Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Princess is dead! Long live the Princess!

In the 4,000 years prior to 1750, there was global trade in hand-spun, hand-woven textiles.  The textiles were mostly made from fibers such as wool, flax, hemp, cotton, silk, alpaca, camel, nettles, ramie, goat, and yak.  From this period, we have many stories of the princess that could spin fast and fine.

A tribe that has the tools and skills for better spinning will have a comparative economic advantage in the textile trade, and that tribe will get rich.  Then, the daughters of the leaders of that tribe will be princesses. Thus, the girls with the best tools and skills to spin fast and fine were princesses.  Viewed through the lens of economics, the stories of  princesses that could spin fast and fine make sense, even when such things could not happen in history as written by Victorians. (Take off your Victorian glasses. Family businesses succeed because the family has a passion for the industry. When the family has a passion, everyone in the family becomes involved.)

The next element of these stories is that the princess is captured by an evil king or witch, and forced to spin a room full of straw into gold.  This is fairy tale language for "the captured business executive was forced to disclose her company's trade secrets." "Gold"  is the key word.  It tells everyone (except the Victorians) that the fairy tale  is really about trade and wealth. The princess was spinning for trade with distant (more than an hour's walk?) markets.

This whole line of thought about fairy tale princess started when I was thinking about hand-spun, hand woven fabrics that are planned for a particular garment. Some of these are very clever. Last year at CNCH, I must have spent an hour looking that red silk jacket by Stephenie Gaustad. The other day she was showing a nice little cotton blouse with her trademark invisible hand stitching along the selvage.  That is fine for haute couture, but  for trade, one must produce more generic bolts of cloth that can be used to make garments of various kinds that will fit people of various sizes. Tailors need to be able to make clothes with seam allowances, so the garment can be taken in and let out

So, for 4,000 years princesses hand spun (and supervised/managed the hand spinning of) the yarn for bolts of cloth.  Now, when was the last time you saw a bolt of high quality, hand-spun, hand-woven wool flannel cloth?  

Since I started spinning, several spinners have been telling me about their depth and breadth of spinning experience.  They tell me how they are connected to their historical roots. With all of these experienced spinners around, the countryside should be awash in bolts of hand-spun, hand-woven cloth, just as it was prior to 1750.  It is not. The spinning princess must be dead.

If the experienced spinners will not spin thread  for full bolts of cloth, then some of us newby spinners will have to step up and do it.  My next goal is spinning yarn for a bolt ( 32" wide by 12 yd long) of wool flannel.)  It should weigh about 10 lb. It should require ~25,000 yd of yarn.  And, since the fabric will be wider than my samples, I will spend a lot more time spinning than weaving  That 10:1 ratio of spinning to weaving may be about right, or even a little low.  This is the ultimate stash buster project. The warp will take most of my Cotswold, and for the weft all the Rambouillet  in the house is freshly washed and sitting beside the carder at this very minute.

I am using J&J No More Tangles for my carding/spinning oil so I do not have to wash the weft prior to weaving. I do not like it as well as the AA spinning oil mix for spinning, but since I am not spinning very fine, it works well enough.

We were in Needless Markup the other day, and there was this lovely lady's jacket trimmed with dove gray wool flannel.  Oh my, there are some nice wool fabrics this year, but $4,000!? for that little thing!!  Good thing my wife does not look good in dove gray. Yes, it is time to see if I can actually make flannel from hand spun.

Let's see if any of the experienced spinners turn out a bolt of wool flannel before I do. Let's see who can spin fast and fine.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The best fleece for a gansey.

I see a gansey as the right sweater for the job.

What is the job? Where is the job?  When is the job?

If the job is really cold, then you want a finer fleece, and more plies. If the job involves a lot of abrasion such as furling sails, then you want a coarser fiber. And, I like coarser fibers (eg. Romney) in sustained wet.

I do think that gansey stitches show up much better with worsted spun yarns, and I like the luster and lack of felting that long wool offers. I would not use Merino or any of the short downy wools.

Just make sure that you get a good fleece (Judith tells the truth, and here are good notes from one of her classes;  I think it is worth while taking her classes and reading her books.  Alden Amos also has much to say about wool in his Big Book of Handspinning, but he no longer teaches formal classes.

Then, it is a work garment, so the fiber should not be too expensive.

For a very traditional gansey, I like the finer long wools.  That includes Romney to Shetland, and all of the traditional long wools in between.  I have promised myself one from American Jacob, which is very much like Shetland.

However,  if a skier is going to wear it to slide down Gun Barrel, then Cotswold or Lincoln will help avert the hamburger effect as skin slides over ice at 60 mph.  (Romney only lasts for a few slides  : (

Really cold weather demands finer fibers.  If you are going to wear it skiing in Montana , or steelhead fishing in the upper Columbia River, I suggest Rambouillet.  It is about the finest wool with  long enough staples to comb and spin true worsted.

All that said, navy blue really is a bit warmer than white in the fog, but natural "Russet" is almost as warm. Natural colored fleeces will work.

Fiber that has not been acid treated to remove VM is easier to spin.  With a low grease wool like Shetland, the improved spinning speed will save you enough time in spinning, to wash and comb the wool. With Romney, you will need to budget some extra time to scour the wool.

Almost any handspun worsted from long wool will be much better that the best modern mill spin 5-ply.

5-ply gansey yarn at 1,000 ypp requires worsted singles of 5,600 ypp.  That comes out to ~9 tpi for each ply. 5 plies plus plying means a total of about 60 twists per inch of the finished yarn. Such twist provides great durability, but if you are not going to be working as a fisherman on the North Atlantic, you do not need that durability.

3 plies of 2,800 ypp handspun worsted will produce a beautiful round, dense yarn that makes stitches "pop" as well as any mill spun gansey yarn, and it only requires 24 twists per inch of finished yarn.  Energy wise it is less than half the work, and since most people spin 5s much faster than 10s, it takes a whole lot less spinning time.  Then, you will have the spinning budget for matching hat, comforter (scarf), mittens, and socks.  Everyone will be so impressed that they will not ask, " And, how many plies?"

I encourage you to do the first gansey as 3-ply.

On the other hand, a very round, smooth yarn can be produced by spinning 11,200 ypp singles and cabling them as 5x2. This is a lot of work.  Judith also told me that she has seen 3x2 cabled yarns in traditional ganseys, and I find this easier than straight 5-ply without a tension box.

Do it for love, and do it for fun. Use a long wool, spin worsted, and do not worry.

If you are a member of the Re-enacter Police, then ganseys must be spun from the coarse, long wool of the Scotch Blackface.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

DRS Revisited

Differential Rotation Speed (DRS) is a way of setting up a double drive spinning wheel.  I first came across it Alden Amos, Big Book of Handspinning.  It is also discussed in the introductory chapters in several of the books on industrial spinning published early in the 20th century but the technology is given other names.  Some of these are free on Google Books.  There is also some material and pictures from earlier in this blog.

Normally, in modern double drive spinning wheels, there is a 1:1.2 ratio between the flier whorl and the bobbin whorl. The drive band is kept loose enough to allow some slip and whorl profiles facilitate this slip.  "Yarn lock" causes the flyer and bobbin to rotate at the same speed. During yarn lock the drive band slips on the bobbin whorl.  When yarn lock is released, the bobbin speeds up and yarn is rapidly wound on to the bobbin. This set up allows the drive band to transfer power to the flyer/bobbin assembly through two whorls and allows slightly more power transfer, thereby driving the flyer bobbin assembly at speeds significantly higher than Scotch Tension. Thus, this arrangement is favored by lace spinners that need to insert a lot of twist.  However, total power transfer and thus top speed is limited by drive band slip. Moreover, continuous drive band slip causes wear on the drive band and the whorls.

In this arrangement, rapid take-up is always available and the spinners' tension on the yarn determines whether take-up occurs.  The feel of such a wheel is very like that of Scotch Tension or Irish Tension.  And, almost any yarn can be spun with very minor adjustments in the drive belt tension.

With DRS, the ratio of take up to inserted twist it controlled by the ratio between flier whorl and the bobbin whorl. This ratio is selected to produce a particular yarn.  The drive band tension and whorl profiles are selected to limit drive band slip, and the differential rotation speed between the flier whorl, the bobbin whorl with the effective diameter of the bobbin controlling the amount of inserted twist. If the spinner wants to produce a different yarn, then whorls with a different ratio must be selected or the effective diameter of the bobbin changed.  As the bobbin fills up the effective diameter of the bobbin changes, and it tends to wind yarn on faster, thereby reducing inserted twist. (With high grist yarns, this effect is trivial.)  Then, yarn must either be wound off, or a different whorl ratio selected, or a thicker/ lower twist yarn will be produced as the bobbin fills.  When producing low grist yarns, the effective diameter of the bobbin changes rapidly and the DRS approach is not useful.

With DRS, if the spinner drafts too thick for the set whorl ratio, the yarn breaks off.  If the spinner drafts too thin for the set whorl ratio, the yarn drifts apart.  If the yarn winds on, it is good competent yarn of the grist set by the effective diameter and the ratio of the whorls.   The system will not spin anything else, and  the spinner that tries to spin anything else will be frustrated.  No drive band slip is required, so power transfer by the dive band to the flier/bobbin assembly can be much greater and the flier/bobbin assembly can be driven at speeds 2 or 4 times greater than typical modern modern double drive spinning wheel.

The feel of the DRS  wheel is very different. Techniques such as long draw, that use twist accumulation followed by rapid take up do not work.  Both Alden Amos and Henry Clems have made such wheels, and all of those wheels were returned as "non-functional".  I agree that the approach is not useful for a recreational spinner that spins small batches of yarn.  And, here a small batch of yarn is 25,000 yards of the same grist single.

The concepts starts to be useful at grists of  ~ 5,600 ypp (9 tpi). By using a flier whorl with 4 different drive band slots allowing 4 different flier/bobbin differential rotation speeds, and bobbin length of just under 4" (Ashford) a full hank (560 yd/ 1.6 oz) can be spun with a twist/grist variance of  just about 10%, which I am told is not bad.  Spinning 11,200 ypp singles again using a flier whorl with 4 different drive band slots the twist/grist variance can be much less. By the time you get to 40s (22,400 ypp) The change in effective bobbin diameter for a hank (0.4 oz) is so small that a flier whorl with a single drive band slot can be used to produce a full hank with minimum twist/grist variance.

Sustained 2,400 rpm is as about as fast as a great wheel with an accelerator can insert twist.  However, with a flier/bobbin assembly both hands can be used to draft, and thereby produce worsted yarn.  Since, worsted yarn required 5 -10% less twist than woolen the  flier/bobbin assembly can produce  5 -10% more yarn at the same average rate of twist insertion.  Thus, I am no longer seeking a great wheel.  Also, I have made a driven spindle assembly for my Traddy that is very fast (twice as fast as the Ashford spindle).  Peter Teal was correct, one can easily spin worsted on a driven spindle.

That makes DRS seem perfect for spinning fines (60s - 80s).  However, at that point the ratio of the whorls is less than 1:1.01, so with a 1" whorl diameter, we are talking about a difference of  less than 1/100 of an inch between the diameters of the two whorls, and when I make whorls that are only 1/2" in diameter, the difference between the whorl diameters is less than 1/200".  I made some flier/bobbin assemblies for such spinning.  At that point, seasonal changes in humidity can change the diameter of wooden whorls enough to affect performance. For such whorls, details such as the kind of wood and the orientation of the grain of the wood matters a lot.  Or, the build up of a film of drive belt dressing on one whorl can cause the thing not to work, provoking much profanity. This summer I have not been spinning a lot of fines, so I have been using Irish Tension on the #0 flier or conventional DD with a DRS of 1.01 and belt slip when I needed to sample fines.

Tolerances for whorls designed for spinning 5,600 ypp are on the order of 1/32".    This is doable with no profanity. The 9 tpi of these singles needs the speed of a DRS system.  DRS is the only way that a spinner can spin 5,600 ypp singles as fast as they spin 1,800 ypp singles.  A man's sweater from 2-ply worseted requires about a million twists to make the yarn.  A sweater from 5-ply takes about 4 million twists.  If one is spinning gansey yarn, a faster wheel is better.  For singles in the range of 10s to 40s, DRS is worth the effort.  And, I admit that it is a lot of effort.

One other point is that the math for DRS is a bit counter intuitive, so one must do the algebra to select correct whorl diameters.  I made up little tables for different effective bobbin diameters and those tables are in both my shop journal and my spinning journal for reference. I check them frequently.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


When sheep do what sheep do, they get Vegetable Matter in their wool.  It is a fact of life.

If you see commercial wool fiber in the form of  top, or roving, or batts, that does not have any VM in it, then either the sheep were covered, or the wool was lovingly combed, or more likely, the wool was treated with acid (carbonized) to remove the VM.  

Acid treating wool has become the commercial standard.    Most of us have forgotten that acid treated wool is harder to spin, and is not as durable as natural wool. Most of us have forgotten how nice natural (not acid treated) wool is to spin.  Likewise, I do not think most knitters and weavers understand what they are giving up when they buy commercial yarn spun from acid treated fiber.  In particular, I do not think most reenactors understand how different modern fabrics are from fabrics made before 1770 (mill spinning) or even 1880 (acid treatment).  I am not even sure textile historians understand how much acid treating fiber changed the character of woolens.  This effect has been noticed before, see for example or Textile World, Volume 59, Issues 14-26 page 29 et seq.

I will get a lot of push back on this, as most of the most pretentious fiber sellers sell acid treated fiber.  Their customers are very picky and do not want any bits of VM in their very expensive fiber. However, every time I spin acid treated fiber, I am reminded how much I hate it.  This is written as I finish spinning 17,000 yards of 5s (2,800 ypp singles) of such fiber for a bolt of cloth.  (An older spinner stopped spinning as a result of health problems, and she sold me some of her stash  to me for a tiny fraction of the price she paid for it.  Spinning 40 hanks of worsted gives one time to think.  Originally it was pricey fiber.  Not great fiber, just very expensive fiber.)

It is medium fine, and it should be very easy to spin at 30,000 ypp, but when I sampled, it is was difficult to spin finer than 22,000 ypp.  Nor does it draft as fast and easily as the fiber I scour and card/comb myself.  I think acid treated wool is one reason that many modern spinners have trouble spinning fast, or spinning wool at its spin count.

In another case, I bought a "lace kit" from one of the pretentious dyers.  It is supposed to be Merino, but it is acid treated, and I have (natural) Jacob that I can spin finer.  Heck, I have natural Romney that I can spin finer.  On the other hand, I have a bunch of commercial, acid treated Jacob, and I have natural Cotswold that I can spin much finer than the acid treated Jacob.   And, somebody gave me some expensive Shetland from the Shetland Islands. It was so pretty,  but it was acid treated and very difficult to spin fine.

Nor do I think that acid treated wool is as durable as natural wool.  Mill woven or frame knit fabric is inexpensive, so its lack of durability as a result of the fiber having been acid treated is less of an issue. And, objects of fashion are discarded as they go out of style.  However, in the context of a hand knit or hand woven object, the lack of durability is more of and issue.  In the context of a hand spun - hand woven fabric, durability becomes important.  If I am going to invest the time to spin and weave, I will make the effort to use good fiber.  Thus, now I am spinning 9,000 yards of warp from 1.5 kg of natural Cotswold/Romney blend that I have in the stash, and I will only use the yarn from the acid treated fiber as weft.  And, this is still my practice exercises on the loom. 

I will never again buy acid treated fiber. 

Never! No matter what kind of a deal I am offered and how cheap the fiber seems to be.  

This also means that I am not going to buy any more knitting or weaving yarn spun from acid treated wool.  You may knit or weave fashion items that will quickly go out of style, but I want my hand knit objects to last.   There are still some wool mills that do not carbonized their fiber. Find them.

As long as I am bitching about milled wool: I am going to bring up wool grading.    While over the last 100 years sheep have been bred to have more uniform fleece, every fleece still contains different grades of wool.  These days, most mills throw whole fleeces into the process.  That means all the different grades of wool are mixed into the top or roving.   Likewise, when you buy a fleece and send it off to be washed, all the different grades of wool in the fleece get mixed together.  This is not ideal.  Better is to buy intact fleeces grade them, and keep the different grades separate.  If you need the best Merino, you should buy several fleeces, and sort out the "A", "B" & "C" wool from each fleece. If you are buying good fleeces, the B and C wool will not be bad, it just will not be as nice as the A wool.  And, over all, more consistent fiber sized in the A, B, & C yarns will result in less itch.  This is because one cause of itch is variance in fiber diameter within a yarn single. Yarns made from  fibers with a narrow range of diameters have less itch. Remember this as you think about doing or buying fiber blends.

Yes there is superfine and extrafine Merino out there, but if it goes into a mill, and all the grades on all the fleeces in that sort are mixed together, you lose the value of the best A grade wool.  If it gets carbonized, it is going to be harder to spin. The bottom line is that you are going to spend  $30 to $60/lb on fiber that will not spin up as nicely as the 19 micron Rambouillet that I buy from Ann Harvey at $10/lb. 

Actually, the $10/lb is for raw wool.  I figure the clean, combed wool costs me more than $26/ lb plus my labor to scour and comb. And, from a fleece, I get only some A grade wool, and some B & C grade wool.  (Of course, there is some byproduct for felting and that sort of stuff.) So my cost for the A grade is more than $26/lb, so my costs for the B & C grade wool can be lower.   I do not buy it because it is cheap.  I buy it because I like the finished products I can make from it.

There are very good reasons for blending wool with silk or the various synthetic blends, but my usual reason for blending wool it that I do not have enough of the right wool for the project, so I blend two or three bins together so I have enough fiber for the project - as in the case of the Cotswold/Romney blend that I am using for the current warp project.  I would say that for every need, there is a correct grade of wool, and for every grade of wool, there are needs.  

So a mill tosses all the fleeces from a flock in together and everything gets milled into one stream of roving or top - that contains 10 different grades of wool.  Then, some fiber dealer takes 3 different kinds of roving and cards them together to produce a proprietary fiber blend - that now contains 20 different grades of wool. (The different rovings likely contain some of the same grades of wool.)  Now, besides extra itch, what do all of those different wool grades add to the fiber blend?  $$$$$$$  The purpose of most of this blending is to sell cheaper wool at a higher price.   Regardless of the artistic bull shit, the purpose of blending commercial fiber is to maximize profit.

 It is better to just select one wool grade that suits the need. 

Most of my spinning over the last year has been either rather fine or that nasty acid treated fiber, and I have gotten accustomed to spinning slowly.  Spinning the warp is going about twice as fast as I expected.  It is nice.  I spin like a demon for 15 or 20 minutes, wind off the hundred or so yards on to a reel, wash it quickly to remove the spinning oil, set it in the sun to dry, dress the distaff again, and repeat a hundred times.

I am still doing tabby samples with commercial yarn as I tune the loom.  However, there is this old rule of thumb that says it takes 10 spinners to spin the yarn for one weaver.  I look at how much yarn I am using and how much yarn I am spinning and my ratio is closer to 1:3.  I want cloth that is obviously hand spun/ hand woven and I am taking advantage of that and spinning rather fast. If I was seeking to make "professional" quality fabric, my spinning rate would be slower, so that I could maintain tighter control.  I may be sorry for trying to spin so fast when I see the results.   In the mean time, I like the idea of spinning 3 hours for every hour of weaving, rather than spinning 10 hours for every hour of weaving.

What to do about VM in a fleece?

First put the fleece on a open rack and "willow" it.  That means beat it (gently) with a stick so dirt and VM fall out of it.  Then, scour the fleece (grade by grade) using lots of water and soap until the fleece is clean.  Willow it again.  If it is long wool, and is going to combed, combing will take out all of the VM!  : )  Problem solved, and this is one reason I like worsted spinning.

For woolen, card the fiber, several times using a vacuum cleaner to pick up all of the VM that will be thrown off.  Then, card again in very small batches and use a pair of forceps to pick the VM out of the carding drum. It goes faster than one would think.

Finally, spinning rather fine will allow most of the remaining VM to drop out at the drafting point. This is another advantage to spinning fine.  Spinning at 2,800 ypp drops out most of the VM.  Spinning at 11,200 ypp drops almost all of the VM, so I just do not see VM as enough of a problem for me to use acid treated fiber. 

Wash the yarn to remove the carding/ spinning oil in less than a month after oiling.

The Rambouillet that I got from Ann Harvey last year had a significant amount of VM in it, but the singles were VM free. I know a number of spinners that would have turned those fleeces down because of the VM.  I knew I was going to spin that wool worsted, and therefore, I was going to comb it.  Since I was going to comb the wool anyway, the VM did not add any extra work or diminish the quality of the yarn. Really!  Could I have done that spinning on acid treated fiber?  No!  And the longer staple length of the Rambouillet give me a much better yield over Merino on the combs.  

Friday, October 04, 2013

Sizing warp

When weaving fine cloth, the warp is subject to a fair amount of abrasion.  With fine wools, the abraded fiber can cause jamming and breakage.

One solution is to spin your warp from Cottswold  : )
 AA recommends gelatin. It works.

Modern professional weavers sometimes use polyvinyl alcohol.  Sekisui makes a good one.  However, preparation and application is a big deal.

Then there is No More Tangles:

Will Taylor told me about it. It works. I put a big cookie sheet on the floor under the loom, and just spray it on the warp.

It it the best ?  Not sure.  It seems to be good enough  for current projects.