Saturday, December 31, 2011

How Fast Can Someone Comb Wool?

These days, I comb Jacob at around a half a pound per hour. It is slower than Cotswold, but is similar to Shetland that many people comb these days.  Even a pound per hour is much slower than professional wool combers prior to 1850, but it is about as fast as I can go at this time. I could make myself bigger combs and work faster, but for the small amount of wool that I handle, it is not worth it.

My method is to start with clean oiled fleece, and give it a pass through the drum carder to make sure everything has been opened up and the oil distributed.

Then, I lash 3 or 4 ounces onto a large, single-pitch comb mounted on my combing bench, and use a 6” wide 2-pitch to comb off. Then, I mount the 2-pitch (with the wool on it) on the pad, and comb off onto a pair of 4” wide 5-pitch combs. Then, each 5-pitch gets combed off onto another 5-pitch, which, when full, is mounted on the comb pad, and combed onto another 5-pitch. Then, those combs are mounted on the comb pad, and their beards drawn off into short planks. If I work quickly, it only takes 6 or 7 minutes to get from carded fiber to 2 planks of an ounce (sometimes closer to 2 oz) each. (~3 hours hours to plank a sweater's worth of wool). The planks are arranged in a large bin.
When the bin is full, it is turned out on a table and the planks arranged for uniformity of fiber. The planks can be stored for a while
The planks get lashed onto 5-pitch combs, combed off, and then combed back (two complete transfers). This takes 3 or 4 minutes for between 1 and 2 oz. (22.5 oz /hr).
Then the beard is drafted off using a diz, and wound on the distaff. Total time to comb a sweater's worth, right on the close order of 6 hours. 
However, I suggest that the final combed and drafted fiber be used within a couple of weeks. That is, every few days, I take a few planks out of their bin, and final comb/draft them into slivers for the next few days of spinning.
For long wool, I skip the carding. The Romeny that I did last spring went faster, while the Rambouillet, Jacob and Shetland goes slower.
To achieve a reasonable rate, I had to make myself larger combs. On cold days, I warm the combs. I also use a spray bottle of water. See Peter Teal’s book for instructions. 
To get here, I had to time myself, and look for ways to speed up the process.
So, this lady said,"I've been wool combing for 5 years, I have five sets of combs, but I do not know if I have ever combed enough wool for a sweater."  My reply was, "If you have been wool combing for 5 years, then you should have combed about 5 tons of wool.  Me? I spent more than a hundred hours learning to card, and maybe 20 hours of making better tools and less than 20  hours of real wool combing.   I have big bins of wool to show for that effort.  In my book, just having combs in the closet does not count as time spent wool combing.  Nor, does having a spinning wheel sit in the living room count as spinning time.  

Sampling Cable plied yarn

This post is so important to me that I am going to Shout!

If you are spinning fine singles, it is worth doing a  series of exercises in plying/cabling.  If you have the singles on hand, it is easy to run up samples of  6, 8, 9, and 12-ply cabled yarns, and knit them into fabric to find the fabrics that you like.

I like my 2.38 mm needles.  These days, I make the yarns that I like to knit on that size needles. Knit on them, 6-ply cabled from 10,000 ypp singles makes a nice, skin-soft fabric.  It is warm, and elastic.  8-ply (1,200 ypp) makes a nice outer wear sweater. It is a thin yarn, it knits into a thin fabric - that is remarkably warm, and has wonderful drape.  This is not for sweaters that hang like bags.  It is for sweater designs that are worth all the work.

You are going to say, "Nothing is worth that much work to knit".  Look at your favorite knit wear (tee shirts, underwear, polo shirts, rugby shirts, and even sweat shirts), they are all knit from yarns with very fine plies.  If people wanted  fabrics from yarns with coarser plies, then  textile makers would use coarser yarns, (it would be much cheaper for them!) But no!, as a rule, for actually wearing, people like fabrics made from yarns with fine plies.  

I like quick and easy as much as the next fellow.  However, I find fine plies for the clothes I wear, worth the effort.

It is not very impressive, but here is  a photo of the first swatch that I did from 6-ply fingering Rambouillet (1,300 ypp):

 #1 needles on a swatch from hand spun 6-ply, 1,500 ypp yarn.

That bit of "nothing" was the confirmation of year's work. It was a proof of concept; fine plies work.  On the other hand it was the beginning of more work.  Fine plies ARE more work. Fine plies make good worsted worthwhile - that means I do enough worsted combing to get good (and fast) at the combing process.  However, the fabrics are wonderful.

When I started all this it took forever to comb a pound of wool.  However, I made some combs that help me  comb faster, and now, it takes me an hour to comb a pound of wool.  Anybody that cannot comb a pound of wool in an hour, is not trying.

I have said that it is not worth while for me to have fancy socks because I wear them out, and it is not worth while for me to have nice mittens because I lose them.  Well, it is worth while for me to have socks and mittens knit from yarns with fine plies because such fabrics are worth the extra effort.

Such fine ply yarns have become my standard yarn construction.  Here you see 2-ply Cotswold, Rambouillet, and Jacob waiting their turn to be cabled up into 6 and 8-ply knitting yarns. The needle is 2.38 mm.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Milestone: Competence in Spinning

In the early going, I read that "spin count" was the fineness that a competent spinner could spin a particular wool.  I then set my definition of a competent spinner to "being able to spin wool at its spin count."

Today, I can spin the common fleece at their spin count with reasonable confidence and ease.  In short, now I am a spinner.

 Learning to spin has been an obsession over the last year.  Learning to spin disrupted my life.  It was worse than learning calculus.  With calculus, there were very good texts and very good teachers to show the way.  Every physics, chemistry, and math grad student could do calculus, and were happy to parade their expertise in their role as teaching assistants.  However, try finding a spinning course where the objectives of the course include spinning singles at 50,000 ypp.  I do not know how many hand spinners can spin fine wool at its spin count, but it is not something that gets mentioned in course descriptions at fiber shows.

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I like yarns plied up out of 10,000 ypp singles.  What I have not talked about it that 30,000 ypp (Shetland) singles are remarkably strong and elastic.  Unless you have handled such singles, they are like nothing you have handled.  As 2-ply they (@15,000 ypp) they are as strong as the cashmere plied with silk yarns used for Russian lace, but they are more elastic.  If you want drape and flow, go with 2 plies of wool. The elasticity of the fine wool singles makes such lace wonderful.  It is not something that we understand anymore.  It is not a property that can be seen when the lace is mounted in a museum case.  It is something that you feel when you wear the lace. These hand spun yarns are much thinner, stronger, and more elastic than the commercial lace yarns.  However Shetland is not as soft and does not have the softness of the cashmere/silk lace yarn.  If you want just soft, go with the cashmere plied with silk.

Other wools can run a bit softer than Shetland, including  Rambouillet and Cormo.  These can be spun fine and plied into nice soft lace yarns. The finest Shetland is about as soft as very good Merino.  However, the Shetland is easier to spin very fine.  I think any competent spinner can spin the yarn for a nice wedding ring shawl.  Since you only need a couple of ounces of fiber, so you can buy the best fiber and still have an inexpensive project.

The idea of lace is all very interesting, but the real point of learning to spin fine was to be able to spin thicker yarns better.  For that alone, it was worth learning to spin fine.

It has also give me a very different view of how wonderful wool yarn can be.