This is one of those "occasional asides on other topics" that I gave myself permission to post. As an archivist, I have a fondness for anything old--including traditional skills. I like to write with quills and dip pens, I've made my own paper, and now I've learned to spin wool into yarn.
I've been a knitter off and on for many years, but yarn always came from the store, in neat packages dyed to pretty colors and ready to use. But for the past 3 weeks I've been taking a spinning class at Yarns Unlimited in Bloomington, Indiana. This was the first time I had ever held a fleece in my hands -- wool "in the grease," right off the sheep. It's rough, greasy with lanolin, full of burrs and little plant bits, matted and pretty dirty. How this becomes yarn soft enough to wear is still a bit of a mystery.
Before you can spin, you have to prepare the wool. Sometimes it's washed before spinning; ours wasn't, but we did card, or comb, it, pulling the fibers straight and opening up the matted parts -- this removes much of the dirt, burrs, etc. Back when spinning your own was the only way to get yarn, young girls got this job. It's not as difficult as it sounds, and it doesn't take all that long.
There are two tradtional ways to spin: with a drop-spindle, which looks like a child's top, and with a wheel. A drop-spindle is totally manual -- you spin it with one hand and feed the yarn into it with the other. It shows you how spinning works in slow motion, and it's portable -- but very slow. Using a spinning wheel requires that you keep your feet and hands both moving, doing different things, at the same time. The first week, I really struggled to get the hang of it. But switching to a wheel with a double treadle made a huge difference for me, and now I'm totally addicted!
I took the wheel (on loan for the class) out to the garden for awhile, and hubby took this photo. Spinning can be soothing and peaceful; the soft rhythmic sounds of the wheel and the feel of wool moving through your fingers are oddly satisfying. The wheel I had the best success with was the Louet, shown here. It looks more like a piece of modern art than a spinning wheel, but it's easy to learn on.
I made one bobbin of grey-brown yarn, from the fleece shown at the top of this post, and one of white. The white was from a Romney sheep. Neither was dyed. Yarn from the two bobbins was plied, or twisted, together to make 2-ply yarn. In my handspun, you can clearly see the yarn from each bobbin.
The yarn will be a bit softer after it's washed, but it is a rough yarn. I'm still a beginner at this, and my yarn is kind of bumpy and too thin in spots. But to me it's beautiful. I'll probably knit a hat with it. And I'm on the lookout for a used wheel, because now I've just gotta keep spinning!