Monday, November 22, 2010

I got it wrong on spindles

I looked at videos of Peruvian spinners, and thought they were using the Berber spiral groove on their bottom whorl spinners.

They were not.  One of those spinners assures me that they were using a half-hitch, and there was no grove on the spindles.

Turns out, that half-hitches on bottom whorl spindles can be set and released faster than the eye can see.  And, it can be done by feel, in any position.  No need for even the Berber Spiral Groove.  What is takes is a lesson and practice.

On the other hand, the ancient Egyptian spinners that were spinning linen threads only 4 fibers thick, did use the spiral groves that the modern Berbers use.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The state of yarn

Knitters talk about how warm a lace shawl is -- that is silly.  Lace shawls are only "warm" in the context of a very mild environment, generally the result of central heat and heated transport.

Ladies that think lace shawls are "warm" have been the primary market for yarn mills for the last 100 years.  The yarn companies have adapted.  For the last 100 years, few people have worn hand knit work clothes, and the wool industry has adapted.  The ladies want softer yarns, so the yarn companies make softer yarns. Now, if you go to a ski resort, you do not see wool sweaters on the ski slopes, you see them in the (heated) restaurants and in the (heated) lodge in the evening sitting by the fire.  Nobody is asking for the more durable fibers, so the wool industry stops growing them, and the yarn industry has stopped spinning them into yarns for hand knitting.

The result is that there are likely 20 good yarn stores within 30 miles of my house, and not one of them carries a a single yarn containing any of the high luster, traditional British long wools. Even if I mail order "5-ply gansey yarn" from the UK, none of the 4 brands in my stash have any long wool in them.  However, if we look at the pictures in Gladys Thompson's Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans, we see that high luster long wool was used for every object except the Aran patterns.  This tells us that yarns really have changed in the last 55 years since GT was first published.  What does this mean?

It means that if you buy a "5-ply gansey yarn", it will be spin from fine, short fiber.  It will not be nearly as durable as a yarn spun from long wool. The fibers are thiner and will not tolerate abrasion as well as the coarser long wool fibers.  The fibers are shorter and more likely to pull out of the yarn, and the yarn will fall apart if the object is worn for an extended period of time while wet.  To hold the shorter fibers in place the yarn has more twist and ply and thus is stiffer and requires more effort to knit into a weatherproof fabric.  On the other hand, the high twist yarn shows off cables even when knit loosely. These are yarns that have evolved to meet needs of personal adornment, rather than the practical needs of a waterman.  These are yarns of status rather than for warmth.

Seeking more durable yarns for outer wear, you are likely to find MacAusland's Woolen Works and Cottage Craft in the Atlantic Provinces of  Canada.  These are 2-ply and 3-ply yarns that are spun semi-woolen or semi-worsted. With their coarser fibers and woolen nature, these yarns do have a certain itch factor when worn next to the skin. With their thick plies, these yarns require great effort to knit tight enough to be weatherproof.  And, when knit tight enough to be really warm, these yarns produce a fabric that is stiff.  On the other hand, I have worn sweaters that were hand knit from these yarns to keep me warm and comfortable while pruning apple trees in fierce storms. With their coarse fiber, these yarns are relatively durable. And, over all, they are the most comfortable garments that I have ever worn skiing.

What were the virtues that caused the old knitters to use long wool 5-ply gansey yarn when knitting "ganseys"?  First there was cost, long wool was plentiful and less expensive.  There was durability; both the thickness of the fiber and the length of the fiber contributed to produce a very durable fabric that was tough enough to be workman's clothing in an industrial environment (ships).  The yarn was very supple which allowed it to be knit tight enough to be weatherproof and yet the fabric remain flexible and elastic, and thus very comfortable. The worsted spun structure resulted in a smooth surface, that while not soft, was pleasant to the touch.  Thus, it produced a relatively thin fabric that was light in weight, flexible, and very durable. This met the needs of a sailor working in the rigging above deck, or sleeping in his hammock, or indeed anyone working on the water.

There are a lot of farm stores selling yarns spun from long wools. Some are even an appropriate "sport' weight.  However, they are 2 and 3-ply, which do not have the durability or suppleness of 5-ply. Further more, the the fibers for these yarns "have been through the mill".  That is, they have been commercially processed to remove vegetable matter, and subjected to aggressive picking and carding.  This is much harder on fibers than hand combing.  Thus, the fibers in the yarns sold by "farm stores' tend to be shorter than the fibers in the fleeces sold by the same farm stores.  There are two reasons for this.  The fleeces with shorter fibers tend to be the ones sent to the mill for spinning into yarn, while fleeces with longer fibers are sold to hand spinners.  And, mills tend to break fibers.

Thus, at this instant, if you want to understand why people made such a fuss over British seaman's ganseys, you are going to have to hand spin your own yarn and knit it yourself.  In fact the whole British tradition of  knitting yarns consisting of long wool spun into fine singles and plied up into 3-ply fingerling, 4- ply, and 5-ply is well worth investigating for anyone that is interested in light weight, but very warm and supple clothing.  

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Drop spindles do gansey yarn


Spindles for testing

A friend, who is a very experienced spinner with a large collection of good spinning equipment, "demanded" that I make her a better drop spindle.  I thought that very odd as there are lots and lots of drop spindles on the market and this woman attends all the wool shows, and I was not really making drop spindles.

A little experimentation showed why she made her demand.  Most drop spindles on the market are not really suitable for production spinning.  In fact, I had assumed that it was not possible to make any useful amount of worsted spun 5-ply gansey yarn on a drop spindle.   I thought that because drop spindle spinning was so slow, prior to around the year 1500 there would have been no worsted spun yarn.  Fishermen (and others) would have had to rely on semi-worsted yarns spun on a great wheel.  I had heard that the sails of Columbo's ships were woven form yarns that were drop spun.  However, the reality that drop spinning could be "fast" never crossed my mind.

The problem is that when spinning became fashionable, spindles started being made to be pretty rather than functional.  The other day, I had a student who owns 80 drop spindles.  They are all beautiful.  They are all jewelry - articles of personal adornment.  Not one those spindles is particularly functional for rapidly spinning high quality yarn

Moreover, I hear spindle makers spouting all kinds of  nonsense about their spindles and the new owners of those spindles reciting the same stupidity.  As I get deeper into this, I even see silly statements by experts, who really should know better.

For example, a bottom whorl drop spindle can be spun with an elegant "Princess Twinkle" flick in the drawing room.  Or, you can use a thigh roll with a bottom whorl spindle and it is is just as fast as any Egyptian drop spindle.  Or, you can use a two-handed toss on your bottom whorl spindle and it will be faster than an Egyptian drop spindle.  With a two-handed toss on your bottom whorl  drop spindle, you can spin very fast. It is not elegant, but it is fast.

In short, it was perfectly feasible to spin worsted 5-ply yarn for fine knitting on drop spindles. It is even feasible to ply 5-ply with the proper drop spindle (and lazy kate with singles guides from LK to plier. In addition, you need a spindle that is made for doing that sort of thing, rather than a spindle design that is made to be easy (cheap)  to produce, or a spindle design that is mostly for personal adornment.

And, Oh! yes, I like that spindle standing in front with the bit of white single on it.  Does it look like any commercially produced spindle you have seen recently?  Sadly, I think not.

Why 5-ply?

Alden Amos says in his, Big Book of Handspinning, that there is no reason to spin 5-ply yarns.

In fact, 5-ply yarns are more supple for their thickness, and thus easier to knit into weatherproof fabrics.

5-ply yarns are also more durable than a 2 or 3-ply yarn of the same fiber and grist.

Those issues may not enter into your decision making, but if you are thinking about knitting a sweater that will keep a seaman warm on a long sea voyage, they are valid reasons.