Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Spinning and knitting in the Grease

One of the great romantic fables of spinning and knitting is that fisherman's sweaters spun and knit in the "grease" are warmer and more weatherproof.

The best fisherman's sweaters were scoured, spun, and knit.  Many were also dyed, which provided several advantages, but for a good dye job, the wool had to be scoured.

Unscoured wool has a film of waxy material on it, that holds grit. The variable amounts of grit held in that waxy material makes consistent spinning difficult.  The grit on the fiber causes wear on the spinning equipment.  Inconsistent spinning, produces a variable yarn, which is impossible to knit into a consistently tight fabric. Clean wool is easier to card.  Grease wool is impossible to comb, and combing is a part of producing the worsted style yarns for high quality fisherman/seaman sweaters.   And, lets put it this way, "The scouring process kills lots of germs."  Besides, "Clean wool smells better when you do get rained on!"

Then, the grit trapped in the yarn as it is spun, is a constant source of wear, reducing the durability of the garment.  Grease wool/yarn/fabrics also attracts moths. Clean wool lasts longer.

Some low lanolin wools such as Shetland and Jacob, can be rinsed, and spun with success but the quality of the yarn, and hence the quality of the knitting is not as high as when clean wool is used. Some talk about spinning the long wools in the grease.  It is possible, but you still have the grit. While it is possible to spin beautiful yarns from grease wool, it is easier to spin better yarn from clean wool.  See Alden Amos Big Book of Hand spinning pg 44 - 45.  Judith MacKenzie  McCuin in the Intentional spinner ( pg 28) first says ". . . wool must be washed or scoured before it can be processed efficiently." Then, she waffles to talk about washing wool without removing its natural oils.  I do not waffle.  As long as that waxy layer is on the fibers, grit will stick to it, and will get trapped in the yarn as it is spun. Thus, if you leave the natural oils on the fibers, grit will be there to spoil your spinning.

Scoured wool can be "reoiled", to be weatherproof.  Jan at Frangipani recommends using a drop of baby oil in the rinse water. This is fast, inexpensive, and effective.  I put one drop of lavender oil into my bottles of baby oil for a little extra moth protection.  Dyed wool can be reoiled to be even more weatherproof.  Perhaps the best way to "oil" a sweater for serious outdoor wear is to fry bacon over a camp fire.  The combination of wood smoke and bacon fat does a very good job of oiling a sweater.

Wool can be scoured by letting it sit in cold water for a few days (fermented suint method), rinsing, and then treating with lye soap (followed by a careful rinse).   Or, the Romans cleaned their wool in aged urine (followed by a careful rinse!)   If you can get to a modern market, then modern soaps and detergents make cleaning wool easy.  (Umm, if you use Simple Green, make sure it is diluted and mixed before the wool goes in.)

The investment of time and effort in scouring wool pays off in faster and better spinning.

The first three rules of fast and easy spinning are:
Fiber preparation!
Fiber preparation!
Fiber preparation!

A day of fiber preparation can save 3 days of spinning (if you are spinning fine.)

If you can heat a cauldron of wool to over 120 F, you can skim the "wool fat" off to reoil the wool, after it is all knit. Then, it will smell all "sheepy" and everybody will think that you spun it in the grease, when in fact you spun it the easy way. (Or, you can just buy a little bit of "wool fat" from iriss http://www.iriss.co.uk/product.php?xProd=309&xSec=27.)


sharonwue said...

Johnson's baby oil contains the following ingredients: mineral oil and lavender. That would make it (by the common definition) 'lavender oil', too. Unless you are talking about essential oil of lavender, all lavender oil is some kind of oil (mineral, olive, etc.) with the addition of lavender blossoms, or a drop of essential oil of lavender. Back in the '70's, we used mineral oil to oil fleece, on the theory that it did not go rancid.
I like the idea of woodsmoke and bacon fat- But then, anything that includes lard can't be all bad.
Love your blog. Spin On!

Aaron said...

You buy the good stuff,I buy the cheapo stuff - no scent. The baby oil I buy is a lighter weight mineral oil than the heavy weight mineral oil I buy for the wood shop.

I do add some essential oil of lavender to the cheapo baby oil.