Thursday, July 22, 2010

Handspun gansey yarn

I have not posted for a bit, because I was learning to spin my own gansey yarn.

I had been told that NOBODY ever spun gansey yarn by hand because it was impossible.  The required plies were so fine that they could not be spun by hand and that it was impossible to ply 5 singles together by hand.

Well, lots of pre-mill spun woven cloth had very fine singles - that were spun by hand.  Plying 5 singles together is not that hard.

Thus, after a 3-month learning curve with my little Ashford Traditional, I am turning out my own handspun gansey yarn, and I am very impressed with its competence.

It is stronger and more durable than any of the modern commercial gansey yarns.  I spin it softer, so it is more friendly. It is warmer than modern commercial gansey  yarns.  I like it.

Why in the world would somebody bother to make a 5-ply yarn when it would be easier to spin 3 thicker plies? Well, 5-ply is warmer and more durable.  It is the compromise that provides the most warmth for the least amount of wool.  Given all the effort to prepare the fiber and knit, it is also the compromise that provides the most warmth for the least amount of effort.

Here is the pix taken in November.  The blue on the left is hand combed, hand spun 5-ply at 16 wpi, and the darker yarn on the right is is 5-ply at 14 wpi being knit up as boot socks.

hand spun gansey yarn

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An apology about waterproofing wool

A couple of years ago, a yarn supplier told me that a drop of baby oil would oil ,and waterproof wool. I tried it, and it has worked very well for me on a large number of swatches and objects. I have repeated the advice often.
I now find that the situation is more complex, and the baby oil was acting a carrier for other materials with which I inadvertently contaminated the yarns and/or objects. Thus, the waterproofing that I see in my knit woolens requires more than just baby oil.
Other materials in my crafting environment which may be causing the effect include:

• Spinning oil on a yarn that I frequently use

• Bees wax,

• Petrolatum

• Lanolin.
One, or all of these, is likely contributing to the weatherproof qualities of the objects that I make.
In any case, my weatherproof fabrics are not noticeably oily or waxy, nor do they smell like sheep when wet. Thus, I am taking bout trace quantities of contamination. The advice to knit very tightly, full completely, and oil the wool stands. The ambiguity is what “oil” is best.
Anyway, I am sorry for any confusion or problems that this may have caused.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

hand spun gansey yarn

I just passed a milestone and had something of an epiphany.
I am working with Cotswold, spinning and swatching for a gansey. I had been working toward finer singles, but had stalled at about 35 WPI due to lack of skill to spin the coarse wools finer.
However, when I did finally get to 40 WPI, I realized that gave me 10 hanks per pound, and 1,000 yards of 5-ply per pound. This all harkens back to a standard for cottage hand spinning on an industrial scale.
Coarse long wools such as Cotswold were an important industrial fiber. With hand spinners in different communities, using different equipment under different conditions, some kind of commercial standard for spinning coarse wools was necessary so weavers and knitters would know what to expect. When all spinning was still by hand, 40 WPI was about as fine as such a diverse group of spinners could consistently produce. It was an easy standard to enforce by giving each spinner a length of dowel with 2 marks on it and telling them the single must wrap so many times between the marks.
Certainly, any good spinner could spin that wool finer, but the standard was a commercial compromise between human variability, technology, and economics.
Then, 2-ply yarn was about 2,500 yarns per pound, 4-ply was about 1,250 yd/lb, and 5- ply was about 1,000 yards after tight plying – all a direct consequence of wrapping a single around a piece of dowel with two marks on it. Do those numbers ring a bell? They have the virtue of being easy math in a cottage industry where many can’t read / write, but can do commercial arithmetic, and make their mark.
After about 1770, factory spinning in England was so much cheaper and better than cottage spun yarns that industrial and domestic users both switched to factory spun yarns. The market for handspun yarn crashed, and hand spinning was no longer a viable commercial activity - except for a few niche markets.
The traditions of the cottage industry of spinning industrial yarns was lost. People bought their 5-ply. After families had bought their 5-ply for 4 generations (60 years) families assumed that they had always bought their 5-ply.
The factories produced yarns similar to those that had been previously produce by the cottage industry. They did not have mass media to teach weavers and knitters to use new kinds of yarn, so the spun yarns that were similar to the yarns that had been produced in cottages and homes for hundreds of years. In 1800, knitters and weavers bought yarns of the same thickness that they had bought 50 years earlier because those thicknesses of yarn produced textiles suited to the environment. A hundred years later in 1900, central heating and better windows was resulting in a warmer living environment for many. Thus, by 1920, very different kinds of textiles and yarns were required for the new living environments.
However, in 1820, clothing requirements were very similar to what they had been in 1720. Fashion changed, but the amount of insulation that the clothes were required to provide did not change much. Thus, the nature and types of yarn produced changed more between 1820 and 1920 than it did between 1720 and 1820 despite the fact that in the later period yarn production moved from hand spinning in cottages to the factory.

Two Ply, Three Ply, More Ply

I have been hand spinning classic gansey yarn from traditional British long wool fleece. The extreme fineness of the singles that I had to spin to get the right grist on the final yarn was a real eye opener.
Yes, I had deconstructed modern commercial gansey yarns and had seen how fine the plies in it were. That is what triggered my decision to learn to spin. However, there is a big difference between seeing such fine singles (as a non-spinner) and actually spinning such singles as a (beginning) spinner. Moreover, spinning gives one time to think.
One thinks of England as a cool place, full of sheep and wool, so wool must be cheap and they can afford to be extravagant with wool in their clothes, right? England was full of wool because wool was useful and valuable. In fact, the English were very good a making a little bit of wool provide a lot of warmth. It is only recently, that they have become extravagant with their wool.
The English have long traditions of spinning very fine and knitting with fine needles. The result is fabrics that by modern standards of hand knitting are extraordinarily warm, but by modern standards of hand knitting are light weight and have very little bulk. They really are nice fabrics for all kinds of uses, because they are so much warmer than we expect such a thin fabric to be.
I spun the singles to be plied into the gansey yarn, and I wondered, what would happen if I plied these up into a 2-ply yarn? Knit on fine needles (UK 16 / 1.6 mm) I got a fabric warm enough for cool mornings in spring-summer- fall. I made up some 3-ply, knit it on 1.75 mm needles, and lo and behold! I got a fabric that is warmer than modern commercial gansey 5-ply yarn  knit on 2.5 mm needles! In a mild climate, 3-ply (22 wpi) on #00 needles was/is good for winter wear. (For skiing, I might put on long pants.) Again this is a stealth fabric. Look at the fine 3-ply knit on the #00 needles next to the 5-ply knit on the larger needles and you would say that the gansey fabric is many times warmer. However, it is not.
This brings home several lessons. The first is that fine yarns can produce very warm fabrics. The second is that gansey 5-ply yarn knit on “big” needles does not produce a very warm fabric. The third is that appearances can be deceiving and you need to test a fabric for warmth, because the eye can be deceived. The fifth is that you do not need a bulky fabric to be warm under most conditions. The sixth is that 5-ply gansey yarn knit tightly produces a fabric that is suitable for very cold conditions.
Fisherman’s sweaters in the modern context are knit loosely because most people do not want that kind of warmth.