A day to dye for

Great excitement as we paused to do some geocaching on the long drive home from NW Tasmania the other day. It was such a glorious day after all the wind we have had we just had to get out of the car and do a short walk near the Table Cape Lighthouse.

But not only was the day wonderful – right near the geocache a patch of Weld was growing . This is a dye used by the Romans to make yellow (probably even earlier, but I think the references can be traced at least that far).

I brought some stems home, unfortunately the flowers were only just forming so the plant is a bit young for getting the best colour and definitely no seeds for me to plant some at home.

However, into the dye pot it went

I brought it up to simmering point then turned off the heat and let it steep until cool (overnight). Strained the dye out the next day and added an unmordanted pre-wetted skein of handspun. I brought this up to simmering and again let it steep overnight.

It’s not quite the yellow I imagined but there are so many variables involved it’s hard to make any conclusions – I think I’d start an analysis or long-term experiment with the season picked and then introduce some mordants.

But what is so exciting about this whole episode is that there is Weld growing in Tasmania. Our incredibly strict quarantine laws about bringing in plant material had left me thinking I’d never be able to experiment with these ancient dyes (except purchased in tincture or powder form). Now I just have to find some of this slightly closer to Hobart.

Note: For members of geocaching.com the cache is Cliffhanger

Spinning–an update

Last week some blogging friends of mine shared our thoughts on art. Quite serendipitously I came across the website of the contemporary artist, Anna Mlasowsky, who is using a spinning wheel to spin glass.

Photo from annamlasowsky.com

Do take the time to read her story and watch the short video of her spinning the glass. I get a sense that this is almost performance art not just a means to and end.

As for my own spinning endeavours, I’ve been flat out mainly doing things for other people.

Top left is merino (wool) blended with silk noils which give the yarn a beautiful soft texture. The skein is 1054m so it took quite a while to produce – off and on since last October. I’m not sure if I’ll keep this for myself yet or put it in the shop as is.

Top right are some of the batts which I’ve been preparing for the Guild’s “Give spinning a go” day.

Bottom right is going to turn into a horrible mess I’m sure. Janet Knoop proposed an experiment in an old technique for cleaning fleece using fermented suint. Read about it if you like otherwise imagine a horrible smell and move on.

Bottom left is one of the two skeins I recently spun for a Guild event we are going to at the Campbell Town Show. It was proposed that we spin and weave wool “in the grease” as part of the demonstration. Normally most of us would be using washed (and dyed) wool. But as this show is one of the oldest in the country the idea was to do it all there and then. Not possible. The two skeins which I have done too 40 hours of intense spinning and they will be used to warp the loom and start the weaving so that people will have something to see straight away. Together the two skeins measured 1.7 km which means there was 5.1 km of treadling involved.

Oh yes – and writing of course. I’ve been working on some flash fiction as it fills in the gaps nicely between all the other activities.

A (cliched) metaphor

My life looks a bit like that at the moment.I want to shout and stamp my feet and generally rant  – “It’s not my fault!”, “The cat did it!”, “Why can’t I sort this out?” “Why! Why! Why!”I know perfectly well why. It was my choice, I put the ball of yarn down near the floor in a basket where my (usually) delightful cat could see it. And get to it. And drag it out in the middle of the night. And play with it.

There are two ways I can solve this little problem, and getting rid of the cat is not one of them. I could be destructive and pull and tug and create knots which I will never be rid of. I could also get the scissors out and cut all the tangles and leave myself with short bits everywhere, unsuitable for their original purpose. Both approaches destroy the yarn and lead to regrets I’d rather not have. After all I spun this for a purpose and if I ruin it now my shawl will never get finished.

The constructive way through this mess is the slow, patient way. Taking care to undo the threads before they become knotted beyond redemption. I know I can do this  – I’ve done this before, you see – I try to learn from past mistakes, but not always successfully.

The metaphor should be pretty clear – my life is full of tangled threads. Several unfinished projects, including the shawl, numerous commitments to as many organisations and a desire to get on with my own life – whatever that may mean. So applying the weaving lesson to my life means extricating myself from the various roles I have in organisations and allowing myself to be an “ordinary” member for a change. I will be finishing off these large projects currently lying around the house, so that the equipment can be stored or sold. If I simply dropped these things – threw up my hands and said – “No more! Time to move on!” I know I would regret it. I know that because I’ve also learned that lesson about myself.

So this time I’m trying a different way. I’m no longer interpreting the current wisdom which proclaims:  “Make the time. Do it now. You have to make a choice”, as meaning right now, this very instant. I am making the time, I am doing it now, but slowly, gradually, not rushing my changes. I’m designing and spinning (and weaving) a life with the threads as I want them.

I’d love you to share with me how do you make changes in your life? Do you find it easy? Do you have a metaphor for your life right now?

Tops or Roving? Part 2

OK – now I’ve had a big, long think about this, I decided I’ve asked the wrong question. I should have asked: What is the difference between the tops and sliver? Or even roving and sliver? And is it any different in Australia? And who cares anyway?

What is Topmaking? Australian Wool Innovation

Topmaking photo from Australian Wool Innovation Ltd

I was confused because of some assumptions I made. Firstly that what I’d been told was true and secondly that there was nothing more to know – nothing else to learn.

Years ago I was told that tops are made from combed wool and rovings are made from carded fleece, and I believed it. I hate to think how many people there are down that chain of misinformation, which I have happily continued up until now.

I’ve decided to use industrial references because I simply can’t track the thread of information back to a definite beginning within the handspinning community – everyone seems to have a slightly different understanding of it. For me adopting industrial terminology is the only clear way  through all those whispering voices.

For the wool to be processed it must be clean. Scouring is the first step and may happen at the mill or at a dedicated wool scour after auction.

Carding the wool

Once the fleece is scoured and dry it is then carded. Handspinners only card wool when they want a fluffy, woollen yarn, but industrially all fleece is carded. Machines open up the fibres and make large webs of fibre. This photo shows an antique machine which was once used in Denmark. The wool passes between the rollers and gets teased apart by the thousands of tiny wires embedded on their surface. Eventually the web of wool becomes a  sheet or batt. In the background you can see one still on the large drum.

The old wool mill

Photo from storebukkebruse  – thank you

Modern machines tend to be encased in protective cabinets and so the workings are not as readily seen.

Drawing the Sliver – Gilling

The last step in the carding process is creating a sliver – this is what I thought was roving. Sliver is a soft thick rope of fibre drawn off the drums of the carding machine, which has no twist. Gilling has three stages and straightens the wool fibres for combing.

The Nundle Woollen Mill has a gallery photo which I think is showing their sliver.

Nundle Woollen Mill

Tops and Rovings

The next step in the industrial process is top making. Essentially the sliver is put through a combing machine to remove all the short half grown and knotty fibres. This leaves the long fibres in a beautiful parallel form. Several tops are combined to ensure thorough colour blending (even white needs blending) the end result is a roving or in Australia a combed sliver.

So: Carded webs are drawn into untwisted slivers which may then be combed into tops. These tops may be refined and drawn out even further and may be called rovings, tops or combed sliver.

Does it matter?

Yes – if you are planning a sleek smooth yarn then the preparation you buy needs to be combed, but if you want a fluffy lightweight warm yarn suitable for winter woollies then look for sliver. If you can examine the fibre closely you should be able to tell the difference, but photos from internet shops may not show it clearly. You can only ask, and maybe start a conversation. And yes because this is Australian terminology, somehow I think we will always have to ask questions and be wary of the whisperers.

For the curious these are my sources
A basic outline from Wool Producers Australia
A great little video to download from the CSIRO
The carding and spinning process at Nundle Woollen Mill
A pdf poster from the CSIRO
The responsibilities of a top maker from Australian Wool Innovation Ltd
The machinery gallery at Nundle Woollen Mill

Tops or Roving? Part 1

These two terms are used a lot  in handspinning circles and I really took it for granted that I knew what they meant. My son was baffled by the words – he thought he knew “tops” but not “roving”.  He did know enough to suggest I to explain the terminology, and in the process I’ve clarified some things for myself.

I’m talking about sheep’s wool here but it’s much the same for all the animals which need shearing – only on a much smaller scale.

Fleece is the name given to the coat of wool once it has been taken off the animal although sometimes it may be used about wool before shearing.

Shearing is the removal of the fleece from the animal. It is usually done with electric shears – a bit like barber’s clippers – presumably that’s where the term “wool clip” came from, in reference to National Exports.

Classing – the wool classer sorts the fleeces into different categories based on the quality of the fleece. From here the clip is taken from the station’s shearing shed. (Large properties are called ‘stations’ in the outback).

Scouring  cleans of the fleece – getting rid of dirt, grease and lanolin.

Before we get to the mill I want to take a tour of some interesting Queensland sites which are well worth a visit if you’re up that way.

The Isis Down Shearing Shed is a semicircular shed with 52 stands and was manufactured in England and brought to Australia in 1914. It is still in operation and is the largest in Australia. Only two were ever built – the other is in Argentina.

The Blackall Wool Scour is the only steam driven wool scour remaining in Australia – there were once 52 (curious how that number keeps coming up!) through the country. It is being restored and if you are lucky enough to be in town (peak season – winter) you will see it in operation.

Jackie Howe,  from Blackall, still holds the blade shearing record.  321 sheep in seven hours and forty minutes. It was only broken in 1950 by a machine shearer. The origins of the workman’s singlet can also be traced back to Jackie and his shearing.

A classic Australian film from the 70’s featuring shearers is Sunday too far away . Paul Byrnes says that it is an “enormous [movie], empty, [with] confronting landscapes, beautifully photographed, a cast of funny, laconic, rough-hewn Aussie blokes who worked hard and drank harder, a sense of fun and physical prowess, but also a sense of ‘the great Australian loneliness’.”

We’ll get to the “tops” and “roving” bit in the next post.