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.  


Suzi said...

I like your post about acid treated fibre. That explains it very clearly.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate the information about acid treated fiber. One way to avoid acid treatment is to send your fleece to a mini mill to be processed into roving. Mini mills do not acid treat the fiber they process. They simply aren't equipped to.

You can choose the fiber you wish to send. Many do not have minimums if you are only looking for roving, not finished yarn. VM is removed only by the carding process. You can have the fleece de-haired which will remove additional VM. With this type of mill, if the original fleece had VM, so will the roving to some extent.

Mills differ, so it is a good idea to get feedback from someone who has used their services. Pricing also varies, so it pays to shop around. There is also a fairly long wait time for the fleece to be processed (at least 6 months).

For someone who has problems processing wool for spinning themselves, mini mills provide a reasonable option to obtain decent roving that has not been acid treated.

I agree, however, that nothing beats fiber that you process yourself.

Aaron said...

Even a mini-mill is not going to sort and grade your fiber as well you can.

For the most delicate spinning, the locks of wool need to be carefully organized and all oriented the same way. Mills do not do this.

If you want the best fiber, you will have to skirt, grade, organize, scour, card, and comb the fiber yourself.


Lynda said...

I knew it was a chemical process to remove the VM, but now you've explained what the chemical process was. Thanks!!