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How to Make Hand-Spun Yarn

I had the wonderful opportunity to take a class at the Ozark Folk Center on how to spin a fleece into yarn. Let me tell you, this is as natural as it gets! Taking the fleece off the sheep or goat, washing the fleece, dyeing it and preparing it to spin will definitely get you thinking natural.

I can’t say that I normally take things for granted but I can say I had no idea how much work goes into our clothing or bedding. It is so easy for us today to just go to the store and buy any cloth item we need it is hard to imagine the labor involved to make the clothes, sheets and blankets as they did not so long ago.

The steps involved in making yarn or cloth:

1) The first step is to have a sheep or goat to take the hair from. Each animal is checked each day to ensure that the body condition of the animal is good and it’s healthy. To do this you must touch the animal to make sure his ribs aren't pronounced and take note to make sure it is eating properly.

2) The second step is to sheer the sheep or goat to harvest the hair or fleece once the hair is long enough. To sheer the animal they use electric sheers or scissors to cut the fleece off close to the skin. After the animal is sheered they also trim its feet and check for anemia or any other obvious illness or deficiency. If they find a health problem it is addressed it at that time.

3) The third step is to “skirt the fleece” which means to take off the parts that have a large amount of vegetable matter or really dirty parts in it.

4) The fourth step depends on person preference and what best suits the finished product you desire to make. You can spin the wool or hair locks “raw” (right off the animal) or you can wash it before dying the wool, if you choose to dye it. Dying the wool is not necessary if you like the color of the fleece.

5) If you choose to wash the fleece you would do so next. It requires very hot water and a small amount of dish soap to wash out the majority of the lanolin and dirt that is in sheep’s wool. You don’t want to agitate the wool but just to push it under water a few times with a gentle motion to keep the fleece from felting. Make sure to use hot water to also rinse the fleece. When the wool or fleece is agitated roughly and/or different water temperatures are used for washing and rinsing it causes “felting”. (Felting is when the wool sticks together and can no longer be separated into individual fibers for spinning.)

6) If you choose to dye the wool you would want to do it when the wool is still wet from washing. You can use commercially prepared dyes or you can use natural ones made from plants like calendula flowers, madder root, poke root, elderberries and walnut hulls as well as others.

7) Once the fleece is washed and dyed it is set outside in the sun to dry. You will want to turn it over about halfway through the day to allow both sides to dry. Make sure the wool is entirely dry to avoid mold.

8) The next step is to choose whether to spin from the locks of hair or to card the wool into roving or batting and then spin the wool into yarn. If you choose to spin from the locks you are ready to spin. If you choose to card the wool or make batting you would use hand cards, or to make batting you would use a drum carder. Hand carders look similar to dog brushes (the flat kind with lots of little tines.) Use the two cards to comb the wool until all the fibers are in the same direction gently rolling it off the card into “roving.” A drum carder is shaped like two drums with little tines all over them one much smaller than the other. You feed the wool into the drum carder and turn the drum against the small front drum until all fibers are in the same direction on the large drum. You then remove it from the large drum taking it off in one piece called “batting."

9) Now you are ready to spin your wool. You can use a drop spindle or a spinning wheel to spin the wool; both are tried and true methods. The spinning wheel is much faster than using the drop spindle. If you are using roving you feed the roving into the spinning wheel while turning the wheel to twist the fiber into yarn. If you are using batting you must first separate a small piece from the length of the batting. To spin either the roving or the batting you must tease it apart to achieve the width you would like your yarn to be once it’s twisted, this is called “drafting.”

10) Once spun, you can use it as a single ply yarn or you can ply the yarn with another for a double or two ply yarn. To make a two ply yarn you spin them again using both yarns combining them by spinning them in the opposite direction you used to spin the original yarns.

11) Next, wind the yarn on a “Knitty-Noddy” to produce a skein and to measure your yarn. (A Knitty-Noddy is a device that is usually made from wood and used to measure and to produce skeins of yarn.) Once the yarn is in a skein it is washed once more in water and hung out to dry in the sun this sets the twist in the yarn. Once dry, the yarn is ready to be woven into cloth for clothing, bedding or crocheted or knitted into a scarf, shawl or rug.

Imagine if you will, the time it will take once you have the yarn ready to actually make the item you need. Just to get to step ten it has taken several days. It definitely gives one a new respect for the hand spun yarns available today. My hat’s off to all the hand spun craft people who carry on the ancient traditions and homestead skills of the past.

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