I didn’t want to stop. 🙂

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The loops will still move around, until the final step of plying, where you take a thin thread and ply in the opposite direction so that the loops stay put. You can see in the photo above I used a purple cotton thread to do the final ply. The next step is to dye the skeins. I ended up with 6 skeins all together – and the dyeing stage will be discussed in an up-coming post.

UPDATE November 23rd, 2014: since spinning these I have also experimented with making bouclé with alpaca handspun singles as well as handspun silk singles. The results are totally different but the lover of textured yarns I am, is totally digging it! I’m glad I got the technique down with mohair first, now the possibilities are endless…

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